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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 4, 2020

    While Ogedai Khaan led his armies in the final war against the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, covered in our previous episode, this was far from the only theatre his forces operated in. As the conquest of northern China was completed, Chormaqun Noyan brought Mongols armies back to the west, returning to Iran to hunt down the energetic Khwarezmian Prince, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, hoping to restore his father’s empire. In the course of this, the Mongols effectively completed the conquest of Iran, the Caucasus and entered Anatolia- a great southwestern expansion of the empire. At the same time, Mongol armies under Subutai conquered the western steppes and Rus’ principalities, a vast, two pronged pincer assault on western Eurasia, and the subject of our following episodes.


    First, we must wind the clock back from the 1230s to the Khwarezmian campaign of Chinggis Khan in the 1220s. As you’ll recall from that episode, the Mongol invasion at the end of 1219 brought about the near total collapse of the Khwarezmian defense and flight of the empire’s ruler, Muhammad II Khwarezm-Shah. Muhammad died at the end of 1220, harried to his end by Jebe and Subutai. On his death in December, Shah Muhammad’s son Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, a far braver and more talented general, took up the mantle of leadership- or rather, what was left of it. Rallying what forces he could, he eventually made his way into what is now Afghanistan, defeating two Mongol armies but finally crushed by Chinggis Khan himself on the Indus river in November 1221. At the battle's climax, Mingburnu spurred his horse off the cliff and into the Indus, swimming across and making into the Punjab. Chinggis Khan, to give the devil his due, is said to have personally ordered archers not to fire on him, admiring Jalal al-Din’s courage. The same mercy was not spread to other Khwarezmian troops trying to make it across the river.


    Jalal al-Din spent the next three years in northwestern India. At that time, northern India was ruled by several Muslim warlords, mainly former generals of the Ghurid Empire which had once stretched from Iran across northern India. Among these was the general Iltutmish, based in Delhi- the origins of the Delhi Sultanate. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Delhi Sultanate had the strength to repel Mongolian invasion, but in the 1220s was only one power among several. At the time of Jalal al-Din’s arrival,  Iltutmish of Delhi’s main rival was Qubacha, a fellow Ghurid controlling the Punjab and lower reaches of the Indus River. Despite being fellow Muslims, the post-Ghurid powers had little love for the Khwarezmians. Jalal al-Din’s father Muhammad had been a stalwart foe of the Ghurids, and after the Ghurid collapse in the early 1200s, it was the Khwarezm-shah who had gobbled up their western territories in Iran and Afghanistan, bringing Khwarezmian influence right to the borders of India.  Jalal al-Din’s own appanage given to him by his father was the former Ghurid capital of Ghazna. Further, the Khwarezmians had also become foes of the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, who provided his holy support to those generals battling the Khwarezm-shah. The Khwarezmian reputation was that of an aggressive, unreliable and expansionist empire, and the chief scion of that house, Jalal al-Din, was not destined to enjoy a warm welcome among his co-religionists in India, nor among those Hindu rulers still extant in the region. 


    Upon his defeat on the Indus, Jalal al-Din needed to make space for himself from the Mongols, who initially turned back from the river but soon sent parties to hunt for Mingburnu.  Managing to gather survivors from the Indus battle and other refugees from the invasion, his victory over local Hindus in the Salt Range brought defections to Jalal al-Din’s force. Charismatic and with a reputation as a superb warrior, Jalal al-Din rarely had trouble attracting followers- making friends with other states was another matter. With Mongol forces under Dorbei Doqshin approaching, Jalal al-Din fled further into India, coming to within a few days of Delhi. His envoys sent to Sultan Ilutumish were killed, for Iltutmish, a wily politician, had likely weighed the costs of providing aid to Mingburnu with the Mongols now approaching. Delhi was too well protected for Jalal al-Din to assault, so he doubled back to the west, ransacking as he went and successfully avoiding Dorbei Doqshin’s Mongols. Dorbei abandoned the pursuit, returning to Chinggis Khan at Samarkand in late 1222, where he was severely reprimanded and ordered back to India.


