Sack of Jerusalem, 1244

When the Mongols invaded the land of Khwarezmia, south of the Aral Sea, they sent a wave of ferocious refugees who had been the toughest kids on the block until the Mongols showed them up. Bands of Khwarezmian fighters went to northern Mesopotamia, to the slice of land between the rivers that the Arabs called Jazirah. In another storyline, they might have settled down to be farmers, but not in this story.

Sultan al-Kamil left his kingdom to his son al-Adil when he died in 1238, but a more aggressive and troublesome son, al-Salih, soon seized power. This son had been Emir in the Jazirah region, and he had made an alliance with the leaders of the Khwarezmian fighters. He now wanted to use his power base in Cairo to take over Syria, too, from his uncles.

Al-Salih increased the Mamluk army quickly by buying Kipchak Turks from Italians who’d been given slaving rights to Crimea by the Mongols. But he wanted even more Turkish mercenaries, so he sent a message back to the Jazirah region and invited a Khwarezmian army to make its way through Syria. Any damage they could do there would help weaken Al-Salih’s uncles and cousins in Damascus and Homs.

In July 1244, the Khwarezmian band came to Jerusalem. It was governed by Frederick II’s officials at that time, and had been spared from war damage by several cycles of negotiated truces. However, its local military alliance was with Damascus, so the Khwarezmians considered it fair game. Much of the population fled as refugees, but only 300 arrived alive in Jaffa. When the Khwarezmians broke down the city gates, they vandalized and looted at churches and tombs. They gruesomely executed priests and others in the churches. The city was left a ruin, barely fit to live in.

Al-Salih’s uncles reached out to all of the local powers to form a joint defensive army. The Emirs of Damascus, Homs and Kerak (Jordan) joined all of the Christian military orders: Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonics, and the smaller order of St. Lazarus. The current Kingdom of Jerusalem officials joined: the Count of Jaffa, the Constable of Jerusalem, and the Lord of Cyprus. The Crusaders amassed their largest field force since the Third Crusade, perhaps about 7000 men, while the Muslims contributed about 4500.

The Khwarezmians were roving into Gaza, where they joined Egyptian forces under the Mamluk officer Baibars. The Egyptian forces were professional and disciplined, but the Khwarezmians were comparatively barbaric and riotous. In the Crusader/Syrian camp, the Emir of Homs suggested that the best strategy against them was to set up a fortified camp and wait. He thought there was a very good chance that the Khwarezmians would quarrel with the Mamluks or just veer off on their own, looking for more loot. Once they were gone, the Mamluks could more easily be attacked. He believed they could defeat either the Mamluks or the Khwarezmians, but probably not both.

But that’s not the sort of advice that French knights wanted to heed. The Count of Jaffa had been elected commander, and he saw only that the local alliance had more men in the field. And so they launched an assault at the Gazan town of Hiribya, known to the French as La Forbie.

The battle lasted two days, in October 1244. Baibars kept the Khwarezmians out on the first day, so the battle was more evenly matched. But the second day, the Khwarezmians charged wildly at the Franks and Syrians and broke their battle line. After that, it was a rout. From over 400 Teutonic Knights, only 3 survived. The army of Homs brought home only about 300 men. Most of the leaders were killed or captured, though the Emir of Homs survived.

The small number of survivors fled to Acre. They were in shock, stunned at the amount of death they had just witnessed. They sent warnings to the Latin governments of Cyprus and Antioch. To the Pope and the kings in Europe, they sent desperate pleas for help. Not only was their range reduced again to Third Crusade size, but the ferocious Khwarezmians and ambitious Egyptians were likely to come back and wipe them out completely. And worst of all, Jerusalem had been destroyed again.



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Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, 1244

Jalal ad-Din Mohammed Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan in 1207. There’s some unpacking to be done here: I think Mohammed would have been his father’s personal name, and Jalal his own. Ad-Din, of course, was a chosen or consensus-given nickname meaning The Righteous. What about Rumi? That’s part of the story.

Balkh was one of the cities in Genghis Khan’s early sweep of eastern Islam. When Jalal was born, the Mongols were mopping up the eastern Silk Road cities of the Xia dynasty. When he was about four, the Mongols conquered the Kara Khitan and in 1218 (he was 11) they sent their ill-fated trade embassy to the Shah of Khwarizmia. By 1220, they were steamrolling across the cities of eastern Islam, including Balkh. Some time in 1219 or 1220, Jalal’s family packed up and left. They stood high enough in the city’s social class structure that they had no chance of surviving the Mongols, who executed the ruling class.

The family moved west to Baghdad and Mecca, and then west again into Turkey. They settled in the town of Konya, again as part of the elite social class due to their Persian education. Jalal grew up to be a wealthy, well-respected teacher. His family’s regional tag was Balkhi, the folks from Balkh.

Jalal took the big step toward becoming a poet when he took in a wandering, destitute, wild, dirty holy man in 1244. The man’s name was Shams. He was a mystic of no particular school of thought; we think of Muslim mysticism as Sufism, but apparently that’s not accurate. Shams fascinated Jalal, who had been pretty conventional until then. They sat up late talking, with Jalal mostly listening. Shams disgusted the family by cursing angrily and generally being vulgar, and the other citizens of Konya couldn’t stand him either. Shams finally had to leave when he got death threats. But without Shams, Jalal was miserable.

