“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

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1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…

XANADU

Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.