“Now I wish to tell you [...] all the very great doings and all the very great marvels of the very great lord of the Tartars, [...] who is called Kublai Khan, which [...] means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and [...]this great Khan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world, or that now is from the time of Adam our first father till this moment; and under him all the peoples are set with such obedience as has never been done under any other former king. And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book, that it is a true thing which I have told you so that each will be sure that he is, as we say without contradiction, the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is.”
So Marco Polo introduces Kublai Khan in his Description of the World, as per the classic translation of Moule and Pelliot. Having now taken you through the successful Mongol conquest of China and fall of the Song Dynasty, we’ll now look at Kublai’s reign itself, and his efforts to build a new dynasty in China. Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and simultaneously Emperor of China, Kublai Khan was one of the single most powerful men in human history, rumours of his vast wealth and might spreading across the world. Kublai Khan’s long reign will be dealt with in two halves; a first one today covering 1260 to 1279, followed by a look at Kublai’s foreign ventures, then another episode detailing his last years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Kublai’s name has popped up in several episodes even before his war with Ariq Boke, but we’ve dealt little with the man directly. Born on the 23rd of September, 1215, Kublai was the second son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani Beki, and a grandson of Chinggis Khan. Indeed, Kublai was the last of the Great Khans to have ever personally met Chinggis, though Kublai was little more than 12 years old at the time of Chinggis’ death. It was never likely that Kublai would have come to the throne: while all of Sorqaqtani’s son received the same extensive education, learning to read and write the Mongolian script, take lessons in governance and even had Chinese advisers, Kublai was the only one of her four sons who really found himself attracted to Chinese culture. In time, Kublai even came to speak some Chinese, though never learned the characters. While Sorqaqtani’s eldest son Mongke led armies on the Great Western Campaign across the steppe in the 1230s, Kublai was beginning to govern Chinese for the first time, having been given an appanage in North China by Ogedai Khaan in 1236. Like many Mongols granted territory in China, Kublai did not actually rule from China, staying in Mongolia proper. As with much of North China, Kublai’s appanage was left to the whims of tax farmers and merciless officers demanding extraordinary levies. By the time Kublai learned of it, thousands of tenants had already fled their lands. Perhaps on the council of his Chinese tutors, Kublai sought assistance and local knowledge. The tax farmers in his lands were dismissed and replaced with dedicated officials. A regular taxation system enforced, burdens lessened and by the 1240s Kublai had succeeded in encouraging a number to return. The episode was an important one for Kublai. Leaving government to operate without oversight would allow all manner of corruption and abuse into the system, depreiving the lord of his tribute and putting increased pressure onto the peasanty and farmers at the bottom. Given the chance, they would flee, leaving those petty officials to now increase the pressure on remaining tenants and continue the cycle. By curbing abuses and encouraging growth, Kublai reasoned, the lord would reap even greater rewards over time.
For most of the 1240s, Kublai was a minor figure. He was a grandson of Chinggis and thus a high ranking prince, to be sure, but one of little importance without a military record to his name- the only kind of record which mattered, as far as the Mongols were concerned. Just before 1240 Kublai married his second and most famous wife, Chabi of the Onggirat. A wise and outspoken woman, Chabi would, for most of Kublai’s long life, be one of his most significant advisers and supporters, a calming and motivating voice when he needed it most. Chabi was also a devout Buddhist, and certainly must have encouraged Kublai’s own interest in Buddhism. It’s no coincidence their first son was given a rather classically Tibetan Buddhist name, Dorji. She may very well have been a driving force in bringing more Buddhist advisers into Kublai’s fledgling court in the 1240s. In 1242, the Buddhist monk Hai-yun was summoned to Kublai, who further educated Kublai on Buddhism. In 1243, Hai-yun helped Kublai choose the Chinese Buddhist name of Zhenjin, “True Gold,” for Kublai’s second son, rendered in Mongol as Jingim. Hai-yun introduced Kublai to another Buddhist, Liu Ping-chung, who would become one of Kublai’s most prominent advisers in the years to come. While Kublai was personally more inclined to Buddhism, he did not limit himself to it. Confucian scholars such as Chao Pi, Tou Mo and most famously, Yao Shu, came to Kublai in these years. Yao Shu was highly trusted by Kublai, and the Chinese sources are replete with examples of Yao Shu turning ancient Chinese parables and stories into practical advice for Kublai as a general and in time, ruler. These men were made responsible not just for informing Kublai of the ancient Confucian classics, but of tutoring Kublai’s sons as well. The oldest boy, Dorji, died early, and Jingim became the focus of their teaching efforts, receiving an education in Buddhism, Confucianism and even Taoism.
Confucians and Buddhists were not his only advisers; Uighurs, Turks and Central Asians served Kublai in a vareity of roles as interpeters, translators, officials and financial advisers. For military matters of course, Kublai relied on his Mongolian kinsmen. Over the 1240s and into the 1250s, Kublai cultivated what historian Morris Rossabi has termed the “kitchen cabinet,” of advisers, a wide collection of opinions and experiences which he could draw upon, men he knew for years and trusted, backed up by his wife Chabi.
As we’ve covered before, when his older brother Mongke became Grand Khan in the 1250s Kublai was thrust into the international spotlight. We needn’t go into this in great detail again; how Kublai was for the first time given a military command, against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. How Kublai returned to Northern China to oversee matters for Mongke there, only to annoy his brother with possible aspirations to greater autonomy and perhaps independence, an overconfidence brought on by a successful military campaign and fruitful years as a governor which saw him construct his own capital, known as Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Mongke greatly reduced Kublai’s influence in the aftermath, and Kublai only managed to crawl back into Mongke’s favour in time to be given command of an army in a massive assault on the Song Dynasty. The sudden death of Mongke in August 1259 brought the campaign to a screeching halt. Mongke and Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, stepped up into the regency. Kublai ignored requests to return to the imperial capital at Karakorum in Mongolia, and continued to campaign for a few more months, until his wife Chabi sent word of rumour that Ariq was going to put his name forward for the Khanate. But Kublai had already been aspiring for the throne. He may have intended to keep campaigning and build up his rather lacklustre resume as a commander, but now had to rush north earlier than he had hoped. In May of 1260, at his residence in Shangdu, Kublai declared himself Khan of the Mongol Empire, precipitating a four year civil war between himself and Ariq. Though Kublai had Ariq’s surrender by 1264, over those four years the princes in the western half of the empire took their independence, leaving Kublai ruler of a realm much reduced in size. As our previous episodes have demonstrated, Kublai sent his armies on the colossal effort to conquer southern China and its Song Dynasty, a task only completed by 1279. Kublai though, did not lead these armies himself, instead focusing on building his new empire, as we’ll go into today.
After declaring himself Khan in early 1260, his early efforts were directed at the war with Ariq Boke. Once the conflict quieted by 1261 and 62, as Ariq was pushed from Mongolia, Kublai could begin to consolidate his empire. Though he still perceived of himself as ruler of the Mongol Empire, he understood that his powerbase was in China. From the beginning, Kublai could not have merely co-opted Mongke’s administration. Since the reign of Ogedai, the Mongol imperial organization functioned through Secretariats, influenced by yet unique from the Chinese system. The Central Secretariat, based in the imperial capital, was the central government, the head of which served as a sort of Prime Minister, consulting with the Great Khan to carry out his will and laws. For Ogedai, Guyuk and Mongke, the Central Secretariat had been staffed by members of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard. The Central Secretariat delegated authority to the various Branch Secretariats, the regional offices overseeing imperial government. Branch Secretariats for North China, Central Asia and Western Asia were the three main offices, with a Secretariat for the Rus’ Principalities in the process of being organized at time of Mongke’s death. The Secretariats struggled to carry out their will, for they were operating alongside various regional Mongol princes who had been allotted these lands as well. The conflict over whether the Secretariats or the Princes carried out administration or taxation, among other responsibilities, was a key component of government ineffiencies over the century.
With the outbreak of war with Ariq Boke, most of the top members of the former Central Secretariat had sided with Ariq Boke in Karakorum, leaving Kublai to rely on his own men. Among his earliest actions was to get the loyalty of the China Secretariat and local Mongol princes, and prevent them from allying with Ariq. Of these, Qadan was the most significant, a son of Ogedai who ruled on Kublai’s northwest frontier, the border close to Ariq’s territory and the Chagatayids. Key allies like this allowed Kublai to focus on more internal matters.
The officials of the China Secretariat were naturally brought on into Kublai’s new government. Without access to the old Central Secretariat offices though, Kublai had to establish a new one after becoming Khan. Unlike the Central Secretariats of the previous Khans, Kublai’s was not filled by men of his keshig -though they were present- but civilian administrators and his own advisers. The first to head the new Secretariat was Wang Wen-tung. In structure Kublai’s Secretariat had much more in common with the usual Chinese office, indicative of the influence of Kublai’s Confucian advisers. The head of the Secretariat was assisted by two Chancellors of the Left and Right, often serving as his replacement and primary advisers to the Khan. The Head of the Secretariat and the two Chancellors oversaw what was known as the Six Functional Ministeries, which carried out the day-to-day running of the empire: the Ministry of Personnel, responsible for civilian officials; the Ministry of Revenue, responsible for the census, taxes and tribute; the Ministry of Rites, responsible for ceremonies, sacrifices and embassies; the Ministry of War, responsible for some aspects of military command, colonies, postal stations and supplies; the Ministry of Justice, which managed law and prisons; and the Ministry of Public Works, which repaired and maintained fortifications, dams and public land.
In 1263, Kublai also re-established another Chinese institution, the Privy Council, which managed the Imperial Army and protected the capital. Kublai sought a more centralized control of the army, but in this found resistance from the Mongolian leadership and princes. While Chinggis Khan had largely replaced the traditional military leadership and chiefs, a new hereditary leadership was installed, both from his sons and non-Chinggisids. By Kublai’s time, he was dealing with well-entrenched egos born into these positions. They would answer the Khan’s summons for war, of course, but did not want to be managed in all aspects by officials in a distant capital who may not have been nomads. To compromise, Kublai organized his armed forces into three major branches. The first a “Mongol Army,” under his direct control, and that of the Privy Council. This was stationed close to the Imperial capitals, made up of Mongols, Central Asians and Turks. This was followed by the “Tammachi,” the Mongols who served the Khan, but maintained their own princes and lived out in the steppes. Then there was the “Chinese Army,” the largely infantry force of Chinese who served as garrison troops.
By 1268, in order to watch his growing bureaucracy, Kublai brought on another Chinese institution, the Censorate. The duty of the Censorate was to inspect officials and route out corruption; they would report directly back to the Khan to inform him of the goings-on in his government, of tidings which may not have reached him through regular channels. For Kublai, good governance was a high priority, and he gave his Censorate great resources and power. The Khan wanted to know what happened at all levels of government. Compared to other dynasties, Kublai’s Censorate had great power… on paper. In reality, there is little evidence for its effectiveness outside of the provinces closest to the capital. The Censorate’s first leader, a Confucian named Zhang Dehui, resigned after a dispute with Kublai on how the law applied to the Khan. To put simply, Kublai argued that it didn’t, and Kublai had him replaced with a more pliant Mongol.
Kublai’s affinity for the classic Chinese government structures should not be overstated. Employing traditional styles of governance helped placate Confucian elites and scholars, going some ways to convince them that Kublai had ‘stepped past,’ his nomad roots, but he was unwilling to let himself be tethered to it. The most obvious example was in his refusal to restore the Civil Service examination systems. Since the Tang Dynasty, most Chinese bureacrats were selected after completing these exams. The highest men in the empires were scholar officials who were well versed in Chinese history and literary classics, and jealuously guarded access to high office from those who had never completed the exams. Kublai did not want to limit himself in who he could appoint to office, preferring to keep his doors open to anyone he perceived useful or deserving, regardless of their origins. So, the non-Chinese men from his keshig could still staff high positions, and men from Central Asia could be raised to high station. Of these, none were more famous than Ahmad Fanakati, becoming Kublai’s finance minister in the 1260s. Particularly with the rebellion of Li Tan in 1262, a Mongol-aligned warlord in Shandong, Kublai’s desire to place power in the hands of the Chinese lessenged. Though the rebellion was quickly crushed, Kublai’s chief minister of the Central Secretariat, Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wen-tung, was found complicit and executed. The power of Mongol-allied Chinese warlords across North China was greatly curtailed following this, and Kublai found himself far more suspicious of the Confucians in his government.
For Kublai’s empire, the old imperial capital of Karakorum was untenable. Deep in Mongolia, it was a difficult to supply and highly exposed location, now vulnerable to the mobile horsemen of Kublai’s Central Asian kinsmen- first Ariq Boke, the Chagatayids and in time, the young Ogedeid prince Qaidu. Neither could the complex bureaucracy he was building be managed from Mongolia’s Orkhon valley. Karakorum was to be effectively left abandoned, a garrison outpost of only symbolic value. For a little over 30 years Karakorum had been the administrative centre of most of Eurasia. Never again would it regain its importance. Kublai first made Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia at the edge of the steppe and Chinese frontier, his capital. Shangdu, originally called Kaiping, is most well known through Samual Taylor Coleridge’s poem Xanadu. Though it housed Kublai’s court and was in the steppe, it was built in Chinese style; roughly a square, with low, rammed earthern walls and a palace. But even Shangdu was insufficient for governing the empire. The area was unsuited to housing a great population, and would still have kept Kublai removed from his subjects. Chinese sources assert that Kublai’s Chinese advisers informed him of the need to govern from within China, but Kublai must have seen it himself. Most Imperial capitals were located more centrally, along the lower arm of the Yellow River where it cuts through the North China plain. Of these cities, none were better known than Xian, in Shaanxi province, from which a great many dynasties ruled from. The former Song and Jin capitals of Kaifeng were also located along the Yellow River. Kublai did not wish to abandon his homeland though, desiring to maintain some proximity, both for personal and security reasons. So a more northerly location was chosen: the ruins of the Jin capital of Zhongdu. Fittingly, the city had been taken by the Mongols the same year as Kublai’s birth, in 1215, and now Kublai was the one to restore it… somewhat. His new city was built just northeast of Zhongdu, straddling three rivers to provide ample water for the population. Construction began in 1267. Built in Chinese style but overseen by a Muslim engineer, it was a vast, square shape with walls of rammed earth. Within was a smaller enclosed area, housing the imperial city, palaces and residences of the Khan. This was to be Dadu, meaning great capital. To Mongols and Turks, it was Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. Marco Polo would interpet it as Cambulac. Today, Beijing sits atop of it.
Dadu in many ways embodied Kublai’s often roughly mixed Chinese and Mongolian demands. The Chinese wanted Kublai to step into the expectations of a Chinese Emperor and conduct proper rituals to maintain the Mandate of Heaven; constructing a capital within China, building requisite temples to honour his ancestors and donning proper imperial garb helped to present the necessary image. Yet, Kublai and his sons slept not in Dadu’s sumptuous residences, but in gers in the city’s central park; feasts were decidedly more Mongolian in terms of drunkenness and yelling; his altar sat on top of soil brought from Mongolia. In a sort of quasi-nomadization, Kublai conducted treks between Shangdu and Dadu every year, spending summers in Shangdu and winters in Dadu. Each trek was marked with Mongolian shamanistic ceremonies: flicking airag onto the ground for the departing Khan and calling out the name of his illustrious grandfather. At Shangdu Kublai hunted and feasted, doing a little bit to remind himself of his heritage and escape the demands of office.
As we’ve been iterating, the image of a legitimate emperor of China was a major part of actually ruling China. Each Chinese dynasty, it was believed, ruled with the Mandate of Heaven, the divine support necessary to control the Middle Kingdom. Victory in war meant the conqueror had Heaven’s support. But Heaven needed to be appeased through proper ritual and ceremony. Good governance and climate meant that the Dynasty had Heaven’s support. Corruption and ecological disasters, coupled with military defeats, meant Heaven had rescinded its blessing. The image of being a proper Chinese ruler was therefore necessary for any man wishing to have that divine backing. Kublai would have been reminded of this constantly by his advisers, particularly Liu Ping-chung, who urged Kublai to commit to declaring a dynasty and marking himself as the successor to the Song. In 1271 the Yuan Dynasty was officially declared. Yuan was taken from the Yijing, the Book of Changes, one of the most ancient of all Chinese classics. Yuan has connotations of primal energy and the origins of the universe; all auspicious things to refer to for a man who already had the backing of Eternal Blue Heaven.
To Kublai, taking the Dynastic name of Yuan was not an indication he was replacing the Mongol Empire. To him, Da Yuan, the Great Yuan, was another way to express Yeke Mongghol Ulus, the Great Mongol State. It was to help Chinese acceptance of his rule and maintain Heaven’s Mandate. But it was a fine line to try and present oneself as both Mongol Emperor and the Chinese Emperor, and the declaration of the Yuan may have been in part a recognition of his lack of effective power over the western Mongol Khanates. Kublai still very much saw himself as their overlord, but even he would have recognized his actual power over them was limited at best.
By declaring the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai was also demonstrating his intention was not just to loot and occupy China, but actually rule there. Now, we’ve talked alot about things Kublai ordered, declared and issued: but what did his rule actually look like? In terms of wanting to be a good ruler, what did Kublai accomplish in this regard? Well, ol’ Kublai was not just a man of ideas, but put things into action. Reconstruction of China both north and south was a primary goal of his. Northern China had hardly recovered from the prolonged Mongol-Jin warfare. Despite efforts in the past to institute regular taxation as proposed by the thanksless Yelu Chucai, much taxatio remained adhoc, local populations still being taken advantage of by Mongol officials. For the success of his Dynasty, Kublai wanted the burdens on the population relieved.
In 1261, Kublai began to provide funding for the Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture, headed by his friend and adviser Yao Shu. The stated goal of the office was to help peasants restore, develop and advance agriculture. Kublai wanted Northern China to once again reach a state of food security and be able to produce surplus as protection against shortages. A starving and discontented peasantry would pose a risk of massive uprisings, and the surplus was needed for the massive capital at Dadu. Dadu required 58 grainaries, each one holding 2,170,440 kilograms of grain, or 4,785,000 lbs. Kublai needed a reserve just to feed his capital, let alone secure northern China.
Kublai also understood it was not just a matter of providing funds and labour; the peasants needed to be protected from the Mongols. In 1262, Kublai forbade Mongols from ranging their animals through peasant fields, protecting vital cropland from becoming lunch for hundreds of goat and sheep. He also sought to abolish, once and for all, the tax farmers who sought to beggar the Chinese. Taxes needed to be simplified, and the power of the princely appanages curtailed in order for the Central Secretariat to retain dominance. For this, princes were denied their ability to collect taxes; rather than pay both the local prince and the Central Government, the taxes would go just to the government. Then, an allotment would be provided to the princes. Simplifying and reducing taxes always goes a long way to reducing stress on the folk on the bottom of the social rung. Taking this further, Kublai also reduced or completely removed taxes on entire regions to help them recover. Funds were provided for farmers to restore lands damaged during the conquest, as was grain for those in need. The Khan regularly met and sought knowledge from his advisers on how to restore the countryside and promote trade, and heaped rewards on those who provided effective ideas.
Kublai also promoted what he saw as useful professions. Generally, Chinese dynasties looked down on craftsmen and doctors, but Kublai carried on the Mongol practice of favouring those with skills. Craftsmen and doctors were exempted from certains taxes and corvee labour. For craftsmen and merchants, Kublai encouraged trade, especially from Central Asia and on the South Asia sea routes. In 1268 he opened the General Administration for Supervision of the Ortogh, which provided government loans to merchants taking part in caravans from Central Asia. In southern China, kilns were registered and supported by the government to aid the production of porcelains, a valuable part of the Southeast Asian sea trade. Taxes were lowered on commercial transactions, roads and routes were improved to facilitate movement. Foreign merchants were encouraged to come to China in order to advance the overseas trade, bring their knowledge and even serve in the government: owing their work to the Khan was thought to make them more useful. It is in such a capacity that Marco Polo would work, serving it seems in Kublai’s keshig, as we’ll explore in a future episode.
For doctors and physicians, Kublai established and funded academies and hospitals for them to work in, and to learn from Muslim medical knowledge Kublai imported- a full 31 volumes of Muslim medical practices were collected for the court library. As Kublai was often in poor health and suffered terribly from gout, he was keen to support this industry and whatever relief they might bring him. Expensive drugs, ingredients and doctors were collected from across the Islamic world and even southern India and brought to China. Exempted from many tax obligations and corvee labour, and often serving upon the elite and government, medical leaders reached a very high, and very lucrative, social standing they had not previously enjoyed. By encouraging the growth in numbers of physicians and hospitals, this brought greater access of their services to people at large as well.
Within his first years as Khan, Kublai had also organized the printing of new paper currencies. The first of these was backed by silk, and the later by the silver reserve. Earlier Khans had encouraged payment in coinage over kind, and Kublai took this to the next level. He hoped to employ the same currency throughout his realm to ease trade and aid in economic stability. The earlier paper mony printed by his predecessors and the Song emperors was invalidated, though in the former Song territory the people were given a period of years to hand in the old money, including gold, silver and copper coins, in exchange for the new. Until the late-1270s, Kublai kept tight control on how much was printed in order to prevent inflation, and the system worked quite well. Only with costs endured from the failed attack on Japan and the last years of war with the Song, did the printing of paper money escalate, though not yet to disastrous levels.
In science too, Kublai promoted cross-continental contacts. Astronomy was always of interest to Chinese monarchs and diviners, and a good mark of any emperor was formatting a new calendar. For this, considerable Muslim knowledge was imported. In 1271 the Institute of Muslim Astronomy was founded, allowing Chinese astronomers to study translated Islamic texts and instruments to design their own, and eventually provide Kublai a new, more accurate calender. Kublai also ordered the establishment of a new legal code which began to take effect in the early 1270s. It was actually more lenient than previous dynastic legal codes: only 135 crimes were punishable by death in the Yuan legal code, less than the preceeding Song, or succeeding Ming, legal codes. Executions per year during the 13th century rarely exceeded 100, with the Khan personally reviewing these cases, preffering to send them to labour or to pay a fine. The latter was an uniquely Mongol addition to the Chinese legal system. For the Mongols, such fines were regular compensation for punishments, and now too would become standard practice in China.
Kublai also gave China the basis for the provincial organization it holds today. As the first man to unite all of China in 300 years, he was able to order a country-wide provincial reorganization. Unlike previous dynasties, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan were now part of China; Yunnan, for instance, had never been under Chinese suzerainty before, and has never left it since. Kublai reorganized China into 12 provinces, each governed by regional versions of the Central Secretariat. In much of the south, former Song officials were brought to staff the lower levels of government, but a system of Mongol and Central Asian daruqachi supervised and managed them.
As part of his hope to tie the various disparate regions of his empire together, Kublai sought a writing system all could use. He did not want to rely on Chinese, a script few Mongols had ever learned. But neither was the Uighur script the Mongols used for their own language fully adequate. Adopted by Chinggis Khan in 1206, it only barely covered the sounds of spoken Mongolian, and was simply incapable of representing Chinese. For this task, Kublai turned to one of his best known advisers, the ‘Phags-pa Lama. Born in 1235, in the 1240s he accompanied his uncle, the Sakya Pandita, one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism’s Sa-Skya sect, to the court of Ogedai’s son Koten. Basically growing up in Mongol courts, in the 1250s he found himself attached to prince Kublai, and in time Khan Kublai. Made Kublai’s personal chaplain after he became Khan, in 1264 the ‘Phags-pa Lama and his brother were appointed to govern Tibet on behalf of the Mongols. Having spent comparatively little time there, they did not do a great job. His brother died in 1267, which was soon followed by an uprising from a rival Buddhist sect, crushed with a forced reimposition of Mongol rule. With the Mongols now ruling Tibet directly, the ‘Phags-pa Lama returned to Kublai’s court, where he was given a new task: designing for Kublai a new universal script for the empire. Completing it by 1269, this was the famed Yuan square script, or ‘Phags-pa script, as named for its designer. Based on the Tibetan script, it was 41 square shaped letters written vertically and designed to capture sounds of both Chinese and Mongolian. Kublai was delighted and heaped rewards onto the ‘Phags-pa Lama, making him Imperial Perceptor and Head of all monks in Kublai’s empire, in addition to further tutoring Kublai’s son Jingim. Kublai ordered the script to be taught to all officials, and all government documents were to be issued in the new script. Surviving stone inscriptions, paper money, porcelain and state paizas from the Yuan period all feature the characteristic blocks of the ‘Phags-pa script. But aside from official and decorative purposes, the script never caught on even within the government, despite repeated proclamations from Kublai for his officials to learn it.
In keeping with the precedent of previous Khans, Kublai’s early reign encouraged the respect of religions. The legal code did not set out to prohibit any religion, and religious communities, especially Muslims, were often self-governing as long as they paid taxes. Respect was shown to Confucians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Shamanists and even those Christians in China. Like Mongke, there were members of these religions convinced that Kublai was about to, or had already, converted to their faith, so effective was Kublai at protraying himself as a friend to all. The ‘Phags-pa Lama, for instance, presented Kublai as the Buddhisatta of Wisdom to Tibetans while Marco Polo portrayed Kublai as a fine Christian monarch in his accounts. Tax exemptions were provided to religious orders, financial aid to help in rebuilding and constructing new temples, representation at court and other privileges were granted to these various communities. In exchange, they convened with the Heavens and Gods on Kublai’s behalf to bring good fortune onto the Yuan realm and maintain the Mandate of Heaven.
It should not be thought that Kublai set out to create an idealized utopia- he was still Mongol Emperor after all, and the Mongols were only a small minority among tens of millions of Chinese. Kublai issued proclamations to keep Mongols and Chinese separate; the Chinese could not learn Mongolian or wear Mongolian clothing, and it was illegal to sell Mongolian horses to them. Marriage and intermingling were dissuaded. Most famously, Kublai organized a racial heirarchy to determine favours and certain rights. Obviously, Mongols were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the semuren, referring to Central Asians, Muslims, various Turks and even Tangut. Below the semuren was the hanren, the northern Chinese and former denizens of the Jin Empire. Khitans and Jurchen were included among them. After 1279, another category was added, the nanren, the Southern Chinese of the late Song Dynasty. The cateogrization though was vague, subject to change and often ignored. Yet it underlined a key fact: despite all Kublai did to look like a Chinese monarch, neither he nor his successors would ever be Chinese, and that divide would not disappear after Kublai’s death. For those Mongols still in Mongolia though, Kublai certainly looked too much like a Chinese monarch for their tastes. This was not a dynamic that would promote the longevity of the Yuan Dynasty.
From 1260-1279, Kublai Khan’s reign was marked by numerous accomplishments, with the notable exception of the invasion of Japan in 1274, and of course, his loss of control over the western Khanates. He set about creating a new government structure to run his empire, utilizing talent from across Eurasia and rebuilding China after decades of war. For the first time since the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, China was united under one ruler. But 1279 was to be, in many ways, the high water mark of his reign. The effort it took to manage the Yuan government was considerable, and needed tremendous personal energy on the part of the monarch to keep it running as effectively as possible. As age, health and personnal losses took the energy out of him, the 1280s ultimately marked a series of failures for Kublai, which we will explore in forthcoming episodes, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/Kingsandgenerals. This script was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Series researcher Jack Wilson and historian Stephen Pow discuss Pow's explanation for one of the most vexxing issues of Mongolian studies: what is the relation between the terms Mongol and Tatar, and why do so many people across Eurasia consistently use Tatar over Mongol?
Zijn er afleveringen die ontbreken?
“In the world there is the spirit of righteousness, taking many forms,
bestowed on the ever-changing things.
Below they are the rivers and mountains; above they are the sun and stars,
With people it is called the spirit of honour and fearlessness, so vast it fills the universe.
When the empire is tranquil one pours forth harmony in the splendid court.
When times are extreme true fidelity is seen, and goes down in history case after case.”
So goes a poem written by one of the last defenders of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang, as translated by Feng Xin-ming. Held prisoner by Kublai Khan after the fall of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang wrote this poem as a part of his refusal to accept to Mongol rule before his ultimate execution. Such defiance was a surprising hallmark of the final years of the fugitive Song court, reduced to a collection of hardliners and loyalists unwilling to peacefully surrender the Mandate of Heaven to the house of Chinggis Khan. Today, we look at the flight of the fugitive Song court after the fall of their capital of Hangzhou in 1276. We will follow brave men like Wen Tienxiang, Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu in the final days of the Song Dynasty, a hopeless struggle culminating in the bloody waters of Yaishan in 1279. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Our previous episode brought us to the early months of 1276 with the surrender of the Song capital city of Linan, modern day Hangzhou. The child emperor, Gong of Song, and the elderly Empress Dowager, were brought into the hands of Mongol general Bayan, who escorted them north to bow before Kublai Khan. Organized Song resistance seemed broken, and while the Mongols would need to ensure the official submission of the southernmost regions of Song China, such actions were a mere formality compared to the effort needed to seize the Yangzi River cities. Most of the Mongolian army returned northwards soon after, intent on sparing Mongols and their horses from the worst of the south’s summer heat and humidity. There was but one issue: two of the Song Emperor’s young half-brothers had been smuggled out of Hangzhou under a small guard of soldiers. Bayan had sent riders to pursue them, but the fugitives escaped them in the mountains south of Hangzhou. Fleeing to southern Zhejiang province, they made it to Wenzhou, a city on the coast. From there, they took ships to Fuzhou, just across the straits from Taiwan, where they were joined by other loyalists who had abandoned Hangzhou in the days leading up to Bayan’s arrival. These included the general Zhang Shijie, who had repeatedly fought with the Mongol fleet on the Yangzi in the last episode; Chen Yizhong, the former Song chancellor who had succeeded Jia Sidao; Wen Tienxiang, Yizhong’s brief successor who was temporarily held captive by the Mongols before escaping; and other courtiers and generals, like Li Xiufu and Xia Gui. News of the gathering at Fuzhou spread across the south and brought other hiding loyalists to come out of the shadows in early summer 1276, encouraged by the Mongol withdrawal back over the Yangzi River.
By June 1276, the older of the two half brothers, the five year old Zhao Shih, was declared the 17th emperor of the Song Dynasty, temple name Duanzong of Song. The enthronement prompted a wave of loyalist uprisings in the south and over the summer, growing into an actual offensive against the Mongols. Citizen armies retook cities in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. Most of the south and southwest of the Song realm were still outside of Mongol control, and in Sichuan those still resisting found new heart. At Fuzhou, the court built a new navy from those ships which had escaped destruction on the Yangzi, some provided by patriotic ship owners in the south, and some which were forcibly seized from private hands. For a few weeks, there was actual momentum against Mongol rule.
By the fall of 1276, this momentum had largely burnt itself out. The infighting which had been endemic to the Song court reared its head in this fugitive court. Chen Yizhong, who had only come out of hiding after the royal boys had arrived in Fuzhou, had again been made Chancellor, despite the fact his performance as Chancellor in Hangzhou was generally ineffective. Once more the Song Chancellor, Yizhong immediately fought with the others for influence over the young emperor, a stupendously stupid act when all of their energies should have gone against the Mongols. His conflict with Wen Tienxiang forced the latter to abandon the court to fight on his own in his home region of Jiangxi, raising troops there to resist the Mongols. From his base in Jiangxi, Wen Tienxiang led hit and run attacks against the Mongols as far as Lake Poyang. With Tienxiang out of the way, Yizhong butted heads with the most important and capable military leaders left in the fugitive court, Zhang Shijie and Xia Gui. Xia Gui grew so frustrated that he defected to the Mongols, bringing with him a number of districts in Huainan. The infighting predictably hamstrung the already limited capabilities of the Song court. With a mere boy as emperor, there was no one to mediate over Yizhong’s actions, causing them to hemorrhage much needed men they couldn't afford to lose.
And of course, the Mongols were not keen to allow these fugitives to claim legitimacy or strike at such newly taken territory; though they held by now no hope of truly overthrowing Mongol rule. News came of the fall of the Yangzi cities of Yangzhou and Chenzhou after prolonged resistance to the Mongols, soon followed in the autumn with a Mongol invasion of the south. More accurately, we should describe this as a Yuan invasion. While serving the Mongol Khaghan, often commanded by Mongols and Central Asians and with a core Mongol cavalry, the main body of these troops were Chinese, largely northerners but a great number of former Song soldiers and levied southerners. In large part, this was due to the conditions and environment; the climate of the south was difficult on those used to the drier and cooler north, and much of the geography was simply unsuited to large scale cavalry warfare, though Mongol horsemen were employed when appropriate. Under the command of the Uighur, Ariq Khaya, the armies of Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty came in a great pincer movement towards Fuzhou late in 1276. By the end of the year, the boy emperor and his court took to the sea to escape Fuzhou, which soon fell to the Yuan armies.
The young emperor and court had begun what was to be a dreadful pattern. Their ships would find some coastal city to make their new sanctuary, only to be forced to flee in a matter of days, weeks or months as Yuan armies or ships converged on their position. From the last days of 1276 to until 1278, this was the wretched life the court lived, a constant fear for when the banners of the Yuan would arrive on the horizon. From Fuzhou they stayed in Quanzhou, perhaps the wealthiest port in the world and a gateway to the seatrade of southeast Asia. Here, the court sought to ally with their former subject, Quanzhou’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade, the immensely wealthy Fu Shougeng. A highly talented fellow, Fu Shougeng was a descendant of Arab traders, his wealth, influence and veritable armada of ships making him a powerful ally for anyone seeking to control the southern Chinese coast. Both Kublai and the Song court sought to gain his support, but the Song had little patience for carefully cultivating a relationship. The Song general Zhang Shijie attempted to sidestep Fu Shougeng and just commandeer ships and resources for their purposes. Alienated, Fu Shougeng tried to trick the boy emperor into following him in order to capture him for the Mongols, but the ruse was spotted and the court escaped. With their flight, Fu Shougeng officially declared for Kublai, who rewarded him by making him the military governor of much of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. As revenge, Zhang Shijie blockaded Quanzhou’s port late into 1277 until Yuan ships drove him off. Fu provided his ships and resources to the Yuan, enlarging their growing presence on the South China sea, while Fu encouraged other holdouts in the region to submit to the Khan.
As the Song court moved from port to port along the southern coast over 1277, the Yuan continued to strengthen their hold on the mainland. Ariq Khaya focused on holdouts in the south in a methodical campaign; not a great tidal wave of destruction like Chinggis Khan had unleashed upon Khwarezm nearly 60 years prior, but a thorough effort which instituted civilian administration as he went. The area Ariq Khaya took was immediately brought into the Yuan Empire, rather than left a ruinous buffer. Another general, Sogetu, meanwhile pursued the Song along the coast, mirroring their movements from the land and falling upon any city which gave shelter to the emperor. The Mongol advance even encouraged local uprisings against the Song; one fellow leading such an uprising in the interior of Fujian was caught and executed by the loyalist Wen Tienxiang, but it was a minor success as the Yuan hold on the south grew. Wen Tienxiang and his army was forced to the coast, and over 1277 and 1278 Song territory along the southeast was reduced to a few well fortified but isolated coastal holdouts.
