The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road to Hell

The tremors that were felt in Egypt came from the other side of the world. In the late eleventh century, the Mongols were one of many tribes living on the northern fringe of China’s boundary with the steppe world, with one contemporary describing them as ‘living like animals, guided neither by faith nor by law, simply wandering from one place to another, like wild animals grazing’.1 According to another author, ‘they regarded robbery and violence, immorality and debauchery as deeds of manliness and excellence’. Their appearance was similarly regarded with disgust: like the Huns of the fourth century, they wore ‘skins of dogs and mice’.2 These were familiar descriptions of the behaviour and manners of nomads as viewed by outside observers.

Although the Mongols seemed to be chaotic, bloodthirsty and unreliable, their rise was not the result of a lack of order, but precisely the opposite: ruthless planning, streamlined organisation and a clear set of strategic objectives were the key to establishing the largest land empire in history. The inspiration behind the Mongol transformation was a leader named Temüjin, or blacksmith. We know him by his title and nickname of ‘universal ruler’, or perhaps, ‘fierce ruler’: Činggis, or Genghis Khan.3

Genghis Khan came from a leading family within the tribal union, and his destiny had been foretold from the moment he was born ‘clutching in his right hand a clot of blood the size of a knucklebone’; this was interpreted as a propitious sign of glories that lay ahead.4 Despite the fearsome reputation he acquired in the Middle Ages and which still endures, Genghis Khan built his position and power slowly, striking deals with fellow tribal leaders and choosing his allies astutely. He also chose his enemies well, and, above all, he picked the right moment to take them on. He arranged his most devoted followers around him both as a personal bodyguard and as an iron inner circle made up of warriors (nökürs) upon whom he could rely unquestioningly. This was a meritocratic system where ability and loyalty were more important than tribal background or shared kinship with the leader. In return for unstinting support, the leader provided goods, booty and status. Genghis Khan’s genius was to be able to supply these benefits prodigiously enough to guarantee loyalty – and to do so with metronomic regularity.5

This was made possible by an almost constant programme of conquest. One tribe after another was brought under his sway by force or by threat, until he had established himself as the undisputed master of the Mongolian steppes by 1206. Attention then turned to the next ring of peoples, such as the Kyrgyz, the Oirat and the Uighurs situated to the west of China in Central Asia, who submitted and swore formal oaths of allegiance. The incorporation of the latter in 1211 was particularly important, as is clear from the gift to the Uighur ruler, Barchuq, of a Činggisid bride after he had declared that he was ready to become Genghis Khan’s ‘fifth son’.6 This was partly a reflection of the importance of lands occupied by the Uighurs in the Tarim basin, but was also because the Uighur language, alphabet and what one modern historian calls the ‘literati’ had been becoming increasingly important in Mongolia. The Uighurs’ elevated cultural status was one reason for the recruitment into service en masse of their scribes and bureaucrats – including a certain ‘Tatar Tonga’, who became tutor to Genghis Khan’s sons.7

Attention turned to more ambitious targets. In a series of attacks starting in 1211, the Mongols forced their way into China under the rule of the Jin dynasty, sacking the capital, Zhongdu, and forcing the rulers to evacuate and relocate their capital southwards on multiple occasions, with the invaders securing substantial plunder. Expansion was even more impressive elsewhere. The timing could not have been better. Central authority in the Muslim world weakened in the course of the twelfth century as a patchwork of states of varying size, capability and stability emerged to challenge the primacy of Baghdad. As it happened, the ruler of Khwārazm had been busy picking off local rivals, with one eye on expanding eastwards into China himself. The consolidation that came as a result now simply meant that when the Mongols defeated him, as they duly did, chasing him to an island in the Caspian where he died not long afterwards, the door to Central Asia was wide open: the path had been cleared before them.8

Sources paint vivid pictures of the vile savagery that accompanied the attack that began on Khwārazm in 1219. The invaders, wrote one historian, ‘came, they sapped, they burned, they slew, they plundered and they departed’.9 I wish I had never been born, wrote another, so I would not have had to live through such traumas. At least the Muslim Antichrist will only destroy his enemies, he went on; the Mongols, on the other hand, ‘spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn.’10

