I posted earlier about the Death Of The Naiman Adventurer Khüchüleg. With Khüchüleg no longer in the picture, Chingis Khan was free to invade Khwarezmia and avenge the Deaths of His Envoys to Otrar. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, he announced:
I shall set out against the Sarta’ul people [Khwarezmians],
To take revenge
To requite the wrong
for the slaying of my hundred envoys with Ukhuna at their head . . .”
His anger over the murder of his envoys to the Khwarezmshah may have cooled, but his resolution to exact retribution had stiffened. His intelligence networks would have informed him that while the Khwarezmshah was inflicted by infighting among his family and court and by rising discontent among the populace of his empire, he was still capable of putting half as million or so soldiers into the field. It would not do to ride off half-cocked against such an enemy. Chingis organized the invasion of Khwarezmia in the same step-by-step methodical way he had attacked and finally defeated the Chin in northern China.
As the final preparation were being made to depart from Mongolia one of his wives, Yesüi Khatan, decided it was time to speak up. Yesüi Khatan seemed to hold a special place in the heart of Chingis Khan. She was a member of the Tatar tribe whom the Mongols had earlier defeated. He had first married her younger sister, but the latter soon intimated that her older sister Yesüi might be a better wife for Chingis. In the confusion following the defeat of the Tatars the older sister Yesüi had somehow disappeared. Chingis sent men to track her down and they eventually found her in the company of a man to whom she had been betrothed. Confronted by Chingis’s men, this swain quickly vamoosed. Yesüi was taken back to Chingis and he fell for her forthwith, making her one of his principal wives. Later, the man to whom she had been betrothed sneaked into Chingis’s camp, apparently just to get a look at the women he had once hoped to marry and perhaps still loved. Yesüi inadvertently betrayed his presence by heaving a deep sigh when she saw him. The sharped-eyed Chingis Khan, noticing her reaction, ordered that he be seized and later had him executed. Despite this momentary lapse in her decorum, however, Chingis Khan still had a high regard for Yesüi and valued her counsel. According to the Secret History, she offered the following advice to Chingis Khan:
“The Khan has thought of
Establishing order over his many people,
Climbing high passes,
Crossing wide rivers
And waging a long campaign.
Still, living beings who are but born to this world are not eternal:
When your body, like a great tree,
Will fall down,
To whom will you bequeath your people
Which is like tangled hemp?
When your body, like the stone base of a pillar,
To whom will you bequeath your people
Which is like a flock of birds?
Of your four sons, the heroes you have begotten, which one will you designate as your successor?. . . Your order shall decide!”
Chingis thanked Yesüi Khatan for bringing up a subject which none of his other advisors had dared to broach. “Even though she is only a woman,” Chingis Khan declared, Yesüi Khatan’s “words are more right than wrong.” He then asked Jochi, as his oldest son, to offer his opinion. Before Jochi could get a word in edgewise, Chingis’s second son Chagaadai blurted out, “When you say ‘Jochi, speak up!,” do you mean by that that you will appoint Jochi as your successor? How can we let ourselves be ruled by this bastard offspring of a Merkit?” Here Chagaadai gave voice, perhaps for the first time in Chingis’s presence, what many in the Mongol camp already believed: that Jochi was not actually Chingis Khan’s biological son.
As mentioned earlier, after their marriage Chingis’s wife Börte had been kidnapped by the Merkits, a tribe which dwelled around Lake Baikal to the north of the Mongolian Plateau, and when Chingis finally rescued her she was pregnant with Jochi. Despite the doubts about Jochi’s paternity, which must have been known to most of the Mongol ruling class, Chingis had always accepted him as his son. Indeed, he had sent Jochi on an important expedition to track down and bring to heel the Merkits, and Jochi had not only accomplished that task but had acquitted himself well when confronted by the much larger force of the Khwarezmshah. Jochi now felt compelled to defend his place among his brothers. Grabbing Chagaadai by the collar, he declared:
“I have never been told by my father the Qan that I was different from my brothers. How can you discriminate against me? In what skill are you better than I? Only in your obstinacy you are, perhaps, better. If we shoot arrows at a long distance and I am outdone by you, I shall cut off my thumb and throw it away . . . Let the order of my father decide which of us is better!”
At this point two of Chingis’s most trusted advisers had to intervene and pull the two quarreling brothers apart. Another one of Chingis’s advisers chastised Chagaadai:
At such time your mother was abducted
It was not her wish . . .
She was not running away from her home . . .
She was not in love with someone else . . .
You speak so as to harden the butter of your mother’s affection, so as to sour the milk of that august lady’s heart.
From the warm womb, coming forth,
Suddenly, were you two
Not born of the same belly?
