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Mongol Empire: Chormaquan and the Mongol Conquest of the Middle East

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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It was 1246, and a Franciscan monk named John de Plano Carpini, the papal envoy to the Mongol court in Karakorum, sat listening very intently to some Russian priests at the coronation of Güyük Khan. Carpini's mind absorbed every detail as the Russian priests spoke of the Mongols' past conquests, reciting the names and locations of the Mongol generals. And when they were done speaking, Carpini had accomplished an amazing thing; He had gathered more intelligence than all of Christendom had ever known about these mysterious, terrifying horsemen from the east.

From the Russian priests, he learned of one general in particular named Chormaqan who had had moved against the countries in the Middle East, defeating not only men, but genuine monsters as well. Carpini later wrote that when Chormaqan was crossing a desert he 'came upon certain monsters, so we were told as a certain truth, who had a human shape, but only one arm with a hand, in the middle of the breast, and one foot, and the two of them shot with one bow; and they ran at such a rate that horses could not keep on their track, for they ran by hopping on their one foot and, when they grew tired with this method of progress, then they got along on the hand and foot turning cart-wheels. When this had exhausted them, they ran again in their former fashion.' The Russian priests also told Carpini that after defeating them, Chormaqan sent several of the monsters to Karakorum as envoys to ask for peace.

The monsters may have been a myth, but the Mongol general of the story did indeed exist. Chormaqan Noyan has attained little of the fame that his peers, such as Subedei, Muqali, and Bayan, gained. But it is not for lack of achievement. The majority of the Mongol empire's possessions in the Middle East were acquired in the course of Chormaqan's 10-year campaign; yet most historians of the Mongol conquests tend to focus their attention on the invasions of China and Europe.

The first mention of Chormaqan was during the Mongol invasion of the Khwarazmian empire in 1219-1221. At one point in 1221, Genghis Khan's sons, Jochi, Chaghatai, and Ogedei, after sacking the city of Urgench, failed to set aside a portion of the plunder for their father. This greatly angered the great khan. While his sons sat timidly before the great Mongol leader, he berated them for their avarice and disobedience. Few dared to speak openly to Genghis Khan during his moments of anger, but three quiver-bearers of the keshik, or imperial bodyguard, intervened. The three members, Qongqai, Qongtaqar, and Chormaqan, petitioned Genghis Khan, saying: 'Like grey falcons that have just begun training, the sons are barely learning how to wage a military campaign, and, right then, you rebuke them in such a way, ceaselessly, discouraging the sons. Why? We fear lest the sons, being afraid, will lose heart'.

That display of courage and wisdom impressed the great khan. Although Chormaqan and his fellow guardsmen gained a respite for the three princes, they also sought something for themselves. They requested that Genghis Khan would allow them to lead an attack on Baghdad, which lay outside of the Mongol realm at that time. Genghis Khan considered it briefly and then granted Chormaqan promotion to lead the campaign, while Qongqai and Qongtaqar would remain in the keshik.

Chormaqan Noyan, a member of the Sunit tribe of the Mongols, thus became a general. Yet, his army would wait nine years before finally moving out. Several factors postponed the campaign. The first issue to be resolved was another war and a recalcitrant vassal. The war had broken out after Inaljuq, the Khwarazmian governor of Otrar, massacred a Mongol protected trade caravan and then killed Mongol envoys when they demanded compensation for the outrage. Genghis Khan, who was already campaigning against the Jurchen kingdom of in northern China, quickly assembled another army to move against his new opponent. However, Iluqu Burkhan, ruler of the Tangut kingdom of Hsi Hsia, disobeyed the great khan's order to send troops for the Khwarazmian campaign and his ambassador even dared to say, 'If Genghis Khan's forces are incapable of subjugating others, why did he go as far as becoming khan?' With fighting still going on in China, Genghis Khan could not spare the men to subdue the Tangut. Rather than to let the Khwarazmians go unpunished, Genghis Khan invaded their land and set aside his plans to deal with his rebellious vassal for a later date.

