Saturday, September 28

Battle of Mohi

Matthew Paris (Matthæus Parisiensis, Matthew the Parisian, c. 1200 – 1259) was a Benedictine monk, English chronicler, artist in illuminated manuscripts and cartographer, based at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire in the UK. In 1239, he sounded a curious sort of alarm in his chronicles: there had been a glut in the supply of herrings at Yarmouth since the traditional buyers from the Eastern Baltic had failed to sail from their home ports in fear of the 'Tatars'.

While the sons of Tolui (Chingis Khan's youngest son) were consolidating in Khorasan and eyeing China, the sons of Jochi (the oldest son of Chingis' first wife Börte) under Batu were expanding Mongol rule to the west; the Golden Horde was being established to consolidate the Jochid ulus. In his wars against the Cumans, Rus, Bulgars, Magyars and Poles, Batu was aided by his grandfather's old noyan Subutai, now too fat to be able to ride a horse, but nonetheless carried to battle in an ox-cart.

Pushed west by the Mongols, 40,000 Cuman refugees sought asylum under Hungarian rule. King Béla IV of Hungary and Croatia saw an opportunity to curry favor with the Church, and granted the Cumans protection in return for the Cuman chieftain Köten accepting token Christianity over his tribe's Tengriism. The Mongols considered the Cumans as their slaves and saw this as a casus belli. The Hungarians were also accused of committing grave infringement against the yasa by capturing Mongol emissaries. Batu wrote King Béla an ultimatum:

I, the Qa'an, the representative of the Heavenly King, to whom he has given power over the Earth, to raise up those who submit to me and cast down those who resist - I wonder why, you, O king of Hungary, when I have now sent envoys to you on thirty occasions, you have sent none of them back to me; nor do you send me in return your own envoys or letter. I am aware you are a wealthy and powerful monarch, that you have under you many soldiers, and that you have sole rule over a great kingdom. Hence it is difficult for you to submit to me of your own volition; and yet it would be better for you, and healthier, were you to submit willingly. I have learnt, moreover, that you keep the Cumans, my slaves, under your protection, and so I order you do not keep them with you any longer and do not have me as an enemy on their account. For it is easier for them to escape than for you, since they are without houses and move about in tents, and so may perhaps be able to escape. But as for you, who dwell in houses and have fortresses and cities - how will you escape my grasp?

The Tatar threat of 1241 reached a Hungary that was in turmoil. Traditionally, the base of royal power had been in the vast estates of crown property. Béla's father Andrew II,  a second-son trying to usurp the throne from the lineage of the first-son, started to create his own power-base by gifting crown lands to his own partisans. Whole counties were donated; Andrew II said, "the best measure of royal generosity is measureless." The treasury was emptied out. After Béla IV inherited his father's throne, he began to clawback or confiscate Andrew’s donations; executed or expelled his advisors; denied the lords' right to personal hearings; and even had the chairs of the council chamber taken away in order to force everyone to stand in his presence. These actions caused great disaffection amongst his father's old retainers.

The newly arrived Cumans gave the king a better position (including increased prestige in the Church for converting them), but the nomadic Cumans seemed unable to live together with the settled Hungarians. There were riots; the Kuman chief, who had personally been granted protection by King Béla, was lynched. Betrayed, the Cumans started to leave Hungary to the south, pillaging on the way. In the meantime came rumors of 'Tatars' on the Eastern gates of the kingdom.

By now many nobles so hated the king that they declined to mobilize. Hardly anyone believed the Mongol attack was dangerous; it was considered a usual minor foray, one like that of the Cumans, that could be bought off. 

The 'Tatar' vanguard reached Pest on March 15th and began to pillage. Béla forbade his men to attack them as he felt he did not fully understand what was going on, and that the Hungarian army was still unprepared. Frederick Babenberg, the Duke of Austria and Styria, also arrived to help and immediately got the better of a minor raiding party. King Béla was thought to be a coward; after his heroic act, Duke Frederick believed the job was done and returned home. 

Finally, Béla decided to offer a battle with the 'Tatars', but they began a feigned retreat. This affirmed the opinion of the lords that the 'Tatars' were mere brigands and the king’s behavior was not caution but cowardice. The retreating Mongols reached the flooded river Sajó. 

The Hungarians still did not know that the main Mongol army had mobilized from farther east, and, covering an unheard-of 100 miles a day, had reached wooded terrain of the other side of Sajó. In the meanwhile, a second army under Baidar, Orda Khan and Kadan had just attacked Poland as a diversion to occupy any northern European forces which might come to Hungary's aid. In the Battle of Legnica (Liegnitz), again using feigned retreats to draw out their enemy, just 8,000 Mongols defeated 20,000 Polish two days before the Battle of Mohi. 