The advisor went on in this vein at length, emphasizing that Börte had gone to great lengths to bring up her sons as equals and that Chingis himself had made many sacrifices for his family, including Jochi, without ever questioning his paternity. Chingis Khan finally broke his silence: “‘How can you speak thus about Jochi?’ he admonished Chagaadai, ‘Isn’t Jochi the oldest of my sons? In future do not talk like that!’” Chagaadai did not dare mouth back to his father, but he could not resist getting in a jab at Jochi, implying in effect that his older brother was all talk and no action:
“Game that has been killed only with one’s mouth
Cannot be loaded on one’s mount;
Game that one has slain only with one’s words
Cannot be skinned.”
After firing off this Parthian shot, Chagaadai relented and promised that in the future he would cooperate with his older brother. He then proposed that Chingis bypass both him and Jochi as the future khan of the Mongols and appoint his third son Ögödei as his successor. Chagaadai may well have been aware that Chingis considered him too hot-headed and stubborn to be a good ruler, and since he was out of the running, it would be better to have his younger brother, whom he could to some extant control, as head of the Mongols, rather than his older brother Jochi, who he clearly hated. Chingis then asked Jochi if he agreed with this proposal. He concurred that he and Chagaadai would cooperate in the future and that Ögödei should be named Chingis Khan’s successor as ruler of the Mongols. Ögödei and Tolui, the youngest of Chingis’s four sons, were themselves questioned and they too agreed to the proposed arrangement. Thus it was decided that Ögödei should succeed Chingis as Great Khan of the Mongols. Chingis Khan, however, no doubt knew his boys very well, and he was not convinced by the promises of Jochi and Chagaadai to cooperate in the future:
“Why should you two go so far as to cooperate with each other? Mother Earth is wide: its rivers and waters are many. Extending the camps that can be easily divided, We shall make each of you a ruler over a domain and We shall separate you.”
For the moment, on the eve of the departure of the Mongol army from Mongolia, the feud between Jochi and Chagaadai had been papered over, but in the upcoming war against the Khwarezmshah the riff would once again become palpable, and it would have incalculable effects on the subsequent history of the Mongol Empire.
In the spring of 1219 Chingis Khan assembled his armies on the Sa’ari Steppe, located in the valleys of the upper Kherlen or upper Tuul rivers, or somewhere in between. At the end of May or beginning of June the Mongol army departed on what would turn into a monumental multi-year campaign into the Islamic lands of Inner Asia. Accompanying Chingis Khan was another one of his wives, Khulan Khatun. Yesüi Khatun had given Chingis exemplary advice, but apparently he considered Khulan Khatun a better bedmate on a long campaign. Also in the front ranks the army were all four of his sons, for the moment reconciled with each other; his adopted son Shigikhutakh, whose career we have already mentioned; various favored nephews; his best generals not already engaged in the continuing struggle with the Chin in China; and a contingent of Chinese or perhaps Khitan officers who had sided with the Mongols.
The amassed Mongols advanced along the north side of the Khangai Mountains and arrived in the upper valley of the Ider River, which combines with the Moron River to form the Selenge, the major river flowing north from Mongolia into Lake Baikal, around the end of June or beginning of July. Near the headwaters of the Ider the army crossed the nearly 10,000-foot Jigestei Pass and moved down the valley of the Bogd Gol in what is now Zavkhan Aimag.
The upper Ider Valley in Zavkhan Aimag (click on photos for enlargements)
Ovoo at the top of Jigestei Pass
Valley on the south side of Jigestei Pass. Chingis Khan and his army no doubt passed this way.
Proceeding southwest through what is now northern Gov-Altai Aimag, the army then crossed the Mongol Altai, probably via the 9715-foot Ikh Ulaan Davaa, in what is now Khovd Aimag. Then as now it was one of the main passes through the Mongol Altai.
The Mongol Altai
View looking north from 9715-foot Ikh Ulaan Davaa (Big Red Pass) in the Mongol Altai
Ovoo at 9715-foot Ikh Ulaan Davaa
Probably by the beginning of August they had reached the basin of the Irtysh River, on the northern side of the Zungarian Depression. On the rich grassland straddled the Black Irtysh Chingis Khan and his men spent what remained of the summer fattening their horses. They no doubt also took time to engage in huge hunts for wild game which not only provided food but also served as training exercises for the troops.
