A Brief History of WMDs before 1900

This is a Mongol style siege but not the siege of Kaffa [Caffa] from the early 14th century Jami al-Tawarikh  (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid ad-Din.  Edinburgh University Library

Transmission from Kaffa. (Wheelis, 2002)

In terms of referring to nuclear, chemical-and by inference, biological-weapons, the term “weapons of mass destruction” first came into use in 1956 when it was used in a speech by Soviet Red Army Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov. In fact, it was this speech that highlighted for U. S. policy makers the real or perceived threat from the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of the latter’s presumed arsenal of chemical and biological weaponry. As such, Zhukov’s speech invigorated United States Cold War research into WMD, including biological weaponry. During the Cold War, the United States-and, to a much greater extent, the Soviet Union-amassed large chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The threat posed by these stockpiles has diminished greatly since the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Regional threats posed by state-funded militaries from chemical and biological weapons also have declined. By the end of 2003, the U. S. government had admitted that there was little evidence that Iraq had possessed large chemical or biological weapon stockpiles after the mid-1990s. This has since led both the United States and British governments to begin inquiries into the faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq that was in large part the basis for justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Other regional threats, however, still remain. Among these, states such as Syria and North Korea are suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons. Their bellicose posture regarding their immediate neighbors and regional rivals, as well as their possession of long-range delivery systems (such as Scud missiles), make these threats impossible to ignore. By contrast, Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi stated in early 2004 that he would renounce the possession of WMD, which demonstrates how quickly the threat of weapons of mass destruction seems to rise and fall on the global agenda.

The historical record shows that mass poisonings and the occasional plot to spread disease among armies and civilian populations go back many centuries. Still, chemical and biological warfare (CBW)-sometimes referred to in military parlance as “bugs and gas”-is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is modern in the sense that the science and industry required to produce these types of WMD have only existed since the early 1900s. However, there may indeed have been designs to use chemical or biological agents as a means of warfare (or possibly terrorism) before the Industrial Revolution. Before the late nineteenth century (the time of Louis Pasteur and many developments in chemistry), however, the requisite scientific knowledge and engineering capacity were insufficient to bring any such ideas to fruition. Obviously, this is no longer the case.

Many books and articles that discuss CBW often introduce the subject by bringing up past examples of chemical or biological warfare. In an excellent introduction to chemical weapons, a short book published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army discusses a case of CW (chemical warfare) from China’s early history: In the Zuochuan, it is written that in the sixth century to about the fifth century B. C. E., “An official of the noble princes of the Xia, came from the Jin to attack the [forces of] Qin, and poisoned the Jing River, killing more than a division of men.” Another case is cited: “In the year 1000 [ C. E.], there was one named Tangfu, who made poi- son fire grenades and gave them to the Chao court of the Song dynasty. The poisonous smoke ball, containing arsenic oxide (As 2 O 3 ) and a type of poison derived from crotonaldehyde, looked a bit like a precursor to a chemical gas grenade. After alighting, this weapon would issue forth smoke to poison the enemy and thus weaken their ability to fight.”

These same authors also point out that this is a far cry from what one expects in modern times, for back then chemical warfare “was just in its infancy, and not only were its methods crude but its utility in actually killing people was limited. Because of this, chemical weapons were regarded as a method to generally assist in conducting warfare, and at the time did not draw any particular attention. Coming into the recent era, as the developments in technology continued, chemical weapons then really began to demonstrate their real menace.”

Another premodern military tactic that is often described as a form of BW (biological warfare) is the siege of Kaffa (1346 C. E.), in modern Feodosia, Ukraine. During a campaign by Mongol forces to defeat a heavily defended city of mostly Genoese merchants, bubonic plague struck the area: “The Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humors, followed by a putrid fever. The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. . . .” We note here that “stench” was considered in the pre-germ theory era to be responsible for disease. Thus, miasmas, “noxious effluvia,” or “corrupt vapors” (febres pestilentiales) were synonymous with the spread of deadly epidemics-plague (causative organism: Yersinia pestis) being among the most notorious.

The suggestion later made by historians that the Mongols were in fact able to spread bubonic plague by hurling disease-ridden corpses over the fortress walls is an intriguing one. During the fourteenth century, however, a germ theory of disease did not exist. How would the people of that era have known exactly how the disease could spread? What they could not have known is that bubonic plague is spread by fleas, which collect the bacteria Yersinia pestis (the causative organism of plague) through feeding upon infected rats. Fleas do not linger near the body once the temperature of the host (be it rodent or human) cools following death, making it rather unlikely that the cadavers would have done much to spread the plague. In the end, it was not the use of projectile cadavers, but more likely the exceptionally large rat population around the Black Sea that led to a pandemic throughout the region (and indeed much of Europe). One could probably conclude, however, that the Mongols did have the intent to spread disease among their enemy, and at least in this respect they conducted an early form of BW.

Sixth Century B. C. Assyrians reportedly used ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) to poison their enemy’s water wells

431-404 B. C. Spartan armies use sulfur and toxic arsenic smoke during Peloponnesian War

Fourth Century B. C. Chinese engineers use arsenic against underground sappers.

Circa 200 B. C. Officers in Hannibal’s army adulterate the wine of African rebels with mandrake, which contains belladonna alkaloids causing hallucinations.

187 B. C. Ambraciots (Greece) employ irritating smoke against Roman soldiers

7th Century C. E. The Byzantine architect, Callinicus (“Kallinikos”), reportedly invents the first liquid incendiary-“Greek Fire.”

Circa 1040 Scottish king poisons wine using a belladonna-like (“sleepy nightshade”) herb and gives to Norwegian enemies as “provisions” under pretense of surrender. Scots then slaughter the incapacitated Norwegians.

1347 Mongolians lay siege to Kaffa (in modern Ukraine) and throw corpses over city walls to spread bubonic plague. May have contributed to Black Death, which killed approximately 50 million people through the fourteenth century.

1672 Bishop of Münster attempted the use of atropine-like drug in grenades in siege against city of Groningen. Attack backfires.

1767 British plot to supply cloths from a smallpox hospital ward to American Indian tribes in hopes of spreading disease. Unknown if this strategy was ultimately successful.

1855 Sir Lyon Playfair suggests using cyanide-containing chemicals against Russian troops during Crimean War, but this tactic never found approval by the British High Command.

29 July 1899 First Hague Convention signed, prohibiting “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”(Mauroni, p. 81)


The Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Kaffa in 1346 is often cited as one of the first recorded incidents of biological warfare-and perhaps even the cause of the spread of bubonic plague to Europe.

The city of Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija, Ukraine), established in 1266 by agreement between the Mongols on the Black Sea and the Genoese, was an important trading hub between Genoa and the Far East. In 1289, the city fell under the suzerainty of the Khan (Toqtai) of the Golden Horde. The relationship between the Genoese and the Khan, however, was an uneasy one. Kaffa was first besieged in 1308 after the reported displeasure of Khan Toqtai over Genoese trading in Turkic slaves. (The sale of these slaves to the Marmelake Sultanate in Egypt reportedly upset the Khan by depriving him of an important source of foot soldiers for his own army.) The Genoese set fire to Kaffa and fled. After Toqtai’s death, Khan Uzbeg allowed the Genoese to rebuild their trading colony in 1312.