Jalal had to get Shams back, and permanently. So he had an idea: he offered Shams to marry his 12 year old step-daughter Keemia (“Chemistry”). Shams was at least 60. Naturally he said yes, and Keemia had no choice. Now Shams was family! Jalal and his “son in law” could sit up late talking about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul. But his life with Shams was limited to about two years, because Keemia died and her older brother blamed Shams. He killed the old mystic. Jalal plunged into deep grief.

Jalal began writing poetry in Persian that channeled his conversations with Shams. He wrote about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul; he had always been an orthodox Sunni, but now he dared to write that God was within his soul, not in a remote heaven. He wrote love poems to God, as well as to women. It’s hard to tell who he’s talking to, sometimes, and where we might assume a woman, he’s actually talking to God. His works were published in two books; the first was called “Poems of Shams of Tabriz” and the second “Masnavi,” or “couplets.” He also wrote a Rubaiyat, that is, a series of quatrains.

When his poetry became known internationally, he was called Rumi, the guy from Rome. Rum is what Turks called the region formerly ruled by Constantinople; it was their westernmost settlement. Since Rumi wrote in Persian, his works were most read to the east, so he was re-tagged the Westerner: Rumi.

Rumi’s work has become very popular in English translation in the last 50 years. But it was popular enough in his lifetime that when he died in 1273, his son Sultan Walad wanted to create a memorial for him. Instead of a building, his son founded a new form of mystical dance worship: whirling. Rumi himself was no whirling dervish, and apparently Shams didn’t whirl either (or perhaps only a bit). Rumi translator (and dervish) Shahram Shiva explains, “In his design he placed a figure to represent Rumi in the center of the room and had the whirling students turn around him, like planets orbiting a sun.” Here’s CNN showing us some dervishes in Rumi’s hometown, Konya. (Although CNN calls them Sufis, Shahram Shiva is insistent that Sufism is about signing on as the disciple to a master, but other forms are just mysticism.)

You can enjoy Shahram Shiva’s translations of Rumi’s mystical spiritual poems at  I found another cool site with Rumi translation at Some translations look and feel like modern free verse (here and here), while others feel more traditional (here). One page even offers you Persian originals written in Latin letters, with vocabulary key! If that appeals to you, well, you know who you are.

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The Battle on the Ice: 1242

The Mongols had not touched the city-state of Novgorod, as it was just out of range to north and west. In this period, the region is known as the Novgorod Republic. Novgorod was ruled by a Prince who was appointed or elected by a strong city council, rather than inheriting the role automatically at birth. The Republic was a stable medieval state with trade contacts all through Europe (the archbishop asked church fees to be paid in bolts of wool cloth from Flanders!). Traders on the Volga and Dniepr rivers passed through Novgorod, whose rulers had also intermarried with Swedish kings in the past. (Imagine if the Novgorod Republic, not Moscow of the Tsars, had become the core of future Russia. History would be quite different.)

In the 12th century just past, Sweden and Novgorod had many frontier battles over ports and trading posts on the Baltic and around Finland. The German-based Hanseatic League wanted complete domination over the Baltic’s ports, and it saw Novgorod as a trade rival. Further, Sweden no longer looked on the Russian city as Christian, as its ties to Rome grew stronger. In fact, its sorties into pagan Finland began to be styled as Crusades.

Novgorod chose to become a tribute-paying vassal of the Mongols in Sarai; it had become plain that not paying tribute was a very poor choice. All of the cities in its Russian neighbor-network had been burnt and depopulated. The region was as weak as it had been in a long time, so…enter the Teutonic Knights, the northern Crusaders that I have trouble speaking well of. They occupied several Novgorodian cities along Lake Peipus, the large lake along the border of Estonia. Novgorod had to act, so the Republic called back its strongest leader from exile.

Aleksandr Nevsky was the grandson of a Rus prince with strong Byzantine ties, representing both Kyiv and Vladimir, the strongest princedom of the region. Their family brought some of the grandeur of Constantinople into the Russian forests, building wooden onion-dome churches. Aleksandr had served as the Prince of Novgorod already (and been banished) by the time he was 20. In 1241, the city decided they needed him to defend against the Teutonic knights.

Nevsky chose to fight on the frozen lake itself, in April. In April, the lake was still frozen so solid that it could support thousands of men fighting on its surface! That’s a cold climate! During the battle, the Teutonic knights (with Estonians they had pressed into service) fought for two hours but began to find the surface too slick. Nevsky chose to bring a reserve force onto the lake at that time. Some legends say that the ice broke up and the Teutonic knights fell into the water, but this may have been Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematographic invention in 1938. (Personally I have a hard time believing that ice in April, even in the frozen Baltic North, could stand up under Daenarys Targaryen’s dragon-fire attack, especially after the third dragon crashed into the lake.) In any case, Nevsky won and the Teutonic knight did not choose to try Novgorod’s territory again.

Nevsky’s attitude toward the Mongols was that they were the best choice of masters on offer. He became their regional tax-enforcer, not just unwillingly an ally but openly a friend and supporter. The Mongol Khan supported him in becoming Grand Prince of both Kyiv and Vladimir, and he actively helped defend their rule against invaders. He saw Rome and its allies as a greater threat to his land than the Mongols, who merely wanted tribute. So in one of the weirder twists of this period, Christian Novgorod was saved from Christian Germans so that it could serve the Mongols.

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The Barons’ Crusade, 1239-1241

Historians who later numbered the Crusades did something very odd at this point. Emperor Frederick II’s peaceful negotiation for a ten-year control of Jerusalem was the Sixth Crusade, but when that time ran out and a new army came to actually do some serious fighting, it was not the Seventh Crusade. It was merely the Barons’ Crusade, or the Crusade of 1239. It was actually the most successful militarily in years, but it merited no number. It’s obvious that it should have been the Sixth Crusade, with Frederick as a footnote. But no. Go figure.

