Various nomad peoples had roamed the vast plains of Mongolia, northern China and eastern Siberia since time immemorial: Mongols, Tatars, Huns, Turks and others; tending their vast flocks of sheep, horses and camels, and feuding with each other. Every so often they would ravage the lands of the settled civilisations to the south and south-west, spreading terror with their lightning raids. Their favoured weapon was the composite bow, which could be fired from horseback and had enormous penetrative power.
Around the year 1160 there was born a certain Temujin. His early life was one of constant warfare, couple with astute political dealing, but by around 1206 he had united the tribes under his leadership, and took the modest title of "Lord of the World" - Genghis Khan. The limitless ambition implied in this title he was now determined to fulfil. His first target was China. He invaded 1211, and over the next few years overran the north of the Chinese Empire, and also received the submission of Korea, before turning his gaze to the south-west. The Moslem Turkish Kharazmian Empire, in what is now Uzbekistan, wantonly antagonised Genghis by seizing his merchants and killing his envoys. In 1220 Genghis with a vast army crossed the deserts undetected and seized the city of Bokhara. Some 30,000 of its people were then slaughtered, with only some women, children and useful craftsmen being spared and marched back to Mongolia. The city was razed to the ground,with only the Kalyan minaret left standing (It is still there today). The message to others was clear: only immediate surrender and heavy tribute could save a city from annihilation. The Mongols pursued their fleeing foes through Afghanistan as far as the Indus, destroying Herat, Merv and Balkh on the way. Another army drove on south of the Caspian Sea, upthrough Azerbaijan and Georgia, across the Caucasus to Astrakhan and deep into the Ukraine, before returning home in 1225 through Siberia, laden with plunder. Genghis died in 1227. The total death-toll resulting from his raids must have amounted to at least a million. 70,000 were killed at Merv: Balkh and other ancient cities were reduced to ruins and never recovered. In many of these arid regions, civilization depended upon an effective system of irrigation, and if the slaughter of the population meant that the ditches could not be properly maintained for several years, then an area could quickly revert to desert.
It is a great mistake to believe that the Mongol armies were simply wild undisciplined mobs of horsemen. On the contrary, their campaign were far better planned and organised than anything seen in western Europe at the time. They amassed troops which were well-ordered and disciplined, stockpiled weapons and supplies, and sent spies in advance to scout the land and report back on opponents' strengths and weaknesses. Subject peoples were conscripted to fight for them, including men from the more advanced civilizations, particularly from China. It was not mere numbers that overwhelmed their enemies, but careful preparedness.
Genghis left four sons, and it was only after a couple of years that one of these, Ogodei, emerged as the new Great Khan, and continued the attempt at world conquest. His first campaigns were in northern China, but after a successful conclusion there he turned his attention to Europe. In 1237 his generals, Batu and Subedei, were sent across Siberia into Russia. Their army is estimated as consisting of some 50,000 Mongols and 60,000 conscript allies, including engineers from China & Persia, with giant catapults capable of hurling huge stones and firebombs. This mighty force crossed the Volga north of Kazan. The Russian cities fell one by one: Ryazan, Suzdal, Moscow, Vladimir: Novgorod was saved only by onset of spring, turning the land into swamp. The army spent the winter of 1239-40 in the Don valley, then renewed the attack. In 1240 Kiev, the cradle of Russian Christian civilization, was attacked. The city refused to surrender and was stormed and sacked and its population slaughtered; the great cathedral was spared but everywhere else was destroyed. The Mongol forces then divided. One section marched westwards; in March 1241 took and burnt Krakow, and pressed on through southern Poland to meet the knights of Prince Henry of Silesia at Liegnitz. It is said that perhaps 30,000 German warriors were killed that day. This force then headed south, because King Bela of Hungary had defied the Mongols. Budapest was taken, the Danube crossed and the Hungarian force of 60,000 men was trapped between two Mongol armies and slaughtered. There was panic amongst the kings of the west as Mongol scouts raided as far as Vienna, while the main army pursued Bela through Croatia, destroying Zagreb en route reaching Adriatic just south of Venice in May 1242 - but then, with western Europe at their mercy, the Mongol armies turned round and went home, because news reached them that back in Mongolia Ogedei Khan was dead, and the succession was disputed! This may be counted as one of the great turning-points of history: if the Great Khan had lived just a couple more years, the Mongols could have been in Rome and Paris, and heaven knows what would have happened to European civilization. As it was, they never reappeared in Europe. (see footnote)
In 1245 Pope Innocent IV sent missionaries and delegates to the Mongols, in the hoped the might be be ripe for convertion to Christianity. There was a longstanding legend that somewhere out in the east was the realm of "Prester John", John the Priest, a Christian emperor. The Pope's mission came to Kiev, where they found nothing but great pyramids of skulls, but they met and talked with Batu, who sent them on into Central Asia. Eventually they reached Karakorum, the Mongol capital, now being built up into a major city by captured and enslaved craftsmen. They failed to find Prester John, but they did come across Christians in Asia; members of the Nestorian church, which had been deemed heretical by the Byzantine Empire. Neither they nor later missions had any success in converting the Mongol leadership, but they did bring back reports of Mongol and Chinese society.