The Mongols cultivated such fears carefully, for the reality was that Genghis Khan used violence selectively and deliberately. The sack of one city was calculated to encourage others to submit peacefully and quickly; theatrically gruesome deaths were used to persuade other rulers that it was better to negotiate than to offer resistance. Nīshāpūr was one of the locations that suffered total devastation. Every living being – from women, children and the elderly to livestock and domestic animals – was butchered as the order was given that not even dogs or cats should be left alive. All the corpses were piled up in a series of enormous pyramids as gruesome warnings of the consequences of standing up to the Mongols. It was enough to convince other towns to lay down arms and negotiate: the choice was one of life or death.11

News travelled fast of the brutality that faced those who took the time to weigh up their options. Stories such as that of a high-ranking official who was ordered into the presence of a newly arrived Mongol warlord and had molten gold poured into his eyes and ears became widely known – as was the fact that this murder was accompanied by the announcement that this was fitting punishment for a man ‘whose disgraceful behaviour, barbarous acts and previous cruelties deserved the condemnation of all’.12 It was a warning to those who considered standing in the way of the Mongols. Peaceful submission was rewarded; resistance was punished brutally.

Genghis Khan’s use of force was technically advanced, as well as strategically astute. To mount a lengthy siege on fortified targets was challenging and expensive because of the demands of sustaining a large mounted army whose need for pasture could quickly exhaust the surrounding region. For this reason, military technicians who could expedite a swift victory were highly valued. At Nīshāpūr in 1221, we learn of 3,000 giant crossbows being used, as well as 3,000 stone-hurling machines and 700 projectors of incendiary material. Later, the Mongols became intensely interested in the techniques that had been pioneered by western Europeans, copying designs for catapults and siege engines created for the Crusaders in the Holy Land and using them against targets in East Asia in the late thirteenth century. Control of the Silk Roads gave their masters access to information and ideas that could be replicated and deployed thousands of miles away.13

Curiously, given their reputation, one explanation for the astounding successes of the Mongols in early thirteenth-century China, Central Asia and beyond was that they were not always seen as oppressors. And with good reason: in the case of Khwārazm, for example, the local population had been ordered to pay a year’s taxes up front to fund the construction of new fortifications around Samarkand and to pay for squadrons of archers against an imminent Mongol attack. Putting such strain on households hardly retained goodwill. In contrast, the Mongols invested lavishly in the infrastructure of some of the cities they captured. One Chinese monk who visited Samarkand soon after its capture was amazed to see how many craftsmen there were from China and how many people were being drawn in from the surrounding region and further afield to help manage the fields and orchards that had previously been neglected.14

It was a pattern repeated time and again: money poured into towns that were rebuilt and re-energised, with particular attention paid to championing the arts, crafts and production. Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers are wide of the mark, and represent the misleading legacies of the histories written later which emphasised ruin and devastation above all else. This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronise historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire – something the Mongols conspicuously failed to do.15

But there could also be no mistaking how the Mongols’ use of force chilled the blood of those who heard of an impending assault. As they swarmed west, hunting down those who had resisted them or fled in the hope of escape, the Mongols struck terror into hearts and minds. In 1221, armies under the command of two of Genghis Khan’s sons advanced like lightning through Afghanistan and Persia, ravaging all before them. Nīshāpūr, Herat and Balkh were taken, while Merv was razed to the ground and its entire population murdered, according to one Persian historian, save for a group of 400 artisans who were brought back to the east to work at the Mongol court. The ground was stained red with the blood of the dead: a small group of survivors apparently counted the corpses and put the number of the dead at more than 1.3 million.16 Breathless reports of similar death tolls elsewhere have convinced modern commentators to talk in terms of genocide, mass murder and the slaughter of 90 per cent of the population.17

While it is difficult to be precise about the scale of death inflicted in the attacks, it is worth noting that many (though not all) of the towns apparently ravaged by waves of attackers recovered quickly – suggesting that the later Persian historians whom we have to rely on may have been keen to over-emphasise the devastating effects of the Mongol attacks. But even if they magnified the suffering, there could be no doubt that the winds that blew violence from the east did so with tremendous force.

