Genghis Khan told his troops, “We must slaughter our enemies, kill them all and show no mercy to the men, women or children. If they don’t surrender, they will surely die, as we will sack every town and city that stands in our way.” Genghis Khan was able to unite the fragmented Mongol tribes, utilizing his genius for organization, and recognizing that their horses along with their riding skill would serve as their strengths. Genghis Khan and the Mongol army rose to power at the end of the twelfth century, at a moment when few opposing rulers could put up much resistance to them. The vast Mongol empire he created stretched from China to Europe, taking control of Asia from the Black Sea to the Pacific.
The Mongol emperor under the leadership of Tolui Khan, the fourth son of Genghis, unleashed one of the greatest catastrophes of the medieval world by destroying the ancient cities of Merv in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, delivering wholesale destruction on an unprecedented scale, as hundreds of thousands were slaughtered from 1220-1223. These cities were special because they were on the northern route of the famous Silk Road, the key trade route which once linked east and west. Merv was an essential staging post for those travelling between north-east Iran and eastern Asia and China. The Mongols looted the city, destroyed the dam on the Murghab river and laid waste to anything they could not carry away.
Most people have probably never heard of Merv, but it served as the capital of a number of empires and kingdoms over the course of its more than 4,000-year-long history. Merv had plentiful water reserves and it was in a supremely strategic location between the Afghan highlands and the Karakum Desert lowlands, so it was always a sought-after geographic prize for Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Greeks which included Alexander the Great.
The Mongol society was made up of tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists who were capable of living off the land. The Mongolian horse was tough and sturdy and they were able to subsist solely on grass, which meant that the Mongol army did not have to carry food for them when they were going into battle. Their enemies called them the horsemen from hell, as when they charged, unity always broke. The fluidly mobile riders could fire arrows in any direction as they rode.
The Mongols also used psychology to throw their opposition off. They would pretend like they were retreating to make their unwary opposition forces charge after them, believing that tide had turned in the battle. The Mongol cavalry would then turn right back around, after having lured a few overconfident souls too close, or they might continue their retreat and dismount their horses. The unmounted archers would shower the pursuing army with arrows, as their more heavily armored cavalry could charge in with their lances. At that point, the battle was as good as over.
Written for Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #43, where I chose the picture showing four horsemen dressed in armor riding across a valley toward a mountain range in the setting sun, because they looked like they were part of a Mongol hoard and not the four horsemen of the apocalypse.