The Hungarians had no idea of the great deal of planning that underlay Subutai's strategy of finishing off the European armies in several parallel surprise blitzkrieg attacks, before they could realize what they were up against and join forces. At Mohi, a Ruthenian slave of the Tatars escaped to the Hungarians and warned them some Tatars were planning a night attack through the bridge across Sajó. The Hungarians still did not believe this would be much of anything, but the troops of prince Kálmán (the younger brother of king Béla) along with archbishop Ugrin Csák, a Master of the Knights Templar, left the camp to defend the unguarded bridge. They reached the bridge at midnight.  It is unlikely that the Mongols wanted to attack that very night (horse archers would have reason to avoid night battles), but they had probably wanted to cross the river in order to be able to attack the Hungarian camp the next day at dawn. When Kálmán and Ugrin arrived at Sajó bridge, they found some Tatars in the middle of crossing the river. The Hungarians successfully forced a melee and achieved a great victory at the bridge. When it was over the Hungarians left some soldiers to guard the bridge and returned to camp, unaware of the main Mongol army that was still out there. When they returned to the camp at 2 am, they celebrated the victory and went off to sleep.

The unexpected arrival of tipped-off Hungarians and their victory at Sajó bridge forced Subutai to modify his plans. Sejban was sent north to a ford to cross the river by stealth and attack the rear of the bridge-guarders. At 4 am this set of out-flankers began the crossing. Meanwhile, Subutai went south to build an emergency bridge. He was able to begin crossing at 9 am via this route. At dawn, Batu, with the help of seven stone throwing siege-engines, attacked the Hungarian guards on the main bridge. Due to the sudden arrival of Sejbán behind their backs, the Hungarians abandoned the bridge and retreated to their camp. The main Tatar forces under Batu then finished crossing the river at around 8 am.

When the fleeting Hungarians arrived at the camp, they awakened the others. Kálmán and Ugrin the Templar master again hurried out of camp to deal with the attackers. This time they realized that this was no minor raid but a calamity; thousand upon thousand of the Mongol forces were pouring across the river. A hard struggle ensued. Batu lost 30 of his bodyguards, only his personal action and bravery withheld the desperate Hungarian charges. At that moment, Subutai, who had been delayed by the emergency bridge-building, arrived and attacked the Hungarians’ back with flaming gunpowder arrows. 

Routed, the Hungarians tried to escape via a gap left open on purpose by the Mongols. (Fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily by driving burning naphtha arrows into their backs.) Archbishop Ugrin was killed along with the flower of Templary. Prince Kálmán and King Béla managed to escape, the wounds of Kálmán were serious. The Hungarians lost 10,000 men and were unable to field another army to contain the Tatars. 

In the aftermath of the invasion, Hungary lay in ruin. The Mongols discovered the royal seal on the body of Béla's chancellor, and used it to issue bogus decrees - that the villagers should stay home and pay tribute. The fortresses of the Hungarians were not yet stone, most were 'mud-pies'. Nearly half of the inhabited places were destroyed by the Mongols. A quarter of the population was lost.

On Christmas Day 1241 the Danube froze. The Mongols came across to the Austrian and Croatian sides. Béla, hunted down through Zagreb by the Mongols, found refuge in a small island off the Dalmatian coast. No help reached him from his neighbors; in fact when he had tried to flee to Austria, Duke Frederick Babenberg had lured him to a castle under guise of welcome, and extorted back an unpaid loan, for which the hapless Béla had been obliged to pawn three Hungarian counties; Frederick's men had then harassed these counties to the point of rebellion. If the Mongols had pressed on West, it is not clear they would have faced any greater organized resistance from Germanic princes than what Béla's Hungarians had presented them.

Meanwhile, in Dec 1241 Ögedei Khan died, perhaps poisoned by his sister Altatun. (Rashīd al-Dīn tells us she was later killed by Güyüg.) News of this came to Batu in the spring of 1242. Historians no longer feel strongly that the Mongol invasion of Europe was halted by Batu immediately leaving to attend succession confabulations in Mongolia and to try revert the succession from Güyüg to himself; though it is quite clear that at the peak of their drive into Europe the Mongols suddenly stopped, upped and left. It is also thought likely that the Mongols had exhausted the pasturage available in Hungary and retreated to the steppes for sake of grass for their horses.

Batu retired through Bosnia and Serbia. He sacked Kotor in Montenegro and Drisht in Albania; on his way back to Kazakhstan, he left behind, in the elegant words of Thomas of Spalato (Archdeacon of Split in Croatia) "nobody to piss against a wall."

(Below, we fly over the Kazakh steppe of Batu's Golden Horde.)

Wednesday, September 25

Rashid al-Dīn Hamadāni

Hamadān (Persian: همدان, in ancient Persian variously Haŋgmatana, Ecbatana) is believed to be among the oldest Iranian cities and considered one of the oldest in the world, one that existed in north-west Iran for centuries before it enters records as being occupied by the Assyrians c. 1100 BCE. One of Hamadān's many illustrious sons is Rashīd al-Dīn Fadl-allāh Tabīb Hamadānī (1247–1318) (Persian: رشیدالدین فضل‌الله طبیب  همدانی‎), a Jewish-origin Persian physician, polymath, historian and general Renaissance Man centuries before the Renaissance.

Rashīd al-Dīn Hamadānī wrote an enormous medieval history - the Jami' al-Tawarikh - this title usually translated to Compendium of Chronicles. Written in Persian, this monumental work is considered 'a landmark in intercultural historiography' and is also a key document on the Ilkhanid Mongols of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Rashid al-Dīn's encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of cultures - from Mongolia to China to the Steppes of Central Eurasia to Persia, to the Arab lands, India, Sri Lanka and Europe - as well as his personal involvement in matters of State as an Ilkhanid vizier, provide direct access to information on the late Mongol era of the grandsons of Chingis Khan. He traces how the Mongols embraced trade after conquest, and how this resulted in the Pax Mongolica -- an atmosphere of religious tolerance, cultural exchange and intellectual ferment, resulting in the transmission of a host of ideas from East to West.