They were relentless too. No sooner had the principal cities of Central Asia been reduced than the Caucasus was plundered, before the raiders then appeared in southern Russia. They were hunting tribal rivals, the Qıpchāqs or Cumans, to teach them a lesson for daring not to submit. Genghis Khan may have died in 1227; but his heirs proved to be equally resourceful – and spectacularly successful.

In the late 1230s, after extraordinary successes in Central Asia masterminded by Ögödei, who became the Great Khan, or supreme leader, soon after his father’s death, the Mongols launched one of the most stunning attacks in the history of warfare, mounting a campaign that surpassed even that of Alexander the Great in terms of speed and scale. Forces had already once before advanced from the steppes into Russian territory, appearing in ‘countless numbers, like locusts’, according to one monk of Novgorod. ‘We do not know where they came from or where they disappeared to,’ he wrote; ‘only God knows because he sent them to punish us for our sins.’18 In textbook fashion, when the Mongols returned, they demanded tribute, threatening destruction to those who refused. One after another, towns were attacked, with Ryazan, Tver’ and eventually Kiev comprehensively sacked. In Vladimir, the prince and his family, together with the town’s bishop and other dignitaries, took sanctuary in the church of the Holy Mother of God. The Mongols set fire to the church, burning its occupants alive.19 Churches were destroyed, wrote one of the bishop’s successors, ‘holy vessels defiled, sacred objects trampled on the ground, and clergy were fodder for the sword’.20 It was as though wild beasts had been released to devour the flesh of the strong and to drink the blood of the nobles. It was not Prester John and salvation coming from the east, but Mongols bringing the apocalypse.

The terror the Mongols aroused was reflected in the name by which they were soon being referred to: Tatars, a reference to Tartarus – the abyss of torment in classical mythology.21 Reports of their advance reached as far as Scotland while, according to one source, herring went unsold in ports on the east coast of Britain as merchants who normally came from the Baltic to buy it did not dare to leave home.22 In 1241, the Mongols struck into the heart of Europe, splitting their forces into two, with one spur attacking Poland and the other heading for the plains of Hungary. Panic spread through the entire continent, especially after a large army led by the King of Poland and the Duke of Silesia was destroyed, and the head of the latter paraded on the end of a lance, together with nine sacks filled with ‘the ears of the dead’. Mongol forces now moved west. When King Béla IV of Hungary fled to Dalmatia, taking refuge in Trogir, it was time for priests to say masses, praying for protection from evil, and to lead processions to implore the support of God. The Pope, Gregory IX, took the step of announcing that any who helped defend Hungary would receive the same indulgence as that granted to Crusaders. His offer met with little enthusiasm: the German Emperor and the Doge of Venice were more than aware of what the consequences would be if they tried to help and ended up on the losing side. If the Mongols had now chosen to continue westward, as one modern scholar puts it, ‘it is unlikely that they would have encountered any coordinated opposition’.23 Europe’s moment of reckoning had arrived.

With a gall that is almost admirable, some contemporary historians now began to claim that the Mongols had been halted by brave resistance, or even defeated in imaginary battles that seemed to become more real as time went on. In fact, the Mongols were simply uninterested in what western Europe had to offer – at least for the time being. The priority was to admonish Béla for granting sanctuary to the Cumans and, perhaps worse, for ignoring repeated demands to hand them over: such resistance had to be punished at all costs.24

‘I am aware that you are a rich and powerful monarch,’ read one letter to King Béla from the Mongol leadership, ‘that you have many soldiers under your command, and that you alone rule a great kingdom.’ In words that would be familiar to any professional racketeer, things were spelled out, bluntly. ‘It is difficult for you to submit to me of your own free will,’ it went on; ‘and yet it would be much better for your future prospects if you were to do so.’25 In the world of the steppes, slighting a powerful rival was almost as bad as confronting them head-on. Béla needed to be taught a lesson. He was therefore chased single-mindedly through Dalmatia, even though there were other, gaping opportunities elsewhere. The Mongols ravaged everything as they went, sacking one town so spectacularly that a local chronicler noted that nobody was left even ‘to piss against a wall’.26

At that point, Béla – and Europe – were saved by a stroke of great fortune: Ögödei, the Great Khan, suddenly died. To the devout, it was obvious that their prayers had been answered. To high-ranking Mongols, it was vital to be present at and participate in the selection of the man who should take the mantle of leadership. There was no such thing as primogeniture. Rather the choice of who should succeed to the position of highest authority rested on who made their case best and loudest in person to a conclave of senior figures. The decision of whom to back could make or break commanders’ lives and careers: if a patron rose to the top, the share of the rewards could be disproportionately high. This was not the moment to be chasing troublesome monarchs through the Balkans. It was time to be at home, watching the situation unfurl. And with that, the Mongols took their foot off the throat of Christian Europe.

