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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 18, 2020

And from thence they proceeded to the land of the Rus and conquered that country as far as the city of Magas, in the inhabitants of which were as numerous as ants or locusts, while its environs were entangled with woods and forests, such that even a serpent could not penetrate them. The princes all halted on the outskirts of the town, and on every side they built roads wide enough for three or four wagons to pass abreast. And they set up catapults opposite the walls, and after a space of several days left nothing of the city but its name, and took great booty. And they gave orders to cut off the right ears of the people, and two thousand seven hundred ears were counted. And from thence the princes returned homewards.”


So the Persian writer Juvaini describes the siege of the Alanian capital of Magas in winter 1239, a lesser known corner of the famous Mongol western campaign. In our previous episode, we covered the years 1236-1238, the first years of the great campaign wherein Batu and Subutai wrecked havoc across the northern Rus’ principalities and Volga Bulghars. When we left off, Batu and Subutai were withdrawing from the ashes of the northern Rus’ in spring 1238 to spend the summer resting men and horses and preparing their next moves. In today’s episode, we follow their continued movements, securing the remainder of the Volga and south Russian steppes, down to Crimea and the Northern Caucasus, to the resumption of hostilities against the southern Rus’ and the fall of Kiev, mother of cities, at the end of 1240. I’m your host David, and this is….


As we’ve stated already, Batu and Subutai pulled their forces back from the northern Rus’ to rest their men, fattening their horses on the grasslands of the steppe over summer 1238. The campaign had so far been a great success, marred by only a few difficult sieges and the loss of a son of Chinggis Khan, Kolgen. The northern Rus’ principalities had been subjugated, leaving only a collection of Rus’ states in the west still independent. For a time though, the Rus’ would have a respite. The Mongols were loathe to advance too far without securing their rear, and Subutai knew well from his own experience how tough the steppe’s inhabitants could be. Were you to place the conquests at that point onto a map of modern Russia, you would have seen a huge strip of land from the northernmost point of the Caspian Sea to where Moscow sits today as under Mongol rule. The steppes of southern Russia, Ukraine, Crimea and between the Black and Caspians seas north of the Caucasus were still unconquered, where several nomadic, semi-nomadic and other independent powers continued to reside. Many Cuman-Qipchaq tribes had fled deeper into that region, having avoided the initial Mongol advance. Leaving them unattended would allow them to move back into their original territory once the Mongols moved on, or even strike their rear while the Mongols focused on the Rus’ settlements. So the decision was made, once man and horse was rested by the end of summer 1238, to subdue these peoples.


You may recall our episode covering Chormaqun Noyan’s conquest of the Caucasus and Georgian Kingdom. That was happening essentially at the same time as this. As the Qipchaqs and Georgians were known to have had contacts and alliances in the past, it may have been a conscious decision to coordinate these offenses, ensuring no help would come from the steppe to the Caucasus while ensuring the Caucasus could not be a haven for fleeing nomads. Securing the region also provided another lane of contact for Mongol forces, rather than all messages being forced to circumnavigate the vast Caspian Sea. An interesting thing to note in regards to the scale of the Mongol Conquests, which often happened simultaneously: it’s easy to forget, since by necessity most discussions have to pick only a narrow window to discuss. 


In autumn 1238, several Mongol armies shot across the southern steppe, beginning at the Black Sea coastline and moving east. Batu’s brother Shiban, Chagatai’s grandson Buri and Tolui’s son Bojek marched into the Crimean Peninsula, defeating the Cuman tribes who inhabited the peninsula’s fertile steppe, and its Armenian, Greek and even Gothic population. On December 26th 1238, the famed Crimean trade port of Sudak, also called Soldaia, fell to the Mongols, leaving them the masters of this great trade entrepot. Another of Batu’s brothers, Berke, later to be the famous Muslim ruler of the Golden Horde, at the same time campaigned against the Cuman-Qipchaqs north of the Black Sea. Those not subjugated by Berke were dislodged and likely among their number, or soon to be at least, was an important Cuman leader called Kuthen in Latin sources, though more commonly known as Kotjen or Kötöny. We’ve met him before, as he was present at the battle of the Kalka River back in 1223. With a marriage alliance to the Rus’ prince Mstislav the Bold, it was on Kotjen’s urging that the Rus’ came to assist him against Jebe and Subutai. Kotjen escaped the battle, remaining in the steppe north of the Black Sea until the return of the Mongols. With 40,000 warriors and their families, he fled before the Mongol advance, making his way to Hungary in 1239, where we will pick up with him in our next episode. Many Cumans were also sold into slavery. The slave trade was a big deal in the Black Sea, with captured nomadic Turks prized goods alongside the furs collected from the Finno-Ugric peoples to the north. Defeat in steppe warfare often resulted in the victors capturing the vanquished and taking them to the cities of the Crimea to be sold across the Meditteranean and Islamic world. The Mongol incursions caused a glut of slaves on the market- nomadic Turkics for their hardiness and horsemanship, not to mention skill with a bow even at a young age, made ideal soldiers once they received the training and funds of a state. The dying Ayyubid state in Egypt bought up a number of these, forming an important body of slave soldiers- Mamluks, who would soon overthrow their heirs of Saladin and establish their own dynasty, to the Mongols’ later chagrin. Slaves were sold further afield, as far as India, where Qipchaq slaves such as Balban eventually rose through the ranks to become Sultans of Delhi- again, to the Mongols’ later chagrin. Everything has consequences in Eurasia!


