Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

9. Genghis Khan |
Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 234, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Mounted archers of lethal skill, speed, and efficiency wipe out whole city populations and seem invincible until their dynastic feuding saves Christians and Muslims

Genghis Khan - Genghis Khan’s attack,the horror of history, bursts out of the east

Genghis Khan - Genghis Khan’s attack,the horror of history, bursts out of the east
Genghis Khan, depicted here in a Mongolian bronze, was born to a warlord among the tribes on China’s northern frontier, grew up fighting for his clan, and by age twenty-eight had control of all the Mongol tribes and was ready to strike first south, then west. While rejoicing in slaughter and conquest, this tall, burly man with cat’s eyes was a brilliant administrator and politician who died leaving his sons set to take over most of the world.

Why on earth, complained the knowledgeable Europeans of the thirteenth century, must ignorant people believe such manifest nonsense? If they weren’t spreading rumors about fire-breathing dragons, they were fantasizing about werewolves, or gigantic fish swallowing whole ships. But this latest was the craziest yet. Ferocious creatures with dogs’ heads were sweeping into major cities, it was said, killing every living thing in them: animal, plant, or person.

This couldn’t be true, of course–and yet, very odd things certainly had been occurring in the 1230s. In England, for instance, the herring business had all but collapsed when most buyers from the Baltic just never showed up. Why? It seemed that there suddenly were fewer people left in the Slavic lands to buy the catch–wiped out, some reported, by hideous horsemen appearing like a whirlwind from lands to the east. People with dogs’ heads? Well, maybe not that, but they certainly behaved like wild dogs. They usually left nothing alive, and in any case the stench of corpses made whole cities uninhabitable.

Resistance seemed useless. The princes of the Slavic people, then known as the Rus, reportedly had assembled the greatest army in their history, but in a single battle these hard-riding devils had wiped it out. Beyond them and beyond the lands east of Persia, they were said to have left the storied cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in charred ruin. No one knew where they might strike next, and they claimed that their destiny was to rule the whole world. Throughout Europe lofty skepticism turned to dread, and people turned to God. How could this be happening to them, and why? The answer seemed clear: God himself must be punishing them for their sins.

But who were these invaders? Some called them Mongols, and others knew them as Tatars, both words that now struck terror everywhere. Whatever their name, they seemed to come from an exotic land of myth, mystery, and little known fact that lay beyond the northern frontiers of China. And one thing was indisputable: they had already conquered much of Asia, leaving untold millions dead–a catastrophe of a magnitude never before experienced.

Moreover, all these disasters were being attributed to the evil genius of a single man, a tyrant called Genghis Khan, who rejoiced in slaughter and commanded the killing of innocent men, women, and children as his mounted minions raped, pillaged, and plundered wherever they went. (For centuries Genghis Khan would stand infamous as history’s most ruthless practitioner of genocide, until technology would vastly expand humanity’s ability to wipe out humanity.) Europeans did not then know, however, that Genghis was a brilliant administrator who had imposed superb, if suffocating, order across Asia. Tall and burly, with cat’s eyes and cheeks creased by scars, he had implemented his people’s first alphabet, for instance, introduced a postal system, and tolerated all monotheistic religions.1 Although he was a polygamist whose concubines ran into the hundreds, he would safeguard the stability of his vast realms by carefully limiting the succession to sons of his first wife.

Genghis was a product of his people, of course, the nomads of the seemingly boundless grasslands of central Asia, who, in pushing westward for thousands of years, wave after wave, had supplied most of Europe’s population in the form of displaced peoples. Yet these Mongols differed from their forerunners. For one thing, they were Asiatic, not Caucasian. They were also, as those in their path were about to discover to their grief, the world’s finest cavalry soldiers and by far the most brutal. They had begun as just one of many warring tribes living on China’s northern frontiers, a thousand miles west of Korea. But then came Genghis. Born to a warlord father, he grew up fighting for his life and his clan; by age twenty-eight, through an alliance with the neighboring Kerait Turks, he had subjugated all the Mongol tribes. Then he turned on his erstwhile Turkish allies, killed their leader, and subjugated them, too. Systematically defeating other neighbors, including the Tatars to the east, he built loyalty through rewards of slaves and booty, plus endless promise of new horizons. In 1206 he declared himself supreme khan (king) and all his confederate tribes agreed to call themselves Mongols.

