14. The Great Conqueror’s Scariest Campaign
The campaign in China was interrupted by a diplomatic incident with grave consequences. It was triggered when a governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its ruler, Shah Muhammad II. The Shah then committed one of history’s greatest mistakes, when he scornfully refused to hand over the offending governor. So Genghis launched an invasion of Khwarezim in 1218, that overran and extinguished it by 1221. Its ruler was forced to flee for his life, relentlessly chased across his steadily dwindling domain, until he died, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as the Great Khan’s men closed in.
The Mongols’ conduct during the Khwarezmian campaign cemented their reputation for savagery. Thousands of captives were marched ahead of their armies as human shields. Millions died, as Genghis had entire cities massacred for the least resistance. Not only men, women, and children, but all living things, down to the rats. After the capture of an enemy city, the cry “feed the horses!” signaled the Mongols to fall upon the conquered and sate themselves in an orgy of rapine, murder, and plunder. When he campaigned deep in enemy territory, Genghis preferred to leave no enemies or potential enemies behind. He made few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and frequently ordered the deaths of all who were encountered.