In 1388 Yisüder, a descendant of Qubilai Khan’s brother ARIQ-BÖKE, murdered the emperor Toghus-Temür, initiating a complex period of usurpation and conflict. On one side stood the Oirats in the northwest, first under Möngke-Temür (fl. 1400) and by 1403 under three chiefs, Mahmud (d. 1417), Taiping (d. 1426), and Batu-Bolod. The Oirats drew to their side the descendants of Ariq- Böke and other princes who had been relegated to Mongolia during the Yuan. Against them stood Arugtai (d. 1434) of the Asud, active from 1403 on in HULUN BUIR. The Asud (OSSETES) had been an important unit in the Mongol imperial guard in the Yuan, and Arugtai apparently spoke for the old Yuan court.
Another force was the line of ÖGEDEI KHAN, which under the Yuan had lived in China’s Gansu area but were expelled along with the Yuan. The khan Guilichi (murdered 1408), reigning with Arugtai as his commander in 1400, had his base in southwest Inner Mongolia at Ejene and was apparently an Ögedeid. Farther to the west were the Chinggisid khans of MOGHULISTAN, based in modern Xinjiang, and TIMUR and his dynasty beyond them. Arugtai’s new khan after Guilichi, Bunyashiri (Öljeitü, r. 1408–12), came from Temür’s court in Samarqand in 1405, whence he had fled in opposition to the Oirats.
Under Yongle (1402–24) the Ming dynasty intervened aggressively against any overpowerful leader, exacerbating the Mongol-Oirat conflict. In 1409 Bunyashiri and Arugtai crushed a Ming army, so that in 1410 Yongle attacked the two on the KHERLEN RIVER. In 1412 Mahmud of the Oirats killed Bunyashiri, enthroning an Ariq-Bökid, Dalbag (1412–14). Arugtai appealed to the Yongle emperor, who in 1414 defeated Mahmud. With Mahmud’s death in 1417 Arugtai became dominant again, and Yongle campaigned against him in 1422 and 1423, ending when news of Arugai’s defeat by the Oirats arrived. From Yongle’s death, however, Mahmud’s son Toghoon Taishi (d. 1438) built up power without interruption. In 1433 Arugtai was pushed east of the GREATER KHINGGAN RANGE, where he subjugated the Ming-allied Mongols in the THREE GUARDS. Finally, after a great defeat in 1434, Arugtai fled west to the Muna Uula Mountain (west of Baotou), where Toghoon killed him. Arugtai’s khan, Adai (1426–38), another Ögedeid based in Ejene, made a last stand there before succumbing.
Toghoon died in the very year of his final victory over Adai. His son ESEN Taishi (r. 1438–54) brought the Oirats to the height of their power. In the west he drove back the Moghulistan rulers, while to the east he destroyed the Three Guards and the Jurchen. In 1449 he captured the Ming emperor, bringing about a wholesale collapse of the Ming defense line. The Three Guards streamed south to the Shara Mören (Xar Moron) valley, while they and fragments of virtually every other Mongolian group poured into the Huang (Yellow) River bend and ORDOS. Esen ruled as the taishi for the khan Togtoo-Bukha (reign name Taisung, 1443–52), but after punishing his restive Chinggisid khan in winter 1451–52, Esen took the title khan himself, the first non- Chinggisid to do so. Esen was, however, soon overthrown by his own chingsang (grand councillor) of the right, Alag.
From Esen’s death to 1481 the Oirats ceded power among the Mongols to taishis of obscure origin. Bolai Taishi (fl. 1457–66) seems to have inherited Esen’s titles and men but belonged to the KHARACHIN, descendants of the YUAN DYNASTY’s Qipchaq KOUMISS brewers. After a period of domination by Muulikhai Ong, a descendant of Chinggis’s half-brother Belgütei and closely allied to the Three Guards, there appeared three taishis, Beg-Arslan (d. 1479), Ismayil (d. 1486), and Iburai (perhaps from Ibrahim, d. 1533), all active in the Ordos (Huang [Yellow] River bend) area. Most Mongolian sources call them Uighurs, and Beg-Arslan and Ismayil certainly had ties to the Uighur oasis-city of Hami. The Uighur otogs (camp districts; see OTOG) among the TÜMED and Ordos along the Huang (Yellow) River seem to have been the power base for these western adventurers.
The importance of the Huang (Yellow) River bend increased when the EIGHT WHITE YURTS, or the shrine of Chinggis Khan, moved there around 1450. Perhaps from Adai’s reign on (1426–38), khans were crowned before the shrine. The Chinggisid ruler of the shrine, the jinong, a title first seen in 1452, became under Bayan-Möngke Bolkhu Jinong (fl. 1470–79) an important figure. The death of the Oirat taishi Toghoon at the height of his power in 1438 was turned into an illustration of the shrine’s power. In the Mongolian chronicle ALTAN TOBCHI (c. 1655), Toghoon decided to become great khan before the Eight White Yurts but was supernaturally slain, thus proving that only descendants of Chinggis could be khans.
The old blacksmith and his two sons struggled through the knee-deep snow, making their way down the steep mountainside toward Temujin’s camp. The three of them had come a long way from the dark forest of the taiga west of Lake Baikal that was their home. Up ahead, within sight, was the tree line, where the snow gave way to bare ground and rock. Another few li and they would reach the steppe itself, where the spring temperatures had already begun to turn the Mongolian plain green with new grass. It was spring, the time of year when the Mongol clans left their winter camps in the mountains and drove their horse herds down to the steppes, where the half-starved animals that had survived the brutal Mongolian winter could eat their fill and replenish their bodies. It would take at least a month before the horses were healthy enough to permit their use in that favorite Mongol pastime: war.
The old man’s name was Jarchigudai. He was an Uriangkhai, one of the forest tribes that lived in the mountains and thick forests north of the Mongolian steppe. Twenty years ago, he had made this same journey. Then he had conic with his first-born son, Jelme, now a strapping young man of eighteen summers. Jarchigudai had been a blacksmith then, as he still was, and he carried his blacksmith’s bellows on his back when he came to see Yesugei, the warrior and heir to the Mongol dynasty that had once ruled all the Mongol clans. He had come then to offer Yesugei his first-born as his servant. Yesugei had been camped at Deligun Hill on the Onan River, where his wife had presented him with a son of his own.’ Yesugei had named his first-born, Temujin, after a brave warrior that Yesugei had slain in one of the interminable battles between the clans. Jarchigudai’s son had then also been an infant, having been born in the same month as Temujin. Yesugei had welcomed Jarchigudai’s gift with gratitude, but feared that his wife could not care properly for two infants. So he had sent the blacksmith away with the promise that when Jelme had grown to be a man, Yesugei would welcome him into his service. So Jarchigudai the blacksmith returned to his people in the forest where, over the years, he had plied his trade as Jelme had grown to manhood. During this time, Jarchigudai’s wife had given him another son, but the effort had killed her, and Jarchigudai was alone in the world, except for his two boys.
Then word was brought to Jarchigudai that Yesugei had been killed by the Tartars, poisoned as they falsely offered him the hospitality of the Mongol tent. With Yesugei dead, the young Temujin, barely ten years old, had not been able to hold the loyalty of the warriors in the clan. He, his brothers, and his mother had been abandoned on the steppe without horses when the clan gave their loyalty to new leaders. For some years Temujin and his family had survived and rebuilt their fortunes until, only a year before Jarchigudai had learned of Yesugei’s death, Temujin had formed an alliance with his father’s anda, or blood brother, who in turn brought Temujin under his protection. With this friendship, Temujin, a prince of royal Mongol blood, had begun to attract other men and their families to him. Now, in the spring of 1187, as he camped on the banks of the Onan, Temujin was the leader of a small group of followers, families, and herds. Jarchigudai knew that Temujin was the son of a royal father and heir to the old Mongol dynasty. To a simple man like the blacksmith, a promise was a promise. As he had promised to bring his son to Yesugei when the time was right, so now he travelled a great distance to keep his promise to the son of the man to whom he had given his word.
Jarchigudai and his sons reached the camp late in the morning, when the heat of the steppe had already driven the cool morning air away. Temujin was waiting in front of his tent, having been warned of the strangers’ approach by his sentries. He must have wondered who these travelers were and was on his guard, for the life of a Mongol warrior in those days was perilous indeed. As the Secret History of the Mongols tells the story, Jarchigudai spoke to Temujin:
“Many years ago, I had a son, Jelme, who was horn when you were born and grew up when you grew up. When your people were camped at Deligun Hill on the Onan, when you, Temujin, were born, I gave your father a sable blanket to swaddle you in.” The old man could see from the expression on Temujin’s face that it was the first time he had heard such a tale about his own youth. Every Mongol knew his lineage back at least five generations and could recite it at a moment’s notice. But this, Jarchigudai sensed, Temujin had not known. The old blacksmith went on. “When you were an infant, I also gave my son, Jelme, to your father, but since he was just an infant then I kept him with me.” He paused and looked at Jelme, who, he knew, was eager to join Temujin’s clan. Since boyhood, Jelme had shown neither aptitude nor interest in becoming a blacksmith. Jarchigudai turned hack to Temujin. “Now,” he said, “I have come to keep my promise to your father. Now Jelme is yours, to put on your saddle and open your door.” Then he gave Temujin his son.
The Secret History tells us nothing about Jelme’s younger brother, then ten years old and standing behind his father watching everything that transpired. As the youngest son, he would become the ochigin, or “keeper of the hearth,” for it was the custom of the forest tribes to place the father’s estate in the trust of the youngest son. With Jelme gone, old Jarchigudai expected his youngest to become a blacksmith, for that was the way of the Uriangkhai. We do not know what the young boy thought as he watched. Perhaps he was struck by the physical presence of Temujin, a man taller than most Mongols, of powerful build, and with stone-gray eyes-like a wolf’s, it was said. He had never been out of the forests, and perhaps he was impressed with the openness and beauty of the springtime steppe, with its green carpet of new grass, or with the heat of the sun that he could feel shining directly upon his body, unimpeded by the trees of the thick forests in his own land. Or perhaps he was like his brother in ways his father did not know, in that he had never wished to be a blacksmith. Now that Jelme had found another life for himself, perhaps he, too, might one day seek another way. But all this is uncertain. What is certain is that the meeting between Temujin and the sons of Jarchigudai the blacksmith in the early spring of 1187 was to have enormous consequences for the world. In less than twenty years, the young warrior-prince Temujin would come to unite and rule a new nation composed of “all the people whose tents are protected by skirts of felt.” Chosen in the year 1206 by a vast conclave of all the tribes of Mongolia, Temujin was given a new name, one that would make the world tremble. On that May field long ago, Temujin, once the outlaw, became Genghis Khan. The younger of Jarchigudai’s boys, too, would one day make the world shake. Jarchigudai’s youngest son did indeed disappoint his father. When he was fourteen years old, the time when a Mongol boy became a warrior, he left the land of the Uriangkhai to join the army of Temujin. The boy’s name was Subotai, and he became one of the greatest generals in history.
One of the more interesting paradoxes of military history is that the greatest Mongol general of them all was not, strictly speaking, a Mongol at all. The term Mongol refers to the group of clans that constituted the tribe from which Genghis Khan came. Once he had unified the other tribes of Mongolia-the Kerits, Merkits, Naimans, Tartars, etc.-the general confederation was given the common name of Mongols by Chinese, Muslim, and Christian chroniclers. All the tribes were nomadic steppe people who moved their horse and cattle herds with the seasons in search of pasture. All were horsemen and all shared the same type and method of warfare in that they were horse-borne bowmen. The Uriangkhai, to which Subotai belonged, was among the clans called forest tribes or, somewhat less correctly, forest Mongols. The chroniclers knew the Uriangkhai as the Reindeer People, and they lived in the forest taiga of the upper Yenisei River near the western edge of Lake Baikal.’ They lived a vastly different life from that of the Mongol warriors of the steppe, considering themselves separate from them. Indeed, when Genghis Khan came to power, he quickly sent several military expeditions against the forest tribes to bring them under his control.
Genghis’ interest in the forest tribes stemmed less from any feeling of consanguinity than from stark steppe economics. The Uriangkhai were hunters and fishermen who lived by trapping and trading Siberian furs to the steppe Mongols, who valued them highly as clothing against the harsh Mongolian winters. When hunting, the Uriangkhai wore “small, well-polished hones tied to their feet, with which they speed so swiftly over the ice that they catch animals in flight.” The Uriangkhai were not pastoral; that is, they did not move seasonally with the herds, but lived in clustered villages in permanent log huts covered with hides and birch bark. This stability led some of them to become metal smiths, some of whom traveled to the Mongol seasonal encampments where they practiced their trade repairing metal weapons and household implements. Jarchigudai was one of these smiths.
The climate of the Siberian taiga is much colder and snowier, and it has less daylight than the Mongolian steppe, so the Uriangkhai used animal skins for clothing more than did the steppe peoples. If we can trust the description of the Persian physician Rashid ad-Din, writing in his Jami’at-avarikh (Great Collection of Histories) around 1300, the forest tribes took no part in the tribal wars of the steppe Mongols. Rashid wrote that these tribes usually kept no herds, except for the Uriangkhai, who maintained domesticated herds of reindeer that they called reem. Their descendants, the Reindeer People, still survive in the forests of Siberia, near the Arctic Circle, living much as they did during Subotai’s time. According to Rashid, the forest tribes rarely left their woodlands:
They believe that there is no happier life than their own. Their country being very cold, they hunt much over the snow. They bind to their feet long lengths of wood that they call chana, using their staffs in their hands to push them along in the snow, like the pole of a boat. They shoot down mountainsides so swiftly that they catch up with animals…. This is something you must see, in order to believe it.