After destroying the Khwarazmian empire, Genghis Khan was free to move against Hsi Hsia in 1226. The Mongol armies quickly laid the kingdom to waste, but before the capital city of Ninghsia, the Mongol war machine stalled and a lengthy siege began. Genghis Khan personally led the campaign, but while hunting, the old warrior's horse was startled and threw him from the saddle. Though seemingly uninjured at first, Genghis Khan slowly grew weaker and weaker, probably from internal injuries. He died in 1227, while the siege of Ninghsia was still going on. His last order was for the king of Hsi Hsia and the population of Ninghsia to be slaughtered. Ultimately the city fell and his last request was carried out. It is not certain if Chormaqan was present during this campaign, but with Genghis Khan's death, no Mongol general could begin a new campaign until they had elected a new khan at the imperial capital of Karakorum. Genghis Khan's chosen successor, Ogedei, one of his four principal sons, was not enthroned until 1229. It was not until 1230, when Sultan Jalal al-Din, an old nemesis of the Mongols, returned to revive Khwarazmian power in Persia, that Chormaqan finally got his marching orders.

Jalal al-Din had defeated Mongol forces on several occasions during the war of 1219-1221. After suffering a defeat by an army personally led by Genghis Khan, however, Jalal al-Din was forced to flee. In 1226, however, he returned to Persia to revive the empire lost by his father, Muhammad 'Ala al-Din II. The Mongol forces sent against him in 1227 were defeated at Dameghan. Another army that marched against Jalal al-Din scored a pyrrhic victory in the vicinity of Isfahan, but was unable to follow up that success.

Believing himself to be safe from further Mongol threat, Jalal al-Din tried to carve a new kingdom out of Iraq al-Jami and the Transcaucasia region. However, in Rum, now part of Turkey, he was defeated by Sultan Ashraf of Aleppo and the Seljuk Sultan 'Ala al-Din of Rum. An envoy of the Ismaili Assassins of Persia came to Bukhara, where Chormaqan was stationed, and informed him of that setback, which revealed Jalal al-Din's weakness. With this information in hand and Ogedei's consent to launch a campaign at last, Chormaqan left Bukhara at the head of 30 to 50,000 Mongol soldiers. Many of his lieutenants were commanders who had fought against Jalal al-Din in 1227 and 1228.

The Mongol army mainly consisted of lightly armored but heavily armed horse-archers. The majority of the officers were ethnic Mongols, however, many of the rank and file were various Turkic nomads who had become Mongol vassals. In addition to the light cavalry, there was a contingent of heavy cavalrymen who carried lances as well as the composite bow favored by the Mongols. With a range of almost 300 yards, the composite bow allowed the Mongols to fight a battle of concentrated firepower, rather than a whirling melee of blades. Furthermore, each Mongol trooper had a string of three to five horses that were trained to live off the land rather than fodder or grain. This allowed the Mongols to maintain their seemingly indefatigable mobility. When one horse became weary, the trooper simply switched horses.

Chormaqan did not immediately set out against Jalal al-Din. Instead, he occupied Persia and Khurasan, two long-standing bases of Khwarazmian support. Crossing the Amu Darya River in 1230 and entering Kurasan without encountering any opposition, Chormaqan passed through it quickly. He left a sizable contingent behind under the command of Dayir Noyan, who had further instructions to invade western Afghanistan. Chormaqan and the majority of his army then entered the northern section of Persia known as Mazandaran in the autumn of 1230. In doing so, he avoided the mountainous area south of the Caspian Sea. That region was controlled by the Ismailis, Shi'ite Muslims known in the West as Assassins. In providing Chormaqan with intelligence on Jalal al-Din's location, they purchased a respite from the Mongol advance.

Upon reaching the city of Rai, Chormaqan made his winter camp there and dispatched his armies to pacify the rest of northern Persia. In 1231, he led his army southward and quickly captured the cities of Qum and Hamadan. From there, he sent armies into the regions of Fars and Kirman, whose rulers quickly submitted, preferring to pay tribute to their Mongol overlords rather than to see their states ravaged. Meanwhile further east, Dayir steadily achieved his goals in capturing Kabul, Ghaznin, and Zawulistan.

