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. Someone taught him German. His tutor Cencio, who was from Rome, educated him in 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, called 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 did his best to be seen as shockingly immoral, too. He married again, this time choosing a sister of the King of England. She arrived in Germany to find that the Emperor had set up a Muslim-style harem at the palace in Worms. He seems to have followed the Ayyubid style of using African eunuchs as caretakers of the women bought at Middle Eastern slave markets. He added the Princess of England to his harem; she was crowned King and Empress, but her daily life was not at all like other queens’. She didn’t rule or sit with him, she was not prepped to take up the role of regent as other queens were. I suppose Frederick had gotten used to his wives being far away or dead; he didn’t want the usual royal family life, and as Stupor Mundi, he stood up to all peer pressure to be normal. The Pope could excommunicate him again, what of it?

Young Conrad, King of Jerusalem, came to Germany when he was about eight, and his father made him Duke of Swabia in place of older brother Henry who had rebelled. Conrad ruled the Sicilian-German empire after Frederick’s death in 1250. 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.

Jochi was given the territories farthest away: the west, where as yet little land had been won. It was clear that there was much room for relatively easy conquest, and those new lands would belong to Jochi’s branch. Chagatai got the just-conquered regions that are now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Ögedei inherited the Chinese regions in the east, as well as the nod for Great Khan. He was the most sociable of the sons and the Khan hoped he could keep the family branches unified. Tolui, the Ochigen, inherited the Mongolian homeland where his mother still lived.

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.


Ögedei 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. Mongolian culture had no productive use for these luxuries, that is, they didn’t trade them again, they didn’t import raw materials to make anything. They only consumed them, like wearing silk while living in a felt ger, or serving their mutton in silver bowls. They were mainly interested in breeding horses, but they didn’t want to use horses for trade currency.
For about ten years the Mongols stayed away from big campaigns. The cities of Central Asia relaxed, sure that the Mongols would not come back. That part of the world had seen many one-hit-wonder bands of barbarians. Civilization could always outwait them. As each year passed without a return of the hordes, some cities got lax in their tribute collection. A few rebelled, stopping payment.
Meanwhile Ögedei paid attention to improving Silk Road traffic, hoping to generate income. Caravans did get larger. There were oases with amenities like fresh horses, and the Mongols kept back bandits. They printed paper money to make carrying easier and simplified taxes. Silk Road traffic reached a peak during the years of the Mongol Yoke.
But gradually Ögedei learned that loot collected once can only be spent once. Silk Road tax income never equaled the fabulous loot they had brought home under Genghis Khan. So now what? The only answer would be 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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More about the Mongols

The Mongols’ cultural ways were so different that by comparison, Arabs and Europeans look like they’re part of one single culture. In a way, they were; they were all part of the Mediterranean continuum. They had been influencing each other for many centuries. They’d even taken some influence from the Chinese at a distance. But the Mongols, separated by the Gobi Desert, had not done cultural exchanges with any of them. They did everything backwards from the West because it just seemed the right way to do things.

For example, Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2004) points out that to everyone else, chasing an enemy meant you were winning and hiding behind a stout wall meant you were safe. To the Mongols, walls enclosed the animals they were hunting, so anything enclosed in a circular wall was ready to be picked off at will. And they had never had a fixed place to defend or come home to (just temporary camps). So all fighting was done in motion, and the direction didn’t matter. They won by killing the enemy while moving, no matter who was chasing or being chased. So the decisions they made during a battle left their enemies bewildered.

For the rest of the world, moving an army was a big deal. The army needed provisions that entailed a secondary force going along with them, just to house and feed them. This doubled their pack animal need and cut their speed way down. We saw that Richard the Lion-Heart solved the problem by keeping the provisions afloat so that his men could march as fast as possible while the food kept up with them at sea. But that was a unique solution not applicable in most cases.

The Mongols, however, didn’t eat grain. To them, eating grain meant you were an animal. They were hunters who lived on meat and milk. It turns out that if your diet is entirely protein, you don’t have to eat as often. They could eat dried meat from a saddlebag and not be hungry during a long ride or battle, where their foes who ate carbohydrate-based foods were fainting. So they didn’t need provision trains or any wagons at all. They wore a thick coat that doubled as a sleeping bag. They carried some tents, but in a pinch they easily slept on the ground as they were. No need for fires if you’re only eating dried meat and can skip food for a day.

The Mongol hordes had no foot soldiers, so they all moved at the speed of cavalry. Every other army, including all of the Crusader and Muslim armies we’ve discussed, had more soldiers on foot than on horseback. They all moved at a walking pace. But the Mongols could trot and canter for miles, moving far faster than adversaries calculated that anyone could move.