In the first month of 1278, while in the midst of once again sailing to a new port, the Song fleet was caught in a storm, sinking several ships. The young emperor was among those who fell into the cold waters. Though he was rescued, the poor lad fell ill. The stress of the flight coupled with illness rapidly eroded his strength. In May of 1278, Zhao Shih, temple name Duanzong of Song, succumbed, not even 9 years old by the European reckoning. The fact the disillusioned Song court did not immediately dissipate is due to Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu, who rallied them around the late-emperor’s even younger half brother, the 6 year old Zhao Bing, who they quickly enthroned. It was not enough for some, and no one was happy to fight for the third child-emperor in a row, when most of China was now in Mongol hands. Chancellor Yizhong suggested the court could find refuge in Dai Viet in northern Vietnam, the kingdom known to the Chinese as Annam. Yizhong offered to go himself as an envoy, but the reception among the court was cool. He left for Vietnam anyways; judging by summons by the Song for him to return, this may have just been him abandoning the cause. Yizhong never returned to the fugitive Song court, spending a few years in Dai Viet before fleeing to the Kingdom of Sukhothai in Thailand for the last years of his life.
In June 1278, the Song imperial fleet, now largely under the thumb of Zhang Shijie, settled on Yaishan, some 120 kilometres west of modern Hong Kong. Yaishan was a difficult to reach island nestled in the Chinese coast; surrounded by rivers, mud flats sides and mountains. The island has access to the sea via a narrow waterway, a lagoon on its south side which cuts between two steep cliffs, from which the area’s name is derived. It was a defensible base and large enough to hold the considerable population they brought with them. The sources speak of 200,000 aboard over 1,000 ships: soldiers, ships crews, families, court officials. Zhang Shijie ordered them onto the island, where they immediately built a small city, cutting down trees for palaces and barracks. The river systems around Yaishan led deeper into Guangdong province and to the city of Guangzhou, from which the Song court was supplied. Zhang Shijie had had enough of running, and was intent on making Yaishan the location from which they would retake the Song realm, or make their final stand.
As the Song settled on Yaishan, the remnants of their empire fell to the Mongols. The western end of the Yangzi River in Sichuan was, after decades of effort, finally subdued over 1278. New offensives into Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong strengthened the Yuan hold over China’s southwest, bringing them dangerously close to Yaishan.
Just as Bayan had been placed in supreme command in 1274, Kublai wanted a supreme commander to control the Yuan forces operating in the south and bring them all to bear on wherever the Song court was hiding. In June of 1278, the same month that the fugitive court took shelter on Yaishan, Kublai appointed Zhang Hongfan to be this commander. Zhang Hongfan was a man of northern China who had never served the Song; yet, in one of those twists of fate, he was related to the Song’s great general, Zhang Shijie. Zhang Hongfan had led in the river warfare along the Yangzi, and now Kublai wanted him to personally supervise the Yuan’s new ocean fleet as well. This also highlights the nature of the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan: an ethnic northern Chinese was, for the first time, being placed in supreme authority over Mongol, Central Asian and Chinese forces in order to destroy the remnants of a Chinese dynasty. A diligent and loyal subject of the Great Khan, Zhang Hongfan worked with great speed. The offensive he led at the end of 1278 swallowed up what was left of the Song Dynasty. In an arc from east to west, Zhang Hongfan led his ships along the southern coast, collecting men and ships as he went and turning over every stone for the Song emperor. Assisting them were many former Song commanders and their ships who had thrown their lot in with the Mongols, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters. Zhang Hongfan’s second-in-command, a Tangut named Li Heng, led the second prong of the assault on land, linking up with Zhang Hongfan’s fleet for those coastal sites still holding out. In the first weeks of 1279, Li Heng surprised and captured the brave Song captain, Wen Tienxiang, handing him over to Zhang Hongfan as prisoner at the start of February.
From there they advanced west, making their way to perhaps the most significant city still resisting Mongol rule, Guangzhou. The Yuan commanders did not know it yet, but Guangzhou was only a few kilometres north of where the Song court was hiding at Yaishan. Guangzhou had thrown off a few Yuan assaults before finally falling to a combined effort by Li Heng and Zhang Hongfan. Twice, ships came up the Xi River in an attempt to relieve Guangzhou. On the second attempt, ships under the command of Omar, grandson of the Yuan governor of Yunnan Sayyid Ajall, followed them, tracking the Song ships right back to Yaishan. Quickly, Omar confirmed it was the Song hideout and sent messengers back to Zhang Hongfan. It was time to prepare the final battle against the Song.
At the end of February 1279, Yuan ships began to join Omar outside the sea entrance to Yaishan, a 1.5 kilometre wide lagoon protected by steep cliffs on either side. Over the following days, the rest of the Yuan fleet joined them. The news prompted panic on Yaishan, and many demanded Zhang Shijie organize another escape. But Shijie was done running. “Lo these many years we have voyaged on the seas. Now we must decide between us and them the victor and the vanquished.” Setting fire to the palaces and buildings of Yaishan, he ordered everyone aboard the ships. The plan was simple. From reports his scouts had gathered, his fleet outnumbered the Yuan greatly, perhaps 1100 Song vessels to 300 for the Yuan. Shijie also considered his men the superior fighters at sea. But morale was low, and in open water the men could find it more persuasive to flee rather than fight. Figuring the Mongols would gamble on an immediate assault to put an end to the campaign, Zhang Shijie needed to make best use of both his greater numbers but worse morale. He settled on chaining his ships together in a great, fortified line. Not at the entrance of the lagoon, where some ships might be able to slip away, but situated deeper down the waterway, where their flanks were securely protected by the steep cliffs. Anchors were dropped, and ramparts and towers were built on the ships, a massive, immobile floating wall. The young emperor, Zhao Bing, was placed in the largest ship at the centre under a secure guard. To protect against incendiaries, the ships were coated with mud and provided long poles to push away fire ships. Finally, catapults were set up to send projectiles at any approaching vessel. Set up, Zhang Shijie prepared for the expected attack.
Shijie’s Yuan counterpart, Zhang Hongfan was no fool and recognized a frontal attack against this entrenched position was very risky. He sent first a small ship with negotiators, among them the captive Wen Tienxiang, who Hongfan hoped would convince Shijie to step down. Tienxiang refused however, and negotiations went nowhere. An effort to send fire ships into the Song line was likewise repulsed, the poles of the defenders keeping the fireships at bay until they burned themselves out. Zhang Hongfan then did the unexpected. He waited.
In doing so, he had the one tool which Shijie had no defence against. Locking the Song ships into place as he had done gave all the mobility, and the initiative, to the Yuan fleet. With so many men and families aboard the Song ships, they quickly used up the food and freshwater that they had brought aboard. Destroying their island buildings and pulling all troops onto the ships meant they had no land forces to scavenge for them or fall back to. Quickly, Yuan scouts found a small creek the Song had considered impassable for ocean vessels. The Yuan instead sent smaller craft up this creek, coming out behind the Song line and surrounding them. Zhang Shijie sent out small sorties to attempt to get through the Yuan lines and acquire supplies, but each time these were pushed back. Unintentionally, Zhang Shijie had settled on the plan that left the remnants of the Song trapped in place.
The two fleets sat in place for two weeks. Running out of freshwater and firewood, the Song soldiers resorted to drinking seawater and eating uncooked meals. Dysentery, sickness and starvation ravaged them. Zhang Hongfan sent one final letter to Zhang Shijie, imploring his kinsman to surrender. Three times letters were sent to Shijie, carried by Shijie’s nephew Han, who alongside Hongfan served the Mongols. The letters carried by Han told Shijie of the rewards that awaited him if he surrendered, but warned of the destruction that awaited him if he refused.
Zhang Shijie’s reply, as recorded by Yuan Dynasty sources, ran thus: “I know that if I surrender I would have life, and also noble titles and riches, but my ruler lives and I cannot desert him. If you wish me to surrender, lift your blockade and permit me to sail out.” But Zhang Hongfan knew he could not trust this. For the next five days, Hongfan and his officers made the final plans and moved ships into place. At dawn on the 19th of March, 1279, anchors were weighed and the Yuan fleet advanced onto the Song from both north and south. Zhang Hongfan led his flagship against the most dangerous section of the Song line. The Yuan ships crashed into the larger Song vessels, the Yuan soldiers climbing aboard to fight on the Song decks, Mongol archers picking off Song defenders. The decks ran red with blood, men locked in combat fell into the churning waters and were crushed between ships. Spears pushed climbing Yuan soldiers back into their ships; grasping hands pulled Song defenders off the decks. Zhang Shijie’s catapult crews fired until they ran out of projectiles. The Song fought with courage, battling for every metre. It was a full day of fighting, but the sickness and hunger of the Song troops was a knife in their backs. Dropping from exhaustion, the Yuan soldiers stepped over their bodies as they steadily advanced along Zhang Shijie’s makeshift wall. Unexpectedly, one Song ship dropped its colours, the signal to surrender. Then another, and another. Such an order had not been given, but in the confusion of battle it could not be undone. The Song began to surrender en masse. Zhang Shijie desperately ordered troops to withdraw to the centre ship housing the emperor, but it was clear the day was lost. As fog rolled in that evening, Zhang Shijie ordered some ships to be cut loose to break out. 16 out of the 1100 Song ships escaped Yaishan with Zhang Shijie, evading the Yuan pursuers in the fog and the confusion. The Emperor, Zhao Bing, was not among them, the imperial barge too large and too slow to break free.
The courtier Lu Xiufu stayed close to the boy emperor, but there was now no escape left on those bloody decks. The last emperor of the house of Zhao would not fall into these barbarian hands, Xiufu decided. Tearfully, Xiufu forced his own wife and children to jump into the sea. With Zhao Bing still in his royal robes and clutching the imperial seals, Lu Xiufu took the 7 year old Son of Heaven into his arms, and carried him beneath the waves. Yuan sources assert 100,000 distraught Song loyalists followed in a mass suicide, the lagoon red and filled with bodies. Whoever still lived surrendered along with some 800 ships. The Song Dynasty’s 300 year rule was over.
Zhang Shijie did not flee far: not long after the battle, while sailing to seek shelter in Vietnam his small fleet was caught in a storm and sunk, and he joined his emperor beneath the waves. Zhang Hongfan commemorated the battle with a simple stone inscription at Yaishan, stating “here the great Yuan general Zhang Hongfan destroyed the Song,” and was richly rewarded by Kublai Khan for his victory. He could not long enjoy his spoils. He died the next year, an ailment brought on by the heat and humidity of the south. Later nativist Chinese historians ravaged Hongfan’s reputation as a Chinese “betraying” the Song to serve northern barbarians. But Zhang Hongfan and his family had never been Song subjects. Their native area had been controlled by the Khitan Liao Dynasty since 939, before the Song Dynasty had even been founded. In fact, Zhang Shijie had briefly served the Mongols, making him the traitor to his emperor.
Wen Tienxiang outlived both Zhang Shijie and Zhang Hongfan, offered a respectable position in Kublai’s empire. But Tienxiang refused again and again, unwilling to betray the memory of the Song. Spending his last years imprisoned, he wrote poetry and proudly denied Mongol offers, until finally executed in the early 1280s, the last patriot of Song.
Yaishan was perhaps the largest naval battle in Chinese history after Lake Poyang in 1368, if the sources are accurate with their numbers. It was a major and decisive victory. While some regions in the south still needed to be fully incorporated into the Yuan Empire, and there would be local uprisings, organized resistance against Mongol rule was broken. The Song Emperors were dead, the loyalist infrastructure crushed. Kublai Khan had unified China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty almost 400 years prior, and was the first non-Chinese to do so. Kublai was now the ruler of All Under Heaven, master of China and the single most powerful man on earth. Those Song loyalists who had escaped to the Vietnamese kingdoms of Dai Viet and Champa would need to be pursued, and Kublai was not a man to believe China was the limits of his empire. Even as the last Song Emperor disappeared beneath the waves at Yaishan, Kublai’s eyes darted to those kingdoms on his horizon, revenge against Japan plotted and his relatives in Central Asia punished. More battles were planned beyond the waters of Yaishan; but not many of them would be victories.
Before we discuss Kublai’s further military ventures though, we must discuss Kublai the man, and the actual empire he built in China, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue to produce great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!
To coincide with the release of the Kings and Generals Biography video of the Mongol general Subutai, for our podcast we’ll present for your listening an extended version of that script, courtesy of our series historian writer. While Subutai is the most well known of all medieval Mongolian generals, the full extent of his career is rarely presented in a single document. With this episode, we’ll hopefully do just that for you; providing an idea of the vast scope of Subutai’s campaigns and his service to three generations of Chinggisids, providing along the way an idea of what made up this man’s personality, and some historiography on him. This version of the script will be accessible to read with full footnotes and sources on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the generals of the Mongol Empire, none stand taller than Subutai, who led armies from China, across Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and into Eastern Europe. Yet, Subutai remains a murky figure, with difficult to access primary sources providing fertile ground for all manner of myths to grow instead. Utilizing the latest scholarship and medieval materials, we will paint for you a more accurate biography of one of history’s fiercest generals.
Perhaps the best place to start would be his name. Subutai, the most common form of his name on the internet, comes from the Chinese rendering of his name( 速不台 ). Numerous transliterations of his name exist, but perhaps the best approximation of the Mongolian is Sübe’etei. The common epithet attached to his name, Ba’atar, signifies bravery and is often translated as hero or knight.
Sübe’etei was born in northwestern Mongolia in 1175-1176, to the Uriyangqat Mongols. There has been modern confusion of the Uriyngqat Mongols, nomadic pastoralists in the Mongolian steppe, with the Turkic Uriyangqai of the forests north of Mongolia, reindeer herders who did not raise the vast herds sheep, goat or horses. This confusion has resulted in the common misconception today that Sübe’etei was a Tuvan. However, the 13th and 14th century sources clearly identify Sübe’etei as a man of the steppe, whose father herded sheep and their family having been in close contact with that of Chinggis Khan’s for five generations, a sublineage of the Mongol tribe to which Chinggis Khan belonged. Stephen Pow in his article with Jingjing Liao on Sübe’etei suggests part of the appeal to this belief of Sübe’etei as a ‘reindeer herder,’ is the irony in one of history’s greatest cavalry commanders being a man who did not learn to ride a horse until well into his adulthood.
Though specific details of Sübe’etei’s early life are lost to us, we can assume it mirrored that of other Mongolian children. He would have learned to ride a horse, shoot a bow, hunt and herd animals from a young age, the basic skills necessary for warfare on the steppe. In the politically chaotic period of late 12th century Mongolia, Sübe’etei and his family likely suffered from raids and predatory marauders. As a young boy, he found a role model in the form of a fellow Mongol named Temujin. Since the time of Sübe’etei’s great-great-grandfather Nerbi, their families had been close allies, and perhaps from Sübe’etei’s earliest days Temujin had appeared as the centre of Sübe’etei’s world. In the Secret History of the Mongols, around 1185 Temujin was elected as Khan of his Mongol lineage, the Borjigon. Per the Secret History’s account, Sübe’etei, perhaps little more than 10 years old, attended, accompanied by his older brother Ca’urqan and their older cousin, Jelme. In Sübe’etei’s most formative years, he attached himself to this rising warlord, whose family he would stay in loyal service to for the next six decades.
Sübe’etei’s role, if any, in the many trials of Temujin’s rise to power are unmentioned. At 14 years old he would have been enrolled into military service as a lightly armoured horse archer. It is not until 1203, when Sübe’etei was about 27, that we have the first described event of his life. That year, Temujin suffered a devastating setback, betrayed by his ally Toghrul, the Ong Khan of the Kereyit. Defeated in battle by Toghrul and Jamukha, another ally turned enemy, Temujin’s army was scattered and with a small force he fled to Lake Baljuna in eastern Mongolia. Slowly, his allies trickled in, one of whom was Sübe’etei’s father Qaban, driving a flock of sheep to Baljuna to feed Temujin’s hungry men. As described in the Yuan shi, Qaban was ambushed and captured by robbers. Sübe’etei and his brother Ca’urqan, not far beyond with the rest of the animals, followed the tracks of the robbers and ambushed them. Bringing down several robbers, the rest panicked and fled. Their father was rescued, and they brought the much-needed sheep to Temujin at Baljuna. Heartened by their loyalty and courage, he rewarded them; Ca’urqan was made a commander of 100, and Sübe’etei was enrolled into the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, as was common for younger brothers of unit commanders. Alongside physically protecting the Khan, the keshig also served as his closest servants, preparing his meals, protecting his herds and maintaining his belongings. The keshig also served as a training school for commanders, where the skills of leading armies, logistical needs and battle were advanced. It is here that Sübe’etei began his education as a general.
By 1206, Temujin had unified the tribes of Mongolia, taking the title of Chinggis Khan and declaring the Mongol Empire. Sübe’etei was among those rewarded for his service. It was not without sacrifice, as his older brother had died in the fighting against the Naiman in western Mongolia. With 95 others, in 1206 Sübe’etei was appointed to command a minggan, 1,000 men. His reputation as a ferocious warrior in the name of the Khan had already begun to be established, for at the sametime he was noted among Chinggis Khan’s Four Dogs of War: Jebe, Qubilai Noyan and Jelme Uha. Unlike Chinggis’s four Horses -Bo’orchu, Muqali, Boroqul, Cila’un Ba’atar- who were Chinggis Khan’s personal friends from his youth, the Four Dogs were among the deadliest men of the Khan’s arsenal. To paraphrase the Secret History of the Mongols, the Four Horses were the men at Chinggis’ side, while the Four Dogs were those charging wherever the Khan pointed. Brutal, daring, often cruel yet utterly loyal, the Four Dogs were Chinggis’ swords to wield against Asia. It was in this service that Sübe’etei would excel.
In the first Mongol invasions, against the Tangut Kingdom in 1209 and the Jin Dynasty in 1211, Sübe’etei’s mentions are sparse. In 1212 Sübe’etei was the first onto the walls of Huanzhou. He was richly rewarded for his role in taking the city, and for his courage he earned the title of Ba’atar. Jebe Noyan, with whom Sübe’etei was often partnered with, went on a long ranging campaign across the Jin Empire in 1213, through Manchuria and taking one of the Jin capitals, Tung-ching. It’s possible Sübe’etei accompanied him on their series of long marches, feigned retreats and sacked cities, but such is only speculation.
By 1216 Chinggis Khan was back in Mongolia, his armies having taken the Jin supreme capital of Zhongdu and left them on the backfoot. In Mongolia Chinggis had to deal with rebellions and foes who had survived the unification. One army under Boroqul was sent to subdue the forest peoples around Lake Baikal, who were in open revolt against Mongol rule; Jebe was sent to capture a fugitive Naiman prince who had usurped power in the Central Asian realm of the Qara-Khitai; Muqali was to command the armies fighting the Jin; and Sübe’etei was to accompany Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi far across the western steppes, in pursuit of Merkit tribes who had fled Mongolia and sought shelter with the Qipchap-Qangli east of the Caspian Sea. This was the Mongol Empire’s first great expansion west of the Altai Mountains. The precise dating and presence of Jochi on this western campaign has been debated by scholars, but we will follow the likeliest chronology proposed by historian Christopher Atwood. Before they set out on the long journey, the Secret History of the Mongols has Chinggis provide Sübe’etei an iron reinforced cart for the journey. This statement may perhaps be the partial origin for the myth that Sübe’etei was immensely overweight, and that no single horse could carry him, requiring instead specially made carts! No medieval source describes Sübe’etei’s weight in any capacity, but Stephen Pow noted that Rashid al-Din mentions of an elderly Uriyangqat who needed to be carried everywhere in a cart, as well as a grandson of Orda bin Jochi who was immensely obese and also required a cart to travel, for no horse could bear him. Possibly, such descriptions were confused with Sübe’etei, encouraged, Pow suggests, again by the “irony of a man [unable to] ride a horse becoming the nomadic cavalry’s greatest general.”
In two battles over late 1218 and early 1219, Sübe’etei and Jochi defeated the Merkit and their Qangli allies in what is now western Kazakhstan. On the long trek back across the steppe to Mongolia they made an unexpected meeting. The ruler of the vast Khwarezmian Empire, Muhammad II, intercepted the Mongols somewhere in central Kazakhstan. Jochi and Sübe’etei informed Shah Muhammad they had no quarrel with him, that their task had been simply to deal with the Merkits. But Muhammad had come north looking for a fight, and the Mongols would have to do. Outnumbered, the Mongols made a good show of themselves, the right wings of both armies pushing back the opposing left. Both armies fought until darkness forced them apart. Lighting many fires to make it appear they were setting up camp, the Mongols slid away into the night. The Khwarezmians awoke the next morning to see the mysterious enemy had vanished. Horrified by the destruction wrought by this encounter in the field, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah seems to have developed a phobia of facing the Mongols in open battle.
Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Chinggis late in summer 1219, in similar time to the arrival of news of the infamous Otrar Massacre. The Khwarezmian governor of Otrar, Shah Muhammad’s uncle, murdered a trade caravan sent by Chinggis Khan. It is unclear if the massacre took place with or without Muhammad’s support, but when Chinggis’ envoys arrived demanding punishment for the butchery, Muhammad had them executed. As Jebe had by then conquered the Qara-Khitai, the aggressive Khwarezmians were now direct neighbours of the Mongol Empire. Scarcely had Jebe, Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Mongolia when they set out to invade the Khwarezmian Empire at the end of 1219.
The story of the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm is well told and does not require our attention here. Muhammad, seeking to avoid field battles relied on garrisons within city walls, believing the Mongols, as nomads, lackes sige capabilities. He was sorely mistaken. By spring 1220 the northern frontier of Khwarezm had collapsed. Muhammad fled deeper into his empire, and in pursuit Chinggis Khan unleashed his dogs of war: Jebe Noyan and Sübe’etei Ba’atar, supported by a third tumen under Chinggis’ son-in-law Toquchar.Across Khurasan and northern Iran sped Shah Muhammad. Jebe and Sübe’etei followed. While Muhammad was their primary goal, as they went they took the submission of cities- those which resisted were marked for Toquchar to secure as he followed behind them until his death outside of Nishapur in November 1220. After Nishapur, Jebe and Sübe’etei split up to cover more ground. In Radkan, Sübe’etei was so pleased by the pleasant climate that he apparently avoided any bloodshed, appointed a Mongol governor and moved on. In Quchan, the Mongols committed great slaughter. In Mazandaran, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother and his harem, sending them back to Chinggis Khan.
Jebe and Sübe’etei reunited at Rayy, tracking Shah Muhammad to Hamadan. Sources differ on what exactly happened at Hamadan. Nasawi describes a battle near the city, ibn al-Athir
has the Shah escape before they arrive and Juvaini wrote that the Mongols caught him on the road, wounding him with arrows before he escaped. No matter what occurred, after Hamadan Jebe and Sübe’etei lost his trail. Muhammad died a few weeks later, succumbing to pneumonia on an island in the Caspian Sea in December 1220.
Spending that winter in Azerbaijan’s Mughan Plain, Jebe and Sübe’etei spent the next two years pinballing across the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. Inflicting a devastating defeat on the Georgian King Giorgi Lasha in February 1221, by the summer they cut back to Persian ‘Iraq where cities they had previously taken were revolting. The Eldeguzid Atabegs of Azerbaijan wisely refused Georgian requests for an alliance and instead submitted to Jebe and Sübe’etei. By mid-1222, messengers had returned from Chinggis Khan, informing them that they could continue the conquest against the Qipchap tribes north of the Caucasus. Striking the enemy from unexpected directions was always a favourite ploy of Chinggis Khan, and the Qipchaq had already shown themselves to be enemies by allying with the Merkit and fighting for the Khwarezm-shah.
While passing north, Jebe and Sübe’etei took the city of Shamakhi, employing a particularly gruesome tactic. To mount the walls, corpses of locals and livestock were piled into a platform. For three days, the Mongols fought from it until it decomposed and collapsed. Such tactics had a use far greater than the individual siege, for they contributed to a dread reputation designed to discourage resistance. Upon exiting the Caucasus, Jebe and Sübe’etei were confronted by a much larger force of Alans and Qipchaqs, perhaps alerted to the Mongol approach by the Shah of Derbend. After a difficult journey through the mountains, Jebe and Sübe’etei were reluctant to fight against such odds. Sending messengers to the Qipchaq, they bribed them into abandoning the Alans. After overcoming the now isolated Alans, the Mongols then fell upon the unsuspecting Qipchaq, killing their most powerful leaders.
Under their leader Kotjen, the Qipchaq survivors fled west to the Rus’ Principalities. There, Kotjen organized an alliance between his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, and several other leading Rus’ princes. Modern retelling has often presented what follows, the famous Kalka River Battle, as Sübe’etei’s master stroke, perfectly drawing the Rus’ and Qipchap into a long distance feigned retreat. However, as historian Stephen Pow has recently argued, the primary sources suggest a much closer run thing. Often overlooked has been a small engagement in the lead up to the battle, where the Rus’ chronicles described a Mongol general Hamabek being caught and killed by the Rus’s Qipchaq allies. Pow argues that Hamabek is actually how the 13th century Rus’ interpreted Yama Beg, the Turkic form of Jebe’s name and that by which the Qipchaq knew him by. Bold and often leading from the front, Jebe’s recklessness evidently cost him his life, caught hiding in a kurgan and perhaps, embarrassingly, cut in half.
Jebe had been the commanding officer and something of a mentor to Sübe’etei. To suddenly lose him, thousands of kilometres away from any reinforcements and deep in enemy territory, meant Sübe’etei was thrust for the first time into independent command. The famous nine day feigned retreat which followed may have therefore been an actual retreat. The Qipchap and Rus’ hotly pursued them, until Sübe’etei noticed the enemy had strung themselves out. At the Kalka River in May 1223, Sübe’etei turned about and brought the full weight of his army against the Qipchaps, who broke. Fleeing Qipchaps collided with the oncoming Rus’, breaking their formation as Mongol arrows rained upon them. The result was a massacre. Survivors held up on a nearby hill resisted briefly before being convinced to surrender by Sübe’etei. With guard and weapons let down, the Rus’ were slaughtered, their leaders captured and smothered under boards upon which the Mongols feasted and celebrated.
Sübe’etei had won a great victory, but was in no position for further conquest. While often presented as the great, undefeated conqueror, the Kalka Campaign had been only narrowly won. On the return journey, sometime in late 1223 or early 1224, Sübe’etei’s forces passed through the territory of the Volga Bulghars along the Volga and Kama Rivers. Laying ambushes for the Mongols had several places, the Bulghars drew the Mongols into feigned retreats, surrounding and killing many. Some modern writers of popular biographies, such as Frank McLynn and James Chambers, have Sübe’etei regroup his forces and inflict a defeat in turn upon the Bulghars. Such statements have no basis in the historical sources. The most detailed description of the encounter with the Bulghars is in the chronicle of ibn al-Athir, who describes the Mongols suffering heavy losses against the Bulghars, before moving on to campaign farther south along the Volga, attacking the Qipchaq settlement of Saqsin. Some authors may have conflated Saqsin as a location in Bulghar territory, or been misled by outdated works like those of Abraham d’Ohsson and Rene Grousset, who presented the encounter much more favourably for Sübe’etei. The need to dismiss Sübe’etei’s defeat is necessary in order to uphold his popular image as the undefeated champion of Chinggis Khan. The most heavily utilized sources such as Juvaini and the Secret History of the Mongols provide no specific comments on, or outright ignore, the encounter with the Bulghars. In comparison, those who actually provide evidence for the encounter, such as ibn al-Athir and Friar Julian, remain much more difficult to access, allowing the exaggerated version of Sübe’etei’s record to often go about unchallenged.
We can also note another popular rumour relating to this campaign. It is sometimes claimed that Sübe’etei, while venturing into the Crimean peninsula in 1223, formed an alliance with local Ventian merchants there. The Mongols would attack representatives of Venice’s other Italian rival, Genoa, present in Crimea at the port of Sudaq, and provide exclusive trade privileges to the Venetians. In exchange, the Venetians would provide intelligence and maps for the Mongols in Europe, as well as spreading rumours of Mongol ferocity to sow dissent and fear. James Chamber’s The Devil's Horsemen forwards this, among many other false claims on Sübe’etei’s life. As historian Peter Jacskon has noted in his review of Chambers’ book, “Chambers has borrowed the whole idea from Bréhier’s L’église et l’Orient au moyen âge: it is derived ultimately from Cahun’s Introduction à l’histoire de l’Asie (1896), which has all the authority of a historical novel.” The actual Italian presence in Crimea in the early 13th century was minimal. The Mongol sack of Sudaq had nothing to do with Genoa, the major source describing the incursion, ibn al-Athir, signifies the city as a place where the Qipchaq came to sell their wares and slaves, making no mention of any Italians. Historian Denis Sinor describes Suqaq as an outpost of the empire of Trebizond, home to a mixed population of Greeks and Armenians. Meanwhile A.C.S Peacock has argued that there is evidence that Sudaq, also known as Soldaia, at the time of the Mongol arrival to the Crimean peninsula was actually in the hands of the Seljuqs of Rum. Beyond the story of the Venetians bribing the Mongols into sacking Genoan rivals at Sudaq being false, there is simply no medieval evidence supporting any alliance between Venice and the Mongol Empire, and appears to be in part a conflation of later Italian contacts among the Mongols, most notable in the form of Marco Polo. This was however, the acts of individual merchants, rather than the Venetian state.
While this campaign from Shah Muhammad’s death until Sübe’etei’s return to Mongolia is often termed the Great Raid, and described as if it was intended to just gain information on the west, this is a modern extrapolation. The contemporary sources describe it in terms no different than any other stage of the conquests. If a reconnaissance-in-force, then it was a great success; but if intended to seize the western steppe and subdue the Qipchap, it was a poorer showing, marred by the humiliating death of Jebe, heavy losses, a military defeat and no conquered land. The Secret History of the Mongols describes the entire campaign in a laconic line: “Sübe’etei Ba’atur had been put in a difficult situation by these peoples.” It would take well over a decade before the region saw a permanent Mongol presence, and Sübe’etei knew that in order to avenge Jebe and his own defeat, he would need to return in overwhelming force.
Upon his return to Chinggis Khan, Sübe’etei was in an imminent position. Despite his great trial in the west, he faithfully returned with loot for the Khan. Chinggis was preparing for the final campaign against the Tangut, but told Sübe’etei to visit his parents, who he had not seen in a decade. Sübe’etei simply responded, “If the emperor will be busy working and the vassal will be at rest, my heart will be in deep uneasiness.” The Khan’s loyal hound, Sübe’etei led in the conquest of the Tangut in 1226, cutting off the western half of the Tangut Kingdom, skirting along the south to subdue Uyghurs and other local tribes before striking the Tangut’s western border. There, he sacked numerous counties along the Tangut-Jin frontier in Gansu, ensuring no aid would come from that direction. 5,000 captured mares he sent to Chinggis Khan, and it was here that he learned of his master’s death in August 1227.
Chinggis Khan was the single most influential figure on Sübe’etei’s life, and in his memory he would continue to loyally serve his family. Attending the coronation of Chinggis’ son Ogedai as Khan in 1229, Sübe’etei was rewarded with an imperial princess as a wife. Soon after his enthronement, Ogedai resumed the war with the Jin Dynasty. A Mongol army commanded by Doqulqu was shockingly defeated at Dachangyuan in the first weeks of 1230 by the Jin general Pu’a and his “Loyal and Filial Army,” made up of captives and deserters from the Mongols. Ogedai lacked the authority of his father and the confidence of many of the generals, who thought his younger brother Tolui was the better captain. Such military defeats uneased the new Khan and undermined his position. To offset this, in the last days of 1230 Ogedai led an army against the Jin accompanied by Tolui and Sübe’etei.
With the Jin Dynasty’s northern border protected by the Yellow River and its southern by the neutral Song Dynasty, access to Jin territory was through the mountains guarding Henan province’s west, a route blocked by the formidable Tongguan fort. Thre, the garrison wisely refused to be lured into a feigned retreat. Frustrated and not desiring to be stuck in a long and costly siege, Ogedai sent Sübe’etei to find a route through the hills south of the fort. Sübe’etei managed to force a smaller pass, cutting through and ransacking towns in western Henan. Through the hilly terrain his forces became spread out, and the Jin general Chenheshang with 1,000 men of the Loyal and Filial Army cornered and defeated Sübe’etei at Daohuigu 倒回谷. Suffering heavy losses of both men and horses, Sübe’etei was forced to retreat back to a furious Ogedai. So enraged was Ogedai that he removed Sübe’etei from command, and nearly did Sübe’etei disappear from history if Ogedai’s brother, Tolui, did not step in and vouch for him.
A new strategy was decided on, a triple pronged assault on all the Jin frontiers. Ogedai with the main army was to cross the Yellow River along its central stretch, another army would probe the eastern end while Tolui and Sübe’etei were to bypass Tongguan entirely, cutting south through Song territory to come behind Jin lines. Unable to diplomatically gain military access through Song lands, Tolui and Sübe’etei had to rush through potentially hostile territory. The result was unexpectedly successful. In the last weeks of 1231 they penetrated the Song frontiers, feeding men and horses in country untouched by the Mongol-Jin war. After a few weeks of plundering they cut north into the Jin lands. The main Jin generals, Pu’a and Hada, pulled back troops from Tongguan to catch Tolui and Sübe’etei, skirmishing over January 1232 until the Mongols were surrounded on Sanfeng Mountain that February. Pu’a sent a threat boasting that he would rape the Mongols’ women once he was done with them. When a snowstorm blew over the armies, Sübe’etei told Tolui to wait it out, telling him the Jin forces were weak people from cities who could not handle the elements, while the hardy Mongols would endure. After three days, deeming the Jin were suitably weakened, the Mongols charged down the hill and routed them.
As punishment for Pu’a’s boast, the Mongols sodomized the Jin prisoners. The captured general Hada asked for death, with his final wish to lay eyes on Sübe’etei. Perplexed when he heard of this, Sübe’etei came to see the captive Hada, telling him, “You will die momentarily. Why do you want to see me?” To which Hada replied, “Each of us vassals work for our respective masters. You are braver than other generals, and by nature you are a hero. Could that all really just be random chance? I have met you and now I shall die in peace.”
One they linked up with Ogedai’s army, Tolui and Ogedai returned north, leaving Sübe’etei as supreme commander against the Jin. With Jin offensive ability shattered, Sübe’etei invested their capital, Kaifeng. It took a year for the city to fall, in which time the Jin Emperor escaped and many losses were inflicted on the Mongols. When Sübe’etei alerted Ogedai to the city’s final surrender in early 1233, he was prepared to carry out the standard practice of massacre for the city’s prolonged resistance. In Sübe’etei’s mind, it was a well deserved punishment and one he was eager to carry out. But Ogedai was convinced by his Khitan adviser, Yelu Chucai, to spare the inhabitants. What followed is perhaps the most illustrative example of Sübe’etei’s worldview, as far as we can understand it. Sübe’etei was to limit killing to just members of the Jin imperial family, the Wanyan clan 完顏氏, and not harm the inhabitants. Having gone from being prepared to kill them all, Sübe’etei, whatever his personal thoughts on the matter, now carried out the Khan’s will to the greatest detail. Halting depredations of Kaifeng and its population, Sübe’etei allowed them to travel unhindered in search of food. Travel was permitted north of the Yellow River to organize food shipments for the beleaguered population, and Sübe’etei’s biographer in the Yuan shi goes as far as to say the people appreciated him for his efforts.
Sübe’etei led the final push against the Jin, ending their dynasty in early 1234. Back in Mongolia by 1235, Sübe’etei took part in the organization of his most well known endeavour: the Great Western Campaign. Sübe’etei reached his apogee, the senior commander alongside the leading princes of the third generations of Chinggisids under Batu bin Jochi. With a great army, over 1236 they swallowed up the western steppe. The only organized Qipchaq resistance under their leader Bachman was swiftly crushed; the Volga Bulghars who had once ambushed Sübe’etei could do little as the great wave washed over them and destroyed their cities. One of the Mordvin principalities wisely submitted to Sübe’etei; the other foolishly offered a brief resistance. The divided Rus’ principalities were quickly picked off. The Mongols rested men and horses in the summer before resuming attacks in the winter when the frozen rivers were easily traversable. In this way, from 1237 to 1240 the Rus’ cities were burned. Few cities lasted as long as two weeks, though Mongol losses were incurred and part of the army under Guyuk and Mongke returned to Mongolia late in 1239.
