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.