Rashid al-Dīn's grandfather had been a courtier to the founding Il-khan Hülegü, and his father had been an apothecary in that court as well. Trained as a doctor, Rashid al-Dīn converted to Islam around the age of thirty (his masters would soon start to convert, too) and started in the imperial service under Hülegü's son (i.e. Chingis Khan's great-grandson) Abaqa. He rose to rapidly through government, to become the Grand Vizier of the Ilkhanid court at Soltaniyeh near Qazvin. Rashid al-Dīn instituted economic reforms designed to benefit the native population, rather than their Mongol overlords; he fostered the interests of peasants and of civil society. Traveling through the by-now-extensive Mongol domains, his eyes surveyed agriculture, art, custom.  After Abaqa's reign, he maintained power at the court,  serving as prime-minister and physician under the subsequent Il-khanid emperors Mahmud Ghazan and his brother Öljeitü (aka Muhammad Khodabandeh), before he fell to court intrigues under Abu Sa'id, whose ministers had him executed at the age of seventy on charges of having secretly poisoned the Il-khan Öljeitü (1304-1316.)

The encyclopedic history of Rashid al-Dīn, the Jami' al-Tawarikh (in Mongolian Судрын чуулган, Sudar-yn Chuulgan) was commissioned by Mahmud Ghazan; initially conceived as a history of the Mongols, it gradually expanded to include the entire history since the time of Adam to Rashid al-Dīn's time. The work was executed at the elaborate scriptorium endowed by Rashid al-Dīn himself from his estate, called the Rab'-e Rashidi, and located at Qazvin, where a large team of calligraphers and illustrators were employed to produce lavishly illustrated copies of his manuscript year after year (and, ideally, in the endower's mind, generation after generation.) Rashid al-Dīn imported a printing process from China to enable the books to be copied while preserving attribution and accuracy. The work at the time of completion ( c. 1307) was of monumental size; several sections have not survived or even discovered. Portions of the Jami' al-Tawarikh survive in various lavishly illustrated manuscripts, many believed to have been produced during his lifetime and perhaps under his direct supervision at the Rab'-i-Rashidi workshop.

The work represented such symbolic importance for the Il-khans that Rashid al-Dīn was reportedly given a million-gold-dinar purse at its completion. It was also decreed that an annual copy be made in each of Persian and Arabic and disseminated across Mongol lands.

After Rashid al-Din's execution in 1318, the Rab'-i-Rashidi precinct was destroyed, but luckily the in-process copy that was being created at the time survived, probably somewhere in the city of Tabriz, possibly in the library of Rashid's son Ghiyath al-Din. Later, Rashid's son became a vizier in his own right, and eventually restored the scriptorium precinct of his father. Several of the subsequent compositions of the Jami' al-Tawarikh were used as models for the later illustrated version of the Shahnama (also known as the Demotte Shahnama), which in turn was of seminal influence on the art of illuminated post-Ilkhanid manuscripts, including those at the courts of the Mughals and the Rajputs, such as the Jahangirnama.

By the 15th century, the Arabic copy of the Jami' al-Tawarikh was in Timurid Herat. It then passed to the court of the Mughals in India, where it came to be in the possession of Akbar (1556–1605). Subsequently, there is record of it passing through the hands of one Mughal emperor after another for two centuries. It was divided into two parts in the mid-1700s, though both sections remained in India until the 19th century, when they were taken by British employees of the East India Company. One section (now in the Edinburgh library) was acquired by Colonel John Baillie from the library of the Indian prince Farzada Kuli per the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.  The other section was acquired by John Staples Harriot of the East India Company sometime prior to 1813. At some point during the next two decades, this second portion was brought to England and entered the collection of Major General Thomas Gordon, who then bequeathed it to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1841. In 1948, it was loaned to the British Museum, and in 1980 the second portion was auctioned-off at Sotheby's, where it was purchased by the Rashidiyyah Foundation of Geneva  (ex Royal Asiatic Society) for £850,000, then the highest price ever paid for a medieval manuscript. Nasser David Khalili acquired it in 1990. Above, a folio from my copy of this portion, showing the Buddha (!) offering a piece of fruit to the Devil incarnate (see here for a discussion of Jami' al-Tawarikh and Buddhism.) Below, Ravana lies defeated at the end of Rama's battle for Lanka; Rashid al-Dīn's ambit is indeed large.

Compared to Juvaini, Rashid al-Dīn's tone is measured; his style matter-of-fact; only occasionally does he lapse to verse or allegory. There is a refreshing absence of sycophancy or flattery, even in the sections on the Il-khans themselves. (Ghazan is praised briefly for bringing Islam to the Mongols, thereby revealing and accomplishing Allah’s purpose in the destruction wrought by Chingis Khan.) Rashid al-Dīn is frank about the shortcomings of early Mongol rule in Persia, though he is seldom overly judgmental, usually offering little by way of personal opinion - his is not the moralizing tone that is a conspicuous aspect of Juvaini. For example, in his verdict on the reign of Ahmad Takudār, the seventh son of Hülegü and third Il-Khan of Iran, Rashid al-Dīn characterizes Takudār simply as a ruler unable to deliver justice, using his personal experience from the time when he was in the service of the Juvainis to substantiate the observation.

