Showing posts with label Chingis Rides West. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chingis Rides West. Show all posts

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Fine Fabrics

In the account of the Three Merchants from Khwarezm it is perhaps significant that only fabrics were mentioned. The Mongols were in need of much else from sedentary societies, including metals for weapons, tools, and utensils, pottery, and grains, but these utilitarian items were seldom discussed. The foremost among trade items, or at least those which attracted the most interest, were silks, satins, damasks, brocades, and other fine textiles. There is no doubt that Mongols loved luxurious fabrics. As shown by the incident in which Chingis showed the three Khwarezm merchants a warehouse stuffed with expensive textiles, the Mongol upper-crust was by 1215 already well-supplied with these expensive trade items. Clothes made from luxurious fabrics were status symbols, and on ceremonial occasions Mongol leaders liked to drape themselves in gold brocades that “would gladden the heart of a Liberace,” as historian of textiles within the Mongol Empire Thomas Allsen puts it. 

The Mongols’ love of such luxuries may have been a reaction to their extremely humble beginnings. At one time, according to Juvaini, the possession of iron rather than wooden stirrups signified a rich and important man among the Mongols, and they were much be likely to be dressed in dog and mice furs and hides than in silks and satins. 

Early on the fact that someone was dressed in clothes made with fine fabrics marked them as someone special. When the Mongols finally defeated the tribe known as the Tatars (c. 1195) the Secret History notes that they captured a small boy who was adorned with gold earrings and dressed in a robe of gold-stitched satin or damask lined with sable fur. Presented to Chingis himself as a prize-of-war, Chingis in turn gifted him to his mother, who on the basis of his clothing and jewelry concluded, “He must be the son of a noble man. The man’s family probably had good origins.” She adopted him as her own son and gave him the name of Shigikhutug. This is the same Shigikhutug who, as we have seen, gained Chingis’s favor by turning down gifts from the Vice-regent of Zhongdu and informing on his two colleagues. (Some have suggested that Shigikhutug was the author, or at least one of the authors, of the Secret History; this assertion has its detractors.) 

As implied by this incident, the Mongols, who themselves had no tradition of weaving, were deeply impressed by luxurious fabrics, and as their status on the Mongolian Plateau rose such materials very quickly became synonymous with wealth and prestige. According to the Persian historian Rashid al-Din, Chingis himself, while camping with his retinue in the Altai Mountains, once observed: 
As my quiver bearers are black like a thick forest and my wives, spouses and daughters glitter and sparkle like a red hot fire, my desire and intention for all is such: to delight their mouths with the sweetness of the sugar of benevolence, to adorn them front to back , top to bottom, with garments of gold brocade, to sit them on fluid mounts, to give them pure and delicious water to drink, to provide verdant pastures for their needs . . .
On another occasion, peering into the future, he sounded a more somber note: 
After us, our posterity will wear garments of sewn gold, partake of fatty and sweet delicacies, sit well-formed horses, and embrace beauteous wives. [But] they will not say, “[all] these things our fathers and elder brothers collected, and they will forget us in this great day
As historian of gold brocade Thomas Allsen points out, most of the commodities Chingis cherished—fatty delicacies, well-formed horses, beauteous wives, etc.—could be found in the steppe. Only luxury fabrics like gold brocade needed to be imported. They were the epitome of luxury goods. “In many ways,” intones Allsen, “gold brocade came to symbolize the glorious future of the Mongolian people and perhaps became the bench mark to measure their success in the quest for empire.” 

Gold brocade was used not only for clothing. It was also used extensively to line the interiors of gers. These were not of course the humble abodes of herdsmen but rather the huge pavilions favored by the rulers. According to Juvaini, Chingis’s son Ögödei had one such seasonal structure erected for his use near the Mongol capital of Kharkhorum (in current-day Övörkhangai Aimag): “And . . . in the summer he would go into the mountains, where there would be erected for him a Khitayan pavilion, whose walls were made of latticed wood, and its ceiling was gold-embroidered cloth, and it was covered all over with white felt; this place is called Shira-Ordu.” Rashid al-Din and the Christian monks and missionaries John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni da Pian del Carpineca [1180–1252]) and Benedict the Pole also described this structure at Shira-Ordu. John of Plano Carpini noted that the “roof above and the sides on the interior were of brocade.” 