    Jalal al-Din in the meanwhile attacked the Ghurid successor in northwestern India and Iltutmish’s main rival, Qubacha, forcing him to submit and pay tribute. Most of 1223 he spent ravaging cities along the Indus, making his way to the Gujarat peninsula. Having successfully pissed off everyone between the Indus and the Ganges rivers, Jalal al-Din was greeted with rumours of a grand coalition -Iltutmish, Qubacha, and various Hindu lords- uniting against him, as well as Dorbei Doqshin’s second approach. Learning that a half-brother had set up a state in western Iran, Jalal al-Din decided it was a good time to leave India in 1224, leaving his officers Ozbeg-bei and Hasan Qarluq in control of his Indian territory. They, along with Qubacha, took the full brunt of Dorbei Doqshin’s returning army, who took his frustration out on them when he found himself unable to locate Jalal al-Din. While this proved unfortunate for them,  Iltutmish did rather well out of this episode. With his major rivals weakened by Jalal al-Din and Mongol attacks but his own state relatively untouched, over the late 1220s and 30s Iltutmish was able to overcome these rivals and set the Delhi Sultanate on a path to regional dominance. In due course we will return to Iltutmish’s successors, but now we must follow our friend Jalal al-Din westwards.


    Jalal al-Din’s three years in India did little for his dream of restoring the Khwarezmian Empire, but saw better opportunity in the efforts of his half-brother, Ghiyath al-Din. Around Rayy, modern Tehren, Ghiyath al-Din had started to reestablish Khwarezmian control. Jalal al-Din’s  thought seems to have been that, if anyone was to continue the Khwarezmian Empire, it was going to be him, damn it! Mingburnu cut across southern Iran, hoping to restore Khwarezmian rule as he went, first stopping in the province of Kerman. There, Baraq Hajib ruled, a former general of the Qara-Khitai brought into Khwarezmian service who established his independence in the wake of the Mongol invasion.  Jalal al-Din gained his submission and married one of his daughters, though Baraq soon revolted and Mingburnu carried on. At Shiraz in the province of Fars he was welcomed and again married a daughter of the local dynasty, the Salghurids. He then departed for Isfahan, where he rested his main army. With a handful of picked horsemen, said to be carrying banners of white cloth like the Mongols, Jalal al-Din led a daring raid against his half-brother, attacking him in his camp, capturing him and absorbing his followers and territories. 


    This greatly strengthened his position. Knowing that the former northeastern sections of the Khwarezmian empire, including the former capitals of Gurganj and Samarkand were under firm Mongol control, Mingburnu must’ve thought it more prudent to push west, in theory providing himself more resources and space to resist the Mongols. Gaining the submission of the chiefs of Luristan, marrying princesses of local Turkomans, he now had a not-insubstantial force under his belt.  Most of southern, central and western Iran had now submitted or was under his direct control. Casting his eyes west, he marched towards Baghdad. Supposedly he was expecting assistance from the Caliph, at that time an-Nasir, who had reigned since 1180. Caliph an-Nasir had been paralyzed and blind for a few years at that point, but the memory of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah’s own failed march on Baghdad had not been forgotten. Anticipating that the son shared the same greed as the father, an army was dispatched to repel Jalal al-Din. Drawing them into a feigned retreat, Jalal al-Din put them to flight, pursuing them as far as Baghdad’s suburbs before withdrawing, and then defeating a force sent from Irbil, capturing that city’s ruler. 