In 1343, after a brawl between Christian locals and Muslims in the Italian enclave of Tana inflamed the ire of Khan Janibeg, the Italians fled from Tana to Kaffa, bringing the Khan’s army to the gates of Kaffa behind them to besiege the city. In February 1344, the Italians managed to break the siege after killing 15,000 of the Khan’s Tartars and destroying their siege machines. Janibeg renewed the siege the following year, but the residents of Kaffa were able to maintain their position because they retained access by sea to supplies. In 1346, the Khan’s army besieging Kaffa suffered a natural outbreak of plague. The Tartars catapulted the plague-infected corpses of their dead comrades over the city walls. According to one historical account, the Tartars’ tactic finally broke the 3-year stalemate; the Genoese were crippled by the plague and fled Kaffa by sea-taking the disease to Europe with them.

The most contemporaneous account of the siege was written by Gabriele de’ Mussi, a notary of the town of Piacenza, north of Genoa. There is some debate as to whether de’Mussi witnessed the events at Kaffa. Written in 1348 or 1349, the account de- scribes the “mysterious illness “that struck the Tartar army besieging Kaffa. De’ Mussi recounts how the Tartars, desperate from the devastation of the disease on their army, thought to kill the inhabitants of Kaffa with the stench of their diseased dead. According to the de’ Mussi account, the people of Kaffa had no hope once the air and water had been contaminated, and only one in 1,000 was able to flee the city. Those that did flee took the plague with them as they left.

De’ Mussi’s account suggests that not only did the Tartars deliberately hurl their diseased dead over the city walls of Kaffa with the intent to kill their enemies, but those escaping Kaffa brought the disease into the ports of Europe. The disease was most likely brought within the walls of Kaffa through flea-infested rodents from the Tartar camps, or possibly through the transmission of the disease from direct contact with infectious body fluids from the Tartar dead.

Most scholars believe that the Genoans brought the plague with them to Naples, from where it then spread throughout Europe. Others have recently suggested that although the use of plague corpses against Kaffa was a true act of biological warfare, the siege had no significant impact on the spread of the Black Death through Europe. As Wheelis suggests, Kaffa was certainly not the only Tartar port that could have transmitted plague into European ports. Wheelis further argues that the rate and pattern of plague transmission suggests that it took 1 year to spread the plague into different European ports.

Though Kaffa may not have been the precise source of the Black Death that spread into Europe, the use of infected cadavers against its besieged inhabitants remains one of the most important instances of the intentional use of disease in warfare.

References McGovern, Thomas W., and Arthur M. Friedlander, “Plague,” in Russ Zajtchuck and Ronald F. Bellamy, eds., Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 1997), pp. 479-502. Watts, Sheldon, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). Wheelis, Mark, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,”Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 8, no. 9, September 2002, http://www. cdc. gov/ncidod/EID/ vol8no9/01-0536. htm.


Russia and the Mongol Empire

The Golden Horde. Russian name for the Mongol domains of
Russia and neighboring areas. The name derives from a nickname for the palace tent (Middle Mongolian hordo) of the Golden Horde ruler.

The Mongol conquest of the Russian duchies ironically led to the emergence of Muscovy as the center of a new united Russian state. At the time of the Mongol invasions the Russians, or East Slavs (including the Ukrainians and Belarussians), were ruled by princes (or dukes, kniazi) of the Riurikid family, dating back to the ninth century. Since no system of primogeniture existed, the number of new appanages (udel) multiplied steadily. Politically, the unifying institution was the grand duchy, that is, the special title of grand prince (or grand duke, veliki kniaz’), which accrued, after 1169, to the possessor of the city of Vladimir in the northeast. However, this position of grand prince had no set rule of succession, leading to complex family politics. The real unity of the Russian land, surrounded by Catholic, Muslim, and pagan neighbors, was provided by the Orthodox Church, conducting its services in Old Church Slavonic and headed by the metropolitan in Kiev. Economically, the Russian duchies had ceased coinage in the 12th century, using furs for money instead. The largest city, Novgorod, which traded Russia’s furs, falcons, and lumber to the Baltics, had an estimated 22,000 persons.

The Conquest

The Russians first collided with the Mongols (or TATARS, as the Russians always called them) through their Turkish- speaking Qipchaq (Polovtsi or Cuman) allies. When SÜBE’ETEI BA’ATUR and JEBE led a reconnaissance force of three tümens (10,000s) through Qipchaq territory in 1223, the latter appealed to allied southwest Russian princes, who joined the QIPCHAQS, slaying the Mongol ambassadors. Sübe’etei and Jebe crushed the Russian- Qipchaq force on the Kalka River (May 31, 1223).

Thus, in 1235 ÖGEDEI KHAN added the Russians to the list of targets of the Mongols’ great Western campaign. As usual, the Mongols campaigned principally in the winter. The main Mongol force, headed by the Jochid princes BATU and Hordu, the future great khans GÜYÜG and Möngke, and several others, arrived at Ryazan’ in December 1237. Once Ryazan’ refused to surrender, the Mongols sacked it and stormed through the north-eastern district of Suzdalia, sacking its cities and defeating Russian field forces before leaving that summer. Among the casualties was Grand Prince Iurii (1217–38), killed on the River Sit’ (March 4, 1238). The Mongols reappeared in southern Russia in 1239, sacking Pereyaslavl’ (March 3) and Chernihiv (Chernigov, October 18). Finally having smashed the Russians’ Qipchaq allies, the Black Caps, the full Mongol army sacked Kiev (December 6, 1240), Halych (Galich), and Volodymyr (Vladimir) before passing on to Central Europe. Throughout the campaign the Russians showed neither unity of purpose nor any sense of the enemy they were facing. No Russian princes surrendered to the Mongols, but most fled when it became clear resistance was futile.

When the Mongols destroyed Kiev in December 1240 and sacked Halych (Galich) and Volodymyr (Vladimir), Prince Daniel of Halych (d. 1264), his brother Vasil’ko of Volodymyr (d. 1269), and Michael of Chernihiv (Chernigov, d. 1246) all took refuge in Poland.

The princes of the dynasty, who survived and succeeded those killed defending the Rus’ lands, faced multiple problems of consolidating their own positions, reconstructing their lands, and also developing working relationships with their conquerors. In the first years after the invasion, while the Mongols were pursuing military campaigns elsewhere, the remaining Riurikids were virtually left to their own devices to recover and restore order.

Mongol suzerainty

Nevertheless, the invasion of the Rus lands, although not followed immediately by any formal treaty or Mongol occupation, constituted for practical purposes a conquest. A new, political relationship had to be forged between the Mongol khans and the Riurikid princes. The khans had to find methods of exercising their authority over the defeated lands; and the Rus princes and their populations had to accept and adjust to the demands of the Horde. The princes of Rus recognized Batu and his successors as their overlords. The first evidence of this relationship became manifest almost as soon as the Mongols’ western campaigns ended. According to chronicle accounts, they began the practice of traveling to the Mongol khan or “going to the Horde” to receive the khan’s iarlyk or patent, which was an official appointment or confirmation of each prince’s right to rule his domain.

