Sunday, August 18

Battle of the Kalka River

There is a postscript to the story of the last Khwarezm-Shah.

From the 11th to 19th centuries, the name Iraq referred to two neighbouring regions, separated by the Zagros Mountains: Arabic Iraq (ʿIrāq-i ʿArab) and Persian Iraq (ʿIrāq-i ʿAjam). Arabic Iraq corresponded with ancient Babylonia (now central-southern Iraq), while ʿAjami Iraq (Iraq Adjami, see map in the previous post) corresponded with ancient kingdom of the Medes (now central-western Iran), including cities such as Isfahan, Ray, Qazvin, and Kashan. Babur writes in the Baburnama "The people of Hindustān call every country beyond their own Khorasān, in the same manner as the Arabs term all except Arabia, ʿAjam." Today, we will follow the Mongol postscript though ʿIrāq-i ʿAjam, via the Caucasus into Rus; ʿIrāq-i ʿArab will come a generation later.

In 1220, on the increasingly-cold trail of the Khwarezm-Shah, the Mongol noyans Jebe and Sübutei were criss-crossing ʿIrāq-i ʿAjam.  They seem to have finally lost track of the Khwarezm-Shah somewhere in the region of Hamadan.

Frustrated, Jebe requested permission from Chingis Khan to continue explorations of the region for a few seasons before returning to the main army via across the Caucasus. While waiting for the Great Khan's reply, the duo set out to search out good pastureland on the Mughan Steppe (in southern Azerbaijan) for the duration of the winter of 1220. There were joined by Kurdish and Turcomen nomads, greedy for any leftover spoil, who, in February 1221, guided them into the Kingdom of Georgia. This region, as the Colchis of Greek mythology, was the home of Aeëtes,  of Medea, the Golden Fleece, and Hephaestus' fire-breathing bronze bulls the Khalkotauroi; the destination of Jason and the Argonauts; as well as the supposed homeland of the Amazons.  Its original confederations of Caucasoid tribes had been absorbed into Greater Assyria, in the time of the Sargons (circa the 8th century BCE.)

In January and February 1221, the Mongol forces made a reconnaissance foray into the Kingdom of Georgia, entering through the valley of the Kura River (where, in prehistory, irrigation-agriculture may have first developed) - not to conquer, but to plunder if possible. The Kurds and Turcoman tribals were sent off in the vanguard. The King of Georgia, George IV Lasha, advanced with 10,000 men and smashed the vanguard (so much for spoils of victory.) The Mongols feigned withdrawal, continuing to launch counter-attacks on the Georgian army to keep drawing them out; when this was accomplished, they launched a full-scale turn-around-attack and defeated Lasha's forces.

This was to confirm a pattern - the highly mobile steppe cavalry of the Mongols playing, so to speak, a 'passing game': when challenged retreat at full pelt, drawing and thinning out the infantries of their plains opponents accustomed to a 'rushing game' of front-gaining-against-front. Then, a lightning-speed wheel-around-and-counter-attack, side-stepping the thinned-out infantry and going for the jugular in the form of the person of the opposing king. This pattern would repeat till a young prisoner of war, Chand Ram of Gujarat, bought for a thousand dinars by the Khilji (Ghilzai) sultan of Delhi, castrated, sodomized, rising first into royal favorite-hood and then generalship, decided to employ pincer movements before these feigned retreats to cut off the Mongols' escape paths; more on 'hazar dinari' Malik Kafur (and his colleague Zafar Khan) another time.

In autumn 1221, the Mongols advanced into Georgia once again, entering as before through the Kura. A Georgian army was again waiting, near Tbilisi, and, after Sübutei saw them massed, he feigned retreat. In this instance (having learnt a lesson from earlier in the year) the Georgians sent cavalry to chase after Sübutei's army, only, this time, to fall into a variant - an ambush set by Jebe; where king George was mortally wounded. After plundering Georgia, Jebe and Sübutei retreated to the steppes to overwinter their horses.  

These surprise attacks left the Georgians in confusion as to who their attackers were: the record of contemporary chroniclers indicate that they are unaware of the nature or identity of these attackers. After the Mongols had vanished, King George sister and successor Queen Rusudan wrote in a letter to Pope Honorius III that the Georgians had presumed the Mongols were Christians because they fought Muslims, but that they had turned out to be pagans. Grigor of Akner, a Cilician Armenian, wrote a History of The Nation of Archers, covering the forty-four year period from 1229/30 to 1273. About the origin of the Nation of Archers he can only surmise in bewilderment:

Isaac was born from Abraham's free wife. Esau and Jacob were [Isaac's] descendants. Jacob's descendants included the twelve patriarchs and the great prophet, David. The Word of God, our lord Jesus Christ, was revealed from the house and line of David.