By the start of 1241, Sübe’etei and Batu had brought the Mongol Empire to the edge of Europe, splitting their forces to take multiple routes through Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. Sübe’etei wanted to draw the Hungarian royal army onto ground of his choosing, forcing them to cross an exposed bridge over the Sajo River where on the far bank the treeline would hide flanking Mongol forces. King Bela IV foiled this by not crossing the bridge. The new plan was for Batu to force the bridge while Sübe’etei tried to cross downriver and outflank the Hungarians. Either impatient or Sübe’etei was behind schedule, Batu charged the bridge too early, resulting in heavy losses and the Mongols being repulsed. Angered with Sübe’etei’s failure to cross the river, a new plan was used; early on April 11th, the bridge guard was overcome by Mongol catapults. Crossing over the River, near the village of Mohi the Mongols encircled and destroyed the Hungarian royal army.
Despite the success, some Mongol princes were apprehensive of pressing on after the costly fighting. But Sübe’etei shamed them for their cowardice, telling them, “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach Bacha city on the Danube River, I will never return.” The loyal Dog of Chinggis Khan now had to whip his grandchildren into shape. So they pressed onwards, pushing as far as Austria until the Mongols began to withdraw at the end of March 1242. Finding their catapults and siege techniques ineffective against stout stone fortifications, Batu and Sübe’etei desired to step back and restrategize. The withdrawal from Hungary was methodical, campaigning as they went to reduce whoever survived the first pass.
Sübe’etei stayed with Batu up to the Volga River, where in late 1243 or 1244 Batu set up his permanent encampment. Sübe’etei scolded Batu for refusing to attend the quriltai in Mongolia to elect Ogedai’s successor, but before departing, Sübe’etei and Batu came to peace regarding the losses at the battle of Mohi. In time, Batu gave thanks to Sübe’etei, attributing to him the reason for their successes.
Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1246 to meet the new Khan of Khans, Ogedai’s son Guyuk. Now aged 71, Sübe’etei was one of the few remaining individuals left who had personally known Chinggis Khan. The Franciscan Friar John de Plano Carpini, during his journey to Guyuk’s enthronement in 1246, mentions the elderly Sübe’etei, a figure of immense respect among the Mongols “known among them as ‘the knight.” Later that year, the venerable Sübe’etei went on his final campaign, a brief incursion against the Song Dynasty, as described by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Yet, this campaign goes unmentioned in Chinese sources. Possibly, the elderly Sübe’etei was forced by age or illness to step back from the campaign before it could achieve anything. Perhaps Guyuk’s death in early 1248 ended this campaign prematurely. Either way, we know Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1248, for he died there later that year, somewhere along the Tula River, aged 73. Sübe’etei, most famous of all Mongolian generals, was one of the few to die of old age.
Sübe’etei’s sons continued to serve as commanders, the most well known being Uriyangqadai, who accompanied them on the great western campaign, served with Kublai Khan against the Dali Kingdom, occupied Thang-long, modern Hanoi in Vietnam, and fought against the southern Song Dynasty. Uriyangqadai’s son Aju was another of Kublai Khan’s lead generals, who served alongside his father in Yunnan and northern Vietnam. After leading in the siege of the Song fortress-city of Xiangyang, Aju, longside Bayan of the Barrin, was the top Mongol commander in the final campaigns against the Song Dynasty. After the ferocity of Uriyangqadai and Aju, their descendants picked up the pen instead of the bow. Aju’s son Bolianjidai was an administrator well known for his leniency, while his own son Tongtong was a scholar and academic, and from then the lineage of Sübe’etei disappears from us.
Utterly loyal to Chinggis Khan, perhaps no other commander in history could be said to have travelled so many kilometres. Depending on how one counts, Sübe’etei fought in over 50 battles and sieges against almost every major power of the thirteenth century, though despite some claims was not undefeated. Neither was he the sole strategist of the Mongols, and often his most effective campaigns were those where the planning had been in the hands of Chinggis Khan or Tolui. Sübe’etei had no care for administration, only in carrying out the Khan’s will against his enemies. Frustrated by Chinggis’ descendants, Sübe’etei still carried out their mandate with thoroughness and ferocity. To quote Stephen Pow in his email correspondence with this author, Sübe’etei “emerges from the surviving writings as very loyal to emperors, sardonic toward enemies, and ultimately loyal to Chinggis Khan’s yasa or vision in terms of carrying out missions, following orders even if they went against his own preference. A bit of Cardinal Richelieu can perhaps be found in him – his only enemies were those of the state... and the state was the khan”.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our extended look at Sübe’etei’s life; you can find the written version of this script, featuring all the various sources and footnotes, on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
This episode details the Mongol-Song war from the fall of Xiangyang to the capture of Hangzhou in 1276, and the final stand of the infamous Song Chancellor Jia Sidao, and the failures of the Song court to avert disaster.
With the loss of control over the western half of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was left to direct his considerable energies against the single strongest holdout to Mongol rule; the Southern Song Dynasty, dominating China south of the Huai River since the early 1100s. An immense economic and military power, the conquest of this dynasty would be no small feat- trying to do so claimed the life of no less that Kublai’s predecessor the Grand Khan Mongke in 1259, as covered in episode 31. The completion of the conquest of China was to be Kublai’s greatest accomplishment; but first Kublai needed to overcome the mighty walls of Xiangyang, the key to Song China. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
As discussed in episode 31 and 32, at the end of 1259 Kublai was forced to withdraw from his campaign against the Song, returning to his residence in Inner Mongolia where he declared himself Khan in the first months of 1260. The led to war between Kublai and his brother Ariq Boke for the throne, culminating with Ariq’s surrender in 1264 and Kublai securing his title as Khan of Khans. However, the upheaval of this conflict broke Mongol imperial unity, and by the mid 1260s the Mongol Empire was irrevocably broken into independent Khanates. Kublai had little authority over these western Khanates, his effective power only with difficulty reaching to the Altai Mountains and the Tarim Basin.
Unlike the previous Khans whose power centres were in Mongolia proper, Kublai’s very legitimacy was tethered to his Chinese territory. Aside from his own personal interests in Chinese culture, it had been the resources of northern China which had allowed him to overcome his brother Ariq. Abandoning Karakorum in Mongolia, which was exposed and difficult to support, Kublai moved his capitals south: first at Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia on the very border of the steppe and China; and then at the site of the former Jin Dynasty capital of Zhongdu, where modern Beijing sits. This was Dadu, the “great city” in Chinese, or as it was known to Turks, Mongols and Marco Polo, Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. The indications were clear from the outset; Kublai was not just a Mongol Emperor, but Emperor of China- though the specifics of this political aspect we will explore in a future episode.
As a part of this, Kublai needed to bring the Song Dynasty under his rule. Kublai, much like his brothers, was a firm believer in the eventuality of Mongol world domination. It was not a debate of if, but when. Kublai may have cultivated an image as a more humane conqueror than the likes of Chinggis or Mongke, but he was a conqueror nonetheless. The Song Dynasty had to accept Mongol overlordship or be destroyed. For a man also trying to overcome his ‘barbarian’ origins to show himself as rightful ruler of China, having a rival dynasty claiming to be the heirs of the illustrious Han and Tang Dynasties was a major hurdle to his legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese. The flight of refugees from north China to the Song Dynasty was considerable throughout the thirteenth century, and any revolt within Kublai’s domains could see Song aid, financial, moral or military.
The subjugation of the Song to solidify his rule as both a Mongol Khan and a Chinese Emperor was, in Kublai’s mind, absolutely necessary. The problem was actually doing that. Warfare with the Song broke out in 1234, months after the final defeat of the Jin Dynasty. Thirty years later, in 1264, the frontier had hardly shifted. The Mongols controlled the territory across the Song’s northern and western frontiers, including Tibet and the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. Even the northern Vietnamese Kingdom of Dai Viet, known to the Chinese as Annam, now paid tribute to the Khan. Advances against Song were difficult; western Sichuan was under a tenuous Mongol hold, unmoved since Mongke’s death in that province. The Mongols had found they could often easily penetrate the Song border, but holding territory was another matter. Unlike northern China, marked by the relatively open North China Plain, the south was a myriad of thick forest, mountains, rivers and canals, the available space covered in rice paddies and other agriculture. This was not the open terrain so suited to Mongol cavalry warfare. The humidity and heat grew ever more oppressive the farther south one travelled, spreading diseases the Mongols and their horses struggled against. It was also home to the largest cities in the world. The Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, held well over one million people- about the population of Mongolia when Chinggis Khan unified the tribes in 1206. The Song fielded a regular army of at least 700,000, supported by a large navy. The many huge cities built along the Yangzi River could be resupplied by naval support, an area in which the Mongols had little experience. The thoroughly planned campaign of Mongke in 1258-9 had wrought much devastation but little gain, and on the Mongol withdrawal at the end of 1259 the Song reoccupied most of the lost territory.
A military conquest of the Song was an immense task, and something Kublai wanted to avoid. Soon after declaring himself Khan in 1260, he sent an emissary with terms. The Song Emperor, Lizong of Song since 1224, could continue to reign as a client of the Khan. They had merely to recognize Kublai as the Son of Heaven and they could continue to rule, with of course yearly tribute and prayers in the name of the Khan. It was, from Kublai’s point of view, a chance for them to enjoy great prosperity and avoid the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives that would be lost by further fighting. Since it didn’t involve extensive retribution as punishment for thirty years of fighting, Kublai must have thought it a very generous offer.
Kublai’s envoy, one of his top Chinese advisors named Hao Ching, was promptly imprisoned. He would not be released for 15 years. Hao Ching had run afoul of the man now in charge of the southern Song, the infamous Jia Sidao. To some, Sidao was the last intelligent man in Hangzhou, deftly guiding the dynasty against an indomitable enemy, outmaneuvering his foes and a political mastermind let down by a corrupt and rotten dynasty. To others, Sidao is the archetypal “bad minister,” overconfident and inept, downplaying the Mongol threat and hiding the truth from the emperors until it was too late. For some, he is best known as the ‘Cricket Minister,’ who liked to train the insects to fight each other. Sidao’s role in the fall of the Song is complicated, though his 15 year mastery of the Song court saw the loss of the final chance to avoid disaster.
Unlike the majority of the court officials, Jia Sidao was no graduate of the Examinations from which most bureaucrats from the Tang to the Qing were chosen. Born in 1213 to a military family in Zhejiang province, Sidao’s father Jia She was a respected Song military commander in Shandong, and Sidao followed in a variety of military and civil positions in strategic areas along the Yangzi River. Sidao’s good fortune was helped by his talent and the fact his sister was a favourite consort of Emperor Lizong. Lizong and Sidao did not meet until 1254 when Sidao was Associate Administrator of the Bureau of Military Affairs, and immediately struck up a friendship. Promotions quickly followed. The relationship seems to have been genuine; contrary to the Netflix series where Sidao’s rise is due to his sister’s influence, Sidao’s sister had died in 1247, leaving Sidao to ascend on his own charisma and competence.
In Sichuan when Mongke attacked in 1258, Sidao returned east after the Khan’s death. His timing was good; the removal of the Chancellor of the Right, Ding Daquan, left an opening at the top of the Song court, which Lizong replaced with his buddy Jia Sidao at the end of 1259. One of Sidao’s first acts was to play up Kublai’s withdrawal, acting as if Sidao had won a great victory. It was Sidao who imprisoned Kublai’s envoy, Hao Ching in 1260. Acting as sole Chancellor from 1260 onwards, Sidao wished to fervently resist the Mongols, something in which the court was in agreeance. How to do it was another matter. For Sidao, an important step was fiscal reform to strengthen the dynasty. The economic cost of the war was immense. A massive standing army, destruction of valuable regions across the frontier, alongside rampant corruption and hyperinflation of their paper currency put the Song court in a precarious economic position. Sidao ordered land surveys in 1262 to find those avoiding taxation. In 1263, he ramped this up with his Public Fields Measures, wherein officials with tax exempt status had their excess lands confiscated. The government was supposed to purchase the land from the owners, but they were largely paid in the increasingly worthless paper money, or the land was outright seized. Sidao hoped to use this land to grow the foodstuffs necessary for the Song army, but his effort had the side effect of creating a large body of Song officials and elite highly antagonistic to Sidao.
Sidao also set up letter boxes to anonymously report corruption and official offensives. It was a fine sentiment, though it turned out many of these corrupt officials also happened to be the ones Sidao didn’t like. Removing and at times executing those who stood in his way, Sidao appointed his own men to their positions. The polarization of the court was intense, though Sidao could overcome this as he had the strong support of the Emperors. Lizong died suddenly in November 1264, succeeded by his 24 year old nephew Zhao Qi, known by his temple name Duzong of Song. Duzong, if anything, had an even closer relationship with Jia Sidao, who had been his tutor. Duzong was much more interested in extravagant feasts and women than affairs of state -hardly the image of austerity expected when facing the threat of the Mongols, when other lordly men were required to give up lands and sons for the cause. The new Emperor was immensely loyal to Sidao, and in some depictions subservient to him. In 1269 when Sidao played with resigning from the court, Emperor Duzong came on his knees begging and crying for Sidao to return, which Sidao did with the dismissal of more of his court foes.
While this was going on, Sidao was putting substantial investment in defense, especially around the region of Xiangyang, which we will get to shortly, and in improving the walls of the capital. Diplomatic efforts were at their lowest with the Mongols since the outbreak of war in the 1230s, and even though Kublai Khan routinely released captured Song merchants and prisoners in an effort to build goodwill, Jia Sidao did not budge. And since Sidao controlled the court and policy of the Song, the Song court did not budge either.
Aside from retaking some cities and border skirmishing, Jia Sidao did not take any larger offensives against Kublai during his occupation with Ariq in Mongolia. Sidao likely recognized that, with their well-built walls and defensive weapons supported by rivers and ships, the Song’s defense could stick up to the Mongols. Yet on the offense, especially in the more open territory of the north, the Song armies would suffer the same results they had on every other northern expedition in the Dynasty’s 300 year history; a dismal defeat against the cavalry based armies. Perhaps the most notable effort at undermining Kublai’s rule in north China was by encouraging a Chinese warlord in Shandong allied to the Mongols, Li Tan, to revolt. Despite both he and his father, the Red Coat warlord Li Quan, having fought the Song for decades, Li Tan was not feeling like he was favoured under Kublai. Encouraged by Song promises and Kublai’s conflict with Ariq, in February 1262 Li Tan declared for the Song and threw off Mongol rule.
It took about a month for Mongol forces to arrive and defeat Li Tan’s rebels in the field. Li Tan was caught in August 1262 and executed. The Song had provided no direct aid for Li Tan, whose small forces were quickly overcome by Mongolian and Chinese under Shih Tienzi, a Northern Chinese whose family had loyally served the Mongols since the late 1210s. Jia Sidao may have wanted to see if the Chinese of the north would rise up against the Mongols, but the Mongol response was quick enough to violently put a stop to any talk of rebellion. The most significant outcome of the rebellion was upon Kublai himself. Not only had Li Tan, a Chinese warlord considered a loyal subject of the Khan rebelled, but Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wentung was found to have been complicit. Wang Wentung was the Chief Administrator of Kublai’s Central Secretariat, and one of the most influential figures in Kublai’s administration. Executed only weeks after Li Tan’s initial revolt, it was a blow to Kublai’s trust of the Chinese in his government. In the aftermath, Kublai decreased the power of many of the Chinese in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, replacing them with Central Asians, Muslims, Turks and Tibetans. Many of the Chinese warlord families who had served the Mongols since Chinggis Khan saw their holdings reduced or forfeited. The family of Shih Tienzi, a man noted for his loyalty to the Mongols over many decades of service, ceased to be feudal lords, though this was partly on Tienzi’s urging in order to not lose the trust of the Khan. Such was the effect of Sidao’s effort to undermine Mongol rule in North China.
Kublai’s first years as Khan were focused on consolidating and establishing his governing apparatus of northern China, and for the first half of the 1260s conflict with the Song was relegated to border skirmishes. Aside from diplomatic efforts to encourage a surrender of the Song Dynasty, Kublai also offered great rewards and lands for defectors in an effort to encourage desertions. Here, Kublai had some successes, perhaps the most notable early on being Liu Zheng, who became one of Kublai’s staunchest supporters and the ardent proponent of a navy. Liu Zheng and other like minded men convinced Kublai that the key was not multi-front attacks, but seizing control of the Yangzi River, the backbone of the Song realm where the Dynasty’s most prominent cities sat. To do this, the Mongols needed to build a navy and take the stronghold of Xiangyang.
If you look at a topographic map of China, three river systems should stand out to you, running in three lines from west to east. The northernmost and the longest is the Yellow River, which curls from the foothills of Tibet down into the Ordos desert, where it forms its great loop before cutting across the north China plain to spill out into the sea by the Shandong peninsula. This was the barrier which the Jin Dynasty moved their capital behind in an effort to protect themselves from Chinggis Khan. South of the Yellow River is the Huai, the shortest of the three rivers here, which marked the border between Jin and Song for a century, and now served as the Mongol-Song border line. By Kublai’s time, the Mongols had failed to hold it, the area south of the Huai a mess of canals and smaller rivers serving agriculture, terrain unsuited to cavalry maneuvers. Our third river on the map is the Yangzi, a wide and fast flowing river which was the natural defense against any northern invader. The most populated cities in the world were clustered along it, including the Song capital of Hangzhou, a short trip south from the River’s eastern end on the ocean. The Yangzi could only be crossed with difficulty, and the Song used it as a highway to reinforce and resupply cities, ferry troops and generally prevent a Mongol conquest. Lacking any beachheads on the Yangzi, the Mongols had nowhere to build up a navy and begin to challenge Song authority there.
That is, except for the Han River. Nestled between the mountains of Sichuan in the west and end of the Huai river to its east, runs the Han River, cutting north to south to intersect with the Yangzi at what is now Wuhan. The Han was the strategically vital access point, one where the Mongols had the potential to build up a river fleet in security before assaulting the Yangzi. Kublai knew this, and so did Jia Sidao, who for this reason spent huge amounts improving the defences of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng, which today are the super-city of Xiangfang. Sitting on opposite sides of the Han River, the two cities stood at the edge of the Song Dynasty and the Mongol Empire. Xiangyang and Fancheng were both huge, well fortified with wide moats, well provisioned and guarded by large garrisons and a variety of counter siege weapons. With both cities right on the river, they could continually be resupplied and deny the Mongol advance. Liu Zheng and the other Chinese defectors argued that Kublai should forget the favourite Mongol ploy of vast pincer movements. The Song had resources and moral enough to withstand these. Instead, the defectors argued, Kublai needed to throw his total might against Xiangyang and Fancheng.
Preparations began in the second half of the 1260s with the creation of a river fleet. In 1265, the Mongols won a battle at Tiaoyu Shan in Sichuan against the Song, capturing 146 boats. Koreans, Jurchen and Northern Chinese were put to work building more ships; in early 1268, officials in Shaanxi and Sichuan were ordered to construct another 500 vessels. By the last months of 1268, a large force of Mongols, Turks and northern Chinese converged upon Xiangyang and Fancheng. The Song defector Liu Zheng was placed in charge of the Mongol fleet, blocking off the Han River south of the cities to cut them off from the Yangzi. Aju, Subedei’s grandson, was entrusted with the siege of Fancheng; Shih Tienzi, the Chinese warlord long in service to the Khans, held overall command outside the walls of Xiangyang. A frontal assault was dismissed; the wide moats and thick walls were all but impervious to the catapults the Mongols brought with them. Attempting to storm the cities would result in heavy losses. No, they would need to be starved out. To do so, the Mongols erected walls and defensive works around the cities to cut off land access, while Liu Zheng and his fleet prevented Song reinforcements from the river.
In December of 1268 the garrison made an attempt to break out before the cordon could be tightened, but this was repulsed. The Song commander in Xiangyang, Lu Wenhuan, was a steady hand and kept moral up. They probed the Mongol besiegers continuously, trying to find the weak point in the lines. By March 1269, Shih Tienzi requested another 20,000 reinforcements from Kublai for this reason. The large cities and river access made closing them off a great challenge.
While Jia Sidao has often been accused of hiding the details of the siege of Xiangyang from the Song court, this is a baseless accusation. Duzong of Song may have taken little interest in military matters, but it was beyond the skill of Jia Sidao to hide the massive efforts going on outside Xiangyang; everyone along the Yangzi River would have known of it. The court was very much aware of the siege; the annals of the Song Dynasty, the Song shih, describe the court heaping rewards onto the defenders of Xiangyang in order to encourage their resistance. The court was still united in the opinion of resisting Kublai, even if the how was not agreed upon. Sidao sent multiple armies to relieve the defenders, some of them led by his own brother-in-law, Fan Wenhu. In August 1269, the first of these relieving forces sailed up the Han River to Xiangyang, but was defeated by the Mongol fleet and their boats captured.
In March of 1270 another attempt by the garrison of Xiangyang to break out was defeated and another Song relief fleet was repulsed. Though by then the city was largely closed off by the ever expanding Mongol fortifications, the Mongol commanders needed more men: 70,000 men and 5,000 more ships were requested, giving an image to the scale of the task to really surround these cities. Xiangyang was a whirlpool pulling in men from across the Mongol and Song empires, neither side willing to budge. Several times in later 1270 and 1271 Sidao’s brother-in-law Fan Wenhu led fleets up the Han River to assist Xiangyang, and each time the new Mongol navy proved victorious. The skilled Mongol fleet commanders, most notably the Chinese Liu Zheng and Zhang Hongfan, were adept at this river warfare, luring the Song into ambushes and developing a lengthy system along the Han to detect approaching fleets and communicate response. Jia Sidao ordered attacks on Sichuan, along the border and even a naval attack on the Shandong peninsula. His hopes these would divert Mongol resources were dashed, as most of these were inconclusive, won only minor victories or were outright disasters, as with the Shandong attack. All Sidao achieved was the wasting of Song resources while the noose tightened on Xiangyang.
Though the Mongol navy had a good chokehold on Xiangyang and Fancheng, the cities stood defiant. Well stocked and moral still high, any sort of frontal assault would still result in high losses and possibly allow the Song to break the siege. In 1272 one relief force actually pushed through to reach the city, albeit with heavy losses of most of their men and resources.
Kublai needed something to bring the siege to an end, and reached out west to see about acquiring some news tools.
In 1271, Kublai’s nephew Abaqa sat on the throne of the Ilkhanate. Abaqa was Hulegu’s son, and unlike his cousins in the Golden Horde, still recognized Kublai as the nominal head of the empire. When Kublai’s envoys arrived in 1271 asking for something to assist in the siege, Abaqa had just the ticket. Abaqa sent two Muslim siege engineers, Ismail and Ala al-Din, experienced in the newest advancement in projectile weaponry; the counterweight trebuchet. Developed in Europe in the early thirteenth century, it spread to the crusader kingdoms by the end of the 1250s, where Hulegu may have utilized them in his campaign in Syria in 1260. They were pretty nifty; instead of manpower, as required by the Chinese catapults the Mongols used, the trebuchet used its counterweight and gravity to hurl projectiles with greater accuracy, power and distance.
By the last weeks of 1272, Ismail and Ala al-Din arrived outside the walls of Fancheng and began to build the machines. In December, the first shots were launched into the walls of Fancheng. Within days, they were breached, the Mongols in the city and Fancheng was overrun. A massacre was conducted on those found within, ensured to be visible from the walls of Xiangyang. Still, Xiangyang held out. Carefully, the trebuchets were disassembled and transported across the river. In the first weeks of 1273, the weapons were carefully set up at the southeastern corner of Xiangyang. The trebuchets were carefully calibrated and launched a projectile supposedly nearly 100 kilos in weight. The first shot hit a tower along the city walls, a crack like thunder heard across Xiangyang. Panic set in, Xiangyang’s formerly untouchable walls now under real threat.
One of the Mongol commanders, a Uighur named Ariq Qaya, rode to the walls and called for the city’s commander, Lu Wenhuan. He commended Wenhuan on his skilled resistance, but now it was time to submit; do so now, and he would be rewarded by Kublai. Resistance would meet the same end as Fancheng. Lu Wenhuan recognized there would be no relief force from the Song for him now. On the 17th of March, 1273, Lu Wenhuan surrendered Xiangyang to the Mongols. After a 5 year siege, the battle was decisely won in the favour of the Mongols, and the Han River could now become a veritable shipyard for the Mongol advance on the Song.
The fall of Xiangyang sent shockwaves across the Song Empire; Jia Sidao’s authority was greatly undermined, though Duzong of Song’s confidence in him was not shaken. He had now to prepare for a full river and land invasion of the Song heartland. For Lu Wenhuan, the Mongols kept their promise; siding with the Khan, he would now lead the Mongol spear thrust against the Song. Xiangyang was perhaps the decisive victory in the Mongol-Song war, its fall ensuring the Mongols had a route to truly conquer the dynasty. So great was the story that Marco Polo retold it time and time again on his return to Europe; either through his own ‘enhancing’ of the story, or that of his ghost-writer Rustichello, the account was shifted to remove the Muslims’ role from the siege. Instead, Polo, his father and his uncle became the ones who shared the knowledge of the trebuchet with Kublai. Considering that the siege ended in early 1273, and Polo did not arrive in China until 1274 or 5, we can rather safely dismiss that. However, Polo, the Chinese language Yuan Shi compiled around 1370, and Rashid al-Din, writing in Iran in the early 1300s, all include the story of Kublai gaining his siege equipment from westerners. Polo just happened to be the only one indicating it wasn’t a Muslim.
Kublai Khan was now poised to end the forty year long war with the Song Dynasty, completing the conquest of China begun by Chinggis Khan some sixty years prior. Our next episode will look at the fall of the Song Dynasty, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please support us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
As Kublai Khan and Ariq Boke fought for the Grand Khanate in the east, in the western half of the Mongol Empire another dramatic war broke out. This was the Berke-Hulegu war, the concurrent civil war which permanently fragmented Mongol unity. Though influenced by the war for the throne, the battles between Berke and Hulegu emerged from long simmering tensions, brought violently to the surface with the absence of a central imperial authority, and set the stage for an antagonism which defined the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate for the next sixty years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
To understand the conflict which broke out in 1262, we must step back to the mid 1220s. Around 1225 or 1227, Jochi, the eldest son of Chinggis Khan and Borte, died. Though there had been tension between Jochi and his father, Chinggis did not extend this to Jochi’s many, many children. In fact, they continued to hold suzerainty over the ever-growing Mongol dominated western Eurasian steppe, led by Jochi’s two oldest sons, Orda and Batu. While Orda was the older, Batu was the more ambitious, maneuvering himself into leadership of the Jochid lineage. By the start of the great western campaign in 1235, Batu held not just a preeminent place on the campaign, but in the Chinggisid hierarchy. Only Ogedai Khan and Chagatai, Chinggis’ two surviving sons with Borte, ranked higher. Batu led Mongol armies to seize the remainder of the western steppe, the Rus’ principalities and into Hungary. When he departed from Hungary in 1242, Batu’s influence grew with the deaths of Ogedai and Chagatai, leaving Batu as the aqa, the senior prince of the family. Insteading of returning to Mongolia or his Jochi’s ordu along the Irtysh River, Batu set up on the rich grasslands of the lower Volga, where he built a capital, Sarai. As we have covered in previous episodes, Batu butted heads with Ogedai’s successors, the regent Torogene and her son Guyuk, before finally taking a lead role in the election of Mongke Khan in the 1250s. Outside of political machinations, Batu strengthened the Jochid ulus. He oversaw the rebuilding of overland trade routes and cities, established administrative ties to the Rus’ cities and sought to enforce Jochid hegemony over the Caucasus, Anatolia, Mazandaran, Khurasan and Khwarezm. In the initial dispensation of lands, Chinggis Khan had granted Jochi and his heirs everything as far west as the hooves of their horses would carry them, something Batu took very seriously.
Mongke Khaan largely confirmed these holdings, and Batu was essentially the Grand Khan’s viceroy of western Eurasia. Though immensely powerful, Batu still had to accept Mongke’s tax collectors, census takers and provide troops when demanded, as he did when Hulegu set out on his campaign against the Ismaili Assassins and Baghdad. By the time of his death in early 1256, Batu created a fine foundation for his successors. So influential was his reign that the citizens of his realm remembered him as Sain Khan, the “good Khan.”
We should briefly touch on a somewhat confusing matter. You will recall we mentioned Batu’s older brother Orda. See, Orda, as with the rest of Jochi’s children, got his own territory, with Orda’s number 2 only to Batu’s. Orda and his descendants ruled over the steppe east of the Ural River, the left wing of the Jochid ulus bordering on the Chagatayid ulus and towards Mongolia. This was called the Blue Horde… or maybe the White Horde. See, Persian and Rus’ sources give conflicting descriptions: that Orda ruled the Blue Horde and Batu the White, or Orda ruled the White Horde, and Batu the Blue. Further confusion comes from a tendency to refer to the section ruled by the Batu as the Golden Horde. For our purposes, we’ll assume Orda ruled the Blue Horde, for that also corresponds with the Turko-Mongolian colour designations for the directions; Blue for east, White for west, and yellow or gold for the centre. Black by the way, is the colour for the north, and red for the south. The specific relationship of the Blue Horde to Batu’s territory is unclear. Was it fully independent, as the Chagatayid ulus was? Was it subject to the line of Batu? Or was Batu and his descendants, the “Jochid Khans,” merely first among equals within the lines of Jochi’s children? The answer is unfortunately vague, and shifts depending on the specific period we’re talking about.
On Batu’s death in 1256, it seems he had a clear successor in the form of his son, Sartaq. A Nestorian Christian and firm ally of the Grand Khan, Sartaq was duly confirmed by Mongke in Karakorum and returned to the Jochid ulus. Sartaq was a more pleasing choice to Mongke than Batu’s brother Berke. Berke, the third son of Jochi, was ambitious, overbearing, and something of a black sheep, for he was an early convert to Islam. Precisely how and when Berke converted is contradicted in the sources. He was Muslim at least by 1250, and some sources state he had been since his youth. At the time, it was very uncommon- few Chinggisids, especially of the third generation, converted. It’s possible Berke did it to make his rule more acceptable to Muslims across the Jochid ulus, but it may have been genuine devotion. Jean Richard has argued that Berke’s mother was a captured daughter of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah, thus making it possible Berke was raised a Muslim, though the evidence for his mother’s identity is not conclusive.
In most nomadic steppe societies, succession was not restricted to sons, but could go brother to brother, and it seems Berke wanted it to do just that. Sartaq’s reign was cut suddenly short before the year was even out. Armenian sources directly accuse Berke of poisoning Sartaq, and frankly it’s pretty likely. In 1257 Mongke placed Ulagchi, a young boy who was either Sartaq’s son or brother, onto the Jochid throne, with Batu’s widow Boraqchin as regent. Late in 1257 or 1258, with Mongke occupied with the beginning of his campaign on the Song Dynasty, Berke made his move. Ulagchi suddenly “disappeared,” Boraqchin was accused of treason and executed, and Berke stepped up to become the Jochid Khan. By the time he learned of this, Mongke was deep into Song territory, and could do little but turn to the west and shake his fist in frustration.
Though Mongke spent the rest of his life distracted by fortresses in Sichuan, Berke had a more immediate Toluid presence to deal with; Hulegu and his massive army rolling over the Islamic world. Hulegu, as you’ll recall, spent February 1258 sacking Baghdad and killing the Caliph, the oft-cited great psychological blow to Islam. Sometimes, you’ll see it said that Berke, as a good Muslim, took it upon himself to wave the black banner of jihad against Hulegu. Some statements from the medieval sources support this interpretation, but frankly it does not reflect Berke’s immediate actions. Baghdad was sacked early in 1258; Hulegu and Berke were not at war until 1262. At the outset of his reign, Berke had no apparent goal to unravel the Mongol Empire- in fact, his interests seemed more so securing his own power on the Jochid throne, and maintaining Jochid claims from Anatolia, the Transcaucasus across Iran and into Khurasan.
Before his death, Batu supplied soldiers for Hulegu’s expedition; perhaps three tumens under his relatives Quli, Balaghai and Tutar. Over the march through Khurasan and Iran, the three Jochid princes had sought to reaffirm Jochid privileges at various cities on the route. Some of these, such as the Kartid dynasty in Herat, went to Hulegu, asking him to intercede between them and the Jochid princes. Hulegu sided with the local dynasties as a means to encourage them to send the tribute to him instead. Further, the Jochid princes and Hulegu argued over the conduct of the campaign itself. Local commanders affiliated with the Jochids, such as Baiju in Azerbaijan, were bossed around and ordered out of territory they had garrisoned for over two decades. After sacking Baghdad, Hulegu chose not to send the loot allocated for Berke, another thorn in the side, if the city’s destruction wasn’t already enough of an affront to Berke’s religious sensibilities.
Both Hulegu and Berke learned of Mongke’s death early in 1260. Notably, there was no immediate outbreak of hostilities. Though tensions were mounting, the cause for war can be found in events over 1260 and 1261. In an era of massive princely egos, it must be noted from the state that Berke and Hulegu did not like each other. Back in 1251, Batu had sent his brother Berke to Karakorum for Mongke’s enthronement. Berke was in attendance on Mongke, and in this position sent constant demands to Hulegu to carry out Mongke’s whims for the coronation. As the senior prince, Berke thought he could boss Hulegu around; Hulegu found Berke burdensome and overbearing. During his campaign against the Assassins and Baghdad, Batu and Berke’s representative princes -the aforementioned Quli, Balaghai and Tutar- had continued to berate Hulegu, challenging him and seeking to exert Jochid privileges across the region. Given a limited military command by Mongke, Hulegu had no authority to punish members of the royal family. But upon learning of Mongke’s death, Hulegu saw a chance to take out his frustrations. The sources differ on the why, when and how, but the result is the same. Quli, Balaghai and Tutar were all dead before the end of 1261. At least two of them were accused of sorcery- a serious condemnation for the Mongols- and Hulegu asked Berke if he could punish them for it. Expecting perhaps a slap on the wrist, Berke had given Hulegu permission to punish them- and was angered to find Hulegu went ahead and executed his kinsmen.
Hulegu did not stop there.With the immobilization of the central government due to Kublai and Ariq Boke’s fighting, Hulegu sought to strengthen his hand in the area west of the Amu Darya. We’ve mentioned repeatedly how the Jochids had claims on territory in Anatolia, the Caucasus, northern Iran and Khurasan. These consisted of cities and regions taken by members of Jochi’s lineage in past conquests, which then owed yearly tribute to the Jochids. Many of these were prime estates, especially the fine pastures and trade cities of Azerbaijan, the plains of Arran and Mughan. When Mongke was alive, Hulegu had already bossed around Jochid representatives in these areas, most notably Baiju and his tamma forces in Azerbaijan. With Mongke dead, Hulegu seized these regions for himself, incorporating them into a new ulus ruled by him. Berke was aghast; this Toluid upstart was taking his lands, solely without the Khan’s authority! Combined with the murder of the Jochids princes, Hulegu was acting aggressively. The Jochid troops under Hulegu’s command were given leave by Berke to flee. Some made it back to the Jochid ulus and a major contingent fled under their commander, Neguder, to what is now Afghanistan.
