Had the Mongols invaded India, they would have performed a surgical strike, taking out the Moslem elites, while sparing the Hindus, who would have welcomed the polytheistic Mongols as liberators.
[…] the Mongols were the scourge of Moslems and Islam’s greatest enemy. Wave upon wave of Mongol attacks flattened many Islamic strongholds across Central Asia, Persia and Arabia, killing millions of Moslems. Genghis Khan was a Shamianistic sky worshiper who wanted to conquer Islamic lands and wipe out all traces of Islam from the world.
His grandson Hulagu Khan nearly completed what Genghis set out to do. Under him, the great Mongol Horde rolled across the steppes, poured into Persia and then Arabia, destroying thriving cities. It was only the unexpected death of their leader Mongke Khan in Mongolia that stopped the juggernaut from rolling into Egypt, Mecca and Medina. His compulsory attendance at the funeral stopped the Mongols from wiping out Islam forever.
To illustrate how deeply the Mongol invasions are imprinted in the collective consciousness of the Moslems of the Middle East. In one of his broadcasts to the world, Osama bin Laden claimed that the American bombing of Baghdad during the Second Gulf War had caused greater destruction than Hulagu’s raid in 1258.
The terrorist leader did not even bother to explain who Hulagu was because the destroyer of Baghdad is still remembered in the Middle East. In Arabic a proverb sprang up which meant that if someone tells you the Mongols have suffered a defeat don’t believe him.
Genghis Khan: Disproportionate retaliation
In 1218 CE, Genghis Khan, the ruler of Mongolia, sent a trade delegation to Shah Ala ad-Din Mohammad, the ruler of the neighboring Khawarizm Empire of Iran. The caravan comprised 100 Mongol escorts, 450 merchants and 500 camels laden with silk, fur, gold, silver and other luxurious goods, including gifts for the Persians. The caravan was on its way to the shah’s palace in Bokhara but was stopped at the border town of Otrar, where the governor, Inalchuq, under orders from Mohammad, slaughtered every one of them and buried their bodies to hide the dastardly act.
With the mile-long caravan seemingly disappearing into thin air, the Mongols were left confounded. However, Genghis did not suspect Mohammad had anything to with the delegation’s disappearance. Since Mongol law treated ambassadors as inviolable, he gave the benefit of the doubt to the shah.
Genghis despatched another embassy comprising two Mongols and a Moslem. They arrived in Bokhara and presented a letter from the Great Khan, politely enquiring about the fate of their caravan. Mohammed executed the Moslem ambassador, branding him a traitor, and sent his head back with the two Mongol companions with their heads shaved. It was the greatest diplomatic blunder in history.
Chris Peers (2) writes in ‘Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine’: “Genghis obviously could not overlook such an insult, and immediately made preparations for war….the Khan made no secret of his plans, and even sent messengers to Mohammad to warn him that he was coming, so determined was he to be seen to have justice on his side.”
With an army numbering more than 150,000, battering rams, siege engines, Chinese mortars and machines that could hurl fire arrows and incendiary naphtha bombs, Genghis marched into the Khawarizm Empire to avenge his ambassadors.
Mohammad had taken refuge in Samarkand with a force estimated at 110,000 men, including 60,000 elite Qangli Turks and 20 war elephants supplied by his Ghurid allies in India. Genghis divided his armies, and sent one force solely to find and execute the shah – so that he was forced to run for his life in his own country. The divided Mongol forces destroyed the Shah’s forces piecemeal, and began the utter devastation of the country. (3)
In March 1220 Genghis descended on Bokhara, taking the Khawarizmians completely by surprise. After defeating and killing 20,000 soldiers, Genghis summoned Bokhara’s leading citizens, 280 in number, and proceeded to lecture them on the reasons for his coming: “Know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
According to Peers, the citizens of Bokhara seem to have accepted the theory of divine punishment when they saw “the wooden receptacles that held the copies of the Koran in the great mosque were emptied and then filled with grain to feed the Mongol horses”.
Genghis then advanced towards Samarkand but Mohammad fled with his army. Giving chase, the Mongols crossed the Oxus and advanced on Balkh, which submitted at once. “Nevertheless, the people were driven out onto the plain, ostensibly for a census, then slaughtered, while their city was burned to the ground….So many bodies were left unburied that lions, wolves, vultures and eagles could all feed together without quarreling.” (2) The city never regained its importance as a Silk Route hub.
In April, the Mongols carried out another massacre at Nishapur, allegedly in revenge for the death of Toquchar, Genghis’ favourite son-in-law, who had been killed during an unsuccessful assault the previous autumn while he was pursuing the shah. On this occasion the city was completely destroyed, even the cats and dogs being killed.