While Crimea was secured and the Cuman-Qipchaqs subdued, Mongol forces marched towards the Caucasus. The first group to feel their wrath were the Circassians along the eastern Black Sea, where the Olympic destination of Sochi stands today, attacked by Tolui’s son Mongke, the later Great Khan, and Ogedai’s son Qadan. We are told only that a Circassian King, ‘Buqan,’ was killed in the process. The Circassians, called Cherkes by the Russians, are a member of the northwestern Caucasian peoples, who like the Qipchaqs, also found themselves sold into slavery extensively and transported across the Mongol Empire and Meditteranean. In the late 14th century, the Qipchaq Mamluk dynasty in Egypt was succeeded by a Circassian one, commonly called the Burji dynasty.


With much of the central steppe and Black Sea coast secured by the end of 1238- though the northern Caucasus still untaken- Batu and Subutai recalled their forces. It was time to look to the Rus’ again, this time the mostly hitherto untouched southern principalities. On March 3rd, 1239 Pereyaslavl, downstream along the Dnieper from Kiev, fell to Mongol forces. It seems to have been something of a test to see the mettle of these southern principalities, especially that of Kiev. Kiev had been the great capital of the unified Rus’, and still must have held something of a reputation as the Mongols approached it cautiously. The reality of Kiev’s strength by this point was quite different. Despite the proximity of the Mongols and devastation of the northern principalities, fighting over Kiev had continued unabated by the Rus’ themselves. Kiev’s Prince Vladimir Riurukiovch was ousted by Prince Mikhail Vsevolodovich of Chernigov basically as the Mongols arrived on the doorstep of the principalities. 


For summer 1239 the Mongols rested men and horses, once again picking up the sword in the fall. In October, the struck Chernigov, northeast of Kiev. An attempt was made by Prince Mstislav Glebovich, cousin to Mikhail of Chernigov, with his army to repulse the Mongols in the field. The army was crushed and Msitslav disappears from the sources. Stones so large four men could barely lift them were hurled by catapults into Chernigov’s walls, and by October 18th the city had fallen, its population like so many others subjected to fire, rapine and massacre.  From Chernigov, envoys were sent to demand Kiev’s submission, and Mongke, who in about a decade would become Great Khan of the Mongols, traveled to see the city himself, having heard of its splendour. He stood on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, and though his personal thoughts on the city are not recorded, Rus’ sources insist he marvelled at its beauty. Prince Mikhail refused to surrender, though he soon abandoned Kiev and fled to Hungary. Mongke’s presence was only reconnaissance and he to departed. Perhaps he had wished to gleam if Kiev had any offensive potential, and deeming this not the case, it was decided the city could sit for the time being. Mongke travelled back east across the steppe, joining with forces which were securing the remaining independent territory of the north Caucasus and steppe.


Here, the notable remaining independent force, other than those few Qipchaq and other Turkic tribes which had escaped Mongol armies, was the Alans and their ‘kingdom’ in the valleys of the north side of the Caucasus. The Alans were an Iranic people -ancestors of today's Ossetians- who had inhabited the steppe since the time of Attila the Hun. Their polity in 1239, insomuch as we can call it that, had emerged after the collapse of the Khazar Khaganate in the 9th and 10th century.  Sometimes called ‘Alania,’ its kings were notable for converting to Christianity and at times acting as a formidable military force, though by the start of the 13th century the Alans were a collection of local powers rather than a unified state, and sadly we are lacking much information on this kingdom. Back in the 1220s they had, alongside the Qipchaqs, fought Jebe and Subutai upon their exit from the Caucasus mountains, and as I’m sure you know by now, the Mongols were rather slow to forget such grievances. Their continued independence posed the final threat, no matter how slight, to the Mongol rear.