Enraged by Hulegu’s occupation of territory that belonged to the house of Jochi, the execution of Jochid princes, harassment of Jochid merchants, officers, and representatives in Iran, Berke decided it was time to pay Hulegu back with more than just words. With Kublai and Ariq locked in conflict, there was no one to mediate between them. Early in 1262, Berke began mobilizing his troops to seize Jochid claims in Azerbaijan by force. Setting out in spring of 1262, Berke marched south with some 30,000 men, alongside his commander-in-chief, friend and grand-nephew, Nogai. Nogai was a Muslim, and perhaps had converted at similar time to Berke. The appointment of Nogai was hardly coincidental, for he was also the son of Tutar, one of the Jochid princes executed by Hulegu. For Nogai, this was to be a deeply personal conflict.
Early in summer 1262, Berke and Nogai took the great fortress of Derbent, guarding one of the primary passes through the Caucasus mountains and encamping outside of Shirvan. Hulegu’s response was quick, though he had not anticipated the attack. He sent word to his dispersed forces, rapidly mobilizing and setting out with his main army in August, while multiple smaller armies, consisting of Mongol garrisons from Anatolia to western Iran, followed. Berke responded quickly, splitting his force between himself and Nogai to meet the oncoming enemy. In the pastures of Azerbaijan Berke defeated Hulegu’s vanguard in mid-October, but Nogai was forced to retreat in another engagement. Learning of Nogai’s flight, Hulegu pressed the advance and in late November met Berke’s reconstituted army outside Shemakhi, and forced the Jochids to withdraw.
In the first days of December 1262 Berke and Nogai sped past Derbent, leaving a token garrison there in an effort to slow Hulegu down. The fortress fell by December 7th. On the 15th, Nogai took part of the army to try and slow down Hulegu’s vanguard, commanded by his son Abaqa. Nogai was defeated and continued to flee, now in the lowlands north of the Caucasus and at the edge of the Volga steppe. The more experienced commanders in Abaqa’s force, Shiremun Noyan and Abatai, told prince Abaqa it was time to return to Hulegu and the main army, fearing they would be drawn into a feigned retreat. The haughty Abaqa dismissed their concerns and instead ordered reinforcements from his father, then followed the Jochids’ trail. After several days, by 10 January 1263 they came across the camp of Berke’s army on the north bank of the frozen Terek River, where tents, herds, treasures and families were abandoned and Berke’s army was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, in their cowardice they had disappeared deep into the steppe. Abaqa rewarded his men with three days of drinking and celebrating on Berke’s captured goods, “reveling and carousing with lovely girls” Rashid al-Din says euphemistically.
On the 13th of January 1263, Berke and Nogai returned. They had allowed Abaqa’s men three days to get drunk and drop their guard, and when the Jochids returned it was a massacre. Abaqa ordered a retreat and his bewildered, panic stricken army sped across the frozen Terek river. The weight of the fleeing men and horses proved too much. The ice broke and the cold waters swallowed up men and horses. Abaqa, with his tail between his legs, returned to Hulegu with what was left of force. Hulegu led an orderly withdrawal from the frontier, and Berke retook Derbent, and for a time the cousins were at a stalemate. According to the contemporary Mamluk author ibn Wasil, Berke surveyed the carnage and cursed Hulegu, stating “Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world.”
Sometime in late 1262, Berke received a surprising letter; from Baybars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. News of hostilities between Berke and Hulegu had filtered down to Baybars over 1262, with greater detail coming in that November when 200 Mongol refugees, survivors from Hulegu’s attack on the Jochids in his army, came to Cairo seeking shelter. They had been unable to return north due to the outbreak of war. Now properly illuminated on Berke’s conversion to Islam, the cunning Baybars stumbled across an idea. Though his forces won at Ayn Jalut in September 1260, he doubted he had the strength to withstand a full Mongol invasion. Without a large army, Baybars had to win every battle- Hulegu only needed to win one, and he would overwhelm the newly established, and still quite fragile, Mamluk Sultanate. Without any local allies to provide reinforcements, Baybars needed to look further afield for assistance. The Jochid antagonism with Hulegu would do the trick, the enemy of my enemy being my friend and all that. Sometime late in 1262 Baybars sent a message to Berke, playing on the co-religiosity of the two men, encouraging Berke to adhere to the jihad against the non-Muslim Hulegu, even if Hulegu was Berke’s cousin. Another embassy was sent by Baybars in the winter of 1262, again encouraging Berke to battle Hulegu, and telling him that the 200 Mongol refugees were being well treated in Cairo. It spoke of the strength of the Mamluk Sultanate, but expressed admiration and affection for Berke. Berke was delighted, and organized a prompt response
Berke’s response was encouraging. Hulegu, the letter states, had broken the yassa of Chinggis Khan, -likely reffering to the murder of the Jochid princes, the seizure of Jochid territories and refusal to send tribute to Berke. Berke reaffirmed his conversion to Islam, and his willingness to take vengeance for the death of the Caliph in Baghdad. So began the Jochid-Mamluk alliance against Hulegu. For the first time the Chinggisids had shown willingness to ally with a non-Mongolian, independent power against fellow Mongols. While the alliance would never result in tangible military cooperation between them, it did mean that Hulegu and his heirs were stuck between two antagonistic powers on their north and south; leaving one border alone too long would allow either the Jochids or Mamluks to attack. Our understanding of this alliance comes largely from Mamluk authors, who sought to stress what good Muslims their allies were. It is difficult to gauge how Berke and his successors saw it, and it has been argued that to Berke it was not cooperation between equals, but the submission of the Mamluk Sultanate to the house of Jochi. Since the Mamluk elite were largely Qipchaps, who made up much of the population of the Jochid territory, it was only natural that they bowed to the Chinggisids- the right Chinggisids, that is. Despite his willingness to combat Hulegu, Berke had not forgotten the purpose of the empire; if the quote by ibn Wasil has any basis in fact, Berke may have rued this distraction from the continued subjugation of the world. A diplomatic submission of the Mamluks was as good as conquering them, as far as Berke was concerned.
The war between Hulegu and Berke was quieter over 1263 and 1264. Nogai made threatening moves from Derbend, while Hulegu stayed in Maragha, now his capital. Local forces, such as the Georgians, newly humbled after a brief rebellion, were forced to man border defences against attacks by Berke. In the meantime, Hulegu engaged in his other passions. Hulegu always showed an interest in sciences and astrology, constructing centres for these men and filling his court with the learned of the region. Most famous of these men was Nasir al-Din Tusi, for whom an observatory was built in Maragha. Hulegu spent considerable money on alchemists and efforts at transforming raw materials into gold. Rashid al-Din some 40 years later wrote with scorn that “in transmutation they had no luck, but they were miracles in cheating and fraud, squandering and wasting the stores of lordly power.” Hulegu took steps to organize his emerging empire, such as widening his administration. Reconstructive efforts were overseen through the appointment of the new sahib divan, Shams al-Din Juvaini. Shams al-Din’s brother, the historian ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, was appointed governor of Baghdad and the restoration process there. Members of what had been the imperial Secretariat for Iran and western Asia like Arghun Aqa were now taken into Hulegu’s new government. His sons were allotted appanages and territories to oversee: Abaqa was given most of the eastern half of the state to act as viceroy over, valuable experience for the man who would be his father’s heir.
With the surrender of Ariq Boke late in 1264, Hulegu and Berke soon learned of Kublai Khan’s victory. Kublai’s messengers demanded Berke, Hulegu and the Chagatai Khan Alghu come to confirm Kublai’s enthronement and decide Ariq Boke’s fate. All declined- Hulegu may have had little choice, as he fell ill in January 1265, and died the following February, about 50 years old. His respected wife, Doquz Khatun followed him four months later, and in June Hulegu’s eldest son Abaqa ascended the throne of the Ilkhanate. Humbled since his humiliating defeat over the ice on the Terek River, Abaqa sought to secure his rule before taking any actions against Berke. Abaqa sent armies under his brothers to guard the frontiers with the Jochids and the Chagatais; he redistributed lands to loyal emirs; political appointments like Shams al-Din Juvaini and Arghun Aqa, were maintained. Moving the capital from Maragha to Tabriz, Abaqa soon received an official investiture from his uncle Kublai Khan, a nice bit of legitimacy and homage to the Mongol Empire, but an act with little actual power.
For Berke, it seemed primetime to seize the Caucasus with the ascension of Abaqa. In July 1265, only a month after Abaqa’s enthronement, Nogai was sent with a large army from Derbent. Abaqa had reinforced the region with an army under his brother Yoshmut, who met Nogai on the Akshu River in what is now Azerbaijan. The fighting was fierce; during the battle an arrow took Nogai’s eye, and his army was defeated with heavy losses, withdrawing to Shirvan. Both Abaqa and Berke collected large forces to prevent the other from seizing the advantage. Sometime in 1266, both armies formed up on opposite sides of the Kura River. For fourteen days, the two armies shot arrows over the river at each other, but were unable to cross. Frustrated, Berke marched westwards towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to find a crossing there. En route, Berke fell ill and succumbed, leaving his army and empire without a Khan. Nogai, who in just a few years had lost his father, several battles, his eye and his Khan, led a general retreat back to the Jochid capital of Sarai. Having learned his lesson, Abaqa did not pursue; later in 1266 he had a wall and trench built along the Kura River to guard against Jochid attacks, then withdrew back south. So ended the Berke-Hulegu war.
This was not the end of the fighting between the Ilkhanate and the Jochid realm- what later historians call the Golden Horde, though the term was not used at the time. Fighting picked up every few years, usually taking advantage of the Il-Khan being distracted by conflict with the Mamluks, the Chagatais, or the Neguderis of Afghanistan, who began to make a name for themselves as raiders. But for decades, Berke’s efforts were the most serious attempts by the Golden Horde to take control of the Caucasus, to no success. The region remained under the hands of Hulegu’s successors until the last days of the Ilkhanate. Berke was succeeded by Batu’s grandson Mongke-Temur, who was the first fully independent Khan of the Jochid state, minting coins in his own name. It is under Mongke-Temur that we can really speak of the Golden Horde as an independent Khanate. The one-eyed Nogai continued to grow in influence, transferred to the western half of the Golden Horde where he became the prime intermediary between the Jochids and Europe. Though kept in check by Mongke-Temur, his successors would not have the same control over him.
Abaqa began a nearly 20 year reign, during which time he undertook wide ranging diplomacy with Europe in an effort to open a second front against the Mamluks. Dealing with rebellions and invasions, Abaqa spent most of his years jumping from frontier to frontier of the massive Ilkhanate, using the odd break to order unsuccessful invasions of Syria. Though both the Ikhanate and the Golden Horde had immense military power, the days of successful foreign conquests in western Eurasia were at an end, squandering it against each other. But we will pick up with the later history of the Il-Khans and the Golden Horde in future episodes. By the end of the Berke-Hulegu war, both were fully independent of Kublai Khan. It is back to Kublai that we head to next, to see how he undertook the final push to conquer the Song Dynasty, and complete the reunification of China- all under Mongol auspices, of course. So be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast. To help us keep bringing you great content, please support us on Patron at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Mongke Khaan was dead. Over his 8 year reign, he had ruled the Mongol Empire firmly, strengthening government and renewing the conquests. Yet had not solved the tensions and problems which had been simmering below the surface since the death of Ogedai. Having not designated a successor, Mongke’s brothers Kublai and Ariq Böke would stand in to fill the void, with disastrous results for the empire. In the aftermath of Mongke’s death, the Mongol Empire was irrevocably torn apart, ending the dreams of Chinggis Khan for Mongolian unity. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Before we carry on with our narrative, we must note that following events are highly coloured by who won- quite literally a case of history being written by the victors seeking to justify their victory. Based on recent scholarship and recognition of these biases, we will try to offer a slight reinterpretation of the events, though the outcome remains the same.
Mongke died in August 1259 while on campaign in China, fighting the Song Dynasty in Sichuan. His plan to overwhelm the Song came to a crashing halt, bogged down in sieges and mud, before his demise caused his army to fall back. Perhaps the sole safe guard left in place in event of his death was his youngest brother, Ariq Böke, left as regent in the imperial capital, Karakorum, while Mongke marched on China. Intended to keep the empire running smoothly in Mongke’s absence, it’s possible Mongke, as with so much of his reign, had tailored this as reaction to the regencies after the deaths of Ogedai and Guyuk. Rather than repeat the chaotic periods of control by Torogene and Oghul Qaimish, Mongke may have wanted Ariq to seamlessly step up and guide the empire to an organized quriltai, rather than rely on conniving mothers to do it themselves. Thus was Ariq brought to the forefront of the world stage.
So who was Ariq Böke? The youngest son of Tolui and Sorhaktani Beki, he was born sometime in the early 1220s, putting him in his early forties at Mongke’s death. Unlike his older brother Kublai, Ariq never showed any affinity to Chinese culture, despite being provided Confucian advisers. Instead, he is generally portrayed as a proud supporter of Mongolian culture, priding himself as a nomad uncorrupted by the sedentary world. The second part of his name, Böke, is an epithet, which means variously ‘bull, strong/unbreakable, wrestler.’ Evidently, he was a man of quite some physical prowess, perhaps a star in that favourite Mongol pastime of wrestling. He seems to have had an affinity to Christianity: the Franciscan Friar, William of Rubruck, during his visit to Mongke’s court in 1254 interacted with Ariq and noted that he listened to Christian oratory several time, made the sign of the cross and stated that he knew the Messiah is God. Considering that Rubruck remarked on Mongke’s own refusal to convert to Christianity or Islam and his personal failures to convert anyone, there’s no reason to think he lied on Ariq’s interest in the religion. Ariq’s mother Sorhaktani and at least one of his sons, Mingliq-Temur, were Christians. His chief wife was an Oirat princess, Elchiqmish (el-chiq-mish), described as very tall and as a granddaughter of Chinggis Khan via his daughter Chechiyegen (Chech-ee-yeg-en), she was also Ariq’s cousin. They had no children, but Ariq is said to have loved her very much.
One of Mongke’s sons who accompanied him on the campaign into China, Asutai, brought his father’s body to Mongolia in autumn 1259. Immediately, Ariq Böke stepped into his duties as regent. Messages were sent across the empire to alert princes and notables of the Great Khan’s demise: Kublai, Mongke’s brother closest in age and also campaigning in China, learned of his death in September. Their third brother, Hulegu, learned of it in spring 1260. Representatives of the family were told to come to Mongolia in order for Ariq to arrange a quriltai and decide who would succeed Mongke. But trouble came from a perhaps expected direction: Kublai, their brother who had often butted heads with Mongke, now refused to return to Karakorum.
Over Mongke’s reign, Kublai had been a repeated problem for both the Khan and his chief officials. After his return from the Dali campaign in 1254, Kublai began administering a large swath of northern China. There he showed what some modern authors interpret as inclinations to independence; or at the very least, pretensions to greater autonomy. The first sign was Kublai butting heads with the head of the Secretariat for China, the long-time servant of the Central Government, Mahmud Yalavach. Yalavach was reappointed to the position in 1251, and nominally in charge of tax assessment and collection, but found his efforts challenged by Kublai and his Chinese advisers who desired a more ‘Confucian,’ and local method of taxation and governance. Yalavach was never on good terms with the Chinese, and found many enemies among Kublai’s faction. Accused of malfeasance by Kublai’s followers, around 1254 Yalavach was removed from his post and soon died, though the exact details are murky. So ended the long career of a man who had once served as Chinggis Khan’s envoy to the Khwarezmshah.
Without Yalavach’s meddling, Kublai could strengthen his local influence and position. Most apparent was in the building of a city in 1256 in what is modern Inner Mongolia, on the very edge of the steppe and north China. Called Kaiping, it was built in Chinese style and looked rather suspiciously like a capital city, a rival to Karakorum. The next year, some of Mongke’s ministers under Alandar led an investigation into Kublai’s administration, finding numerous infractions. Kublai’s authority was curtailed, his powers of tax collection rescinded, and some of his men executed. But there were further concerns, most identifiable in Kublai’s affinity for Chinese culture. Filling his staff with Buddhist and Confucians, Kublai’s administration looked a little too Chinese for Mongke’s tastes. The Mongol Empire needed to be ruled by Mongols, afterall, and placing more power into the hands of the Chinese simply would not do. Kublai remained in Mongke’s bad graces until 1258, when Mongke needed him for the oncoming campaign against the Song Dynasty. Provided one of the main armies, Kublai led his force through Central China to O-chou, modern Wuhan, where he learned of Mongke’s death in September 1259. Ariq Böke’s officials were there to get Kublai to move north for the quriltai, only for Kublai to spurn them.
While Kublai’s official excuse was that he could not depart with his task unfinished, an alternative explanation is often provided by modern authors. That is, that Kublai saw this as his chance to take the throne, but needed to beef up his military credentials with victories- so far unearned in that campaign. Ariq Böke, to our knowledge, had not led any armies, making this perhaps the one area Kublai could one-up his brother in the eyes of the Mongol aristocracy. Keep in mind how Ariq’s epithet stressed his strength and ability as a wrestler. In comparison, Kublai suffered from gout and may have already been overweight. Already seen as soft for his interest in Chinese culture and known for having lost Mongke’s trust as an administrator, Kublai needed every advantage he could get in an election against Ariq. If he could paint himself as the better, more experienced military commander, that could be all the edge he needed. Since elections took a while to be called to allow for the appropriate princes and representatives to return to Mongolia, Kublai e predicted he had plenty of time to take a few cities and score some victories of his own.
Kublai spent the next two month crossing the Yangzi River and taking O-chou, linking up with another commander, Uriyangqadai, the son of the illustrious Subutai. The news of Kublai’s continued campaigning was not well met back in Karakorum. Two members of Mongke’s keshig were particularly displeased by this: Alandar, the official who investigated Kublai’s administration, and most importantly, Bulghai, the chief judge of the empire, a Nestorian Christian and Mongke’s #2. Neither was friendly with Kublai. As brother closest in age to the late Khan, Kublai was a prime candidate for the throne, albeit one too interested in Chinese culture and a threat to the current top men of the empire. Therefore, Bulghai and Alandar began to organize the election of Ariq as the next Khan of Khans, if Ariq had not already begun to encourage this himself. With the burial of Mongke, his son Asutai and his generals returned and presented Mongke’s jade seal to Ariq.
Part of organizing a quriltai was getting the appropriate bribes -again, sorry, gift giving- out in time to ensure the princes voted for the right candidate. It had taken Torogene a matter of years to organize the proper support for Guyuk’s coronation, and this was not a process done in secret. That Ariq was left as regent in Karakorum suggests he had a good relationship with those top officials of the Central Secretariat. Having these men and their government institutions on his side made for a powerful campaigning apparatus. Quickly, it seems Ariq gathered widespread support, particularly from the imperial administration and Mongke’s family, especially his sons Asutai and Urungtash who, for reasons we cannot discern, do not seem to have ever been considered as candidates.
In November 1259, messages reached Kublai from his wife, Chabi, at that time in Kaiping. Kublai highly valued Chabi’s advice, and when she sent word that Ariq looked to be moving to claim the Khanate, Kublai was forced to give up his advance to China. That this exchange occurred suggests Kublai’s primary interest was not carrying out the expansion, but securing his own claim for the throne. Withdrawing north to Kaiping, he left only a token force behind to guard his conquests, which was soon crushed when an army was sent by the Song chancellor, Jia Sidao. Sidao portrayed it as a great victory, playing it up to secure his newly taken place at the head of the Song court. Kublai could only send envoys seeking a diplomatic settlement, who were imprisoned by the chancellor, an anticlimactic end to Kublai’s effort at military glory in time for the election.
Returning to Kaiping in Inner Mongolia in the first days of 1260, Kublai watched the support for Ariq’s election continually grow. Having been forced to give up his military conquests in the south, and therefore not creating a reputation as a great conqueror, Kublai may have felt he lost the chance to win an election on Ariq’s term. Perhaps fearful that Ariq may try to arrest him if he approached Karakorum with a small entourage, yet knowing approaching with a larger escort would look like he was attacking the city, Kublai felt he had only one choice: declare himself Khan first, on ground of his choosing. In April or May 1260, at his own city of Kaiping, did Kubla Khan a stately reign decree, and in doing so signed the death warrant for Mongol imperial unity. By all standards, it was illegal: Kublai had neither the support of the four branches of the family and the election was not in the Onon-Kerulen region, the homeland of Chinggis Khan, but in his Chinese-style city. Kublai Khan had just usurped the throne.
He had one small feather in his cap; Kublai could boast he was already recognized by a foreign power. When moving northwards, Kublai met the travelling Crown Prince of Korea, Wang Chon. Having been sent as a royal hostage to Mongke’s court, his timing was poor: while on the road, both Mongke and Wang Chon’s father, King Kojong, died. Korean sources assert that upon learning of Mongke’s death, like a good loyal subject Wang Chon sped to recognize Kublai as the rightful Khan. The idea that Wang Chon had any choice of the matter is generally dismissed by modern scholars. As part of Kublai’s entourage, he witnessed Kublai’s election and was soon sent back to Korea to be installed as the new King, Wonjong. A powerful opening move, it was the beginning of a decades-long close relationship between Kublai, Wonjong and their descendants. Kublai followed up his election with official messages to the Song and official proclamations; that his goals were to feed the hungry, reduce taxes and burdens on the people. Within days of becoming Great Khan, Kublai took a Chinese era name. In Chinese imperial tradition, emperors denoted sections of their reign as eras, which was used for year identification. It’s the kind of thing one does if they want to be associated with Chinese customs of leadership. From the start, Kublai Khan did not just hold an illegal election, but a shockingly Chinese one as well. For Ariq’s faction in Karakorum, this was a shocking demonstration against the legacy of Chinggis Khan. More immediately, it was a dangerous grab for power.
In reaction, in July of 1260 Ariq Böke finally held his election and was declared Khan in an appropriately placed, decidedly non-Chinese process. Ariq held a better claim to legitimacy, for it seems he actually had the support of the branches of the family. The regent of the Chagatai Khanate was the popular Orghina Khatun, sister of Ariq’s beloved wife Elchiqmish, who gave her support. The Jochid Khan, Berke, sent his support, as did some Ogedeid princes, and it seems so did Kublai and Ariq’s brother, Hulegu, whose son Jumqhur attended. Mongke’s sons Asutai and Urungtash, his widows, his keshig and the Central Secretariat led by Bulghai and Alandar, sided strongly with Ariq, and so did the venerable Shigi Qutuqu, an adopted son of Chinggis Khan now well into his 70s.
Over summer 1260, as tensions heightened, messengers sped between the two brothers. Each wanted the other to submit and recognize their rule. Neither yielded. While Ariq had the official support, Kublai was decidedly in the advantage in terms of position. Kublai could exert his hold across northern China, ousting officials who had declared for Ariq and allying with Qadan, a son of Ogedai and the prince holding the Uighur territories around Beshbaliq. Between them, they sought to close off access to north China to Ariq. For Ariq in Karakorum, this placed him in an unsustainable position. Karakorum could not support itself, requiring hundreds of cartloads of supplies daily, largely from northern China. With his army stationed there, this was even more imperative. In a contest of resources, Kublai’s hold of north China was a trump card.
To further starve out Karakorum, Kublai sought to install a new Chagatai Khan loyal to him, a great-grandson of Chagatai named Abishgha. With a small party, Abishgha was sent to oust Orghina Khatun and take power there, denying the Chagatai ulus’ resources and men to Ariq. Abishgha and his small party were captured and brought to Ariq. Tensions boiled. It was a diplomatic impasse. By autumn, it was war. Kublai began to occupy Mongolia, while Ariq sent an army under Alandar to seize the former Tangut territory, the Gansu corridor, the conduit which links north China to Central Asia. In October, Alandar was killed and his army defeated by Kadan and Kublai’s loyalists. Kublai could now exert control across the northern Chinese right to Kadan in Uighuria. At a similar time, part of Ariq’s army was also defeated by Kublai’s troops at an unknown site called Baski. A panicked Ariq had Ahishgha executed, then moved his army from the untenable position at Karakorum, falling back to the Yenisei River valley. Northwest of Mongolia proper, the Yenisei is a valuable region producing wheat, millet, barley and craftsmen, but no place to conquer China from. Sending messages of peace to Kublai, Ariq managed to diplomatically hold off Kublai, stopping him from seizing Karakorum and providing Ariq time to think of new plans.
With the start of 1261, Ariq implemented his new schemes. While popular in the Chagatai ulus, Orghina Khatun, regent for her young son Mubarak Shah, was not a war leader. Ariq had her replaced by Alghu, a grandson of Chagatai who could hopefully rally the ample resources of the Middle ulus for Ariq’s needs with loss of access to resources of China. In the summer, Ariq sought to wrest control of Mongolia from Kublai’s men. Ariq won the first engagement, but Kublai merely sent another army against his brother. In November 1261, at Shimu’ultu Lake in southeastern Mongolia, Ariq Böke Khan’s army was defeated and forced to retreat. Ariq had to abandon Mongolia for good, falling back to the Yenisei River.
Ariq could never come back from the defeat at Shimu’ultu. He lacked the manpower to engage in any attrition with Kublai, and over 1262 the chance of victory was wrenched from his grasp. That year Kublai’s forces entered Karakorum, though his direct actions against Ariq were limited due to an uprising within his Chinese territory. In the west, Ariq’s ally Berke was unable to provide support with the opening of war between him and Hulegu over the Caucasus. Alghu, Ariq’s appointee in the Chagatai realm, started to attack Jochid possessions in Khwarezm and Tranosxiana, ousting Berke’s representatives. Killing Ariq’s envoys, by the end of the year Alghu declared for Kublai. Ariq’s only chance at securing anything depended on the resources of the Chagatais, and in 1263 from his base on the Yenisei he attacked Alghu. Alghu won in the first two engagements, but Ariq had the better of the third, forcing Alghu to flee to Kashgar.
Ariq took the Chagatai capital of Almaliq, in modern Xinjiang close to the border with Kazakhstan. It was here that Ariq spent the final days of his reign. An incredibly harsh winter in 1263 brought famine to men and horses on the steppe. A frustrated Ariq Böke took his anger out on captured Chagatai prisoners. Harsh treatment of fellow Mongols alienated Ariq’s supporters and coupled with the conditions, led to desertion. Hulegu’s son Jumghur left, as did Mongke’s son Urungtash, who brought his father’s seal to Kublai. The omens were bad: harsh winds tore Ariq’s tent right from its pegs, causing it to crash about and injure many. At its end and with an ever decreasing circle of supporters, Ariq knew the gig was up. In August of 1264, he came in person before Kublai at Kaiping, now renamed to Shangdu. Per the account of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din, Ariq waited in front of Kublai’s ger for permission to enter, and upon coming face to face with his brother burst into tears. An emotional Kublai asked, “my dear brother, during this strife and contention, were we right or were you?”
To which, as written by Rashid al-Din, Ariq Böke replies “we were then. But you are today.”
Blame was placed onto Ariq’s generals, who were accused of instigating Ariq’s “revolt.” 10, including Bulghai, were executed. Ariq was to be put on trial before the other heads of the family, but all of them- Berke, Hulegu and Alghu, refused to come. Yet Kublai’s generals demanded punishment. The problem was fixed when illness very conveniently struck down the erstwhile healthy Ariq Böke. The timing was certainly handy, and accusations fall on Kublai. Yet it’s possible that a depressed Ariq, brought down by a difficult and fruitless civil war, drunk himself to an early grave. So it was that Kublai was the sole claimant as Khan of Khans.
Having won the war, Kublai lost the empire. Only Hulegu provided his nominal support, but neither he nor Berke or Alghu ever made an attempt to submit in person. Over 1265 and 1266, the three of them died. Hulegu’s successor, his son Abaqa, received an official investiture from Kublai, but Kublai had no power to depose or appoint him or his successors. Kublai sent another descendant of Chagatai, Baraq, to take Alghu’s place, but Baraq soon operated independent of the Great Khan, and fought with the rising prince of the Ogedeids, Qaidu. By 1269, a brief peace was organized between Baraq, Qaidu and the new Jochid Khan, Mongke-Temur. The Peace of Qatwan as it’s known, saw territorial distribution and allotment totally without Kublai’s consideration, circumventing utterly the Great Khan’s authority. Kublai’s rule as Great Khan was nominal in the western half of Mongol territory, a spectre of illegitimacy hanging over him. By 1271, we can speak in earnest of the divisions of the Empire as independent entities, khanates: the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate and the Yuan Dynasty, the latter being the Chinese dynastic name Kublai gave to his reduced empire. As well, there is the matter of the Ogedeid Khanate under Qaidu, the Neguderis and the Blue and White Horde, but we will illuminate these in future episodes.
Most of our sources from within the Mongol Empire come from areas ruled by the descendants of Kublai and Hulegu, the Yuan Dynasty and the Ilkhanate. In the Yuan Dynasty, the need to justify Kublai’s election as legitimate is obvious. The most influential of Ilkhanid authors was the vizier Rashid al-Din, whose Compendium of Chronicles is among the most valuable of all medieval sources on the Mongols. Writing around 1300, Rashid was personally informed of the events of the 1260s from Bolad Chingsang, one of Kublai’s judges who took part in the trials against Ariq and his generals. This pro-Kublai bias strongly affected Rashid al-Din’s work, who dubbed the war as “Ariq’s revolt.” Like so many other figures of the Mongol Empire, only by carefully sifting through the surviving sources can we hope to see through the biases of the winning side. Doubtless, had Ariq had won, Kublai’s name would have been the one tarnished. But Kublai secured his empire, and now the long reign of Kublai Khan was to begin.
The Mongol Empire as a united entity ceased to exist by Kublai Khan’s victory in 1264, but it’s history does not end there. Our future episodes will discuss the other great breakup of the empire, the Berke-Hulegu war, and the continued histories of the successor Khanates, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!
Now that we’ve taken you through Hulegu’s campaigns during Mongke’s reign, it’s time we cut back east to Mongke himself, and the Mongol invasion of the Song Dynasty, the great and immensely wealthy masters of southern China. Among the largest and most thoroughly planned of Mongol campaigns, it was one cut suddenly short with drastic consequences for the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Planning a war against the Song Dynasty was no easy task. All of Mongke’s actions of his reign from 1251-1258 can be understood as him making preparations for it: cataloguing the resources and manpower of the empire, strengthening the central government and securing his various flanks. Mongke had valuable experience to use to determine his strategy; since 1234, the Mongols had fought rounds of inconclusive warfare with the Song; penetrating deep into the Dynasty’s territory, routinely defeating armies and taking cities, yet never able to make substantial gains and frustrated by Song tenacity, all in an environment almost tailor made to hampher cavalry armies.
To understand the war with the Song, it’s necessary to introduce the Dynasty and its ruling house of Zhao- but what a task that is! In its 300 year history the Song were among the most complex and fascinating of all of China’s imperial dynasties, a period when Chinese culture reached staggering new heights. To summarize it with any accuracy requires an entire podcast series to do so- the Cambridge History of China managed to get it down to two volumes totalling over 2,000 pages. The Song emperors oversaw a period of amazing economic, technological, agricultural and cultural achievements. Urbanization increased; the southern Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, had a population in the 13th century conservatively estimated at 1.5 million. Paper money, a massive expansion and improvement of farming and rice cultivation, foreign and overseas trade, gunpowder, porcelain… the list goes on and on for either innovations or improvements the Song undertook. The wealth of the Song was immense, and it is rightly considered a Golden Age.
The Song were a dominant force in China since the 960s, emerging in the decades after the fall of the powerful Tang Dynasty, a period of disunity called the 10 Kingdoms and 5 Dynasties. Through great effort the Song swallowed up the other kingdoms of southern China and marched up into the north China plain, where they butted heads with the Khitan ruled Liao Dynasty. Rounds of warfare followed for the remainder of the 10th century, but a pattern which became all too routine emerged. The northern, largely cavalry based armies could outmaneuver and often annihilate the Song armies, whose offensive performance was poor even at their height. Yet the Khitans were frustrated by the defensive ability of the Song, and were unable to hold gains made against them- particularly when a giant Song crossbow speared the Khitan leader in 1005. Weeks later, the Song and Liao came to terms for the infamous Chanyuan Treaty, marking their borders and requiring the Song deliver a massive annual tribute of silk and silver to the Liao.
Part of the reason for the often criticized poor offensive military performance of the Song goes back to its founder, Zhao Kuangyin (kuang-yin), Taizu of Song. Zhao was a military man, as was his father and grandfather. Zhao owed much of his rise to the military- and also blamed it for the dissolution of the Tang Dynasty. Often, new Chinese dynasties structure themselves on what they perceived to be a key weakness of the preceding dynasty. To Zhao Kuangyin, the breakup of the Tang Dynasty came from military leaders and generals who grew too powerful, ignoring the imperial court to seek their own power, such as An Lushan in the 8th century. To Zhao, internal stability of the dynasty could only be secured with the military on a tight leash. Soon after consolidating power, the military leaders who had helped Zhao rise were eased into retirement and the army placed under permanent civilian command, the Bureau of Military Affairs. While often lambasted by later commentators, especially in the Youtube comments section, it wasn’t a horrible idea. The Song Dynasty was never beset by warlords seeking independence and still succeeded in seizing most of China. The fact the dynasty went up against some of the fiercest military powers of the medieval world could not have been predicted.
While an uneasy status quo was reached with the Khitans, in the early 12th century a major upheaval arose in the form of the Jurchen and the Jin Dynasty. In a few short years the Jin crushed the Liao; the Song allied with the Jin in an effort to seize Chinese territory and failed miserably. The alliance between Jin and Song hardly outlived the Liao Dynasty. In 1125 the Jurchens’ fearsome heavy cavalry tore through the Song; by the end of the 1120s the Song capital of Kaifeng was taken, the Song Emperor Qinzong, whose father who had recently abdicated, and most of the imperial family and court, were all captured. Northern China was taken, the Song Dynasty was in turmoil and nearly collapsed. The ninth son of the abdicated emperor managed to flee south, and recentre the Dynasty around Linan, modern Hangzhou, a coastal city at the mouth of the Yangzi River. This much reduced dynasty is usually termed ‘the Southern Song,’ to distinguish from the ‘Northern,’ when it ruled most of China. Over the 1130s leadership issues among the Jurchen, difficulties campaigning in south China and renewed defensive vigour by the Song halted Jin expansion, and a treaty in 1141 marked the Huai River as the boundary between Jin and Song. The Treaty of Shaoxing reimposed similar annual tribute demands as that of the Chanyuan treaty, thousands upon thousands of taels of silver and bushels of silk to be delivered to the Jin, and the Song had to recognize the Jin Emperor as the Son of Heaven- traditionally reserved for only a single ruler of China. The treaty was a humiliation and economic burden, on top of having to lose northern China. The peace was tense, and every few decades war resumed between Jin and Song, with neither able to make gains beyond the Huai.