The Mongols had a taboo about touching blood, so they much preferred to kill at a distance by arrows. Also because they were always moving, their primary fighting was firing on horseback, as the Plains Indians later did. (The two cultures have a lot of parallels.) The civilized world assumed that fighting meant you would come into close contact, so they taught their boys hand-to-hand combat. The Mongols preferred to have most of the enemy dead before they got close. In the same spirit, the Mongols did not talk about dying for the Khan, any more than flight attendants talk about crashing. The idea was not to die! They wanted to win with no casualties, if possible.

One way to win cheaply was to use trickery. Mongols had no sense of chivalry holding them back from lying, using disguises, or any other ruse they could think of. To understand this, it helps to remember that every city they encountered was a novel situation, not something they had seen before. Like aliens in sci-fi, they saw everything with fresh eyes and invented a new method. There was no sense of “it’s just not done that way.”

When Mongol warriors did fall in battle, nobody worried about burial. It was steppe tradition to allow the Sky Father to look down on the bodies and dispose of them naturally, probably with vultures. Here again was another task that weighed down other armies, but not theirs. Mongols just walked away from a battlefield, leaving everything as it fell. In fact, when the Mongols began to see their enemies stripping and burying bodies, they were alarmed. As possible, they sent their dead back to the steppes where they’d be given a decent non-burial!

The Mongols preferred to fight in the winter, when the Gobi Desert was not as hot and draining. Frozen rivers could be crossed easily. Their horses scratched the snow for grass either way, and they could eat meat in any weather. So without the seasonal rhythm of planting and harvest shared by everyone else, they could catch their targets off guard.

Genghis Khan was a very intelligent man who admired the technology of every culture he saw. As soon as he was in control of the Northern Chinese cities, he ordered craftsmen into his service. Many were sent to Mongolia, where eventually they began to build a store-house city, Karakorum. Craftsmen were set up in workshops to start doing their technology miracles for the Khan. The Khan paid special attention to war machinery.

When the hordes had absorbed what Chinese and Uyghur culture had to offer, they began to bring squads of engineers along on expeditions. These men could build every kind of siege weapon on site. They didn’t have to bring anything with them. On arriving at a city, the Mongols enslaved everyone in nearby villages and set them to cutting trees. Their Chinese engineers quickly built every sort of catapult or tower needed for the situation at hand. The Chinese also had primitive gunpowder in rocket form, and the Mongols happily borrowed this, too.  One great thing about siege machines was that the Khan could pretend to abandon them, to draw the enemy (who thought chasing meant winning!) into the open.

The Mongols used displaced refugees as human shields, herding them ahead to create riots and confusion. They might herd refugees into moats to fill up with bodies. They used survivors as messengers, letting them go out with florid stories to scare other cities. They conscripted them as labor, and rewarded those who joined them. In fact, they had a tradition that if you fed their horses, you were a servant to be protected. When a Mongol accepted the hay or water you brought, it meant he had hired you and you had submitted. In this way, they absorbed as many people who would join them, and made material use of those who would not.

Finally, the rest of the world had come to an understanding that their ruling classes could respect each other. Saladin had sent ice to Richard when he was sick, for example. But the Mongols singled out the ruling class of each city to publicly blame and execute. They invoked whatever latent revolutionary energy was in the working poor. Because they made it crystal clear that submission was rewarded and resistance punished, their conquered cities usually remained submissive. The Mongols wanted tribute and treasure, but they did not want to take away anyone’s farmland. They didn’t want anyone to change religion or name. It wasn’t that hard to become Mongol vassals, if you were just ordinary people without a stake in the ruling class.


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Temujin’s Rise, 1206-1218

Far away, in a part of the world utterly unknown to Europe, a world-changer had been born around 1167. Temujin, or Genghis Khan, is one of those people in history whose intelligence still shines brightly. First, Genghis is pronounced Jengis. Modern Mongolian uses Russian letters and spells it Чингис (Chingis). This throws me every time, since in American English, we commonly start it with a hard G. I have to correct the voice in my mind all the time. Genghis Khan, the name we know, is of course a title, just as we know the Caliphs by chosen titles, not by their given names. But in the Great Khan’s case, we do know his childhood given name: Temujin, man of iron. Legend says he got that name because his father had just killed a Tatar named Temujin! Imagine having to name your baby after the last thing you killed.

