When we last left Chingis Khan he was At the Walls of Samarkand. Before addressing the siege of Samarkand, however, we should examine the flight of Khorezmshah.
Chingis Khan may have hurried on to Sarmarkand in the hopes of finding the Khorezmshah himself in the city. After all, since 1212 Samarkand had been the de facto capital of the Khorezm Empire, and when the Mongol threat had first loomed on the horizon the Khorezmshah had personally overseen the repair and upgrading of the city’s fortifications. He had also stationed a considerable portion of his armies in Samarkand, and Chingis might well have expected him to remain in the city and take personal command of his troops. If so, the Mongol khan was disappointed. Upon arriving at the walls of Sarmarkand he immediately received intelligence that not only was the Khorezmshah not in Sarmarkand, but that he fled Mawarannahr altogether. According to Juvaini:
. . . the Sultan withdrew from the conflict, the control of firmness having slipped from his hands and the attraction of constancy having been replaced by flight; while perplexity and doubt had taken abode in his nature; he deputized the protection of most of his lands and territories to his generals and allies.
He had crossed the Amu Darya River into Khorasan “in a state of terror and bewilderment,” according to Juvaini, near the city of Termez and was now holed up in the vicinity of Balkh, in what is now Afghanistan. He professed that he had left Mawarannahr to rally his troops who were stationed in Khorasan for a final showdown with the Mongols, but to many in the cities north of the Amu Darya it must have appeared that their Sultan had abandoned them altogether. Chingis Khan, perhaps remembering How Khüchüleg Had Escaped from his grasp and had remained as a thorn in is side for years afterward, now declared, “It is necessary to make an end to him and be well rid of him before men gather around him and nobles join him from every side.” Chingis would remain behind to invest Samarkand, but he immediately dispatched two of his best generals, Jebe and Sübetei, in pursuit of the errant Khorezmshah. Jebe had of course already earned his stripes by Hounding Down and Killing Khüchüleg in the High Pamirs. Sübetei was an up-and-coming commander who would eventually distinguish himself in campaigns in China, Hungary, and elsewhere and become one of Chingis Khan’s most illustrious generals. Under their command were 30,000 troops, “each of whom was to a thousand men of the Sultan’s army as a wolf to a flock of sheep,” according to the ever-gushing Juvaini.
From Samarkand the Mongol pursuit party rode south 190 miles to the Amu Darya and crossed the river at the well-known Mela Ford, near the town of Panjab sixty miles east of Termez and close to the mouth of the Vakhsh River. The river here currently serves as the boundary between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Ibn al-Athir described the manner of the crossing:
They [the Mongols] made out of wood something like a large water-trough, covered them with ox-hides, in order that they should be water-tight, placed their weapons and utensils in them, led their horses into the water, grasped their tales (with their hands), having fastened these wooden troughs to themselves, so that the horse towed the man and the man towed the trough filled with weapons, etc., and thus everything crossed at the same time.”
Barthold questions this account, citing the scarcity of wood for making troughs along the Amu Darya, and suggests that the Mongols used the method of crossing rivers described by Plano Carpini in which the gear was placed in tightly bound leather bags and not wooden troughs. The men sat on these bags, which served as rafts, and were pulled across the river by their swimming horses.
From here it was about fifty miles as the crow flies southwest to Balkh. The Mongols arrived at city only to find that the Khorezmshah had already fled westward even before they had crossed the river. The city fathers, who at this point had no beef with the Mongols, sent out a deputation to parley with Jebe and Sübetei. The spokesmen, in hopes that Jebe and Sübetei would leave them in peace, offered provisions for the Mongol army and a local guide to assist them in their pursuit of the Sultan. With their eye on their main objective, the Mongol generals led their men onward. Thus Balkh escaped unscathed from this first encounter with the Mongols.
