A Medieval Age of Disruption: On Nicholas Morton’s “The Mongol Storm”
By Nile GreenJuly 15, 2023
The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East by Nicholas Morton
Over the past half-century, researchers have reconstructed the Mongol onslaught and its aftermath from sources in a dozen different languages, from Old French, Greek, and Armenian to Arabic, Syriac, Chinese, and of course Mongolian. To answer his question, Morton draws these specialist studies together, alternating between the larger geopolitical scale—e.g., which states survived?—and the smaller personal scale of individuals who, by wit, luck, or sheer willpower, managed to stay alive and even flourish as the shadowy slayers from the steppe settled into the role of slightly more recognizable rulers.
Opening his study as Mongol horsemen began to appear on the eastern horizons of Muslim Central Asia, Morton leads readers through the tumultuous century that followed. Taking a real-time approach, he reconstructs events, and consequences, as they unfolded, while using those multilingual sources to view developments from the perspectives of different players in the great game of defense, capitulation, and the occasional attempt at manipulation. At the political level, the players were many since the region that Morton surveys, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the River Oxus, was a jigsaw of different states. At the start of the Mongol century, this jigsaw included the dominions of Turkic Saljuqs in Iran; Kurdish Ayyubids in Syria and Egypt; Frankish knights who had ruled Constantinople since the Fourth Crusade; Armenian-ruled Cilicia; the tiny Byzantine states of Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus; the Latin Crusader kingdoms in Greece and the Levant; the remnants of the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq; the Turkic Zangids who ruled from Mosul to the north; the Christian Georgians who policed the supposed iron gates of the Caucasus; and, holding the eastern marches of this vast Christian-Muslim condominium, the Khwarazmian Empire with its capital at Gurganj in today’s Turkmenistan.
Having mastered this medieval chessboard in his previous books on the Crusader states, Morton is a skillful guide to the countermoves that followed each Mongol campaign. Over the course of 12 chapters, he shows not only how these different ethnic and religious communities were impacted but also how they understood what they were experiencing. By making use of the panoply of sources now available, he transcends military history to describe the religious, economic, and even ethnographic aspects of his story.
We begin in the year 1218, when the first rumors of a formidable unknown force from the east helped shape the outcome—i.e., failure—of the Fifth Crusade. Dispatched five years earlier by Pope Innocent III, the Crusader army that approached the Middle East from the west was defeated by the Kurdish Ayyubids, who reached the peak of their power—ruling the commercially no less than agriculturally fertile crescent from Egypt to Iraq—just in time for the Mongols to turn up. A decade of devastation ensued. When the death of Chinggis Khan in 1227 provided some breathing space, the Ayyubids fell back into fighting their fellow Muslim Saljuqs and Khwarazmians, instead of cooperatively consolidating what was left of their strength.
The return of an apparently invincible external power turned this whirligig of wars on its spinning head. When the Mongols came back with a new leader, they inflicted one crushing defeat after another as they moved west across Iran to traverse the Zagros Mountains into Anatolia. After trouncing the Saljuqs at the Battle of Köse Dağ in today’s central Turkey in 1243, Anatolia was laid open before them. As the minor powers of the region switched allegiances, a rapid diplomatic volte-face saw the former status quo torn to shreds. Among others, the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia and the Byzantine rump state of Trebizond became vassals of the Mongols. Further afield, the ripple effect of refugee migration saw the displaced and traumatized population crowd into the fearful cities just ahead of the storm.
At this point, Morton zooms in on these smaller polities (whether Trebizond, Cilicia, the Crusader kingdoms, or the bigger Bulgarian Empire), most of which were Christian—albeit of quite different varieties. Their intricate internal politics are brought vividly to life as they pursued differing agendas in search of survival. But Latin Crusader leaders at least agreed on a common policy, which they shared with the Catholic powers of Europe: the need to learn more about the alarmingly mystifying Mongols by sending envoys to their leaders. For even if the Great Khan would not convert to Christianity, he might be drawn into an alliance against the Muslim armies hammering at the Crusader castles’ gates.
In one of his book’s most insightful chapters, Morton contextualizes the Mongol reception of these Christian missions in a manner that complicates the “cosmopolitanism” featured in many a world history textbook. Thus, although the Great Khan treated the different religious communities under his control on equal terms, this was because, “as the rightful rulers of the entire world, the Mongols stood above the localised beliefs of its various peoples.” Their outlook was “far broader and imperial: they believed that the blessings they received from the Eternal Heaven gave them authority over every other belief system.”
Here Morton shows his strength as a historian of unforeseen outcomes. For, although such toleration suited both the Mongols and their subjects, it came to have socially destabilizing effects, “disrupt[ing] the norms of everyday life because it removed established hierarchies and placed yesterday’s rulers and ruled on an equal footing.” To Christian politicos, this seemed like a great opportunity to leverage their status still further. But to Muslim elites accustomed to six centuries of hegemony over the Middle East, the Mongols’ leveling tolerance looked a lot less attractive. Completing his history of humankind from Adam and Eve down to the recent Muslim defeats by Crusaders and Mongols, the great Arab historian Ibn al-Athir in 1232 feared that he was writing “the obituary of Islam.”
