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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 16, 2020

In our previous episode, we covered the whirlwind campaign of Chinggis Khan and his generals against the Jin Dynasty of North China from 1211-1215. Chinggis Khan’s empire had been baptised in the blood of the Jurchen state, and before the fall of the Jin capital to Mongol armies in 1215, Chinggis Khan returned to his homeland. A lesser conqueror would have sat proudly on his accomplishments then, having unified the Mongols and secured a lifetime’s worth of plunder from the Jin. But Chinggis Khan was no lesser conqueror. Never one to sit idle, even while his armies continued to fight in China he sent others to wipe away old enemies and uprisings and expand the economic reach of the Mongghol ulus. Unintentionally, these efforts set him on a collision course with the Khwarezmian Empire, which controlled a huge swath of territory from Transoxania in modern Central Asia to western Iran. Today, we will be looking at the uprising of the Siberian forest peoples, the fall of the Qara-Khitai, and the Otrar Massacre; the prelude to the Mongol Invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. I’m your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals Podcast. This is..the Mongol Conquests.


    Before we delve into today’s episode, we must mention upfront that  the timeline of all of these events can be a bit messy. They all took place in a short period between 1215 and 1219 and in an area most westerners have very poor geographic knowledge of.  It is testament to Chinggis Khan’s army though, that he could have so many forces operating in different theaters over vast distances all at the same time, all of whom could succeed in their tasks and return to him triumphant. So let us begin!


    Chinggis Khan crossed the Gobi desert to return to his homeland in July 1215, his first time north of the Gobi since 1211. The Jin Dynasty’s capital of Zhongdu, modern day Beijing, had fallen the month before, and he must have felt confident his presence would not be needed in that theatre for some time. In his absence, continued operations against the Jin Dynasty were led by his general Samuqa, who undertook a phenomenal circuit across the Jin realm, crossing the Yellow River and approaching their new capital at Kaifeng, darting around Jin armies and crushing those he could outmaneuver. The continued pressure kept the Jin from occupying their fallen settlements, and Chinggis could now deal with issues back at home. The danger from his length of absence was that more recently conquered peoples would find it a chance to reassert their independence- which is exactly what happened.


    By 1216, unrest had spread among the forest tribes around Lake Baikal, north of Mongolia proper and only recently subjugated. It had been simmering for sometime with the Khan’s absence in China, but was set off by one of Chinggis’ lieutenants, Qorchi. Qorchi had joined Chinggis decades prior, and had ingratiated himself with the Khan with a vision of Chinggis’ future victory, and had been in turn promised at some point along the way, thirty wives. In 1216, Qorchi was finally allowed to ride north to claim them from the Tumed tribe near the southern reaches of Lake Baikal. Qorchi rode into the main camp of the Tumed and, quite gracefully [sarcasm], told them to deliver unto him thirty of their finest women. The Tumed were at that point ruled by their chief’s widow, a proud woman named Bodoqui Tarkhan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tumed were pretty pissed at this, and promptly captured Qorchi. 


    Chinggis Khan was not happy to learn of this, but hoping to avoid having to send an army deep into the Siberian forests, sent the loyal chief of another forest tribe, Quduqa Beki of the Oirat, to use diplomacy to garner Qorchi’s release. The soft touch proved no more successful, as Quduqa was captured. This was a real issue, as Quduqa was not just a chief, but also an imperial son-in-law, married to Chinggis and Borte’s second daughter, Chechiyegen (chech-i-yeg-en). It was time for armed retaliation. Chinggis summoned first the Noyan, Naya’a, who fell ill, and the duty then fell to Boroqul. One of the Khan’s ‘four steeds of war,’ an adopted son raised by Chinggis’  mother Hoelun, a high steward, cup-bearer, commander of a part of the Imperial Bodyguard, and a long time friend of the Khan, Boroqul was held in high esteem, and sending him showed how serious Chinggis took this matter. Boroqul marched north with a small army, intending to carry out the duty of his Khan. Entering Tumed territory in early 1217, Boroqul was perhaps a little too proud after the successful war against the Jin. If the mighty descendants of Wanyan Aguda had been humbled by Mongol archers, how could peoples of the Siberian forest hope to stand before them? Boroqul rode before the main army with two scouts, where he was ambushed and killed by the Tumed. With their commander lost, the Mongol army retreated.


