Mongol Victory at Huan’erzui

Genghis Khan at the Battle of Huan’erzui by Alexis Morand on ArtStation

At Yehuling (Fox Range)   1211, 100,000 Mongols defeat 500,000 Chinese

At the Battle of Huan’erzui (Badger’s Mouth) in February 1212, the Mongols under CHINGGIS KHAN delivered a legendary defeat to the field armies of the Jin dynasty in North China.

The Jin used the Mengan/Mouke system to organize their subjects (especially in the border regions), which made military mobilization much easier. It was a decimal system that was based on tribal structure. The smallest unit was a Puliyen, which contained about 50 households and was lead by a headman of the same title. In wartime this became a fighting unit, and the headman became the officer. Every male member of the group had to provide military service and bring along at least one auxiliary soldier (usually a male slave). A Mouke was a larger unit made up of about 5 or 6 Puliyen or 300 households (often less), lead by an officer of the same title. A single Mouke usually constituted one walled town or village. A Mengan was a unit of 1,000 households (technically. Often it was less), and a Wanhu was 10,000 households (the equivalent of Mongol Tumens). In times of emergency the Jin would also conscript local Chinese peasants.

To beef up border defense the Jin also used nine Jiu units (also known as Juyin). These were ethnically mixed mercenary armies made up of Khitans, Tanguts, Turks, Mongols, etc. The Jiu armies surrendered or defected to the Mongols almost immediately. Genghis Khan himself was part of the Jin border defense system early in his career when he helped the Jin fight the Tatars and was granted the title “Ja’ud-qori”, which meant something like “commander of the frontier”.

Although the Mongols had advanced as far as the capital of North China’s JIN DYNASTY in 1211, they withdrew to the Jin frontier in Inner Mongolia that winter. In February 1212 the Mongols took the border prefecture of Huanzhou (near modern Zhenglan Qi) and besieged Fuzhou. The Jin emperor dispatched the bandit-suppression commissioner, Heshilie Jiujin, to lead the crack cavalry of the ruling Jurchen people and KITANS, assisted by Han (ethnic Chinese) infantry under two civil officials, Duji Qianjianu and Hu Sha. The force totaled several hundred thousand.

Leaving Hu Sha with infantry at Huihebao Fort (modern Huai’an), Heshilie Jiujin and Duji Qianjianu advanced past Yehuling (Fox Range) into Inner Mongolia. While certain Kitan commanders advocated a surprise attack, Heshilie Jiujin preferred to advance his troops in a body and sent an envoy to Chinggis Khan denouncing his invasion. The Mongols besieging Fuzhou (in Inner Mongolia) had been eating breakfast but formed up quickly after hearing of the Jin advance. Although the Mongols were vastly outnumbered, MUQALI, Chinggis Khan’s trusted NÖKÖR (companion), led a cavalry charge, discomfiting the Jin ranks. The main Mongol force then moved up to shatter the Jin troops. Pursuing the fugitives more than 48 kilometers (30 miles) they met Hu Sha’s rear guard at Huihebao Fort, crushing it. The flower of Jin soldiery was destroyed in this battle, which became legendary among the Mongols. The victory was attributed to the fighting qualities of the Mongol cavalry, Heshilie Jiujin’s excessive caution and reliance on numbers, and the disaffection of many Kitan commanders, who resented Jurchen control.

What went wrong with the Badger mouth for the Chinese was probably an issue of training. The Jin likely had an army composed largely of peasant levies rather than professional soldiers. The Mongols on the other hand were a fairly lethal force of highly trained men. If one looks at the numbers a whole lot of Chinese soldiers survived the battle. I suspect they broke really quickly, probably in the face of the Mongol ferocity. The Mongols were famous for their discipline. The Mongol troops of Genghis were probably the most disciplined troops in the world at the time, and likely right up there among the most disciplined forces ever.

The Mongols may also have underestimated the Mongols in terms of man-to-man fighting. Bottle-necking an enemy (as they did at the pass) only works if your own soldiers are man-to-man equal to or superior than the enemy (so you can off-set superior numbers). Here it was a rough analogy to Thermopylae, except the Mongols were the Spartans, not the Chinese. The poorly trained Chinese troops probably became fodder for the Mongol troops, and likely couldn’t bring their over-whelming numbers to bear in any relevant way such as surrounding or flanking the Mongols. It came down to a largely man-to-man slug, and the Mongols chewed up the Chinese. As the Chinese losses mounted, they probably broke in fear, because their discipline would likely have been very poor. As the old adage goes, “you can give a peasant a sword, but it won’t make him a warrior”.

The battle is a classical example of how quality of troops can easily offset quantity, particularly in the right conditions. My opinion of the battle is that the Chinese massively under-estimated Mongol troops and made a horrendous error in choosing their battleground (though given the Mongol superiority in mobility, they may not have had a choice).

And in the narrow confines of the pass, the battle would have been decided not by cavalry charges (where the Iron cavalry would have been useful) but by the sheer individual and group fighting ability. Plus the Mongol superiority in archers would have devastated the Chinese troops. The Mongols were like the Persian Immortals, highly skilled with bow and melee weapons. The fact remains, that a significant number of Chinese troops survived the battle, and yet were not able to reform and take the exhausted Mongols. This indicates that they broke, which means their comparative discipline was poor. Maybe the Chinese elite troops got slaughtered, nobody denies the heavy Mongol losses and only the non-elite troops broke. Either way the difference in discipline shows.

Mongols and Yuan China

Battle of Tumu Fortress

In the late 15th century China was still a world leader in many areas of technology, having enjoyed advanced economic development for many centuries before the West. However, it began to suffer from worsening ossification of the central government and scholar-elite into endemic corruption and a rigid interpretation of Confucianism which ultimately was unable to adapt the rural economy to the expanding population. Late Ming China slowly withered under a baleful climate of stifling bureaucracy and self-imposed insulation from the emerging centers of world trade and technological innovation, which were shifting from China to Europe. For instance, the tendency to concentrate firearms production and casting artillery in centralized locations may have inhibited innovation in design. Political crisis also interfered with military reform and adaptation. At least on land the Xuande emperor had been a committed war leader. His son, Zhu Qizhen (Zhengtong Emperor), was not. Goaded to invade Mongolia, he was captured and lost an army of 500,000 to the Mongols at Tumu in 1449, after which the Mongols advanced on Beijing.

Battle of Tumu, (September 1, 1449)

In 1449 the Ming emperor Zhu Qizhen (Zhengtong), son of the fierce Xuande emperor, was just 21. Accepting advice from his chief eunuch, Wang Zhen, he invaded Mongolia with a huge host several hundred thousand strong and a truly mammoth supply train. Without ever encountering the Mongols the army turned around once it reached the extreme edge of its supplies. Just a few days march from a fortified town, and food and water, its rearguard was ambushed. Another was quickly formed but it too was cut off and wiped out by pursuing Mongols. Then the main body was surrounded. Weak from thirst, hunger, and overlong marches, the Ming Army stood no chance in the battle that followed. Wang Zhen was killed and Emperor Zhu Qizhen captured. As many as 500,000 Chinese may have perished in the Tumu campaign and battle. The Mongol horde then moved toward Beijing, raiding, pillaging, and raping as it passed unimpeded by any Ming army. The eight border garrisons (built by Hongwu but later abandoned by Yongle) did nothing but tend to themselves. As the Mongols were ill-equipped for a siege, after a week of plundering the outlying districts and countryside around Beijing they left, steppe ponies burdened with booty. In 1450 the Mongols released the boy emperor but in the interim his brother had claimed the throne. The Zhengtong Emperor did not regain power until he mounted a successful coup against his brother in 1457. After a long debate over appropriate strategy toward the Mongols, the Ming court decided to adopt a pure defensive posture and began construction of 700 miles of the Great Wall.

After that, the terrified Ming rebuilt old frontier fortifications and added 700 new miles of Great Wall to huddle behind in fear of Mongol raids-in short, they surrendered the old claim to rule Mongolia and shifted to a purely defensive strategy. From 1474 wall-building intensified and the number of firearms troops multiplied, with most in garrisons along the walls. Since their major enemies lacked fortifications, Chinese field tactics emphasized the use of guns mainly in defense. It was only in civil wars that Chinese gunners faced the tactical problem of overwhelming fortifications.

Great Wall

Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s “First Emperor,” Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B. C. E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern “Great Wall” built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of “limes” which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.

The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly “barbarian” through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.

China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.

Tumu Crisis – Wikipedia

The Era of Inter-Mongol Warfare I

The Toluid Civil War was a war of succession fought between Kublai Khan and his younger brother, Ariq Böke, from 1260 to 1264. Möngke Khan died in 1259 with no declared successor, precipitating infighting between members of the Tolui family line for the title of Great Khan that escalated to a civil war. The Toluid Civil War, and the wars that followed it (such as the Berke–Hulagu war and the Kaidu–Kublai war), weakened the authority of the Great Khan over the Mongol Empire and split the empire into autonomous khanates.

The ‘four uluses’: construct and reality

The conflict between Qubilai and Arigh Böke in the Far East in 1260–4, combined with the outbreak of war between Hülegü and Berke in the Caucasus in the winter of 1261–2, had momentous consequences. The Mongol empire fragmented into a number of virtually independent states, each a considerable power in its own right. They are usually listed as follows: (1) the dominions of the ‘Great Khan’ (qaghan) in China and Mongolia proper, known within China as the Yuan empire; (2) the Ilkhanate in Iran, Iraq and Anatolia; (3) the ulus of Chaghadai in Central Asia; and (4) the ulus of Jochi in the western steppes, sometimes called the ulus of Batu or of Berke (and still often termed by historians the ‘Golden Horde’). The conquered Muslims of the empire were now divided among these states. In the first, they represented only a small minority of the subject population; in the second and third, a majority; and in the fourth, at the very least a large and burgeoning minority.

To speak of four khanates, however, is to ignore the other polities termed ulus in our sources, notably the ‘left wing’ of the Jochid realm, the so-called Blue (or, in some sources, White) Horde in western Siberia, presided over by the line of Batu’s brother Orda (see p. 105); Rashīd al-Dīn tells us that although its khans headed their every command (yarligh) with the name of Batu’s successor, they nevertheless enjoyed complete autonomy and did not attend his court. The conventional taxonomy discounts also the extensive domain of Qaidu (d. 702/1303) and his son and successor Chapar, which for over forty years incorporated the Chaghadayid ulus (p. 150). We occasionally encounter the phrase ‘the ulus of Qaidu and Du’a’, as if they ruled jointly over a single state; and this usage is also reflected, anachronistically, in Western European writings. A further anomaly was the existence of the independent Negüderi Mongols or ‘Qara’unas’, former Jochid contingents who had escaped slaughter at Hülegü’s hands in c. 1261, had coalesced in present-day Afghanistan under the local Jochid commander Negüder, and dominated the borderlands between India, Transoxiana and Iran (see p. 148). Until the Negüderis’ subjection by the Central Asian Mongols in the 1290s, and even in some measure thereafter, this territory was no man’s land. Marco Polo describes Negüder as making war on ‘all the Tartars who dwell round about his kingdom’.

On occasions, moreover, one of the ‘four khanates’ splintered. For the last decade of the thirteenth century the western Jochid lands were effectively divided between the khan Toqto’a (690–712/1291–1312), who ruled east of the Dnieper, and his distant cousin and rival, Noghai, whose sway extended from the Dnieper to the Danube; their conflict ended only with Noghai’s defeat and death in 699/1299. In the 1340s the ulus of Chaghadai fractured permanently into a western half, centred on urban Transoxiana, and an eastern half, known as Mughalistān (‘Mongol territory’) and characterized by nomadic culture. Arguably, the Ilkhanate had likewise split into two rival states in 737/1336 with the election of Togha (or Taghai) Temür in Khurāsān.

Insofar as it corresponds to reality, the quadripartite division of the Chinggisid dominions belongs more comfortably in the fourteenth century. This was how Ibn Faḍl-Allāh al-‛Umarī, for instance, saw the Mongol world in c. 1338. The concept would have a long life, into and beyond the Timurid era. The history of the Chinggisids at one time attributed to Temür’s grandson Ulugh Beg (d. 853/1449), and utilized by Khwānd-Amīr in the sixteenth century, bore the title Ta’rīkh-i arba‛a ulūs-i chingīzī (‘History of the Four Chinggisid Uluses’). A hundred years after Ulugh Beg, Mīrzā Ḥaydar Dughlāt could write as if the four major khanates originated with Chinggis Khan’s own conferment of large appanages on his four sons by his chief wife. But the political map that emerged from the events of the early 1260s bore only a limited relation to the system that had evolved out of the conqueror’s distribution of lands. Any apparent parallel amounts to no more than coincidence.

The qaghan and Mongol unity

Had the break-up of the empire occurred by design, historians would no doubt have viewed it as a rational development. By 1260 Mongol expansion had virtually reached the limits of the steppe. The distances between the constituent parts of the empire, moreover, were enormous; it was hardly practicable to dominate them from the old centre at Qaraqorum, still less from Qubilai’s summer capital in the Mongolian-Chinese borderlands, Kaiping (renamed Shangdu and better known as ‘Xanadu’), or his winter residence in Khanbaligh (Dadu, founded between 1266 and 1275 close to the former Jin capital of Zhongdu). But from 1259 until 1304 there was no longer a qaghan who commanded universal recognition throughout the Mongol dominions, and Hülegü’s successors were the only Chinggisids consistently to acknowledge Qubilai and his line. The qaghans continued to despatch to Iran a patent of authority on the accession of each Ilkhan, with the possible exceptions of Tegüder Aḥmad (r. 681–3/1282–4), of whose election Qubilai may have disapproved, and of Baidu, whose reign (694/1295) was too brief. It has been suggested that the reigns of Gaikhatu and Baidu witnessed a loosening of the ties of overlordship, since although both monarchs struck coins in the qaghan’s name (apart from certain of Gaikhatu’s issues) they ceased to employ the title Il-khan. The removal of the qaghan’s name and title from the coinage soon after Ghazan’s conversion to Islam and his enthronement (and a matter of months after Qubilai’s death) did not imply any formal breach with the Yuan. On the contrary: regular diplomatic contacts and cultural exchanges bespeak a relationship between trusted allies, and the qaghans were still conferring exalted titles on certain of the Ilkhan’s chief ministers as late as Abū Sa‛īd’s reign. This allows us to speak of a ‘Toluid axis’ spanning the Asian continent throughout the period down to the 1330s.

