Apr 13, 2020
We’ve now covered Chinggis Khan’s conquest of much of the Jin Dynasty and the Khwarezmian Empire, leaving him with an empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean. With the defeat of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu on the borders of India at the end of 1221, Chinggis Khan began the long journey back to his homeland- much of this trip being discussed on our last episode where we also discussed the Khan meeting the Taoist, Qiu Chuji (Chee-u Chu-ji). Chinggis Khan was certainly returning to his native steppe with an idea for continued campaigning in north China, hoping to deliver the death blow to the Jin Dynasty. In his absence, his general Mukhali, supported by Tangut forces, had been left to maintain pressure on the Jin until the Khan’s return. Mukhali’s death in 1223 unravelled this plan, as it was followed by the ascension of new Jin and Tangut rulers who organized peace between their respective empires. The treachery of his erstwhile vassals, the Tangut, had to be punished, while the succession of the aging Chinggis had yet to be settled. Now, let us discuss the final years of Chinggis Khan! I’m your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest Podcast: The Mongol Invasions!
By the 1220s, Chinggis Khan was in his sixties, having lived a long and difficult life. In the almost 20 years since he had unified the Mongols, a generation of new warriors had known nothing but his rule. The thought that Chinggis even could die must have seemed impossible to many: the great success of the Khwarezm campaign had only demonstrated how Chinggis Khan was Heaven’s chosen, and surely he was destined to conquer the remainder of the world. His impending demise however, was something his top advisers were concerned over, and all knew the tendency for nomadic confederations to fragment on the ruler’s death. You will recall that Chinggis himself had taken advantage of the division of the Naiman Khanate between Tayang and Buiruk after their father’s death in the 1190s. If the Secret History of the Mongols is to be believed, the matter was brought up and settled on the eve of the Khwarezmian campaign- so in 1219, though other sources have it settled as late as on Chinggis’ deathbed. It’s possible it was something dealt with in stages.
Though Chinggis had God knows how many children with likely hundreds of lesser wives and concubines, there were only four choices over who would become Khan after his death, those born of his first and chief wife, Borte Khatun. The eldest of these was Jochi [Зүчи, Züchi]. A skilled hunter and capable commander, infamously, Jochi was born after Borte’s abduction by Merkits in the 1180s. A haze therefore always hung over Jochi’s legitimacy, and though Chinggis Khan always publicly treated Jochi as his own, his second son Chagatai [Цагадай] utterly refused to. Perhaps two years Jochi’s junior, Chagatai was stern, a strict enforcer of his father’s laws, and had an intense dislike for his elder brother. Possibly by encouraging rumour of Jochi’s illegitimacy, Chagatai hoped to increase his own chances of succeeding their father. Their conflict escalated and resulted in Chinggis removing both from succeeding him as Great Khan, a decision made easier by Jochi’s untimely death in 1225. The sources are unclear as to the reasons for his death and cite anything from illness, to injuries from a hunting accident, to rumours that he was poisoned by Chinggis himself. Chinggis allowed Jochi’s sons to inherit their father’s territory, with Jochi’s second son, Batu, succeeding him.
The other two options to succeed Chinggis were his third and fourth sons, Ogedai [Өгэдэй] and Tolui [Тулуй]. Both were notable alcoholics, even by Mongolian standards but where Tolui built himself a reputation as a ruthless military commander, Ogedai was famously generous and conciliatory, a man capable of reaching compromise between the many loud voices of the empire. Unlike the less flexible Chagatai and Tolui, Chinggis anticipated Ogedai as having a head for establishing an actual administration, rather than just expansion. Indeed, the intention may have been for Ogedai to be a ruler, not just a conqueror, though he would undoubtedly do that. If we are to believe the account in the Secret History of the Mongols, Chagatai himself suggested Ogedai as the best choice from among them.
