Ch 6 - Koryo Under the Mongols
End of the Beginning
The Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered the Khwarezm Empire in the Middle East and the northern Tangut kingdom of Xi Xia. By 1225, the Mongol Empire represented the largest contiguous land empire in human history. Genghis Khan left his successors a legacy of conquest.
The brutal atrocities committed under the leadership of Genghis Khan are often used to brand the Mongols as a cruel and "barbaric" people. Yet, in their world of early thirteenth century Asia, they knew no other way of fighting; only the nomad's way . They had always seen settled areas as targets of opportunity, places to be raided to collect wealth, capture slaves, women and treasure. When the Mongols conquered a city, they killed the inhabitants, took what they wanted, and burned the rest. Preoccupied with matters of survival, their very way of life made them incapable of assimilating the advanced social, political and economic systems needed to govern a foreign people. Much of their behavior resulted from ignorance of other civilizations.
When the Mongols launched their first major military campaign against the Kingdom of Xi Xia (1207-1209), they had no experience in siege warfare. The Mongols, always a formidable opponent in the open field, had difficulty in conducting successful campaigns against fortified cities. The dramatic fall of the Jin capital at Zhongdu in 1215, a massive walled fortress defended by some 600,000 Chinese troops, happened not because of the Mongols' military skill, but in spite of it. Outnumbered eight-to-one, the Mongols never really "took" the city. Only after Genghis Khan's armies cut off the last of the capital's resupply routes did starvation and political infighting within the city walls make the collapse of Zhongdu inevitable; not the most efficient siege tactic, but effective nonetheless.
The Mongols could not have realized it at the time, but Zhongdu marked a major turning point in their history. The most valuable prize captured at Zhongdu was not among the city's material wealth, but among the thousands of prisoners rounded up in the wake of the siege; craftsmen, artisans, administrators, engineers, artillerymen, scientists, intellectuals and philosophers. Among the captives brought before Genghis Khan was a highly educated and cultured academician with a Khitan-Mongol heritage named Yelu Zhucai. This tall, dignified, bearded man was a complex blend of unique talents: a contemporary statesman and an astrologer, a master of sociology and mathematics and an herbalist, a disciple of Confucius and a shaman, a lover of the fine arts and a healer. Despite holding all the highest Chinese intellectual credentials however, at his core he was Mongol.
Faithful in service to his former masters and his ideals, Yelu Zhucai stood before Genghis Khan as a "bridge" between the nomad's world and the advanced knowledge, arts and culture of China's urbanized world. The extended conversations between these two men developed into a friendship that soon became a profound spiritual bond. Genghis Khan appointed Yelu Zhucai his "chief adviser," beginning a close personal relationship that lasted for the rest of the great Khan's life.
Fully aware of the Mongol's lack of training in siege warfare, Genghis Khan wisely enlisted battalions of Chinese siege engineers, artillerymen and their equipment. Columns of Mongol troops returned to Mongolia with virtually every type of military machine then used by the Chinese. The larger siege engines took time to move and set up, but smaller siege engines could be broken down, packed on animals or carried in carts or wagons and set up virtually anywhere. Their fire was accurate and rapid.
In the years following the fall of Zhongdu, the Mongols began integrating the new hardware into their army and developed new military tactics. Soon, Mongol artillery began attacking cities with not only ladders and burning oil and siege catapults (mangonels, ballista and trebuchets) , but with battalions of Chinese engineers and artillerymen.
The Mongols became the first army in military history to use "fire power" to precede an assault. Even today, armies soften up the enemy with artillery fire before a major battle, a military tactic pioneered by the Mongols. The only major difference would be that instead of heavy artillery firing high explosive projectiles, the Mongols used arrows, stones and other missiles fired from siege engines. The power of this new capability was soon put to the test in a major military campaign in the far west.
The Khwarezm Empire stretched across the parched landscape between the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea, an area encompassing modern Afghanistan, Turkestan and Iran. In 1218, word reached Genghis Khan that a trade caravan of Mongol merchants sent to the city of Otrar had been murdered on orders of the Khwarezm ruler, Shah Sultan Muhammed. Not a man to forget an insult or leave a grudge unanswered, Genghis Khan dispatched envoys to the Khwarezm capitol at Samarkand with a simple choice for the Shah; either hand over Otrar's Governor Inalchuq to the Mongols or accept a war. The Shah responded to the ultimatum by executing the Khans' representatives.