Relations were somewhat cordial from the 1160s to the end of the 1180s, during the long and stable reigns of Shizong of Jin and Xiaozong of Song, something of a golden age for both states, though neither abandoned their territorial claims. Their successors were not nearly as capable and lacked the will, ability or the interest to direct forces within their courts. In the early 1200s, as the Jin were distracted by the northern steppes and ecological disasters, Song revanchism reached a new height. Seeking to take advantage of perceived Jin weakness, the Song launched a surprise invasion in 1206: before the end of the year, the Song were sending peace overtures to the Jin. Song forces were largely repulsed, the top military commander in Sichuan defected to the Jin, and the Jin counter attacked with a massive, nine pronged assault along the entirety of their 2000 kilometre long border. Despite this massive expenditure of manpower, the Jin made no gains, Peace was reached by 1208, the Song providing an increased annual tribute of 300,000 ounces of silver and bolts of silk, and heads of the ministers seen as responsible for promoting the war. Humiliating as it was, the Song at least did not have to make territorial concessions.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of that brief round of warfare was that it distracted the Jin and occupied its considerable resources from the trouble brewing on their northern frontier; the unification of the Mongol tribes under Chinggis Khan. In 1211, Chinggis Khan invaded the Jin Empire, as covered far back in episode seven. The initial Song reaction was somewhat mixed; no tears were shed in Linan for the suffering of the Jin, but whether this was something the Song should take advantage of was another matter. Either way, in the aftermath of the peace in 1208, for the next 25 years the Song court was largely dominated by the Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan, a man who urged stability and moderation rather than progress or reform. No risky military escapades would be undertaken on his watch.
The Song were unable to provide their annual tribute due to the fighting from 1211-1214. Many voices in the court loudly argued against continuing it all, for what was the use in sending it to a dying dynasty? Demonstrating his often indecisive policy making, Chancellor Shih Mi-Yuan did not actually stop the tribute, but held the allotted tribute in storage. He may have secretly resumed it in 1214, hoping to keep the peace with the Jin while avoiding angering more voices in the capital. The fact that even the Tangut and Korea had halted their payments to the Jin was not lost on Shih Mi-Yuan’s detractors. Neither was this appeasement even successful, for in spring 1217 the beleaguered Jurchen, having lost most of the northern half of their empire to the Mongols, attacked the Song. The intention was to restore both some dignity to the dynasty, and further space for the Jin court to flee from the Mongols if necessary. The result was not what they anticipated. Shih Mi-Yuan, while openly favouring the status quo and not mobilizing armies, had also ordered border defences improved and gave regional commanders greater autonomy with little interference from the central government. Song defensive forces responded quickly, and Jin offensives were not just actively repulsed, but in some cases led to successful Song campaigns into Jurchen territory. For the Jin it was a great shock, a blow to morale and resources at a time where they had little enough of either to spare. The Song and Shih Mi-yuan in particular had a new confidence against the Jin, spurning their envoys and in 1219, cutting off all diplomatic contacts with them.
About this time, in 1221, the Song sent their first diplomatic mission to the Mongols, notable in that it was recorded in a written account still accessible today, the Mengda beilu. The initial Song perceptions of the Mongols, as described in an excellent article by historian Chad Garcia, presents the Mongols as a ‘different kind of northerner.’ Contrasting them to the deceitful and malicious Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty, the Mongols are something of “noble savages;” honest, straightforward, physically strong if not attractive. Chinggis Khan is described in heroic characteristics fitting the archetypal Chinese emperor, with a large, broad forehead and long beard. No mention is made of them as especially terrifying or cruel.
As we’ve mentioned no shortage of times in the past, the absence of Chinggis Khan in the west against the Khwarezmian Empire and death of Mukhali, the commander in the Chinese theater in 1223, resulted in a great reduction of Mongol pressure on the region. The deaths of the Tangut, Jin and Song rulers over the following years allowed new voices to come to the fore. This is dealt with more fully in episode 14 of this series, but the result was a general ceasefire between them. While a brief respite, it was no more than a breath before the plunge; episode 14 also details the destruction of the Jin Empire in the early 1230s during the reign of Chinggis’ son and successor, Ogedai. Song Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan sought to stay out of the conflict and maintain Song neutrality- though the Mongols penetrated the Song border and raided in order to outmaneuver Jin forces, while also demanding an alliance against them. There was a minority of voices within the dynasty warning of the danger of the Mongols. Once the Jin no longer stood as a buffer between them, what then? Shih Mi-yuan may have been mindful of this, but was dead by autumn 1233. In the weeks before his death, as age reduced his presence in the court, the Song had agreed to assist the Mongols in the final attack on the Jin, reduced to a strip of land along the Song northern border. The Mongols needed to ensure the Jin emperor, Aizong of Jin, could not flee into Song territory. In return for this aid, the Song were given vague promises of land to be restored.
In the first months of 1234 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty was destroyed, its last emperor killed fighting in the streets. Yet, the promises of land did not materialize; Kaifeng, once the capital of the Song Dynasty, still remained in Mongol hands. Angry and belligerent voices, particularly among those who had only fought rebels with no experience of the Mongol way of war, were particularly loud in their complaints on the matter. Seeking to restore what was ‘rightfully theirs,’ and anticipating the local Han Chinese population would gladly rise up to join them, several Song armies marched over the Huai river in the middle of 1234… and promptly found a desolated, war torn landscape, a population unable to feed these armies let alone take up arms. The Song armies began a disorganized retreat, which turned into a rout when Mongol forces returned. Foolishly, the Song had just begun a 45 year long war.
Ogedai Khaan sent armies under his sons Kochu and Koten to lead raid the Song. Generally, these were in two regions: along the central frontier on the Huai River, and more westerly in Sichuan. Sichuan, where we’ll spend much of the rest of the episode, was, before the permanent incorporation of Tibet, Xinjiang and Gansu, the westernmost part of China. Roughly a bowl surrounded by mountains cutting it off from the rest of China, the Sichuan basin juts up against the eastern reaches of Tibet. Fertile, is one of the most densely populated regions of China, the Yangzi river which flows through it providing ample moisture for rich cultivation of rice, and a route to connect with the rest of southern China. Hot, humid and famous for its thickly forested mountain slopes, Sichuan saw more than its share of it fighting in the coming decades.
In both 1235 and 1236, attacks were led upon the central border and Sichuan; Koten led a particularly large, multi-ethnic force into Sichuan in 1236. The damage was immense. By the end of the year, only 4 of Sichuan’s 58 prefectural capitals still stood and Chengdu, the regional capital, was taken. The sudden successes were soured with the death of Kochu in November 1236 and retreat of most of the forces. Attacks in the rest of the 1230s were repulsed, often by the star Song general of the period, Meng Gong. Whether the Mongols actually wanted to fight the Song at the time is unclear- certainly in 1234, they were not planning on it. In 1238, they sent envoys to the Song for a ceasefire, which the Song rashly brushed off. Deliberately they were choosing not to hold cities. In 1241 Hanchou fell to a general massacre, followed by a sudden Mongol withdrawal. Such actions may have been a reaction to a necessity of fighting against the Southern Song. The Song had no lack of manpower to fall upon, and the trouble with any rapid assault was that it would need to be able to reliably hold onto any territory taken. Mongols could rapidly penetrate the border defenses, but the threat of being surrounded was quite real. At the very least, without sizable garrisons any city could be quickly retaken by Song forces when the Mongols moved on. The generally hot, humid weather of southern China strained the Mongols and their horses, disease spreading quickly among troops unused to the climate. The general preponderance of rivers, mountains and forest made large cavalry operations difficult to effectively operate. On top of all of this, while the Song are often derided for some sort of innate military ineffectiveness, the most pressing issue was the fierceness of the Song defenders. Resistance was strong, and it was not unusual for the Mongols to find a campaign suddenly held up by valiant defenders in one city, locking at least a portion of the Mongol army in place for months and, in some cases, years.
By the time of Ogedai’s death at the end of 1241, no major gains had been made, though the Song had suffered a good mauling. Little effort was made over the remainders of the 1240s, the Mongols dealing with the political issues relating to the regencies and short reign of Guyuk Khan. Diplomatic discussions took place in 1247, which went nowhere. The Song could in the meantime prepare border defences, repair walls and mobilize men, though at great cost. Printing yet more paper money to solve inflation did not, it turns out, do so. Taxes made it back to the capital in smaller and smaller amounts as regional governors and commanders seized them to pay for the war effort. Sichuan suffered so terribly that it apparently provided no revenue to the capital after 1234. For the Song, the yearly cost to simply keep their armies mobilized was immense. Drought, flooding, epidemics, fires and locusts struck often over the 1240s-50s, another layer of cost which, through augmenting the destruction of farmland from Mongol attacks, further strained government resources. An ever growing bureaucracy brought more corruption, more cost and more issues. The emperors of the thirteenth century showed less and less interest in governing, leaving an ever-more divided imperial court to run things. After the death of Shih Mi-yuan and the last of his followers in 1251, the Song court was hamstrung by fighting between eunuchs and bureaucrats vying for power. Despite their vast wealth, they were under immense pressure threatening to collapse the dynasty, just as Mongke Khaan prepared to hurl the weight of the Mongol Empire upon it.
Mongke knew the assault on the Song was an immense task. In 1252, sending his brother Hulegu to the far west to subdue the rest of the Islamic world, Mongke ordered his other brother Kublai to take another army against the Song. Rather than throw men at the well defended Song northern borders- a strategy so far ineffective- Mongke sent Kublai to subdue the independent kingdoms along the Song’s southwestern border in what is now China’s Yunnan province, where Song defences were much weaker.
Kublai had not yet commanded armies in person before this campaign, so Mongke provided him a guiding figure: Uriyangqadai, the son of the mighty Subutai. Setting out in late 1253 from forward bases in Gansu, the former territory of the Tangut, Kublai’s army marched in three columns; an eastern column under the Chinese defector Weng Dezhen, which marched through Sichuan, the main army under Kublai and the western column under Uriyangqadai, both marching hrough the eastern edges of Tibet. Tibet’s conquest by the Mongols is a bit of a shadowy thing, difficult to reconstruct due to only brief mentions in the sources. By the early 1250s, most of the Tibetan tribes were subdued or paying tribute to the Mongols, who had sent repeated armies into the region over the previous two decades. By the mid-1250s, Tibet was largely under Mongol authority, though it would need to be reimposed and strengthened later in the century.
Cutting through the mountains of Tibet, Kublai’s army fell upon the hills of Yunnan and the Kingdom of Dali. Founded in the 10th century, Dali controlled the valuable trade between the Song Dynasty and the kingdoms of Guizhou, Tibet, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Relations with the Song were amicable, and Dali became the Song’s major supplier of horses with the loss of Northern China; but Dali was independent and somewhat isolated from the affairs of the Chinese. Central authority of the Dali kings had declined by the thirteenth century, their actual rule hardly extending beyond their capital, also called Dali. By the time of Kublai’s invasion in 1253, the Dali King was puppet for his chief minister, who had ordered the deaths of Mongol envoys. Dali’s army would be no match for the Mongol forces, even under an inexperienced commander like Kublai. Crossing a river on sheepskin rafts, Kublai’s army surprised and destroyed the main Dali army under the Chief Minister, who fled back to the capital. In the last days of 1253, Kublai’s three armies converged on Dali City. In Chinese sources, Kublai’s confucian teacher Yao Shu convinced Kublai to spare the city’s inhabitants, and in January 1254 Dali submitted to the Mongols. The victorious Kublai returned back to north China, where he was appointed administrator and got up to other problems, as detailed in episode 23. Uriyangqadai was left to subdue the remaining local powers and prepare for the great assault on the Song, as well as recruit locals to serve in the army. He moved against the independent kingdoms of China’s modern Guizhou province, the intermediate area between Song and Dali. He returned briefly to Gansu in early 1257, but in his absence revolt broke out in Dali, bringing Uriyangqadai back into the region. His efforts eventually led him to ride into northern Vietnam, Dai Viet, called Annam in Chinese sources. His envoys were killed, and Uriyangqadai attacked the capital, Thang-long, modern day Hanoi. Thang-long was greatly damaged, the king forced to flee to an offshore island, and send a son as royal hostage to the Mongols as well as tribute. Dai Viet was now vassal of the Mongol Emperor.
Though the Yunnan-Guizhou region would not be fully pacified until the 1280s, it was secure enough to act as a staging ground for the assault on Song. With affairs in order and resources from across the empire pooled, Mongke felt confident to launch the final war on the Song. The total force was immense: as many as 600,000 in some sources to attack Song from several directions. Mongke gathered his forces in the Liupan mountains in 1258, not far from where his grandfather, Chinggis Khan, had died some thirty years prior. Mongke was to take his force against Sichuan; a second army under his cousin Taghachar, was to strike east from the Liupanshan to the Song metropolis of Xiangyang, which controlled access to the vital Song river routes; Kublai was to take a third force from north China to the central regions of the Yangzi river, focusing on the city of O-zhou, today’s Wuhan. The fourth army was under Uriyangqadai, who from Yunnan would hammer the Song from the west and link up with Kublai and Taghachar along the Yangzi.
The idea was twofold. By striking the Song along so many frontiers, they would be unable to converge against a single army, while the Song empire could be split in half. With the capital and administration based on the far eastern edge of the Song realm, the Mongols could isolate it and perhaps drive a mammoth wave of refugees to it.
In the Autumn of 1258, Mongke’s host descended upon Sichuan. 100,000 troops had recently been sent by the Song to reinforce it, but frustratingly little else had been done by the central government to help repair fortifications of that western region. During the march on Dali some five years prior, much of Sichuan was occupied, but the major population centres stood defiant. The Grand Khan himself was now taking the field against them. Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a population of almost one million, quickly fell and it’s plain was soon in Mongol hands. Initial successes were significant, but as 1258 turned to 1259, Mongke found himself bogged down in sieges in eastern Sichuan. Outside of the plain of Sichuan, the province turns to rugged mountains and valleys. Recently constructed mountain tops fortresses proved difficult to take; Chongqing, one of the major cities along the Yangzi in the region, was turned into a network of fortresses. Defenders fought tooth and nail, knowing defeat meant slaughter for them and their families. Mongke’s problems grew as he sought to take Ho-chou. For five months, the city resisted his efforts, heavy losses frustrating him. By June, rain became incessant. Humidity and the climate proved an effective weapon. Disease spread rapidly among the Mongols and their horses. Even troops levied from northern China were unused to it, and progress halted. Mongke fought the rest of the summer in the hills around Ho-chou, trying to keep up the army’s momentum. Precisely how things went in August is not agreed upon in the sources. Mongke seems to have been drinking heavily, perhaps recognizing the water spread foul diseases to his men. His judgement and reflex may have been impaired, perhaps his own fortitude suffering. The sources speak of an arrow from the defenders of a local fort, or a projectile launched from a catapult. Others, of cholera or dysentery brought on by the conditions. No matter what it was, on the 11th of August, 1259, Mongke Khaan was dead.
His army ground to a halt. Messages were sent to the other armies, and Mongke’s son Asutai quickly took his father’s body back to Mongolia for burial. According to Marco Polo, the army killed everyone they came across as they hauled his corpse. News spread quickly, the Song found new heart: the great Khaghan was dead! Taghachar Noyan’s army had already floundered outside the walls of Xiangyang. Kublai, delayed by his severe gout, had not yet even crossed the Yangzi River when he learned the news of his brother’s demise. Only Uriyangqadai had made progress, perhaps due to a greater number of locally raised troops from Dali suited to the climate. From Dali or Dai Viet, he had marched through the modern provinces of Guangxi and Hunan to reach Kublai on the Yangzi, allegedly fighting 13 battles, killing 400,000 Song soldiers and capturing several major generals.
On learning of Mongke’s death, Kublai continued to campaign for another two months, initially dismissing it simply as a rumour, then stating he had been ordered south by the Khaan, and it was his duty to carry out his will. Crossing the Yangzi, he succeeded in taking O-chou, modern Wuhan. Perhaps the desire to get something done on the campaign drove him, or perhaps a thought crossed his mind: he didn’t have much for a military reputation. Taking a major city like O-chou would alleviate that, and make him a better candidate for the leadership to succeed Mongke. Doubtless, he imagined it would be months before an election would be held, giving him ample time to score some victories for his resume.
Therefore, he was quite surprised when messages came from his wife, Chabi, in late November 1259, warning that Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, was making moves to become Khaan. Ariq had been left as regent in Karakorum while his brothers were on campaign, and now looked to declare himself Khaan before the families had all assembled. For Kublai, this was an opportunity he could not afford to lose. Thus he departed Wuhuan in winter 1259, the Song, under their new chancellor Jia Sidao, warily watching the frontier and seeking to reclaim the lost territory. Little could they have predicted, but the age of the unified Mongol Empire had just ended. Providing no designated successor, Mongke’s death opened a vacuum, one which would tear every fracture within the empire to the surface. Civil war across Eurasia was about to follow, and the Song were offered a brief respite from the Mongols.
Our next episodes look at the great civil wars of the Mongol Empire, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you outstanding content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“From the King of Kings of East and West, the supreme Khan:
In your name, O God, who stretched out the earth and lifted up the heavens; Qutuz is of the race of those Mamluks, who fled to this region to escape our swords... Let Qutuz know, as well as all his emirs, and the peoples of his empire who inhabit Egypt and the neighboring countries, that we are the soldiers of God on earth; that he created us in his anger, and delivered into our hands all those who are the object of his wrath; what has happened in other lands should be a matter for you to think about, and distract you from making war on us. Learn from the example of others and commit your fate to us before the veil is torn, and, delivered to repentance, you see the penalty for your sins fall upon you: for we will not allow ourselves to be touched by crying and we will be insensitive to complaints. You have heard that we have conquered a vast expanse of land; that we have purified the earth of the disorders which defiled it; and that we have slaughtered most of the inhabitants. It’s up to you to flee, and it’s up to us to pursue you; and what land will offer you a refuge? Which road can save you?... You have no way of escaping our swords, of escaping the slaying of our weapons… Hurry to give us an answer, before the war ignites its fires and launches its sparks on you: then you will no longer find asylum, strength, protection, support. You would experience the most terrible catastrophes on our part, and you would soon leave your lands deserted. In sending you this message, we have acted nobly towards you; we have sought [...] to wake you from your slumber. Now you are the only enemies we must march against. May salvation be upon us, upon you, and upon all [...] who submit to the orders of the Supreme Khan. "
So reads the ultimatum delivered to Cairo in early summer 1260, as recorded by al-Maqrizi. Qutuz, the newly declared ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, faced the awesome might of an army unsurpassed, invincibile and merciless. Qutuz, in a fragile alliance with his erstwhile enemy Baybars, made the frightful decision to kill Hulegu Khan’s envoys, and roll the dice to challenge the Mongol hosts, ultimately facing them at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquests.
Our previous episode detailed Hulegu’s sack of Baghdad in February 1258, and the death of the last ‘Abbasid Caliph, al-Musta'sim. Hulegu soon moved north to Maragha to rest and prepare for the next leg of his journey; reducing the remaining independent powers along the Levantine Coast. For Hulegu and his massive army, it seemed nothing would stand in the way of the subjugation of the remainder of the Muslim world. Spending the summer of 1258 moving between Maragha and Tabriz, many throughout the region reaffirmed their submission. Sons and representatives came from the atabeg of Fars, various lords of the Caucasus and the Ayyubid Sultan of Aleppo and Damascus al-Nasir Yusuf. In person came the 90 year old Badr al-Din Lu’lu of Mosul and the two Seljuq Sultans of Rum, ‘Izz al-Din Kaykaus II and his half-brother, Rukn al-Din Kilich Arslan IV. The fall of the Caliph sent shockwaves, and most were eager to reaffirm their vassalage lest they share his fate. ‘Izz al-Din Kaykaus, knowing Hulegu was already displeased with him for his brief rebellion in 1256, made Hulegu a pair of fine boots with his portrait on the soles, and kneeling before Hulegu told him “your slave hopes the padishah will elevate this slave’s head with his royal foot.”
Hulegu was pleased with himself; the conquests were coming easily and it seemed he would complete his older brother’s will in good time. It’s possible that at this time Hulegu adopted for himself a new title, il-khan, which he began to include on coinage he minted the following year. Generally il-khan is translated as ‘viceroy,’ or ‘subject khan,’ il in Mongolian having connotations of submission. However, there is argument that it’s a Mongolian form of an older Turkic title, ileg khan, meaning ‘sovereign.’ Some sources from the Ilkhanate use it in this sense; one writer refers to Chinggis Khan as Il-khan,when such connotations of submission were quite inappropriate.
Hulegu spent the remainder of 1258 in Azerbaijan, wintering in Arran and the Mughan plain, where the cool temperatures and fine pastures pleased the Mongols. Maragha emerged as Hulegu’s de facto capital, and that region became the administrative centre and summer retreat of the Ilkhanate for the next 70 years. From here, Hulegu plotted. Intelligence came in of the fractured politics of the statelets from Syria to Egypt. The ruler of Mayyafariqin in the Jazira had previously submitted to the Mongols, but had revolted as the Mongol army surrounded Baghdad. Hulegu sent his son Yoshmut to deal with them. The Ayyubid sultan of Syria, al-Nasir Yusuf, had been a Mongol tributary since the early 1240s, but had failed to provide troops against Baghdad or to appear before Hulegu in person. So, Hulegu would appear before him in person, along with 100,000 of his closest friends and at least 300,000 of their favourite horses. The only power of any note other than the small Ayyubid princes and Crusader holdouts on the coast, was the newly established Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt. Sending Yoshmut and Kitbuqa as his vanguard in spring 1259, in September Hulegu led the main army to Syria, anticipating a swift and glorious conquest of the region.
Some 80 years prior, Egypt to eastern Turkey had been unified by an-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, who you may know better as Saladin. On his death in 1193 Saladin intended for three of his sons to rule in a sort of confederacy, one in Cairo, Egypt; one in Aleppo in Syria, and one in Damascus, also in Syria, to be the senior over the others. Within 3 years, his plan went awry. Saladin’s brother al-Adil bin Ayyub took control of Damascus and Egypt and forced Aleppo to recognize his authority. al-Adil placed his own sons as governors, and allowed the jihad to fall to the wayside, enjoying a fruitful 20 year truce with the Crusader states. The trade they brought was valuable and al-Adil found his Seljuq and Zengid neighbours of much greater concern. It was not until 1218 when his system cracked; that year the fifth Crusade landed in Egypt and soon took Damietta; the Anatolian Seljuqs backed Saladin’s ousted son al-Afdal in attempting to take Aleppo; and al-Adil died of illness is August 1218. On his death, the Ayyubids never regained their unity. al-Adil’s son al-Kamil took power in Egypt, but continually butted heads with the Ayyubid princes of Syria, especially his brother controlling Damascus, al-Muazzam. It was in the face of war with al-Muazzam that in 1229 al-Kamil agreed to a truce with the oncoming Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, bloodlessly returning Jerusalem to Christian hands for the first time since Saladin took the city in 1187.
Al-Kamil died in 1238, his family vying for control of Egypt. It took two years for his oldest son, al-Salih Ayyub, to seize power there. By then, the Ayyubids of Syria and Egypt were totally independent of each other; al-Nasir Yusuf, the prince of Aleppo, became tributary to the Mongols in 1243. In Egypt, al-Salih Ayyub showed himself a powerful and militaristic ruler- the last effective Ayyubid Sultan, exerting his power against his cousins in Syria. The first means to do this was to invite the bands of Khwarezmian mercenaries in Syria to him. These were the remnants of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu’s army, who, since Mingburnu’s demise in 1231, had acted as mercenaries and pillagers, raiding for the highest bidder. In 1244, al-Salih Ayyub invited them to Egypt, intent on employing them, or at least, keeping them from being employed against him by the Syrian Ayyubids. The Khwarezmians under Husam al-Din Berke Khan took up the call, en route sacking Jerusalem in early summer 1244, the Crusaders losing Jerusalem for good. The panicking Franks organized an alliance against the Khwarezmians- a grand army of Frankish troops, knights of the Military Orders, and the Ayyubid princes of Damascus and Homs, eager to keep the Khwarezmians out of al-Salih Ayyub’s hands. Their largest field army since the Third Crusade, some 13,000 men, was resoundingly crushed by the Khwarezmians at La Forbie in October 1244. It was a massacre, the offensive ability of the Crusader States permanently broken. Representatives from Acre reached Europe and called for aid- only the penitent King Louis IX of France would answer.
Al-Salih Ayyub took the Khwarezmians north, and after assisting him in taking control of Damascus, gave them the boot, and they were overwhelmed and dispersed by Syrian forces in 1246. So ended the last remnant of the Khwarezmian Empire, some 20 years after Chinggis Khan’s invasion.
Giving up on unreliable Khwarezmians, al-Salih Ayyub turned to slave soldiers. Military slavery was hardly a new institution, used from the ‘Abbasids to the Fatimids to the Ayyubids under Saladin himself. Generally, the Islamic institutions of military slavery differed greatly from the chattel slavery we associate the term with. In the words of historian Bart Hacker, “although his owner might buy or sell him and otherwise dictate certain life choices, the relationship of owner to soldier more nearly resembled that of patron to client than master to slave in the western sense. These are complex issues, but Muslim military slavery clearly did not define the soldier’s occupation, wealth, social standing or power.” Depending on the dynasty, military slavery actually increased a man’s access to wealth and social standing.
Prior to the 12th century, these slave soldiers were generally called ghulams, but by 1200 mamluk had replaced it. While a ghulam or mamluk could come from anywhere, Turkic steppe nomads were preferred. Bought as children between 8 and 12, from their upbringing on the steppe they already had valuable experience in archery and horseback riding. The most physically skilled were sold as mamluks, upon which they were converted to Islam and received further training in weapons and tactics, provided armour, horses and the support of the state. Often they were taught languages, administrative skills and how to read and write. They were expected to be absolutely loyal to their master, who heaped rewards on them. They combined all the military skill of the Turkic nomads, but with greater discipline and reliability.
In the dusty flood plain, 100,000 men and many times that in horses surround the walls of Baghdad. Catapults lob stones relentlessly into the city walls, hauled from great distance. Here, towers collapse under the barrage; there, ladders bring Mongol and subject peoples onto the fortifications, seizing them from the disorganized and panicking garrison. Arrows, some bearing messages, bring both confusion and injury where they land. The mighty Tigris River, the city’s lifeblood, is now part of the trap; pontoon bridges, from them dangling nets embedded with iron hooks, rest both north and south of the city to catch those trying to flee. The final ‘Abbasid Caliph sits frightened and overwhelmed in his palace, as the grasp of Hulegu Khan closes around him. Today, we discuss the fall of Baghdad, 1258. But first, we’d like to remind you that for those of you who enjoy the podcast, your support would be highly appreciated and would help us keep going. We have a patreon available for monthly or even one-time donations or, if you aren’t able to support us financially, positive reviews on Apple Podcasts or other review sites really helps us out. And now, I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
We left our previous episode off with Hulegu destroying the Nizari Ismaili state, better known at the Order of Assassins, who had controlled a series of fortresses across eastern and northern Iran. By the end of 1256, Hulegu had reduced them to but a few holdouts, and he could begin to look to his next target. Considered heretics of the worst variety by most Sunni Muslims, the Persian writer Juvaini, a member of Hulegu’s retinue, described his victory over the Nizaris in glowing terms, Hulegu as a sword of Islam carrying out God’s will. Juvaini presents Hulegu’s war as a more ‘civilized’ form of conquest compared to that of his grandfather, Chinggis Khan. Destruction was limited to Ismaili territories and the towns and fortresses that failed to submit, as opposed to the veritable tsunami of bloodshed Chinggis Khan wrought on the Khwarezmian empire over thirty years prior. What Hulegu was soon to do in Baghdad and to the titular head of Sunni Islam would not be so praised, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Juvaini’s own chronicle ends with the fall of the Ismailis. As Hulegu left Ismaili territory in the final month of 1256, his eye was drawn to the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.
In Islam, the spiritual leader of the religion was whoever was considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. For Shi’a Muslims, this was the imam- for Nizari Ismailis, the Imam was the ruler of Alamut, who had just been put to death on Mongol orders. For the majority of Muslims, known as Sunnis, the head of their faith was the Caliph, literally meaning ‘successor.’The first four Caliphs to succeed the Prophet were the “Rightly Guided,” the Rashidun, whose legitimacy is generally unquestioned by most Muslims. The Rashidun were succeeded by the Umayyads, who greatly extended Muslim rule east and west, across North Africa into Spain and across Eastern Iran into Central Asia. In 750, the Umayyad Caliphs were overthrown in the ‘Abbasid revolution. Claiming descent from the Prophet’s uncle ‘Abbas, it was under the early ‘Abbasids that the Caliphal capital was moved from Damascus to the newly established Baghdad along the Tigris River. Never comparable to the power of the Umayyads at their height, from the 9th century onwards the still vast ‘Abbasid empire fragmented with threat from all directions: the Fatimids in Egypt, the Samanids, Buyids and Saffarids of Iran and finally from the steppes, the Great Seljuqs, all of which ground the ‘Abbasids down until their state hardly stretched past the walls of Baghdad. The weakening of the Seljuqs after Sultan Malik-Shah’s death in 1092 allowed the ‘Abbasids to gradually reclaim independence and some authority, even repulsing a Seljuq army attacking Baghdad in 1157. The long reigns of Caliph al-Nasir and al-Mustansir, from 1180 until 1242, saw the ‘Abbasids reclaim much of central and southern Iraq. A far cry from the sweeping power they had held in the 8th century, by the 13th century they still remained influential and held prestige. For 500 years they had been the heads of Islam, and had long cultivated an useful image as invioable and holy, above temporal affairs though they were more often than not mired in them.
For instance, in the late 12th century Caliph al-Nasir was in conflict with the Seljuqs who continued to rule in Iran. He allied with the rising power northeast of the Iranian Seljuqs, the Khwarezmian Empire. Once vassals of the Great Seljuqs, the Khwarezm-shahs now butted heads with them as they expanded southwards, and the reigning Khwarezm-Shah, Tekesh bin Il-Arslan, was happy to ally himself with the Caliph. In 1194 at Rayy, modern Tehran, Tekesh defeated and killed the last Seljuq Sultan in Iran, Toghrul III, ending the dynasty and sending the Sultan’s severed head to al-Nasir in Baghdad. Rather than provide freedom for the Caliphate, Tekesh now wanted to step into the place of Seljuqs. The Seljuqs’ territory in Iran was largely annexed by Tekesh Khwarezm-shah, who soon began making aggressive motions to the Caliph. Al-Nasir encouraged the Khwarezmians’ eastern neighbours, the Ghurids, in their war with Tekesh. Tekesh died in 1200, succeeded by his son Muhammad II as Khwarezm-shah who, through luck, timely assassinations and military victories, overcame the Ghurids, consolidated power over Iran and in 1217 tried to march on Baghdad itself. Muhammad’s march on Baghdad was halted by a vicious snowstorm as he crossed the Zagros mountains, forcing him back. Returning to the northeast of his empire, Muhammad would there make the poor decisions which led to the Mongol Invasion of Khwarezm, covered way back in episode 9 of this podcast.
Now, some authors of the period assert that Caliph al-Nasir actually invited Chinggis Khan to attack Muhammad of Khwarezm- when placed in the context of the Caliph switching to support whoever was on the eastern side of his current foe, there is definitely a logic to it. However, as we described in detail in episode 8 of the podcast, the cause of the Mongol invasion can be found in the foolery of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah alone. Had the Mongols come on the invitation of the Caliph, then surely they would have publicized that to justify the attack and sow further confusion among the Khwarezmians.
In fact, in 1221 when detachments of Jebe and Subutai’s army penetrated into northern Iraq, Caliph al-Nasir was hardly welcoming. Along with the rulers of northern Iraq’s most important cities, Muzaffar ad-Din of Irbil and Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, the de facto ruler of Mosul, the Caliph organized a short lived military coalition, which proved unnecessary as the Mongols soon withdrew. Evidently, the ‘Abbasids spread a rumour that their army was absolutely gargantuan, their power unassailable and heavenly protected, and the Mongols were hesitant to commit. Had they paid close attention in the following years, they might have called the Caliph’s bluff. In 1225 that favoured Khwarezmian rapscallion, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, defeated a Caliphal army after the ‘Abbasids failed to provide him assistance. Jalal al-Din chased the survivors right to the suburbs of Baghdad, then went north, defeated an army from Irbil sent to assist the Caliph and captured Irbil’s ruler, Muzaffar ad-Din. Caliph al-Nasir, by then elderly, paralyzed and blind for three years, died soon after Jalal al-Din’s attack, and was succeeded by his son, az-Zahir, as the 35th Caliph… for nine months. On Caliph az-Zahir’s death in 1226, he was succeeded by his own son, al-Mustansir, the 36th and penultimate ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad.
As Caliph, al-Mustanir continued to try to strengthen ‘Abbasid control in Iraq and expand the army, but Mongol rule steadily spread over the region. By the start of the 1230s, Chormaqun Noyan and his lieutenants brought the submission of most of Iran and cast Mongol authority over the Caucasus. For Caliph al-Mustansir, the Mongol empire was a vast crescent to his north and east, where it stretched seemingly indefinitely. By 1235, Mongol forces mainly under Chagatai Noyan, “the Lesser,” were probing northern Iraq and directly, but hesitantly, testing ‘Abbasid hegemony in the region. In June 1237, Chagatai Noyan captured Irbil in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, though the Citadel held out and in August Caliphal forces relieved the city. In February of 1238, an attack was launched on Baghdad, and a panicked Caliph al-Mustansir sent messages to the remaining independent Muslim powers from the Jazira and Syria down to Egypt for aid. Only 2,000 troops from the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, reached Baghdad, and in June 1238 a caliphal army was defeated near the city. However, the defences of Baghdad itself remained formidable and the city stood defiant while the Mongols turned back from the walls, unprepared for both a long siege and or the fearsome Iraqi summer. Possibly, the Mongols suffered some sort of reverse while attacking Baghdad; some sixty years later, when the Persian historian Wassaf [vassaf] visited Baghdad, he recorded a Mongol defeat outside the walls, though this goes unmentioned by the other sources.
While Baghdad remained independent, the Mongols continued to take cities in the region. Chormaqun’s successor Baiju brought the submission of the Seljuqs of Anatolia in 1243; in 1244, the Mongol general Yasa’ur rode into Syria, dislodging the remnants of Jalal al-Din’s Khwarezmians. The Ayyubids of Syria, the successors of the once mighty empire of Saladin Ayyubi, largely submitted over 1244-5, and even Antioch, one of the last of the Crusader Kingdoms, offered its submission. In late 1245 another attack on Baghdad was launched but soon aborted. The new Caliph since 1242, al-Mustasim ibn al-Mustansir, was lucky the attack was called off, for he was rather rapidly running out of allies. It seem that the new Caliph managed to avoid further attacks with a token submission: the Franscisan Friar John de Plano Carpini, present at the coronation of Guyuk Khaan in 1246, noted ‘Abbasid envoys were present in Karakorum and believed they paid a regular tribute.
The 38th and final ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, al-Mustasim, was not the equal of his father or great-grandfather. While al-Nasir and al-Mustansir sought to strengthen the Caliphate, al-Mustasim was more interested in the luxury of Baghdad, and was nearly universally condemned for decadence. A great lover of music, he sponsored an entire neighbourhood in Baghdad to house musicians, including the most famous of the age, Saif al-Din Urmawi. A lover of pigeon racing, art, calligraphy and treasures, al-Mustasim was also indecisive and easily swayed by factions in his court, some of whom, such as the vizier, sought accomodation with the Mongols, while others urged to meet them in battle. As we will see shortly, the result was al-Mustasim vacillating in policy, wavering between antagonizing the Mongols and sending them gifts. Essentially, the worst sort of man to have in power when Hulegu marched on him with upwards of 100,000 men.
Neither was weak leadership the only problem. Corruption and decadence of Baghdad’s elite alienated the lower classes. A weak currency and high food prices contributed to revolts; many of Baghdad’s soldiers increasingly found themselves unpaid and resorted to bandity or desertion. Topping off years of natural disasters- heavy rain, storms, annual flooding, in 1256, the Tigris, the river which runs through Baghdad, flooded for over a month, washing away much of Baghdad’s lower city. Attributed to divine displeasure at the decadent al-Mustasim, for decades afterwards this flood was remembered as the “Mustasimid flood.” As Mongol armies approached the city, pestilence killed many hundreds, if not thousands. The Caliph stood in a precarious position.