The Count of Champagne/King of Navarre started the Crusade off. His grandmother was Marie of Champagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s French daughter who was also close friends with Richard Lion-Heart. Like his elders, young Theobald IV was a troubadour, that is, a singer-songwriter. He was the heir for his uncle the King of Navarre, whose sister had been for a short time Richard Lion-Heart’s queen (another sister was Queen of Poland). The King of Navarre (same one that helped defeat the Almohads) had become too ill to rule, so a third sister, married off to the Count of Champagne, came home to be Regent. Her son Theobald was visiting her in Pamplona when the King died, so Theobald just took charge, ruling both Navarre and Champagne. When we see his name in a note that “Count Theobald of Champagne led a Crusade in 1239,” we don’t realize that this guy we’ve never heard of was actually tightly connected to all of the big Crusade stars.

Count Theobald did pretty well for himself. After a stay at Acre, he decided to fortify Ascalon by overseeing a new castle. He rescued another group of barons and knights from defeat in Gaza, and then negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil for continued control of Jerusalem. In his truce agreement, he was handed control of most of the significant towns and castles the Crusaders cared about, including some Templar castles that had been captured. Legend says that Theobald wrote some poems there and also brought home two plants: a special breed of rose, and perhaps the first grape slip that became Chardonnay. So Theobald came, saw, wrote, built, and transplanted—and went home. It was time for the next shift of barons to arrive.

Here we see the seeds of disaster laid for the next Crusades. “Next shift” to arrive? It was that easy? Yes, it really looked like Crusading had gotten easy. Take a sabbatical year, get on a ship at Marseilles with your friends. Stop at Acre, attend some feasts. Make a show of force, find a nice building project you can put your name to. Fight a few skirmishes, lose a few red shirts. Send the Sultan a threatening letter. Compare his reply to your wishlist of towns, and in a few exchanges, you’re done. Go home and spend the rest of your life dusting the pretty souvenirs.

During these few decades of easy success, the Crusader states grew and prospered, though not to the size they had been in the Baldwins’ time. I wonder if the Europeans fully realized that this second round proved that they could only succeed in the Holy Land when the Muslim forces were too disunified to oppose them. The Ayyubids were wise enough to realize it and accept truces that gave away some power. They stayed busy, but they could focus on tugs of war with each other, not with Europe. If that situation changed, crusading was going to change dramatically. Some shift of Crusaders would show up with bags full of sun screen and beach reads and find out that there would be no souvenirs this time.


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Baba Ishak’s revolt, 1239

I want to talk about a minor revolt that took place in Anatolia between 1239 and 1241 not because it’s important on the world stage, but because it illustrates very clearly the strains in the Muslim world at this time. The revolt was led by a mystic named Baba Ishak (Father Isaac), and it went on until authorities captured and hanged him.

When we say that waves of Turkic migrants kept coming west, it’s hard for us to picture exactly what this looked like. Going back to the Abbasid Caliph’s heyday, in the 800s, Seljuk Turks began arriving in large family groups, traveling at the speed of their flocks and carts. They meandered through Iran and Iraq slowly, picking up Islam and other cultural habits over several generations. The Turkish language they spoke in Anatolia, by the time they drifted that far west, was generously peppered with Persian and Arabic words and ideas. They gave their children Arabic Muslim names, so that it becomes harder for us now to distinguish in a written history who was Arabic or who was Turkish.

But as those people settled, a new wave arrived. This went through the 900s, 1000s, 1100s, and now the 1200s. The newest arrivals were Oghuz Turks who were pushed out of the east by the approaching Mongols. They had little in common with the settled Anatolian Turks. They could probably understand the language easily, apart from the unfamiliar borrowed words. But while the old settlers had now been Muslims through the entire Crusade period and several dynastic changes, the new arrivals were fresh off the steppes and still worshiped the Father Sky and Mother Earth. The old settlers had learned farming; the new arrivals were pastoral nomads. The old settlers had lost track of how many ideas and customs had been shaped by Islam and the new western cultures, until they saw how different and “green” the new arrivals were.

The new arrivals were duly converted to Islam, but they didn’t get it. Turkish steppe life had a lot of gender equality; men and women dressed alike, women owned the yurt and carts, and men typically were out in the field or forest while women ran everything at home. Suddenly they were expected to take on Arab norms of female segregation and male leadership. The Arabic language had strong gender markers in every word, where Turkish had none.

Some mystics in Eastern Iran created versions of Islamic theology that were easier for the former Tengrists to digest. Their version was tolerant of alcohol (fermented milk was a steppe staple). It promoted equality of women, followed Tengrist blood taboos rather than Muslim slaughtering law, and played down the Ramadan fast. Worship with music was okay in this folk religion, too. It seems to have been mainly part of Sufism, which was part of Sunni Islam, but some of the leaders may also have been given commissions by the Nizaris (who were constantly rebelling in Iran, operating out of their stronghold Alamut).

The Seljuks of Anatolia had set up their own Sultanate of “Rum,” which is to say, Rome or Constantinople. This Sultan was trying to govern separately from the Seljuks ruling in Baghdad, and from other Sultans like the Ayyubids of Syria and Egypt. Now his territory was faced with these Oghuz migrants who could not fit in. Worse, when a slightly older migrant wave saw that the newest ones were defiantly creating their own Tengri-Islam blend, they joined them.