Two other expressions of dynastic unity had disappeared soon after 1260. One was the presence within a region of troops owing allegiance to different branches of the imperial family. The other was the possession by the khan and princes of one ulus of rights, property and personnel within the territory of another, as such enclaves inevitably became a target for rulers determined to deprive their rivals of valuable assets and appropriate them for their own purposes. We saw earlier how Hülegü’s assault on the Jochid forces in Iran, followed a few years later by the absorption of Tegüder’s Chaghadayid contingent, terminated the existence of such discrete military forces in the Ilkhanate; how Jochid pasturelands and revenues in Iran passed into Ilkhanid possession; and how Alughu massacred Berke’s dependants in Bukhārā. According to al-‛Umarī, Abagha destroyed workshops in Tabrīz that belonged to Berke. When he turned against the qaghan, Baraq in turn seized the dependants of Qubilai and Abagha in his territory and appropriated their possessions. Late in 666/in the spring or summer of 1268, prior to his invasion of Khurāsān, Baraq despatched Mas‛ūd Beg to the Ilkhan’s court for the purpose of espionage, but with the ostensible mission of conducting an audit of the personal property (inchü) of Baraq and Qaidu in Iran; what became of this property following Baraq’s attack and defeat, we never learn.

The overall result of these changes was the transition from the ulus to the more self-contained khanate, through a consolidation and concentration of resources in the hands of regional khans. On balance, the shift favoured those who ruled over a great many wealthy towns and cities, at the expense of those whose territories for the most part comprised steppe. Princes in Central or Western Asia were still technically entitled to the revenues of certain districts in China, and the Ilkhans, as dutiful subordinates, continued to receive their share, at intervals, down into the fourteenth century. In relation to other, ‘rebel’ Mongol rulers, Qubilai tried to use the rights that they held within his dominions as leverage, to secure their acquiescence in his sovereignty. Marco Polo could perhaps be forgiven for blaming the conflict between Qubilai and Qaidu on the Qaghan’s refusal to send Qaidu what was his due from China; but it has to be said that here the policy was completely ineffective.

The attitude of the khans of the Golden Horde towards the Qaghan shifted. Having backed Arigh Böke in the civil war of 1260–4, Berke withheld recognition from Qubilai following the latter’s victory. His successor Mengü Temür (r. 665–79/1267–80) aligned himself with Qaidu. In 1275, when Qubilai’s son Nomoghan was arrested in Central Asia by a group of mutinous princes in his army, he was packed off as a prisoner to Mengü Temür. Qonichi, the ruler of Orda’s ulus, likewise supported Qaidu. The unwillingness of the Jochids for some decades to collaborate with the Qaghan as they had done in Möngke’s reign may have been as crucial in undermining Qubilai’s efforts to extend his control over Central Asia as were his preoccupations in the Far East. But in 1283 Mengü Temür’s brother and successor Töde Mengü (r. 680–6/1281–7), in consultation with Qonichi, released Nomoghan, sending him back to the Qaghan and acknowledging Qubilai’s supremacy; the prince rejoined his father in Khanbaligh in March 1284. Any rapprochement at this juncture may have been merely temporary, since the Yuan shi indicates that friendship was not restored until the reign of Qubilai’s grandson, the Qaghan Temür (1294–1307). According to Rashīd al-Dīn, a niece of Qubilai named Kelmish Aqa, who was married to a leading Jochid noyan and was the grandmother or mother-in-law (or both?) of Mengü Temür’s son, the khan Toqto’a (r. 690–712/1291–1312), was influential in restoring good relations with the Toluids. Toqto’a may also have been drawn into closer relations with Khanbaligh by the predicament of his ally Bayan, Qonichi’s son and successor, whose rival for the throne of Orda’s ulus was supported by Qaidu and Du’a. In 702/1303 Bayan sent envoys both to the Qaghan Temür and to the Ilkhan Ghazan to propose a grand coalition against the Central Asian Mongols, who in turn strove to prevent a junction between the forces of the Jochids and the Qaghan.

In 1304 Du’a persuaded Chapar to propose a general reconciliation within the Mongol world and to acknowledge the authority of the Qaghan Temür. Chapar’s approach met with a prompt and positive response, and the Ilkhan Öljeitü received an embassy from Temür, accompanied by envoys from Chapar, Du’a, Toqto’a, Orda’s ulus and other princes, and announcing the establishment of peace. But the new-found harmony rapidly dissolved, as we shall see, and no general peace was ever achieved again; even regional peace agreements tended to be short-lived. In 709/1309, following a succession struggle, the Chaghadayids renewed their submission to the qaghan. Yet an exchange in 713/1313 between representatives of the Chaghadayid khan Esen Buqa and one of the qaghan’s frontier commanders illustrates the self-confidence bred in the Chaghadayids’ officers by decades of resistance to the Yuan and by their dynasty’s role in destroying Chapar’s realm. The qaghan’s general reacted violently to the use of the term yarligh by Esen Buqa’s envoys to denote their master’s orders; it could apply, he shouted, to no order but the qaghan’s own; the princes’ orders were styled linkajī (Ch. lingzhi). ‘For us,’ the envoys retorted, ‘Esen Buqa stands in the qaghan’s place.’ Clearly the relationship between the qaghan and regional khans could not be expected to revert to where it had stood in 1259. This altercation heralded a decade-long war between the Chaghadayids and the Yuan, and on occasion also with their Ilkhanid allies. It was not until 723/1323 that Esen Buqa’s successor Köpek (c. 720–6/c. 1320–6) finally made peace with the qaghan and recognized his nominal authority.

Professor Kim has argued that the empire continued to be viewed as a unity even after 1260 and that the constituent khanates were not regarded, and did not see themselves, as independent. The Chinggisids indeed retained – or affected to retain – an undiminished sense of their common ancestry and political heritage. But whereas the two Toluid regimes observed consistently amicable relations, the attitude of the other regional khans ranged from outright opposition to the qaghan to a merely nominal recognition of his seniority. In the late 1330s al-‛Umarī, embarking on his account of the qaghan’s territories, felt obliged to emphasize that the dominions of his kinsmen lay outside his authority. He likened the qaghan’s position to that of a caliph, and commented that if confronted by any important matter they informed him but did not require his sanction.

The ‘Middle Empire’

It is worth pausing to reflect in particular on the situation and distinctive role of the Central Asian Mongol polity. Lying at the heart of the Mongol world, Chaghadai’s ulus came to be known as Dumdadu mongghol ulus, ‘the Middle Mongolian people/state’, a designation that Western European observers had perhaps picked up when they christened it the Medium Imperium (sometimes corrupted to the incongruous Imperium Medorum, ‘the Empire of the Medes’). Following the emergence of the Ilkhanate after 1260, the Chaghadayid state was potentially the greatest source of disruption, since it was now almost totally deprived of access to outside frontiers with non-Mongol powers. In his account of the quriltai convened by Qaidu in 1269, Rashīd al-Dīn makes the khan Baraq refer bitterly to ‘this shrunken ulus (hamīn mukhtaṣar ūlūs)’ and complain that it was both hemmed in by the more extensive lands of his kinsmen and under Qaidu’s thumb; by these means he secured Qaidu’s support for his bid to expand into Ilkhanid territory. Over forty years later, we find Baraq’s grandson, the khan Esen Buqa, apprehensive of being crushed between the Yuan and Ilkhanid forces and considering a pre-emptive attack on Ilkhanid Khurāsān as his only recourse.

The language of our sources suggests that internally, moreover, Chaghadai’s ulus was the least stable and the most volatile. Significantly, both Alughu, in the early 1260s, and Du’a, two decades later, are described as ‘gathering together’ the armies of Chaghadai. We should imagine Central Asia as a veritable reservoir of footloose princes and their followers, alert for new confederates and richer spoils: they included the numerous posterity of both Chaghadai and Ögödei, together with some descendants of both Möngke and Arigh Böke and others belonging to the line of Chinggis Khan’s brother Jochi Qasar. In the wake of Baraq’s failed invasion of Khurāsān and his death in 670/1271, the ulus of Chaghadai went through a period of crisis, and several princes abandoned it to enter the service of Qubilai or the Ilkhan Abagha. Notable among the former group were Alughu’s sons Chübei and Qaban, who spent the rest of their lives fighting for the Yuan; those who joined Abagha included the former khan Mubārak Shāh, a prince named Böjei and certain of Jochi Qasar’s descendants. It must be significant that apart from Baba no princes from the far less constricted Jochid territories are known to have taken refuge in the Ilkhanate (had they done so, Ilkhanid sources would assuredly have told us).

The activities of Qaidu, who according to Waṣṣāf fought as many as forty-one battles, whether with the qaghan’s forces or with others, and his sponsorship of the Chaghadayid Du’a (c. 681–706/1282 or 3–1307), Baraq’s son, who cooperated closely with him, introduced a more forward policy and the recovery of lost territory. But the state he had forged survived him by only a few years. His death and the succession of the weaker Chapar put an end to the alliance. In 705/1305, Du’a treacherously turned against Chapar in the name of his new overlord, the Qaghan Temür, inaugurating a war in Central Asia in which Du’a was supported by several Ögödeyid princes as well as by other members of Chaghadai’s line. The result was the dismemberment of Qaidu’s ulus to the advantage of both the Chaghadayid khan and the Qaghan. A number of princes, headed by Qaidu’s son Sarban, migrated into Ilkhanid Khurāsān and sought refuge under the Ilkhan Öljeitü.

Du’a has a claim to be regarded as the second founder of the Chaghadayid state. From his death until c. 1340 the succession was monopolized by his sons and grandsons, apart from a distant kinsman, Naliqo’a (c. 707–8/c. 1308–9), possibly a grandson of Chaghadai himself, who was regarded as a usurper by the adherents of Du’a’s line and was soon overthrown by Du’a’s son Köpek. When Köpek’s eldest surviving brother Esen Buqa was enthroned as khan (709–c. 720/1309–c. 1320), he united under his rule, in Waṣṣāf’s words, ‘the greater part of the empires of Qaidu and Du’a’; Talas, at one time Qaidu’s chief residence, was now Esen Buqa’s summer quarters. Yet although Waṣṣāf hails Esen Buqa’s accession as introducing a period of peace and repose in the ulus of Chaghadai, fresh tensions arose. Already Chapar, seeking to retrieve his position, had been worsted by Du’a’s sons (708/1309) and had taken refuge in China, where Temür’s successor Qaishan (reigned as Wuzong, 1307–11) granted him and his descendants land and an honorific title. Esen Buqa entrusted Köpek with an enormous territory in the west, namely Farghāna and Transoxiana, possibly in order to concentrate his own energies on the conflict with the qaghan’s forces. But a distant cousin and ally, Naliqo’a’s great-nephew Yasa’ur, whose encampment (yurt) lay near Samarqand and who no doubt resented Köpek’s new-found authority in Transoxiana, quarrelled violently with him, and an armed struggle ensued before Yasa’ur abandoned Transoxiana for Khurāsān in 716/1316 to throw himself on Öljeitü’s mercy.

A glance at the frontier with Orda’s ulus, to the north, brings home vividly how far the territory of these steppe polities shifted. The outcome of the early fourteenth-century civil war among Orda’s progeny, which was still raging in 712/1313, is uncertain.52 But in 705/1305 Chapar was able to make his headquarters in the vicinity of the Irtysh and the Altai; the former region, at least, had at one time been the kernel of Orda’s territory and may have been recently acquired. On the other hand, Rashīd al-Dīn had spoken of the territory of Talas and ‘Old Sayrām’ (formerly Isfījāb) as belonging to Qaidu but adjacent to the realm of Orda’s grandson Qonichi. By the middle decades of the fourteenth century the khans of Orda’s line had extended their authority over Jand, Barchinlighkent, Sighnāq and Sawrān; Bayan’s son, the khan Sasi Buqa, was buried in Sawrān in 720/1320–1 and his grandson, Īrazān, in 745/1344–5 at Sighnāq, where the rulers of this branch were striking coins by 768/1366–7. This marked shift in the centre of gravity of the Blue Horde may have begun in the era of Chaghadayid weakness in the 1270s and have accelerated during the struggle between Chapar and Du’a in the early fourteenth century.

Inter-Mongol conflicts and the imperial enterprise

The rivalries between Mongol powers effectively halted the growth of the empire in the west. Imperial expansion between 1229 and 1260 had focused the resources of the Chinggisids on the task of realizing the work begun by their revered ancestor – namely, bringing the known world into the yeke mongghol ulus. That period had not been free of tension, as is clear from the succession dispute of 1241–6 and, more conspicuously, that of 1250–1; but the more violent and more prolonged confrontations from 1260–1 onwards inaugurated a period of stasis. Berke’s invasion of Poland in 1259 and Hülegü’s invasion of Syria and Palestine in 1259–60 marked the last major attacks on independent powers by forces representing the entire Chinggisid dynasty. The growth of Hülegü’s fledgling Ilkhanate was effectively at an end following the defeats at Mamlūk hands late in 1260. Of the invasions of Syria launched by the Ilkhans, in 1281, 1299, 1300 and 1303, the second alone was successful, when Ghazan inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Mamlūk army and overran the country; but even then the Mongol forces withdrew after a matter of weeks.

The Ilkhanid pasturelands south of the Caucasus were vulnerable to the Jochid forces; those of Khurāsān (notably the meadows of Shabūrghān and the Bādghīs) and Māzandarān, to the Mongols of Central Asia. Not for nothing did Hülegü and his successors spend more time in both regions than in any other part of their dominions; and even when the Ilkhan in person was not in the east, his son or future successor tended to be stationed there as viceroy of Khurāsān and Māzandarān – Abagha on Hülegü’s behalf, Arghun for the latter part of Abagha’s reign and under his uncle Tegüder Aḥmad, Ghazan from 683/1284 under Arghun and Gaikhatu, Öljeitü throughout the reign of his brother Ghazan, and Öljeitü’s son, the young Abū Sa‛īd, for a few years prior to his accession.