Chinggis Khan returned to Mongolia in spring 1225 in what was to be a short stay in the land of his birth. As we’ve already mentioned, the general Mukhali, with Tangut support, had campaigned against the Jin Dynasty while Chinggis was subduing the Khwarezmian Empire. With Mukhali’s death in early 1223, the Mongol offensive in China lost its impetus, though his son and brother continued to campaign. The Tangut abandoned the war, which was both hugely expensive and unpopular within their kingdom. In similar time, the Jurchen emperor Xuanzong (shu-an-zong) of Jin died, succeeded by Aizong (Ai-zong) of Jin, and the Tangut king was forced to abdicate by his son, Weiming Dewang (Way-ming De-wang).
With the slate wiped clean and the great Khan still in Central Asia, the Jin and Tangut entered into negotiations and proclaimed a peace treaty and fraternal relations in 1225- a treaty with no provisions for military assistance, mind you. Organizing their own peace treaty with the Jin Dynasty was, of course, an open refutation of the Great Khan’s mandate, the culmination of a defiant trend that had started with their refusal to supply troops in 1219.
Sitting comfy in our armchairs 800 years later with the benefit of hindsight, we know what a foolish decision this was. There was some sense to it from the Tangut point of view though. With Mukhali’s death and Chinggis still distant in the west, the Tangut gambled that the high tide of the Mongols had passed, the aging Chinggis Khan burning out the last of his energies in Central Asia. The known tendency for nomadic confederations to splinter on their founder’s demise, and the vast breadth of the Mongol Empire could have brought hopes of an approaching Mongolian civil war and breathing room for the Tangut. It turns out, this was not a good gamble.
On his return to Mongolia in 1225, Chinggis Khan sent messengers to the Tangut court demanding they send a royal hostage to reaffirm their vassalage- an act the proud Tangut had never partaken in before. Mongol sources have the Tangut refuse to provide this hostage, and thus brought on Mongol wrath. However, we have two very rare and precious Tangut documents- a commander’s report dated to 1225, and an early 14th century ritual song- which say the Tangut did provide a royal hostage, a prince who was less than 10 years old who the Mongols promptly murdered. That this killing went unmentioned in Mongolian documents makes sense. Killing a royal hostage, an envoy, a child, was not a good look, especially when unprovoked and even more when the Mongols tried using it to justify the invasion and destruction. If true, perhaps Chinggis Khan was already set on attacking the Tangut, intending to use their refusal as casus belli, not anticipating they might actually comply. That the Tangut actually did send a child took the Mongol leadership by surprise and made it hard to justify an invasion- so they killed the boy, spread rumours the Tangut had refused, and proceeded with their invasion.
In winter 1225, Chinggis Khan left Mongolia for what would be the final time, marching at the head of an army into the Tangut Kingdom in January 1226. In these months according to the Secret History of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan fell from his horse while hunting wild asses- the second such fall he suffered, with one a few years earlier mentioned in our episode on Qiu Chuji. This fall however was more serious. The elderly Khan developed a fever and was bedridden, and his captains argued that the army should fall back to allow Chinggis to recover. The Tangut in their pounded-earth walls would not be going anywhere. Chinggis refused, instead ordering a final set of envoys to meet the Tangut and based off the response they received, Chinggis would decide if they should retreat.
Chinggis’ messengers reached the Tangut Emperor, called Burqan (Bur-chan) by the Mongols, and shared the Khan’s message, as per the account in the Secret History of the Mongols.
“... you, Burqan (Bur-chan), did not keep your promise and did not give me troops, but came out with
mocking words. As I was moving in a different direction at the time, I said that I would call you to account later. I set out against [Khwarezm] and being protected by Eternal Heaven I brought them duly under submission. Now I have come to call Burqan to account for his words.”
Before the emperor could reply, the minister Asa Gambu spoke up, the man who had issued the rebuff to Mongol requests for troops in 1219, and the same man dominating and leading the anti-Mongol faction in the Tangut court:
“I spoke the mocking words. As for now, if you Mongols, who are used to fighting, say, ‘Let us fight!’, then turn towards the [Alashan mountains] and come to me, for I have an encampment in the [Alashan].”