While he knew the Il-khans from personal experience, Rashid al-Dīn's trusted source on the affairs of the Great Khans in Mongolia was one Bolad ('steel', the word survives in Hindi today as faulad) Chingsang (Mongolian:Болад чинсан, Болад ага, Болд, Persian: Pulad chinksank, Chinese: 孛羅丞相; pinyin: Bóluó chéngxiàng, "Chancellor Bolad", d. 1313),  a Mongol minister of the Yuan Dynasty (his father had been a steward attached to the residence of Chingis Khan's wife Börte), who later served in the Il-khanate as the representative of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, as well as grand cultural adviser.  Bolad provided valuable information to the Jami' al-Tawarikh on how the main wing of the Mongols worked, even as the Il-khans drifted away from the mores of the steppes and of China; Mongolists consider him as a cultural bridge between East and West. Below, illustrations on attire from China in the Jami' al-Tawarikh.

To recall, Hülegü himself had been born to Tolui, Chingis Khan's youngest son, by Sorgaqtani Beki, the influential Kerait princess. Sorgaqtani, though a tribal outsider, successfully navigated Mongol politics arranging for all of her sons to become Mongol leaders in their generation. She had been Nestorian Christian by faith; Hülegü was friendly to Christianity, his favorite wife, Dokuz Khatun, was Christian, as was his closest friend and general, Ket-buqa. It is recorded however that Hülegü himself had become Buddhist, at least towards the end of his life and all the mayhem (echoes of Asoka?) to his wife's distress.

Hülegü's brother Möngke had been installed as the Fourth Great Khan c. 1251, succeeding Güyük son of Ögedei Khan. In 1255, Möngke entrusted Hülegü with leading a massive Mongol army to conquer or destroy the remaining Muslim states in southwestern Asia. Hülegü's campaign sought the consolidation of various conquests made since Chingis Khan's time in Iran and Khorasan; the submission of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the submission or destruction of the Ayyubid states in Syria, and, hopefully, the submission or destruction of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt. Chanelling Chingis, Möngke ordered Hülegü to treat kindly those who submitted, and utterly destroy those who did not.

Hülegü marched out with perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled (perhaps his brother was managing a contender out of Mongolia with all his followers; 20-30% of Mongol forces went with Hülegü, essentially to found a new empire spanning Persia, Iraq and Syria.) Here is Rashid al-Dīn on the consolidation of Mongol power in Iran and Khorasan:

He [Hülegü] sent Sadruddin to supervise the handling over of all the strongholds and fortifications his fathers and forefathers had acquired over time in Quhistan, Rodbar, and Qutmis, and which were filled to the brim with vessels and treasures. The number came to a hundred. The castellans were made to come out, and all the fortresses were razed except for Gird Koh and Lammasar. His [i.e. the local Khwarshah Ruknuddin's] kinsmen and adherents held Lammasar for a year. After that, pestilence broke out and many died. Those who were left came out and joined the others. They held Gird Koh for nearly twenty years, but in the end, during Abaqa Khan's reign, they came out and were killed, and it too was taken over.

Sunday, September 15

Fording The Tuul River

We wake up to rain coming down hard against the felt of the ger. By 9am or so, the Tuul is in spate; its pebbly course is shallow, and it spills over at the provocation. The expedition plans had, fortunately, taken into account seasonality of the watercourse, and we ford the Tuul brazenly in our Unimog.

Unimogs, made by Daimler-Benz since after WW2, and standing for Universal-Motor-Gerät ( the German word for device being gerät,) were designed to be 4-wheel-drive trucks with portal gears (a design where the axle is higher than the center of the wheels, power being transmitted via gears situated on the wheel assembly.) This affords a very high ground clearance; these beasts also feature a flexible frame that allows the tires a wide range of vertical movement to allow the truck to comfortably drive over extremely uneven terrain, even boulders of one meter height. They can belly-ford 120 cm of water, force their ways through piles of snowdrift on high alpine roads, climb up 70-degree grades with loads of 1.5 tons, climb down 90-degree grades, and power through mud flows. Consequently, Unimogs can be found in jungle, mountain and desert; as military-vehicles, as snow-ploughs, as disaster-relief vehicles, as expedition-haulers, and even in the Dakar Rally. Bundeswehr used them in Afghanistan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger drives one in California. More on their specs here; they can truly go anywhere; the couple-of-feet deep Tuul watercourse is not a problem at all for ours.

The rising water has travelers on the wrong side of the Tuul scamper to get back before things get worse (the forecast calls for a few days of rain.) We spend most of our time pulling vehicles that have managed to get stuck while attempting to cross back.

Saturday, September 7

In the Valley Of Prester John

(Chingis Khan's foster-father Ong Khan as Prester John in Le Livre des Merveilles, 15th century.)