Abagha’s envoys at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), seeking Western cooperation against the Mamlūks, blamed his previous failure to move against Egypt on the fact that his empire was surrounded by the mightiest enemies. Those enemies chose their moment with care. When Chaghadayid forces raided Fārs in 700/1301, they were exploiting Ghazan’s absence on campaign in Syria. In pursuit of their policy of containing the Ilkhanate, the Mamlūk Sultans were in frequent contact with the khans of the Golden Horde, and sometimes with Qaidu and the Chaghadayids also. On occasions the Ilkhans must have experienced the same sense of constriction as did the Chaghadayids. An informant from Transoxiana in 715/1315 told Öljeitü that Esen Buqa and Köpek, Özbeg of the Golden Horde and the Mamlūk Sultan al-Nāṣir Muḥammad b. Qalāwūn had formed a coalition against him, with a view to partitioning Iran among themselves; though in the event the man was denounced as a liar and a spy and imprisoned in Tabrīz gaol.

Only in the Far East, under Qubilai, was the momentum of expansion maintained for a time against external powers. But apart from those princes who had entered the Qaghan’s service or those who, like the Ilkhans, maintained cordial relations with him from a distance, the other Chinggisid lines had no share in these triumphs or the resulting access of fresh spoils. As the imperial dynasty turned in upon itself, conflict between the uluses over frontier territories threatened to absorb the energies that had hitherto been directed against unsubdued and defiant states. The external advances dried up that would have yielded new appanages for the next generation. Prior to 1259, admittedly, not every prince had received an appanage; but thereafter the pool of grazing-lands, revenues and human capital dwindled in relation to the number of aspiring Chinggisids. Princes and noyans, with their followers, might accordingly be readier to desert their khan for the prospect of greater rewards from one of his hostile neighbours, and in the act of doing so they sometimes perpetrated considerable damage as a parting shot. When relatively long-distance movements of this sort had occurred in the era of the unitary empire, it was in response to the decision of a quriltai and the qaghan’s fiat; now they were unpredictable and unregulated.

The Era of Inter-Mongol Warfare II

The Toluid Civil War was a war of succession fought between Kublai Khan and his younger brother, Ariq Böke, from 1260 to 1264. Möngke Khan died in 1259 with no declared successor, precipitating infighting between members of the Tolui family line for the title of Great Khan that escalated to a civil war. The Toluid Civil War, and the wars that followed it (such as the Berke–Hulagu war and the Kaidu–Kublai war), weakened the authority of the Great Khan over the Mongol Empire and split the empire into autonomous khanates.

Compounding the problems of warfare between different Mongol khanates, and of the curtailment of resources, were contests for the throne of one ulus or another, as a khan or his henchmen tried to confine the succession within the segmentary lineage of his immediate family while a rival party upheld the principle of seniority. The sources highlight discord of this sort within the Ilkhanate in 1282–4 (between uncle and nephew), within the ulus of Orda at the turn of the thirteenth century, over the succession to Qaidu in 1303 (when his throne was claimed by a grandson or great-grandson of Güyüg), and within Chaghadai’s ulus in c. 707–8/c. 1308–9 (when Naliqo’a, a descendant of Büri, displaced Du’a’s line). In 1284 and 1295, Ilkhanid Iran, commonly viewed today as the most stable of the three westernmost Mongol states, was the scene of an armed struggle for the throne.

Admittedly, the Chinggisids had not lost sight of the goal of world-conquest even after 1260. In the very context of Berke’s diplomatic exchanges with Sultan Baybars, a Mamlūk author makes him deprecate the fact that Mongols were now falling to the swords of fellow Mongols and add – somewhat ingenuously – ‘had we remained united, we could have conquered the world’. Indeed, Anne Broadbridge adduces evidence that Berke viewed his ally Baybars as a subject ruler. The Ilkhans, smarting from the reverse at ‛Ayn Jālūt and nursing the conviction that their Mamlūk antagonists were nothing more than the Mongols’ runaway Qipchaq slaves, appear no less committed to expansion. In a letter to Baybars in 667/1268 Abagha employed the traditional expressions il/el (‘peace’) for the Sultan’s submission and yaghi (‘rebellion’) in the event that Baybars continued to reject Mongol imperial authority. Abagha also made the dubious statement that a quriltai of Chinggisid princes (‘all of us older and younger brothers’) had recognized the qaghan’s authority. This seemingly formed part of Ilkhanid diplomatic stock-in-trade. Abagha’s envoys at Lyons in 1274 spoke of a recent peace (otherwise unrecorded) between the Ilkhan and his Mongol neighbours. And his successor, Tegüder Aḥmad, in his second letter requiring the submission of the Mamlūk Qalāwūn in 682/1283, reinforced the message by alleging that the Mongol rulers were once more at peace. Ghazan would make the same claim in a proclamation to the Mamlūk military in Syria in 699/1299–1300. On these latter two occasions, a spurious Mongol consensus was being used as a covert threat that the Ilkhans were now free to turn against their external enemies.

Peace proved, at best, ephemeral. In 699/1299–1300 an observer in Mamlūk Egypt commented that all the monarchs in the east and the west alike were at war; and the Mongol dominions were no exception. In a letter of 1305 to the French King Philip IV, Öljeitü hailed the reconciliation of 1304 as laying to rest quarrels that had raged for forty-five years. He concluded with veiled threats against those who persisted in their hostility towards either the Mongols or the Franks, and the idea of Mongol world-rule was understandably muted. His fellow Chinggisids, when making peace in the previous year, and Özbeg, the khan of the Golden Horde, in relation to Western European monarchs during the 1330s, had fewer inhibitions about using the rhetoric of world-domination. But during the decades following Möngke’s death, that rhetoric more often than not had evoked an ideal to which Mongol princes could only pay lip-service.

Jochid ambitions and Ilkhanid territory

The khans of Jochi’s line never relinquished their claims on the rich grazing-grounds in Azerbaijan and Arrān, which had been appropriated by Hülegü. Not that the Jochids were consistently aggressive. Rashīd al-Dīn assures us that after Mengü Temür made peace with Abagha (doubtless in 669/1270, when he sent envoys to congratulate the Ilkhan on his victory over the Chaghadayid khan Baraq), there were no hostilities until 687/1288; he is mistaken, since we know from other sources of a large-scale attack in 678/1279–80. Again, the same author tells us that since the invasion of 687/1288 peace had reigned down to the time that he wrote, though he ascribes it to the Jochids’ weakness and speaks of their friendship as merely an outward display; and elsewhere, in any case, he reports yet another attack in 689/1290. Toqto’a sent envoys to make a truce with Gaikhatu in 693/1294, but since they also made ‘all sorts of requests’ it is possible that the purpose was merely to renew Jochid demands for the return of territory south of the Caucasus. On the other hand, Waṣṣāf evidently regarded Gaikhatu’s reign as something of a watershed, since he associates it with a resumption of diplomatic contacts between the two powers. The lack of incursions south of the Caucasus and the absence of any recorded embassies from Toqto’a to the Mamlūk Sultan prior to 1304 are perhaps due to the conflict with Noghai and hence a need to avoid provoking the Ilkhan. During the latter stages of the struggle, both sides courted Ghazan, but – so Rashīd al-Dīn smugly informs us – the Ilkhan nevertheless resolutely refrained from intervening for his own advantage. A Mamlūk author claims that Toqto’a had made peace with Ghazan, presumably to cover his flank.

Charles Halperin argued vigorously that conquests beyond the Caucasus were the primary concern of the khans of the Golden Horde, far outstripping, that is, the attractions of the economically less desirable Rus´ principalities. If anything, Jochid diplomacy and military activity would grow more menacing in the fourteenth century. Toqto’a reiterated the habitual Jochid demands in 702/1302–3, and they were revived on Özbeg’s accession in 712/1312.85 The latter would personally head two major incursions into Azerbaijan, in 719/1319, during Abū Sa‛īd’s minority, and in 736/1336, following that monarch’s death; in 722/1322 we find him allied with the Chaghadayid khan Köpek, who was then attacking the Ilkhanate. In 758/1357, some years after the demise of the Ilkhanate, Özbeg’s son Janibeg invaded Azerbaijan, and as late as the 1380s the khan Toqtamish was still staking the time-honoured Jochid claim to this region.

In an incomplete list of those borderlands that were wasted and whose populations were killed or fled elsewhere, Rashīd al-Dīn mentions the region between Darband and Shīrwān. We are told very little, in fact, about the damage that Jochid-Ilkhanid warfare inflicted on this territory, though it is worth noting that, during the first few decades of the Ilkhanate, command of the incursions from Darband tended to be entrusted to Jochid princes whose fathers’ deaths at the hands of Hülegü’s forces gave them a particularly strong personal motive for vengeance: Noghai, the son of Tutar, in 660–1/1262 and 663/1265, and Tama Toqta, a son of Balagha (Balaqan), in 687/1288. On the other hand, Abagha’s construction of a barrier (sibe, sübe) and deep ditch north of the Kur river in 663/1265 possibly limited the Jochid forces’ access to Azerbaijan and Arrān, further south, and reduced their capacity to inflict damage.

The borderlands between the Central Asian Mongols and the Yuan

For twenty years or so Qaidu and Du’a proved capable of stemming the advance of the Yuan. Almaligh itself, lost in 1271 to the army commanded by the Qaghan’s son Nomoghan, was recovered a few years later. The Uighur iduq-qut, who owed allegiance to Qubilai, was forced to abandon Beshbaligh and take up residence first at Qaraqocho, at Qāmul (Qomul; Hami) and then at Yongchang in Gansu; he was only briefly restored at Qaraqocho in 1313. Qaidu and the Chaghadayids appear to have appointed their own clients as iduq-quts. In passages that seemingly relate to his overland journey to China (c. 1274), Marco Polo describes Kāshghar and Khotan as still subject to the qaghan (whereas Yārkand was already in Qaidu’s power). At any rate, Qubilai’s garrisons evacuated both towns in the late 1280s. Qaidu did not, it seems, go so far as to occupy them (although Waṣṣāf includes Kāshghar among his territories), but these regions were in Chaghadayid possession by the second decade of the fourteenth century. Qubilai had thus forfeited control over important Muslim settlements in Central Asia. The seemingly inaccessible Muslim kingdom of Badakhshān, too, which recognized the qaghan’s suzerainty, was being repeatedly harassed by Qaidu’s forces by the turn of the century. In 716/1316, when we find a contingent from Badakhshān collaborating with a Chaghadayid invasion of Khurāsān, it was evidently under Chaghadayid overlordship.

Uighūristān and other lands between Qaidu’s dominions and those of the qaghan are the second region that Rashīd al-Dīn singles out as subject to devastation in the inter-Mongol wars. The Muslim populations of these territories undoubtedly suffered in the course of repeated fighting. In 1266 Baraq plundered Khotan, then governed by one of Qubilai’s lieutenants, and Du’a maintained the pressure. The anonymous life of Mar Yahballāhā claims that Hoqu (a younger son of Güyüg) had slaughtered thousands of people in Khotan just before the Catholicos passed through the region in c. 1274 and that the caravan routes had been interrupted; Yahballāhā and Rabban Ṣawma found Kāshghar, which had been recently sacked by Qubilai’s enemies (doubtless Hoqu again), bereft of inhabitants. The Yuan government took measures in 1274 to provide comfort and assistance to Khotan, Yārkand and Kāshghar. Hoqu had been pushed into the camp of Qubilai’s enemies by an unprovoked attack on the part of Nomoghan’s colleague, the general Hantum Noyan.

The labile frontiers in eastern Iran

Rashīd al-Dīn’s list of devastated territories omits the long frontier between Iran and the Chaghadayids. Here there was no sibe to hamper invading forces, which may well be the reason why one of al-‛Umarī’s informants assured him that a single Chaghadayid trooper was worth a hundred from the Qipchaq steppe and that attacks from beyond the Caucasus provoked less alarm in the Ilkhanate than did those by the Chaghadayids in the east. As on their eastern frontier, so also did Qaidu and his allies make notable advances to the south, chiefly at the expense of the Ilkhans.

In Hülegü’s time, the Oxus had divided the Chaghadayid dominions from the Ilkhanate. Although Baraq’s invasion of Khurāsān in 668/1270 failed, the Ilkhan Abagha was dissuaded from sending a force to apprehend the recalcitrant malik of Herat in 674/1275–6, on the grounds that Khurāsān was still a wasteland as a consequence of Baraq’s attack and was in no state to support such a campaign. The Ilkhanate’s eastern territories were also open to attacks by the Negüderis or Qara’unas, based in present-day Afghanistan. The Persian sources testify to their turbulence; for Sayfī their depredations were proverbial. Abagha attempted to exert indirect authority over them through refugee Chaghadayids such as the former khan Mubārak Shāh. The policy failed: Mubārak Shāh proved a fickle subordinate, meeting his death in an attack on Kirmān in 674/1275–6; and when Böjei’s son ‛Abd-Allāh, who commanded the Negüderi bands in the Ghazna region a few years later, responded to an overture from the rebel Sultan Ḥajjāj of Kirmān, he was acting on behalf of Qaidu and the Chaghadayids. An audacious Negüderi raid on Fārs and Kirmān in the winter of 677/1278–9, doubtless provoked by this appeal, in turn prompted Abagha’s expedition to Khurāsān and Sīstān in the following year. Abagha drafted certain Qara’unas bands into Ilkhanid service and transported them to central and western Iran. But their confrères in eastern Iran and Afghanistan continued to pose a threat to the territories of the Ilkhan’s clients, raiding Kirmān again three years later; Waṣṣāf says that the people of Shīrāz lived in fear of their attacks every winter until the end of Arghun’s reign (690/1291). When one of Abū l-Fidā’s informants told him that Hurmuz was ruined as a result of Tatar incursions, he must have been referring to the Negüderis.