Although it is the name of Genghis Khan that is synonymous with the great conquests of Asia and the attacks on lands far beyond, the Mongol leader died in 1227 after the initial phase of empire building in China and Central Asia had been carried out, but before the dramatic attacks on Russia and the Middle East and the invasion that brought Europe to its knees. It was his son Ögödei who oversaw the expansion that massively increased the extent of Mongol lordship, masterminding campaigns that extended into the Korean peninsula, Tibet, Pakistan and northern India – as well as in the west. It was Ögödei who deserved much of the credit for the Mongol achievement, and equally some of the responsibility for its temporary halt: for his death in 1241 provided crucial breathing space.

As the world paused to see who would take charge, streams of envoys were sent from Europe and the Caucasus across Asia to find out who these marauders were, where they had come from, what their customs were – and to come to an understanding with them. Two groups of ambassadors took letters with them demanding in the name of God that the Mongols not attack Christians, and that they consider adopting the true faith.27 Between 1243 and 1253, four separate embassies were sent by Pope Innocent IV, while King Louis IX of France also dispatched a mission led by William of Rubruck, a monk from Flanders.28

The reports they produced of their travels were as graphic and alien as those produced by Muslim travellers to the steppes in the ninth and tenth centuries. The European visitors were fascinated and appalled in equal measure. Although immeasurably powerful, wrote William of Rubruck, the new masters of Asia did not live in cities, except at the capital Karakorum, where he met the Great Khan in an enormous tent that was ‘completely covered inside with cloth of gold’.29 These were people whose behaviour and habits were exotic and unrecognisable. They did not eat vegetables, drank fermented mare’s milk and emptied their bowels without a thought for those they were talking to – and in public, no further away from where one was standing than ‘one could toss a bean’.30

The account of another envoy, John of Plano Carpini, became widely known throughout Europe in this period; it painted a similar picture of squalor, decadence and unfamiliarity, a world where dogs, wolves, foxes and lice were treated as food. He also reported on rumours he had heard about creatures that lay beyond the Mongol lands – where some people had hooves and others heads of dogs.31 John brought back ominous information about the scenes that accompanied the enthronement of the next Great Khan, Güyüg. The list of dignitaries from regions, tribes and realms that recognised Mongol overlordship conveyed something of the astonishing scale of the empire: leaders from Russia, Georgia, Armenia, the steppes, China and Korea were in attendance, as were no fewer than ten sultans and thousands of envoys from the Caliph.32

John was given a letter to take back to Rome by the Great Khan. All the lands in the world have been conquered by the Mongols, it said. ‘You should come in person,’ it demanded of the Pope, ‘with all the princes, and serve us.’ If you do not do so, the Great Khan warned, ‘I shall make you my enemy.’ There was an uncompromising answer meanwhile for the Pope’s entreaties that the Mongol ruler become Christian: how do you know whom God absolves, and to whom he shows mercy, the Khan wrote angrily? All the lands from the rising to the setting sun are subject to me, he went on, which did little to recommend the Pope’s God. The letter was stamped with a seal that united the power of the Great Khan with that of ‘the eternal Tengri’ – the supreme deity of traditional steppe-nomad beliefs. This was not promising at all.33

Nor was it reassuring that plans were being made for new attacks on central Europe, with an assault actively being considered against the north of the continent too.34 The Mongols had a worldview that stopped nothing short of global domination: conquering Europe was simply the next logical step in the plan for the heirs of Genghis Khan to bring yet more territory under their sway.35

Fear of the Mongols now provoked a game of religious dominoes in Europe. The Armenian church entered into discussions with the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in order to build an alliance and gain protection in the event of a future attack. The Armenians also opened negotiations with Rome, signalling their willingness to declare that they were in agreement with the papacy’s interpretation of the procession of the Holy Spirit – a topic that had caused much friction in the past.36 The Byzantines did the same, sending a mission to Rome and proposing ending the schism which had cleaved the Christian church in two since the eleventh century, and which had deepened rather than healed as a result of the Crusades.37 Where priests and princes in Europe had failed to reunite popes and patriarchs, the Mongols had succeeded: attacks from the east, and the very real threat that they would be repeated, had brought the church to the point of full reunion.

