Russia and Invasion

The “Battle on the Ice”

Winters in northern Russia are long, and the surface of Lake Chudskoe was still frozen when the Russian force marched out to meet the Germans, along with their Finnish allies, on April 5, 1242. In a scene made famous for modern filmgoers by the director Sergei Eisenstein, the invaders rushed at the defending Russians, who suddenly surprised them by closing ranks around the enemy and attacking them from the rear. The Russians scored a huge victory in the “Battle on the Ice,” which became a legendary event in Russian history.

Two years later, Alexander drove off a Lithuanian invading force, and though he soon left Novgorod, the people there had become so dependent on his defense that they asked him to come back as their prince. With Novgorod now in the lead among Russian states, Alexander was the effective ruler of Russia.

Prospects for a strong, well-defended Russian state had died with the collapse of Kiev. Andrei Bogolyubsky, a grandson of Vladimir Monomakh and architect of this latest defeat, transferred the center of power to his own principality of Vladimir-Suzdal in central Russia. About this time, a small settlement with the Finnish name of “Moskva” was established along the southern border of the principality. Prince Andrei then attempted to put down the last remaining challenge, Novgorod, the northern merchant city that had been autonomous since 1136.

According to the Novgorodian Chronicle, miraculous intercession saved the city: “There were only 400 men of Novgorod against 7,000 soldiers from Suzdal, but God helped the Novgorodians, and the Suzdalians suffered 1,300 casualties, while Novgorod lost only fifteen men. . . .” After several months had passed, Andrei Bogolyubsky’s troops returned, this time strengthened by soldiers from a number of other principalities. The Chronicle continues:

But the people of Novgorod were firmly behind their leader, Prince Roman, and their posadnik [mayor] Yakun. And so they built fortifications about the city. On Sunday [Prince Andrei’s emissaries] came to Novgorod to negotiate, and these negotiations lasted three days. On the fourth day, Wednesday, February 25th . . . the Suzdalians attacked the city and fought the entire day. Only toward evening did Prince Roman, who was still very young, and the troops of Novgorod manage to defeat the army of Suzdal with the help of the holy cross, the Holy Virgin, and the prayers of . . . Bishop Elias. Many Suzdalians were massacred, many were taken prisoner, while the remainder escaped only with great difficulty. And the price of Suzdalian prisoners fell to two nogatas [a coin of small value].

The political situation among Russia’s princes gradually evolved into a balance of minor powers. Kiev’s last claim to dominance – its special relationship with the seat of Orthodoxy – dissolved with Constantinople’s fall to the crusaders of the Latin Church in 1204.

This decline of the Kievan state and the fragmentation of Russian land into numerous warring principalities, none capable of leading a united defense, coincided with the climactic last westward drive of Asiatic hordes, led by the Mongols. Through military and economic vassalage, they were able to halt Russia’s struggle toward nationhood for nearly 200 years.

Early in the thirteenth century, the scattered tribes of the Mongolian desert – a mixture of Mongol, Alan, and Turkic peoples – were united into a single fighting army that drove across the Eurasian plain, following the paths of so many other Asian incursions, and threatened to change the course of Christendom.

The leader who organized and led the nomads in their great conquest of Asia was Temujin. He had been a minor chieftain whose success in a series of intertribal wars on the vast steppe region of northern Mongolia had united first his clan, then his tribe, and finally the majority of tribes – including the Mongols. A kuriltai, or great assembly of chieftains, in 1206 had proclaimed him not just the “Supreme Khan” but the “Genghis Khan,” meaning the “all-encompassing lord.” Thenceforth his authority was understood to derive from “the Eternal Blue Sky,” as the Mongols called their god.

Genghis Khan ruled over a people of extraordinary hardihood and ferocity. The Mongols were tent-dwelling nomads whose horses were their constant companions. Mongol boys learned to ride almost from birth, and at the age of three, they began handling the bow and arrow, which was the main weapon in hunting and in war. Their small sturdy horses were, like their riders, capable of feats of great endurance. Unlike Western horses, Mongol ponies were highly self-sufficient, requiring no special hay or fodder and able to find enough food even under the snow cover. The Mongols took care of their horses, which were readily rounded up in herds of 10,000 or more, allowing them regular periods of rest; and on campaigns, each warrior was followed by as many as twenty remounts. Their horses gave them the mobility to strike suddenly and unexpectedly against their enemies. Furthermore, the Mongols were more skilled in war than earlier nomad hordes, and they were undeterred by forest lands.

The Mongol nation numbered only 1 million people at the time of the empire’s greatest extent. Within the empire, Turks and other nomadic tribes were far more numerous, serving mainly in the lower ranks of the armies. (The hordes that swept across Russia, under the minority rule of Mongols, were predominantly Turkic and were generally known as Tatars, derived from the European name for all the peoples east of the Dnieper.) The authority of Genghis and of his law commanded unquestioning obedience. The Great Yasa, compiled principally by Genghis, was the written code of Mongol custom and law, laying down strict rules of conduct in all areas of public life – international law, internal administration, the military, criminal law, civil and commercial law. With few exceptions, offenses were punishable by death. This was the sentence for serious breaches of military efficiency and discipline, for possessing a stolen horse without being able to pay the fine, for gluttony, for hiding a runaway slave or prisoner and preventing his or her recapture, for urinating into water or inside a tent. Persons of royal rank enjoyed no exemption from the law, except to the extent that they received a “bloodless” execution by being put inside a carpet or rug and then clubbed to death, for to spill a man’s blood was to drain away his soul.

The functioning of the military state was set forth mainly in the Yasa’s Statute of Bound Service, which imposed the duty of life service on all subjects, women as well as men. Every man was bound to the position or task to which he was appointed. Desertion carried the summary punishment of death. The Army Statute, which organized the Mongol armies in units of ten, was explicit:

The fighting men are to be conscripted from men who are twenty years old and upwards. There shall be a captain to every ten, and a captain to every hundred, and a captain to every thousand, and a captain to every ten thousand. . . . No man of any thousand, or hundred, or ten in which he hath been counted shall depart to another place; if he doth he shall be killed and also the captain who received him.

Even in the far-off khanates, which the Mongols eventually established, the Great Yasa was known and revered much as the Magna Charta, of about the same time, was regarded in England. It provided the legal foundation of the Great Khan’s power and the means to administer the immense Mongol-Tatar Empire from the remote capital, which he established at Karakorum.

In 1215, Genghis Khan captured Yenching (modern Peking) and northern China; he went on to subdue Korea and Turkistan, and to raid Persia and northern India. The famous tuq, or standard, of Genghis – a pole surmounted by nine white yak’s tails that was always carried into battle when the Great Khan was present – had become an object of divine significance to the Mongols and of dread to their prey.

After taking Turkistan, gateway to Europe, Genghis Khan sent a detachment of horsemen to reconnoiter the lands farther to the west. In 1223, this force advanced south to the Caspian Sea and north into the Caucasus, finally invading the territory of the Cumans, a Turkic people settled in the region of the lower Volga. The khans of the Cumans called on the Russian princes to help them. “Today the Tatars have seized our land,” they declared. “Tomorrow they will take yours.” Heeding their call for aid, Prince Mstislav of Galicia and a few lesser princes marched with their troops to rescue their neighbor. In the battle on the banks of the Kalka River, at the northeastern end of the Sea of Azov, the Cumans and their allies suffered disastrous defeat. Few escaped with their lives, though Mstislav and two other captured princes were saved for special treatment.

Chivalry required that enemies of high rank be executed “bloodlessly” – according to the same rules as Mongol chieftains – so another expedient was devised. The vanquished were laid on the ground and covered with boards, upon which the Mongol officers sat for their victory banquet. The Russians were crushed to death.

Apparently satisfied with their foray, the conquerors vanished from southern Russia as suddenly and as mysteriously as they had appeared. “We do not know whence these evil Tatars came upon us, nor whither they have betaken themselves again; only God knows,” wrote a chronicler. Most historians attribute their departure to political changes in Mongolia.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 while on a military campaign against a Tibetan tribe. Since his eldest son and heir, Juji, had died earlier, Genghis Khan’s son Ogadai was chosen to rule in Karakorum as Chief Khan. However, Genghis directed that the administration of the empire was to be divided among all his sons, each receiving a vast ulus, or regional khanate, a portion of the empire’s troops, and the income of that area over which they ruled.

Juji’s original share was to have been the khanate of Kip-chak – the region west of the Irtysh River and the Aral Sea – most of which was still unconquered. It was left to his son, Batu, to complete the mission. In 1236, Batu, with the blessing of Ogadai, led a strong army westward. The Mongols advanced by way of the Caspian Gate and then northwestward. They took Bulgary, the capital of the Volga Bulgars, and making their way through the forests around Penza and Tambov, they reached the principality of Ryazan. The northern winter had already closed in, but Batu’s forces, some 50,000 strong, were accustomed to harsh conditions. The snow-covered frozen lakes and riverbeds served as highways for their mounts.

The Russians were in no position to defend themselves. Kievan Rus was in decline, and the newer principalities, like Vladimir-Suzdal, had not yet developed the strength to withstand such foes as the Mongols. Under siege for five days, the town of Ryazan fell on December 21, 1237. A chronicler described the ferocity of the Mongols:

The prince with his mother, wife, sons, the boyars and inhabitants, without regard to age or sex, were slaughtered with the savage cruelty of Mongol revenge; some were impaled or had nails or splinters of wood driven under their finger nails. Priests were roasted alive and nuns and maidens were ravished in the churches before their relatives. No eye remained open to weep for the dead.

Similar stories were repeated wherever the Mongols ranged. The invaders believed that their Great Khan was directed by God to conquer and rule the world. Resistance to his will was resistance to the will of God and must be punished by death. It was a simple principle, and the Mongols applied it ruthlessly.

By February 1238, fourteen towns had fallen to their fury. The whole principality of Vladimir-Suzdal had been devastated. They then advanced into the territory of Novgorod. They were some sixty miles from the city itself when suddenly they turned south and Novgorod was spared. The dense forests and extensive morasses had become almost impassable in the early thaw, and Batu decided to return with his warriors to the steppes, occupied then by the Pechenegs. On their way south, they laid siege to the town of Kozelsk, which resisted bravely for seven weeks. The Mongols were so infuriated by this delay that on taking the town, they butchered all that they found alive, citizens and animals alike. The blood was so deep in the streets, according to the chronicler, that children drowned before they could be slain.