According to Waṣṣāf, Qaidu stationed his son Sarban south of the upper Oxus. No date is given, but already in c. 1290 we find Sarban based near Shabūrghān and Du’a’s noyan Yasa’ur in the regions of Balkh and Bādghīs. A bid by the Central Asian Mongols to control the Negüderis of the Ghazna region through the renegade Ilkhanid noyan Nawrūz failed when he turned against Qaidu and then in 694/1295 submitted to Ghazan. They succeeded, even so, in bringing the majority of the Negüderis within their orbit. In the mid-to-late 1290s Du’a summoned the Negüderi leader ‛Abd-Allāh, himself a Chaghadayid prince, and replaced him with his own eldest son Qutlugh Qocha. Rashīd al-Dīn speaks of Qutlugh Qocha in terms that suggest he virtually ruled the ulus jointly with his father. He enjoyed overall command of various princes at the head of forces totalling five tümens and was master of a considerable tract between the Oxus and the Arghandāb, including, if Waṣṣāf is to be believed, even Merv.

From their advance bases, the Central Asian Mongols launched frequent attacks on the Ilkhan’s territories and inflicted greater damage. Waṣṣāf hints that Qutlugh Qocha benefited from the defection of Ilkhanid troops, possibly attracted by the prospect of rich plunder from his raids on India. When the forces of Du’a and Qaidu, guided by the rebel noyan Nawrūz, entered the province in 690/1291, says Rashīd al-Dīn, the killing, pillage and destruction they perpetrated defied description. Although Nīshāpūr successfully resisted a siege, the villages were raided and many captives carried off; the shrine at Ṭūs (Mashhad) was also plundered. In 695/1295–6 Du’a and Sarban profited from Ghazan’s departure from Khurāsān to subject that province and Māzandarān to a campaign of devastation lasting for eight months. Malik Fakhr al-Dīn of Herat offered the depredations of Qutlugh Qocha’s forces as a reason for failing to send the Ilkhan the stipulated tribute. During Ghazan’s absence on campaign in Syria in 700/1301, they ravaged Kirmān and Fārs, penetrating as far west as Tustar (Shustar). The winter of 702/1302–3 witnessed an attack on Khurāsān by Sarban and his lieutenants, whose attempt to effect a junction with Qutlugh Qocha’s army, however, miscarried badly. Such incursions must have been responsible for slowing any recovery from the campaigns of Chinggis Khan. According to Ḥamd-Allāh Mustawfī, the town of Jurjān was still ruined and sparsely populated in his own day; and it was surely Chaghadayid attacks that Marco Polo had in mind when he observed that Balkh had been ravaged many times by ‘the Tartars and other peoples’ and that its fine mansions still lay in ruins. Significant recovery may have been delayed until the early fourteenth century, when the wazir ‛Alā’ al-Dīn Hindū Faryūmadī is said to have restored Khurāsān to its former splendour.

Although Qutlugh Qocha was mortally wounded during his return from an invasion of India in 699/1299–1300, his command remained in Chaghadayid hands: the Negüderis were ruled first by his lieutenant Taraghai until 705/1305 and then in turn by two other sons of Du’a, Esen Buqa and (after the latter’s accession as khan of Chaghadai’s ulus in 709/1309) It-qul. It-qul was apparently succeeded by Qutlugh Qocha’s son Dā’ūd Qocha, who was expelled by Öljeitü’s forces in 712/1312 at the instigation of some Negüderi chiefs. Whether the retaliatory expedition sent by Esen Buqa reinstated the prince, we never learn. But in 724/1324 Du’a’s youngest son, the future khan Tarmashirin, crossed the Oxus and seized the Ghazna-Kābul region, only to be defeated in 726/1326 by the Ilkhan Abū Sa‘īd’s forces under Ḥasan b. Choban. Ḥamd-Allāh Mustawfī paints a grim picture of the outrages committed in the city of Ghazna by these Ilkhanid troops, acting though they did on behalf of a Muslim monarch: they destroyed the tomb of Maḥmūd of Ghazna and made no distinction between the citizens and the military. According to Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Ghazna was again in the hands of Tarmashirin, now himself khan and a Muslim, in the 1330s, but was mostly in ruins. It may be that the devastated condition of the territory extending for twenty days’ journey in the vicinity of Ghazna was in part the work of this Ilkhanid campaign, although al-‛Umarī attributes it to the conflict between the Chaghadayids and the Delhi Sultan.

Transoxiana, Turkestan and Khwārazm

Nor had the Chaghadayids’ other lands been immune from savage attack. Writing in (or at least of) the period prior to the death of the Qaghan Möngke, Juwaynī had contrasted the restoration of Transoxiana to a flourishing condition with the dismal fate of Khurāsān. This happy state of affairs did not last. Rashīd al-Dīn says that the territory of ‘Turkestan’ was devastated successively by Alughu, by his sons Chübei and Qaban, by Baraq (in all probability, Baraq’s sons are intended) and, most recently, by Bayan of the Blue Horde. In the course of the civil wars of 1260–4, as we have seen, Alughu’s troops slaughtered elements representing Berke’s interests in Samarqand and Bukhārā; among other victims was a son of the celebrated Shaykh Sayf al-Dīn Bākharzī. Then in 671/1272–3, on the advice of his chief minister, the Ṣāḥib-dīwān Shams al-Dīn Juwaynī, and in order to profit from the upheavals north of the Oxus as Qaidu tried to assert his control over the sons of Baraq and of Alughu, the Ilkhan Abagha’s forces invaded Transoxiana. They made several attacks on Kish and Nakhshab. When the people of Bukhārā rejected the option of accompanying them back to Khurāsān, the city was subjected to a slaughter, beginning on 7 Rajab/28 January 1273 and lasting for seven days; the number of those killed is given as 10,000, and the prisoners – boys and girls – carried off are put at 50,000. In reprisal for Mas‛ūd Beg’s disdainful attitude towards the Ṣāḥib-dīwān during his embassy to Iran some years before, the college he had built was burned down. Chübei and Qaban, in pursuit of the Ilkhan’s retreating troops, recovered half the captives, though whether they were returned to their homes we are not told. Only three years later, in 674/1275–6, Chübei and Qaban, possibly acting on Qubilai’s behalf, themselves subjected the region of Bukhārā and Samarqand to an orgy of killing and looting, with the result that it lay desolate for seven years.

According to Mīrzā Ḥaydar Dughlāt, the nomads of Mughalistān were known to their more sedentarized western neighbours as Jata/Chete – usually translated as ‘bandits’ and perhaps bearing the connotation of ‘freebooters’, like the word qazaq (whence ‘Kazakh’), which surfaces as the name of a new and powerful grouping around Ḥaydar’s own time. We first encounter the term Jata in Jamāl al-Qarshī’s account of a raid on Kāshghar by ‘the accursed Jatā’iyya’. This episode is undated but must have occurred at a time when the town was in theory under Qaidu’s protection; it may have been the above-mentioned attack by Hoqu. At any rate, the marauders killed a good many people, including members of the ‛ālim class, and drove off 5,000 more as slaves. These Mughal nomads were presumably the ‘infidels’ whose repeated attacks on the villages of Transoxiana, says Ḥamd-Allāh Mustawfī, obliged the local inhabitants to go about armed.

The Era of Inter-Mongol Warfare III

The Toluid Civil War was a war of succession fought between Kublai Khan and his younger brother, Ariq Böke, from 1260 to 1264. Möngke Khan died in 1259 with no declared successor, precipitating infighting between members of the Tolui family line for the title of Great Khan that escalated to a civil war. The Toluid Civil War, and the wars that followed it (such as the Berke–Hulagu war and the Kaidu–Kublai war), weakened the authority of the Great Khan over the Mongol Empire and split the empire into autonomous khanates.

The dominions of Qaidu and the Chaghadayids

The conflict in Central Asia between the supporters of Du’a and of Chapar in 705/1305–6 was a brutal affair. Usually the details in our sources relate to the plundering and slaughter of nomadic armies – actions that in themselves, of course, had grave consequences for the economic prosperity of a region. But occasionally we are given a glimpse of unbridled attacks upon a sedentary population, as when, following a victory over Chapar’s brother Shāh Oghul in 705/1305–6, Du’a’s supporters, headed by the Chaghadayid prince Yasa’ur, laid waste the districts of Talas, Yangī, Kenjek and Chigil, tormenting the inhabitants, driving off livestock and setting light to anything they could not take with them. Waṣṣāf wrote that the whole of Turkestan and Transoxiana had been rendered desolate by the warring of the princes, the concentration and movement of troops, and the destruction of dwellings. Merchants ceased to travel, while headmen and cultivators were ground down by the requisitioning of provisions and levies of grain, and many folk had emigrated.

With the outbreak of conflict between Esen Buqa and Köpek, on the one hand, and their kinsman Yasa’ur, on the other, Transoxiana was once again subjected to a harrying. In 713–14/1314, prior to Yasa’ur’s submission to the Ilkhan Öljeitü, his troops sacked Samarqand, Sāghraj, Kish, Nakhshab, Kūfīn and other towns; Bukhārā and Khujand avoided the same fate only through the good offices of Shaykh Badr al-Dīn Mandānī. The notables from the stricken cities contrived to escape to Khwārazm, but Yasa’ur’s forces drove a vast number of the populace across the Oxus (rendering it hard to share Qāshānī’s confidence that the devastation occurred without the prince’s knowledge or consent). In Khurāsān their sufferings were considerable. Continued hostilities with Köpek obliged Yasa’ur to move them southwards from an initial camping-ground in the Murghāb region into the territory of Herat, with the result that as many as 100,000 souls allegedly perished from the cold or from starvation. Unsurprisingly, Yasa’ur has been characterized as a champion of nomadic interests and one impervious to the needs of the sedentary population.

Khwārazm also suffered periodic devastation. At the time of Alughu’s assault on Jochid Transoxiana in the early 1260s, some of his forces carried the war into Khwārazm. And when Abagha’s army invaded Transoxiana in 671/1273, a number of his commanders were sent against Khwārazm, conducting a general massacre (qatl-i ‛āmm) in Gurgānj (Ürgench), Khiva and Qarāqash. In Jumādā I 715/August 1315, Baba Oghul (a descendant of Chinggis Khan’s brother Jochi Qasar), who had earlier abandoned Chapar for the Jochids, deserted them in turn for the Ilkhan Öljeitü. Having repelled an attack by the governor of Khwārazm, Qutlugh Temür, he subjected the entire province to a campaign of devastation that is graphically described by Qāshānī, plundering several major towns, notably Hazārasp, Kāt and Khiva, committing numerous atrocities and carrying off 50,000 captives. Although he was relieved of his prisoners in a surprise attack by Yasa’ur, they arrived back home in a wretched state. Öljeitü responded to Özbeg’s incensed protests by executing Baba in the presence of the Jochid envoy, but – understandably, given that Baba had acted without his authority – offered no other form of reparation.

The impact of internecine conflict

Instances of devastation, then, during the numerous wars within the Mongols’ ranks, are not far to seek. To assess the magnitude of the damage is a different matter; nor is it easy to determine how far these conflicts prolonged the economic instability inflicted by the earlier campaigns of conquest. We are too often confronted by generalization – and suspect generalization at that. Rashīd al-Dīn tells us that on account of Qaidu’s ‘rebellion’ many Mongols and Tājīks had been killed and flourishing regions laid waste; he further claims that through the assistance given to Qaidu and Du’a by the renegade Nawrūz much damage was done to Khurāsān and innocent Muslims were killed. But as an Ilkhanid minister he had every reason to stress the adverse consequences of Qaidu’s activities (or, following the downfall of Nawrūz, of that noyan’s earlier disloyalty) for the Toluid cause. And how many times did a town have to be sacked, or an entire region devastated, before recovery became an impossibility? It is difficult to repress a nagging scepticism.

The numbers involved in the attacks by Mongol potentates on their neighbours and rivals are an inadequate gauge of destructive capacity. Often suspiciously large, they doubtless represent the total strength notionally available to a ruler (bearing in mind that all males over fourteen, at the very least, were warriors) rather than an army on a particular campaign. Thus one version of Marco Polo’s book has Hülegü and Berke do battle in 1262 with 300,000 men each. The figure recalls Rashīd al-Dīn’s epic narrative concerning ‛Ayn Jālūt, in which Kedbuqa defiantly tells his Mamlūk captors that Hülegü has 300,000 horsemen and could therefore afford to lose him, and al-‛Umarī’s statement that in its heyday the Ilkhanate could field thirty tümens. The same reservation applies to the figures that have come down to us for the Golden Horde armies. Insofar as they have any value, it can only be as a reliable indication that the Jochid ulus could draw on larger reserves of manpower than its neighbours. Al-‛Umarī indeed confirms that the Golden Horde’s forces greatly outnumbered those of the Chaghadayids, while Hayton of Gorighos attributes 400,000 and 600,000 men to Chapar and Toqto’a respectively. All these totals pale alongside the incredible claim by an informant of al-‛Umarī’s that when Toqto’a mustered one man in ten for a campaign against Esen Buqa, this produced an army of 250,000. Whether the Jochid totals include the auxiliary forces of client princes, we cannot know; Toqto’a was certainly accompanied on campaign by Rus´ soldiers.

We seem to have more modest, and hence more likely, figures for the campaigns by the Central Asian Mongols. Baraq is said to have entered Khurāsān with 150,000 men in 668/1270, and Du’a with 100,000 men in 695/1295; Sarban and his confederates moved on Ṭūs with 50,000 men seven years later; the force with which Köpek and his Chaghadayid colleagues invaded Khurāsān in 713/1313 is variously set at 40,000, 50,000 or 60,000 horse (although at one point Sayfī gives a more precise figure of 56,000); and on the eve of his downfall Chapar allegedly planned to face the Yuan army at the head of twenty tümens (doubtless including the troops of his supposed ally Du’a). Conceivably all the figures cited above were originally expressed in tümens. We should therefore remember that, as noted earlier, the tümen only notionally comprised 10,000 men and such a unit at any given time would have been reduced by campaigning.