Sultan Gıyasettin arrested their leaders, and everything blew up. The rebellion caught fire just east of the troublesome region where Armenians and Crusaders had been living. Baba Ishak became the leader and they went on to capture a number of central Anatolian cities. The Seljuk Sultan’s forces had already been worn down with fighting the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Empire of Trebizond, and other Christian establishments. So the rebellion flared out of control for two or three years.

The Sultan captured Baba Ishak, and hanged him. He hired French mercenaries, probably drifters from Constantinople or Antioch, to defeat the rebels in one last big battle. Presumably, with the armed rebellion ended, the Sufi Babas had to stop preaching syncretist religion and become more orthodox Sunni. But the Sultan of Rum had been fighting on too many fronts, and this was the last thing that bled out his resources. Cities had been ruined and plundered, and Rum had lost its control over a Crimean trading colony.

When the Mongols arrived in Rum territory, conquest was easy. By 1243, the Seljuks of Rum were vassals of the Mongols, sending tribute.

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The Khan’s Grandsons and the Golden Horde, 1236-41

The four ruling sons of Genghis Khan didn’t last long. Jochi, the controversial oldest son, died before his father. So already at the Great Khan’s death, grandsons had been assigned to rule parts of the western Empire. Batu was the most capable grandson; Batu Khan’s western army was known as the Golden Horde (Алтан Ордын улс). In 1235, the Golden Family decided to send a joint force to conquer more western territory. For perhaps the last time in a united Mongol venture, there were grandsons and even great-grandsons of all four of the Khan’s lineages, all jockeying for power. Who would be named the next Great Khan? (Experienced Mongol generals were the real decision-making leaders, but this could be shushed up so a grandson could take credit.)

The Mongols took two years to prepare for the assault, but they spent it in ways Europeans would not have thought of. Essentially, they prepared the infrastructure of the new land in small ways. The chief need of Mongol-Tatar armies was fodder for horses. One way to increase grasslands was to send in small bands to move quickly, avoid showdowns, and just set many farms on fire and tear down walls. Frightened peasants moved out, and a year later, the land reverted to weeds and grass, now more open for a horde to ride through. The Mongols also scouted thoroughly, looking for water and pasture. Last, they set up “Pony Express” mail riders so that their forces could stay in touch over distances.

In 1236, the Golden Horde conquered the Bulgar Turks who lived along the Volga River. The Volga Bulgars were a well-established group in the Volga region, not newcomers. They had adopted Islam even before Kyiv became Christian, and by now they were blending with the surrounding Slavs. The region was dotted with small sovereign states, unlike the way we think of Russia now. The Bulgars comprised their own state, controlling Volga trade from the city of Bolghar.

There’s a curious parenthetical story here; the Hungarians, who came from the east in the 500s, sent a Dominican friar eastward in 1235 to search for their legendary brother tribe, the Magyars. He found such a group near the Bulgars on the Volga, and they could understand each other’s speech. Back in Christian Hungary, the friar made plans to preach to the Magyars on a larger scale, but when he arrived at the Volga again, the Mongols had already made hash of them. The Magyars called their attackers Tatars, their ancestral enemies on the steppes. So the first warning to Europe of the “Tartar” attack came via Hungary. (Europeans generalized the word “Tatar” to have some connection to the Greek mythical river Tartarus.)

The Mongols conquered anyone else in the region, including the Alans, who were Indo-Europeans from the Persian Empire. The Alans were another of the small sovereign states; their capital city of Maghas guarded a pass in the Caucasus Mountains between Georgia and the north, now Russia. It’s called the Darial Pass, which means “Gate of the Alans” in Persian. The Alans are the modern Ossetians, whose territory Russian is taking from Georgia.

With these small states wrapped up, Batu Khan sent an envoy to the Grand Duke of Vladimir-Suzdal, another sovereign state on the other side of the Volga River. The envoy asked, of course, for their surrender, which the Duke refused. And now (1238) the grand sacking of Russia began. They began with Ryazan, and they also burnt Moskva. Smolensk agreed to pay tribute, and Novgorod was far enough north that they didn’t get there. Pretty much every other city was stripped of gold and silver, and burnt. The small town of Kozelsk somehow managed to hold off a combined Mongol army siege for an unheard-of seven weeks. Their ruler at the time was a little boy, so it makes an even better story. In the end, though, everyone died.

According to Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), the siege of Ryazan was conducted in the Mongols’ idiosyncratic way. On approaching the town, the Mongols had seized peasants for slave labor and sent the rest of them to the city to swell the number of refugees and tax the city’s provisions. Using their slave labor, they quickly built their own stockade wall around the walled city. Western war practice had always encircled a walled city, but never with a literal second wall. Reinforcements could not help the city, and sorties from the city gates could not harm the Mongols. The besiegers had longer-range bows than the defenders, so they were safe out of range while they set up their own catapults.

When the catapults got to work, they threw not only rocks and tree trunks but also pots of gunpowder and other burning substances learned from the Chinese. Simple “firelances” directed rockets at the city. Ryazan’s peasants, who knew little about the world, thought that the Mongols brought dragons. When the city had been sufficiently terrorized and burnt, the Mongols scaled the walls with ladders and took over quickly. Everyone crowded into the church for safety, but of course to the Mongols, this was just an invitation for mass cremation. The city’s rulers were executed; some survivors were enslaved (as always, craftsmen were most likely to be kept) and others were sent to nearby cities to spread the word and start eating siege provisions. Then the clean-up started: the stockade logs were removed and dragged to the next city, while Mongols took a census so that the loot and captives could be fairly divided among their people. And so it went.

