Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing
Disdain and Ego
History’s Biggest Loser
This particular diplomatic error is included because it takes
the award for one of the single most boneheaded and self-destructive
leadership mistakes in this book. The mistake
was made in the city of Samarkand, which was the capital of the
Khwarezm Empire. In 1215, Khwarezm was perhaps the most
prosperous state in the world. Samarkand was known for its
culture, its palaces, and its many carefully gardened parks. Th e
empire included what is today Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The Khwarezm army included almost half a million full-time
heavy cavalry men. Each man and horse was fully covered in
high-quality armor. Th e court of its emperor, Ala ad-Din Muhammed,
was filled with scholars and artists. It was a golden age
for literature and the arts.
Much of Khwarezm’s wealth came from taxes collected along
the Silk Road. Khwarezm controlled part of the only land route
between China and Europe. Every merchant paid a fee to use their
roads and to be protected by their army.
Bordering Khwarezm to the northeast were the steppes of Mongolia.
At the time of the Ala ad-Din’s mistake, the Mongols
under Genghis Khan were conquering China. The Silk Road ran
through these steppes as well, and the Great Khan also benefited
from a wealth of taxes collected from it. With his army busy in
China, Genghis Khan made it clear he was interested above all in
keeping the lucrative trade routes open. Because of this, he was
more than friendly to Ala ad-Din Muhammed, often sending
valuable gifts. Both nations did well by this, and if either stopped,
trade for both would suffer. The Mongols also went to great
lengths to keep the caravans moving along the road. And for a
long time, Ala ad-Din Muhammed also made sure that Mongol
merchants were well treated as they passed through his lands.
But at some point around 2016, Ala ad-Din Muhammed became
suspicious. Th e Mongols were conquering China much too
easily. He suddenly felt threatened, even though there had been
no threats or change in his relationship with Genghis Khan.
No armies were massing in the western steppes, no invasions seemed
to be planned, but Ala ad-Din Muhammed was concerned. It appeared
to him that many Mongolian merchant caravans were carrying
more than exotic goods. He suspected that they also were
bringing in Mongol spies.
So with no provocation he ordered his army to begin raiding
the Mongol caravans it had formerly protected. But still Genghis
Khan did not threaten or overreact to the insult and losses. Instead
he sent a delegation, including an ambassador he appointed,
to Samarkand. About fifty important Mongol nobles and scholars
were also included in the delegation. Once there, they sought an
audience with Ala ad-Din Muhammed, who insultingly stalled
the meeting for some weeks. Aft er they finally met, the Mongolian
ambassador demanded not only that the attacks stop but that Ala
ad-Din Muhammed himself pay reparations for the losses. Again
the Khwarezm emperor stalled and then finally called in the Mongolian
delegation. His reply was to grab all of the delegates and set
their beards on fire. Th is was said to have greatly amused his
court. However, because most Mongol nobles had full beards this
also meant they were all badly burned and scarred, and some were
blinded. Th en to make his point, Ala ad-Din Muhammed personally
beheaded the ambassador.
There seems to have been no reason for this calculated insult.
Any dispute would disrupt all the trade on the Silk Road. The
Mongols had never threatened his empire and had given its merchants
special treatment. It is hard to speculate just why the emperor
felt he could insult and virtually declare war on a neighbor
that was successfully conquering China. Perhaps he felt that the
high mountains and narrow passes would discourage any military
reaction. Perhaps he felt the war in China would prevent the
Mongolians from having enough horsemen to retaliate. Or maybe
he just didn’t think and showed off for his court at the expense of
the less-sophisticated Mongols. For three years there seemed to be
few consequences. Ala ad-Din Muhammed kept his army on alert
and near the mountain passes that led to Mongolia, but no avenging
Whatever the reason, this was arguably the worst diplomatic
mistake in all history. It certainly puts all modern blunders (Neville’s
appeasement of Hitler, the Allies’ giveaway at Yalta, and
Acheson’s not including Korea in a speech listing the areas America
would defend from Communism) to shame. In 1219, one hundred
thousand Mongolian horsemen (ten Tumens) rode almost
unopposed into Khwarezm, through passes hundreds of miles
away from where the opposing armies were waiting for them.
Within a year, all of Khwarezm’s half million armored cavalry
were dead or slaves. City aft er city fell. Many were completely destroyed
and every person in them slain or sold into slavery. The
entire population of Samarkand was put to death, and that city of
gardens and palaces was then also leveled. Th e Mongols completely
crushed the entire empire, eliminating three quarters of its
people and leaving those who remained in poverty and hunger.
Millions died, and a once-prosperous land turned into a wasteland
inhabited by subsistence farmers and herders. Th is is why
Afghanistan is a much poorer and more uncultured place today
than it was a thousand years ago. So great was the Mongol destruction
that in some ways the area still suffers from it. This incident
may well also have been what turned the Mongols’ eyes
westward. It may have later doomed nations from Turkey and
India to Russia and Ukraine to Mongol invasion and domination.
Th is unneeded insult, baiting the most powerful and warlike people
of the time, cost millions of lives and changed history in ways
that still affect our lives.
As for Ala ad-Din Muhammed? He fled and is said to have
died of fright, fleeing to a distant island in the farthest corner of
the land he had once ruled, still pursued by twenty thousand
Traditions begin for a good reason. In the case of the Mongols,
traditions surrounding the death of a great khan were carefully
followed. The Mongols were a military state, and their leaders
commanded the best soldiers of their day. When Genghis Khan
died in 1027, the formerly warring Mongol tribes had been united
for only two decades. Electing a new great khan required that all
of the leaders agree. If one was not there, he would not be required
to recognize a decision he was not part of. So the tradition of the
Mongols was for all the leaders to gather and elect their next khan.
