Waiting for Ogatai to Die | Robert Norris

Seven hundred and seventy-two years ago, December eleventh, at about dawn, a man on the other side of the world died after a night of heavy drinking. He was fifty-two. If he had lived to be fifty-four or fifty-five, chances are very good that no one in this room would exist.

There probably would not be a city named Chicago, or a place called America. Other cities with other names, maybe here and maybe not, but nothing familiar to any of us.

You’ve probably never heard of him. His name was Ogatai. He was the son and successor of the man known to history as Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan’s philosophy was not complicated. He’s reputed to have said, “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to embrace his wives and daughters.”

I’m not sure what word was translated as “embrace,” but today one out of every 200 men on earth carries the y-chromosome of Genghis Khan and his family. So, I guess, along with the conquest, there was a lot of embracing.

It wasn’t their numbers that made them dangerous. In most of the battles that they fought, they were outnumbered. You could fit them in Soldier Field.

But they were tough. Poverty and hardship were normal for them. Winters in Mongolia reached ninety below zero, so a winter campaign was nothing. And with Mongols, there was no such thing as a civilian. You began riding and using a bow and arrow at the age of three, and when you got good at it, you could shoot an aimed arrow in any direction from a galloping horse, and time its release between the hoof-beats. Mongol bows had a range of more than 350 yards, which is about the same as an AK-47. If you were in range and they wanted you dead, you had a good chance of dying.

And they were mobile. European armies might move ten miles on a good day. Mongol forces could move sixty miles a day and coordinate their movements across a 600-mile front, getting two armies to arrive at the same place at the same time. Rommel and Patten both studied their campaigns.

Even though they had a reputation for mercilessness, the Mongols had their rules. They did not torture for punishment or to wring a confession out of you, which was commonly done in Europe. They were tolerant of all faiths, which was never done in Europe. And they generally kept their word. They never touched ambassadors, even those of their enemies.  If you went as an envoy to the Mongol court, they might or might not show respect, but they’d listen to you and send you home in one piece.

And they didn’t just ride into your country and begin shooting arrows. They sent you a letter, first. The letter would say something like, “Hi, I’m the Mongol leader. We run the world, and you’re way behind on your taxes. But you can get through this without bloodshed if you surrender now.” If you answered well, they would respond as promised. If you provoked them, they would attack.

One big provocation came from the governor of a trading city in Khwarizm, in west central Asia—basically where Kazakhstan is today. It was probably the richest, most advanced empire in the world. But when the governor saw a rich Mongol caravan in town he said, “Hmmm . . . Chinese silk, raw jade, silver bars. If these guys were spies, I could kill them and take their goods. Say, they look a lot like spies.” And he killed them and confiscated their goods.

Genghis Khan sent a letter to the Shah. He said, “Look. You probably didn’t know about this. Hand the governor over to me and we’ll call it even.” The Shah killed the Mongol ambassador and had the hair singed off of his escorts and sent them back with the ambassador’s head.

Genghis Khan went up into the mountains for three days. When he came back, he said, “God knows I am not responsible for what is about to happen.” And he moved on Khwarizm with genocidal vengeance.

Khwarizm fell within a year, but the Mongols did not stop killing. They went city to city. Most cities resisted, which was a mistake. In some cities, the Mongol armies not only herded the people out onto the plane to kill them and stack their heads into pyramids, they also killed the dogs and cats—and that wasn’t all. They destroyed wells and broke canals and disrupted irrigation systems that were never repaired. Western Asia returned to desert. It was never the same.

When Genghis Khan died, his son, Ogatai, became the Great Khan. Ogatai was more easygoing than his father. He enjoyed his wine and he liked getting men who were on trial for their lives off the hook. But it was Ogatai who pointed the Mongols toward Europe, where they were told to ride west until the land ended. They first went through Russia. The biggest city, Kiev, took only ten days to fall. Before it fell, about 50,000 lived there. A man who passed through Kiev six years later reported maybe 200 houses, along with lots of bones on the ground.

The King of Hungary was one of the few in Europe to recognize the threat. That’s because about 40,000 west Asian nomads came flooding into the City of Pest, begging for sanctuary and alliance. The King did the best he could. He fortified the passes through the Carpathian Mountains, where the Mongols would have to ride. He had hundreds of pine trees cut down, with their limbs sharpened, and dumped them in the passes like enormous pinecones to delay passage. He had fortifications built there and sent one of his best lieutenants out to defend them. On March tenth, the Mongols attacked. On March fourteenth, the lieutenant stumbled back into Pest, bleeding and exhausted, to report the Mongols were through and headed toward them. Less than thirty days later, the Hungarian army was gone and Pest had been burned.

Now the road was clear to Vienna. Only then did Europe begin to wake up and recognize that this was not a raiding party with long supply lines to worry about. But Europe was suicidality divided. When the Mongols finished with Austria, they were planning to take Germany and Italy. France was only a week’s gallop away, and England and Spain just beyond. As the Mongols were coordinating wide pincer movements to surround and destroy European armies in detail, Christian princes were blaming each other for the debacle and refusing to cooperate. How long would it have taken? Two years? Three? And it would have been over. It was in May that the Mongols were just beginning their encirclement of Vienna. That was as far as they got. They stopped. They broke off their campaign, packed their equipment and withdrew.

The reason is that an arrow rider arrived from Mongolia. The news he brought was that the Great Khan Ogatai was dead. And when the Great Khan died, you had to stop what you were doing and go back to Mongolia and vote for the next Great Khan. So they just broke off the campaign and went away. They never organized a return.

Some suspected his widow, Toregene, who had been taking control of the government from her alcoholic husband, and would rule as regent after his death, had arranged for him to be poisoned. No one ever proved it, but that was the rumor.

What if he’d lived? The Mongols stayed in Russia for 240 years. If they’d taken Europe, do you think they would have stayed there, too? And if so, do you think there would have been an age of exploration? Would there have been monarchs called Ferdinand and Isabella to finance a Genoese sailor named Columbus? Or a man named Henry the Navigator, to send caravels bumping down the coast of Africa? I imagine someone would have crossed the Atlantic sooner or later, but who would he have been working for? Where would he have landed? What laws and customs would he have brought with him? Nothing would be the way it is today. Nothing.

And all because, 772 years ago this December, a woman on the other side of the world could not wait for her husband to die.


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Rob Norris is a faculty member of the Indiana University School of Journalism and the Butler University School of Strategic Communications. Most of his career was spent in corporate communications, first for Duke Energy and then for Cummins Inc.

But his first love is history. He earned his undergraduate degree in history and decided in his forties to earn a Master’s degree.

Rob lives in Indianapolis with his wife of 40 years and keeps sneaking history lessons into his communications classes.

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