As the son of a blacksmith in the Siberian taiga, Subotai was raised much differently than the son of a steppe Mongol. Unlike the boys of the steppe, Subotai was not taught to ride by his mother at age three; he was not given a bow and instruction in its use by age five. Whereas the steppe Mongol spent most of his life on horseback, it is likely that Subotai had never even ridden a horse until he joined Genghis’ army at age fourteen. Nor had Subotai any experience in spending long hours in the saddle in the alternating cold and heat of the Mongolian steppe while the entire tribe moved across the open plain with few landmarks to guide it. He possessed no sense of the wide expanse of the steppe or even a sense of distance. It is doubtful that anything from his life in the thick, mountainous forests would have prepared him for the sheer nakedness of the steppe or the desert, or for the terrible sense of vulnerability that can come with it. Unlike the sons of the steppe, this son of the taiga had no experience in eating uncooked food, drinking kumis, or drinking the blood of his horse for nourishment to sustain him on a long march. It is unlikely that, accustomed to life in the forests, he possessed that unique Mongol ability to spot movement in the open plain miles before it was upon you, or the ability to tell the difference between a man and animal at such great distances. For anyone lacking these abilities, the steppe became a dangerous place where a surprise attack could descend quickly upon the unwary, often with deadly results. Yet this son of a blacksmith somehow became the greatest general in Mongol history. His exploits rank him with the most successful of generals in all of human history. Just how this came to he is a very interesting tale.
Writing in his Historia Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus in 1248, the Franciscan monk Giovanni di Plano Carpini, who had returned from his papal mission to the Mongol court in 1247, recorded that Subotai, thought of by the Mongols as their greatest general, was still alive and well.” The Chinese biography of Subotai included in the Sou Houng Kian Lou (translated by Jean Pierre Abel Remusat in 1829) says that the great general died at the age of seventy-three. Accordingly, we may place the dates of Subotai’s life from 1175 to 1248. The first mention of Subotai in any source occurs in The Secret History of the Mongols, the great saga of the Mongol people that records the rise and life of Genghis Khan. Written in poetic form, the Secret History is to Mongol history and myth as the Iliad is to the Greek. We first hear of Subotai in connection with the tale of the break between Temujin and his powerful and jealous ally, Jamuga. For more than a year, the two had been allies, and even anda (blood brothers). Their clans traveled and camped together. Eventually, however, as Jamuga became suspicious of Temujin’s growing popularity, the two clans separated and no longer camped together. This signalled to all the clans and warriors of the Mongol tribe that the time had come to choose sides, and most chose Temujin: “People arrived from the Jalayir, from the Onggur and the Manghud. Ogele Cherbi, Borgorchu’s kin, joined from the Arulad, and Jelme’s younger brother, Subotai Bagatur, left the Uriangkhai to join them.”
Subotai had followed his brother’s example, leaving the forests and his father’s forge for a life of adventure in the service of Temujin the outlaw. Young men pretending to be old enough to join the military is a story as old as armies themselves are. By rough reckoning, Subotai was not yet fourteen, the age when a Mongol boy became a warrior.
The poem speaks of Subotai as bagatur, as if he had already possessed this title at the time he joined Temujin. The title itself means brave or valiant, thus Subotai the Valiant, as he was known to the Chinese chroniclers. The term found its way into Russian as bogatyr. It was the title of the Mongol knight and was acquired by Subotai as a young officer serving in Temujin’s bodyguard. The Secret History was written sometime between 1240 and 1260, when Subotai was already well known as a talented general and had already been granted this title. Although Subotai rose to higher rank, throughout his life he used the title of bagatur most often-so much so that foreign chroniclers often mistakenly thought it to he the great general’s surname!
When Subotai joined Temujin, he was but a young boy and surely no knight. He was Jelme’s younger brother, however, and Jelme had become one of Temujin’s closest comrades and advisors. Jelme had come to Temujin when he was at a difficult juncture. Outlawed by the chief of his own clan, his horses stolen, and his wife kidnapped by the Merkits, Temujin had few warriors to stand by him. The esteem in which Jelme was held by Temujin is clear in the Secret History. In 1188, when the clans chose’Iemujin to be their leader in war, all the clan leaders came forward to pledge their loyalty to Temujin. The only exceptions were Jelme and Bogorchu. To stress the esteem in which these two companions were held, the poem tells of Temujin pledging his loyalty and honor to them.
Then Temujin turned to Borgorchu [sic] and Jelme and said, “You two, from the time when there was no one to fight beside me but my own shadow, you were my shadow and gave my mind rest. That will always be in my thoughts. From the time when there was nothing to whip my horses with except their tails, you were their tails and gave my heart peace. That will always be in my heart. Since you were the first two who came to my side, you will be chieftains over all the rest of the people.”
We may reasonably assume from this that Jelme was privy to all the consultation and planning sessions that Temujin held with his officers as they sought to defeat their enemies both politically and on the battlefield. The use of the commander’s conference, in which the leader gathers his trusted commanders and advisors to plan a campaign, has a very long history in the ancient West, and was commonly used by the Mongols as well. It is likely that Jclme’s position as a trusted comrade is what made Subotai’s higher education in military matters possible.
That a young boy from the forests could adjust to Mongol life on the steppe is clear enough from Jelme’s circumstances. Jelme himself was given to “lemujin as a slave, to put on your saddle and open your [tent] door,” a clear indication that Jelme possessed no military skills at all at that time. A few years later, we find him fully acclimated to the life of the Mongol soldier. But Subotai was still only a boy, and not yet ready to become a soldier. What, then, were they to do with him? He could hardly be turned to common labor, or even to rough training at the hands of the troops. If what the poem tells us about Jelme applied as well to Subotai, then it is possible that Subotai was assigned to be Temujin’s keeper of the tent door while he gradually learned the military skills of the Mongol soldier, perhaps under the careful tutelage of a Mongol officer. Subotai’s special status is implied by the poem. Although of no military status whatsoever, Subotai was permitted to pledge his loyalty to Temujin along with the other clan leaders as if, somehow, he was already one of them. In Subotai’s pledge, there is the sense of a boy strongly impressed by the possibility of adventure and even by the sight of Temujin-so much so that one may have reason to believe that Subotai was excessive in his willingness to become Temujin’s subordinate. Whereas other clan chieftains compare their loyalty to their leader in heroic terms, likening themselves to bears and wolves, Subotai’s pledge reveals no such sense of nobility or military prowess:
Then Subotai promised him: “I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket that covers the horse, I’ll gather up soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent.”
To compare oneself to a crow and a rat suggests a young man a bit too eager to serve his master in any way he is ordered. Subotai has no military skills to offer his chief, and so offers his determination to serve in any capacity, even those usually considered below the Mongol warrior. (One wonders what the other chiefs thought of a boy who would compare his worth to that of a rat, which was regarded by Mongol soldiers as having value only as food.) Subotai’s being like a felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind is instructive, however, for that is exactly the task of the doorkeeper of the tent.
As Jelme’s brother and keeper of Temujin’s tent door, Subotai would have been present at the war councils and discussions of Temujin’s officers; among them, of course, was Jelme. At the same time, we can reasonably surmise that Subotai spent some of his days taking instruction in the military arts of the Mongol soldier: how to ride a horse, shoot a bow, and practice in the maneuver and Are tactics of the Mongol cavalry. Over the next decade, Temujin and his clan engaged in a series of battles with the other tribes, as well as his chief rival and former ally, Jamuga. For the most part, these engagements produced no strategic decisions about unifying the Mongol nation or deciding who would lead it. During this time, Subotai probably received his first taste of battle, perhaps only as a common soldier, and then later as commander of an urban (a squad of 10 men) or djaghoun (company of 100 men). The Secret History is silent with regard to Suhotai’s military experience during this decade of war, but it is likely that the tribal conflicts served to educate Subotai in the Mongol way of war and to season him to the physical and psychological rigors of campaigning. It is only in 1197, at the end of this period, that the records reveal anything further about Subotai’s performance in battle or his fitness for command.
History would suggest that more important than his experience on the battlefield was Subotai’s exposure to the discussions held and questions asked in the commander’s conferences by Temujin’s highest-ranking commanders, Jelme among them. There is no reason to suspect that Subotai was not present at these conferences, perhaps at first only as an accidental observer and then, at some point when his military skills had improved, perhaps sitting behind Jelme while the discussions went on. Ten years of listening to the plans and arguments of senior commanders as they planned their campaigns and subsequently dissected the performance of the men in after-action reports would have given the young Subotai an excellent and very practical military education. Here he would have learned to think beyond unit tactics; to see how the tactical employment of units fit into the larger plan of the campaign, and how they in turn fit into the overall strategy. Although his own field experience at this time would have permitted him to command only smaller units, Subotai was exposed to the planning and execution of war at the operational level. The ability to conceptualize war plans and implement them on a grand scale is one of the most difficult skills for any officer to acquire. Most never acquire this ability, something that may explain why warfare has, over the long centuries of its practice, produced only a few truly great generals. Subotai became one of those generals. His military education was unique. While he was gaining experience in different levels of tactical command, he was simultaneously being exposed over a long period to the discussions, planning, and analysis of battles at the highest levels of command.
As events unfolded, it was Subotai’s education rather than his battlefield experience that shaped his intellect, with the result that he became one of the most successful and innovative generals in history. The closest that modern military establishments come to a military education of the type experienced by Subotai is, perhaps, the German General Staff system. There young officers, often captains, spend much of their careers in parallel staff and combat assignments at higher levels where they are continuously exposed to the deliberations of more senior commanders.
In 1197, when Subotai was twenty-three years old and by now a soldier with some battlefield experience, Temujin undertook an attack against the rival Merkit tribe. According to the account of the war preserved for us by Chinese chroniclers, Subotai was placed in command of a small unit, most likely a djaghoun of 100 soldiers. Up to this time there were no units in the Mongol army larger than the 1,000-man regiments (mingan), command of which was always placed in the hands of Temujin’s senior commanders. The Chinese records offer the following account of Subotai’s role in the war with the Merkits:
Temujin convoked an assembly of his officers to march against the Metkits. He asked … “Who will be the first to attack?” Subotai volunteered and Temujin, noting his courage, offered to send a corps of 100 elite soldiers along with him. But Subotai opposed this saying, “I will take care of everything.” Then Subotai traveled to the Merkit camp and feigned abandoning Temujin’s cause. They [the Merkits] placed such confidence in what Subotai told them that they neglected to make sufficient preparation so that when the great Mongol army arrived at the Tchen River they were taken by surprise, and two of their generals were captured.’
Suhotai’s presence at a commander’s conference of senior officers planning the Merkit attack suggests that, although he was a junior officer, he had become somewhat of a regular attendee at these meetings. The fact that Subotai was permitted to participate fully in the discussions implies that over the years, Subotai, although not an experienced or distinguished field commander as far as we can judge, was nonetheless regarded by Zemujin himself as a valuable source of military counsel. Other men had their courage and physical stamina to offer their commander-in-chief. It was becoming evident that Subotai had something much rarer to offer: a brilliant military mind.
The tale of Subotai’s actions against the Merkits offers the first glimpse into his thinking. What is impressive is his use of deception and surprise, two qualities that repeatedly characterized his future campaigns. Subotai’s armies repeatedly led the enemy into thinking one thing while he was preparing to do the opposite. And when his armies struck, they almost always achieved strategic or tactical surprise. As at the Tchen River against the Metkits, whenever the major blow fell, it always fell at a single point-the Schwerpunkt-where the main army arrived at a single location to concentrate their force. Many times Subotai fought against armies larger than his own, but he always maneuvered to insure that when the final blow was struck, he unfailingly achieved numerical superiority at the decisive point. The Chinese account of Subotai’s actions against the Merkits reveals his willingness to attempt military operations marked by boldness and risk. Although he became known for his detailed planning and attention to intelligence reports, at base Suhotai possessed the soul of a gambler, which, as Napoleon remarked, was the most important trait of a great general. Once he had mastered what he could, Subotai was always willing, as the poet said, to risk his winnings on “one turn of pitch-and-toss.” These traits of character, when joined with a first-rate intellect, made Subotai an extraordinarily innovative and imaginative commander.
Between 1197 and 1206 (when he at last defeated his rivals), Temujin fought a series of battles in which Subotai took part. In 1201, Temujin fought a number of indecisive skirmishes against Jamuga and the Oga Khan. In one of these, Temujin was wounded in the neck by an arrow. The faithful Jelme sucked the wound until it clotted and saved the life of his friend and leader. In 1202, Temujin conducted a campaign against the Tartars. Unlike the previous campaign in 1199, this time Temujin put an end to the Tartar threat by having each Tartar male “measured against the linchpin.” All the captured Tartar males were led past the wheel of a wagon. Those who were taller than the linchpin of the wheel were beheaded; the smaller children were spared, and later taken into the Mongol armies. The women and young girls were turned to slavery. This practice was fairly common among the Mongols, but no one had ever employed it on such a scale before. The result was that the Tartars ceased to exist as a separate tribe.
In 1203, Jamuga and the Oga Kahn had raised a large army from the remaining tribes and brought Temujin to battle at a place called the Red Willows. Badly outnumbered, Temujin’s army fought the enemy coalition to a draw but suffered such heavy casualties that Temujin was forced to withdraw. Of the almost 20,000 men in Temujin’s army who fought in the Battle of the Red Willows, only 2,600 were alive at the end of the day. Temujin and what was left of his army retreated to the northeast, finally stopping at a small lake known as Baljuna. The epic poem tells us that,
As to those of the Mongols who have stayed with Temujin, their plight is such that they have now but one horse to each rider [usually three], no lead horses or pack animals, [the baggage train was captured] and that instead of tents all they have for shelter is the trees of the forest.
