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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 23, 2020

For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the rememberance thereof can weigh lightly? O would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell! Yet, withal a number of my friends urged me to set it down in writing, and I hesitated long, but at last came to the conclusion that to omit this matter could serve no useful purpose.


I say, therefore, that this thing involves the description of the greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity which befell all men generally, and the Muslims in particular; so that, should one say that the world, since God Almighty created Adam until now, has not been afflicted with the like thereof, he would but speak the truth. For indeed history does not contain anything which approaches or comes near unto it… Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog. For even the Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Mongols spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes.” 


So begins the famous excerpt from Ibn al-Athir on the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. Living in Mosul, in northern Iraq, ibn al-Athir was just outside the range of Mongol armies as they annihilated the neighbouring Khwarezmian Empire in just a few short  years. Daily, news must have come into Mosul of stories of Mongol devastation and atrocities, suddenly Mongol armies were operating hundreds of kilometres farther west than previously thought, or how they were now doubling back, terrified townsfolk wondering if Mosul was next. The writers who lived through the Mongol invasion or just  after it, such as ibn al-Athir, Nasawi, Juzjani, and the most well known, Juvaini, all describe the invasion in near-apocalyptic terms, the Mongols a punishment sent by God. For how else, if not divine retribution, could one explain how every city could all fall so swiftly to these strange people from the north? 


Today, we present the Mongol Invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. I’m your host David and this the Ages of Conquest\s presentation of…The mongol invasions.


In our previous episode, we discussed in detail the period from 1216-1219, after Chinggis Khan returned from north China and entered into initial diplomatic contact with the Khwarezmian Empire. War between the Khwarezmian and Mongol empires came from three factors which occurred over this short period. The first was the breakdown and absorption of the empire of Qara-Khitai, which had served as a buffer state separating the two empires. Mongol forces under Jebe Noyan took most of the eastern half of the empire, while the Khwarezmians seized the territory from the Ferghana Valley westwards. The second was a battle between Mongol forces  under Jochi and Subutai against the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad II sometime in late 1218 or early 1219. And finally, the massacre of a Mongol trade caravan at the Khwarezmian city of Otrar by its governor, Shah Muhammad’s uncle Inalchuq. An envoy Chinggis Khan sent afterwards to try and solve the dispute was then executed by Muhammad. Coupled with the engagement with Jochi and Subutai, it seemed that the Khwarezm-shah had declared war on the Mongols, and with the fall of Qara-Khitai, now shared a border with them in what is now eastern Kazakhstan.


    Though the Khwarezmian Empire now holds a reputation as a giant with feet of clay, this would not have been apparent from Chinggis Khan’s position. The Khwarezmians controlled a vast territory. Originally based in the Khwarezm region in modern Uzbekistan, south of the Aral sea, where their house’s founder, Anushtegin (Anush-te-gin) Gharchi (gar-chi), was appointed governor in 1077 by the final Great Seljuq Sultan, Malik-Shah I. Anushtegin’s successors expanded to incorporate Transoxania, central Kazakhstan, and south into Afghanistan, most of Iran and even Azerbaijan, though much of this territory south of modern Turkmenistan had only been taken since 1200, and Khwarezmian control was loose. Much of their military was Turkic Qipchaq-Qangli peoples from the steppe, fighting in similar fashion to the Mongols: horse archers, heavy cavalry, and supported by various Iranian peoples as infantry.  The Qipchaq-Qangli also made up a significant portion of the administrative and upper bureaucracy of the empire. 


Having spent the early 12th century as vassals of the Seljuqs and then the Qara-Khitai, the house of Anushtegin showed themselves to be consistently ambitious and treacherous. In the 1190s, Muhammad’s father Tekesh, in alliance with the Caliph,  defeated and killed the final Seljuq Sultan Toghrul III, allowing Khwarezmian expansion into western Iran, but beginning their rivalry with the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. The disintegration of the Ghurids in 1206 brought Khwarezmain rule to the northwestern borders of India, and the collapse of the Qara-Khitai due to Kuchlug’s usurpation extended Khwarezmian authority east into the Ferghana Valley.


