Bad Decisions in History: Provoking Genghis Khan

Even nearly 800 years after his death, Genghis Khan’s name still evokes an image of a brutal and powerful warlord. The Mongolian emperor came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia, and waged a series of invasions to conquer most of Eurasia. While credited with advancing the Mongol Empire and bringing the Silk Road under cohesive political control, his invasion campaigns often employed ruthless tactics, giving him a reputation as a merciless and violent ruler, even during his own lifetime.

It’s a reputation that Inalchuq, the governor of the Khwarazmian* city of Otrar, and the Shah, Muhammad II of Khwarzem, probably should have heeded.

Bad Decision: Attacking and looting Genghis Khan’s trade caravan, insulting and murdering his ambassadors, enraging said warlord.

genghis khan

Genghis Khan

Interested in establishing the Khwarazmian Empire (which ruled much of modern-day Iran) as a trading partner, Genghis Khan sought to create official trade ties by sending a 500-man caravan laden with trade goods. As the caravan neared the Khwarazmian city of Otra, its governor, Inalchuq decided it was suspicious and ordered an attack against it. He believed the Mongolian caravan carried spies. In fact, it’s possible that the caravan did include a few spies – Genghis Khan had already expanded his territory quite a lot by this time, and was interested in the advantage of a trade union with Khwarazmia. However, it did also carry legitimate trade goods.

Another theory is that Inalchuq was offended when members of the caravan failed to address him by his proper title of Ghayir-Khan. While this may have occurred, it’s more likely that the fear of spies carried more weight in his subsequent actions.

Inalchuq was an uncle of the Shah, Mohammad II. With his permission, Inalchuq executed the entire caravan, and sold all of the goods it carried. After the attack, Inalchuq refused to make reparations to Genghis Khan for the looting of the caravans and the loss of the goods. Allegedly, a camel driver survived and fled back to Mongolia carrying the tale. In response, Genghis Khan sent three ambassadors to meet with the Shah, to explain the trade intent and to demand that Inalchuq be punished for the theft of goods and execution of people. In response, the Shah executed at least one of the ambassadors. Common consensus regarding this incident is that two of the ambassadors were Mongols, and the Shah had their beards shaved as a sign of humiliation, and sent them back to Genghis Khan. The third ambassador, a Muslim, was executed, and his head sent back as a grim message.

Outraged by this response, Genghis Khan commenced planning one of his largest invasion campaigns to date. Enlisting his most capable generals, including some of his sons, he amassed 100,000 soldiers and advanced on the Khwarazmian Empire.


The Empire was made up of much of modern day Iran


His invasion plan involved dividing his army into three groups. The first moved northeast, the second southeast, and the third northwest. This triple-pointed attack was particularly effective due to the Shah’s decision to concentrate his army in small groups posted in several cities. It was easier for the Mongols to face fractions of the Khwarazmian forces instead of a larger, unified army. The Mongols seized Otrar, which must have been particularly satisfying for Genghis Khan, given it was the same city that Inalchuq governed. In a brutal conquest, Genghis Khan had most of the civilians either massacred or enslaved, and he executed Inalchuq by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears.

gold death

Kind of like what happened to Viserys in Game of Thrones

The Mongols also captured the capital of Samarkand, using the bodies of their captured enemies as shields. This harsh tactic heralded the rest of the treatment of the people of Samarkand, who were mostly executed, their heads displayed as a symbol of the Mongolian victory. The Mongols also took the city of Bukhara, which was not heavily fortified. As they looted the city, a fire broke out, which burned most of it to the ground. Allegedly, Genghis Khan announced to the survivors that he was the flail of God, sent to punish them for their sins. This vicious mindset continued during the fall of the city of Urgench, which is considered one of the bloodiest massacres in history. According to the Persian scholar Juvayni, 50,000 Mongol soldiers were ordered to execute 24 Urgench citizens each.

Genghis Khan began a ruthless quest to destroy the remnants of the Khwarazmian Empire. Royal buildings, towns, and even farmland were razed, and the capital was moved to Bukhara. Some accounts say that Genghis Khan even had a river diverted through the Shah’s birthplace, effectively erasing it from the map. He also tasked two of his generals to hunt down the Shah, who had since fled for his life, giving them 20,000 soldiers for assistance. The Shah’s eventual death on an island is sometimes attributed to pleurisy, or to more mysterious circumstances.

By 1120, the Khwarazmian Empire was devastated by the Mongolian conquest. The Shah’s son, Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, who preferred to take the title Sultan instead of Shah, still had many loyal followers, and struggled to consolidate power. He spent the remainder of his life battling the Mongols, but was killed by highwaymen in 1231.

Outcome: The demolition of an Empire. One of the bloodiest massacres in history. A grisly death to inspire Game of Thrones. Possible geographical changes after re-routing a river.

genghis army


*In my research, I sometimes saw it spelled ‘Khwarazmian’ and sometimes ‘Khwarezmian.’ I used Khwarazmian for this post for the sake of consistency.


Looking for more Bad Decisions in history? Click here, or use the Category sidebar at the top of the blog page to jump there.

Stay connected:

Leave a Reply