The conditions at Baljuna were no better. At this time of year, the lake was almost dry, and what water there was had to be squeezed from a handful of mud. Only a few of Temujin’s officers remained with him, among them the loyal Subotai. It was the Mongol custom to abandon a leader in defeat and seek new accommodations. Temujin never forgot the loyal few who stood beside him in his darkest hour. Like the men around Mao Tse Tung on his long march to Yunan or the “precious few” who stood with Henry at Agincourt, for the rest of his life those who had been at Baljuna were always closest to the Great Khan. He created a special military order for them, the Order of the Ter-Khans, and they were rewarded with wealth and position. Each was permitted to commit nine capital offenses without punishment and was free to enter Genghis’ tent at any time. Temujin’s gratitude for his comrades was expressed in a Persian account:
Moved by the loyalty of those who had not left him in his distress, he promised them, hands clasped and eyes raised to heaven, that hence-forth he would share with them the sweet and the bitter, asking that, if he went back on his word, he might become as the muddy water of the Baljuna. As he spoke, he drank of this water and passed the cup to his officers, who swore in their turn never to leave him. These companions of Genghis Khan were known afterwards as the Baijunians, and were recompensed magnificently for their loyal adherence.
Among these precious few was Subotai, who, true to his original oath taken long ago, stood by his commander and protected him from the wind that was blowing violently across Mongolia.
Less than a year later, after he had rallied his clans and rebuilt his army, Temujin attacked the Oga Khan, taking his army by surprise and trapping it in a narrow pass. This time there would be no mistake. Although the Oga Khan and his son escaped, the army of the Kerits was destroyed. Temujin then captured the remainder of the Kerits and dispersed them into his ranks as slaves so that the Kerits ceased to exist as a separate people. Thus, in the winter of 1203-1204, Temujin had become master of all eastern and central Mongolia. Only the Naimans in the west remained. In the summer of 1204, the Year of the Rat, Temujin
divided his army to form troops of thousands, and having appointed his commanders, having chosen his eighty night guards and seventy soldiers as day guards…. And having sprinkled libations of mare’s milk on his standard of nine tails as a signal to Heaven that he was going to war, he set out with his army against the Naiman.
The army numbered 80,000 men.
Temujin proceeded cautiously on his approach to the Naiman territory. He knew the Naimans would outnumber him when the time came to give battle. Their warriors had a fierce reputation, their commanders known for their tendency to take the offensive and press the attack. But Temujin also knew that the Naiman king, Baibuka Tayang, was not a good general. Long before the present war he had taken the measure of the man and concluded that, “the Naiman are strong in numbers, but their khan is a weak man who has never been out of his tent.” When in command of a strong army, even a weak general can be dangerous, however, for as an old proverb had it, an army of lions led by a donkey was more dangerous than an army of donkeys led by a lion! And so when Temujin approached the land of the Naiman, he ordered that when his army camped at night each man was to light five campfires so that anyone watching would think the army was greater in numbers than it was.
The Naiman generals wanted to attack Temujin immediately. It was the end of May, the time when the Mongols leave their mountain encampments and come down to the plains, where the horses can feed on the thick new grass and rebuild their bodies, which have grown thin, weak, and hollow-flanked from almost six months of fast. For at least a month, the horses are of no use in war, and it was at this time that Temujin’s army was most vulnerable. But when the Naiman Tayang received reports of the number of fires flickering in Temujin’s camp, he became fearful that he was facing a larger army than his own and took counsel of his fears. The Tayang resisted the entreaties of his commanders to attack. He proposed instead to undertake a strategic retreat, forcing the Mongols to follow on their already exhausted mounts.
If we take our people back over the Altai [mountains] retreating in order this way, reforming our army on the other side of the passes, marching back and forth and enticing them to follow, appearing to retreat from them but still fighting small skirmishes along the way … the Mongol horses will be exhausted by then and we’ll throw our army back in their faces.
It was a sound (if cautious) plan, one befitting a general who “had never been out of his tent.” The debate among the Tayang’s generals went on for more than a month until the senggum, the son of the Tayang, put an end to it with his eagerness to attack and convinced his father. So “the Naiman swept down the Tamir River Valley, crossing the Orkhon, passing the eastern edge of Mount Nakhu. As they came to the Chakirmagud, they were seen by Temujin’s sentries.” The delay had served Temujin well. His horses were fit and his army was ready for war, and his sentries had deprived the Naiman of the element of surprise.
The Mongol epic describes the battle in detail and provides us for the first time with an account of Subotai’s performance in battle as commander of a 1,000-man mingan (or regiment) fighting as part of a four-regiment task force commanded by Jebe. The tactical orders of the Mongols have conic down to us, so that the order of march was to be “as thick as grass,” perhaps a reference to marching in solid regimental column to withstand an attack or to maximize shock in the attack. Once on the battlefield, the units were to assume “the lake formation” and were to attack “drill-wise.” Unfortunately, we do not know to what formations and tactics these terms refer. Aware that the Naiman had a reputation for offensive action, Zemujin order his advanced guard immediately into the attack. The impression of the text is that he caught the enemy off-guard as it was assembling its units prior to battle on the open plain. The spoiling attack was successful, and
our forward troops drove the Naiman back from Chakirmagud. Their forces retreated from us, reforming before Mount Nakhu on the skirts of the mountains there. Our forward troops drove them back, herding them together into a great mass before Mount Nakhu.
As in the Iliad, the Mongol epic describes the great battle through the eyes of the commander who, located on the high ground behind his army, watches the armies assemble and the battle unfold before him. The Naiman Tayang inquires of his ally, Jamuga,
Who are these people who charge us like wolves pursuing so many sheep, chasing the sheep right into the flock? Jamuga replies, “These are the Four Dogs of my and a Temujin. They feed on human flesh and are tethered with an iron chain. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails, swords. They feed on dew. Running, they ride on the hack of the wind. In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. ‘These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai.”
Frightened at the ferocity of the attack, the Naiman ordered his army to withdraw up the mountain.
Here we find the first mention of Subotai as a battlefield commander, his regiment operating in concert with three others. The accounts of Genghis’ later wars mention the use of such special units as the Four Dogs from time to time. We hear of these units in other battles when their commanders are called the Four Torrents, the Four Courses, and the Four Heroes. That Temujin chose his commanders purely on ability and experience is evident in the fact that none of the Four Dogs at the battle of Chakirmagud were of his own tribe. Khubilai was a prince of another tribe, Jebe was of the Tayichigud clan, and Jelme and Subotai were Uriangkhai. Subotai’s command of a regiment at Chakirmagud is evidence that he had shown himself to be a competent combat commander as well as a military thinker. It is also obvious from the poem that the Four Dogs were superb battlefield commanders whose units were known for their ferocity in the attack. At the battle of Chakirmagud they seem to have been used as mobile shock troops, much like a modern armored column, to drive through the enemy ranks at different points, penetrate to the rear, and disrupt the enemy formations. The text tells us in this regard that they “charge us like wolves pursuing so many sheep, chasing the sheep right into the flock.” It is also likely that one of their missions was to attack the enemy commander and disrupt his ability to command. Students of modern war will recognize these tactics as part of the “deep battle,” a concept invented by the Mongols and, as we shall see, transmitted to the future armies of the West.
The battle raged all that day with the Naiman getting the worst of it until they were forced to retreat up Mount Nakhu and darkness ended the fight. During the night, the Naiman attempted to escape:
In the darkness the Naiman tried to drive their carts and horses back down and fell from the cliffs and narrow trails of Nakhu, their bodies falling atop one another, their bones shattering from the fall, their bodies crushing each other like piles of dead trees, and that’s how most of them died.
Come daylight, Temujin resumed the attack, surrounding the Tayang and his commanders, who died fighting to the last man even as the dishonorable Jamuga made his escape. As for the Naiman tribe, the text tells us that they were assembled at the foot of the Altai and were disposed of,” perhaps “measured by the linchpin” as the Tartars had been. The last major obstacle to Temujin’s ambitions in Mongolia was destroyed at Chakirmagud. Only a few pockets of resistance remained. Later that year, Temujin attacked the Merkits and defeated them. The sons of the Merkit king escaped, however, and in the following year, the Year of the Ox (1205), Temujin ordered Subotai to hunt down the last of the Merkit princes and their followers and destroy them.
The Secret History’s account of Subotai’s campaign is rich in detail, some of it confusing and requiring explanation. The difficulty arises immediately at the beginning of the poem, which tells us: “During the Year of the Ox Temujin sent out Subotai equipping his army with iron carts, to pursue the sons of Toghtogat Beki [Toqto’a Beki] and their followers.” The phrase temur-tergen is translated by Kahn and Cleaves as “iron carts,” while Grousset translates it as “iron-framed wagons,” from which Grousset suggests that they were special wagons built to withstand the rough terrain and gorges over which Subotai would have had to travel in his pursuit of the Merkits. This argument is unconvincing in light of the fact that the Mongols routinely conducted campaigns over such rough terrain and there are no other indications of iron carts before the Merkit campaign or after it. The reference to iron carts is puzzling, but may tell us something about the use of iron in the early Mongol armies
In the Mongolian wars, Temujin’s armies probably made only limited use of iron weapons and implements. For the most part, arrows and lances were made from fire-hardened wood, and the “arrow knife” used for manufacturing these weapons and keeping their tips sharp is mentioned several times in the Secret History. Armor and helmets were made not of metal but of boiled leather, fashioned while wet and dried to shape. As a pastoral people, the Mongols were periodically on the move and lacked the stability of place that is usually associated with the practice of metallurgy. Instead, the Mongol tribes relied upon trade with the forest tribes to provide them with iron implements, while the traveling smiths, like Jarchigudai, came among them in the spring to repair their iron weapons and implements and sell them new ones. It is certain that some iron arrowheads and spear blades were in use during this period, for tales were told of Mongol women scouring the battlefield to retrieve these items. During the war with the Chin that began in 1206, the Mongols were exposed to the Chinese metal army. Thereafter, the Mongols began to adopt metal weapons, helmets, and iron in general on a large scale. In their wars with the Muslims and the West, the Mongols usually excluded metal smiths from their slaughter and shipped them hack to Mongolia or distributed them among the army units where they could keep Mongol equipment in repair. The deportation of metal smiths was so extensive in Russia that it required more than two centuries for the craft to reestablish itself once the Mongols had departed.
Against this background, it is interesting to speculate what the Secret History may be telling us about the iron carts and their relationship to Sub otai, the blacksmith’s son. Perhaps Subotai introduced some new element to the Mongol armies. Two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that the iron carts are mobile forges that the armies, fighting larger campaigns of longer duration over longer distances, now required to keep their increasingly large stock of iron weapons, armor, and other implements in good repair. Even though the use of iron weapons by Temujin’s army was not extensive in 1205, the Secret History was written between 1240 and 1260, when iron weapons were in common use. The chronicler may have simply been writing about what he knew and attributed it to Subotai’s time. This is a common occurrence among ancient chronicles. In the Bible, for example, “chariots of iron” are attributed to David’s army when, in fact, they were not used then. The Biblical chronicler, writing perhaps four centuries after David-when the Assyrians had introduced large armored chariots with metal tire rims, thus “chariots of iron,”-simply modified the chronology and attributed them to David’s army as well.
A second possibility is that Subotai’s knowledge of iron led him to suggest a way to solve a chronic problem of Mongol military mobility. Mongol wagons were equipped with solid, wooden wheels of the kind commonly found in ancient Sumer and Egypt from the time of the third millennium B.C.E. Spokeless and solid, they were easy to manufacture but subject to breakdown in difficult terrain, a problem that also plagued the armies of Sumer and Egypt. Mongol armies usually operated on the treeless steppe or in steep mountains, where the lack of trees made finding the wood to repair broken wagon wheels difficult. Subotai, as the son of a blacksmith, may have hit upon the solution of fabricating an iron rim for the wooden wheel, a solution long known in China and the West. An iron rim would strengthen the wheel and reduce breakage in rough terrain. The iron carts are mentioned only twice in the Secret History, and in both instances they are associated with Subotai.
R. P. Lister, in his history of Genghis Khan, offers yet another explanation regarding Subotai and the iron carts: “Subotai had swiftly grown to enormous stature and bulk; none of the steppe horses could carry him far, and he customarily travelled in an iron wagon.” Unfortunately, Lister does not cite any of the chroniclers in support of Subotai’s obesity. A portrayal of Subotai that appears in the Chinese Sou-Houng-Kian-Lou and is the only known rendering of the man to come down to us. Portrayed in the stance of an attacking tiger, no doubt to imply his ferocity in battle, the drawing does not suggest that Subotai was obese. Nor is the rendering out of proportion to the portrayals of other Mongol generals in the same chronicle. Moreover, the reference to Subotai and the iron carts appears in the Secret History as occurring in 1205, less than a year after Subotai and the Four Dogs performed so gallantly in the battle against the Naiman. Later, in 1221, we find Subotai and Jebe conducting a great cavalry raid around the Caspian Sea covering more than a thousand miles on horseback. Then again, in 1224, when Genghis summoned Subotai to his camp in central Asia, Subotai made a solitary journey of over 1,000 miles on horseback to comply with the Khan’s order. None of these exploits would have been possible had Subotai been obese and required to travel in an iron-wagon.
Subotai was thirty years old when he was assigned his first high-level, independent combat command. Although he had proven himself a capable combat commander at the regimental level, he had never been in sole command of a large force of several regiments until he was assigned to hunt down the Merkit princes. All his previous experience had been in command of units that were part of larger operational forces under the overall command of others. With the order to capture the Merkits, Subotai was assigned his first large, independent command with instructions to undertake operations far from his home base. The Mongol epic goes into considerable detail regarding the instructions given to Subotai by Temujin himself. The first part of these instructions amounts to a heroic narration by Temujin urging Subotai to be determined and courageous. Temujin tells Subotai,
If they [the Merkits] sprout wings and fly up toward heaven, you, Subotai, become a falcon and seize them in mid-air. If they become marmots and claw into the earth with their nails, you become an iron rod and bore through the earth to catch them. If they become fish and dive into the depths of the sea, you, Subotai, become a net, casting yourself over them and dragging them back.