    Chinggis Khan was furious. A personal friend had been killed, a Mongol army was forced back- this was an affront he did not take lightly. Further, the rebellion spread. Other people of the forest were now in open revolt. The Kirghiz of the Yenisei River refused to provide troops, and the whole northern frontier of the empire threatened to break away. Chinggis Khan wished to lead an army himself to crush this insurrection, but was talked out of it by his close friend Bo’orchu, and a strategy was devised. In a great pincer movement, the commander Dorbei (dor-bei) Doqshin (dok-shin) was to be sent against the Tumed, while Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi was sent in a western army against the Kirghiz, preventing cooperation between the various peoples. The plan was a success. Dorbei Doqshin avoided the main routes that Boroqul had taken, cutting his own roads through the Siberian forests to surprise the Tumed at their main camp while they were in the middle of a feast. The victory was total, and the Tumed were subjugated. Quduqa Beki and Qorchi were freed, Quduqa taking the Tumed chieftainess Bodoqui Tarkhan as a wife while Qorchi got his 30 maidens. 100 Tumed were sacrificed for Boroqul’s spirit and many others were taken as slaves. Finally, Chinggis Khan took his dear friend Boroqul’s children to raise as part of the imperial household. 


    In the west, Jochi was also met with success. Assisted by Quduqa Beki and his Oirat, early 1218 saw Jochi subdue the remaining Oirat, Buryat, Tuvan and finally the Kirghiz. Controlling one of the northernmost grain producing regions along the Yenisei River, the Kirghiz were a formidable force and valuable to have as subjects. This region was to be Jochi’s patrimony, the seed from which the vast Golden Horde would later grow. This was just the opening move of a larger operation, however. While 1218 was the defeat of the hoi-yin irgen revolt, it was also the opening of the first western operation of the Mongols, and for this we must backtrack a small bit.


    If you recall, with Chinggis Khan’s unification of the Mongols in 1206, there was a group of Naiman, under Kuchlug (whooch-loog), son of the late Tayang Khan, and Merkit, under their chief Toqto’a Beki, who fled west, making a stand on the Irtysh River in 1208 before being defeated and dispersed. Toqto’a, the long hated enemy of Chinggis who had captured his wife Borte in the 1180s, was killed there, and his sons took the remaining Merkit to the far west, while Kuchlug would make his way to the empire of the Qara-Khitai, in what is now eastern Kazakhstan and Northwestern China. 


    The remaining Merkit, under Toqto’a’s son Qodu, fled to the Qangli, the eastern branch of the vast Qipchaq-Cuman confederation. The Qipchaq-Cumans were a loosely connected grouping of Turkic tribes inhabiting the steppe from the borders of Hungary, to the open lands east of the former Aral Sea. Chances are, you know the Qipchaq-Cumans best for their battlemasks with the moustaches, or as enemies from the game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, set almost two centuries after the events we discuss here. With Jochi’s forces already acting in the west and subduing the Kirghiz, it was seen as a good time to not just strike back at the Merkit, but give Jochi a chance to prove his own strategic acumen.


    We’ll briefly note that there is some confusion on the exact timing of this campaign against the Merkits, as some sources date it about a decade earlier, adding it onto that Irtysh River battle, or a bit later, adding it onto the great campaign against Khwarezm. But it has been convincingly argued by scholars today, such as Christopher Atwood, for a dating of 1218-1219, just after the hoi-yin irgen revolt and  before that Khwarezmian campaign. We’ll use this dating for this episode. 


    To the Mongols, other steppe nomads posed the greatest threat. Enemies in China would be tied down by their cities, but nomads could always withdraw and continue to pose a threat. The chance of them being unified under a charismatic leader,  like Chinggis himself had done with the Mongols, was a real danger, and their very existence as an independent steppe people challenged the growing sense of Mongol legitimacy as the masters of the peoples of the steppe. That they were harbouring Mongol enemies, from the much hated Merkit tribe, was tantamount to a declaration of war itself. With the return of much of the Mongol army from China, this was a fine time to crush the remaining Merkit, as well as Kuchlug in Qara-Khitai, which we will get to shortly.


    This operation in 1217/1218 is also the first time  the famous Subutai held a major command, though it is unclear if Jochi or Subutai was the overall commander. Meeting up with the western vanguard, Toquchar, they marched across the steppe into what is now western Kazakhstan. On the Chem River, near the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, Jochi and Subutai caught and defeated the Merkit-Qangli force. According to a biography from the Ming era Yuan shih, the history of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Jochi and Subutai then pursued the fleeing Merkit-Qangli between the Ural and Volga Rivers, deep into Qipchaq territory, and destroyed the remainder. Qodu was killed, and his son or brother Qulqutan Mergen was captured.