Ögödei it would appear favored fabrics from the Islamic world. In one notorious incident he was being entertained by some Chinese actors who had the gall to ridicule Islam in their act. The greatly perturbed Ögödei promptly halted the performance and ordered that fabrics from both China and the Muslim countries be brought in from a warehouse for comparison. The “gold brocades [nasif-na] and garments from Khorasan and Iraq were found to be much superior to those from China,” much to the chagrin of the Chinese actors. 

These incidences involving Ögödei occurred long after 1215, indeed after Chingis’s death in 1227, but they underscore the importance fine fabrics would assume in the Mongol Empire and help to explain why back in 1215 Chingis was so keen on established trade relations with the Islamic Khwarezm Empire to the west, the source of so many of these luxurious textiles.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Three Muslim Traders

Since at least the second century B.C. the people known as Sogdians, inhabitants of the oasis cities of Transoxiania, the land between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, had been trading with China far off to the east. Sogdian merchants around this time were familiar with Chang’an (the Current City Of Xian), which would later became perhaps the most important eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and they also initiated trade with the Xiongnu (Hunni) peoples of current-day Mongolia. According to Chinese sources, 
At birth honey was put in their mouth [so they would be adept at the sweet talk often needed to seal a deal] and gum was put on their hands [so that any money they touched would stick to them] . . . they learned the trade from the age of five . . . and at twelve were sent to do business in a neighboring state.
To the west they eventually extend their trade networks into Iran and across Asia Minor to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. 

Such was their business acumen and the reach of their commercial contacts that their very name—Sogdians—became synonymous with “merchant”, and their language, a early form of Persian, became the lingua franca of the great trade routes which connected the Occidental and Oriental worlds. With the incursion of Arab-speaking Muslims into Transoxiana starting in the late seventh century and the later invasions of Turkic peoples the Sogdians were slowly subsumed and by the tenth century had largely disappeared as a distinct people. Yet the thousand-year old tradition of far-reaching trade networks which they had established lived on in the thirteenth-century Muslim traders of the Khwarezm Empire. According to Juvaini: 
. . . wherever profit or gain was displayed, in the uttermost West or the farthermost East, thither [Muslim] merchants would bend their steps. And since the Mongols were not settled in any town and there was no concourse of merchants and travellers to them, articles of dress were a great rarity amongst them and the advantages of trading with them well known. For this reason three persons, Ahmad of Khojend [now Leninabad in Tajikistan], the son of the Emir Husain, and Ahmad Balchikh, decided to journey together to the countries of the East, and having assembled an immeasurable quantity of merchandise--golden embroidered fabrics, cottons, zandanichi [an exotic fabric produced only in Zandana, a village about fifteen miles north of Bukhara, then part of Khwarezm, now in Uzbekistan] and whatever else they thought suitable—they set their faces to the road. 
It is not exactly clear when this trade mission occurred, nor where they finally encountered Chingis Khan. The Russian Orientalist Barthold suggests that the three merchants accompanied the fact-finding mission of Baha al-Din Razi. Trade, diplomacy, and spying were then, as now, inextricably linked, and it is possible the traders finally met up the Mongol Khan when he was camped on the outskirts of Zhongdu in the summer and fall of 1215. Juzjani, who as noted got a first hand account of the fact-finding mission, does not mention the traders, however, nor does Juvaini, who provides the most detailed account of the trade mission, mention Baha al-Din Razi.

In any case, by the time the three merchants from Khwarezm arrived Chingis Khan was already actively encouraging trade. Merchants arriving at the borders of his domains were given safe conduct passes and their merchandize carefully examined. If officials determined that their wares might be of interest to Chingis himself they were sent to his court for an interview. The wares from Khwarezm were deemed to be of sufficient worth for the merchants to be send directly to Chingis’s camp, wherever he may have been at the time. According to Juvaini, the Muslims were warmly welcomed: “For in those days the Mongols regarded the Moslems [sic] with the eye of respect, and for their dignity and comfort would erect them clean tents of white felt.” 