They came next to the city of Zava, the current-day city of Torbat-i-Haidari in Iran, 480 miles south-southwest of Balkh, where Jebe and Sübetei demanded more provender for their troops. Here the city fathers were less cooperative. They closed the city gates and refused to give any assistance to the Mongols. At this point apparently still under orders to track down and capture the Khorezmshah and not to invest cities, Jebe and Sübetei decided to bypass the city. But after they had left word reached them that the citizens of the city were celebrating what they perceived to be a victory by beating on drums and pouring out streams of abuse at the Mongols who were apparently afraid to attack their city. This proved be to be too much for Jebe and Sübetei. The reputation of the Mongols as an invincible force was at stake. They wheeled their army around and returned to put the city under siege. One the third day, according to Juvaini, “they scaled the walls and left not alive whomsoever they saw; and being unable to stay they burnt and broke whatever was too heavy to carry.”
No sooner had they sacked the city than an enormous earthquake, the worse in living memory, hit eastern Khorasan (the area is notorious for earthquakes; huge temblors have rocked the area as late as 1986 and 1997). Juvaini could not resist the conclusion that these two events were somehow connected: “It was as though this fighting and slaying were the clue to the calamities of Fate and the disaster of cruel Destiny . . . an earthquake shook Khorasan, and from hearing that event, whereof they had never heard the like, the people were seized with terror.” Jebe and Sübetei, however, were not to be delayed by mere earthquakes. They and their men hurried on east to the city of Nishapur, sixty-five miles northwest of Turbat-i-Haidari where according to the latest intelligence they had received the Khorezmshah was now holed up.
The Sultan had arrived in Nishapur from Balkh on April 18, 1220. If we are to believe Juvaini, he had by this time effectively abdicated all responsibility for his empire and had returned over the command of his armies to his son Jalal al-Din. For almost a month, until May 12, he instead gave himself over to bacchanalias:
Here he turned his back on the affairs of his realm, amusing himself with songstresses and songs . . . He therefore constantly applied himself to the quaffing of cups of wine and had no fear of the arrows of reproach . . . Because of arranging the jewels on his women he could not concern himself with the training of his men, and whilst pulling down the garments of his wives he neglected to remove the confusion in important affairs.
The Khorezmshah was approached by numerous of the town fathers and other important personages of the area who petitioned him on various matters of state and business—he was in their eyes, after all, still the Sultan of the Khorezm Empire—but all came away “perplexed and bewildered” by his dissolute behavior. Finally, having seen enough of their unwelcome guest, they assembled at the gate of the local vizier, Mujir-al-Mulk, and protested against the unseemly behavior of the Sultan. Mujir-al-Mulk, although a highly respected official, admitted that there was not much he could do:
What you say is perfectly true, and your complaints are fully justified . . . Because of my duties as a pander [qavvadagi, or pimp], I cannot attend to the business of leaders . . . and because I must see to the provision of damsels I have no time to check the registers. Some days ago the Sultan commanded us to provide so and so many ornaments for the singing girls and to do nothing else. The Sultan‘s orders must be complied with . . .
It was at this moment, according to Juvaini, that news arrived in Nishapur that Jebe and Sübetei and 30,000 Mongols had crossed the Amu Darya into Khorasan and now like the very hounds of hell were hot on the trail of the Khorezmshah. The Sultan had indulged in the belief that regardless of what happened to his realm in Mawarannahr he was safe here in Khorasan. Now he was exposed to the harsh light of reality. ‘Having drunk every drop in the goblet of pleasure he ought to have expected the sting of the headache that followed,” pontificated Juvaini, adding “And for every joy there was substituted a sorrow and for every rose was exchanged a thorn.” Alerted to the imminent arrival of the Mongols in Nishapur, the Khorezmshah absconded from the city on May 12, 1220, according to Juvaini.
While Juvaini’s account of the Khorezmshah’s titillatingly scandalous behavoir in Nishapur is certainly entertaining, it must be mentioned that Nasavi, who as the secretary of Jalal al-Din, the Sultan’s son, should have been well-informed on the Sultan’s movements, implies that the latter in his haste to escape the Mongols passed right through Nishapur without even stopping for a day.It is possible, however, that Nasavi did not want to dwell on the reprehensible behavior of the Khorezmshah, the father of his patron, while in Nishapur, and choose instead to simply ignore this interlude.
The Flight of the Khorezmshah (See Enlargement)