Genghis ruled by superimposing his own family upon one tribe after another as its ultimate authority. From all of them he required heavy tax revenues, troops on demand, and utter obedience to his civil, commercial, and criminal laws. But when he declared that “the greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses, and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters,” he was talking a language that a nomadic horseman could understand.2

Driven by the appetite for expansion, he soon led his army against the bordering Chinese states, defeating the weakest, the Tanguts, in 1212, and absorbing the Chin by 1223. After seizing China’s westernmost state, Buddhist Kara Kitai, between Lake Balkhash and present-day Kyrgyzstan, he looked westward toward the riches of the Islamic lands of Khiva (Khwarazm), Transoxiana, and Khorasan. These had recently been conquered by the mighty Muhammad Ali Shah, then the most powerful figure in the Muslim world, a man who styled himself “the Second Muhammad” and whose arrogance, as things turned out, was rivaled only by his stupidity.

Genghis first proposed a trade agreement with his new neighbor, but the notoriously vain Ali Shah, who knew little of this nomad khan, was offended by such presumption of equality. His wealthy Khivan domain covered Asia from the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf to the river Indus and the Hindu Kush Mountains. His subsidiary officials shared his arrogance. When an envoy from Genghis arrived in 1218 accompanied by a huge Mongol caravan intent on establishing trade, the local governor had the merchants all murdered and stole their goods. Then he sent the envoy’s head back to Genghis, who, in understandable rage, immediately mobilized an army. Undaunted, Ali Shah confidently posted five hundred thousand soldiers along a five-hundred-mile line in Transoxiana, near his eastern border.

In the first battle, cavalry under Muhammad’s skilled son Jalal forced thirty thousand approaching Mongols to retreat. But that sortie was mere theater. Behind it two hundred thousand horsemen were dividing into four armies. Without warning, the first of these descended on the city where the caravan had been massacred and hacked to pieces every man, woman, and child there. All except the governor, that is. He died in slow, screaming agony as molten silver was dripped into his eyes and ears.

All four Mongol armies then converged on the great trading city of Samarkand to capture Muhammad Ali Shah himself.3 After Genghis’s horsemen annihilated fifty thousand foot soldiers, thirty thousand defending cavalrymen tried to switch sides, which left the city completely undefended.4 The citizens surrendered, and the Mongols took one hundred thousand of them as slaves. They allowed the shah’s opponents to keep their lands but executed the thirty thousand would-be turncoats. Muhammad fled but was followed for fourteen hundred miles by Mongol horsemen until, wounded by an arrow, he died of pleurisy on an island in the Caspian Sea, still a fugitive and so poor that he was buried in a donated shirt.

Meanwhile, there was further horrifying news. Bukhara, a hundred miles northwest of Samarkand, had fallen to another Mongol army commanded by Genghis himself. He had surprised the city, hacked its fleeing garrison to pieces, and burned almost the entire place to the ground. The victory at Bukhara is considered one of the most dramatic surprise attacks in all military history. To accomplish it, Genghis apparently conscripted a local guide to cross the Kizil Kum Desert, which the Khivans had believed impenetrable.

Fearing a Khivan resurgence under Jalal, Genghis and his army now headed west from Samarkand, burning crops, razing entire cities, and slaughtering, say the records, virtually every human being they encountered. Although he annihilated Jalal’s army at the Indus, Jalal himself managed a daring escape by swimming the river–still holding his standard aloft. So impressed was Genghis by the young man’s skill and bravery that the khan, watching him flee, was said to have remarked, “Fortunate should have been the father of such a son.” Jalal would spend the rest of his life as a roving brigand.

Genghis then dispatched twenty thousand men on a two-year mission to scout the rich lands to the west beyond the Caspian. In 1221 they hit Christian Georgia, now relaxing from the high moral order demanded by its great queen Tamara (see sidebar below). At the time, says James Chambers (The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe), Tamara’s playboy son, King George IV, was assembling knights for the Crusades. What a fine chance to practice on these barbarous nomads, he thought, and sent seventy thousand men to confront them. The Mongols soon fled, with the Georgians pursuing them until their horses were exhausted–at which point the Mongols returned, mounted on the fresh steeds they had waiting for them, and wiped out the Georgian army. George escaped but lost again when he challenged the Mongols a second time and died soon afterward.

Riding out of the Caucasus between the Caspian and Black seas, the Mongols emerged on the western steppes, swept up a waiting army of Turkish nomads, and tore a path westward. By the summer of 1222, while their mandarin scholars mapped and collected data for a projected massive invasion, their scouting army reached the Hungarian border. Before the Slavic princes could organize against them, however, the Mongols began heading home, dispatching a peace envoy to Kiev. Too late, said the prince of Kiev, and he killed the envoy. He wanted a fight.

