Turks and Mongols: 6th – 13th century AD
The high plateau of Mongolia, east of the Altai mountains, is rivalled only by Scandinavia as a region from which successive waves of tribesmen have emerged to prey upon more sedentary neighbours. Mongolia is the original homeland of both Turks and Mongols, two groups much intermingled in history and loosely related in their languages.
Mongolia is an ideal starting point for the movement of nomadic tribes in search of new pastures, and for sudden excursions of a more predatory nature. It lies at the extreme end of an unbroken range of open grasslands, the steppes, which reach all the way to Europe. Horsemen can move fast along the steppes. South of this nomadic highway live rich settled communities.
The emergence of the Turks from Mongolia is a gradual and uncharted process. Each successive wave makes its first appearance in history only when Turkish tribes or warriors acquire power in some new region, whether they be the Khazars, the Seljuks or one of many other such groups.
The sudden eruption of the Mongols from their homeland is different. Their astonishing expansion, spanning the breadth of Asia, can be precisely dated (to the early years of the 13th century) and can be attributed to the military genius of one man – born with the name of Temujin, but known now as Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan: AD c.1167-1227
No life in history differs so much in its beginning and its end as that of Temujin, or Genghis Khan. When he is born, in about 1167, the Mongols are only one among many nomadic tribes competing in the eastern steppes. The boy’s father, chieftain of a small clan, is poisoned when Temujin is eight. The clan casts out the widow and her young children, who have to forage for their own food – wild plants, small animals and sometimes even mice.
This almost contemporary account may somewhat romanticize the great man’s lowly origins (turning an occasional mouse into a way of life), but the implied contrast is valid. By the time of his death, in 1227, Genghis Khan’s rule extends from the Caspian to the northern coast of China.
It is a measure of the task confronting the young Temujin that it takes him the first twenty-five years of his fighting life to win a position of power among his own people. Battles within his clan and against other Mongol and neighbouring tribes occupy him until the age of about forty. Then, in 1206, he is acclaimed as the tribal leader and takes the title Genghis Khan – meaning, approximately, ‘all-encompassing chief’.
Only now is he free to direct the energy of his people outwards.
Genghis Khan’s first major campaigns are to the southeast, making incursions from 1209 into northern China. In 1215 he reaches and captures Beijing. But his most ambitious expedition, starting in 1219, is to the west.
Samarkand and Bukhara are taken and sacked in 1220. Genghis Khan then moves south and enters India, but he turns back from this rich prize when he reaches the Indus. By 1223 his armies have moved round the Caspian and up through the Caucasus mountains to plunder cities of the Crimea and southern Russia. This journey of conquest, unmatched in its speed and extent since the exploits of Alexander the Great, is based on brilliant psychological warfare.
The strategy of the Mongols: 13th century AD
Several different factors explain the devastating success of Genghis Khan and his armies, but superior weaponry is not one of them. The traditional riding skill of the nomads of the steppes plays, as ever, a large part. With stirrups now a standard part of cavalry equipment, the agility of the horsemen is greater than ever, in galloping close to the the enemy, releasing a hail of arrows and wheeling away again.
Horsemanship also plays its part in the system of communication which enables Mongol armies to coordinate their strategies. Riders gallop between well-equipped staging posts across the steppes, enabling a message to travel more than 200 miles in a day. Pigeons, too, are trained for the purpose.
But the single most important element is a ruthless use of two psychological weapons, loyalty and fear. Genghis Khan makes a cunning distinction in his treatment of nomadic tribesmen and the settled inhabitants of cities and towns. A warrior from a rival tribe, who battles bravely against Genghis Khan but loses, will be rewarded for his valour and encouraged to join the Mongols against the rest of the world. Only cowardice or treachery in an opposing tribe are punished.
For sedentary folk in alien lands these rules are reversed. Here treachery is positively encouraged. Spies infiltrate the towns. Informers are sought out and bribed. The Mongols are coming. There is a choice to be made.