    With this massive expansion of the empire in a three decade period, Khwarezm-shah Muhmmad, ruling since 1200, could, quite rightly, feel he was among the most powerful sovereigns on earth, which may in part explain his haughty treatment of Chinggis Khan’s ambassadors. From the Mongol perspective, the Khwarezmians were acting antagonistically, and as a rapidly expanding empire, it seemed possible they would try and seize the new Mongol controlled territory of the former Qara-Khitai.


    Internally, the Khwarezmian state was not as strong as it appeared. Since most of the empire was so newly taken, how reliable it would prove in the face of invasion would be questionable. The Qipchaq-Qangli in the administration and military not only mistreated the urban Iranian population, but many of them were essentially mercenaries, or held more loyalty to Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun, than him. Indeed, Muhammad and his mother were often at odds, and with Terken Khatun often issuing orders that conflicted with those of her son. Officers across the empire would receive contrasting orders from both, and would follow whichever arrived later. The antagonism between mother and son would hamstring the Khwarezmian defense. 


Neither had Muhammad’s actions in the last two decades made him friends outside of the empire. From Baghdad to Delhi, the Khwarezm-shah had a reputation as greedy, unreliable and driven to conquer. Few tears would be shed for him, should he face calamity. Most of the contemporary sources lay the blame for the invasion squarely on Muhammad Khwarezm-shah, ibn al-Athir for instance, directly citing Muhammad’s conquest of the local kingdoms, leaving him as the sole defence, as the reason for the speed of the Mongol conquests. Most sources also cite his treatment of the merchant caravan and envoys, and present the Mongol invasion as something he brought on himself, and was equally unsuited to defend against.


    With that background on Khwarezm, and the reasons for the war between the two empires, let’s get into the actual invasion, shall we?


    Chinggis Khan made his preparations and set out in summer 1219. The general Mukhali with 20,000 Mongols, and several tens of thousand of Khitan, Jurchen, Chinese and Tangut soldiers, was left to maintain pressure on the Jin Dynasty, while Chinggis’ brother Temuge [te-mew-guh] was left with a small force keep Mongolia secured. The remainder of all available forces were to be taken west against Khwarezm. This was not just Mongolian cavalry, but subject Uighurs, Qarluqs, Khitans, and Jurchen horsemen, with Chinese siege engineers and doctors. 100-200,000 armed men are the common range for estimates, not including families and attendants who would have accompanied the army. Additionally, herds of horses and remounts for the soldiers, hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats to feed the men, and oxen and camels to haul wagons, gers, supplies and materials to construct siege weapons. The total animals brought may very well have approached a million.


    Orders had also been sent for the Tangut to provide troops for the western campaign, but with the rise of the anti-Mongol minister in the Tangut court, Asa Gambu, they declined and told off the Mongol envoys. Now, this was not the cause for the later destruction of the Tangut, spoiler alert, by the way, as is often reported: the Tangut did provide troops for Mukhali’s campaigns, occurring at the same time. But it was the start of an insubordination, and finally independence, which would lead to the utter destruction of the Tangut state. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.


Shah Muhammad did not sit idle, and convened a war council at his new capital of Samarkand to decide the defense. One strategy proposed was by Muhammad’s valiant son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, who suggested the full might of Khwarezm should be levied and meet the Mongols in a titanic clash on the Syr Darya River, a formidable barrier where crossings would be limited. Muhammad balked at pulling all his garrisons north,  for in their absence his southern territories could assert independence. His fear at meeting the Mongols in open battle may have played a role as well. Ultimately, it was decided to spread garrisons across the major cities of Transoxania, Khwarezm and Khurasan: the northeastern frontier which would face the brunt of the Mongol assault, while Muhammad stayed south of the Amu Darya River to ensure the south of the empire didn’t rebel. 