Learning the history of the Khan’s family is difficult because the family seems to have viewed information as power and actively prevented people from learning Mongolian if they could. When someone wrote up a history of the Khan and his family, it was only for the family’s use, and it was kept in a locked chest. Only parts of it have survived, and it may have been literally censored with scissors at points, someone removing a name that was better left hidden from posterity (in their view). This document is now known as the Secret History of the Mongols. We have a few supplemental records to help check and flesh it out. I’m indebted to Jack Weatherford’s diligent work in assembling what can be known; after the USSR fell and Mongolia became an open country, he went to live there, using the local knowledge of herders to supplement the wisps of information Soviet-era Mongolian scholars had hoarded. All credit goes to Weatherford, and I highly recommend his books.

Temujin’s Mongols were people who lived at the border of the tundra, probably genetically related to the Eskimo-like Siberians who lived on the tundra proper. They were fur hunters who traded mink and bear pelts to the south. But just south of Temujin’s Mongols were tribes they were also related to, who were herders. We think of these groups as Mongols now, but before Temujin made Mongol identity a thing, they were just Merkit, Ongut, Kerait, Naiman, and Khitan. They were part of the trading chain from north to south, but their place was more firmly in the sheep and goat pastoral niche, whereas Temujin’s Mongols also hunted. The Mongols began to move out of the harsher conditions of the mountains and tundra, toward the plains, and began to adopt some of the pastoral ways.

Temujin’s father Yesugei was a “blood brother” to the Khan of the Keraits, Toghrul. This connection didn’t help Temujin much at first. Yesugei was killed by a rival tribe or rival leaders, and his two wives and their children were driven out to die in the wilderness. They survived; Temujin was not the oldest, but he rose to family leadership. He reportedly killed one of his half brothers when he was about 12. Temujin’s early life was filled with hardship: they starved, then he was captured and enslaved by another tribe. A friendly member of the capturing tribe helped him get out of the camp, and he hid in a freezing river for a long time while dogs searched for him. His family then lived as outcasts, tribeless wanderers, for a few years.

Temujin approached the Khan of the Keraits and asked to be made a commander. Toghrul seems to have led a similarly hard life, enslaved by the Merkits but escaping to rise to leadership among his people. It’s a bit hard to figure these things out because, at the same time that we get hard-luck stories, these tribes had a rigid idea of aristocracy. Lineage was counted both maternally and paternally, and there were right and wrong ways to be descended from the same person. Temujin seems to have taken a visceral dislike to aristocracy. In his early rising years, it came back to bite him again and again: his blood line was not quite the right stuff, so his children would be turned down for marriage alliances.

Temujin’s big break came when his wife, who had been engaged to him back when his father was still alive, was kidnapped by the Merkits. Toghril Khan had no fondness for the Merkits, so he approved Temujin’s request to lead a force out to find his wife and punish the Merkits. He obliterated those Merkits and found his wife Börte. She was pregnant, and it was never clear to anyone if the father was her husband or a Merkit, but Temujin raised the child as an oldest son. (As we’ll see, Mongols had some ways of looking at life that were very different from ours.)

Temujin did wonders for the Kerait as a war leader, but when his power seemed to threaten the Khan’s family, he was cast out. It was 1203. By now he was in his 40s, with a large family. He was again an outcast on the fringes of eastern Mongolia. He had a war band but they were reduced to starvation. However, in eastern Mongolia, they were on the edge of the Gobi Desert, which traders crossed in search of Siberian furs. A trader for the Onguts fell in with them and decided to give them food. Soon after, the rebel brother of the Kerait Khan who had cast out Temujin got in touch and made marriage alliances to gain his support.

Temujin’s power increased from that day. His genius lay in seeing that tribalism was keeping his people powerless against the Jin, the northern Chinese dynasty that usually dominated them. He wanted to forge a super tribe out of all of them. With marriage alliances and force, he brought in the Siberian fur-hunting tribes, the Keraits, the Naimans, the Merkits, the Onguts, the Tanguts, and the Tatars (previously the Mongols’ fierce enemy to the north and west). In 1206, at a massive Khurultai assembly of all tribes, Temujin became the Great Khan of them all: the Khan of the Grass Sea, the Jengis Khan. He doled out former tribal territories to his wives to rule, and then began marrying off his daughters, creating a family-run empire.

One of the quirks of Mongol family life (quirk in our eyes) is that they had a tradition of marrying young boys to older girls. Giving birth and surviving is much more likely if a girl’s bone structure is mature, and survival was tight on the plains. A 12 year old boy (considered an adult fighting warrior) could father a child, but a 12 year old girl might not safely bear it. So Temujin married his sons to older girls, and his girls to younger boys: but strategically. The girls had been tutored by Börte to know how to rule a tribe. Nobody was surprised when Temujin married them out, but then he did something nobody anticipated.