He would certainly get one. In spring 1223 this Mongol reconnaissance army lured an eighty-thousand-strong Slavic force into a nine-day, 250-mile chase. Then, at the river Kalka, just north of the Sea of Azov, the invaders suddenly turned, confronted the leading Slavic troops, and annihilated them. Slavic contingents coming up from behind were wiped out one after the other by Mongol archers hidden in clouds of dark smoke, making the battleground a black nightmare of slaughter.5

By the time the defiant prince of Kiev arrived with his army of ten thousand, half the original force of eighty thousand lay dead, including six princes and seventy nobles. The horrified Kievans turned to flee but were butchered in their entirety, and their prince was suffocated to death beneath the table on which the triumphant Mongols ate their victory banquet. As a further gesture, the conquerors took time to punish the Muslim Bulgars and nomads north of the Caspian, who had sent aid to the “Second Muhammad.”6 This mammoth “reconnaissance,” carried out over two full years by men in the saddle riding fifty-five hundred miles and fighting and winning more than twelve major engagements, has been termed the most outstanding cavalry achievement in the history of war. Out of it came the legend of Mongol invincibility.

The aging Genghis now paused to carefully arrange the imperial succession, bequeathing his empire to three sons, Ogedei, Chagatai, and Tolui; and two grandsons, Batu and Orda. (Their father, his eldest son, Jochi, had died young.) He designated Ogedei as supreme khan because he was shrewd and determined but also possessed sufficient friendliness and generosity to maintain army morale and expedite diplomacy.7 Ogedei’s objective was elementary: the Atlantic coast.

To Europeans it did indeed now seem that these heathen warriors would enslave every nation, subjugate every government. Who could stop them? At the heart of their capability were the remarkable tribesmen themselves, toughened and disciplined from birth by their unforgiving nomadic lives. They could ride for days without food or water; if necessary, they drank blood drawn from their horses’ leg veins. Sinewy, resilient, and restless, they survived winter blizzard and summer drought. On horseback they could pull a bowstring under 150 pounds’ tension to pierce a moving target at three hundred yards. Some fought tigers barehanded to show courage. They were fiercely loyal to their clan, doggedly obedient, and entirely hardened to suffering, their own or anyone else’s.

In just twenty years Genghis had harshly subdued clan rivalries, won loyalty by sharing spoils, and welded his people into a superbly coordinated fighting force. They could cover 120 miles a day in units of anywhere from ten men to ten thousand. Officers rose via competition, not heredity. Discipline was rigid.8 Every boy was required to learn archery and horsemanship. Battlefield maneuvers were standardized, and every man from age fourteen to sixty was drilled in them for months.

Administratively and technologically, they now had the most advanced army in the world. Their tactics being based on unity of command, communication systems included horseback messengers and twenty-five-mile way stations, banner signals by day, and flares at night. Camps, always laid out the same way, were run by a quartermaster, who looked after food (likely dried meat and cheese) and communications. Spies performed extensive reconnoitering and mapping. The Mongols could outrace any foe, and their favorite tactic was to feign withdrawal, drawing the enemy past hidden flanks, then crush him from front and back. They created smoke and floods and by 1300 were using gunpowder cannons, incendiary grenades, and arrows and bamboo rockets dipped in naphtha and quicklime.

All this was now directed toward the slaughter, enslavement, and subjugation of Europe. In 1236 Genghis’s grandson Batu, with an army one hundred and twenty thousand strong, set about finishing off the northernmost Islamic state, the Bulgar kingdom, on the east bank of the Volga. That done, all territory from the Urals to the Dnieper would be his to seize. To keep open his communications with the Mongol East, he began by destroying or enslaving the nomadic Cuman Turkish tribesmen who roamed the steppes. In the summer of 1237 he overwhelmed the wealthy Bulgarian capital, called Bulgar, exterminating its entire population of fifty thousand and razing the place so completely that it was never rebuilt. The vast lands of the Slavic people–fractious, imprudent, and unprepared–now lay open to Batu like fruit ripe for the picking.

As the Battle of the River Kalka receded into the immediate past, the Slavic princelings returned to their ceaseless internecine feuds. The once-powerful state of Kiev, where more than two hundred years ago Prince Vladimir and his wife, Anna, had introduced Christianity (see volume 6, chapter 8), had disintegrated into quarreling provinces. The northern trading center of Novgorod, near the Baltic, had declared independence and was growing rich. Princes fought perpetually with each other over succession and against the free citizens in the emerging cities.