Refugees reliably spread the word that the Mongols were unlike anything seen before. They may not even have been human. They drank blood and refused mercy. They were short and invincible; they had no eyelids. The English chronicler Matthew Paris (who had recorded King John’s supposed bid to become a Muslim) recorded the rumors as they reached Western Europe. All learned men in the West wondered: who were these people? Herodotus didn’t say a word about them, and he had cataloged the whole world! They’d have speculated “space aliens” if the idea had occurred to them, but instead, they wondered: descendants of the Magi who came to take back relics that Germany claimed to have? Or a lost tribe of Jews who had forgotten Hebrew and Moses? Of course, as this idea spread, it was clear that there was only one thing to be done: Jews must be massacred to prevent them from opening city gates to their brethren. (what else?)

In 1239, the Mongols entered the Crimean Peninsula and drove out the Cuman people, another of the local older Turkic peoples. The Cuman survivors fled to nearby hills, but eventually were able to return to the plains. They are known today as the Crimean Tatars.

In 1240, Mongol envoys came to Kyiv but were beheaded. The city’s fate was sealed, and total destruction followed. Kyiv’s story had a special twist: believing that the basilica’s holiness would keep them safe, people crowded into the church until it was packed and its doors closed. Those left outside began to climb the walls until they reached the roof, and they perched on the roof until that, too, was full. Then the roof collapsed and killed everyone both inside and out. The Mongols could not have asked better fortune. Kyiv, of course, fell, and Batu Khan began to be known as the Tsar.

Batu Khan still had to jockey for power among his cousins, but the western lands had indisputably been left to him and his brothers. So they solidified their gains by ordering captive craftsmen to build a new city. Sarai (from the Persian word for “palace”) was built near modern-day Astrakhan, which is on the Caspian Sea. Sarai was probably 50 miles upriver, at a place suitable for Mongol life: high wind to keep off mosquitos, sufficient grasslands for horses. They began to build in 1240.

To advance farther into the west, the Horde was split up so that rumors and refugees would report conflicting things about the path they were taking. They’re heading to Poland! No, they’re heading to Hungary! Actually, they were heading to both. Had they chosen one target, the king of the other would have come to an ally’s assistance. Both being the targets at the same time, neither could help the other. The Battles of Legnica, Poland and Mohi, Hungary took place only two days apart in 1241.

The Kings of Poland and Hungary begged for assistance from farther south or west. The Pope helpfully called a Crusade against the Mongols, but Crusading was just not set up to deal with lightning strikes from an unknown foe. Batu Khan led the force into Hungary, while Möngke Khan went into Poland. Henry II of Silesia defended Poland, hoping for Bohemia’s forces to arrive in time. He was killed, and the Bohemian army was dealt with separately by the Mongols.

In Hungary, the Mongols bombarded the king’s camp with burning material until the army panicked and fled through a gap in the Mongol lines—a gap the Mongols had planned, leading to a corridor of Mongol archers. King Bela of Hungary barely escaped death and fled first to Austria, then to the Adriatic coast, as a government in exile. After the battle, in a bid for mercy, the Hungarian clergy tried to impress the Mongols with holy relics on parade, since they had heard that some Tatars and Mongols were Christians. But Mongols had a taboo against anything dead and these relics only made them disgusted and angry. Batu’s forces devastated Hungary, killing perhaps a quarter of the general population and most of its knights.

A total solar eclipse in October 1241 presaged the utter destruction of Europe, and the peasants became hysterical with fear. But soon after the twin battles had opened the way into Austria, Bohemia, and Germany, a Mongol rider brought news from the east. Ogedei Khan, Temujin’s third son who had been elected Great Khan, had died. Möngke and Batu had emerged as leaders in the western expedition, but their cousin Güyük was actually Ogedei’s son. He was really hard to get along with and had already fought with them all. There was no question he’d be trying to seize central power, and the other grandsons didn’t want to let that happen. Besides, any change in leadership required their personal attendance at a khurultai meeting.

So just like that, the western invasions ended. The grandsons and top generals rode back to Mongolia. The building of Sarai went on; there was no question they’d be back. The Russian princes who had survived and sworn fealty to the Mongols were not permitted to renege. However, it was an open question whether the Mongols would expand their invasions. King Bela came back to Hungary, and Poland had a new High Duke. During the time that the Mongols were gone, their top priority was to stop being Christendom’s buffer states by getting the pagans on their margins to convert (and thus become the new buffer states).

Jack Weatherford supplies another interesting outcome: in the Crimean Peninsula, the Mongols traded luxury goods in Italian port cities for the right of Italian merchants to kidnap Slavs in Mongol lands and sell them as slaves (Slavs/ slaves not a coincidence). Ironically, many of these tall, strong Slavs were sold to Ayyubid Egypt, where they became Mamluks. The Mongols would live to regret this choice.





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Stupor Mundi and the Sixth Crusade, 1229

While the Mongols were trampling Central Asia, life went on as before for the European West and the Middle East. During the years of Temujin’s rise, Europe was focused on the young King of Sicily and Germany, who had finally received the titles King of the Romans, and Holy Roman Emperor, in 1220. Frederick II was supposed to be the ultimate Crusader, the one who’d finally win back Jerusalem. He sat out the Fifth Crusade, but by 1229 he was ready to act.

