By Nicholas Morton
In 1218 the governor of the Silk Road town of Utrar arrested and executed a group of merchants from the Mongol Empire. Utrar itself lay on the northern frontiers of the Khwarazmian sultanate, a vast empire encompassing Persia as well as many surrounding territories. Its ruler was Sultan Muhammed and he fully supported his subordinate’s actions against these traders. A Mongol army arrived soon afterwards. It seized the town, executed the governor, and then initiated a campaign to overthrow the Khwarazmian Empire as a whole.
These events marked the beginning of the Mongol invasions into the Near East. In the months following the fall of Utrar, the Mongols besieged many of the Khwarazmian Empire’s other frontier cities including Samarqand and Bukhara, while their raiders penetrated deep into the empire’s Persian heartlands. Some cities chose to resist while others capitulated. Within only a few years the empire’s eastern and central sectors were under Mongol control.
In the midst of these wars, Sultan Muhammed fled westwards seeking refuge from the advancing Mongol armies. The Mongols learned of his escape and so their leader, Chinggis Khan, despatched an army under two experienced commanders called Jebe and Subedei to hunt him down. This force followed the sultan’s trail, but they were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts; the sultan died on an island in the Caspian Sea before they could discover his location.
Despite failing in their main objective, Jebe and Subedei covered enormous distances during their search, crossing the Khwarazmian Empire and then moving northwest towards Greater Armenia and Georgia. En-route they received the submission of many towns and cities, whilst beating every army sent against them. In the Caucasus they defeated the Georgians, Armenians as well as several other local powers. Then they moved further north where in 1223 they were again successful against a Rus army at the battle of Kalka River. They subsequently passed to the north of the Caspian Sea, returning east to Mongol territory and thereby completing a circuit around the sea’s perimeter.
Jebe and Subedei’s incursion, coupled with the Mongols’ dismemberment of so much of the Khwarazmian empire, sent shockwaves across the Near East, their assaults signalling that the entire area was now at risk of invasion. Naturally this provoked a great deal of debate with many different commentators attempting to establish how the Mongols’ invasions would affect their own interests. On the north Egyptian coast, a crusading army now known as the Fifth Crusade thought that the Mongols were actually the forces of a mythical king called Prester John (or at least one of his descendants) who, as many contemporaries in Western Christendom believed, would march to their aid. It wouldn’t be long before that particular hope was very abruptly extinguished.
Among the many questions posed by Jebe and Subedei’s expedition, there was one issue which preoccupied many contemporaries – when would the Mongols return? By this stage, most of the northern and eastern portions of the Khwarazmian Empire had already fallen to the Mongols’ armies, but the empire’s western territories, along with most of the Near East’s other sultanates, empires and kingdoms, remained independent. Chinggis Khan for his part resumed his wars in China during the 1220s and these continued up to his death in August 1227 meaning that, for the time being at least, the Mongols were directing their energies elsewhere.
During these years the son of the Khwarazmian sultan, an able military commander named Jalal al-Din, arrived in the remnants of his father’s empire and swiftly took control. Having secured his own authority he then set about assertively re-entrenching the Khwarazmian Empire, launching military campaigns against many of its western and northern neighbours. His goal was seemingly to restore his father’s empire and to strengthen his own position against any future Mongol attack.
Jalal al-Din was fairly successful in his efforts. When a Mongol army advanced into Persia in 1228, he managed to defeat the invaders outside the walls of the city of Isfahan – a notably military achievement given that Mongol forces rarely experienced defeat. These victories however came at a price. Jalal al-Din acquired a reputation for ferocity and many rulers began to fear his rising power. Among these, the Anatolian Seljuks, (whose lands encompassed much of central and eastern modern-day Turkey) were initially willing to settle a peace treaty with Jalal al-Din but, as the years passed, they became wary of their Khwarazmian neighbour.
Other powers were more concerned. These included many rulers of the Ayyubid Empire (the empire established by Saladin which encompassed much of Syria, Palestine, the Jazira and Egypt). The Ayyubids’ northernmost ruler, al-Ashraf, certainly viewed Jalal al-Din as a threat; not only did Jalal al-Din attack his northern frontier stronghold of Khilat, but he also allied with al-Ashraf’s brother and rival, the ruler of Damascus.