As early as 1243, Prince Iaroslav Vsevolodich, who had replaced his brother Iurii as prince of Vladimir after the latter’s death at the Battle on the Sit, made such a trip to the Horde. He was awarded not only the title of grand prince of Vladimir, but also that of grand prince of Kiev. Three years later Iaroslav returned to Sarai. On that occasion he was sent on to the Mongol capital at Karakorum. He did not survive the journey. Iaroslav’s sons, Andrei, who served as prince of Vladimir from 1249 to 1251/52, and Alexander Nevsky, who replaced him in 1252, also traveled to both Sarai and Karakorum. In subsequent years other princes also repeatedly made the trip to the Horde. The Suzdalian princes alone, according to one count, made nineteen visits between 1242 and 1252.

By 1280 Noqai, leader of a junior Mongol line, had established a virtually independent realm from the Dnieper to the Danube, ruling Ossetes, Vlachs (Romanians), and Russians of Halych and Volodymyr. King Ladislaus IV (r. 1272–90). The figure who divided the Golden Horde was Nogai. Leader of the Mangkyt clan and himself a descendant of Juchi, Nogai emerged during the reign of Mengu-Timur (1266/67–81) as a powerful military commander with virtually autonomous control over the western territories of the Golden Horde, i.e., the lands west of the Dnieper reaching to the lower Danube. Nogai’s influence was such that he engaged in direct interaction with Byzantium, Egypt, and Hungary and conducted military expeditions as far west as Serbia, Transylvania, and Hungary. When Tuda-Mengu succeeded his brother Mengu- Timur, Nogai’s power as clan leader, Horde elder, and military commander was so great that he has been characterized both as a “virtual co-ruler” with the khan and as an independent ruler. Nogai continued to play a powerful role when Tuda-Mengu, having personally converted to Islam (1283), delegated much of his authority and responsibility to his nephew Telebuga.

The south-western Rus’ principalities of Galicia and Volynia continued to be entangled with Lithuania as well as Hungary and Poland after Daniil’s death in 1264. But it was not uncommon in the 1270s for the Tatars to assist Daniil’s heirs in their campaigns against their western neighbors. When Nogai and Telebuga conducted their campaigns in Hungary in 1286 and 1287, troops from Galicia and Volynia joined them. By that time, however, the unity and power of the two principalities were declining. Tatar troops passing through and wintering in Galicia and Volynia during those campaigns destroyed agricultural fields and looted the region. Unable to protect their lands, the Rus’ princes lost credibility and authority, and Mongol officials became more directly involved in the south-western principalities, especially during the height of Nogai’s power, than they did in the northeast.

Not long afterward, however, as the Sarai khans consolidated their authority after Nogai’s death, their grip on the western principalities relaxed. By the end of the thirteenth century, Daniil’s son Lev (d. 1301) and grandson Iurii (d. 1308) were temporarily able to recombine the Volynian and Galician lands. But it was Poland and the rapidly expanding state of Lithuania that ultimately not only replaced the Riurikid princes, but also competed effectively and successfully with the Mongols for control over the region. Poland absorbed Galicia by 1349; Lithuania gradually acquired the remainder of the south-western lands, including Kiev. The divergence of the south-western from the north-eastern Rus’ principalities that had become apparent before the Mongol invasion was thus intensified; the two sectors that had previously formed Kievan Rus’ split apart.

Golden Horde (Qipchaq Khanate, Ulus of Jochi)

The Golden Horde, founded by CHINGGIS KHAN’s eldest son, Jochi, unified for the first time the lands around the Kazakh, Caspian, and Black Sea steppes. Successors to the Golden Horde ruled under Russian sovereignty into the 20th century. The name Golden Horde derives from the gold-hung palace-tent (horda or ORDO) at which ÖZBEG KHAN (1313-41) received visitors. When Russian chronicles mentioned “going to the Horde,” horde was being used in its proper sense of a nomadic palace, not the later European sense of a mass of people. As the realm disintegrated, the chroniclers referred to other ordos at the center of splinter regimes: the BLUE HORDE, the Volga Horde, the Great Horde, and so on. Implicitly, the palace-tent stood for the people gathered around their ruler. Not until the 16th century, however, did Russian chroniclers begin explicitly using Golden Horde to designate this Mongol successor state. Persian sources of the 13th and 14th centuries, undoubtedly reflecting Mongol usage, spoke either geographically of the Dasht-i Qifchaq, “Qipchaq Steppe” or dynastically of the “ulus (realm) of JOCHI,” Chinggis Khan’s eldest son and ancestor of its khans.


The Golden Horde army was the largest of the three western khanates but neither as battle worthy nor as well equipped as those of the CHAGHATAY KHANATE and the IlKhanate. During the 1357 invasion of Azerbaijan, the conventional wisdom said the Horde’s vast army was “horsemen without weapons.” The bulk of the army must have been Mongol clans and their native Turkish subjects. Still, Rashid-ud-Din speaks of Russians, Hungarians, and Circassians being brought into both right- and left-hand armies, and they do figure occasionally in battle accounts. In 1277 the Russian prince of Rostov won distinction in the siege of an Ossetian fortress.


A constant of Golden Horde foreign policy was hostility to the Il-Khans. While some rulers did not actively pursue their claims beyond the Caucasus, none, except possibly Toqto’a (1291-1312), ever considered abandoning them. Ultimately, Sultan Özbeg’s sons and grandson pursued this claim to ultimate success by occupying Tabriz, in modern Iran, in 1357-59, although they could not hold on to their conquest. To outflank the Il-Khans, the Golden Horde maintained the Egyptian alliance begun by Berke and Baybars. Although the alliance never produced the hoped-for military benefits, it did play a substantial role in the cultural and religious life of the Horde. Geography dictated that this alliance needed the Byzantine Empire as a third partner, and keeping Byzantium in line necessitated land access to Constantinople, which in turn necessitated control over Bulgaria. From Berke to Özbeg these requirements were more or less maintained.

Eastward, the Golden Horde’s primary interest lay in thwarting the Chaghatayids’ ambitions toward Khorazm and the Syr Dar’ya cities. From 1269 to 1284 the khans pursued this aim by encouraging QAIDU and the Chaghatayids’ ambitions to the south and east. From 1284, however, the Golden Horde became wary of Qaidu’s expansion and opened friendly relations with the YUAN DYNASTY.

Central Europe impinged on the Golden Horde primarily as a source of instability among the Russian principalities. Local Jochid princes and noyans met Lithuanian and Polish raids on southwestern Russian towns (modern western Ukraine) with counterraids, which were, however, often as damaging to the local Russians through whom the Mongol soldiers passed as to the Poles or Lithuanians.

The most potent weapon of the Mongols was terror

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

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

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

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

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

Ibn al-Athir tells us:

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

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

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

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

Mamluks and Mongols III

While Louis tried to pick up the pieces of his shattered crusade in Acre, news of its defeat stirred deep emotions among the rural population in France. What happened was not unlike the reaction to the loss of Jerusalem when the Children’s Crusade had burst through the towns and hamlets of France and Germany. This time, shepherds were on the march, led by a demagogue known as the Master of Hungary who had the idea that shepherds, through their honesty and simplicity, could achieve for God what the French nobles had failed to do. The Master of Hungary was described as sixty years old and, according to one source, was a survivor of the Children’s Crusade of 1212. He began preaching soon after Easter in 1251, claiming that he had a document of authorization from the Virgin Mary.