Qulqutan Mergen deserves mention for the following anecdote, which highlights the relationship between Jochi and Chinggis Khan. As we’ve discussed, all Mongols were trained archers from childhood, but Qulqutan Mergen was considered highly skilled even among the skilled; indeed, ‘Mergen,’ means archer or shooter. In Robin Hood fashion, the captive Qulqutan sent arrows into a target, and then split those arrows in twain with his next shots, to Jochi’s delight. Jochi sent a messenger to Chinggis, asking them to spare Qulqutan’s life. Chinggis however, despised the Merkit, his long time foes, and had to deal with rumours that Jochi himself was a Merkit bastard. Chinggis’ response was, as recorded by Rashid al-Din was rather typical for the Khan:


    There is no tribe worse than the Merkit. We have fought so many battles with them and 

suffered untold trouble and difficulties on account of them. Why should he be left alive to cause trouble again? I have stored up all these realms, armies and peoples for you: what need is there of him? For an enemy of the state there is no place better than the grave.”


    Jochi duly did his duty and executed Qulqutan and his family, but this highlights the tension between Jochi and Chinggis which would emerge in the following years. It has been used to suggest Jochi was less sanguinary than his father, whereas this highlights a mantra Chinggis had become well acquainted with in his own youth: an enemy who is allowed to survive will only continue to be a danger in future. Had Chinggis’ own enemies taken note of that, then he would likely have perished long before.


    Jochi and Subutai had a long journey back to Mongolia, but their return was interrupted by an unexpected encounter in early 1219, with a large army under the Khwarezm-shah, Muhammad II of the Anushtegenids (Anush-te-genids).  Based in the Khwarezm region just south of the Aral Sea, under the Shah Tekish, and his son Muhammad II, in the previous decades the empire had expanded dramatically with the collapse of the Seljuqs, the Ghurids and the Qara-Khitai. 


Ruling the empire since 1200, Muhammad had shown himself to be an ambitious, though not always patient, man. Styling himself ‘the second Alexander the Great,’ in 1217 he had made a failed march on the Caliph in Baghdad, was gobbling up the former western territory of the Qara-Khitai and had an eye on the steppe, where much of his own military forces and family came from. In early 1219 he may have been seeking retribution for Qangli raids, or to go after the Merkit himself, when his army stumbled into that of Jochi and Subutai. Aware of Chinggis’ interests in trade with Khwarezm, the Mongols asked for free passage. Shah Muhammad, a vain man infront of a very large army and not trusting them, decidied to attack. Reluctantly, Jochi and Subutai lined up for battle. Greatly outnumbered, they fought fiercely, though Jochi was nearly killed. 


With nightfall, the armies pulled back. The Mongols lit fires to make it appear they were resting for the night, then withdrew under cover of darkness. Morning broke, and the Shah looked out at an empty battlefield. This enemy had fought fiercely, much fiercer than he had anticipated, and inflicted great losses on his army. It was said that the Shah developed a phobia of sorts towards facing the Mongols in open battle, something which would have major consequences for our next episode.


    Jochi and Subutai returned to Mongolia sometime in late summer 1219, coinciding with major news which also reached Chinggis. But we’ll pick up with them later, and move our attention now to the southeast, where other Mongols forces had been busy. 


    Kuchlug (whooch-loog), the Naiman prince we’ve mentioned several times already, fled to the empire of Qara-Khitai after the defeat on the Irtysh River in 1208. The Qara-Khitai was founded in the 1130s, by Khitans fleeing the fall of the Liao Dynasty to the Jurchen Jin Empire. One Khitan commander, Yelu Dashi, took the Khitan garrisons from Mongolia and entered Central Asia, where his well armoured Khitan cavalry proved decidedly deadly. He subdued the eastern Qarakhanids (tchara-khan-ids), then defeated the western Qarakhanids and the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar in 1141 on the Qatwan (tchat-wan) steppe, near Merv. The defeat was a major blow to the already fragmented Seljuq state, though Seljuq control in Iran would last another 50 years. In the aftermath, Yelu Dashi controlled an empire stretching across Central Asia, from the Tarim basin to Khurasan. The Anushtegenids (anush-te-genids) of Khwarezm, formerly Seljuq appointees, now became vassals of the Qara-Khitai, as Dashi’s empire was called by the Mongols, meaning ‘Black Khitans,’ or ‘black Cathay.’ 

