4. The Destruction of Khwarizm

Image result for Genghis Khan army

The Mongol destruction of Major Islamic Central Asian cities (Khwarizm) set an explosive trajectory for a sweeping conquest of Muslim domains. The reports of horrifying massacres by the Mongol army during these events underscore a terrifying Mongol military policy that continued for the next century and half. 

Persian Miniature - Mongol warriors

Guiding Questions

  • What were the causes and effects of the Mongol invasion of Khwarizm?

  • What was the outcome of destroying the cities of Khwarizm during 1219-1221? 

4.1. Destruction of Khwarizm

The ruler of Khwarizm at the time was ‘Ala’ al-Din Muhammad. He was feeling uneasy that Genghis Khan was edging closer to his region to conquer it. So when Genghis Khan sent gifts to ‘Ala’ al-Din and caravan traders to pass through safely, they were thought to be spies and killed by the ruler’s soldiers. Genghis Khan was enraged. He kept the ruler of Khwarizm’s traders and personnel secure and safe in his empire but the favour was not returned. Genghis Khan sent a few more traders and representatives (including an ambassador) but they too were slaughtered with their beards burnt and the head of the ambassador on a stick. The remaining survivors were sent back. Genghis Khan considered this a declaration of war and responded with one of the most brutal conquests ever recorded. HIs reaction was severe to say the least. He completely destroyed Khwarezm with 100,000 warriors. This is considered one of the worst diplomatic mistakes in military history.

The online entry of Britannica.com summarises the destruction Genghis Khan brought thereafter:

Image result for arshad islam mongols

Professor Arshad Islam, historian and author in the International Islamic University of Malaysia describes the invasion of Khwarizm with helpful analysis in his article "The Mongol Invasions of Central Asia", International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 6 (April 2016), p.317:

Article: prof. Arshad on destruction of khwarizm


See: Khwandamir, Habibus-Siyar, Tome Three, trans. & edited by Thackston, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994, p.15; al-Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. by Boyle, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958, pp.81-86, P.98 and Allsen, Mongol Imperialism: The Policies of the Grand Khan Möngke in China, Russia, and the Islamic Lands, 1251-1259, Berkeley: California University Press, 1987, p.6.

ATL Skills: Communicating and Critical Thinking

Class activity: Genghis khan's attack on Khwarizm 


  1. Outline one factor according to the author that enabled Genghis Khan to launch an attack on Khwarizm?

Professor Arshad Islam also outlines the fall of Khwarizm due to the decisions of its ruler 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad Shah in his article "The Mongol Invasions of Central Asia", International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 6 (April 2016), p.317 (below).

Fall of Khwarizm Prof. A Islam

ATL Skills: Research and Communication

Source Reading and Questions on the fall of Khwarizm


  1. Who is Jebe?

  2. Outline who the Samanids were. [here you will need to do a little research]

  3. Using the passage and contextual knowledge, explain two factors that led to the fall of Khwarizm.

Denis Sinor, Professor Emeritus of Eurasian studies in his article "The Mongols in the West", Journal of Asian History, vol.33 (1999) comments:

Exercpt: Denis Sinor on Mongol Expansion

ATL Skills: Communicating and Critical Thinking

Source reading and questions on the fall of Khwarizm 


  1. What according to Sinor were the various causes of the destruction of Khwarizm?

  2. State three effects of the Mongol devastation of Khwarizm?

In the article "Persia under Mongol domination: The effectiveness and and failings of a dual administrative System", Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales, Institut Franҫais du Proche-Orient (IFPO), 2006, vol. 57 (Supplѐment), pp.66, professor of Iranian and Central Asian history Denis Aigle (pictured above) describes:

Excerpt: Mongol Domination of Iran

ATL Skills: Communicating and Critical Thinking


  1. What according to Aigle were the various causes of the destruction of Khwarizm?

  2. What, if any, are the similarities and differences in what Aigle states and what Sinor states regarding the cause(s) for Genghis Khan invading Khwarizm?

In Connections: A World History, pp.364-365 it describes the invasion of Khwarizm as follows:

The Mongols then moved to their southeast, attacking the Jurchen realm that dominated northern China. From 1211 to 1215 they laid waste to this region, reducing some ninety cities to rubble. In 1215 they attacked the Jurchen capital, a well-fortified metropolis at what is now Beijing, and took it after several months of siege. After finally penetrating its walls, they went on a rampage, plundering its riches, killing its residents, and setting its buildings ablaze. The massacres and fires reportedly went on for a month.