Though this plan has been criticized in the decades and centuries that followed, it wasn’t totally without merit. Just mostly. Attacks by steppe tribes were hardly new, but generally they lacked the siege equipment to take the walled cities of the region, and would contend themselves with pillaging the countryside. Muhammad assumed the Mongols would do the same, and in theory a long march without succeeding in taking any cities would smother the flame of Mongol wrath quickly. Transoxania, the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, or Oxus and Jaxartes as these rivers were known in antiquity, marked the most important geographic barrier to the Mongols in the northern half of the empire. Crossings over each river were limited, and much of the expanse in between them was marked by the harsh Qizil Qum Desert. There would be reason enough to expect that it would slow them down, and perhaps even prevent, Mongol passage, or at least limit it to a few select routes which could be guarded. Unfortunately, Muhammad didn’t comprehend the significance of the experience the Mongols gained in China from 1211-1215, or that they now came west with a large body of Chinese engineers to build their siege machines, or that if the Gobi desert proved no barrier to the Mongols, then neither would the Qizil Qum.


Chinggis Khan’s armies reached the Khwarezmian border city of Otrar in autumn 1219, where the trade caravan had been massacred. With strong walls and a stout defence, Chinggis left a force to besiege Otrar while his armies split and marched up and down the Syr Darya river. Otrar fell after a difficult, five month siege, and its governor Inalchuq was captured. In famous tradition, when Inalchuq was brought before Chinggis, the Khan saw fit to punish him by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears. It doesn’t often pay to defy Khal Drogo...I mean Chinggis Khan. 


That Mongol armies split up after reaching Otrar proved a major issue for the Khwarezmian defenders: had the full force stayed encamped outside of Otrar, waiting to starve it out, the possibility was there that the Khwarezmians could bring their weight to bear upon them. But now, with Mongol armies ravaging both up and downstream of the Syr Darya, while keeping Otrar under siege, it was impossible to combine against them. Further issues came when Chinggis Khan himself suddenly crossed the Syr Darya and Qizil Qum desert: it had been expected he would have take the route directly to Samarkand, protected by a mighty garrison, while the Qizil Qum was thought too difficult for a large army to pass. The Mongols and their horses were sturdy, and they passed in winter with the assistance of local guides. In the early months of 1220, Chinggis Khan had appeared behind enemy lines. The towns of Zarnuq and Nur were the first Khwarezmian settlements to fall, shortly followed by the major centre of Bukhara. A sortie by the garrison was quickly destroyed, the citadel holding out only a little while longer. It is at Bukhara that Chinggis Khan, for the only time we know for certain, entered a city, and allegedly gave a famous speech, calling himself the punishment of God, if we are to believe Juvaini.


Bukhara’s population, particularly young men, were forced into the hashar: a forced levy used by the Mongols essentially as arrow fodder. Driven before the main army, Mongol lances pointed at their backs, the hashar would push siege equipment, fill in moats and be sent against the gates and walls of cities. In these highly exposed positions, they soaked up arrows which would have otherwise fallen onto valuable Mongol warriors; it served to frighten and demoralize the garrison and other populations; it made the Mongol army appear larger; and ground down a segment of the population most likely to resist later. Such multifaceted psychological tools were favourite weapons of the Mongols. The hashar of Bukhara and other settlements on the route were driven to Samarkand, the chief city of the region and Muhammad’s capital. With strong walls and a garrison of fierce Turkic warriors supported by war elephants, Samarkand would be a fearsome target to force. Chinggis arrived before it in March 1220, where he was reinforced by his sons Chagatai and Ogedai, who had taken Otrar and brought the captive Inalchuq. Three days into the siege, Samarkand’s garrison rode out to attack the Mongols, and were cut down to the last man. The city surrendered by the end of week, its citadel holding out until a nearby dam was destroyed, its floodwaters undermining its walls. 