Within a year, the Shah assembled an army of about 400,000 men to meet the approaching Mongols. Genghis Khan, riding at the head of a force of 90,000 warriors and a corps of Chinese artillerymen with his Chief of Staff, General Subedei, entered Khwarezm from the north. General Jebe, commanding a force of some 30,000 men crossed the lofty peaks of the Pamir Range and entered the Shah's domain from the east. Slashing their way across the Shah's empire, Mongol armies overwhelmed villages, towns and cities, leaving a wide swath of devastation in their wake. During the main battle with the Khwarezm army, from which the Shah barely escaped with his life, the Mongols killed some 180,000 soldiers. Samarkand and Bukhara, two of the great gleaming cities in Shah Sultan Muhammed's crown fell to the Mongols in 1220.
Genghis Khan, ever mindful of the need to kill the enemy leader to ensure victory, sent generals Jebe and Subedei at the head of 2 tumen (20,000 men) to hunt down and execute the Shah. The two Mongol generals stormed across the whole of Persia in search of the Shah, massacring populations wherever they rode. The Shah managed to evade capture, but within six months the former Turkish ruler of an empire, poor, exhausted and in rags, died from pleurisy. The Khwarezm Empire died with him. In retribution for the Shah's resistance to Genghis Khan, Samarkand was sacked and looted in 1221, its soldiers killed and its artisans carried off into slavery. Genghis was unrepentant. A Muslim historian later quoted him as saying of the Shah, "I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you." A witness to the Mongol onslaught took a far dimmer view: "They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered, and they departed."
Already further west than they had ever been in the past, Genghis Khan sent Jebe and Subedei around the Caspian Sea toward Eastern Europe not only to conquer, but to gather information. During 1222-1223, while Genghis Khan and his main army returned toward their homeland, Mongol warriors completed a campaign once described as, "a ride [that] has never before been attempted, and has never since been repeated." The Europeans knew nothing about the Mongols, but Jebe and Subedei soon learned a great deal about the Europeans. After annihilating a large Georgian army and destroying the Genoese fortress at Sudak in Crimea, they sent small detachments of spies into western Europe to learn about western political and economic structures, even the family connections of Russian and European rulers, in great detail.
Historians have long attributed Mongol military victories to their overwhelming superiority in numbers. In truth, more often than not it was the Mongols who were outnumbered on the battlefield. The Mongols possessed an undeniable battlefield prowess and many claims of opponents being overwhelmed came from the fact the Mongols' superior military tactics and firepower made it seem they were outnumbered. Pursuing their prey northward, the Mongols, numbering only about 20,000, almost completely wiped out an 80,000-man Russian army at the famous Battle of the Khalka River. Jebe's death during this campaign left Subedei the lone survivor among Genghis Khan's four "dogs of war."
After consolidating his dominance over Central Asia, Genghis Khan returned to Mongolia in 1224, only to learn that all was not well. The Jin dynasty actively resisted Mongol subjugation and the Tangut kingdom of Xi-Xia openly scorned Mongol sovereignty. General Mukuli died during his campaigns in the Liao kingdom. In northeastern Koryo, the Eastern Jurchen had declared their independence from the Mongols in the region of the Tumen River-Hamhung plain. In early 1225, a Mongol envoy returning to Liao from Koryo was murdered near the Yalu River, an incident that led to a formal break in relations between the Mongols and Koryo. Genghis Khan began preparing his armies for war.
Emerging from relative obscurity in the late twelfth century, Genghis Khan built a powerful Mongol nation centered on one person and based on tribal unity. For the first time in their history, the united nomad tribes and other warriors seeking adventure and wealth had a common name, Mongol, and a common objective beyond conquering small towns and villages for treasure. Battle plans made during meetings of the leadership were executed by Mongol generals without interference from Genghis Khan. Royal princes commanded armies in name only. Operational control was held by experienced combat veterans, men like General Mukuli in China and Korea and Jebe and Subedei, both of whom became generals before they were twenty-five. General Subedei's campaign strategies have been carefully studied by some of the world's greatest military leaders, from Napoleon to General George S. Patton.
In the fall of 1225, Genghis Khan, supreme commander of the Mongols, sat at the head of the greatest war machine the world had ever known. Equipped with every siege engine known to contemporary man, the Mongols forged an awesome military force that conquered whole countries and civilizations from the Yellow Sea to the Crimea, building a huge, powerful empire that ultimately reached from the Pacific Ocean to the city gates of Vienna and from Russia to northern India. At its peak, the Mongol Empire represented the largest contiguous land empire in human history. No other conqueror or nation - not Alexander the Great, not the Romans, not Napoleon - ever managed to conquer and rule such a large empire. Hated and feared by most of the known world, the Mongol capacity for conquest should have given the rest of the world reason to sit up and take notice.
Beginning in the winter of 1226, Mongol hordes rode off the northern steppes in the last and greatest of all predatory incursions on the civilized world. The terrifying storm that swept across Central Asia tore up cities and left death and destruction in its wake. This torrent of conquest unlike anything seen before or since marked the beginning of nearly three centuries of Mongol domination of the known world, a period that some refer to as the Age of the Mongols.