[There were also descendants] from the hand maidens of Abraham, one of whom was named Hagar and the other Kendura (Ketura). From Ketura, Imran was born whence the Pahlaws, [a lineage which includes] brave Arshak and saint Gregory, illuminator of the Armenians. From Hagar [descended] Ishmael, which translates "the hearing of God," whence the Ishmaelites. At the birth of Ishmael, God commanded Abraham to give to him and his people the richness of the land, and to make a great people from him with his hand upon his enemies, and more successful than all other peoples with the sword and bow.

The Esavites, who are the Scythians, descended from Esau, son of Isaac. They are black, wild, and strange looking. From them descend the Boramichk' and Lekzik', who dwell in holes and traps and perpetrate many crimes.

And it is said that the Edomites, who are the Franks, also are descended from him. These three peoples, descendants of Hagar, Ketura, and Esau, mingled together and gave birth to another people, strange looking and wicked, called T'at'ar, which means sharp and light.

Sharp and light indeed.

Meanwhile, Chingis Khan granted Jebe and Sübutei permission to take their expeditionary force beyond the Kavkaz (Caucasus).  Jebe was to be in command, Sübutei his deputy.  The noyans advanced to Derbent, the oldest as well as the southernmost city in Russia, in the province of Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea north of the Azerbaijani border.

The name Derbent (Russian: Дербе́нт; Persian: دربند) derives from the Indic Dwar-bandh ('Gate-closed'); it was known to the Arabs as Bāb al a-Bwab ("Gate of Gates"), to the Turks as Demirkapı ('Iron Gate'), and to the Greeks as the legendary Gates of Alexander, being the very narrow primary crossing between the Eurasian steppes to the north and the Middle East to the south, through a very narrow costal strip between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.

Derbent refused to surrender. Jebe promised to spare the city in return for the services of 10 guides to take them through the Caucasus. To warn the guides against playing any tricks, the Mongols executed one of them. The crossing of the Caucasus was costly; Jebe and Sübutei had to abandon their siege engines, and the Mongols lost hundreds of men to the cold. After making it through the Caucasus, the Mongols were met by an alliance consisting of the Lezgians, the Alans and the Cherkesses tribes who lived north of the Caucasus - a league of Saka, Sarmatian, Caspian (Dagestani/Chechen) peoples. In this alliance they were joined by the Cumans, a  Qipchaq Turkic people who owned an expansive khanate stretching from Lake Balkhash to the Black Sea. The Cumans also convinced the Volga Bulgars (Islamized Oghur-Turkic tribes, who had mixed with the Saka and Alan populations around the confluence of the Volga and the Kama), as well as the Khazars (Turkic Central Asian tribes who by that age had converted to Judaism, and were overlords of the Bulgars) to join forces against the Mongols. With so many tribal players in a league, the scene was ripe for the kind of factional intrigue at which the Mongols excelled.

The first battle between the league and the Mongols was indecisive; soon, the Mongols managed to persuade the Cuman to abandon the alliance by reminding them of the Turkic-Mongol friendship and promising them a share of the booty gained from the other tribes. This arrangement sealed, the Cumans turned back to their homelands; the Mongols attacked the remainder and routed them. The Cumans had split into two separate groups as they were returning home; Jebe and Sübutei picked them off one by one, destroying both armies and executing all the prisoners before sacking Astrakhan. The Mongols then began pursuing the remaining Cumans as they fled in a north-westerly direction towards Russia.

In the meantime, the Venetians had sent a delegation to the Mongols, and these parties concluded an alliance in which it was agreed that the Mongols would destroy any other European trading post they came across. As the Mongols pursued the Cumans, Jebe sent a detachment to Crimea, where the Republic of Genoa had trading stations. The Mongols captured and plundered the Genoese city of Soldaia. In January 1223 the Mongols reached the commercial centre of Sudak in the Crimea, a colony of the small Greek Empire of Trebizond.

(Above: A knight embraces a Cuman-Qipchaq warrior.)

The Cuman Khan Koten, fleeing to Rus,  reached the court of his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galich. He warned Mstislav: "Today the Mongols have taken our land and tomorrow they will take yours".