Ultimately, these tensions reached a crescendo in 1230 when the Ayyubids and Anatolian Seljuks formed a military alliance against the Khwarazmians. Jalal al-Din then moved to confront these powerful neighbours and their opposing armies encountered one another on 10 August 1230 at the battle of Yassı Çimen. The result was catastrophic for Jalal al-Din, the allied Seljuk and Ayyubid forces decisively routed his army.
This defeat could not have come at a worse time. The year before, the new Mongol Khan Ogodei announced a new offensive into the Near East and news arrived in the Jalal al-Din’s camp reporting the approach of this new invasion force only a short time after his defeat at Yassı Çimen. In these circumstances the Khwarazmians were in no position to offer any serious resistance to this new assault, while Jalal al-Din could hardly expect much aid from his Ayyubid and Seljuk adversaries. The Mongol forces under their leader Chormaghun therefore swept into the area conquering the remainder of the Khwarazmian Empire meeting very little opposition before seizing other lands in the Caucasus over the following years.
Chormaghun’s territories continued to expand in the 1230s and, for a time, the Anatolian Seljuks submitted to Mongol hegemony. This relationship deteriorated however and in 1242 the Mongols opened a new offensive against the Anatolian Seljuks which culminated in a crushing defeat for the Seljuks in 1243 at the battle of Köse Dagh, following which the Mongols re-asserted their overlordship. These new conquests were enabled by ongoing fighting between the Ayyubids and Seljuks, which prevented the formation of any alliance against the Mongols. In the wake of Köse Dagh several other smaller powers in the region, including the kingdom of Cilician Armenia (located in southern Anatolia), submitted to the Mongols realising that they lacked the resources to meet them in battle.
The Mongols’ next major assault on the Near East took place in the 1250s when the current Great Khan, Mongke, despatched his brother Hulegu to the region to consolidate Mongol control over any remaining independent territories. Hulegu’s vast army of over 100,000 troops first destroyed the fortresses of the Nizaris (known in Western Christendom as the ‘Assassins’) in Persia before besieging and brutally sacking the great city of Baghdad in 1258, causing enormous loss of life and executing the Abbasid caliph. Soon afterwards, Hulegu’s forces advanced into the Ayyubid Empire, taking Aleppo in January 1260 and Damascus in February 1260. At this point the principality of Antioch – the northernmost Crusader States – accepted Mongol overlordship while the Kingdom of Jerusalem (another of the Crusader States) sent out ambassadors to Hulegu, hoping to avert a Mongol invasion. The Byzantine Empire of Nicaea also came to terms with the Mongols at about the same time.
In this way, the Mongols’ conquests in the Near East took place in bursts following the despatch of new armies into the region: in 1220 (Jebe and Subedei), 1230 (Chormaghun) and 1256 (Hulegu). Each of these assaults expanded the Mongols’ territories, meeting very different levels of resistance. Many armies marched against Jebe and Subedei, but the Mongols managed to defeat all of them. Chormaghun’s invasion however profited considerably from the wars between the Ayyubids, Seljuks and Khwarazmians. By the time that Hulegu’s forces arrived, only a few powers remained independent and by this stage the climate of fear surrounding the Mongols and their ongoing conquests would have contributed to his ability to overthrow so many different territories.
The summer of 1260 was the Mongol Empire’s high-water mark in the Near East and in many ways the roots of their future decline can be seen within the earlier conquests. During the period 1218-1260 the Mongols were generally victorious on the battlefield, but this led the Mongols’ leading families to quarrel amongst themselves over who held jurisdiction over the empire’s many territories (including the Near East). Hulegu’s own conduct in the 1250s alienated his Mongol rivals in Western Eurasia and a ruinous civil war followed soon afterwards, drawing Hulegu’s attention away from his wars of conquest.
Meanwhile, the Mongols seem to have spread themselves rather thin during their many invasions, their garrisons being distributed over a vast span of territory. So, when the Mamluk Empire scored a victory over the Mongols’ garrison forces at the battle of Ayn Jalut in September 1260, there were many who were prepared either to rise in rebellion or to rally to anyone who proved able to defeat the Mongols in battle. Resistance hardened and, in this region at least, the Mongols secured no more permanent conquests.
Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history. These include The Crusader States and their Neighbours: A Military History, 1099-1187 (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (Basic Books, 2018). You can follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasMorto11
Nicholas Morton, The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (Basic Books, 2022)
Top Image: The Siege of Baghdad – Bibliothèque Nationale de France. MS Supplément persan 1113, fol. 180v-181r