10 Major Cities Sacked by the Mongols

Story Stream
recent articles

There was an excellent piece featured on our front page last week about the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 by Mongols, and it was so good that it prompted your correspondent to write a piece about all of the famous cities the Mongols had sacked during their expansionary phase in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Mongol Empire needs no introduction from me, as it spread from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea at its height, becoming the largest land-based empire in all of history. Mongol cavalry, feared and despised throughout the world, overran empires, republics, and kingdoms in China, Persia, Western India (present-day Pakistan), Eastern Europe, and the Levant. Below are the most splendorous cities the Mongols sacked:

10. Kaifeng, 1232-33. Kaifeng was the capital city of the Jurchen Jin dynasty of northern China. At the time of the Mongol siege of Kaifeng, China was roughly divided between three empires, the Xi Xia, the Jurchen Jin, and the Song. The Jurchen Jin were the predecessors of the Manchus in northern China and they had been at war with the Mongols for about 20 years before Kaifeng actually became a target of Mongol ambitions. One of the first major cities to be attacked by Mongol armies, Kaifeng was also one of the longest-lasting sieges, as its garrisons used firebombs, gunpowder, and the resources of the entire Jurchen Jin empire to fend off the assault. Looting was widespread, but Mongol armies spared the plague-ridden, non-aristocratic residents of the city.

9. Hangzhou (Lin’an), 1276. Lin’an, or Hangzhou, was the capital city of the Song dynasty, which ruled over the much wealthier, much more powerful southern part of China. The long campaign to conquer all of China went through Song lands, and the Mongols had an incredibly tough time making their way to Hangzhou. The capital city of the wealthiest polity in China, Lin’an was also one of the largest in the world and housed merchants (and their religious sites) from all over Asia. Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism all competed for the hearts and minds (and money) of Hangzhou’s citizens. The siege of Hangzhou is less famous than many of the Mongols’ other sieges, despite the splendor of Hangzhou, because the royal family, headed by a child and run by a widowed empress -  gave up rather quickly. Song loyalists continued to wage guerrilla war against the Mongols from frontier bases and from neighboring Vietnam (called ??i Viá»?t at the time) for another 20 years.

8. Xiangyang, 1267-73. The Song dynasty was by far the most powerful enemy that the Mongols faced in their conquest of Eurasia. It was larger, wealthier, more populated, and had a better educated populace than any other polity in the world at the time. The siege of Xiangyang, which lasted six years, was actually a siege of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng, which were both heavily fortified and served as the gateway to Song lands. The Mongols had unsuccessfully laid siege to Xiangyang before, and gave up in order to conquer Russia and the entire Middle East instead. Mongol generals brought engineers from the Middle East to oversee the building and use of new trebuchets that eventually gave the invaders their victory over Xiangyang’s defenders. With the fall of the twin cities, Mongols were free to overrun the rest of the Song dynasty’s territory. Most historians consider the sacking of Xiangyang to be the official end of the southern Song dynasty, and with it the cultural and economic power of old China.

7. Moscow, 1382. By 1382, Mongol power in Russia had waned considerably. So much so, in fact, that Moscow’s rulers felt confident enough to challenge the authority of the Golden Horde on the field of battle. After a string of light victories against Mongol cavalry earlier in the year, the Mongols showed up with a large force on the doorstep of Moscow, promising to spare its inhabitants if it surrendered. The poor fools in Moscow believed the Mongols, and 24,000 people were slaughtered as the Mongols sacked the city once again. The siege of Moscow (one of many) reasserted Mongol control over Russia for nearly 100 more years before the Russians were finally able throw off the infamous yoke of the Golden Horde.

6. Kiev, 1240. There is a convincing argument to be made that during the medieval era in Europe, the Slavic world’s cultural, political, and economic epicenter was Kiev rather than Moscow or Warsaw. When the Mongols invaded Europe and plundered Kiev in 1240, the collapse of Kiev indeed proved crucial to the invading army’s success in pillaging Europe’s surprisingly defenseless countryside. Unlike China, which had a densely populated countryside and a few well-fortified cities, or the Middle East, which had virtually no countryside and many well-fortified urban areas, Europe was comparatively rural, or semi-rural . This meant that small urban areas like Kiev fell easily to the Mongol hordes, but it also made it harder for Mongol administrators to govern and tougher for the Mongol military to plunder, siege, and demoralize the populace. None of this stopped the Mongols from wreaking havoc on eastern Europe, of course, but it does help to explain, in part, why khanates in Europe did not share the successes of their contemporaries in the Middle East, western India, and China. Oh, by the way, the Mongols slaughtered 48,000 of the 50,000 people living in Kiev when the city’s defenses collapsed.

