The Khorezmian Empire: collapse and resistance (part II)

This is a continuation of “The Khorezmian Empire: from slaves to Khorezmshahs (part I)”

The Mongol conquest

The Kara-Khitan Empire, immersed in disarray during its final years, ceased to exist in 1218 when it was conquered by the Mongols. What at first seemed like a positive development for the Khorezmshah, ended being the worst of news. Gone was the buffer between the territories under Genghis Khan and Muhammad II.

The Khorezmshah had harboured the ambitions of conquering China, as delusional as that might sound, but when he found out that was already being done by the Mongols, he sent an embassy to Genghis Khan in 1215. “Tell the Khorezmsah: I am the sovereign of the East, and you are the sovereign of the West! Long may we live in friendship and peace.” Were the instructions given by the Mongol ruler to the Khorezmian embassy. The establishment of trade relations took priority over any other considerations. Further embassies and caravans followed, but a few years later relations took a turn for the worse.

In 1218, the Mongol troops under the command of Gengis Khan’s son Jochi pursued the Merkits north of the Aral Sea, close to Khorezmian territory. Muhammad II wanted to take advantage of the situation by defeating the Merkits and sacking their riches. But when the Khorezmshah arrived, the Mongols had already crashed their enemy. Muhammad was then determined to fight the Mongols instead. Jochi tried to avoid the fight but in the end both sides fought an inconclusive battle for three days during which the Khorezmian suffered heavier losses. It was the Khorezmshah’s older son, Jalal ad-Din Mangburni, who saved the Khorezmians from defeat. After he heard about the battle, Genghis Khan declined to take any further actions. But his patience would not last long.

Later that year, a caravan sent by Genghis Khan reached the town Otrar (Kazakhstan). Its governor was Muhammad’s maternal cousin (or uncle) Inalchuk. According to him, the merchants and envoys were spies, and while there might have been some truth in that, he had them executed. By doing so, he disobeyed the Khorezmshah, who had ordered their arrest but not to be put to death. Genghis Khan reacted by sending an embassy to Muhammad II requesting Inalchuk to be handed over to him to answer for his crimes. His son Jalal ad-Din Mangburni advised him to comply with the request, but the Khorezmshah refused. A great part of the army and its commanders were  from Inalchuq’s kinsfolk, the same as his mother’s. Muhammad said the merchants and envoys had been killed on his orders and ordered the members of the embassy to also be executed. The fate of Khorezm was sealed.

The Khorezmshah convened a supreme military council that presented him with four options: to attack first and surprise the Mongols, to lure them into Transoxiana and fight them there, to wage war from the mountains in Transoxiana or to retreat to Ghazni and resist there (with India as a back-up option if it failed). Muhammad reject the four proposals. He would defend Transoxiana.

Three were the mistakes done by the Khorezmshah. Firstly, he decided to fortify Samarkand when it was too late. Secondly, he abandoned Trasoxiana instead of leading his troops. Thirdly, he distributed his troops across the different towns of Transoxiana and Turkestan, therefore making it possible for the Mongols to deal separately with each of the garrisons.

Genghis Khan’s first target was Otrar. After a 5-month siege the fortified town fell and the notorious Inalchuk was executed. Before that happened, the Mongol army had divided in three, with Genghis Khan leading one of the parts heading towards Transoxiana. One by one, the towns of Khorezm and Transoxiana fell to the Mongols. The ones that resisted faced annihilation. Such was the case with Bukhara, Samarkand and, later, Gurganj.

‘How the mighty have fallen’

When the Khorezmshah learned of the fall of Otrar, he was seized with panic and left Transoxiana. Such was the hurry of his flight that he left large part of his treasure sink in the waters of the Amu Darya. Genghis Khan sent a detachment after him. In the meantime, the weakness of the diarchy became apparent with Terken Khatun reportedly instructing dignitaries and amirs to “leave the sultan helpless.” Going from town to town, Muhammad ended by the Caspian Sea. During his desperate flight some of his mother’s relatives who were travelling with him tried to kill him. With the Mongols closing in, the Khorezmshah boarded a ship and made it for the island of Ashur Ada. Once there he fell ill. In his deathbed he named his son Jalal ad-Din Mangburni as heir. In December 1220, at the age of 51 the Khorezmshah died. His body was first buried in the island, but it was later disinterred to be reburied in Isfahan. However, the Mongols intercepted it and burnt it. Thus ended the life of Muhammad II, son of Tekish and “greatest sovereign of the Universe.”