But it is the second part of Temujin’s instructions to Subotai that is puzzling, for in it he seems to be instructing Subotai in the very basic application of Mongol military arts, something that we would have thought completely unnecessary for a commander of Subotai’s rank and experience. Thus, Temujin instructs Subotai:
I’m sending you off to cross high passes and ford great rivers. Keep in mind the distance you will have to travel and spare your horses so they don’t get exhausted. Conserve their strength before its [sic] used up. When a gelding is already worn out, it’s useless to spare him.
Perhaps Temujin recalled that Subotai was not a steppe Mongol by birth, and that, until the Uriangkhai had joined him, horsemanship was unknown to Subotai. So basic a reminder to even a lower-ranking steppe Mongol officer would have seemed strange, indeed. On the other hand, the Mongol epic, like other epics, may include considerable detail only to enlighten or entertain the reader. Perhaps Temujin’s “oration” to Subotai is of the type of similar orations found by battle commanders in other epics and is purely a poetic device.
Throughout the narrative Temujin continues to instruct Subotai in basic military arts. He tells Subotai how to sustain the army on the long march to the objective.
Once you have used up your provisions, there is nothing to save. There will be a great deal of game to hunt on the way. Keep in mind how far you have to go and don’t let the men ride off to hunt at their whim. Only hunt within limits … then set a limit on how much will be killed.
Once more, he instructs Subotai on the proper use of horses: “See to it that your men keep their cruppers hanging loose on their mounts and the hit of the bridle out of their mouth, except when you hunt.” Loosened cruppers and bits not only reduce fatigue on the horses but also make it impossible for the horsemen to chase game on a whim. Next, Temujin tells Subotai that on a long march it is the commander’s responsibility to insure that military discipline is maintained at all times. “Having established these rules see to it you seize and beat any man who breaks them. Any man that I know who ignores my decree, have him brought back to stand before me. Any man I don’t know who ignores this decree, cut off his head where he stands.” Finally, Temujin cautions Subotai that the application of tactics must always be directed toward the higher strategic goal and that tactics must never he permitted to distract the commander from his strategic objective. “Though your army will divide beyond the great rivers, all must continue in pursuit of one goal. Though mountain ranges separate your men from each other, think of nothing else but this task.” Temujin’s advice is sound, of course, but what is puzzling is why he felt it necessary to instruct a senior regimental commander-one whom he had come to rely upon for his strategic insight in the councils of war-in such basic matters. Elsewhere in the Secret History, we find Temujin giving tactical direction to his commanders, but nowhere do we find it in such detail and at so rudimentary a level as we do in the instructions to Subotai. Perhaps because Subotai was not a steppe Mongol, Temujin remained uncertain as to his fitness for higher independent command even though Temujin knew the value of Subotai’s military mind. If so, then sending Subotai against the Merkits in command of his first large-scale, independent operation may well have been a test of his ability. The Mongol epic tells us that Subotai passed the test. “So Subotai the Brave, equipped with iron carts, was sent off to war … he overtook the sons of Toghtoga Beki [sic] by the banks of the Chui River, destroying their forces, and returned.
While Subotai was destroying the remnants of the Merkits, Jebe was hunting down the last of the Naiman princes. Jamuga, too, was captured and put to death. In May of 1206, the Year of the Tiger, “having set in order the lives of all the people whose tents are protected by skirts of felt, the Mongol clans assembled at the head of the Onan. They raised a white standard of nine tails and proclaimed Temujin the Great Khan.” For the first time in almost fifty years, all the Mongol clans were united under the command of a single national leader, and his name was Genghis Khan. He immediately set about creating a national army. When the armies of the clans were combined, there was sufficient manpower to create ninety-five regiments of 1,000 men each, also known as the mingans. Genghis personally selected the regimental commanders and made them all Mingan-u Noyan, or Lords of the Regiments. Among them was Subotai. In appointing his commanders, Genghis had special praise for the Four Dogs, Subotai among them. “`For me you have broken the necks of the strong and the backs of the athletic. When the order, “Forward!” sounded, you clove rocks and stemmed the wild torrent. On the day of battle, with such men before me,’ cried Genghis Khan, “I could rest assured.”
Regimental-strength units were traditional to the Mongol armies. But now, perhaps conscious of his plans for conquest, Genghis introduced new units of 10,000 men. These were the Mongol toumans that were to gain such fame in the forthcoming wars against the Chinese, Muslims, and ultimately the West. Genghis assigned command of one of the three new toumans to Bogorchu to command the Army of the Right, one to Mukhali to command the Army of the Left, and one to Nayaga to command the Army of the Center. But most importantly, Genghis said, “Let the two commanders, Jebe and Subotai, lead armies as large as they can gather.” Here the Secret History tells us that Jebe and Subotai were appointed as the first orloks of the new Mongol army. The term literally means “eagles,” but in the context of the terminology of military command, Jebe and Subotai were appointed Field Marshals. From that day forward, no major military operation was planned or undertaken by Genghis Khan, or later by his son, Ogedai, in which the voice of Subotai was not heard.
Genghis’ selection of these two officers to lead his army is evidence of what historians have recognized as his unfailing capacity to judge the character and ability of the men he selected for high office. Jebe and Subotai could not have been more opposite. Jebe was a dashing and reckless leader of men in battle with considerable combat experience even before he joined Temujin. During one of the battles with the Tayichigud clan, Temujin had his horse shot out from underneath him when an arrow struck it in the spine. Later, when the Tayichiguds had been driven from the field, a young warrior rode into Temujin’s camp. It was Jebe, and he told Temujin that he had shot the horse. Jebe’s bravery so impressed Temujin that he spared his life and made him one of his unit commanders. From that day forward, Jebe was among the bravest of Temujin’s warriors whose exploits are celebrated in the Secret History.
The Mongol epic, by contrast, tells us little about the combat prowess of Subotai. Indeed, the text hints that Temujin had doubts about Subotai’s ability to command men under fire even though he had performed well at the regimental level. But Temujin was a shrewd judge of men, and Suhotai had been present at the war councils for many years, first as a boy observing as he tended the tent door and later, as the Chinese tell us, as a participant in the discussions. Temujin became increasingly impressed by Subotai’s intellect and his grasp of strategy and tactics in operational planning. We cannot know, of course, how many wars, battles, and campaigns undertaken by Temujin in his quest to become Khan might have been influenced or even planned by Subotai, but it is likely that his influence was considerable. Temujin may once have harbored doubts about Subotai’s fitness for field command. Courage and warrior spirit were qualities not in short supply among steppe warriors. Competent field commanders were easily available, but an officer who could plan and coordinate large-scale military operations across thousands of miles was a rarity. Temujin had no doubt watched Subotai’s mind work over many years around the campfires where battles were planned. Now that Genghis Khan had established a Mongol national army, he appointed his most brilliant officer to lead it.
Many of Genghis Khan’s campaigns from this time forward were planned at the strategic level by Subotai. Among the most important of these were the wars against the Chin (1211-1216), the westward campaign against the Muslim empire of Khwarizm (1219-1224), and the attack against Russia and the West (1237-1242). In all of these campaigns, Subotai took the field to direct operations. To be sure, the last word as to design and implementation of the campaigns rested with Genghis himself. The planning, however, was done by Subotai and his staff. Later this staff comprised Chinese and Muslim experts, as well as Mongols. After Genghis’ death, his son, Ogedai, seems to have left all of the military planning and oversight to Subotai. It was the practice of both Genghis and Ogedai to appoint royal princes as the nominal commanders of military operations while real authority rested with Subotai. In the campaign against Russia and the West, for example, Batu was the nominal commander of the army, but Subotai actually planned and directed the battles. In one instance when Subotai and Batu disagreed, Subotai carried the day. In another, Subotai refused to execute a direct order of his commander, implying that the young Batu had lost his courage. Genghis Khan and Ogedai knew the value of Subotai’s brilliance and were not wont to squander it merely to soothe the ego of a royal prince.
The Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar, also known as the Third Battle of Homs, was a Mongol victory over the Mamluks in 1299.
Mongol operations in the Levant, 1299-1303, showing the location of the Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar (3rd Homs)
After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Holy Land, shock waves traveled through Europe. Every bishop summoned the faithful to tell them that Christ’s Sepulchre had been irretrievably lost to them. Among the people there was no rage, only a vague sense of loss. For two hundred years they had been hearing about the Crusades, their triumphs, and their failures, and they had little emotion left for the dead who lay buried among the ruins of Acre. The days of the Crusades were over, and they had other matters to attend to. Moreover, they were grateful that they were no longer to be taxed to pay for the Crusades.
But the Crusades were not yet entirely a thing of the past. To end the story with the fall of Acre is to leave out the last brilliant flaring-up of the Crusader spirit, the sudden emergence of a new, heaven-sent opportunity to establish God’s kingdom firmly in the Holy Land. The Mamelukes might seem to be in total control; they had reduced most of the seacoast cities to rubble; they stabled their horses in Jerusalem; but they were not in any practical sense ruling over Palestine, which had become a desert. There remained Armenia, which would survive for 175 years, almost forgotten by the West, under Christian kings who descended from the family of Lusignan. There remained the armed Templars who had taken refuge on the island of Cyprus. There were not very many of them, but they could call upon the Templars in Europe to swell their ranks. Above all, there remained the Mongol army of the Ilkhan Ghazan, and this army, when well led, could sweep everything in its path. Ghazan had been converted to Islam, but he felt kindly toward the Christians and unkindly toward the Sultan of Egypt.
In the summer of 1292, a year after the fall of Acre, the Templars on Cyprus elected a new Master, Jacques de Molay, who was the Marshal of the Templar army, and expert in all military affairs from the construction of fortresses to tactics and strategy. His election was fraught with extraordinary consequences.
Jacques de Molay, who would bear an extraordinary weight of destiny on his shoulders, was a man almost without a history. He was born near Besançon in eastern France to a family of the minor nobility. He was about twenty-one years old when he entered the order, in 1265, at Beaunein the wine-growing region near Dijon. Thereafter, he spent his whole life in the service of the Templars. He was one of those steadfast soldiers who disappear into the army, for nothing very much was heard of him until he became Marshal.
He quarreled with King Henry of Lusignan, because he wanted to retain complete control of the Templars, while the king wanted to command all the forces on the island. The quarrel became violent, and in August 1298, the pope came out openly on the side of the Master. The pope urged Henry of Lusignan, King of Cyprus, to set aside his quarrels with the Templars, because it was beyond doubt that they contributed to the safety of the kingdom and an open break would only jeopardize the lives of everyone in Cyprus. Boniface VIII was not overstating the case on behalf of the Master of the Temple. The number of Templars on the island was probably no more than five hundred, but they were a disciplined force. Jacques de Molay was a fighting knight, and if the Crusaders ever fought again they would need someone like him to lead them.
For nearly seven years the Mameluke army remained quiescent, partly because Egypt was being ravaged by a plague and partly because the army needed time to absorb the treasure it had pillaged from Palestine. Then suddenly two fully equipped Mameluke divisions stormed Alexandretta and advanced into Cilicia to attack Sis and Adana, slaughtering as they went. One by one, the castles of Armenia were demolished. King Constantine of Armenia, acting on behalf of Hethum, the rightful king, who had been wounded in a palace intrigue, summoned the help of the Mongols. The Ilkhan Ghazan offered to lead a combined Armenian and Mongol army against the Mamelukes.
Messengers were sent to Cyprus to warn the king of the coming battles. A small army was hastily put together and ferried to the port of St. Symeon in the autumn of 1299. Here they made contact with Mongol forces encamped in the ruins of Antioch. Jacques de Molay was given command of thirty thousand Mongol soldiers. Hethum, recovered from his wounds, took command of the Armenian army. He had been partially blinded during the palace intrigue, but his sight had returned and he was able to see the immense army brought up by the Mongols. Altogether there were more than a hundred thousand troops: three or four thousand from Cyprus, perhaps fifteen thousand from Armenia, a small army of Georgians, all the rest Mongols. Ghazan decided that the time had come to rid Syria of the Mamelukes.
Hethum, who knew the Mongol emperor well, and indeed was related to him—Ghazan had married a princess of the Armenian royal family—accompanied the huge army on the march to Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan was very small and he had the wizened features of a Mongol. Hethum thought that in all his army there were not two thousand men as small as the emperor, and there were few who were as ugly; neither were there any so generous, brave, high-minded, or sweet-tempered. Ghazan told Hethum that his intention, once he had swept Syria and Palestine clear of the Mamelukes, was to give that land to the Christians.
Wadi al-Khaznadar, halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, was a large walled town on the Orontes. It was well fortified, with walls of black stone, and was famous for its orchards and the beauty of its people. The Mameluke army was camped in and around the town, ready to do battle. The Mongol-Armenian-Christian army rode along the plain in the shadow of the Lebanon mountains until it was a day’s march from Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan called a halt, saying he would remain there until his horses were fully rested. He set up his camp, busied Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with his own affairs, and seemed totally indifferent to the presence of the enemy a day’s march away. There was an abundance of fodder and water, and provisions came from the surrounding villages.
The news that Ghazan was resting in his camp came to the ears of the Sultan at Wadi al-Khaznadar on December 22, 1299. He decided to attack immediately, reached Ghazan’s camp toward evening, and sent his cavalry to destroy the army of the Mongol emperor. Caught by surprise, Ghazan ordered his own cavalry to dismount. They were not to attack the enemy, but to use their horses as a wall and to shoot arrows at the enemy as soon as they came within range. The Mongols were superb archers. They broke the charge, and by nightfall the Mamelukes had fled.