Young shepherds and herdsmen began to follow him and, according to the Chroniques de St Denis, a crowd of 30,000 gathered over eight days; together they marched to Amiens where the inhabitants were fascinated by the Master of Hungary. ‘He came before them with a great beard, also as if he were a man of penitence; and he had a pale and thin face… some knelt before him, as if he were a saint and gave him whatever he wished to demand.’ According to the English chronicler, Matthew Paris, who recounts that he heard the story from an English monk held prisoner by the shepherds for eight days, they carried standards depicting the lamb and the cross: ‘the lamb being a sign of humility and innocence, the standard with the cross a sign of victory’. But as well as the banners, including the one showing the Virgin Mary who was supposed to have appeared before the march, they were also armed with swords, axes and knives.

In Paris they received royal patronage. Queen Blanche, Louis’s mother, and regent while he was in the East, gave the Master of Hungary an audience and showered him with great gifts. The St Denis chronicler thought that ‘she hoped that they would bring some aid to King Louis, her son, who still remained in Outremer’. Queen Blanche was soon to regret her endorsement of this enterprise. In Paris, the shepherds began to run amok and the Church became a target of their violence; they were reported to have slaughtered the clergy and desecrated churches; there was trouble all the way through France, but in Orleans Matthew Paris wrote that people turned out to hear the Master of Hungary preach, ‘in an infinite multitude’. The bishop tried to stop the clergy from attending but when a scholar from the university began to heckle, a riot broke out. Twenty-five clerics were killed, says Matthew, ‘without [counting] those wounded and injured in various ways’. The Jews suffered as well and it was not long before Queen Blanche was forced to outlaw the shepherds.

Some of their followers are said to have reached Aigues-Mortes where they expected a ship to take them to the East, but most dispersed and made their way home. There is no doubt that the shepherds received a bad press because, as Dr Malcolm Barber of the University of Reading points out, all the sources for the story of the crusade were clerics who were not anxious to admit to the anti-clerical feeling among many people at that time. Indeed, the criticism reached a shrill pitch when the Master of Hungary was accused by one writer of having been in league with the Muslims and interested only in selling French boys as slaves. In spite of the trouble the shepherds caused, townspeople did open their gates to them and it can be argued that, while the crusade did get out of hand, it contained many familiar elements of sincere crusading.

Matthew Paris, continuing his story, says that one group of shepherds landed at the port of Shoreham in Sussex. But when their leader began preaching, his audience turned on him and, ‘in fleeing into a certain wood [he] was quickly captured and not only dismembered, but cut into tiny pieces, his cadaver being left exposed as food for the ravens’. The Warden of the Cinque Ports was under instructions to expel any shepherds who were trying to preach their crusade, but as Matthew says, some of those would-be crusaders took the Cross, ‘from the hands of good men’, and set off to serve King Louis in the Holy Land.

Louis’s vision for the protection of the Frankish kingdom in Palestine extended beyond the rebuilt battlements of Caesarea and Acre. He sent envoys to the Mongols and those envoys ended up at the court of the Mongol emperor Mongka at Karakorum in central Asia – a journey that took William of Rubruck the best part of a year. He arrived bearing greetings from Louis in 1254 at a court which had become the centre of a vast empire that stretched from the South China Sea to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The Mongol expansion had started when a group of Turkish and Turko-Mongol tribes in the north-west of China were welded together under the leadership of Genghis Khan. In 1206 he set out to conquer the world and very nearly did; he took northern China, including Peking, during 1211-12, and by 1221 Mongol armies were raiding along the banks of the Indus River. Genghis Khan’s sons, by the 1240s, had overrun central Russia, the Ukraine, Korea, Poland, Hungary, Iran and Asia Minor. Their empire was built on the efforts of ruthless and courageous nomadic warriors who did not surrender or take any prisoners. John of Pian del Carpini, an envoy of Pope Innocent IV who visited the Great Khan in 1246, said that their army was organized in units of ten, each with its own captain. ‘At the head of ten captains of a hundred is placed a soldier known as captain of a thousand, and over ten captains of a thousand is one man, and the word they used for this number is darkness.’

The Mongols seem to have had unlimited mounted warriors who could tirelessly travel for days across the steppes of central Asia, each man carrying ‘two or three bows, three large quivers full of arrows and an axe and ropes for hauling siege engines of war’. These tough nomads, according to the Pope’s envoy, observed a strict moral code and dealt abruptly with thieves and adulterers by putting them to death. On a long campaign the troops would eat anything and, in extremis, would select other members of the army to be slaughtered and eaten. ‘When they are going to make war, they send ahead an advance guard and these carry with them nothing but their tents, horses, and arms. They seize no plunder, burn no houses and slaughter no animals; they only wound and kill men.’ The well-disciplined military machine provided a following wave of troops to take care of the plunder. As they moved across the vast plains of Asia, pastures that suited so well their sturdy little horses and flocks of animals, the warriors took their families with them. ‘Their women make everything, leather garments, tunics, shoes, leggings… they also drive the carts and repair them, they load camels, and in all their tasks they are very swift and energetic. All the women wear breeches and some shoot like the men.’

These people of the central Asian steppes were for the most part pagan but there was an influential minority of Nestorian Christians – a heretical sect which broke from the early Church and expanded eastwards in the fifth century. The Mongol emperor’s mother had been a devout Christian and his principal wife and many of his other wives were also adherents to the faith. The emperor himself attended Buddhist, Muslim and Christian services, declaring that there was only one god, who could be worshipped anywhere.

King Louis’s ambassador waited his turn for an audience with the Great Khan along with embassies from the Caliph of Baghdad, princes from Russia, the Seljuk sultan from Asia Minor and the King of Delhi; William of Rubruck even found a man called Basil, the son of an Englishman, living in the imperial capital, but while the emperor was well-disposed towards the Christians and their struggle with the Saracens, he viewed the world quite differently from King Louis in Acre. Like many oriental rulers before and after him, he regarded the potentates of the West as only tinpot kings on the periphery of the civilized world and, as such, to be treated as vassals. Louis’s ambassador, the second he had sent to the Mongol court since the start of his crusade, came back with nothing that was acceptable in western terms, and noted, as he travelled across half the world on an important trade route, that he made the journey safely and in comparative comfort under the protection of the Mongol administration all the way.

The Armenian King Hethoum also visited Karakorum in 1254, and, mindful of the Mongol control of Anatolia, paid homage to the Great Khan. In return for military assistance against the Muslims, the Mongol emperor offered to restore Jerusalem to the Christians – but under his imperial auspices. Bohemond of Antioch, King Hethoum’s son-in-law, also agreed to support the Mongolian advance into Syria, but the Franks of Palestine did not trust the Mongols and were probably far more realistic. In January 1256 the Mongol army began to move west; it crossed the River Oxus under the command of Mongka’s brother, Hulagu. Engineers went ahead of the army preparing roads and bridges, and siege machinery was brought thousands of miles from China. The Assassin headquarters at Alamut in Iran fell and Hulagu then advanced on Baghdad in spite of the 120,000 cavalry that the caliph was able to put into the field. On 15 February 1258 Hulagu triumphantly rode through the city that had been the seat of the Abbasid Caliphs for five centuries; and in the sack that followed, the Mongols slew 80,000 of Baghdad’s citizens – among them the Caliph Al-Mustasim himself. Baghdad’s Christians, however, who were all sheltering in the churches, were spared.