As a result of this decentralization, it seems the local Alanian leaders made their own decisions on how to respond to the Mongol advance. We are told of one individual, Ajis, who led a resistance against them until his capture and execution, while another, Arslan, quickly submitted and was made overlord of the Alans only to be replaced soon after by another Alan prince who provided his troops to the Mongols. The capital of the Alanian Kings was Magas, a strongly fortified site which remained influential among them, perhaps a symbolic capital as much as anything, and therefore a prime target. The Mongols arrived outside the fortress in November 1239, where they met their most difficult battle of the campaign yet. The very name of the settlement was disputed until recent decades, when it was finally reconstructed as Magas, the Persian word for ‘flies,’ as in the insects. This conclusion was reached in part as it explained why so many Medieval Muslim writers made puns involving these bugs when discussing it. The location of the settlement is also a long subject of debate, but an exciting possibility has been identified by Dr. John Latham-Sprinkle, who has proposed the massive hillfort Il’ichevsk gorodischche on the borders of Russia’s Krasnodar Krai and Karachai-Cherkess Republic, in the valley of the River Urup. Our medieval sources indicate that Magas was highly fortified and in a strong position, surrounded by dense forests, taking the Mongols months to subdue to. Few of the possibilities have matched the basic facts we know about Magas, but Latham-Sprinkle has found Il’ichevsk to meet the criteria,: for the time it was inhabited, for being a royal residence of the Alans, a strong fortress and destroyed in the mid 13th century. 


Il’ichevsk is a long, high ridge, approachable only from the south, it;s other sides protected by cliffs and rivers. Seven lines of defenses, thick walls, wide ditches and embankments, protected the city and its inner layers- a veritable Minas Tirith, if you will. The site was massive: the whole fortified area from north to south was 15 kilometres, covering some 600 hectares. That’s larger than 14th century London or Milan! The outermost walls covered fields and small, scattered villages, becoming more densely populated as one proceeded up the ridge to the royal residence. With evidence of imported craftsmen to construct the walls, of stone 4 metre thick held with a lime mortar, it’s clear this was the home of  powerful lords, and thus a very reasonable choice to identify as the Alan capital.


For the Mongols, it was a difficult siege. Arriving outside the walls in November or December 1239, it was not until February 1240 when the city fell. Roads had to be cut through the forest around the fortress to even approach it. The length of the fortifications made it impossible for the Alans, well past their prime, to man the full distance, thinning their defense. We are told from the Yuan Shih, compiled from the Mongols’ successors in China in the 1370s, that the Mongols relied heavily on allied and subject forces for this assault. A Tangut officer is mentioned leading squads, and it seems many Alans fought for the Mongols against their capital. When it fell, it was destroyed. Archaeological evidence indicates the city was abandoned immediately afterwards: a church’s roof which collapsed from fire was never cleared from the floor. A child’s body was found unburied outside the church where it had fallen, a Mongol arrowhead embedded in the church’s walls.


While Magas fell, Mongol contingents ranged across the northern Caucasus, taking settlements and forts: by November 1239, when the siege of Magas began, Mongol forces were already within kilometres of the great fortress of Derband, which fell to them in spring 1240.  Lacking an existing overarching political structure to incorporate, the Mongols found it difficult to impose their rule on the ground outside of periodic military actions. The fact that sites in Dagestan began rebuilding their fortifications within a few years of the Mongol invasion was telling. In China, for instance, many cities taken in the early 13th century had their walls unrepaired until the 1350s and 60s.  The many valleys of the region made it a nightmare to bring every local tribe to heel. Perhaps because of this, the Mongols saw fit to transport thousands of Alans and others across the empire, as slaves and military units. From the Balkans to China we have Alans showing up in entire regiments over the 13th century, indicating their useful military prowess, and perhaps the frustration the Mongol governors felt dealing with them in the Caucasus. 


In summer 1240 the princes were called back, holding a quriltai to celebrate the gains and decide the next steps. During this feasting we are provided an interesting episode from the Secret History of the Mongols. In this account, Batu sends a messenger to Great Khan Ogedai, informing him that during the feast Batu drank from the ceremonial wine first, which angered Ogedai’s son Guyuk and Chagatai’s grandson Buri who took offense at Batu taking this ceremonial position ahead of them. In the Secret History’s account, Guyuk and Buri leave the tent, calling Batu an old woman with a beard  and shouting insults. When Batu’s message reached Ogedai with the news, he sobered up long enough to become furious at his son and recall him. The whole episode has been torn over by historians repeatedly. It seems to have been the climax of long simmering tensions among the princes ,having until then been kept at bay by continually separating them over the campaign. There were likely several factors at play: Guyuk was haughty, being the son of the Great Khan though not his heir; likely a few continued the slander of Jochi not being Chinggis’ son, and hence Batu, the senior prince, not really a Chinggisid. Other concerns were more material. Historian Stephen Pow has noted that some regions were left to members of one branch of the family to attack, in theory making those conquests their territory. However, since the majority of the vast territory seemed destined for the Jochids, many of the princes grumbled as to what they were getting for their efforts. The timing is suspect as well, as the time needed for Batu’s messengers to reach Ogedai, and then Ogedai’s messengers to return to recall Guyuk, is too great for this is have occurred after the fall of Magas but before the fall of Kiev in December, which we know Guyuk to have been absent for.


