The most potent weapon of the Mongols was terror

The twelfth- and early thirteenth-century walls of Merv (Turkmenistan). The photograph shows how the twelfth-century walls, with their hollow towers and arrow slits, have been strengthened by a massive outer covering, probably hastily built in the face of the Mongol invasions. It was all to no avail: the city fell without any serious resistance and most of the inhabitants were massacred.

To the local people they appeared completely strange and alien; and, unlike other adversaries, they were non-Muslims with no respect for mosques or holy places. Furthermore, with the exception of a small number of artisans, and selected attractive girls and boys, the Mongols did not regard the conquered populations as assets whose talents could be exploited but rather as wasteful occupants of good grazing space and, in addition, potentially dangerous. Other military adventurers would protect a city to enjoy its revenues, if for no more elevated reason. Not so the Mongols, who seem only to have wanted plunder. On a number of occasions when cities were taken, the inhabitants were ordered out into the surrounding plains for six or seven days so that the Mongols could pillage their houses thoroughly and at leisure. If the locals accepted this without resistance or protest, they might be allowed back to the remains of their dwellings.

The survivors, however, were the lucky ones. As the conquest proceeded, the Mongols became even more ferocious. At Bukhara, which was conquered early on, only the Turkish soldiers were systematically slaughtered. At Urgench, where there had been fierce hand-to-hand fighting through the streets, the people were driven out of the city, artisans were separated and taken away, the children and young women were reduced to slavery and ‘the men that remained were divided among the (Mongol) army, and to each fighting man fell the execution of twenty-four persons’. After the fall of Balkh (in northern Afghanistan), Genghis Khan commanded that ‘the population, ‘small and great, few and many, both men and women should be driven out on the plain and divided up according to the usual custom into hundreds and thousands to be put to the sword; and that not a trace be left of fresh or dry. For a long time wild beasts feasted on their flesh.’ After the people of Merv had agreed on terms for surrender,

the Mongols entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town: the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men … the Mongols ordered that, apart from 400 artisans they specified and selected from among the men and some children, girls and boys, who they bore into captivity, the whole population, including women and children, should be killed, and none, whether man or woman, should be spared. The people of Marv [MervJ were then distributed among the soldiers and levies and, in short, each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons.

The historian Ibn al-Athir was a typical product of the Muslim bourgeoisie of the early thirteenth century. He was immensely learned and well-read and had the ability, not shared by all his colleagues, to demonstrate this learning in simple, straightforward prose. He had visited north-eastern Iran in the years immediately before the Mongol invasions and had been impressed by the size and wealth of the cities and the richness of their libraries. Whether by good luck or good judgement he had returned to his native Mosul (a city never taken by the Mongols) shortly before the storm broke. His appalled reaction to the invasions show the terror the Mongols inspired among people who had never seen them.

Ibn al-Athir tells us:

I have heard that one of them took a man captive but did not have a weapon to kill him with, so he said to his prisoner, ‘Lay your head on the ground and do not move’, and he did so and the [Mongol] went and fetched his sword and killed him. Another man told me the following story: ‘I was going with seventeen others along a road and we met a Mongol horseman who ordered us to tie up each others’ arms. My companions began to do as he said but I said to them, “He is only one man, why don’t we kill him and escape?” but he replied, “We are afraid.” I then said, “This man intends to kill you immediately so let’s kill him and perhaps God will save us.” But I swear by God that not one of them dared to do this so I took a knife and slew him and we fled and escaped.’ There were many such events.

Whether the anecdote is true or not, it shows how the sinister reputation of the Mongols spread. It also highlights a phenomenon known from other war situations, the passivity and hopelessness which can overcome people when faced with an enemy they believe to be stronger, leading to a meek acceptance of their fate. These attitudes provide some insight into the secrets of Mongol success. The Mongols certainly gloried in and publicized their reputation for terror. When Genghis Khan took Bukhara, he gathered the survivors in the great mosque. The scene was one of complete desecration. The chests in which the great old Qurans were kept had been tipped out so that the leaves were lying around in the ·dust while the boxes themselves were, used as troughs for the Mongols’ animals. He addressed his cowed audience:

‘O people, know that you have committed great sins and that the great ones among you have committed these sins! If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you!’ One of his audience told his friend who wanted to object, ‘Be silent! It is the wind of God’s omnipotence that blows and we have no power to speak.’

Revisionist historians have questioned the extent of Mongol ferocity and destructiveness, suggesting that such accounts are largely rhetoric and hyperbole. However, the weight of contemporary evidence is very strong and it is backed up by the archaeology. Of the great cities sacked by the Mongols, only Bukhara and Urgench were rebuilt on the same site: Balkh, Otrar and Nishapur were ruined for ever and at Merv a new town was founded two centuries later well away from the remains of the old. Samarkand was rebuilt outside the old walls while the ancient city remained as it is today, a desolate waste of mud-brick ruins.

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