Genghis Khan next directed his efforts far to the west and south. In 1218 he sent emissaries and merchants to meet with the Khwarazm Shah, supposedly to seek diplomatic and commercial ties, but also no doubt to scout this realm and perhaps find a pretext for invading it. The pretext was provided when one of the shah’s governors, in a reckless act of defiance, robbed and massacred the Mongol merchants. Responding with ruthless fury, from 1219 to 1221 the Mongols devastated the Khwarazm Empire, ruining its agriculture by wrecking the irrigation system, pillaging the towns along the trade routes, demolishing Persian cities that had come under Khwarazm rule, and slaughtering the inhabitants. Then, because the Xi Xia Kingdom in northwest China had refused to help him conquer Khwarazm, Genghis Khan returned in 1226 to obliterate it and its people.

Burgan in Empire of the Mongols, p.26 writes:

Below is a Persian miniature of Jalal-Din Khwarizm-Shah (r. 1220-1231) escaping across the Indus river pursued by Genghis Khan's army:

Image result for shah crossing indus river persian

[Painting, from the epic Chinggiskhannama, illustrates Jalal al-Din Khwarazm-Shah crossing the rapid Indus river, escaping Chinggis Khan and his army. The river, alive with jumping fish, separates Chingis Khan from Jalal al-Din, who carries a parasol, large pole, and sword. In the distance a walled city is seen. Three lines of text appear within two isolated columns. Painted in gouache on paper.

On this ruler, see Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties: a Chronological and Genealogical Manual, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996, pp.178-80, no. 89, idem s.v. here and Boyle, “Djalal al-Dan Khwarazm-Shah,” EI2 2:392-93 and idem, “Dynastic and Political History of the Il-Khans,” in Cambridge History Iran, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1968, 5:303-421.

Note: Ensure you are clear on the causes and effects of the Mongol invasion of Khwarizm. Also be aware of the role played by the [Khwarizm]-Shah (also called amir/sultan) 'Ala a-Din Muhammad as a cause for the westward invasion in Central Asian cities in Khwarizm. It might be worthwhile having read the long and detailed passages above to lay out your notes in readable and simple form. 

ATL Skills: Communication

Web diagram for causes & effects of the Mongol invasion of Khwarizm

Use a web diagram to show causes of the Mongol invasion of Khwarizem.

Use a web diagram to show the impact of the Mongol invasion on Khwarizem.

ATL Skills: Communication

A table for key dates events effects and motives 

Draw a table with three columns: one with a key date on the destruction of an Islamic Central Asian city by the Mongols. Another column for a brief description of that event and a third column for the motive and/or effect of that event. Fill the table with three key dates:




(see the attached document in the link for the template).

ATL Skills: Research, Communication and Critical Thinking

You will write a mini-historical project regarding an invasion by the Mongols of an Islamic Central Asian city* with the following steps:

1] Select one of the following overarching concepts underpinning your project: (a) significance, (b) causation and (c) consequences.

2] Based on your concept, select 2 sources you will use for your mini research project, e.g. image, passage, quote, etc.

3] In a table, briefly mention the origin, purpose, value and limitation of both your selected sources.

4] Having completed steps 1-3, write a 400-500 word analysis of the invasion with focus on the concept you selected in step 1. Your analysis must include:

(a) clear points that are developed.

(b) clear structure that links your points in a coherent way.

(c) use of your sources in the analysis.

(d) alternative perspectives (using your contextual knowledge). 

(e) consistent citation and referencing.

Attached in the link is a template for the project as well as the steps.

[* it does not have to be a Central Asian city, but a Chinese or other city the Mongols conquered under Genghis Khan].

Western scholars have surveyed and discussed the impact of the Mongols on Central Asian and Iranian regions. See the page on key resources for some of those works.

Ira M. Lapidus is an expert in medieval Middle Eastern history as well as a fine arts photographer. In his seminal work History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.226-228 he comments:

The first impact of the Mongol invasions in Iran was disastrous and amounted to a holocaust. The populations of many cities and towns were systemically exterminated. Whole regions were depopulated by invading armies and by the influx of Turkish and Mongol nomads who drove the peasants from the land.