At Bamiyan, the site of the famous stone Buddhas, now destroyed, in northern Afghanistan, Genghis’ favourite grandson Metiken was killed by a stray missile, and in retaliation every living thing in the town was slaughtered, just as had happened at Nishapur.
And the guy who started it all, Inalchuq, the caravan killer, was executed in the way the Mongols believed was appropriate – molten silver was poured through his mouth, ears and eyes. Otrar was razed to the ground.
The numbers of civilians and combatants killed in cities across the Moslem world are truly staggering and historians have long wondered whether the accounts of Moslem chroniclers are highly exaggerated.
In Samarkand they killed 1.2 million; in Nishapur an estimated 1.7 million (it took 12 days to count the dead); 70,000 people were killed in Sabzivar; the same number in Nisa. In Herat, Afghanistan, the first siege left 12,000 of the Shah’s forces dead but the townspeople were spared. In June of 1222, after a revolt, the Mongols lay siege again and an estimated 1.6 million were slaughtered, leaving 40 to mourn their country. (5)
Genghis reserved his worst for the city of Gurganj, the birth place of the Shah. The Persian scholar Juvayni states that 50,000 Mongol soldiers were given the task of executing 24 Gurganj citizens each, which would mean that 1.2 million people were killed. Once the town was devoid of human life, Genghis demolished the dams around the city that held back the Amu Darya, wiping the city off the face of the earth.
Genghis now turned his attention to Merv, an oasis city of mosques and mansions. Its ten libraries contained 150,000 volumes, the greatest collection in Central Asia. The Mongols entered the city and after separating 400 craftsmen and a crowd of children to act as slaves, drove the remaining population on to the plain. Then the killing started. The place was ransacked, the buildings mined, the books burned or buried. Merv lost almost everything and almost everyone. The Mongols ordered that no woman, man or child be spared… Most had their throats slit. Others were led out, 20 at a time, to be drowned in a trough of blood. (John Man, ‘The Mongol Empire’)
Mohammad was hunted into ignominy. The Mongol commanders Subedei and Jebei had been ordered to finish off the shah, and they pursued him up to the western shores of the Caspian Sea. “The Khawarizm Shah was eventually pursued to Astara on the shores of the Caspian, where he discarded his fine clothes, took up the rags of a beggar and with a small group of followers, attempted to slip out of the town unnoticed.
Penniless and anonymous, he boarded a small fishing boat just as a Mongol troop raced to the shores, firing their arrows in vain after the little boat. The mighty Khawarizm Shah made it to the tiny island of Abeskim, where he finally died of pleurisy in January 1221. He had fallen from the greatest heights to utter poverty, and was buried in a torn shirt borrowed from one of his servants.”
Soon afterwards, a Mongol patrol captured the shah’s mother, Terken Khatun, and sent her back to Mongolia, where she remained a prisoner for the rest of her life. Moslem rulers were finally getting a taste of the treatment they had been giving to non-Moslem nations since they burst out from Arabia in the seventh century.
Hulagu Khan: Islam’s nightmare
The largest Mongol attack on the Middle East was the invasion of 1252-1260. Hulagu, who would later go on to establish the Mongol Il-Khanate (or subordinate khanate), led the attack. The official reason for the invasion was that the Nisari Ismailis, Shiite Assassins based in mountain castles, were giving the Mongols too much trouble, and the Caliphate of Baghdad, the official head of the Moslem world, refused to help.
In the 13th century, the Mongols faced a series of provocations from the Assassins. This Moslem sect was holed up in a hundred unconquered mountain fortresses stretching from Afghanistan to Syria, the most important of which was Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, in northern Persia. Each fortress was a “cell” and instructions regarding who to assassinate were communicated to these cells from Alamut.
For 200 years the Assassins unleashed their terror in the Middle East, killing numerous rulers and two Caliphs. But then they made a fatal mistake – they sent a 300 member peace delegation to Mongolia but in fact many members of this delegation were killers tasked with eliminating key Mongol khans. When the wily Mongols discovered the plot, the obituaries of the Ismailies were well and truly written. Hulagu Khan decided to go for the final solution.
Edwin Black writes in ‘Banking on Baghdad’ that Hulagu’s invasion wasn’t because of a personal sense of wrong. “Hulagu did not hate Islam. He just refused to bow to Islam or to any belief system other than his own. Hulagu felt that Islam was an affront to monotheistic Mongol beliefs about an omnipotent god of nature that was present in all things.”
