Twlfth-century Mongolia is as far back as a search for their origins need go. A group of peopls speaking the languages of the family called Mongol who had long demanded the attention of Chinese governments then lived there. Generally, China played off one of them against another in the interests of its own security. They were barbarians, not much different in their cultural level from others who have already crossed these pages. Two tribes among them, the Tatars and that which became known as the Mongols, competed and on the whole the Tatars had the best of it. They drove one young Mongol to extremes of bitterness and self-assertion. The date of his birth is uncertain, but in the 1190s he became khan to his people. A few years later he was supreme among the Mongol tribes and was acknoledged as such by being bgiven the title of Chinghis Khan. By an Arabis corruption of this name he was to become known in Europe as Genghis Khan. He extended his power over other peoples in central Asia and in 1215 defeated (thought he did not overthrow) the CHin state in northern CHina and Manchuria. This was only the beginning. By the time of his dead, in 1227, he had become the greatest conquerer the world has ever known.
He seem unlike all earlier nomad warlords. Chinghis genuinely believed he had a mission to conquer the world. Conquest, not booty or settlement, was his aim and what he conquered he often set about organizing in a systematic way. This lead to a structure which deserves the name ‘empire’ more than do most of the nomadic polities. He was superstitious, tolerant of religions other than his own paganism, and, said a Persian historian, ‘used to hold in esteem beloved and respected sages and hermits of every tribe, considering this a procedure to please God’. Indead, he seems to have held that he was himself the recipient of a divine mission. This religious electicism was of the first importantce, as was the fact that he and his followers (except for some Turks who joined them) were not Moslem, as the Seljuks had been when they arrived in the Near East. Not only was this a matter of moment to Christians and Buddhists – there were both Nestorians and Buddhists among the Mongols – but it meant that the Mongols were not identified with the religion of the majority in the Near East.
In 1218 Chinghis Khan turned to the west and the era of Mongol invasions opened in Transoxiana and northern Iran. He never acted carelessly, capriciously, or without premedition, but it may well be that the attack was provoked by the folloy of a Moslem prince who killed his envoys. From there Chinghis went on to a devastating raid into Persia followed by a swing northward through the Caucasus into south Russia, and returned, having made a complete circuit of the Caspian.
All this was accomplisehd by 1223. Bokhara and Samarkand were scaked with massacres of the townspeople which were meant to terify others who contemplated resistance. (Surrender was always the safest course with the Mongols and several minor peopls were to survive with nothing worse than the payment of tribute and arrival of a Mongol governor.) Transoxiana never recovered its place in the life of Islamic Iran after this. Christian civilization was given a taste of Mongol prowess by the defeat of the Georgians in 1221 and of the southern Russian princes two years later. Even these alarming events were only the overture to what was to follow.
Chinghis died in the East in 1227, but his son and successor returned to the West after completing the conquest of northern China. In 1236 his armies poured into Russia. They took Kiev and settled on the lower Volga, from which they organized a tributary system for the Russian principalities they had not occupied. Meanwhile they raided Catholic Eurpoe. The Teutonic knights, the Poles and the Hungarians all went down before them. Cracow was burnt and Moravia devastated. A Mongol patrol crossed into Austria, while the pursuers of the king of Hungary chased him through Croatia and finally reached Albania before they were recalled.
The Mongols left Europe because of dissensions of their leaders and the arrival of the news of the death of the khan. A new one was not chosen until 1246. A Franciscan friar attended the ceremony (he was there as an emissary of the pope); so did a Russian grand duke, a Seljuk sultan, the brother of the Abbuyid sultan of Egypt, an envoy from the Abbasid cliph, a representative of the king of Armenia, and two claimants to the Christian throne of Georgia. The election did not solve the problems posed by dissension among the Mongols and it was not until another Great Khan was chosen (after his predecessor’s death had ended a short reign) that the stage was set for another Mongol attack.
This time it fell almost entirely upon Islam, and provoked unwarranted optimism among Christians who noted also the rise of Nesorian influence at the Mongol court. The area nominally still subject to the caliphate had been in a state of disorder since Chinghis Khan’s campaign. The Seljuks of Rum had been defeated in 1243 and were not capable of asserting authority. In this vacuum, relatively small and local Mongol forces could be effective and the Mongol empire relied mainly upon vassals among numerous local rulers.
The campain was entrusted to the younger brother of the Great Khan and began with the crossing of the Oxus on Newy Year’s Day 1256. After destroying the notorious sect of the Assassins en route, he moved on Baghdad, summoning the caliph to surrender. The city was stormed and sacked and the last Abasid caliph murdered – because there were superstitions about shedding his blood he is supposed to have been rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. It was a black moment in the history of Islamd as, everywhere, Christians took heart and anticipated the overthrow of their Moslem overlords. WHen, the following year, the Mongol offensive was launched against Syria, moslems were forced to bow to the cross in the streets of the surrendered Damascus and a mosque was turned into a Christian church. THe Mamelukes of Egypt were next on the list for conquest when the Great Khan died. The Mongol commander in the West favoured the succession of his younger brother, Kubilai, far away in China. But he was distracted and withdrew many of his men to Azerbaijan to wait on events. It was on a weakened army that the Mamelukes fell at the Goliath Spring near Nazareth on 3 September 1260. The Mongol general was killed, the legend of Mongol invincibility was shattered and a turning-point in world history was reached. For the Mongols the agoe of conquest was over and that of consolidation had begun.
The unity of Chinghis Khan’s empire was at an end. After civil war the legacy was divided among the princes of his house, under the nominal supremacy of his grandson Kubilai, Khan of China, who was to be the last of the Great Khans. The Russian khanate was divided into three: the khanate of the Golden Horde ran from the Danube to the Caucasus and to the east of it lay the ‘Cheibanid’ khanate in the north (it was named after its first khan) and that of the White Horde in the south. THe khanate of Persia included much of Asia Minor, and stretched across Iraq and Iran to the Oxus. Beyond that lay the khanate of Turkestan. The quarrels of these states left the Mamelukes free to mop up the crusader enclaves and to take revenge upon the Christians who had compromised themselves by collaboration with the Mongols.