    Lacking the means to siege Baghdad itself, Jalal al-Din sought easier targets. He moved next against the Eldeguzid atabegs of Azerbaijan- former Khwarezmian vassals who had submitted to the Mongols- and destroyed them in 1225, taking their capital of Tabriz. A brief Georgian foray against Tabriz while Jalal al-Din was mopping up remnants of the Eldeguzids brought him, for the first time in his life, into conflict with Christians. Over the next few years, Jalal al-Din unleashed a torrent of destruction against the Kingdom of Georgia. At that time ruling Georgia and Greater Armenia, the kingdom had suffered terribly during Jebe and Subutai’s own expedition through the region only a few years prior. In 1226, Jalal al-Din took the Geergian capital Tbilisi, destroying the churches within the city. According to a contemporay historian, Kirakos Ganjaketsi, rather than spend time to determine who in the city’s diverse population was Christian or Muslim, Jalal al-Din simply ordered all the men to be circumsized.


    After this, Mingburnu marched rapidly back to Iran, having heard rumours that Baraq Hajib was attacking Isfahan, the new Khwarezmian capital. Baraq apologized and sent gifts, and while Jalal al-Din rested in Isfahan, he learned that the Georgians revolted. Speeding back to Georgia, Jalal al-Din undertook a slaughter outside the walls of Akhlat, but was unable to enter the city. In similar time, news reached him of another threat to Isfahan. A Mongol army was approaching the city, ordered there by Chin-Temur, the Mongol appointed governor of  Gurganj, a former capital of Khwarezm. Jalal al-Din brought his army back to Isfahan, and in August 1228, bravely led his forces to be defeated by the Mongols. His half-brother Ghiyath al-Din fled, and Jalal al-Din was forced to retreat when the Mongols drove back his remaining forces. However, with losses high or fearing a trap, the Mongols failed to advance, and withdrew back to their own empire. Thus was Isfahan saved, if narrowly. 


    Really changing things up, Jalal al-Din returned to Georgia again in late 1228, and inflicted one of the most famous defeats in Georgian history at Bolnisi, known also as Mindori. A large army of Georgians, Armenians, various ethnic groups from across the Caucasian mountains as well as a significant Qipchaq component had been assembled against him. Qipchaqs had a long history serving as mercenaries for both the Georgian Kingdom and the Khwarezm-shahs, and we may well assume a number were present among Mingburnu’s forces. Outnumbered and lacking swordsmen and lancers, it was a precarious position for Jalal al-Din. His vizier, Yulduzchi, suggested it would be better to pass behind the enemy, cutting them off from water, thus weakening the larger force in the heat. Jalal al-Din’s reaction as recorded by Juvaini is rather illustrative of his character. Becoming as enraged as was possible for him, he hurled a pencase at the vizier’s head while shouting “they are a flock of sheep! Does the lion complain of the size of the flock?” It is unfortunate for Mingburnu that this was a mantra he applied to everything.


    Yulduzchi repented, paying a fine of 50,000 dinars. Opening contact with the Qipchaq, reminding them of his own connections with their people, he successfully convinced them to remove themselves from the battlefield. Then he convinced the Georgians to send champions out to face him- supposedly Jalal al-Din killed them all himself, then ordered a general charge against the demoralized Georgians. The foe was destroyed and we might regard this as the high water mark of his military career. The last half of 1229 Jalal al-Din was held up besieging Akhlat, falling only to great massacre in April 1230 after a 8 month siege. Learning that the Seljuq Sultan Kayqubad I, master of Anatolia, was organizing an alliance against him, Jalal al-Din moved west. Falling ill, he lost his strength and was unable to ride his horse, forced to be carried in a litter. At Yassıçemen near Erzincan in August 1230, Jalal al-Din met an allied force of Seljuqs under Kayqubad I and the Ayyubid Sultan of Syria al-Ashraf, the nephew of the famed Saladin. During the battle Jalal al-Din tried to mount his horse, but lacked the strength to even hold the reins. His courtiers pulled him back. Seeing his banners fall back, the army thought Jalal al-Din was retreating, and thinking the battle thus lost, fled. The Seljuq-Ayyubid forces, believing it a feigned retreat, held their ground. Jalal al-Din escaped another major military defeat, this time while seriously ill. Certain to improve his mood was news of a large Mongol army now approaching. 