The cities of upper Mesopotamia were the next to be overrun, and in the autumn of 1259 the Mongol army crossed the Euphrates and was soon at the gates of Aleppo. When Hulagu arrived at the frontier of Antioch, Hethoum, King of Armenia, and Bohemond, Prince of Antioch, rode out to the Mongol camp to pay homage. The two Christian rulers were then offered a number of captured castles and when the Mongol army moved against Damascus its Christian general, Kitbuqa, had by his side the two Christian rulers from Cilicia and Antioch.

At this point, the Christians in Palestine decided that the Mongols were a threat and not potential allies. They applied for help to Louis IX’s brother, Charles of Anjou. He was becoming embroiled in the Pope’s political crusade against the Hohenstaufen and the appeal came to nothing, but just as the Mongols were laying plans to take control of Egypt, the Great Khan, Mongka, died while campaigning in China in August 1259. Inevitably, his brother, Hulagu, turned his attention from the Near East to Mongolia itself, where various members of the imperial family were jockeying for the right of succession. Hulagu moved troops to his eastern frontier ready to intervene if necessary, while his general Kitbuqa was left to govern Syria with a much-reduced army.

The Mamluks were ready to exploit this weakness. The leader of a Mongol embassy which arrived in Cairo to demand the sultan’s submission was executed and an army led by the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz prepared to march against the Mongols in Syria. Qutuz crossed the border on 26 July 1260 and took the small Mongol garrison at Gaza. He then wanted to cross the Frankish territory to engage the Mongol army in northern Palestine and Syria and sent an Egyptian embassy to Acre seeking permission to cross Christian-held lands. The barons of Acre now decided to help the Egyptians and agreed to re-victual the Egyptian army and grant it safe conduct through Christian territory, although a military alliance was rejected. While the Mamluks camped in the orchards outside Acre, news was received that the Mongol army had crossed the Jordan and entered Galilee.

The Mamluk and Mongol forces met at Ain Jalut, the Pools of Goliath, on 3 September 1260. The Mongols advanced into the hills in pursuit of Baybars’s forces, unaware that the main Mamluk army was hidden nearby; Qutuz then sprang the trap and with his superior numbers surrounded the Mongols and tore their army to shreds. That battle brought Mongol expansion in Syria and Palestine to a full stop, although it is possible that they had reached the limit of their advance anyway, but it also marked a long period of attrition and decline for the Frankish states.

The Mamluks’ front line advanced to the Euphrates river and Mongol attacks into northern Syria brought Egyptian reinforcements hurrying north through the Palestinian corridor. When the Mongols withdrew or their armies simply did not materialize, Muslim commanders would unleash their troops on Christian towns and castles on the long march back to the Nile. Under Qutuz’s murderer and successor, Baybars, the systematic reduction of the Latin settlements got under way. In 1265 Caesarea, Haifa and Arsuf fell to him; the great Templar castle of Safad was taken in 1266. Jaffa, Beaufort and Antioch fell in 1268 and, in 1271, Crac des Chevaliers and Montfort. The Mamluk campaigns were characterized by savagery and slaughter; when Baybars led a raid on Acre in May 1267 he ravaged the nearby countryside and decapitated all the inhabitants he could find. Frankish ambassadors sent to Safad to negotiate a truce with him reported that the castle was surrounded with the severed heads of Christian prisoners.

There can be no doubt that the Holy Land was never far from King Louis’s thoughts in France. He poured money into the defence of the Frankish East year after year – an average of 4,000 livres tournois annually between 1254 and 1270 – and he hankered after another big crusade to redeem his reputation and clear his conscience. The papacy, however, was preoccupied with political crusades in Italy that sought to extinguish forever the influence of Frederick II. It was also to be a period of great change in other parts of the commonwealth of Christendom. Latin Constantinople fell in 1261 to the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII; the French and Venetians still held southern Greece and the islands of the Aegean, but naval war between the Italian maritime states was taking a heavy toll on Venetian and Genoese shipping. Louis’s brother, Charles of Anjou, not only won Sicily for the Pope and a crown for himself by defeating Frederick’s bastard son, Manfred, in 1266, but also became overlord of most of the remaining Latin settlements in Greece.

As the threat from Frederick’s heirs receded – Conrad was finally captured and executed by Charles in October 1268 – Louis’s idea for another crusade was promoted actively by the papacy. In 1267 Louis took the Cross, but he must have been disappointed with the poor response from those around him – for example John of Joinville, the historian of Louis’s first crusade, would not go – and Louis sailed from Aigues-Mortes in the summer of 1270 with not more than 10,000 men. Among his retinue were his three sons, his son-in-law, King Thibald of Navarre, and the counts of Artois, Brittany, La Marche, Saint Pol and Soissons. Many of the nobles were sons of crusaders who had sailed with him to the Nile twenty-two years before. But Louis’s flotilla did not go to the East; it headed instead for Tunis on the North African coast.’

Battle of the Sajó River [Battle of Mohi]

Béla IV flees from Mohi, detail from Chronicon Pictum

Date April 11, 1241

Location Muhi on the Sajó River in northeastern Hungary

Opponents (* winner)



*Mongols Commander Subotai

Hungarians King Béla IV

Approx. # Troops

*Mongols As many as 120,000

Hungarians More than 100,000


The Mongols ravage eastern Hungary and Transylvania and gain access to all central Europe

The victory over a Hungarian army led by King Béla IV at Muhi on the Sajó River gave the Mongols access to all of Central Europe. Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his son and successor, Ogatai Khan, continued Mongol expansion. The Mongols conquered Korea in 1231 and defeated the Chin Empire during 1231–1234. In 1235 in the course of a conference with Mongol leaders, Ogatai outlined a plan of expansion in four areas: China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The offensive against Eastern Europe began in 1236–1237, when Ogatai sent 130,000 Mongols into the region. Batu Khan had nominal command, but Subotai exercised real command. Subotai defeated the Bulgars and then led his army across the frozen Volga River in December 1237. In the course of their winter campaign the Mongols destroyed the northern Russian principalities, culminating in the defeat and death of Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir in the Battle of the Sil River on March 4, 1237. At the same time, Mongol forces to the south entered the Ukraine, where they reorganized and reequipped their forces.

During the next two years Subotai consolidated Mongol control over eastern and southern Russia. While the states of Central and Western Europe knew little about Mongol conquests or intentions, the Mongols gathered accurate intelligence about the political situation to their west. Subotai began the offensive in November 1240 with 150,000 men, again campaigning in winter to achieve maximum mobility on horseback in the marshlands and across frozen rivers. When Kiev rejected surrender demands, Subotai captured it on December 6.

Leaving behind 30,000 men to control the conquered territory and maintain his lines of communication, Subotai invaded Central Europe with 120,000 men. The Mongols moved on four axes. Kaidu, grandson of Ogatai, commanded the northern flank; Batu and Subotai had charge of the two central forces; and Kadan, son of Ogatai, protected the southern flank. The two middle forces were to pass through the central Carpathians into Transylvania and then meet at Pest, on the east bank of the Danube.