During 1239, Batu allowed his men to rest in the Azov region, but in the following year, he resumed his westward advance. His horsemen devastated the cities of Pereyaslavl and Chernigov. They then sent envoys to Kiev, demanding the submission of the city. Unwisely, the governor had the envoys put to death. Kiev was now doomed. At the beginning of December 1240, Batu’s troops surrounded the city and after a few days of siege, took it by storm. The carnage that followed was fearful. Six years later, John of Plano Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV as his envoy to the Great Khan of Karakorum, passed through Kiev. He wrote that “we found an innumerable multitude of men’s skulls and bones, lying upon the Earth,” and he could count only 200 houses standing in what had been a vast and magnificent city, larger than any city in Western Europe.

The Mongols pressed farther westward and then divided into three armies. One advanced into Poland; the central army, commanded by Batu, invaded Hungary; the third army moved along the Carpathian Mountains into southern Hungary. The Mongols were intent on punishing King Bela of Hungary because he had granted asylum to the khan of the Cumans and 200,000 of his men, women, and children who had fled westward in 1238. Batu had sent warnings, which Béla had ignored. Now the Mongols overran the whole of Hungary, while the northern army laid waste Poland, Lithuania, and East Prussia. They were poised to conquer the rest of Europe, when suddenly, in the spring of 1242, couriers brought news that the Great Khan Ogadai was dead. Batu withdrew his armies, wishing to devote all of his energies to gathering support as Ogadai’s successor. Western Europe was thus spared the Mongol devastation, which, had it spread to the Atlantic, would have had an incalculable impact on the history of Europe and of the world.

Ogadai had ruined his health, as he frankly admitted, by continued indulgence in wine and women. Sensing death approaching, the khan appointed his favorite grandson as successor. But Ogadai’s widow, acting as regent until the boy was old enough to rule, plotted secretly to procure the election of her own son, Kuyuk, although this was strongly opposed by Batu and many other Mongol leaders.

Batu had established his headquarters at Sarai, some sixty-five miles north of Astrakhan on the lower Volga. It was little more than a city of tents, for the khan of the Kipchaks remained a nomad at heart, but the splendor of his court became legendary among the princes of his realm. Batu’s Golden Horde (from the Tatar altūn ordū) also impressed John of Plano Carpini, who wrote:

Batu lives with considerable magnificence, having door-keepers and all officials just like their Emperor. He even sits raised up as if on a throne with one of his wives. . . . He has large and very beautiful tents of linen which used to belong to the King of Hungary. . . . drinks are placed in gold and silver vessels. Neither Batu nor any other Tatar prince ever drinks, especially in public, without there being singing and guitar-playing for them.

Though Batu owed allegiance to the Great Khan, he now refused to visit Karakorum and to pay homage to Kuyuk. The Golden Horde remained a province of the Mongol-Tatar Empire, but Batu and his successors thenceforth administered the khanate with a large measure of independence, particularly in its relations with Russia.

The Russian princes paid their tributes directly to Sarai. The terror and destruction wrought by the Tatar invasion had left the Russians stupefied and brought their national life to a standstill. Decades passed before they began to recover, for the Mongol yoke lay heavy on them. In certain regions, mainly in western Ukraine, the Mongols took over the administration from the Russian princes and ruled directly; in other regions they set up their own officials alongside the Russians and exercised direct supervision. In most parts of Russia, however, the khan allowed the local Russian princes to administer as before.

Before the Mongol invasions, a distinctly Russian system of landholding and agricultural production had emerged. Feudalism, as it was known in Western Europe, had not yet taken hold; with vast areas of Russia still open to settlement, only the slaves were legally held to the acreage on which they were born. Land was organized rather loosely in the hands of four principal classes. First came the grand princes and lesser nobility, Russia’s proliferating royal family. Beginning sometime in the tenth or eleventh century, the princes turned from plunder and the collection of tributes to the land as the primary producer of wealth. Yaroslav’s decision to divide Kievan Rus into five portions, one for each of his sons, can be taken as the formal beginning of the appanage system, by which titles and estates passed from generation to generation.

Ranking below the appanage princes, and coming somewhat later to land ownership, was the class of boyars, who were roughly equivalent to the barons and knights of Europe. The boyars were an outgrowth of the Varangian druzhina, the prince’s retinue, made up of a mixture of Scandinavian and native Slavic leaders whose lands were secured by conquest, colonization, or outright princely gift. In the tradition of adventurers, the boyars were free to shift allegiance from one prince to another as it suited their own interests. Initially, no contract, either formal or by custom, held the boyar in vassalage to the prince, nor did a change of loyalty affect his title to his land. Service was not a condition of ownership, and land passed from father to son.

The Church formed the third and still later developing class of landlords, its right to tenure and administration independent of the princes established by Byzantine precedent. Church lands were acquired either by colonization in unclaimed lands or by donations from princes, often in exchange for the prayers of the Church.

The fourth and most elusive of definition was the peasant majority. Conditions varied from one principality to another, depending on local custom and the power of the prince. Prior to the development of boyars’ estates, a peasant held the land by virtue of having wrested it from the wilderness. This he usually accomplished as a member of a commune – a gathering of a few family units, itself an outgrowth of the more primitive Slavic tribal family. The peasant was technically a free man and remained so until the reign of Alexei, in the middle of the seventeenth century, though the intervening centuries brought an accumulation of legislation that would progressively limit his right to exercise this freedom. With the growing power of the various landlord classes, however, peasants living in the more settled areas of Russia were put under obligations, the most common being obrok, quitrent or payment in kind for land use, and barshchina, payment in contracted days of labor on the owner’s estate. Only the kholopy, or “slaves,” a motley assortment of prisoners and indebted poor, were entirely excluded from landholding during the period of Mongol domination.

The khans of the Golden Horde were interested in the conquered lands only as a source of revenue and troops, and so were content to allow the continuation of this political structure. The appanage princes had to acknowledge that they were the khan’s vassals and that they recognized the overall suzerainty of the Great Khan of Karakorum. They could hold their positions only upon receiving the khan’s yarlyk, or patent to rule; often, they first had to journey to Sarai to prostrate themselves before him. On occasion, they even went to Mongolia to make their obeisances. Moreover, they had to refer to the khan for resolution of major disputes with other princes and to justify themselves against any serious charges, competing with each another for the khan’s recognition with gifts, promises to increase their payments of tribute, and mutual denunciations.

Prompt action was taken in each newly conquered country to promote a census of the population, for the purpose of assessing the amount of tax to be levied and the number of recruits owed to the army. Mongol officials were appointed to collect and to enroll recruits. Delays in making payments to the tax collector, or producing men, or rebellion of any kind were punished with extreme ferocity.

Nevertheless, driven beyond endurance by Mongol demands, the Russians sometimes rebelled. No fewer than forty-eight Mongol-Tatar raids took place during the period of the domination of the Golden Horde, and some of these expeditions had the purpose of suppressing the Russian uprisings. Gradually, however, the khan’s grip on his vassal states relaxed. Early in the fourteenth century, Russian princes were allowed to collect taxes on behalf of the Horde, and the tax collectors and other officials were withdrawn. The Russian lands once again became autonomous, though they continued to acknowledge the suzerainty of the khan. However, internal rivalries, much like those that had fractured the Russian principalities, were weakening the Golden Horde, which was ceasing to display the bold confidence of conquerors. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the khan’s direct rule came to be limited to the middle and lower Volga, the Don, and the steppelands as far west as the Dnieper.

The impact of the Mongol invasion and occupation on Russia’s social and cultural fortunes was largely negative, halting progress and introducing a number of harsh customs. The Mongols probably left their mark in such evil practices as flogging, torture, and mutilation, the seclusion of women of the upper classes in the terem, or the women’s quarters, the cringing servility of inferiors, and the arrogant superiority and often brutality of seniors toward them. But evidence that the invaders made any enduring, positive impression is slight. Historians S. M. Solovyev and V. O. Klyuchevsky argued that Russia had embraced Orthodox Christianity and the political ideas of Byzantium two centuries before the coming of the Mongols, and its development was too deeply rooted in Byzantine soil to be greatly changed. Further, the Mongol conception of the Great Khan’s absolute power was, in practice, close to the Byzantine theory of the divine authority of the emperor, and, indeed, the Mongol and Byzantine concepts might well have merged in the minds of the Russian princes.

Only the Orthodox Church flourished. The religion of the Mongols was a primitive Shamanism in which the seer and medicine man, the shaman, acted as the intermediary with the spirit world. He made known the will of Tengri, the great god who ruled over all the spirits in heaven. This form of worship could readily accommodate many faiths, and the Mongols showed a tolerance toward other religions, which Christian churches would have done well to emulate. The Mongols were familiar with Nestorian Christianity, a heretical sect for which Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was deposed in the fifth century, and certain clans had embraced Nestorianism. Though the Great Khan, after considering Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, had finally in the fourteenth century decided to adopt Islam as the faith of the Mongols, they continued to show a generous tolerance toward the Christians.

The Russian Orthodox Church, in fact, enjoyed a privileged position throughout the period of the Mongol yoke. All Christians were guaranteed freedom of worship. The extensive lands owned by the Church were protected and exempt from all taxes, and the labor on Church estates was not liable to recruitment into the khan’s armies. Metropolitans, bishops, and other senior clerical appointments were confirmed by the yarlyk, but this assertion of the khan’s authority apparently involved no interference by the Mongols in Church affairs.

Under this protection, the Church grew in strength. Its influence among the people deepened, for it fostered a sense of unity during these dark times. Both the black, or monastic, clergy and the white clergy, which ministered to the secular world and was permitted to marry, shared in this proselytizing role. Moreover, the Church preserved the Byzantine political heritage, especially the theory of the divine nature of the secular power. In accordance with this tradition, the support that the Church gave to the emerging grand princes of Moscow was to be of importance in bringing the country under Moscow’s rule.

The Orthodox Church was also strengthened, by virtue of being unchallenged by other ideas and influences. Kievan Rus had maintained regular contact with the countries to the south and west. By the great trade routes, Russian merchants had brought news of the arts and cultures, as well as the merchandise, of these foreign lands. But the Mongol occupation had isolated the Russians almost completely. The great ferment of ideas in the West, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the explorations, and the scientific discoveries, did not touch them. The Orthodox Church encouraged their natural conservatism and inculcated the idea of spiritual and cultural self-sufficiency among them. Indeed, this isolation, which was to contribute notably to Russia’s backwardness in the coming centuries, was to be one of the most disastrous results of Mongol domination.