Ryazan, fifty miles east of the Don, was typical. Governed by four feuding cousins, it became the Mongols’ first target. Driving an outpost garrison back into the city, the invaders spent a week erecting a wooden palisade all around it to protect their archers and catapults. A three-day barrage of arrows and rocks followed, after which the attackers burst in with battering rams and began their slaughter. Civilians were hacked to pieces with swords, pierced with arrows, flayed alive, impaled, drowned, or burned alive. The Mongols raped girls before murdering them and defiled nuns in churches while priests were forced to watch, and then all were thrown into the fires. They torched the entire city but did allow a few people to run away and tell the rest of the Slavs what awaited them.

As the Mongols burned a bloody path northward in February 1238, the grand duke of Suzdal, the most powerful Slavic prince, traveled the country gathering vassal armies to defend his capital of Vladimir. The Mongols destroyed his city before he got home, then confronted his army by the river Sit, surrounded it, and annihilated it. Surely, treasure-filled Novgorod, two hundred miles northwest, would be next. But as Batu advanced upon it, heavy spring flooding turned the surrounding fields into marshes. Deprived of his customary mobility, Batu turned southward, and Novgorod escaped.

Now short of supplies, the invaders summered on the grassy plains west of the Don, where they received fresh herds of horses from Mongolia. Through the following winter, they systematically annihilated or enslaved half a dozen nomadic peoples as far south as the Crimea. In autumn 1239 they went north and destroyed the city of Chernigov. Then, following a rare instance of internal discord,9 they spent the winter on the Kipchak steppes but used the time to reconnoiter Kiev, still the largest and most magnificent city in all the Slavic territories.

In December 1240 they struck. Their army easily battered down the walls, then sliced its way through defenders atop the rubble. The carnage was merciless, and in a horrific conclusion, the weight of people crowding inside the cathedral collapsed its walls. All that remained of the once-splendid metropolis was a hideous pile of writhing and crushed humanity; six years later travelers found Kiev’s streets still filled with skulls and other bones. The Rus were close to being vanquished in a stroke. Furthermore, Batu was not the only threat confronting them.10

Aggressive neighbors to the north and west saw in the Mongol turmoil a perfect opportunity for themselves. In 1239 a Swedish army swept through Finland and began to ravage their northwestern border regions, encouraged by the pope, who viewed the Catholic Swedes as his agents. They aimed at cutting Novgorod off from the Baltic. As has so often happened in the tumultuous history of the eastern Slavic peoples, however, there now appeared the man who could meet the challenge. The Swedes had not reckoned on the leadership or tactical skills of that city’s Prince Alexander.

In 1240 Alexander seized the initiative and, though his force was smaller, courageously attacked the advancing army on the banks of the Neva River. Riding at the head of his charging vanguard, he himself cut and seriously wounded the flabbergasted Swedish commander, who barely escaped with his army. In honor of his victory that day, the prince was given the name by which history has remembered him, Alexander Nevsky (meaning “of the Neva”). The Orthodox Church, interpreting the battle as a landmark victory over Catholicism, canonized him.

Yet the heroics at the Neva were only a beginning. A western coalition army spearheaded by a fighting religious order known as the Teutonic Knights was now discerned approaching Novgorod through Estonia, the leading edge of a long-term German drive eastward across Slavic lands. Having begun as crusaders in the Holy Land, the Teutonic Knights were now based on the southern coast of the Baltic and were growing rich and powerful as they fought to impose the “true faith” on schismatics and heathens alike.

Intent upon conversion of the local people to Roman Catholicism, forcible or otherwise, the knights had Germanized or exterminated many Baltic-Slavic and western Lithuanian and Estonian tribes. Lusting after Novgorod’s mercantile wealth, they believed its isolation would make for an easy conquest. They were joined by another militant order called the Sword Bearers, formed by the bishop at Riga and allied with the Finns. In 1241 this resplendent but lumbering force captured the city of Pskov, less than forty miles west of their target, Novgorod.

