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

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

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

Another problem is that the Mongols left few historical documents to posterity.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

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

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

The Mongol-Jin Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Song-Mongol Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kublai Khan’s Naval Power

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

Conquest of Southern China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOHI, 11 April 1241

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.”