Perhaps the friendly reception they received made the merchants over-confident. Apparently the merchant Ahmad Balchikh was the first to offer his merchandize directly to Chingis. Unwisely, he set an exorbitant price on this wares, demanding three balish of gold coins for pieces of fabric which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. One balish was probably equal to about seventy-five dinars at the time, so the merchant was asking 225 dinars for a length of fabric which which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. This was an exorbitant markup even by Silk Road standards and Chingis was understandably outraged. “Does this fellow think that fabrics have never been brought to us before?” he bellowed. In order to demonstrate to Ahmad Balchikh that he wasn’t dealing with ignorant and gullible rubes Chingis ordered that he be shown a warehouse bulging with similar fabrics already procured by the Mongols and then confiscated all of the merchant’s goods and put him under house arrest. 

His two companions were called in next. Chary from of the treatment of their fellow trader, they refused to set a price on the their goods, saying simply that brought them for the Khan’s delectation. Mollified by this approach, Chingis then offered them a balich of gold for each length of gold and silk brocade and a balich of silver for each length of cotton and zandanichi. This still represented a handsome profit for the merchants. Chingis then released Ahmad Balchikh and bought his confiscated fabrics at the same price. Obviously he wanted to remain on good terms with these merchants who could provide him with the luxurious fabrics that he valued so highly.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part IV

The Mongols would not have long to enjoy their plunder. In July of 1214, when they were fattening their horses on the steppe, came the disturbing news that Emperor Xuanzong had abandoned Zhongdu, the Northern Capital. On 30,000 carts, and accompanied by 3000 camel loads of treasure, the Jin court and government had left Zhongdu and was on its way to the Southern Capital (current-day Kaifeng), hopefully out of reach of further Mongol incursions. Many Jurchens viewed this apparent refusal to face the Mongol threat head-on as abject cowardice on their part of their leadership. Mutinies broke about among Jurchen troops and even more units defected to the Mongols. The Southern Sung Dynasty, sensing the impotence of the Jin, refused to cough up the tribute it had previously promised to pay them. Chingis Khan, after the humiliating terms he had early imposed on the Jin, considered them to be subordinate to the Mongols, indeed part of the nascent Mongol Empire, and he viewed the move south as a treacherous attempt on the part to Jin Emperor to regroup and continue the fighting, despite the treaty agreements of early 1214. Obviously the war with the Jin was not over. 

In the autumn of 1214 Mongols armies again poured off the Mongolian Plateau, and by the end of the year the Northern Capital of Zhongdu was once more invested. The court and government may have fled, but the inhabitants of Zhongdu, including the army units that had remained, were by no means ready to surrender their walled and well-fortified city. In their earlier battles with the Xi Xia the Mongols had failed to take any major fortified cities due to their ignorance of siege techniques. This weakness again manifested itself. The walls of the city refused to yield, and a brutal war of attrition played out through the winter and spring of 1215. Food supplies within the city were soon exhausted and according to the Secret History, “the remaining soldiers, who began to grow thin and die, ate human flesh.” 

When a relief train sent to the beleaguered city was captured by the Mongols the defenders knew they were doomed. The commandant of the Northern Capital, Wayen Fuxing, committed suicide, and in late May or early June of 1215 troops led by the Khitan Shimo Mingan, who as we have seen had defected to the Mongols back in 1211, forced their way into the city. A month-long orgy of looting and mayhem ensued. According to one account, 60,000 women and girls committed suicide by throwing themselves from the city walls in order to avoid capture by the Mongols. This was no doubt an exaggeration, but a large part of the populace was massacred and much of city burned, but not before huge amounts of loot was seized . . . Continued.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part III

The invasion began in May of 1211. This was no small move on Chingis’s part. The Jin Dynasty, despite the symptoms of dynastic decay which had been reported to Chingis by his various spies, was still one of the five or six great sedentary states of Eurasia. The Jin state had a population of perhaps 40,000,000, although only around 3,000,000 of the populace were Jurchens, descendants of the original Jurchen tribesmen from Manchuria, the rest being Han Chinese and other indigenous peoples. The Jin state could muster 150,000 or so cavalrymen, most of the Jurchens, and 300,000 to 400,000 infantrymen, most of them Chinese. The loyalty of these Chinese infantry was, of course, in question. Still, according to one modern historian, “the Jin army retained a reputation as the most powerful military state in the known world.” 

