|Photo by Riddleone|
If you want to strike fear into the heart of any Iranian, just mention the name, Genghis Khan. This 13th-century Mongol conqueror is known throughout the world for his ruthlessness and brutality, leading a destructive force that cut a swath of devastation across a vast empire. He may have embarked on his trail of terror through China, Central Asia, and Persia more than 800 years ago, but memories are long in that part of the world.
Over the years, my husband and Iranian friends have related blood-chilling stories like this: When Genghis Khan invaded Iran, he killed more than 100,000 men, ripped out their eyes, cut off their sightless heads, and mounted them atop bloody spikes on the outskirts of town as a warning to the local populace.
When the Mongols invaded Kashan, according to another tale, the men all fled to the rocky shelter of the Suleiman Spring, where they hid until the danger had passed. When I heard this story, my first thought was: So they left the women and children alone and unprotected? Well, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way.
It’s not easy to separate the historical facts from the legend surrounding this Mongol emperor, whose given name was Temujin. Genghis Khan was his title, and it meant “universal ruler.” His reputation for brutality may have been accurate, but you don’t build and conquer empires without having some sense of military strategy. So accounts of his ruthlessness and cruelty likely grew more horrific over the centuries.
However exaggerated the reports may be, historians agree that the Mongol conquest of Persia was not a campaign planned carefully in advance. Instead, it came about as an act of retribution (one that apparently got way out of hand.)
In 1218, after Genghis had conquered northern China, he sent a trade envoy to the Turkic-Persian ruler of the Khwarezmid Dynasty, Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, whose territory covered an area now occupied by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The shah, however, suspected the envoys of being spies, so he killed their leader and shaved the beards of the other merchants before sending them back to the Mongols.
The Khan responded by attacking Persia with an enormous army (some say it was as large as 200,000 men). His strategy was to offer a choice to the leaders of each town he approached: If they surrendered to him, he’d spare their lives. If they didn’t, he’d slaughter every man, woman, and child. Despite the fact that he made good on his word, only two Persian towns surrendered—Yazd and Shiraz—and they were indeed spared the usual bloodbath.
The caliph of Baghdad, who was hostile to the Persian shah sought an alliance with the Mongols by sending them a regiment of Christian prisoners he’d captured during a Crusade. But Genghis had a huge army already and no use for possibly disloyal Christians, so he freed them and sent them back to Europe. It took less than two years to destroy the Khwarezmid Dynasty, after which the Mongol forces pushed west into Georgia, the Crimea, Bulgaria and east to India and China. Eventually, his empire stretched from China to the Black Sea.
The Mongol conqueror likely earned his reputation not just from his military campaigns but from what happened to the countryside in the aftermath. The invaders laid waste to Persia’s sophisticated system of qanats, underground aqueducts that made it possible to grow crops in the desert. This destruction, combined with the decimation of Iran’s population, led to labor shortages and famines throughout the rest of the 13th century.
Genghis Khan died less than a decade after his destructive conquest of Persia—under mysterious circumstances. The accounts vary, with some saying he fell off his horse after a battle, weakened by injury and fatigue. Another story has him felled by pneumonia. The most dramatic tale is this: A captured Chinese princess castrated him with a small dagger she’d managed to conceal in her clothing. An inglorious death for a warrior—and perhaps a bit of poetic justice.