Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia

Khalid Elhassan - August 16, 2017

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate. Military Wiki


Hulagu (1217 – 1265) was a grandson of Genghis Khan and younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai, who expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. He destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, menaced Egypt and the surviving Crusader states, and while destroying medieval Persian culture, founded the Ilkhanate in Persia, a precursor of modern Iran.

In 1251, Hulagu was recognized by his brother Mongke as ruler of the Ilkhanate in Persia and tasked to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and exterminated the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect that had terrorized the Middle East for generations. He then turned to the Abbasid Caliphate, and when the Caliph refused to submit, Hulagu invaded and besieged him in Baghdad, captured the city in 1258 and destroyed it along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. To avoid a Mongol taboo against spilling royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongols riding over it. That ended the Abbasids and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate.

Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He then set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of the invasion, he received word that his brother Mongke had died. As a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia, and in his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 – the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and one that broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.

Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut, but ended up warring with a cousin, Batu Khan’s brother Berke, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Golden Horde, converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulagu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Kublai Khan statue in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Popular Science

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) was a grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of the Great Khan, Mongke, whom he succeeded in 1260. He conquered the Song Dynasty of southern China and founded the Yuan Dynasty, thus reuniting China for the first time in centuries. He was the nominal overlord of all other Mongol domains, from the Pacific to the Carpathians, but his writ and attention were focused on the territory he personally ruled in China and its periphery, which was wealthier and more populous than all the remaining Mongol khanates put together.

Kublai heeded the advice that “one can conquer an empire on horseback, but cannot rule it on horseback“. After conquering the Song in a campaign that he largely led in person, he spent the bulk of his remaining years in governance rather than military affairs. He ordered expansions along the periphery of his domain that met with mixed success or ended in disaster such as two attempted invasions of Japan that were wrecked by typhoons, but domestic politics and governance interested him more than war.

His reign and founding of the Yuan Dynasty marked the transition that successful nomadic conquerors eventually underwent, eschewing the roughneck ways of the Steppe as they came to appreciate the benefits of settled life, and getting absorbed into the civilization which they had conquered. Kublai encountered fierce resistance from Mongol traditionalists who preferred the old ways and their felt tents to the courtly life in Chinese palaces, but he prevailed in the end.

Kublai’s conquest of the Song Dynasty reunified China after centuries of fragmentation, and the borders of the Yuan Dynasty, encompassing Manchuria, Tibet, and Mongolia, established the broad outline of Chinese territorial suzerainty that survives to this day.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Forensic facial reconstruction based on Tamerlane’s exhumed skull. Facts and Legend


Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world through widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between, is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

Tamerlane, a Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, was born in the Chagatai Khanate, ruled by Genghis’ descendants, in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360 when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan, but following the Khan’s murder, a struggle for power ensued, at the end of which Tamerlane emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet through whom Tamerlane ruled. While his claimed descent from Genghis is dubious, Tamerlane justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers.

He then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. Among the cities, he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

His most impressive victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks, a rising power in their own right, as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, insulting letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up and defeated him in 1402, took him captive, and humiliated him by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayazid’s favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Tamerlane gloating over the captured Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid. Wikimedia

His decades-long rampage finally came to an end in 1405 as he was preparing to invade China, but he took ill while encamped and died before launching the campaign.