The Mongol Invasions of Korea

Koryo’s General Kang Kam-chan battling Mongolians
1235 Mongol invasion of Korea


1231        First Mongol invasion of Korea

1261        Assassination of the Last Ch’oe dictator, end of military rule in Koryimage

1270        Final capitulation of Koryimage court to Mongol siege, beginning of Mongol overlord period

1274        First of two joint Mongol-Korean invasion attempts of Japan

1320s      Lady Ki’s travel to Yuan Dynasty China as a “tribute woman”

1333        Lady Ki named an imperial concubine

1339        Birth of Lady Ki’s son, the future crown prince and emperor of the Yuan dynasty

1340        Marriage of Lady Ki to the Mongol emperor as secondary imperial consort

1356        Purge of Empress Ki’s family members in the Koryimage court by King Kongmin

1365        Empress Ki’s ascent as primary consort

1368        Ming dynasty’s conquest of China


Kaegyimageng, the capital of the Koryimage dynasty, was abuzz with news from China in the summer of 1340. Seven decades had passed since the Korean kingdom had succumbed to a long siege by invading Mongol forces, and in the intervening period Korea had become suffused with all things Mongol—its culture, politics, and even its monarch bore the stamp of Mongol dominance. Now Koreans received word of an event that showed that Korea, in turn, could wield influence over the stupendously powerful Mongol empire based in China, the Yuan dynasty. Lady Ki, a Korean and favored concubine of the Yuan emperor, had in the previous year given birth to the likely crown prince, and was now being crowned formally as an imperial consort through her marriage to the Yuan emperor. This turn of events could hardly have been anticipated two decades earlier, when she was sent as a captive prize of submission to the Mongol rulers. Indeed she and hundreds of other “tribute women” sent to Mongol-controlled China had embodied the Mongols’ comprehensive control over the kingdom of Koryimage, a period in Korean history normally viewed with utter shame.

The period of Mongol dominion over Korea, however, resists easy judgment. Empress Ki’s story, in fact, represents a microcosm of Koryimage’s complex relationship to the Mongol empire—an experience of tragedy and horror, to be sure, but also of reform, opportunity, and valuable exposure to the outside world. This period also highlighted important features of Koryimage as a civilization and its place in Korean history, especially for practices and customs regarding women. In these and other ways, the Mongol era constituted a seminal turning point in Korean history: on the one hand, it directly led to the fall of the Koryimage dynasty, but in the larger scope of national history it represented a time when Korea was integrated into the world order to a degree not seen again until the twentieth century.

The Mongol Empire launched several invasions against Korea under Goryeo from 1231 to 1259. There were six major campaigns: 1231, 1232, 1235, 1238, 1247, 1253; between 1253 and 1258, the Mongols under Möngke Khan’s general Jalairtai Qorchi launched four devastating invasions in the final successful campaign against Korea, at tremendous cost to civilian lives throughout the Korean Peninsula. The Mongols annexed the northern areas of Korean Peninsula after the invasions and incorporated them into their empire as Ssangseong Prefectures and Dongnyeong Prefectures. In March 1258, the dictator Choe Ui of the Goryeo military regime was assassinated by Kim Jun, ending the Choe military dictatorship of Korea; after this, scholars who had insisted on peace with Mongolia gained power. This party sent an envoy to the Mongols, and a peace treaty was contracted between the Mongol Empire and Goryeo, part of which stipulated that Korea was to accept vassaldom to the Mongol Empire. Some military officials who refused to surrender formed the Sambyeolcho Rebellion and resisted in the islands off the southern shore of the Korean Peninsula


The first Mongol invasion, in 1231, led by the son of the founder of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan, came six decades after the 1170 institution of military rule in Koryimage that had turned the Korean monarch into a mere puppet. Notwithstanding the many incursions across the northern border, the administrative reforms over the first century of the Koryimage dynasty in the tenth century had helped to establish firmly the principle of civilian rule. Hence the military officials gradually experienced a decline in authority over the next 150 years, even to the point of humiliating deference to their civilian counterparts. This, apparently, led to the military coup of 1170, which purged top civilian officials and gave military officers power over not only the government but also the throne. By the turn of the thirteenth century, the Ch’oe family emerged to constitute a mini-dynasty of military strongmen, who ruled a land racked by bouts of unrest, including a large-scale slave rebellion at the beginning of the Ch’oe dictatorship. The devastating Mongol invasions, beginning in 1231, eventually led the House of Ch’oe to flee to the confines of Kanghwa Island, just to the south of the capital. There the Koryimage court under Ch’oe control successfully resisted final capitulation, even as the rest of the country suffered. The final Ch’oe generalissimo, however, was assassinated in 1261, and this opened the door for the court to enter negotiations of surrender. Given the continuing decimation of the countryside, including the destruction of countless cultural artifacts, the Koryimage monarchy had little choice but to accept Mongol overlordship. Despite the lingering resistance to the Mongols on Cheju Island off the southern coast, which was eventually put down, for all intents and purposes Korea was now part of the Mongol empire.

Militarily, following the 1259 peace treaty, Mongol ambitions on Japan resulted in two invasions of Japan. In both efforts, the Mongols directed Korean shipbuilding and militarization towards the amphibious assault of the Japanese coasts and pressed a large proportion of Korean naval and infantry forces into the service of Mongol military objectives. Korea supplied 770 fully manned ships and 5,000 soldiers in 1274 and 900 ships and 10,000 soldiers in 1281. Yuan officials and envoys took concubines and wives in Korea while they were stationed in Korea for the invasion of Japan.[26] For a variety of reasons, both invasions failed. During the periods leading up to and during the invasions, Korea was effectively forced to serve as a Mongol military base.

That Koryimage maintained a semblance of autonomy through the maintenance of its own monarchy and government might be considered a fortunate outcome of its defeat, given that the Mongols could have easily wiped out the entire leadership. But such autonomy was severely curtailed, as the Mongols dictated the general direction of the government. This was soon made apparent when the Korean state was forced to provide manpower and expertise for the next stage of Mongol expansion, into Japan, in 1274. Koreans, long known as master seafarers, built and guided the ships, which were loaded with thousands of soldiers from the joint Mongol-Korean forces. This armada twice attempted, and failed in, an invasion of Japan. The military organ devised to oversee these invasions, the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters, remained intact even after its original purpose expired, serving as the institutional representative of Mongol domination in Korea. The nominal head of this institution was the Korean king, but in reality this and other powerful organs were controlled mostly by Mongol overseers whose interference in Korea was not limited to foreign relations and military matters, but extended to internal Korean affairs as well. The Mongols, in fact, established commanderies in various parts of Koryimage to reinforce their suzerainty, and this does not even count the northern quarter of Koryimage territory that now came under direct Mongol control.

Needless to say, politics in the Koryimage court often hinged on tendencies and sentiments regarding the Mongols, as the monarch himself politically—and in other ways as well—was severely weakened. The Mongols, in fact, dictated everything from the kings’ reign names, which humiliatingly bore the word “loyal” (“ch’ung”), to the clothing and even the consorts of Korean kings. The Mongol court also controlled who would be king, on several occasions returning a Koryimage monarch to the throne not long after deposing him. But on another level, these signs of subservience might have been moot, for within a few decades the Koryimage king himself was barely Korean. Under the arrangements of Korea’s surrender, the crown prince of the Koryimage royal house had to spend his childhood in the Yuan dynasty capital, where he would marry a Yuan princess, and then return to Korea when it was his turn on the throne. The first such monarch, King Ch’ungnyimagel, married a daughter of the third Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan (of Marco Polo fame), and hence thereafter all the Koryimage kings, except the last one, were direct descendants of Genghis Khan himself. One could argue that the Korean court had to submit in order to prevent mass slaughter and hence preserve Korean nationhood, or even in order to escape domination by Korean military officials. But one also has to wonder whether the Koryimage kings under Mongol rule held a meaningful identity as Koreans. Even the monarch credited with anti-Mongol policies in the mid-fourteenth century, King Kongmin—who, by twist of fate, was mostly Korean and served as the last of the Mongol-era kings—was married to a Mongol princess, whom he adored and famously mourned with obsession upon her passing.

This brings us to the greater implications of these circumstances, and here we must tread with some sensitivity. For not only was the Koryimage monarchy infused with Mongol ancestry, but intermarriage with the Mongols took place among other Korean groups as well, from the aristocracy down to the lowest status groups who had no choice on the matter. This accompanied the significant spread of Mongol influence in Korean culture in the fourteenth century, from language, food, hairstyles, and clothing to even family and marriage customs—to be expected, given the political and military domination under which the Koreans lived. Together, these two levels of Mongol influence led to what many Koreans today would consider embarrassing at best: a significant strain of Mongol provenance in the Korean people and culture. DNA analysis, which strongly hints that central Asians share widespread common descent from Genghis Khan, would probably show not an insignificant number of Koreans today with the same ancestry. Such are the results, repeated thousands of times throughout world history, of conquest. We can imagine the often horrific circumstances under which such a mixture of peoples took place, and we can abhor, from the Korean perspective, the shameful consequences. Whether one condemns this particular episode in Korean history or examines it with scholarly detachment, however, it undoubtedly complicates any sacrosanct notion of Korean homogeneity.

If we can take a difficult step back from the horrors of war and forced subjugation to forge a longer-term perspective, we should also consider the salutary impact of Mongol domination on the history of the Koryimage dynasty and of Korea. Under the Mongol empire, Koreans had many more occasions to make their way to China as tributary officials, diplomats, scholars, traders, and others, and once in the Yuan dynasty capital (present-day Beijing), they encountered a teeming tapestry of peoples and cultures from throughout the vast Mongol empire. The exchange of books, ideas, and other artifacts of both high and low culture from these encounters integrated Koreans, for the first time in their history, into a truly global order. The Chinese civilization that Koreans had emulated always aspired to be universal, but in geographical scope and the willingness to embrace other cultures, it paled in comparison to the Mongol empire. And among the great influences that these cultural currents yielded was the introduction of both the cotton seed and Neo-Confucian philosophy to Korea. But this interaction drove the flow of influence in the opposite direction as well.

King Gongmin (1330–1374) and Queen Noguk assisted in the peaceful succession of Gegeen Khan.


Among the most intriguing areas of Mongol influence in Koryimage lay in marriage and family customs, particularly as they affected women. Scholars have suggested, for example, that the practice of taking multiple wives, not uncommon in the late Koryimage aristocracy, might have expanded under Mongol rule. If so, such an influence presents an interesting comparison with native Korean customs characterized by a relatively high social and familial position of females. This is not to suggest that the Koryimage era featured something approaching equality between the sexes. It is now commonly accepted, however, that Korean women enjoyed far greater standing in marriage, inheritance, and social status in the Koryimage than in the succeeding Chosimagen era, especially in the latter Chosimagen period.

Whatever benefits that Korean women might have enjoyed, the Mongol period reinforced the submissive standing of females through the demand for “tribute women” exacted upon the vanquished Koryimage. Government records indicate that, between 1275 and 1355, there were approximately fifty instances of the Koryimage court sending tribute women to the Mongol court, which took almost two hundred girls. But this is likely a gross under-estimation, for the officially recorded instances only counted the mostly aristocratic females sent to become concubines for the Mongol royalty and aristocracy, and did not include the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lower-status females sent under more wretched circumstances. Like the other major group of Koryimage people sent to China—those males bound to serve as eunuchs for the Yuan court—the Korean tribute women represented little more than human booty, in effect slaves handed over as a sign of tributary subordination. Out of these terrible conditions, however, a fraction of both the eunuchs and tribute women managed to ascend to the highest levels of court life in the Chinese capital. And among these examples, the most fascinating and powerful figure was Lady Ki.

Lady Ki, daughter of a lower-level official’s family, was sent, like many others of her status, as a tribute woman to the Mongol capital some time in the 1320s. Little is known about how she came to catch the emperor’s attention, but as noted in her biography in the official history of the Yuan dynasty, it is likely that her beauty and her talents in singing, dancing, and poetry were extraordinary. She was formally named an imperial concubine in 1333. The Mongol emperor, who as a boy had fallen victim to political strife and spent over a year in exile on an island off the west coast of Korea, might have had a favorable disposition to Koreans in the first place. And having developed an intense affection for Lady Ki, he treated her as the preferred companion over his queen, who in fact came from a family of political enemies. When he tried to promote Lady Ki to official status as the secondary consort (second wife), it aroused staunch political opposition because it digressed from the standard practice of taking imperial queens only from a certain Mongol clan. In 1339, after she gave birth to a son, who would later become the Yuan monarch, the emperor’s determination stiffened, and over weakening political opposition he had her crowned as the secondary imperial consort in 1340. In 1365, as the Yuan dynasty’s grip on China was dissolving, Empress Ki ascended to the position of primary imperial consort.