The choice is a simple one; to fight or to surrender. News of the consequences travels fast. If a town bravely resists, the inhabitants are massacred in a public display. They are herded outside the walls to confront Mongol troopers with battle-axes. Each trooper is given a quota to despatch. A tally of ears is sometimes demanded as proof that the work is done.
Terror stalks ahead of a Mongol horde like an invisible ally. The spies in the town let it be known that a rapid surrender may well be rewarded with mercy. Usually the citizens need no persuading. The gates are opened. After sufficient plunder to keep the troops happy, the horde moves on.
Ogadai Khan: AD 1229-1241
Genghis Khan returns to Mongolia from his long western campaign in 1225. Soon he is riding to war again, once more against northern China. During a day’s hunting, he falls from his horse. His injuries contribute to his death a little while later, in 1227.
The family and the Mongol nobility assemble in Mongolia for the quriltai, in which a new khan is elected. The choice eventually falls, in 1229, on Genghis’s second surviving son, Ogedai – already identified by Genghis Khan as his preferred heir. Ogedai gives his vast inheritance the status of an empire by turning his father’s modest headquarters at Karakorum into a splendid capital city.
Karakorum rapidly becomes a place of stature. A Christian friar reaching it in 1253 (William of Rubruquis) finds city walls, a large rectangular palace, brick houses on the streets, twelve Shamanist shrines, two mosques and a Nestorian Christian church.
Genghis Khan spent his life in ceaseless campaigning, but his son Ogedai prefers to direct operations from his new capital city. Under his central control, Mongol armies make further inroads into China. They overwhelm Korea. And they have startling successes in the west.
In 1235 Ogedai instructs his nephew Batu to extend his part of the family inheritance into Europe. Genghis Khan has entrusted the western extreme of his empire to his eldest son, Juchi, who dies shortly before himself in 1227. Juchi’s son Batu remains in control of this region, and in 1236 he moves northwards into Russia.
In 1237 Batu and his armies overwhelm the tribes around the lower reaches of the Volga. Russia, consisting of many small principalities ill-equipped for any concerted effort, lies open before them.
The Golden Horde: AD 1237-1395
Zolotaya Orda, or the Golden Horde, is the name given by Russians to the invading Mongols who sweep through the country from 1237 and who subsequently dominate the region, for nearly two centuries, from their encampments on the lower reaches of the Volga. The name is traditionally said to derive from a golden tent used by the horde’s leader, Batu Khan.
Most of the Russian cities of any note are ravaged by the Mongols in the two years between their sacking of Moscow (1238) and of Kiev (1240). But the horde then moves south.
One army from the Mongol horde advances into Poland in 1241. They defeat a joint force of German and Polish knights at Legnica in April. In the same month another Mongol army wins a crushing victory over the Hungarians at Mohi. The tribesmen spend that summer on the plains of Hungary, grasslands similar to their own steppes. Eastern Europe is ill-equipped to dislodge these fierce nomads. But a faraway event resolves the issue.
News comes in December that the great khan, Ogedai, has died in Karakorum. The leader of the horde, Batu, and other Mongol nobles must attend the quriltai which will elect his successor. Batu withdraws from Hungary, returning the horde to its grasslands around the Volga.
From this region the leaders of the Golden Horde control the petty princes of much of Russia – largely by the simple device of treating them as glorified tax collectors. The princes are given free rein in their own territories as long as they deliver sufficient tribute.
Batu makes his capital from 1243 at a place on the Volga named after him – Sarai Batu, the ‘encampment’ of Batu. His brother Berke, succeeding to the leadership in 1255, adopts Islam as the religion of the horde. His capital, Sarai Berke (to the east of modern Volgograd), becomes a thriving city of mosques and public baths, in the central Asian tradition, with some 600,000 inhabitants. It lasts until 1395, when it is destroyed by Timur.