When Genghis Khan married his daughter into your tribe, there were special conditions. First, other pre-existing wives were out. After the husband had an opportunity get his Mongol wife pregnant (maybe), he had to go join the Khan’s horde. (Horde, by the way, is a genuine Mongolian word.) He was needed as a son-in-law to lead a brigade, but he was not needed to rule his own land. Each daughter was charged with ruling her new tribe as a subsidiary of the Khan’s enterprise and for his benefit. The new tribe was left in no doubt what would happen if they didn’t obey her.

One daughter went to the Oirat in the fur-hunting north. One went to the Uyghurs, a southern tribe that controlled some important caravansaries along the Silk road. Another two were similarly positioned in key places along Mongolia’s border with China. The new Queen of the Uyghurs actually learned to read several languages, since her city had a rich library. The Uyghur script was the first used to write the Mongolian language, though soon after, Chinese characters were also adapted. The daughters appear to have been very intelligent and capable. Genghis Khan’s rise was certainly fueled by the tribute they kept steadily pouring in, and the border stability they maintained. When a husband died, the Queen just married the heir, whatever his age or relationship: son, nephew, uncle, whatever.

Temujin’s four sons were not as bright, and they tended to drink too much. They were all married to Khatuns (princesses) from the confederacy tribes, like the Naimans and Keraits. Their wives were from Buddhist-based tribes that had adopted Nestorian Christianity in the last few generations. Genghis Khan didn’t care; he was a Tengrist, praying to the Father Sky and Mother Earth. Later, some of his grandsons enjoyed hosting religious debates among Jews, Christians, and Buddhists.

By 1206, Genghis Khan came onto the international radar (though not yet Europe’s) by taking his united “Mongolian” tribes to conquer the Jin dynasty, the northern Chinese who represented settled civilization to the Khan. They were farmers who ate rice, instead of the meat-only diet of the plains tribes. They used writing; they networked with powers even farther south. They built walls and trained standing armies. Conquering the Jin would be quite a feat. Spoiler: Yeah, he did it.

What’s really notable about the Khan, though, is how he organized his tribes into one super-tribe. He banned the old aristocratic notions of lineage, first. Then he did what early democratic Athens had done (without knowledge of Athens): he created artificial organizations to mix tribes together.

Ten fighting men were organized into a unit that, they were told, would replace their families. Not their actual wives and children, who were left home in any case, but their brothers and cousins. From now on, they had familial duties to their brothers in the “aravt;” they were to leave none behind, betray none, and so on. Ten tens were a “zuut,” and the aravts in a zuut also owed each other extended-family loyalty. The commanders of zuuts conferred with their commander of a ten tens of tens, the “mingghan” thousand. Ten mingghans were a “tumen,” and each tumen was led by someone personally appointed by the Great Khan. A son, a son-in-law, a friend, or someone who had risen by merit.

That’s the innovation: promotion was based on merit, not blood. The Khan passed over his own kin at times for someone more effective, which is utterly shocking in comparison with Frankish and Turkish or Arab familial loyalty. How could you build a strong organization without a band of brothers? Temujin had faced that question early in his life, and he had decided that merit and oaths meant more than blood. Your family may desert you to starve. Your band of brothers, made up of outlaws and strangers, can save your life. The Khan loved personal heroism as much as he hated aristocracy.

All of the ten-based units crossed not only familial but ethnic lines, mixing Merkits with Tatars, Uyghurs with Onguts. They all became Mongols. His tumen leaders composed marching songs that recited in Tatar the new set of laws and obligations they all lived under, so that every man knew just what he owed to the tumen, mingghan, zuut, and aravt. They also had marching songs with geography rhymes, so that messengers were sent from tumen to tumen with orders made up of the scraps from familiar rhymes. They had only to remember a few new numbers or words, and the rest fitted into a jingle to get stuck in their heads. In addition to his jingle-chanting horse messengers, the Khan set up a regular pony express postal service along the Silk Road as it came gradually under his control.

That’s the state of the Mongol super-nation when it conquered the Jin, sending Chinese aristocrats fleeing to Beijing to await the return of their time. The entire Siberian north had unified. The riches of China were exactly what the Khan had been hoping to find, but the Silk Road pointed west.