Likely in late 1255, Hulegu sent a message to Caliph al-Mustasim demanding, as Hulegu had done with other rulers across the region, that Baghdad supply troops to help in the attack on the Nizari Isamilis. Al-Mustasim refused. As the ‘Abbasids had been sending tribute in the previous years and were considered vassals, such a refusal was a declaration of independence. Hulegu, having been sent in part to find how sincere the Caliph’s submission was, now had his casus belli, for to the Mongols, the Caliph of Baghdad was now in open revolt. War with the Caliph was not intended to punish Islam specifically; had the Mongols caught the Pope and considered him a rebel, certainly he would have shared a similar fate. What mattered to the Mongols was submission to their divinely mandated rule; refusal to submit was blasphemy of the highest order.
After the fall of Alamut in December 1256, and spending some time near the still-resisting Nizari fortress of Lammasar, Hulegu stayed in Qazwin, just south of Alamut, until March 1257. From Qazwin he undertook a somewhat repetitive journey: from Qazwin he went to Hamadan, then to Dinavar, then Tabriz, then back to Hamadan, then back to Tabriz, then back to Hamadan in September 1257, from whence he would finally march on Baghdad. The reasons for this were multiple, and not just because Hulegu really liked northwestern Iran, though it did give him good time to evaluate the region. Firstly, Hulegu did not want to besiege Baghdad in the summer months, and instead needed to time the march so he arrived outside the city in the winter. Secondly, it provided time for his lieutenants to secure the neighbouring theaters: Kitbuqa Noyan secured through force and diplomacy Luristan and the passes through the Zagros mountains, ensuring Hulegu’s main army could march unimpeded when the time came. In Anatolia, Baiju Noyan had needed to put down a Seljuq revolt, culminating in the battle of Aksaray in October 1256. Baiju then needed to move back east, in order to march on Baghdad from the west when the time came.
Thirdly, Hulegu and the Caliph engaged in an entertaining round of diplomatic fisti-cuffs. Hulegu offered the Caliph another chance to surrender, repudiating him for his failure to send troops against the Nizaris. Hulegu’s threat, as recorded by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din, went as follows:
“Previously we have given you advice, but now we say you should avoid our wrath and vengeance. Do not try to overreach yourself or accomplish the impossible, for you will only succeed in harming yourself. The past is over. Destroy your ramparts, ﬁll in your moats, turn the kingdom over to your son, and come to us. If you do not wish to come, send all three, the vizier [al-Alqami], Sulaymanshah, and the Dawatdar, that they may convey our message word for word. If our command is obeyed, it will not be necessary for us to wreak vengeance, and you may retain your lands, army, and subjects. If you do not heed our advice and dispute with us, line up your soldiers and get ready for the ﬁeld of battle, for we have our loins girded for battle with you and are standing at the ready. When I lead my troops in wrath against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth, ‘I shall bring you down from the turning celestial sphere; I shall pull you up like a lion. I shall not leave one person alive in your realm, and I shall put your city and country to the torch.’ “If you desire to have mercy on your ancient family’s heads, heed my advice. If you do not, let us see what God’s will is.”
The Caliph refused Hulegu’s demands, and when he sent back Hulegu’s envoys, they were harassed by the people of Baghdad; the Caliph’s vizier, ibn al-Alqami, had to send soldiers to protect the envoys to ensure they weren’t killed. When Hulegu learned of the incident, he derided the Caliph as a total incompetent, and then flew into a rage when he heard the official response, which called Hulegu a young and inexperienced man: somewhat humorous, considering al-Mustasim was only four years older than Hulegu. Hulegu’s response was about as subtle as you’d expect. Again, as per the account of Rashid al-Din, quote:
“God the eternal elevated [Chinggis] Khan and his progeny and gave us all the face of the earth, from east to west. Anyone whose heart and tongue are straight with us in submission retains his kingdom, property, women, children, and life. He who contemplates otherwise will not live to enjoy them. Love of status and property, conceit, and pride in transitory fortune have so seduced you that even the words of your well-wishers have no effect on you. Your ear cannot hear the advice of the compassionate, and you have deviated from the path of your fathers and forebears. You must get ready for battle, for I am coming to Baghdad with an army as numerous as ants and locusts. Be the turning of the celestial sphere how it may, the power to command is God’s.”
Upon hearing this message, al-Mustasim’s vizier ibn al-Alqami understood the colossal danger they were in, and fervently argued for the Caliph to appease the Mongols. Al-Alqami has something of a bisecting reputation in the Islamic world. For some, reading the Mamluk sources, the Shia Muslim ibn al-Alqami was a conspirator, plotting with Hulegu to topple the head of Sunni Islam for his own gain. For those reading from Persian and Ilkhanid sources, ibn al-Alqami was earnestly trying to steer the Caliph away from annihilation and save as many lives as he could. On this last response from Hulegu, al-Alqami was able to convince al-Mustasim to send gifts, only for the Caliph to be talked out of it by the dawatdar, Mugahid al-Din Aybek, the Caliphate’s top military man and a staunch supporter of resistance against Hulegu. Convincing the Caliph to abandon the expensive gifts, al-Mustasim sent the following message to vizier al-Alqami to assuage his worries:
“Do not fear the future, and do not talk fables, for there is friendship and unity, not enmity and hostility, between me and Hülägü and [Mongke Khaan]. Since I am their friend, they are of course friendly and benevolent toward me. The envoys’ message is false. Even if these brothers contemplate opposition to or treachery against me, what has the Abbasid dynasty to fear, when the monarchs of the face of the earth stand as our army and obey our every command? If I request an army from every country and mount to repulse the foe, I can incite Iran and Turan against these brothers. Be of stout heart, and do not fear the threats of the Mongols, for although they are powerful upstarts, they pose nothing but an empty threat to the House of Abbas.”
If Rashid al-Din is accurate in recording this message, then it goes some way to demonstrate just how greatly al-Mustasim misunderstood the situation. al-Mustasim’s next letter to Hulegu spoke of monarchs who had attacked the ‘Abbasids and suffered divine retribution for it, noting specifically Muahmmad Khwarezm-shah, who for his attack on Baghdad in 1217 suffered the power of Hulegu’s grandfather. Hulegu sent another threat, promising to bring the Caliph “down miserably into the jaws of a lion,” and had enough of parlay.
Hulegu had only to check with the astrologers and diviners of his retinue in order to ensure the assault had good fortune. Variously they warned of failure, catastrophe, and death for harming the Caliph. Finally, Hulegu turned to the famed Iranian scholar rescued from the Nizari fortresses, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and asked what he thought of the matter. After thinking for a moment, Tusi told Hulegu that none of these things would happen. Hulegu asked what would. Tusi replied, “Hulegu Khan will take the Caliph’s place.” And that was enough for Hulegu. The border passes were now secured, and the march on Baghdad could begin.
As Hulegu marched through Kermanshah, massacres followed him. His army approached Baghdad in three directions. Kitbuqa took a route through Luristan, and would march on Baghdad from the south. Baiju Noyan came through northern Iraq, crossing the Tigris near Irbil and closing in on Baghdad’s west and north. Hulegu took the main army through the Hulwan pass and would close off Baghdad from the east, thus encircling the city.
As the armies entered Iraq, cities and towns across Mesopotamia surrendered to them. In January 1258 as the Mongols closed in on the city, the Caliphal army under the Dawatdar tried to repulse Baiju’s army. They were lured into a feigned retreat; a dyke was broken and their camp flooded. Few survivors escaped back to Baghdad. By January 22ned, the Mongol armies had linked up around the city. Not just Mongols, but subject Iranians, Turks, Georgians and Armenians made up this force, with a thousand Chinese siege engineers. The defenders of Baghdad were outnumbered and without hope. For a week, the Mongols prepared their siege lines. Pontoon bridges were built across the Tigris, nets and iron hooks hanging from them to ensure none could escape either up or downriver. No stones for the catapults were within the area, so they needed to be hauled in from elsewhere. A ditch was dug around the city, the earth from the ditch used to build a rampart with gates set in it. Protective coverings were built for the siege engines. With the typical thoroughness of the early Toluids, Baghdad was closed off, its fate sealed.
The assault began on January 29th. An incessant barrage of stones and arrows brought the defenders to their knees. The artillery upon the walls of Baghdad was poorly maintained and outranged by that of the Mongols, useless in the words of one source. Under mobile wooden shelters, the Mongols advanced on the walls, sending arrows deeper into the city. One of the Caliph’s daughters was killed when an arrow passed through a window in his palace. Messages were tied to arrows, proclaiming that all those who did not resist would be spared. By the start of February, towers and bastions along the walls were collapsing. By February 3rd, Mongol forces were capturing the walls. When one of Hulegu’s commanders was killed by an arrow sent from the city, he angrily forced his army on at greater speed.
Realizing just how monumentally he had erred, al-Mustasim sent envoys, among them the once bellicose Dawatdar, to discuss terms with Hulegu. They were quickly put to death. Nothing but the unconditional surrender of the Caliph himself was good enough. Finally, on February 10th, al-Mustasim and his family came out from Baghdad, and put his life in the hands of Hulegu. Initially, the Caliph was treated respectfully. Other notables came out to submit to Hulegu, and many others fled out of the city to escape the pestilence which had already claimed thousands within. These who came out were trapped between the walls of Baghdad and the Mongol palisade. Once the garrison and its weapons were collected, on the 13th of February, the sack of Baghdad began.
In popular culture, the sack of Baghdad is uncontrolled, disorganized, horrifically violent and results in the city’s utter destruction and death of a million people. In reality it was controlled, organized, horrifically violent and resulted in only most of the city’s destruction and deaths of thousands. Rather than wiping Baghdad from the map, it was more of an organized dismemberment. Evidence comes from multiple accounts, but we’ll focus on that of the musician, Urmawi. In contrast to the image of the mob running wild over Baghdad, Urmawi’s account, recorded by the Mamluk historian Shihab al-Din al-’Umari, records the Mongols meticulously planned the sacking. Depending on rank, commanders were given 1 to 3 days to collect loot from sections of the city allotted to them. In Urmawi’s case, his neighbourhood was allotted to Baiju Noyan and his retinue- notably just men Baiju picked to bring into the city with him, rather than a whole portion of his army. Urmawi greeted Baiju with gifts and hosted a feast for him, entertaining him with music and ingratiating himself to the Noyan. Baiju was so pleased he urged Urmawi to come with him to play before Hulegu. Hulegu enjoyed a concert before the walls of Baghdad, ordered Urmawi’s neighbourhood spared and protected with picked men, and even granted Urmawi gardens which had belonged to the Caliph.
Likewise, various sources note that a number of segments of the populations were spared and their property protected: Christians, notably Nestorian priests; Shi’ites and Alids; Khurasani merchants, Qadis, scholars, shaykhs and in one source, Jews. Individuals are mentioned petitioning Hulegu to spare their homes- likely for a hefty payment, of course- but in order to follow these orders, the forces looting the city had to be disciplined enough to actually take note of addresses. Even the oft-repeated statement that the Tigris River ran black with ink of the books of Baghdad’s library must be re-examined, for Nasir al-Din Tusi took many with him to Maragha, where he built his famous observatory. A number of sources indicate the city’s looting lasted only a week, rather than a full month.
Clemency was extended to multiple groups… but for the majority of the city’s population who did not fall into these categories, it appears no quarter was given. For all the gated neighbourhoods like Urmawi’s which were protected, many more were gutted and looted. Treasures collected over the city’s 500 years were stolen, the finest architecture of the ‘Abbasids ruined and torn down. Hulegu entered the city on February 15th, visiting the Caliph’s palace, where al-Mustasim was forced to reveal where he had hidden his wealth. 12,000 severed ears were brought before Hulegu to mark the slain citizenry. The dead littered the street; after a few days, the heat and stench of the rotting bodies led Hulegu to end the looting by February 20th. Notably, the city was not to be left to brigandage: a governor and Mongol officials were appointed, ibn al-Alqami kept his position as vizier, to clean up the bodies and restore the city.
On the 20th of February, Hulegu moved to the village of Waqaf to avoid the foul air of Baghdad, from which he apparently fell sick. At Waqaf, Hulegu had al-Mustasim put to death, most likely rolled into a carpet and stomped upon to avoid spilling his blood on the earth. His family soon followed him. In European accounts, the popular version was that Hulegu locked Mustasim in his treasury, where he starved to death in an ironic punishment to mark the Caliph’s failures to pay for troops and defences.
So ended the 500 year old ‘Abbasid Caliphate. The impact on Islam is hard to understate. Since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, there had been a widely recognized successor to him in the form of the Caliphs -Rashidun, Umayyad and ‘Abbasid. Most Muslims saw him as the spiritual, if not the actual political, head of Islam. For the Caliphate, seemingly inviolable and permanent, to come to such a violent and sudden end sent shockwaves throughout the Islamic world. Caliphates had been overthrown before; previous dynasties like the Buyids and Seljuqs had held the Caliphs as puppets and militarily defeated them, while the Nizari Assassins had claimed the lives of at least two; but never before had the Caliphate actually been erased from existence by a power claiming universal sovereignty in its place. Distant relations of al-Mustasim were eventually set up in Mamluk Cairo as new Caliphs, but were never widely recognized. The Ottoman Sultans would also claim the title of Caliph in time, but none have ever been able to step into the position held by the ‘Abbasids. It’s no surprise that many Muslims throughout the following centuries have referred to the sack of Baghdad as a scar of the psyche of the ummah, one which it has not recovered from today.
With the fall of Baghdad, Hulegu could now cast his eyes onto Syria, down the Levantine coast to the newly established Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. The sense was real that Hulegu was about to bring the whole of Islam under the authority of the house of Chinggis. Our next episode takes us to the Mongol drive to the Meditteranean- and the famous clash of ‘Ayn Jalut, an episode you won’t want to miss. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast, and to help up continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Before we get into this week's episode, I want to give a shout out to another podcast that we’ve recently discovered here at Ages of Conquest! Pax Britannica is a narrative history podcast on the British Empire. Season 1 covered the start of English colonisation in North America and the Caribbean, the first decades of the East India Company, and the ruthless politics of the British Isles. Season 2 has just begun on the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Civil war and revolution erupt in England, Ireland, and Scotland, pitting the forces of Charles I against his own subjects. By the end, the king will be dead, the monarchy abolished, and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell will be at the head of a militarised and expansionist Commonwealth. If any of this sounds even remotely appealing, go give Pax Britannica a listen; available where all fine podcasts are downloaded. And now, on with OUR show!
“You are to go with a large army and innumerable force from the borders of Turan to the country of Iran. Observe Chinggis Khan’s customs and yosun and yasa in all matters large and small. From the River Oxus to the farthest reaches of the land of Egypt, treat kindly and affectionately and reward sufficiently whoever obeys and submits to your orders. Grind beneath the feet of your wrath those who resist, along with their wives, children, and kith and kin. Begin with Quhistan and Khurasan, and destroy the fortresses and castles. Rip up GirdKoh and [Lammasar] fortress and turn them upside down! Neither let any bastion remain in the world nor leave a pile of dust standing! When you are ﬁnished there, head for Persia and eliminate the Lurs and Kurds who constantly practice brigandage along the highways. If the Caliph of Baghdad comes out to pay homage, harass him in no way whatsoever. If he is prideful and his heart and tongue are not one, let him join the others. In all cases make your clear-sighted intelligence and golden mind your guide and leader, and be awake and sober in all situations. Let the subjects be free of excessive taxes and impositions. Return devastated lands to a ﬂourishing state. Conquer the realm of the rebellious through the might of the great god so that your summer and winter pastures may be many. Consult Doquz Khatun on all matters.”
So were the orders Mongke Khaan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, gave to his brother Hulegu on the outset of his campaign in 1253, according to the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Among the most famous of the Mongol campaigns, Hulegu led Mongol armies to destroys the Ismaili Assassins in Iran, the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and into Syria, the prelude to the famous clash at Ayn Jalut. As this is perhaps the Mongol campaign with the greatest surviving detail, and one of the most well known, we’re going to take you on a thorough look at Hulegu’s western march, beginning with the destruction of the so-called “Order of Assassin.” I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Hulegu, the famed sacker of Baghdad, was the younger brother of Great Khan Mongke and Kublai, the third son of Tolui with Sorqaqtani. As mentioned back in episode 23, Mongke Khaan took the throne in 1251 with a renewed drive to complete the Mongol conquest of the world. He organized administrative reforms, censuses, and new taxes to levy the forces of the empire for this goal. In 1252, he held a meeting in Mongolia to put this next round of conquest in motion, placing his brothers at the head of two great armies. Kublai was sent against the Kingdom of Dali, in China’s modern Yunnan province, as the opening move in the conquest of Song Dynasty. Hulegu meanwhile was to march west and subdue the few independent powers of the Islamic world: specifically, the Nizari Ismailis, popularly known as the Assassins; the Kurds and Lurs of western Iran, who annoyed the Great Khan through their brigandage, and the ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad.
There is discrepancy in the sources as to what precisely Hulegu’s mandate was. A number of later authors of the Ilkhanate- the state which emerged from Hulegu’s conquests- assert that Mongke intended for the area from the Amu Darya River to the Meditteranean to be ruled by Hulegu as another ulus, or Khanate of the empire, a counterbalance to those of Jochi and Chagatai, a sort of Toluid axis across Asia sandwiching the Chagatayids. This is hardly agreed upon however. Other sources present Hulegu’s command as a temporary military one. The Ilkhanid vizier and historian Rashid al-Din wrote that Mongke told Hulegu to return to Mongolia once he had achieved his tasks; Hulegu had to confer with his commanders on all strategic decisions, which included representatives from the houses of Jochi, Chagatai and even Ogedai, a first amongst equals rather than an almighty prince; and when Hulegu began to seize Jochid possessions in Iran, Khurasan and the Caucasus after Mongke’s death, it seems to have taken them quite by surprise, for in the early 1250s Mongke confirmed grants of Caucasian territory to the house of Jochi. It’s likely that Mongke had intended for Iran and much of the Middle East to be dominated by the Central Imperial Government, but did not intend to remove land rights the other branches of the family enjoyed in the region.
So, who was Hulegu? Born in 1217, he was two years younger than Kublai, almost ten years younger than Mongke, and a few years older than their youngest brother, Ariq Boke. His life before the ascension of Mongke is almost totally unknown to us, but he presumably received similar education in both governing and warfare to his brothers. While Mongke was groomed for the possibility of stepping into the imperial throne, Hulegu, to our knowledge, was not provided any such pretensions. He was well exposed to other religions and cultures; his mother, Sorqaqtani was a Nestorian Christian, as was his most influential wife, Doquz Khatun, who had been a widow of his father Tolui. Despite this, he showed more personal interest in Buddhism, though he took part in shamanistic practices throughout his recorded life. He was interesedt in science, especially astronomy, though for Hulegu this was more so in the form of astrology, which he often consulted for major decisions. He was a heavy drinker, with the lovely combination of often flying into horrific rages. Even reading pro-Ilkhanid sources like Rashid al-Din, who long served the descendants of Hulegu, one is shocked by the regularity in which Hulegu fell into a towering rage, which tended to be quite dangerous for whomever it was targeted at. His final years were marked by ill health, brought on excessive drinking, and at least one source indicates he suffered from epilepsy.
With the quriltai of 1252, the plan to finalize the conquest of western Asia was set, and Hulegu put in motion. A member of Mongke’s keshig was provided for Hulegu’s command, Kitbuqa of the Naiman tribe, also a Nestorian Christian. Kitbuqa departed as Hulegu’s vanguard in August 1252 with 12,000 men, beginning operations against the Ismailis in eastern Iran. Various sources give Hulegu’s own departure from Mongolia as Autumn 1253 or 1254. By the 1250s, the Mongols had an absolutely massive army: some estimates put the nomadic soldiers at their disposal upwards of one million men, and many more among the sedentary peoples across Eurasia to be called upon. Mongke provided Hulegu with a relatively small contingent of Mongols at the outset: perhaps as low as a tumen, 10,000 men, for Hulegu in addition to the 12,000 Kitbuqa had already set out with. As Hulegu moved west, his army snowballed, as contingents from across the empire met with him. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers and crossbowmen were provided for him. Most of the former warriors of the house of Ogedai were conscripted for Hulegu’s army. He was joined by a contingent of Oirats under Buqa Temur, the brother of Hulegu’s first senior wife, named somewhat amusingly, Guyuk. A grandson of Chagatai, Teguder, headed the perhaps 10,000 Chagatayid troops provided for Hulegu as he marched through their ulus. As many as 30,000 troops under the Jochid princes Balaghai, Quli and Tutar were provided by Batu. Tamma forces stationed in Kashmir and in the Caucasus, under Baiju Noyan, would also link up with Hulegu, and forces were supplied by all the client sultans, maliks, and atabegs of Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia. By the time Hulegu’s army converged on Baghdad at the start of 1258, he commanded perhaps 150,000 men if not more.
Extensive preparation was necessary for this army’s movement. We are told that roads were cleared of obstructions, bridges built and boats readied to cross rivers. All the pastures and meadows on Hulegu’s route were reserved for the feeding of his army’s horses and livestock. Flour and skins of wine were levied from across the subject populations and stored at depot stations along the way. Thanks to the census launched at the start of Mongke’s reign, the imperial government had a good idea of what could be called upon to provide for Hulegu’s army.
By Autumn 1255 Hulegu was near Samarkand, where he rested for 40 days, feasting with the head of the Secretariat for Central Asia, Mas’ud Beg. Another month was spent at Kish, about 80 kilometres south of Samarkand and the later birthplace of amir Temur, or Tamerlane. There, Hulegu feasted with the head of the Secretariat for Iran and Western Asia, Arghun Aqa. These were not just engagements for drinking (though there certainly was that) but to confer with the regional administrators and line up further provisions, troops and intelligence. At Kish, messengers were sent to vassals across Iran calling upon them to provide troops and assistance against the Ismaili assassins, whose territory Hulegu entered in the spring of 1256.
This takes us to Hulegu’s first target, the Assassins, which we’ll introduce and address some popular myths. Though popularly known as the Order of the Assassins, this is quite the misnomer; more accurately called the Nizari Ismaili state, they controlled a number of fortresses and settlements in three general regions; in Syria, centered around Masyaf; in the rugged eastern Iranian region called Quhistan; and in northwestern Iran’s Alburz mountain, where their leadership was based across several mountain fortresses, most famously Alamut. Leadership of the branches in Quhistan and Masyaf was generally appointed by Alamut, but were autonomous otherwise. Shi’a Muslims, specifically Ismailis, in the late 1080s and 1090s the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt suffered a succession dispute as to who would succeed the Imam, the rather distant successor to the Prophet Muhammad and ehad of Shi’a Islam. The supporters of one candidate, Nizar, were known as Nizaris, and hence, Nizari Ismailis. For the majority of Muslims, who were Sunnis, the Nizaris were seen as a sect within a sect, and heretics par excellence. At the same time as this succession dispute an Ismaili revolt broke out in Seljuq ruled Iran. In 1090, Hassan-i Sabbah captured the fortress of Alamut, while other adherents seized territory in Quhistan and elsewhere. The last of the Great Seljuqs, Sultan Malik-Shah I, attempted to crush them, but his untimely death, and the ensuing succession risis which splintered the vast Seljuq Empire, allowed the Ismailis to consolidate. Geographically spread out and lacking great economic or military power, they had to rely on other means to protect themselves and convince their neighbours to not attack them. One tool was assassinations, making a big splash with the murder of the Great Seljuq Vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092. Alongside well defended and inaccessible fortresses, it was a useful deterrent for any would-be conqueror. The assassinations were often public and dramatic to make the message as loud as possible. One method was for Ismailis to infiltrate the households of powerful figures as servants: they could then kill the man when he became too great a danger, or leave a warning, such as a knife, on the sleeping man’s pillow. The threat of assassination was as effective as an actual assassination, and soon anyone could be worried he had a secret Nizari Ismaili hiding in his entourage. Because of this, popular myths that the Ismaili imbued copious amounts of hashish before going on assassinations can be ignored. There is no evidence for this, and it’s unlikely considering the patience and planning that went into these missions. However, the appellation of them as heavy users of hashish stuck, hashishiyya, which became “assassin.”
So the Nizaris carried on for over a century. Hassan-i Sabbah and his successors, without any clear imam after Nizar’s death in 1095, basically stepped into the role themselves. The Ismaili leaders -popularly known in the West as ‘the Old Man of the Mountain,’- were generally long reigning without succession disputes, withstanding outside pressures while they mulled over doctrine, all the while being decried as just the worst sort of heretic by Sunni Muslims. In 1210, the ascension of the new imam and Ismaili leader, Hassan III, brought something of a rapprochement. Generally, the Ismailis had poor relations with the head of Sunni Islam, the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. They had after all claimed responsibility for the murders of two Caliphs in the 1130s. Yet Hassan III dramatically declared he followed the Sunni Sharia and fostered better relations with both the Caliph and other neighbouring Sunni rulers, such as Ozebg, the Eldeguzid Atabeg of Azerbaijan, and Muhammad II Khwarezm-shah. According to ‘Ata-Mailk Juvaini, a member of Hulegu’s entourage, Hassan III was also the first monarch west of the Amu Darya to submit to Chinggis Khan. Despite his state being largely surrounded by the Khwarezmian Empire, Ismaili fortresses in the Elburz Mountains and Quhistan were spared Mongol attacks. Indeed, Quhistan was a veritable island of security as the Mongols overran the Khwarezmian Empire. Juzjani, a Sunni Khwarezmian refugee who fled to Quhistan before later finding refuge in Delhi, describes the Ismailis in glowing terms.
Hassan III’s successor, ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad III, abandoned the overtures to the ‘Abbasid Caliph, but maintained the ties with the Mongols. When Jalal al-Din Mingburnu returned to western Iran in the mid 1220s, the Ismailis had no love for him and assassinated at least one of his lieutenants. When major Mongol forces returned to the region under Chormaqun Noyan at the start of the 1230s, the Ismailis provided valuable information on the whereabouts and weaknesses of Jalal al-Din, and within a year the Khwarezmian Prince was driven to his death. The details of the Mongol relationship with the Ismails for the next decade is difficult to discern. In 1246 Ismaili representatives came to the coronation of Guyuk Khaan in Mongolia, where they were insulted and sent off. Precisely what occurred is unclear. A possible reconstruction is offered by historian Timothy May in his article on the “Mongol-Ismaili Alliance.” He suggests the positive Mongol-Ismaili relationship was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” No record is made of Mongol demands for troops or tribute from the Ismailis, and it may have been that while powerful Khwarezmian elements were still extant, relative Ismaili independence was permitted as they were useful allies. After Mingburnu’s death in 1231, and especially after the death of Chormaqun in 1241, Mongol demands on the Ismailis may have increased, and in the early 1230s the Mongols annexed Ismaili controlled Damghan. The Ismailis were so concerned that in 1238, the English Monk Matthew Paris recorded that representatives of “the Old Man of the Mountain,” had come to England and France trying to organize a Christian-Muslim alliance against the Mongols, warning the King of England that “if they themselves could not withstand the attacks of such people, nothing remained to prevent their devastating the countries of the west.” Three years later, Mongol armies under Subutai and Batu crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary.
Back in the Middle East, one Mongol commander, Chagatai Noyan “the Lesser,” may have moved to enforce demands on the Ismailis, and was assassinated at some point in the early 1240s. Perhaps intended as just a warning, the Ismailis realised this was a mistake and sent representatives to Guyuk’s coronation in 1246. The Mongols were never forgiving of such things, and the destruction of the Ismailis was added to the agenda. An opportunity to actually do this didn’t present itself until the reign of Mongke Khan. The qadi of Qazwin, a city south of Alamut and quite antagonist to the Ismailis, came to Mongke’s court and revealed, in quite the breach of etiquette, that he had a suit of maille worn underneath his robes, claiming that his fear of the Ismailis was so great even in the Mongol court he needed this protection. When the Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck came to Mongke’s court in 1253, he heard rumours that 400 assassins had been dispatched to kill Mongke, and the Mongols were concerned enough that they were checking and interrogating everyone entering Karakorum. The threat of the assassins was taken seriously, and on Mongke’s directive Hulegu would treat the assassins very seriously
By then, the only independent power within proximity to Alamut was, somewhat ironically, the Caliph in Baghdad. The Ismailis stood alone against the incoming might of Hulegu. In the winter of 1255, as Hulegu stood at the border of Ismaili Quhistan, the imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad was murdered, quite likely on the instigation of his young and inexperienced son, Rukn al-Din Khwurshah, who then ascended to the imamate. ‘Ala al-Din was long on bad terms with his son, and seems to have suffered some sort of mental decline as news of Hulegu’s overwhelming force approached. Rukn al-Din may have thought himself capable of maneuvering them out of the impending disaster, but would have no success in the matter.
In the spring of 1256, Hulegu and his ever growing army entered Quhistan. Kitbuqa had been campaigning throughout the region since 1253, but had had no success in holding settlements like Tun, Ismaili Quhistan’s chief city, taking them only to lose them once he moved on. The Ismaili fortresses, built on imposing mountains and hard to access sites, proved beyond his means to siege. On Hulegu’s arrival, the dynamic was quickly changed. Vague ‘incidents’ mentioned by Juvaini and Rashid al-Din as Hulegu entered the region may refer to Ismaili attacks in some form, but Hulegu’s army was beyond compare. The chief cities of Quhistan fell within days, and by the summer Kitbuqa led the vanguard to Mazandaran and raiding parties probed towards Alamut. Once Quhistan was subdued, Hulegu moved west, skirting around the edge of Iran’s uninhabitable Great Salt Desert, the Dasht-e Kevir, to arrive at the eastern endof the Alburz mountains. Near Damghan stood the Ismaili fortress of Girdkuh; Kitbuqa had first attempted to attack it in May of 1253. Hulegu committed more troops for it, then moved on. The castle, receiving only minor reinforcement from Alamut, held out until 1271. Such was the design of these fortresses when properly defended.
Rukn al-Din Khwurshah was within the fortress of Maymundiz, downstream of Alamut towards the western end of the Alburz mountains. As Hulegu moved westwards along the Alburz, he sent messengers to Rukn al-Din, demanding his submission. He was nervous, and as Hulegu’s second set of messengers arrived at the beginning of September 1256, Rukn al-Din was convinced to offer submission by the captive scholar, polymath, mathematician, astronomer and theologian, Nasir al-Din Tusi. Tusi was a much, much smarter man than Rukn al-Din Khwurshah and well respected. Having lived through Chinggis Khan’s destruction of Khwarezm, Tusi calculated that a lengthy Mongol siege wouldn’t be very healthy for anyone left inside the citadel. Therefore, on Tusi’s urging, Rukn al-Din sent his brother to Hulegu, offering the submission of the Ismailis. Hulegu thought this was nice, and treated Rukn al-Din’s brother well. He then sent another embassy with demands that Rukn al-Din tear down the Ismaili forts. Rukn al-Din was slow to respond; Hulegu was quick to advance. The token attempt by the Ismaili leader to abate Hulegu by abandoning 5 lesser castles and demolishing a few towers on Alamut, Maymundiz and Lammasar did not succeed. Unwittingly, Rukn al-Din was caught in a nerge, a Mongol hunting circle, as multiple armies converged on him from several directions and trapped him. As the armies neared Maymundiz, taking castles and settlements as they went, Rukn al-Din frantically sent a son and another brother to Hulegu, to no avail, hoping to at least stall until the cold of winter set in. By the 7th of November 1256, the three armies had Maymundiz surrounded.
Hulegu needed a quick victory. So many troops and horses needed a vast quantity of feed, the local environment was depleted and winter was forthcoming. Hulegu demanded provisions from across Iran and the Caucasus be delivered and, as if the seasons themselves adhered to the bidding of the Great Khan, the winter was mild and refused to hampher the Mongols as they approached Maymundiz. Once the armies were arrayed outside of the fortresses, Hulegu surveyed the site. Like so many Ismaili fortresses, Maymundiz was perched on a mountaintop, and hard to access. But Hulegu had his plan.
Fighting began on November 12th, 1256. The first weapons Hulegu brought forth were the kaman-i-gav, as they were known in Persian sources, generally taken to refer to the ox-bow, a Chinese siege machine which was essentially a large, mounted crossbow. These were not for destroying walls, but for picking off defenders. The writer ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, who accompanied Hulegu on his sieges of the Ismaili cities describes “meteoric shafts,” from these weapons “burning up” the “devil-like heretics” of Maymundiz, in constrast to stones cast by the defenders which could only hurt single persons. Historian Stephen Haw postulates that this is a reference to gunpowder weapons being used by the Mongols, in the form of explosives tied to the shafts fired from the oxbow, perhaps propelling it as an early rocket. A common critique of this argument is that such poetic language is rather typical of Juviani’s writing, and nowhere else in Hulegu’s campaign does he appear to use such dramatic weapons.
By November 17th, Hulegu’s teams had constructed their catapults and hauled them to a nearby hilltop. It’s possible that these were not just traction style Chinese catapults, but those of the counterweight variety- trebuchets. It’s not specified in written sources that Hulegu used them, but we know they were used by the Mongols by the 1270s, in addition to artwork from later in the century depicting them. Some modern authors like Michael S. Fulton believe the speed at which the major fortresses and cities of the region fell to Hulegu, even those of stone as opposed to stamped earth or mud brick, indicate the usage of counterweighted artillery. Far more powerful with greater range than man-powered traction catapults, instead of teams of men hauling on ropes, the counterweight catapult relied on, well, a counterweight instead, using gravity to propel the projectile with much greater force. Some authors also assert that the Chinese had their own counterweight catapult which the Mongols also used, but the matter is contentious, our sources providing no illumination.
The Mongols differed in their usage of artillery by relying on constant barrages. Their access to a large number of knowledgeable engineers, teams of specialists and overseers allowed them to keep up an unceasing rate of fire day and night, often from dozens of machines at once. For the defenders huddled behind the walls, psychologically it was exhausting. Aside from stones, naphtha, a petroleum-based weapon, was hurled into the city to start fires. Gunpowder bombs may have been lobbed as well. Unused to such weapons, especially in the form of the noise and smell they made, the impact must have seemed unearthly. After less than a week of bombardment, Rukn al-Din Khwurshah surrendered, and the Mongols soon demolished Maymundiz.
Hulegu received the Khwurshah kindly, for he needed him. Through his mediation, Rukn al-Din convinced some 40 odd Ismaili strongholds to surrender to Hulegu and tear down their walls. Alamut and Lammasar held out, and both were put under siege. Rukn al-Din was able to get Alamut’s garrison to come to terms, and it surrendered by December 15th. Briefly, Hulegu went sight-seeing around the castle after it surrendered, amazed by the size of the mountain, the many storerooms and indomitable defenses. It certainly saved him some time to not have to storm it! ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini was able to get permission to take some of the rare and useful tomes from Alamut’s library before the fortress was destroyed and its books burnt. Lammasar took a year to fall, but fall it did.
