A typical understanding of the Mongols--especially Mongols during the era of Genghis Khan (Ghengis the Chief or Ruler)--stems from reports written by eyewitnesses or contemporaneous historians through whom their advent is portrayed as a bloody "bolt from the blue"--a sudden, swift, unexpected surprise from quarters previously unknown thus unfeared--that left only destruction, death, horror and lasting grief as the sign of its devastation. A medieval Russian chronicle from Novgorod vividly describes Mongol impact on the region:
No one exactly knows who they are, nor whence they came out, nor what their language is, nor of what race they are, nor what their faith is . . . God alone knows (Mitchell and Forbes, p. 64).
A thirteenth-century Persian eyewitness in Iran summarized the initial impact of their attack in Iran: "They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed" (Juwayni, 1916/1997, p. 107). The Arab chronicler ibn al-Athir, although not an eyewitness, chronicled his reaction to the stories that reached him and his fellow Arab countrymen about Genghis Khan's attacks and rise to power. His emotion-filled, half hysterical words have set the tone and perception throughout the ages of history and throughout the peoples of the world of the Eurasian Mongol attacks on the world from the Red Sea to the China Sea and from the steppes to the desserts:
O would that my mother had never borne me, that I had died before and that I were forgotten [so] tremendous disaster such as had never happened before, and which struck all the world, though the Muslims above all . . . Dadjdjal [Muslim Anti-Christ] will at least spare those who adhere to him, and will only destroy his adversaries. These [Mongols], however, spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn (Spuler, 1972, pp. 290).
Once Genghis Khan had begun attacking surrounding peoples, he described himself as "the punishment of God"--implying the demon of hell being released upon Muslims and Christians who were ready to believe the appellation--and was pleased that others perceived him in fiendish, destructive this role. The religion of the Mongols--a congregate of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes with groups and subgroups loosely united under a "khan" who could bring goods and security to the group through raids and defenses--was shamanic. This means they worshiped spirits whom they perceived to be indwelling in elements of nature and that allowed interaction and channeling through a chosen religious shaman who had the authority, right and responsibility of entering an altered state to correspond with the spirits for guidance, help, healing and protection. Knowing the clash of religious systems--monotheism of Muslim and Christian versus pan-spirit shamanism--makes the appellation of "punishment of god" more easily understood.
Besides brutal barbarity, the Mongol conquests gave birth to a plethora of historians and chronicles reporting eyewitness or hearsay accounts. These many historical scribe chroniclers, both within the Mongol nation and without, were happy to accommodate the Mongols' desire for notoriety and a rising reputation for barbarism and cruelty. Primary sources in a wealth of languages allow for critical analysis and comparison between these various sources that yields a more balanced account of what actually occurred during the Mongol conquest of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Since Bernard Lewis questioned the basis of the Mongols' tainted reputation in 1995, scholarly opinion has grown more sympathetic toward the legacy of Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan, the leader of the "people of the felt-walled tents" and the "the peoples of the Nine Tongues" (Onon, 1993, p. 102), was born Temüjin and endured a brutal and merciless childhood. His father was murdered when he was young, and his mother and her offspring were abandoned by their clan to survive in a very harsh and unforgiving environment. later, as a young man, Temüjin's wife Borte was kidnapped by a raiding tribe; woman kidnapping was a common part of tribal raids. The virtue of compassion was expressed in non-Western modes on the harsh steppes. Temüjin became the khan of his family, then rose as khan over a small alliance of other family tribes. In a culture that gave power to men who could promise prosperity through successful raids, during hard times, on neighboring tribes to gain goods and land, not to kill opponents (this cultural distinction is important to remember when considering how Genghis later spread his power through Eurasia), Temüjin came to the notice of the overlord of khans, Ong Khan, who made Temüjin his successor--leading to the anger of Ong's son, Senggum, who expected to be successor and who gathered forces to try to assassinate Temüjin--and the future Genghis Khan. Ghengis's first acts were to unify the families and tribes around him with a strengthened military operation and to make kidnapping of women in raids illegal. In an act of steppe compassion, he also legitimized all children so none were born illegitimate and he made it illegal to sell women as brides. The stage was set on all levels--military, tolerance, reward and punishment--for conquering the world, which Genghis began to do in response to drought, to restrictions from China imposed on trade with the Mongols and, possibly, in response to a shamanic call to conquer the world under one ruler.