Hulagu’s army was an amazing military machine. It comprised soldiers, spies, conspirators, astrologers, a thousand Chinese engineers, agents to construct bridges and clear roads, and was reinforced with Christian and Sunni contingents. His trebuchets could hurl huge rocks, and smaller stones covered in flaming naphtha, and his arbalesters could shoot bolts dipped in burning pitch a distance of twenty-five hundred paces. (8)
One by one, Hulagu stormed the 100 supposedly impenetrable Assassin castles, relentlessly killing the masters, soldiers, recruits and even infants in their cradles. The Imam himself was allowed to beg for mercy. It was denied and the Imam’s Mongol escorts kicked him mercilessly to his death. Historians unanimously agree that the Mongols did the world a favour by eliminating the Assassin scourge.
The Mongols rolled on to Baghdad – the city that represented the surge of Islam. The caliph — Islam’s spiritual leader, comparable to the Pope — had founded it in 762 and finished its construction in 766. His name was Jaffar al-Mansour, and he belonged to the Abbassid line of caliphs, who descended from the Prophet’s paternal uncle, Abbas. (8)
Almost everybody in ninth-century Baghdad could read and write. While Europe still moiled in its Dark Ages, Baghdad was a city of booksellers, bathhouses, gardens, game parks, libraries….The palaces of the caliphs were of marble, rare woods, jade, and alabaster, with fountains and interior gardens, and carpets and wall hangings by the thousand. Servants sprinkled guests with sprinklers of rosewater and powdered musk and ambergris….Arts and sciences flourished—literature, music, calligraphy, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, history. (8)
Preceding the majority of the Mongol army, scouts went ahead and broke the dykes on the Tigris River, flooding the Moslem camp. More than 20,000 soldiers who sallied out were drowned or cut down by Mongol arrows. Only their commander was able to stagger back into the city.
The Tigris was blocked with check points and pontoon bridges upon which were placed siege machines. From all points, Chinese auxiliaries, experts at artillery, proceeded to pound the ancient walls with heavy stones and ballista. No city in the world could have survived the fierce bombardment. Section by section, street by street, the ancient city was claimed by the tenacious invader.
Once the Mongols controlled the city, they started an orgy of violence that lasted seven days. Persian historian Abdullah Wassaf narrates: “They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror…beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged…through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a plaything…as the population died at the hands of the invaders.” (Mortimer Rush, ‘Loot’).
The caliph Mustasim was captured and forced to watch as his citizens were murdered and his treasury was plundered. The Mongols looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals. Grand buildings that had been the work of generations were burned to the ground. The massive library, which housed three million books, was ruined. It is rumoured that when all the books were thrown into the Tigris River, it ran black with ink for days.
Depending on the source, the Mongol warriors killed 200,000 to one million people. What the Moslems had done to Hindu places such as Sindh, Mathura, Somnath and Nalanda (and later, Vijayanagara), the Mongols did to Baghdad.
When Mustasim was brought before him, Hulagu had the caliph wrapped in a carpet and then trodden to death by horses. He also killed everyone in the caliph’s family, except for his youngest son and a daughter. The daughter was shipped off to Mongolia to be a slave in the harem of Mongke Khan.
In the end it took less than two months for the mighty capital of the Abbasid Caliphate to fall to the Mongol onslaught.
With Mesopotamia defeated, all that was left of Islamic rule in the Middle East was Syria and Egypt. Syria was quickly overrun and the Mongols next planned to move on to the Mamluks in Egypt. But just when it seemed like Islam was in mortal danger, news arrived that Mongke Khan had died.
As swiftly as they had arrived, in mid-1260 Hulagu and the majority of the Mongol army withdrew to Mongolia to elect a new khan. The remaining force engaged the Mamluks at Ayn Jalut, in Israel. The Mongols were decisively defeated. Had the Mongols won, it would have placed them in a position from they would have gone on to take Egypt and then control Mecca and Medina. If the Mongols had controlled the two most important religious cities of Islam, it would have boxed-in the Moslem resistance.
For the Islamic world, the Mongol invasions proved to be a disaster on an unparalleled scale. It broke the spirit of the Moslems. Despite ultimately being unsuccessful in their attempt to destroy Islam, the Mongols left a deep political, economic and military scar in the heart of the Moslem world. The political institutions, such as the caliphate, that held the Moslem world together for centuries, were abolished.
Fighting fire with fire
In Western and Moslem imagination and literature, the Mongols – and in particular Genghis Khan – are depicted as barbarians, as the ultimate killing machine, as the scourge of god. No doubt the Mongols were fierce and brutal, and their way of fighting was total war. At the same time, unlike Timur, Mahmud Ghazni, Feroz Shah Tughlak, the Spanish Conquistadors, the British settlers of America or Adolf Hitler, none of their rulers killed for fun. The Mongols knew that to defeat Islam they had to fight fire with fire. Above all, they fought for honour.
Marshall writes in ‘Storm From the East’ that it is too simple to dismiss the huge degree of carnage as unbridled barbarism. “In his favour it has to be said that Genghis never employed murder as a political weapon, as Timur and other recent tyrants did, and indeed the death penalty was used for very few crimes.