    Far to the east, Ogedai had been elected Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Aware of Jalal al-Din’s resurgence, Ogedai could not allow him to reform the Khwarezmian Empire. Seeking to complete the conquest of the region, perhaps even hoping to take Baghdad itself, Ogedai ordered fresh troops to be sent. Commanded by Chormaqun, a member of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard and a veteran of the Khwarezmian campaign, this is our first mention in the sources of the tamma. The tamma was essentially the closest the Mongols came to garrison duty, sent to the empire’s borders to expand, consolidate and intimidate, rather than a full, tsunami like tidal wave of invasion.  There is some suggestion Chormaqun may have initially been ordered west by Chinggis Khan in his final days, but would have been held up by the Khan’s death in 1227. Ogedai in that case would have been reaffirming his father’s decision. 


    So, Chormaqun set out with perhaps 30,000 men, ordered to be supported and reinforced by the appointed basqaqs and darughachi governing the western Mongol empire, like Chin-Temur. In early 1230 Chormaqun crossed the Amu Darya  and began the proper subjugation of Khurasan, which had been left a ruinous buffer after the 1220 invasion. Chormaqun bypassed those few strongpoints still holding out, leaving Chin-Temur to reduce them and set up a proper administration in his wake. By autumn 1230, Chormaqun was in Mazandaran, northern Iran, and took Rayy, which he set up as his headquarters. Chormaqun spent the next two years in Rayy, from where he ordered his various forces and took the submission of most of the powers in Iran, the states of the south sending representatives and recognizing Mongol rule. By 1233 essentially all that was left of Jalal al-Din’s reconstituted Khwarezmian Empire in Iran had submitted to the Mongols, leaving his capital of Isfahan isolated until it fell in 1236. In eastern Khurasan, that is, now modern eastern Iran and Afghanistan, Chormaqun’s lieutnentats Dayir and Monggedu operated, driving out Khwarezmian holdouts. By 1235 they had brought the Mongol Empire to the borders of India, forcing an officer Jalal al-Din had left behind, Hasan Qarluq, to submit. It seems even the Isma’ilis, the famed ‘Order of Assassins,’ allied themselves with the Mongols, providing intelligence on Jalal al-Din’s movements and strength. 


By spring 1231, Mongol forces had entered Azerbaijan’s Mughan plain, zeroing in on Mingburnu. He frantically sent word to the Seljuq Sultan and Ayyubid Sultan of Syria, urging cooperation against the Mongols. But it was too little too late. Jalal al-Din had long ago soured the relationship through his aggression. Too busy raiding and campaigning, he had not created anything in the last decade to actually prepare for the return of the Mongols, and now he paid for it. He spent 1231 hopping across the Caucasus, narrowly avoiding Mongol forces. At one point, he only just escaped his camp as the Mongols came across it, only the action of a general waving Mingburnu’s banners and therefore distracting them, giving Jalal al-Din enough time to escape.


Near Diyar Bakir, known also as Amida, in what is now southeastern Turkey, his luck finally ran out.  Hounded down to just a few followers, in mid-1231 he was killed by Kurdish bandits robbing him for his robes. The clothes were recognized, the Kurds killed and the body thought to be that of Jalal al-Din buried. So ended the reign of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, final ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire. A fine soldier and warrior but a poor king, he could not improve upon the Khwarezmian tradition of treachery and aggression to his neighbours. With the time, energy, troops, experience and personal charisma, Jalal al-Din had the potential to build a proper resistance to the Mongols, yet he instead squandered this opportunity, in many ways showing himself little better than them. Still he remained a powerful symbol; for years, rumours persisted of his survival, and every once and a while someone would claim his identity, only to be swiftly killed by the Mongols. Many a medieval Muslim author glorified him, such as his own secretary Nasawi, the Khwarezmian refugee to Delhi Juzjani, and even Juvaini, a beaureaucrat who worked for the Mongols. We might consider him the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the 13th century Muslim world. A figure whose actual person could not stand up to the legend and potential of his idea.


