Mongol Conquest of Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Java Wars: Rise of Singosari and the Mongol Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

The Battle of Bạch Đằng

The Island of Java

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


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

The Mongol Invasion

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

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

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

Hülegü’s Campaigns in South-West Asia

Hulagu Khan leading his army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

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

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

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

The Army

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

Attack on the Golden Horde

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

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

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

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

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

Terek River, 22 April 1395

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

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


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

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

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

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

Russia and Invasion

The “Battle on the Ice”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet

In Search of a Legendary Armada

by James P. Delgado (Author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mongols at War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samurai Warriors

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

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

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

Shipbuilding in the China Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The natives were waiting for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mongol threat to the Latin West down to 1323

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier conditions and mentalities

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

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

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

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

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