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The Fifth Crusade, 1216-1221

With many French and Anglo-Norman knights already fighting a Crusade in France, and several crowned heads excommunicated, the pickings were slim for a major crusade effort. After Pope Innocent III died, his successor Honorius III inherited the task. Pope Honorius had at least one unique qualification: he had been tutor to the child king Frederick in Sicily. Frederick was King of Sicily from the age of two, and at 18 had become King of the Romans (aka Germany) in 1212. Nobody knew the brilliant, sardonic, strong-willed German king better, and the two Crusades of this period turned out to be all about Frederick.

Frederick did not participate in the Fifth Crusade directly, however. Rome had spent decades, even centuries, trying to stay independent from the French and German crowns, the heirs of Charlemagne, whose power had first made the Roman Pope a real player on the international stage. That’s the downside of French and German military might: they pick you up, raise you up for all to see, then put you on their hands like a puppet. In the last century, Popes had been fighting free, in the most literal sense. So in 1215, the issue was that a marriage of the German king and the Norman Queen of Sicily had created this child, Frederick, who inherited both legacies. This meant that the German crown would now encircle Rome geographically.

Like a US federal regulator, the Pope preferred that Frederick break up his monopoly and rule only Sicily, leaving the German crown to someone else, like his infant son. Frederick, on his side, wanted all of it with the Imperial title added. Only the Pope could agree to crowning a Holy emperor, so both Innocent and Honorius said no. Fine, then, Frederick said no too. No to their Crusade. Negotiations went in circles and nobody ever closed the door decisively, but neither did Frederick raise troops and set out. So the Fifth Crusade was really all about Frederick’s absence.

King Andrew II of Hungary was the highest-ranking monarch to take the Cross this time. His nation had been closer to Constantinople for years, through marriage alliances, but both Andrew and his brother married into Western families. The Latinization of Constantinople was an interesting opportunity: it had no firm royal inheritance pattern, so new kings could be elected, and they needed firm ties with Rome. The Crusade presented an opportunity for Andrew to cement his ties with the Roman Church. He had recently given a huge land grant to the Teutonic Knights, who were certainly involved in this Crusade. Now he gave Venice the rule of one of those rich Adriatic coast towns they’d coveted, to pay for ships. He appointed regents, including his German queen, and joined her brother the Count of Merania (Bavaria) and the Duke of Austria.

In 1217, the German and Hungarian forces landed in Acre. They had 10,000 horses and a much larger number of foot soldiers. All three military orders sent knights to the war council in Acre, as did the Latin ruler of Cyprus. Saladin’s brother Sultan al-Adil took the threat very seriously, fearing another First Crusade event. He ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be torn down, as Saladin had done with Jaffa when Richard was marching to occupy it. Sure, it made Jerusalem easier to capture, but it also made it hard to hold onto.

Sultan al-Adil met the Crusaders in battle at the town of Bethsaida on the Jordan River on November 10. It’s a little hard to understand what happened next. First, the Crusader forces overwhelmed the Muslims at this battle. woohoo! Then the Muslims scattered and withdrew into fortresses. And after that, the Crusaders were supremely ineffective. Their siege machines didn’t arrive when needed, their sieges and assaults didn’t work, and King Andrew II got sick. And that was it.

The situation in the Mediterranean had changed so that it was now pretty easy to go and come from a Crusade. No longer did they have to fight their way through Anatolia; while the situation was not yet like booking tickets for a Crusade cruise, Venice’s ships had made it stable enough to rotate Europeans in and out of Acre by turns. King Andrew and some others went home, while a new wave arrived in 1218. The Counts of Cologne and Holland arrived with their fresh troops, but the new leadership decided to give up on the Holy Land itself.

With the Pope’s encouragement, the new Crusade leadership sailed to the Egyptian port of Damietta. This port is at the mouth of one of the branches of the Nile. It guarded the river with a huge iron chain that stretched from shore to shore, with a tower in the middle. The Crusaders landed on the west bank of the river, while the city was on the east. Sultan al-Kamil marched north to camp on the east side.

The Crusaders had early success, inventing a new ship-borne siege tower raised by pulleys, and cutting the chain. But after that, it began to go wrong. In the winter of 1218, rough seas flooded their camp, leaving fish in the tents. Besieging soldiers came down with scurvy: painful mouth sores and general wasting, some falling into comas and dying. By May 1219, those who could go home, did.

But a new factor had arrived in the Fifth Crusade: a papal legate who basically ate iron nails for breakfast. Cardinal Pelagius was absolutely convinced that any day now, Frederick II would arrive with a massive German-and-Sicilian-funded force and help them sweep Egypt. They just had to hold on. When al-Kamil offered a truce that left them with control over Jerusalem, Pelagius made them turn it down!