The conquerors plundered their subjects, made them serfs and taxed them ruinously. The result was a catastrophic falling population, income, and state revenue. For over a century fine pottery and metal wares ceased to be produced. A period of urban autonomy and cultural vitality was brought to an end.

ATL Skills: Communicating


"The first impact of the Mongol invasions in Iran was disastrous and amounted to a holocaust". To what extent do you agree with this statement. (15)

David O. Morgan, a specialist in Islamic history at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, writes in his entry "ČENGĪZ KHAN" in the Encyclopedia Iranica:

It is by no means easy to raze a city to the ground, even with the aid of 20th-century destructive technology; and as for the statistics of the massacres in Herat, Balk, or Nišapur, it may be doubted that anyone was counting. What cannot be doubted, however, is that the death and destruction was on a scale quite beyond contemporaries’ previous knowledge or experience. It would seem that Čengiz was determined not only to wipe out in blood the slight represented by the murder of his ambassador, but also to remove any risk of the Kᵛarazmšah’s empire ever posing a political threat to his own. It is possible also to speculate that at this stage in their career of conquest the Mongols, nomadic pasto­ralists as they were, lacked appreciation of the virtues and potential profitability to them of cities and settled agriculture. The effects of Čengiz’s invasion on the agricultural base of Persian society in Khorasan may well have been even more serious, in the long run, than deliberate Mongol destruction in the cities. Qanats were left to decay as peasants fled the onslaught, and irreparable damage to irrigated land could, through neglect as much as through deliberate destruction, occur quite quickly. The Mongols were hardly the rulers to see and remedy this danger in time."

Arab chroniclers also recorded their views on the Mongol invasion of central Asian cities. Below are some of those sources that include the original Arabic text along with their translations: 

4.2. Ibn al-Athir

Ibn al-Athir though living in Iraq during the first wave of Mongol attacks, was unable to pen the events occurring eastward in Khwarizm. He writes:

"For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it, and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-below of Islam and the Muslims…..

If anyone were to say that since God (glory and power be His) created Adam until this present time mankind has not had a comparable affliction, he would be speaking the truth. History books do not contain anything similar or anything that comes close to it…

Perhaps humanity will not see such a calamity, apart from Gog and Magog, until the world comes to an end and this life ceases to be. As for the antichrist, he will spare those who follow him and destroy those who oppose him, but these did not spare anyone. On the contrary, they slew women, men and children. They split open the bellies of pregnant women and killed the foetuses..."

[Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi 'l-Ta'rikh, pt. 3, The Years 589-629/1193-1231: The Ayyubids after Saladin and the Mongol Menace, trans. D. S. Richards, Aldershot, 2008, p.202.]

Arabic text:

لقد بقيت عدة سنوات معرضا عن ذكر هذه الحادثة استعظاما لها كارها لذكرها فأنا أقدم إليه رجلا وأواخر أخرى فمن ذا الذي يسهل عليه أن يكتب نعي الإسلام والمسلمين
إن العالم منذ خلق الله سبحانه وتعالى آدم إلى الآن لم تبتلى بمثلها لكان صادقا فإن التواريخ لم تتضمن ما يقاربها ولا ما يدانيها
ولعل الخلق لا يرون مثل هذه الحادثة إلى أن ينقرض العالم وتفنى الدنيا إلا يأجوج ومأجوج؛ وأما الدجال فإنه يبقي على من اتبعه ويهلك من خالفه أما هؤلاء لم يبقوا على أحد بل قتلوا النساء والأطفال والرجال وشقوا بطون الحوامل وقتلوا الأجنة في بطون أمهاتهن؛ فإنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون ولا حول ولا قوة إلا بالله العلي العظيم
ATL Skill: Critical Thinking and Communication

Source reading and Questions on Ibn al-Athir and the Mongols

Read the source from Ibn al-Athir's al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh above and answer the following questions:


  1. What is the message contained in the source? Write three points.

  2. What does the source suggest about Mongol war tactics? Write one point and develop your response.

    4.3. Yaqut al-Hamawi

    Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 629/1229) was an eminent geographer, cartographer and historian as well as a friend of Ibn al-Athir. He gives a vivid picture of the Mongol terror in his account of the destruction of the ancient city of Merv from which he had escaped following the Mongol invasions. He first states that Merv “in a word, and without exaggeration, was a replica of paradise” before the invasion and destruction and then describes the impact of the “dire catastrophe” on the survivors:

    "It was an event sufficient to break the back, to destroy life, to fracture the arm, to weaken the strength, to redouble sadness, to turn grey the hair of children, to dishearten the bravest, and to stupefy the intelligence!"