Too much uncertainty attaches to the circumstances in which towns were deserted. In the early seventeenth century it was believed that Balāsāghūn had been covered by sand since soon after Chinggis Khan’s time. The fact that Ḥamd-Allāh Mustawfī has nothing to say about the town and describes the region’s inhabitants as predominantly nomads in his own day157 may mean that it was among the places cleared in advance of Hülegü’s passage. Yet Rashīd al-Dīn’s statement that in his time there were a great many villages in the region between the Ili and the Chu rivers, where Qaidu was buried, suggests that not far away agriculture was still flourishing after 1300. Supposedly eyewitness Muslim travellers, too, afford us scant help. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa describes Samarqand and Bukhārā as largely in ruins. Travelling through the Chaghadayid-Ilkhanid borderlands, he notices evidence of considerable destruction, but attributes it to Chinggis Khan’s forces over a century earlier. One wonders whether it resulted, in reality, from more recent strife. In any case, the fact that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa describes Balkh as in ruins when, according to the Timurid author Sharaf al-Dīn ‛Alī Yazdī, the city had been restored by the Chaghadayid khan Köpek, aggravates the doubts surrounding his true itinerary.

Ibn Faḍl-Allāh al-‛Umarī, drawing, in all likelihood, on information obtained in the 1330s, sketches another picture of desolation:

I was told by someone who passed through its [sc. Turkestan’s] countryside and travelled through its villages, ‘There remain of its settlements nothing but traces of their location and dilapidated ruins. You see in the distance a settlement with impressive buildings and verdant surroundings, and are cheered by the expectation of finding there congenial inhabitants. But when you arrive, you find the said buildings empty of people and inhabitants other than tent-dwellers and herdsmen. There is no sowing or tillage. Its greenery is that of pastures which God created. The vegetation there is of the steppe: no sower has sown it nor cultivator planted it.’

Impressions of this kind defy evaluation. Which parts of Turkestan did al-‛Umarī’s informant see? Was this wilderness a direct consequence of the conflicts of Chapar’s era, or of the warfare between Qaidu and Qubilai? Or did it date back several decades, to a time when agricultural land was converted to pasturage? The simple answer is that we cannot know.

Nomadic khans, their military and their sedentary subjects

The foregoing section has been concerned with the way in which Mongol princes treated the subjects and territories of their enemies. Let us now consider the policies they adopted towards their own, which we might reasonably expect to have been more restrained. There was undeniably a marked variation in social and economic conditions between the two Mongol polities centred on the major regions of sedentary culture, namely Yuan China and Ilkhanid Iran, and those dominated by a pastoralist nomad economy. Yet two qualifications should be made. In the first place, throughout the Mongol world Chinggisid rulers and their military continued to follow a nomadic lifestyle well into the fourteenth century, and it was not merely invading armies that inflicted devastation on the agricultural regions. The Ilkhans themselves still adhered to the customary seasonal movements, following, as Charles Melville has demonstrated, a rhythm of migration between summer and winter quarters right down to Öljeitü’s reign. And secondly, in many cases Mongol rulers whose territories were predominantly steppelands were by no means hostile towards urban culture.

The needs and aspirations of nomadic cavalry forces certainly conflicted with agrarian interests.164 In the spring of 1264, Arigh Böke’s troops, quartered in the Almaligh region, were obliged to feed their mounts with wheat instead of barley; in consequence, many of the townsfolk of Almaligh starved to death.165 During Mubārak Shāh’s brief reign over Chaghadai’s ulus, Rashīd al-Dīn tells us, the military continued to pillage and harass the populace, though the khan – a Muslim – reportedly prevented them from oppressing the peasants. His successor Baraq twice hatched the design of plundering Transoxiana, but was prevented by Qaidu on the first occasion and dissuaded by Mas‛ūd Beg on the second. He nevertheless caused a serious dearth by requisitioning wheat as well as barley to fatten up his horses in preparation for his invasion of Khurāsān.

In Iran the Ilkhans’ own forces, perhaps on the move to repulse an enemy, damaged sedentary land. Anecdotes in the Ṣafwat al-ṣafā of Tawakkulī Ibn Bazzāz, an account of the life of Shaykh Ṣafī’ al-Dīn Ardabīlī (d. 735/1334), testify to the damage done to agrarian districts and the peasantry by the passage of troops. It seems to have been important to Rashīd al-Dīn that on the long journey from Azerbaijan to Khurāsān to do battle with Baraq, Abagha had forbidden his men to damage a single stalk, and that during their return march they refrained from injuring a single creature; but Egyptian authors (not necessarily a dispassionate source either, in this context) insist that his cavalry grazed their mounts in cultivated fields. So too, it was the Ilkhan’s troops who on occasions allowed their zeal to carry them away when conducting a punitive campaign against unruly subjects, like the Türkmen groups in the Konya region of Anatolia in the early 1280s, since which time, says an anonymous author writing over eight decades later, it had remained ‘virtually uninhabited (hamchunīn kharāb)’. During his operations as governor of Khurāsān against the rebel Nawrūz, according to Rashīd al-Dīn, Ghazan forbade his soldiery to allow their livestock into fields or orchards, or consume the grain, or treat the peasants with violence, which (whether true or not) suggests that these abuses were common. His decree for the allocation of iqṭā‛s (land-grants) to the Mongol soldiery referred to their habit of damaging the provinces when setting out on campaign.

There was also periodic conflict between the Ilkhan’s sedentary subjects and nomadic groups introduced by the Mongols at the time of the conquest. This category includes the tamma forces that had been quartered within the regions since Hülegü’s era, or even earlier, and had virtually acquired a title to their pasturelands through long usage. By the early fourteenth century some of these provincial Mongol armies had been transmuted into artificial tribal formations that took their name from their original commander (much as the residue of the Jochid troops had regrouped in eastern Iran at an earlier date to form the Negüderis): the Jurma’īs of Fārs and Kirmān, for example, whose nucleus was the force led by a certain Jurma, or the Ūghānīs, initially a thousand on the frontier of Kirmān commanded by Ughan of the Jalayir. Although Jurma’īs, having intermingled with the local village population, were caught up and enslaved in the Negüderi raid of 677/1278–9, and although they and the Ūghānīs for some days put up a spirited defence against a Chaghadayid invasion in 700/1301 (above, pp. 197–8), friction also readily arose between these nomadic troops and the sedentary population. A local chronicler speaks of the iniquities that the Ūghānīs perpetrated against ‘the warm regions and the cold’ in the 1280s, and they and the Jurma’īs were still plaguing Kirmān in the post-Ilkhanid period, when the new Muzaffarid rulers were called on to check their depredations. A fifteenth-century poet preserves the laments of the people of Abīward, in Khurāsān, regarding their oppression by the Mongols of the Ja’ūn-i Qurbān.

Responsibility for damage to agricultural land in Iran also lies with outside pastoralist groups technically subject to the Ilkhans’ own authority. Waṣṣāf describes the Qara’unas/Negüderi bands who submitted to Abagha in Khurāsān in 677–8/1278–9 and entered his service as ‘like demons rather than humans and the most brazen of the Mongols’, and says that plundering was their customary activity. These Ilkhanid Qara’unas wrought havoc in the civil war between Tegüder Aḥmad and Arghun, when they devastated the Dāmghān region, and again in the upheavals towards the end of Arghun’s reign. A band led by Dānishmand Bahādur laid waste the Juwayn district in 689/1290. In 698/1299 another Qara’unas thousand, under a certain Buqa, abandoned its quarters near Ṭārum and headed east to rejoin the Negüderis, ravaging the borders of Yazd and Kirmān.

Further nomadic groups accompanied fugitive Chinggisids seeking fresh pasturelands and offering their services as auxiliaries. Following Chapar’s defeat by Du’a, several princes abandoned Central Asia. Chapar himself, as we saw, sought asylum in the Yuan dominions. Others took refuge in the territories of the Ilkhan Öljeitü. First was a group numbering 30,000 and headed by Chapar’s brother Sarban, Mingqan, a grandson of Arigh Böke, and Temür, of Jochi Qasar’s line, who entered Khurāsān together early in 706/the summer of 1306. Later, in the summer of 708/1308, the Chaghadayid Dhū l-Qarnayn too entered Khurāsān to seek fresh camping-grounds from the Ilkhan. Supervising this influx of successive nomadic groups, and their absorption, cannot have been easy. Since Sarban, Temür and Dhū l-Qarnayn all died shortly after crossing the Oxus, the province was possibly spared a problem of the scale that it would experience in the next decade. This was the responsibility of Yasa’ur, who, accompanied by various Ögödeyid princes, had been settled in Khurāsān by Öljeitü but who then fomented trouble during Abū Sa‛īd’s minority, trying to subject to himself local dynasts, including the maliks of Herat and Sīstān. In the course of these struggles, Khurāsān and Māzandarān suffered considerable devastation. Yasa’ur was overthrown in 720/1320 by his old enemy Köpek, to whom the ruler of Herat had appealed for assistance.

The second qualification that must be made to the time-honoured view of the Mongol states is that even those khans who have been cast as proponents of the nomadic lifestyle and customs made efforts to remedy the damage inflicted by the campaigns of conquest or by more recent warfare. The quriltai that Qaidu summoned in 1269 voiced a concern to preserve the flourishing towns of Transoxiana, under threat from the rapacious Baraq; it was agreed that the princes would live in the mountains and plains, avoiding the urban centres, and would not pasture their livestock on cultivated land. After Transoxiana had lain desolate for seven years as a result of the depredations of the sons of Baraq and of Alughu, Mas‛ūd Beg, on Qaidu’s orders, reassembled the scattered populations of Samarqand and Bukhārā and took steps to revive economic activity (c. 681/1282). Waṣṣāf, writing in 699/1299–1300 (and thus before the conflicts that began in 1305), heard that it was once more a thriving region. According to an early fifteenth-century author, Du’a (probably with Qaidu’s backing) restored a number of towns in Turkestan and Farghāna, notably Andijān, where the development of a flourishing commercial entrepôt is implicit in the reference to separate quarters for each of the various ethnic groups. Some decades later, as we saw above, Du’a’s son Köpek would restore Balkh. Old Tirmidh, reduced to a ruin by Chinggis Khan, had evidently been refortified by 716/1316, when Köpek’s forces were able to hold out there against Yasa’ur’s troops. Khwārazm, where the irrigation network had suffered during the Mongol attack of 1221, was again a prosperous agricultural region by the early fourteenth century. Sighnāq and Sawrān, on the lower Sīr-daryā river, revived when the region became the centre of the ulus of Orda around the same time. The Jochids are known to have founded many small towns as craft and supply centres.

Much of this princely solicitude was directed towards towns and trade. We know that in the Ilkhanate, at least, taxes on commerce and crafts yielded larger sums than did those on the land. The monarchs, their families and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy and the military were maintained by these taxes; the costs of administering the empire were met chiefly from agricultural revenues. Philip Remler argues that this explains the relative neglect of the agrarian sector prior to Ghazan’s reign and the fact that the pastoralists were allowed to live off the countryside. Such information is lacking for the other two western khanates; but here too the rulers often made their seasonal quarters in the vicinity of towns, which served as centres of revenue collection and craft production and in some cases as mints. Qaidu’s principal residence, as we saw, was near Talas. From 696/1296–7 the town of Ṣāqchī (Isaccea, in present-day Rumania), on the lower Danube, was an important centre in Noghai’s steppe domain; coins were minted here in his name, and it is described by the Mamlūk author Baybars al-Manṣūrī as one of his halting-places (manāzil). Some of these walled centres had even been constructed by Mongol qaghans or other princes: Emil, on the river of that name, by Ögödei, for instance. The Chaghadayid khan Köpek built Qarshī, a few miles from the town of Nakhshab in Transoxiana, though whether as Esen Buqa’s viceroy (when the Nakhshab-Kish region is known to have been his summer quarters) or during his own reign, we are not told. These were tent cities. Qarshī was still a royal residence over a decade later, Ibn Faḍl-Allāh al-‛Umarī tells us, confirming, however, that the khans otherwise eschewed living behind walls. The most celebrated example is the city-encampment of Sarai (Pers. sarāī, ‘palace’) that Batu had constructed by c. 1250 in the Volga delta, not far from the site of the one-time Khazar capital of Itil. At some subsequent date another city may have been built upstream, possibly by Özbeg, and known as Sarāī-yi jadīd (‘New Sarai’), though it has been argued that this was merely another name for Batu’s foundation. Even if far from implying the abandonment of the nomadic life, activities of this kind must have fostered (and even, at times, expressed) a certain sensitivity to the needs of town-dwellers.

On the other hand, the Ilkhans could no more afford to be unmindful of the exigencies of ruling over nomads than were their counterparts in the Pontic-Caspian steppes or in Central Asia. Rashīd al-Dīn makes Ghazan assure the Mongol military of his readiness to fleece the agriculturalists of his realm, should that prove the most profitable means of governance in the longer term:

I am not on the side of the Tāzīk [Tājīk, i.e. Persian] peasants (ra‘iyyat). If there is a purpose in pillaging them all, there is no one with more power to do this than I: let us rob them together …

But Ghazan goes on to advocate restraint. His opening words (no doubt inspired by Rashīd al-Dīn) are admittedly designed to ‘sell’ his reforms by pointing to a community of interests; but otherwise the sentiments are almost worthy of a Baraq. Yet the crucial distinction, for our purposes, is not a geographical or ecological one. It separates, rather, rulers who failed to rise above the short-term view, extracting from their sedentary subjects the maximum possible, from others who perceived their own long-term advantage in nurturing the same subjects’ prosperity and hence their potential as a source of revenue. This exercise in delayed gratification was more pressing, perhaps, for Mongol khans who embraced Islam – or at least for Muslim authors who wrote about them.

* * *

Just like the sources that describe the campaigns of Chinggis Khan’s armies against the Khwārazmshāh’s empire and lesser Muslim kingdoms, those for the inter-Mongol conflicts of the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries are prone to exaggerate and to avoid the specific; but there is one marked difference. Only rarely, as on the occasion of the Ilkhanid assault on Khwārazm in 671/1273 (the work, we might note, of troops from a regime often credited with a greater sympathy for sedentary culture), do they give the impression of the wholesale massacre of an urban population. In general the damage and its consequences were of the kind normally associated with medieval warfare. We have no way of knowing whether the harmful impact on agrarian or urban societies exceeded that of the late Saljuq and Khwarazmian periods. Nor is it possible to judge whether the influx of pastoral nomads created greater dislocation than that caused by, say, the Ghuzz during and for some decades after the collapse of Sanjar’s empire in the mid-to-late twelfth century. The most we can say with some degree of certainty is that these conflicts impeded or reversed the work of reconstruction which various Mongol rulers and their ministers had undertaken in the aftermath of the initial conquest.