The Qara-Khitai have a fascinating history,  but unfortunately, not one we have time to go into here. Buddhists, with Chinese dynastic trappings, their empire was decentralized, with many vassal kings subject to the gurkhan, the Khitan emperor. Two of their five emperors were women,  ruling an ethnically and religiously diverse realm, and for decades harboured dreams of retaking north China, though they stagnated under the long reign of Dashi’s grandson, the gurkhan Yelu Zhilugu. The Qara-Khitai had been overlords of the Naiman tribes, so after the Irtysh River defeat in 1208, the Qara-Khitai was a natural place for Kuchlug to flee. Zhilugu saw Kuchlug and his retinue as a useful ally against his own vassals, especially the troublesome Muhammad Khwarezm-shah. The gurkhan bestowed titles, favours and a daughter upon Kuchlug, who repaid this generosity by raiding the Qara-Khitai treasury during Zhilugu’s war against Muhammad. 

After a series of back and forth attacks, including an incident where Zhilugu sacked his own capital after it barred his door to him, Kuchlug ambushed and captured the Gurkhan 1211, and held him captive until his death in 1213. Kuchlug seized power, but proved incapable to rule the complicated state. Muhammad Khwarezm-shah took much of the Qara-Khitai’s western territory and butted heads with Kuchlug, who challenged the Khwarezmian to personal combat. The Shah declined. Kuchlug, originally a Nestorian Christian, converted to a violent strain of Buddhism, and began persecuting Muslims within his territory, alienating the empire’s urban population. The Tarim Basin proved especially volatile, where Kuchlug nailed an imam to the doors of his own madrassa in Khotan, and his forces destroyed crops every year until starvation quieted them. 


    In the northeast, near the Mongolian border, Qara-Khitai vassals declared for Chinggis Khan. One such was Ozar, a Qarluq horse thief who had risen to control Almaliq, and on his declaration of loyalty, had been given one of Jochi’s daughters in marriage. Kuchlug besieged Almaliq in late 1215 and killed Ozar, though his widow succeeded in defending Almaliq and getting a messenger to Chinggis Khan on his return to Mongolia. The death of a vassal, especially a son-in-law, was something to always punish, and Kuchlug’s usurpation of Qara-Khitai was a real danger. So in late 1216 Chinggis sent his top general, Jebe Noyan, [Zev, Зэв], accompanied by the Uighur Idiqut Barchuk and Qarluq Khan Arslan, to deal with Kuchlug. The speed of the collapse of Kuchlug’s state was shocking. Securing Almaliq, Jebe pursued Kuchlug to the Qara-Khitai capital of Balasaghun. There Kuchlug was beaten, but escaped, and Jebe entered Balasaghun unopposed. With princes of the realm now declaring openly for Jebe, Kuchlug fled through the mountains into the Tarim Basin, where he was still despised. 


    Jebe’s forces followed suite, and upon entering the Tarim Basin, sent out a declaration of religious tolerance: whoever submitted to the Great Khan would have their freedom of worship respected, a rather marked change from Kuchlug’s policies. The region then erupted: wherever Kuchlug had garrisoned troops, the citizenry fell upon them. Kuchlug was chased from city to city, many barring their gates to him. Fleeing the Tarim Basin, he travelled through the Pamir Mountains, eventually making his way through rugged Badakhshan (bad-akh-shan) to the Wakhan (wa-han) Corridor in northern Afghanistan, where he was cornered by local hunters and handed over to Jebe. With Kuchlug’s severed head on a lance, Jebe paraded it through his territory and gained the submission of whichever cities still held out. Thus ended the Qara-Khitai, years of anarchy followed by a remarkably peaceful Mongol conquest. With hardly an arrow shot, Jebe had greatly expanded the Mongol Empire westwards, returning to Chinggis Khan in 1219 with 1,000 chestnut horses with white muzzles- the same colour as the horse Jebe had shot out from under him in 1202.


    An unforeseen consequence of this conquest was that this brought the Mongol Empire to the borders of the Khwarezmian realm. Shah Muhammad had had his own ambitions to conquer Qara-Khitai and had succeeded in taking some of its western territory- only to suddenly have the remainder quickly fall to this rising power in the east, while encountering them on his northern borders.


