Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.
So it was with the Pax Mongolica, 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.
Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.
Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.
The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.
The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.
Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh.
In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more. Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.
First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.
Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.
After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.
Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.
In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.
Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.
Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.
Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.
Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.
In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.
Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.
According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.
Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.
There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.
The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.
Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.
In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.
In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.
“Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”
The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.
The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.
80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.
Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.
Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.
The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.
The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.
Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.
It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.
A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.
This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.
The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.
Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.
Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.
For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.