Kaidu meanwhile moved into Silesia, defeating a Polish army under King Boleslav V at Kraków (Cracow) on March 3, 1241. To meet Kaidu, Prince Henry of Silesia put together a mixed force of some 40,000 Silesians, Germans, Poles, and Teutonic Knights. King Wenceslas of Bohemia marched north with 50,000 men to join them. However, Kaidu struck before the two opposing forces could join. In the hard-fought Battle of Legnica (known as the Battle of Liegnitz in German and also called the Battle of Wahlstatt) on April 9, 1241, Kaidu smashed Prince Henry’s army. Kaidu then halted, having achieved his aims of devastating North-Central Europe and preventing its armies from moving south.

The Mongol southern advance had gone well. In mid-April the Mongols secured Transylvania, and Kadan drove north through the Iron Gates to join Subotai. On March 12, 1241, Hungarian king Béla IV, informed of the Mongol advance, called a conference of nobles at Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, to discuss how to meet the threat. On March 15 the conferees learned that the Mongol advance guard had already arrived at Pest, just opposite Buda.

Sure that the Pest defenses could hold the attackers, Béla IV gathered some 100,000 men over the next two weeks. At the beginning of April he set out from Pest to meet the invaders, confident that he had sufficient strength to defeat them. The Mongols withdrew before Béla’s cautious advance. Late on April 10 about 100 miles northeast of Pest, the Hungarians encountered and defeated a weak Mongol force defending a bridge at Muhi on the Sajó River, a tributary of the Tisza. Béla IV then established a strong bridgehead on the east bank of the Sajó and camped for the night with the bulk of his force on the west bank in a strong defensive position of wagons chained together.

The Mongols attacked the Hungarians before dawn on April 11, 1241, striking the bridgehead with arrows and with stones hurled by catapults, followed closely by an infantry assault. The defenders fought fiercely, and the Hungarians sortied from the main camp to their aid.

They soon discovered that the attack was only a feint. Subotai had led 30,000 men across the river some distance south of the bridge, and this force now came in from the south and rear of the Hungarians. The Hungarians found themselves packed in a small space and devastated by Mongol arrows, stones, and burning naptha. King Béla IV managed to escape with some of his men to the north toward Pozsony (Bratislava). Although Mongol losses in the battle were heavy, the Hungarian force was virtually destroyed. It suffered between 40,000 and 70,000 dead, including much of the Magyar nobility.

With this Hungarian defeat, only the Danube River prevented a further Mongol advance. The Mongols held Eastern Europe from the Dnieper to the Oder and from the Baltic to the Danube. In a campaign lasting only four months, they had destroyed Christian forces numbering many times their own. Following the victory, the Mongols ravaged all eastern Hungary and Transylvania. With a majority of its settlements having been destroyed and a large portion of the population slain during the Mongol occupation, which lasted until 1242, the Hungarian state had to be completely reconstituted.

References Allsen, Thomas. Mongol Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Grousaset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Nicolle, David. The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane. London: Brookhampton, 1998.

The Mongol Turned Back?

The Mongol devastation of Hungary alerted western Europe to what might be in store for it: but suddenly Batu and his hordes were gone, the danger was over and Europe could breathe again. From that day to this the question of why they turned back has exercised historians. The most commonly accepted ‘explanation’ is that after Ogodei’s death every Mongol was bound in duty to return to Mongolia to elect his successor. Accepting the (likely) cause of the khan’s death as poisoning by his aunt, as against the convenient notion that it was alcoholism, a leading Russian historian has commented: ‘This woman, whoever she was, must be considered the saviour of Western Europe.’

But this idea is not convincing, for a number of reasons. In the first place, the quriltai that elected Guyuk as khaghan did not take place until 1246, four and a half years after Ogodei’s death. Secondly, Batu did not return to Mongolia (lingering, as we have seen, in the Volga region), for he was very well informed about all the intrigues that flickered through Karakorum after Ogodei’s death and thought (rightly) that his life would be in danger.

Thirdly, senior commanders and Mongol notables were not in any case automatically recalled to Mongolia after Ogodei’s death. The most salient example is that of Baiju, Mongol commander in Iraq and western Iran, whom Ogodei had appointed as Chormaqan’s successor. On 26 June 1243 Baiju won a shattering victory over the Seljuk Turks under Kaykhusraw II at Kose Dag against the odds. (Allegedly he dismissed the numerical superiority of the Seljuks with a typical Mongol comment: ‘The more they are, the more glorious it is to win and the more plunder we will secure.’) As a result of this triumph, which made the years 1241–43 rival 1220–22 for non-stop Mongol victories, the empire of Trebizond in Anatolia submitted to Baiju and his armies were able to advance into Syria. But there was no question of his having to return to Mongolia for a quriltai.

Another possible explanation is that the Mongols abandoned the idea of an invasion of western Europe because the terrain, largely forested and with no great plains, would not have provided the forage and pasture needed for their horses and other animals. It is alleged that even in Hungary the Mongols were operating to the limit of their capacity, for the puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain, was the only area of grassland west of the Black Sea capable of supporting horses on any scale; here they were limited to 40,000 square miles, as against the 300,000 square miles in the great steppes of their homeland. To feed 100,000 horses one would need 4,200 tonnes of grain in winter or summer, and where would this come from unless, implausibly, it was transported 8,000 miles from Mongolia? Additionally, warhorses needed a lot of care from grooms and wranglers, increasing the numbers the Mongols would have to deploy, and were susceptible to precisely the diseases and parasites that the cold and damp of northern Europe would engender.

Against this theory one can cite factors which might be considered ‘circumstantial evidence’. The Mongols were capable of adapting their military methods, as they demonstrated in the long war with Song China and particularly under Qubilai when they attempted conquests in Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan – though, with the exception of the conquest of Song China, it is notable that none of these campaigns was successful. Napoleon operated with huge numbers of horses in his conquests and as late as the Second World War the Germans were able to utilise millions of horses even with the depleted grazing grounds in industrial Europe. One can, however, argue that such comparisons are anachronistic: by the time of Napoleon much more of Europe had been converted to pasture, and in the case of the Second World War one has to factor in railways, superior veterinary corps and mobile horse transports, none of which was available to the Mongols. Tellingly, though, the Huns under Attila, also entirely dependent on horses for their military superiority, fought campaigns in Italy and France, where it was not problems of pasture that halted them. A judicious conclusion would be that horses and pasturage certainly played some part in the Mongol decision to withdraw.

Another popular theory is that the entire question is misplaced, since the Mongols never intended to conquer western Europe. According to this version the Mongols invaded Hungary purely to punish Bela for having harboured the Cumans and to ensure that there could be no threat to Batu’s ulus in Rus – the Golden Horde. This idea has the merit of simplicity – for the Mongol withdrawal would then need no explanation – but is in conflict with a mass of inconvenient evidence, not least that the Mongols were hopelessly divided. In short, while this was almost certainly Batu’s aim, it was not Subedei’s, as he stated that his dream was to behold the Atlantic. There is no documentary evidence as to what exactly Ogodei’s instructions to his two commanders were, but it is likely that they were issued on a contingency basis – that if the conquest of the Rus states and eastern Europe went well, he would provide the necessary resources for the conquest of western Europe.

