February 20, 1280 Divine Wind

For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century 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.

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.

Mongolian horsemen ride in formation during the opening ceremony of the annual Naadam festival in the town of Arvaikheer, some 400 km (250 miles) west of Ulan Bator, July 9, 2006. This year’s festival is bigger than ever, as Mongolia celebrates 800 years since Genghis Khan united the nation. Celebrations around the country will culminate in a national festival in the capital on July 11. REUTERS/Nir Elias (MONGOLIA)

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.

The Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun first came to international notice as Börte in the 2007 Oscar nominated Russian film, Mongol.

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.

H/T ancient.eu, original image by bkkbrad

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.

Kublai Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire and self styled emperor of the Yuan dynasty sits atop a throne carried by four elephants in this 18th century engraving. H/T Wikipedia

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.

Portion of the “Mongol Scroll”, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.’ Commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, 1293

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.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

February 10, 1258 The Fall of Baghdad

Imagine an army of circus riders, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more.

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.

Following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of greater Syria, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur established a new capital on the banks of the Tigris River, occupied by a Persian village called Baghdad. Mansur’s grandson Harun al-Rashid subsidized the work of scientists, religious scholars, poets and artists who converged into the city. Books and manuscripts were written on paper, a new technology imported from China, and bound, in finest leathers. No fewer than 36 public libraries were built in addition to the grand library, the ‘house of Wisdom”. Baghdad became a center for learning in the medieval world, unusual for the time, most of its citizens, were literate.

Over the next 200 years, local conflicts reduced Abbasid control over much of the vast Islamic empire, to a mostly religious and ceremonial role. But for Baghdad itself, which continued to grow into the center of science, culture and philosophy western writers would later call, the Golden Age of Islam.

Meanwhile far to the east, a boy was born to 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.

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’s 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. acts of violence would be met with retribution and response 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.

By 1197, that boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to become 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, known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

Fun fact: Genghis Khan is often depicted with Asian features, though history fails to record of what the man actually looked like. He never let anyone paint his likeness. The Eurasian Steppe was a major crossroad before written history with genetic makeup as diverse, as any on the planet. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes, or maybe blue. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors were one of the deadliest episodes, in world history. Between 1206 and 1405, victims are estimated to number between 20 and 57 million. This at a time when the world’s population, was around 450 million. In 1221, Mongol armies carried out one of the bloodiest massacres in history in the old city of Urgench, in modern Turkmenistan. An army of two tumens (20,000) was ordered to murder 24 people, per man. In 1241, five separate Mongol armies invaded Hungary, the main armies under Subutai and Batu Khan. When it was over a third to one-half of the Hungarian population, had ceased to exist.

Let it be said that Batu was also known as Sain Khan, Mongolian for “Good Khan”.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his son and successor, Ögedei, ordered Chormaqan to attack Baghdad, in 1236. The general made it as far as Irbil about 200 miles from Baghdad, but the mongols would return. Just about, every year. Muslim armies were at times successful against such invasions and at other times, not. By 1241, the Caliph had had enough and began the annual payment of tribute.

That lasted five years. Baghdad sent emissaries to the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan (Great Khan) in 1246 and that of Möngke Khan, in 1251. Güyük expected full submission and demanded the presence of Caliph Al-Musta’sim in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian empire.

Imagine an army of circus riders, armed a minimum of 60 arrows apiece. Laminate composite bows combined the compression of horn with the elongation of sinew to develop draw weights up to 160-pounds. Each was capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, even to the rear. Each rider has no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop to keep his horses fresh.  In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more. 

Since 1092 the charismatic and reclusive Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors kept far more powerful adversaries in their place using a secretive, elite band of fida’in adherents to the Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. Great figures Muslim and Christian alike feared the secretive Hashashin (assassins) of the Alamut valley. The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people. The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake. The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on the General’s life.

The Grand Master of the Assassins even tried to assassinate Möngke Khan and the Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire, Kitbuqa Noyan. It was a bad idea.

In 1253, Noyan was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses. Möngke’s brother Hulagu conscripted one in every ten military age males in the entire empire and rode out in 1255, at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

As Khan, Möngke wanted full submission from several Muslim states, including the caliphate. Hulagu sent word to Baghdad, demanding submission. Musta’sim must have gotten some bad advice. Convinced the Muslim world would rise up against the invader, the caliph sent word. They could all go back where they came from.

A force of some 120,000 Mongol, Turkic and Manchurian cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad on January 29, 1258. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers joined in along with a force of Armenian and Georgian Christians, bent on revenge for raids carried out against the homeland.

20,000 Muslim horsemen sent out to do battle were crushed while Mongol sappers breached dikes along the Tigris, trapping Abbasid forces outside the city.

The mongol army constructed a palisade and a ditch around the city. Seige engines and catapults pounded the walls. By February 5, Hulagu’s forces had seized much of the defenses. Al-Musta’sim attempted to parlay but it was too late for that. 3,000 of Baghdad’s “notables” then attempted to negotiate. Every one of them were slaughtered.

The city surrendered on February 10, 1258. Mongols held back at last entering the city, on February 13.

To the modern reader, the ‘bloodiest day in human history” conjures images of modern warfare. The industrialized warfare of the Somme. Stalingrad. The homicidal regimes of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. Maybe so but many events in this parade of horribles unfolded over weeks, or months, or years.

A million people live in Baghdad on February 28, 1258. The orgy of killing that began on February saw no fewer than 90,000 killed one at a time, with edged or pointed weapons. Some estimates run to several times that number.

Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife Dokuz Khatun persuaded him to spare Baghdad’s Christians. All others, men, women and children, were slaughtered. The largest collection of books on the planet were torn to shreds, their leather jackets used for sandals and pages thrown in the river. They say the Tigris ran red with the blood of the slain, and black with the ink from all those books.

This was all carried out in front of Caliph Al-Musta’sim. His family was murdered save for a son brought back to Mongolia and a daughter taken as concubine, to Hulagu.

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.

So many people died in the sack of Baghdad, there was no longer labor to maintain agricultural systems. Irrigation canals not destroyed in the assault, broke down and silted up. Generations would come and go before the city regained anything close, to its former population. That center of learning in the medieval world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was gone forever.