The Destruction of Merv

Scott Alexander notes in his latest links roundup that Merv in present-day Turkmenistan was once the largest city in the world, which is remarkable since hardly anyone has heard of it.

I actually had heard of it, because of this passage from Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind: A History of IranIt’s a good counterpoint to anyone who says the 20th century or the modern world were uniquely violent. As Axworthy says, “When we talk of the magnitude of twentieth-century massacres and genocides as if they were unparalleled, we sometimes forget what enormities were perpetrated in earlier centuries with the cold blade alone”:

The Seljuk Empire had been split toward the end of the twelfth century by the rise of a subject tribe from Khwarezm, whose leaders established themselves as the rulers of the eastern part of the empire. They were known as the Khwarezmshahs. In the early years of the thirteenth century, the ruling Khwarezmshah, Sultan Mohammad, became dimly aware that a new power was rising in the steppe lands beyond Transoxiana. There were impossible rumors—true, as it turned out—that the Chinese empire had been conquered. There may have been some attempts at diplomatic contact, but these were bungled, resulting in the deaths of some Mongol merchants and ambassadors. Contrary to popular perception, the Mongols were not just a ravening mob of uncivilized, semi-human killers. Their armies were tightly controlled, well disciplined, and ruthlessly efficient. They were not wantonly destructive. But their ultimate foundation was the prestige of their warlord, Genghis Khan, and an insult could not be overlooked. After the killing of the Mongol emissaries, what came next in Transoxiana and Khorasan was particularly dreadful because of the Mongols’ vengeful purpose. There followed a series of Mongol invasions, aimed initially at punishing Sultan Mohammad—who, veering from tragedy toward comedy, fled westward to Ray, pursued by a Mongol flying column, and then north until he died on an island off the Caspian coast. These invasions later developed into conquest and occupation. What this meant for the hapless Iranians can be illustrated by what happened at Merv, after the Mongols had already conquered and destroyed the cities of Transoxiana:
. . . on the next day, 25 February 1221, the Mongols arrived before the gates of
Merv. Tolui in person [the son of Genghis Khan] with an escort of 500 horsemen, rode the whole distance around the walls, and for six days the Mongols continued to inspect the defences, reaching the conclusion that they were in good repair and would withstand a lengthy siege. On the seventh day the Mongols launched a general assault. The townspeople made two sallies from different gates, being in both cases at once driven back by the Mongol forces. They seem then to have lost all will to resist. The next day the governor surrendered the town, having been reassured by promises that were not in fact to be kept. The whole population was now driven out into the open country, and for four days and nights the people continued to pour out of the town.
Four hundred artisans and a number of children were selected to be carried off as slaves, and it was commanded that the whole of the remaining population, men, women, children, should be put to the sword. They were distributed, for this purpose, among the troops, and to each individual soldier was allotted the execution of three to four hundred persons. These troops included levies from the captured towns, and Juvaini records that the people of Sarakhs, who had a feud with the people of Merv, exceeded the ferocity of the heathen Mongols in the slaughter of their fellow-Muslims. Even now the ordeal of Merv was not yet over. When the Mongols withdrew, those who had escaped death by concealing themselves in holes and cavities emerged from their hiding places. They amounted in all to some five thousand people. A detachment of Mongols, part of the rearguard, now arrived before the town.
Wishing to have their share of the slaughter they called upon these unfortunate wretches to come out into the open country, each carrying a skirtful of grain. And having them thus at their mercy they massacred these last feeble remnants of one of the greatest cities of Islam. . .
Contemporary eyewitnesses at Merv gave estimates for the numbers killed ranging between 700,000 and 1.3 million. These figures are huge but credible, representing a high proportion of the population of northern Khorasan and Transoxiana at the time. The numbers were probably greater than normal because country people and refugees from tens and hundreds of miles around fled there before the siege began. When we talk of the magnitude of twentieth-century massacres and genocides as if they were unparalleled, we sometimes forget what enormities were perpetrated in earlier centuries with the cold blade alone.  A skirtful of grain.

The Mongols reduced the population of Asia sufficiently that, thanks to reforestation and reduced agriculture, the global atmospheric carbon dioxide level went down.

Cloning Genghis Khan and setting him loose upon the Earth again is probably not the precise solution present-day climate activists would advocate, but you never know.

2 thoughts on “The Destruction of Merv

  1. What a scary empire. Thanks for the book mention: I’m on a slow quest to familiarize myself with world history. I am comfortable with American and Israeli history, and to a lesser degree European history and modern world history/news, but not with history before 1900’s in rest of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, the Mongols. Great warriors, poor administrators. The mongols killed roughly 10% of the world’s population at the time. That’s what you get when you have a leader who says the greatest pleasure in life is killing your enemies and raping their women. Do modern Mongolians, I wonder, teach their kids to abhor the violence of their ancestors in their schools?

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