Mongol Otrar Campaign 1219-20

Khwarezmid Empire (1190–1220), on the eve of the Mongol conquests

It is sometimes said that Genghis’s reponse to the Otrar atrocity was tardy and that two years went by before he made his move. In fact his riposte was remarkably rapid. While making elaborate plans for a grand rendezvous of the majority of his forces on the upper Irtysh, he ordered Jochi and Jebe, already in Qara Khitai, to take their 30,000 troops and begin the march west immediately. The idea was that when these two reached the Ferghana valley, ‘arrow messengers’ or fast-travelling couriers from the main force converging on Otrar would be in touch with the khan’s latest orders. The orders to set out at once committed Jebe and Jochi to a gruelling trek in winter over high mountain passes, but there was no gainsaying the khan’s commands. The barrier of the Altyn-Tagh range forced travellers to take a route either north of the T’ien Shan or south of the River Tarim through the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The rule of thumb was that trade caravans took the southerly route to avoid the worst mountain passes, but large groups of migrants, needing more water than the desert could provide, went north. With 30,000 men Jebe and Jochi had no choice but to go north, yet they do not seem to have followed the conventional route through Dzungaria; instead they veered slightly south-west and found a pass between the Pamirs and the T’ien Shan, most likely through the Altai range (the sources are anything but pellucid). It was probably the Terek-Dawan defile, an all-year pass at 13,000 feet, which later became the principal route from Qara Khitai and was used by Marco Polo.3 On the way to this pass the Mongols rode through snowstorms and snow 5–6 feet deep, their horses wrapped in yak-hides and the riders wearing double sheepskin coats. Shortage of food meant they often had to open the veins of their mounts, drink the blood then close the veins up again. Not surprisingly, many horses dropped dead from the snow, ice and blood letting; any that did were devoured instantly.

Finally the Mongols reached the fertile valley of Ferghana in spring 1219 after an exploit that easily rivals Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Turkestan was then the name given to the entire area stretching from modern China to the Caspian, so it is a high commendation to say that the Ferghana valley was the commercial jewel of the entire region. It produced gold, silver, turquoise, quicksilver, iron, copper, naphtha, bitumen, millstones, perfume, cloth, weapons, needles, scissors, pots, bows, quivers, dyed hides, cloaks, flax, cotton, had a vast acreage of rice fields, extensive orchards and vineyards and a thriving pastoral sector concentrating on goats, horses and mules. The Mongols could raid and seize all they needed in such a milk-and-honey land.

The news of a Mongol army in Ferghana seriously disconcerted the shah Muhammad II, who had thought that any army coming from the east would have to take a more northerly route, through the Dzungaria Gate. Here was confirmation of Jalal al-Din’s opinion that the Mongols should be opposed on the eastern frontier. But already defeatism was evident at Muhammad’s court. The majority wanted to abandon Transoxiana and retreat to Khorasan or the Ghazni area of Afghanistan and build an invincible stronghold against which the Mongol hordes would fling themselves in vain until fatally weakened. The shah provided no proper leadership but instead declared that Allah had told him to attack the Mongols; he ranted against Genghis as an idolater and complained to his entourage that the Mongols had ‘unfairly’ beaten him to the punch by invading China.6 Yet the provocation of learning that the Mongols were laying waste Ferghana was too much to bear. Muhammad assembled a large army and marched against them.

Jochi’s orders from his father were not to allow himself to be sucked into pitched battles with the shah; his role was as a diversion, to keep the Khwarezmians occupied while Genghis came through the Dzungaria Gate. The headstrong Jochi never liked obeying his father’s orders, and this occasion was no different. Jebe strongly urged that the Mongols should retreat, if necessary up into the foothills of the mountains, so as to lure the shah further away from Otrar, where Genghis intended to strike. Jochi took a perverse pleasure in overruling a superior general (Jebe), exercising his prerogative as a prince of the blood, saying that such a course of action would be arrant cowardice.

The sources differ in their accounts of the battle. One version is that the Mongols were in a poor state to receive the enemy after their exertions on the long trek and, instead of their usual guileful manoeuvres, simply charged the shah head on. Another is that the Mongols gave a textbook demonstration of their tactics – the light cavalry appearing to discharge their usual arrow cloud, with the heavy cavalry waiting to deliver the killer blow. It is even suggested that Muhammad came within an ace of being captured. At all events, night came down on a battle that was still indecisive, but with the heavily outnumbered Mongols (perhaps 25,000 to twice that number) having outpointed the enemy in every area: speed, mobility, imagination.

