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
Mongols battling Kievan Rus. Ancient Origins


They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai.” — The Secret History of the Mongols

Jebe, born Zurgudai (d. 1225), was one of Genghis Khan’s leading generals, who started his military career in his enemies’ ranks. During a battle in 1201, Zurgudai shot Genghis in the neck with an arrow. After winning the battle, a wounded Genghis asked his captives who had shot him. Zurgudai confessed, and Genghis, impressed by his honesty and courage, took him in his service and named him “Jebe”, meaning arrow – the name by which he is known to history.

Jebe quickly rose through the ranks, and within a few years had become one of Genghis’ most capable generals, entrusted with independent commands such as the assignment to defeat Kuchlug, one of Genghis’ last remaining Steppe enemies, and the subjugation of his Kara Khitai state. Jebe accomplished the mission in quick order, capping off the conquest by beheading Kuchlug. He then rejoined Genghis and took part in the conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire.

Once Khwarezm was subdued, Genghis gave Jebe and Subutai permission to lead a great cavalry raid westward through northern Persia, then up through the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, before turning east to return to Mongolia. Jebe’s masterpiece occurred during that raid, at the Battle of Kalka River in 1222, when he and Subutai conducted a feigned retreat before a numerically superior army of Kievan Rus and Cumans, luring them into following him for nine days, before turning on the pursuers and slaughtering them nearly to a man.

That raid set the stage for a Mongol return fifteen years later, this time in a full-force invasion that conquered Kievan Rus and overran Eastern Europe. Jebe, however, died in 1225, soon after his return from that raid, and did not live to harvest what he had planted or seen the fruits of his work.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Subutai and Jebe after defeating the Rus at Battle of Kalka River. Our Russia


Subutai (1175 – 1248), known as “Bagatur” (The Valiant), was the Mongols’ most brilliant and successful general, and the main military strategist of both Genghis Khan and his successor, Ogedei. Hailing from a humble background, he rose through the ranks, and eventually directed over 20 campaigns, conquered or overran 32 nations, and won 65 battles. He holds the distinction of having conquered more territory than any other commander in history.

Subutai left home at age 14 to join the Mongol army. Genghis Khan liked him and appointed him his door attendant, and it from that close proximity to the Khan, Subutai learned the basics of strategy and the Mongol art of war. In his first assignment, he convinced an enemy garrison that he was a deserter from the Mongol army, won their confidence and lulled them into letting down their guard, then signaled the Mongols to attack. Deception would be a hallmark of his military success, as he would exhibit, on a larger scale, in 1211 when he secured a major victory for Genghis over the Jin by a timely appearance to surprise the enemy with a flank attack, after convincing them that he was hundreds of miles away.

He also led the Mongol vanguard in the conquest of Khwarezm, chased its emir to his death, and after that campaign, led a reconnaissance in force on a circular route around the Caspian to the north en route back to Mongolia, while Genghis returned via a circular southern route that would brush against India.

Subutai’s route led through the Caucasus, where he twice defeated the Georgians, then subjugated the Cumans. That brought him into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies, so he and Jebe led them a merry chase for days in a feigned retreat, before destroying them at the Battle of Kalka River. They then returned to the east, where Subutai conducted successful campaigns against the Chinese for the next decade, before returning to the west and subjugating the Rus in late 1230.

After reducing the Rus to vassalage, Subutai invaded Eastern Europe in 1241, overseeing the operations of Mongol armies separated by hundreds of miles, and bringing them to victory over their respective opponents, in Poland and Hungary, within one day of each other. Subutai was in command of the Mongols at the second victory, the Battle of Mohi, which destroyed the Hungarian army and left Central Europe open. Subutai was drawing plans to advance along the Danube to Vienna, then subjugate the Holy Roman Empire, when news arrived of Khan Ogedei’s death.

Although he wanted to press on into Europe, politics necessitated the return of Subutai and his forces to Mongolia to participate in the selection of a new Khan. Subutai never returned, and spent his final years campaigning against the Song Dynasty in southern China – and thus Europe was spared the Mongol yoke that Russia would endure for centuries.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Statue of Muqali in Chinggis Square, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Wikimedia


Muqali (1170 – 1223) was born into a clan of hereditary serfs, whom Genghis Khan freed after conquering their tribe and absorbing it into his nascent Mongol nation. From his humble origins, Muqali rose to become one of Genghis’ main generals and played a leading role in defeating the Jin Dynasty and conquering northern China.

Muqali had a major part in the Battle of Yehuling in 1211, a multi-staged months long campaign that pitted 80,000 Mongol invaders against a combined defensive force of 950,000 guarding mountain passes and fortifications along a 300 km frontier. It culminated in a decisive victory over the Jin, with over half the defenders killed, followed by the Jin emperor’s assassination by one of his generals, and paved the way for the dynasty’s demise and the Mongols’ conquest of northern China. During the battle, Muqali distinguished himself and cemented his place in Genghis’ favor by successfully leading a cavalry charge over mountainous terrain to seize a vital pass.

