The meteoric rise of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan

This second part is devoted to the rise of the Mongol empire during the life of Genghis Khan. If it does not reach its peak during his reign, it is nevertheless during this period that it will expand most rapidly. It is also a pivotal time because it is at this time that the Mongols, following a dispute with the Khwarezm, a Turkic-speaking empire, will take the decision not to extend any more towards the east, but towards the west. . This reversal will fail to bring them to Europe.

We had seen earlier that the Uighurs joined the Mongols in 1209. This event, although it may seem trivial, is nevertheless very important for two reasons. First, it marks the Mongols’ takeover of the Silk Road, a famous trade route that connected East to West. This then allowed him to tax trade on the largest place of exchange at the time in order to finance his campaigns. Secondly, it will mark the first phenomenon of acculturation which will become a constant during the Mongol conquests. Acculturation is the fact that a conqueror does not impose his culture on the subject country but, on the contrary, borrows its strengths. During the submission of the Ouigours, the Mongols who previously did not have their own writing adopted this cultural attribute from the Ouigours. Continuing their conquest of China, the Mongols will submit the same year the Western Xia. Two years later, the Mongols will attack the Jin, a Chinese dynasty founded a hundred years earlier and related to the Manchus. After four years of continuous progress in 1215 the Mongols will plunder and raze Beijing, massacre the population and raze the city. It will take them another nineteen years for the Jin dynasty to collapse definitively under the combined action of the Mongols and the southern Chinese who rallied to Genghis Khan. It is then estimated that Genghis Khan would have eliminated a fifth of the Chinese population to submit them.

Empire of the Rising Sun vs. Empire of the Setting Sun

Three years after looting Beijing and dealing a blow to the Manchus from which they will never recover, a significant historical moment will tip the Mongol empire into another dimension. On this date, Genghis Khan wishes to conclude a trade agreement of equal to equal with the head of Khwarezm, a Turkish-speaking empire of Muslim obedience centered on current Uzbekistan.

He then deals with Shah Ala ad-din Muhammad in order to secure his empire and the conquered territories. This agreement provided that the West of Asia would return to the Shah of Khwarezm while the East would return to Genghis Khan, one being the master of the lands of the rising sun while the other is the master of the lands of the setting sun. However, this will not happen as originally planned. Indeed, the agreement hardly concluded, the shah betrays the alliance. A caravan of 500 men coming from Mongolia was stopped at Otrar on the borders of Khwarezm and its men massacred. Genghis Khan, wishing to have an explanation, then sent three ambassadors to seek compensation. But Ala ad-din Muhammad decides to put one of them to death while the other two are sent back to Mongolia with their heads shaved. This affront is seen by Genghis Khan as a declaration of war. He then decides to gather a huge army in order to bring this empire to its knees.

Destruction of Khwarezm, Western Xia and death of Genghis Khan

In 1219 Genghis Khan attacks the empire of Khwarezm. According to historians, during this conflict the Mongol soldiers were outnumbered by the Khwarezm soldiers. They will therefore integrate soldiers from the defeated countries and in particular the Chinese. This decision will help them enormously because they will have to lay siege to certain cities. Indeed, the shah, knowing that these horsemen of the steppes were accustomed to fighting on horseback but were not very comfortable laying siege to towns, grouped his soldiers together in fortified enclosures. But the Chinese who are sedentary will then strongly help them during this campaign thanks to devices such as catapults which launched bombs with black powder also called gunpowder that the Chinese were historically the first to master. With this Sino-Mongolian alliance, Genghis Khan will only take two years to defeat the armies of Khwarezm. He will then engage in blind violence resorting to looting and the systematic destruction of the cities of the country. A year later, he returned to Mongolia. His rest will be short-lived. Two years later, the Chinese kingdom of the Western Xia, the same one he had subjugated at the beginning of his reign during the time of the Ouigours, rose up. The ensuing campaign will be fatal both to the Western Xia who will be systematically eliminated but also to Genghis Khan who will die in 1227 under mysterious conditions. According to historians, several hypotheses clash. Either he would have been killed in battle by the Western Xia, he would have fallen off his horse, he would have succumbed to an infection in a wound or he would have been stabbed by a princess of the Western Xia taken as the spoils of war.