At that point, only one major stronghold in Persia, remained outside of Mongol control. This was Isfahan, where Jalal al-Din once turned over 400 Mongol prisoners to the populace to be tortured and executed. After Chormaqan discovered that it could not be quickly taken, he left a strong contingent to lay siege to it. With that obstacle neutralized, he then renewed his advance westward.

The conquest of Persia was achieved without the interference of its would-be defender. Jalal al-Din, although a great warrior, was more of a freebooter than a king. Once the Mongols invaded Persia, he tried to strike alliances with many of his former enemies. He sent emissaries to Caliph al-Nasir in Baghdad, to the Ayyubid sultan Ashraf in Aleppo, and to the Seljuk Turk sultan, 'Ala al-Din. 'If I am removed, you cannot resist them,' he wrote in desperation. 'I am to you as the Wall of Alexander. Let each one of you send a detachment with a standard to support me, and when the news of our accord and agreement reaches them, their teeth will be blunted and our army in good heart'.

Neither of the sultans nor the caliph were swayed by those words. Jalal al-Din had angered too many people during his reign. The enmity between the Abbasid caliphs and the Khwarazmian sultans harkened back to the reign of Jalal al-Din's father. There were even rumors that the caliph himself had written to Genghis Khan, asking for assistance against the Khwarazmian Empire. As for Sultan Ashraf and Sultan 'Ala al-Din, they had recently defeated Jalal al-Din after he had encroached upon their territories. They were eager to see him removed.

With the Mongols already in control of Persia, Jalal al-Din was isolated in Transcaucasia, whose citizens neither loved nor respected him. What he controlled was strictly through brute force, yet for all of his braggadocio and prowess, Jalal al-Din was terrified of the approaching Mongols. When he received a Mongol envoy and learned of Chormaqan's strength, he promptly executed the ambassador for fear that his men would learn how outnumbered they were.

At no point did Jalal al-Din seek a battle with the Mongols once their army crossed the Amu Darya, but that did not discourage Chormaqan. Since the sultan would not come to meet him, he sent a force to pursue the sultan, while the rest of his army subjugated Persia.

Jalal al-Din wintered in 1230 in the lush pastures of the Mughan plain. He did not expect the Mongols, who wintered at Rai, to advance against him. He quickly learned his mistake when he received reports that Mongol forces were seen near Zinjan, a mere hundred miles from his camp. Once they reached the city of Sarab, Jalal al-Din decided to retreat further north. Only five days later, the Mongols reached his new camp and attacked, but the frantic Jalal al-Din managed to elude his pursuers. When his men returned to his headquarters to report the Khwarazmian sultan's narrow escape, Chormaquan was furious. According to the historian Juvaini, Chormaqan asked his officers, 'At the very moment when such an enemy had lost his strength and the veils of concealment had fallen from him, how could they then give him respite and slacken the search?'

After that, Chormaqan assigned one of his lieutenants, Taimas, with the specific mission of hunting down Jalal al-Din. In 1231, Taimas led his forces into the Mughan plain and then into Arran. Jalal al-Din tried to elude his pursuers by fleeing north towards Shirvan and then southward towards Azerbaijan. Taimas did not recklessly pursue his quarry, but took the time to establish Mongol domination in parts of Arran. Thus Jalal al-Din's kingdom shrank further and another base of support, the vital pastures of the Mughan Plain, were cut off to the sultan. Jalal al-Din fled to the city of Ganjak but again that provided only a short respite. When Taimas' soldiers approached, the sultan fled through Kurdistan to the city of Akhlat. There he was able to throw his pursuers off his trail, but instead of withdrawing, Taimas advanced north to Manzikert. Jalal al-Din took the opportunity to lead the remainder of his forces to Amid, where he tried to forge another alliance. As with all of his previous diplomatic overtures, he failed.