The Mongol Wars and the Evolution of the Gun, 1211–1279

The rise of the Mongols was a key event in the evolution of gunpowder technology. Their wars drove military developments in East Asia and spread gunpowder technology westward. You’d think this statement would be uncontroversial. After all, the Mongols created the world’s largest empire, connecting East Asia to South Asia, Western Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Mongol commanders excelled at incorporating foreign experts into their forces, and Chinese artisans of all kinds followed Mongol armies far from home. Yet oddly, experts disagree about the extent to which—or even whether—Mongols used gunpowder weapons in their warfare, and some deny them a role in the dissemination of the technology.

How can there be disagreement about such a fundamental question? One reason is that most historians have a poor understanding about what early gunpowder weapons were like and what they were used for—they expect to find gunpowder weapons blasting down stone walls, as cannons would eventually come to do in the West. As we’ve seen, that’s not how gunpowder weapons worked in this period. Even the iron bombs of the Jin—the most powerful gunpowder weapons yet invented—were used not to batter walls but to kill people or, at most, to help destroy wooden structures. Moreover, at the time of the Mongol Wars, the most common gunpowder weapon was still the gunpowder arrow, used primarily as an incendiary. There’s no shortage of accounts referring to blazing arrows and fiery orbs hurled by Mongol catapults, but historians have argued that these were not gunpowder weapons on the grounds that gunpowder weapons would have attracted much more attention.

Another problem is that the Mongols left few historical documents to posterity. Even the records left by the Mongols’ regime in China—the Yuan dynasty—are fragmentary, and China is a place that takes its history seriously. The official History of the Yuan Dynasty, compiled by scholars in China after the fall of the Yuan in 1368, is sloppy and patchy compared to other official histories in the Chinese canon, and Sinologists have noted that Yuan documents are particularly reticent about military details. Scholars must piece together Mongols’ history from the sources of their beleaguered enemies, whose records tended not to survive burning cities. So although we can paint a fairly clear picture of the development of firearms technology during the Song-Jin Wars, our understanding of the more intense and catalytic Mongol Wars is less complete.

Even so, there seems to be little doubt that the Mongols were proficient in gunpowder weapons. No one fighting in the Chinese context—and the Mongols met their most determined resistance in the Chinese realm—could remain unconvinced about the power of gunpowder, which by the early 1200s had come to play an essential role in warfare.

Indeed, the Mongols had a chance to learn about gunpowder weapons from the masters of their use, the Jin dynasty.

The Mongol-Jin Wars

Genghis Khan launched his first concerted invasion of the Jin in 1211, and it wasn’t long before the Mongols were deploying gunpowder weapons themselves, for example in 1232, when they besieged the Jin capital of Kaifeng. By this point they understood that sieges required careful preparation, and they built a hundred kilometers of stockades around the city, stout and elaborate ones, equipped with watchtowers, trenches, and guardhouses, forcing Chinese captives—men, women, and children—to haul supplies and fill in moats. Then they began launching gunpowder bombs. Jin scholar Liu Qi recalled in a mournful memoir, how “the attack against the city walls grew increasingly intense, and bombs rained down as [the enemy] advanced.”

The Jin responded in kind. “From within the walls,” Liu Qi writes, “the defenders responded with a gunpowder bomb called the heaven-shaking-thunder bomb. Whenever the [Mongol] troops encountered one, several men at a time would be turned into ashes.” The official Jin History contains a clear description of the weapon: “The heaven-shaking-thunder bomb is an iron vessel filled with gunpowder. When lighted with fire and shot off, it goes off like a crash of thunder that can be heard for a hundred li [thirty miles], burning an expanse of land more than half a mu, a mu is a sixth of an acre], and the fire can even penetrate iron armor.” Three centuries later, a Ming official named He Mengchun ( 1474–1536) found an old cache of them in the Xi’an area: “When I went on official business to Shaanxi Province, I saw on top of Xi’an’s city walls an old stockpile of iron bombs. They were called ‘heaven-shaking-thunder’ bombs, and they were like an enclosed rice bowl with a hole at the top, just big enough to put your finger in. The troops said they hadn’t been used for a very long time.” Possibly he saw the bombs in action, because he wrote, “When the powder goes off, the bomb rips open, and the iron pieces fly in all directions. That is how it is able to kill people and horses from far away.”

Heaven-shaking-thunder bombs seem to have first appeared in 1231 (the year before the Mongol Siege of Kaifeng) when a Jin general had used them to destroy a Mongol warship. But it was during the Siege of Kaifeng of 1232 that they saw their most intense use. The Mongols tried to protect themselves by constructing elaborate screens of thick leather, which they used to cover workers who were undermining the city walls. In this way the workers managed to get right up to the walls, where they began excavating protective niches. Jin defenders found this exceedingly worrisome, so according to the official Jin History they “took iron cords and attached them to heaven-shaking-thunder bombs. The bombs were lowered down the walls, and when they reached the place where the miners were working, the [bombs were set off] and the excavators and their leather screens were together blown up, obliterated without a trace.”

The Jin defenders also deployed other gunpowder weapons, including a new and improved version of the fire lance, called the flying fire lance. This version seems to have been more effective than the one used by Chen Gui a century before. The official Jin History contains an unusually detailed description:

To make the lance, use chi-huang paper, sixteen layers of it for the tube, and make it a bit longer than two feet. Stuff it with willow charcoal, iron fragments, magnet ends, sulfur, white arsenic [probably an error that should mean saltpeter], and other ingredients, and put a fuse to the end. Each troop has hanging on him a little iron pot to keep fire [probably hot coals], and when it’s time to do battle, the flames shoot out the front of the lance more than ten feet, and when the gunpowder is depleted, the tube isn’t destroyed.

When wielded and set alight, it was fearsome weapon: “no one dared go near.” Apparently Mongol soldiers, although disdainful of most Jin weapons, greatly feared the flying fire lance and the heaven-shaking-thunder bomb.

Kaifeng held out for a year, during which hundreds of thousands died of starvation, but ultimately it capitulated. The Jin emperor fled. Many hoped the Jin might reconstitute the dynasty elsewhere, and here and there Jin troops still scored successes, as when a Jin commander led four hundred fifty fire lance troops against a Mongol encampment: “They couldn’t stand up against this and were completely routed, and three thousand five hundred were drowned.” But these isolated victories couldn’t break Mongol momentum, especially after the Jin emperor committed suicide in 1234. Although some Jin troops—many of them Chinese—continued to resist (one loyalist gathered all the metal that could be found in the city he was defending, even gold and silver, and made explosive shells to lob against the Mongols), the Jin were finished. The Mongols had conquered two of the three great states of the Song Warring States Period, the Xi Xia and the Jin. Now they turned to the Song.

The Song-Mongol Wars

It’s striking that the Song, this supposedly weak dynasty, held the Mongols off for forty-five years. As an eminent Sinologist wrote more than sixty years ago, “unquestionably in the Chinese the Mongols encountered more stubborn opposition and better defense than any of their other opponents in Europe and Asia.”

Gunpowder weapons were central to the fighting. In 1237, for example, a Mongol army attacked the Song city of Anfeng, “using gunpowder bombs [huo pao] to burn the [defensive] towers.” (Anfeng is modern-day Shouxian, in Anhui Province.) “Several hundred men hurled one bomb, and if it hit the tower it would immediately smash it to pieces.” The Song defending commander, Du Gao, fought back resourcefully, rebuilding towers, equipping his archers with special small arrows to shoot through the eye slits of Mongol’s thick armor (normal arrows were too thick), and, most important, deploying powerful gunpowder weapons, such as a bomb called the “Elipao,” named after a famous local pear. He prevailed. The Mongols withdrew, suffering heavy casualties.

Gunpowder technology evolved quickly, and although sources are sketchy, scattered references to arsenals show that gunpowder weapons were considered central to the war effort. For example, in 1257, a Song official named Li Zengbo was ordered to inspect border cities’ arsenals. He believed that a city should have several hundred thousand iron bombshells, and a good production facility should produce at least a couple thousand a month. But his tour was disheartening. He wrote that in one arsenal he found “no more than 85 iron bomb-shells, large and small, 95 fire-arrows, and 105 fire-lances. This is not sufficient for a mere hundred men, let alone a thousand, to use against an attack by the … barbarians. The government supposedly wants to make preparations for the defense of its fortified cities, and to furnish them with military supplies against the enemy (yet this is all they give us). What chilling indifference!”

Fortunately, the Mongol advance paused after the great khan died in 1259. When it resumed in 1268, fighting was extremely intense, and gunpowder weapons played significant roles. Blocking the Mongols’ advance were the twin fortress cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng, which guarded the passage southward to the Yangze River. The Mongol investment of these cities was one of the longest sieges of world history, lasting from 1268 to 1273. The details are too numerous to examine here, but two episodes are salient, each of which involved a pair of heroes.

The first was a bold relief mission carried out by the so-called Two Zhangs. For the first three years of the siege, the Song had been able to receive food, clothing, and reinforcements by water, but in late 1271 the Mongols had tightened their blockade, and the inhabitants had become desperate. Two men surnamed Zhang determined to run the blockade and take supplies to the cities. With a hundred paddle wheel boats they traveled toward the twin cities, moving by night when possible, red lanterns helping them recognize each other in the darkness. But a commander on the Mongol side learned about their plans and prepared a trap. As they approached the cities they found his “vessels spread out, filling the entire surface of the river, and there was no gap for them to enter.” Thick iron chains stretched across the water.

According to the official Song History, the two Zhangs had armed their boats with “fire-lances, fire-bombs, glowing charcoal, huge axes, and powerful crossbows.” Their flotilla opened fire, and, according to a source recorded from the Mongol side, “bomb-shells were hurled with great noise and loud reports.”30 Wang Zhaochun suggests that the fire bombs used on the two Zhangs’ boats were not hurled by catapults but were shot off like rockets, using the fiery coals the vessels carried. This would be exciting, but unfortunately the evidence is inconclusive. Historian Stephen Haw suggests that the vessels carried guns, which is also possible, but again the evidence is inconclusive.

In any case, the fight was brutal and long. The Zhangs’ soldiers had been told that “this voyage promises only death,” and many indeed died as they tried to cut through chains, pull up stakes, hurl bombs. A source from the Mongol side notes that “on their ships they were up to the ankles in blood.” But around dawn, the Zhangs’ vessels made it to the city walls. The citizens “leapt up a hundred times in joy.” When the men from the boats were mustered on shore, one Zhang was missing. His fate remains a mystery. The official Yuan History says one Zhang was captured alive. The official Song History has a more interesting story. A few days after the battle, it says, “a corpse came floating upstream, covered in armor and gripping a bow-and-arrow.… It was Zhang Shun, his body pierced by four lances and six arrows. The expression of anger [on his face] was so vigorous it was as though he were still alive. The troops were surprised and thought it miraculous, and they made a grave and prepared the body for burial, erected a temple, and made sacrifices.” Other sources suggest that Zhang Shun was indeed killed in battle. He was later immortalized in the famous novel The Water Margin.

Alas, the supplies didn’t save Xiangyang, because the Mongols had a pair of heroes of their own. Two Muslim artillery specialists—one from Persia and one from Syria—helped construct counterweight trebuchets whose advanced design allowed larger missiles to be hurled farther. They came to be known in China as “Muslim catapults” or “Xiangyang catapults,” and they were devastating. As one account notes, “when the machinery went off the noise shook heaven and earth; every thing that [the missile] hit was broken and destroyed.” Xiangyang’s tall drum tower, for example, was destroyed in one thundering crash. Did these trebuchets hurl explosive shells? There’s no conclusive evidence, but it would be surprising if they didn’t, since, as we’ve seen, bombs hurled by catapults had been a core component of siege warfare for a century or more. In any case, Xiangyang surrendered in 1273.

The Mongols moved south. A famous Mongol general named Bayan led the campaign, commanding an army of two hundred thousand, most of whom were Chinese. It was probably the largest army the Mongols had commanded, and gunpowder weapons were key arms. In the 1274 Siege of Shayang, for example, Bayan, having failed to storm the walls, waited for the wind to blow from the north and then ordered his artillerists to attack with molten metal bombs. With each strike, “the buildings were burned up and the smoke and flames rose up to heaven. What kind of bomb was this? The sources on the Battle of Shayang don’t provide details, but earlier references suggest that it was a type of gunpowder bomb. A reference to it appears in an account of a battle of 1129, when Song general Li Yanxian was defending a strategic pass against Jin troops. At one point, the Jin attacked the walls day and night with all manner of siege carts, fire carts, sky bridges, and so on, and General Li “resisted at each occasion, and also used molten metal bombs. Wherever the gunpowder touched, everything would disintegrate without a trace.” The molten metal bomb was a probably a catapult projectile that contained gunpowder and molten metal, a frightening combination. It didn’t work for General Li in 1129: he lost the battle and either committed suicide or was killed, depending on which account you believe, but it did work for Bayan in 1274. He captured Shayang and massacred the inhabitants.

Gunpowder bombs were also present at a more famous Mongol massacre, the Siege of Changzhou of 1275, the last major battle of the Mongol-Song Wars.46 Bayan arrived there with his army and informed the inhabitants that “if you … resist us … we shall drain your carcasses of blood and use them for pillows.” His warnings were ignored. His troops bombarded the town day and night with fire bombs and then stormed the walls and began slaughtering people. Perhaps a quarter million were killed. Did his troops get new pillows? Sources don’t say, but it seems that a huge earthen mound filled with dead bodies lasted for centuries. Bones from the massacre were still being discovered into the twentieth century.