What is certain is that Batu’s decision to return to the Volga caused a major rift with Subedei. He cut all his links with Batu, rode back to Mongolia with his retainers and openly supported Guyuk and the houses of Ogodei and Tolui against Batu and the house of Jochi. He avoided all involvement in the murderous intrigues of 1242–46 but was present in 1246 at the quriltai that elected Guyuk. He then retired to the homeland of his Uriangqai tribe east of Lake Baikal, where he died in 1248 aged 72. His son Uriankhadai went on to great things under Mongke in the war against the Song.

It is fairly clear from all the evidence that Subedei, Ogodei and Guyuk all wanted to conquer western Europe. Carpini in 1245 reported that Guyuk had a threefold project: election as khaghan, defeat of Batu in the civil war that had by then broken out between them, and then a fresh invasion of Poland and Hungary as a launch-pad for the conquest of Germany and Italy. Guyuk claimed he wanted to attack Germany first, and proved that he had very good intelligence about the emperor Frederick’s military capability, but Carpini told his colleague Salimbene di Adam he was convinced that Guyuk’s real objective was Italy, both because of its wealth and because that was where ‘Stupor Mundi’ (not to mention the Pope) had his power base. Despite Carpini’s boasting about German military might, which implied that the choice of Italy was the softer option, the likelihood is that the Mongols, knowing of the emperor’s predilection for Italy, had simply decided to go for the jugular.

Carpini noted that Guyuk was supremely realistic and was planning for a campaign that was expected to last eighteen years before victory was assured. As to the chances of success, the consensus of historians then and since was that the Mongols would have reached the Atlantic, but only provided their empire was united in a concerted, monolithic endeavour. Nor would Byzantium have been spared, as a Byzantine expert has pointed out: ‘The successors of Genghis Khan . . . could doubtless have swept the Byzantine as well as the Latin and Bulgarian empires out of existence had the mood taken them.’ This was all the more so since, whereas the Mongols knew every last nuance of European politics, the West was still mired in ignorance about them, variously identifying them as the Ishmaelites or the Antichrist, the forces of Satan, the chaos world, the allies of heterodoxy, anarchy and disorder, fomenters of Islam, Cathars, Lombardy separatists or even the shock troops of an international Jewish conspiracy.

The West, in short, was long on emotion but short on reason and intelligence. Carpini claimed to have discovered the secret of how the West could defeat the Mongols in battle, but this was no more than propaganda to keep Western spirits up. While he whistled in the dark, more sober observers were stupefied by the Mongol withdrawal and suspected it might be like the Greeks’ abandonment of Troy when they left behind the wooden horse. Matthew Paris thought the ‘Tartars’ would come again and that nothing could stop them reaching the Atlantic. The Council of Lyons in 1245 heard an estimate from one bishop that the war with the Mongols might well last thirty-nine years – it is not clear where this exactitude came from.

The sober truth was that by 1242 the Mongol empire was hopelessly divided by faction fighting, that civil war loomed and that anything so momentous as an invasion of Western Europe was not remotely conceivable. Batu, in short, withdrew from Europe because of manpower shortages and the looming conflict with Guyuk, and retreated to the upper Volga to prepare for the trial of strength which he knew would come.

His main problem was an acute lack of men. Once it was known that Ogodei was dead, the levies formerly loyal to Guyuk and Buri demanded to be allowed to return home, and there was nothing Batu could do to stop them unless he wanted a mini-civil war in his own empire; Mongke went with them, taking back to Karakorum his own anti-Batu version of the infamous banquet and the subsequent feud. It was then that Batu showed his calibre as a politician. He may have been mediocre as a battlefield commander but he excelled in diplomacy and intrigue. Even before Ogodei died, while Batu planned the future of what would become the Golden Horde, he decided to shore up his position by seeking allies among the Rus princes, and he proved a shrewd picker.

Deeply unpopular with Novgorod’s boyars, Alexander Nevsky had left the city for two years after his victory over the Swedes at the Neva but was then hurriedly recalled when the Teutonic Knights invaded Russia and took the city of Pskov to the west of Novgorod. Purging the pro-German clique in Novgorod, Nevsky engaged the knights and their allies in a minor battle on the ice of Lake Peipus on 5 April 1242. The numbers involved on both sides were not large; only about one hundred Teutonic knights took part, with the rest of their army being Swedish and Lithuanian volunteers. Nevsky won a complete victory, though the Suzdalian chronicle attributes the real merit in this success to Alexander’s brother Andrei. Only about twenty knights were killed (‘hardly indicative of a major encounter’ as a sceptical historian notes), and there was no mass destruction when the German army plunged through the ice after it gave way under their weight. Russian nationalists such as the Metropolitan Kirill in his Life of Nevsky elevated what was not much more than a skirmish to one of the great battles of the ages; Soviet propagandists reinforced this bogus view and this is the perception that has stuck. Nevsky, meanwhile, was acclaimed as one of the very greatest Russian heroes, and canonised by the Orthodox Church both for his staunch opposition to overtures from an ecumenical Vatican and for his stoical and self-denying submission to Mongol rule.

The historical Nevsky, as opposed to the legendary creature so beloved in Russian mythology, was a slippery and serpentine character. The most significant thing about the battle of Lake Peipus is that Batu’s envoys were present at Nevsky’s side as military advisers; certainly the threat from the Teutonic Knights was the most important factor leading him to throw in his lot with the Mongols. In fact Nevsky’s relations with the Mongols were a tale of ambivalence and duplicity, with the hero self-servingly and ruthlessly focusing on his ambitious political goals; it was this that dictated his unswerving loyalty to Batu and his successors.

Batu rewarded him by supporting him against his brother Andrei, who favoured religious rapprochement with Rome. The Mongols were very hard on Russians who tried to entangle the Vatican, thought to be the ‘nerve centre’ and real seat of power in the West. When Alexander’s father Grand Prince Yaroslav seemed likely to renounce Russian Orthodoxy and submit to the papacy, the Mongols had him poisoned, though authorities differ on whether the ‘contract’ on his life was ordered by Batu or Ogodei’s widow Toregene. After Batu’s death Nevsky enjoyed particularly good relations with the next khan of the Golden Horde, Sartaq (he was said to have entered into an anda relationship with him) who became a Christian. Even though Sartaq was probably poisoned by his uncle Berke, who succeeded him and converted to Islam, Nevsky continued on amicable terms with the new khan. As he had shown in the case of his father, and now his blood brother, Nevsky was not the kind of person to allow emotion and sentiment to get in the way of realpolitik.

Ogodei’s death really signalled the end of the Mongol empire that Genghis had striven so hard to found, though the formal structure continued in existence until the end of the 1250s. Guyuk was not elected as khaghan until 1246, a delay which had a fourfold explanation. It took that long for his mother, the Regent Toregene, to muster the necessary support; there was uncertainty about Batu’s intentions, with Subedei vainly trying to act the honest broker and reconcile him and Guyuk; there was a general moral crisis in Mongolia because of the widespread rumour that Ogodei had been poisoned; and the shamans all declared that an early election would be inauspicious.