In that intervening quarter-century, Empress Ki exercised great influence over the Yuan court. In addition to her connection to the emperor himself, she enjoyed a powerful institutional base, a special government organ with wide-ranging tax collecting authority created specifically for her use. Through this organ, she amassed tremendous power and initiated several grand projects. After a while she served in effect as the monarch, as her husband gradually lost interest in affairs of the state. She even led a failed attempt to nudge her husband off the throne in favor of her son. The official history of the Yuan dynasty, written by scholars of the successor Ming dynasty, notes that Empress Ki also developed a reputation for corruption and extravagance. This also suggests that her behavior and that of her court allies contributed to the demise of the Yuan dynasty itself. The Yuan experienced a series of rebellions all across China in the middle of the fourteenth century, many at the hands of the so-called “Red Turban” Chinese bandits, a group of which was led by the man who would become the founder of the succeeding Ming dynasty.

Just as important for our story, Empress Ki also exercised decisive power in her home country of Koryimage. This was done through both her direct intervention in monarchical succession, and through her family members, whose status and influence, backed by the empress of the Mongol empire, increased considerably. Empress Ki’s father was formally invested as a “king” in the Yuan empire, and her mother in her old age enjoyed ritualized visits from the Koryimage monarch. The Ki family is remembered, however, almost exclusively for its lavish lifestyle and venality, on display both among the common people and within Koryimage elite circles. Outright theft of others’ property, including slaves, reached such severity among her siblings in Korea, in fact, that Empress Ki herself had to send a warning to her family members. One of her older brothers in particular, Ki Ch’imagel, who once headed the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters and exercised greater authority than the Koryimage monarch, is especially singled out in the official histories for his corruption and abuse of power. Indeed, his biographical entry in the official History of Koryimage comes under the section on “traitors” and recounts the sordid deeds of the entire Ki family. Little wonder, then, that when the last Koryimage monarch under Yuan domination, King Kongmin, unleashed an anti-Yuan policy in 1356, he purged Ki Ch’imagel and his family in a surprise attack. For this, Koryimage suffered a reprisal invasion ordered by Empress Ki, but this was successfully fended off, and indeed King Kongmin and others understood that Yuan control over China was in its last throes. Little remains known of the fate of Empress Ki, who fled with her son, the next Yuan emperor, to the Mongol homelands ahead of the Chinese rebels who would establish the Ming dynasty.

Despite this inglorious end, however, Empress Ki’s life and times present an intriguing picture of Koryimage’s successful adaptation to the Yuan overlord period. She was likely the one most responsible, for example, for spreading Korean influence in China. She did this through her political authority, to be sure, but also through her incorporation of Korean females and eunuchs into the Yuan court. These Koreans contributed to the flowering of a “Korean style” in the Chinese capital, as things Korean, from clothing to food to lifestyle, became fashionable. As a Korean observer at the time noted, it became almost a requirement for elite males in China to take Korean concubines, who cultivated an aura of beauty and sophistication. Chinese sources, too—and often not in a flattering way—noted that Koreans, in particular Korean women, exerted strong influence over popular taste in China. The flourishing of the “Korean style” may have represented a peak in the export of Korean culture in premodern times, and not until the early twenty-first century would Korean culture, popular or high, enjoy such widespread emulation and popularity outside the peninsula.

This presents, then, another reminder that the Mongol period, while certainly a time of humiliating subjugation to a foreign power, also left a more favorable imprint on Korean culture and identity. We certainly cannot discount the horrific circumstances of the long Mongol siege of the mid-thirteenth century, or of the way Lady Ki and countless other captives went to China in the first place. But her rise to the heights of the Mongol court—and hence to a status as perhaps the most powerful person in the world at one time—shows her as a fitting representative of how Koreans throughout history adapted to the realities of power among their neighbors. Korea’s first experience of integration into a truly global order—a mixture of brutal conquest, humiliating submission, and cultural exchange—shared its core features with the experience of other subject peoples in the Mongol empire who spanned all the way to Europe. The implications for the longer view of Korean history are especially important when comparing this interlude to the periods of foreign domination and intervention in the twentieth century.

In the short term as well, there were significant repercussions. The end of the Mongol period, for example, induced a concerted backlash among Korean elites, who, after two centuries of disruptions caused by both domestic and foreign usurpers, sought to restore a more stable and inward-looking form of rule. And in arousing the Red Turban rebellions, the Mongols were responsible for the rise of Yi Simagenggye, a Korean military leader who made his name in repelling Red Turban invaders (as well as the so-called “Japanese pirates”) during the late Koryimage era. Together, these two outcomes of Mongol rule contributed directly to the fall of the Koryimage dynasty itself, and to the birth of a new dynastic order in Korea under Yi’s command.

Mongolian siege warfare and the defense of Mamluk fortresses I

The evolution of military architecture is to a large extent linked to the development of siege warfare. The emergence of new ideas and technologies within the field of siege warfare was often followed by changes in the method of fortification and the defense of strongholds. This sequence could be reversed: innovations in the field of military architecture encouraged the development of siege machines and sapping. In some cases a substantial period would elapse before a suitable architectural solution was found, since the conversion and upgrading of an “old” fortress to fit new methods of siege warfare was a complex and often expensive task.

The Mongolian army that prompted the strengthening and building of fortresses in the early decades of the Mamluk period did not resemble any of the contemporary Middle Eastern armies. Neither in size nor in structure could it be compared with the Ayyubid or the Frankish forces that fought in the Levant. Thus, the Mamluk fortifications built by Baybars and his successors should be studied in the light of Mongolian technology and methods of siege warfare.

The aim of this article is to provide an account of Mongolian siege warfare on the eve of Hülegü’s campaign to the west (1253). In addition, it will follow and examine developments in the field of siege warfare within the Īlkhānid state. Did the Mongols possess knowledge or technology that was not known amongst the Frankish, Ayyubid, Armenian and Mamluk armies?

The power of the Mongol army lay in its vast numbers of mounted archers, their swift and skilled maneuvers on the battlefield and their impressive ability to cover great distances in a way that very few contemporary armies were capable of matching. However, the military skills needed to conduct a successful siege were not found in the Mongol army that was gathered on the steppe by Chinggis Khan. Planning and building dams, ramps and siege-machines required engineers, carpenters and trained soldiers. Siege warfare demanded expertise and knowledge that were practically foreign to the nature of the Mongol army.

The following excerpt, taken from the Secret History of the Mongols refers to Ögedei (r. 1229–41). The Great Khan is enraged with his son, Güyük for the disrespect he had shown towards Batu during a feast in celebration of a successful campaign. It clearly displays Mongol opinion concerning the difficulties involved in siege warfare and the inferior status attributed to those who fought in sieges.

We [Ögedei] shall place him [Güyük] in the vanguard:

We shall make him climb the town walls

Which are as high as mountains

Until the nails of his ten fingers are worn away;

We shall place him in the garrison army

We shall make him climb the town walls

Which are made of hard-pounded earth

Until the nails of his five fingers are ground down.

Throughout the Mongol Empire’s existence and during the various stages of its army’s development, open battlefields were always favored over engaging an enemy fighting from strongholds and fortified cities. Embarking on a long siege could delay the army for a considerable length of time and disrupt a campaign that was carefully planned according to a strict schedule.5 Siege warfare forced the army to halt, to set up a camp that could serve them if necessary for an extended period and to procure sufficient pasture and water for thousands of horses and the large herds that were an integral part of Mongolian armies.

Chinggis Khan had quickly learnt and acknowledged the shortcomings of the Mongolian army and it was he who initiated the recruitment of foreign artisans. This became a ell-established policy among his successors. Craftsmen essential to the army’s campaigns were recruited from the lands that the Mongols conquered. The status, religion or origin of these people was of no significance to the Mongols, and their recruitment was determined only by their skill, knowledge and experience.

The need for siege units first arose when Chinggis Khan moved across the steppe into northern China (1211–1234) and faced the walled cities of the Chin Empire. From this time onwards siege units were to be regularly recruited among the conquered states of northern China, and were to serve the Mongol army until the late thirteenth century. In 1211 a Chinese officer by the name of Chang Pa-tu supervised the Mongol army’s siege machines. After him came Hsueh T’a-la-hai who commanded both the siege machines and the navy.

When Chinggis Khan invaded Central Asia he was said to have had with him ten thousand soldiers who could work the siege machine batteries. The recruitment of siege units among the Northern Chinese continued during the reign of the great Khan Möngke (r. 1253–9) who conscripted blacksmiths, carpenters and gunpowder-makers. Hülegü followed suit and in 1253 when the campaign to the west was being organized “he sent messengers to Cathay (North China) to bring a thousand households of Cathaian catapult men, naphtha throwers and crossbowmen.” During Qubilai Khan’s reign siege experts were still being recruited among the Northern Chinese and teams were brought from the region of the Huai River. Only in 1272 was this trend interrupted, when Qubilai turned to his nephew the Īlkhān Abagha and asked him to send two Muslim engineers who specialized in building siege engines. Thee years later he established a Muslim siege unit that included soldiers and artisans specializing in siege weapons of the type used in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From the year that Chinggis Khan began to besiege the cities of Northern China and up to the time Hülegü set out on his campaign, the Mongols were constantly engaged in warfare. During those forty years the Mongol army besieged tens of strongholds and cities possessing larger, stronger and more advanced fortifications than those found in the Levant. Complex siege operations were carried out, some demanding the building of dams, the diversion of rivers and the raising of large earth ramparts. Apart from the necessary engineering knowledge, the scale of these operations required hundreds if not thousands of laborers. Prisoners taken from the local populations around the besieged city were often the source of manpower. One of the most detailed accounts of Mongolian methods of siege warfare is given by John of Plano Carpini, an emissary of Pope Innocent IV, who traveled in 1245–7 to the court of the Great Khan.

They [The Mongols] reduce fortresses in the following manner. If the position of the fortress allows it, they surround it, sometime even fencing it round so that no one can enter or leave. They make a strong attack with engines and arrows and they do not leave off fighting by day or night, so that those inside the fortress get no sleep; the Tartars however have some rest, for they divide up their forces and they take it in turns to fight so that they do not get too tired. If they cannot capture it in this way they throw Greek fire … If they are still unsuccessful and the city or fort has a river, they dam it or alter its course and submerge the fortress if possible. Should they not be able to do this, they undermine the city and armed men enter it from underground; once inside, some of them start fires to burn the fortress while the rest fight the inhabitants. If they are not able to conquer it even in this way, they establish a fort or fortification of their own facing the city, so as not to suffer any injury from the missiles of the enemy; and they stay for a long time over against the city, unless by chance it has outside help from an army which fights against the Tartars and removes them by force. While they are pitched before the fortification they speak enticing words to the inhabitants making them many promises to induce them to surrender into their hands.

Hülegü’s campaign to the west was the last of its kind under the united Mongol Empire. Although the source says that Hülegü recruited a thousand soldiers from northern China who specialized in siege warfare, it is not clear whether the Īlkhānid state established by the Mongols in 1260 maintained this custom and continued to recruit Northern Chinese siege experts. The exact size and composition of Hülegü’s army is not known, but it is worth looking at some of the figures and conclusions suggested by scholars who have studied Hülegü’s journey. None of the armies that joined Hülegü had their own siege units; it seems they were mainly made up of mounted archers. According to Martinez the armies that marched to the west under Hülegü’s command were similar to those that fought under Chinggis Khan. The size of Hülegü’s army has been estimated by a number of historians. According to Allsen the core of the army numbered seventy five thousand. A large Mongolian body, similar in size and composition, which had been in Asia Minor, Afghanistan and the west of the Caucausus, joined Hülegü before he entered the Middle East. Thus Hülegü had under his command roughly a hundred and eighty thousand soldiers. Both Smith and Allsen suggest that the army was considerably larger, eventually numbering three hundred thousand men, of whom only half were Mongolian. Smith estimated that from fifteen to seventeen tümens (a tümen roughly equals ten thousand men) were composed of both Mongolian and Turkish (Turikc) soldiers; to those he added contingents belonging to local vassals who were fully subordinated to the Mongols. The number oftümens composed of non-Mongols was, in Smith’s estimation, thirteen. We have no further information about possible siege units, other than the teams recruited by Hülegü on the eve of his campaign.