Month after month the knights advanced, but Prince Alexander was delayed by internecine political struggles. Once these were resolved, however, he arrived at speed to drive the invaders out of Pskov. After chasing their larger army back into Estonia, in April 1242 he lured it onto the ice of Lake Peipus, a brilliant choice of battleground. Although his troops barely managed to withstand a furious initial charge by their more powerfully armored adversaries, Nevsky executed a flanking maneuver and then, with the spring ice beginning to crack, a counterattack. This soon became a rout as the heavy western knights and their big horses broke through the ice and were trapped. The Battle of Peipus would be forever celebrated in Russian history as “the massacre on the ice.” It was a defining moment that established the indispensable roles of both Alexander Nevsky and the Orthodox Church in preserving the soul of what would become the Russian nation against its enemies.11

Meanwhile, with much of the country in smoking ruins, the Mongols had also invaded the surrounding nations. Their terrible army, like a hurricane gathering momentum, had actually grown bigger because of thousands of conscripts, so Batu assigned thirty thousand troops to hold the Rus while he led another hundred thousand across an astounding six-hundred-mile front. His primary target was Hungary, ruled by King Bela IV from Buda, on the Danube. As the main Mongol force under Batu rode directly toward Buda, two others crossed into Poland and Transylvania to wreak havoc among King Bela’s potential allies.

The anxious king had tried to strengthen his forces by admitting to his country more than sixty thousand Cuman nomads, but this deluge of pastoral immigrants and their crop-trampling herds caused resentment in Hungary. Some of his barons were determined to drive them out.12 Did no one, Bela must have wondered, understand the Mongol threat? Apparently not. His war council degenerated into a squabble over compensation. Neighboring rulers ignored his plight. The pope was busy recruiting knights to fight the emperor Frederick II. Only in mid-March, after Batu annihilated defenders in the Carpathian passes two hundred miles east, did Hungary manage to assemble an army at Pest, across the Danube from Buda. Bearing down on them through the mountain snows at an amazing sixty miles per day, the Mongols arrived at Vac, twenty miles from Buda, slaughtered everyone there, and set up camp.

The Hungarian barons responded by blaming Bela and his unreliable Cumans for the massacre at Vac and drove the Cumans out of the country after murdering their leader. Nevertheless, the king’s remaining army of one hundred thousand was still the largest in Europe, and when Batu failed to attack immediately, Bela began to grow confident. Then Mongol reinforcements arrived from the south, and he watched in amazement as the invading army began a slow departure. They were giving up, thought the king; they must be afraid or in trouble. And so, disastrously, he chased them.

At Mohi, about eighty miles east of Pest, the Mongols sprang their trap. Surrounding the Hungarians, they unleashed a barrage of firebombs and arrows. When a gap finally appeared in the encircling horde and the Hungarians raced through it to escape, they discovered themselves trapped in a gorge where archers could easily annihilate them. An estimated sixty thousand died, though Bela slipped away to exile on the Adriatic. Batu returned to Pest, burned it to the ground, and set up camp.

By then all Europe had been further frightened by news of more mayhem to the north, where the northern wing of the Mongol army had destroyed the Polish cities of Lublin and Zawichost, sacked Sandomierz, and plundered a Cistercian monastery. In Krakow and Wroclaw terrified residents actually burned their own cities and fled. Finally, at Legnica the rampaging horsemen had met an army of twenty-five thousand under Henry of Silesia that included Templars, Teutonic Knights, the entire Polish aristocracy, and the full flower of northern chivalry. But even this assemblage was obliterated in short order.13

Waves of panic now rippled all the way to the Atlantic. In cathedrals people prayed, “From the fury of the Tatars, O Lord, deliver us.” The pope and Emperor Frederick II put their quarrel temporarily aside. The pope called for a crusade against the Mongols in Germany, and Frederick placed his thirteen-year-old son, Conrad, king of Germany, nominally in charge of this operation. Bela, in exile, sent money to build forts on the west side of the Danube. Meanwhile, Bela’s chronic enemy the duke of Austria quietly prepared to invade Hungarian territory.

Months went by with no move from Batu–the crusade never materialized either–but then, on Christmas Day 1241, the Mongols exploded with fury against Buda and against Gran (now Esztergom), thirty miles to the northwest. There they reportedly roasted citizens alive to make them reveal the locations of hidden treasure, before riding toward Vienna, about seventy miles farther on. The invasion of Austria had begun. But was Austria the only target? Mongol troops were spotted as far away as Zagreb, east of the Adriatic. These may have been part of an advance contingent of twenty thousand sent ahead in search of King Bela, still in exile off the Adriatic’s Dalmatian coast. Panic spread in Italy when some were spotted near Venice.

All Europe, it seemed, lay helpless before them. It would require the combined might of every army in Christendom to stop these horsemen, but such a mammoth, unified force simply did not exist. Then, amazingly, the Mongols vanished. What the Europeans did not know was that Great Khan Ogedei had died of a sudden convulsion. His death had saved Europe, because Batu had to go to Karakorum, where the succession would be contested. However, the dread fear remained, of course; these ghastly marauders would surely return, spelling the doom of Christendom.