The Song held out for another four years, often with mortal bravery, sometimes even blowing themselves up to avoid capture, as when, in 1276, a Song garrison managed to hold the city of Jingjiang in Guangxi Province against a much larger Mongol force for three months before the enemy stormed the walls. Two hundred fifty defenders held a redoubt until it was hopeless and then, instead of surrendering, set off a huge iron bomb. According to the official Song History, “the noise was like a tremendous thunderclap, shaking the walls and ground, and the smoke filled up the heavens outside. Many of troops [outside] were startled to death. When the fire was extinguished they went in to see. There were just ashes, not a trace left.”

Bombs like this one were the most significant gunpowder weapons in the Song-Mongol Wars, but in retrospect the most important development was the birth of the gun.

The Gun

What is a gun? The efficiency of a projectile-propelling firearm is directly related to how much of the expanding gas from the gunpowder reaction can get past the projectile. The technical term is “windage,” and less windage means more energy imparted to the projectile. A true gun therefore has a bullet that fits the barrel. During the Jin-Song Wars, fire lances were loaded with bits of shrapnel, such as ceramics and iron. Since they didn’t occlude the barrel, Joseph Needham calls them “coviatives”: they were simply swept along in the discharge. Although they could do damage, their accuracy, range, and power were relatively low.

In the late 1100s and the 1200s, the fire lance proliferated into a baffling array of weapons that spewed sparks and flames and ceramics and anything else people thought to put in them. This Cambrian Explosion of forms is similar to that found in the early gunpowder period itself—the fire birds, rolling rocket logs, and so on—and a famous military manual known as the Book of the Fire Dragon, compiled in the Ming period but partially written in the late 1200s, describes and illustrates many of these weapons, which historians have called, as a general category, “eruptors.”

These eruptors had fantastic names. The “filling-the-sky erupting tube” spewed out poisonous gas and fragments of porcelain. The “orifice-penetrating flying sand magic mist tube” spewed forth sand and poisonous chemicals, apparently into orifices. The “phalanx-charging fire gourd” shot out lead pellets and laid waste to enemy battle formations. We find these and other weapons jumbled together in the Book of the Fire Dragon, which makes it difficult to determine when they emerged and how they were used. But unfortunately, we must use whatever sources we can find, because starting in the Song-Mongol Wars, our documentary record becomes sparse, and it remains so through the Mongol period that followed, whose leaders, as I’ve noted, left unusually poor documentation relative to other Chinese dynasties.

It is clear that fire lances became common during the Mongol-Song Wars. In 1257, a production report for an arsenal in Jiankang Prefecture refers to the manufacture of 333 “fire-emitting tubes”, and two years later the Song History refers to the production of something quite similar, a “fire-emitting lance”, which emitted more than just fire: “It is made from a large bamboo tube, and inside is stuffed a pellet wad. Once the fire goes off it completely spews the rear pellet wad forth, and the sound is like a bomb that can be heard for five hundred or more paces.” Some consider this “pellet wad” to be the first true bullet in recorded history, because although the pellets themselves probably did not occlude the barrel, the wad did.

Yet a truly effective gun must be made of something stronger than bamboo. Traditionally, historians have argued that metal guns emerged after the Mongols defeated the Song and founded the Yuan dynasty in 1279. Researcher Liu Xu, for instance, writes, “It was the Yuan who completed the transition from the bamboo- (or wood- or paper-) barreled firearm to the metal-barreled firearm, and the first firearms in history appeared in China in the very earliest part of the Yuan.” Similarly, other scholars, including Joseph Needham, have suggested a date of around 1280.

Archaeological evidence tends to corroborate this view. Take, for instance, the Xanadu gun, so named because it was found in the ruins of Xanadu, the Mongol summer palace in Inner Mongolia. It is at present the oldest extant gun whose dating is unequivocal, corresponding to 1298. Like all early guns, it is small: just over six kilograms, thirty-five centimeters long. Archaeological context and the straightforward inscription leave little room for controversy about the dating, but it was certainly not the first of its kind. The inscription includes a serial number and other manufacturing information that together indicate that gun manufacture had already been codified and systematized by the time of its fabrication. Moreover, the gun has axial holes at the back that scholars have suggested served to affix it to a mount, allowing it to be elevated or lowered easily for aiming purposes. This, too, suggests that this gun was the product of considerable prior experimentation.

The Xanadu gun is the earliest dated gun, but undated finds may predate it. One famous candidate is a piece discovered in 1970 in the province of Heilongjiang, in northeastern China. Historians believe, based on contextual evidence, that it is from around 1288. One careful analysis argues persuasively that it was likely used by Yuan forces to quash a rebellion by a Mongol prince named Nayan. Like the Xanadu gun, it is small and light, three and a half kilograms, thirty-four centimeters, a bore of approximately two and a half centimeters.

Yet archaeologists in China have found evidence that may force us to move back the date of the first metal firearms. In 1980, a 108-kilogram bronze gun was discovered in a cellar in Gansu Province. There is no inscription, but contextual evidence suggests that it may be from the late Xi Xia period, from after 1214 but before the end of the Xi Xia in 1227 (Gansu was part of Xi Xia territory). What’s intriguing is that it was discovered with an iron ball and a tenth of a kilogram of gunpowder in it. The ball, about nine centimeters in diameter, is a bit smaller than the muzzle diameter of the gun (twelve centimeters), which indicates that it may have been a coviative rather than a true bullet-type projectile. In 1997, a bronze firearm of similar structure but much smaller size (just a kilogram and a half) was unearthed not far away, and the context of its discovery seems to suggest a similar date of origin. Both weapons seem more primitive than the Xanadu gun and other early Yuan guns, rougher in appearance, with uneven casting. Future archaeological discoveries will develop our understanding with greater certitude, but for now, it does seem possible that the earliest metal proto-guns were created in the late Xi Xia state, in the early 1200s.

Although historians debate the precise date of the gun’s origin, at present the disputes are in terms of decades. It seems likely that the gun was born during the 1200s and that the Mongols and their enemies aimed guns at each other. After defeating the Song dynasty in 1279 and founding the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols and their Chinese troops invaded Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and Java, wars that stimulated further innovation, although, alas, records are few and say little about gunpowder weapons.

Equally important, although the Yuan brought relative peace within the borders of the Middle Kingdom itself, it was not a lasting peace. As the Yuan dynasty dissolved during the early 1350s, guns played a central role in the bloody wars that followed. The most successful gunpowder lord was a poor monk named Zhu Yuanzhang, whose gunmen succeeded in establishing one of the most impressive dynasties in China’s history, the great Ming, which scholars now call the world’s first gunpowder empire.

Kublai Khan’s Naval Power

Reconstructions of a 13th century Chinese ocean-going ships of the kind described by Marco Polo, remains of which have been found at Quanzou. Such vessels had thirteen watertight compartments, a crew of over one hundred and fifty men and a stern rudder which, though also known in the Muslim world, was as yet rare in Europe. These were the ships that took Kublai Khan’s invading armies to Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Conquest of Southern China

In 1264 Kublai Khan turned once again to the conquest of the Sung in what was to prove the greatest military achievement of his career. By his side were two skilled generals who already had considerable experience of fighting against the southern Chinese. These were the Mongol Bayan, son of Kublai’s old comrade Uriyangkhadai, and the Uighur Arigh Khaya. Once more Kublai ensured a carefully planned and meticulous campaign. It would be his own private war and he wanted to take southern China intact, not as a wasteland. Chinese aristocrats who offered loyalty to the new regime were left in possession of their lands. Cities were not sacked and destruction of agriculture was kept to a minimum. Nevertheless the Sung were once again to be the Mongols’ most formidable foes.

Mongol troops still faced particular problems in southern China. There remained the perennial problems of parasites, disease and unsuitable terrain for large-scale cavalry warfare. Even the Mongols’ hardy steppe ponies suffered from the hot, humid climate and there was virtually no open grazing to feed them. Mongol losses rose alarmingly and gaps in the ranks had to be filled with native Chinese levies, most of whom were infantry. At first these troops were despised by their Mongol overlords but they rapidly proved themselves to be not only hardy fighters but better able to cope with the debilitating climate. Progress was, however, painfully slow. The Sung capital of Hangchow fell only in 1276 and it took a further three years for Sung resistance finally to end. Attitudes were also different from what they had been in Genghis Khan’s day. Prisoners were usually treated moderately well and Kublai did all that he could to encourage defections from the Sung side. This was particularly successful where the powerful Sung navy was concerned, a vital factor in a war where ships provided communication and transport not only around the coast but up the broad rivers of southern China.

Meanwhile Bayan proved himself a master of siege warfare, a branch of the military art in which the nomad Mongols had now become world leaders. The most epic siege was that of Hsiang-yang, which lasted no less than five years and was to be the turning point in Kublai’s conquest of southern China. Hsiang-yang was held by one of the most tenacious of Sung commanders, Lü Wen-huan. Because the city stood on the banks of the wide Han river, the Mongols had to use their new-found nautical skills in an attempt to stop Sung supplies and reinforcements from reaching the garrison. Even if this could be achieved, and even if all overland relief efforts could be defeated, Hsiang-yang would eventually have to be stormed. To keep casualties to a minimum the Mongols therefore needed the very best available siege artillery. Experts were recruited throughout the Mongol Empire, from northern China, Korea and even from far distant Muslim Iraq. Meanwhile many battles were fought in the surrounding countryside and on the Han river, but still the city did not fall, for the Sung realized that the fate of their kingdom hung upon that of Hsiang-yang. The Mongol noose steadily tightened but a full-scale assault remained a very hazardous option. Newer, bigger siege machines were erected and an almost constant bombardment was maintained until, late in March 1273, Lü Wen-huan at last surrendered.

The loss of Hsiang-yang was a devastating blow to Sung morale. City after city now fell, until at last Kublai Khan’s armies closed around the Sung capital of Hangchow itself. This, the so-called Venice of the East, had a huge population, an enormous garrison, mighty walls, stone towers in nearly every street and a network of urban canals said to be spanned by 12000 bridges. It was a besiegers’ nightmare! By this time, January 1276, the old Sung Emperor had died, a child was on the throne and the land was ruled by the widowed Empress Dowager. General Bayan had a long list of victories to his credit, yet even he must have felt relieved when the Empress Dowager agreed to hand over the Sung Imperial Seal in an unmistakable symbol of surrender – Hangchow would not have to be besieged after all. Instead of a Mongol sack and massacre, Kublai’s officers made a peaceful yet triumphant entry into the ancient Sung capital. There they proceeded to collect all official seals, the finest works of art, books and maps to be sent to the Great Khan’s court.

Despite the Empress Dowager’s surrender, the Chinese of the deep south kept up the struggle. The last flicker of resistance was by a Sung fleet, aboard which was a nine-year old boy, Ti-ping, the last Sung Emperor. Even after the Mongols had captured every port along the coast this heroic fleet fought on from bases in coastal islands. But now the Mongols also had a navy of their own and on 19th March 1279 the enemy was trapped near Yai-shan. Only nine Sung ships broke out. That of the little Emperor was not among them. They say that the Sung admiral took the child in his arms and, shouting out ‘An Emperor of the Sung chooses death rather than imprisonment!’ leapt into the sea, drowning both himself and the boy ruler. With this, the final defeat of the Sung, Kublai Khan reunited China for the first time since the fall of the T’ang dynasty in the tenth century. Despite a turbulent history, mainland China has never since lost this unity. To the Mongols, Kublai had achieved a long-cherished dream, for

Kublai Khan inherited a powerful fleet from the defeated Sung of southern China. This he used to conquer the coastal islands, reduce piracy and attempt to force his suzereinty on distant lands which had once paid tribute to China. Chinese naval power and overseas trade had, in fact, grown enormously under the Sung, while there had been dramatic advances in naval technology. Some resulted from the influence of Arab ships arriving from Iraq, southern Arabia and Egypt, while others were purely Chinese developments that in turn influenced the naval technology of the Islamic world. Flourishing shipyards could now be found in Hangchow, Canton, Ming-Chou and Wen-chou. The Sung even had special government departments dealing with river patrols and coastal defence. All this was now available to Kublai Khan who had already established a rudimentary navy in northern China, as well as being able to draw upon Korean maritime resources.

Mongol nomads took to the sea with remarkable alacrity, just as the desert-dwelling Arabs had done during their period of empire building six centuries earlier. In fact a number of Arabs played a leading role in the development of Kublai Khan’s navy. One came from a long-established merchant family resident in Kuang-Chou. He is known only by the Chinese version of his name, P’u Shou-keng. This merchant first rose to become the Sung’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade and was later promoted as Kublai’s military commander of the vital coastal provinces of Fukien and Kwantung. Despite their humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese – which were largely a result of the weather being on Japan’s side – the Great Khan’s navy achieved some remarkable results.

The effectiveness of Kublai Khan’s military organization is shown, not in his over-ambitious forays across the sea or into the steaming jungles of south-east Asia, but in triumphant campaigns like that against the Sung of southern China. This had demanded far greater planning and logistical skill than any earlier Mongol conquest. Many of these massive and far-reaching campaigns required not only Mongol cavalry but the close coordination of such horsemen with Chinese infantry, not to mention the more-than-supporting role played by Kublai Khan’s newly formed Mongol navy. Contemporaries certainly recognized the Great Khan’s military capabilities. Marco Polo said he was ‘brave and daring in action, but in point of judgement and military skill he was considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the Tartars [Mongols] to battle.’

Chinese ships of this period also deserve mention, if only because archaeology has again confirmed Marco Polo’s description of both the design and huge size of the Khan’s ships. This Venetian traveller was, of course, an expert on shipping, and he stated that the largest vessels needed a crew of up to three hundred men. They were much larger than anything seen in Europe and also had a sophisticated internal structure of watertight compartments, making them much harder to sink. A ship of this kind, dating from around 1277, was found near Quanzhou, the medieval Zaitun, in 1973 . She was an ocean-going vessel with a deep keel and had originally been around one hundred and twelve feet long. Judging from the remains of her cargo the ship was returning from the East Indies when she was wrecked. Though only four weapons were found aboard this peaceful trading craft, comparable vessels sailed the pirate-infested eastern oceans as far as Sri Lanka, Arabia and perhaps east Africa. Others carried Kublai Khan’s troops to the shores of Japan, Indo-China, Java and, according to a probably legendary source, even the Philippines.