I will fetch you a tooth-picker from the farthest inch of Asia; 
bring you the length of Prester John's foot: 
fetch you a hair off the great Cham's beard. 
Rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy.
 - Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

The medieval European legend of Prester John told of a Christian patriarch, a descendant of one of the three Magi, said to rule over a Christian nation lost somewhere in the Orient. In popular fantasy, Prester John was a generous ruler over a realm full of riches and strange creatures; his kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth,  bordered the Earthly Paradise, and among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen simultaneously in detail.  At first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India; tales of Saint Thomas the Apostle's subcontinental travels provided the first seeds of the legend. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, the king was relocated to Central Asia; eventually he went to Ethiopia and South Africa. Prester John was the object of a quest, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, always remaining tantalizingly out of reach.

In the 12th century, the Mongols, then living in the valley of the Onon, were very much a junior tribe amongst the nations of the eastern steppe. Their overlords were the Naiman of the northern slopes of the Altai, who may have been a Turkic tribe (though the name Naiman is Mongolian.) The major competitors of the Naiman were the Kereyid (Kerait) of the Orgon and Tula (Tuul) valleys, whose rank-and-file were probably Mongol but whose rulers were possibly Turkic; and along with the Mongols the underdog positions were occupied by the Merkids (a forest people south of the Baikal) and the Tatars (Merkid allies of the Buyur Nor region.)

The genetic lines between the tribes were blurry and so were their alliances. Yesugei, Temüjin's father, stole his bride from the Merkid, a favor they returned by stealing Temüjin's wife Börte. Yesugei of the Borjigid Mongol clan met his end poisoned by the Tatars. After his death, the Mongols under the rival Taichigud clan left Temüjin's family to fend for themselves; only after years of hardship was Temüjin able to reconstitute his father's following. In this he was aided by his father's blood brother or anda, Toghrul Khan of the Kereyid. Börte had brought with her a wedding gift - a sable coat - for Temüjin's family, but he devised a better use for it; he presented it to Toghrul Khan; in accepting the coat Toghrul Khan agreed to treat Temüjin as his own son and protect him as such. This was a time when the Chinese Chin dynasty was particularly annoyed with the Tatars. Kereyid and Mongol join the Chin in defeating the Tatar c. 1202; in gratitude, Toghrul Khan was given the Chinese title Wang, Prince, which was soon corrupted in Mongol speech to 'Ong' Khan.

Toghrul 'Ong' Khan was in fact a Nestorian Christian. Father's anda notwithstanding, Chingis fell out with him soon after the Tatar campaign. After Toghrul rejected a proposal to wed his son and daughter to Chingis' children, the rift between them grew until war broke out in 1203. When Temüjin attacked Jamukha for the title of Khan, Toghrul, fearing Temüjin's growing power, plotted with Jamukha to have Temüjin assassinated. Toghrul Khan was killed in 1203 by Naiman soldiers who failed to recognize him as the former were fleeing from a defeat by Chingis Khan. Chingis captured Sorgaqtani Beki, daughter of Toghrul's brother Jaqa Gambu, and married her to his son Tolui; they had several children, including Möngke, Kublai, Hulagu, and Ariq Böke, all destined to be great Khans in their own right. Sorgaqtani - more of her later - remained a Nestorian Christian all her life.

William of Rubruck says a certain Vut, lord of the Kereyid, brother to the Nestorian King Prester John, was defeated by the Mongols under Chingis, and that Chingis made off with Vut's daughter and married her to his son, which union produced Möngke, the Khan at the time of William's writing. According to Marco Polo's Travels, the war between the Prester John and Chingis Khan started when Chingis, new ruler of the rebellious Tatars, asked for the hand of Prester John's daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would presume to make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms; drawn to the quick, Chingis challenged Prester John and in the war that followed, Prester John perished.

(Chingis and Ong Khan, from a manuscript of the Jami al-Tawarikh.)

In 1221 Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from the otherwise disastrous 5th Crusade with good news: King David of India, with the son-in-law of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia, then under the Khwarezmian Empire's control, and was moving towards ʿIrāq-i ʿArab and Baghdad. The conquests of the Mongols took the legend of Prester John in a new direction. Chingis was seen as a scourge of Christianity's enemies, and he proved to be tolerant of religious faiths among those subjects that did not resist his empire; once it was proven beyond doubt that he had Prester John's daughter as his son's wife, Europeans imagined the disastrous Mongol sack of the Saracens in Central Asia as engineered by Mother Mary herself through daughter of the faith Sorgaqtani Beki.

In the 16th century, the Mongol empire had been long-since eclipsed, the Reconquista had thrown the Muslims out of Spain, and Europe was now less preoccupied with Saracens than with finding sea routes to India. The legend of Prester John was slowly adapted to Ethiopia, the "third Indies." By the time the emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520, Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew of the Emperor of Ethiopia.

The prospect of finding the lost kingdom of Prester John has long since vanished, but his legend has continued to live down through the centuries. Alfred Noyes' poem Forty Singing Seamen is based on the "Pope" Prester John legend:

"In our lands be Beeres and Lyons of dyvers colours as ye redd, grene, black, and white. And in our land be also unicornes and these Unicornes slee many Lyons.... Also there dare no man make a lye in our lande, for if he dyde he sholde incontynent be sleyn."--Mediaeval Epistle, of Pope Prester John.

Across the seas of Wonderland to Mogadore we plodded,
Forty singing seamen in an old black barque,
And we landed in the twilight where a Polyphemus nodded
With his battered moon-eye winking red and yellow through the dark!
For his eye was growing mellow,
Rich and ripe and red and yellow,
As was time, since old Ulysses made him bellow in the dark!
_Cho._-- Since Ulysses bunged his eye up with a pine-torch in the dark!

