Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Emissaries and Trade Caravans

Having already received an Embassy from the Khwarezmshah and met with Traders from the Khwarezm Empire, Chingis decided to respond in kind by sending his own emissaries to the Sultan’s realm. He took a two-pronged approach. A diplomatic mission would make contact with the Khwarezmshah himself in hopes of establishing the peaceful relations necessary for further trade, and an officially sanctioned trading mission would demonstrate to the Khwarezmshah and his subjects just how how lucrative trading with Mongols could be. The three merchants who had just visited Chingis would accompany the Mongol-sponsored caravan of traders back to Khwarezm and presumably act as intermediaries. According to one account, the embassy was dispatched before the trading mission left for Khwarezm. Another maintains that the embassy left at the same time as the trading mission but then at some point en route hurried on ahead for a meeting with the Khwarezmshah himself. 

The leaders of the diplomatic embassy were three Muslim traders who were themselves from the domains of the Khwarezmshah: Mahmud, from somewhere in Khwarezm; Ali Khwajah from the city of Bukhara, and Yusuf Kanka from the city of Otrār. It is significant that these three men were nominal subjects of the Khwarezmshah but had now engaged themselves as agents of Chingis Khan. That Muslim traders like themselves would work for Chingis demonstrates the ever-widening gap between the ambitions of the Khwarezmshah and the interests of mercantile class of his own empire. As Silk Road traders they might well have considered their services available to the highest bidder, and it would seem that they were not hesitant about throwing their lot in with Chingis Khan, the rising power of the East. For Chingis’s part, he was no doubt eager to use their knowledge of trade networks, their language skills, and their familiarity with the social conventions of Inner Asian Muslims for his own purposes. The fact that they were Muslims obviously did not bother him at all. Since at least the time of the Baljuna Covenant he had dealt with Muslim traders and apparently interacted well with them (except of course for those who tried to cheat him). 

The three emissaries reached the court of the Khwarezmshah sometime in the spring of 1218. Some sources suggest that his court was in Bukhara at the time. The embassy, which did not involve itself in actual trading, did bring numerous gifts from Chingis Khan to the Khwarezmshah. These included a gold nugget “as large as a camel’s hump” which was so heavy it had to be carried in its own cart; ingots of various precious metals, walrus ivory from the northern shores of Asia which had somehow fallen into the hands of the Mongols; musk; and fine fabrics, including a material known as targhu, made from the wool of white camels, each length of which was worth fifty or more dinars

The Khwarezmshah deigned to accept the gifts and granted the three ambassadors a public audience where they relayed the messages sent by Chingis Khan. The Khwarazm Shah, they pointed out, must already know about the great victories of Chingis Khan in the East, including the subjugation of Northern China. The Mongol chieftain now controlled the eastern end of the Silk Road and the riches of the northern Chinese provinces. Likewise, Chingis Khan was fully aware that the Khwarezmshah’s many victories had made him the master of as vast swath of territory from the edge of the Iranian Plateau to the Tian Shan, an area which straddled the great trade routes connecting the Occident and Orient. Chingis was therefore proposing a peace treaty between the two powers and a normalization of trade relations which would allow trade and commerce to flourish between the two powers. Such a relationship, they pointed out, would be equally advantageous to both sides. The merchants added that if Khwarezmshah agreed to this proposal Chingis Khan would consider him “‘on a level with the dearest of his sons’” These men were merchants, not professional diplomats, and thus may not have fully realized how the Khwarezmshah would interpret this remark and what import it would have. 