5. Baghdad, 1258. Ian Frazier’s excellent piece in the New Yorker, featured here last week, gives a far better account than I could hope to do, so I’ll just outsource Baghdad’s fall to him, but I will note that the Mongol sacking of Baghdad marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age. The Mongols took all of 12 days to destroy several centuries worth of cultural, political, and scientific achievements.

4. Aleppo, 1260. The Mongol siege of Aleppo wasn’t all that noteworthy, and the city itself wasn’t all that important to any of the players involved in the Mongol conquest of the caliphate, but Aleppo is today a famous city (notwithstanding former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson’s famous gaffe) for all the wrong reasons. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Aleppo fell to the Mongols in six days, and like most of the Muslim cities that were conquered by the Mongol hordes, Aleppo’s citizens were callously slaughtered. The Great Mosque of Aleppo, one of the few bright spots in the city’s long, mostly sad history, was also razed. (The Mongol general who led the siege, Hulagu Khan, executed some his local ally’s leaders, who were Christian, for this travesty.)

3. Bukhara, 1220. Located along the Silk Road, Bukhara was at the time of the Mongol invasion of Persia a flourishing center of intellectual and commercial activity, and not just throughout Persia but the whole Muslim world. Scholars, merchants, and mercenaries from Bukhara were famed as far away as China and Germany. It is estimated that 30,000 people died after the Mongols conquered Bukhara, a result of  most of the city surrendering but not the garrison. Thirty thousand was a “moderate” number of people to be killed for Bukhara’s equally moderate resistance to the Mongol hordes. The Mongol invasion of Persia, which was ruled by the Khwarazmian dynasty at the time, happened just as the empire was emerging from expansionary conquests of its own. This meant that the Khwarazmians, while technically governing Persia, had little actual power in the region, and the resistance to the marauding Mongols highlights Persian weakness well.

2. Samarkand, 1220. Samarkand, the makeshift, emergency capital city of the Khwarazmian dynasty, was much larger than Bukhara and much better fortified. (Samarkand, if you’ll remember (https://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2018/01/04/10_cities_that_were_once_capitals_261.html), was made a legitimate, non-emergency capital by Tamerlane 150 years after the Mongol siege and conquest.) The Mongols used prisoners as body shields during the assault, and pulled off a brilliant tactical stunt when they collectively feigned retreat, drawing out the Persian garrison, only to turn on the careless attackers and slaughter them in the open field of battle. Due to the fame of Samarkand far and wide, Genghis Khan spared the inhabitants of the city but did loot it and conscripted another estimated 60,000 for military service or craftsmanship. This left Samarkand, glorious from the time of Alexander the Great, empty of people and empty of riches.

1. Lahore, 1241. Lahore is today the largest city in the Punjabi world, and one of the most important cities in all of Pakistan. In 1241, when the Mongols laid siege to it for the first time, Lahore had already been abandoned for Delhi by elites who were worried about the unrest caused by the Mongol invasions in neighboring countries. When Persia fell, for example, some of the Khwarazmian dynasty’s elite fled to Lahore, where they conquered the city and tried to establish a new dynasty. The locals retook Lahore from the fleeing Persians, but this confusion only weakened the city and by the time the Mongol horde arrived in 1241, Lahore was ripe for the plucking. The Mongols soon lost the city to yet another reconquest by the locals, but this back-and-forth between the marauding Mongols and the local elites rendered Lahore, once a prominent center of Islamic education and culture, a frontier urban area, fit only for fighting and brusque commerce with non-urban peoples. Lahore’s frontier status, while bad for this once-prestigious city, enable the Indian subcontinent to largely avoid the fate of China, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Further thoughts

The most interesting aspect of the Mongol conquests was the Khans’ use of local allies to help them siege and conquer prestigious cities throughout the known world. Against the Jurchen Jin in northern China, the Mongols allied with the southern Song dynasty. When the Mongols turned on the Song, they allied with the northern Chinese. Against the Persians and the Arabs, the Mongols allied with minor Christian states. Against the Russians in eastern Europe, the Mongols used Muslim proxies to help them survey, and then pillage, the land of the Christians.

A savage horde indeed.


Show comments Hide Comments