Chingis had under his overall commanded one army of perhaps 50,000 cavalry led by himself, and another army of 50,000 cavalrymen led by three of his sons. His ranks would soon be swollen with discontented tribesmen and deserters from the Jin. 

The Mongols first confronted the Onggut, a tribe of nomads which guarded the southern rim of the Mongolian Plateau on behalf of the Jin Dynasty. Their leader Alakush quickly defected to Chingis along with many of his troops, demonstrating just how tenuous a hold the Jurchens had over many of their subject peoples. Loyalists along the Onggut reacted by assassinating Alakush, but at the urging of his nephew and heir the rest of the Ongguts soon fell in line and joined the Chingis’s forces. Several towns near present day Zhangjiakhou (earlier known as Kalgan) on the very edge of the Mongolian Plateau, quickly fell to advancing nomads, and more border troops deserted. Liu Bailin, the Jin commander of the town of Weining defected, and would go on to play a leading role in the defeat the the dynasty. 

WIth the Mongols, their ranks now swelled with former Jin auxiliary troops, poised on the very edge of the great ramparts overlooking the farm lands northern China and within a couple days ride of the Central Capital of Zhongdu (Beijing), the Jurchen court panicked and put out peace feelers, apparently thinking that this was just a another Mongol raid in search of quick loot and that Chingis could be bought off with some suitable bribes. When this initial overture was rejected, an senior envoy, a Khitan man by the name of Shimo Mingan who knew the Mongolian language and had earlier met with Chingis in Mongolia, was sent north with more serious peace proposals. Shimo Mingan promptly defected to the Mongols and was made a commander of both Mongol detachments and of native Chinese troops who had now turned on the Jurchens  . . . Continued.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part II

During Chingis Khan’s rise to power he had sought of patronage of Tooril, the powerful ruler of the Kerait Tribe who was headquartered in the valley of the Tuul River not far from current-day Ulaanbaatar. Tooril had recognized the nominal suzerainty of the Jin and apparently paid tribute to to them. In return he was awarded the title of Wang (or Ong) Khan. As one of Tooril’s vassals Temûchin also received a minor title from Jin Dynasty and may have also paid tribute. There are also hints that Temüchin sought refuge among the Jurchen during the low points in his early career when he was being hounded by more powerful Mongol tribes. 

Chingis Khan and the Wang Khan would later fall out and the Keraits would be defeated, calling into question the Jin title Temüchin had received as one of the Kerait ruler’s vassals. The Jin, for their part, still believed that Chingis Khan owed loyalty and tribute to them, even after he had been confirmed as leader of all the Mongols at the 1206 convocation on the Onon River. The Jurchens were no doubt aware that having became the most powerful ruler on the Mongolian Plateau Chingis now posed a direct threat to themselves, but at the time they were embroiled in war with the Song Dynasty in the south of China and could not confront Chingis directly. 

In 1208 the Jin Dynasty finally sought to clarify their relationship with Chingis Khan. The Jin emperor Zhangzong sent his uncle Wanyan Yunji, the Prince of Wei, north to reaffirm their suzerainty and receive tribute from Chingis. 