Why did al-Kamil offer them such a generous truce? Because summer 1219 was a bad Nile year. Kamil was facing constant internecine battles with his relative in Syria, and food prices shot up in Egypt. Damietta was suffering, the Europeans did not know just how much until later. Kamil was trying to do what Egypt needed. If the Crusaders would just take Jerusalem for ten years and go home, he could help Egypt get through a bad year.

In the summer of 1219, St. Francis of Assisi arrived in Damietta. Apparently we know little of this visit; the Crusade’s main chronicler, the French Archbishop of Acre, tells only a little, while the Muslim records didn’t see fit to even mention it. But in fact, Francis believed he had a divine mission to preach to al-Kamil, and he did. Kamil permitted him to visit and listened patiently. When Francis offered to test the truth of his Gospel by the ordeal of fire, Kamil said no. Francis was dismissed. He traveled a bit more in the Holy Land, but really was not able to make a difference.

In the fall of 1219, Damietta was essentially dying from the siege and lacked manpower to keep all of its walls defended. Some Crusaders noticed the gap in defenses and got a ladder, scaling the wall. They opened the gates for the rest of the Crusader army, who streamed in and began to plunder. But they were shocked to see just how badly Damietta was doing. Streets were strewn with dead and dying. Houses had corpses laid out with other corpses that had dropped dead caring for them. Tens of thousands had died. Still, the Crusaders cheerfully found any valuables and removed them. They also kindly baptized all surviving Muslim children (and probably some Coptic kids into the deal).

Cardinal Pelagius claimed Damietta for the Papacy and tried to govern it. As 1219 ticked by, conditions were still miserable all over. Many Crusaders wanted to give up, but Pelagius showed them a miraculous book that had just surfaced. What are the odds, you know? Just at that time, they find a book written by St. Peter, filled with prophecies that fitted exactly the conditions of the Fifth Crusade! St. Peter prophesied that soon a King from the West would arrive and complete the conquest of Egypt.

Then in the winter of 1220, the Pope finally struck a deal with his old pupil, and Frederick II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This was it! Pelagius’ dream come true. In the spring, new Crusaders arrived, and they decided it was time to press forward. In July of 1221, their force marched toward al-Kamil’s camp along the east Nile bank.

Sultan Kamil, we recall, knew Egypt well. He’d lived there all his life, unlike his more famous conquering uncle Saladin. He knew something that the Crusaders must have sort of known, but apparently did not keep in the front of their plans. That is, every August, the Nile flooded. The last year had been a low flood year, but apparently Kamil knew that 1221 would be a normal flood. So he camped at an intersection of a Nile tributary and the great river itself, in a carefully chosen spot. He sent emissaries to talk peace again, hoping to drag things out just a bit longer…August was coming.

I think the Crusaders who’d been in the region a bit longer got it. By July 24, the current “King of Jerusalem” wanted to turn back. But the Papal Legate held steady, and then…it was too late.

Just after the Crusaders crossed a canal that would complicate their retreat, Kamil sent men upstream to open flood-control gates. The canal flooded. The Nile’s tributary flooded. The Nile flooded. Kamil had them open the Nile’s gates wider. The fields that the Crusaders had anticipated to be battlefields were now several feet under, and there was no high ground to retreat to that wasn’t already occupied by al-Kamil.

Defeated, Legate Cardinal Pelagius sued for surrender terms. Kamil let them retreat, but his terms had changed. Jerusalem was off the table. So was Damietta. The terms were simple: go home and we’ll let you. And so they did. It was to be an 8 year truce.

And that was the Fifth Crusade. Frederick II never did show up. But we’ll hear from him again.



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Quia Maior and the Fifth Crusade, 1213-1215

The Fifth Crusade left a permanent mark on Roman Christendom, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation but even so, altering the way we look at serving in the church, even now.

It was Pope Innocent III’s second attempt to organize and lead a Crusade; he had learned from the Fourth Crusade and believed that the key lesson was not to lose control. And to raise enough money. In 1215, the Pope hosted the Fourth Council to be held at the Lateran Palace in Rome, a general church council like the great old ones at Nicaea and Chalcedon, except that by now, only Rome was involved. He had given participants a long time to plan their journeys, so the council was very well attended. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes the presence of 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 900 abbots!