By the time Hülegü set out for the West, Mongol siege warfare had come to rely and depend heavily if not completely on the Northern Chinese contingents. In the four decades that elapsed between the death of Chinggis Khan and the reign of Möngke, the Mongolian Khans faithfully observed this policy of recruiting specialists in this particular field, and did not train their own men in the art of siege warfare.

Seeing that Hülegü besieged cities and fortresses in the Middle East by employing Chinese units and technology, a survey of the siege methods in use in northern China until the mid-thirteenth century is in order.

Chinese siege machines in the thirteenth century

The most common feature of Chinese siege machines during this period is the fact that they were propelled by manual power. As well as the type and design of the machines, their strength and efficiency depended on the size of the team that pulled the ropes. Their greatest drawback was the large number of people required to work them. While even simple siege machines needed forty men, the larger ones demanded a force of two hundred and fifty men. This obviously made the teams an easy target for the enemy.

Chinese siege machines can be divided into three main categories: catapults that fired round clay balls; siege machines that hurled inflammable materials; and large and powerful crossbows.

The Pao: the Chinese catapult

The word Pao (Phao), means literally to hurl or to throw. The Pao was mounted on a base that resembled a pyramid or a light cart, which made maneuvering it during a siege a slightly easier task. The type of wood used for the central arm was of great importance; in most cases it was either oak or black birch, soaked in water for at least six months. The length of the central beam varied between 5.58 and 7.75m. One end had a leather sling that held the catapult-stone and the other had ropes to pull on. A more advanced type of catapult machine had several beams and could hurl five or seven stones simultaneously. This latter type of siege machine does not appear to have been known among the Franks or the Mamluks. In addition, there were also siege machines where the beam was mounted on an axis, enabling the machine to be aimed in different directions without having to move the entire structure. Most siege machines were built on those basic lines. The main difference between the various types was in the length of the central beam and the number of beams. Those two components dictated the number of men needed to operate the machine and the weight of the stones that could be hurled. The next table lists the various types of siege machines and the number of men needed to operate them, the distance each machine could fire and the weight of the stone or clay projectiles.

A number of historical narratives concerning the Mongol invasion into the Middle East provide information that does not comply with the figures given in the above table. However, the figures proposed provide a reliable basis for estimating the force of Chinese siege machines. An interesting aspect of Chinese siege machines is the use of clay balls as projectiles. This was recommended by Ch’en Kuei (ca. ad 1130), author of the twelfth-century war manual Shou-ch’eng lu.

The counterweight siege machine first appeared in China during Qubilai’s reign (1260–94). We have no written evidence of the use of counterweight siege machines by the Īlkhānids other than an illustration in the manuscript of the Jāmī‘ al-tawārīkh (dated 1306–14) at the Edinburgh University Library. The most convincing evidence of the penetration of Islamic siege technology from Syria to the Īlkhānid state and further into the Chinese Empire is dated 1272. During Qubilai’s wars against the Song state he had sought the advice and help of his nephew, the Īlkhān Abagha, asking for two Muslim siege engineers to be sent to his court. This request indicates that siege technology in the Eastern Mediterranean was more advanced than that of the Īlkhānid state and of the Chinese siege units employed by Qubilai. We may also conclude that the Īlkhānid army had begun to use the counterweight trebuchet soon after the state was established. Two Muslim engineers who specialized in building siege machines were brought to Qubilai’s court in 1272.  was from Mayyāfarīqin and  from Aleppo. At the court they built what is known in the Mamluk sources as “the large Frankish manjanīq”; in China it received the title “the Muslim phao.”

A description of this siege machine is given in the Yuan-Shi. Its main advantages were that it did not require a large team; the projectiles were considerably heavier and could cover a greater distance. The eight of the stones could reach 90kg and more. According to the source, when they hit the ground they made craters that measured 2.17m in diameter. The sound toe through the sky and the earth and the damage was considerable. This appears to be the first Chinese description, if somewhat exaggerated, of the counterweight trebuchet.

Mongolian siege warfare and the defense of Mamluk fortresses II

Inflammable materials

In addition to stone and clay projectiles, vessels containing inflammable materials were a favorite type of ammunition in Chinese siege warfare. Certain siege machines had names such as “Hao Pao,” i.e. a fire-hurling siege machine. Pots with wicks of flax or cotton were used, containing a combination of sulphur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), aconite, oil, resin, ground charcoal and wax. This recipe in fact contains all the basic ingredients for making gunpowder, but the emphasis in the recipe given above was on producing toxic fumes; it was called “tu-yao yen-ch’iu,” literally a ball of smoke and fire.

The frequent use of inflammable materials in Chinese siege warfare was most probably due to the fact that a large percentage of both public and private buildings were constructed of wood and bamboo. Even houses made of mud bricks had a wooden frame. In addition to clay roof tiles, thatched roofs could be found in both northern and southern China. The materials used for thatching included straw from wheat or rice, canes and various types of wild grass.

It is no wonder then that the main dread of the besieged was of fires inside the city. Pots containing inflammable materials were hurled into a densely populated city where many structures were of wood. Occasionally, even the city towers along the curtain walls were a combination of bricks and wood; this can be seen in illustrations of the city Shao Hsing dating to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A few examples of wooden gate towers date to the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In some cases a high wooden palisade was erected parallel to the stone or brick curtain wall.

The immense destruction caused to the city of Bukhara when it was besieged by Chinggis Khan illustrates the effectiveness of inflammable materials in siege warfare.

He [Chinggis-Khan] now gave orders for all quarters of the town to be set on fire; and since the houses were built entirely of wood, within several days the greater part of the town had been consumed, with the exception of the Friday mosque and some of the palaces, which were built with baked bricks … mangonels were erected, bows bent and stones and arrows discharged … For days they fought in this manner.

In contrast to the widespread custom in large parts of China and some parts of Central Asia of building with wood and cane, in the Eastern Mediterranean public, private and military buildings were constructed mainly of stone. This was both plentiful and relatively cheap when compared to the price of wood. Although inflammable materials were used in siege warfare by the Ayyubids, the Franks and the Mamluks, their effect was considerably less disastrous.

At this point of the discussion we should note that the most common material for the construction of curtain walls in China and Central Asia was rammed earth sometimes faced with stone and/or sun-dried mud bricks. In contrast to Middle Eastern and European strongholds that were built on prominent sites (hills, mountains, cliffs and the like) “no such preference for an elevated, easily defensible site, however, seems to have nourished city site selection in China.” According to Di Cosmo, wall building was a military concept and a technology that originated on the Central Plain. Walls asserted the state’s political and military control over certain areas. “Like roads, walls provide the logistic infrastructure to facilitate communications and transportation, vital elements for armies employed in the occupation or invasion of foreign territory.” This function attributed to walls in China differs from their function in the Eastern Mediterranean. Chinese walls were not constructed only for military purposes. They are often located on a river bank and their first and at times most important task was to protect the population from floods. In certain areas in the northwest the walls acted as screens against sandstorms. Forbidding earthen ramparts almost became the trademark of Chinese fortifications, although certain sections such as the gates and towers were constructed of bricks or stone. Although they were effective their main fault was the large area of “dead space” below the wall. The straight lines and relatively few towers did not provide the defenders with sufficient flanking fire.

Was gunpowder brought over to the Middle East by the Mongols?

One of the most controversial and intriguing issues debated among a wide range of scholars is the arrival and development of gunpowder. The differences of opinion concerning the use and efficacy of gunpowder during the thirteenth century call for a short survey. The majority opinion is that gunpowder was used by Chinese armies in the mid thirteenth century and even earlier. This group includes the following scholars: Goodrich, Chia-Shêng, Allsen, Khan, Martin, Chase, DeVries and Needham. Needham has conducted the most extensive archaeological and historical research on the subject of the development of gunpowder and firearms in China, arguing that by the mid thirteenth century the Chinese could destroy city gates and walls using gunpowder. He cites the four sieges in which gunpowder was used: Kayfeng (1232), Merv, Samarqand, and probably also during the siege of Baghdad (1258). Martin, who carried out a thorough study of the Mongol army, holds a similar opinion. Khan, who surveyed the sources that cover the Mongol invasion of the Delhi sultanate, found sufficient evidence that gunpowder was used by the Mongol forces. Allsen also believes that gunpowder began to be utilized around the same time, but presents his opinion with some caution. Among the one thousand households Hülegü brought with him on his campaign to the west, he thinks there were men who knew how to produce gunpowder. Allsen says that at the battle near the Amu Darya (1220) the Mongol army fired rockets launched with the help of gunpowder. Like Needham, Allsen claims that during the siege of Baghdad the Mongols used some form of gunpowder. Many scholars rely to a great extent on the studies published by Needham. Franke and May are currently among the few who clearly state that even at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1368) gunpowder was not a weapon that could determine the outcome of a battle. According to May “its use remains speculations.” Franke’s conclusions are based on a survey of the archaeological finds and the historical sources, all of which show that the number of casualties as a result of the use of gunpowder was very low. Ayalon demonstrated the problems of terminology in the Mamluk sources. His conclusion was that there is no definitive evidence that firearms were being used during the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century, and that gunpowder was no more than an incendiary.

Returning to the question of whether the Northern Chinese contingents in Hülegü’s army employed gunpowder technology in siege warfare requires an examination of the three sources that give an account of his army on the eve of his journey west.

• Te earliest source was written by  Malik Juwaynī, a Persian official who served the Mongols (d. 681/1283). The Ta’rīkh-i jahān-gushā (‘History of the world-conqueror’) is an encyclopedic history of Chinggis Khan and his times that documents the events till 1257.

• Te second source was written by the Persian historian Rashīd al-Dīn  Allāh Abū ‘l-Khayr (d. 718/1318). TheJāmi‘ al-tawārīkh (‘Complete Collection of Histories’) is the first universal history and was compiled ca. 1310 (an earlier version was completed in 1306–7).55 It records the history of the Īlkhānid state established by Hülegü soon after the fall of Baghdad and the execution of the Abbasid Caliph (1258).

• Te latest source is the Yuanshi, a Chinese official history of the dynasty founded by the Mongols, compiled ca. 1370.

Neither Juwaynī nor Rashīd al-Dīn, both of whom describe Hülegü’s campaign, mention the use of gunpowder by the siege units of the Mongol army. It is perhaps possible that they were not familiar with this new weapon and described it by the terminology often used for the various incendiary weapons that were known among Middle Eastern armies. However, this does not seem to be the case. Both works contain only a short paragraph on the whole subject of the Northern Chinese siege units and neither notes anything unusual or new concerning the arsenal of Hülegü’s army. Thus it seems more than likely that Mongol methods and weapons did not appear strange or unknown in the field of siege warfare.

A close examination of the Persian and Chinese texts is important to fully understand the matter at hand. Juwaynī says that among the siege units there were soldiers specializing in hurling . The Persian term he uses is  andāzān. Rashīd al-Dīn mentions these very same units and uses the same terminology to describe the men who hurl . In addition, he writes that among those siege units were teams he terms the charkh andāz. The Persian word charkh literally means “a round object,” while andāz means “to throw” or hurl. Rashīd al-Dīn is in fact referring to the teams operating the siege machines that hurled round catapult stones.

