At a time when England was still getting over the Norman conquest and Europe was headed into the High Middle Ages, the Khwarazmian Empire was on the rise in Central Asia. It encompassed more than 3.6 million square kilometers at its height, making it one of the largest ancient empires in history. In 1219, it reached its zenith as the largest, most powerful dominion in the Muslim world. It might have gone on to eclipse Rome, China, or any number of ancient empires in our collective memory – had it not intentionally raised the ire of a certain Mongol chief named Genghis Khan.
The Khwarazmian Empire spanned across massive parts of Central Asia, covering areas we know today as Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and parts of Pakistan. It was a tough neighborhood at the time but for 200 years, the Khwarazm was on the rise.
Khwarazm Shahs continuously expanded their borders, capturing more and more territory over the years. Muhammad II came to power in 1200, and set about attacking his rivals and neighbors, with mixed results. Fortune eventually tipped his way, however, and he made vassals or corpses of those rivals, put down rebellions and pushed the borders of his empire to the Persian Gulf.
It wasn’t too long before Muhammad’s luck ran out, however. After demanding recognition from the Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad and not getting it, he sent an army to depose the Caliph. It never made it. Caught in a snowstorm, thousands perished, but Muhammed didn’t take the hint. Then, the Mongols came.
The Shah’s initial contact with the Mongols came when a general named Kuchlug fled from an advancing Mongol army. The Mongols crossed into Khwarazm territory to hunt him down. Genghis Khan had no intention of invading Khwarazm. After his own general, Jebe, retrieved Kuchlug, the Great Khan sent emissaries from Mongolia to Muhammad’s empire.
Khan was at war with the Jin in China at the time and had only conquered two-thirds of the territory but was still invested. Genghis Khan was more interested in opening trade relations with the massive Khwarazmian Empire instead, as evidenced by the large caravan of merchants that accompanied the emissary from the Mongol court.
Relations between the two ancient empires were initially very good. Kuchlug was a shared enemy and his defeat and execution benefitted both Khan and Muhammad. So the Mongols invested a lot of wealth in the caravan sent to the empire, but when it arrived in the Khwarazm-controlled city of Otrar, the governor, Inalchuq, seized the caravan and executed the emissary and its merchants under charges of espionage.
Khan, in an uncharacteristic display of diplomacy, sent three more emissaries to the Shah as a peace gesture. He asked that Inalchuq be handed over to the Mongols for punishment. The Shah murdered all of the Mongols in the party, which Genghis Khan took as a personal insult. It was an insult so harsh that Khan abandoned his war against the Jin and moved his forces west, toward Muhammad’s empire.
In 1219, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Mongols came down on Khwarazm, which was still forming an administration to govern and recovering from its recent conquests and was not ready for any invasion, let alone one from history’s greatest conqueror. Khan and his armies didn’t just capture every major city in the largest empire of the time, they destroyed them and did it all within two years.
One by one, Bukhara, Samarkand, Gurganj, Herat, Nishapur, and Merv, some of the largest cities in the world at the time, were laid waste by the Mongols. After taking Bukhara, he gathered the city’s elite in the great mosque, climbed to pulpit and said the gave badass victory speech in history:
“O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
Muhammad was forced to abandon his ancient empire and fled west. Mongol generals followed him all the way to the Caspian Sea. The Shah fled them once more to an island in the middle of the Capsian, where he hid until he died. After two years of fighting, Khan went right back to China to continue the war against the Jin.