Only the remote, northern republic of Novgorod had managed to escape the devastation of Batu’s westward advance in 1238. The city, standing on the banks of the Volkhov River, three miles to the north of Lake Ilmen, in a region of lakes, rivers, and marshes, had built up a commercial empire “from the Varangians to the Greeks,” as they described it. “Lord Novgorod the Great,” the Novgorodtsi’s title for their republic, had been one of the first centers of Russian civilization. Beginning with Prince Oleg’s rule in the last years of the ninth century, it had acknowledged the primacy of Kiev; but as the power and prestige of “the mother of Russian cities” declined, Novgorod had asserted anew its independence. In 1136, its citizens had rallied and promptly expelled the Kiev-appointed prince who, they complained, had shown no care for the common people, had tried to use the city as a means to his own advancement, and had been both indecisive and cowardly in battle. The city concentrated its efforts on commerce, especially its connections with the Hanseatic trading ports of the Baltic, avoiding most of the internecine strife that had wracked the other principalities. “Lord Novgorod” showed the same pragmatism in dealings with the khan.

The Novgorodian Chronicle relates that their prince, Alexander Nevsky, son of Yaroslav I of Vladimir, had recognized the futility of opposition and had directed his people to render tribute. In the year 1259, “the Prince rode down from the [palace] and the accursed Tatars with him. . . . And the accursed ones began to ride through the streets, writing down the Christian houses; because for our sins God has brought wild beasts out of the desert to eat the flesh of the strong, and to drink the blood of the Boyars.”

Nevsky also made frequent journeys of homage to the khan of the Golden Horde, at least once to distant Karakorum, and had won the trust of the Mongols. But a further reason, which was perhaps of overriding importance in gaining the khan’s favor, was that Mongol policy stimulated Baltic trade, for international commerce was the source of the Golden Horde’s prosperity. While Kiev lay in ruins, Novgorod’s trade in the Baltic, and south by the river road to the Caspian Sea, continued to flourish, and the people – 100,000 in its heyday – to prosper. Confident in their wealth and power, the citizens asked arrogantly: “Who can stand against God and Great Novgorod?”

Novgorod was unique in claiming the right to choose its own prince; it allowed him only limited authority, in effect keeping him as titular head of state with certain judicial and military functions. The real power emanated from the veche – an unwieldy but relatively democratic assembly of male citizens – and its more select, more operative council of notables, which such day-to-day business as taxation, legislation, and commercial controls. Participation in the veche was by class – groups of boyars, merchants, artisans, and the poorer people – with the aristocratic element generally dominant by virtue of its close ties with the council. Conflicts within the assembly were often violent – a unanimous vote was required to pass any decision – and meetings broke up in disorder. Nevertheless, they managed to elect their posadnik, or mayor, and tysyatsky, or commander of the troops. The veche also nominated the archbishop, who played an influential part in the secular affairs of the republic. Both council and veche had existed in Kievan Rus as advisory institutions, but in Novgorod, they represented an impressive, if short-lived, experiment in genuine democratic government.

Prince Alexander was one who seems to have enjoyed the good will of his electors. He had an equally successful record in dealing with the armed threat from the West. While the Russian lands were falling under Mongol-Tatar occupation, powerful forces were putting pressure upon the Western principalities. In 1240, Alexander routed the Swedes on the banks of the Neva River, thereby gaining for himself the name “Nevsky” and for the Novgorodtsi an outlet to the Baltic. Two German military religious orders, whose conquests were directed at the extension of Roman Catholicism among the pagan Letts and Livonians of the Baltic, were also major threats. First to be organized were the Teutonic Knights, an army of noblemen that had come into existence as a hospital order during the third crusade. Beginning in the thirteenth century, they took over lands roughly equivalent to later-day Prussia. At this time, a second order, the Livonian Knights, was founded by the bishop of the Baltic city of Riga. The two united in 1237, and five years later, they marched on Novgorod. They were met on the frozen Lake Peipus, near Pskov, and defeated in the Battle on Ice, thus halting for a time the German drive eastward.

The Knights continued, however, to harass the pagan Letts and Lithuanians, who were forced to reach out in the only direction left them: eastward toward their weakened neighbor Russia. The Mongols had ravaged Lithuania in 1258, but had then withdrawn and not returned. The Lithuanians had recovered quickly, and not long afterward, under their great military leader Gedimin the Conqueror (1316-41), they succeeded in occupying most of west and southwest Russia, including Kiev. Though technically it now lay outside the sphere of Russia proper, this new “grand princedom of Lithuania and Russia” would rival the strongest all-Russian principality for decades to come. Olgierd, the son and successor of Gedimin, eventually defeated Novgorod in 1346, thereafter subduing the sister city of Pskov, expelling the Tatars from southwest Russia, and taking the Crimea.

Meanwhile, Moscow was growing from an insignificant settlement into the matrix and capital of the nation. Of this dramatic and unexpected development in Russia’s history, a Muscovite would write in the seventeenth century: “What man could have divined that Moscow would become a great realm?” The chronicle relates that, in 1147, Prince Yury Dolgoruky of Vladimir-Suzdal sent a message to his ally, Prince Svyatoslav of Novgorod-Seversk: “Come to me, brother, in Moscow! Be my guest in Moscow!” It is not certain that the town was then on its present site. Prince Yury founded the town of Moscow nine years later by building wooden walls around the high ground between the Moskva River and its tributary, the Neglinnaya, and thus created the first kremlin, or fortress. It soon became the seat of a family of minor princes under the hegemony of Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1238, the Mongols destroyed Moscow and the surrounding territory. About 1283, Daniel, son of Alexander Nevsky, acquired the principality and became the first of a regular line of Muscovite rulers. The rise of Moscow had begun.

Among Moscow’s neighbors, Tver, Vladimir-Suzdal, Ryazan, and Novgorod were more powerful and seemed stronger contenders for leadership of the nation, but Moscow had important advantages. It stood in the region of the upper Volga and Oka rivers, at the center of the system of waterways extending over the whole of European Russia. Tver shared this advantage to some extent, but Moscow was at the hub. This was a position of tremendous importance for trade and even more for defense. Moscow enjoyed greater security from attacks by Mongols and other enemies. As a refuge and a center of trade, the new city attracted boyars, merchants, and peasants from every principality, all of whom added to its wealth and power.

Another important factor in Moscow’s development was the ability of its rulers. They do not emerge as individuals from the shadowed distance of history, but all were careful stewards of their principality – enterprising, ruthless, and tenacious. They acquired new lands and power by treaty, trickery, purchase, and as a last resort, by force. In a century and a half, their principality would grow from some 500 to more than 15,000 square miles.

Ivan I, called Kalita, or Moneybag, who ruled from 1328 to 1342, was the first of the great “collectors of the Russian land.” Like his grandfather Alexander Nevsky, he was scrupulously subservient to the Golden Horde. His reward was to obtain the khan’s assent to his assuming the title of grand prince and also to the removal of the seat of the metropolitan of all Russia from Vladimir to Moscow, an event of paramount importance to Moscow’s later claims of supreme authority.

Ivan I strengthened his city by erecting new walls around it, He built the Cathedral of the Assumption and other churches in stone. The merchant quarter, the kitai gorod, expanded rapidly as trade revived. Terrible fires destroyed large areas of the city, but houses were quickly replaced, and Moscow continued to grow.

Ivan I was succeeded by Simeon the Proud, who died twelve years later in a plague that devastated Moscow. He was, in turn, succeeded by his brother, Ivan II, a man whose principal contribution to Russian history seems to have been fathering Dmitry Donskoy, who became grand prince of Moscow in 1363. Under Prince Dmitry’s reign, Moscow took advantage of the waning power of the Golden Horde to extend its influence over less powerful principalities. Generous gifts to Mamai, the khan of the Golden Horde, put an end to Dmitry’s most serious competitor, Prince Mikhail of Tver; Dmitry’s patent was confirmed and Mikhail’s claims to the throne ignored for several years. Then, with Moscow’s power growing at an alarming rate, Mamai reversed his earlier grant and sent an army against Moscow in 1380.

Dmitry was well prepared. He had rebuilt the Kremlin walls in stone, adding battlements, towers, and iron gates. He had secured by treaty the promise of support troops from other principalities. He had introduced firearms on a limited scale. Dmitry won enduring fame by launching the first counterattack against the dreaded Mongol enemy. The heroic battle of Kulikovo, fought on the banks of the river Don (hence Dmitry’s surname “Donskoy”) ended with the Russians inflicting a major defeat on the Golden Horde. The news was greeted with great rejoicing in Moscow, though the Russians had lost nearly half of their men in the struggle. It inspired all Russians with a new spirit of independence. The battle was not decisive, however, and it brought retribution. In 1382, the Mongols, this time led by the Khan Tokhtamysh, laid siege to Moscow. For three days and nights, they made furious attacks on the city, but they could not breach the stone walls. The khan then gained entry by offering to discuss peace terms. Once inside the city, his warriors began to slaughter the people – “until their arms wearied and their swords became blunt.” Recording these events, the chronicler lamented that “until then the city of Moscow had been large and wonderful to look at, crowded as she was with people, filled with wealth and glory . . . and now all at once all of her beauty perished and her glory disappeared. Nothing could be seen but smoking ruins and bare earth and heaps of corpses.” More than 20,000 victims were buried. With extraordinary vitality, however, Moscow soon was revived, and within a few years had been restored to its former power.

In the reign of Dmitry’s son, Vasily I, Moscow was threatened with an attack by Tamerlane, the Turkic conqueror who had, by a feat of historical revisionism, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. In 1395, following his successful campaign against his rivals, the doubting Tokhtamysh and the Golden Horde, Tamerlane advanced from the south to within 200 miles of Moscow, but then turned aside, apparently convinced that another siege would be too costly to his own troops. The city was saved, the people said, because of the miraculous intervention of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.

Though the Tatars would continue to be a major factor in Muscovite history for another half century, the balance of power was shifting to the Lithuanian front. Ladislas Jagello, son of the Lithuanian grand duke who had brought parts of western Russia under his suzerainty, ascended the Lithuanian throne in 1377. During the Jagello era, which his reign inaugurated, the prince conceived a dynastic union with his former enemy, Poland, through marriage to Jadwiga, heiress to that throne. Jagello thus became sovereign of the federated states of Poland and Lithuania, the latter under the vassal rule of his cousin. Husband and wife shared an ambition to control a still larger portion of Russia. Jagello’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which was part of the marriage treaty, made this imperial plan all the more dangerous to Muscovite security. With Smolensk’s fall to the Lithuanians in 1404, almost all of the lands on the right bank of the Dnieper were brought under dynastically-united Polish and Lithuanian rule.