This was the second time Muhammad had taken a mauling, and it reinforced what was becoming an idée fixe with him – that it was always folly to engage the Mongols in open battle. Jebe and Jochi meanwhile followed the time-honoured tactic of withdrawing under cover of darkness, managing to take most of their cattle and horses with them. Muhammad’s failure to pursue has puzzled some analysts, but at least three major factors were responsible. He was unsure of the true strength of the Mongols and could not know for certain that the army he had fought was not just a vanguard, with the main army lying in ambush, waiting for him to pursue. Then, in order to campaign effectively, the shah had to raise taxes and this in turn led to open rebellion among some already disaffected towns; to deal with these insurrections Muhammad had to divert his army from pursuit of the Mongols. Thirdly, by late summer he learned that the vanguard of another Mongol army was already pouring through the Dzungaria Gate in the north. He now had his answer. The Jebe–Jochi force had been a classic diversion.

Genghis set off with the main army in May 1219, following the Orkhon and Tula Rivers. Angling south-west, he crossed the Khangai Mountains through passes ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 feet and reached the Altai Mountains by mid-July. There is much scholarly wrangling about the exact route he took thereafter (geography was not the medieval chroniclers’ strong point); he may have used the Dabistan-Daban Pass, though at least two other defiles in this area are open from May to September. He made camp on the upper Irtysh in summer 1219, to give his men and horses rest and recreation and await the advent of his allies to this rendezvous. While encamped there, the Mongols experienced a freak summer snowstorm.

To confuse the shah still further Genghis sent a small detachment (maybe 5,000 strong) on a circuitous route south to enter Turkestan by the famous Dzungaria Gate. This (on the modern China–Kazakhstan border) was already known in ancient times to Herodotus and Ptolemy and thought to be the home of Boreas, the North Wind, on account of the fierce and constant winds encountered there. Basically a small rift valley, the Dzungaria Gate is a six-mile-wide, 46-mile-long gap between the lakes Alakol and Ebi Nur, the most important mountain pass between China and Central Asia and the one gateway in a mountain wall that otherwise stretches 3,000 miles from Afghanistan to Manchuria. This is the route Muhammad would have expected Genghis to take, on the expectation that he would be marching west from a base in Qara Khitai.

Meanwhile on the upper Irtysh Genghis took stock of his position and reviewed his strategy. In his retinue were Qulan, his favourite wife, his sons Tolui, Chagatai and Ogodei, and all his important generals and advisers except for Jebe and Jochi, already engaged on the western front, and Muqali in China; the most important personality of all may have been Subedei, who acted as Genghis’s chief of staff and is usually credited with the brilliant strategy used against the shah. (The government of Mongolia had been left to Genghis’s brother Temuge.)

Quite how many troops Genghis led is a vexed question, as are all issues relating to numbers in Mongol history. Estimates range from the grotesquely impossible 800,000 to the absurdly low 80,000. The lunatic figure of 800,000 mentioned by some popular writers is implausible on a number of grounds, chiefly that this would imply also herds of 800,000 horses and 24 million sheep and goats all on the march. Much depends on what figure we assign to the total population of Mongolia, and here again estimates range from 700,000 to two million. Given that the pastoral economy of Mongolia is inelastic and therefore can support only a constant population, and given also that the population of Mongolia in 1967 was three million, there is every justification for accepting the higher figure of two million in the thirteenth century. This might give us a total military strength of 200,000 and take us close to some of the higher estimates. Yet we must remember that large numbers of troops were still waging war in China, and that some of the newly conquered regions in Genghis’s rear could not be totally counted on and needed garrisons to keep them loyal. All in all, counting allied contingents, Chinese sappers, engineers and siege experts, we might settle for a total force of 120,000 effectives, including the 30,000 under Jochi and Jebe.

The most alarming news that reached Genghis at his summer camp on the upper Irtysh was that the expected Tangut contingent would not be coming. At first the campaign of 1209–10 seemed to have borne ripe fruit, for to start with Hsi-Hsia stayed loyal. There was an open usurpation of the crown in 1211 when a new ruler, Shen-Tsung, a man in his late forties, secured the throne by a coup, but he confirmed the Mongol alliance and remained steadfast until 1217. But then he repudiated all his commitments, under the influence of the virulently anti-Mongol general Asa Gambu. Together ruler and general offered the Jin an anti-Mongol alliance to take advantage of Genghis’s absence in the west; Asa Gambu, moreover, was convinced the Mongols would lose the war against Khwarezmia.