The Chinese source is more complex than the two Persian ones. The Yuanshi describes the recruitment of craftsmen/artisans for the siege warfare units in the armies of Chinggis Khan and Ögedei. In 1252 Hülegü’s siege units were summoned from the same source of manpower. The term used for a particular craftsman in Chinese is a combination of two words. The first describes the raw material utilized by a specific craft. The second isjiang which can be best translated as smith. The list in the Yuanshi includes blacksmiths who work with iron, smiths who work with wood, i.e. carpenters, and smiths who work with gold, i.e. goldsmiths. The last raw material mentioned in the list is huo – fire. In contrast to the first three combinations which use the word jiang, huo appears on its own. It is therefore difficult to translate and reach a definite conclusion concerning its exact meaning in this context. The term hou jiang does not appear at all in the Hanyu Dacidian (the Chinese 12-volume dictionary) or in the Ciyuan (a dictionary orientated towards classical Chinese). The term hou jiang appears once more in the Yuanshi and there too comes directly after a mention of goldsmiths. Further, the combination hou jiang never seems to appear in any of the other earlier or later official Chinese histories such as the Mingshi, Jinshi, or Songshi. It is therefore difficult to conclude that the Mongols used gunpowder in siege warfare or to assume that they had men in their siege units who knew how to produce gunpowder. The fact that the Persian sources are silent and do not mention a dramatic debut of a new technology brought by the Mongols, as well as the fact that they simply stick to terms that were well-known in descriptions of siege warfare in Persian texts, further supports the view that gunpowder did not arrive in the Middle East with Hülegü’s Mongol army.

Chuang zi nu: the giant crossbow

The chuang zi nu was one of the most dominant siege weapons in the Mongolian army during this period. Its construction and operation were complicated and among the Chinese experts recruited by Hülegü were men skilled in the assembly and operation of those giant bows.

The structure of this siege machine was similar to that of the crossbow carried by infantry archers. The word chuang zi nu means literally “a giant crossbow shaped like a bed.” It was made by using one, two or three giant crossbows connected to each other and mounted on a cart so that the machine could be maneuvered with ease. The crossbows were constructed from wood and bone, giving them flexibility and strength. The cod was drawn with a winch and the arrows were similar in size to spears and more than one arrow could be fired each time.

A bow of this type was used during Hülegü’s siege of the Assassins’ fortress at Maymundiz. Apart from arrows the size of spears, it fired burning torches that according to Juwaynī caused many casualties.

Many parallels can be drawn between the various types of siege machines used in the Middle East and in Northern China. Thee are however a number of important differences, the main one being that all siege machines in China were propelled by manpower. The Middle East had clearly made an advance, and besides the manually operated siege machines, it was using the counterweight trebuchet, which was more powerful and capable of firing heavier stone projectiles to a greater distance. It also required a considerably smaller team. The ropes pulled by men were replaced by a set of pulleys and a wooden box filled with stones that acted as a weight. The disadvantages of this new siege technology were that its size and weight meant it could not be maneuvered with ease, not even along short distances, and it had to be built and assembled by a professional team of carpenters and engineers. The Chinese on the other hand had the multiple armed siege machines that were not known to the armies of the Middle East even after their encounter with the Mongol army. The size and firepower of those siege machines must have been impressive if one takes into account that each machine could fire between five and seven stones at a time. Thee is also a great difference in the type of projectiles used, since clay catapult balls were unheard of amongst Franks, Ayyubids and Mamluks. Taking into account that a team of forty was needed for the operation of the smallest Chinese siege machine, this may explain the great number of a thousand skilled men that Hülegü recruited from Northern China for his siege units.

The use of incendiaries was common to both Middle Eastern and Northern Chinese armies, though it seems that they were more effective in Chinese and Central Asian warfare since wood, cane, and thatched roofs, all highly inflammable, were widespread building materials. The clay pots known as  have been found in a number of archaeological sites on land and at sea though they were more successful in naval warfare where wooden ships and sails could easily catch fire.

Apart from the differences in siege machines employed by the armies, there was a vast difference in the way the Northern Chinese siege units in the Mongol army utilized the topography and natural surroundings of the area round a besieged city. This is one of the most impressive characteristics of siege warfare under the Mongol commanders.

Rivers were diverted, dams built and mud ramparts or brick walls were constructed in order to seal the city and cut it off from its surroundings. These large earthen works show an outstanding degree of thought and initiative on the part of well-trained engineering teams and skilled craftsmen, capable of planning and operating such large-scale projects. The rankish, Ayyubid and Mamluk siege teams dug sapping tunnels and worked a variety of different siege machines, but they never attempted to change the course of rivers and/or the area near the besieged city. The main reason was lack of human resources: without a huge labor force such ideas could not be carried out.

There can be no doubt that Eastern Mediterranean siege machines were more advanced. The counterweight trebuchet could hurl stones that weighed 95kg and more to a distance of 300m. On the other hand, the strength of the siege units employed by the Mongols apparently did not depend on superior siege technology or on changing the topography round the besieged city or fortress, but lay rather in the ability to recruit and position mass numbers of siege machines and teams that could run the entire siege operation day and night without halting. The siege of Nishapur (1221) is a good example. The force sent to besiege the city numbered 10,000 men under the command of Toghachar, a son-in-law of Chinggis Khan. The garrison was assisted by the entire population. Juvaini mentions mangonels, naphtha and crossbows used by the defenders. The city’s defense held for six months. It was only when Tolui arrived in April of 1221 with a significantly larger force that Nishapur was taken. The walls ere breached within three days.

Juwaynī describes the effort Tolui’s teams put into gathering stones for the siege machines: “although Nishapur is in a stony region they loaded stones at a distance of several stages and brought them with them. These they piled up in heaps like a harvest, and not a tenth part of them were used.” D’Ohsson and Martin describe the siege machines at Nishapur, giving exact numbers. The Mongols placed 3,000 giant crossbows, 300 stone-hurling siege machines, 700 machines that hurled pots of, 4,000 ladders and 2,500 piles of stones brought from the nearby mountains. The assault continued day and night. Assuming this source is reliable, even if the figures are exaggerated they give an idea of the immense strength of the siege contingents that fought in the service of the Mongol armies.

The source of manpower available to the Īlkhānid state differed from that of the Mongol empire. It is rather doubtful that Hülegü’s heirs continued to recruit men from Northern China for their siege contingents. This raises a number of questions concerning the composition, number and origin of the men in the Īlkhānid siege units. The chroniclers provide very little information. On the strength of previous Mongol policy it is more than likely that Muslim engineers were recruited and local siege technology was used along with that brought over from Northern China. But any assumption is bound to remain so for lack of firm evidence. However, it is possible to overcome this obstacle by analyzing the sieges conducted under Hülegü’s command and comparing them to those carried out in later years by his successors. This may enable us to draw some conclusions concerning the development and changes of siege warfare that occurred in the Īlkhānid army.

Khubilai Khan, Tibet, and the Yüan Dynasty

Chinggis retired to Mongolia in 1223. He now turned his attention to the Tanguts, who had failed to send their warriors to join the campaign against the Khwarizmians in 1218, as they had promised to do as vassals of the Mongols. The Tanguts had also withdrawn their troops from the campaign against Chin in 1222, and when Chinggis sent envoys to them warning them to mend their ways and keep to the terms of the treaty, they reviled him. Although Chinggis died before the completion of this campaign, the Tangut realm was conquered in 1227. It was fully incorporated into the Mongol Empire and became one of its most important appanages or fiefdoms. One reason it was important is the fact that the Tangut Empire had developed a culture that was as refined as China’s and in some ways similar to it, but nevertheless distinctively non-Chinese (and also non-Jurchen Chin). Although the Mongols had of necessity to rely upon the Chinese for help in ruling Chinese territory under their control, they generally distrusted and disliked the Chinese and were much more inclined toward fellow Central Eurasians, especially in matters connected with religion and state organization.

Chinggis had four sons, three of whom survived him. His son Ögedei (r. 1229–1241) succeeded him as Great Khan. The Mongols continued their attacks on the Jurchen and in 1234 overthrew the Chin Dynasty. At the same time, Ögedei organized a great campaign into the west. Earlier, while campaigning against the Khwârizmshâh, the Mongols had passed through southern Russia. They now set out to completely subdue it as the inheritance of Batu, son of Chinggis’s eldest son Jochi, who had died before his father in 1227. Along with Batu as the nominal commander went Ögedei’s son Güyük, Tolui’s son Möngke, and Sübedei, the Mongols’ most brilliant general. In 1236 the Mongols attacked the Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples of the Volga-Kama region, then the Russians to their northwest, taking Vladimir (east of Moscow) in 1238 and Kiev in 1240, subjugating the region by 1241. Sübedei continued the campaign further west into Poland and eastern Germany, where he defeated the Polish and German forces of Duke Henry of Silesia at Liegnitz and, turning south, the Hungarians and Austrians, before returning to Hungary to spend the winter. But Great Khan Ögedei died in December of that year, and the Mongols withdrew as soon as they learned about it.

Batu remained in the West with a large force. He made his capital at Saray on the lower Volga River and controlled all of western Central Eurasia from the Black Sea and northern Caucasus up to Muscovy and east through the Volga-Kama region. Many of his forces settled at Kazan, not far from the old city of Bulghâr, where they soon shifted to the language of the majority ethnic group in the army, Kipchak Turkic, which came to be known as Tatar. The realm of what was later to be called the Golden Horde soon became de facto independent, but Batu remained committed to his grandfather’s vision of a Mongol world empire and participated fully in the governance of the empire and in imperial military campaigns.

After the short reign of Ögedei’s son Güyük (r. 1246–1248), a power struggle ended with the succession of Tolui’s son Möngke (r. 1251–1259), who became the next Great Khan. He organized a massive campaign to establish firm Mongol control over the lands of Central Asia and the Near East and generally to push the limits of the Mongol Empire toward the sunset. Möngke’s brother Hülegü, commanding the imperial forces, set out in 1253. In 1256 they attacked and destroyed the Assassins, the Ismâ’îlî order that had long terrorized the Islamic world from their base in the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran. By 1257 the Mongols had taken Alamut, the Assassins’ main fortress, and their leader, who was executed by order of Möngke himself. The Mongols then proceeded into Iraq and in 1258 attacked Baghdad. The caliph refused to surrender, despite the reasonable Mongol offer and explanation of what would happen if he resisted. The city was put under siege and eventually succumbed. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the sack of the city, and the caliph too was put to death.

The Mongols proceeded westward into Mamluk Syria and were making good progress until news reached them about Möngke’s death and Hülegü withdrew with most of the imperial forces. The Mamluks attacked the remaining Mongols and crushed them in the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalût, in Galilee, on September 6, 1260. This was the first setback for the Mongols in Southwestern Asia.

Nevertheless, Hülegü soon returned, and the Mongols succeeded in establishing their power over most of the Near East. They eventually made their home encampment in northwestern Iran near Tabriz, where there were good pasturelands. Hülegü founded the Il-Khanate, which ruled over Iraq, Iran, and some of the neighboring territories; warred periodically with the northerly Golden Horde and with the Central Asian Chaghatai Horde, the successors of Chinggis’s son Chaghatai; and extended his influence as far as Tibet.

Tolui’s inheritance included the former Tangut realm. Under Ögedei, his second son Köden (Godan, d. 1253/1260), who was assigned Tangut as his appanage, was responsible for the nearly bloodless subjugation of Tibet. In 1240 Köden sent a small force into Tibet under Dorda Darkhan. The Tibetan monasteries evidently resisted it; two were attacked and damaged, and some monks are said to have been killed. The Mongols eventually withdrew, having been told to contact the leading cleric in Tibet, Saskya Panḍita (d. 1251). Köden sent a letter to him in 1244 summoning him to the Mongol camp. In 1246 the elderly monk arrived in Liang-chou, having sent ahead his two nephews, ‘Phagspa (Blogros Rgyal-mtshan, 1235–1280)25 and Phyag-na-rdorje (d. 1267). In 1247 the Tibetans surrendered to the Mongols. Saskya Pandita was appointed viceroy of Tibet under the Mongols and Phyag-na-rdorje was married to Köden’s daughter to seal the treaty. After the death of Saskya Panḍita in 1251, the Mongols sent another expedition, under a certain Khoridai, who restored their control in Central Tibet in 1252–1253.26 Köden, who because of his chronic illness—for which he had been treated by Saskya Panḍita—had been passed over for the throne in favor of his elder brother Güyük, seems to have been dead by this time.