In 1910, John Buchan used the legend to supplement a plot about a Zulu uprising in South Africa; the book very popular in its day, filled as it was with racist derring-do: "Perfect love casteth out fear, the Bible says; but, to speak it reverently, so does perfect hate." Marvel Comics has featured "Prester John" in issues of Fantastic Four and Thor, and this derivative of Toghrul 'Ong' Khan was a significant supporting character in DC Comics fantasy series Arak, Son of Thunder.

Below, we camp at the Tuul River Valley, where the ghost of Toghrul Ong Prester John Khan still treads.

Tuesday, September 3

The Ulus of Tolui

(Chingis Khan with his first wife Börte, drawn as Indian potentates, dividing up the Mongol empire between their sons. From a copy of the Jami al-Tawarikh, made for the court of Akbar, drawn by Baswan and coloured by Bhim of Gujarat, c. 1596.)

It was Mongol custom that the youngest son inherit his father's hearth, yurt and grazing lands. Chingis Khan divided up his empire between his inheritors several times. Each campaign was after all a risky venture - before he embarked on one, the queens made him settle the succession and create blueprints for divvying up the existing holdings amongst their progeny in case he did not return. The Secret History records that in 1207 Chingis divided all the people of his Empire between his mother, his surviving brothers, and his four sons by Börte.  In addition, after some valorous conquest the spoils could only legitimately go to whichever leader had led the conquering horde - thus in 1208 the Oirat, Kyrgyz, and some Sibir tribes were allocated to Jöchi after his conquest of these peoples. Before the campaign against Khwarezm, Chingis must have promised to reward his sons with the spoils of victory, for the city of Gurganj was added to the ulus of Jöchi in 1221 after its sack. Thus, the (de)composition of the Mongol world among the successors of Chingis took place over several bequests from the hands of the Khan.

Like the yurts, the ulus granted by Chingis consisted solely of open steppe. Revenue from cultivated lands, such as those around Bukhara and Samarqand, or tax from caravan trade, remained imperial property. Each ulus was accompanied by an inju, a portion of annual revenue derived from the taxation of the sedentary territories, to fund each son's court. So, Chaghatai's ulus might comprise the uncultivated lands around Bukhara, and his inju might consist of a quarter of the revenue from the Bukhara-khanate's farming villages (the remainder going to the Great Khan in Mongolia.) The idea was to periodically let each son have more extensive ulus lands to increase the number of people under his support, but still hold the financial power of taxation - required to be able mount wars - centrally in the hands of the Great Khan, and not giving the sons any more inju than their lifestyles could handle.

(The pre-Chingis world c. 1150 in black text, overlaid in red text with the post-Chingis ulus of his sons and grandsons c. 1250.)

Chingis Khan was an excellent judge of character. He knew how to gather around himself people who would go on to offer him faithful unstinting service, such as noyan Jebe the "weapon"; he was also merciless against those who opposed him, or were, in his assessment, untrustworthy. His morality placed little value on the lives of others, but enormous value on family-survival. The harsh living conditions of steppe and desert, the kill-or-be-killed travails of his early family life after his father had been poisoned, the tribal narrative of enslavement and impregnation of captured women, the wolf-pack natural order over which the shamans presided - all provided him with the enormous motivation needed to destroy, wherever he could, the seed of the seed of his enemies, and spread the seed of his own seed in as much of the world as he could comprehend. In this, he was wildly successful.

In his last years, as he shrewdly surveyed the full extent of his successes, Chingis foresaw internal strife,  and was concerned how his successor would maintain the unity of the newly-formed Mongol nation. Although Mongol custom dictated that the father's holdings should pass to the youngest son Tolui, Chingis regarded the leadership of the nation as a separate issue, and debated which of Jöchi, Chagatai, Ögedei or Tolui should inherit it.

(Chingis Khan and his four sons by Börte.)

There had always been some question as to Jöchi's true paternity. Shortly after her marriage to Chingis Khan (then Temüjin), Börte had been abducted by the Merkit confederation. (Actually, Temujin, a horse short, had abandoned her in a cart to flee from a Merkit ambush, calculating she would be raped whereas he would be killed.) After capture, Börte was given to a certain Chilger Bökh as a spoil of war. She remained in Chilger Bökh's captivity for eight months before she was recovered by Temüjin in alliance with his anda Jamukha and his father's anda Toghril 'Ong' Khan. Shortly after being rescued, Börte gave birth to Jöchi.  Disowning the infant would have meant disowning the mother; also, insofar as Chingis had a conscience the circumstance of Börte's capture and impregnation probably lay its weight on it. By all accounts, Chingis Khan treated Jöchi as his own son and firstborn, but doubt always remained amongst the Mongols whether Temüjin or Chilger Bökh was the real father of this child. This uncertainty about his paternity was not without consequences; Jöchi's descendants, although they formed the oldest branch of  Chingis Khan’s family, were never seriously considered for the succession in the Chingisid Khanate.  In The Secret History of the Mongols, just before the invasion of the Khwarezmian empire, Chagatai declares before his father and brothers that he will never accept Jöchi as successor:

[Chingis Khan's] Tatar wife, Yesui Khatun, spoke:
"The Khan will cross the high mountain passes,
cross over wide rivers,
waging a long war far from home.
Before he leaves has he thought of setting his people in order?
[Chingis Khan said:]
I've been forgetting it as if I won't follow my ancestors someday.
I've been sleeping like I won't someday be taken by death.
Jochi, you are my eldest son.
What do you say?"
But before Jochi could speak, Chagadai spoke up:
"When you tell Jochi to speak
do you offer him the succession?
How could we allow ourselves to be ruled
by this bastard son of a Merkid?"