But need this, in fact, be so? There were some, indeed, who took a very different view of the Mongols, regarding them not as vanquishers of Christendom but as an instrument by which Christianity could actually overcome Islam. Might this not be the legendary priest-king Prester John (see volume 6, pages 186—187) become an actuality, killing Muslims because they were infidels and the eastern Slavs because they were schismatics?

For there was another rumor, scarcely credited, that among these horrible, murdering barbarians were many Christians. Europeans were about to discover that this tale was indeed true. Some highly placed officials in the great khan’s court were Nestorian Christians. Entirely unbeknownst to most of the Mediterranean world, Nestorian missionaries had since the fifth century established hundreds of churches from Arabia to China and on the steppes had converted nomadic tribes who now formed part of the Mongol confederacy. There were Christian princesses among the wives chosen by the polygamous Genghis Khan both for himself and his sons. One of his Nestorian daughters-in-law, widowed young, was about to engineer control of the entire empire by two of her sons, who would become khans sympathetic to Christianity. Other highly placed Nestorian officials at Karakorum included three chief secretaries and a secretary of state (see volume 6, chapter 7).

When Innocent IV became pope in 1243, his chief question about the Mongols was: would they be back? But two more quickly followed: could their terror be turned against the Muslims, and could they be converted? Seeking answers, in 1245 he dispatched to them a diplomatic embassy led by a portly, sixtyish Franciscan monk called John of Plano Carpini. Friar John made a painful journey to Mongol headquarters in the Slavic lands, only to be directed two thousand miles farther to Karakorum. After a historic three-year adventure, his small party returned as heroes, the first Europeans to have visited the Far East. Unfortunately, the message he brought from the great khan was a humiliating rebuff. Christendom had just two choices, Genghis declared: submit peacefully or perish.

Nor had the friar found any sign of Prester John, although Christians (of the Nestorian variety, unfortunately) were certainly prominent at the khan’s court. On the hopeful side, however, an invasion of Europe was unlikely to occur soon because of rivalry between prominent Mongol families. Pope Innocent had sent a second mission, headed by a Dominican, to explore an alliance with Baichu, the Mongol general in Syria. Baichu welcomed the idea and dispatched two Nestorian envoys to Rome, but when no further progress was made by 1248, he recalled them.

There were, in fact, decades of flirtation between Mongol and Christian leaders, led most notably by King Louis IX (the future St. Louis; see pages 140—145) after a Mongol commander in western Asia wrote to him in 1247 offering prayers “for success against enemies of the cross.” The commander volunteered to protect the Christians in Persia and proposed that he and the king conduct parallel crusades against the Muslims. Louis immediately sent a friar to affirm such an alliance, but meanwhile the khan had died and his proposal with him.

Reports that Batu’s son had been baptized also spurred Louis to send a Franciscan, William of Rubruck, to preach Christ to the Mongols rather than negotiate treaties. But William turned out to be a poor preacher, an ineffectual evangelist, and a severe critic of Nestorian Christianity and of the Nestorians themselves, whom he accused of sorcery, polygamy, immorality, and greed. William’s outlook may also have been soured by the fact that his Mongol interpreter, as he complained, was a drunk. His one piece of encouraging news was that the Mongols were preparing to hit Islamic Persia next, not Christian Europe.14

Did the popes make a grievous error in not pressing harder for a Mongol alliance? Historians disagree. James Chambers observes that “through lack of trust, Christianity had relinquished western Asia to Islam, and through the paucity of its missionaries, the East was to be lost to Buddhism.” J. J. Saunders (The History of the Mongol Conquests) reaches the opposite conclusion, calling Christian notions of a fruitful alliance with the Mongols “a mirage.” If the Mongols had had the chance, he says, they would have destroyed Rome and Florence as they devastated Kiev and Baghdad, and there could never have been a Renaissance based on Christian culture. Steven Runciman, one of the definitive historians of the Crusades, further points out that the Mongols would never have agreed to be subject to anybody. If the Christians had been willing to be vassals of the great khan, they might have got Jerusalem back, but the Mongols would have insisted on ruling it.

As it happened, the man in charge of the great Mongol offensive against Muslim Egypt and the Islamic heartland, the Persian khan Hulagu, actually had significant Christian ties. His principal wife was a devout Nestorian who attended Mass daily and was vociferously anti-Muslim. His chief general, Ked-Buka, was a Christian, and so was his wife. The Christian king of Armenia, not waiting for others to decide, pledged his vassalage and army to Hulagu. Christians from Georgia also joined, and eventually even Bohemond, the crusader prince of Antioch and Tripoli, threw in his lot–for which Pope Alexander IV later excommunicated him.