Craftsmen and artisans were put aside for Mongol service; women were taken as slaves; and the remainder were forced into the hashar. Unexpectedly quickly, the jewel of the northern half of Shah Muhammad’s empire had been snatched away. Near the ruins of Samarkand, Chinggis divided his forces again, divisions crisscrossing across the empire. On the advice of a Khwarezmian defector, Chinggis Khan had letters forged and sent to top Khwarezmian generals, making it seem that the Mongols were cooperating with Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun. This further paralyzed whatever still remained of Khwarezmian leadership. Chinggis sent his generals Jebe, Subutai and Toquchar after Shah Muhammad, whose courage had fled almost immediately. As Samarkand burned, Muhammad fled south. 


Muhamamd Khwarezm-shah spent the remainder of his life on the run, Jebe and Subutai hot on his heels. Across Khurasan he rode, then northern Iran, where Terken Khatun was captured. He rode until December 1220 when the bedraggled Shah died on an island in the Caspian Sea, his final days spent suffering from pneumonia, awarding titles and lands to his sons. Titles and lands that were no longer his to give. So ended the reign of Ala ad-din Muhammad bin Tekesh, Shah of Khwarezm, whose actions signed the deathwarrant for many untold hundreds of thousands of people. Beside him had been his son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, who took his father’s title and would lead a resistance against the Mongols. This was not the end of Jebe and Subutai’s great voyage, but we’ll give that tale its own episode and focus on the main campaign here.


Once Mongol armies crossed the Amu Darya, the southern river of Transoxania, and Muhammad fled west, the fate of Khwarezm was sealed. The names of the cities change; the length of the sieges change; but the outcome rarely does. Cities that resisted were forced  open, their garrisons massacred, the populations enslaved. For strenuous resistance or the death of a Chinggisid prince, like that of Toquchar outside of Nishapur, then the entire population would be put to the sword, the city destroyed. These served as a stark message; resist, and you will perish. In contrast, those who surrendered immediately were largely left untouched. Often, they were ordered to dismantle their walls, provide food and tribute, and sometimes men for the Mongols and accept a Mongol appointed overseer, a daruqachi (da-roo-ka-chi), basqaq (bas-kak) or shahna (sha-nah), as they were known in Persian sources. Beyond that, the Mongols cared little for the internal affairs of towns, and they were left to their own devices. If they revolted afterwards though, as happened in Merv did, a spectacular example would be made of them- it is from these cases where we see stories of towers of skulls made from the inhabitants. 


Did Chinggis Khan at the outset intend on conquering the Khwarezmian Empire? It is hard to say- certainly not even he would have anticipated how quickly the Khwarezmian defence would fail. Each city was essentially left to its own defence, ensuring the Mongols could surround and bring their weight to bear on individual sites. As Muhammad had fled, accompanied by Jalal al-Din, there was noone to organize any greater unity among the Khwarezmian amirs. After his father’s death at the end of 1220, Jalal al-Din and his brothers returned to the mainland, making their way to Gurganj, the original Khwarezmian capital. There, Jalal al-Din attempted to organize things, but some amirs, even in this crisis, refused to recognize him, as Terken Khatun had wanted another of Muhammad’s sons, a more malleable individual, to succeed him. With assassination attempts against him, Jalal al-Din abandoned Gurganj. Not long after he left, Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedai surrounded and destroyed the city after a lengthy siege. 


Jalal al-Din fled southeast to Afghanistan, the former Ghurid territory which was his patrimony and where Mongol armies had not yet arrived. There, he was able to gather an army of Qangli, Qarluqs, Khalaj, Afghans and Ghuris, perhaps 60,000 in total. Jalal al-Din was a capable general, and led this army to defeat two Mongols forces. One of these, at Parwan, was a sizable force led by Shigi Qutuqu (tchut-oo-tchoo), the grand judge of the empire and Chinggis’ adopted son. The victory at Parwan late in summer 1221 set off a series of revolts in Khurasan, cities like Herat and Merv which had submitted previously, threw off Mongol rule. Chinggis Khan’s youngest son Tolui was sent to punish them severely for this. For Jalal al-Din, he suffered a catastrophic defection in his victory: a conflict over loot from the battlefield between some of his commanders led to one abandoning him, taking half the army with him. Unfortunately for the Khwarezmian prince, this coincided with Mongol forces converging upon Chinggis to march against him. Jalal al-Din, with now only half of his army, was to face the full might of the Mongol invasion. 