At this time, while camped on the Black Irtysh, Chingis Khan may have dispatched envoys to the various rulers who recognized him as suzerain, including the Idikut of the Uighurs; Burqan, ruler of the Tanguts, Arslan Khan in the Seven Rivers Region; and others, telling them that he expecting their armies to fight by his side in the upcoming war against the Khwarezmshah. Except for Burqan, all apparently agreed to honor their obligations to Chingis Khan. As we have seen, back in 1210 the Tanguts of the Xi Xia realm had accepted the Mongols as their overlords and in Chingis Khan’s view this meant that they were obligated to provide auxiliary troops when he required them. Even back then, however, the Xi Xia ruler had pointed out that “We are a nation of town-dwellers. We would not be in a state to fight as auxiliaries in the event of a long march followed by a heated battle.”7 Now, on the eve of the invasion of Khwarezm, Chingis sent envoys to Burqan demanding that he provide Xi Xia troops for the upcoming campaign. The envoys delivered the message to Burqan, but before he even had a chance to reply one of his army commanders, a man known as Asa Gambu, piped up, insolently wondering how Chingis had ever become Khan of the Mongols if he needed help from others to defeat his enemies. Asa Gambu, apparently speaking on behalf of Burqan, thereupon refused to provide auxiliary troops and instead, according to the Secret History, “sent back the envoys with haughty words.”
Chingis Khan was infuriated by the report brought back to him about the Tangut’s behavior.
“How can we bear being spoken to in this manner by Asa Gambu?” And he said, “The best plan would be for us to send troops against them at once by detouring in their direction. What difficulty would there be in that? But now, when we are indeed moving in the direction of other people, let that pass. If I am protected by Eternal Heaven, when I come back pulling strongly on my golden reins, then surely this matter shall be dealt with.”
Thus he declared that if he lived through the upcoming campaign against the Khwarezmshah he would return and deal with the defiant and recalcitrant kingdom of Xi Xia. Later, in 1227, he would indeed exact a terrible revenge on the Tanguts for their refusal to provide troops during the Khwarezmia campaign. Unfortunately for him, he would die in the process.
By the early autumn, when the grass began to yellow, commanders and men were familiarized with each other and their horses were fattened and well-rested. The march west continued. Most accounts imply, even if they do not state outright, that his entire army proceeded en masse from the Irtysh to the western end of the Zungarian Basin. Leaving the bottom of the basin, they rode through the Bor Steppe and by Lake Sayram, areas which as we have seen were in the domains of Ozar Khan, now claimed by his son Siqnaq Tegin, and then crossed over the Borohogo Range via the Ak-Tasi Pass. Then via switch-backed trails they dropped down the imposing ramparts on the western side of the Borohogo Range into the Ili Valley. (The importance of this route as a gateway from the Zungarian Basin, in current-day Xinjiang Province, China, into the vast Kazakh Steppes beyond, has been underlined by the recent construction of a railway line from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to the city of Korgas, on the Chinese-Kazakhstan border, following this route, with a lengthy tunnel under the Ak-Tasi Pass.)
Lake Sayram in Xinjiang Province, China. Chingis Khan and his army passed this way.
Resident of Ili at Lake Sayram
Resident of Ili at Lake Sayram
Tourist at Lake Sayram
West side of the Borohogo Range
West side of the Borohogo Range
Small valley leading from Ak-Tasi Pass to the Ili River Valley. This is the only route through the Borohogo Range; Chingis Khan and his army must have come this way.
The Ili River in western Xinjiang Province, China.
Valley of the Ili River
The lush Ili Valley
Just a now, in the thirteenth-century the Ili Valley was famous for its fruit; including grapes, vegetables; grain; honey, fish, and mutton. Chingis’s army would have had ample opportunities to stock up on provisions while passing through this area.
Following the Ili River past the last spurs of the mountains they soon emerged out onto the vast steppes of the Seven Rivers Region. Here Chingis Khan rendezvoused with his various allies: from Beshbaliq in Uighuristan the Idiquit of the UIghurs, who had sworn allegiance to Chingis back in 1209; Siqnaq Tegin, the son of the now-deceased Ozar Khan, from the upper Ili Basin; and Arslan Khan, from the Seven Rivers Region, (with 6,000 men, according to Juzjani). Juzjani and other Persian historians numbered the assembled multitude at 600,000 men or more, but this was clearly an exaggeration. Barthold, after thoroughly examining all the various and conflicting accounts, concludes that Chingis’s assembled army, including auxiliaries, numbered about 150,000. The Persian historian Juvaini could barely restrain himself when praising the Mongol troops:
They were archers who by the shooting of an arrow would bring down a hawk from the hollow of the ether, and on dark nights with a thrust of their spear-heads would cast out a fish from the bottom of the sea; who thought the day of battle the marriage-night and considered the pricks of lances the kisses of fair maidens.
This multitude was now ready to descend on the realm of the Khwarezmshah.