Saturday, July 9, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | The Khwarezmshahs

Ala al-Din Mohammad, the sultan who had ordered or acquiesced to the Murder Of The 450 Muslim Traders in Otrār, was the fifth of the Khwarezmshahs to rule Khwarezmia. His line began when the Seljuk Turks conquered the province of Khwarezm, the area encompassing the lower reaches of the Amu Darya River and its delta where flows into the Aral Sea. Starting in the 11th century, the Seljuks Turks, originally nomadic tribesmen of Inner Asia, had created a vast empire encompassing much of current-day Turkey, Syria, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Turkmenistan. In the early 1040s they invaded Khwarezmia and after taking control of the province appointed a succession of military governors. In 1073 a Turkish slave-soldier named Anustigin was named governor and given the title of Tastar, or “Keeper of the Royal Washing Bowls”. In 1097 his son Arslantigin inherited the position and assumed the title of Khwarezmshah, thus initiating a line of rulers who would oversee the province of Khwarezm and later the Khwarezm Empire for the next 130 years. 

Arslantigin’s son Atsiz rebelled against his Seljuk overlords in 1141–42 and was defeated in battle, but managed to retain control of Khwarezmia while remaining a vassal of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar. Around this time the Khara Khitai impinged on Khwarezm from the east and they like the Seljuks demanded tribute from the Khwarezmshah. Atsiz’s son Arslan became Khwarezmshah in 1156. A year later the great Seljuk Sultan Sanjar died and Seljuk power in the province of Khwarezm waned. The Khwarezmshah Atsiz still paid tribute to the Khara Khitai, but he had a much freer hand with the decline of the Seljuks and in 1158 he invaded Transoxiania, thus giving rise to the nascent Khwarezm Empire. An invasion of Khorasan, the former territory of the Seljuks (modern-day eastern Iran) was initially aborted, but clearly the Khwarezmshahs were becoming dominant players in Inner Asia during the latter half of the twelfth century. 

Arslan’s successor, Tekesh, pursued his father’s expansionist policies in northern Khorasan while continuing to recognize the suzerainty of the Khara Khitai. To aid in his wars of expansion in Khorasan and elsewhere he sought the aid of Kipchak, Oghus, and other tribesman who nomadized around the Aral Sea to the north of the province of Khwarezm. Most of these Turkmen still followed the ancient chthonic religions of the steppe and while they proved to be fierce and effective warriors they soon earned hatred of the Islamic peoples of Khorasan for their unbridled violence and cruelty. In 1192 Tekesh invested Rayy, one of the leading cities of Khorasan, and claimed much of the province for himself. In 1194 he defeated and killed one of the the last great Seljuk sultans, Toghrul III (r. 1174–1194), cementing his hold on large portions of Khorasan. Tekesh was planning an attack on the Abbasid CaIiphate in Baghdad, the defeat of which would have made him essentially the ruler of the Islamic geosphere, when he died in 1200. 

Tekesh’s son Ala al-Din Mohammad, the Khwarezmshah who would confront Chingis Khan, eventually turned on his Khara Khitai suzerains and attempted to rule Transoxiania independently. He continued his father’s takeover of Khorasan and expanded his empire into northern Afghanistan. In 1217, as we have seen, he attempted to realize his father’s dream of seizing the Caliphate for himself by invading Mesopotamia and its capital of Baghdad. This venture failed, but nevertheless as the year 1218 drew to a close the Khwarezmshah appeared to be the most powerful potentate in Inner Asia. Yet all was not well in the domains of the Sultan. First and foremost, off to the the east loomed the ominous figure of Chingis Khan and his Mongols. 

The Sultan had been warring with the Khara Khitai under the Gür Khan for much of his reign and had only managed to win a decisive battle against them in 1210. Then just one small wing of Chingis’s army under the command of Jochi had swept into the territories of the Khara Khitai and not only quickly defeated and scattered the Khara Khitai forces but had also managed to capture and kill the pretender-Gür Khan Khüchüleg. Now the nascent empire of Chingis Khan were coterminous with his own empire. To make matters even worse, Jebe and His Mongols were seen as the liberators of the Muslims in the western Tarim Basin, while he himself was hated by the Islamic people of Khorasan for the deprecations of the Turkmen unbelievers who had been recruited into the Khwarezmian army by his father and himself. He had also tried to unseat the Caliph in Baghdad, a Sunni Muslim, and replace him with a Shiite sayyed, Ala al-Molk Termedi, thus stoking age-old sectarian rivalries and earning him the enmity of the Sunni majority in his realm. Indeed, there were rumors that the Caliph in Baghdad, Nasir, had initiated contact with Chingis Khan, asking him to attack Khwarezmia and overthrow the Khwarezmshah. Presumably the Caliph did not consider the nomads from Mongolia a threat to the Abassid Caliphate itself. If this is indeed the case, then Nasir, the Abassid Caliph, had made a miscalculation of inestimable proportions. 

And then of course the Khwarezmshah had just overseen the murder of 450 Muslim traders in Otrār, an act which would not endear him to the powerful Islamic mercantile class in his domains, a group whose ambitions were at odds with those of his own to begin with. Then there were the Sufis, orders of mystically-minded Muslims whose networks permeated Inner Asia. According to one modern historian,
 . . . Sufi histories came to claim that it was their spiritual masters who had invited Chinggis Khan to invade and decimate the Muslim world. In their view it was only by weeding out the old corrupt Muslim order that the true and righteous form of Sufi Islam could flourish.
There were also the problems in his own court. The first and foremost was his mother, Terken Khatun. She was originally from one of the Turkmen tribes who nomadized around the Aral Sea north of Khwarezm. Juzjani claims she was the daughter of the Khan of Kipchaq; Nasawi says she came from the Yemek, another Turkmen tribe. Juvaini adds that she was an “A’jami”—a barbarian or someone of non-Muslim birth. In any case, the Khwarezmshah’s father Tekesh had apparently married her in an attempt cement his alliance with the Turkmen tribesmen he needed to prosecute his wars in Khorasan and elsewhere. Juvaini had a low opinion of Terken Khatun’s people:
 . . . mercy and compassion were far removed from their hearts. Wherever they passed by, that country was laid in ruins and the people took refuge in their strongholds. And indeed it was their cruelty, violence, and wickedness that brought about the downfall of the Sultan’s dynasty. 
It was this behavior that had earned their commander-in-chief, the Sultan, the hatred of the people of Khorasan. 

After the death of her husband and the ascension of her son as Khwarezmshah Terken maintained a fiefdom of her own and insisted on keeping her own separate court. Juvaini maintains that from this position of independence she, the Khatun (Queen), thoroughly dominated her son, controlling his finances and giving orders to officials he had appointed. Also, many of her fellow tribesmen had achieved high rank in the Khwarezmian army and their ultimate loyalty was to her and not her son. And if we are to believe Juvaini she indulged in “secret revelries,” although the prim and proper historian does not go into detail about this. It did not take Chingis Khan’s intelligence network long to sniff out this potential riff in the royal family and he would soon attempt to exploit it for his own purposes.