Khwarezmid Empire (1190–1220), on the eve of the Mongol conquests
After overcoming some difficulties at first, Genghis Khan mercilessly defeated and conquered the well-protected cities of neighboring empires. By 1209, the dreaded Genghis Khan was acknowledged by the Tangut emperor as the reigning lord of this region. Genghis Khan continued to annihilate the various dynasties until these empires were under his domain. Less than 10 years later, by 1218, the Mongol Empire was extensive and spread from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Genghis Khan worked to unite his power with neighboring empires and sent communication to the Khwarizm Empire in Afghanistan, conveying his message that he was the sovereign ruler of these lands. As such, he presented an amicable letter of friendship and in accordance requested the Khwarizm ruler to accept this declaration of Mongolian supremacy. The letter was accompanied with treasures and vast wealth, including such riches as gold, silver, silk, furs, and a flock of 500 camels. The caravan never reached the shah and instead was seized by an overly greedy border commander who was overcome with the prospect of all the wealth and fortune in the caravan. The commander killed all the convoy members save one, a camel boy who escaped unnoticed and returned to Genghis Khan to tell him of the incident. Furious, Genghis Khan dispatched a messenger party to the shah and ordered him to immediately agree to the previously delineated terms, bow to the Mongolian army, and deliver the border commander for punishment. The overly confident Shah naively refused such a declamation, and as further insult he killed the sole Muslim messenger and sent the other Mongol couriers back to Genghis Khan with shaved beards. This offense might have stifled any other potential invader, but the act was too insulting to Genghis Khan. Whether or not he intended to destroy the empire before the gesture of amity, the Shah’s response sealed the kingdom’s fate. Ruthlessly and unfalteringly, the Mongol ruler unleashed more than 200,000 Mongol soldiers into Afghanistan, crippling cities such as Herat, Balkh, Ghazni, and Bamiyan and slaughtering every man, woman, and child along the way.
The Mongols conquered and destroyed the Khwarizm Empire from 1219 to 1221, and afterward Genghis Khan divided the army into two separate forces. He led his army on a forceful storm across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, destroying the region as punishment for the shah’s insulting actions. His other military force, led by his two top generals, Jebe and Subutai, marched their soldiers through Russia and the Caucasus. For the most part, the campaign was not to ruthlessly kill and destroy, but rather to subdue those in these lands by pillaging settlements and forcing the inhabitants to recognize Genghis Khan as the only universal ruler of the world. After several years of adding more territories to the empire, including Persia, the once-divided forces united again in Mongolia in 1225. Genghis Khan was callous in his avenging defeat of these lands, and historical records describe vast fields filled with the skeletal remains of slain enemies and slaughtered horse carcasses scattered among the bodies on the battlefield. The stories of the Mongols’ method of conquest were extremely terrifying, for once the army entered the city, bodies and blood filled the streets as punishment for refusing to bow down to the Mongol ruler. When provoked, angered, or extremely insulted, Genghis Khan was brutal in his methods, and in one such instance he poured molten hot silver into the eyes and ears of his enemy as retribution for a previous insult. The legend of these malicious methods caused many shahs to tremble in fear of the Mongol army. Understandably, once this fear was instilled in a man’s heart, it was hard to find the courage to fight such savage warriors. For those that would not submit to the Mongol army, the Mongols’ ruthless mission was for the most part a simple instruction from Genghis Khan: slay the men, rape the women, and enslave the children.
Genghis Khan instilled advanced military disciplines to his army, including such concepts as psychological warfare, communication intelligence, and advanced mobility tactics that encouraged combat on horseback. The Mongols were highly skilled and unrivaled riders, learning to ride horses beginning at the very young age of three. As a magnificent illustration of the Mongols’ equestrian dexterity and control of the three horses with which the rider traveled, the rider was skillful enough to jump from his fatigued horse to a fresh steed in the midst of combat while still being able to continue firing arrows at the enemy. This ability granted the Mongols a significant advantage over their less-equestrian-knowledgeable adversaries and even presented a deceptive impression of the Mongols having more riders than originally estimated on the battlefield. Genghis Khan organized an extremely efficient army composed of strict discipline, tremendous loyalty, and remarkable adeptness. The Mongol army was thus an intense military force that was the most feared and ruthless power to enter the battlefield. By using their highly developed skills in military techniques of surprise, ambush maneuvers, and extreme mobility, the Mongols were able to defeat enemy armies with swift vengeance and merciless punishment. While these shocking actions may be regarded as the acts of menial and inferior savages, the Mongols were any- thing but inferior in intellect.
As further evidence of his military genius, Genghis Khan used supply routes to create multiple communication stations, known as yams, throughout the Mongol Empire that worked to gather and quickly disseminate communication intelligence. The Yam communication network was an ingenious invention, as this system revolutionized and greatly increased the spread of communication and the ability to relay military intelligence throughout the Mongolian Empire. The yam network was specifically designed for the Mongolian messengers, who often covered great distances of nearly 200 kilometers over one or two days, and these messengers arrived at relays stations along the route for food, water, and spare horses. Genghis Khan’s desire to understand and defeat his enemy may be considered passionate to the point of being fanatical, and as a result his extensive spy network was unrivaled.