The Jin refused, on the basis that both the Mongols and the Tangut were their sworn enemies. The Tangut had better luck with the Song, but the latter told Shenzong they could not formally commit to an alliance until 1220 at the earliest. When the Mongols officially protested at Hsi-Hsia’s perfidy, Asa Gambu replied with heavy irony that since Genghis Khan styled himself the Khan of Khans (though actually he never took this title), he scarcely needed the help of the Tangut, as Heaven was already on his side. When this reply was conveyed to Genghis, he is said by some sources to have become apoplectic with rage. He asked one of his secretaries to remind him at noon and dusk every day thenceforth that the treacherous Tangut realm still existed.

Siege of Otrar

Soon it was time to move on, to the first target, Otrar. Genghis ordered his commissariat to make the most careful and meticulous preparations for the march ahead, factoring in all known wells, waterholes and oases. Every ten horsemen had to carry three dried sheep, with the mutton salted and dried in the sun, and an iron cauldron in which to cook the meat; similar ‘slide-rule’ projections were formulated for all other food. Genghis’s itinerary next took him across the Irtysh, past Lake Zaysan, then, by way of the River Emil and the Tarbaghatai Mountains, and passing the eastern shore of Lake Balkhash, one of the world’s great inland seas, he came to an autumn rendezvous on the plain of Qayaliq south of the lake; here he was joined by Arslan of of the Qarluqs, Suqnaq-tigin the new ruler of Almaliq, and his great friend the idiqut Barchuq.

Ten thousand Uighurs, 6,000 Qarluqs and a contingent from Almaliq made a hefty reinforcement; Ongud, Khitans, Solons, Kirghiz and Kem Kemjiut are also mentioned among the recruits. The allies were all much impressed with the Chinese engineers and the heavy equipment they brought for siegecraft. At Qayaliq Genghis sent Chagatai ahead with the vanguard to build bridges to take them across the remaining rivers, making sure they could bear the weight of heavy transport wagons. Chagatai had many faults but he completed this task with supreme efficiency, building forty-eight timber bridges wide enough for two heavy carts to drive across side by side.

The army proceeded south-west, reached the Ili River and followed it down to Almaliq, the final significant stop before their destination. Passing to the north of the Lake Issyk Kul, they reached the River Chu (in today’s northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan), the last significant obstacle before Otrar itself. Genghis gave strict orders that from now on there should be no hunting, so as not to tire the horses; he made sure food supplies were adequate, then struck due west for Otrar. Once across the Chu they were in the realms of the shah.

In October 1219 the Mongols finally arrived outside Otrar on the banks of the Syr Darya, the mighty river known to the ancients as the Jaxartes. (Alexander the Great fought a famous battle on the Jaxartes in 329 bc and proclaimed it the northern limit of his empire.) Genghis had spent three months on the march, excluding stopovers on the Irtysh and elsewhere, and had covered over 2,500 miles. Now he decided to leave the siege of Otrar to Ogodei and Chagatai while he waited with a large reserve force in a pass at the top of the Arys valley, in the foothills of a nearby mountain range.

As always, his strategy was masterly. Knowing that the shah was based at Samarkand, he sent 5,000 men upstream along the Syr Darya to seize Banakat (near Tashkent), where the road from Samarkand reached the river and where any army coming from that direction would have to approach. He hoped to lure Muhammad into an expedition to relieve Otrar. If that happened, the 5,000 Mongols at Banakat were to leave and link up with Ogodei and Chagatai outside Otrar. Genghis’s plan was to tempt the shah to imagine that the besieging army at Otrar could be caught between two fires, between his army advancing from Samarkand and the powerful garrison in Otrar, which would then sortie and assail the Mongols in the rear as they turned round to face the new army. If that happened, Genghis hoped to destroy the Khwarezmian military power in one go, using his expertise in uniting far-flung detachments of his army with lightning speed. The shah was unaware that there was a second army in the north, lurking in the foothills, and had lost sight of Jochi. With Genghis appearing unexpectedly on the flank of the sallying garrison and Jochi in the rear of Muhammad’s army, the stage would be set for a victory that would echo down the centuries. It would be more complete than Gaugamela, Cannae, Zama or any of the great battles of history.