The Council mostly dealt with theological issues like transubstantiation, which it affirmed as a necessary belief. (That’s the literal transmogrification of bread and wine into flesh and blood when the priest blesses it in the Mass.) There were also some interesting details, like the establishment of a 12-month probation period for heretics, during which if they took no action to defend themselves, they were presumed to be admitting to it (and then the secular ruler was obliged to banish the person).  Or, in a very different vein, one canon required every bishop’s seat (cathedral) to establish a school. Differently again, the Council proclaimed no new religious orders; if anyone wanted to start a new thing, he had to choose from an existing template.

The Council also cleaned up some political messes, excommunicating the Kings of both France and Germany, much as the Council of Clermont had done in 1095, and for basically the same reasons. That action had an impact on the upcoming Crusade, of course. It seems likely that royal lobbyists were quietly pointing out that evicting the two richest kings from Christendom’s good graces was a really bad way to launch an international project. But the Council was firm, divorce was not acceptable.

The Council also set up some rules looking forward to the next Crusade, which was being called by a separate Papal Bull known as Quia Maior. The Council stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a distinctive of dress, so they could be told apart visually. (I guess it had unnerved them to see how easily a Crusade could slaughter Catholics in Provence?) It also laid an arms and even shipping embargo on the Muslim lands, to prepare the region for war.

But the bull itself, Quia Maior (its opening words), laid out a new vision of how Christendom could participate in the Crusade. In this vision, you could go on Crusade without leaving home. The whole church could become a Crusading machine, as it were. That’s because Pope Innocent III recognized that giving money to the Crusaders was as important as going personally on Crusade.

In the original vision, a penitent sinner showed his wish to be forgiven by going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a way of acting out repentance: you stop sinning, turn from that life, and take up another life. The only way to earn the forgiveness of sin was to act through the deeds of repentance, making and keeping a vow. The Pope’s proclamations merely stated that this particular act was a sufficient penance for any sin, however large. But if a knight did not make a vow, or did not keep it, then he did not earn forgiveness. He had to go or die trying. (or he could try another kind of penance at home)

After the Fourth Crusade went so tragically off the rails for lack of funding, Pope Innocent III widened the meaning of participation. The penitential action that earned forgiveness now included any sort of help. You could go, or you could for example buy your poverty-stricken neighbor knight a horse, so he could go. You could donate cash to the expedition directly, to be used for whatever need. In fact, just as with charities today, that was the preferred option. Please consider NOT going! Please consider just giving as much money as you can: rest assured, it is sufficient penance, you will be forgiven.

What Pope Innocent III did not realize is that he was setting up a new church custom: buying forgiveness. By the time of Martin Luther, selling “indulgences” was a practiced fundraising operation. The money didn’t need to be used for Crusades, once it was in the church coffers, though doubtless during the run-up to a Crusade, much of it did go there. They say some cathedrals were funded mainly from “butter indulgences,” the purchase of regional forgiveness for eating butter during Lent’s long fast. (In places where olive and walnut oil were plentiful, they didn’t need butter.)

The Pope had an idealistic view of it: he was permitting all men to participate and contribute, even if they could not fight or go. Even if they gave the widow’s mite, their priest could still assure them of forgiveness. The whole of Christendom was thus mobilized to be cleansed of sin while building up the church’s power. Innocent III died soon after the Lateran Council broke up, so he never saw the way his precedent worked out. It’s ironic that the same Pope could lead the Council to forbid monasteries from requiring entrance donations, at the same time that he set up the indulgence-selling precedent. He genuinely did not see the connection.

Innocent’s death was the occasion of showing just how much his parishioners were not…innocent. He was laid out in state in Rome, that is, wearing his robes and jewels. By the next day, when the future Archbishop of Acre came to receive his blessing, he found the Pope’s body stripped of all valuables and most fabric. Next time they say “when in Rome,” just remember that sometimes what the Romans do isn’t worth imitating. (Nothing against Rome really: the poor are the poor, all over the world and through time.)

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Acre in 1215

By the time of the Fifth Crusade, the medieval port of Acre was not only the capital of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” it pretty much was the kingdom. But if you had to choose one city to pretend was a whole kingdom, medieval Acre was not a bad choice.

Alexandria, Egypt had been the primary Mediterranean trade city for centuries, and of course it remained a key port. But Northern Europeans were more comfortable bringing their products to the Crusader city, where Old French was the official language and it was easy to find speakers of German or Provencal. And so Acre became the primary trading port for about a century.

Northern Europe’s key export was wool. The cold climate encouraged sheep to put on thick coats, and the entire culture was set up to process wool into cloth, from cottage spinsters to water-powered weaving mills. Europe had two other valuable products to trade: amber from the Baltic and saffron, the pollen of the crocus flower. They also exported hunting dogs and falcons.