Jalal al-Din’s demise had other consequences. For one, there was still a large body of Khwarezmian troops in the region, fleeing the Mongols and now acting as mercenaries. In time, they were displaced from their refuge in Syria, making their way south and in 1244, took Jerusalem. Jerusalem had only been in Christian control again since Emperor Frederick II’s crusade in 1228. Not until 1917 would Jerusalem again be controlled by non-Muslims. 


In Azerbaijan, Tabriz came under Mongol rule quickly after Mingburnu’s death. With Iran secured, Chormaqun marched into newly subjugated Azerbaijan, and there planned the conquest of the Caucasus. Georgia was severely weakened; first Jebe and Subutai’s attacks, then Jalal al-Din’s repeated depredations, it would be just a matter of reducing fortresses.  In 1236 Chormaqun ordered a three pronged assault against the territories of the Georgian Kingdom: Chormaqun himself drove into Greater Armenia, Mular up the Kura Valley and Chagatai Noyan, known as ‘the lesser’ to distinguish himself from Chinggis’ son, attacked Georgia proper. So weakened, the Georgians could offer no unified defence, with each lord retreating to his own castle in the mountains. The Mongols moved at a leisurely, careful pace, forcing some castles but needing to starve out others. Some Armenian and Georgian lords, like the influential Awag Zak’arian, willingly submitted, receiving special treatment and encouraging others to follow his example. With the flight of the Georgian Queen Rusudan from Tbilisi, Awag was the most powerful lord in the kingdom, and assisted in the Mongol expansion. In 1238 Tbilisi fell to Chagatai Noyan, Queen Rusudan fleeing into the far western mountains of Georgian territory, near the Black Sea. So remote was it that the Mongols did not even pursue her. By that point, Subutai and Batu’s armies were overrunning the steppes north of the Caucasus, so perhaps they felt her trapped between them.


The conquest of the Caucasus was essentially complete by 1240. Though it saw its shares of massacres, it was considerably less disastrous for the locals than, say, the war against the Jurchen Jin had been in north China. Most local forms of government were allowed to continue operating, though now with Mongol overlordship at the top. The Mughan plain in Azerbaijan became a favoured centre for Mongol power, and in time, a political centre under the Ilkhanate. For more details on Mongol rule in the region, one can easily find a copy of Bayarsaikhan Dashdondag’s The Mongols and the Armenians online, kindly uploaded to the internet and by Dashdondag herself.


The early 1240s saw notable political upheaval in the Mongol Empire- of course at the end of 1241, we have Ogedai Khaan’s own death, though we’ll deal with that in a later episode. Chormaqun was struck down by a paralytic disease, leaving him unable to command, his wife acting as regent until officially replaced by his lieutenant, Baiju Noyan.  Baiju had a habit, even for Mongol standards, of ordering senseless executions. It is Baiju who brings us to the final section of today’s episode, the battle of Kose Dagh. 


The Seljuqs of Rum, as the Anatolian branch of the once mighty dynasty was known, had experienced a heyday and expansion under Kayqubad I. After his death in 1236, he was succeeded by Kaykhusraw II, not his equal and certainly not up to repelling the predatory Baiju. From 1240 to 1241 a Turkoman revolt led by Baba Ishak hamstrung the Seljuq state, and Baiju took note of this Seljuq weakness.  In 1242, hungry to continue expanding, Baiju led his armies into Anatolia.  The Seljuq controlled Armenian city of Erzurum was a first target. After a two month siege, catapults brought down the city walls, the Christians and Muslims within the city brought to an indiscriminate slaughter. Valuable gospels found in Erzurum were gifted by Baiju to his Chirstian followers, while Armenian princes in his army sought to rescue those taken as slaves. Following further campaigning, Baiju returned to the Mughan plain for winter 1242, before returning in Spring 1243. The Seljuq Sultan Kaykhusraw II had boasted he would march and defeat the Mongols in the Mughan; Baiju marched back into Anatolia before Kaykhsuraw’s men were even mobilized. Kaykhusraw tried to get reinforcements from his vassals and allies, at Trebizond, Aleppo, Nicaea, and Cilician Armenia. The Armenian King, Het’um I, was a stout observer, and knew that the drunkard Sultan Kaykhusraw fared little chance, and held his forces back.