Il-Khanate (1256–1335/56)



Created as a result of MÖNGKE KHAN ’s 1252 decision to send his brother HÜLE ’ Ü (1217–65) to the Middle East, the resulting Il-Khanate dynasty suffered from hostility on three fronts and severe social conflicts.


Until 1252 the Mongols’ great khan, the Jochid GOLDEN HORDE , and the other princely lines shared rule over the area from Afghanistan to Turkey. The great khan appointed governors and confirmed client kings, but always with the prior approval of the Jochid ruler on the Volga. No member of the imperial family resided in this area, but many had appanages in the area and appointed representatives to guard their interests. Two TAMMACHI , or permanent garrison armies, occupied the area, one based in Afghanistan and the other based in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Neither was commanded by a member of the imperial family. In 1252 Möngke appointed his brother Hüle’ü to campaign personally in the Middle East, thus upsetting this balance. RASHID – UD – DIN FAZL – ULLAH claims that Möngke secretly intended from the beginning that Hüle’ü would stay permanently in the Middle East despite public plans for Hüle’ü to return at the end of his mission.

As soon as he crossed the Amu Dar’ya, Hüle’ü took the Azerbaijan area for himself, ordering Baiju Noyan, commander of the tammachi troops there, to relocate to Anatolia. After his conquest of Baghdad in February 1258, Hüle’ü began calling himself Il-Khan, or “obedient khan,” implying a status as a deputy or viceroy of the great khan Möngke, despite the public statement that Hüle’ü would return to Mongolia. Thus, when Möngke Khan died in August 1259, Hüle’ü’s status was unclear. By 1260 criminal accusations leveled against Jochid princes in Hüle’ü’s service strained relations with the Golden Horde rulers, and in 1262 a complete purge of the Jochid princes and Hüle’ü’s support for QUBILAI KHAN in his conflict with ARIQ – BÖKE brought open war with the Golden Horde. Nevertheless the special contempt shown toward the Il-Khans by the rulers of the Golden Horde and CHAGHATAY KHANATE demonstrated the khanate’s latecomer status.


The administration of the Il-Khans centered on the khan elected at a QURILTAI (assembly). Like previous Turkish dynasties in Iran, the Mongol dynasty did not have a fixed succession rule. Stable succession thus depended on consensus among the great commanders ( NOYAN ). As in the Yuan dynasty, a threefold ethnic class distinction of the conquest elite, the subject class, and an intermediate mixed class permeated government. The division of the first two classes, often summarized as “Mongols and Muslims,” was as much cultural, social, and political as strictly religious. Mongol meant the nomadic military class and Muslim the native sedentary Iranian and Iraqi population. The intermediate class was specialists and royal clients who were either foreign (Turkestanis), non-Muslim (Assyrians, Armenians, Jews), or both ( UIGHURS , Chinese). Ghazan Khan’s reign eliminated the intermediate class’s previous power. The core of the Mongol class was the khan’s household, consisting of his own keshig, or imperial guard, and intimate servitors and the palace-tents ( ORDO ) of his wives with their affiliated estates. These estates, or injü ( INJE ), constituted the khan and his family’s private demesne, in contrast to the dalai, or state lands. The keshig was divided into four three-day shifts, and from 1291 on the four shift chiefs, three of whom were drawn from the Mongol great noyans, countersigned all decrees of the khan with their black seals. Among the chief noyans, the families of Elege of the JALAYIR and Su’unchaq of the Suldus were the most prestigious. The OIRATS of Diyarbakir, frequent QUDA (marriage allies) of the khans, remained a discrete tribal body. Outside the court was the Mongol army, organized by the traditional DECIMAL ORGA – NIZATION and clan affiliations. Opposite these Mongol noyans was the financial administration, staffed by Persian Sunni Muslim clerks and headed by one or two viziers (always two after 1295), the senior of whom handled the supreme red seal, or al tamgha. Nevertheless the Mongol and Persian orders were not hermetically sealed. The great noyans had their own appanages administered by Persian clients, provincial commanders and governors frequently colluded, and the senior vizier himself served in the keshig as the head of the khan’s personal three-day shift. 233 By 1305 a number of autonomous client kingdoms had been turned into provinces, and Ghazan Khan’s reforms of 1300 created for the first time a single coinage and standard of weights and measures. By the dynasty’s end the Il-Khan regime had eight directly administered provinces of the center, in addition to the semi-independent viceroyalties of Khorasan and Anatolia. In addition to the universal qubchiri, or poll tax, the eight central provinces paid “divan dues” based on traditional agricultural taxes, while the center’s 20 main cities paid separate tamgha, or commercial tolls. Major cities and the provinces received a (usually) Persian malik (governor) who handled finance and administration, a Mongol emir, or noyan, who commanded the troops, and a DARUGHACHI (Persian, shahna) of the Mongol or intermediate class. Assignment of important provinces (particularly GEORGIA , Diyarbakir, and Iraq) as camping grounds for princes offered a further layer of supervision. The Il-Khanate practiced the traditional muqata‘at, or tax-farming system. The treasury drew up contracts specifying the total amount of taxes paid and the deductions the tax farmer could take for expenses. Maliks of major provinces were usually concurrent tax farmers, subcontracting the taxes in districts and villages. Theoretically, the tax farmer could not collect more than the contracted amount, but supervision was lax and over collection rife. The eager attention the Il-Khans usually paid to reports from ayqaqs (informers) about untapped or embezzled revenues put constant upward pressure on taxes and made the tenure of governors and viziers exceedingly uncertain—all but one of the viziers under the Il-Khans were executed with torture on charges of embezzlement, treason, or both. Hüle’ü stored the booty of his conquests of 1256–58 in a tower by Lake Urmia, but by Sultan Ahmad’s reign (1282–84) the tower had partially collapsed, and the remaining treasure was shared out as coronation gifts. From then on the treasury was carried in the khan’s ordo in chests. Except under diligent khans such as Ghazan Khan, treasury procedures were lax and embezzlement routine. Unbudgeted drafts on outlying provinces hindered financial planning, and random seizures by messengers (elchi) damaged the economy. These problems peaked in the 1290s. Ghazan Khan’s reforms did curb the abuses, particularly of the messenger system, but did not eliminate the constant pressure for more revenue.


The immigrant Mongols, composed of the tammachi (garrison) armies dispatched in the 1230s to Afghanistan and to the Armenia-Azerbaijan area, as well as Hüle’ü’s new army, constituted the Il-Khan’s military core. Nevertheless once counted and incorporated into the decimal organization, designated military households in the settled population also supplied infantry and cavalry that served under Mongol commanders in garrisons or the field. The theoretical reserve of the Il-Khan’s army added up to 30 tümens (each nominally 10,000), although tümens averaged perhaps only 40 percent of paper strength. In reality the largest battlefield force ever mobilized was about 70,000 men. Thus, the Il-Khans had enough troops only to confront one of their three major enemies—Egypt, the Golden Horde, or the Chaghatayids—at a time. The court equipped and provisioned at most one out of five army units, leaving remoter units, Mongol or native, to feed and equip themselves. Even so, the Il-Khanid army was better armed than the larger Chaghatayid and Golden Horde forces. In addition to the Mongol units, Georgian cavalry participated in virtually every battle, and the client kingdoms of Lesser Armenia and Seljük Turkey in the west and Kerman and Fars in the east also supplied troops for major campaigns.