Khubilai (b. September 23, 1215, r. 1260/1272-February 18, 1284) was one of the sons of Tolui. He married Chabi, a fervent Buddhist. When their first son was born in 1240, they gave him the Tibetan Buddhist name Dorji (Tibetan rdorje ‘vajra; thunderbolt’). Already by 1242 Khubilai had begun assembling Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist teachers at his appanage in Hsing-chou, in Hopei. With the accession of his brother Möngke as Great Khan in 1251, Khubilai was in direct line to succeed to the throne. His brother appointed him to several other appanages in North China, greatly strengthening Khubilai’s power and making him effectively the Mongol viceroy over this rich, populous region. In 1253 Khubilai called for ‘Phagspa and his brother to be sent to him. They arrived and were well received by the Mongol prince. He left shortly afterward in command of an imperial campaign to conquer the Kingdom of Ta-li (in what is now Yunnan Province) as a preliminary flanking movement before invading the large and aggressive Sung Dynasty, which had been repeatedly attacking Mongol territory to its north.

After a year’s preparation, Khubilai’s forces, with Sübedei’s son Uriyangkhadai as general in chief, set out late in 1253. Before attacking the Ta-li forces, he sent envoys to them with an ultimatum demanding their surrender and assuring their safety if they did. When they responded by executing the envoys, the Mongols attacked and defeated them, forcing them to retreat to their capital. The Mongols notified the people of the city that they would be spared if they surrendered. They did so, and Khubilai then took the city, establishing Mongol power over Ta-li with a minimum of bloodshed. General Uriyangkhadai continued the Mongol campaign in the southwest with considerable success, eventually marching southeast to Annam (the area of modern northern Vietnam) by 1257, where however the Mongols suffered from the heat and insects. When the ruler offered to send tribute to the Mongols, Uriyangkhadai withdrew.

In 1256 Khubilai, who had returned to his appanage after the victory in Ta-li, began work on a summer capital, K’ai-p’ing (renamed Shang-tu ‘Xanadu’ in 1263). It was about ten days’ journey north of Chung-tu (Peking) in an area with both agricultural and pasture lands. In 1258, after Khubilai answered accusations made against him by conspirators at court, his brother put him in command of one of the four wings of the army in his new campaign against the Sung. In 1258 the invasion was launched, with Möngke himself leading the campaign in Szechuan, while Khubilai attacked southward from his appanage in the east.

When Möngke died of fever outside Chungking (Chongqing) in Szechuan (August 11, 1259), the campaign against the Sung came to a halt. Arik Böke, his youngest brother, who had been left in Karakorum to guard the homelands, began assembling his forces to contest the succession. Hülegü halted his campaign in Syria and hurried home to support Khubilai at the great khuriltai, but Arik Böke too had substantial support and sent forces to attack Khubilai’s appanage. When Khubilai finally reached his capital at K’ai-p’ing, a khuriltai was assembled in May 1260, and Khubilai was elected Great Khan. The decision was vehemently opposed by Arik Böke, who had powerful adherents—including Berke, the successor of Batu, and Alghu, ruler of the Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia. They proclaimed him Great Khan in June 1260, and civil war broke out. Khubilai outmaneuvered Arik Böke at every turn, despite the latter’s many supporters. Alghu broke with him in 1262, and in the following year Arik Böke surrendered to Khubilai. The civil war was over. In 1266 Khubilai began building a new winter capital, Ta-tu ‘great capital’, slightly northeast of the old city of Chung-tu (the site of modern Peking), moving the power base of the Great Khanate further into China and solidifying his control there.

After spending the next few years settling affairs within the Great Khanate, Khubilai returned to the Sung problem. First he sent an embassy to the Sung (May 1260) to propose a peaceful solution. But the chancellor of Sung detained the envoys and sent his forces to attack the Mongols (August 1260). After Khubilai retaliated in early 1261, the Sung invaded three times in 1262. The Chinese also refused to release Khubilai’s envoys. Finally, the Mongols attacked the Sung in force, defeating them soundly in Szechuan early in 1265 and following with a full-scale invasion in 1268. The war with the Sung was not an easy matter. Mongol victory came only in 1276, when the Sung empress dowager surrendered and handed over the imperial seal and regalia. In 1279 the last resistance ended.

The new Chinese-style Yüan Dynasty officially began on Chinese New Year’s Day, January 18, 1272. Despite the orthodox procedures followed in the establishment of the dynasty, and in much of the structure of the administration, the new government was very clearly Mongol. Unlike their Jurchen predecessors in North China, the Mongols generally did not trust the Chinese. Khubilai himself did have many important Chinese advisers, but his successors put Mongols, Central Asian Muslims, Tibetans, Tanguts, or other non-Chinese in all key administrative positions. The Great Khanate continued to exist, and included Mongolia and Tibet as major constituent parts that were recognized as not being Chinese. While in many respects Yüan China was integrated into the Mongol Empire, the Great Khanate continued to be the larger unit. The two were not equated with each other.

One of the most important events of Mongol history took place at this time. The early Mongols had already come under the influence of various world religions, and some of the nation’s constituent peoples had converted, at least theoretically, to one of them—for example, the Naiman and Kereit had converted, at least nominally, to Nestorian Christianity, and the Mongols of Khubilai’s generation were already becoming Buddhists under Uighur and, especially, Tibetan tutelage. But, on the whole, the Mongols had remained pagan and for long were suspicious of all organized religions. The early European travelers’ accounts note how much the Mongols relied on their soothsayers in all things. But by the time of Marco Polo, the Mongols of the Great Khanate had unofficially, but enthusiastically, adopted Buddhism, mostly of the Tibetan variety. With its idea of the dharmarâja or ‘religious king’, the religion provided legitimation for Khubilai’s rule and also gave the Mongols access to a great body of learning and wisdom that was not Chinese.

When Khubilai decided he wanted to have a unified “Mongol” script for all the languages of the Mongol Empire, he appointed to the commission the Tibetan Buddhist leader ‘Phagspa, who was his National Preceptor and the viceroy of Tibet. The new script, based on the Tibetan alphabet (but written vertically like Chinese script and Uighur-Mongol script), was promulgated as the official writing system in 1269. Known today as ‘Phagspa Script, it is in effect the world’s first multilingual transcription system. Examples of it are preserved in several languages from around the Mongol Empire, including Chinese, and it is thought that the script influenced the later creation of the Korean Han’gul writing system. ‘Phagspa was also in charge of other intellectual projects, including the compilation of a great comparative catalogue of the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons, the respective compendia of translations of sacred texts from Sanskrit.

Mongol Conquest of Baghdad

During the operations against the Ismā‛īlīs he had demanded reinforcements from the Caliph. Al-Musta‛ṣim’s instinct was to comply; but at the prompting of his ministers and amirs, who argued that the Mongol prince’s real purpose was to reduce Baghdad’s capacity to resist a siege, he had failed to send any troops. His position was an unenviable one, since Baghdad had suffered a number of natural disasters over the previous fifteen years and the government lacked sufficient funds to pay its soldiery. When the wazir Ibn al-‛Alqamī urged the despatch of valuable gifts to Hülegü, the Caliph made preparations to do so, only to be dissuaded by the Lesser Dawātdār and his associates, who accused the wazir of currying favour with the enemy; goods of small value were sent out instead. On Hülegü ordering him to send either the wazir, the Dawātdār or the general Sulaymān Shāh Ibn Barjam, the Caliph instructed them to go but then changed his mind, possibly because all three refused; as a result, those deputed were persons of lesser importance.

Hülegü decided to wait no longer. While the vanguard under Baiju and Sughunchaq headed by way of Irbil, he followed with the main army through the Ḥulwān pass. When the Dawātdār attempted to obstruct the progress of Baiju and Sughunchaq, who had crossed the Tigris, he suffered a severe defeat, losing most of his men and retreating into the city. Hülegü reached Baghdad in mid-Muḥarram 656/January 1258 and the Mongols began a close investment. The prince’s own forces built a rampart on the eastern side of the city, while Baiju, Sughunchaq and Buqa Temür constructed one to the west. The Caliph belatedly endeavoured to enter into negotiations, sending out the wazir, but Hülegü claimed that this was no longer enough and required the Dawātdār and Sulaymān Shāh as well; it was al-Musta‛ṣim’s decision whether to follow them. The two men were put to death, while Ibn al-‛Alqamī was spared. The Caliph himself emerged with his sons and his family on 4 Ṣafar/10 February, and the sack of Baghdad began shortly afterwards. Once al-Musta‛ṣim had made over his treasury and his harem to the victors, he was no longer of use to them. As the Mongol army withdrew from the city and halted for the first night, Hülegü had the Caliph and one of his sons executed by the time-honoured method of being wrapped in felt and beaten to death. Another son was put to death in Baghdad around the same time.

It seems that Hülegü had approached the assault on Baghdad in a spirit of caution, possibly because Mongol generals like Baiju were aware of Baghdad’s large population and thought that the Caliph had a formidable army. But he was also influenced, we are told, by the fact that the Mongols were the most recent in a long line of enemies to harbour designs on the city and that their precursors had all come to grief; terrible disasters were forecast in the event of an attack. In an era when the caliphs had been shorn of real political power, some effort had been made to promote an image of hallowed inviolability. According to Rashīd al-Dīn, this theme had been prominent in the response of al-Musta‛ṣim and his officers to Mongol demands for submission, and it also underlay the gloomy prognosis of the astronomer Ḥusām al-Dīn when summoned to provide guidance. But his Shī‛ī colleague Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī offered a more sober – and more congenial – verdict. Asked what would be the consequence of taking Baghdad, he is said to have retorted simply: ‘Hülegü will reign in place of the Caliph.’ Waṣṣāf says that Ṭūsī had been consulted earlier, at Hamadān, when Hülegü first determined to advance against Baghdad, and had predicted an equally auspicious outcome after examining the stars. He and other authors differ from Rashīd al-Dīn in linking this debate with an issue that surfaced some weeks later, namely in what manner – or indeed whether – the Caliph should be put to death. In all likelihood, the sharp difference of opinion manifested itself at successive stages in the assault on the ‛Abbasids. What Hülegü feared – if, as some authors claim, he really was afraid – was offending Tenggeri by shedding al-Musta‛ṣim’s blood on the ground, since this taboo in relation to royal figures had long been current among the steppe peoples; hence the mode of death adopted. Bar Hebraeus may well have been right in hinting that Hülegü ordered the Caliph’s execution as a means of ‘facing down’ the doom-laden predictions.

The end of the ‛Abbasid Caliphate, which had lasted for just over five hundred years, was by any reckoning a momentous event that undeniably made a strong impression on contemporaries and posterity alike. In the wake of al-Musta‛ṣim’s downfall, one story of his death circulated widely and passed into folklore. This was that Hülegü had confronted him with his treasure and asked why he had not used it to recruit more troops in order to resist the Mongols (or, in one version, why he had not despatched it to the Mongols to save himself and Baghdad); he was then incarcerated in a cell with nothing but the treasure and died of starvation within four days. The tale obviously represents an embellishment of a conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph that appears in Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s account of the fall of Baghdad and is repeated by Waṣṣāf and other Muslim writers. It clearly held a ready appeal for Christian writers, since variants are supplied by authors as diverse as the Byzantine historian Georgios Pachymeres (d. c. 1310), the Armenian historian Grigor Aknerts‛i (c. 1313), the expatriate Armenian prince Hayton of Gorighos (1307), the anonymous ‘Templar of Tyre’ (c. 1314), the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo (1298), the Dominican missionary Riccoldo da Montecroce (c. 1300) and St Louis’ biographer Jean de Joinville (1309).

An artist’s impression of early Abbasid-era Baghdad, a vast round city ranged around the caliph’s palace. Credit JEAN SOUTIF / LOOK AT SCIENCES / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY. Abbasid Baghdad. Artwork of Baghdad in the 10th century at the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Islamic dynasty that ruled an Islamic empire with this city as its capital. The Tigris River is in the background. At the time, Baghdad was a city four kilometres in diameter with four gates. It was protected by a moat six metres wide and a double circular enclosure. The palace, the mosque and barracks were located in the centre, while the town was a ring between the two walls. The central dome (green) was 48 metres high. It collapsed in 941 from a lightning strike.


12th-13th century Grand city of marble palaces and spotless streets, centre of trade, learning and the arts.