As it turned out, he had nothing to fear. Not only did the Mongol imperium open new regions for the Islamic proselytizing by wandering Sufis, but Muslims also prevailed in the tight-run conversion race when the Mongol ruler finally embraced Islam. Till that point, however, the course of events suggested that al-Athir’s anxieties were justified, particularly after the fall of Baghdad and the execution of the caliph al-Mustaʿṣim, the last in a six-century lineage of khalifas, or “successors,” to the Prophet Muhammad. While the number of other Baghdadis who perished is still debated, the conqueror Hülegü claimed that his soldiers killed 200,000 citizens (but spared Christians and merchants). From this unfathomable horror in what had till then been one of the biggest cities on earth, Morton flips to the reckonable scale of individual stories, reprising his guiding theme of survival by describing how a musician called Safi al-Din managed to avoid murder by playing music for the Mongol victors, even as a commander raped a singer while he was forced to play on.
Mercifully, the Mongols were soon to meet their match in the new Mamluk rulers of Egypt, an upstart dynasty of Turkic slave-soldiers who owed their rise to the upheavals Morton surveys. The resultant limits set on Mongol ambition by no means mark the end of the book, though, and as a historian of consequences, Morton spends five more chapters unpacking the outcomes of four devastating decades.
As the Mongols shifted tack from conquering to ruling, they found themselves in need of intermediaries with their subject peoples. With rural and urban economies in ruin, this set off a volatile jostling for jobs with the new rulers, who in town and country needed go-betweens from up and down the social ladder. Whether as tax collectors or lawyers, some of these middlemen tried to use their newfound influence to protect their own communities. Other survivors sought simply to enrich themselves. Somewhere in between was Zakariya al-Qazwīnī, who, as Travis Zadeh describes in his recent book, used his steady income as a judge in Mongol Iraq to write what became the most celebrated Muslim work of cosmography.
Other consequences were economic, as decades of disrupted trade were followed by the opening of new commercial routes and markets, especially after the city of Tabriz (in today’s northwestern Iran) became the Mongols’ Middle Eastern capital. Since at the same time a related Mongol state ruled over China as the Yuan dynasty, goods began to move between the two distant capitals of Tabriz and Beijing. Most famous, fabulous, and costly were Chinese silks, whose richly embroidered motifs not only inspired Persian carpets and miniature paintings but also prompted proto-industrial attempts to produce such silks domestically. As such commodities were carried further west, they tempted other commercial actors to follow the pacified caravan routes to China. One of them was Marco Polo, who passed through Tabriz in 1275. The preceding decades of destruction also set in motion a far larger itinerant workforce, such as the Armenian siege engineers who were hired in the crumbling Crusader kingdoms or the Frankish shipwrights who fled those sinking states to work for the Mongols instead.
The pacification of the Mongols also brought problems of its own, at least for some states in the old jigsaw. When Ghāzān Khan converted to Islam in 1295, turning the Mongol khanate into another Muslim-ruled state, it marked the end of the Crusader kingdoms, wedged as they became between Muslim Mamluks and Mongols. As Morton puts it, “Christianity seemed everywhere to be in retreat”—quite a turnaround from the demise of Islam that Ibn al-Athir had contemplated just 60 years earlier. Eventually, Christian Cilician Armenia would also fall to the Mamluks, by which time the shrinking Byzantine Empire was being edged out of Anatolia by the Mongols’ Ottoman protégés. Here lay a final geopolitical irony: as Mongol power was eclipsed by the ascent of the Ottomans, Byzantium found itself in the 1300s more beleaguered than it had been as an ally or vassal of Chinggis Khan’s hordes.
Despite covering a potentially exhausting mass of material, Morton manages to sustain a comfortable narrative canter, enlivened by the occasional thrilling gallop. But this is no tale of bravado and the glory of war. It is a sobering account told with a stark Hobbesian realism, yet with a light writerly touch for all that.
In his focus on the geopolitical big picture, there are aspects of the Mongol century that receive little coverage. Although Delhi lies beyond Morton’s geographical remit, in fending off the Mongols, its Turkic Muslim rulers—upstart mamluk slave-soldiers like their counterparts in Cairo—founded a flourishing capital that won the moniker of qubbat al-islam, or “sheltering canopy of the faith.” The flight of skilled and learned refugees also contributed much to Cairo itself (certainly within Morton’s remit), whose flourishing cultural life has been mapped by Christian Mauder. Nor is much attention paid to the intellectual traffic across the Mongol-linked continent that is the focus of other new work, such as Yoichi Isahaya’s investigations of the transmission of Chinese works into Arabic and Persian and Stefan Kamola’s biography of Rashid al-Din, a Jewish convert to Islam who, as Mongol grand vizier, wrote perhaps the richest medieval history of Eurasia. Except for asides on the fashion for Chinese “Tartar” silks that spread to Paris and Delhi alike, there is also little on the artistic transformations that have preoccupied scholars for decades. Nonetheless, the overall effect of Morton’s approach is to rebalance that positive side of the ledger against the cruelty, turmoil, and anguish of the Mongol storm—the apocalyptic dread voiced in so many contemporary accounts.
Morton does much more than splash blood onto a picture that scholars in recent decades have reframed as a cosmopolitan Pax Mongolica. He also explains the big geopolitical consequences of violence that turned states and societies on their heads, alongside individual responses to its ensuing upheavals. In short, he shows who and what survived the Mongol cataclysm. And though he is cautious about offering lessons for today, he closes with a historian’s warning:
[C]onquerors, in this or any era, may seek change, and they may be successful in setting vast forces in motion, yet these forces—however powerful—can spiral off course very quickly, often towards dark ends, and rarely achieve the objectives for which they were originally intended.
Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He is the author of How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding (2022) and host of the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam.
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