Just when religious harmony seemed a certainty, the sands shifted. After the Great Khan Güyüg died unexpectedly in 1248, there was a succession struggle within the Mongol leadership that took time to resolve. As this played out, the rulers of Armenia and Byzantium received assurances that no attack was imminent. According to William of Rubruck, in the case of the latter this was because the Mongol envoy who had been sent to the Byzantines was heavily bribed and as a result intervened to prevent an assault.38 It was certainly true that the Byzantines were desperate to deflect the attention of the Mongols and did all they could to avoid attack. In the 1250s, for example, another delegation sent from Karakorum was led through difficult terrain in Asia Minor on purpose by Byzantine guides and made to watch the imperial army parade when they arrived to meet with the Emperor. These were desperate attempts to convince the Mongols that the empire was not worth attacking – or, if it was, that troops would be waiting for them.39

In fact the Mongols decided not to attack for different reasons: neither Anatolia nor Europe was the focus of their attention simply because there were fatter and better targets elsewhere. Expeditions were sent to what remained of China until it capitulated completely in the late thirteenth century, at which point the ruling Mongol dynasty adopted the imperial title of Yüan and founded a new city on the site of the old city of Zhongdu. This now became the Mongol capital, designed to crown the achievements of taking control of the entire region between the Pacific and the Mediterranean. The new metropolis has retained its importance ever since: Beijing.

Other major cities also received considerable attention. The new Khan, Möngke, focused the Mongol armies on the pearls of the Islamic world. One city after another fell as the attacking army surged westwards. In 1258, they reached the walls of Baghdad and, after a brief siege, wreaked devastation. They swept through the city ‘like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep’, wrote one writer not long afterwards. The city’s inhabitants were dragged through the streets and alleys, like toys, ‘each of them becoming a plaything’. The Caliph al-Mustaimageimageim was captured, rolled up in fabric and trampled to death by horses.40 It was a highly symbolic moment that showed who held real power in the world.

Immense booty and riches were seized during these conquests. According to an account produced in the Caucasus by allies of the Mongols, the victors ‘sank under the weight of the gold, silver, gems and pearls, the textiles and precious garments, the plates and vases of gold and silver, for they only took these two metals, the gems, the pearls, the textiles and the garments’. The seizure of fabrics was particularly significant: as with the Xiongnu at the height of their power, silk and luxury materials played a crucial role in demarcating elites within the tribal system and were highly prized as a result. The Mongols often specifically required tributes in the form of gold cloth, purple gauze, precious garments or silks; on occasion, it was stipulated that such payments should be made in the form of livestock which should be adorned with damask, gold fabric and precious jewels. ‘Cloths of silk and gold and cotton’ were requested in such specific quantities and qualities that the leading scholar in this field has likened it to a detailed shopping list – one that was ‘both demanding and remarkably well informed’.41

There was barely time to digest news of the sack of Baghdad before the Mongols appeared once again in Europe. In 1259, they advanced into Poland, sacking Kraków, before sending a delegation to Paris to demand the submission of France.42 At the same time, a separate army swung west from Baghdad against Syria and into Palestine. This caused blind panic among the Latins living in the east, where the Christian position in the Holy Land had been reinforced by a fresh burst of Crusade energy in the middle of the thirteenth century. Although large-scale expeditions by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and then by Louis IX of France restored Jerusalem, briefly, to Christian hands, few had any illusions about how precarious the hold was over Acre, Aleppo and other remaining towns.

