The Mongol invasion of Central Asia is one of the turning points in the history of the region. That event left imprints that were still discernible in the early twentieth century. The Mongols had such a lasting impact because they established the tradition that the legitimate ruler of any Central Asian state could only be a blood descendant of Genghis Khan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Mongol conquest of Central Asia, which took place from 1219 to 1225, led to a wholesale change in the population of Mawarannahr. The conquest quickened the process of Turkification in the region because, although the armies of Genghis Khan were led by Mongols, they were made up mostly of Turkic tribes that had been incorporated into the Mongol armies as the tribes were encountered in the Mongols' southward sweep. As these armies settled in Mawarannahr, they intermixed with the local populations, increasingly making the Iranians a minority. Another effect of the Mongol conquest was the large-scale damage the warriors inflicted on cities such as Bukhara and on regions such as Khorazm. As the leading province of a wealthy state, Khorazm was treated especially severely. The irrigation networks in the region suffered extensive damage that was not repaired for several generations. *

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The consequences of the attack of the Mongol hordes were truly horrible. Arminius Vambery has observed, in regards to the territory of what is now Central Asia, that ‘no part of all Asia suffered so severely from the incursions of the Mongolian hordes as the countries bordering on the Oxus and the Yaxartes’. On top of the immediate consequences of the invasion, such as depopulation, interruption of trade links and decay of cities, which were overcome to an extent in time, was that it had dramatic, long-term ramifications for Mavarannahr. The military expeditions of the Mongols were not accompanied by large-scale resettlement and sedentarisation of nomadic peoples from Mongolia. Transoxiana was treated as a source of booty to be procured during periodic raids and as a grazing ground for herds. In the absence of state-sponsored maintenance, the irrigation systems declined gradually, and vast spaces of arable land turned to pastures or even desert. In the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, whole clusters of villages and small towns disappeared from the map of Mavarannahr, especially in the basin of Syr-Darya.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Genghis Khan in Central Asia

In 1218, a caravan of Mongol merchants was sent by Genghis Khan to Khwarizm, a Muslim empire that stretched to the Caspian Sea and included parts of present-day Afghanistan and Iran. The merchants were sent to give the shah of Khwarizm gifts of jade, ivory, gold and cloaks of valuable white camel hair.

Suspecting that were spies, a Khwarizm governor ordered the merchants killed. An ambassador sent by Genghis Khan to the Khwarizm shah was also killed. The great khan was pissed, and he vented his fury with a string of massacres against Muslim kingdoms beginning with Utrar and Bukhara in 1219.

Before the murder of the merchants, Genghis Khan had been fairly calculating in his conquests. The killings turned him into a kind psychopath bent on revenge. The killing of the ambassador was a particular heinous crime one historian said because the "Mongols believed in the absolute inviolability of ambassadors."

By the time the Mongols were through in Central Asia maybe 30 percent of the population there was massacred. To this day the agriculture and irrigation systems have not been repaired in some devastated areas.

Counterattacks Against the Mongols in Central Asia

Muslim forces lead by Shah Muhammad's son Jalal ad-Din failed in their attempt to retake Kharizam in 1223 but they did defeat the Mongols in one battle: courageously charging the Mongol army when they were pinned against the Indus River. Genghis Khan admired Jalal ad-Din's bravery. When the Muslims jumped into the river to escape capture, Genghis forbade his archers to shoot them down, saying, "Such a son must a father have!" As for Muhammad he was chased by the Mongol general Jebe across Central Asia to Iran, where he died of pleurisy and was buried as a peasant.

After seizing all of western Turkestan, Genghis Khan returned to the kingdom of Xi Xia near Tibet to mete out Mongol justice to a king who refused to supply troops for the Mongol campaign in the west. After the Mongols finally captured the city of Tangut in a brutal, hard-fought battle, the Tangus rulers and most of the citizens are killed. Khan reportedly ordered the extermination of the Xi Xia people and his army reportedly killed "mothers and fathers down to the offspring for their offspring." So complete was the defeat that for all intents and purposes Xi Xia disappears from history.

Mongols in Central Asia After Genghis Khan

Following the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, his empire was divided among his four sons. Despite the potential for serious fragmentation, Mongol law maintained orderly succession for several more generations, and control of most of Mawarannahr stayed in the hands of direct descendants of Chaghatai, the second son of Genghis. Orderly succession, prosperity, and internal peace prevailed in the Chaghatai lands, and the Mongol Empire as a whole remained strong and united. *

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: After the death of Chengiz [Genghis] Khan in 1227, the Mongol Empire was divided amongst his four sons. While the Mongol rulers in Persia quickly converted to Islam, adopted all major elements of Iranian culture, language in particular, and readily employed local ulamas (Muslim scholars) to staff their relatively complex bureaucratic machine, the situation in Central Asia was quite different. It has been mentioned already that the Mongols themselves did not move in great numbers from their inner Asian heartland. The main force of the Mongolian explosion under Chengiz Khan actually consisted of a number of eastern Turkic tribes. They played an ever-increasing role in the Mongol army and were incorporated into the Mongol oboghs (clans). By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Chaghatai Mongol nobles in Central Asia had been thoroughly Turkicised and, as Samuel Adshead has pointed out, ‘it was Turkish therefore that the collaborators learnt, and Turkish that they passed to the people of the oases generally’. From that time on, the word ‘Turkestan’ gained currency in reference to Mavarannahr (the Arab term for Central Asia). [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

In the early fourteenth century, however, as the empire began to break up into its constituent parts, the Chaghatai territory also was disrupted as the princes of various tribal groups competed for influence. One tribal chieftain, Timur (Tamerlane), emerged from these struggles in the 1380s as the dominant force in Mawarannahr. Although he was not a descendant of Genghis, Timur became the de facto ruler of Mawarannahr and proceeded to conquer all of western Central Asia, Iran, Asia Minor, and the southern steppe region north of the Aral Sea. He also invaded Russia before dying during an invasion of China in 1405. *

Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia

The Central Asia khanate of Chaghatai was ruled by Genghis Khan's second son Chaghatai and his descendants. It embraced most of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and western Xinjiang. From their seat on Lake Balkhash, Asia's third largest lake, in present-day Kazakhstan, the Mongol leader ruled over a rough, frontier kingdom made up mostly of horsemen tribes similar to the Mongols. Chaghatai attempted to preserve the nomadic style of the Mongols. For a while their "capital" was a tent encampment. Over time the Chaghatai became more settled and formed closer ties with their Muslim subjects. Many Mongols converted to Islam and leaders even entertained the idea.

The Chagatai Khanate (Mongolian: Tsagadai Khan Ul) was a Turko-Mongol khanate that comprised the lands ruled by Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, and his descendents and successors. Initially it was a part of the Mongol Empire, but it later became fully independent when the Yuan Dynasty fell in the late 14th century. The Chagatai Khans themselves recognized the sovereignty of the Mongolian Khagans between 1206 and 1270 and 1304 and 1368. At its height in the late 13th century, the Khanate extended from the Amu Darya south of the Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains in the border of modern-day Mongolia and China.[Source: Project Gutenberg ]

The khanate lasted in one form or another from 1220s until the late 17th century, although the western half of the khanate was lost to Tamerlane in the 1360s. The eastern half remained under Chagatai khans who were, at times, allied or at war with Timur's successors. Finally, in the 17th century, the remaining Chagatai domains fell under the theocratic regime of Apaq Khoja and his descendants, the Khojijans, who ruled Xinjiang under Dzungar and Manchu overlordships consecutively.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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