The Khorezmshah’s mother did not fare much better. She decided to leave Gurganj, but before that ordered for her prisoners, 26 in total who were the sons of different conquered rulers, to be drowned in the Amu Darya. Terken Khatun, accompanied by Muhammad’s harem, managed to reach a fortress in Mazandaran (northern Iran), where they were finally captured by the Mongols. The children were killed while the women were given in marriage to the Mongols. Terken Khatun’s fate was different. She was taken as a captive to Genghis Khan’s court in Mongolia. Her existence there was grim, being forced to eat the leftovers of the khan’s meal. She lived in captivity for over a decade, before dying in poverty in 1233. But not all was lost.


The fall of Gurganj

Learning of Terken Khatun’s flight, Jalal ad-Din Mangburni, together with his brothers Ozlagh Shah and Ak Shah, entered Gurganj. Chaos reigned in the former capital. Despite being supported by the city’s population, Terken Khatun’s relatives and the amirs proclaimed her brother Khumar Tegin as Khorezmshah. They commanded most of the army and conspired to have Jalal ad-Din killed. The son of Muhammad II had to flee Gurganj with just 300 men led by Temir Malik, a commander who had led an heroic resistance against the Mongols in Khujand. Ozlagh Shah and Ak Shah would later be hunted down by the Mongols.

Shortly after, the Mongol army arrived and laid siege to the city. Its inhabitants put up a fierce resistance, but the Mongols put in practice the tactic of feigned retreat, as they had done in Samarkand, and decimated the defender army. Despite this setback, the townsfolk continue to oppose the Mongols. The siege dragged. An argument then arose between two of Genghis Khan’s sons. Jochi, aware of Gurganj’s riches, wanted to avoid its destruction. Chaghatay wanted to wipe it out.

After seven months, Gurganj surrendered. The city was sacked and its population massacred. It is said that each of the 50,000 Mongol soldiers had to kill 24 residents. Only the artisans were spared. The Mongols destroyed the dam on the Amu Darya and Gurganj was flooded. The towns of Khorasan were the next ones to face the wrath of the Great Khan.

In little over a year, the mighty Khorezmian Empire ceased to exist. There are various reasons that explain this. The Kharezmian Empire was to some extent a giant with feet of clay. Despite its large extension, many of its provinces had only been recently conquered by Muhammad. Grousset goes as far as to state that “at the time of Jenghiz Khan’s invasion [there was] no real Khwarazmian empire at all, but simply an embryo, an outline of an empire, still devoid of the bony structure of statehood.”

The Khorezmshah also lacked popular support. He had alienated his subjects by replacing many of the local rulers with members of his family or amirs loyal to him. In addition, the diarchy with his mother undermined his authority. In military terms, despite its large numbers, the Khorezmian army was no match to the Mongols. Similarly, the Khorezmian commanders were surpassed by their rivals. The mostly Turkic nomadic troops lacked the necessary tactics to confront the Mongols. The strategy the Khorezmshah had employed elsewhere, attacking with large numbers by surprise, was of no use against the Mongols. Finally, Muhammad’s cowardly behaviour prevented any serious resistance from being organised. 

The last Khorezmshah

Despite the collapse of the empire, Jalal ad-Din Mangburni, who had become the Khorezmshah after his father’s death, would lead a resistance, and resurgence, worth of a Hollywood blockbuster (or a high budget Netflix series).

After fleeing Gurganj with a few hundred men, Jalal ad-Din headed to Khorasan, where he defeated a Mongol detachment that doubled his in size. From there he went to Ghazni (Afghanistan), where he would muster the troops that were still active. Contrary to his father, Jalal ad-Din would not give up and would stand up to Genghis Khan. Having received reinforcements from his father’s cousin, he crushed a Mongol force that was laying siege to Kandahar. Soon Ghazni became the centre of the Khorezmian resistance and it acted as a magnet for the amirs that arrived there with their armies. Soon the Khorezmshah could field a force of tens of thousands of soldiers.

Jalal ad-Din then went on the offensive. The Khorezmshah first defeated a Mongol force that had laid a siege to the fortress of Valujan, which attracted the attention of Genghis Khan. The Mongol ruler then dispatched a larger Mongol army of 45,000 soldiers (numbers vary) commanded by Shigi Qutuqu-noyan to deal with the rebel Khorezmian. Both armies clashed in a narrow valley in Parwan. Over the course of two days, the Khorezmians defeated the Mongols. A charge led personally by Jalal ad-Din proved decisive. Shigi Qutuqu-noyan lost half of his army and had to flee.