Jalal al-Din attempted to flee to India, but the Mongols moved quickly, and caught him on the Indus river around November 1221. The Khwarezmian prince fought fiercely, his army backed up to a cliff over the river. Commanding the centre himself, even while his flanks crumpled under Mongol arrows he held firm, but fate could not be avoided. With a final charge, he pushed back the Mongols, then spurred his horse around, and in full armour, spear still in hand, lunged off the cliff into the river. Mongol archers rushed to the cliffside to send arrows after him, but according to Juvaini, Chinggis Khan personally ordered them to hold, and watched Jalal al-Din and horse swim across the river to India.  Then, turning to his sons he said:


“This is the kind of son that every father dreams of! Having escaped two whirlpools- 

water and fire- and reached the bank of safety, he will commit many a glorious deed and 

cause innumerable misfortunes. How can a man of reason but reckon with him?”


Chinggis Khan always appreciated heroic acts and Jalal al-Din, for his courage, earned the respect of the Khan. The other Khwarezmian soldiers were not so lucky, and those also trying to make the river crossing were sunk by Mongol arrows. The Battle on the Indus River essentially marked the end of the Khwarezmian Empire. Though Jalal al-Din escaped, and spent some years in India before making his way back to western Iran and resisting there, the state effectively ceased to exist. Most of Iran would be left in the hands of local dynasties for the next two decades, Khurasan left a ruinous buffer while Transoxania was absorbed into the empire, the threat of the return of Mongol forces hovering over all. 


It is impossible to say how many were killed in the invasion. Sources like Juvaini often give grealy inflated numbers for those killed in certain cities, recording 2.4 million killed at Herat or 1.3 million at Merv, while another source gives 1.7 million lost at Nishapur. These numbers are certainly exaggerations, more to give an idea of total destruction than specific losses. It is doubtful that any city in the Khwarezmian Empire approached one million inhabitants, even when flooded with refugees fleeing the Mongols. Juvaini’s work will also mention 1.3 million killed at Merv, then have the Mongols return not long after and find another 10,000 to kill. It is also hard to distinguish how many were killed directly from Mongol arrows, or from the famine and spread of disease following the invasion. Many of the irrigation canals needed for sustaining agriculture around these cities were either directly destroyed, or had the people who knew how to maintain them killed or driven off. The starvation which set in following the reduction in agricultural production must have claimed many thousands. 


Beyond that, we have mention of internal fighting, cities using the Mongol invasion as a chance to carry out old grudges, and following the Mongols’ withdrawal, the fighting between local dynasties, bandits and rebels would have claimed yet more lives. That many tens or hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes, fleeing the Khwarezmian empire entirely or carried back east as slaves, must not be discounted. 


Gaining a truly accurate tally of the dead is impossible, but easily at least 1-3 million people were killed during, or because of, the invasion. It left not just a physical and demographic scaring, but a mental one as well, the Mongols becoming a byword for incomparable calamity even today. It is no wonder so many sources present the invasion in apocalyptic terms, though efforts at recovery and reconstruction under Mongol rule will be something we will explore in future episodes.


With Jalal al-Din Mingburnu’s defeat, Chinggis began the slow journey back to Mongolia. The campaign had been a victory beyond his wildest dreams, and it is at this point that the Mongols likely began to develop the belief that it was Heaven’s Will for them to conquer the world. For how else could one explain what had happened? Everywhere they went, military victory soon followed. The authority of Chinggis Khan among the Mongols was near absolute, though he still had the matter of the succession to deal with, as well as unfinished business in North China. Contrary to some statements, Chinggis did not immediately turn about from the Indus to attack the Tangut- it was not until after 1223, with the death of the general Mukhali, that the Tangut would openly rebel, and earn their own destruction.


Our next episodes will be discussing the great expedition of Jebe and Subtuai through the Caucasus and battle against the Rus’ and Qipchaq at the Kalka River, as well as Chinggis Khan’s final years, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A 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!