Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fall of the Muslim Turks — The Mongol Cataclysm

The wandering tribes of North Asia had been fused into a permanent standing army. The tribal warrior’s attachment to his own tribe had been replaced now by a passionate loyalty to his military unit. Even in the harsh winter months, when there was no military campaign, Chingiz would organize great hunts across thousands of miles of steppe land. Nothing less than regular military campaigns, these hunts served the purpose of keeping the tribesmen fighting fit and prevented them from turning their weapons against each other.

But even these measures could not rob the tribesmen of their traditional desire for independence and personal ambition. And so General Subotai had to be sent on a campaign to subdue the Merkit tribe in the northern Gobi—at that same time a new danger was rising in the west. An ambitious Naiman prince named Gutchluk, who had escaped from the early Naiman campaign of Chingiz to the Turk kingdom of Kara-Khitai, had made himself the lord of those Muslims. Unlike the Turk population of Kara-Khitai Gutchluk was only a nominal Muslim but he established his rule by immediately employing his new army against the neighboring Uighurs and Tibetans.

To eliminate this threat Chingiz turned to his most energetic general. Chepe led two divisions in campaigns across and back over the Central Asian mountain ranges and Tibet. Using classic divide and conquer, Chepe enlisted the Buddhists against the Muslims, and offered an amnesty to all save the Naiman prince. Chepe sent a thousand white-nosed horses to Chingiz in memory of his first meeting with Chingiz on the battlefield. This successful campaign brought the domains of Chingiz in direct contact with the world of Islam.

A world created by the Arabs and inhabited also by Persians, Kurds, and Afghans, and which for the past few centuries had been under the Turk rule. These Turks were different from their nomadic brethren in that they embraced completely the religion of the Arabs and the culture of the Persians, and they now traced their descent either from Prophet Muhammad or from the great Persian Kings of yore. Some of these Turks had established their rule in parts of North India and some had usurped power from the Arabs in Egypt.

The greatest among these was Muhammad Shah who ruled a dominion[1] stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Syr River—the river drained into the Aral Sea. Another river to the south, likewise draining into the Aral Sea, was the Amu (Oxus). Between these two rivers were the cities of Samarkand and Bokhara and many well-garrisoned forts. In this vast plain, protected by these garrisons and fed by supplies from the cities and from the countryside, stood Muhammad Shah with 400,000 soldiers, waiting for the coming contest with the master of North Asia and China.

Proud of his Turk soldiers the Shah had scornfully dismissed all the tales of the Mongol conquests; “They have conquered only unbelievers—now the banners of Islam are arrayed against them.” His first victorious skirmishes against the patrols of Chepe’s division did not improve this view—Chepe had been exploring the newly annexed lands of Kara-Khitai and was at that time unaware of the war. However another division, under Juchi the eldest son of Chingiz, had wound its way through the high mountain ranges in the winter of 1220 and was following the River Syr down from its source.

Juchi was trapped within the narrow valley by Muhammad Shah[2] and for a full day that single division clashed head-on with the entire Turk army. Both sides were unable to force a decision due to the narrow confines of the battleground—the Mongols could not maneuver and the full force of the Turks in the rear couldn’t touch the enemy fighting at the front. At nightfall the Mongols set fire to the grass and disappeared in the blinding smoke—the next day the ground was found littered with bodies. Though many more Turks than Mongols had fallen, the Shah declared victory, but in a clear admission of his anxiety, urgently asked for reinforcements from the forts in Persia—especially for skilled archers. Chingiz when hearing of this first encounter praised his son and sent him an additional brigade of 5000 horsemen.

[1] Muhammad Shah’s empire is known to history as Khwarizm with his capital and ancestral town at Urgench (Central Asia).
[2] Juchi’s officers advised him to use deception and long-range maneuvers for several days until his father could come up with the main army, but the first-born son refused saying, “If I turn away from this battle, how will I face my father?

Meanwhile the division of Chepe, instead of crossing the Syr, had turned behind Prince Juchi’s division to go further east, turn back and then emerge at the River Amu, behind the army of the Shah. Such movements of men and animals across the high mountain ranges seemed nothing short of magic to Muhammad who was in danger of being cut-off from his base in Iran. The Shah promptly divided his army to tackle both Juchi and Chepe—in this way he was forced to dissipate the power of his much larger force due to the strategic movements of the Mongols[3].

The first of the frontier towns to fall was Otrar. Some time needs to be spent in retracing events that had taken place at this town the previous year since these were the main cause of the war between the Mongols and the Muslims. When their domains had first come into contact Chingiz had proposed trade relations to Muhammad, which the latter had accepted[4]. However the name and fame of Chingiz became known in the wider world and the Arab Caliph of Baghdad proposed an alliance with the Mongols against the hated Turk Muhammad. Nothing came of this proposal but around that time a convoy of Mongol merchants was stopped at Otrar and put to death on suspicion of being spies.

