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Genghis Khan

The Mongols

There were two Mongol invasions of Persian lands. The first, led by Changiz Khan, began in 1219 and subsided at his death in 1227. The second was led by Changiz’s grandson, Holagu Khan, in 1253, which resulted in the foundation of the Mongol Ilkhan empire in Iran. There were Mongol incursions into Persian lands both between these invasions and after them. But the greatest disaster that befell Iran, greater by far than any other single event in Iranian history, was those two major invasions, and especially the first, which had no other motive than death, destruction and plunder. The Arab conquest had made a profound and lasting impact on Iran largely because of Islamic rule and the conversions that followed, but the level of destruction was no more than expected by any large scale war at the time; specifically, the Arabs did not draw their swords on the civilian population and there was no wholesale destruction of towns and cities. The Turkish invasion of the Seljuks was even less dramatic, with comparatively little effect on the civilian population; the Seljuks’ religious culture was already the same as the Iranians’.

Changiz was perhaps motivated by revenge and punishment as well as conquest, apart from the fact that the Mongols put little value on human life, and especially that of their enemies. There are near contemporary reports of the total destruction of cities and the massacre of their inhabitants, some with populations of more than a million, many of the cities being in Khorasan but also others beyond. The veracity of these reports has been doubted by some modern historians on a number of grounds.

Changiz Khan

Changiz was a Mongol of noble descent who had united the Mongol tribes under his own leadership and had been “elected” khan by their council. He was already fighting in China, which he regarded as the biggest prize, when he found himself a neighbor of Khwarazm-Shahs’ empire. He sent a friendly message to Ala’ al-Din Mohammad, offering peace and trade, although patronizingly he said that he thought of him as one of his own sons, which may not have been appreciated by the weak and arrogant shah. Next, Changiz sent a number of merchants from his Muslim subjects to Otar on the Persian side of the border between the two countries. The town’s governor apparently thought they were spies, had them killed and seized their goods. One of the merchants got away, however.

When Changiz heard what had happened he fell into a rage and sent three envoys to the Shah demanding that the governor in question be handed over to them. The Shah killed one of the envoys and sent the other two empty handed. Upon receiving this news, and despite the fact that his troops were still fighting in China, Changiz mobilized the available troops and led them into Transoxiana. Mohammad lay idle, apparently thinking that the Mongols would halt before the Oxus. But when the Mongols poured into Khorasan wreaking untold havoc, apart from a brief and superficial victory, he retreated and fled to central north Persia as far as Qazvin, then turned back via Mazandaran and died in the Isle of Absgun, off the eastern coast of the  Caspian sea.

His son, Jalal al-Din Menkaborni, was made from a different fibre as regarded courage and prowess, but he was otherwise tactless and to some extent aimless, wasting time in drinking and merrymaking. He met the Mongols on several occasions in different parts of the country, managing to get away but without once infliciting a crushing defeat. In the last major battle, by the Indus, he fought bravely and when no hope was left jumped into the river together with some of his officers and crossed safely on horseback. According to legend, watching this feat of courage, Changiz told his sons that an army like his needed a general like Jalal al-Din, and a father like him deserved a son like that.

Having spent three years in India, Jalal al-Din then led his forces to Kerman and Fars, where there no Mongol troops, married the daughter of the Atabag of Fars and moved to Azerbaijan and Georgia, fighting secondary foes here and there, although he encountered the Mongols once again in Isfahan inflicting heavy casualties but not winning the battle. Eventually, in 1231, he was ambushed by a Mongol force and fled to Kurdistan, where he was killed by Kurds. Yet he was and remained the hero of the time, for decades Iranians awaiting his return to rid the of the Mongols.

Holagu and the Mongol empire

Meanwhile, in 1227 Changiz had died. In 1251 his grandson, Mangu, became the Great Khan and two major expeditions were planned. The first was to China, led by the renowned Qublai (Kublai) khan, who later became the Great Khan. The second was to Persia, led by Holagu, who later became the Ilkhan. Both were brothers of Mangu and grandson of Changiz.

Holagu led his forces into Iran with the aim of overthrowing the two centers of Islamic faith, the Ismailis in Iran and the Abbasids in Iraq, although his motive was military rather than religious. Ismaili castles fell in 1256 and the head of the community was killed despite his surrender and cooperation. Nasir al-Din Tusi, the great Persian scientist and scholar resident at Alamout castle, accompanied Holagu to Baghdad, which was sacked in 1258, the caliph being beaten to death. Holagu’s later invasion of Syria did not succeed. His troops were defeated by the Egyptian ruler: this was the first check to the advance of the Mongols since the beginning of their campaigns. Yet, as the Ilkhan, he was in possession of a vast empire consisting of Persia, Iraq and parts of Anatolia, centered in Azerbaijan, with Maragheh as the capital, though this was later moved to Tabriz by his son Abaqa.

The Ilkhans ruled Iran for about eighty years, from 1260 to about 1340. Both Sa’di and Rumi were contemporaries of Holagu, in their fifties, though this is not evident from Rumi’s works. Rumi in fact lived in Anatolia, in the safety of Seljuk Rum. Sa’di left his native Shiraz in the wake of the first Mongol invasion. When he returned thirty years later, in about 1255, he celebrated the peace – ‘the leopards had given up leopars-like behavior’- little knowing that Holagu’s troops were on their way.


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