Considering the stakes and the very nature of those who had gathered,
such a meeting would have made a modern political convention
look like a tea party. But they met and a unanimous choice
was made. Th is guaranteed their newfound unity and empire.
Genghis Khan’s son Ögedei was elected to succeed him, and
Genghis’s other sons were assigned to command different parts of
the empire. Th is began a second wave of Mongol conquests. By
the time Ögedei died in 1241, it was Europe and not the Mongols
who benefi ted the most from this tradition.
After Genghis Khan’s death, his son Jöchi became the leader
of the Kipchak Khanate, known today as the Golden Horde.
When Jöchi died, his son Batu became Kha Khan (Great Leader)
of the Golden Horde. Batu and Subotai, who was one of the greatest
Mongol commanders, went on to conquer Russia. As usual,
the Mongols left the local lords in place and ruled through them.
In 1240, they conquered and tore down Kiev, the last major center
of resistance east of Poland. Th is left the Golden Horde free to
move deeper into Europe. An unknown Russian poet from Muscovy
wrote of the conquest showing the fear and dismay that assisted
the Mongols in their conquest.
Yet still did the mountains tremble and our eyes strain across
the steppe to find the storm. Th en, like the onset of nightfall
came the endless shadow of the Horde to blot our lands from
view. A numberless multitude swept across the hill crests and
like waves of a black ocean did they sweep down upon us.
Their arrows fell like clouds of biting flies from the darkened
sky. Th e death screams of our warriors were overwhelmed by
the drumming of infinite hooves so that only the endless thunder
was heard at the last. Our enemy then struck wide its
wings and eclipsed the sun from Russia’s plain forever.
Their first target was Poland and only part of the horde was
needed. After pillaging a good part of that nation, they met the
Polish army commanded by Włodzimierz of Kraków. The Poles
were defeated and those who could flee did. A second battle at
Chmielnik sealed Poland’s fate. There the more heavily armored,
but less disciplined, Polish knights were initially winning. Seeing
this, the Mongol commander ordered his whole army to feign
retreat. The knights, thinking they were pursuing a defeated
enemy, lost all formation as they chased after the Mongol horsemen.
When the knights were all spread out and vulnerable, the
retreating Mongols turned and reinforcements attacked them
from both flanks. Most of the Polish knights died. The king of
Bohemia then gathered his army, gathered together the survivors
of the two armies that had been defeated, adding them to his own,
and moved to relieve Kraków. In a hard-fought battle, he too was
defeated. Th e Bohemian army remained intact, but they were
damaged, so they retreated to regroup. With no army left to defend
it, Kraków was soon conquered and burned. Th e Mongols in
Poland then turned south and joined the rest of the Golden Horde
At the start of the thirteenth century, Hungary was one of the
most powerful and wealthy of the Christian kingdoms. Subotai
and Batu united all the Tumens of the Golden Horde to conquer
it. They met the amassed Hungarian army near the town of Muhi,
just south of the Sajó River.
Although King Béla of Hungary was concerned and had gathered
his army, many of his nobles underestimated the threat the
Mongols posed, thinking they faced only a raid by a few thousand
horsemen. The battle began very well for the Hungarians. The
Templar commander led a good part of the army out in an effort
to surprise the Mongols. They managed to find the enemy and
attack while the Mongols were in the process of crossing the Sajó.
Thanks to the element of surprise, night, and their crossbows
(which came as an unpleasant blow to the Mongols), the Hungarians
killed a large number of the raiders, while they were trying
to cross the two-hundred-meter-long bridge or swim the river.
When the Mongols pulled back, the Hungarians returned to their
camp confident they had dealt with the threat.
By the next morning, the Mongols had managed to find another
crossing and send a small force across the river. Th at force,
assisted by some stone throwers, cleared the bridge, and the
Golden Horde began to cross. When the guards from the bridge
rushed into the camp, some of the princes gathered their forces to
meet the raiders and retake the bridge. It soon became apparent
to the Hungarians that they were facing the entire horde, and they
rushed back to gather the rest of the army.
Amazingly confident that his princes could handle the Mongol
raiders, Béla had not even begun preparations for a battle.
When the princes raised the alarm, it took some time for the main
Hungarian force to form. Th at delay allowed almost all of the
Mongols to cross over to the Hungarian side of the Sajó. The two
armies met and were evenly matched. Both forces suffered heavy
casualties, with Batu losing thirty-five members of his personal
bodyguard rank. Only when the late-arriving Subotai crossed the
bridge and fell on the Hungarian rear did they retreat into their
Once in the crowded wooden fortification, the Hungarians
found they could not effectively sort out their army. Organization
failed as fire arrows caused chaos, and morale plunged. The Mongols
then left an opening in their lines, and the Hungarian army
surged out of the fort hoping to escape. Out of formation and in a
panic, they were decimated. Béla and others escaped, but the bulk
of the Hungarian soldiers died. Th e Golden Horde went on to pillage
much of Hungary unopposed until what had been a good
tradition had a bad result.
There is no question that with Hungary decimated Europe was
exposed. The western European kingdoms were at this time much
poorer and less populated than the eastern ones Batu had already
defeated. It appears that no European nation was capable of defeating
the Mongols. The entire French army at the Battle of
Bouvines that same year totaled only fifteen thousand.
Ögedei died, and the word went out for all the Mongol lords
to return to the capital, more than a thousand miles away, and
elect a new great khan. Batu had said he intended to conquer all
of Europe as he had Russia. But due to tradition, he felt he had no
choice but to return to Mongolia immediately. Because of this,
Europe was spared. Had he remained, there is no question that the
Mongols would have been in Paris by the spring. But he chose
instead to follow his people’s customs. It was a mistake for a conqueror,
but one that saved Europe.