    [See E. Browne, A literary History of Persia (From Firdawsi to Sa’di), vol.2, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999, pp.431-432].

    Arabic text:

    من حادثة تقصم الظهر، وتهدم العمر، وتفت في العضد، وتوهي الجلد، وتضاعف الكمد، وتشيب الوليد، وتنخب لب الجليد، وتسود القلب، وتذهل اللب

    ATL Skills: Critical Thinking and Communicating

    Mongols and terror tactics 

    Source A

    Below is a map showing the invasion route of the Mongols by 1220.

    Image result for khwarizm invasion mongols

    Source B

    According to Firas al-Khateeb – a graduate student in history from the University of Chicago Illinois and author of the book Lost Islamic history: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past, London: C. Hurst & Co Ltd, 2014 – the Mongol success was mainly due to using terror as a tactic of war:

    “More important than what Genghis Khan conquered was how he conquered. He deliberately used terror as a weapon of war. If a city he was besieging gave up without a fight, its people would usually be spared but would have to go under Mongol control. If the city fought against the Mongols, everyone, including civilians, would be massacred. This reign of terror is a large part of why he was such a successful conqueror. People were more willing to give up than to suffer massacres at his hand. For example, when he besieged the city of Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, he killed over 1,600,000 people.”


    1. What can we infer from source A?

    2. What might be the value and limitation of source B for historians studying the military conquests of the Mongols. [ensure you include mention of the origin, content and purpose of the source in your answer. A box has been provided below for structuring your notes or points]             





    ATL Skill: Critical Thinking and Communication

    Yaqut al-Hamawi source reading and questions


    1. What is the message contained in the source?

    4.4. Apocalyptic interpretations

    Local reactions to the invasion of Genghis Khan and the Mongol warriors speak in horrified terms of the appearance of these horsemen from the East and of the butchery they committed in the cities and lands of Islam. They resorted to make sense of their doom in apocalyptic terms by interpreting eschatological data from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (known as hadith).

    Hadith - meaning

    Sufism - meaning

    Other Muslim writers fled before the Mongol onslaught and wrote about it from the relative security of neighbouring regions such as Anatolia and India. One of these writers for example was the Kubrawi Sufi Najm al-Din Razi, also known as "Daya" (1177-1256). He wrote a manual of Sufi doctrine and practice for the Turkish Mengüjekid ruler of Erzincan, in Eastern Anatolia, in the late 1220s. In it, Daya presents the Mongols as the fulfillment of the apocalyptic signs foretold by the Prophet Muhammad:

    "But the meaning of all these accounts in various traditions is that an account is preserved of the Prophet – peace and greetings be upon him – that he said: “Soon it will be that the descendants of Qitura b. Karkar will come, and they are the Turks, and they will drive the people of Khurasan and the people of Sistan hard before them; Turks with flat broad faces and small eyes and flat noses and red countenances and their skin will be stretched out like shields and they will wear furs and on their feet will be shoes of hair,” – and these are the charuq of undecorated cow skin that these Tatars wear. And he said: “They will come three times and slaughter the people. The first time, those who escape them will be delivered safely, and on the second time they will kill some of them and pass over some, and the third time they will kill them all, God Forbid!” And he said that they will tie their horses to the pillars in the mosques of the Muslims."

    [see: Najd al-Din al-Razi, Marmuzat-i Asadi dar Mazrumat-i Da'udi, ed. by M. R. Shafi'i, Tehran: Sukhan, 2002, p.151 and trans. by Kamolo in "Rashid al-Din and the Making of History in Mongol Iran" (PhD, diss. University of Washington, 2013), p.29]. See as well DeWees's treatment of Sufi depictions and interpretations of the Mongol conquest through religious perspectives in his chapter "'Stuck in the Throat of Genghis Khan': Envisioning the Mongol Conquests in Some Sufi Accounts from the 14th to the 17th Centuries" in History and Historiography of Post-Mongol Central Asia and the Middle East: Studies in Honour of John E. Woods, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz GmbH & Co KG, 2006, pp.23-60.

    Read the contents on this page with the contents on the impact of the Mongols on Central Asia.

    Ensure you have a clear picture on:

    • chronology of events.

    • causes of the invasion.

    • effects of the invasion.

    • impact of the invasion.

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