Only a matter as crucial to all Slavic peoples as the defeat of the Teutonic Knights held them in a brief state of peace. In 1410, the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces met the German forces at Tannenberg. Their grand master, many of their officers, and a devastating number of knights fell in the bloody clash. The eastward drive of the German Knights was effectively halted for all time, but the Polish and Lithuanian drives received new impetus.

The reign of Vasily I ended in 1425. His son and successor, Vasily II, ascended the Muscovite throne against strong opposition from a powerful boyar faction; the first twenty-five years of his long reign were largely devoted to suppressing these rivals, a feat achieved only after he had himself been blinded. Events outside of Muscovy would be of more lasting significance: The Golden Horde was losing large parts of its territory to the breakaway khanates of Crimea and Kazan, and the Ottoman Turks were threatening the very existence of the Greek Orthodox Church. In a desperate move to defend itself from total destruction, the Eastern clergy had sought help in Rome, at the price of recognizing the supremacy of the pope. Moscow was represented at the Council of Florence, which met in 1439, by the Russian Metropolitan Isadore. Acting on his own initiative, Isadore committed Russian Orthodoxy to the bargain. Upon his return, he was deposed and arrested, and Moscow formally severed its ties with Byzantium. When Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, fell to the Turks in 1453, no Russian was surprised. It was God’s retribution to the duplicitous Greeks. Holy Russia would find its own way.



Preliminary reconstruction of one of Khubilai Khan’s lost ships. The result of generations of Chinese engineering and development, these were the world’s most advanced warships duringthe Medieval period. He squandered his naval advantage with poorly executed attacks on Japan, Vietnam, and Java.

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet

In Search of a Legendary Armada

by James P. Delgado (Author)

On October 19, 1274, a massive Mongol war fleet sailed into Hakata, Japan’s most important harbor for overseas trade. Chinese records of the time claim a thousand ships and more than twenty-three thousand soldiers, though modern scholars believe that the actual numbers of both ships and soldiers were considerably smaller. To the beat of huge war drums the Mongols and their allied Korean troops came ashore in small landing craft. News of the imminent invasion had well preceded the fleet’s actual arrival, and a substantial force of samurai, at least six thousand, awaited them.

Hand-to-hand combat began on the beach. Both sides took heavy casualties. Japanese sources claim that two thousand samurai died on the beach and in the pine grove adjoining the shore. The Mongol forces gradually pushed the samurai back into Hakata town. Fighting continued in the streets and alleys. By nightfall, the invading troops had taken and burned the port. The defending samurai regrouped in the hills above the town.

Through the early hours of night the commanders of the Mongol/Korean force debated tactics. One faction favored an immediate night attack to press their advantage. Other commanders argued that the troops were exhausted and needed sleep. Finally, it was decided to continue the battle in the morning, and the troops returned to their ships. In the morning, however, the fleet was gone from Hakata Bay. Japanese sources report that a strong, “divine” wind blew the ships out of the harbor and into the sea.

The likeliest scenario is that the fleet simply sailed away, its commanders aware of problems that the Japanese were not. The fleet was low on arrows, having used large numbers in taking two strategic islands on the way to Hakata. The commanders perhaps also wanted to reconsider their strategy. Struggling ashore and fighting hand to hand on a beach and in trees was probably the least favorable terrain for Mongol troops. They were superb cavalry, trained for plains battles, massed arrow attacks, and group maneuvers, but largely untrained in hand-to-hand sword fighting on foot, and avoided this sort of battle whenever possible.

The results of the first battle of Hakata were perhaps satisfactory to the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. His strategy was straightforward: conquer all China and supplant the Song dynasty. By and large, the war was going well. Mongol armies had pushed the Song into far southern China. The destruction of Hakata meant that the Song would gain no revenue from trade with Japan.

This first battle of Hakata, however, produced no shipwrecks. Even the Japanese sources concede that only a few of the Mongol ships were beached by the mysterious wind that blew the fleet back to “their lands.”

Much had changed between the first invasion attempt in 1274 and the second invasion in 1281. Mongol armies had pursued the remaining Song forces into South China, defeated them, and captured and executed the last emperor. Kublai Khan was, indeed, ruler of a united China, with all the resources and the problems that entailed. He founded a new dynasty, the Yuan, and moved his capital from Karakorum, deep in Mongolia, to Beijing, the better to rule his new conquests.

Kublai Khan sent envoys to Japan, in 1279, demanding surrender. The bakufu, head of the alliance of Japanese nobles, had the envoys executed on the beach at Hakata. Kublai Khan and the king of Korea conferred and agreed the invasion force to conquer Japan would consist of one hundred thousand troops. The king of Korea agreed to construct an enormous fleet, which would carry Mongol and Korean troops across the Korea Strait to Hakata. Kublai Khan ordered a second fleet constructed on the Chinese coast, which would carry Chinese troops to join the Koreans and Mongols at Iki Island off Japan’s west coast.

For more than a year, in both Korea and south China forests were stripped for the ships and harsh taxes levied to equip them. The Koreans, eager to engage, sailed in early May 1281, knowing that the Chinese fleet was not ready. The samurai had constructed a stone wall along the beach at Hakata, which halted the invading force. In heavy fighting the samurai drove the Mongols and Koreans back to their boats. A stalemate set in, the samurai holding the beach and the port and the Mongols and Koreans holding the harbor. The samurai attacked the fleet in small boats, sometimes boarding, sometimes pushing fire-rafts to burn the invader’s ships. The attacks eventually forced the invading fleet into a compact defensive circle in the bay.

The Chinese fleet eventually did arrive but could not assist in the stalemate at Hakata. Instead, the Chinese attacked inland from Imari Bay, thirty miles south of Hakata. Samurai fought the Chinese soldiers in the inland hills, finally pushing them back to their ships. In the end a typhoon destroyed both fleets, which were at anchor through the height of the typhoon season. The fierce storm piled ship upon ship, driving them onto the rocky shore. Casualty estimates are, of course, speculative but run upward of fifty thousand men. Some thirty thousand Chinese soldiers were captured and enslaved. Both Chinese and Japanese sources agree that the second battle of Hakata Bay littered the bottom with wreckage.

The Mongols at War

The two opponents at Hakata Bay had quite different military and political backgrounds. Fifty years earlier Genghis Khan had reorganized bands of steppe cavalry into the most successful rapid strike force the world had ever seen. The important changes were in organization, discipline, and ideology. Genghis Khan reassigned the men of family and ethnic units into mixed units, thereby promoting loyalty to the larger Mongol goals rather than narrow family concerns. The units were arranged on a decimal system, with commanders over one hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand men. Cavalry practiced daily and honed their skills in frequent large hunts. Genghis Khan also enforced discipline on the welter of ethnicities that constituted his army. For example, looting after battle was prohibited on pain of death. The military goal was to annihilate the opposing force, and looting disrupted the process. Genghis Khan promulgated and practiced his belief in “world conquest”—his forces were destined to defeat all opposition and rule the entire world. This ideology is perhaps best exemplified by a letter from Guyuk, grandson of Genghis Khan, to Pope Urban IV. The pope, in an official letter, proposed an alliance between the European kings and the Mongols against Muslims, as their common foe. Guyuk replied:

Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: “We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.” You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe.

Mongol forces were mounted cavalry and used a short reverse-curve bow, which could be shot from horseback. With both hands occupied with the bow and arrow, Mongol cavalry had to control their horses with their knees, commands every horse knew and every horseman practiced from childhood onward. The reverse-curve bow was of composite materials, including wood, horn, and steel. It was enormously powerful, capable of penetrating armor at 150 yards. The preferred tactics of Mongol cavalry therefore avoided charges into well-entrenched positions. They much preferred tactics that included massed arrow attacks from outside the range of enemy weapons; the feigned retreat, which drew the enemy into ambush; or large-scale flanking movements, which resulted in attacking the enemy on three sides. These maneuvers depended on careful tactical coordination, usually by means of large signal flags. Mongol armies were, therefore, at their best in plains battles, with room to maneuver their horses and sweep in large formations.

Commanders of opposing forces quickly learned that they would likely lose a plains battle to Genghis Khan. Those who could, retreated to fortified positions. Genghis Khan’s first siege was in 1218 at Otrar, a typical Silk Road fortified town in what is now southern Kazakhstan. After establishing friendly relations with the king of the region, Genghis Khan equipped and financed a large caravan of Muslim traders to buy luxuries on the Silk Road and bring them for sale to his capital. Four hundred and fifty Muslim traders purchased silks, satins, carpets, and gems. When the returning caravan halted at Otrar, the governor of Otrar seized the goods and animals and executed the traders. In the colorful language of the Secret History of the Mongols (written shortly after Genghis Khan’s death),

The control of repose and tranquility was removed, and the whirlwind of anger cast dust into the eyes of patience and clemency while the fire of wrath flared up with such a flame that it drove the water from his eyes and could be quenched only by the shedding of blood. In this fever Cheingiz-Khan went alone to the summit of a hill, bared his head, turned his face toward the south and for three days and nights offered up prayer, saying: “I was not author of this trouble; grant me strength to extract vengeance.”

Genghis Khan divided his army, half attacking in the north of the kingdom to tie down the king’s forces, the other half investing Otrar, which had been reinforced with thousands of royal troops. Genghis Khan had no clever siege engines, no catapults or trebuchets, only tenacity. The army formed “several circles around the citadel,” fought the sallies from the city, and maintained the siege for five months. In desperation some of the town’s troops rode out and offered service to Genghis Khan. He saw their action as dishonorable and executed them as his troops poured through the undefended gate. “All the guilty and innocent of Otrar, both the wearers of the veil and those that donned kulah and turban, were driven forth from the town like a flock of sheep, and the Mongols looted whatever goods and wares were there to be found.” The Mongol troops eventually fought their way into the citadel and captured the offending governor alive. He was executed by pouring molten silver down his throat, just punishment for his greed.

Though the Mongols are famous for their sweeping cavalry strategies, a majority of Genghis Khan’s battles were actually fought against a fortified hill, palisade, or town. The Mongols quickly copied from their opponents a weapon of war new to them, the trebuchet, which utilized a heavy counterweight’s force multiplied by a long lever arm and an equally long flexible sling. Invented either in Europe or the Muslim West (though perhaps an improvement of an earlier Chinese catapult), the trebuchet hurled a heavy stone (generally more than 150 pounds) with enormous force, capable of knocking down men and horses like bowling pins and equally capable of crashing through gates and walls. Genghis Khan recruited and gave military appointments to Muslim technicians capable of building such a weapon.