The Mongols struck southward into the Tangut kingdom of Xi Xia in retribution for its earlier refusal to send troops to help the Mongols in their campaign against Shah Sultan Muhammad. Now they would pay the price. Leaving one army to lay siege to the fortified capital at Ningxia (near modern Yinchuan), Genghis Khan divided his forces and spread across the countryside. Mongol warriors stormed through western Xi Xia, hunting down Tanguts in the caves and mountains where they sought refuge and killing or enslaving inhabitants wherever they could be found. They destroyed field crops, burned homes and leveled whole towns of any significance. The destruction was so complete that, to this day, the Kingdom of Xi Xia remains but a vague memory.
Unable to penetrate the walls of Ningxia, Mongol soldiers diverted water from a nearby canal and created a roaring flood that forced government troops trapped in the city to surrender. The Mongols decisively sealed the fate of Xi Xia in 1226 during the Battle of the Yellow River. From his vantage point in the hills overlooking the Ningxia Plain, Genghis Khan sent his best marksmen directly across a large frozen lake formed by the Yellow River. The men, traveling on foot, yelled insults and taunted the Tanguts to engage them. In a fury, the Tanguts obliged with a massive cavalry charge directly into the face of the oncoming Mongol archers. Thundering onto the ice-covered battlefield, horses slipped and fell in great numbers, sending their defenseless riders sprawling onto the ice. Mongol warriors pounced on them from all sides, slashing, stabbing and shooting the Tanguts in a murderous melee that turned the ice red. Mounting their own horses, the Mongols quickly circled the lake and mercilessly cut down the advancing infantry. In this one battle the Tanguts reportedly lost some 300,000 men.
The Xi Xia campaign was the last great Mongol conquest led by Genghis Khan. After being thrown from his horse during a hunting expedition near the start of the campaign, Genghis Khan had suffered from severe internal pains and fever for some time. Camped in the mountains of eastern Xi Xia astride the junction of the three kingdoms of the Jin, the Song, and Xi Xia, the aged Mongol warrior, now past sixty, chose his third son, Ogodei, as his successor to lead the Mongols and continue his conquests.
By custom, Genghis Khan was elected emperor of the Mongols because he was their strongest leader. Ogodei however, was chosen because of his generous and forgiving nature, because he had enough strength to not to get involved in irresponsible actions, and because he could act severely when it was necessary. This departure from custom led the Mongol aristocracy and princes to believe that future khans should be chosen from the line of Ogodei, a belief that would later cause trouble within the empire.
Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons. According to nomad custom, he gave his youngest son, Tolui, the Mongolian homeland. To the heirs of his deceased eldest son, Jochi, he gave the yet-to-be-conquered western Eurasian steppe and all lands to the north and west to the Altai Mountains, as far as Mongol arms could conquer. To his second son, Jagadai, he gave the old Khwarezmian Empire and all lands east to the Altai Mountains. Genghis Khan knew that, by their very nature, neither Jagadai nor Tolui would tolerate the other being chosen khan, but both could give their allegiance to Ogodei. Ogodei was made ruler of China. Each of the Great Khan's sons now had his own territory and armies. Each was compelled to obey and cooperate with Ogodei to further expand the empire's frontiers.
Genghis Khan died quite suddenly on August 18, 1227, after an illness of only eight days. At his command, news of his death remained a closely guarded secret, as Mongol armies were still actively fighting in Xi Xia. For weeks, the funeral procession carrying Genghis Khan's body slowly made its way north to the Mongol's ancestral homeland in the mountains of northern Mongolia near the headwaters of the Onon and Kerulen Rivers. Mongol soldiers took their duty so seriously they killed anyone who so much as saw the funeral procession.
According to legend, the Mongol emperor's body was laid to rest at a place where he took refuge from his enemies as a youth, a place he always loved. He was buried beneath a large spreading tree at site he had picked out years before. Located in the Hentiyn Nuruu mountains, the site is referred to locally as Burkhan Khaldun, or Buddha's Cliffs. Soldiers killed all witnesses to the funeral, including animals, and then killed themselves, ensuring that no living being would ever know the tomb's location. It is alleged that forty horses and some 2,000 servants were buried alongside Genghis Khan for use in the afterlife.
A vast impenetrable forest has long since grown in the area and no one knows precisely where the lonely grave is located, but to this day Mongols still make a pilgrimage to the Hentiyn Nuruu Mountains to honor the remains of the mighty lion of the Mongolian steppes, the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. Genghis Khan left his sons an inheritance that focused his people and prevented the latent energy of the Mongols from turning inward and precipitating the total disintegration of his empire. He left them a heritage that demanded world conquest. .