During Genghis’ reign, conquered subjects were immediately emancipated, and there was never any form of political or racial tyranny. The Mongols were extraordinarily tolerant of other religions and this was a tradition they maintained for most of the history of the empire – a rare quality in a world where Christians and Moslems had been at war with each other for nearly 500 years.”
The Mongols were in some ways the polar opposite of Hindus, who ignored the Islamic threat to their ultimate peril. Genghis and Hulagu would have been scandalised at the pardon of Mohammad Ghori by the Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan in 1191 (only for Ghori to return in 1192 and kill Chauhan).
No Mongol khan would have accepted a truce while he was winning as Lal Bahadur Shastri did in the 1965 war with Pakistan. No Mongol leader would done what an Indian prime minister did after the 1971 War, when Indira Gandhi fed, housed and secured 97,000 Pakistani prisoners of war in Indian camps and then let them go without trying them for war crimes in Bangladesh.
Even Mongol women had remarkable killer instinct that would make a Maratha or Rajput envious. In Nishapur, when Genghis’ favourite son-in-law Toquchar was killed by an arrow shot by an enemy soldier, the Great Khan’s daughter was heartbroken at the news of her husband’s death, and requested that every last person in Nishapur be killed. The Khan’s troops, led by his youngest son Tolui, undertook the gruesome task. Women, children, infants, and even dogs and cats were all killed. Worried that some of the inhabitants were wounded but still alive, the Khan’s daughter asked that each Nishapuran be beheaded, their skulls piled in pyramids. Ten days later, the pyramids were complete.
The most remarkable fact about the Mongol invasion of the Middle East was that the entire population of Mongolia wasn’t more than 1 million. And yet they destroyed the political power of their two prime enemies – the Chinese and the Moslems.
Making an example
The Mongol invasion of the Middle East was conducted as a sort of forward policy. The Mongol leaders decided it was better to fight Islam in the Middle East rather than in Mongolia. In this aspect, they again offer a stark contrast to the Indian kingdoms, the vast majority of which did not bother to destroy the enemy in his own lair.
For instance, the first Arab invasion of India was against Sindh in 653 CE which was repelled. For the next six decades the Arabs launched a series of attacks but suffered huge losses before they tasted success against Raja Dahir in 712 CE, opening the floodgates to the Islamic conquest of India. Had the powerful Hindu kings united and destroyed the Arabs in Iraq and Syria, caliphs like the tyrant Hajjaj could scarcely have been able to mount successive invasions against India.
Again, the large scale killings were a defence mechanism for Mongol self-preservation. They did not have the numbers required to garrison the conquered cities. If their opponents were not sufficiently subdued, they could rise again and attack the Mongols when the Mongols left to deal with another city. This would have resulted in the Mongols endlessly returning to quell rebellions, preventing them from pursuing their final goals.
Mongol attitude towards Hindus
And finally, would the Mongols have visited the same level destruction on India? The ifs and buts of history are merely an academic exercise, but the reality is that it never happened. Genghis and Hulagu did not invade India because they had no reason to. They launched wars with clear political objectives, and certainly not with the iconoclastic fervour of Moslems.
Arabs, Afghans and Turks invaded India primarily for its wealth – a lot of which was in unguarded temples – but killing infidel Hindus in order to gain the favour of Allah was also one of the fringe benefits (along with rape and slaves). But the sky worshiping Mongols shared a religious code like the Hindus.
In Baghdad, the Mongols asked the Nestorian Christians to remain inside a church while they carried out the killings. The discipline of the Mongolian soldiers is ascertained by the fact that even during the frenzy of pillage, not one Christian was harmed. Similarly, the Shias of Baghdad were not touched either as they had helped the Mongols.
In the prelude to the advance on Baghdad, in the first attack on Merv, the Mongols had killed 1.3 million people. When it became repopulated in a few months, the city rose in revolt and the Mongols returned to kill 100,000, leaving only four survivors. Several months later, Merv again revolted. This time the Mongols returned with a massive force of 100,000 men and carried out widespread torture for 40 days. Here’s what Charles P. Melville of Cambridge University says: “At the end of it all there are only 10 or a dozen Indians left residing in the city, I don t know how they managed to get away with it.”
The 10 Indians at Merv may have been Hindu Khatri merchants who conducted trade between India, Central Asia, China and Russia.
Clearly, the Mongols’ ire was directed at Moslems, especially the ones they deemed dangerous and likely to stab them in the back. Like the Nestorians of Central Asia, the Hindus posed no threat to them. Had the Mongols invaded India, they would have performed a surgical strike, taking out the Moslem elites, while sparing the Hindus, who would have welcomed the pluralistic Mongols as liberators.