Perhaps this was a compression of a series of events, or coordinated ahead of time, their troops required for the front with Song Dynasty, with later editing to the Secret History of the Mongols using this as an opportunity to discredit Guyuk, but multiple sources indicate the departure of both Guyuk and Mongke, along with their troops, around late summer 1240. So Batu and Subutai’s army lost as many as 20,000 men, on top of casualties they had already suffered and those stationed behind to keep their rear secure and prevent uprisings. This was not an end to the campaigning by any means, and Batu turned his sights to Kiev and the western Rus’ principalities. Once the Dnieper had frozen in November 1240, Batu marched onto Kiev, investing it on November 28th.  Batu set up his catapults in a great line and fired upon the city walls day and night until they crumpled before them. Kievan efforts to defend the breaches were met with hails of arrows, and the Mongols mounted the walls, forcing back the Keivans. Retreating to the Church of the Blessed Virgin, the Rus’ fortified it’s approaches. As the Mongols began to overcome the impromptu defenses, frightened townsfolk and defenders climbed with their possessions on top of the church, only to have to collapse under their weight. By the 6th of December 1240, Kiev was in Mongol hands. 


Though Halych of Galicia-Volhynia soon fell as well, on the whole the campaign in southern Rus’ was considerably less destructive. In northern Rus’, essentially all major and many secondary cities had been sacked in quick succession, but we see in the south sieges of only major settlements, capitals like Chernigov, Kiev, and Halych, or undefended settlements without walls. At secondary cities which showed stiff resistance like Kremenents and Danilov, the Mongols moved past. Much of Galicia-Volhynia, the westernmost extent of the Rus’, was left untouched, it’s ruler Danilo not submitting to Batu until 1245, and even then, retained enough strength to declare his independence until a Mongol campaign at the end of the 1250s.  What was the cause of this comparative reduction of Mongol devastation? One factor is certainly the departure of Mongke and Guyuk with their troops, perhaps causing a loss in morale alongside the numbers of available men. Another aspect is that while the many sieges in Rus’ were successful and relatively quick, it does not mean they did not result in Mongol casualties. Indeed, evidence suggests the western campaign was a bloody affair for the Mongols, resulting in the losses of many elites and commanders- Chinggis Khan’s son Kolgen most notably. We are told of a large cemetery in Mongolia built for prominent Mongols killed in the campaign, and we learn from Chinese references to rich rewards for those who shipped the bodies of Mongols back to their homeland, something which apparently happened with some regularity. 


While in field battles, Mongol commanders stayed behind the lines in order to properly assess the situation and give orders for troops movements, generally staying out of the battle itself, this was not the case for sieges. Rather, it seems officers, captains and even generals had to command from the front to help encourage the men over the walls. Sons of the elite aspiring to build their reputation as brave warriors, fought from the front as well. In the confined spaces and narrow streets of a city and fortress, the Mongols could not rely on their mobility, and it seems losses ran high. The Rus’ cities fell in quick succession but not without taking Mongols with them; we may likewise assume the difficult siege of Magas and other Caucasian fortresses had brought losses as well. By the time Batu and Subutai reached southwestern Rus’, Mongol casualties, both those killed and those injured in the many battles, were beginning to become an issue. In addition, units were left across the region to hold it and stop the newly conquered tribes from rising up and keep contact routes open with the rest of the empire.  Coupled with the departure of Guyuk and Mongke’s armies, it’s possible that Batu and Subutai’s army was as much as half its original size, maybe down to 50-60,000 men. Mongol actions thus were limited to major settlements where they could bring their full force or locations where defense was weak and a prolonged siege could be avoided. If not, the settlement was bypassed, preferring soft targets or to hit enemy field armies. 


Still, Batu and Subutai controlled an experienced and battle hardened army, and had effectively conquered the principalities of the Rus’. As 1240 turned to 1241, they now sat on the borders of Europe, having conquered up to the edge of what is now western Ukraine. Many Cumans, and the odd Rus’ prince, had fled to the Kingdom of Hungary. The housing of Mongol enemies was an act of waragainst the Mongol Empire, and Batu was determined to punish the Hungarian Monarch for this. Europe was about to hear the hoofbeats of Mongol horses. Our next episode will take us to the famous battles of Liegnitz and Mohi, 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!