When the messengers came to Chinggis with Asa Gambu’s response, the injured Khan made this declaration:
“This is enough! When one lets oneself be addressed so boastfully, how can one withdraw? Even if we die let us challenge their boasts!... Eternal heaven, you be the judge!”
Thus did Chinggis Khan, suffering from internal injuries, remount his horse and ride into his final campaign. He had used his time wisely, developing a simple, perfectly executed strategy to ruin the Tangut. The western territory of the Tangut was taken methodically, preventing these garrisons from reuniting at the capital. Then, Mongol armies cut east, coming up behind the Alashan mountains and bypassing the defensive passes which had proved so troublesome in 1209. With their armies situated between the Tangut capital of Zhongxing and the Jin Empire, the Mongols cut the Tangut off from possible Jin support, investing the city while they reduced the other Tangut holdouts in the east of the kingdom.
Everything went according to plan. The fortress of Qara-qoto, famous ruins today, fell in February 1226, and the western settlements fell in perfect succession. Tanguts in Mongol service at times managed to prevent slaughter or reached negotiated surrenders, but the bloodbath could not be averted. By that autumn, entire districts were surrendering to the Mongols, and then Tangut emperor died suddenly, supposedly of fright. The reign of the kinsman who succeeded him was short and chaotic, watching helplessly as the 200 year old Tangut kingdom was reduced to an ever shrinking strip of land around the capital.
In winter 1226 Chinggis was outside Lingzhou (Ling-zho), northeast of Zhongxing (Zhong-shing). A Tangut army was sent from the capital, a desperate final gamble to kill the Khan and end the invasion. When the Yellow River froze, Chinggis Khan crossed the river and destroyed the army- the final field battle Chinggis Khan seems to have commanded in person. An army was then ordered to invest the Tangut capital, while Chinggis moved to the kingdom’s southeast, to Lintao, to mop up those untouched cities and act as guard should Jin reinforcements come. By spring 1227, Chinggis had secured most of the region, but the injuries sustained the year prior had not gone away. Whatever the injury had been, the year of campaign had prevented it from healing properly. Perhaps ribs had been broken in the fall and been unable to heal, and now infection was setting in, the Khan’s old body failing him. To avoid the approaching heat of summer, and have a chance to rest, Chinggis made his encampment high in the valleys of the Liupan (Leeo-pan) mountains. It was here that the Khan spent the last months of his life.
The order of events of the Khan’s final month, August 1227, are highly contradicted among the historical sources. Zhongxing (Zhong-shing) resisted for 6 months before it finally surrendered in July or August, the Tangut ruler asking for a month to prepare gifts for the Khan. When Weiming Xian (Way-ming Shian) came to surrender before the Khan’s ger in August, he was forced to stand outside his ger for three days- quite likely because Chinggis Khan had already died.
What exactly killed Chinggis Khan goes unspecified in the Secret History of the Mongols, though it strongly suggests it was related to the injury from his earlier fall. By then, Chinggis was in his late sixties and had gone through a life of injuries and rigour. Complications from internal injuries at that age in this period would hardly be an unusual way to die. Chinggis is recorded as ordering the time, the cause of his death and the very fact of it to remain secret: had news of it reached the Tangut too early, they could have found new courage to continue and brought renewed resistance. Furthermore, dying before the campaign was actually completed could have been interpreted as heaven rescinding its favour. Coupled with Mongolian taboos about discussing death, it’s almost a wonder we even learned he died at all!
His generals proved loyal to him until the very end and succeeded in keeping his death a secret. The true details around it were only known to a select audience of his commanders and family. The problem with this reasonable enough explanation is that it just wasn’t sexy enough for the rumour mills of Asia, and in the absence of an official explanation, we are provided with a litany of different variations in every medieval source which mentions it. The Persian writers Juvaini, Rashid al-Din and the Ming era Yuan shi speak of illness aggravated by the climate while the Syriac writer Bar Hebraues specified malaria. The Franscian Friar John de Plano Carpini thought Chinggis was killed by lightning and Marco Polo said Chinggis died of infection from a Tangut arrow to the knee; he used to be an adventurer, after all. A later Mongolian tradition from the 17th century said that Chinggis was severely injured during coitus with a captured Tangut princess, Gurblechin, who had… ‘cleverly’ hidden a knife in her body somewhere. We’ll let you fill in the blanks on that one.