However, the Cumans were ignored for almost a year; the Rus had suffered from Cuman raids for decades and tended to treat the Qipchaq as a more immediate problem than the still-hypothetical Tatars; but when news reached Kiev that the Mongols were marching along the Dniester River, Mstislav gathered an alliance of the Kievan Rus princes, including Mstislav III of Kiev and Prince Yuri II of Vladimir-Suzdal, who all promised support. The Rus princes then began individually mustering their armies and going towards a rendezvous point. Crucially, no general or planning authority had been agreed upon.

The moves by the Rus princes was detected by the Mongols, who were on the east side of the Dnieper, waiting for reinforcements from Jochi, Genghis Khan's eldest son, who had been campaigning around Khwarezm and the Aral. Jochi, however, had been taken ill, which meant no decision on reinforcements was immediately forthcoming.

The Rus attempted to confuse the Mongols by attacking from several directions. Galich and Volhynia transported their armies south down the river, while Kiev and Chernigov advanced north up the river, and the army of Kursk advanced from the front. At the same time, the Cumans attempted to attack the Mongol army's rear.

When Jebe and Sübutei heard of the Rus' movements, they began moving east, away from Rus (which was of course the only direction in which they could move.) However, they left a rearguard of 1,000 under the command of Hamabek to report on the Rus' movement. Jochi learned of this, and sent ten envoys to the Prince of Kiev, to reassure him that Jebe's Mongols had no feud with the Rus, and had indeed only been pursuing their mutual enemies the Cumans through the frontiers of Rus; he added that seeing the Rus agitated, the Mongols were already marching east, away from the Rus' cities. 

Mstislav III of Kiev had the Mongol envoys executed.

Soon, Mstislav the Bold reached the Dnieper river opposite the rearguard left by Jebe. Since no Rus prince had been appointed commander-in-chief, each felt he could act as he pleased. Against advice, Mstislav crossed the river under heavy arrow fire. When the Rus did land, however, their numbers were  overwhelming, and the Mongol rearguard died fighting to the last man.

After drawing out the Rus armies for nine days in a feigned retreat, the Mongol army turned to face their pursuers along the Kalka River. The river's location is thought to be the contemporary Kalchik River, in the Donetsk oblast of the Ukraine, which runs into the Sea of Azov.

The Battle of the Kalka River - May 1223 - was conducted with little planning on the side of the Rus. At the outset, the Cumans foolishly charged up a plateau, found heavy enemy cavalry hiding in wait at the top, broke and ran down helter-skelter, and their flight through the Russian ranks led to a mass confusion. (It is possible that the Cumans did not want the Russians to win a battle on Cuman territory, and that this retreat was calculated; what better for the Cuman-Qipchaqs that catalyse a war between Slav and Mongol, and then nimbly step out of the way?) The armies of Volhynia and Kursk made a gap in their lines so that the fleeing Cumans could retreat; however, the Mongol heavy cavalry charged through the newly formed gap, and the army of Chernigov, which was advancing unaware that the battle had started, collided head-on with the retreating Cumans. The Mongol cavalry took advantage of the confusion in the Chernigov line and pressed on, causing the line to collapse, taking with it Prince Mstislav of Chernigov. At the same time, the Mongol wings closed around the rest of the disarrayed Rus army, cutting off its retreat. The surrounded Rus were hit by volley after volley of arrow, accompanied by occasional cavalry charges. As the Mongols were carrying this slaughter, Mstislav the Bold managed to cut his way through the Mongol ring and escape.

(A modern game-simulation of the battle is here.)

Meanwhile Mstislav III of Kiev arrived late to battle, only to see what remained of the Rus army fleeing. Panicked, he retreated to his stockaded camp on a hill by the Dnieper with his 10,000 men. The Mongol army soon arrived to besiege the camp. The Kievan Rus managed to hold out for three days, but Mstislav of Kiev decided to surrender to one of Jebe's allies named Ploskanea on the condition that he and his army would be able to return unharmed to Kiev. Once in control of the camp, the Mongols slaughtered the Kievan army and took Mstislav of Kiev and several other nobles prisoners. Mindful of the superstition against shedding royal blood, yet vengeful for the killing of their envoys, the Mongols asked the Kievan princes to squat, and, placing tables on their backs, conducted a victory feast over their bodies. Mstislav III of Kiev died by suffocation.