But the shah would not take the bait. He was confident that the huge force of defenders at Otrar could hold out, and he wanted to be able to locate Jochi and Jebe accurately before committing himself to a clear course of action. He dithered and procrastinated, a true martial Hamlet, while his son Jalal tore his hair out that his earlier advice – to oppose the Mongols at the Syr Darya – had been rejected. In fact merely by abandoning the Syr Darya to Genghis, Muhammad had lost the first round of the struggle.

There was some rationality in his decision not to endorse Jalal’s plan. Since all the cities on that river (including Otrar) were on the north bank, any army defending them would have the river at its back and nowhere to escape to if defeated. On the other hand, if he used the river as a defence, defying the Mongols to cross it in the face of strong forces on the south bank, he would have to abandon all his northern cities. Moreover, even if he was victorious on the north bank, the Mongols would retreat into the mountains, and it was too dangerous to follow such a foe into that kind of terrain. Muhammad’s strategy therefore was to place such an enormous garrison in Otrar that the Mongols, already weary after a long march, would tire themselves out trying to take it. When he deemed that the besiegers were sufficiently exhausted, Muhammad told his advisers that he would indeed order the march from Samarkand to Banakat. This, too, was not entirely irrational. The garrison at Otrar contained no fewer than 60,000 fighting men, with the cavalry and infantry stationed all round the walls.

Genghis waited patiently for two months while the siege of Otrar dragged on, but finally concluded that the shah would never be tempted into battle. He therefore left express instructions with Ogodei and Chagatai to press the siege with all their might, assisted by Barchuq and the Uighurs, and sent orders to Jochi to advance from Ferghana and conquer all cities along the north bank of the Syr Darya. Sadly for his own ambitions, Muhammad had imbibed the myth that the Mongols were hopeless at siegecraft, which his agents based on the lacklustre performance in the campaign against Hsi-Hsia in 1209–11. He had no idea that as a result of their war with the Jin the Mongols’ expertise had proceeded almost exponentially, and the well-defended fortress of Otrar held no terrors for them. Inalchuq, the governor responsible for the original atrocity, and general Qaracha, sent by the shah with 50,000 men to bolster the governor’s original 10,000 garrison, are said to have been caught completely off guard by the Mongol host appearing outside the walls, with the neighing of armoured horses and the braying of chain-armoured mules.35 Naturally, the Mongols used all kinds of tricks to exaggerate their numbers. Gradually they pounded the walls and cut off all supplies of food and water. By their fierce discipline the numerically inferior nomad army triumphed over an enemy who should have been able to resist.

Nonetheless, it took five bitter months of fighting before Otrar finally cracked, in February 1220. In January, Qaracha, foreseeing the inevitable end, tried to make his escape with a bodyguard but was captured and executed; Ogodei fully shared his father’s belief that a general should never abandon his master.37 After this debacle large numbers of the shah’s dreaded mercenaries deserted. Some civilians, tired of the privations of a five-month siege, opened a side gate and let the attackers in, but Inalchuq, after abandoning the city to the Mongols, withdrew into the citadel with 20,000 of his crack troops; many of them soon deserted and in the end he was left with just 6,000.38 It took another month for the Mongols to winkle them out. When the citadel fell Inalchuq and his diehard loyalists retreated into a central tower. The defenders fought bitterly and in the end, desperately short of firearms, were reduced to showering the attackers with tiles. The Mongols mined the tower and, when it collapsed, dug a still living Inalchuq out of the ruins. All the Turkish deserters and any other soldiers left alive were instantly slaughtered. Ogodei and Chagatai ordered the city razed to the ground; it was never rebuilt, and its ghostly ruins attested to the folly of opposing the greatest power on earth. Inalchuq was taken and held for Genghis’s pleasure whenever he should appear. He was of course executed, but the story that Genghis first tortured him by having molten silver poured into his eyes is apocryphal.

With the fall of Otrar there was now no obstacle to the systematic reduction of all the cities and towns along the Syr Darya. Jochi and Jebe decided they should split up, with Jebe striking south, intending to cross the River Zerafshan and bar any southern escape route from Samarkand whenever Genghis decided to assault it. Jebe had with him somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men, scarcely enough to engage a large army; nevertheless when he encountered a larger Khwarezmian force, he attacked it and put it to flight. It was a great exploit but Genghis was none too happy when he heard of it. He always tried to avoid heavy casualties and to win by mobility and other indirect means.


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