By January 1256 Hulagu had assembled a force of one hundred thousand. His first objective was to destroy the independent Shi‘ite sect called the Assassins in their mountain fortresses near the Caspian Sea (see sidebar, pages 76—77). More than one hundred Assassin castles crumbled over the next year, pounded by a thousand crews of Chinese catapult bombers; every inhabitant, including women and children, was slaughtered. The strongest Assassin bastion, Alamut, about sixty miles north of Tehran, would hold out for three years. Thus in some thirty-six months the Mongols eradicated the entire sect, something the Muslims hadn’t managed in two hundred years.

Hulagu’s juggernaut now rolled toward Baghdad, on the Tigris River, home of Sunni Islam’s highest caliph, and drowned defending soldiers by the thousands by breaking a dike and flooding their camp. Then, bursting through Baghdad’s weakly defended walls in February 1258, the attackers unleashed one of the biggest and bloodiest single-city massacres in human history. It began after remaining troops voluntarily disarmed, expecting to be conscripted, but instead were systematically marched out of the city and butchered. Then the Mongols killed more than a half million surrendering civilians, although they spared the Christians huddled in the Nestorian church.

After a week of bloodshed, pillage, and plunder, Hulagu burned before the eyes of the caliph what was left of Baghdad, then had him sewn up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. Muslim historians put the total killed as high as two million; other estimates favor about eight hundred thousand. The cities of Syria fell like dominoes after that, and at one, where a Muslim prince had murdered a Christian priest, Georgian and Armenian troops fed him pieces of his own flesh until he choked to death.

Then further stunning news arrived. The conquest of Egypt was on hold. Hulagu was taking his army away because back in Karakorum the supreme khan Mongke had died of dysentery and because of politics surrounding the succession, Hulagu needed to protect his capital in Azerbaijan. Once again, the death of a khan had saved an empire, this time the Muslim one.

The Mongol target, now abandoned, had been the Mamluk regime in Egypt, the same that had produced the remarkable Saladin, who had taken Jerusalem in 1187 (chapter 3) and had thwarted the attempt of the Third Crusade to win it back. Nearly a century later the Mamluks would drive the last crusaders from the Holy Land, as described in chapter 5. During that same century, they would perform one further service for Islam. In the events about to unfold, they would drive the Mongols from the Holy Land as well.

After Hulagu called off the offensive against Egypt, he reduced the Mongol force at Damascus to a mere twenty-five thousand men under the command of his chief lieutenant, the Mongol Christian Ked-Buka. The Mamluk general in Egypt, the same Baibars who later, as recounted in chapter 5, would begin the process of driving the Christians out of Outremer, now approached them in their base at Acre. Would they join him, he asked, in an attack on Mongol-held Damascus? Failing that, would they let his army bypass Acre en route to its attack on Damascus? To the latter the crusaders agreed, and they even amiably feasted Baibars as his forces passed by. Meanwhile, Ked-Buka, discovering the peril, conscripted more than one hundred thousand men from the remnants of armies Hulagu had defeated. Marching south, he crossed the Jordan and rode ten miles beyond into the same valley where, it was said, David slew Goliath.

Spotting Ked-Buka’s advancing Mongol army near a village called Ain Jalut, the Mamluks under Baibars broke and fled. Ked-Buka pressed close in pursuit but, too late, found he had been trapped; his army was engulfed and slaughtered. The Mongols had been defeated, that is, by their own familiar tactic, the feigned retreat. Moreover, the myth of Mongol invincibility was destroyed forever. Islam now began its resurgence from the near oblivion to which the Mongols had reduced it, and because of continuing power struggles at Karakorum, the Mongols would never again mount a serious attack in Palestine or Syria.

Ain Jalut had worked another fundamental change. In the words of historian Chambers, “The final methodical expulsion of the crusaders from Palestine had begun.” The Mongols tended to measure the value of any religion by its results. The Muslims were the first and only people to defeat them on the battlefield, leading them to speculate that God really did favor Islam. When the Muslim conquest of Acre followed thirty-one years later, writes historian Laurence Browne (The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia), it doomed Christian prospects all across the East. Even those Mongol rulers who were positively disposed toward Christianity became increasingly hostile to “a religion of proved feebleness.” Besides, historian Saunders observes, Christians “did not speak with one voice.” Rome, Constantinople, Nestorians, Maronites, Jacobites, Armenians, Copts, and others all vied against one another.