During that night, the Mongols and their allies advanced on Wadi al-Khaznadar. The battle was resumed at dawn, and this time the Mongols had no need to kneel behind their horses. Armenians, Templars, Hospitallers, and contingents of the Cypriot army, Georgians, and Mongols, spent the day slaughtering the Mamelukes until there was scarcely any part of the battlefield uncarpeted by dead bodies.
The allied losses were small; the Mamelukes lost three-quarters of their army. The sultan fled to Cairo with a small bodyguard of Bedouin, while the survivors fled in the direction of Tripoli and were cut down by Christians living in the mountains of Lebanon. The Sultan’s treasure was found intact. Characteristically, Ghazan ordered that the spoils should be divided among the soldiers, and he kept for Wadi al-Khaznadarelf only the sultan’s sword and a pouch containing the seals of the sultanate.
The army rested for five days and then advanced on Damascus. While they were on the march, the governor of Damascus sent ambassadors with costly presents and the keys to the city. Ghazan received the ambassadors, accepted their gifts, and told them he would set up his camp near the city and perhaps make it his capital. Capchik, a Saracen who had ingratiated Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with Ghazan, was made governor of Damascus, while Cotulossa, a Mongol chieftain, was made second-in-command of the army. Toward the end of February 1300, Ghazan had to return to Persia to put down an uprising. Before he left, he summoned King Hethum, and said the time had come for the Christians to take possession of their castles and restore them to fighting strength. Ghazan said he had given orders to Cotulossa to help them in every way.
For six months the Christians, with the help of the Mongol army, were in effective control of the Holy Land. Everything was restored to them. Dazed, they saw the country over which they had fought for two hundred years given back to them. Armenia belonged once again to the Armenians; the cities of the seacoast as far south as Gaza and Jerusalem itself belonged to the Crusaders. At Easter, services were held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Templars and Hospitallers had entered the city in triumph, and no one had tried to stop them. Ghazan, before leaving Damascus, sent ambassadors to the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, urging them to pour men, money, and armaments into Palestine, which was his gift to them. He wanted an alliance between the Mongols and the countries of Europe against the Mamelukes, and he was prepared to back up the alliance with his vast army.
The Armenians drifted back to Armenia; the Christian knights surveyed the shattered seacoast cities and wondered whether help would come in time. There were less than five thousand of them now, and they realized that it was beyond the power of a handful of men to make a kingdom. Jacques de Molay sent out columns in all directions, pretending to have a force much greater than the one he possessed. The pope told the Mongol ambassadors that the time was not ripe for another Crusade, and the sovereigns of Europe said the same. Ghazan remained in Tabriz; Jacques de Molay took up residence in the Templum Dei in Jerusalem, and fretted over the impossibility of the task entrusted to him. The kingdom was in his hands, but where were the people to till the fields, guard the frontiers, rebuild the churches? The seacoast cities must be rebuilt brick by brick: towers, castles, gates, city walls. Where were the women? Where were the children? With a Mongol army to protect them, with thousands upon thousands of immigrants coming from Europe under the good offices of the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, the kingdom might be restored, but it would have to be done quickly and decisively.
It was the year 1300, the Jubilee Year commanded by Pope Boniface VIII, the most imperial of popes, to celebrate the achievements of the Church and his own power. Enormous crowds flocked to Rome, where the pope sometimes appeared in procession with two swords held before him, representing both spiritual and temporal power. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the few remaining Crusaders were desperately seeking help and the pope did not listen to them.
In Palestine the summer was unusually hot. The trees withered; the roads were thick with dust. As usual, there were conspiracies, counterconspiracies, secret agreements. Quite suddenly Jacques de Molay was confronted with a conspiracy designed to shatter his last hopes. Capchik, the Saracen governor of Damascus, the close and trusted friend of the Ilkhan Ghazan, who had innocently raised him to high position, entered into secret correspondence with the Mameluke sultan, offering to place Damascus under Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for a vast treasure, the sultan’s sister in marriage, and the governorship of Damascus to be held by him and his family in perpetuity. Dictating his memoirs to his friend Nicolas Falcon seven years later, in a convent in Poitiers, the monk Haiton, formerly Hethum, King of Armenia, records in his rather haphazard manner the events of that summer and autumn:
When Molay saw that the entire country was in a state of rebellion, he knew he would be unable to make headway with so few men, and that is why he rode to the kingdom of Mesopotamia by the shortest route, and related in great detail everything that had passed in the kingdom of Syria. Ghazan could do nothing because it was summer, but with winter coming up he made all his preparations on the banks of the Euphrates and sent Cotulossa with thirty thousand Tartar horsemen, ordering them, when they reached the country of Antioch, to send word to the King of Armenia and other Christians in the countries of the Orient and Cyprus to join him. While they were waiting for Ghazan Wadi al-Khaznadarelf to march into the kingdom of Syria with all his forces, Cotulossa followed the emperor’s orders.
Cotulossa reached Antioch with his thirty thousand Tartars and sent word to the King of Armenia to join him. The King agreed to march and went to find him; and the Christians in the kingdom of Cyprus, having heard of the arrival of Cotulossa, sent forces to the island off Tortosa. Among them was the Lord of Tyre, brother of the king of Cyprus, who was Generalissimo, and the men in charge of the Hospital and the Temple with their brethren. While they were all preparing themselves to do their Christian duty, there came the rumor that Ghazan was ill and the doctors despaired for his life.
So it came about that Cotulossa returned to Ghazan with the Tartars, and the King of Armenia returned to Armenia, and the Christians who had assembled at Tortosa returned to Cyprus. In this way the expedition to save the holy land was totally abandoned. This happened in the year of Our Lord 1301.
This was not quite the end, because the Mongols and Armenians went on fighting. There were continual small battles and skirmishes, and then at last, in 1303, at Marj as-Saffar, a great plain twenty miles south of Damascus, the combined Mongol-Armenian army was defeated. The remnants of the army retired to Nineveh, where Ghazan received them, promising to continue to wage war against the Saracens and giving King Hethum a sum of money, sufficient to support a thousand Armenian horsemen and a thousand Mongol soldiers to be used in the defense of the kingdom of Armenia. The king returned to Armenia, raised an army and won a victory over the Mamelukes at Ayati, near Tarsus. It was a decisive victory. Of the seven thousand Mamelukes who took part in it, only three hundred survived. The sultan called for a truce. King Hethum was happy to give it to him. Thereupon, remembering that he had always wanted to be a monk, he set his affairs in order, put a nephew on the throne, and traveled to the West.
The monk Haiton was not entirely correct when he said that all the Christian forces returned to Cyprus. He left out of account the handful of Templars who had remained on Ruad. From this small waterless island, the last remaining possession of the Templars, Jacques de Molay had hoped to send landing parties along the coast to recover the Holy Land. The island was well fortified, it had a good harbor, a fine church, tanks for storing rainwater. One day in 1303, the Mamelukes sent twenty ships to the island with ten thousand soldiers. They forced a landing, massacred most of the Templars, and sailed away. Only a few of the Templars on Ruad were able to reach Cyprus.
With the battle of Marj as-Saffar and the fall of Ruad, the Crusades truly came to an end. There would be raids on Tortosa, Acre, and Alexandria by ships based on Cyuprus, and from time to time popes and kings would announce forthcoming crusades either because it suited them to do so for political reasons or because they genuinely felt that such things were possible. Whatever their intentions, these crusades never took place.
Throughout the Crusades there had been a strange sense of fatality, a sense of doom. Even when the Crusades were at their height, when the kings of Jerusalem appeared to be in full control, there seemed to be something wanting. Seen from the villages and cities of the West, Jerusalem appeared in men’s eyes like a dream in shimmering Oriental colors, remote and inaccessible; and even those who walked through the streets of Jerusalem sometimes wondered whether they had really reached the place they had so desired to see. They had heard it called “Jerusalem the Golden,” and they imagined a city made of gold and rubies and emeralds. Instead, it was a dusty place, though the stones were the rich color of crusts of bread. No city created by man could live up to Jerusalem’s reputation. For two hundred years, proud men from the West fought a continuing battle for the city set on one of the mountains of the Judaean desert. For two hundred years, kings, princes, knights as well as the common people suffered from thirst and scorching heat to win and hold a city in the wilderness. Then at last they discovered that Jerusalem was not a geographical place. It was a place in the human heart.
With Tturanshah’s bloody heart at Louis’s feet and his body dumped in the Nile, life was draining out of the Ayyubid dynasty. It was the Mamluk regiment created by al-Salih that had massacred the Christians at Mansurah and saved Egypt. This professional military corps had become the power behind the throne, and during the 1250s, they took it. It was a convoluted process that lasted ten years and involved puppet rulers and a contest between different Mamluk factions. They were the source of discord in Cairo. Its citizens came to fear the Turkish presence in their midst. Aqtay, leader of the Bahriyyah regiment, was murdered by a rival, Qutuz, and in 1254, the Bahriyyah, with Baybars increasingly influential, were forced out of Egypt. For the rest of the decade, Baybars honed his leadership and fighting skills on behalf of different Ayyubid princelings in Syria. In Egypt, Qutuz manipulated claimants to the throne and then declared himself sultan in 1259.
Louis, to his great credit, did not shirk the consequences of his failed crusade. Instead of returning to France, he stayed in the Holy Land for four years, ransoming prisoners from the Egyptian debacle and fortifying the remainder crusader footholds at Acre, Caesarea, Jaffa, and Sidon at considerable personal expense. He established a permanent French regiment in Acre, a small but valuable professional force, and also set about seeking out potential allies against Islam.
For a long time, distorted echoes of the advance of the Mongols had been reaching the Christian West—and with it the hope that their kings might become, or even be, Christians. The evidence was otherwise. By the 1240s, eastern Europe was being shattered by Mongol raids. In 1249, while in Cyprus preparing to launch his crusade, Louis had received envoys from the Mongols in Persia. In reply, he dispatched two Dominican friars (one of whom, André de Longjumeau, spoke relevant languages) to encourage their adherence to the Christian faith and “to show and teach the Tartars [Mongols] what they should believe.”1 The missionaries displayed some imaginative insight into the nomadic condition of their potential converts by taking with them a portable tent chapel, embroidered with scenes from the life of Christ, along with chalices, books, and everything needed for the friars to perform mass. The trip took two years and a journey into the heart of central Asia to the Mongol court. Longjumeau returned to find Louis at Caesarea, overseeing refortification of the city after his failure on the Nile. Longjumeau’s somewhat garbled report contained a brisk corrective to any blithe optimism. The friars had witnessed devastation: ruined cities, great heaps of human bones. They had been sent back with the warning that the Mongol khans put all opponents to the sword: “We point this out to warn you that you cannot have peace unless you have peace with us. So we advise you to send us enough gold and silver each year for us to keep thinking of you as friends. If you do not do this we will destroy you and your people as we did those others we mentioned before.” Submit or die: it was a choice that would soon confront the whole of the Middle East. Louis did not reply.
In 1253, Hülegü Khan, brother of the ruler Möngke Khan and a grandson of Genghis, was ordered to advance west with his army, “as far as the borders of Egypt.” The aim was to crush Islam as a step to Mongol world domination. By 1256, Hülegü was in Persia.
Two years later, the Mongols delivered a shattering blow to the Islamic world, one that echoed down the centuries. In January 1258, Hülegü laid siege to Baghdad, seat of the Abbasid Caliphate for half a millennium, repository of scholarship and culture, intellectual center of the Islamic world. With the aid of Chinese siege engineers, Baghdad’s walls were breached in early February. Surrender made no difference. The city was put to utter destruction; mosques, palaces, libraries, and hospitals destroyed. Estimates of the dead have ranged wildly between 90,000 and 800,000. The Tigris ran black with the ink of thousands of books hurled into the water, their leather covers torn off to make sandals. The last Abbasid caliph was rolled in a blanket and trampled to death by Mongol horsemen. The sack of Baghdad shook Islam to its roots.
In September 1259, Hülegü crossed the Euphrates on pontoon bridges with an enormous army, perhaps 120,000 men, his sights set on Syria. The Christian kingdoms of Outremer were in a quandary. Hethoum I, the Christian king of the principality of Cilician Armenia in southwestern Turkey, accepted the overlordship of the Mongols; it was known that Hülegü’s general Kitbuqa had been converted by Nestorians to Christianity, and Hethoum naively believed that the Mongols wanted to recapture Jerusalem for the Christians. He attempted to persuade other Christian enclaves to join the Mongols; only his son-in-law, Bohemond VI, ruler of the small principality of Antioch and count of Tripoli, responded. When Aleppo fell, the Muslims were put to the sword; Armenian Christians burned the great mosque to the ground. Damascus saw what was coming and just opened its gates to the Mongols in March 1260. The city’s Eastern Christians rejoiced intemperately at the discomfiture of their Muslim neighbors: they rang their bells and drank wine during Ramadan—humiliations that would not be forgotten. Soon, almost all of Syria was in Mongol hands. Most of the Ayyubid princes capitulated, and the Mongols were raiding south to the borders of Egypt. The Islamic world was facing collapse.