It was now winter and Jalal al-Din did not believe that the Mongols would continue their hunt until spring. Thus he dispersed his primarily mounted army, so that the available pasturage could accommodate its horses. He also sent out subordinates to report on the Mongols' whereabouts and relaxed considerably when they reported that the Mongols had returned to Iraq and Persia. Later, when he heard that Mongol troopers were sighted within the vicinity, he dismissed it as merely a rumor. ne night, while Jalal al-Din's camp was recovering from an evening of debauchery, Taimas' forces struck. Again Jalal al-Din managed to escape amid the confusion, this time only because the Mongols saw one of his commanders, Orkhon, riding away with the sultan's banner, and mistook him for Jalal-al-Din himself. That oversight was quickly rectified as another force pursued Jalal al-Din into the Sufaye Mountains. They lost the Khwarazmian sultan, but he did not escape unscathed. While he rode alone, Kurdish brigands slew him for his clothing in the winter of 1231.

Meanwhile, the Mongols did not cease in their attacks on the remaining Khwarazmian forces. The Mongol contingent that had followed Jalal al-Din raided the environs of Akhlat and Erjish. Other units departed southward towards Mardin, Nusaybin, and Khabur. Others even descended upon Irbil before returning to Persia.

While Taimas hunted the Khwarazmian sultan, Chormaqan continued to expand Mongol control into the region. In 1231, he sent an army against the city of Maragha on the eastern side of Lake Urmiya. It resisted and suffered a similar fate to that meted out to other cities that did so-once it fell, its inhabitants were massacred.

Isfahan remained the only Persian city holding out against the Mongols, but it was isolated. Meanwhile, Chormaqan had achieved several goals by sending Taimas to pursue the elusive Jalal al-Din. Keeping the sultan on the move prevented him from rallying support. Second, Taimas established Mongol domination in some of the regions he passed through, preventing Jalal al-Din from circling back and reducing his territory with each passing day. Taimas' pursuit also disrupted other regions through which he rode, not taking the time to conquer them, but leaving them more susceptible to later Mongol attacks.

With Jalal al-Din removed and Persia firmly under Mongol control, Chormaqan moved the army into the Mughan plain in 1233. After resting his forces for a year and allowing the herds that accompanied the Mongol armies to regain their strength, he renewed his offensive. In the winter of 1234, Chormaqan led his army across the Araxes River into Arran toward Ganjak. Despite a valiant resistance, Ganjak's walls were breached by catapult and battering ram in 1235.

At the same time, another Mongol army laid siege to Irbil. Although the city fell to the Mongols and much of its populace was massacred, the citadel continued to hold out. The Mongols eventually withdrew after the citizens of Irbil agreed to send a yearly tribute to the court of the khan.

Chormaqan then gathered his commanders in a quriltai or council to discuss the rest of the campaign in Armenia and Georgia. After they established specific targets, Chormaqan divided his army into several columns. Thus the Armenian and Georgian forces would not be able to concentrate their forces, as it would leave other regions vulnerable to the Mongol flying columns. Rather than launch his renewed campaign immediately, Chormaqan waited until 1238, when the forces of Batu and Subedei were also active to the north in the Kipchak steppe against nomadic tribes and the Russian principalities.

Once the appointed time of invasion arrived, five separate columns, consisting of three major corps and two smaller divisions, moved out. One column, led by Mular, struck into the Kura River valley. Chormaqan led his army into Armenia, while the third major column invaded Georgia under the command of Chaghatai Noyan. The two smaller contingents, led by Jula and Yissaur, rode into regions of Arran and eastern Armenia.

In 1238, Chaghatai Noyan and his lieutenant, Toghta Noyan, captured Lorhe whose ruler, Shahanshah, fled with his family before the Mongols arrived, leaving the rich city to its fate. Toghta then led a division against Gaian, ruled by Prince Avak. Gaian was a fortress of considerable strength. Toghta ruled out a direct assault and had his men construct a wall around it, while opening negotiations with the prince. Surprisingly, when supplies ran short in the castle, the Mongols displayed clemency and allowed many of the besieged to leave unharmed. Eventually Avak surrendered and was sent to Chormaqan's headquarters, then located on the northwestern shore of Lake Sevan.