Kublai’s invasion of the distant island of Java was even more dramatic, if somewhat pointless. Ostensibly it was in retaliation for the mutilation of another of the Great Khan’s envoys, but in reality it probably had more to do with control of the rich spice trade of the Molucca island, which both states coveted. In 1293 , using the experience painfully gained against Japan and in Indochina, Kublai Khan sent a force of 20000 men under Mongol, Chinese and Uighur generals to the eastern end of Java. Armed with a year’s supply of grain and huge amounts of silver to purchase local supplies, they joined a Javanese rebel force to defeat the local king. But the Mongols’ Javanese ally then turned against them and forced them to abandon the island. All that they gained from this spectacular expedition were a few shiploads of spices, perfumes, incense, ivory, rhinoceros horns, maps and a register of the local population – hardly enough even to cover campaign expenses.

MOHI, 11 April 1241

The Mongol incursions presented Europe with insuperable military problems. An initial raid in 1223 tested the Russian states’ mettle and found it wanting. Then, in a series of consecutive campaigns from 1237-41, Mongol forces overran Russia and devastated Poland and Hungary. Against their strategic speed and discipline in battle, western arms proved totally inadequate. A Mongol conquest of Christian Europe might have been possible, although logistically difficult, but it was never attempted.

While Baidar and Kadan had been sweeping through Poland, Batu’s armies had been advancing into Hungary, and once Baidar and Kadan had located the armies of Silesia and Bohemia and were preparing to secure the northern flank by eliminating or decoying them, Batu, who had been taunting Bela’s soldiers in Pest, began to withdraw. As always the co-ordination of the Mongol armies was faultless, but the timing of the decisive engagements was astonishing. It cannot be dismissed as coincidence, and since the uncertainty of the enemy positions would have made pre-planning impossible, the only explanation seems to be the speed of the Mongol messengers and in particular the efficiency of their signalling system. The day after the destruction of the Silesian army at Liegnitz, the southern flank was secured by Kuyuk who stormed Hermannstadt, over five hundred miles away, and destroyed the army of Transylvania, and in the centre Batu and Subedei halted to engage Bela on the heath at Mohi, which lies south-west of the river Sajo just before it joins the Tisza.

During the retreat Subedei, Mangku and Batu rode ahead of their soldiers to inspect the battlefield which Batu had chosen. On the afternoon of 10 April the Mongol army rode over the heath, crossed the Sajo by the only bridge and continued ten miles beyond it into the thickets, with the hills and vineyards of Tokay ahead of them and the rivers Tisza and Hernard on either side. In the evening when Bela arrived, a reconnaissance of a thousand Hungarian horsemen crossed the stone bridge, rode into the thickets, found nothing and returned to guard the bridge while the remainder of their army made its camp on the heath. Hundreds of wagons were drawn up in a circle around the tents and held together with chains and ropes. In the last light of the day Batu led his staff corps back to a hilltop and showed them the Hungarian position. On their right were the marshes of the Tisza, ahead of them the Sajo, and on their left and behind them the hills and forests of Lomnitz and Diosgyor. If they could be kept on the heath, the enemy were trapped like cattle in a corral.

When night came Subedei led thirty thousand men through the hills and back to the Sajo beyond the heath. His plan was to cross over and take the enemy in the rear while Batu engaged their front, and he began to build a wooden bridge between the villages of Girines and Nady Czeks. Bela’s scouts had already proved them- selves to be inept on several occasions, including that afternoon, and if there were any pickets they saw and heard nothing.

Just before dawn Batu launched his attack on the stone bridge. The guards held the west bank until reinforcements came from their camp and when it seemed as though the deep ranks of defenders could hold out indefinitely against a narrow column of Mongol cavalry, they jeered at them across the river. But Batu brought up a battery of seven catapults and began to bombard the far side of the bridge, `to the accompaniment of thunderous noise and flashes of fire’. As the disordered Hungarian ranks drew back from the fire bombs and grenades, the catapults increased their range and Batu’s soldiers crossed the bridge safely behind a `rolling barrage’.

At first the Hungarians were confused by the tactical use of artillery on the battlefield, but on the heath Batu’s forty thousand men faced the entire Hungarian army and it seemed only a matter of time before superior numbers would prevail. Committed to a plan which limited their ability to manoeuvre, the Mongol soldiers moved round slowly towards the centre of the heath so that the Hungarian rear would be towards Subedei’s surprise attack, and only their fire power saved them from being overwhelmed by the massed charges of the finest cavalry in Europe. After two ferocious hours Batu’s dangerously depleted ranks began to stretch out audaciously into a half circle as though they believed that they could surround their enemy, and as the Hungarians were preparing to charge through the line, another half circle under Subedei appeared behind them. The rest of the Mongol army had arrived at last, and the two lines closed in behind a shower of arrows. Surprised and about to be surrounded, the Hungarians had lost the advantage, but were too experienced to panic. Before the circle could be completed, they formed into columns and made an orderly withdrawal into their fortified camp.

The Mongols surrounded the camp, but Batu was despondent. The second bridge had taken longer than expected to build and the delay had cost him terrible casualties for which he blamed Subedei. He was no longer confident that his exhausted soldiers were strong enough to storm the camp or hold their own if the Hungarians came out again, and he wanted to play safe and retreat. Subedei, however, had more faith in his soldiers and their trust in him was absolute. `If the princes wish to retreat they may do so,’ he said, `but for my part I am resolved not to return until I have reached Pest and the Danube’.

The battle continued, and in the Hungarian camp many of the barons, who had earlier fought valiantly when victory seemed certain, would have abandoned Bela to his fate, if their camp had not already been surrounded. Bela’s brother Koloman rallied enough men to charge the Mongol artillery which was pounding the camp with fire bombs, but they were driven back. Then, after a bombardment of several hours had wrecked the fortifications, burned most of the tents and destroyed the Hungarian morale, the Mongol army began to mass for a charge, leaving a large gap in their lines in front of the gorge through which the armies had entered the heath on the day before. A few Hungarian horsemen made a run for it and escaped through the gap, and when the Mongol charge began, only the Templars and the soldiers of Koloman and Archbishop Hugolin formed up in a wedge to meet it. As Subedei had hoped, the remainder, many of them throwing down their arms and their armour to lessen the weight for their horses, set out after the first fugitives to make their escape while the Mongols were concentrating on their attack. The soldiers in the Hungarian wedge were decimated by Mongol arrows and finally smashed by a charge of heavy cavalry under Siban. Once again, as their brothers had done two days before at Liegnitz, the Templars died to a man. Archbishop Hugolin was killed and Koloman, fatally wounded, escaped with a few survivors to join Bela and the other fugitives.

But the escape route had been a trap.[1] When the runaway column was stretched out over the heath and through the gorge, Mongol light cavalry attacked and rode along either side of it, shooting down the fugitives as though they were hunting them. The heath became a mass of riderless horses and for thirty miles beyond it the road back to Pest was littered with Hungarian dead, `like stones in a quarry’. What had begun as a fierce contest between two extraordinary armies had ended in a rout, and the most conservative estimate of the Hungarian dead was sixty thousand men.

Only those who had been at the head of the fugitives or had ridden through the chaos into the hills at the side of the gorge escaped, and among these were Bela and Koloman. Bela outran his Mongol pursuers by taking a fresher horse from one of his loyal followers each time his own tired, and when he was clear he doubled back, swam over the Sajo and spent the night among the trees, guarded only by an old Slav retainer called Vochu. Koloman reached the Danube, crossing in a boat with the women and children who were fleeing from Pest, and made his way to his own Hungarian domains in Croatia where he died of his wounds.

The Mongols advanced, burned Pest and rode north and south along the Danube, terrifying the citizens of Buda on the western bank, although they did not cross. Instead they began to consolidate their conquest of eastern Hungary and to destroy Bela’s chances of rallying its inhabitants. In the camp at Mohi they had captured the great seal of the Hungarian chancellor and they used it to issue a fake proclamation which prevented the mustering of a new army: `Do not fear the rage and ferocity of these dogs; do not leave your houses; we have only been surprised and we shall soon with God’s help recapture our camp; continue to pray to God to assist us in the destruction of our enemies.’ In the cities they minted new coins which made Bela’s currency worthless and in the country they persuaded the farmers to return to their land under Mongol protection.

Through the Carpathian Mountains Bela and Vochu made their way towards Austria where Bela believed he would find refuge. One night they sheltered in a monastery in Thurocz where Bela met a fellow fugitive, Boleslaw the Chaste, who had fled from Cracow. At Pressburg on the Austrian border Bela was reunited with his wife and children and naively accepted the hospitality of Duke Frederick, only to find himself a prisoner. In return for his freedom and indeed his safety, Frederick demanded the repayment of the indemnity that he had been forced to pay six years before, but all the wealth that Bela had with him, including the Hungarian crown jewels, was not nearly enough. In addition he was forced to pawn three of his western departments, and while Frederick’s soldiers were preparing to take over these new dominions, which were probably the predominantly German areas of Moson, Sopron and Vas, Bela and his family travelled south to the safety of Croatia.

As news of the disasters in Poland and Hungary began to spread throughout the rest of Europe, a wave of panic followed it. Gruesome rumours of diabolical atrocities committed by unearthly monsters with supernatural powers led to a superstitious hysteria, and even the clergy revived the old myths and legends in an attempt to explain the mysterious invaders. The Dominican Ricoldo of Monte Croce argued learnedly that the true name Mongol was derived from Magogoli, the followers of Magog, and that the Tartars trembled at the name of Alexander. In Germany it was said that the Tartars were the lost tribes of Israel and that Jews were smuggling arms to them, using barrels which they pretended were filled with poisoned wine, with the result that at several border posts Jewish merchants were indiscriminately slaughtered. Mongol women were said to have accompanied the army and to have fought in battle as fiercely as the men. The Hungarians had described the invaders as `dog-faced Tartars’, probably because of the shape of their fur caps, but Ivo of Narbonne recorded that their princes had the heads of dogs and that the soldiers, who ate the bodies of the dead, tore off the breasts of the young women that they had raped and reserved them as delicacies for these princes. After the collapse of the mighty Hungarian army it seemed, even to the pope, that all of Christendom might be destroyed by these merciless horsemen from hell and every day in the crowded churches of northern Europe the congregations prayed, `from the fury of the Tartars oh Lord deliver us’.

It is difficult to determine just how much further into Europe the Mongols might have penetrated if his campaign had continued. Certainly they reached Korneuberg and Wiener Neustadt, only 30 miles south of Vienna. However, the news which reached them there and caused their withdrawal probably saved Western Europe from ‘a nasty ravage’ and Eastern Europe from permanent Mongol occupation such as befell parts of Russia; for, hearing that Khan Ogodai had died, they returned to the east for the election of his successor.

[1] The Mongols sometimes confused an enemy by feinting towards his front and then unleashing their main attack against his rear. By attacking from several directions, the Mongols gave their enemies the impression that they were surrounded. By leaving a gap in their encirclement the Mongols allowed the enemy an apparent means of escape, whereas in reality it served as a trap. In their panic and desire to escape through this gap, the enemy often discarded their weapons to flee faster and rarely maintained their discipline. The Mongols then attacked them from the rear, as in their defeat of the Hungarians at Mohi in 1241. Dalantai called this the ‘Open-the-End tactic’ and noted that the Mongols used it if the enemy seemed to be very strong and might fight to the death if trapped.


Even though the Hungarians began to become ‘Westernised’ at a relatively early date their tactics continued to include many purely Asiatic elements, notably in the use of both native and mercenary nomad horse-archers (the latter at first composed of Pechenegs but by the early-13th century principally Cumans); indeed, up until the 13th century even Hungarian heavy cavalrymen continued to often carry a bow in addition to lance and shield, and when tactically necessary they were prepared to fight as horse-archers. More usually, however, this role was left to the light cavalry, who wore no armour but dressed only in ‘fair garments’ and pointed caps and were usually armed with just bow, sabre and mace. Such Hungarian light cavalry either preceded the heavy cavalry in open order or skirmished from the wings- as, for example, at Marchfeld in 1278, where they rode back and forth and peppered the Bohemian right flank with volley after volley of arrows, disordering it in preparation for the charge of the Hungarian heavies. Onokar von Steier’s early-14th century ‘Rhyming Chronicle’ gives interesting details of a similar encounter between Hungarian light cavalry and heavily- armoured German knights in 1286. He describes how the Germans drew up in their usual close array, ‘stirrup to stirrup, lance to lance’, and how the Hungarians, who wore no armour, repeatedly rode at them, yelling like demons and shooting showers of arrows but never pressing their auack home; instead they wheeled away to left or right as they drew close (the order for which maneuver was given by rattling an arrow quiver, so Villani tells us in the mid-14th century; this noise was therefore only audible to the charging horsemen themselves, and not to the enemy). After 5 hours, during which time they had not come to grips with the Hungarians once, the exhausted Germans, with many of their horses dead or wounded, were obliged to surrender. One other prominent feature of Hungarian tactics that was doubtless a result of Asiatic, in this case Pecheneg, influence was the frequent use of wagons to fortify the army encampment, as at Mohi in 1241. (It should be noted, incidentally, that though the Hungarians were defeated at Mohi through poor generalship, contemporary Chinese sources state that the heaviest losses inflicted on the Mongols in their European campaign of 1237-41 were suffered in a night-battle against the Hungarians just before the engagement on the Sajó.)

Sometimes the Hungarians also employed standard Western European tactics, drawing up in close order with their best troops traditionally in the front line. Their close array appears to have been the cause of their defeat at the Battle of Serolin in 1167, where the Byzantines, with an army of similar composition, deployed in a looser, more maneuverable formation than the Hungarians, who formed up as ‘a single compact body’ around their standard, which was here mounted on a carroccio (obviously under the influence of Italian mercenaries, often encountered in Hungarian armies as, for example, at Mohi). When present on the battlefield Hungarian infantry seem to have constituted the centre of the line, either behind or in front of the cavalry.