Until the appearance of the Mongols, the threat had seemed to come from Egypt and from a highly aggressive new regime that had seized power there. With remarkable irony, the new Egyptian overlords were men from similar stock to the Mongols themselves – nomads from the steppes. Just as the imageAbbāsid caliphate of Baghdad had been taken over by its slave soldiers recruited from the Turkic tribes on the steppes, so the same thing happened in the caliphate of Cairo in 1250. In the case of Egypt, the new masters known as Mamlūk, as a result of being largely descendants of slaves (mamalik) who had been taken from the tribal constellations north of the Black Sea and traded through the ports of the Crimea and the Caucasus to serve in the Egyptian military. Their number included Mongol tribesmen who had either been caught up in the slave traffic or as wāfidīyah – literally newcomers – had fled from the oppressive dominant factions in the sort of internal scuffles that were commonplace on the steppes, and sought sanctuary and service in Cairo.43

The Middle Ages in Europe are traditionally seen as the time of Crusades, chivalry and the growing power of the papacy, but all this was little more than a sideshow to the titanic struggles taking place further east. The tribal system had led the Mongols to the brink of global domination, having conquered almost the whole continent of Asia. Europe and North Africa yawned open; it was striking then that the Mongol leadership focused not on the former but on the latter. Put simply, Europe was not the best prize on offer. All that stood in the way of Mongol control of the Nile, of Egypt’s rich agricultural output and its crucial position as a junction on the trade routes in all directions was an army commanded by men who were drawn from the very same steppes: this was not just a struggle for supremacy, it was the triumph of a political, cultural and social system. The battle for the medieval world was being fought between nomads from Central and eastern Asia.

The Christians in the Holy Land reacted to the Mongol advance with blind panic. First they surrendered Antioch, and then proved powerless to prevent the fall of Aleppo – two of the crown jewels under Crusader control. Desperate appeals were dispatched to the rulers of England and France begging for military assistance. The westerners were saved by the intervention of their sworn enemy – the Mamlūks of Egypt – who moved northwards to confront the army that was ripping through Palestine.44

Having swept all before them for the best part of six decades, the Mongols now suffered their first serious setback, defeated at imageAyn Jālūt in northern Palestine in September 1260. Despite the assassination of the victorious general, Sultan Quimageuz, in an internal power struggle, the Mamlūks pressed forward gleefully. As they did so, they found much of their work had been done for them: the Mongols, in breaking the resistance of the local population, had forged towns and regions into a single entity. Just as Genghis Khan had benefited from the consolidation of Central Asia before his invasion early in the thirteenth century, so did the Mongols inadvertently gift Syria and the important cities of Aleppo and Damascus to their rivals. The Mamluks were able to walk in almost unopposed.45


The Christians in the Holy Land and in Europe looked on in horror, unsure what would happen next or what lay in store for them as a result. But it did not take long for attitudes to the Mongols to be entirely reshaped. It began to dawn on Christian Europe that despite the traumatic encounters they had experienced from the terrifying hordes of horsemen galloping over the northern lip of the Black Sea into the plains of Hungary, the Mongols just might be the saviours they had once been mistaken for when they had first burst into view.

In the decades after 1260, repeated missions were dispatched from Europe and the Holy Land to try to form an alliance with the Mongols against the Mamluks. Frequent embassies travelled in the other direction too, sent by Hülegü, the dominant Mongol warlord in Asia, and his son Aqaba, whose readiness to negotiate was dictated primarily by their interest in using western seapower against Egypt and against its newly conquered territories in Palestine and Syria. Matters were complicated, however, by the first signs of proper friction among the Mongols themselves.

By the later thirteenth century, the Mongol world had become so vast – stretching from the Pacific to the Black Sea, from the steppes into northern India to the Persian Gulf, that strains and cracks began to appear. The empire divided into four main branches, which became increasingly hostile to each other. The senior line was centred in China; in Central Asia, it was the heirs of Chaghatay (a man described by one Persian writer as ‘a butcher and a tyrant’, an accursed man who was ‘cruel and blood loving’ – pure evil) who held sway.46 In the west, the Mongols who dominated the steppes of Russia and beyond into central Europe came to be known as the Golden Horde, while in Greater Iran the rulers were known as the Īlkhānids – a reference to the title of Īl-Khān that marked them as subordinate to the main branch of the Mongol leadership.