Less than two decades later Mongol siege engines from the West and the technicians to build them had moved across all Asia and were attacking fortified cities in China. Only three years after Otrar, the Mongols were using siege engines on the eastern front in their campaign against the fortified cities of northern China. Thus, it is no surprise that the Mongols took great, fortified cities. Baghdad, one of the largest cities in Asia at the time, fell to the Mongols in 1258 (fifteen years before Kublai Khan attacked Japan). It is likely that the great Mongol fleet that attacked Hakata Bay carried siege engines such as the trebuchet in anticipation of attacking forts and fortified cities.

Mongol armies generally suffered defeats in only two circumstances. First, highly trained professional soldiers who knew Mongol strategy and tactics occasionally simply outperformed them. The Mamluks, full-time, trained slave-soldiers, were just such a force and defeated the Mongols in Egypt. Second, problems of adverse terrain limited the effectiveness of Mongol cavalry. Mountains were a serious problem for the Mongols. Horsemen could not wheel and move in large units. Ambush lurked in every defile. Even in defeat the enemy could disappear into the mountains, eliminating the Mongol tactic of annihilating the opposing army. Massed arrow attacks did little against mountain fortresses, which were also almost impossible to surround. Troops from the fortresses could often defend agricultural land nearby, which provided the fortress with food. The combination of mountains, fortresses, and resolute resistance, for example, made the conquest of Sichuan, a southwestern province of China, slow, difficult, and costly. Mongols fought in the mountains of Sichuan virtually every year for more than three decades before conquering it.

China’s coastal plain was equally difficult terrain for Mongol armies. Canals crisscrossed it, and the rice fields were flooded much of the year. Large-scale cavalry movements were impossible. Fortified cities were frequent and were connected by boat more than road. The Mongols had to adapt, and they did, incorporating Chinese and Korean leaders and infantry who knew how to fight in this watery terrain, so different from the dry steppe of the Mongol homelands. Mongol armies traveled by boat and learned siege techniques. They recruited artisans to build the powerful Chinese trebuchet. Chinese troops used gunpowder weapons extensively for the first time.

Samurai Warriors

On the beach at Hakata Bay were six thousand of the most highly trained, most professional, and best-equipped troops the Mongols ever faced. Samurai were the elite product of an entire social and economic system, just as were the Mongols. Within the fragmented Japanese political system, wars between elite families were frequent, and formal training in schools of the martial arts was mandatory for elite men (and a few elite women). A nineteenth-century text of one of these schools well illustrates the focus and rigor of samurai training. Students learned, for example, unarmed fighting, grappling, short sword fighting, quick sword drawing, stick fighting, dagger technique, the use of rope, and crossing rivers in armor on horseback. The training was as much mental as physical:

Because the beginner does not know how to stand with the sword in his hands or anything else, in his mind there is not a thing to be attached to. When he is attacked, without any deliberation he tries to fend off the attack. But gradually he is taught many things, he is instructed how to hold the sword, where to concentrate his mind and other things. So his mind will be attached to those things and when he attempts to attack his opponent, his movements will be awkward. However, as days, months and years pass, due to innumerable trainings, everything, as he stands, as he holds the sword will lose consciousness, in the end getting back to the state of mind he had in the beginning, when he did not know anything.

The samurai code of honor preferred single combat, which was almost certainly a detriment in their first encounter with the Mongols. Samurai quickly learned that Mongols were quite content to fire massed arrows at any opponent who sought single combat. The samurai also learned that their superior sword skills made up for lesser numbers in close combat. A recent scholarly book has persuasively argued that the samurai needed no “divine wind” to drive off the Mongol ships. They repelled the invasion based on their skills, armor, and training.

Shipbuilding in the China Sea

What sort of ships brought the Mongol invasion fleet from Korea to Japan? The evidence is meager but suggests that Korean long-distance trade ships were the likeliest carriers. The decorative back of a lady’s mirror from the period shows such a Korean ship, sails reefed, in roiling seas. Recovered timbers and planks of actual vessels show that these craft had an almost flat bottom. Shipbuilders attached successive planks of pine with overlapping edges and mortise-and-tenon joints. Elm was used for pegs to lock the mortise and tenons in place. Oak was used for a heavy yoke, which was set amidships and served as a sturdy cross member to stabilize the hull. Cross planks of oak were fitted low in the hull for the same purpose. Another layer of heavy oak crossbeams joined the upper planks of the two sides of the hull. The pattern of crossbeam support passing through the planks was apparently unique to Korea. Xu Jing, a Chinese emissary to the court of Korea, noted that the Korean ships were different from contemporary Chinese craft.

Both Chinese and Korean long-distance ships had a stern rudder, a large mast set amidships, and a smaller foresail. Sails were rectangular and reinforced with battens. Chinese and Korean ships used a windlass to raise the heavy anchor (as the scene on the Korean mirror shows). Korean ships had a planked deck, but it is unknown whether the space below the deck was divided into holds, as was typical of Chinese ships of the period. The mirror scene shows piled goods on deck and commodious cabins for the rich merchants who owned the goods. Korean sources assert that seventy people could comfortably sail on these ships. The current state of the archaeological, textual, and visual evidence does not permit even a speculation on the size and tonnage of these craft.

About the Chinese ships, which formed the second fleet attacking Japan, we have good material evidence. In 1974, Chinese archaeologists excavated a hull from the mud off Quanzhou Bay. The ship was amazingly intact from the waterline down. Coinage aboard dated the ship to 1272, only two years before Kublai Khan’s first attack on Hakata Bay. The ship was 113 feet long, with a beam of 32 feet, drew only 10 feet of water, and displaced about 375 tons. Unlike stereotypical Chinese ships with flat bottoms and ends, the Quanzhou ship had a keel, was V-shaped in section, and had sharp prow. Twelve bulkheads divided the hull, which also had stepping for three masts. A flat transom carried the rudder, rather than a sternpost. Iron nails secured the overlapping planking. The cargo of incense wood, pepper, and hematite suggests that this was a long-distance goods carrier, returning from Southeast Asia. Such a ship could have been impressed to carry troops to Japan.

In the last three decades Japanese archaeologists have been searching Hakata Bay for the physical remains of the battle of 1281. Tantalizing evidence has turned up, such as Chinese- and Korean-style anchors, Chinese ceramics, disc-shaped articulated armor, and weapons typical of Mongol fighters. Various scans of the bottom of the bay have revealed clumps of timbers, which are likely the remains of a ship or the mixed remains of several ships. Much of the timber is smaller than that used in big Korean trade ships, which suggests that the Mongols also commandeered coastal craft and probably even flat-bottomed river craft.

Archaeologists in 2013 located a section of an intact hull. Ultrasound scans revealed a thirty-six-foot section of keel with adjoining planking under only three feet of sediment just off the shore in Hakata harbor. Ceramics, stone anchors, and other artifacts surround the wreck. For now, it remains buried, awaiting future excavation.

In a larger geopolitical perspective, Japan, Korea, and the east coast of China formed a complex a maritime world, which was roughly the same size as Europe’s northern littoral. From Nagasaki, Japan, to Shanghai, China, across the Yellow Sea is five hundred miles, about the same distance as Scandinavia to England. Korea and Japan are only one hundred miles apart, roughly comparable to the twenty-five miles that separate England and France across the Channel. Over the centuries, just as the Scandinavians invaded England and the English used their ships to invade the French, so too did Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dynasties invade each other’s territory, trade with each other, sponsor piracy of each other’s shipping, ally in attacks on each other, call in each other to put down indigenous rebels, and constitute places of refuge for defeated or aspiring rulers.

Dynasties of Korea, Japan, and China sometimes chose to close their maritime borders, forbidding traders from entering and citizens from leaving. These legal prohibitions typically were not effective. Traders and travelers found ways to circumvent them. As also happened in Europe, local or regional powers in the China Sea region founded new ports beyond the reach of the central government. One of the most famous of such ports was Hainan Island off the southern coast of China, which served smugglers at the time of the Kublai Khan expedition and for several subsequent centuries.

Since the history of China is usually written as the history of dynasties, we might assume that the royal court of China was always the dominant power on land and at sea, but this is simply not the case. Periods of warring states were as frequent as periods of stable, large dynasties. The south of China was always difficult for a northern-based dynasty to integrate. Declining dynasties sometimes looked across the seas for a Japanese or Korean alliance.


With the two great Mongol-Chinese-Korean fleets attempting an invasion of Japan, turned back by the brave resistance of the samurai, who were for once fighting a foreign enemy instead of each other. But the resistance to the Mongols, although successful, ended with a vast expenditure of resources and no real means of rewarding the participants with booty or confiscated lands.


It was not merely a wind that had smashed apart the Mongol armadas: it was a Divine Wind, a Kamikaze, demonstrating that Japan was the privileged “land of the gods.” This phrase, in fact, first achieved popular currency during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), where it began a genealogy of the emperors that was aimed at sorting out the succession issues which would characterize the end of the era.

Although the Mongol invasions would create ultimately fatal instabilities, and there were several uprisings requiring military action, the Kamakura period nevertheless saw new flourishing in the arts.


Katana signed by Masamune with an inscription in gold inlay, Kamakura period, 14th century, blade length: 70.6 cm[

The Kamakura period also saw a creative peak in sword making. Japanese swords had often been appreciated as fine artifacts, but a century of actual warfare had honed requirements to extreme levels. The contact with the Mongols, in particular, had confronted swordsmiths with the fact that many samurai had previously fought largely with arrows rather than swords. Mongol armor was thicker and harder, and was met by the swordsmiths by a new trend in thinner blades with a triangular cross-section, which might be more likely to punch through tougher armor.

It was not merely a case of evolving technology. The Kamakura smiths also benefited from an aristocracy that valued weapons but no longer required them to be churned out in quite such high quantities. For a century before (and, as it would turn out, for a century afterwards) battlefield conditions required swords that were made efficiently and quickly, in anticipation of high turnover, breakages, and losses. Now the swordsmiths could afford to take it easy, to experiment with new ideas, and to take money from their patrons, who were no longer troubled warriors but relatively wealthy men of leisure commissioning new family heirlooms or impressive curios.

In the Kamakura period we see refinements to the curved blade of earlier wars; the edge was tempered, and several variant hardnesses of steel were used, folded hundreds of times. The weapon could be honed to razor sharpness while remaining flexible enough to take some punishment. Blades were tested by their ability to cut through something with the consistency and resistance of a human body; this would sometimes involve testing on them corpses or even live human subjects, with convicted criminals meeting unpleasant fates in the service of science. It was not unusual for a sword cut a man’s body from shoulder to navel in a single strike. The best were certified for cutting through several bodies at once.