Acre was also in turmoil. During the late 1250s, it became the epicenter of the growing commercial rivalry between Genoa and Venice that culminated in a full-blown contest in the city, known as the War of St. Sabas. Ostensibly over ownership of the monastery of that saint, which lay on the boundary between the two Italian communes, the war was a reflection of a wider struggle for trading supremacy across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The competition sucked in almost all the city’s factions and those of surrounding crusader states. The Pisans sided with the Genoese before switching allegiance to Venice; the Hospitallers were for the Genoese, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights for Venice; the powerful barons of Outremer similarly took sides. The year-long contest included sea battles, blockades, and siege warfare on an intimate scale. Within Acre, the two sides bombarded each other at close range with catapults, hurling rocks over the walls of fortified enclosures into their neighbors’ quarter. The chronicles record that during 1258, “all that year there were at least sixty engines, every one of them throwing down onto the city of Acre, onto houses, towers and turrets, and they smashed and laid level with the ground every building they touched.… This meant that nearly all the towers and strong houses in Acre were destroyed, except for religious houses. Twenty thousand men died in this war on one side or the other… the city of Acre was utterly devastated by this war as if it had been destroyed in warfare between Christians and Saracens.” Allowing for the probably exaggerated death toll, the contest wrecked large parts of the city. Houses, warehouses, ships, and defensive towers were destroyed before the Genoese were finally expelled and their quarter flattened. They moved up the coast to Tyre. Acre required major reconstruction; its trade had been damaged, its factional divisions exacerbated, and its manpower diminished.
At the same time, the kingdom of Jerusalem was also starting to feel pressure from the Mongol advance. Hülegü’s true intentions were expressed in an order to a commander in 1257 to “advance as far as the coasts of the sea, and wrest those countries from the hands of the children of France and England.” Acre had resisted Hethoum’s urging to join the Mongol cause. That year, it received a blunt demand to submit. The determination, as expressed by the military orders, was resolute: “Let therefore these Tartars [Mongols]—these demons of Tartarus—come on, and they will find the servants of Christ encamped and ready to do battle.” In February 1260, Hülegü’s general Kitbuqa peremptorily ordered them to dismantle their walls. The leading council in Acre ignored him and strengthened their fortifications, going so far as robbing outlying cemeteries of tombstones in a search for suitable building material. There was no reason to feel positive about voluntary submission or alliance. Both Armenia and Antioch had been reduced to vassal status. When the lord of Sidon launched an intemperate raid, Mongol forces sacked the city and razed it to the ground. The Mongol contempt for other groups was absolute. Calls were sent to Europe for aid, not only out of fear of the Mongols but also with the hope that with Islamic power waning and the Mongols increasingly focused on Egypt, there might actually be opportunities to expand. The claim was that
we duly believe that Jerusalem and the whole kingdom of Jerusalem could, with God’s aid, be obtained easily if those who are called Christians were swiftly and manfully to make ready to assist us. For the Saracens, for the most part, are now gone. And as for the Tartars, if they meet with resistance on the part of the Latins, we believe that the more [opposition] they fear they will find, the sooner they will sheathe their bloodstained swords.
But no crusading ventures resulted. Acre played a distrustful and waiting game.
When the Mongol blow did fall, the crusader states were mere onlookers. In early 1260, Mongol ambassadors arrived at Cairo with a familiar message:
From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords.
You should think of what happened to other countries… and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor arms stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe.
Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled.… Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God, and then we will kill your children and your old men together.
At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.
Qutuz had only seized power three months earlier. His regime was fragile but his response resolute. He chopped the Mongol ambassadors in half and hung their heads from the city gates. He prepared to go out to fight rather than await a siege. The lesson of Baghdad had not been forgotten.
The army that Qutuz could potentially raise was massively outnumbered by a factor of ten to one, but luck was on his side. In August of the preceding year, Möngke, the Great Khan of the Mongols, died, exposing one of the structural flaws in the Mongol Empire. Each succession contest inevitably required a return of the leading khans to central Asia. When word reached Hülegü in Syria, he prepared to withdraw the bulk of his men, perhaps 100,000, leaving his general Kitbuqa with a holding force of 10,000 to 12,000. In a letter sent to Louis IX, Hülegü himself claimed that the withdrawal of the bulk of his army, with its tens of thousands of horses, had been a logistical necessity. The fodder of northern Syria had been used up, and it was the Mongol custom to withdraw to more temperate lands in summer. The possibility that the Mongols, once across the Euphrates, were campaigning at their operational limit was a vulnerability the Mamluks would later exploit.
The Mongol advance into Syria had displaced many Muslim refugees and Ayyubid soldiers, who now rallied to Qutuz. And these included Baybars and the Bahriyyah Mamluk contingent, battle-hardened by a decade of fighting for and against various factions in the fragmentation of Syria. Among these ventures had been raids and invasion attempts against Egypt itself. There was long-standing enmity between the Bahriyyah and Qutuz over the murder of their leading emir, Aqtay, but the differences were, for the time being, shelved. The Mongol threat created a coalition of rivals. Baybars obtained a guarantee of safe conduct from Qutuz and brought his Mamluks to Cairo to confront the gathering storm. His troops were a welcome addition.
In July 1260, the Egyptian army rode out with a force of perhaps 12,000 men, probably slightly larger than Kitbuqa’s. The Egyptians consisted of a small corps of Mamluks, local Egyptian soldiers, and refugees. As Qutuz moved up the coastal plain toward Acre, he decided to ask for Christian cooperation. Within Acre, there were intense discussions on how to respond. Many were in favor. The sacking of Sidon and the intemperate Mongol threats had rattled the Christians. Qutuz was the third sultan of Egypt in six years; there was no reason to believe that he could provide a threatening stability. They could, at that moment, hardly distinguish this latest ruler from the more easy-going Ayyubids, who had been valuable trading partners. A joint campaign might ease the Mongol pressure too. However, the grand master of the Teutonic Order, Hanno von Sangershausen, argued vehemently against any cooperation and eventually talked the authorities out of it. It was unwise to risk Christian lives, and in the aftermath of a Muslim victory, Qutuz might turn on them; better to conserve their strength and watch two rivals fight it out.
The Christians may have opted for neutrality, but they hedged their bets by granting Qutuz a safe conduct. He could pass through their territory without fear of attack. For three days, the Egyptian army camped in orchards outside the city walls and were provided with provisions. There was nervousness in the town. The leading emirs entered Acre and some kind of compact was made. Among them, according to the Christian sources, was “a great emir called Bendocar, who later became sultan.” The Arabic sources claimed that Baybars came in disguise as a spy to gain information to store against a future opportunity. While camped outside the walls of Acre, Qutuz delivered a powerful speech to his increasingly hesitant collection of troops, now more than wary of the power of the Mongols, to whip up their courage: the future of Islam hung in the balance. Baybars was sent ahead with the vanguard to scout out the disposition of the enemy.
Qutuz and his army met the Mongols at Ayn Jalut—the appropriately named Goliath’s Spring, where David was said to have slain the giant—thirty miles southeast of Acre on September 3, 1260, for a contest that has been claimed as epochal in world history. The central corps of each army, supported by allies and unreliable supporters, was similar. It was a battle between matching detachments of Turco-Mongolian horse archers from the Eurasian steppes, employing similar tactics: mounted attacks, feigned retreat, and mobile encirclement. Baybars led the vanguard charging the Mongols, alternately advancing and retreating. Twice the Mongols came close to crushing Qutuz’s army. At the height of the battle, with the situation critical, Qutuz took off his helmet to show his face to his men and shouted, “O Islam, O God, help your servant Qutuz against the Mongols!” With the red and yellow banners of the Mamluk detachments rallying the men, he was able to stem the rout, regroup, and shatter the enemy. Kitbuqa was killed in the heat of the battle and the Mongols were slaughtered. Those who escaped were pursued by Baybars and beaten again.
It was not the first defeat that the Mongols had incurred nor did it end their ambitions in Syria. Theirs was a relatively small army that had unwisely underestimated an adversary similar to itself. Hülegü considered it a local setback that he intended to redress. The Mamluks had not confronted the full force of Mongol military might; a further riposte was inevitable, yet it had unforeseen consequences. Qutuz’s rallying cry was prophetic of the ability of Turkish-speaking peoples, nomads from the Asian steppes, to unify Islam. The battle of Ayn Jalut conferred prestige and legitimacy on these outsiders.
Qutuz was not destined to enjoy the fruits of victory. Maybe he had made overgenerous promises to his leading emirs—including the offer of the governorship of Aleppo to Baybars—which he failed to keep. In the aftermath of Ayn Jalut, the distrust between the Mamluks of Qutuz and those of the Bahriyyah bubbled to the surface again, and so it was probably just a question of which side struck first. The Bahriyyah had never forgiven Qutuz for the murder of Aqtay. On the way back across the desert to Cairo, Qutuz expressed a desire to stop and engage in his favorite sport of hare coursing. He turned off the road, accompanied by his emirs. When the hare had been caught, it signaled the Bahriyyah contingent to make their move. The most likely version of events is something to the effect that Baybars—or perhaps another emir—approached the sultan to ask a favor. Baybars moved to kiss his hand. This was the signal. Baybars firmly gripped Qutuz to prevent him drawing a weapon. A second emir stabbed him with a sword. Qutuz was finished off with arrows. Baybars did not act alone nor was he most likely the one who struck first; as with the murder of Turanshah, history was possibly rewritten to favor him. In the process of election that followed, Baybars claimed primacy on the basis that he was the one who had struck Qutuz down. Although the position of Mamluk sultan came to depend on a supporting confederacy of leading emirs, Baybars was to set about establishing unfettered personal rule.
From Acre, the murder of Qutuz must have looked like just another sign of the welcome dysfunctionality of the Islamic world—one ruler following another in a bloodbath of fragmenting petty kingdoms. The Christians breathed a sigh of relief. The Mongols were defeated, Egypt and Syria remained divided. What they did not know was that with Baybars, a new Turkish dynasty would unify the Islamic Middle East with an uncompromising commitment to jihad not seen since the days of Saladin, nor that the Mongols, despite sorties, would never return with sufficient desire to provide a counterbalance to Baybars or create the space to play off two more powerful opponents. For Acre particularly, the dislocation caused by the Mongols and the rise of the Mamluks had severe economic consequences. With Baghdad ruined, the long-range trade routes that had ended at Acre and Tripoli moved north. The great days of economic prosperity were over, and the lords of Outremer were no longer so rich. Increasingly, they leased or sold their castles and lordships to the military orders, which would become the only viable defense of the Christian Holy Land. It was Baybars who would slowly squeeze their room to breathe. His stealthy reconnoiter of Acre was to be put to good use.
Baybars himself never forgot the allegiances made by some Christians with the Mongol foes, nor the burned mosques. The remaining crusader states were to confront a stable, unified Islamic dynasty and an unrelenting foe in Baybars, who would rule for seventeen years. The new sultan was said to be short of stature, broad chested, with a powerful voice. In one of his blue eyes there was an unusual white fleck. When he was first sold as a slave, he had fetched a cheap price—one purchaser promptly returned him to the auctioneer as spoiled goods. It was said that there was something evil in his eye. He rarely blinked.
Jebe (on the ground) alongside Genghis (on the horse)
One of Chinggis Khan’s most brilliant yet overlooked generals, Jebe first encountered Chinggis Khan on the battlefield during the wars of unification in Mongolia, when he was a warrior among the Tayichiut Mongols and thus an enemy. After Chinggis Khan defeated the Tayichiut in 1201 a few of them joined his forces.
In “The Battle of the Thirteen Sides” Genghis had to fight against the chief of the Tai’Chiyud tribe, which was under the control of Targhutal Kiriltugh. During the battle, one of the Tai’Chiyud horsemen shot and injured Genghis himself, where most sources claim that he was hit in the neck. After the battle was victoriously over, Genghis gathered the remaining men of the opposing tribe.
In an attempt to not show weakness, Genghis commanded the man who had shot his horse to confess. A young warrior stepped forward and confessed that it was him who shot the arrow that hit Genghis, not the horse. That warrior’s name was Zurgadai, and he also added that he did not fear death, and that his fate lied in the hands of Genghis. But should he receive mercy, then he would be the most loyal soldier to ever serve him.
Genghis valued the bravery and loyalty that the young man showed, and he also liked the answer. He pardoned the soldier, and gave him a new name under which he can serve… “Chepe” meaning “Arrow” in Mongolian. Chepe gradually turned into Jebe, and this new general gradually became one of best in the empire.
In 1206, when Chinggis Khan formally became the unquestioned master of Mongolia, Jebe was one of 88 commanders named as a mingan-u noyan. Throughout the wars in Mongolia he was also known as one of the dörben noqas or ‘four hounds’ of Chinggis Khan along with three other mingan-u noyad – Sübedei, Jelme, and Qubilai (not to be confused with Chinggis Khan’s grandson Qubilai Khan). The dörben noqas and their units constituted an elite brigade that served with distinction at Chakirmaut, where the opponents of Chinggis Khan’s mastery of Mongolia made their last stand.
The dörben noqas were particularly noted for their tenacious pursuit of fleeing opponents, which may be one reason why Jebe led so many pursuit missions. In 1209 he and Sübedei pursued the Naiman and Merkit who fled Mongolia to the Irtysh River, and then again to the Chu River. Jebe was also responsible for hunting down Güchülüg, a Naiman prince who became ruler of Kara-Khitai in modern Kazakhstan. From there, Güchülüg would have been a threat to Chinggis Khan’s nascent kingdom in Mongolia. But Jebe is perhaps best known for his part in the pursuit of Muhammad Khwarazmshah during the Khwarazmian War. Although Muhammad successfully yet narrowly eluded the two generals, he died alone from illness and exhaustion on an island in the Caspian Sea shortly afterwards. Although Jebe and Sübedei were often paired together on missions, it appears that Jebe was the senior commander of the two, probably due to his experience and innovative strategies.
Yet Jebe did more than hunt down enemy leaders. Against the Jin Empire, he served as commander of Chinggis Khan’s vanguard in 1211, capturing the strongly guarded Chabchiyal Pass through a perfectly executed feigned retreat. Jebe also became well known for his deep incursions into enemy territory, feigned retreats that were carried out over days, and of course for the tenacity that allowed him to cover several days’ travel in one. Jebe died in 1223 during the famous reconnaissance en force that he and Sübedei conducted following the death of Muhammad Khwarazmshah in 1220.