The Mongol Khan met with the prince but refused to make the proper signs of obeisance. It soon became clear the Chingis no longer recognized the Jin as his overlords. No mention was made of tribute. The infuriated Prince returned to China and began mobilizing troops to attack the Mongols. In late 1208 Emperor Zhangzong died and Wanyan Yunji became the new ruler of the Jin Dynasty. The attack was postponed, and instead Wanyan Yunji sent ambassador to Chingis with the news that he was now the Altan Khan (Golden Khan), as the the Mongols called the Jin Emperor, and that Chingis should declare his loyalty to him. Chingis, however, apparently had not been to impressed by Wanyan Yunji at their previous meeting. According to one account, when Chingis was asked by the ambassador to make obeisance to the new emperor he “flew into a rage” and stormed: “‘Is an imbecile like [Wanyan Yunjii] worthy of the throne and am I to humble myself before him?‘” He answered his own question by turning to the south and spitting in the direction of China. The ambassador was dismissed and Chingis rode away to the north. The import of these actions was clear to the Jin Emperor; Chingis Khan had declared war on the Jin Dynasty . . . Continued.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part I

Earlier I wrote about the Uighurs and the Xi Xia. Now I must finally turn my attention to the Jin Dynasty, also known as the Jurchen Dynasty (1115–1234).

The people known as Jurchens who went on to found the Jurchen, or Jin Dynasty, originated around the timbered basins of the Amur, Ussuri, and Sungari rivers in Manchuria, in what is now northeast China. Their language was Tungusic, an eastern extension of the Altaic language family and closely related to Manchu, the language of the people what would later create the Qing Dynasty. 

Almost nothing is known of their history prior to the tenth century a.d. Apparently they began to use iron only in the early eleventh century. One tribe of the Jurchen, the Wanyan, began making farming tools and weapons from iron and on the basis of this new technology soon dominated their neighbors. Under the leadership of a chieftain known as Wugunai (1021–1074) the Wanyan soon assumed leadership of a loose confederation of the various Jurchen tribes. Wugunai, according to contemporary histories, “was addicted to wine and women and could outdrink anyone,” but he was also a warrior of legendary stature  . . . Continued.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Xi Xia | Tanguts

With the Uighurs Securely in His Corner Chingis was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Xi Xia. The people of Xi Xia, known as Tanguts, founded the Xi Xia Dynasty, or “Great State of White and High,” in 1038. The Tanguts were a people of Tibeto-Burman extraction who had developed a prosperous agrarian and livestock breeding culture and occupied well-fortified towns and cities. They aspired to some level of culture and soon developed their own Writing System, based on Chinese ideograms, which they used to translate both Tibetan Buddhist texts and the Chinese Classics. While espousing Chinese culture they also practiced Tibetan-style Vajrayana Buddhism. They also maintained a large army and at their height were one of the strongest military powers in Inner Asia. Like the Uighurs they sat astride the Silk Road, controlling the vital Gansu Corridor, a narrow strip of land between the rugged mountains to the south and the inhospitable deserts to the north through which Silk Road caravans had to pass.
A document in Xi Xia writing system, based in Chinese ideograms
Xi Xia Tantric Deity 
Xi Xia Buddha
Xi Xia Monk
Another Xi Xia Monk
Xi Xia Deity
Stele Base, without the stele, depicting a Xi Xia woman; let’s hope they all did not look like this.
The West Pagoda in Yinchuan, built in 1050, near the start of the Xi Xia Dynasty
The North Pagoda in Yinchuan; 1500 years old, it pre-dates the Xi Xia Dynasty.
Another view of the North Pagoda
Another view of the North Pagoda
Tomb of one of the Xi Xia emperors, located on the outskirts of Yinchuan
Two of the nine tombs of Xi Xia emperors on the outskirts of Yinchuan

The intertribal warfare in Mongolia itself at the beginning of the 13th century had decimated the livestock herds of the nomads, and the early Mongol raids into Xi Xia,  in 1205 and 1207, were mainly attempts to capture large amounts of livestock which were then driven back to Mongolia. These raids, however, were enough to alert the Tanguts to the danger of the nomads to the north, who like wolves swooped down on their herds, and the failure of the Xi Xia ruler at the time, Li Chunyu, to protect his domains may have led to the palace revolt which deposed him in late 1207. The new ruler Li Anguan, perhaps hoping to placate the Mongols and buy time, give Chingis one of his daughters as a bride. At the same time he strengthened the country’s defenses in anticipation of another Mongol attack. He didn’t have long to wait. Having subdued the Uighurs to the west without a battle, Chingis was now ready for a full-scale onslaught on the territory coterminous with north China plain controlled by the Jin Dynasty, his ultimate target. 

