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The Last Khwarazmshah

Since we already wrote about Khalid ibn al-Walid and Hannibal Barca, let’s dive into the story of another highly acclaimed military leader: Jalal al-Din Mangburni, the last Khwarazmshah of the Anushteginid dynasty. The Mongol conquests may not have been as successful without him teaching the art of war to the Mongols; if only the Turkic tribes were more united, then perhaps Central Asia would have stood together to repel Genghis and his behemothian hordes.

Alleged Flag of Jalal al-Din Mangburni

Jalal al-Din Mangburni, also known as Jalal al-Din Khwarazmshah, Minkubirni, Mengu-Berdi, or Menguberti (meaning “God-given” in Turkic languages. “Mengu” means Eternal and is generally referred to Go; Berti is the old form of “verdi” gave), was the last Khwarazmshah of the Anushteginid dynasty and military leader who is best known for his brilliant military tactics and leadership during the Mongol invasion of the Khwarazmian Empire.

The title of Khwarazmshah was commonly used by rulers of the Central Asian region of Khwarazm from the Late Antiquity period until the arrival of the Mongols in the early 13th century. Four different families held this title, including the Afrighids, Ma’munids, the line of Altuntash, and the Anushteginids, the most prominent of the four. The title of Khwarazmshah, like other Central Asian titles such as Afshin and Ikhshid, has its origins in Iran.

This article is based on the biography of Jalal al-Din, written in two different works by his secretary Shihab al-Din Muhammad al-Nasawi.

Conceptual Portrait of Jalal al-Din

Background

Jalal al-Din first enters historical records in 1215 CE, when his father, Muhammad II, divided his empire among his sons, and Jalal al-Din was given control of the southwestern part, which was part of the former Ghurid Empire. Jalal al-Din’s resistance against the Mongols is still remembered and celebrated as a symbol of courage and bravery in the region. His partial success in defending the Khwarazmian Empire against the Mongol invasion has secured his place in history as one of the most remarkable generals to ever exist. He was born in the city of Balkh in modern-day Afghanistan; he inherited the throne from his father in 1220 and quickly established himself as a powerful ruler and military leader. A year before his inheritance, the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan had already begun its conquest of Central Asia (and the Khwarazmian Empire) and had occupied all of Transoxania; Tocharistan, Guzgan, and Gharchistan were invaded during the latter half of 1220.

Jalal al-Din lived in a time of great turmoil for the Islamic world. After the devastating Crusades ravaged Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt, the Islamic world had just begun to recover when a new wave of destruction swept in from the East: The Mongol invasion. As governors of the state of Khwarazm, which stretched from east Iran to India, the Khwarazm shahs were the first to face the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, as they began their westward expansion from the Central Asian steppes. Though they originally served as governors on behalf of the Seljuks, as the Seljuks’ power waned, the Khwarazm shahs began to act independently. The heart of Khwarazm was the city of Urgenç, located in modern-day Uzbekistan. By this time, however, the Seljuks were weak, and all of Central Asia was left without a formidable army to stop the advancing Mongol hordes.

Map Showing the Khawarzmian Empire in Central Asia

Jalal al-Din, who was in charge of the Khwarazmian army, initially tried to negotiate with the Mongols but the Khan refused to recognize him as an equal. This prompted Jalal al-Din to launch a series of attacks on the Mongols, which ultimately led to a full-scale war between the two empires. Some of these attacks included the seizure of a trade caravan in Otrar and the subsequent execution of Mongol envoys in Gurganj – acts that Genghis Khan could not ignore.


Generalship

Jalal al-Din’s military tactics and leadership on the battlefield were integral to his success against the Mongols. He was a master of guerrilla warfare, leading small, mobile units to strike at the Mongols and then retreat before they could mount a counterattack. He understood the superior strength of the Mongols, but instead of surrendering easily, he put forth every effort to inflict as much damage on the invading enemy as possible. Furthermore, Jalal al-Din possessed strong leadership and charisma abilities, as he was able to rally and inspire his troops to follow his commands even when facing insurmountable odds. It was not uncommon for defenders facing an enemy as formidable as the Mongols to quickly give up, but Jalal al-Din’s men were different, for they did not easily surrender.

Due to the nobles of Gurganj refusing to show loyalty to the new Shah, Jalal al-Din was forced to leave the capital after being warned of an imminent coup. He crossed the Karakum desert and attacked the garrison of a Mongol detachment at Nesa, killing most of the force including two brothers of Toghachar, son-in-law of Genghis Khan. The Mongols pursued past Nishapur and Herat but lost the trail before Ghazni, where Jalal al-Din found 50,000 loyalists waiting for him. With the addition of his maternal uncle Temur Malik and his 30,000 veterans, Jalal al-Din now had a formidable force with which to strike back at the Mongols. Meanwhile, back in Khwarazm, Gurganj, Merv, Balkh, and Nishapur had all been taken by the Mongol forces.