As demonstrated by the Mongols’ ability to quickly subdue enemies, the conquering Mongol army was keenly adept at learning the strategies and techniques of the defeated empires. In the Mongols’ desire to learn the methods of defeated opponents, they spared only those with certain skills from death, such as engineers and architects. If these skilled opponents agreed to live as slaves to the Mongolian Empire, they would be useful for the expertise they provided as it related to war. As a result of this strategy, the most significant contribution came from the Chinese engineers who taught the Mongols how to strike and defeat walled cities. Of the few enemy soldiers that acknowledged Genghis Khan as the one universal ruler, these soldiers were included as part of the Mongol army. Not only did this technique expand the army, but it also gave the Mongols the advantage of learning new military techniques to use against other enemy forces. Hence, the Mongolian Empire grew not just in domain but also in intellect as the army continued to pillage and devour other empires while learning their secrets along the way.
The Mongols were one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, composed of mainly nomadic inhabitants from all regions. Keenly aware of the cultural differences of his empire, Genghis Khan was supportive of the various religions in the empire as long as they did not challenge his rule. As a further testament to the strength of the army, he refused to divide his troops into different ethnic sects. Since he recognized that this would be a weakness and could segregate his army, Genghis Khan believed in supporting a sense of unity and loyalty among the conquered tribes through the integration of all individuals throughout the army despite their cultural differences. Hence, the Mongolian army would fight as a force of one unified people composed of multiple ethnicities rather than as divided units of smaller clans based on religious, tribal, and ethnic backgrounds. Of course, despite the resistance or disagreement, discipline was strictly enforced and included severe punishment for those who tried to oppose his policy.
Genghis Khan imposed a revolutionary concept on the Mongol army by basing his military on the Asian decimal system. The army was divided into units, the most basic of which was composed of 10 men known as an arban. In this regard, each man was assigned to his arban for life, and it was for- bidden under any circumstance, whether religious, cultural, ethnic, or simply dislike of his other members, to leave and join another group. The leader of the arban then reported to the leader of the jagun, the next highest unit composed of 100 soldiers. The remaining units included the mingghan (1,000 men) and tumen (10,000 men). Both units employed the title of noyan for the leader, which indicated a form of respect as a military commander, but noyan was not considered a military rank. To further the seriousness of the strict regime of the army, it was a grave insult and disgrace if a solider chose to abandon his arban. As punishment the entire arban would be executed for this treason. If all 10 men of the arban deserted, then the entire jagun would be executed. The leaders of the tumen were regarded as Mongol nobility, and the title Khagan (Great Khan) was the designated term for the leader of 10 tumens, which was reserved for Genghis Khan himself.
As was the typical terrain and climate of Afghanistan, the Mongol warriors were accustomed to the extreme weather conditions. Interestingly, the Mongols preferred to travel during the winter months in order to better navigate across rivers. Further, these hardened nomads were used to traveling great distances in little time. The Mongols often traveled without much difficulty, seeing as they were accustomed to these conditions as part of their nomadic lifestyle. Despite working under these harsh circumstances, the Mongols were exceptionally skilled at siege warfare. Such military methods included the diversion of rivers and tributaries to towns and cities so as to weaken the opponent’s defenses. In addition, the army would often take enemy prisoners and force them to march in front of the army as a shield when engaging in combat with other enemy forces. By far the most devastating practice—and arguably the most favored technique by the Mongols—was to simulate retreat and feign escape from the battlefield. Once the enemy army was lured into a faux victory, the pursuit of the seemingly retreating Mongols would break up the enemy army into smaller sections, and the Mongols would skillfully lure them into an ambush. As is often the case in history, Genghis Khan was blessed with a cadre of extremely gifted generals who were exceptionally skilled for the time they lived. In having such an elite general force as the tumen commanders, their keenness for military maneuvers allowed Genghis Khan and the Mongols to excel and crush his opponents.
After a conquest, the Mongol army would plunder the villages, and the valuables stolen after such defeats were the only payment the soldiers received. Those who resisted were killed. The massacre totals in the region of Afghanistan are particularly startling in Herat, Nishapur, and Samarkand. In one legendary tale of the Mongols’ fierceness, an Afghan woman was captured and cleverly tried to beg for her life by arguing that she had swallowed a pearl and that it would be wise not to kill her with the precious treasure in her belly. Swiftly, without hesitation, and while she was still breathing, her stomach was sliced open as the soldier rummaged through her entrails for the tiny orb. On hearing the account, Genghis Khan instructed the soldiers to search all bodies in the same manner, and each inhabitant was turned inside out so that their bowels could be searched for other concealed treasures.