Everything else that the medieval world valued (and was portable) tended to come from the East: other spices, gemstones, silk, glass, and ceramics. Europeans made their own glass and pottery, but it had little value next to what came from Baghdad or Egypt. Of course you could find these things in Alexandria, but if you were a Northern merchant stocking up after unloading your bolts of wool, you were already in Acre. And so more and more trade went north.

Both Alexandria and Constantinople, the other ancient trade hub, had doubled their profit by manufacturing raw materials. Soda was made locally by burning plants that had grown in salty places, so a glassmaking factory was obvious. Acre now acquired glassmakers. Cities were where the most skilled workmen could find sufficient wealthy customers, so workshops for gold and silver smithing and fine silk weaving also grew up. There was a large scriptorium that produced fine book copies.

Exports from Acre weren’t just high tech or long-range, they also included local products. Farmers brought their animals to Acre’s slaughterhouses, where the animals turned into meat, leather, parchment, and soap. Dates and sugar were also grown locally; Acre had a sugar refinery for a while.

The city became horribly overcrowded and polluted. Windows facing the port had to be kept closed or refuse might blow in. We don’t even want to know what was floating in the water. Blood from slaughterhouses, even fouler refuse from tanneries, and household sewage was all poured raw into the sea.

Trade always has a pacifying effect on a region. The Franks in Acre were highly motivated to promote peaceful travel to and from Damascus and Aleppo, which were still Ayyubid-governed cities. Most of the time, a truce was in effect and life was pretty normal. It’s hard to know how the average person in Acre felt if he heard a new Crusade had been called. Was he glad knowing that trade would spike as newcomers came through, hopeful that regained territory would add to the city’s wealth, or sorry that roads might be closed as truces collapsed? The last seems likeliest, as we see in the history of modern Europe how allowing trade to be the most important consideration set up a Common Market that sponsored Europe’s longest period of internal peace.

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The Orders of Knights, 1209 forward

In 1190, some German merchants set up a field hospital at the siege of Acre. The hospital soon became an Augustinian monastery, then a military order like the Templars. It was called the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, or for short, the Teutonic (German) Knights. By 1209, it was increasingly a fighting force rather than a hospital. In 1220, the order purchased a castle on the road to Jerusalem, called Montfort or (for German tongues) Starkenburg. Its ruin is now a tourist attraction in an Israeli nature preserve.

The other military orders, the Hospitalers and the Templars, were prospering too. At this time, when the Crusader States were small and weak, the knight orders were correspondingly huge and powerful. Much of the settling and “peacekeeping” of the Holy Land was carried out by these non-governmental orders, who reported directly to the Pope. During this period, the Hospitalers built Krak des Chevaliers into a massive fighting machine that was almost unconquerable.

All three received by will acres of farm and forest land that they didn’t directly live on or rule, but they collected profits from it. The Templars owned so much of France that they became an international banking house. They pioneered the use of a cheque, that is, a certified withdrawal order on paper that could be presented in Acre after money had been deposited in Paris (or anywhere). All of the orders began managing such large tracts of land and sums of money that they were in effect supra-national organizations, floating sovereign states.

In 1211, the Teutonic Knights offered their services to King Andrew of Hungary, who would soon lead the Fifth Crusade. He gave them a province in Transylvania, where they began settling other Germans. They were supposed to help defend the border of Hungary against the Turkic Cumans. But like the other military orders, the German Knights soon grew so rich and powerful that they lost interest in serving the King of Hungary. They asked to be placed directly under the Pope, like the other orders. In 1225, Hungary revoked their land grant, though they did not carry out ethnic cleansing against unarmed Germans.

The Knights also offered to help defend the borders of Poland from the pagan Prussians. In 1226, Emperor Frederick II gave them a land grant to possess and rule any Prussian territory they could conquer. So they set out to do that. It took about 50 years, but they subdued it, both killing and baptizing as they went. By the early 1300s, there were Teutonic Order castles all over Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Germany.

In 1230, the Knights declared a new Crusader State in central Europe, later governed from their main Marienburg Castle in Malbork, Poland. It was made of red brick, and it is the largest castle in the world. It’s now a museum, World Heritage Site, and so on.

And of course, the Teutonic Knights also fought in the Fifth Crusade, alongside the other orders. All wore large crosses, but the German knights wore black cross on white, while the Templars wore red cross on white, and the Hospitalers white cross on black.

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