    Yet, conflict between the Mongols and the Khwarezmians was not yet inevitable.  In fact, Chinggis Khan wanted to avoid, at all costs, war with Khwarezm. The first Mongol-Khwarezmian contacts were an embassy sent out by the Khwarezm-shah in 1215, passing the ruins of Zhongdu. Chinggis was happy to generously gift them, a part of a general Mongol policy of overpaying merchants for their goods. With a surplus of silver ripped from North China, overpaying merchants was a fine way to encourage and direct trade in the difficult overland journeys, especially into Mongolia, and would be a hallmark of Mongol policy for the next century. Initial contacts seemed promising between the two states, and Chinggis sent a return embassy in 1218 to reaffirm trade and friendship. By then though, most of the Qara-Khitai realm, the bufferstate between the Khwarezmian and Mongol empires, had been ground down by the efforts of Shah Muhammad and Jebe. 


    Muhammad was perhaps eager to find fault in the embassy, led by Mahmud Khwarezmi, likely the same individual as Mahmud Yalavach, a significant figure under Ogedai Khan. The embassy’s message from Chinggis Khan said that the Khan considered the Shah on the same level as his dearest sons. The Shah was furious: how dare any man, even a great emperor, consider the Shah of Khwarezm a son, implying the superiority of the father? 


    After the initial meeting, the Shah continued to grill Mahmud Khwarezmi, who, as his name describes, was a native of Khwarezm. Mahmud managed to calm him down by telling him Chinggis’ armies were pitiful compared to the mighty forces of the Shah, and that the Khan was only interested in trade. Shah Muhammad was pacified, for now.


    This embassy had been sent ahead of a larger, slow moving trade caravan, about 450 merchants and their attendants, carrying precious goods.  Sometime in late summer 1218, the caravan reached the city of Otrar on the northeastern frontier of the Khwarezmian Empire. Otrar was governed by Shah Muhammad’s uncle, Inalchuq, who, possibly on the orders of the Shah or his own vile initiative, accussed the merchants of being spies, seized their goods and finally executed them, only a single camel driver escaping. This was a shockingly short sighted decision. Even if Shah Muhammad didn’t directly order it, he did nothing to discourage it or punish Inalchuq for the act. One possibility, suggested by historian Dmitri Timokhin, was that it was ordered by the Shah’s domineering mother, Terken Khatun, Inalchuq’s sister. Terken Khatun, a strong willed woman of Qangli origin, often actively combated her son’s orders, and acted as monarch in her own right in the original Khwarezmian capital of Gurganj. Perhaps seeing war as inevitable with the Mongols, with their swift conquest of Qara-Khitai, she wished to force her son to act.


    Whatever the reason, it may surprise you to learn that the Massacre of Otrar was not the direct casus belli for the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm. When that lone camel driver returned to Chinggis Khan with news of what had happened, he was mad, but had no desire to lead a full invasion of Khwarezm while the Jin were still unconquered, and the Khwarezmian army seemed fearsome enough on its own.  Trade with Khwarezm was of greater benefit than conquest, so Chinggis Khan, in early 1219, sent another embassy, led by a Muslim who had served Muhammad’s father and two Mongol notables. War would be averted and trade resumed, they told the Khwarezm-shah, if he only sent Inalchuq to Mongolia for punishment. As far as the Mongols were concerned, the massacre at Otrar was just the act of a shortsighted governor.


    Muhammad was in an unenviable position: if he didn’t give up Inalchuq, war would come to Khwarezm.  If he did give up Inalchuq, he would antagonize the Qipchaq-Qangli officials in his empire loyal to his mother Terken Khatun, pitting much of the administration and military leadership against him and undermining his rule. Thus, Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm sided with his mother and made the fateful decision to execute the Muslim envoy, breaking the cardinal rule of diplomacy with the Mongols: do not kill the envoys. The envoy’s Mongol accomplices had their beards singed off by Muhammad, and were sent back to Chinggis Khan.  They returned to him after Jochi and Subutai had come with news of their own encounter with the Khwarezm-shah, and the message seemed clear. A powerful foe in the west, who now bordered his empire, had made opening strikes against the Khan. Ignore it, and he would lose face while leaving his new western territory vulnerable to Muhammad’s armies. With his general Mukhali having been committed to the Jin realm and able to keep the pressure on them, his northern borders secure and remaining rivals to steppe legitimacy destroyed by Jochi, Subutai and Jebe, Chinggis Khan raised his armies, and unleashed hell upon Khwarezm

Having explained the background to war between the Mongols and Khwarezm, you won’t want to miss our next discussion on the Mongol Invasion, so be sure to hit 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!