The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There is no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.
The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.
Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.
His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.
The Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History fails to record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.
The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.
The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words, “Horse Archer”. Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, every man capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed the rider to fire in any direction, including to the rear. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his mounts, fresh.
While medieval armies encumbered with long baggage trains sometimes averaged only single digits and rarely exceeded twelve miles at a time, Mongol riders could cover 100 miles and more, in a day. Vast hordes of these people could appear outside of city gates often, even before news of their presence.
The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior. The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of an American football field. High, arching ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 pounds. The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.
Following the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.
13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde. Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake with all its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde. On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev in modern Ukraine, following several days’ struggle.
By the end of 1241, Mongol armies crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei. Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required all Princes of the Blood to return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.
The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, in what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.
Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That all came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.
The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals. The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed. Survivors said the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of all those books, and red from the blood of the slain.
Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad range from 90,000 to an eye-popping one million. Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.
Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.
In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured. The Mongols never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.
Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.
Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day. Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed. Many, have never entirely recovered. Best known for pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.
The violence of the age was so vast and horrific it’s hard to get your head around. World War 2, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter. From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years. Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth. By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.
The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests, “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. Likewise could be said of the Mongol Empire. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.
This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished under Mongol control throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.
In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.
Mongols ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), but never regained the high ground of December 1241 as chieftains fell to squabbling, over bloodlines.
And yet, the Mongols never went away. Not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals up to 8 percent of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population at this time, to descend directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his tiny little fist. Genghis Khan.