Mongol tribal khans maintained power, thus unity, only by delivering on promises of wealth and plenty. If the promise was not met, then the khan fell or was forced to join an alliance with another khan who could meet the promises required by the tribe. By 1206 the Turco-Mongol clans of the steppe, which were originally brought together by Ong Khan, were united under the charismatic rule of Genghis Khan who had a size, unity and dedication of military force and endurance that distinguished it from past steppe armies. Prior to Genghis the tribes had often been manipulated by the Chinese and other settled agrarian peoples that had often commanded the Mongol nomads' predatory raids. According to Mongol cultural ideology as described above, Genghis first raided for the booty (the goods and land or "turf") with which to satisfy his followers and placate his rivals, because a ruler who could not bring the goods promised would soon be removed from power, and with which he amassed prestige and power that supported him against challengers to his rule, such as the defeated Senggum. The initial raids into northern China for goods during the early decades of the thirteenth century were thereafter followed by attacks, with killings, that were the first actions to be characterized by the barbarity with which Genghis Khan of the Mongols has become identified. Once Mongol power was established, Mongol rule during the reigns of Genghis Khan's grandsons, Hülegü in Iran (ruled 1256265) and Qubilai Qa'an in China (ruled 1260294), represented scholarship, art, culture and the rule of fair law with rewards being distributed for merit regardless of ethnicity, religion or nation.
The Mongols themselves were few in number, but from the outset Genghis absorbed other Turkish tribes and conquered troops into his armies. He used traditional steppe military tactics, with light cavalry, feigned retreats, and skillful archery, to conduct what were initially raids to plunder from bases in the steppes into the agriculturally developed and settled lands as opposed to into the steppe grasslands that were home to neighboring tribal nomads. In the phase following raids for plunder, raids that were without the objective of killing (Columbia University), in 1211 the Mongols invaded the independent Chin of northern China, helped by renegade semi-nomadic Khitans, in a mighty struggle for supremacy that continued after Genghis's death finally ending in 1234. It was the defeat of the Chin capital, Zhangdu, (the site of modern Beijing) that gave rise to one of the most notorious stories of Mongol atrocities:
[An envoy from the Khwarazmshah] saw a white hill and in answer to his query was told by the guide that it consisted of bones of the massacred inhabitants. At another place the earth was, for a long stretch of the road, greasy from human fat and the air was so polluted that several members of the mission became ill and some died. This was the place, they were told, where on the day that the city was stormed 60,000 virgins threw themselves to death from the fortifications in order to escape capture by the Mongols (Raverty, 1995, p. 965).
Genghis then turned his attention westward in campaigns against the ethnically Chinese Qara Khitai, whose Muslim merchants and administrators came to form the backbone of his emerging empire. Following a failed trade envoy mission, Genghis then reluctantly attacked Khwarazm (corresponding to present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), which was the first Muslim state to experience the full fury of the Mongol onslaught. This devastating invasion occurred in retaliation for the murder of a commercial and political trade delegation composed of Mongols, Chinese, and Muslims, who had sought to gain peaceful relations between the two peoples. As proof of his appellation "punishment of God," Genghis Khan unleashed the bloody attacks and merciless devastation on the Islamic West that has made his name synonymous with barbaric mass slaughter.
The trail of blood and massacre that followed the crumbling of the Khwarazm empire in 1220 led westward from Central Asia through Iran to the Caucasus then north into the plains of Russia. The chronicles have told us that 1,600,000 or possibly as many as 2,400,000 were put to the sword in Herat (a city in present-day western Afghanistan), while in Nishapur, the city of Omar Khayyám, 1,747,000 were slaughtered. The two Mongol noyans (generals) Jebe and Sübedei led an expedition in pursuit of the fleeing Khwarazmshah (died 1221), demanding submission to, assistance with and human shields from all they encountered for the resolutely and ruthlessly advancing Mongol armies that brought slavery, destruction and death. Outside every town they reached, the Mongols would deliver a chilling message: "Submit! And if ye do otherwise, what know we? God knoweth" (Juwayni, 1916, p. 26).
This epic Mongol cavalry mission--the Mongols were excellent horsemen bred from childhood to ride and hunt on the small, light, fast horses of the steppes--was perhaps the greatest reconnaissance effort to gather strategic information of all time. It included intelligence gathering about the region, the enemy and the local geographical features, which led to the informed conquest, defeat and massacre of all lands neighboring the Caspian Sea and beyond. Noyans Jebe and Sübedei's expedition of pursuit, terror, and reconnaissance represents the Mongols at their destructive peak; thereafter their armies were both the invincible wrath of God and the emissaries of the biblical Gog and Magog (Revelations 20), a notoriety the Mongols wore like a khil Eat (a robe of honor).
Khorasan in particular suffered grievously for the sins of its deluded leader, the Khwarazmshah. Although the massacres and ensuing destruction were widespread, there was compassion and method in the Mongols' march to power. Artisans and craftsmen, with their families, were often spared the Great Khan's fury. Separated from their less fortunate fellow citizens, they were transported east to practice their crafts in other parts of the empire. While it is said that in Khwarazm (Kiva) in 1221, each of the 50,000 Mongol troops was assigned the task of slaughtering 24 Muslims before being able to loot and pillage, it is reported that Genghis Khan personally implored the famed Sufi master and founder of the Kubrawiya order, Najm al-Din Kubra, to accept safe passage out of the condemned city of Khorasan. The master refused to flee, but allowed his disciples to go. Even at this early stage, the "barbarian" Tatars demonstrated a respect for and knowledge of scholars and learning (although previously they had been a Turco-Mongol tribe rivaling Genghis, the Tatars came to be a generic term for the Genghisids in Europe and western Asia; Tartarus in Greek mythology was Hades or Hell).