First, a bit about Frederick. He was descended from Charlemagne’s line on his father’s side; his grandfather was the Crusader Emperor who drowned when his horse slipped in a Turkish river. On his mother’s side, he combined two lines of descent: the Normans who conquered Sicily and the Counts of Rethel who were the ancestors and relatives of the Jerusalem royal family. His mother Constance raised him in Sicily, since his German father had died. Frederick had green eyes and red hair; he was King of Sicily from the age of 3. In his time, it was a powerful empire that included much of southern Italy.

Young Frederick spoke Sicilian Italian and his mother’s Norman French; he also learned Arabic on the streets of Palermo. His tutor Cencio, who was from Rome, educated him also in Italian, German, Latin and Greek. He studied mathematics with Arabic numbers and later sponsored the work of Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician whose work Liber Abaci re-introduced decimal numbers to Europe. He was also stubborn and strong-willed, skeptical and irreligious. He was an avid falconer all his life.

Frederick’s nickname around Europe was “Stupor Mundi,” or the World Wonder. When his tutor became Pope Honorius, he didn’t soften his battles against the Papacy. Chiefly at stake was that he wanted to keep both inheritances, his native Sicily and his father’s Germany. His mother married him at 14 to the widowed Queen of Hungary, who was also a Princess of Aragon. This sophisticated young woman could be regent of Sicily while he battled to regain power in Germany, and she had one son. However, she died two years after they were jointly crowned Holy Roman Emperor/Empress.

In 1225, Frederick added a new title: King of Jerusalem. He married the teenage Queen of Jerusalem, born Yolanda but “reigning” as Isabella II. Born in Sicily, she had never been to the Holy Land, nor did she go now. She stayed behind in Palermo and died in 1228 while giving birth to a son. But in the meantime, Frederick had taken on her inheritance rights and shortly after their son was born, he set out for Acre. He was in a state of excommunication at the time, but he just didn’t care.

Frederick’s arrival in Acre was the Sixth Crusade. It’s very odd that historians gave him the official number, since the next Crusade is just called the Barons’ Crusade without a number. They probably accorded his effort the numbered title not because of any military success, but because he negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt and just made a deal to get back rule of Jerusalem for a ten year period. That was the Sixth Crusade, right there.

During the negotiations, Frederick was the invited guest of al-Kamil in Jerusalem, where he was able to chat in Arabic. He made a point of staying overnight so that he could hear the muezzin’s call in the morning.  Al-Kamil was still warring with relatives in the cities of Syria and the last thing he wanted was another battle front. It was clearly in his interests to negotiate with Frederick. So while the process took five months, in the end they agreed that Latin rule under Frederick would resume in an unfortified Jerusalem, and it would include Bethlehem and Nazareth, but not the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Because Frederick was still under excommunication, the Latin bishop refused to crown him, so he set the crown on his own head. His wife had died and the infant Conrad II was in Sicily, but Frederick didn’t care. He didn’t care, either, that the city was in a state of Latin civil war as his agents and the remaining Crusader lords of the Holy Land could not work together.

Frederick returned to his European lands and had many adventures: wars against the Papacy, wars against another branch of the German ruling family (the Guelphs or Welfs), wars in Lombardy. Frederick hunted with falcons, wrote poetry, and carried out shocking scientific experiments on human beings. It takes a World Wonder to be arrogant enough to do things like raising a baby in complete silence to find out what language Adam and Eve spoke.

Did he really do this? A Franciscan friar who wrote the main records of this time and place claimed that he did this and more: trapped a man in a cask to see if his soul could be seen coming out of the bung hole when he died, or cutting men open to see whose food had been digested better. But it’s possible the friar was making things up. Frederick was an agnostic at best, and often at war with Rome; it was in the church’s interests for Frederick to be seen as shockingly immoral.

Frederick remarried two more times, but Yolanda/Isabella’s son Conrad was his primary heir. His father brought him to Germany when he was about eight, and he became first Duke of Swabia, then began collecting the other titles. He ruled the Sicilian-German empire after Frederick’s death in 1250. By then, Frederick’s truce had run out and the city of Jerusalem had been lost for good (we’ll get there).  Conrad passed the Jerusalem title down to his son Conradin, who died without issue. The by-then-meaningless title was bounced back to the nearest branch of his relatives, the Lusignan family of Cyprus.


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Death of Genghis Khan, 1228

Genghis Khan had been having a serious internal family problem during the later campaigns. Although he had promoted on a merit basis for years, and although he railed against aristocratic inheritance, in truth of course he wanted his sons to be Khans after he died. One of his sons would be the Great Khan with authority over the others. He had always favored Jochi, the oldest, for this role, but the second son Chagatai believed that Jochi was the son of a Merkit warrior and should not inherit.

(credit to Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World)

In a family conference, the Khan tried to address the succession question, but Jochi and Chagatai got into a vicious fistfight. The Khan pleaded with them all to accept Jochi as a brother, to honor their mother, who had after all been kidnapped during a time when his rule had not yet imposed peace. The best compromise they could reach was that neither Jochi nor Chagatai would become Great Khan, but instead the third brother Ogedei would inherit this title. Jochi was furious, but the agreement was made. With that understanding, Genghis Khan assigned them zones to rule, separating their future kingdoms as far as possible, and leaving the central homeland to his youngest son Tolui by Mongol tradition.