Mstislav the Bold managed to reach the western side of the Dnieper with what remained of his army. To stop the Mongols from crossing the Dnieper, Mstislav destroyed all the boats he could find, but at this point Jebe and Sübutei were not interested in Kiev -- for now. The expedition had started out to hunt down Khwarezm-Shah, and wandered into the lands beyond only opportunistically, and found them unprepared. It was time to take stock of the opportunities. The Mongols mopped up the Cuman army near the Ural mountains, defeating and killing their Khan before extracting copious tribute. Following this victory, Jebe and Sübutei  turned east and met the Great Khan and the rest of the Mongol army on the steppes to the east of the Syr Darya. Chingis Khan showed great appreciation for his generals' achievement, and heaped praise on Jebe and Sübutei. The noyans had succeeded not by siege engines or gunpowder, but by nimbleness in movement and strategy, against plodding, unprepared, divided adversaries. After the encounters with Rus, there was much to ponder for the future world-conqueror.

Jebe (or Jebei, Mongolian: Зэв, Zov), however, did not survive the campaign long; he died on the steppe in 1225. His clan had belonged to the Tayichigud tribe, under Targhutai Kiriltugh's leadership. In 1201, during Battle of the Thirteen Sides, Chingis Khan - then Temujin - had been wounded by an arrow to the neck, and his loyal guard Jelme had saved his Khan by sucking all the poisoned blood out of the neck. After the battle, Temujin asked the defeated Tayichigud to reveal who it was that had shot his horse in the neck (euphemistically refering to his own injury as if to his horse's, in an apparent attempt to conceal his injury, or possibly to prevent false confessions.) From The Secret History Of The Mongols (Paul Kahn's adaptation):

Then Chingis Khan spoke again, saying:
"Just as the two armies began to charge one another at Koyiten,
riding up and down the sides of the mountain,
reforming and charging in waves,
someone shot an arrow at me from up on the ridge.
Who was it who was able to fire an arrow from up on the mountain
that pierced the spine of my white-mouthed warhorse?"
Jebe answered him:
I shot the arrow at you from up on the mountain.
If you kill me right here
I'll fertilize a bit of dirt the size of your hand.
But if the Khan will allow me to live
I'll ride out in his service and cut the deepest waters in two,
split the brightest diamond.
Just let him give me the order, 'Go here in my name,'
and I'll be there with a force that will shatter blue rock.
Just let him give me the order to attack
and I'll charge with a force that will smash black stone to pieces."
Chingis answered him:
"Usually a man who's fought against us is the last to admit it.
He'll lie about what he's done or simply hide out of fear.
But this man doesn't deny that he's fought us;
in fact he declares it!
Here's a man who'll tell you straight what he's done
and here's a man I will have in my army.
They say his name is Jirghogadai
but I'll give him a new one.
Since he's the man who shot my warhorse in the spine,
the horse who'd been my finest weapon in war,
I'll name him Jebe, 'the weapon.'
From now on that is your name
and you'll ride by my side."
And this is how Jebe of the Tayichigud clan joined Chingis Khan.

Chingis then gathered his spoils from the Tayichigud camp
and executed the clan leaders,
their sons, their grandsons,
so that their seed blew away in the wind like the ashes.
Then he moved his camp to the Khuba Khaya for winter.

The importance of the expedition Jebe and Sübutei carried out was immense. It was history's longest cavalry raid, the Mongols riding nearly ten thousand kms in three years. Though the expedition did not add new territories, per se, to the Mongol Empire, it gathered intelligence that would be vital for the future conquest of Rus, and for the eventual creation of the Golden Horde, Timur, and Babur. Sübutei stationed numerous spies in Russia, who provided frequent reports on what was happening in Europe and Russia. Finally, the weakening of the Kievan Rus helped shift the strategic gravamen of the Slavic peoples towards Moscow and St. Petersburg, where it remains to this day.

(In 1237, Sübutei, this time with Batu Khan, returned for a second invasion, with 120,000 men, and this time annihilated the Kievan Rus. Russian states had to submit to Mongol rule - the Tatar Yoke - and became part of the Golden Horde; the Yoke stayed on until 1480. Eastern Europe would fundamentally change;  resulting in the division of the East Slavic people into three separate nations - modern day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.)

Following the Battle of the Kalka River, in 1224 the Chronicle of Novgorod reported:

" ... unknown tribes came, whom no one exactly knows, who they are, nor whence they came out, nor what their language is, nor of what race they are, nor what their faith is; but they call them Tatars."

Below, Ulaanbaatar during the Naadam festival.


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