Your RDA of Irony

Why You Shouldn’t Hurt Genghis Khan’s Feelings

 If you have never heard of the Khwarezmian Empire, that was Genghis Khan’s intention and the measure of his success.  Yet, in the early 13th century Khwarezmia was the greatest nation in the Islamic World, a Persian empire that encompassed modern Iran, Afghanistan,Turkmenistan and several of the other ‘stans.  To put it in our own parochial context, this empire was equal to one third the size of the United States–yes–including Alaska.

 Its Shah was Ala ad-Din Muhammad II.  (We’ll call him Muhammad because–as he demonstrated–he wasn’t an Al type of guy.) Although the Mongol Empire extended to the northern border of his empire, the Shah dismissed any threat posed by Genghis Khan.  After all, the Mongols were thousands of miles away fighting in China.  (Although the Mongols consistently won, conquering an empire of 120 million people is a full-time job for even the most ruthless Horde).  Furthermore, the Shah had an army twice as large as the Khan’s, so he felt no need to be diplomatic when an Mongol embassy called upon him in 1219.  A Mongol caravan had been seized by a Persian governor, and the Khan’s representatives demanded the punishment of the felonious official.  The Shah’s response was to have the Mongols’ translator beheaded.  That effectively ended the conversation and started a war. 

Genghis Khan suddenly decided that massacring the Chinese had become monotonous, and the Persians offered an interesting alternative.  Although at the other end of Asia, the Horde could move at a routine pace of 80 miles a day.  Modern armies would find that a challenge.  It was also winter in Siberia but that never was a deterrent to the Mongols.  With 200,000 horsemen under his command, Genghis Khan was on his way to Khwarezmia. 

The Shah belately realized what he had done, and he prepared his empire for the Mongol onslaught.  He stationed nearly half of his army on the northern border, along the Syr Darya River.  However, a thinly spread army was not much a deterrent against the best cavalry in history.  In February 1220 a Mongol force of 20,000 men crossed the eastern end of the river, outflanking the Persian defenses there.  As the Shah’s main army marched to meet that threat, a larger Mongol force forded the western end of the river.  Caught between the river and the Mongols, the enveloped Persian line collapsed…and the Mongols were not taking prisoners. 

The two Mongol forces united and moved toward the great city of Bukhara.  Now the Shah could anticipate the invaders’ objective, and he met them with an army of 200,000 men.  In fact, the Mongols had maneuvered him into a trap.  A third Mongol force, personally led by Genghis Khan, had moved through a desert and evaded Persian attention, taking the circuitous route to Bukhara.  The Shah thought that he was facing the entire Horde only to discover 50,000 Mongol horsemen behind him.  Surprise!  Most of the Shah’s army died on that battlefield.  Some of the troops did find sanctuary behind the walls of Bukhara.  It was a short respite; the Mongols took Bukhara and massacred the population.  Not much of a Shah now, Mohammed did manage to escape but spent the remainder of his wretched life on the run from Mongols.  He died a year later of disease and exhaustion.   

The great Khwarezmian Empire dissolved in a campaign that lasted less than six months.  Although always ruthless, Genghis Khan was especially vindictive; the great cities of the empire–Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Merv and Urgench–were destroyed.  You have never heard of Merv and Urgench because the destruction was that thorough.  (Shiraz and Kabul survived by prompt and groveling surrenders. The cities still suffered pillage and rape, but not leveling and extermination.)  A town in northern Iran became so crowded with refugees from the Mongols that it grew to some prominence: Tehran.

While the Khwarezmian Empire is not remembered, Genghis Khan’s visit there is.  It still is studied in military science as the inspiration and prototype of modern mechanized warfare.  Blitzkrieg should be a Mongolian word. 

p.s.  Today marks the death of King Dagobert I:

Leave a Reply