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.