Toghta Noyan then reunited with his superior, Chaghatai Noyan. Together they proceeded to capture Dumanise and Shamshvilde before moving against Tiflis, the capital of Georgia. Tiflis' fortifications had been razed by Jalal al-Din several years earlier and the city was still indefensible. Upon the Mongols' approach Georgia's ruler, Queen Rusudan, fled to the west, leaving an individual named Goj in charge with orders that 'if the enemy appeared, to set fire to Tiflis, except the palace and the quarter called Isann.' Goj, however, panicked and burned the entire city. As Chaghatai's forces moved up the Kura River more and more Georgian nobles asked Rusudan's permission to submit. The queen, though safe in the fortress of Kutaise, granted it, preferring to spare her subjects from further devastation.

While he completed his conquest of Georgia, Chormaqan received Prince Avak at his camp by Lake Sevan and accepted his surrender on the condition that he provide tribute and also participate in the campaign against his countrymen. Avak immediately agreed, since to refuse would surely have meant execution. In 1239 Chormaqan, accompanied by Avak, marched southward towards the Armenian capital, Ani.

Before the army arrived, Chormaqan sent envoys ahead to demand the city's surrender. The city elders, however, pleaded that they could not surrender the city without the permission of their ruler, Shahanshah, who was already in flight after the sack of Lorhe. Days passed as they awaited word from their ruler and the populace grew increasingly agitated. It was not long before a mob seized the envoys and killed them-an unforgivable offense according to Mongol custom. The city's fate was now sealed.

Chormaqan ordered the assault to begin. Using concentrated fire from numerous catapults, the walls were breached. Even after the city surrendered, the citizens were divided and then massacred.

The neighboring city of Kars quickly sent its submission to Chormaqan after hearing the fate of Ani. Chormaqan, however, was in no mood for clemency, ordering an assault that quickly captured the city. Chormaqan had no intention of laying waste the entire country, however. Once the conquest was complete, he issued orders to the people to return to their homes and live in peace.

While Chormaqan subdued Armenia north of the Araxes River, Mular invaded central Armenia. In 1239 his forces invaded the district of Shamkor, the realm of Prince Vahram. Prince Vahram had an opportunity to stop Mular's vanguard, but he did nothing and waited in his fortress.

Upon arriving at Shamkor, Mular found his path blocked by a deep ditch that surrounded the city. He ordered his men to fill it with fascines. When the defenders burned them, Mular directed his men to fill their deels, or the long Mongol robes, with dirt and empty them into the ditch. In that manner, the ditch was filled and the Mongols soon breached the walls. The population of Shamkor paid for its valiant resistance by being massacred.

From Shamkor, Mular stormed and seized Prince Vahram's other strongholds one by one-Tuerakan, Ergevank, Tavush, Kac'apet, Kavazin, Gag, and Mac'naberd all were taken by storm. Ghataghan, Mular's lieutenant captured Gardman, Charek, Kedabek, and Varsanshod. With the complete subjugation of his kingdom, Prince Vahram had no option but to submit to the Mongols in 1239.

One of the smaller forces, led by Chormaqan's brother Jula, invaded the Karabagh region. After ravaging the countryside, he seized Khatchen in 1238. After a putting up a spirited defense at Hohanaberd, the city's ruler, Hasan Jalal, submitted to Jula. The Mongol general, apparently impressed by Hasan Jalal's defense, accepted the surrender and in turn increased his territory. From that point, Hasan Jelal's was spared from further attacks, under the conditions that he paid tribute and took part in other campaigns in western Asia alongside the Mongols.

The fifth and final corps of the Mongol army, led by Yissaur Noyan, surrounded Hrashkaberd, ruled by Prince Ulikum Orbelean, in 1238. Yissaur soon realized that he would not be able to take the city by force and resorted to diplomacy. Sending emissaries to Orbelean, Yissaur presented two clear options-surrender or starve. Prince Orbelean accepted the surrender terms and was rewarded with many gifts and appointment as a general in the Mongol forces.

By 1240, Chormaqan had completed the conquest of Transcaucasia. These lands would later be the basis of the later Mongol Il-Khanate. Although the Mongols massacred many cities, they also accepted the surrender of several princes. These would later join the Mongols in future campaigns against neighboring Muslim powers, such as the caliphate in Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks, and the many Ayyubid principalities in Syria.