Erzincan, Sivas, Kayseri, all fell to Baiju as he pushed into Anatolia. He brought with him a large, multi-ethnic force, with notable Armenian and Georgian contingents. Baiju encouraged the intermingling of his forces, so as to prevent ethnic rivalries flaring up and increasing unit cohesion. By June 26th, 1243, Baiju caught the Sultan’s army in the defile of Kose Dagh, in what is now northeastern Turkey. The Seljuqs likewise brought a diverse contingent, including important Frankish mercenaries commanded by a Cypriot and a Venetian. Kaykhusraw drank himself into a stupor the night before, and was so hungover that army organization was non-existent, his force failing to assemble until late in the day. Stationed well beyond the lines, the Sultan had little awareness of what was happening at the front. Moral was poor, the Mongols’ reputation was one of invincibility and absolute terror. There could be only one end. 


Mongol horse archers supported by Georgian and Armenian heavy cavalry clashed with the Turkish and Frankish troops of the Seljuq Sultan. Within an hour, they had broken and fled. So sudden was the Seljuq flight that Baiju suspected it had to be a feigned retreat, and held his army back. Only cautiously did he send scouts forward to check out the abandoned Sultan’s camp, and when they found it truly abandoned, the celebration was great. Kaykhsuraw left all his treasure behind in his flight, and what a great deal of treasure it was. Though he survived, his reputation and military were broken. The Seljuqs had little option but to submit to the Mongols- as did the King of Armenian Cilicia, Het’um I, leaving the Mongols as masters of Anatolia. 


The Kose Dagh campaign was a part of a growing shift in Mongol military thought. Under Chinggis Khan, campaigns were normally a reaction to an incident or a need; the Otrar Massacre was of course an important precipitate to the Khwarezmian campaign, but Chinggis Khan had tried to avoid it, even after the massacre sending envoys to seek a peaceable solution. Only when his envoys were killed by Muhammad Khwarezm-shah did Chinggis Khan order an assault. The initial campaigns ordered by Ogedai were sent against targets who had survived Chinggis Khan’s invasions, that is the Jurchen Jin and Jalal al-Din. But by Chormaqun’s final years and the time Baiju took office in 1241, the justifications for invasions grew ever flimsier. The greatly weakened Kingdom of Georgia and the Seljuqs of Rum were not a threat to the already vast Mongol Empire, though the Georgians were considered enemies since Jebe and Subutai’s expedition. No, this was conquest for the sake of conquest. Baiju attacked the Seljuqs in their moment of weakness, for little reason other than the expansion of the Mongol Empire. This was the manifestation of the belief that the Chinggisids were to rule everything under the Eternal Blue Heaven. The very existence of non-subject powers was, in itself, resistance against the will of Heaven. The Khan had no allies, only vassals. 


The submission of the Anatolian Seljuqs by the mid 1240s marked the highpoint of Mongol efforts in the region for some years. Baiju probed Syria, bringing the submission of local Ayyubid princes there, and his armies tested the borders of Iraq. However, the Mongols seem to have been under the impression that Baghdad was supported by a massive army, and were hesitant to commit to any serious operation against it. It would not be until the arrival of Hulegu in the 1250s that the Mongol conquest in the region would be finalized. As it was, Mongol rule now stretched from the Mediterranean and Black Seas all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and still continued to expand. Our next episode will begin to cover the conquest of the greatest western steppe, the prelude to the invasion of Europe proper, 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 Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!