Whatever the specifics, Chinggis Khan died in August 1227, with August 18th or 25th commonly given dates in the sources. The Tangut king was left standing for three days, for which the Mongols gave him the ironic name of ‘Sidurqu,’ (shid-ur-hoo) meaning ‘upright.’ With Sidurqu’s (shid-ur-hoo’s) death, Mongol forces rode down upon the unsuspecting Zhongxing, which was subject to fire and plunder. Though some were rescued by Tanguts in Mongol service, Zhongxing was obliterated, the vast pyramidal tombs of the Tangut kings looted and stripped of their tiles. These still stand today, barren, eroding memorials to a lost kingdom.
The Secret History of the Mongols treats the Tangut with nothing but scorn, this passage illustrating this:
“After he had plundered the Tang’ut people and, making Iluqu Burqan change his name to Sidurqu, had done away with him, and after having exterminated the Tang’ut people’s mothers and fathers down to the offspring of their offspring, maiming and taming, Chinggis Khan gave the following order: ‘While I take my meals you must talk about the killing and destruction of the Tang’ut and say, ‘Maimed and tamed, they are no more.’”
The Tangut Kingdom ceased to exist in August 1227, an escort for Chinggis Khan to the
afterlife. Temujin had entered the world clutching a blood clot in his fist, and Chinggis Khan left it with the blood of kingdoms on his hands. The Tangut people were scattered, their official records burned along with Zhongxing. It was not however a total genocide, as we know several Tangut cities surrendered without issue, with communities spread across China and the Mongol Empire. Tanguts would actually enjoy higher ranking than even Khitans and Jurchen under the Yuan Dynasty later in the century, as the Tangut were seen as less sinicized than them!
Chinggis Khan’s body was, according to contemporary accounts, returned to Mongolia beside an honour guard, buried most likely on mount Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain which had provided him shelter in his childhood and not far from his place of birth. The grave was kept small and hidden, trees supposedly planted to hide it, and the entire region placed under guard and forbidden to enter. Even today, the area is called the ikh Khorig, the great taboo, and only the most limited of non-intrusive scientific surveys have been undertaken in the area. There are of course other variations to the story, such as the caravan becoming stuck in the Ordos desert. In the Ordos during the Qing Dynasty a shrine was built to honour the Khan’s spirit, the cause of some misconception today that he was literally buried there. Other rumours mentioned the killing of every individual the funeral cortege came across. Human sacrifice is not mentioned with Chinggis’ immediate burial, but a few years later his son Ogedai sent 40 maidens for his father’s soul. Beyond that, we know almost nothing about the details: inference based off of what we know of the burials of later Khans are hard to apply to Chinggis, as these later burials had influence from sedentary cultures, though many Mongols Khans and notables would be buried on Burkhan Khaldun in the following two centuries.
So ends the life of Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, conqueror of much of Eurasia and flail of God. His death was met by sorrow among his people, cheers from peoples across Asia, and bated breath by the empire’s neighbours, waiting to see what would come next. Chinggis’ third son, Ogedai, was to succeed his father, inheriting a powerful, experienced and loyal army staffed by generals and officers who believed it was their destiny to ride over everything under the Eternal Blue Sky.
Once a young boy abandoned by his tribe, Chinggis had over time forged his people into a weapon, by the end of his life approaching the status of a demi-god among them. Today, Mongolians cherish him as the founder of their nation, and his reign was a turning point in Eurasian history. Kingdoms across the world were washed away by his armies, and an unprecedented era of Eurasia integration was to be ushered in his successors. Could Ogedai live up to Chinggis’ legacy, or would he be lost in the shadow of a man which could blot out the sun?
The continued expansion of the Mongol Empire is the topic of our next episodes, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are unable to help financially but still want us to support us, it would be highly appreciated if you can leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts to help us grow and bring you more Mongols. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!