In early 1209 Chingis himself led an army 650 miles south to the domains of Xi Xia, and soon captured the border town of Wulahai. The Xi Xia armies rallied, however, and a stalemate ensued until the end of summer, when reinforcements arrived from Mongolia. The Tanguts were soon driven back to their fortified cites, including their capital of Ningxia, current-day Yincheng, on the Yellow River. A weakness of the Mongols was soon revealed. Although masters of horseback warfare on the open steppe they had very little if any experience in besieging fortified cities. Having surrounded the Xi Xia capital, Chingis attempted various stratagems to capture the city, including diverting the waters of the Yellow River in an attempt to flood the city, but by the end of 1209 none of them had succeeded. In the meantime, the Xi Xia ruler had sent messengers to the Jin ruler in Zhondu (near current-day Beijing), asking for assistance against the Mongols. His advisors recommended sending an army to relieve the besieged city, arguing that if Xi Xia fell the Jin themselves would be Chingis’s next target. The emperor responded, “It is an advantage to my state if its enemies attack each other. What grounds do we have for concern?” No relief army was sent, and the Xi Xia were left the to their own devices. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation on the part of the Jin emperor. 

In January of 1210 the Mongols themselves suffered a setback when the waters of the Yellow River, perhaps diverted by the Tanguts themselves, flooded their own camp. Faced with a stalemate, negotiations began between the Chingis and the Xi Xia ruler. Control of the countryside by the Mongols was a fait accompli, but Chingis offered to let the Tanguts keep control of their cities as long as they provided auxiliary troops for the Mongol army. The Xi Xia ruler declined, pointing 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.”  He did offer to provide the Mongols with herds of camels and other livestock, trained falcons, wool garments, silk cloth, and as a final sweetener another one of his delectable daughters as a bride for Chingis himself. Although the Tanguts were allowed to remain as figureheads in their own country, most of their territories were now effectively controlled by the Mongols. For the moment Chingis was satisfied with the outcome, but he would never forgive the Tanguts for refusing to provide him with troops. Before he died he would return to Xi Xia and exact a terrible revenge. 

The defeat of the Xi Xia served a number of purposes; the campaign had been good training for the upcoming war with the much for stronger Jin Dynasty, Chingis’s ultimate target, and it had revealed weaknesses in the Mongol army, namely their ignorance of siege techniques, which would have to be corrected before any further campaigns against fortified cities. A springboard for the invasion of the Jin Dynasty  domains from the west had been secured, and the Mongols now controlled the Gansu Corridor, the bottleneck through which most of the caravan routes which originated in Xian and other Silk Road terminuses had to pass. The Mongols now sat astride the Silk Road from the boundaries of the Jin Dynasty domains in the east to the western edge of Uighuristan in the Tarim Basin. The road has been cleared for Chingis’s attack on the Jin Dynasty, the current rulers of northern China, still considered the richest source of plunder and the ultimate prize by the nomads from the Mongolian Plateau to the north. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mongolia | China | Xinjiang | Chingis Rides West | Uighurs

By the close of the year 1215 Temüjin, the Mongolian chieftain known to the world as Chingis Khan, was sitting pretty. Nine years earlier, in 1206, he had succeeded in defeating and bringing under his rule most if not all of the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, and in a Great Assembly of the tribes on the Onon River he had been confirmed as Chingis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongols. He then cast his gaze to the south, to the great sedentary civilizations of China which for over a thousand years had been the plundering grounds of the nomads to the north. As early as 1205 his forces had raided the borderlands of the kingdom of Xi Xia, centered around the modern-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces of China, and returned with huge hauls of camels and other livestock. In the autumn of 1207 an more ambitious raid raked in more plunder and even managed to capture the town of  of Wolohai, near current-day Tingyuan, in the Alashan region. Still not ready for a full-scale assault on Xi Xia, the raiders returned to their Mongolian homeland in the spring of 1208. 