Chormaqan did not overrun the kingdoms he invaded with an irresistible wave of barbarians, but through the slow, steady reduction of resistance. In Transcaucasia, the Mongols never met their opponents in open combat, but faced long arduous sieges in mountainous and hilly terrain. By choosing the summer months to campaign, as opposed to the winter months, when the Mongols usually did so, Chormaqan put the defenders at a weaker position. The summers are dry and the harvests were not in. Many of the fortresses the Mongols not captured due to any deficiencies on the part of their defenders, but due to thirst and hunger. By using several columns, he prevented the Armenians and Georgians from uniting. He further promoted discord by using those princes who submitted through negotiation, or by granting them territory for their services.

A few later Armenian chroniclers attributed the Mongol victory to divine intervention. According to Grigor of Akanc, 'The wise princes of Armenia and Georgia realized that God was giving power and victory to them to take our countries, thus they became obedient to the Tat'ars, and agreed to give them tribute known as mal and t'agar and to come out to them with their cavalry where ever they led them.' The truth, however, was that Chormaqan had conquered a vast amount of territory for the Mongol empire through a well-thought-out, systematic campaign worthy of history's finest strategists.

The conquest of Armenia and Georgia marked the end of Chormaqan's brilliant military career. He remained the military governor of Transcaucasia, though Persia gradually passed under a civil administration. According even to the conquered, he proved to be an able and fair governor. Yet, he lived only two years after completing his conquests. Later in 1240, Chormaqan suffered a stroke that robbed him of the ability to speak and left him paralyzed. His wife, Altan Khatun, ruled in his stead until he died in 1241.


Sidebar: The Keshik: Genghis Khan's Elite Bodyguard
Bodyguards had existed among the nomadic rulers of the nomads before Genghis Khan, but they did not become a permanent and important institution until he established his keshik. More than just a bodyguard, it was the academy for officers and had functions similar to the secret police. Furthermore, the keshik served as the khan's private army and accompanied him into battle.

The keshik originally consisted of 150 men divided into 80 night-guards and 70 day guards. At the quriltai of 1206, Genghis Khan decreed that the night-guards would be increased to 1,000 men. He also instituted a unit of 1,000 quiver-bearers and increased the day guards to 8,000 men.

To fill those positions Genghis Khan commanded that the eldest sons of his commanders of thousands come with 10 companions and a younger brother, and that the commanders of hundred-man units should send their eldest sons and five companions and a younger brother. Finally the commanders of 10 sent their eldest son, three companions, and a younger brother. The common people were not excluded from the keshik. They too could send their sons to join under the same guidelines as the commanders of 10. From that pool, Genghis Khan chose the best warriors. That arrangement gave everyone an opportunity to serve in the keshik, but it also provided the khan with hostages so that he could keep his commanders in check, should the need arise.

One thousand of the recruits were selected by one of the khan's generals, Arqai Qasar, to be the khan's personal guard, who would always be with him during battle. This force was the elite of the Mongol army and was dressed as such, in black lacquered armor and mounted on black horses. The guardsmen also served in the khan's household as falconers, stewards, etc. In that way, the members of the keshik were groomed as officers. They were also given a special status above the regular army. A commander of 1,000 in the keshik had authority higher than an officer of equal rank in the regular army. With rare exception, the generals who led the Mongol armies throughout Asia first rose through the ranks of the keshik before they led an army.

Timothy M. May writes from Stoughton, Wisconsin. He is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes from Stoughton, Wis. For further reading, he recommends Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes; 'Ala al-Din Juvaini's The History of the World Conqueror; and David Morgan's The Mongols.

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5 Responses to “Mongol Empire: Chormaquan and the Mongol Conquest of the Middle East”


  1. 1
    Lauren says:

    who wrote the article on the mongol empire?

  2. 2

    [...] provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors [...]

  3. 3

    [...] have provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors [...]

  4. 4

    [...] provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors [...]

  5. 5

    [...] provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors [...]



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