The Mamluks now skilfully manipulated the tribal politics of their enemy, coming to terms with Berke, the leader of the Golden Horde, whose rivalry with the Īlkhānids had already spilled into open conflict. This served to increase the chances of an agreement being reached between Christian Europe and the Īlkhānids. The closest such plans came to fruition was in the late 1280s when an embassy led by Rabban Sauma, the bishop of Uighuria in western China, was sent by the Īlkhānid leader to visit the major leaders in western Europe to finalise the terms of a military alliance. Rabban Sauma was a good choice – urbane, intelligent and a Christian to boot. For all their reputation for savagery, the Mongols were shrewd in their reading of foreigners.

No one was more excited to hear about plans for joint action than Edward I, King of England. A highly enthusiastic Crusader, Edward had visited the Holy Land in 1271 and had been horrified by what he had seen. It was bad enough, he concluded, that the Christians appeared to spend more time arguing with each other than fighting the Muslims. But what truly appalled him was the Venetians: not only were they trading with the infidel, they were supplying them with materials for making siege engines that were then used against Christian towns and forts.47

The king was delighted, then, to receive the bishop from the east, and made clear that his priority was to see the recovery of Jerusalem. ‘We have no subject of thought except upon this matter,’ the English monarch told the bishop, before asking him to celebrate the Eucharist for the king himself and his retinue. He treated the bishop with honour and respect, lavishing gifts and money on him after throwing a feast in celebration of the great things to come.48Plans were formed to collaborate, with the aim of securing the Holy Land for Christendom once and for all. Such were the expectations of the imminent triumph of Christianity that processions even took place in Rome to celebrate the imminent defeat of Islam. In the space of a few decades, in the European mind the Mongols had gone from being saviours to demons and back again. Thoughts that the end of the world was nigh had given way to the belief that a new beginning was at hand.

The grandiose plans came to nothing. Just as Crusade after Crusade had delivered less than promised, all the fine talk of an alliance that spanned thousands of miles and involved the fate of global religions did not produce any meaningful results. For Edward I, it turned out that there were problems closer to home that were more important. Rather than forming a grand alliance with the Mongols against Muslim Egypt, the English king was forced to head to Scotland to put down the rebellion of William Wallace. With other European monarchs similarly preoccupied, the Christian presence in the Holy Land finally came to an end: two centuries after the knights of the First Crusade had captured Jerusalem, the last footholds gave way. Sidon, Tyre, Beirut and Acre surrendered to the Mamluks in 1291. It turned out that goodwill and enthusiasm alone were not enough to support, save or hold on to the locations that lay at the heart of the Christian faith.

For a while, there were false dawns. In the winter of 1299, the Mongols finally achieved what they had sought to do for more than a generation: a crushing defeat of the Mamluk army. Their victory was so emphatic that rumours circulated round Europe that Jerusalem had been recovered by Christians in the east who had fought alongside their Mongol allies. Rumours spread that the Īlkhānid ruler had converted to Christianity and was serving as a new protector of the Holy Land. Some reports excitedly announced even better news: not content with expelling the Mamluks from Syria and Palestine, the Mongols had apparently burst through defences and taken Egypt as well.49 It all sounded too good to be true. A major victory had indeed been won by the Mongols on the battlefield, but the enthusiastic tales were nothing more than misunderstandings, rumours and wishful thinking. The Christian Holy Land was gone for good.50

The Crusades had played a vital role in shaping the medieval west. The power of the papacy had been transformed, with the Pope becoming not just an authoritative cleric but a figure with military and political capabilities of his own; the qualities and behaviour of the elite had been framed by ideas about service, devotion and knightly piety; and the idea of Christianity as the common denominator of the continent of Europe had taken root. But in the final analysis it had become clear from experience that while capturing and holding Jerusalem was wonderful in theory, in practice it was difficult, expensive and dangerous. And so, after being placed at the centre of European consciousness for two centuries, the Holy Land quietly slipped out of view. As the poet William Blake put it in the early nineteenth century, it would be infinitely preferable to build Jerusalem in an easier and more convenient location – such as ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’.51

The Crusades ultimately failed: attempts to colonise the most important locations in Christendom had not worked. The same could not be said, however, for the Italian city-states that succeeded where Christian knights had faltered. While devout knights had been forced out, the maritime states simply readjusted and burrowed ever deeper into Asia. There was no way they would relinquish their position. On the contrary, after the loss of the Holy Land, the issue for them was not about reducing their reach. It was about extending it.