Just as the Jin were being challenged by the Song on their southern border, the man whose ambition would bring about their destruction was being hailed as universal ruler or great khan by a confederation of Mongol tribes to their north. Chinggis Khan was not a great general or warrior, but he was a skilled and compelling political strategist who had used these talents to unite the disparate and often-warring tribes of the steppes. It seems likely that his plan was to use this confederation rapidly, and before it disintegrated like so many tribal alliances before it, to plunder the lands of northern China on a vast scale.
The Mongol raids on China began in earnest in 1209, with a campaign against the Tangut state of Xi Xia. The Tangut emperor ruled over a multi-ethnic population that included Chinese, Tibetans and many Turkic groups, in addition to the Tangut themselves. Indeed, when we use the term Tangut, as with Jurchen, Kitan or Mongol, we should remember that we are really only naming the leadership of these states or confederations. In reality, each of these entities were multi-ethnic and, particularly in the case of the Mongols as their empire grew, the leading group was very much a minority.
The Tangut emperor’s state also bordered the Jin state along the northwestern reaches of the Yellow River and extended into the Gobi desert and modern Ningxia. In the past the Tangut had lived a nomadic existence, with their only ties to the settled state being their trade in horses with the Song and their raiding of Song merchant columns. The nomadic past of the Xi Xia state, its largely Turkish population and its extension into the steppe made it a natural first target of the nascent Mongol confederation of Chinggis Khan. Its subjugation would give the Mongols access to the northwestern flank of the Jin state, from which they could raid the Yellow River plains, and if the Xi Xia state could be brought to full submission the Mongols would also gain access to its army of horse archers. Added to this was the fact that the Xi Xia state had never fully escaped the orbit of steppe politics, and the Mongol conquest of the state was also part of a ‘tidying up’ of loose ends, as all the Turco-Mongolic peoples on China’s perimeter were absorbed either voluntarily or otherwise into the Mongol ordus or horde. That Xi Xia could never escape its own steppe history is obvious from the fact that many Turkish princes seeking refuge from Chinggis Khan’s father found dubious refuge at the Xi Xia court and that royal daughters of the Xi Xia state were not uncommonly married to members of Chinggis’s own family. To add to this confused mesh of amiability and animosity, one Kereyid prince sought refuge from Mongol vengeance with the Tangut, but then gave a daughter in marriage to Chinggis’s son, Tolui, and she bore the great khans Mongke and Qubilai and the Persian Ilkhan Hulegu. Another of the dissident prince’s daughters married into the Tangut royal family and an unlikely romantic tale has her beauty being the catalyst for Chinggis Khan’s final annihilation of the Xi Xia state. Be that as it may, the Mongols certainly used the harbouring of Kereyid royal fugitives by the Xi Xia court as a pretext for their first extensive incursions into Xi Xia territory. Mongol raids across the Xi Xia state began in 1205 and the presence of their troops in an area bordering Jin also drew the Onggid tribes, a grouping of previously loyal barbarians whom the Jin had relied on to stabilise their northwest frontier, to join Chinggis’s horde.
The Mongols stayed in Xi Xia territory for the next two years and the Xi Xia sent a series of embassies to the Jin emperor, calling for alliance against the Mongols. These appeals were rebuffed by the Jin emperor with the curt comment, ‘it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?’
The autumn of 1209 saw Chinggis launching a major invasion of Xi Xia and defeating three Tangut armies before investing the capital Chong Xingfu. The Mongols then attempted to divert the waters of the Yellow River’s irrigation canals to flood the city, but succeeded only in deluging their own camp, which effectively broke the siege. However, they had done enough damage to the Xi Xia state to ensure its capitulation, and in 1210 the Tangut emperor, Xianzong, became a vassal to the Khan.
That Chinggis was only interested in Xi Xia’s submission as a prelude to the greater havoc he wished to wreak upon the Jin is evidenced by his almost immediate employment of Tangut horsemen in raids upon Jin borderlands. By 1214 Xi Xia troops, under Mongol direction, were extensively raiding Jin’s southwest provinces. By this point the Jin were becoming more and more dependent on this region for finances and for horses, as the Song had ceased the payment of the tribute that they had agreed to in 1207 and the Mongols were pressing hard from the north and gobbling up Jin pastureland. The city of Lanzhou slipped from effective Jin control in 1214, as the Xi Xia sponsored a rebellion there against them, and then the Xi Xia sent proposals to Song for a joint action against Jin in the west. At this juncture the Song sat on their hands and did not, in fact, act against Jin in alliance with the Xi Xia until 1220, and even then only in a half-hearted fashion. Perhaps it seemed more logical to the Song to let the Mongols destroy the ‘auld enemy’ for them than to engage the Jin directly themselves or even ally with them against the new foe. The lessons of the past and the debacle that had followed Jin’s conquest of Liao with Song complicity had evidently either not yet been learned or simply forgotten.
The encroachment by the peoples of the northern steppe on Jin lands had begun almost at the beginning of the Jin dynasty. In some ways, the Jurchen’s descent into ‘China proper’ in the first quarter of the twelfth century had created a power vacuum in the northern lands beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders, and this had been rapidly filled by new confederations. As early as the 1130s, the Jin had been compelled to send punitive expeditions into the hinterlands at the edge of the Gobi. They suffered many reverses on these expeditions, but through them they also managed to retard any progress towards unification by the tribes as they exterminated much of the leadership in the steppe. Possibly as a result of this policy, the words ‘a Jin Emperor killed one of my forefathers. Let me have my revenge!’ have been put into the mouth of Chinggis in traditional Chinese histories to explain the Khan’s invasion of Jin. We can be certain that no such justification was in fact required for the ensuing carnage meted out to Jin by Chinggis Khan and his descendants; invoking the will of Tenggeri the Sky Father or Eternal Heaven would have been sufficient. But there is tenuous evidence to support the fact that Chinggis could have been intent on revenging the death of Ambaghai Khan, whom the Tatar tribe had handed over to their Jin overlords for execution after they captured him. Chinggis Khan considered himself a legitimate successor of Ambaghai as leader of the Mongols. In 1194 Jin had also made a temporary alliance with the man who became Chinggis Khan. This had helped to stabilise the border but had also unfortunately increased the Mongols’ power, as it aided their elimination of tribal rivals. Chinggis Khan’s unification of the tribes was, then, in many ways, begun by the Jin’s actions in the steppes, and it was at the head of a vast confederation army of Mongols, Kitan and Tangut3 that Chinggis set out in March 1211 to launch what was in effect a vast raid or chevachee across the Jin state.
The word chevachee is the most apt way of describing the Mongol raiding tactics in 1211, for it is an act of plundering on a relentless and extensive scale, in order to make control and rule over a region untenable for the enemy. It also deprives the enemy of legitimacy if they cannot effectively respond to the terror inflicted upon their citizens. The taking of territory would have rendered Chinggis’s forces open to a Jin riposte, so the tactic of ‘burn and move on’ also served Chinggis well at this juncture. It is arguable that it failed the Mongols later, when they moved on to attempt to conquer Song, through Sichuan, a region that would not support the rapid movement of cavalry, and they then became bogged down in the garrisoning of territory and a long war of attrition. Later the genius of Qubilai Khan and his commanders was shown in their co-opting of Chinese infantry and engineers to operate where cavalry could not, thereby freeing up the horsemen to go where they could be most effective and to stretch the Song’s defences by lightning strikes. On a more philosophical plane Mongol warfare is a perfect paradigm of Clausewitz’s theory of ‘total war’, in which the ends of war are consumed by the means taken to achieve them. The brief lives of both the Yuan Dynasty and the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia are both, perhaps, partly explainable by the ‘total war’ origins of both states, and we will look a little later in more depth at how an inability to muzzle the dogs of war once they had been allowed to slip the leash completely contributed to the Yuan’s rapid demise. That such all-enveloping concepts of warfare were alien to China before the Mongols’ rise seems evident, given Sunzi’s five governing factors, the first of which is the Moral Law, which requires accord between the ruled and the ruler, and the fact that the Confucian definition of war was that it was a punishment for both the defeated and the victor.
In the spring of 1211 two Mongol armies totalling about one hundred thousand warriors entered China from the northwest, through lands formerly ‘guarded’ for the Jin by the Onggids, and from the northeast, through mountain passes near modern Beijing. They devastated great portions of the northern provinces and the northwestern army essentially split the Jin army of Shensi from the rest of the Jin forces in the east. This northwestern army, however, failed to take the key border fortresses as the Jin forces in the region outnumbered them by about four to one and the Jin garrison infantry were well equipped with cavalry pikes and crossbows. Initial defeats in the open field and a devastating famine across the entire state seem to have decided the Jin on a defensive strategy by which they hoped either to bring about the break-up of the Mongol army or to bring Chinggis to a negotiation where a modus vivendi similar to that enacted between the Mongols and Xi Xia could be formed. Given that Mongol warriors were unpaid and that therefore commanders were entirely reliant on booty for paying them, the Jin might have been hoping that Chinggis’s horde would disintegrate for lack of plunder. Certainly this was the norm for such barbarian confederations, but unfortunately the tribal army that had invaded China this time was perhaps exceptional in that it was composed of men who were ‘more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world, be they religious or secular’.
The strategy therefore failed. The Jin could keep the Mongols from taking their fortified cities through the technological advantages they held over them, the chief of these being gunpowder and trebuchet-fired ‘thunder crash’ bombs–some of which were moulded from wax to burn slowly, whilst others were hollow ceramic creations holding molten metal or barbs that would stick in wooden shields and make them impossible to carry. Naptha or ‘Greek fire’ was thrown in pots at the enemy and fire-arrows could also break up Mongol attacks, but the Jin could not match the Mongols in the field; the Jin had long ago abandoned the ‘battue’ or nomadic hunt and their stature as mounted archers had gone into decline. The slow-moving, often largely infantry-based field armies the Jin deployed against the Mongols, perhaps a product of the long, static, cold–hot war the Jin had fought against the Song, were easily defeated by the Mongols, and those Jurchen among the Jin armies who did retain the warrior skills of the steppes soon enough joined the Mongols. The cavalry that the Jin did retain was also denied pasture by the Mongols’ continual traversing of the northern plains. Each Mongol trooper had about six horses, and one ‘tumen’ of ten thousand troopers also meant the presence of forty thousand ‘civilians’ and six hundred thousand sheep or goats. Additionally, Bactrian camels and giant carts pulled by as many as twenty oxen were part of the Mongol army’s train. This vast caravan had been known to travel up to six hundred miles in nine days and its capacity for consuming pasture would have been almost locust-like. To worsen matters, the Jurchen homeland of Manchuria, from which they drew horses, cattle and Jurchen warriors, then slipped from the Jin’s grasp as leftovers of the old Liao Dynasty took the opportunity of Jin’s misfortune to desert their cause. Virtually all the Liao–Kitan cavalry and soldiers that had formerly fought with the Jin army swore their allegiance to Chinggis Khan in 1212. A Jin punitive expedition failed to regain Manchuria from the rebels in 1214 and, to make matters worse, its commander then went on to set up his own independent state in northeast China.
The Mongols withdrew for the winter, which gave the Jin forces some respite, but soon enough the Mongols were back again, and over the course of the next two years they also began to enrol Han Chinese deserters into their army. The engineers among these men would make a very valuable contribution to the later Mongol campaigns.
The poor showing of the Jin in this early contest lured the Mongols further into China than they may have planned to go. Certainly, by the time they had taken the Juyong pass and the environs of Beijing, they had in fact overreached themselves. They were unprepared for the siege of such a large city, and what was almost certainly meant as a simple large-scale raid had now got them wrapped up in a territorial war in China. The equipment of the Mongol troopers of this period makes it clear that there was no developed weapons industry available to the army that could produce siege weapons capable of tackling the walls of Beijing; in fact, even with the later acquisition of Chinese centres of industry, many Mongol troopers still lacked crafted metal weapons. The average Mongol soldier wore a simple heavy coat with a belt sword, dagger and axe, and carried dried meat and curds for rations, along with a stone sharpener. The heavy cavalry had lamellar armour, presumably purchased or looted from Chinese manufacturing centres, and every trooper carried a composite bow of yak horn, sinew and bamboo. Other weapons–round wooden shields and lassoes–were decidedly crude compared to the crafted and cherished Mongol bow. The myth that Mongol silk undershirts ‘wrapped’ arrowheads and prevented injury to the wearer has long ago been exploded, but the lamellar armour that the Mongols favoured was certainly more effective than mail against arrows, and this may have been particularly significant given the Jin and Song reliance on archers and crossbowmen.
By 1213, with Beijing resisting them even though it was effectively cut off, the Mongols were simply roaming the central plains of northern China and had lost the initiative. They were therefore fortunate that the Jin court was in the act of imploding at this juncture. The Emperor Weishao Wang had been assassinated in 1213 by Hu Shahu, a general who had lost the western Jin capital of Datong to the Mongols. Hu Shahu may have decided to strike first, as the punishment for such failure was bound to be harsh. A new emperor, Xuanzong, was installed, but the Jin state was unravelling fast and, in an attempt to replace the high-ranking Jurchen who were deserting the dynasty for service with the Mongols, the normally xenophobic court opened military and civilian posts to all races within the state. A further symptom of the collapse of Jin confidence was seen in the spring of 1214 when the Jin sent peace envoys to Chinggis, and offered a daughter of the late emperor for the khan’s marriage bed. The breathing space this gained them was used by the court to abandon Beijing and desert the troops left there. The court fled to the southern capital of Kaifeng which, it was hoped, was beyond the reach of both the Mongols and of the drought and famine that had struck the north and had once again crippled the logistics of the Jin army.