The World Ruler
Although Genghis died in 1227, unlike other steppe empires, his survived through his progeny who succeeded in maintaining and extending his power and territories. Genghis Khan rode out of the steppe as a nomadic ruler intent on expanding his power by keeping his cultural promises to his followers and, combining traditional steppe practices with dexterous political and military skill, he became unstoppable. Cities were razed, walls were demolished, the qanat system of underground irrigation was damaged physically and, perhaps more serious, allowed to fall into disrepair through neglect. Nonetheless, Genghis was astute enough to recognize that continued destruction would be counterproductive and eventually destructive to the source of the Mongol wealth. He had wreaked havoc and horror on an unprecedented scale, but it was only as long as he could deliver the prosperity to his followers that he and his progeny would reign unchallenged.
Genghis was a man of vision. The spread of terror had been in the tradition of the conflict between the nomadic steppe and the settled agrarian towns. Although the steppe had won, Genghis knew that its future depended on the sown (the agrarian). The portable felt tents of his childhood had been transformed into the lavish silk and pavilions of his kingdom. The ragged nomadic tribal camps of old had been replaced by mobile cities of wealth, splendor, and sophistication. The infamy he now enjoyed served as his security. In fact, the death tolls recorded and descriptions of the desolation his armies had caused are now considered to be beyond credibility. The province of Herat, neither the city, could not have sustained a population of two million, and the logistics involved in actually murdering this number of people within a matter of days are inconceivable. The already mentioned chronicler ibn al-Athir did much to perpetuate the mythology of the Mongol rule of terror. He recounts that so great was people's fear that a single Mongol could leisurely slaughter a whole queue of quaking villagers too afraid to resist, or that a docile victim would quietly wait, head outstretched, while his executioner fetched a forgotten sword (Browne, 1997, p. 430).
Before his death Genghis Khan had appointed his second son ödei as his successor and divided his empire among the others. By 1241 Batu, his grandson, had overrun the principalities of Russia, subdued eastern Europe, and reached the coastline of Croatia. The year 1258 witnessed the fall of Baghdad and another grandson, Hülegü, was firmly established in western Asia. Qubilai QaDan was able to proclaim himself not only Great Khan (QaDan means "Khan of Khans"), but also in 1279 the emperor of a united China. War and conquest had continued, but the nature of the conquerors and rulers had changed.
Qubilai QaDan is quoted in contemporary Chinese sources as declaring that "having seized the body, hold the soul, if you hold the soul, where could the body go?" to explain his support and cultivation of Tibetan Buddhism (Bira, 1999, p. 242). The new generation of Mongols were essentially settled nomads, living in semipermanent urban camps, educated, sophisticated, and appreciative of life's fineries and luxuries. Qubilai QaDan has been described as "the greatest cosmopolitan ruler that has ever been known in history" (Bira, 1999, p. 241). His brother Hülegü and the Ilkhans in Iran received other praises for their rule: justice, farsightedness, and statesmanship.
Once in power, the Mongol princes sought to rule their subjects with justice and tolerance, and for the prosperity of all. Their contemporaries differentiated between the "barbarian" nomads of the past and their ruling masters now residing in fabulous imperial courts. The remains of the ragged Khwarazmshah's army, led by the bandit king Jalal al-Din Mangkaburti, now inspired far more fear and loathing than the disciplined Mongol troops. The Mongols had never targeted specific groups for persecution on religious, nationalistic, or ethnic grounds. When Baghdad was attacked, it was with the advice of Muslim advisers such as Nasir al-Din Tusi while supporting Muslim armies were led by Muslim rulers. Co-option was the desired result of the threat of attack or of conquest. Top administrators in all parts of the empire were Mongol, Chinese, Persian, Uighur, Armenian, European, or Turkish. Loyalty and ability were prized above ethnicity or religion. A center of learning was established around 1260 in Iran's first Mongol capital, Maragheh. It attracted scholars from around the world who flocked, in particular, to see the observatory built for the court favorite, Tusi. The Syriac cleric Bar Hebraeus used the libraries, stocked from the ruins of Baghdad, Alamut, and other conquered cultural centers, to research his own acclaimed studies and historical accounts.
Most of what is now known of the Mongols comes from non-Mongol sources, among them Persian, Arabic, Armenian, European, and Chinese observers and commentators, who betrayed a degree of anti-Mongol bias, even from loyal proponents and servants, such as the Persian Muslim Juvaini (died 1282), who expresses a sense of disdain and condescension for these new rulers, the Mongols. It thus seems that the Mongols may have become victims of their own propaganda. The impact of their conquest was of such might that their achievements have been drowned till now in a sea of blood.
Sources: "Mongol Conquests." Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Ed. Dinah L. Shelton. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2005.