When Chingiz sent a high-ranking Mongol delegation to protest, Muhammad had the chief envoy executed and burnt the beards of the rest. In fierce rage Chingiz cried out, “There cannot be two suns in the heavens...or two kha-khans on earth!” He used the incident to declare war and motivate his soldiers to fight with ardor saying, “You go with me to strike with our strength the man who has treated us with scorn!

And now when Otrar had fallen, the Mongols razed it to the ground in revenge and drove out the mostly Persian townspeople. The offending Turk governor responsible for executing the Mongol merchants had molten silver poured into his ears while the Turk garrison was slaughtered. At Tashkent and Jend too the Turk soldiers were slaughtered while the Persian townspeople were left alive to serve the new rulers.

All this time Muhammad Shah waited for the Mongols to come within range of his main army. He knew that if he advanced to fight Juchi or Chepe, these divisions would tire out his forces in long-range maneuvers and leave him open to the final smashing blow delivered by the main Mongol army under Chingiz, which was probably hovering behind them.

And then, like a sudden bolt of lightning on a clear day, came the calamitous news that the main Mongol army was approaching from the west! In an extra-ordinary maneuver Chingiz avoided entering the mountain ranges and took his army across the entire breadth of Central Asia to cross the River Syr far downstream. Now Muhammad was not merely cut-off from his Persian base, he was about to be annihilated by the numerous Mongol armies approaching from different directions. He further divided his army to defend the main cities of Bokhara and Samarkand, and took away the rest across the Amu River and into the region of Balkh.

The 20,000 strong Turk garrison of Bokhara did not have the strength to oppose Chingiz and decided to join their Shah across the Amu. Chingiz heard of their escape and sent three divisions, which pursued the Turks at a distance and then fell on them when they were about to cross the river. Chingiz entered this city of Islam and rode into its main mosque on his horse—he had acquired some knowledge of the Muslim peoples and their religion and he used it in psychological warfare. “The sins of your emperor are many,” he told them. “I have come…I, the qahar-i-khuda, to destroy him.”[5]

The walled city of Samarkand had a garrison of nearly 110,000 Turk and Persian soldiers, along with twenty armored elephants—they far outnumbered the portion of the army now under Chingiz. But the Mongols had learned to deal with fortified cities in their China campaigns. Gathering up the rural population from hundreds of miles around Samarkand they forced them to drag the Chinese siege engines and to dig mud ramparts. The defenders of Samarkand mistook these captives to be part of the Mongol army and were so intimidated that they surrendered the well-fortified city! 30,000 Turks of the Kankali tribe even offered to join the army of Chingiz—these men were taken into service and then massacred a few days later.

The main army of Muhammad Shah had ceased to exist—there were of course the men recruited by his son Jelal-ud-din around the Aral Sea in the far north but the Mongols now blocked that path. Then there were the garrisons in the other cities of the empire, and still closer to Balkh were the Afghan tribes. But Muhammad got no time to ponder and decide because two Mongol divisions, marching separately under Chepe and Subotai, came riding hard after the Turk ruler. At the same time Chingiz sent two of his sons north to tackle the forces under Jelal-ud-din.

Chepe and Subotai chased Muhammad Shah east towards Baghdad, destroyed each force that he gathered together, and finally drove him north towards the Caspian Sea. Muhammad Shah took refuge on an island and finally died there a few months later. The two Mongol generals decided to explore the mountain lands of the Caucasus—their adventures here will be described later.

The force under Jelal-ud-din was also defeated and his ancestral town of Urgench was stormed—but the valiant prince escaped. All standing armies of the Muslims had been crushed and only the garrisons in the southern cities, the innumerable townspeople, and the peasantry remained to be tamed. By this time the heat was building up and Chingiz pulled back into the Central Asian mountain ranges and ordered a massive hunt for the summer months to keep his army fit and busy.

[3] It should be said that the Mongols spread their army across a wide range to lessen the pressure of securing food and fodder for their men and herds. In the modern interpretations of the Mongol campaigns these wide-range movements and multi-pronged attacks are only regarded as brilliant strategic moves without considering the mundane food-and-fodder issues.
[4] Chingiz made this proposal in a very patronizing tone, pointing out how he had conquered China and so many Turkic tribes; thus implying that the Muslim Turks of Muhammad were no match for the Mongols in military power and that it was in their interests for the two empires to engage through trade.
[5] In this speech he worked on the age-old Muslim fear that because of their sinful ways the wrath of God (qahar-i-khuda) would one day fall on them like a calamity. Chingiz also told them that the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca was a mistake because, “The power of heaven is not in one place alone, but in every corner of the earth.