Founded on a circular plan on the banks of the Tigris in AD 762 by Caliph al-Mansur, in the ninth century Baghdad was the world’s largest city – a centre of learning and the arts to rival ancient Athens. It suffered a decline from about 1000, but remained a flourishing city and capital of the Abbasid Caliphate until 1258, when it was sacked by the Mongols, who killed most of the population and destroyed its vital canal system.

In the late 1160s or early 1170s, Benjamin of Tudela – a Jewish traveller from northern Spain – described a round city, 20 miles in circumference. At its heart was the vast palace of the caliph, whom Tudela did not name but whom he clearly saw as trustworthy and benevolent, a good friend to Baghdad’s large Jewish community.

The caliph lived most of the year in seclusion, appearing in the city just once a year during the festival of Eid al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting), when he was accompanied by princes from across the Islamic world. On that occasion “he rides on a mule, and dressed in royal robes of gold and silver and fine linen; on his head is a turban adorned with precious stones and over the turban is a black shawl as a sign of his modesty, implying that all this glory will be covered by darkness on the day of death. The road he takes along the riverside is watched all year through so that no man shall tread in his footsteps.”

Sixty years later, another man described his visit: Yaqut al-Hamawi, born in Constantinople, who was the associate of a Baghdadi trader. He saw Baghdad as “a veritable city of palaces, made of marble. The buildings are usually of several storeys, the palaces and mansions gilded and lavishly decorated, and hung with beautiful tapestry and hangings of brocade or silk. The rooms are tastefully furnished with luxurious divans, costly tables, Chinese vases and gold and silver ornaments.

“The water gates are guarded night and day,” he continued. “Every household is supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous aqueducts which intersect the town; the streets, gardens and parks are regularly swept and watered, and no refuse is allowed to remain within the walls. An immense square in front of the palace is used for reviews, military inspections, tournaments and races; at night the square and the streets are lighted by lamps. “The scene on the river is animated by thousands of gondolas, decked with flags, dancing like sunbeams on the water, and carrying the pleasure-seeking citizens from one part of the city to the other. Along the quays lie whole fleets at anchor, sea and river craft of all kinds, from Chinese junks to old Assyrian rafts resting on inflated skins.”

Java Wars: Rise of Singosari and the Mongol Invasion

Indonesian troops were known for their fierce attack and disregard for their own safety. The use of the spear and blades dominated Indonesian warfare. A statue in Alor, Indonesia, shows a warrior with a light spear and long wooden shield. From the start of the 13th century many of the troops armed with bows, spears and blowguns also carried a kerambit. The kerambit had a unique curved blade shape that symbolised a “tiger claw”.

The Buginese and Makasar people from South Sulawesi region were known as tough sailors, mercenaries and fearless warriors. Artwork shows them armed with swords and javelins. A drawing of a Papuan warrior shows him with a light spear and shield that reaches from the feet to the neck. A drawing of a West Kalimantan warrior has him with a kris and smaller shield.

Indonesia has never known a standardized appearance of its warriors. Malukunese, as did most Indonesians, wore little to the battlefield and only carried long or small round shields for protection. Malukunese warriors favored a parang sawalaku. Its blade is as heavy and as wide as an English broad sword, with a long wooden end. The length of the entire thing is similar to a falchion’s.

Kris blades date back to the 600s in Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. The blade of a kris is of asymmetric form, with the blade wider on one side than the other. The blade can be either straight or with an uneven number of waves. The most remarkable feature is the pattern on the surface of the blade.

Skirmishers are assumed to be armed with a mixture of blow-pipes and other missile weapons, and assorted bladed hand-to-hand weapons. We treat the mixture as Javelins, Light Spear. Cavalry and elephants were unavailable in some areas.

The Mongols must have felt invincible after establishing an empire from Hungary to Korea. But the conquest of the Southern Song in 1279 turned out to be their last real success. As adroit as they were on land, the Mongols could not master the sea, and for conquering the river-filled lands of Southeast Asia-not to mention the Indonesian archipelago- naval expertise was paramount. In addition, the jungles (and war elephants) blunted the Mongols’ main strength, their cavalry, and exposed them to all manner of deadly diseases and parasites. Initially, the Mongols had some success against Annam in 1253, but a force of five thousand, sent against Champa in 1281, stalled and was finally defeated at Siming in 1285. At the famous Battle of Bach Dang in 1288, an Annam-Dai Viet alliance inflicted a massive defeat on the Mongols, although subsequently, to avoid trouble, Annam and Champa paid tribute to Yuan. Burma fell more easily in 1287, although not without resistance. Lan Na, in northern Thailand, resisted successfully in 1301.


In 1222, a commoner named Ken Angrok took control of Tumapel and proceeded to bring all of the kingdom of Kediri under his control, defeating its king in the Battle of Ganter later that same year. Thus began the Singosari Kingdom of Java.

Kertanagara (r. 1268-1292) was the last king of Singosari. He greatly expanded the kingdom, conquering many of the neighboring kingdoms. He also formed an alliance with the Champa, a kingdom on the mainland of Southeast Asia. The alliance was designed to help protect both kingdoms from the impending threat of the Mongols under the Yuan Dynasty leadership of Kublai Khan. The Mongols had already invaded Dai Viet in 1257, and it seemed likely that they would return and redouble their efforts in Southeast Asia. In 1289, a Mongol envoy arrived and demanded tribute; but Kertanagara not only refused to grant tribute, he also branded the ambassador’s face. Unsurprisingly, this sparked a Mongol invasion.


Kertanagara was assassinated in 1292, shortly before the Mongols invaded. The Mongol fleet arrived in spring 1293. They found Singosari in a state of civil war. Kertanagara s son-in-law, Raden Wijaya, was fighting against Jayakatwang of Kediri, Kertanagara s assassinator. Unable to defeat two opponents, Vijaya cleverly sent word to the Mongols that he would submit to their overlordship, and thereby gained a strong ally in the Mongol army, who marched on Kediri and soundly defeated Jayakatwang’s forces. Wijaya, however, still held the principles of his late father, and quickly turned on the Mongol force, ambushing them. Weakened by travel, disease, the unfamiliar tropical climate, and their recent battles, the Mongol’s could not withstand the assault, and eventually returned home.

After the Mongols departed, Wijaya established a new kingdom, called Majapahit, which would go on to become one of the most prosperous Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia.


Several factors slowed and prevented Mongol progress in Southeast Asia. Despite their remarkable adaptability to a number of terrains and circumstances, the Mongols were not particularly adept at naval expeditions. In 1288, for example, they were famously defeated by Annam and Dai Viet at the Battle of Bach Dang, where their fleet was sunk. But Southeast Asia provided many more challenges that would prove decisive. Perhaps most significant was the climate. The Mongols were not accustomed to the hot and humid weather. In addition to the severe discomfort this caused, it also made the Mongols more susceptible to new diseases, which spread quickly and weakened the armies’ fighting capabilities. Combining the challenges of fighting on rivers or at sea, the confrontations with war elephants, and the climate and disease, the Mongols could not sustain the power they had used to dominate the rest of their empire.

The Battle of Bạch Đằng

The Island of Java

The island of Java had been split into two kingdoms, Kediri and Janggala, since the eleventh century. Dominated by its Sumatran neighbor, Srivijaya, and Srivijaya’s successor state, Malayu, the eastern Javanese kingdom of Janggala began its emergence in the thirteenth century when a commoner, Ken Angrok, usurped the throne at the capital, Tumapel, in 1222. Almost immediately he set about conquering Kediri, succeeding later that year at the Battle of Ganter. The kingdom of Singosari had been born.


Singosari’s greatest king was also its last. Kertanagara (r. 1268- 92) solidified his control over Java, sent conquering armies to Jambi (1275), Bali (1284), and Malayu (1286), and cemented an alliance with Champa in an effort to strengthen his position against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. At the time, Kublai Khan of Yuan (r. 1260-94) was intent on expanding his territory: in 1257, the first invasion of Dai Viet began. Kertanagara was wary of Kublai Khan but nonetheless resolute; when a Yuan envoy arrived in Tumapel in 1289, demanding tribute, Kertanagara refused to pay, branding the envoy’s face-an unforgivable insult-and turning him out of the country. The king did not live to see the fruit of his actions-a Mongol invasion-because his vassal, Jayakatwang of Kediri, assassinated him in 1292.

The Mongol Invasion

A large Mongol fleet set out from Quanzhou in the latter part of 1292, arriving the following spring in northeastern Java, near modern Rembang. Half the army began to march overland while the rest stayed aboard ship and sailed for Surabaya, the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Raden Wijaya (or Vijaya), had engaged Jayakatwang in battle. The civil war, raging in the south, left the invading Mongols unopposed. Cleverly, Wijaya sent envoys to the Mongol forces and convinced them that, as rightful ruler, he would submit to Mongol overlordship; he thus turned his natural enemies into powerful allies. From Surabaya the Mongols marched on Majapahit, then on to Daha (modern Kediri), where they crushed the last of Jayakatwang’s rebellion. His throne secure, Wijaya showed his true colors, and-thanks to the months the Mongols spent suffering from unfamiliar diseases and the intense heat of the Javanese jungle-it took only one successful ambush on his part to send the Mongols fleeing for home.

Raden Wijaya (also known as Nararya Sangramawijaya, regnal name Kertarajasa Jayawardhana), Raden Vijaya, (reigned 1293–1309) was a Javanese King, the founder and the first monarch of Majapahit empire.

Wijaya established a new kingdom, Majapahit, operating from a new capital of the same name. Considered the pinnacle of Hindu Indonesia at its height in the mid-fourteenth century, Wijaya’s kingdom included territory from Malaysia to western New Guinea.

Hülegü’s Campaigns in South-West Asia

Hulagu Khan leading his army.

In 1252 the Qaghan Möngke launched fresh campaigns against powers that still resisted the Mongols, partly in order to inject fresh vigour into the process of expansion, which had faltered under Güyüg, but also as a means of consolidating his rule in the wake of his disputed election and the conflict with his Ögödeyid and Chaghadayid kinsfolk. The expeditions were headed by two of his brothers. Qubilai was first deputed in 1252 to outflank the Song empire by subduing the kingdom of Dali (modern Yunnan) and subsequently resuming the war against the Song themselves, an enterprise of which the Qaghan took personal command in 1258, only to die while besieging a Song fortress in the following year. Hülegü was despatched to Iran.

The immediate objective of Hülegü’s expedition was the destruction of the Niẓārī Ismā‛īlīs – the Assassins, or the Mulāḥida, as orthodox Muslims termed them – based in the Alburz mountains and Quhistān. They had offered their submission to Chinggis Khan at the time of his attack on the Khwarazmian empire, and appear to have cooperated with the Mongols in the 1240s. But relations had deteriorated, possibly as a result of Chinggis Khan’s demand that the Master should visit his headquarters. The Assassins subsequently murdered the Mongol general Chaghadai ‘the Greater’, who had given them offence, and following his accession in 1246 Güyüg contemptuously dismissed the envoys of the Master ‛Alā’ al-Dīn with an angry message. Naturally, the Mongol regime could not for long tolerate the existence of a power centred upon a network of reputedly impregnable strongpoints in northern Iran. As the vanguard of Hülegü’s army, the general Kedbuqa had been despatched against the Assassins in Jumādā II 650/August 1252. Obtaining the submission of the Ismā‛īlī governor (muḥtasham) of Quhistān, he had invested the fortress of Girdkūh without success and had then taken the towns of Tūn and Turshīz. William of Rubruck, visiting Möngke’s headquarters in 1254, heard a rumour that the Assassins were seeking to assassinate the Qaghan. This may have been their response to the Mongol attack, but it could equally well have represented propaganda by Shams al-Dīn, qadi of Qazwīn, who had often appealed for Mongol assistance and was currently inciting Möngke against them: in a melodramatic gesture he appeared before the Qaghan, we are told, wearing mail beneath his clothing and explaining this breach of court etiquette by the terror that the Ismā‛īlīs inspired.