The Mongols marched on Beijing but could do little except sit beneath its walls and terrorise the surrounding environs. The city was encircled and defended by four fortified villages with four thousand Jin troops in each. Each village also had its own granary and arsenal and was linked by tunnels to Beijing. The city was also protected by three moats fed from Kunming Lake and a 15-kilometre rectangle of rammed earth walls that were 15 metres thick at their base and 12 metres high. Each of its thirteen gates and nine hundred guard towers was protected by double and triple crossbows, capable of hurling 3-metre quarrels over a kilometre, and traction trebuchets with a range of some 300 metres for 25-kilogram projectiles. The Mongols had units in their army trained to use both siege crossbows and trebuchets, the so-called nujun and baojun, but the technology they used was, at this juncture, almost certainly not a match for that of their opponents.
The Mongols suffered enormous losses through pestilence during the siege, which lasted a year, but then the city suddenly surrendered in May 1215, as it was evident that no relief force was coming from Kaifeng. The capitulation, it seems, did not temper the Mongols’ rage at the city’s long defiance, and even in 1216 a visiting envoy could still attest the fact that the bones of the slaughtered formed mountains and the soil was greasy with human fat. Sixty thousand maidens had thrown themselves from the walls rather than fall into Mongol hands and only masons, carpenters and–oddly enough–actors were immune from the risk of summary executions.
By now the Jin were ready to accept having the khan as their overlord, but Chinggis seems to have interpreted the dynasty’s move to Kaifeng as a dangerous act of separatism and he responded with further devastations of the Jin’s Chinese provinces. Elsewhere, control was slipping away from the Jin too. The grain supplies of northern Hubei were gone and the refusal of Song to pay its yearly tribute had reduced the Jin to near penury. The collapse of local government that this and the Mongols’ rapine had precipitated reduced whole provinces to chaos and in Shandong it made bandits the only form of authority. Many of these groups sought Song support and proclaimed loyalty to the dynasty in exchange for secret supplies of food and money. The Song particularly favoured a large confederation of outlaws called the Red Coats, possibly because red was the traditional ‘fire’ colour of the Song court. If this was so, then the Song were sorely misled, as the Red Coats, in fact, showed no particular loyalty to anyone but themselves. However, they resisted all Jin efforts to bring Shandong back under control, and this was probably reason enough for the Song court to support them. In 1218, with the Yellow River flooding and Shandong effectively beyond Jin control, the Song went further and recognised the ruthless Red Coat commander Li Quan as their ‘prefect’ of Shandong.
Song’s sponsoring of bandits such as Li Quan was a direct response to Jin assaults on Song in 1217 as the Jin went to war to try to extract payments from the Song government. Making the Jin fight a proxy war in their own lands would certainly distract them from assaults on Song lands. However, the policy also had a secondary aim: by maintaining a viable state in Shandong the Song may have hoped to prevent a mass movement of Jin’s Han citizens to the south, which would have effectively swamped Song with refugees or even with a mass movement of Jurchen households. It is impossible to make a judgement on the great unanswered question about this period of Jin history: where did all the people go? The drop in population was immense and there was, no doubt, massive emigration from north to south and also death through disease and famine. How many were simply slaughtered by the Mongols and how many died as a result of the invaders’ damage to agricultural infrastructure and destruction of cities is impossible to decide. Certainly nowhere was safe; cities were refuges of a sort, but were also the key strategic goals of the Mongols and were wealthy enough to attract them for plunder alone. The number of refugees fleeing to Song must have been immense; if any member of the ‘local elite’ fled there would also be a movement of his kinsmen, retainers and tenants as an organised community of several hundred households. Certainly there are other occurrences of this phenomenon of a ‘tsunami’ of people in Asian history, and there was never a pleasant outcome for either the displaced or the settled peoples involved. For example, the Jurchen destruction of the Liao’s Kitan state in 1125 had pushed immense numbers of Turkish tribesmen into settled Islamic lands and had within only two decades sounded the death knell of the great Saljuq sultanate of Iran.
The Jin assaults on Song served them badly; they offered peace for tribute, but made little progress in their war and in 1218 the Song were so confident of their ability to resist that they did not even allow the Jin envoys to enter their territory. A third and final Jin offensive was launched in the central border region in the spring of 1221. Initially, the Jin met with success and penetrated over 200 kilometres into Song territory, but the Song, in partnership with Li Quan, then counterattacked and pushed the Jin out.
Jin morale was eroded by their defeat in this campaign and was damaged further by news from other fronts. Despite the Mongols being distracted by their need to complete outstanding ‘steppe business’ with war against, and assimilation of, the Naiman and Merkit peoples of Mongolia, Chinggis’s lieutenant, Mukhali, had used the opportunity of Jin’s war on Song to take the cities of Taiyuan and Daming in 1218 and 1220 and to enter Shandong in 1220. The army that Jin had mustered to eradicate Li Quan was then destroyed by Mukhali. Western Shandong effectively fell to the Mongols and a three-sided war, fought through proxies recruited among bandit clans, ensued between the Mongols, Jin and Song in eastern Shandong. Li Quan attempted to exploit the war for personal gain and, in this increasingly dirty little war, the Song accepted his false proclamations of loyalty to their camp whilst attempting to break up his army by extending generous offers to his subordinates. Song chicanery of this ilk came to Li Quan’s ears whilst bandits in the Mongols’ employ were besieging him at Qingzhou in 1226. He therefore turned to the Jin for support in 1227, but when it became obvious that they were a failing star he opted for the Mongols.
Meanwhile, in the west in 1218 the Tangut of Xi Xia, after attacking the western borders of Jin but failing to make any headway, had then refused to honour troop agreements they had made with the Mongols. Speedy Mongol correction in the form of a punitive invasion forced the Tangut to send troops to serve with Mukhali in the east but this arrangement collapsed once again in 1223 amid mutual recriminations. The Xi Xia were then finally driven by the Mongols’ depredations to parley with their old foe, the Jin. Negotiations ended in the autumn of 1223 with a peace accord, no doubt forced through by mutual fear of the Mongols and by Jin’s need to obtain horses from the Tangut breeding grounds.
The Jin had attempted to secure peace with the Mongols as early as 1220, when envoys were sent far to the west where Chinggis was campaigning against the Khwarazm shah of Persia. However, the offer of recognising the khan as an older brother of the Jin emperor was rejected by Chinggis, and the Jin emperor refused to be ‘demoted’ to king of Henan. Peace negotiations with the Mongols had therefore ended in 1222. Having secured a pragmatic peace with one set of previously inveterate enemies, the Xi Xia, in 1223, the Jin looked now to secure peace with the Song. It was as if China was going to unify, however tardily, in the face of the Mongol onslaught. The last ‘true’ Jin emperor, Aizong, came to the throne in 1224 and his much-reduced empire made peace with Song in the same year, on the basis of Jin giving up its claim for tribute and on an equality of titles between the two emperors. In amongst all this chaos and action the Song emperor, Ningzong, passed quietly away on 17 September 1224. He had been an emperor very much in the background of his own reign; the minister Shi Miyuan had run the country, and the last act he carried out for the dying emperor was to write an edict elevating a new heir to the throne. Ningzong’s children had all died young and one adopted son, Zhao Hong, who was the heir expectant, was replaced by another adoptee, Zhao Yun, almost at the last moment. The succession and enthronement of Zhao Yun as Emperor Lizong went without a hitch despite the odd character of his accession, and the whole affair made the Song state appear as calm as the eye of the storm that was tearing through every other part of China.
Chinggis Khan repaid Xi Xia for its peacemaking with Jin by the near-obliteration of their army in 1226 in a series of battles, one of which was fought upon the frozen waters of the Yellow River, and by a siege of their capital, Zhongxing, in 1227. The siege dragged on, but the liquidation of the Xi Xia state was essentially completed by the time of Chinggis’s death in August 1227.
Jin obtained some respite from the Mongols following the death of the khan, as a regency under Chinggis’s wife attempted to settle the succession issue. This was tricky because, despite some undoubted influence on Mongol polity by Chinese imperial customs, Turco-Mongolic custom had always been for a ‘patrimonial share-out’ of a successful father’s lands and wealth. The apparent solution to this was that Chinggis’s son, Ogedei, was created khagan, or khan of khans, and his brothers were all made khans in their own right. In practice this meant that Ogedei was a primus inter pares and that his writ did not run too far geographically in an empire that already reached to southern Russia and would soon solidify those gains and expand further into the Middle East. His election was also held up for some two years because of an ongoing opposition to his election and animosity from his brother Tolui. Ogedei managed finally to quell all the overt opposition to his reign but the fact that the ‘great khan’ had only limited power over the ‘junior’ khans and that this authority was diminished with each subsequent reign would become more and more apparent as the Mongol empire reached its end.
Ogedei was in a position to recommence the war on Jin in 1230 and from the pool of fifteen- to sixty-year-old males that the Mongol nation made available to him he formed a personal bodyguard of ten thousand men and deployed armies of thirty-nine thousand men in the west and centre under his truculent younger brother Tolui and sixty-two thousand more in the east under his own command. The armies also included Chinese engineers who had defected from the Jin, along with their gunpowder weapons. The Mongol armies met near the Yellow River during the winter of 1231, where, under the command of Subetei, probably Chinggis’s most trusted lieutenant, the army crossed the fords despite the stout defence of some thirty thousand Jin troops. Subetei’s outriders made it to the walls of Kaifeng by February 1232. The Song court had refused passage through Sichuan to the Mongols of Tolui’s western army, but the Mongols journeyed through the province anyway and there was no Song response to the incursion.
A demand for the surrender of the capital was refused by the Jin court and a siege began in April. Further negotiations ended in July when two Jin officers murdered the Mongols’ envoy along with thirty men of his entourage. This apparent act of madness on the part of the Jin officers is more easily understood against the backdrop of Kaifeng’s misery and chaos in the summer of 1232. Disease and famine are of course natural sequelae to any war, but the total collapse of governance and recriminations within the court, with summary executions commonly following a few days after any man’s promotion, were the street theatre of the dying city. The music accompanying the city to its grave was made by the ‘thunder crash’ bombs of both sides and by the fire-lance rockets of the Jin engineers. Arguably, the Jin’s superiority in technology was the only thing that kept the Mongols from rapidly capturing the city. The fire-lance rocketeers would certainly have had an effect on Mongol cavalry, with their long reinforced paper pipes spewing flames over 3 metres long.
February 1233 saw the Jin emperor flee the doomed city for Henan, where he holed up in Caizhou (modern Runan). Kaifeng was left under the control of several generals, and General Xu Li took overall command in May by virtue of his elimination of any dissenting official or general. He then offered the city to Subetei. His act may have constrained the Mongols in their sacking of the city and the massacre that ensued was at least limited to only the male members of one clan. Xu Li was, however, a victim of the Mongol victory as he was murdered by a fellow Jin officer.
Then, in the summer of 1233, rumours spread to the Song court of a Jin plan to cut through the Song border and form a route of escape for Aizong to Sichuan. However, when the Jin crossed the border they were rapidly defeated by General Meng Gong, and the Song counterattack effectively cut the Jin forces at Caizhou off from any hope of relief. The Song army was now fully in control of southern Henan. The confidence this gave the Song meant that Jin emissaries seeking a pact were sent home, without even the courtesy of an audience being extended to them.
Aizong sent more desperate missives to the Song court, begging for at the least supplies, and at the best armed support against the Mongols who were closing on Caizhou by December 1233, but the Song were by this time already plotting with his enemies for the destruction of Jin. Aizong committed suicide and handed the reins of power, worn out though they were, to a distant relative, Mo Di.
The siege of Caizhou saw the entire populace of the region crowded into the city, for fear of the Mongols, and famine quickly ensued. The Song supplied the Mongol army with grain and no Jin relief army would come to the new capital’s aid, as all strategy had broken down and the armies of the Jin were still defending patches of land across the now dead empire. The rainy season was also in full flow and floods slowed those forces that did respond to the Jin emperor’s pleas. In September 1233 the Song had begun retaking their former prefectures from the Jin and their massing on the border of a large army also drew Jin forces away from the war for the heartland.
Before his death Aizong had attempted to buoy his troops defending the southern border with these words:
The fact that the Tatars unleash their forces and often win battles is because of their northern style and because they use the tricks of the Chinese. It is very difficult to fight against them. As to the Song, they are really not our match! They are weak and not martial, just like women. If I had three thousand armoured soldiers, we could march into Chiang and Huai provinces. Take courage
The Jin then defeated the Song at the battle of Changtu Tian and this Song failure must have made it obvious to the Mongols that the Song state was defended by an army that was, despite its size and sophistication, at times, a paper tiger.
By this time, cannibalism had broken out in Caizhou, and the Song, under General Meng Gong, joined the Mongols in besieging the city in November 1233 with ten thousand men. They breached one wall, but were driven out. Then, on 8 January 1234, the Mongols broke the banks of the Lien River and Song engineers diverted the Ju River away from Caizhou. This effectively denuded Caizhou of its western and southern defences and by 20 January the Mongols were in the western part of the city. Mo Di was killed in house-to-house fighting as the Mongols stormed Caizhou on 9 February 1234. A large body of Jin soldiers, loyal to the last, had desperately tried to defend him and perished with him. General Meng Gong seized the Jin imperial seals and part of Aizong’s burned body as proof of the end of the dynasty, and Song garrisons were placed in southern Henan.
The Song had now outlasted two enemy dynasties, the Liao and the Jin, though they themselves had defeated neither and had even failed once against the armies of the dying Jin. Now they faced another invader from the north, one with which they had made common cause with in the last few months of Jin’s demise. A Chinese proverb that predates the Song dynasty tells us, ‘When the lips are gone, the teeth soon become cold.’ The Jin were gone and Song now faced the Mongols alone.