Despite their demonstrable practicality, many such swords were unlikely to see real action, and instead were cherished as family heirlooms. They hence gained an entire subculture of fittings and trappings, including ornate scabbards, highly decorative hand-guards (tsuba), and exotic materials binding the hilts.

China, 1280 CE—Marco Polo saw it with his own eyes. The river Yangtze was thick with ships great and small: ocean-going traders, robust war junks, and huge numbers of shakily repurposed river boats. All were being readied for the latest great enterprise of the new emperor, the Mongol Khubilai Khan: a massive armada that would cross the sea to annihilate the defiant island kingdom of Cipangu.

Nobody in the West had ever heard of this Cipangu before. Marco Polo’s account was the first to even mention it in a European language. When he did, he drew on years of propaganda designed to fire up the conscripts of Khubilai’s navy, as well as lies and spin concocted by reluctant Korean allies.

In his intimidating correspondence with the rulers of Cipangu, Khubilai had belittled the nation as a jumped-up barbaric kingdom, uncomprehending of courtly etiquette and ignorant of the trouble it would be in if it did not submit to him. However, in his exhortations to his armies, he made sure that everybody knew how incredibly rich Cipangu was.

“They have,” enthused Marco Polo on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, “gold in abundance, because it is found there in measureless quantities.”

Khubilai Khan had already made one attempt to invade the island kingdom after a decade of increasingly antagonistic diplomatic exchanges. Not only the people of Cipangu, but also their Korean counterparts, had literally spent years lying about the distance to the islands and the likelihood of strong resistance. Embassies had been fobbed off with numerous wily excuses, and often failed to work out whom they were supposed to be addressing. The natives infamously claimed to have an emperor of equal standing to the ruler of China, but the man who sat on their throne in 1274 was only a figurehead. His father, the former emperor, had abdicated, allowing him to meddle in politics from behind the scenes. His mother supposedly had no power of her own, but was a member of the powerful Fujiwara family, obliging the new emperor to listen to the wishes of his grandfather and uncles. His wife, meanwhile, was a scion of the Minamoto family, another powerful clan with vested interests.

And yet none of this really mattered, because foreign policy and many local issues were in the hands of the emperor’s barbarian-suppressing supreme general, the shōgun, in the town of Kamakura. But the shōgun was himself a puppet of yet another group, the Hōjō clan that had secretly run the islands for many decades. His own job was delegated to a regent, the shikken, who at the time was a callow youth of twenty-three, leaning on a shadowy council of advisers. Your guess is as good as mine, and certainly as good as Khubilai’s, as to who was really in charge.

Such obfuscations were not unique to Cipangu. The Mongols were getting a similar runaround far to the south in what is now Vietnam, where any request for a direct answer would be passed around a series of grandly titled bigwigs, any one of whom might waste another couple of months by sending back a request for clarification. The land that Marco Polo knew as Cipangu was impossible to understand, beyond a distant horizon, itself at the very edge of the known Asian world, and apparently controlled by a nebulous, invisible hegemony of power brokers and alliances. This would not be the last time it was described in such terms.

Still, at least Khubilai could mention all that imaginary gold. His troops were drunk on stories of it. The armies that had pushed Mongol rule all over Asia were ready to advance on these unknown islands, hoping thereby to shut down so-called pirate bases. What happened next is one of the greatest war stories of human history.

Khubilai’s first armada, in 1274, swiftly snatched the islands of Tsushima and Iki in the 200-kilometer (124 miles) strait. The huge fleet packed into the wide sweep of Hakata Bay, which had been for centuries the gateway to the islands for any foreign shipping.

The natives were waiting for them.

The country had not seen a meaningful battle for two generations, and the members of its warrior class, the samurai, were spoiling for a fight. They had, however, distinctly odd ideas about how a battle should proceed. The Mongols and their Korean and Chinese allies watched in bafflement as a soldier clad in strange armor tied with brightly colored silks shot a noise-making “humming-bulb” arrow over their heads. It screamed in the air on the blustery November day, intended by the defenders to signal a parley and a series of small bouts between champions.

The Mongols retaliated with a volley of deadly poison arrows. They were not there to take part in some local battle ceremony. They were there to invade.

The fighting that broke out was so fierce that it cost the defenders a third of their military manpower by the end of the first day. The Mongols, however, had no way of seeing over the wall. Unsure of their ability to hold a beachhead that was all but encircled by enemy fortifications, they retreated back to their ships to await the dawn.

The natives had other plans, taking to the waters in a swarm of little boats piled high with kindling. They crept aboard the enemy ships, starting fires and knifing sailors, although many of the flames were soon put out by heavy rain.

Soon the wind whipped up even further; the natives pulled back, looking on as the elements carried on the fight for them. The mother of all storms pounded down on the armada, overturning smaller boats and threatening to bash the close-packed ships into each other. Captains ordered their crews to push their vessels into deeper waters where the swell would not be so dangerous.

But it was too late. The storm had escalated into a monstrous typhoon that dashed the invaders against the coastline and into each other, swamping them and overturning them, crushing troop transports and supply vessels. It was soon too dark to see, but the defenders on land heard the powerful crack of timbers and the screams of men and horses.

The following morning as the sun parted the clouds, Hakata Bay was carpeted in driftwood. A handful of soaked survivors washed ashore at several points along the coastline, where they were swiftly put to death. A few of the larger Chinese ships made it out and ran straight for home.

A year later, a new embassy arrived from Khubilai, presenting the shikken regent with a golden scroll that offered to make him the “king of Cipangu.” It was a gesture of reconciliation, suggesting that everybody could spare themselves further trouble if the natives just bowed to the khan and admitted that he was their overlord. The regent made his feelings plain by having all the ambassadors executed.

It was Khubilai’s retaliation—an even larger fleet—that Marco Polo saw being assembled. Thanks to modern marine archaeology, we now understand the significance of his report of 15,000 ships on the river Yangtze—a great distance from the Korea Strait, and a reflection of numerous botched and poorly organized planning decisions. Khubilai’s second fleet was packed with everything the Mongol warlords could scrape up, including condemned barges and creaking riverboats. The timbers were warped; even the nails have been shown to have a high sulfur content, suggesting that corners were cut in every possible stage of sourcing and construction. Over-loaded with horses and supplies for a long campaign, packed so closely with men that three thousand troops were dead from disease before land was even sighted, the armada set sail in two task forces, one from Korea and the other up the coast from the mouth of the Yangtze.

Fearful of being boxed in again at Hakata Bay, the Mongols dithered offshore, many of their unseaworthy vessels lashed together in a vast floating fortress. They were particularly wary of a seaborne attack, since many of their troops were timid Chinese and Korean conscripts, worried about reports of “dragons in the water” and all too ready to surrender. They had started out with three months’ supplies, two-thirds of which they had already consumed, and they had still not made permanent landfall.

Samurai boats came out to the armada in ones and twos—numbers so small that the Mongols assumed they were there to offer terms. But the boats contained suicidal platoons on one-way missions; they cut down their own masts to make boarding ramps and stormed the larger warships.

And then the real storm came: a second typhoon, even more powerful than the earlier one. Modern marine archaeologists, examining the smithereens on the sea bed, estimate it to have been a Category 3 storm—a “major hurricane” with gusts of 199 kph (123.5 mph) that whipped up waves into storm surges of up to 4 meters (13 feet). Equivalent modern storms have been seen to strip the roofs off buildings, blow away mobile homes, and uproot trees. For the close-packed boats of the Mongol armada, it was a veritable apocalypse. Some 30,000 men managed to make it ashore from the sinking boats—bedraggled, starving, and without fresh water. They were easy pickings for the samurai defenders.

The Mongols had every intention of coming back for a rematch, but they never did. An office within Khubilai’s administration was supposedly tasked with putting together a third armada, but it was underfunded and overlooked, and largely powerless after 1286. Khubilai died in 1294, and his descendants more or less ignored the indomitable islands in the east.

The great storms gained their own legendary status among the natives. Before long, certain religious cults were claiming that the no-show by a third armada was the result of their intensive prayers. The Mongols, it was now claimed, had been fought off not merely by the warrior elite, but by the combined efforts of the entire nation, and even by the very elements themselves. In sending the weather to deliver the death blow, the gods had sent a Divine Wind, or Kamikaze. Their country, the locals believed, was special; it was unique; it was blessed by its particular gods and would never know defeat.

For decades afterwards, guards on the shores watched the seas for a new attack, but none came. Meanwhile, the defense took its toll in a different, mundane way. It was not merely the loss of life; it was the colossal expense of the project, which bankrupted many local lords. When, in earlier times, the samurai had been fighting one another, there was always a loser whose lands could be confiscated as the spoils of victory. But when the enemy came from another country, they left nothing behind but their dead; there was no reward that could be bestowed. Within a generation, the Kamakura shōgunate’s hold on power had collapsed, and the samurai had turned upon each other in another civil war, this time in the name of two rival emperors.

As for Marco Polo’s Cipangu, word of it was carried back to Europe. His tall tales of great riches and fierce knights would enter popular parlance. Two centuries later, Christopher Columbus would set out in search of the Spice Islands and this legendary Cipangu, sailing west in the hope of reaching the East, and finding something entirely unexpected.

The Mongol threat to the Latin West down to 1323

In its interventions in each of these areas, the Golden Horde was active on behalf of, or exerting pressure upon, schismatic rulers, and hence constituted an additional obstacle to the ambitions of popes and Western secular princes. But to what extent did the Mongols threaten the security of Latin states themselves? The incidence of Mongol raiding during the first two decades after 1260 is difficult to gauge: as we saw, even when the Tartars are expressly mentioned this does not necessarily indicate operations by the forces of the Golden Horde. Hungary may have suffered a series of raids from the Horde after 1272, since András III’s charter of liberties (1291) tells how the Mongols and Cumans had taken advantage of the minority of his predecessor, László IV, to attack the kingdom on frequent occasions. For what it is worth, Rashīd al-Dīn’s informants around the turn of the century were likewise under the impression that Noghai had launched repeated inroads into Hungary.

These were probably only minor raids; but the mid-1280s appear to have witnessed a shift in policy, with major attacks upon both Hungary and Poland in succession, which as we saw coincided with advances in the Balkans and should possibly also be viewed against the background of the Golden Horde’s relations with other Mongol powers. In Hungary, the dispute between King László and the Church, and subsequently the upheavals caused by the Cuman revolt, furnished new opportunities for the Mongols to exploit, and in the fourteenth century it was believed that they had been summoned by elements among the defeated Cumans who had taken refuge among them. The khan may also have been provoked by King László’s action, during the campaign to suppress the Cumans, in leading his forces into what would later become Wallachia – in the sonorous words of his charter, ‘beyond the mountains, around the confines and frontiers of the Tartars, which none of our predecessors had penetrated’.