After learning of the defeat, Genghis Khan decided that it was up to him to triumph over Jalal ad-Din. In the meantime, the Khorezmshah’s side had been weakened by the desertion of a number of amirs due to an argument over the battle spoils. The Mongols tried to trap the Khorezmians in Ghazni, but they fled before it was too late. The Great Khan sent several detachments in pursuit. They caught up with Jalal ad-Din 50 kilometres east of Ghazna, but they were defeated by the Khorezmshah. Finally, both armies met by the shores of the Indus River.

Jalal ad-Din crossing the Indus

In what is known as the Battle of the Indus, Genghis Khan faced the toughest challenge yet in his Khorezmian campaigns. Jalal ad-Din had many fewer, and worse prepared, men, but it took all of the Mongol’s tactical genius to defeat him. Once he realised all was lost, Jalal ad-Din ordered for his harem to be drowned in the river and he swam across the river on horseback. Impressed by the Khorezmian’s bravery, Genghis Khan banned his soldiers from pursuing him and is said to have exclaimed: “Such sons should a father a have!”

During the next three years, Jalal ad-Din established himself in northern India. There he fought local rulers, built alliances, and sacked towns. However, the India subcontinent was an alien territory for the Khorezmians. When two of his commanders defected to the Sultan of Delhi, the Khorezmshah convened a military council. What should they do? Stay there or go elsewhere? In the end, Jalal ad-Din decided to go to Persian Iraq, where his brother Pir Shah had carved out a principality for himself. What followed was a harsh march through the desert, from India to Kerman (southeast Iran).

A new sultanate in the west

Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan… Gradually all the towns in the region fell under the control of Jalal ad-Din. His brother tried to confront him but at the end had no chance but to join him. The Khorezmshah then set his sights on Baghdad. The Caliph had always resisted Khorezmian power and had reached out to the Mongols to undermine his father’s power. After defeating a Caliphal army, Jalal ad-Din marched towards Baghdad, but he finally decided to focus his efforts on Azerbaijan, region he would conquer making Tabriz (northwest Iran) the capital of his kingdom.

Georgia, ruled by queen Rusudan, became another victim of Jalal ad-Din’s military successes. In 1225 he defeated a Georgian army at the Battle of Garni. After his victory, he proposed Rusudan to get married to him. “Marry me to her [he said to the Georgian commander-in-chief] and I will be a king of yours, and we will defeat our enemies. Should you fail to do what I advise, your country will be routed.” When Rusudan received a message with the proposal she rejected it. The Khorezmshah then marched on Tbilisi and took the Georgian capital.

Jalal-ad Din did not have much time to focus on his conquests, as he had to deal with a familiar foe. The Mongols had resumed their advance west and were approaching Isfahan. A battle ensued and the Khorezmians defeated the Mongols, despite the desertion of the Khorezmshah’s own brother, Pir Shah.

Current statue of Jalal ad-Din in Urgench (Uzbekistan)

The last years of Jalal ad-Din were spent in constant wars against the enemies that surrounded him. Ayyubids in southeastern Anatolia, Georgians in the northwest, local rulers in the Caucasus, internal revolts… For the most part Khorezmshah was victorious, which was viewed with suspicion by the Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kayqubad I, based in Konya (central Turkey). Kayqubad built an ‘anti-Jalal ad-Din’ alliance with the Ayyubids and other local rulers and defeated the Khorezmshah at the battle of Yassichemen (1230). Peace was agreed by both sides, but Jalal-ad Din was seriously weakened. He might have recovered, but the Mongols had returned.

The Khorezmshah tried to rally an alliance with his former enemies, Kayqubad and the Ayyubids, warning them that if he fell, they would too. But they rejected the proposal. One by one, Jalal ad-Din’s eastern possessions fell to the Mongols. However, the Khorezmian, resembling a “drowning man clutching a straw” decided to attack the Seljuks of Rum.

In a settlement near Diyarbakir (southeast Turkey), Jalal ad-Din gave himself to feasting. After one evening of heavy drinking, unaware of the situation, the Mongols had surrounded the camp. Jalal ad-Din, in a drunken state, was placed in a horse by his servants while one of his amirs distracted the Mongols. The Khorezmshah reached Diyarbakir, but the townsfolk refused to let him in. Deserted by his companions, Jalal-ad Din headed alone towards the mountains.