Hulegu kept Rukn al-Din with him until the great majority of the Ismaili fortresses in Iran had submitted or been torn down. He humoured Rukn al-Din, granting him a Mongol wife and watching Rukn al-Din’s favourite sport of camel fighting. Helping the Mongols avoid many lengthy, difficult sieges on the well defended Ismaili strongholds saved Hulegu considerable effort, but personally Hulegu found him repellent. Once his usefulness was over, in early 1257 Hulegu shipped him off to Mongke Khaan to deal with. According to Rashid al-Din, when Mongke learned the Khwurshah was in Karakorum, he was annoyed and said, “why are they bringing him and tiring a horse uselessly?” then ordered Rukn al-Din’s death. Upon learning of this, Hulegu ordered the deaths of the rest of Rukn al-Din’s captive family, sparing only a young son. Some Ismaili traditions attest another son was snuck away and kept safe, raised as the next imam in secret, but such beliefs never found widespread acceptance. As far as we are concerned, the Nizari Ismaili state ceased to exist by the end of 1256, sparing a few holdouts in Iran and their castles in Syria, as yet untouched by the Mongols.
Hulegu had completed the first of his tasks. After wintering near Lammasar and then Qazwin, in the early months of 1257 he set out west for the greatest target of the campaign: Baghdad, and the 500-year-old Abbasid Caliphate. So be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to pick up with that next week. To help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we will catch you on the next one.
Most popular discussions of the Mongol invasions of Japan simply end with the typhoon of 1281 wiping out the Yuan fleet off the coast of Kyushu. This was not the end of Kublai Khan’s dreams to conquer Japan though, nor do such retellings present the long term consequences of the invasion. Today, we will do just that, describing what happened in the years after the events of the new video game, Ghost of Tsushima. Our previous two episodes have discussed the first invasion in 1274, the story of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai who fought in both invasions, and went over in brief the invasion of 1281. If you’re following Kings and Generals on Youtube, then you’ve also seen one of our newest videos, focusing on the battles on Tsushima and Iki islands. Now, we’re going to tie together everything we’ve talked about, and how this huge expenditure of men and resources affected both Japan, and Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire. I’m your host David, but just before we get to today's content, we here at Ages of Conquest would like to say thank you to you, our listeners who download the podcast every week. Your support is greatly appreciated and the reason we do this. You could help us even more by donating through our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals or by leaving a five star review in your podcast app of choice! And now, this is,Ages of Conquest.
We’ll start off with the impact on Japan and then go into the consequences for Kublai later on in the episode. In Japan, the impact was significant but not immediate. In the days after the typhoon in August 1281, the Japanese killed the Mongol and Korean survivors they found. The Chinese were spared the sword, instead enslaved with few returning. Though a victory, the Japanese government, the shogunate ruling from Kamakura city, was wary. It was impossible for them to judge the full might of the Yuan, and Mongol envoys continued to arrive over the next few years demanding Japanese submission. In preparation for a third invasion, defences continued to be manned, the long sea wall built around Hakata Bay maintained, and garrisons stationed for the next 50 years. The Bakufu -the Japanese term for the shogunate- again considered launching an attack against Korea, the departing point for Mongol fleets in both invasions. Korean naval experience and ships were an important part of Mongol naval capabilities. It’s difficult to gauge how far these talks actually went, but they never materialized into anything concrete. The shikken, Japan’s de facto ruler, Hojo Tokimune, kept Japan on a war footing, a process which consolidated the power of the Bakufu, especially on Kyushu island where the fighting had happened.
This was valuable, due to the rather… wonky nature of Japanese government. The shikken was officially regent for the shogun, who was ruling in the name of the emperor, who still had his own court, but the actual power in the court was the peculiar Japanese position of the retired emperor, or emperor emeritus. Sometimes called ‘cloistered rule,’ an emperor would retire after a short reign, and then allow a son to become emperor, who dealt with court protocol and ceremony while the retired emperor made the actual decisions. During this period, the shogun was also the grandson of the late emperor Go-Daigo. Of course, this isn’t mentioning the layers of regional and local lords and vassals the government worked through. Officially the shikken could only boss around vassals of the shogun, and was in theory only in charge of military matters. The crisis brought on by the Mongol threat was a great opportunity to expand the power of the bakufu, placing allies and members of the Hojo clan into prominent military governor positions, bringing these into the direct hold of the bakufu. The only troops the bakufu could raise were the gokenin, or‘housemen,’ the vassals of the shogun. But in the danger of the oncoming second invasion, non-gokenin forces in western Japan were mobilized, making the precedent for increased military reach of the bakufu.
In 1281 Hojo Tokimune was still young with foresight and great energy, and intended to further strengthen his family’s hold on Japan. What more would he get away with using the justification of another Mongol attack! The position of the shogun and the emperor were totally compliant to Tokimune, and factions within his own clan were kept tightly in check. What might have been, had Tokimune not suddenly died in April 1284, only 34 years old. He was succeeded by his son, Hojo Sadatoki, too young to rule in earnest. The young Sadatoki was dominated by two advisors, Adachi Yasumori and Taira Yoristuna. The two had been at odds for years, but Tokimune had kept the peace. Without his presence, their cooperation could only be temporary. In late 1285, Taira Yoristuna and his faction suddenly attacked and killed Adachi Yasumori, leaving Yoristuna to control the young Sadatoki. From 1285 until 1293, Japan was ruled by the regent of the regent acting for the shogun acting for the emperor, who was also sidelined by the retired emperor.
The murder of Adachi Yasumori sent shockwaves across the bakufu. A popular man who had been energetic in promoting judicial reforms, his death prompted murders and suicides of Adachi loyalists and family, as well as armed revolts in Kyushu. The loss of many prominent officers was a first blow to the bakufu’s governing ability. Taira Yoritsuna also had to deal with the growing discontent of the samurai clamouring for rewards after the 1281 invasion. As we discussed in our previous episode, it was the custom for samurai to be rewarded for bravery in battle, generally with land confiscated from the defeated enemy. After the Genpei War, which saw the rise of the Shogunate in the 1190s, a whole class of land owning samurai was created, the gokenin, rewarding loyal samurai who fought for the Minamoto clan with inhabited lands. They’d collect the revenues, send part to the shogun and use the remainder to support themselves; the lands could then be inherited by their children. By the 1280s, these lands had been parcelled up and divided, and then divided again, leaving many of the gokenin facing destitution. Enough gokenin were forced to sell or pawn their lands that by the late 1260s the bakufu was issuing laws forbidding this and ordering lands to be returned. For many, the rewards they expected to receive from fighting the Mongols was the difference between maintaining the status quo and impoverishment. The Kamakura Bakufu proved slow to doll out the rewards: under Taira Yoristuna, the rewards largely went to important Hojo and Bakufu supporters, leaving out the poorer gokenin who actually needed it. A large group of well armed men with little stake in the status quo was gradually being formed.
In 1293, the shikken Hojo Sadatoki had Taira Yoristuna and his supporters assassinated, ushering in an era of attempted centralization. Sadatoki was only 24 years old in 1293 and wanted to consolidate the power of the bakufu like his father, largely through force and largely unsuccessfully. He struggled to reduce factionalism within the bakufu, and tried to employ the gokenin in suppressing bandity and piracy. Too late was it realized that in many cases the bandits were the gokenin, and such suppression efforts proved futile. All while dealing with the expenditure of continuing to prepare for a Mongol return. When Sadatoki died in 1311, he was remembered as a tired politician who had decreed innumerable death sentences. Sadatoki was succeeded by a nine year old son, Takatoki, dominated by his advisers. Largely ignoring political matters, even when he came of age he was unable, and unwilling, to exert a redirection on the ailing Bakufu.
Takatoki was a poor figure to match another growing threat facing the bakufu. Back in 1221 the retired emperor Go-Toba attempted to throw off the rule of the Hojo, only to be quickly defeated and Hojo rule secured. In the aftermath, the Hojo asserted greater power over the emperors, including the mandate to decide the imperial succession as needed, though generally left this to the retired emperor. Since the 11th century, the retired emperors held authority and influence over the sitting emperors, just to add that extra layer of confusion to medieval Japanese politics. The Bakufu had a particularly good relationship with the emperor Go-Saga, who reigned as Japan’s 88th emperor, ruling from 1242 to 1246 but acting as retired emperor until his death in 1272. Go-Saga’s son Prince Munetaka became Shogun in 1251, his next son was the 89th Emperor, Gofukakusa and a third son was the 90th emperor, Kameyama, reigning until his retirement in 1274. Go-Saga had never declared whether Gofukakusa or Kameyama would control the succession, anticipating that the Bakufu would simply decide. In theory Gofukakusa, as the senior retired-emperor on Go-Saga’s death in 1272, had control over the succession. The Bakufu sought the opinion of Go-Saga’s widow, who told them to instead choose Kameyama. For the first time in 200 years the sitting emperor, Kameyama, was dominant over the retired emperor, Gofukakusa. It was a step towards the empowerment of the emperors which led to the downfall of the Bakufu.
A consequence of this was both Gofukakusa and Kameyama each thought his own children should sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne. When Kameyama retired in 1274 he declared his son to succeed him as the 91st Emperor, Go-Uda. When it was apparent that Gofukakusa was angry at this, the Bakufu made an unusual decision: they declared that the throne would alternate between the two lines, with Go-Uda to make his heir Gofukakusa’s son, the future 92nd Emperor, Fushimi. The motive isn’t exactly clear: historian Ishii Susuma has suggested this was a means of control. Facing the threat of the Mongol invasion, the first in 1274 and a second sure to follow, the Bakufu may have believed tightly controlling the imperial succession was another way to secure their power in the crisis of the Mongol threat. Whatever the case, the Bakufu now interfered with the succession at will, demanding the resignation of an emperor whenever rumour reached them of anti-Bakufu sentiment. By the early 1300s the alternating succession was formalized, and the antagonism between the lines of Gofukakusa and Kameyama institutionalized. By the time the two brothers died in 1304 and 1305, the competition between their families had gone on for some 30 years. By 1318 the Bakufu enforced further guidelines, limiting each emperor to a maximum ten year reign and forbidding the offspring of the new monarch, the 96th emperor Go-Daigo, a grandson of Kameyama, from ever taking the throne. For Go-Daigo, who dreamed of overthrowing the shogunate, this was infuriating.
Luckily for Go-Daigo the time was ripe to topple the Kamakura Bakufu. The current shogun was Go-Daigo’s cousin, a grandson of Gofukakusa and an absolute non-entity. The shikken until 1326 was the distracted Takatoki, who retired that year and brought further crisis to the leadership of the bakufu. His successor resigned after only a month, due to an assassination attempt by Takatoki’s mother, who then installed Takatoki’s brother as the final shikken of the Kamakura Bakufu, Hojo Moritoki. The political leadership of the shogunate was hamstrung. The unrest among the gokenin and earlier banditry turned into rebellion, small armies emerging across Japan challenging the shogunate’s rule. Go-Daigo shopped for allies and didn’t have far to look. In 1333 Go-Daigo’s star general, the masterful tactician Kusunoki Misahige, defeated a Bakufu army. With their military might broken, or at least the longstanding belief in it, the key underpinning of Bakufu rule was removed. Bakufu commanders such as Ashikaga Takauji and Nitta Yoshisada joined the imperial cause.Yoshisada attacked the Bakufu’s capital of Kamakura. The leadership of the Hojo committed suicide and the Shogunate was dismantled. The Emperor was now back in real power for the first time in generations… for about three years.
The aforementioned Ashikaga Takauji hadn’t fought for the restoration of imperial power, but rather, to make himself shogun: essentially, replace the Kamakura Bakufu with one led by his own family. Emperor Go-Daigo’s failure to reward his new military supporters with confiscated Kamakura lands alienated his fragile base of support. In 1335 some Hojo survivors briefly recaptured Kamakura, and this was the spark for Ashikaga Takauji’s own putsch. Retaking the city, Takauji acted as shogun, ordering lands of his political foes confiscated and redistributed. In 1336 Takauji marched on the imperial capital of Kyoto. Go-Daigo fled before him and when Takauji set up a puppet emperor in Kyoto from the line of Gofukakusa, Go-Daigo set up a rival court in the mountains south the city. So began the 60 year period in Japanese history known as the Northern and Southern Courts, with the Northern Court, based in Kyoto, puppets to legitimize the Ashikaga Shogunate, and a southern court officially challenging them. Not until 1392 was this settled and the long running conflict between the lines of Gofukakusa and Kameyama brought to an end. The Ashikaga Shogunate nominally ruled Japan until 1588, but never matched the strength of the Kamakura Bakufu. Though the Ashikaga Shoguns held high pretensions- the third Shogun called himself the King of Japan in official correspondence- over the 15th century their hold weakened precipitously, and by the 1490s Japan’s famous Sengoku Jidai period began, the warring states period which eventually yielded to the control of the Tokugawa Shoguns.
The Mongol invasion on Japan undermined the Kamakura Bakufu, both causing and compounding fractures within the shogunate. Other than this, the impact of the invasion was much more limited, and not until recently was it seen as a ‘national’ event for the Japanese. On Kyushu, where the fighting had been and home of most of the actual defenders, the Mongol invasion held a high place in memory, shaping the identity of many warrior families. The island’s administration and judicial system were greatly affected, both by increasing Bakufu control and decades of preparing for Mongol returns. For the majority of Japanese though, other than the government shifts and conflicts, they saw little influence of the invasion on their lives. Claims that it prompted a shift in Japanese perceptions of the “foreign” have little basis in the 13th or 14th centuries. Samurai like Takezaki Suenaga saw it as just another battle for which to claim reward, rather than a national emergency: his own account simply calls the Mongols ‘pirates,’ or ‘rebels.’ The invasion did not prompt a national consciousness for Japan. Outside of Kyushu, after the 13th century wider Japanese interest in the invasions did not pick up until Takezaki Suenaga’s scrolls depicting the invasion began to be copied and distributed at the end of 1700s. Since the Samurai no longer had an actual military role by then, they were eager to celebrate the heroic combat of their ancestors -not because of victory over foreigners or civil wars, but that they had done brave deeds.
If the slow distribution of the scrolls promoted knowledge of the invasions, it was the forced opening of Japan and interaction with western imperial pressure in the mid-1800s in which, retroactively, the Mongol invasions became the “first round” of ‘Japan vs the world.’ The Mongol invasion was a popular medium to depict the Americans and Europeans as invaders coming to Japan. The last of the Tokugawa Shoguns was ousted in 1868, and the 122nd emperor, Meiji, was the first to hold real power since the defeat of Go-Daigo some 500 years prior. Under Meiji, a national historiography was promoted to catch on to this new-fangled European idea of ‘nation-states.’ The Mongol Invasions were especially prominent in the new history textbooks, appearing on the currency and in popular art. With the boom in Japanese nationalism at the turn of the century and military victories over China and the Russian Empire, the Japanese government made the Mongol invasion a useful propaganda tool, presenting Japan as a divinely protected, and superior, nation to its foes. It’s roughly this time that the term kamikaze specifically came to be associated with the storms which marked the end of both invasion attempts. As we mentioned in previous episodes, the 13th and 14th century Japanese sources make little mention of the storms; divine support was seen in the fact that the Japanese won, rather than a specific manifestation via the storms. In the late 19th century, as both knowledge and popularity of the invasions grew, the storms became the sign of Japan’s divine favour, an idea which is now irrevocably tied to the invasions. The connotations of divine rescue in Japan’s hour of need reached their ultimate evolution with the kamikaze pilots of 1944, a last ditch effort to slow the American approach on the Japanese home islands.
The consequences of the invasion on the Mongol Empire were not as significant. Kublai Khan’s immediate reaction to the defeat in August 1281 was to demand a third invasion. Envoys were again sent to Japan demanding its submission, and orders were sent across his realm for ships and rice for another attack. Only by 1286 were Kublai’s advisers able to dissuade him against another attack. Thought for invading Japan did not totally go away though: in 1280, the “Mobile Bureau for the Subjugation of Japan,” was established in Korea which was officially to prepare for further incursions. Dissolved and reformed several times, it became the highest arm of Mongol authority in Korea until the end of Yuan rule in the late 14th century.
We will explore Kublai’s career in greater detail in future episodes, but by the mid-1280s his most trusted advisers, his chief and most beloved wife and his favourite son and heir were dead. Losing the only voices that could rein Kublai in, he became depressed, seeking solace in food and alcohol, suffering from gout and obesity. Japan was not his only failed foreign venture; he also ordered inconclusive invasions against Vietnam, Burma, Java and fought rebellions in Central Asia, Mongolia, Manchuria and Tibet. Having lost direct rule over the rest of the empire, the destruction of the fleets against Japan must have felt to Kublai like a failure to complete the Mongol conquest of the world. The defeats only deepened the morose of Kublai’s final years, but the invasion of Japan did not singularly cause this.
More immediate effects were economic. The expenditure of men, ships and resources against Japan, and other overseas ventures, were enormous for no gain. To try to make up the difference, Kublai demanded his finance ministers bring in ever greater tribute and taxation. In Chinese sources, these men are called the “three Villainous Ministers,” or some variation thereof- Ahmad Fanakati, Lu Shirong and Sangha, who, in their attempts to meet the demands of the aging Khan, with some personal enrichment along the way, were accused of heinous crimes and greed, from stealing women to looting tombs of the Song Emperors. While some accusations are likely exaggerations, the impression gained by the Chinese was one of mistreatment, and undid much of the goodwill Kublai earned from his other reconstruction efforts. The 1280s up until Kublai’s death at the start of 1294 saw mismanagement and corruption set in which Kublai’s less able successors never shook off. The attacks did not end Japanese trade with China; it continued after Kublai’s death, but with increasing restriction and regulation ordered by the Yuan government. To protect themselves, Japanese ships coming to China came with armed men, which gave way easily to piracy. Hence, wako pirates once again threatened the Korean and Chinese coastlines from the 14th century on.
To the Chinese and Mongols, they were left with an impression of the Japanese as tough warriors, but at that time little else was learned of them. Marco Polo, who arrived in China after the first invasion, provides the first European mention of Japan -Zipangu, he calls it- and a garbled version of the invasion. Describing the Japanese as incredibly wealthy, he describes the storm sinking the fleet, but with the addition that shipwrecked survivors were able to sneak into the Japanese capital city and take it, a paltry attempt to preserve the image of Mongol invincibility. It is from Polo’s account that Japan would first appear on European maps, some 200 years before Europeans first physically set foot on Japan in the 1540s.
Our final note is a brief one; The sword used by the samurai at the time of the Mongol invasion was the tachi, a long, single-edged blade with a pronounced curvature. It seems to some extent the Japanese found the swords ill suited to the task, that the sword was deemed too fragile against either the Mongol armours, particularly full iron lamellar, or Mongol and Chinese swords which were shorter, thicker and sturdier made than the Japanese equivalents. As the Japanese did not use shields, attempts to block sword blows with the tachi may have resulted in significant chipping of the blade. According to the theory this spawned a need to redesign the tachi, making it stronger, shorter and somewhat straighter. The centralization of the Kamakura Bakufu and large mobilization of warriors resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of men making the trips across Japan and to the capital and beyond. This provided a means to pass on technical knowledge of changing sword designs, and by the late 14th century spawned the emergence of a new weapon for the samurai: the katana. In that respect at least, the expansion of the Mongol Empire was an irregular road to providing a classic weapon for thousands of anime characters. Such is the nature of history!
This ends our series on Mongol Invasions of Japan; hopefully you’ve listened to this, the previous episodes and our newest video while you’ve been playing Ghost of Tsushima, and perhaps learned something along the way. Our next episode will go back to our regular series, picking up with the western expansion of Hulegu against the ‘Abbasid Caliph in the 1250s. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
For most who experienced the Mongol invasions first hand, it was a sight of untold horror, an unstoppable enemy bringing fire and ruin. For Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai who fought against the Mongols in both of their failed invasions of Japan, it was a chance for the highest glory, and none could restrain him from taking the field against them. For the second episode in our Ghost of Tsushima -themed week, we present the story of a historical samurai who fought the Mongols, one who provided us with a set of illustrated scrolls which described his exploits. Today, we’re going to go through the account of Takezaki Suenaga, a rare opportunity to see how one man experienced the Mongol invasions first hand. Perhaps you’ll be able to compare his experiences with those of the player character, Jin, in Ghost of Tsushima. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Very little is known of Takezaki Suenaga prior to the invasions. He was a gokenin, a ‘houseman,’ a minor samurai from Higo province of Kyushu island, the southernmost of the main five of the Japanese home islands. He was part of the Takezaki clan, owned lands, could provide himself a horse, armour and bring 5 retainers to battle- about average for warriors from Kyushu, but slightly more than what the common samurai of Honshu, the largest Japanese island, could muster. 29 years old on the eve of the first Mongol invasion in 1274, Suenaga was known to have been involved in a land dispute which had put his personal finances in great jeopardy. Beyond such broad strokes, his early life is lost to us.
Higo Province, located in western Kyushu, was comparatively close to the strategic
Hakata Bay, the large, natural harbour which any invasion fleet departing southern Korea would certainly strike for. Suenaga, living in Higo Province, was probably put on warning from 1268 onwards, when the Japanese government, the Kamakura Bakufu, began to prepare for a possible Mongol invasion. The details of this buildup of tension between Japan and Kublai Khan was explained in our previous episode, and we won’t reiterate that here. The Mongol invasion fleet departed Korea early in November 1274, swiftly taking the islands of Tsushima and Iki. As the fleet neared Hakata Bay, the warriors of Kyushu were mobilized, Suenaga among them. In theory, the warrior would fight together with families of shared lineage, but were under no obligation to do so. Suenaga was part of the Takezaki clan, but operated nearly totally independently of them. By the time he and his men, all on horseback, arrived near the area of Hakata Bay, the Mongols had already broken through the defensive line. Suenaga had trained since childhood in archery, swordsmanship and riding; he had his own colourful set of yoroi armour, rows of iron lamellar and lacquered leather laced together. His principal weapon was the long, asymmetrical yumi, the Japanese warbow, a heavier bow than that utilized by the Mongols. In his small party was a bannerman to mark Suenaga’s location on the battlefield. The sword- not yet the famous katana,which developed in the 14th century- was the dignified sidearm, though the longer, spear-like naginata was more commonly used once the enemy was too close for bow-work.
When Suenaga arrived, the Mongols had already established a temporary camp at Akasaka, some kilometres inland. The commander in charge of the gathering samurai was Shoni Kagesuke. He ordered those samurai who were already approaching Akasaka, Suenaga among them, to fall back and await reinforcements. As it was poor terrain, they hoped to encourage the Mongols to come to them, lose their formation and then allow Japanese archery to tear at them. Suenaga followed the order, and once the various warriors were recalled and far from the enemy, Suenaga spurred his horse onwards, saying, “Waiting for the general will cause us to be late to battle. Of all the warriors of the clan, I Suenaga will be the first to fight from Higo!”
In Japanese warfare of the period, men were rewarded for valour in combat, being the first to enter battle, taking enemy heads or losing men of their own. Rewards included fine garments, horses, even lands. For a relatively poor samurai like Suenaga who could quite possibly lose his expensive armour, weapons and horse in the battle, not to mention faced dispossession of his lands, such rewards made all the difference. The prestige itself from heroic acts in combat could not be dismissed, either. The problem was that these were powerful incentives against patiently waiting for orders. As Suenaga rode on, one of commander Kagesuke’s retainers called on Suenaga to dismount and wait, to which he replied, “We five are going to fight before you. We won’t limit ourselves to merely shooting down the enemy! I have no purpose in life but to advance and be known!” Kagesuke recognized that he’d be unable to hold Suenaga back, and told him that he would be witness to him. This was an important aspect to this reward system: unless someone could bring severed heads of the enemy, he needed witnesses, preferably multiple, who could vouch for the samurai’s actions. If the multiple witnesses provided contrasting details, then the Bakufu could dismiss the account.
On his ride to Akasaka, Suenaga encountered some Samurai returning, carrying severed heads of the enemy. Learning that the Mongols had abandoned Akasaka and were retreating to the beach in two main bodies, Suenaga drove his horse onwards ever faster. Pursuing the smaller of the two retreating Mongol forces, Suenaga was frustrated when he rode his horse right into mud flats. By the time he freed his horse, the Mongols had stopped at Sohara. Here he was finally about to close with his enemy, when one of his own retainers stopped him, urging him to wait for the oncoming Japanese reinforcements: better chances of victory, and witnesses, for his actions. In typical fashion, Suenaga dismissed his concerns, shouting: “The way of the bow and arrow is to do what is worthy of reward. Charge!” By then the Mongols had pressed on, reaching the beach and open ground. To Suenaga’s credit, he mentions his bannerman was the first one out. The small party of samurai were met with a hail of Mongol arrows. The bannerman’s horse was shot out from under him and he was thrown; Suenaga and three other retainers were injured by arrows, and finally his own horse was struck, throwing him into the sand. This is the most famous scene in the illustrated scrolls, which shows Suenaga being thrown forward off his horse while blood spills copiously from the wound. In the illustration, a bomb is being set off nearby. The presence of this bomb is generally taken to be a later addition to the art, drawn in a different style. Had the Mongols thrown explosives at Suenaga, doubtless he would have mentioned surviving such a terrifying weapon. The likely archaeological remains of such bombs have been found; this specific party of Mongols is just unlikely to have lobbed them at Suenaga.
Thrown from his horse, Mongol arrows raking his small party, Suenaga admits in his narrative that he would have died there, had it not been for a timely charge of a formidable unit of samurai cavalry from Hizen province. It’s commander, Shiroishi Rokuro Michiyasu (shi-roy-shi Ro-ko-ru Mich-i-yasu), rode right through the Mongol line, rider and horse miraculously emerging unscathed. Suenaga was evidently impressed by this, and acted as witness for him. Another gokenin was not so lucky: Suenaga watched the man bestruck in the neck by an arrow. After brief fighting, the Mongol party they had been chasing fled, evidently reached their ships, and thus ended Suenaga’s part in the first Mongol invasion of Japan. The fleet soon departed, pushed back to Korea by strong winds, as we covered previously. Suenaga, by the way, never mentions anything regarding divine winds or storms, presenting a victory entirely through Japanese force of arms.
The next event in the narrative presented in Suenaga’s scrolls is the most detailed, wherein he travels to Kamakura city to try and get his rewards in 1275. To pay for the journey, Suenaga had to sell horse and saddle, and took the trip from Kyushu to Kamakura. There he met with little luck. The officials of the court ignored his requests, deeming him a minor, insignificant warrior. Here, Suenaga gives the most attribution to divinely inspired favour. Visiting a nearby shrine of Hachiman, the war god, and praying fervently, he returned and was in time to speak with the Office of Appeals. There he met with its administer, Adachi Yasumori, military governor of Suenaga’s home Higo province, one of the most powerful men in Japan and father-in-law to the shikken and Japan’s de facto ruler, Hojo Tokimune. Suenaga told his story to Yasumori, and learned that Kagesuke’s brother, Tsunesuke, the military governor of Chikuzen province, had not mentioned Suenaga’s exploits in his report on the battle. Lacking this evidence, with neither dead retainers or enemy heads to show for it, Suenaga emphatically declared that if Kagesuke said under oath that Suenaga was lying, then they could take his head. Finally, Yasumori decided to take Suenaga’s deeds straight to the highest authority, the shikken Hojo Tokimune. Suenaga was recognized, rewarded with a fine horse and saddle, and had his land dispute settled in his favour. Of the 120 samurai rewarded for the 1274 invasion, Suenaga was also the only one who received commendation from the shogun. Yasumori’s actions evidently touched Suenaga, who commemorates him in the scrolls and in his will, urged his descendants to serve loyally the house of Adachi.
The Bakufu was generally reluctant to pay out these rewards. Normally as fighting was between the Japanese, confiscated lands and goods from the losing side were made the rewards for valourous samurai. But, fighting against a foreign enemy who retreated back over the sea, meant such rewards essentially had to be paid out of pocket by the Bakufu. A temporary measure to this was to forbid samurai like Suenaga from leaving Kyushu to make the trip to Kamakura to demand rewards, citing reasons of military defence. For the Kamakura Bakufu, this was to become a rather dangerous matter for them in coming years, and our next episode.
Hojo Tokimune and the Bakufu readily realized the victory in 1274 was not an end to the war. The Mongols would return, and in greater force. For this, an even greater effort was thrown into the defences. For over 20 kilometres around Hakata Bay a sea wall was built at likely beachheads, in places 3 metres high and 3 metres wide. Warriors from the provinces of Kyushu were to serve 3 months guard duty along the coast. The shugo positions, the military governors, came under more direct rule of the Hojo clan to strengthen its coordination abilities. Temples were ordered to pray for the nation, and in the final months of 1275 there was even discussion of a retaliatory attack against Korea, though it is difficult to judge if these preparations ever went past discussion.
With the conquest of the Song Dynasty in 1279, Kublai Khan now had ample men and resources for side projects, such as punishing the insolent Japanese archipelago. It was by all accounts a massive undertaking: 40,000 Northern Chinese, Mongolian and Korea troops departing from Korea aboard 900 ships, and as many as 100,000 men from the territories of the former Song Dynasty departing southern China aboard 3,500 ships. It was immense, likely the largest seaborne invasion before D-Day in 1944, and only barely lurched from the gate. Many of the vessels were repurposed ships designed for rivers in southern China, not open ocean. Others were hastily constructed, built to hurriedly meet the deadline of an impatient Great Khan. The northern fleet, manned by experienced Korean sailors aboard sturdier ships, was ready to go, with a timetable to link up with the southern fleet at Iki island. The southern fleet was held up by the death of a commander, while its provisions spoiled in the warmth of south China. Frustrated, the northern fleet set out on its own; by the 10th June 1281, Iki island was occupied, and again the fleet set out for Kyushu’s Hakata Bay. The Japanese sea-wall did its work. The Yuan Dynasty armada could not force a landing, well-protected Japanese archers repulsing efforts to land. For two months the fleet was essentially held in standstill, occupying Shiga island and unable to take advantage of the southern fleet’s arrival and disembarking on Kyushu.
With the enemy at sea, when the 35 year old Takezaki Suenaga arrived at Hakata Bay, he had a problem. He didn’t have a boat. Since the Mongols were not coming to them, and hungry for glory, the samurai were taking their small vessels out to sea, boarding the Yuan ships and fighting there. Suenaga and his retainers ran along the beach, looking for ships to take them but none had room. When hope seemed lost, the flag of Adachi Yasumori was spotted on a ship. Boarding a messenger skiff unsuited to the deeper waters where the Mongol fleet was, Suenaga and his retainers reached Yasomuri’s vessel. To the great displeasure of Yasumori’s retainers, Suenaga jumped aboard their ship. He told them he was ordered there by the military governor, and had to be on the ship- which Yasumori’s men saw right through, and ordered him to be thrown off. Suenaga cried that if they just gave him a small boat of his own, he’d leave on his own accord, but somehow that didn’t convince them.
Suenaga tried this same trick on the boat of another lord, Tsumori, where he annoyed them enough that they let him on board. There was no space for Suenaga’s retainers, who complained but could only watch him sail away. Such is the way of the bow and arrow, Suenaga simply wrote on that. In the process Suenaga forgot to grab his helmet, and fashioned an impromptu defence out of two shinguards he tied to his head. Finally they neared an enemy ship, and in the process of trying to board Suenaga was injured. Frustrated, Suenaga threw his bow away, grabbed a naginata and roared at the rowers to bring them closer to the enemy ship- only by then the rowers were trying to push them away, fearing for their life. Switching ships again, Suenaga finally got his boarding action later that afternoon, in which he suffered another wound. To his pleasure, his name was the first from the province to be entered into the report for the battle.
His final engagement with the Mongols was taking part in driving them from Shiga island. One of Suenaga’s retainers and a relative were injured in that battle, and two of their horses killed. The Yuan fleet had it worse. Bickering between the Mongolian, Chinese and Korean commanders hampered them, while the soldiers from South China fought poorly, seeing little incentive to die for foreign masters in a foreign land. The lack of progress raised tensions, provisions ran low, and the fleet was on the verge of retreat when on the 15th of August, 1281, the sea began to churn. With a storm oncoming, the men loaded onto the ships and tried to set out for deeper waters. A typhoon, rising unseasonably early, punished the fleet design. The riverine Chinese ships of the southern fleet were annihilated, brought to the depths or tossed onto the rocks. The archaeological remnants found on the sea floor by Takashima island mark their deep graves. The larger Korean vessels designed for open waters fared better; whereas half of the southern fleet was estimated to have been destroyed, only a third of the northern shared the same fate. Survivors who made it to shore, on Kyushu and the neighbouring islands, were hunted down and killed, though some mercy was shown to Southern Chinese- their fate was to be slaves to the Japanese. So ended the second Mongol attempt to invade Japan. Kublai Khaan was furious and demanded a third attack, but we will discuss this in our next episode.
Suenaga, in typical fashion, mentions none of this once his part in the fighting was done. Suenaga’s scrolls were compiled between 1293-1324, and were concerned with his personal exploits and commemorating Adachi Yasumori, murdered in 1285, rather than an overall view of the campaign. The existence of the scrolls themselves is quite unusual for someone living well outside the capital, and were an expensive undertaking. Extensive battle scenes are portrayed, highly detailed armours, horses and dozens of warriors. While his position in 1274 had been humble, he earned himself a pretty penny after the second invasion, primarily through donations people made to a shrine he controlled, and lending seeds at usurious rates. When the farmers failed to pay back the loan, Suenaga seized their lands. For Suenaga, the scrolls were an expensive endeavour, requiring foresight generally uncommon to the samurai of the period. The fact the scrolls survived for us is remarkable: the Takezaki clan lost them in the late fourteenth century when fighting spread through their lands and the scrolls, among other possessions, were seized. They traded between families; at one point, their owners died during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1500s. Not until the 1700s did they begin to be copied, and in 1890 they were handed over to Emperor Meiji: today, they sit in Japan’s Museum of the Imperial Collections. If you have seen medieval artwork of the Mongol invasion of Japan, you are looking at one of the illustrations from the scrolls. A full translation by Thomas Conlan can be found in his work, In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan, and provide a fascinating look at a man who perhaps best embodied the ideals of 13th century samurai culture.
If you’re eager for more from us on the Mongol invasions of Japan, please check out the previous episode in our series, and the latest video on our Youtube Channel, Kings and Generals. Our next podcast episode, will wrap up our short series on Japan, detailing the consequences of the invasion on both the Japanese and the Mongol Empire, and its longer historical legacy. Once that is complete, we will return to our original narrative timeline! To help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one
For the release of the new Sucker Punch video game, Ghost of Tsushima, which depicts a lone samurai defending a Japanese island from Mongol invaders, we’re going to change up our presentation for a few episodes. This will be the first in a three part series looking at the Mongol invasions of Japan, a slight jump ahead in the timeline of our episodes so far, going from the reign of Great Khan Mongke to that of his younger brother, Kublai Khan. This first episode will provide greater context to the game, discussing the cause of the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, the actual battle for Tsushima island and the fighting in Hakata Bay. Our following episode will detail the story of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai who fought against both invasions and later produced a brilliant set of scrolls depicting his exploits. The final episode will cover the oft-overlooked consequences of the invasion on both Japan and Kublai Khan’s empire, as well as its historical legacy: altogether, we hope to provide an accurate and well rounded view of the historical events surrounding the game utilizing both primary sources and scholarly literature. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Japan first came to Mongol attention through Japanese raids against the Korean peninsula. Called wakō, piracy against the Korean coastline had existed for centuries, but picked up again in the 1220s during Korean weakness caused by the Khitan and Mongol invasions, covered in our previous episodes. The island of Tsushima, situated between Korea and Japan, was a prominent base for these pirates making the short trip over the straits to strike undefended settlements. These attacks were not court sanctioned, a crime of individual opportunity rather an organized effort. By the time the Korean leadership finally submitted in 1259 the raids had largely ceased, but it meant the existence of Japan was known to the Mongols. The new King of Korea in 1260, King Wonjong, had a good relationship with the new Mongol Emperor, Kublai. We will return to Mongke’s reign after these episodes, but for those of you who do not know, Mongke Khan died on campaign in China in August 1259. Two of his younger brothers, Kublai and Ariq Boke, both declared themselves Khaan in the months following. Known as the Toluid Civil War, Kublai based in China was able to overcome his brother based in Mongolia by 1264. Consequences were immense: Mongol imperial unity was shattered as the Mongol ruled Khanates across western Asia began their own conflicts, the Hulegu-Berke war between the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde. Kublai had defeated Ariq, but lost the empire. His authority beyond the western borders of China was only nominal, and the Khanates were effectively independent states from that point on, though contact remained between them. Kublai, by necessity, was forced to focus his continued conquests on China and the surrounding territories.