The next day the Khwarezmshah called in Malmud of Khwarezm for a private interview. The Shah pointed out first that Malmud was a native of Khwarezm and thus nominally one of the his subjects. He then demanded to know the unvarnished truth about the conquests of Chingis Khan. Was it really true that he had conquered all of northern China? Malmud allowed that Chingis had taken the Central Capital of the Jin and subjugated large portions of China bordering on Mongolia. The Khwarezmshah countered with what was really bothering him. Even if he had conquered North China, the Khwarezmshah thundered, this gave Chingis Khan—who was after all an infidel whose true religious convictions were hazy at best—absolutely no right to call him, the mighty Khwarezmshah, the ruler of a great Islamic empire, his son. In the Khwarezmshah’s eyes “son” was synonymous with  “vassal” and the use of the word implied that Chingis Khan considered himself the Shah’s superior. Such an assumption was an outrage and the Shah was infuriated 

Frightened by the Khwarezmshah’s anger over this issue, the merchant quickly backtracked. While it was true Chingis Khan had conquered much of northern China his armies were vastly outnumbered by those of the Shah and he in no way way posed a threat to Khwarazm Empire and its mighty Sultan. Mollified by this flattery the Khwarezmshah finally agreed in principle to a peace treaty between the two powers. But he was not done with the merchant. Malmud must now agree to work as the Khwarezmshah’s spy in the court of Chingis Khan. Fearful for his life, Malmud quickly agreed to act a double agent and was given a precious jewel as advance payment of services to be rendered, thus sealing the deal. 

Armed with a document signed by the Khwarezmshah which apparently proposed a peace treaty but made no mention of trade relations, the merchant-emissaries started back to the court of Chingis Khan. Meanwhile the trade mission which Chingis had authorized was still on its way to Khwarezm. As mentioned, the embassy and the trade mission may have left together and the three emissaries had hurried on ahead of the slower-moving trade caravan. In any case, the caravan continued on to Otrār, one of the first major entrepôts in the Khwarezmshah’s empire. The members of the mission may not have been aware of the outcome of the diplomatic mission. If they were, they might well have assumed that the peace treaty proposal also sanctioned trade, or at least their safe conduct. This would lead to a fatal misunderstanding. The Khwarezmshah had no interest in either peace or trade. 

Chingis himself believed that trade in itself promoted peace, and that the trade mission would contribute to a mutually beneficial relationship between the Mongols and the Khwarezmshah. In a personal message for the Sultan which he sent with the traders he affirmed these beliefs: 
Merchants from your country have come among us, and we have sent them back in a manner that you shall hear. And we have likewise dispatched to your country in their company a group of merchants in order that they may acquire the wondrous wares of those regions; and that henceforth the abscess of evil thoughts may be lanced by the improvement of relations and agreement between us, and the pus of sedition and rebellion removed. 
The trade mission was a sizable undertaking. As an indication of how much importance Chingis placed on it, he ordered his sons and his top army commanders to each provide two or three men from their retinues to make up the party and to provide each of them with a balish of gold or silver as capital for trading ventures. A total of about 450 men were thus selected, all of them Muslims, since Muslims were much more experienced in the Silk Road trade than the Mongols and it was thought they would be better able to deal with their co-religionists in Khwarezm. From this it would appear that Chingis’s sons and army commanders already had sizable contingents of Muslims in their ranks, some of them from Islamic areas which Chingis had already conquered and others from Khwarezm who had already thrown in their lot with the Mongols. Along with the 450 merchants, who were presumable riding camels, the caravan had 500 pack camels laden with trade goods, including gold, silver, Chinese silk, targhu, as mentioned a fabric made from the wool of white camels; and various furs, including sable and beaver. Throw in camel men, cooks, and the usual assortment of hangers-on (religious pilgrims had a way of attaching themselves leech-like to such caravans) and we are probably looking at a string of a thousand or more camels.

The trade caravan was led by four men: Omar Khwajah Utrari (his name implies that he was from Otrār); Hammāl Marāghi; Fakhr al-Din Dizaki Bukhari (apparently from Bukhara); and Amin al-Din Harawi. At least two of these men were apparently from Khwarezm itself, demonstrating yet again that the Khwarezm mercantile class favored trade with the Mongols and vice-versa. As the Russian Orientalist Barthold points out, “the interests of [Chingis Khan] fully coincided with those of the Muslim capitalists.” He adds, however, that “There was not the same harmony between Muhammad’s [the Khwarezmshah] and the interests of the merchants of his kingdom.” This became painfully apparent when the caravan finally reached Otrār.