Here’s another point where Mongol culture is so different from the West: inheritance by the youngest. It makes perfect sense if you think of steppe life where survival is better if people spread out to find new resources. When the oldest son is grown, he will marry and have a herd of his own, gradually spreading farther away to find other hunting grounds. The original family will stay together as the other sons also spread out. When the parents get old, the youngest is still at home. Mongols called the youngest the Ochigen, the Prince of the Hearth. He would have the responsibility of his parents’ care, and would get their possessions or territory.

Tolui’s mother Börte was now very old; she had stopped traveling with Temujin long ago, leaving that hassle to younger wives. The Great Khan had a string of marriage alliances, but only managed four wives at a time. When he had to take a new one, he passed an old one off to a brother or general, except for Börte who counted as his official queen. Now about 65, the Great Khan realized he had one more expedition to make, putting down a rebellion among the Tanguts of western China. In 1226, he saddled up again, choosing a younger Tatar wife named Yesui to accompany him.

In the Gobi Desert, he hunted wild horses and was badly injured. He probably developed an internal infection but he was determined to push through it. The campaign against the Tanguts went forward, and he succeeded in punishing their rebel king. But by the end of the summer, he died. Yesui wrapped him in a felt coffin packed with sandalwood chips, and his army carried his body home.

Here’s where it gets strange. Temujin’s ancestral burial tradition had been open-air, leaving the body for sacred vultures, but legends say variously that he chose to be buried with six cats, that he was buried underground with treasures from around his empire, or that he was buried on top of his sacred mountain. A persistent legend says that in order to hide the place, his army trampled the ground with a thousand horses, covering their trail and a wide berth around it.

Ogedei Khan chose to spend a lot of his father’s wealth on big ceremonies and parties, and then he began to built a stone city called Karakorum. The buildings were for craftsmen and storage for tribute, while the Mongols would live around it in felt gers. The Mongol heartland was now saturated with silk, jewels, spices, silver, and everything else they had carted back. Of course, the cities of Central Asia started to revolt, thinking the Mongols were gone forever. For a few years, that’s what it looked like.

But gradually Ogedei learned that loot collected once can only be spent once. He paid attention to improving Silk Road traffic, hoping to get some income, but it never equaled the fabulous loot they had brought home before. The Mongols never picked up the trades and crafts of their conquered people; they were content to breed horses and wear silk. They didn’t start acting as merchants or actually making anything beyond felt for their houses. So now what? The only answer was to go looting again.


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Mongols invade Christendom, 1222-3

In four years, Genghis Khan had trampled the Muslim East that is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. His armies then ran into a serious problem: as they came out of the mountain and steppe country, heat and humidity made their bows shoot inaccurately. Even in winter, it just wasn’t working. The Khan decided to take the main army, two tumens, back to Mongolia in 1222. (Captives from conquered cities cleared the mountain passes of snow for them, since their lives were not worth anything.)

The other two tumens were sent farther west, probably in pursuit of the Shah of Khwarismia, who had fled. They invaded Armenia and Georgia, coming into official Christendom. Georgia became a vassal state of the Mongols after one devastating battle. For the first time, the Mongols began to have some notion of what was on the other end of the Silk Road. The tumens then moved north, where they encountered the Kievan Rus. Ten envoys approached the Kievan princes to learn what sort of relations the Mongols could expect: alliance or surrender? The envoys were executed. Clearly, the Rus had not heard about the fate of Khwarismia, that did the same, or they thought they’d be different.

It’s worth looking at Jack Weatherford’s account of the Battle of Kalka River in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The battle wasn’t a significant turning point for the Mongol campaign, but it illustrates the Mongols’ idiosyncratic ways of fighting that so baffled Europe and the Middle East.

First, the Mongols began a long retreat that lasted for days; the Slavic cavalry and foot soldiers followed them, thinking that “chasing means winning.” Because the Mongols were on horseback, they could set the pace so as to string out and thin their enemies over many miles. When they suddenly turned to fight, the Rus had no plan for retreat, supply or reinforcement. The Mongols got to choose the fighting venue, on the plain where the Kalka River empties into the Sea of Azov.

The Russians fought as European wars had taught everyone to do: in close formation, in lines that must not break. But the Mongols didn’t attack them at first. They played drums, then suddenly became quiet. Then they began an unusual form of assault that was coordinated with signal flags. Their horses charged, but as the Slavs braced for the clash, the Mongols pulled up. They began firing volleys of arrows at close range, staying out of reach of hand combat. To the Mongols, the Rus were conveniently bunching together like a herd of buffalo. It was easy hunting.

The Slavs had bowmen, but their bows were not as powerful, so when they fired back, the Mongols could ride out of range. Worse, the Mongols fired Russian arrows back at them. They had examined western bows and found a way to make Mongolian arrows not compatible with Russian bows, while Mongolian bows easily used Russian arrows. The foot soldiers of the Rus stampeded into a retreat, which made them run into other troops still arriving, and they crowded and tangled the mounted knights. The Mongols followed, picking off peasants and princes. The Novgorod Chronicle, says Weatherford, reported that only one in ten Slav survived to reach home.

The Mongol army camped in Crimea to rest for some weeks, and they executed their captive princes in a Mongol fashion: rolling each one in felt, they built a wooden platform on top of them and crowded in for a banquet. They were honoring their rank by not spilling blood, but punishing them for executing ambassadors.

Since we know that the Mongols trashed the Russian heartland, we’d expect that this is when they did it. But they didn’t. There was a general movement among the Mongols to stop expanding for now, to pull back and see what would happen next. They may also have been having the same problem with humidity and bows near Kiev as they’d had in Pakistan. So in the summer of 1223, the western Mongol army headed for home, looping back by a more northerly route to find dry grasslands faster and keep scouting new land.