Kublai’s main target was the Song Dynasty, which ruled southern China. A huge economic power with a massive population, the Song war was a difficult task. The Mongols needed to resort to indirect strategies to help bypass the frontier: in the 1250s, Kublai had conquered the Kingdom of Dali, in China’s modern Yunnan province, to open a front on the southwest of the Song. The Japanese, who had trade ties with the Song, were another direction Kublai could exert his influence. Forcing the Japanese to cut trade with the Song would help weaken the Song economy, and so aid Kublai’s overall war with them. Further, like his brother Mongke, Kublai firmly believed in the eventuality that all of the world was to come under Mongol rule. Bringing in the submission of the Japanese was merely Kublai enacting heaven’s will. He had one other concern that his predecessors did not. Despite controlling Mongolia, the core of Kublai’s realm was China, and tied himself to Chinese imperial tradition for legitimacy there. In classic Chinese tradition he declared his own dynasty in 1271, the Yuan Dynasty, marking himself as heir to the Chinese empires of Han, Tang and successor to the dying Song Dynasty. In the days of the mighty Tang Dynasty, ruling from 618-907 CE, Japan had diplomatic, economic and religious ties with China, and the Tang Emperors considered the Japanese their vassals. These ties petered out before the end of the Tang, and only during the years of the southern Song was there even trade between them. For Kublai, to vassalize Japan would help to legitimize him to the Chinese, bringing Japan ‘back into the fold,’ so to speak. With these various interests in mind, in 1266 he ordered a first set of envoys to travel to Japan via Korea.
Kublai addressed the letter to the King of Japan, and it's here we can discuss a rather unique feature of Japanese government of the time. Firstly, Japan’s official ruler was not the ‘King,’ but the Emperor, at that time Emperor Kameyama, the 90th emperor of Japan. However, since the end of the Genpei War in 1185, the emperor was a figurehead, with real power held by the Shogun. Known as the Kamakura Bakufu, based in the city of Kamakura, the Shogunate was founded by the fearsome Minamoto no Yoritomo, military rulers exercising real authority with the imperial court relegated to ceremonial and religious roles. However, on Yoritomo’s death in 1199, he was succeeded by his young son as shogun. The boy too young to rule, real power was held by the family of Yoritomo's widow, the Hojo clan. Sidelining and replacing shoguns as necessary, for well over a century, Japan was ruled by the regent of the regent, called the shikken. In 1268, the 17 year old Hojo Tokimune became shikken, the de facto ruler, of Japan.
Though Kublai’s envoys in 1266 turned back before they reached Japan, he was not discouraged. Envoys were sent again in 1268, taken aboard Korean vessels specifically instructed not to return without handing off Kublai’s letter. The letter was not as demanding as earlier Mongol missives of the century, but still referred to Kublai as master of the universe, and informed the Japanese that they should open contact with him, for, as Kublai’s wrote at the end of the letter, “Nobody would wish to resort to arms.” It was a tough position for the Japanese, as they knew next to nothing of the Mongols. What they did know, they had learned from merchants or Buddhist Monks from the Song Dynasty, at war with the Mongols since 1234. Having not engaged in actual overseas diplomacy since the 9th century, there was no experience within the court or the Bakufu on how to react. So, the chosen Japanese response was to simply dismiss the envoys with no official response, per the order of the shikken. Ghosting the most powerful monarch on the planet is not a terribly easy thing to do, however.
Later that same year, Kublai ordered the Koreans to build 1,000 warships and conscript 10,000 men, for use against the Song Dynasty or Japan. Later in 1268, he sent a third embassy, which in the first months of 1269, stopped on the island of Tsushima and turned back, but not without first capturing two local fishermen. Brought all the way back to Kublai’s imperial capital of Dadu, modern day Beijing, they were wined and dined by the mightiest man under heaven. Showing off his splendour and unimaginable power, the Khan of Khans told the fishermen he only wanted to have his envoys reach Japan, and to have his name remembered for all time. Was that so much to ask? The fishermen were escorted back to Japan late in 1269 to bring word of Kublai’s desires and his great power, and were promptly ignored by the Bakufu. The ongoing insolence of the Japanese was not something Kublai could ignore.
A diplomatic solution was still preferable, as the war with the Song Dynasty was still ongoing and in 1269 revolt broke out in Korea due to the onerous demands for materials and men. As we discussed in the previous episode, Korea had suffered under near continuous Mongol attacks from 1231 until 1259, and the population struggled to meet the latest demands. It took until the middle of 1271 for the rebellion to be crushed, but by then some Koreans had brought word to Japan of Mongol preparations. Since 1268, some coastal defenses had started to be rallied, but news of the proximity of the danger caused quite the start in the Bakufu. No aid was sent to Korea despite the requests of the defectors, but more warriors began to be mobilized to the island of Kyushu, the westernmost of the five main islands of Japan and most likely site of attack. Mongol envoys returned in 1271 after Korea was pacified, now with a direct threat of invasion if the Japanese failed to reply. The envoy returned to Korea empty handed by the end of the year, and after trips back to Japan in 1272 and 1273, he finally came to Kublai with news of his failure. The envoy had spent some time in Japan while trying to get the court’s response, so at least he brought the Khan intelligence on the people, land and defences. This was enough for Kublai. Sending more envoys would only make him look toothless. His armies had just taken the major Song Dynasty stronghold of Xiangyang in 1273, the key to southern China. With the Song poised to fall, Kublai could spare forces to punish Japan.
The final preparation for the invasions were carried out over 1274, and departed from southern Korea that November. It was not a massive army, some 15,000 Mongol, Northern Chinese, Khitan and Jurchen troops, 6-8,000 Korean troops, another 7,000 Korean sailors aboard some 8-900 ships. Prince Khindu served as overall commander, with Mongol, Chinese and Korean generals and admirals. The Mongols had little naval experience beyond fighting on rivers in South China, so were reliant on the knowhow of the Koreans for this aspect. Once they made landfall, the Mongols would take care of the rest. The Mongols had overcome every foe they had faced in the 13th century: Kublai imagined a swift victory against the insignificant island of Japan, for Eternal Blue Heaven mandated nothing less. Late on the 4th of November, 1274, the fleet was spotted off the coast of Tsushima.
The island of Tsushima was controlled by the Sō clan, whose head, Sō Sukekuni, was the deputy shugo, military governor. Per the tradition held in the Japanese chronicle, the Hachiman Gudokun, on Tsushima there was a major shrine to Hachiman, the Japanese god of war. The day of the Mongol approach, a fire broke out at the shrine, a bad omen. Once the fire was extinguished, white doves gathered on the shrine’s roof. As doves were the messengers of Hachiman, Sukekuni saw it must have been a warning from Hachiman: surely, he would not have set his own shrine on fire? Indeed, later that day Sukekuni was alerted that a fleet was seen approaching the island. His garrison was mobilized, some 80 Samurai and their retainers who he led to the beach of Komoda; there, they awaited the dawn and the Mongols.
Sukekuni sent a small vessel out as the Mongols neared the beach to inquire as to their intentions. His envoys were rebuffed and the landing ships neared the beaches, forcing Sukekuni to draw his small force up for battle. While famous for their swordsmanship, the 13th century Samurai was primarily a horse archer like the Mongols. With their long, asymmetrical yumi, the iconic bow of the Samurai, their skill and accuracy with the arrow made them deadly. However, the desire for individual glory and distinction in combat preempted them from utilizing the complex unit tactics, repeated hit and runs, skirmishing and feigned retreats which made Mongol horse archery so tactically powerful. When the ships landed under the command of the general Ho-tun, the first troops sent up the beach were likely those considered expendable- i.e, anyone not Mongolian. Poorly armoured Chinese were rushed off the ships and met with Japanese arrows. They suffered under this withering fire, but the Chinese and Koreans did their job, holding up large wicker shields to soak up arrows while the Mongols had time to disembark and prepare their own horses. Sukekuni’s position was overrun, despite withdrawing to the treeline to face the Mongols in close combat where the Samurai were deadly. One of Sukekuni’s comrades took down several advancing soldiers and a Mongol officer, and standing on the body he shouted threats at the Mongols, daring them to face him in battle. The Mongols responded with arrows, piercing the man’s chest armour and ending his boasts. Sukekuni led one final charge against the Mongols before the last of his men were cut down. The Mongols overran Tsushima from November 5th until the 13th, destroying towns, farmland and annihilating the last strands of resistance. The women of the Sō family committed suicide so as to not fall into Mongol hands. The next island to face the fleet, Iki, was greeted by a gruesome sight. Attested in both Japanese and Yuan Dynasty sources, prisoners, mainly women, had wire threaded through their palms and were strung across the prows of the ships in a horrific necklace.
The island of Iki too fell within a day. Several small islands and the Matsuura peninsula were taken after only token resistance as the fleet neared the northwestern corner of Kyushu and Hakata Bay, the island’s largest natural harbour. It made an ideal landing point for any large army. Hojo Tokimune knew this, and here had collected his warriors. The defensive force was mainly drawn of men from Kyushu, though the mobilization had been extended to parts of western Honshu, the largest Japanese island, in 1274. Exact figures for the Japanese force are uncertain, but were outnumbered. 4-6,000 is a common estimate, against over 20,000 of the Yuan fleet- though the main source for the Mongol side, the Yuan shi, states 102,000 Japanese were arrayed against them.
Landing on the soft sand beaches of Hakata Bay on November 19th, the Chinese and Korean infantry protected by their large shields and long spears disembarked; following were Mongols, Turks, Khitans and Jurchen leading their horses out and mounting them. Traditionally, the Japanese began battle by sending arrows with holes dug through the head, creating a whistling sound as they went through the air. The Mongols, who used such things often for communication in battle, laughed. The beating of drums and gongs signalled Mongol orders; unused to such noise, the Japanese horses panicked. Samurai riding forward to challenge worthy opponents to single combat were met with arrows, and those who tried to ride individually through the thickly pressed enemy line were cut down.. The Japanese sources accused the Mongols of using poisoned arrows, which sickened the men struck by them. Bombs, made of paper or iron and filled with Chinese gunpowder, were lobbed into the Japanese who had never experienced such things- the flash, the noise and smoke injured, disoriented and frightened them.
The Mongols, advancing or retreating as ordered and in unison, were an unnerving sight to Samurai used to smaller, individually led combat. Over the course of the day the Japanese were pushed from the beach and their defensive line was broken through. Fires were set on the nearby town of Hakata, which spread quickly. Another force broke out and tried to make camp at Akasaka, but were repulsed. Once past the initial surprise of the assault, the Japanese archers made a good show of themselves. Every samurai trained since a young age with a bow, and the accuracy and power of their bows took even the Mongols by surprise. Small Mongol parties isolated from the main force were picked off, and one of the top Yuan commanders, Liu Fuxiang, was struck in the face by a Japanese arrow and had his horse stolen. The gravely injured commander was rushed back to the ships. Japanese resistance had proven stiffer than anticipated, and the overconfident Yuan forces had suffered losses for this. Divisions and language barriers in the leadership hamstrung them, and uncertain of moving further inland in unknown territory without reinforcement, by nightfall it was decided to call a retreat.
The Yuan forces returned to their ships and set out for Korea, at which point we get to the most well known aspect of the invasions. Very few contemporary Japanese sources mention divine favour or wind in regards to the withdrawal, at most, stating strong winds pushed the armada back to Korea. One of the main Japanese sources, the Hachiman Gudokun, states the defenders were surprised to find the fleet gone in the morning, only a single ship having run aground. In sources from the Mongol point of view though, we have the most dramatic presentation. The Yuan shi, compiled in the 1370s from Mongol documents, describes the Mongols having crushed the Japanese and needing to withdraw for they had ran out of arrows. On the way back, they were struck by an almighty storm, losing many ships in the ocean. This emphasis by the Mongols is obvious: by blaming a freak weather accident, the retreat was easier explained, rather than give credit to the Japanese fighting harder than the Mongols had expected. Whatever the fact of the storm was, the first of the so-called kamikazes, the Yuan fleet had begun to withdraw before it struck. In the words of historian Thomas Conlan, the Japanese were “in little need of divine intervention.”
Neither side saw this as inconclusive though. The Japanese anticipated a Mongol return, and further preparations were made, such as building a wall for dozens of kilometres along Hakata Bay and preparing to quickly mobilize samurai if needed. For Kublai, this had been but a small force, a taste of what he could throw against Japan. He sent envoys again in 1275 to the bakufu, who were killed by the Japanese, ensuring the Khaan would need to send an armed force once more. Once Kublai completed the conquest of the Song Dynasty in 1279, he turned his attention to a massive invasion to subdue Japan once and for all.
But the second invasion is a topic for another day. Our next episode will come out this Friday, looking at the story of Takezaki Suenaga, a historical samurai who fought in both invasions and later compiled an excellent set of scrolls presenting his exploits. Through him, we’ll get a chance to talk in-depth on the Japanese defence, tactics and more. If that isn’t enough, we’ll have another episode coming out after that discussing the impact of the invasions on Japan and the Mongol Empire. But that’s not all: check out Kings and Generals on Youtube for a video this Thursday on the battles for Tsushima and Iki islands, the direct inspiration for the game. As well, the narrator for Kings and Generals will actually be playing Ghost of Tsushima on a livestream this weekend. Our writer for this series will be there as well, so prepare any questions you have for him and he’ll do his best to answer. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you content, please consider subscribing to our Patreon at www.patreon/kingsandgenerals.com. I’m your host David, and we will catch you on the next one.
Had you to guess a kingdom to offer decades of resistance to the Mongols at the height of their power, Korea might not have been high on your list. Situated close to Mongol dominated North China and first coming to Mongol attention at the start of the 1220s, it took until the beginning of the 1260s for the peninsula to be firmly under Mongol rule. Today’s episode will detail the long and devastating Mongol war in Korea and the final subjugation during the reign of Great Khan Mongke. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
By the 13th century the Korean peninsula had been ruled by the house of Wang since 918. Their kingdom was called Koryo [also written Goryeo (Gor-yeo)], a shortened form of the name of the more ancient Korean Kingdom of Kokuryeo (kok-ur-yeo) [also written Goguryeo] which fell in 668 CE. Both terms are the origin of the modern name for the peninsula. Smaller in scale than the empire of Kokuryeo, the 13th century Koryo kingdom’s territory did not extend much past the Yalu river. Staunch Buddhists, the Kingdom of Koryo was a major player in regional trade and commerce, and a centre of art and culture, and was a proud state. Successfully resisting invasions by the Khitan Liao and Jurchen Jin, Koryo entered into tributary relationships with both but maintained its internal autonomy, and unique worldview where the Korean King was essentially also son of Heaven, alongside the Chinese monarch who traditionally held the title. Similar to the contemporary Song Dynasty, military roles were subservient to the civilian classes and excluded from powerful civil positions. Despite the military being key to repulsing the Jurchen invasion of the 1120s, they gained no recognition, or promotions, for their efforts. Conditions worsened over the 12th century when revolts needed the military to be crushed. During the reign of King Uijong from 1146-1170, matters came to a head. More interested in visiting Buddhist temples than governing, under Uijong, corruption peaked. Government institutions were controlled by aristocratic families competing with the central government, the court was divided among factional lines and critics were exiled. These grievances fed into existing frustrations of the military leaders, ultimately culminating in a coup by the general Chong Chungbu in 1170. The King was dethroned in favour of a brother, and military leaders assumed most of the top offices. This was the beginning of a century of military dictatorship in Korea, its kings reduced to puppets. It was a system remarkably similar to the shogunate established at nearly the same time by Minamoto no Yoritomo in Japan, wherein the Japanese Emperor still head his title and conducted ceremonial roles, but real power was held by the shogun- though after Yoritomo’s death in 1199, real power was held by regents, the shikken of the Hojo clan.
Chungbu struggled to exercise his authority and could not fix the problems facing Koryo; revolts across the country continued and Chungbu was ousted by rivals in 1178, followed in turn by a succession of generals vying for power. It was not until 1196 when the general Ch’oe Ch’unghon assassinated the military dictator. A skilled and brave warrior, Ch’oe Ch’unghon was also a patriot, and saw the years of failed military rule as a disaster for his career, and for Koryo. Ch’oe was adept at political maneuvering. After assassinating the current dictator, he met the King and explained his actions. Gaining royal approval, his authority was established quickly. With support of the Korean King- whom Ch’oe Ch’unghon soon replaced- as well as key military figures, Ch’oe rooted out rivals, skillfully threw bones to military officers, civil leaders and literati, and revitalized the dynasty. Authority was extended through existing dynastic institutions, reformed to weed out corruption but ensured loyal men were in control of those institutions. Marriage ties cemented political alliances, and Ch’oe Ch’unghon essentially established his own dynasty alongside the royal dynasty. He was careful to ensure that alternate power bases to his own were undermined: government military forces weakened while he built up his own private army. Knowing how to champion Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, Ch’oe Ch’unghon masterfully manipulated his public image and public works. Allowing the King to focus on ceremonial and religious roles, Ch’oe’s tight lease on government meant that, over the first decade of the thirteenth century, he felt his position on HIS peninsula to be quite secure.
But like so many others, Ch’oe Ch’unghon’s plans were upset by a little someone named Chinggis Khan. The Great Khan’s invasion of the Jin Empire began in 1211, during which the Korean ambassador to the Jin was killed in the fighting. We have little information on what the Koreans and Ch’oe Ch’unghon thought of the rapid Mongol conquest of the Jin. During these centuries, the Korean kingdoms were always concerned with their northern border with Manchuria, where the Manchurian tribesmen, be they Khitan or Jurchen, invariably proved dangerous foes, crossing to raid in small parties or conquer with full armies. As Jin Dynastic authority collapsed in their Manchurian homeland, the Koreans watched the north uneasily. There, aside from the ongoing warfare, two new states were formed: the first was a Khitan Kingdom in central Manchuria, a “restored” Liao Dynasty made subject to the Mongols in 1212. The second was in Eastern Manchuria and Russia’s Primorsky Krai, founded by the Jin defector Puxian Wannu in 1215, which soon submitted to the Mongols. The latter is often called the Kingdom of Ta-chen, Tung-chen or the Eastern Xia. The frontiers north of Korea were unstable, and Ch’oe Ch’unghon expected trouble would spill over his borders sooner or later.
In 1216 as many as 90,000 rebel Khitans displaced by Jin forces overran Wannu’s southern territory. A few months later, Mongols accompanied by loyal Khitans chased these rebel Khitans from Wannu’s borders. The rebels’ requests to Koryo for aid were denied, and stuck between the Mongols and Korea, the Khitans chose Korea. In autumn 1216 the Khitans blazed through the Korean border defences. Skilled horse archers, the Khitans drove deep into Korea, menacing the capital, modern Kaesong. Korean military resistance contained them to the northern half of the country. Aside from a brief foray back over the border to gain reinforcements in autumn 1217, the Khitans spent most of 1217 and 1218 pillaging and plundering in the northeast.
Unexpectedly, in winter 1218 10,000 Mongols under the command of Qacin and Jala, with 20,000 troops provided by Wannu, arrived in Korea. The Mongols sent a simple message to the Koreans: they would crush the rebel Khitans, requested troops and provisions from the Koreans to assist with this, and then would enter into the same tributary relationship the Koreans had with Liao and Jin. After a brief delay in answering the Koreans acquiesced, sending 1,000 picked troops and 1,000 bushels of rice. The rebels Khitans were crushed, and Korea began sending tribute to the Mongols in 1219.
Korea’s first Mongol experience was relatively peaceful. Though forced to send tribute, their cities had not suffered. Ch’oe Ch’unghon’s advancing age, failing health, and desire to pass his rule onto his son stopped him from taking any provocative actions. A keen observer, he had judged the danger of this new foe, expecting the relationship would differ little from Liao or Jin tribute demands. Ch’oe Ch’unghon died in late 1219, and was succeeded by his oldest son, Ch’oe U. A military man like his father, an effective administrator and decisive leader, though not quite as cautious, Ch’oe U helmed Koryo for the next two decades. Ch’oe U found Mongol demands were downright rapacious, especially for otter skins, highly desired for their water resistant properties. For a people who lived their entire lives outdoors, an otter-skin cap was a valuable product. The chief Mongol envoy to Korea, Ja’uyu (Chao-ku-yu), was said to have abandoned the rest of the tribute at the border and just kept the otter skins!
As we’ve noted in episodes past, when Chinggis Khan marched west against the Khwarezmian Empire in 1219 his general Mukhali was left to maintain pressure on the Jin Dynasty. With Mukhali’s death in 1223, the reduced Mongol military presence in north China and with Chinggis still in Central Asia, the political situation across the region changed dramatically. The end of hostilities between the Jin, Xi Xia and Song Dynasties around 1225 we’ve dealt with already, but changes occurred even in Manchuria and Korea. There, Puxian Wannu renewed his independence and asked for alliance with Koryo. The Koreans declined, but made their own moves. In 1225 the chief Mongol envoy to Korea, the aforementioned Ja’uyu (Chao-ku-yu), mysteriously disappeared while transporting the annual tribute north. The Koreans insisted it was bandits, but the Mongols put the blame square on Koryo.
Ogedai Khaan was enthroned in 1229 and immediately set about bringing the region to heel. The Jin Dynasty took his personal attention and was destroyed by 1234. Both Puxian Wannu and the Koreans were also to be punished. Initially the new Khaan demanded Korea aid in an attack against Wannu. With the failure of the Koreans to comply, Ogedai ordered an invasion of the peninsula, the first of six Mongol invasions. Led by Sartaq-Qorchi, the army crossed the Yalu River in autumn 1231. The attack was overwhelming; the government armies were annihilated in the field and the capital surrounded. There was some notable resistance at a few fortified cities, none more famous than the defence of Kuju. Famed for a victory over the Khitans in 1018, in late 1231 through early 1232 under the command of Pak So, the city withstood weeks of constant Mongol assault. The most famous event occurred early in the siege. The southern wall of the city was defended by Kim Kyongson and a skilled unit of pyolch’o, translated as Defense Command Patrol, Extraordinary Watches or Night Patrol. These were local troops from outside the regular army, an elite militia specializing in guerilla warfare. Sending most of the unit inside the city, Kim Kyongson led a group of 12 picked men before the south gate. Telling them “not to think of their lives and accept death as their fate,” Kim and his men withstood four or five Mongol charges. Taking an arrow to the arm, Kim and his forces stood proudly and girded the city to further resistance; Attacks were launched on the walls day and night: carts of dry grass and wood were pushed to the gates to burn them, only to be destroyed by Korean catapults; a tower built before the walls to protect sappers was destroyed when the Koreans dug holes through their own walls to pour molten iron onto it. 15 large catapults were driven off by the Korean counter artillery; scaling ladders were toppled by Korean polearms. Bundles of sticks soaked allegedly in human fat, set aflame and hurled into the city could not be put out with water, but were smothered with mud and earth. Another catapult team through constant barrage made 50 breaches in the walls, which the defenders filled back in as the holes were made. After a month of terrible destruction but no success, the Mongol siege was lifted, deciding the city was protected by heaven.
Kuju city and other select settlements outlasted the central government. Military ruler Ch’oe U came to terms with the Mongols in January 1232, and was so frustrated that Kuju had continued to resist that he wanted to have its commanders, Pak So and Kim Kyongson, executed fearing Mongol retaliation. Here the Mongols are said to have interceded, saying: “Although he went contrary to our orders, he is a loyal subject of yours. We are not going to kill him now that you have already pledged peace with us. Would it be proper to kill the loyal subjects of all your cities?”
Still, Koryo had submitted to Sartaq-qorchi in the first month of 1232. The tribute demands were massive. 20,000 horses, 20,000 otter skins, slaves, royal hostages and clothing for 1 million men were demanded, alongside gold, silver and other treasures. The demands were impossible to meet; within a few months the Koreans had procured barely 1,000 otter skins. 72 Mongol darughachin were appointed to oversee Koryo, and Sartaq withdrew his forces, considering the peninsula conquered.
The Koreans were less keen to comply, however. The demands were onerous; while they sent much in gifts, they were unwilling to send royal hostages. Ch’oe U organized sambyolch’o units, a sort of paramilitary police force of the house of Ch’oe. By the end of spring 1232, Ch’oe held a meeting of his top ministers to decide the course of action. In June and July, the plan was struck. Ch’oe U, the King and the court moved from the capital at Kaesong to Kanghwa island offshore, making it the new administrative centre of Korea, protected by the experienced Korean navy. Mongol officials in Korea were murdered and the peninsula was in open revolt. Sartaq returned in fall 1232, blazing a trail of destruction across the northern half of the country until he was killed during a siege by a Buddhist monk turned archer, Kim Yunhu. On Sartaq’s death, the Mongol army withdrew.
The Mongols were not done with Korea. The defection of one Korean commander, Hong Pogwon, gave them control of Korea stretching north from Pyongyang, which Hong was made the overseer of. In early 1233 a Mongol envoy came with a list of grievances and demands, among them that Koreans had to fight against Puxian Wannu- though this came to naught, as Wannu’s kingdom, and the connection between his head and his neck, were removed from the scene later that year by armies under Ogedai’s son Guyuk. After the fall of the Jin Dynasty in 1234, a quriltai was held in Mongolia in 1235 to determine the next campaigns. Attacks were ordered against the Song Dynasty, Guyuk, Subutai and Batu were sent on the great western campaign, and another army, this time under Tangut Ba’atar, was sent to Korea.
Tangut Ba’atar’s invasion in summer 1235 was hugely destructive; with the assistance of Hong Pogwon by winter 1236, he had penetrated some 470 kilometres into Korea. The Koreans were unable to field armies against them, and alternative strategies were developed to respond. Just as the court had fled to Kanghwa Island, most of the population outside of fortified settlements was ordered to flee to coastal islands or mountain refuges, where they could escape Mongol riders. Offensives were limited to guerilla warfare, pyolch’o units launching surprise night raids, ambushes through mountain passes and striking small parties. Hitting quick and hard and making use of their excellent knowledge of local terrain, these small units were actually more mobile than the Mongols. It was a frustrating way of war for the Mongols, and when the Mongols got frustrated, the devastation only increased. Fortified settlements were left to fend for themselves, and when they did fall, the destruction was horrific. The countryside was ravaged, the death toll horrendous. The guerilla tactics could harass but not stop the Mongols, who in turn, unable to strike directly at the royal court or military dictator, could not immediately bring the country to submission. Korean defections to the Mongols were enormous; and in many respects the Ch’oe rulers had chosen a strategy to bring the most damage to their people.
By winter 1238, the Korean court was willing to come to talks with the Mongols to halt the destruction. Tangut Ba’atar withdrew his forces with talks ongoing and it seemed the Koreans would pledge eternal submission. As the Koreans feared, the Mongolian idea of negotiated settlement was a bit different from their own. Alongside the expected tribute demands, the Mongols required a census, the court could no longer stay on Kanghwa Island, and the Korean King, at that time Kojong, had to present himself to the Mongol court. For the military ruler Ch’oe U, this presented an issue. His legitimacy rested on him being the one to control the King; Mongol demands would remove him from power. Peace on the terms the Mongols wanted could not be accepted as long as the Ch’oes wanted to remain in control. For two years the Koreans made excuses on not sending the King, Ch’oe U trying to find some room to maneuver. Finally, a ploy was decided on: a distant relation of the King was made up to be the Crown Prince, and thus Wang Sun was sent to Karakorum in 1241. The Mongols found out about the deception…. Some 14 years later. By then, he was a loyal member of the Mongol court and even married a daughter of Great Khan Mongke.
With the royal hostage sent in 1241 and resumption of tribute, Ch’oe U achieved a six year truce. The Mongols still wanted the royal court to return to the mainland though, and their envoys grew ever more insistent on the matter. Ch’oe U spent the next six years preparing defenses, building elaborate fortifications on Kanghwa Island and readying militia units. Buddhist projects were consecrated to secure heavenly favours; the most famous was the recarving of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, begun in 1237. Often called the Tripitaka Koreana, this was a massive project, over 80,000 wooden printing blocks carved, requiring thousands of scholars and 12 years to complete.
Guyuk was elected as Great Khan in 1246, and decided the Koreans had stalled long enough on returning the court to the mainland. In Autumn 1247 an army under the general Amukhan and Hong Pogwon invaded. Official orders were sent for the countryside to be abandoned for coastal islands and mountain fortresses; guerilla attacks were launched; the northern half of the peninsula was desolated. The death of Guyuk in summer 1248 and Ch’oe U in winter 1249 brought a relative calm. Ch’oe U was succeeded by his son, Ch’oe Hang, who proved not the equal of his father or grandfather. More arrogant and hasty than his father, he struggled to maneuver the complicated politics of Koryo and Mongol attacks. Within a few months there was an attempted coup against him, and his reaction alienated major allies, at a time when they couldn’t afford to lose a single one.
In 1251 Mongke was confirmed as Great Khan; driven by the need to complete the conquests, the continued independence of Koryo was not something he could abide. Again, envoys demanded the Korean King visit the Mongol court and abandon Kanghwa island. Again, excuses were made. King Kojong was too old and sickly for such a trip, but they could discuss the possibility of considering sending the Crown Prince. At the same time, the Koreans prepared for the expected invasion. At the quriltai in 1252 wherein Kublai was ordered against Dali and Hulegu against the Caliph in Baghdad, forces were organized to attack Korea. Prince Yeku invaded in August 1253 alongside Amukhan and Hong Pogwon. Envoys preceded him stating he was there to find out if King Kojong was as sick as he said he was. He had six days to comply and meet Mongol representatives on the mainland. Kojong actually met with Mongol envoys on the straits across from Kanghwa island, and achieved precisely nothing. Mongol forces rode and burned across the peninsula, inland settlements were abandoned for coastal and mountain defenses. Pyolch’o raids attacked Mongol parties, and Mongols destroyed the cities which fell to them. Yeku was held up and fell ill during the long siege of Ch’ungju, ably defended by Kim Yunhu, the same Buddhist Monk who had killed Sartaq some 20 years prior. Ultimately, Mongke recalled Yeku before the end of the year due to his feuding with another prince. Amukhan and Hong Pogwon continued the campaign for a few more weeks, organizing a brief effort at amphibious warfare: seven captured Korean ships landed troops on Kal Island in early 1254, to no great result. Amukhan pulled the troops back in spring, returning in August with reinforcements under Jalayirtai Qorchi.
Jalayirtai brought a variation on the Mongol demands for submission. Now ministers and people had to shave their heads in the Mongol style: leaving only a tuft on the forehead between the eyes, and over the ears to be braided into loops. He also demanded Ch’oe Hang and King Kojong come to the mainland. Predictably, Ch’oe Hang was unwilling to do so. Early in summer 1255 Jalayitrai and Amukhan fell back to the northern border; by then, aside from years of destruction and abandonment of farmland, the peninsula was also in the midst of an ongoing drought. We are told in the first year of Jalayirtai’s command in Korea an estimated 206,8000 persons were taken captive. The suffering was horrific. Jalayirtai’s forces attacked again in autumn 1255, beginning a ship building program. Frustrated with continued resistance from the Korean court, the Mongols were considering assaulting the well defended Kanghwa Island. A sense of Jalayirtai’s frustration is evident in his response to Korean envoys in mid-1256. The envoys came asking for peace and Mongol withdrawal, to which Jalayirtai, incensed with pyolch’o attacks in the night, snapped “if you desire peace and friendship, then why do you kill our soldiers in great numbers?”
Jalayirtai’s movement of troops back north in autumn 1256 was no respite: in spring 1257, famine gripped even Kanghwa island. As Jalayirtai returned in the spring, it must have been apparent that the Ch’oes were hanging by a thread. Ch’oe Hang soon died, succeeded by his son Ch’oe Ui, who proved a very poor choice. His attempts to win favour by grants of food to the populace and court did not offset bad advisers enriching themselves and his own poor decisions. Alienating just about everyone in the court, the pressure of the situation finally led to a coup. Officers led by Kim Injun assaulted Ch’oe’s palace in May 1258. Ch’oe Ui tried to escape over the walls, but was too fat to get himself over. Caught by the assassins, Ch’oe Ui’s death ended six decades of Ch’oe military rule in Korea. Gaining the support of the elderly Kojong and handing out the wealth of the Ch’oe’s, Kim Injun made himself the new military governor. However, his position was much weaker than the Ch’oe’s had been, and still refused to submit to the Mongols. Mongol envoys who arrived in summer 1258 brought threats that they would storm Kanghwa Island, and in August Jalayirtai received further reinforcements under the command of Yesuder. Refusal to supply either the Crown Prince or the King was met with unchecked destruction across the Korean peninsula. If the Royal court would not come to then, then the Mongols would impose direct rule. No matter how bloody the pyolch’o attacks were, they could not stop the Mongols.
Resistance broke in 1259. Revolts against military rule began across the country, towns and cities surrendered on the arrival of the Mongols rather than continue fighting. With food supplies exhausted, their military forces ground nearly to dust, in the spring of 1259 a peace deal was reached. The Crown Prince, Wang Chon, was to travel to the Mongol court as a royal hostage, the court move back to the mainland, and the defences of Kanghwa be demolished. Kim Injun was not removed but his power was considerably lesser to that of the Ch’oes. Organized Koryo resistance to the Mongol Empire was over. In May 1259, Prince Wang Chon set out for the imperial court, which met a hiccup when Mongke died in August 1259. Wang Chon decided to head for the court of Mongke’s younger brother in China, Kublai. There, he became the first foreign ruler to officially recognize Kublai as the next Great Khan of the Empire. In turn, Kublai provided Wang Chon an armed escort to return to Korea and be installed as the new king, as the venerable Kojong had died in July 1259. Kojong had reigned through the entire Mongol-Korean war, and it was fitting he died only weeks after it ended.
Wang Chon, known better by his temple name, Wonjong, proved a loyal vassal to Kublai Khan, marrying his son and eventual successor to one of Kublai’s daughters. Military rule in Korea ended in 1270 after a series of assassinations, and the Korean court finally returned to the mainland. With that, Koryo was a fully incorporated client kingdom. The King ruled in earnest, though with Mongol backing; when briefly ousted by a coup, Kublai’s forces came in and reinstalled him. Yet Mongol demands upon Korea did not grow any less burdensome; rather,. Wonjong had to mobilize the Koreans for another war, this time fighting alongside the Mongols. Koreans ships, food supplies and men were needed by Kublai Khan against the island of Japan, which had spurned his demands for submission. Korea was to be a launchpad for the first Mongol Invasion of Japan of 1274. To coincide with the release of the new SuckerPunch game Ghost of Tsushima which covers that very same invasion, we will have a few special episodes discussing this area, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast. To help us keep bringing you content, consider supporting us on Patreon, at (inset patreon link here). I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.