The Secret History goes on the blandly say that after a bit of discussion, Ögedei was offered up by Chagatai as an alternative and met with everyone's approval. It  does not seem likely things should have been so smooth. In any case, Jöchi was, in effect, managed out of Mongol politics by being booted-upstairs to Siberia:

"all the countries and ulus which lie in the region of the Irtysh and the Altai mountains, and the summer and winter ranges in that area. ... [Jöchi's]  yurt was in the region of the Irtysh, and his residence was there..."

Chagatai's personal ulus was originally south of the Ili (northern Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang) according to the monk Ch'ang Ch'un, who travelled through that region in 1221 and 1223, though over time it extended to contemporary Uzbekistan. During his father's lifetime, Ögedei's personal ulus seems to have been in the valleys of the Emil and Qobuq rivers, north of the Ili and south of the Altai. Juvaini records Ögedei assigned this appanage to his eldest son Güyük when he ascended the imperial throne in 1229.  Tolui's ulus was around Chingis Khan's Mongolian homelands east of Ulaanbaatar.

(Tolui with his wife Sorgaqtani Beki.)

Once the trail of the last Khwarezm-Shah grew cold in 1222, Chingis Khan turned back towards Mongolia. Thanks to Li Chi Ch'ang, the diarist of the Taoist monk K'iu Ch'ang Ch'un, we have an account of his progress. Between March and mid May 1222, Chingis must have crossed the Hindu Kush, because it was then that he met Ch'ang Ch'un, four days journey south of the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan. Ch'ang Ch'un had travelled from Samarqand, first crossing the Surkhandarya, before using the floating bridge across the Amu Darya. With the onset of the summer heat Chingis returned to the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush. He may or may not have been personally involved in the suppression of the rebellions that broke out in northern Afghanistan later that autumn. In any case, his army crossed back over the Amu Darya on 6 October 1222, and he arrived at a camp to the east of Samarqand in early November; by the end of January he had reached the eastern bank of the Syr Darya. 

During the spring of 1223, Chingis sent for his sons on at Fanakat on the banks of the Chirchik, three days from modern Chimkent.  There Ögedei, Chagatai and Tolui reunited with their father,  but Jöchi had withdrawn to his latest ulus north of Aral and Caspian seas, and there he remained until his death; he was not destined to see his father again in his lifetime. Perhaps the ascendancy of his younger brother Ögedei as heir-apparent to Chingis Khan, as well as his continuous differences of opinion with Chagatai, had embittered him sufficiently to turn away from court life and seek the solace of the steppe. 

During the siege of Gurganj, Jöchi had engaged in extensive negotiation with the town to persuade it to surrender peacefully and save it from destruction. This action was seen as militarily unsound by Chagatai, but since Chingis Khan had promised the city to Jöchi after his victory, there was much infighting. Chingis Khan finally intervened in the Gurganj campaign; bypassing both Jöchi and Chagatai he appointed Ögedei as the commander of the operation. Ögedei resumed the war vigorously; Gurganj was captured, sacked, and its inhabitants duly massacred. Jöchi, who seems almost humane by the standards of the day, apparently pleaded again for sparing the population, but was overruled by his brothers. Juvaini states that 50,000 Mongol soldiers were given the task of executing twenty-four citizens each, which would mean that 1.2 million people were killed. While this is almost certainly an exaggeration, the sacking of Gurganj is considered one of the bloodiest massacres in human history.

At a family qurultai called in 1222, the issue of Jöchi's legitimacy had been brought up again by Chagatai. Chingis Khan made it clear that Jöchi was his legitimate first-born son, but he worried that the quarrel between the two would split the empire. As for Chagatai, his quarrel with his older brother disqualified both of them; in any case, while a devout Chingisid, Chagatai was considered dour, dull and not able to attract bright followers. While Tolui was allowed to inherit his father's lands by custom, he was a habitual drunkard and Chingis did not see him as capable of being the Great Khan.

When in the spring of 1923, Chingis Khan sent orders to his sons to set out to meet him, Jöchi did not appear out of the Qipchaq steppe. Only when Chingis had moved to Qulan Bashi,  did Jöchi "come up from the other side" (presumably the western bank of the river) driving as gift a thousand horses and large herds of wild asses before him; but he did not come into camp to meet his father. That was to be their closest approach.

(Chinese painting of Ögedei Khan.)

By early 1223, it seems likely that the Great Khan had mentally selected Ögedei, the third son, as his successor. He communicated this decision to his sons and put it in writing as a decree. For the sake of preserving the Empire, and fearing the wrath of their father, Jöchi and Chagatai agreed, but rifts created by this decision never healed. It is possible that Chingis Khan held a qurultai on the banks of the Syr Darya in January 1223, or perhaps it was sometime later, on the Qulan Bashi steppe. Thanks to the Chingis Khan Stone we know that Chingis Khan held another formal gathering on his return, located in the ulus of his brother Khasar's son Yesungge.