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Mongols invade Islam: 1220-1221

By 1218, the Mongol hordes were ruling the Kara Khitan, the last province that was culturally part of northern China’s long reach. This placed them on the border of the easternmost outpost of the Muslim empire. This eastern territory by the Aral Sea was known as Khwarismia (possibly means “the lowlands” in Old Persian).  In the early 1200s the Shah of Khwarismia was very Turkish and aggressive compared to Muslims farther west. Control of the region had swayed back and forth between Iran and China, while the Shah of Khwarismia himself had often threatened other Muslim cities and regions.

Genghis Khan ruled so much territory and had so much loot now that he wanted to begin trading westward on the Silk Road. At first, the Shah seemed receptive to a trade treaty, but when the Khan sent 450 merchants with a caravan of wares, the local governor seized the goods and killed the men. The Khan asked the Shah to punish this egregious attack on the Mongol nation, but the Shah killed and mutilated his envoys. The Persian historian Juvaini said that with this attack, they “laid waste a whole world.” (As in previous entries, I am relying primarily on Jack Weatherford’s excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.)

Temujin was almost 60 and he had fulfilled his own ambitions ten times over. He was living in his homeland, near the sacred mountain Burkhan Khaldun. He had to decide what to do with this terrible insult; but at the high level he was operating by then, there was only one answer: total war. So in 1219, the Mongol hordes set out to attack Khwarismia’s key cities of Bokhara, Urgench and Samarkand.

The Mongol army was split in half. One half took the route that the Shah would expect them to take, following the Silk Road. The other half crossed the Gobi Desert, where there was not enough water for such a host. They traveled in winter, so that they didn’t face terrible heat, and they knew every possible water source inside the Desert. Normally, it took at least six weeks to cross the desert, if you made it at all. The Khan pushed his men hard, though it’s not clear how many weeks they shaved off the average. The Gobi contingent then slowed its pace, trying to look like some peaceful caravans, if anyone was watching. They came to Bokhara by the back way and stopped. Meanwhile, the main army was confronting the city at its main gates. The defending army decided to cut their losses and leave Bokhara to the enemy, retreating to the capital of Urgench, but of course when they retreated, they learned they were surrounded.

Weatherford tells us that Bokhara was the only city Genghis Khan chose to enter. He was supremely uninterested in cities. But there was an inner citadel with soldiers who had not surrendered, and the Khan wanted to put on a psychological show. First, he rode to the great mosque and ordered the scholars there to bring hay for his horse. They probably didn’t realize that he was designating them as survivors, but he was. Next, he summoned the wealthiest men in the city. On the mosque stairs, he made a speech to them about misusing their power and told them it was time to atone. Each rich man was to go with some Mongols to his house and show them the hidden treasures, if he valued his life. The Khan moved on to the next stage of the show, in which his Chinese engineer corps rolled in the siege engines they had been building. These machines surrounded the inner citadel and then began to bombard it thoroughly in a showy display of technique. Teams of miners started digging under the wall, too.

When the Mongols swept through a conquered city, they got rid of the existing soldiers and rulers, first. They collected all of the treasure, and it was divided equally among them, so they didn’t actually get distracted by looting the way other warriors did. They collected anyone who might be of use to the Mongol nation, whether doctors, astronomers, or goldsmiths. These began the long march back to Mongol territory, where they were resettled. Women and children were distributed as slaves. Unskilled workers were recruited to help build, dig, or march to the next city and throw themselves into a moat.

Samarkand and Urgench both required sieges, so the Khan chose to do a mass execution of their populations outside the city. Urgench’s siege was particularly grueling. They held out for six months! When the Mongols got inside the walls, they fought house to house. The Mongols set the city on fire, as they might have done on the steppes to flush game out. When the burnt-out buildings still hid resistance fighters, they diverted a river to flood it. Urgench never recovered. The Shah’s mother had been ruling Urgench, but she fled before the fighting began. They captured her, and she was sent to live as a slave in Mongolia, serving some chieftain’s wife.

Contemporary histories record death tolls of over a million for these Asian cities. Weatherford suggests that the Khan appears to have systematically inflated death tolls, making sure they got into written histories and were carried around by refugee-heralds. He wanted the next cities in line to believe that he had committed atrocities beyond imagining. After the refugee-heralds had time to terrify the next cities, Mongol envoys arrived with the message, “God has given  you into the Great Khan’s hands. If you will give us food, like family members, you will become family. If not, you will all die.”

Some surrendering cities didn’t understand the magnitude of what they had just escaped, or they saw the Mongols as a barbarian horde passing by just once. When the coast seemed clear, they stopped sending tribute. Oh, what a mistake. The city of Nishapur revolted, and as the Mongols began a siege, an arrow flew over the city walls and struck a son-in-law of the Khan. He put the widow, his daughter, in charge of the city’s defeat. She decreed that every single living thing in the city should die; after the people had been killed, their heads piled in pyramids, the soldiers were to go find the dogs and cats too. Similarly, when the Khan’s favorite grandson died in a battle in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, he channeled his grief into wiping the valley clean of residents.

Sometimes, the Mongols razed a conquered city. Very, very often, they trampled and razed all surrounding walls and boundary features of the farmland. They didn’t understand this “wall” business, which just made it harder for the horses to run. They preferred to see farmland return to fields and grass. They wanted the cities to fall down and sink, so that hordes of horses could pass through.





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