Illustration Depicting a Battle Involving Mongols

Before his first major victory, Jalal al-Din had already dealt devastating blows to various Mongol hordes across different locations. But it was in the autumn of 1221 that he truly made a name for himself by crushing the Mongols at the Battle of Parwan, north of Kabul. Jalal al-Din had previously attacked a detachment of Mongols near Wilan, which prompted Genghis Khan to send an army of 30,000 troops under Shigi Qutuqu. With his masterful tactics, Jalal al-Din decimated the Mongol army in just a two-day battle. Many of the Mongols were captured alive and brutally killed by the Khwarezmians by nailing stakes into their ears. The defeat was so devastating for Shigi Qutuqu that he was forced to retreat, losing over half his army. Jalal al-Din then sent a bold message to Genghis Khan, taunting him to pick the location for their next battle, “In which locality do you want the battle to be, so that we may make our way to it?”

As word of the Mongol defeat at the hands of Jalal al-Din spread, several cities, including Merv and Herat, which had previously submitted to Mongol rule, rose in rebellion. Enraged by the loss at Parwan, Genghis Khan assembled a massive force of more than 50,000 Mongols to take on Jalal al-Din. Outmatched and with half his troops lost to desertion over a dispute over spoils, Jalal al-Din made the strategic decision to retreat eastwards towards the Indus River, but the Mongols caught up to him just as his army was preparing to cross.

With an army of 30,000, Jalal al-Din took a strong defensive position on the banks of the river. Despite being heavily outnumbered, his troops fought valiantly, driving back the Mongol forces in the early stages of the battle. However, when an elite Mongol detachment managed to outflank the Khwarazmians, Jalal al-Din knew the battle was lost. In full armor, he rode his horse off a cliff into the Indus, rather than surrendering. Out of respect for Jalal al-Din’s bravery, Genghis Khan ordered his archers not to fire, allowing the Shah to reach the opposite bank. However, his harem and nearly all of his army were brutally slaughtered.

Despite the defeat at the hands of Genghis Khan, Jalal al-Din was not one to give up easily. He gathered the remaining members of his army and, displaying his military prowess, defeated local rulers and began building a small state in India. In one instance, he was even able to defeat a local prince who had six thousand men, while Jalal al-Din’s forces numbered no more than four thousand. This solidified his position and appeal in India. He then sought asylum in the Sultanate of Delhi but was denied by Shams ul-Din Iltutmish, the founder of the Delhi Sultanate, due to his poor relationship with the Abbasid caliphs.

Conceptual Illustration Depicting a Khwarazmian Cavalryman Versus a Mongol Rider

Genghis Khan, for his part, did not make any significant efforts to pursue Jalal al-Din after the Battle of Parwan, only sending troops when Jalal recrossed the Indus to bury his dead. He was mostly occupied with subjugating the Afghans near Jalalabad. However, one of Genghis Khan’s generals, Dorbei Doqshin, was sent to pursue Jalal al-Din, but after a failed siege, Doqshin converted to Islam and joined Jalal al-Din’s army out of fear of facing Genghis Khan’s wrath.

After narrowly escaping the wrath of Genghis Khan, Jalal al-Din set his sights on rebuilding his power and influence. He spent the next three years in India, expanding his control over large parts of Lahore and the Punjab region. However, he didn’t forget about his homeland and eventually returned to Persia at the request of his brother Ghiyath al-Din Pirshah, who still held control over parts of the region. Though Jalal al-Din aimed to re-establish the Khwarazm kingdom, his efforts to consolidate his power were unsuccessful.

Despite this, Jalal al-Din continued to make strategic alliances and assert his control over various regions. In 1224, he confirmed Burak Hadjib, ruler of the Qara Khitai, in Kerman and received the submission of his brother Ghiyath who held control over Hamadan, Isfahan, and the province of Fars. He also clashed with the Abbasid Caliph al-Nasser in Khuzestan and captured parts of Western Iran.

The following year, he dethroned the Uzbek Muzaffar al-Din, ruler of the Eldiguzids, and set himself up in their capital of Tabriz. In the same year, he attacked Georgia with no more than 30,000 men, defeating 70,000 of its forces in the Battle of Garni, and conquered Tbilisi; more than a third of the Georgian army was annihilated. It was reported that ten-to-a-hundred thousand citizens were put to death for not renouncing Christianity. The Georgian army was also severely weakened, paving the way for the Mongols to easily overcome them later on.