"When, after the conquest of the Sartaul [i.e. Muslim] people, Chingis Khan assembled the noyans of all the Mongol ulus in the place called Bukha-Sujihai, Yesungge shot an arrow 335 sazhens [400 meters]." 

The succession decision was likely broadly cemented in one of these fora. Chingis Khan then journeyed on to the Talas and the Chu. He summered on the Irtysh in 1224, before finally reaching Mongolia in 1225. Here he sent for Jöchi again, but without success; Jöchi apologized that he was ill and asked for a pardon. Chingis was given wrong information, by court intriguers,  that Jöchi had been seen out hunting. Sensing rebellion, and fearing Ögedei's anointment was getting compromised, Chingis Khan ordered Chagatai and Ögedei to lead their armies against Jöchi, not realizing that his firstborn was by now close to death. Before it could come to open hostilities, however, news came that Jöchi had died in February 1226. Chingis Khan wept when he received news, during his last campaign against the Tanghut in China, that his eldest son had died.

(Above: Jöchi Khan's mausoleum near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.)

Chingis himself was dead within the year. The Mongol ulus lumbered along for nearly two years without a Khagan, during which time Tolui - as guardian of the hearth - acted as regent. Some have interpreted this interregnum as a period of mourning; others have imputed a power-struggle between Ögedei and Tolui. Tolui's sons Kubilai and Hülegü were more capable than the branch of Ögedei; Chingis Khan in fact regarded Kubilai as highly as he did Jebe, Jelme and Subutai; eventually the Empire was to reach its zenith under the Toluids. After two years of Tolui's regency, a qurultai was held on the Kelüren River in 1229 to decide the future of the Empire. Seven of Jöchi's sons journeyed east from the Qipchaq steppe to join Chagatai, Ögedei, Tolui, and the other noyans. On the 41st day, after much merrymaking, Ögedei was finally elected Khagan in line with Chingis Khan's written orders. He ordered 40 beautiful girls to be sacrificed to join the soul of his father.

Below, we journey to the Tuul river valley - the ulus of Tolui.

Sunday, September 1

Yolyn Am

We are driving up to the Zuun Saikhanii Nuruu (the Eastern Beauty) of the Gurvan Saikhan, all the way up to the river canyons that thread their way across the range. We climb from about 4000 ft to about 8000 ft; the dry steppe turns to green meadow up high. Our destination is Yolyn Am (Mongolian: Ёлын Ам, or Lammergeier Valley.) The Yol, or Lammergeier, is an old-world vulture, resident of high crags in mountains from the Caucasus, to India, Tibet and Mongolia; hence Yolyn Am is often translated to Valley of the Vulture.

We drive in a landscape without fences or roads. Across these limitless fields you can drive on one of a braid of tracks, or not. At the top of a hillock here and there stands a yurt.  There is no one about as you drive up. In the far distance there are some sheep or camel, the family is out in the pasture halfway to the horizon,  the door of their empty yurt flaps in the steppe wind. If you look carefully, shading your eyes against the sun, on that ridge faraway is a member of the family, silhouetted against the sky on his or her horse, raising their hand high and waving in greeting. They are too far away to hear you, perhaps even see you wave back, though they have doubtless seen the SUV climb up their hills from miles away.

Mr. M has mastered the prayer offering to the chortens that dot Yolyn Am canyon. He goes around thrice each one. One Two Three - Neg Hoyr Gurav in Mongolian. A little stone picked from the ground tossed to the mound, added to the stones of all the other travelers passing through. Occasionally, the superstitious have tucked in some money under the rocks. Mr. M extracts a few small togrog bills from 'Zaya, one goes under the rock and the rest disappear into his pocket.

This area of the Gobi is dry, yet Yolyn Am has a deep ice field from accumulated winter snow for most months of the year. The ice field is several kilometers long, but by the height of summer it is nearly gone, rushing out of the canyon as a meltwater creek that appears suddenly and then vanishes underground.

The vultures sweeping high in the sky seem to be fed on a staple of pikas. The pika is a small Altaic marmot-like creature with short limbs, rounded ears, and no external tail - a member of the family Ochotonidae, within the order of lagomorphs which also includes the Leporidae (rabbits and hares). The name 'pika' is derived from the Tungus. Unfortunately, these otherwise cute animals are supposed to carry the plague, with up to 20% of the burrows of Ochotona mongolica infected in some places, so Mr. M gingerly picks his way through their colonies.

It is about 5 kilometers across the canyon. The steep walls of thick rock are in places a few arm-spans apart, at the bottom of this well it is cold in the shade, even in this late-summer. The 'strictly protected area' at the Vulture's mouth was originally established to protect birdlife - as we walk down the sunless gully, high above us fledgelings are launching themselves from their eyries and learning to fly over the vast nothingness all around this sliver of green.

On the walk back, shy local children who have been trailing us all day approach to bob and smile. Hello! Hello! What's your name? Bayarsaikhan - Joyful Beauty. What is yours?

We go around the last chorten. Neg. Hoyr. Gurav.