XLVIII. The Mongol Conquests

BUT in the thirteenth century, while this strange and finally ineffectual struggle to unify Christendom under the rule of the Pope was going on in Europe, far more momentous events were afoot upon the larger stage of Asia. A Turkish people from the country to the north of China rose suddenly to prominence in the world's affairs, and achieved such a series of conquests as has no parallel in history. These were the Mongols. At the opening of the thirteenth century they were a horde of nomadic horsemen, living very much as their predecessors, the Huns, had done, subsisting chiefly upon meat and mare's milk and living in tents of skin. They had shaken themselves free from Chinese dominion, and brought a number of other Turkish tribes into a military confederacy. Their central camp was at Karakorum in Mongolia.

At this time China was in a state of division. The great dynasty of Tang had passed into decay by the tenth century, and after a phase of division into warring states, three main empires, that of Kin in the north with Pekin as its capital and that of Sung in the south with a capital at Nankin, and Hsia in the centre, remain. In 1214 Jengis Khan, the leader of the Mongol confederates, made war on the Kin Empire and captured Pekin (1214). He then turned westward and conquered Western Turkestan, Persia, Armenia, India down to Lahore, and South Russia as far as Kieff. He died master of a vast empire that reached from the Pacific to the Dnieper.

His successor, Ogdai Khan, continued this astonishing career of conquest. His armies were organized to a very high level of efficiency; and they had with them a new Chinese invention, gunpowder, which they used in small field guns. He completed the conquest of the Kin Empire and then swept his hosts right across Asia to Russia (1235), an altogether amazing march. Kieff was destroyed in 1240, and nearly all Russia became tributary to the Mongols. Poland was ravaged, and a mixed army of Poles and Germans was annihilated at the battle of Liegnitz in Lower Silesia in 1241. The Emperor Frederick II does not seem to have made any great efforts to stay the advancing tide.

"It is only recently," says Bury in his notes to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "that European history has begun to understand that the successes of the Mongol army which overran Poland and occupied Hungary in the spring of A.D. 1241 were won by consummate strategy and were not due to a mere overwhelming superiority of numbers. But this fact has not yet become a matter of common knowledge; the vulgar opinion which represents the Tartars as a wild horde carrying all before them solely by their multitude, and galloping through Eastern Europe without a strategic plan, rushing at all obstacles and overcoming them by mere weight, still prevailsƒ.

"It was wonderful how punctually and effectually the arrangements were carried out in operations extending from the Lower Vistula to Transylvania. Such a campaign was quite beyond the power of any European army of the time, and it was beyond the vision of any European commander. There was no general in Europe, from Frederick II downward, who was not a tyro in strategy compared to Subutai. It should also be noticed that the Mongols embarked upon the enterprise with full knowledge of the political situation of Hungary and the condition of Poland-they had taken care to inform themselves by a well-organized system of spies; on the other hand, the Hungarians and the Christian powers, like childish barbarians, knew hardly anything about their enemies."

But though the Mongols were victorious at Liegnitz, they did not continue their drive westward. They were getting into woodlands and hilly country, which did not suit their tactics; and so they turned southward and prepared to settle in Hungary, massacring or assimilating the kindred Magyar, even as these had previously massacred and assimilated the mixed Scythians and Avars and Huns before them. From the Hungarian plain they would probably have made raids west and south as the Hungarians had done in the ninth century, the Avars in the seventh and eighth and the Huns in the fifth. But Ogdai died suddenly, and in 1242 there was trouble about the succession, and recalled by this, the undefeated hosts of Mongols began to pour back across Hungary and Roumania towards the east.

Thereafter the Mongols concentrated their attention upon their Asiatic conquests. By the middle of the thirteenth century they had conquered the Sung Empire. Mangu Khan succeeded Ogdai Khan as Great Khan in 1251, and made his brother Kublai Khan governor of China. In 1280 Kublai Khan had been formally recognized Emperor of China, and so founded the Yuan dynasty which lasted until 1368. While the last ruins of the Sung rule were going down in China, another brother of Mangu, Hulagu, was conquering Persia and Syria. The Mongols displayed a bitter animosity to Islam at this time, and not only massacred the population of Bagdad when they captured that city, but set to work to destroy the immemorial irrigation system which had kept Mesopotamia incessantly prosperous and populous from the early days of Sumeria. From that time until our own Mesopotamia has been a desert of ruins, sustaining only a scanty population. Into Egypt the Mongols never penetrated; the Sultan of Egypt completely defeated an army of Hulagu's in Palestine in 1260.

After that disaster the tide of Mongol victory ebbed. The dominions of the Great Khan fell into a number of separate states. The eastern Mongols became Buddhists, like the Chinese; the western became Moslim. The Chinese threw off the rule of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, and set up the native Ming dynasty which flourished from 1368 to 1644. The Russians remained tributary to the Tartar hordes upon the south-east steppes until 1480, when the Grand Duke of Moscow repudiated his allegiance and laid the foundation of modern Russia.