Jalal al-Din was a relentless warrior, determined to re-establish the Khwarazm kingdom and defend it against the Mongols, pretenders to the throne, and the Seljuqs of Rûm. His quest for dominance required constant campaigning, and he spent his days locked in battle against these formidable foes. Despite facing many challenges and setbacks, Jalal al-Din emerged victorious in many of these conflicts; he even managed to score a victory over the Seljuqs and captured the town of Akhlat in Turkey from the Ayyubids. But the peace was short-lived as a new Mongol army under the command of Chormagan was sent to invade his kingdom, yet again he emerged victorious. In August 1228, a new Mongol army led by Taymas Noyan invaded his re-established kingdom, and they clashed in a fierce battle near Isfahan. The Mongols won, but they were too exhausted to advance further. The same year, his own brother Ghiyath al-Din rebelled against him, but he was defeated and fled to Kerman where he and his mother were killed. However, his luck would eventually run out when he was defeated by the Seljuk sultan Alaa al-Din Kayqubad I in the Battle of Yassıçemen in 1230.

Despite the odds stacked against him, Jalal al-Din fought tirelessly against the Mongols in his quest to re-establish the Khwarazm kingdom. He spent years in India building his army, before returning to Persia to face the challenges ahead. He defeated local rulers and even had a brief victory over the Seljuqs, but his efforts were constantly thwarted by the Mongols, pretenders to the throne, and the Seljuqs of Rûm. Jalal al-Din’s last battle ended in defeat, and he took refuge in the Silvan mountains where he was eventually killed by a vengeful Kurd. The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum absorbed his territories and his legacy, and the Mongols eventually conquered the region. Even though he was not able to re-establish the Khwarazm kingdom, Jalal al-Din’s efforts have left an enduring mark in history, as a symbol of courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.


The Man

On a personal level, Jalal al-Din was also a patron of the arts and sciences; he is said to have had a personal library filled with books on a wide range of subjects, including poetry, medicine, and mathematics. He also commissioned the construction of a number of architectural projects (mainly fortifications) during his reign. Even more so, Jalal al-Din commissioned many poets, painters, and musicians to create works that celebrated his achievements and his resistance against the Mongols. Jalal al-Din was a complex character, as described in the biography written by his own secretary, Shihab al-Din Muhammad al-Nasawi. Al-Nasawi paints a picture of a man who was dark-skinned, of small stature and possessed a blend of Turkic and Persian cultural traits. But what truly stood out about Jalal al-Din was his courage on the battlefield. He was a fierce warrior, a lion among lions, who commanded the respect of his troops with his fearlessness. Despite his bravery, Jalal al-Din was also known for his mild temperament, never easily provoked, and known to keep a level head in the heat of battle. According to legend, Jalal al-Din Mangburni was known for his compassion and his concern for the welfare of his soldiers and the people. He was said to have personally tended to the wounded and sick, and to have provided for the needy.

Coinage of Jalal al-Din Mangubarni (Double Dirham); Minted in Qal’a Nay

Jalal al-Din’s resistance against the Mongols has been noted as a significant factor in slowing down their advancement in the region, giving other kingdoms valuable time to prepare their defenses. Historians, both contemporary and modern, have praised his superior military talent and bravery. Minhaj-i Siraj Juzjani, a historian from the Mamluk Sultanate of Delhi, described Jalal al-Din as someone who was endowed with great heroism, valor, and high talents and accomplishments. Yaqut al-Hamawi, a scholar from the Abbasid Caliphate, notes that Jalal al-Din was known as a bellicose warrior and his passiveness after the Battle of Yassıçemen was seen as unbelievable. However, despite his military prowess, Jalal al-Din was criticized as a poor ruler; the loss of his re-established empire to the Mongols has been attributed to his poor diplomacy and rulership, with some describing him as untrustworthy and warmongering.

Moreover, Jalal al-Din’s guerrilla tactics were not only limited to the battlefield but also included the use of diplomacy and deception. He used various ruses to weaken the Mongol army, such as spreading rumors, bribing Mongol leaders, and even pretending to surrender in order to deceive the Mongols and gain an advantage. One source even suggested that Jalal al-Din’s resistance against the Mongols may have influenced the Mongol’s decision to change their tactics from a fast-moving invasion to a slower, more methodical conquest of Central Asia. The Mongols were known for their swift invasions and reliance on cavalry, but during their war against the Khwarazmians, they were compelled to adapt their tactics to better suit the terrain and the nature of the Khwarazmians’ resistance, which was something they rarely did against other opponents.

In his official account of the Mongol Empire, Tarīkh-i Jahān-gushā (aka History of the World Conqueror), Atâ-Malek Juvayni, an Iranian historian, noted that when news of Jalal al-Din’s death reached Genghis Khan, Genghis turned to his sons and said: “How proud is a father to have had such a son”.

Statue of Jalal al-Din in Uzbekistan