''Is she not queen of the earth?'' Edgar Allan Poe was to ask (even from a distance of many centuries.) ''Her pride above all cities? In her hand their destinies?''
Chingis Khan drove his horde behind a massive levy of men from Bukhara to Samarqand. As he prepared to take the queen of the world, the Great Khan stopped to scout the necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda on the hillside of Afrosiab. He rode inside the mosque of Qusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, who had come to Samarkand as one of the proselytizing leaders of the Arab invasion of the 7th century. Popular legend says ibn Abbas was beheaded by the Zoroastrian king of Afrosiab but took his head and went into a deep well, where he's still living now. Over the well they built a shrine to Shah-i-Zinda, the King Who Lives. If the Mongols were culturally afraid of thunder, their Leader was squeamish about dogs and the undead; while the minaret and the outworks were leveled, it is said that that santuary and structures immediately surrounding it were allowed to exist.
For a day or two Chingis-Khan circled the town in person in order to inspect the walls, the outworks and the gates, and during this period he exempted his men from fighting. At the same time he dispatched Yeme and Subutei, who were two of the great noyans and enjoyed his special trust, in pursuit of the Sultan together with thirty thousand men, and sent Ghadaq Noyan to Vakhsh and Talaqan.
Finally, on the third day, when the flare of the sun's flame had risen from the darkness of the pitchy night's smoke and the hocturnal blackness had retired to the seclusion of a corner, so many men, both Mongols and levies, were assembled together that their numbers exceeded those of the sand of the desert or drops of rain. They stationed themselves in a circle round about the town; and Alp-Er Khan, Shaikh Khan, Bala Khan and some other khans made a sally into the open, drew up opposite the army of the world-subduing Emperor and discharged their arrows. Many horse and foot were slain on either side. That day the Sultan's Turks engaged in constant skirmishes with the Mongols - for the light of a kandil flares up a little before it goes out - killing some of the Mongol army, capturing others and carrying them into the town, while a thousand of their own number likewise fell.
Finally, when for the benefit of the earth the fire of heaven was hidden by the earth's smoke, everyone retired to his quarters.
But as soon as the deceitful shield-bearer again struck his sword upon the cloud of night, Chingis-Khan mounted in person and stationed his troops in a circle round about the town. Both inside and outside the troops assembled and made ready for battle. and they pulled up the girth of combat and hostility until the time of evening prayer. From the discharge of mangonels and bows, arrows and stones were set in flight; and the Mongol army took up a position at the very gates and prevented the Sultan's troops from issuing forth on the field of battle. And when the path of combat was closed to them, and the two parties had become entangled on the chess-board of war, and the valiant cavalry were no longer able to manoeuvre their horses upon the plain, they threw in their elephants; but the Mongols did not turn tail, on the contrary with their King-checking arrows they liberated those that were held in check by the elephants and broke up the ranks of the infantry. When the elephants had received wounds and were of no more use than the footmen of chess, they turned around and stampeded trampling many people underneath their feet. At length, when the Emperor of the Khotan (East, i.e. Sun) had let down the veil over his face, they closed the gates.
The people of Samarqand had been rendered apprehensive by the day's fighting, and their passions and opinions were divergent; some were desirous of submission and surrender, while others feared for their lives; some, by heavenly decree, were restrained from making peace, while others, because of the aura diffused by Chingis-Khan, were prevented from doing battle. Finally, on the next day, when the shining sun spread its glory, and the black raven of the firmament shed its feathers, the Mongol troops being bold and fearless and the people of Samarqand being irresolute in mind and counsel, the latter put the idea of war out of their heads and ceased to resist. The Qadi and the Shaikh-al-Islam together with a number of wearers of the turban hastened to approach Chingis-Khan: they were fortified and encoureged by the breakfast of his promises and with his permission re-entered the town.
At the time of prayer they opened the gate of the muhalla and closed the door of resistance. The Mongols then entered and that day busied themselves with the destruction of the town and its outworks.
The mahouts brought their elephants to Chingis-Khan and demanded elephant fodder. He asked them what the elephants lived on before they fell into captivity. They replied: ’The grass of the plains.’ Whereupon he ordered the elephants to be set free to forage for themselves. They were accordingly released and finally perished [of hunger].
When the king of the heavens had sunk beneath the ball of the earth, the Mongols departed from the town, and the garrison of the citadel, their hearts cut in two with fear and terror, could neither stand and resist nor turn and flee. Alp Khan, however, made a show of valour and intrepidity: issuing forth from the citadel with a thousand desperate men he fought his way through the centre of the Mongol army and joined up with the Sultan. The next morning, when the heralds of the Lord of the planets rose up striking their swords, the Mongol army completely encircled the citadel, and discharging arrows and projectiles from either side they devastated the walls and outworks and laid waste the Juy-i-Arziz. During the space between the two prayers they took the gates and entered the citadel. A thousand brave and valiant men withdrew to the cathedral mosque and commenced a fierce battle using both naphtha and quarrels. The army of Chingis-Khan likewise employed pots of naphtha; and the Friday mosque and all that were in it were burnt with the fire of this world and washed with the water of the Hereafter. Then all in the citadel were brought out into the open, where the Turks were separated from the Tajiks and all divided into groups of ten and a hundred. They shaved the front of the Turks’ heads in the Mongol fashion in order to tranquillize them and allay their fears; but when the sun had reached the west, the day of their life drew to its close, and that night every male Qanqli was drowned in the ocean of destruction and consumed by the fire of perdition. There were more than thirty thousand Qanqli and Turks, commanded by Barishmas-Khan, Taghai-Khan, Sarsigh-Khan and Ulagh-Khan, together with some twenty of the Sultan’s chief emirs, whose names are recorded in the yarligh which Chingis-Khan wrote to Rukn-ad-Din Kart; in which yarligh full mention is made of all the leaders of armies and countries whom he crushed and destroyed.
When the town and the citadel equalled each other in ruin and desolation and many an emir, and soldier, and townsman had taken a sip at the cup of destruction, on the next day, when the eagle which is the heavenly Jamshid had raised its head above the mountain-tops of the earth and the fiery countenance of the sun was lit up upon the round tray of the sky, the people who had escaped from beneath the sword were numbered; thirty thousand of them were chosen for their craftmanship, and these Chingis-Khan distributed amongst his sons and kinsmen, while the like number were selected from the youthful and valiant to form a levy. With regard to the remainder, who obtained permission to return into the town, as a thanksgiving because they had not shared the fate of the others nor attained the degree of martyrdom but had remained in the ranks of the living, he imposed [a ransom of] two hundred thousand dinars on these suppliants and deputed the collection of this sum to Siqat-al-Mulk and ’Amid Buzurg, who belonged to the chief officials of Samarqand. He then appointed several persons to be shahnas of the town and took some of the levies with him to Khorasan, while the others he sent to Khorezm with his sons. And afterwards, several times in succession levies were raised in Samarqand and few only were exempted therefrom; and for this reason complete ruin overran the country.
The outflux of refugees from the Mongol conquest of Mawarunnahr included, incidentally, the families of Sufi icons of India, such as Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau.
Revisionist historians have questioned the extent of Mongol ferocity and destructiveness, suggesting that such accounts are largely rhetoric and hyperbole. However, the weight of contemporary evidence is very strong and it is backed up by the archaeology. Of the great cities sacked by the Mongols, only Bukhara and Urgench were rebuilt on the same site: Balkh, Otrar and Nishapur were ruined for ever and at Merv a new town was founded two centuries later well away from the remains of the old. Samarkand was rebuilt outside the old walls while the ancient city remained as it is today, a desolate waste of mud-brick ruins.