Always a “religion of foreigners” in China, notes Richard Foltz (Religions of the Silk Road), Nestorian Christianity enjoyed a modest surge after Mongols took control of the trans-Asian trade in the 1200s, displacing the Muslim merchants who had dominated these Central Asian cities. After Islamic traders reappeared, Nestorianism began an irreversible decline, not because it was based on heresy, Foltz emphasizes, but for lack of serious missionary effort. This was equally true of western Christians, despite the opportunities revealed by their thirteenth-century embassies to the East.

However, while Islam had retained most of the steppelands of central Asia, it had missed the biggest prize of all, notably the future Ukraine and Russia. The explanation lies in the practical sagacity of the man who had stopped the Teutonic Knights and the Swedes. Some historians to this day castigate Alexander Nevsky for subjecting his peoples to more than a century and a half of virtual serfdom under the Mongols. Yet his reasoning seems unassailable. He knew that until the Slavic princedoms could be united, they had no hope whatever of defeating the Mongols. Therefore, with great sincerity he made himself a vassal prince of the “Golden Horde,” as the Mongols who occupied or controlled the eastern Slavic lands came to be called. For the next century and more, they exacted money and conscripted manpower from the exhausted cities and countryside, thwarting their development and turning them into a feudal backwater isolated from both Europe and Asia.

From a capital set up at Sarai, on the lower Volga just sixty miles from the Caspian Sea, Batu ruled with iron severity and demanded humiliating servitude. (He executed one prince simply because he exported horses without a license.) The Golden Horde shortly emerged as an independent state within the Mongol Empire.15 Batu’s clansmen preferred to roam the steppes, where they enslaved other nomads but had little contact with cities, most of which continued to stagnate in depopulated ruin. But of course he stationed garrisons throughout the north, and his ferocious soldiers thundered in without hesitation if anyone failed to pay tribute or hinted at rebellion. Christians took hope when one of Batu’s sons was baptized into the faith. Under the reign of Batu’s brother, however, the whole Golden Horde converted to Islam, though their interest was plainly centered in wealth, not God.

On Russia’s northwestern frontier, Alexander Nevsky was the first prince to become the Mongols’ servant. He had proven his courage at Neva and Lake Peipus, but he knew that the Teutonic Knights and Swedes would keep on attacking and that his people were far too weak and disunited to withstand them or other serious enemies while trying to expel the Mongols. Thus, he gave them the chance to survive by gaining the favor and confidence of their overlords.

Not everyone could see Alexander’s point. His own brother Andrew, for example, insisted upon raising a rebel army but wound up fleeing to Sweden after Batu destroyed it. There were others as well whose refusal to compromise turned them into heroes. Prince Michael of Chernigov, for example, arriving before Batu to pledge his service, could not bring himself to kneel before a statue of Genghis Khan when commanded. He was thereupon executed, becoming a saint-martyr in the Orthodox Church.

After the pope failed to deliver on a promised crusade against the Golden Horde in 1253, the wisdom of Alexander Nevsky’s course became clearer. While the Mongols dominated and impeded the development of eastern Slavic lands for two centuries, the nation’s future history was shaped by the ascent of Moscow in prosperity and power, enabled in part by the relative independence Nevsky had secured for it. By paying tribute money promptly to the Golden Horde, he and his successors kept the Mongols away. Moscow also became the seat of the metropolitan of the Russian Church, which made it a religious as well as a political center. By the mid-fourteenth century Moscow dominated the northern territory and from this base would become the eastern Slavic champion against both the Mongols and covetous western neighbors.

Recognizing that the Orthodox Church was the best instrument for keeping peace among warring Russian princes, the Mongols strengthened it by refusing to levy taxes on it and eventually made it the most powerful force in the land, a role it would play in Russia right into the twentieth century. For all this the church honors St. Alexander Nevsky. In due time the metropolitan at Moscow, working hand in hand with the grand prince of Moscow, would shake off the “Tatar-Mongol yoke.” Fittingly, their expulsion would begin with a signal Muscovite victory on the same river Kalka that had witnessed the first catastrophic Slavic defeat a century earlier. And, like the Muslims at Ain Jalut, this time the Slavs would use the feigned retreat, the very tactic they so painfully had learned themselves from the Mongols. But that story belongs to the oncoming era and to the next volume of this series.

This is the end of the Genghis Khan category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 234, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Genghis Khan from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at