When war broke out with the Khwarezmian Empire in 1218, Genghis took most of the Mongols as he headed west to conquer Khwarezm. He named Muqali his viceroy in China, gave him a royal title, showered him with more lavish praise and gifts than he had given any of his other generals, and left him behind with 20,000 men to keep the Jin in check until Genghis’ return.

In the Khan’s absence, Muqali exceeded expectations, and not only held off the Jin whose armies still numbered in the hundreds of thousands but went on the offensive against an enemy that outnumbered him by more than 10:1. He repeatedly wrong-footed the Jin and kept them off balance by feints, rapidity of action and aggressiveness, and attacks from unexpected directions. By the time Genghis returned in 1222, Muqali had conquered most of northern China. He died of illness the following year, while besieging a Jin fortress.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Statue of Ogedei. Wikimedia


Ogedei (1185 – 1241) was Genghis Khan’s third son and unexpected successor. His two older brothers, Jochi and Chagatai, were ahead of him in the line of succession but had developed a bitter enmity. Jochi claimed the right to inherit as eldest, but Chagatai countered that Jochi, whose parentage was questionable because their mother had been kidnapped by an enemy of Genghis in the year before Jochi’s birth, was a bastard, making Chagatai the eldest trueborn son. When it became clear that the empire would descend into civil war if either inherited, Ogedei was selected as a compromise heir.

Realizing that he was not Genghis’ military equal, Ogedei was open to wise counsel and, relying on capable subordinates, greatly expanded the frontiers of the Mongol Empire to its greatest southward and westward extents. From his capital in Mongolia, he directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts separated by thousands of miles, relying on field generals acting independently within their theaters, but subject to Ogedei’s orders, relayed via a swift horse relay courier network.

In the east, the Mongols continued the campaign against the Jin, in alliance with the Song Dynasty in southern China. Ogedei commanded in person until 1232, then returned to Mongolia, entrusting to subordinates the final mopping-up operations, which terminated with the extinguishment of the Jin Dynasty in 1234. The Mongols then fell out with their Song allies, and a new campaign began against southern China. Simultaneously, Ogedei’s Mongols invaded the Korean Peninsula and asserted Mongol suzerainty.

In the south, Ogedei’s armies invaded India, marching into the Indus Valley and on to the Delhi Sultanate, occupying parts of today’s Pakistan and Punjab. Simultaneously, another Mongol army marched into and subdued Kashmir.

In the west, Ogedei’s armies marched out of the recently conquered Khwarezm to subdue the remainder of today’s Central Asia, overrunning Khorasan, Afghanistan, Persia, and reaching Mesopotamia. From there, they turned northward and conquered Armenia, Georgia, and the Caucasus region then continued to reduce Russia to centuries of vassalage. Afterward, they penetrated into Eastern Europe, capturing Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and reaching the Adriatic Sea. The Mongol forces in Europe under Subutai were drawing plans to continue the advance into Italy and Central Europe, when news arrived of Ogedei’s death, which necessitated a halt to the campaign and a return to Mongolia for the selection of a new Khan.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Batu Khan. Encyclopedia Britannica

Batu Khan

Batu (1207 – 1255) was a grandson of Genghis who accompanied and, as a member of the Mongol royal family, was in nominal command of, Subatai’s campaign that conquered Russia and penetrated Europe to the Adriatic Sea and the walls of Vienna. He went on to found the Golden Horde – an independent Mongol state on the western Steppe that dominated Russia and the Caucasus for two and a half centuries, and that included at its peak most of Eastern Europe, with a territory extending from the Danube to Siberia.

Batu’s father, Jochi, had been entrusted by Genghis Khan to administer the Mongolian Empire’s west, comprised during Genghis’ days of Central Asia and Siberia. After Jochi’s death in 1227, the task fell to Batu. In 1237, with Subutai as his military commander, Batu initiated the Mongol conquest of Russia, which was completed by 1241. The Mongols then launched a multi-pronged invasion of Eastern Europe, with one army in Poland defeating a coalition of Germans and Poles, while another Mongol army defeated a larger Hungarian force hundreds of miles to the south.

Batu and Subutai then crossed the Carpathians and concentrated in Hungary for a campaign against Central and Western Europe, when news arrived of the Great Khan Ogedei’s death. Subutai wanted to continue, but Batu had ambitions of becoming the next Great Khan and, as a member of the royal family, outranked Subutai. He insisted that all return to Mongolia to participate in the selection of the new Mongol ruler, and thus, in 1242, with all of Europe within their reach and at their mercy, the Mongols decamped from Hungary and rode back to Mongolia.

Batu failed in his bid to get selected the next Great Khan and returned to administer his own domain from his new capital, Sarai, on the Volga. In 1251, the Great Khan in Mongolia recognized the independence and complete autonomy of Batu’s domain, which was known thereafter as the Golden Horde. It lasted into the 16th century before breaking up, with the last fragment surviving until 1847.

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.