An alliance of Russian princes attempts to halt 20,000 Mongol warriors led by Genghis Khan’s most trusted general
The figure of Genghis Khan of the Mongols looms like a colossus over the whole history of the Middles Ages, in both the east and west. With an army that displayed unsurpassed mobility and tight coordination, he established one of the largest land empires ever, conquering vast territories in a short space of time. His empire also proved durable, being able to survive his death and division among his heirs for some two centuries or more in places.
Genghis’s beginnings hardly boded well for the future world conqueror. Born around 1162 and called Temujin in his youth, at the age of 12 he became the head of his household when his father was slain by rival Tatars. His father’s erstwhile Mongol supporters would not consent to follow a boy, and his family, consisting of his mother and his brothers, experienced hard times. For safety they hid in the mountains, and Temujin sustained them through hunting and fishing. His early life was extremely difficult, but it toughened him. He also gained warrior followers of his own and married a woman named Borte. When his wife was carried off by Merkit raiders, Temujin daringly rescued her from her captors.
Temujin allied himself with Togrul, khan of the Keraits, and with him took revenge on those who had killed his father, ruthlessly crushing his blood enemies, the Tatars. Eventually he and Togrul quarrelled and Temujin was driven far away, with just a handful of his followers remaining. The powerful coalition that the Keraits had put together, however, soon disintegrated and Temujin, now calling himself Genghis, returned for a rematch. He smashed the Keraits and Togrul fled. With their old khan out of the picture, the surviving Keraits willingly accepted Genghis as their new khan.
Genghis methodically set about bringing all of the tribes of the Mongolian steppes under his rule. In 1206 he held a great assembly, or kuriltai, where he was declared the supreme khan of all the Turkic and Mongolian peoples. Genghis believed he had a divine mission to unite all of the Mongol peoples, and this mission eventually expanded to include the whole of the world.
Between 1207 and 1209, nearby Turkic tribes were pulverised and the sedentary kingdoms of northern China, the Xi Xia and the
“GENGHIS BELIEVED HE HAD A DIVINE MISSION TO UNITE ALL OF THE MONGOL PEOPLES, AND THIS MISSION EVENTUALLY EXPANDED TO INCLUDE THE WHOLE OF THE WORLD”
Jin, were attacked. The Xi Xia capitulated but the Jin, notwithstanding the sacking of their capital at Beijing in 1215, successfully resisted the Mongols from behind the walls of their wellfortified cities and towns. Mongol siegecraft was still very limited in its capability at this time, so Genghis turned his sights elsewhere for the time being.
After crushing the Qara Khitai in the west, Genghis mounted a major invasion of the Islamic world. His first target was the wealthy Central Asian state of Khwarezm in Transoxania. Using the murder of Mongol merchants and ambassadors as a pretext, Genghis invaded in 1219. The Khwarezmians had the larger army, but the Mongols moved much faster, aided by the peerless mobility provided by their hardy steppe ponies. Cities were taken by the Mongols one after another, and their inhabitants butchered. The cities were then set alight.
It was the same horrifying story as the Mongols continued their march into modernday Afghanistan and eastern Iran. The Mongols were especially adept at using terror as a weapon against their enemies. The sheer fright they induced in others as a result of their deliberate terror tactics often prevented further effective resistance from developing against them. The death and destruction that Genghis’s soldiers wreaked as they carved their way through Khwarezm, which fell in 1221, was ghastly. There's good reason for Genghis's reputation as a bloody-handed destroyer. An English monk, Matthew Paris, later wrote harshly of the Mongols: "They are of the nature of beasts... they thirst after and drink blood."
The invasion of Medieval Russia
Other lands would soon know the unspeakable cruelties of a Mongol invasion. Northern India was brutally attacked, and by 1223 a powerful Mongol army had appeared on Russia’s frontier to conduct a massive reconnaissance raid against Europe.
The Russia that the Mongols attacked was a far cry from the giant empire of the tsars it would later become. The Russian state had gotten its start in the 8th century CE with the settlement of the Varangian Rus – Scandinavian Vikings who used the numerous rivers of western Russia as highways to travel to and conduct trade with Byzantium far to the south. The Rus eventually put down roots, with one Northman, Rurik, and his two brothers becoming overlords of the Slavic tribes in the region. The Rus thus bequeathed their name to what would become Russia.
In the north, the foremost Russian city was Novgorod. In the south, it was Kiev. The Scandinavian Varangians became Slavicised as they intermarried with the local tribal peoples. Towards the end of the 9th century, the pagan Russians started converting to Orthodox Christianity under the tutelage of Byzantine missionaries. Prince Vladimir I of Kiev was baptised a Christian in 988 and made his people convert to the new faith. This earliest Russian state, that of Kievan Russia, would develop steadily over the next few centuries, expanding but also remaining weakened by divisions among its leading princes, who regularly feuded among themselves.
By 1221 the Khwarezmian Empire had been shattered, but its fugitive shah, Ala al-din Muhammad, had eluded the Mongols and made his way west. Two of Genghis’s close comrades and leading generals, Subotai Bahadur and
Jebe Noyon, both of whom had just finished destroying the Khwarezmian state, had followed after him. After making certain that the shah was dead, Subotai had the idea of conducting a massive reconnaissance raid, with the goal of learning what was to be found in Europe, a land scarcely known to the Mongols at this time. With an all-cavalry army consisting of some 20,000 riders, Subotai and Jebe rode hard northward through the Caucasus. What followed would become the greatest cavalry ride of all time.
The ride was led by formidable men of extraordinary military prowess. Years later, in 1247, Giovanni di Plano Carpini, a Franciscan monk, would travel to the distant Mongol court. He concluded that Subotai was "a soldier without weakness". The Mongols themselves knew him as ‘Subotai the Unfailing’. It would later be said of Subotai, after his death at the age of 73 in 1248, that in his long military career he had conquered 32 nations and had been victorious in some 75 pitched battles. These are astonishing achievements, and they highlight the quality of the general to whom Genghis had entrusted the western campaign. He had chosen his man well: Subotai was not just an adept military leader, he was also famously loyal to the Great Khan, once saying to his master, "As felt protects from the wind, so I will ward off your enemies."
“WITH AN ALL-CAVALRY ARMY CONSISTING OF SOME 20,000 RIDERS, SUBOTAI AND JEBE RODE HARD NORTHWARD THROUGH THE CAUCASUS. WHAT FOLLOWED WOULD BECOME THE GREATEST CAVALRY RIDE OF ALL TIME”
WORDS MARC G. DESANTIS
Grand Prince Mstislav of Kiev is taken captive and his forces slaughtered following their surrender to the Mongols
A depiction of the onesided battle on the Kalka River. The Mongol cavalry attacks the allied force's disorganised soldiers