The subjugation of the Assassins was not Hülegü’s sole task, however. According to Rashīd al-Dīn, Baiju had recently sent word to Möngke complaining of both the Ismā‛īlīs and the Caliph al-Musta‛ṣim, and so the prince’s commission included the reduction of the ‛Abbasid territories in Iraq; al-Musta‛ṣim was to be given the chance to submit of his own free will. Hülegü was also to bring to heel the Lurs and the Kurds, notably those of Shahrazūr. In advance of Hülegü’s arrival and to ease pressure on the grasslands of western Iran, Baiju and his forces were ordered to move into Anatolia. The Saljuq Sultan ‛Izz al-Dīn Kaykāwūs attempted to resist this new influx of nomads, but was defeated on 23 Ramaḍān 654/15 October 1256 at Akseray. After a brief flight into the territory of the Greek state of Nicaea, he returned and engaged in a struggle with his half-brother, Rukn al-Dīn Qilich Arslan; but at length the two Sultans made peace with Hülegü. Of operations conducted by other Mongol divisions in southern Iran, we know only of those by the general Ötegü China against the Kurds of Shabānkāra, who submitted in 658/1260 after their ruler was killed in the fighting.

Hülegü’s westward march through Central Asia to Iran was a protracted affair, which lasted well over two years. He left his encampment in Mongolia on 24 Sha‛bān 651/19 October 1253 and did not cross the Oxus until 1 Dhū l-Ḥijja 653/1 January 1256. The winter of 1255–6 was spent in the meadows of Shabūrghān, doubtless because an attack on the Assassin strongholds in the Alburz prior to the warm season would have courted disaster. The delays were only partly a question of logistics. We have no precise total for the Mongol forces, which have been estimated at around 150,000; but extensive preparations had been made in advance, including the commandeering of provisions and the appropriation and reservation of all grazing-lands in Hülegü’s path. One relevant circumstance is that his army was to be reinforced not only by Muslim troops recruited along the way, in Transoxiana, but by troops contributed by other branches of the imperial dynasty. The Oyirat chief Buqa Temür, whose mother was Chinggis Khan’s daughter Chechegen, may have accompanied Hülegü from Mongolia. But three princes from Jochi’s ulus, Balagha, Tutar and Quli, and the Chaghadayid prince Tegüder all joined Hülegü en route, and the need to halt at more than one preordained rendezvous may have dictated his pace.

Hülegü headed first for Quhistān, where Tūn had rebelled but was once again taken by force (Rabī‛ I 654/March–April 1256). He then gradually moved on the Assassins’ principal strongholds in northern Iran. Confronted by the main Mongol army, Rukn al-Dīn Khūrshāh, who had just succeeded his murdered father ‛Alā’ al-Dīn as Master, repeatedly played for time over several weeks, sending out first one of his brothers, then his wazir and lastly an infant son, but neglecting to comply with Hülegü’s orders to dismantle his fortresses. However, the mild weather enabled the Mongol forces to converge on his stronghold at Maymūndiz from three directions. Even after some days of bombardment by the Mongols’ siege artillery had compelled him to seek a truce, Khūrshāh still procrastinated, until on 29 or 30 Shawwāl/19 or 20 November he appeared in person. Received kindly by Hülegü, he despatched contingents of Ismā‛īlīs to destroy other fortresses, though the garrisons at Alamūt and Lambasar refused to cooperate. Alamūt was invested by the Jochid prince Balagha and brought to submit through Khūrshāh’s mediation; Lambasar held out for a whole year. Khūrshāh, his usefulness by now greatly reduced, asked to be allowed to go to the Qaghan’s headquarters, but was put to death on Möngke’s orders, either en route or on the way back from a visit that had proved fruitless because Möngke refused to see him. All the Ismā‛īlīs in the Mongols’ power, including Khūrshāh’s entire family, were massacred.

Juwaynī’s paeans on the destruction of the Assassins, allegedly an object of fear for monarchs past and present and those of the Greeks and Franks included, were at once overblown, as a vehicle for praising his master the Ilkhan, and a trifle premature. Girdkūh would resist the Mongols until the end of Rabī‛ II 670/early December 1271, during Abagha’s reign. The Persian historian also ignored the fact that the Ismā‛īlī strongholds in Syria were still untouched by the Mongols. They would remain so, succumbing only to a series of campaigns by the Mamlūk Sultan Baybars during the years 668–71/1270–3; and even thereafter many of the sectaries would find that their talents were a welcome asset to the Mamlūk regime. Nevertheless, the Mongol forces had effectively eliminated the Ismā‛īlī state in Iran, a matter for universal rejoicing on the part of orthodox Muslims.

This would not be the reaction to Hulegü’s next campaign. During the operations against the Ismā‛īlīs he had demanded reinforcements from the Caliph. Al-Musta‛ṣim’s instinct was to comply; but at the prompting of his ministers and amirs, who argued that the Mongol prince’s real purpose was to reduce Baghdad’s capacity to resist a siege, he had failed to send any troops. His position was an unenviable one, since Baghdad had suffered a number of natural disasters over the previous fifteen years and the government lacked sufficient funds to pay its soldiery. When the wazir Ibn al-‛Alqamī urged the despatch of valuable gifts to Hülegü, the Caliph made preparations to do so, only to be dissuaded by the Lesser Dawātdār and his associates, who accused the wazir of currying favour with the enemy; goods of small value were sent out instead. On Hülegü ordering him to send either the wazir, the Dawātdār or the general Sulaymān Shāh Ibn Barjam, the Caliph instructed them to go but then changed his mind, possibly because all three refused; as a result, those deputed were persons of lesser importance.

Hülegü decided to wait no longer. While the vanguard under Baiju and Sughunchaq headed by way of Irbil, he followed with the main army through the Ḥulwān pass. When the Dawātdār attempted to obstruct the progress of Baiju and Sughunchaq, who had crossed the Tigris, he suffered a severe defeat, losing most of his men and retreating into the city. Hülegü reached Baghdad in mid-Muḥarram 656/January 1258 and the Mongols began a close investment. The prince’s own forces built a rampart on the eastern side of the city, while Baiju, Sughunchaq and Buqa Temür constructed one to the west. The Caliph belatedly endeavoured to enter into negotiations, sending out the wazir, but Hülegü claimed that this was no longer enough and required the Dawātdār and Sulaymān Shāh as well; it was al-Musta‛ṣim’s decision whether to follow them. The two men were put to death, while Ibn al-‛Alqamī was spared. The Caliph himself emerged with his sons and his family on 4 Ṣafar/10 February, and the sack of Baghdad began shortly afterwards. Once al-Musta‛ṣim had made over his treasury and his harem to the victors, he was no longer of use to them. As the Mongol army withdrew from the city and halted for the first night, Hülegü had the Caliph and one of his sons executed by the time-honoured method of being wrapped in felt and beaten to death. Another son was put to death in Baghdad around the same time.

It seems that Hülegü had approached the assault on Baghdad in a spirit of caution, possibly because Mongol generals like Baiju were aware of Baghdad’s large population and thought that the Caliph had a formidable army. But he was also influenced, we are told, by the fact that the Mongols were the most recent in a long line of enemies to harbour designs on the city and that their precursors had all come to grief; terrible disasters were forecast in the event of an attack. In an era when the caliphs had been shorn of real political power, some effort had been made to promote an image of hallowed inviolability. According to Rashīd al-Dīn, this theme had been prominent in the response of al-Musta‛ṣim and his officers to Mongol demands for submission, and it also underlay the gloomy prognosis of the astronomer Ḥusām al-Dīn when summoned to provide guidance. But his Shī‛ī colleague Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī offered a more sober – and more congenial – verdict. Asked what would be the consequence of taking Baghdad, he is said to have retorted simply: ‘Hülegü will reign in place of the Caliph.’ Waṣṣāf says that Ṭūsī had been consulted earlier, at Hamadān, when Hülegü first determined to advance against Baghdad, and had predicted an equally auspicious outcome after examining the stars. He and other authors differ from Rashīd al-Dīn in linking this debate with an issue that surfaced some weeks later, namely in what manner – or indeed whether – the Caliph should be put to death. In all likelihood, the sharp difference of opinion manifested itself at successive stages in the assault on the ‛Abbasids. What Hülegü feared – if, as some authors claim, he really was afraid – was offending Tenggeri by shedding al-Musta‛ṣim’s blood on the ground, since this taboo in relation to royal figures had long been current among the steppe peoples; hence the mode of death adopted. Bar Hebraeus may well have been right in hinting that Hülegü ordered the Caliph’s execution as a means of ‘facing down’ the doom-laden predictions.

The end of the ‛Abbasid Caliphate, which had lasted for just over five hundred years, was by any reckoning a momentous event that undeniably made a strong impression on contemporaries and posterity alike. In the wake of al-Musta‛ṣim’s downfall, one story of his death circulated widely and passed into folklore. This was that Hülegü had confronted him with his treasure and asked why he had not used it to recruit more troops in order to resist the Mongols (or, in one version, why he had not despatched it to the Mongols to save himself and Baghdad); he was then incarcerated in a cell with nothing but the treasure and died of starvation within four days. The tale obviously represents an embellishment of a conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph that appears in Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s account of the fall of Baghdad and is repeated by Waṣṣāf and other Muslim writers. It clearly held a ready appeal for Christian writers, since variants are supplied by authors as diverse as the Byzantine historian Georgios Pachymeres (d. c. 1310), the Armenian historian Grigor Aknerts‛i (c. 1313), the expatriate Armenian prince Hayton of Gorighos (1307), the anonymous ‘Templar of Tyre’ (c. 1314), the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo (1298), the Dominican missionary Riccoldo da Montecroce (c. 1300) and St Louis’ biographer Jean de Joinville (1309).

In 657/1259 Hülegü sent troops under his son Yoshmut against Mayyāfāriqīn. Its Ayyubid prince, al-Kāmil Muḥammad, who had in person done homage to Möngke in 650/1252, had experienced a change of heart during the siege of Baghdad and prepared to bring aid to the Caliph, although in the event he was too late; he had further endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to form an alliance against the Mongols with Sultan al-Nāṣir Yūsuf of Aleppo. But although Yoshmut received reinforcements from Mosul, Mayyāfāriqīn proved strong enough to hold out until Rabī‛ II 658/April 1260, when al-Kāmil paid for his temerity with his life. Mārdīn, whose Artuqid ruler, al-Sa‛īd Najm al-Dīn Īlghāzī, had omitted to wait upon Hülegü and was playing for time while secretly trying to engineer joint resistance to the Mongols with al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, was another target. Yoshmut’s forces were able to enter the city on 22 Jumādā I/5 May, but the citadel held out until al-Sa‛īd died and his son al-Muẓaffar Qara Arslan, whom he had imprisoned, probably for advocating capitulation, was released and surrendered Mārdīn on terms, whereupon the Mongols withdrew (Rajab 659/June 1261) and al-Muẓaffar was confirmed as prince.

Sultan al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, the principal Ayyubid ruler of Syria, who governed the three major cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Ḥimṣ, had himself been in contact with the Mongols since 642/1244 (p. 84). He had been represented at Güyüg’s enthronement two years later, had reaffirmed his submission at the accession of Möngke, and had exchanged messages with Hülegü since the fall of Baghdad. Yet like al-Sa‛īd of Mārdīn he had repeatedly failed to visit the Qaghan’s court and more recently had neglected to appear before Hülegü, who, according to Ibn al-‛Amīd, was offended that al-Nāṣir had sent him no gifts when he had despatched them annually to Baiju. In 657/1259 the Mongol prince lost patience. During that year he occupied himself with the reduction of al-Nāṣir’s fortresses in the Jazīra, notably Ḥarrān, al-Ruhā (Edessa), Sarūj, Qal‛at Ja‛bār and al-Bīra; the Ayyubid Sultan thus forfeited all his possessions east of the Euphrates. Towards the end of the year, Hülegü moved into northern Syria. Aleppo was commanded by al-Nāṣir’s great-uncle al-Mu‛aẓẓam Tūrān Shāh, one of the few surviving sons of the illustrious Saladin. The city fell after a seven-day investment, on 9 Ṣafar 658/25 January 1260, and was subjected to a massacre. The citadel held out under Tūrān Shāh for another few days, but then surrendered on terms; Tūrān Shāh was spared on account of his age.