Meanwhile, the people known as Uighurs, who occupied many of the oasis cities to the north and south of the Tian Shan Mountains in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China, were alerted to the rise of the Mongols and decided to make a strategic alliance with them. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the Extensive Ruins of Their Old Capital of Ordu Baliq (“Royal Camp Town”‚ also known as Kharabalgasun), can still be seen near the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag) had since the 1130s been under the thumb of the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China who had migrated westward and set up a powerful confedaration centered around current-day Uzbekistan and the western Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China. The Uighur ruler Barchuk, who held the the title of Idikut  (“Sacred Majesty”) may have sensed that the Mongols were the ascendent power in Inner Asia. If Chingis succeeded in defeating Xi Xia, immediately to the east of the Barchuk’s domains, he would no doubt soon turn his armies on the Uighurs themselves. By aligning himself with the Chingis early Barchuk may have thought could free himself from the Kara-Khitai  and at the same time avoid a devastating attack by the Mongols. He was of course gambling that the suzerainty of the Mongols would be less onerous than Khara-Khitai domination.

In the spring of 1209 Barchuk dispatched an embassy to the court Chingis with an offer to accept the suzerainty of the Mongols. “If you, Genghis Khan, show me favour, I will be your fifth son and will place all of my strength at your disposal.” Chingis agreed and even offered up one of his daughters, Altun, as a bride for the Idikut. Chingis stipulated, however, that Barchuk must come to the camp of the Mongols and make obeisance to him personally, adding that the Idikut should bring with him gifts of “gold and silver, small and large pearls, brocade, damask, and silks.” (Here, incidentally, was an early indication of the Mongol fascination with fine fabrics—brocade, damask, and, silks—which later motivated Chingis to turn his attention westward, to the Islamic realms of Transoxiania, one of the main sources of these rich materials.) Barchuk agreed to accept Mongol suzerainty in 1209, making the Uighurs the first sedentary people south of the Mongolian Plateau to come under Mongol rule, but just to be on the safe side he bided his time until 1211, awaiting the final outcome of the Mongol war against the Xi Xia, before finally appearing in person at the court of the Mongols on the Kherlen River in central Mongolia.

In any case, Chingis had by 1209 gained a valuable ally in Barchuk and the Uighurs. He could now invade Xi Xia without fear of an attack from his western flank and he could utilize the administrative and intellectual abilities of the much more cultured Uighurs. Plundering a sedentary culture was one thing, ruling it and successfully collecting taxes was another.  The Uighurs would provide much of the expertise needed to govern the lands which Chingis would conquer, and they would provide the hitherto illiterate Mongols with a writing system adapted from their own Uighur vertical script. This Uighuro-Mongol vertical script would remain in use in Mongolia until the adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 20th century, and since the early 1990s it has enjoyed a modest resurgence. 

Just as important as the Uighur’s intellectual acumen was the location of the land they occupied. With their summer capital of Qocho (also known as Gaochang, Qarakhoja, Houzhou, etc.) near current day Turpan, on the south side of the Tian Shan Mountains, and their winter capital of Beshbaliq, near current-day Jimsar, on the north, and controlling a host of other oasis cities strung out like beads on a necklace from Hami in the east to Kucha in the west,  the Uighurs sat directly astride the main trunks of the Silk Road between China and the great Islamic civilizations of Central Asia and the Mideast. 
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Buddhist Temple at Beshbaliq
The glacier-capped Tian Shan, one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, separating the Zungerian Basin in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Uighuristan at this time was still largely Buddhist but Islam was inexorably advancing eastward, led not only by conquest but by ostensibly peaceful Muslim traders on the Silk Road. By adding Uighuristan to his domains without a battle Chingis gained an invaluable window to the West through which he may have gotten a first tantalizing glimpse of the fabulously rich and cultured Islamic civilizations shimmering like mirages on the western horizon, a world totally unlike anything the rude nomads from the steppes of Mongolia had hitherto imagined possible. For more see Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion of Bukhara, Samarkand, and other Great Cities of the Silk Road, 1215-1221.