If the Mongol invasion of Hungary at the onset of Lent 1285 was not on the scale of 1241–2, it was nevertheless a major enterprise. It was led by two prominent figures – Noghai and the future khan Töle Buqa – and was accompanied by Lev Daniilovich and others from among their Rus′ satellites. Even though the figures given by German annalists smack of hyperbole, the language of Hungarian charters certainly indicates that the numbers involved were considerable. The invaders ravaged as far as the Danube and entered Pest; and László’s consort Elizabeth, from the safety of the walls of Buda, witnessed a spirited and effective sally by members of her household. The Mongols may still have been present in the kingdom in June. Although László himself headed an expedition into Transylvania from May to August, he probably did no more than harass their withdrawal; according to a contemporary letter and reports that reached Germany, it was the local troops – Saxons, Vlachs and Székely, the last fighting as light cavalry – who cut off their retreat in Transylvania and inflicted on them a serious reverse. Polish sources allege that the Mongols also suffered considerably from famine and some kind of epidemic.

In 1287 Noghai and Töle Buqa invaded Poland; according to the fourteenth-century Vita of St Kynga (Kunigunde, widow of Bolesław the Chaste), they were in the country from 6 December until early February 1288. Töle Buqa failed to take Sandomir, while Noghai headed a similarly unsuccessful attack upon Cracow, which Polish annals place around Christmas. For their spirited resistance the citizens of Cracow would later be rewarded by Leszek the Black with tax exemptions. We learn more about the campaign from a charter of László IV of Hungary, dated 1288, in which the king rewarded György, son of Szymon, for his services. While Leszek sought refuge in Hungary from the Mongols, his kinsman László had despatched a corps of Hungarian troops under György to aid the Poles. György engaged a force of about a thousand Mongols near Sandecz (now Stary Sącz), killing their commander. In February 1288 Leszek in turn expressed his gratitude by giving György a villa in Sandecz. It was perhaps in reprisal for the aid given by László that the Mongols attacked the Szepes (Zips) region of Hungary later in the year, albeit on a smaller scale; here György again distinguished himself.

During those years when the Golden Horde was prey to civil war between Töle Buqa and Noghai (1290–1) or between the latter and Toqtoʾa (1298–9), the Latin world seems to have been spared Mongol raids; but they recommenced each time the Mongols’ internal conflicts had been resolved. A diploma of András III relates how, around winter in the second year following his coronation (i.e. 1291–2), the Mongols raided the Mačva (‘Macho’) region and he had despatched troops against them. This incursion, from the south, indicates that Noghai’s forces were now using Bulgaria, or perhaps Serbia, as a base to attack Hungary. A charter of 1296 refers to a recent raid on Hungary, though it furnishes scant detail and in any case could conceivably refer to the inroad of 1291–2. There is documentary evidence, lastly, of a Mongol attack on the Leles region in Zemplén (in present-day Slovakia) in 1305. As for Poland, Mongol troops are found ravaging Sandomir in 1293, doubtless profiting from Łokietek’s war with King Václav of Bohemia. After this episode, no more Mongol incursions into Poland are mentioned until Uzbek’s reign (1312–41).

Frontier conditions and mentalities

If, by the last decades of the thirteenth century, Ilkhanid diplomacy was turning the Mongols of Persia into potential allies, no such aura attached to those of the Golden Horde. In Europe fear of the Mongols was widespread, surfacing on one occasion in the most incongruous of places. During a widespread popular rising in the Utrecht region in 1274, it was apparently natural for the citizens, confronted by an unexpected and formidable attack by the rebels, to assume that the assailants were the Tartars. As late as 1330 Marino Sanudo, like some latter-day Carpini, was warning that the divisions in the Latin world would enable the Mongols to advance into France, Germany and Italy. In Eastern Europe, apprehensions of an imminent Mongol attack reverberated along a vast frontier – Latin Christendom’s longest land frontier with a pagan enemy. In 1286 the Teutonic Knights evacuated four of their Prussian strongholds on reports of the Mongols’ approach, sparked off, in all likelihood, by the preparations to invade Poland. The same invasion of Poland in 1340–1 that spawned rumours of an attack on Brandenburg also elicited an urgent appeal to the pope on the part of Prussian bishops and prompted a papal collector in western Hungary to despatch his funds to the greater security of Zagreb. The manner in which, alongside this Mongol campaign, contemporary chroniclers describe a near-simultaneous attack on Christian Spain by the Muslim ruler of Granada and his Moroccan allies and an Ottoman Turkish advance against the Greeks, suggests a general sense of crisis. Late in August 1340 Pope Benedict XII himself juxtaposed these other enemies with the Mongol threat in a letter urging the French king to make peace with Edward III.

The Hungarians alone shared an eastern and south-eastern border with the Mongol world that extended for hundreds of miles. For them, the ‘frontier’ was likely to be a yawning wilderness, from which the enemy might appear with no warning. In 1264 Pope Urban IV assigned the parish of Wynch (Felvincz, in Aranyos) to the archdeacon of Szatmár (now Satu Mare in Rumania), on the grounds that he was based ‘in the furthest part of the realm of Hungary, so that between him and the Tartars’ territory there is absolutely no human habitation’. The city of Milcov, once the centre of a bishopric, was described as ruined and devoid of Christian inhabitants in 1278. These eastern regions were bleak terrain for Latin forces. When the Hungarian King Louis (Lájos) crossed the Carpathians early in April 1352, on his way back from a campaign against the Lithuanians and Mongols, his horses had to feed on branches and for an entire week the men ate nothing but beans. According to the Franciscan János of Eger, the king’s confessor, who has left us an account of this expedition, he and a colleague were so weakened by hunger that they were unable to mount or dismount without help. The climate did not necessarily smile upon the enemy either, of course. During the Mongol retreat from Hungary in 1285, Noghai made off to the safety of his winter quarters, but Töle Buqa’s troops were decimated in the freezing cold and were reduced to eating their mounts, dogs and dead comrades. The Volynian Chronicle has him arrive back with few survivors of his original force after crossing the Carpathians.

Documents from thirteenth-century Hungary bear vivid testimony to the psychological impact of Mongol inroads. Nora Berend has drawn attention to the way in which the experience of 1241–2 had seared itself on the Hungarian collective memory, to the extent that it inaugurated a new semi-official chronology. Throughout the rest of his reign Béla IV’s chancery employed phrases like ‘at the time of the Tartar persecution’ or ‘at the pestilential advent of the Tartars’; and the simple words ‘at the time of the Tartars’ became entrenched in the language of record. During the process for the canonization of Béla’s daughter Margaret in 1276, a number of witnesses established their ages by reference to the Mongol invasion. Subsequent onslaughts intensified the sense of disruption and loss, particularly that of 1285, which passed into Hungarian historiography as ‘the second Tartar assault’ and obliged chancery scribes to devise phrases like ‘the time of the first’ (or ‘former’) ‘Tartars’ – or even, in one case, ‘the main Tartars’ – for the invasion of 1241. In Poland the emotional imprint of Mongol devastation is less clearly discernible; but it manifests itself, perhaps, in the way that annalists regularly couple the name of Duke Henry II of Lower Silesia, for some years after 1241, with the poignant formula ‘who was slain by the Tartars’.

There is no shortage of documentary evidence for the material and economic damage perpetrated by Mongol attacks after 1242. In 1296 the church of St Mary in Sandomir, which had been burned down in 1259, was still not fully rebuilt, and Pope Boniface VIII granted indulgences to anybody who assisted in the task. Pope Clement VI was told in 1343 that the abbey of St Andrew near Visegrád (in western Hungary), which had flourished before the Tartar invasions, had housed no monks for more than forty years. At some point in the later 1280s László IV remitted half the revenue due from the inhabitants of Beszterce (Bistritz), ‘in very great measure annihilated or impoverished by the devastation and burnings of the Tartars’. Whether mounting lightning raids or, as in 1285, wide-ranging campaigns of devastation, the enemy were intent on acquiring able-bodied captives in large numbers, and Hungarian charters regularly give great prominence to the liberation of some thousands of their unhappy countrymen by those notables who defeated the Mongols. Serfs whom the invaders abducted, but who subsequently escaped back to their homes without the aid of a ransom, were legally free in the duchy of Sandomir, though an appeal addressed to Pope John XXII in 1327 suggests that their lords (in this case the church of Sandomir) were but imperfectly acquainted with this custom. Arrangements were made, presumably, for the ransoming of Christian prisoners (and would have imposed an additional burden on local communities); but regrettably the only extant charter documenting such efforts, in Hungary, is an eighteenth-century forgery.

Naturally the Mongols were not the only agents of destruction and sacrilege in Hungary. Many elements within the kingdom profited from the upheavals caused by the Mongol attacks to misappropriate ecclesiastical property, so that Clement VI would complain in 1344 that more than forty Benedictine houses had been illegally occupied over the past hundred years. In 1277 the archbishop of Kalocsa recounted the bloodthirsty career of a Saxon rebel whom he accused of adopting ‘Tartar’ practices; and eight years later King László himself referred to the mutual strife of the Hungarians in the same breath as Tartar and Cuman attacks. For a Hungarian cleric writing in 1321, past decades were an era of wickedness characterized by ‘both Tartar invasion and oppression by the tyrants of the land’ – a situation that, in his view, Divine Grace combined with King Carobert’s energies had done much to ameliorate. Other churchmen were less ready to discriminate among Hungary’s various afflictions and less fulsome about the king’s role. Protesting to Pope Benedict XII in 1338 about Carobert’s erosion of ecclesiastical rights, the kingdom’s prelates spoke of the vulnerability of their churches. Their sole means of resisting the encroachments of the lay power was to produce written privileges which had in fact been destroyed by fire in the course of two Tartar invasions. There were those in Eastern Europe who had clearly learned to turn Mongol visitations to good account.


Mongol Invasions of Vietnam and Java

The Battle of Bạch Đằng (1288) during the Third Mongol invasion.

Map depicting Mongol campaign in Đại Việt in the north and Champa in the south.

In order to conquer south China, Mongols took the city of Yunnan and sought Trânsit via Dai Viet (modern North Vietnam), in 1257, to enter Guangxi and trap the southern Song in a pincer movement. Trân Thai Tông (r. 1225-1258) refused, so the Mongols invaded and burned the capital, Thang-long (Ha-noi). Lack of supplies, tropical climate, and a counterattack by Trân Hu’ng Đao drove them back to Yunnan. Further war was delayed by Khubilai Khan’s succession and the invasion of Korea in 1259 and Japan in 1274 and 1281. Trân Thanh-Tong (r. 1258-1278) and Nhăn Tông (r. 1279-1293) refused demands to come to the Yuan court, or to send sons and brothers as hostages and men as troops.