News of the fall of Aleppo, which had defied successive invaders since the Byzantine attacks of the tenth century and whose fortifications the Ayyubids had strengthened in recent decades, aroused the greatest alarm throughout Syria. The inhabitants of Damascus, deserted by al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, sent to offer the Mongols the keys to their city. When Kedbuqa made a triumphal entry in Rabī‛ I/March, allegedly accompanied by King Het‛um of Lesser Armenia and the Frankish Prince Bohemond VI of Antioch, who had both accepted Mongol overlordship, the Mongols were given a by no means unfriendly reception. The people of Ḥamā were similarly quick to send Hülegü their submission, although their Ayyubid ruler, al-Manṣūr, who was absent at Birza with al-Nāṣir, thereupon abandoned him to join the Egyptians. Al-Nāṣir himself, distrusting the offer of asylum in Mamlūk Egypt, wandered through Palestine for some weeks before falling into the hands of Kedbuqa’s troops. But some Ayyubid princes rallied more or less willingly to the conquerors. Al-Nāṣir’s brother, al-Ẓāhir Ghāzī, submitted and remained prince of Ṣarkhad. Al-Ashraf Mūsā, the former Ayyubid ruler of Ḥimṣ who had been dispossessed by al-Nāṣir, visited Hülegu’s headquarters and was rewarded with the restoration of his principality and possibly some kind of precedence over all other Muslim rulers in Syria. Al-Sa‛īd Ḥasan, whom al-Nāṣir had imprisoned at al-Bīra but whom the Mongols had released and restored to his principality of Bānyās, is said not only to have donned Mongol garb but to have become a Christian at the desire of Hülegü’s chief wife Doquz Khatun. At Kerak, in southern Palestine, the ruler was another distant cousin, al-Mughīth ‛Umar, who had offered his allegiance to the Mongols as early as 1254, when Rubruck encountered his envoy at Möngke’s headquarters. Confronted now with Hülegü’s demand for his submission, al-Mughīth sent his own envoys to the Mongol prince. In response he was given Hebron and a shiḥna was despatched to Kerak, though in the event he retired northwards on learning of the Mamlūk victory over Kedbuqa. But at the point of his withdrawal in the spring, Hülegü was technically the master of all Muslim Syria. His treatment of those Ayyubids who had submitted suggests that he had no plan to eliminate the dynasty but rather envisaged maintaining them as client princes.

Within a few weeks of the capture of Aleppo, Hülegü retired from Syria with the bulk of his forces, leaving Kedbuqa with an army of 10,000 or possibly 20,000 to guard the newly subjected territories. His exact movements are unclear, though Rashīd al-Dīn dates his arrival at Akhlāṭ on 24 Jumādā II/6 June 1260. The same historian cites as the reason for Hülegü’s withdrawal reports of Möngke’s death on campaign in distant China (August 1259), an explanation also found in Mamlūk sources. The lapse of some months since the Qaghan’s demise renders it more probable that Hülegü had learned of tensions over the succession in the Far East, which would lead to the elections of his brothers Qubilai and Arigh Böke as rival qaghans in May and September/October 1260 respectively. In a letter he wrote to the French King Louis IX in 1262, Hülegü himself was to explain his departure by the exhaustion of his provisions and of the Syrian grasslands and the necessity to move to upland pastures at the onset of the warm season. These were probably not the sole grounds for his withdrawal. In endeavouring to secure Frankish cooperation against the Mamlūks, the Ilkhan naturally made no reference either to the outbreak of internecine war in the Far East or to the need to keep watch on the frontier with his (now) hostile Jochid cousins in the Caucasus.

Prior to leaving Syria, Hülegü had despatched an embassy conveying an ultimatum to the new Mamlūk Sultan Sayf al-Dīn Quṭuz. Although the regime in Cairo since its inception in 1250 had not been characterized by any great stability, it had in recent months profited from an influx of military elements fleeing the Mongols. Prominent among these were the Syrian troops brought by al-Manṣūr of Ḥamā, Shahrazūrī Kurds, and groups of mamluks, including many of al-Nāṣir Yūsuf’s and a corps of Baḥrīs headed by Rukn al-Dīn Baybars al-Bunduqdārī, an enemy of the Sultan who had earlier fled Egypt to enter al-Nāṣir’s service but had now returned and made his peace with Quṭuz. Already committed to a policy of resistance as a means of buttressing his own doubtful title to rule, Quṭuz, at Baybars’ prompting, took the offensive; he had the Mongol envoys executed and made preparations for an expedition into Palestine. Leaving Cairo on 15 Sha‛bān 658/26 July 1260, the Mamlūk army – 12,000 horsemen, according to Waṣṣāf – made its way up the coast to Acre, the capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem. In response to the Sultan’s overtures, the Franks, still smarting from a recent attack on Sidon by Kedbuqa’s forces, were ready to grant the Egyptian forces safe conduct through their territory and to furnish them with provisions. Near ‛Ayn Jālūt, in Galilee, on 25 Ramaḍān/3 September 1260 Quṭuz and his army engaged in a hard-fought battle with the Mongols. The Mamlūk forces, aided by the fact that al-Ashraf of Ḥimṣ deserted to them in the heat of the conflict, inflicted a serious reverse on the enemy. Kedbuqa was killed, and those of his forces who escaped fled northwards towards Lesser Armenia; al-Sa‛īd Ḥasan of Bānyās was captured and executed for apostasy. A smaller Mongol contingent that entered northern Syria some weeks later was crushed near Ḥimṣ in December. The surviving Ayyubids swiftly acknowledged the overlordship of Cairo, and the frontier between the Mamlūk and Mongol territories would soon stabilize at the Euphrates. Ironically, Quṭuz did not live to savour the fruits of his victory: en route back to Egypt he was murdered by a group of mamluk officers headed by Baybars, who made a triumphal entry into Cairo as the new Sultan.

Hülegü was unable to avenge these defeats owing to the growing need to keep watch on events in the Far East and, in all probability, to his own plans to establish his autonomy in Iran and Iraq. As the event that halted the seemingly inexorable Mongol advance, the Mamlūk victory at ‛Ayn Jālūt therefore proved more significant in hindsight. Yet there is no doubt that contemporary Muslims in Syria and Egypt viewed it as an unprecedented triumph over a formidable enemy. Abū Shāma commented that the Mongols had been worsted by those of their own race, Turks (ibnā’ jinsihim min al-turk), and that for every pestilence there existed an antidote of its own kind. Even the Syrian Franks and their confrères in Western Europe greeted the news in tones that suggest they saw Quṭuz’s victory as their own. Hülegü himself was under no illusions as to the implications of the defeat. A few weeks before, Kedbuqa had sent him the captive al-Nāṣir Yūsuf. Hülegü treated him kindly and gave him a patent to rule as a Mongol vassal. But when the news of ‛Ayn Jālūt reached him he smelt duplicity and had al-Nāṣir put to death, either at his headquarters or while the Ayyubid prince was on his way back to Syria.

“`Ayn Jālūt Revisited.” Tārīḫ (Philadelphia). 2 (1992), 119-150.

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

The Army

Tamerlane’s original army was a hodgepodge of leftover Chaghatayid units: clans (Barulas, Jalayir, etc.), local soldiery created a century earlier under the Mongol census (called qa’uchin, old units), independent KESHIG (guards) tümens (nominally 10,000) that had outlived their khan, and the Qara’unas, an old TAMMACHI garrison. Tamerlane did not disperse these traditional units but controlled them by changing their leadership, removing major cities such as Bukhara from their control, and eventually recruiting new armies outside the Chaghatay Khanate, especially local units from the defunct Mongol IL-KHANATE. Foreign troops and craftsmen-Indians, Persians, Arabs both settled and bedouin, and Turks- were deported and settled around Samarqand and Bukhara. By 1400 his own companions commanded about 13 tümens, while his sons commanded at least nine. Tamerlane ‘s sons’ tümens were assembled from troops of all origins. The core of Tamerlane ‘s army was its Inner Asian cavalry, but he also valued Tajik (Iranian) infantry units. In an inscription he claims to have attacked Toqtamish in 1391 with 20 tümens, a statement that at the usual 40 percent nominal strength is plausible.

Attack on the Golden Horde

The subjugation of Khorasan and Mazandaran, completed by 1384, led to the first of his expeditionary campaigns against western Iran and the Caucasus in 1386-87.

Toqtamish’s father was a descendants of Toqa-Temür, one of the “princes of the left hand,” or the BLUE HORDE, in modern Kazakhstan, and his mother was of the QONGGIRAD clan from near KHORAZM. At the time the Blue Horde was ruled by Urus Khan (d. 1377) and his sons, whose seat was at Sighnaq (near modern Chiili). By allying with the Chaghatayid conqueror Tamerlane, Toqtamish succeeded after many reverses in taking control of the Blue Horde (spring 1377). Later, local chronicles speak of Toqtamish as defending four tribes (el)-Shirin, Baarin, Arghun, and Qipchaq-from the tyranny of Urus Khan. Once enthroned in Sighnaq, Toqtamish led his four tribes west to defeat Emir Mamaq (Mamay) of the Qiyat clan (1380) and reestablish GOLDEN HORDE rule over Russia by sacking Moscow (1382).

Eventually, Toqtamish turned against his old patron, Tamerlane, to pursue the Golden Horde’s old territorial claims in Azerbaijan (1385 and 1387), Khorazm, and the Syr Dar’ya region down to Bukhara (1388). Tamerlane responded with a massive punitive expedition into Kazakhstan, which finally cornered and defeated Toqtamish’s army near Orenburg (June 1391). Tamerlane also wooed away Emir Edigü, leader of the Manghit (MANGGHUD) clan, from Toqtamish’s camp. After rebuilding his power in the west, Toqtamish again invaded Azerbaijan (1394); Tamerlane crushed his army again on the Terek (March 15, 1395) and sacked Saray and Astrakhan.

By now Tamerlane’s chief rival was a one-time protegé, TOQTAMISH, ruler first of the BLUE HORDE and then of the reunified GOLDEN HORDE in the northern steppe. First sacking Urganch (1287), the capital of Toqtamish’s allied country, Khorazm, Timur launched a “five-year campaign” (1392-96) against Baghdad’s Jalayir dynasty as well as against western Iranian, Turkmen, and Georgian powers, culminating in the sack of Toqtamish’s capital, New Saray, on the Volga and crippling Toqtamish’s power.

Timur marched through the Darband Gates, a narrow pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. On 15th April 1395 the armies of Timur and Toqtamish met near the river Terek, a strategic point where so many battles had been fought. Timur himself took part until, as the Zafarnama put it, ‘his arrows were all spent, his spear broken, but his sword he still brandished’. This time Timur’s victory was complete.

Terek River, 22 April 1395

Abandoning his fortified camp on the banks of the Terek on bearing of Tamerlane’s approach during a second campaign against him, Tokhtamysh Khan shadowed the Timurid army until, on 14 April, they finally encamped facing one another. On the 22nd Tamerlane arranged his forces for battle in 7 divisions, himself commanding the reserve of 27 binliks, and commenced his attack under the cover of showers of arrows. Then, bearing of an advance against his left wing, he led the reserve to its support and repelled the attack but pursued the enemy too far so that, thus disorganised, be in turn was repulsed and driven back. Disaster was averted by a mere 50 of his men who dismounted, knelt on one knee and laid down a withering barrage of arrows to bold back their pursuers while 3 Timurid officers and their men seized 3 of Tokhtamysh’s wagons and drew them up as a barricade behind which Tamerlane managed to rally his reserve. The advance guard of his left wing bad meanwhile broken through between the attacking enemy divisions, while his son Mohammed Sultan brought up strong reinforcements, positioning them on Tamerlane’s left so that Tokhtamysb’s advancing right wing was finally forced to take flight.

The Timurid right wing having meanwhile been surrounded, its commander ordered Ibis men to dismount and crouch behind their shields, under the cover of which they were repeatedly attacked with lance and sword by Tokhtamysb’s troops. They were finally rescued from these dire straits by the division under Jibansha Behadur which, attacking from both flanks, obliged the enemy left flank to fall back and then drove it from the field. Finally the centres of both armies joined battle, Tokhtamysb’s giving way after a hard fight, upon which the khan and his noyons quit the field. The Timurid pursuit was close and bloody, most of those they captured being hanged.


The shattered remnants of Toqtamish’s army and of his Russian vassals were pursued as far as Yelets, not far from the Principality of Moscow. There Timur turned back not, as the terrified Muscovites believed, because of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and still less through fear of Moscow’s military might, but because he had no interest in conquering the poor and backward Russian principalities.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.