The Khorezmshah was pursued by 15 Mongols, two of which caught up with him but were killed by the Khorezmian. Jalal ad-Din was then captured by a group of Kurds, who robbed him and tried to kill him. The Khorezmshah then revealed his identity and promised them that they would be rewarded if they took him to a friendly ruler. They accepted. The leader of the gang then went to look for a horse, leaving Jalal ad-Din under his wife’s supervision. During his captor’s absence, another Kurd arrived to the camp. He enquired about the Khorezmian but did not believe he was the Khorezmshah. In revenge for his brother’s death, who was killed during one of Jalal ad-Din’s campaigns, he killed him with his spear. That is how Jalal ad-Din Mangburni met his fate in August 1231. He was barely 32 years old. Once his body was recovered by his associates, he was buried at night in the town of Mayafariqin (modern Silvan, Turkey). His unmarked grave was razed to the ground to prevent any future desecrations.

After the fall of the Khorezmian Empire, the region from which it took its name would never take centre stage in world history again. Gone were the days when the sons of Khorezm were feared and its name evoked a land of powerful sultans and rich cities. After the decline of Mongol in the 14th century, it would be the turn of Transoxiana, under the rule of Timur, to shine. But that is a story for another time…

The Khorezmian Empire today

The Khorezmian Empire of the Anushteginids existed as such for only some decades but even up to this day its effect can be felt and, what is even better, experienced.

The remains of the former great capital of Gurganj can be found in Turkmenistan, in the town now called Konye-Urgench. Gurganj, destroyed by the Mongols, flourished in the following century until it suffered the wrath of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), from which it never recovered. Not much is left, but among the Anushteginid monuments that have survived are the mausoleums of the rulers Il-Arslan and his son Tekish. The ruins of Dehistan, in western Turkmenistan, are also testament to Khorezmian power. Outside of the region, mosques and mausoleums have also endured, although they have suffered alterations throughout history. A few examples are the Jameh Mosque of Gonabad and the Malek Zozan mosque, both in eastern Iran.

From a historiographical perspective, both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have claimed the Khorezmshahs as their own, although they have played a secondary role in the building of their national narratives.

The Anushteginids are included in the Ruhnama, the pseudo-spiritual-historical book written by Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov, in the long list of (alleged) Turkmen dynasties. Nowadays, they do appear from time to time in the national discourse although significantly behind other historical dynasties like the Seljuks.

In Uzbekistan, where historiography is coped by Timur and his descendants, the Anushteginids have seen a revival lately. Although it would be more accurate to centre this on the person of Jalal ad-Din Mangburni. In 2021, a Turkish-Uzbek production, aptly titled “Mendirman Jaloliddin” (I am Jaloliddin), was aired on Uzbek national television.

Furthermore, a statue of him towers over a park named after him in the western town of Urgench, where the construction of a monumental complex also named after him is underway.

Further readings

Buniyatov, Z.M. (2015). A History of the Khorezmian State under the Anushteginids, 1097-1231. Samarkand: International Institute for Central Asian Studies (IICAS)

Grousset, René (1970). Empire of the Steppes. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

2 thoughts on “The Khorezmian Empire: collapse and resistance (part II)

  1. The Khorezmian Empire: from slaves to Khorezmshahs (part I) - Blue Domes October 24, 2021 at 7:56 pm

    […] Muhammad II, despite his military successes and titles, was not the undisputed ruler of his empire. His mother, the Kipchak Terken Khatun, wielded considerable power, to the extent that in many instances the mother invalidated her son’s decrees and orders. She had the military on her side, given that many of the commanders were from her own tribe. When Muhammad decided to establish himself in Samarkand, his mother remained in Gurganj, where she had her own court and dispatched with senior ministers and dignitaries. As the Khorezmian Empire grew, so did her possessions. At Terken Khatun’s insistence, the Khorezmshah named his son Ozlagh Shah as heir, in detriment of the older Jalal ad-Din, and gave him Khorezm, Khorasan and Mazandaran. This apparent diarchy would undermine the state at a time when it would face its toughest test yet, for in the east a storm was brewing… To find what that was, go to The Khorezmian Empire: collapse and resistance (part II) […]

  2. The hidden treasures of Turkmenistan (part I) - Blue Domes October 6, 2022 at 10:55 am

    […] Set in a dramatic landscape, Dehistan, which has been in UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site since 1998, has preserved its defensive clay walls, which surround the settlement’s rectangular shape. The most impressive feature standing against erosion and pillage is the portal of Ala ad-Din Muhammad II’s cathedral mosque and its two remaining 25-metre minarets, one of which can be traced back to the early 11th century (pictured at the top). This was the same monarch who provoked Genghis Khan’s wrath and who was later defeated by the Mong… […]


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