The new Great Khan, Guyuk, proved incompetent, but he died in 1248 and was succeeded three years later by Mongke Khan, one of four brothers. He renewed the attempt at world conquest, but decided to leave Europe alone. One of his brothers, Kubilai, was sent to destroy the remains of the Sung Empire in China, while another brother, Hulagu, was despatched against the Islamic world. Hulagu's campaign was planned in great detail: spies were sent to survey enemy lands, and envoys to the crusader states in Palestine and Syria promised alliances. Weapons and food supplies were stockpiled, and in 1256 the greatest army yet seen inworld history set off from Samarkand: perhaps as many as 300,000 men, including Chinese engineers equipped with giant catapults, missiles of an unknown chemical substance that would spontaneously burst into flames, even gunpowder. The expedition made first for the Elburz mountains south of the Caspian Sea, the home of the Assassins, the dissident Islamic sect, who had apparently plotted to murder the Great Khan. The Assassins felt secure in the remoteness and inaccessibility of Alamut and their other fortresses, but in an amazing logistic achievement the giant siege catapults were brought up the mountain slopes. Alamut was bombarded into submission, and two hundred other "Eagles' Nests" were stormed one by one and their entire populations slaughtered down to the last infant. The last Grand Master of the Assassins was taken to Karakorum, where he was killed. The verdict of Persian historians was, "The world has been cleansed", and Edward Gibbon wrote that the the campaign "May be considered a service to mankind". In 1248 Hulagu's forces approached Baghdad, where for the last five centuries the Abbasid Caliphs had ruled as spiritual leaders of the Moslem world. But the current Caliph, Mustasim, dithered: he failed to proclaim a jihad of all Moslems against the pagan invaders, and seemed to believe Baghdad could hold out on its own. He was wrong: after only a week, the city was stormed and sacked. The number of dead has been estimated as anything between 800,000 and two million. The last Caliph and his family were sewn into an enormous carpet and trampled to death beneath the hooves of the horses. The Caliphate was at an end. The Crusdaders, by now largely confined to the coastal strip, were agog with hope as Hulagu advanced into Syria. It was said that his favourite wife was a Christian, and so was Ketbugha, his leading commander. Aleppo fell in January 1260; the moslem population was slaughtered, but the christians were spared. Damascus then surrendered without a fight; Ketbugha entered the city in triumph alongside King Hayton of Armenia and Bohemond, Prince of Antioch; and the principal mosque was converted into a church. Together they planned the next stage of the campaign: to Jerusalem, and then on to Egypt, the last remaining powerful Moslem state left in the world. The extirpation of Islam as a serious force looked imminent. But then there ensued an eerie reprise of what had happened less than twenty years earlier. In February 1260 Mongke Khan died of dysentery on campaign in China, and Hulagu abandoned his campaign and pulled the bulk of his armies back to Iraq to await developments, leaving only a skeleton force of 15,000 under Ketbugha in Damascus. Islam was saved. With the crusader states staying neutral, Qutuz the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt decided to march out to meet the Mongols. Against all expectations he defeated and killed Ketbugha in a hardfought battle at Ayn Jalut in Palestine. Hulagu himself died in 1265: his successors, the Il-Khans, ruled Iraq for some time afterwards, and were converted to Islam. There were occasional battles, but never again was there a concerted attack on such a scale. (Incidentally, there has been much talk of Western leaders "apologising" for the crusades. Hulagu must have killed many more Moslems in his single campaign than all the crusades put together, but I have come across no sign of Mongolia offering to apologise!)
In fact, this was to prove then end of the great Mongol raids westwards. The next Great Khan was Kubilai, brother of Mongke and Hulagu. He concentrated on China (see footnotes), and the vast empire soon split up into separate Khanates. But just for a while, everywhere from the Black Sea to the Pacific was united under Mongol control, and it was possible for travellers and merchants to undertake this immense journey without fear of bandits. Thus it was that Marco Polo was able to set out for China in 1271, and brought back to Europe amazing stories of the wealth and wonder of the East.
1. The country most affected was Russia, which continued to be dominated by a Mongol (more usually known as Tatar) khanate known as the Golden Horde until the 16th century. It was only then that Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan and put an end to Tatar power; by which time western Europe had experienced the Renaissance and the Reformation. It could be said that as a result, the Russian experience was always going to be totally different from that of the west.
2. Kubilai destroyed the Sung Empire in China and established his own Yuan dynasty. He was converted to Buddhism, and abandoned Karakorum to centre his rule in northern China. There he built a new city, planned on strictly Chinese principles, named Shang-Tu ("The Upper Capital"). Marco Polo called the city "Ciandu", and in English translations it became "Xanadu".
"In Xanadu did Kubilai Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree...."