In 1281, Nhăn Tông reconsidered and sent a royal family member, Trân Di Ai, to the Yuan court, where he was named king and sent home with 1,000 troops. After he was killed, Mongols invaded Champa (present-day South Vietnam) in 1281 and 1283; long an enemy of Dai Viet, Champa forced the Mongol troops northward. Then, the Mongol leader Toghan and 500,000 troops invaded Dai Viet from China in 1284, sacking Thang-long and killing many people. Dai Viet’s military leader, Trân Hu’ng Đao, retaliated with a force of 200,000 troops, as King Nhăn Tông and the court fled to Thănh-hoa. While Toghan took the rich Hong delta, other Mongols advanced north. However, Trân Hu’ng Dao defeated the Mongol forces with 50,000 troops, made his way to the capital, and, by July, 1285, took more than 50,000 prisoners. Tradition says Toghan escaped by hiding in a bronze drum.

Khubilai was forced to abandon a planned third invasion of Japan in order to seek revenge against Dai Viet. In 1287, Toghan and 300,000 troops burned Thang-long, but fled when their supply ships were sunk. When a Mongol fleet of 500 ships entered the Bach Dang River, Trân Hu’ng Đao used a traditional strategy. Sharp poles put in the river bed at low tide sank 100 ships, and 400 others were captured when the tide ebbed again. Trân Hu’ng Đao put his troops’ backs to the river, and forced them to swear to defeat the Mongols or die in the effort. Toghan withdrew in 1288, and plans for a further invasion died when Khubilai died in 1294. Vietnam was the only place where the Mongols were defeated militarily.

During the same period, Mongols were also making incursions in other areas of Southeast Asia. Troops from Yunnan took the Kingdom of Pagan in Burma in v 1287. Mistreatment of Mongol envoys to Java in 1289 by King Kertanagara led to invasion in 1293. The king died before the invasion took place, and Crown Prince Vijaya joined with the Mongols to overthrow a usurper. However, Vijaya later betrayed his Mongol allies, and thus their invasion of ]ava ultimately failed.


While Vietnam was a Mongol tributary from 1258, Qubilai Khan’s effort to integrate Vietnam into the Yuan Empire resulted in a great defeat.

In 1225 Trân Thu –Dô (d. 1264) placed his nephew Trân Nhât Qu´ynh (posthumous title, Trân Thai Tông, r. 1225-58, d. 1277) on the throne, ending the Lỳ dynasty (1009-1225) and beginning the Trân (1225-1400). The Trân strictly separated civil and military functions and furthered the bureaucratization of administration with an examination system based on Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist (Daoist) classics.

When the Vietnamese imprisoned Mongol envoys sent from YUNNAN to find a route to attack the Song, the Mongol general Uriyangqadai (1199-1271) and his son AJU invaded in December 1257 with 3,000 Mongols and 10,000 Yunnanese Yi tribesmen. After the Mongols routed the Vietnamese and massacred the inhabitants of the capital, Thănh Long (modern Hanoi), Thai Tôong abdicated in March 1258 in favor of his son Quang Bính (posthumous title, Trân Thănh Tông, r. 1258-78, d. 1291). Thănh Tông paid tribute to Uriyangqadai, who had quickly evacuated Vietnam to escape malaria.

After QUBILAI KHAN’s election as khan in 1260, Thănh Tông, enfeoffed as prince of Annam, sent tribute every three years and received a DARUGHACHI (overseer). By 1266, however, a standoff developed, as Thănh Tông sought to return to a loose tributary relationship while Qubilai demanded full submission to Mongol rule. The remoteness of communications through Yunnan, however, delayed armed conflict.

By winter 1278-79, with the conquest of South China, Qubilai ordered Mongol Yuan troops stationed along Vietnam’s borders. Vietnam’s new ruler, Trân Nhat Huyên (posthumous title, Trân Nhân Tông, r. 1278-93, d. 1308), resisted renewed Mongol demands for personal attendance at court but dispatched his uncle Trân Di Ai as hostage. In 1281 Qubilai tried to enthrone Di Ai as prince of Annam in place of Thânh Tông, but the plan failed miserably.

In summer 1284 Qubilai appointed his son Toghan to conquer Cham-pa, south of Vietnam. That December the Yuan general Sodu (d. 1284), defeated in Cham-pa, proposed the occupation of Vietnam as the key to pacifying all Southeast Asia, and Toghan was ordered to implement this plan. While Nhân Tông considered surrender, Prince Hu’ng Đao (1213-1300) rallied his troops, who all tattooed their arms with “Death to the Mongols.” After defeating Prince Hu’ng Đao ‘s army, Toghan, with Sodu and Li Heng and naval forces under `Umar Ba’atur, reoccupied Thânh Long in June 1285, while the Vietnamese court fled. As the Yuan troops advanced down the Hong (Red) River, however, Prince Quang Khai counterattacked at Chu’o’ng Du’o’ng, forcing Toghan to evacuate Vietnam, while Prince Hu’ng -Dao’s armies annihilated the isolated vanguard at Tăy Ket (near modern Hu’ng Yên), killing Sodu and Li Heng. The next March Qubilai enfeoffed Nhân Tông’s younger brother Trân Ích Tăc, who had defected to the Yuan, as prince of Annam, but hardship in the Yuan’s Hunan supply base aborted Qubilai’s planned invasion. Finally, in 1287 Toghan invaded with 70,000 regular troops, 21,000 tribal auxiliaries from Yunnan and Hainan, a 1,000-man vanguard under Abachi, and 500 ships under `Umar and Fan Ji. Toghan reoccupied Thănh Long, but the Vietnamese captured the Mongol supply fleet and defeated the navy at Bach- Đang River (near modern Haiphong), forcing Toghan to evacuate in March 1288. Abachi and Fan Ji died in the bloody retreat, and `Umar was captured. Qubilai angrily banished Toghan to Yangzhou for life.

While Nhăn Tông was willing to pay tribute to the Yuan, relations again foundered on the question of attendance at the Yuan court, and invasion plans continued. Qubilai’s successor, Emperor Temür (1294-1307), finally recognized the futility of these plans and released all detained envoys, settling for Vietnam’s traditional loose tributary relationship, which continued to the end of the Yuan. Prince Hu’ng Đao’s command of the resistance – became legendary in Vietnamese history.

Mongol invasion of Java


With the conquest of South China, the Mongols entered actively into the commerce, diplomacy, and wars of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In 1278 QUBILAI KHAN (1260-94) appointed Mangghudai (d. 1290) of the TATARS, a general in the conquest of the Song, to handle overseas trade. As head of the Maritime Trade Supervisorate in Zaytun (modern Quanzhou), which MARCO POLO called perhaps the world’s most flourishing port, Mangghudai followed the Song regulations, levying a 10 percent tax on high-priced commodities and 6.7 percent on bulk goods. Merchants going abroad had to register their ships and declare their destinations, with deviations allowed only in emergencies. By 1293 six additional ports, from Shanghai in the north to Canton in the south, had Maritime Trade Supervisorates.

The court actively funded overseas expeditions, issuing government capital to privileged ORTOQ merchants. However, mercantilist anxieties showed in the prohibition on the export of metals, both precious and base; foreign merchants had to sell their goods for paper currency (chao). Foreign policy and prestige considerations prohibited the export of slaves and weapons and occasioned temporary embargoes against hostile states. Desire to profit by a government-carrier monopoly and vague worries over luxury exports led in 1285, 1303, and 1320 to prohibitions on all foreign trade by private domestic merchants. None lasted long, and in any case foreign merchants were never affected.

In 1278 Mangghudai’s colleague Sodu (d. 1284) of the JALAYIR dispatched edicts to 10 South Seas kingdoms, from Cham-pa in present-day south-central VIETNAM to Quilon on India’s southwest coast, demanding submission. By long-standing practice the South Seas realms were accustomed to paying nominal tribute to China, receiving investitures and gifts in return. Now, demanding that their rulers attend his court, Qubilai in January 1280 dispatched Sodu to Cham-pa and a Canton DARUGHACHI (overseer), Yang Tingbi, to Quilon. By 1286 Yang Tingbi had reached India’s Maabar and Quilon coasts several times, collecting eager professions of nominal submission of rulers from Kerala to Malaya. Cham-pa had, however, turned hostile, and in December 1282 Sodu led a maritime invasion with 5,000 men. The Yuan troops occupied the capital, Vijaya (near modern Qui Nho’n), but the king, Jaya Indravarman IV (1266-c. 90), retreated to the mountains. Stymied by this withdrawal, Sodu eventually sailed home in March 1284, just as AqTaghai (1235-90) embarked with another 5,000 men on a fruitless mission to reinforce him. Sodu’s subsequent plan to invade Cham-pa through Vietnam resulted only in his death and a 10-year quagmire for the Mongol YUAN DYNASTY. In 1293 Ighmish (fl. 1266-1311), an Uighur envoy and Fujian high official with experience in Champa (1281), Vietnam (1284), and Maabar (1287), led an expedition against Java with 20,000 men. Ighmish occupied the capital, Kediri, but was soon driven out.

Qubilai’s successor, Temür (1294-1307), abandoned the aim of conquering the South Seas and, content with only nominal tribute, received envoys from previously hostile Siam and Cambodia. The account of the Yuan’s 1296 envoy to Cambodia by the envoy Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-kuan), is a major source on Cambodian history and society.

The Mongol IL-KHANATE in Persia also bordered the Indian Ocean. Trade between India and the Middle East passed through Hormoz, a port city theoretically tributary to the Il-Khans but effectively independent. From the reign of Abagha on (1265-81) the sea route from Zaytun to Hormoz was favored for embassies between the Il-Khans and the Yuan. Marco Polo and MUHAMMAD ABU-`ABDULLAH IBN BATTUTA left vivid accounts of the South Seas commerce and diplomacy

BIBLIOGRAPHY Kim, Trân-trong. Viet-Nam Su-Luoc. Saigon: Tan-Viet, 1964. Le, Thanh Khoi. Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines a 1858. Paris: Sudestasie, 1981. Masson, Andre. Histoire du Vietnam. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); David Bade, Khubilai Khan and the Beautiful Princess of Tumapel (Ulaanbaatar: A. Chuluunbat, 2002).

Mongol Otrar Campaign 1219-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siege of Otrar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.