The episode below is one of thousands documenting the formation of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century C.E. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Mong. Chinggis Khan), Mongol soldiers captured vast swaths of territory to form the largest contiguous land empire in recorded history: one that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Black Sea. Then as now, founding an empire was a violent process in which immense numbers of people were made into captives.

The passage here is found in the History of the World-Conqueror, composed in Persian by ʿAṭā Malik Juwaynī. In addition to working as a high-level bureaucrat for various Mongol princes and kings, Juwaynī chronicled the earliest waves of Mongol conquest on behalf of his patrons. The History of the World-Conqueror thus offers us a glimpse into how Mongol conquests were remembered by the ruling classes of the new empire. Mongol armies routinely destroyed cities and enslaved select laborers within them, forcibly displacing the latter to Mongol centers of power. The passage below exemplifies this trend in the context of Genghis Khan’s campaigns across lands today divided by the Afghanistan-Pakistan national border.

The immediate context for the passage is a battle between Genghis Khan’s forces and the king of Khwarazm, Jalāl al-Dīn. The latter has suffered a defeat on the banks of the Indus River and made a narrow escape. Genghis Khan seems to have devoted considerable attention to this particular nemesis and continued seeking him out in the aftermath, deputizing two of his sons— Ögedei and Chagatai—to continue the region’s subjugation.

As Genghis Khan continued down the Oxus, he dispatched [his son] Ögedei to Ghazni, the populace of which submitted without a fight. Ögedei drove the entire population of the city out into the plain. He separated out those who had artisanal skills, slaughtered the rest, and turned the city into a ruin. Ögedei then appointed Qutuqū Noyan in charge of Ghazni’s captive artisans—who passed the winter there—and himself returned west by way of Helmand.

 Genghis Khan came to Karmān and Sayqūrān [in Kurram]. There, he heard that King Jalāl al-Dīn had returned to the Indus River, where he was burying his dead. Placing [his son] Chagatai in charge at Karmān, Genghis Khan went after Jalāl al-Dīn. When he could not find him at the Indus, he continued his pursuit.

That winter, Genghis Khan camped near Būya Katōr, one of the towns of Ashtaqār [in the Hindu Kush]. The governor there, Sālār Aḥmad, knotted the waistband of submission and did all that he could to provision the Mongol army. Because of the miasmic climate, most of the soldiers fell sick, and the army’s strength flagged.

 Now, there were a great many prisoners with the Mongol army, members of which had also captured local Indian slaves. Matters reached such a point that each Mongol household had anywhere between ten and twenty captives cleaning rice, preparing daily rations, and performing other tasks. Due to their bodily constitutions, the captives were not affected by the climate.

Genghis Khan issued a decree for each captive in each house to prepare 400 maunds of rice. The task was set about with alacrity and completed within the week. Genghis Khan then commanded that every slave with the army be killed. The poor souls had no idea. One night, right before daybreak, the captives and Indians were wiped out to a one.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what way are the persons enslaved by the Mongol army being racialized by their captors? What relationship, if any, is there between that racialization and their mass execution at the hands of Genghis Khan and his soldiers? Does the fact that they are executed in the middle of the night tell us anything about Mongol attitudes towards captives? What differences can we tease out between the fates suffered by Ghazni’s artisans under Ögedei and enslaved persons in Genghis Khan’s legion? How else do war, labor, race, and captivity intersect in this passage?
  2. Imagine that the town or city in which you are currently located is emptied of artisans and craftspeople overnight. How might that affect daily life for those still living there, or those who might come back to settle there again? If you were living in a medieval town near Ghazni and heard news about the city’s fate, how might that influence your decisions if the Mongol army came to your town?
  3. Why do you think our author, Juwaynī, would record events such as these on behalf of the Mongol Empire? What might that tell us anything about how the empire’s ruling elite understood what we today think of us acts of ethnic cleansing? How are such acts connected to the processes of enslavement detailed above?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Manz, Beatrice Forbes. “Unacceptable Violence as Legitimation in Mongol and Timurid Iran.” In Violence in Islamic Thought from the Mongols to European Imperialism, eds. Kristó-Nagy, István and Gleave, Robert. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2018.
  • May, Timothy. “The Mongols as the Scourge of God in the Islamic World.” In Violence in Islamic Thought from the Mongols to European Imperialism, eds. Kristó-Nagy, István and Gleave, Robert. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2018.


Captives, Labor, Race, Violence