The astute reader might remember this battle from such blog posts as “Today in European history: the Mongols sack Kiev (1240).”
Or not, I wouldn’t blame you.
The 1240 siege of Kiev occurred on the Mongols’ second incursion into the eastern European steppe, the one that was intended to conquer territory. The first incursion amounted to a raid, but holy mackerel, what a raid. By 1221 the Mongols’ first invasion to their west, to obliterate the Khwarazmian Empire in Central Asia/eastern Iran, was over, although straggling remnants of the Khwarazmian polity would survive for another decade. Instead of turning around and heading home, however, as most of the Mongol army was doing, two generals–Jebe and Subutai–asked for permission from Genghis Khan to take 20,000 men on an extended (1-2 year) expedition further west. The intent, again, was not to take and hold new territory but simply to scout out these western lands, assess the kingdoms controlling them, take whatever booty they could scrape up, and then return home a little richer and a lot better informed. This was 20,000 mounted men campaigning entirely on their own, with no expectation of resupply or reinforcement, and really no assurance that they’d be returning home, for two years. The fact that they pulled it off is a testament to how unbelievably skilled the Mongols, from their top commanders all the way down to the greenest cavalry fighter, were at ever facet of 13th century warfare.
Jebe and Subutai led their men west through the region known as “Persian Iraq,” modern west-central Iran, sacking major city after major city, and north into Azerbaijan, where they were bribed to leave the wealthy city of Tabriz alone. They kept pushing north into the Caucasus, defeating a substantially larger Georgian army, before turning south again and campaigning in western Iran again. They considered sacking Baghdad but instead decided to sack the Iranian city of Hamadan, an easier target. Later they pushed back into the Caucasus, and by the end of 1221 they’d defeated another Georgian army and were raiding that kingdom at will.
It was apparently only at this point that Jebe and Subutai were given the green light by Genghis Khan to go on their extended raid–everything they’d done to this point had just been vamping, waiting for an answer to their request. Continue reading