Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of the Terek River (1395)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

The collapse of the Mongolian empires in the 14th century was almost as destabilizing to geopolitics as the Mongolian invasions had been in the 13th century. In fact when you juxtapose the dates like that it makes a pretty good argument for treating the invasions and the collapse as all one big century-long disruption rather than as discrete things. Over a period of a few decades, the Mongols rolled through China and conquered land as far west as central Europe, toppling the Jin and Song dynasties in China, the Khwarazmian kingdom in central Asia, the Abbasid caliphate in the Middle East, the Kievan Rus’ confederation in eastern Europe, and many other established political entities on top of those. And then, between a century and a century and a half later in most places, their empires just disintegrated.

You’ll note that I said “Mongolian empires” up there because already by the middle of the 14th century they’d stopped being a single empire. The families of each of Genghis Khan’s four sons with his senior wife Börte (including their eldest, Jochi, who quite possibly was not Genghis Khan’s biological son) each received their own portion of the empire as inheritance, with the third, Ögedei Khan, succeeding his father as the Great Khan. This arrangement held together for all of two decades, before an internal family power struggle caused the Great Khanate to shift to the family of the fourth son, Tolui, and kicked off several intra-Mongolian civil wars that quickly left Genghis Khan’s empire torn into four parts. The rulers of three of them did pay homage to the “Great Khan” in China, but even that ultimately became so nominal as to be meaningless.

The four empires as they existed roughly around 1260 and (with the addition of the Southern Song territory) around 1290

So things started to come apart pretty quickly in the big scheme of things, but each of these sub-empires (with the arguable exception of the “Chagati Khanate,” much of which was too pastoral and nomadic to cohere into anything in the first place) did manage at least a few decades of stability. This period, from the middle of the 13th century to the early-middle 14th century, is sometimes called the Pax Mongolica for the way the Mongolian conquests stitched Eurasia together and facilitated contact across its breadth. But as the 14th century got going, these khanates started dropping like flies. The last widely accepted Ilkhan ruler died in 1335, for example, and the Ilkhanate descended into a cacophony of tribes and Mongolian princes making various claims to the throne until the whole thing was conquered by Timur, under the pretense of restoring the khanate, in the latter part of the century. The Yuan dynasty, home of the nominal “Great Khans,” was replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368. On the Eurasian steppe, the “Golden Horde” khanate began falling apart in the 1350s. More on that last one in a moment.

There are several reasons why these khanates all started to collapse around the same time. If you want to get really macro about it, the 14th century corresponds roughly with the end of Medieval Warm Period, which brought a serious climatic upheaval to Europe and across Asia. There’s some circumstantial evidence that the warming period, which lasted from the 11th through the 13th centuries, brought rainfall and mild temperatures to the Mongolian homeland, which among other things made it possible for the Mongols to graze enough horses to outfit an army of conquest. Mongolian armies were sensitive to the availability of pastureland, which helps to explain why they hit their geographic limits in places like India, Syria, and central Europe. The ending of the warm period meant less favorable climate for the Mongolian military and brought upheavals like famine and drought. Later on, the plague—the spread of which was facilitated by the Mongolian conquests and possibly by the cooling temperatures—also weakened the Mongols and their armies.

At the less macro level, the Mongol conquests were themselves a kind of natural disaster in the sense that they killed and displaced so many people and destroyed so much farmland that they helped create the conditions for future famines. Though I should probably note here that all that destruction of farmland probably contributed to reforestation across Asia, so environmentally their impact wasn’t all negative. Additionally, the Mongolian khanates were in some sense built to fail. They were conquest states that failed the transition to something more durable once they ran out of places to conquer. Conflicts between the khanates, conflicts between Mongolian princes within the khanates, and perhaps above all conflicts between princes and the tribes on whose support they depended undermined the cohesion of the khanates. This meant political chaos and plenty of openings for people who, unhappy under Mongol repression and perhaps desperate because of famine and/or disease, chose to rebel.

We’ve gotten very far afield here, but I think it’s important to understand the context in which the Battle of the Terek River took place, which was very much in the twilight of the Mongolian empires. That’s because the outcome actually scuttled the efforts of one Mongolian ruler to try to rebuild at least his corner of the world. The Khanate of the Golden Horde is the one most Europeans associated with the “Mongols,” because it’s the one they encountered directly. The main terms associated with the Mongols in European history, like “Tatar hordes” (or Tartar hordes) and the “Tatar Yoke,” all refer to the Golden Horde and its rule over parts of what later became the Russian Empire. Paradoxically it’s also the khanate for which we have the fewest internal sources (not counting the Chagatai Khanate, which as I said above mostly never cohered) and so there’s a need to rely on external, primarily European, sources instead. This leads to some unfortunate problems, like the name “Golden Horde” itself, which doesn’t seem to have been used by the Mongols and only appears in later Russian histories.

Whatever you call it, the Golden Horde was actually a confederation of two kingdoms, each ruled by a descendant of Jochi. These were the right, or western, wing (they oriented themselves to the south) and the left, or eastern, wing. One of these was called the “Blue Horde” and the other the “White Horde,” but among the many things nobody knows for sure about this khanate, we don’t know which one was which because there’s no agreement on that in the available sources. The western wing was the dominant one, and the khans of that wing had overall rule over the combined khanate. But the two halves each started to go their own way, and by the early 14th century the gaps were becoming apparent. By around 1350 the western wing, badly weakened by the Black Death, began losing territory and struggling with internal conflict. The eastern wing fared a bit better, but in general things were not great.

Into this situation entered a Mongolian prince named Tokhtamysh. He was the nephew of Urus Khan (d. 1377), who was ruler of the eastern wing and had made a very disputed claim on the western wing. We first hear of Tokhtamysh after a failed attempt to overthrow his uncle in 1376, which prompted him to flee south and put himself under the protection of the aforementioned Timur, who was still beginning his career of conquest. Details are sparse but we know that Urus Khan followed his nephew south and tried to force Timur to give him up, by force. This was not a good idea, and not long after being driven back north Urus Khan died. Presented with a golden (pardon the pun) opportunity to put his client on the throne of the Jochid khanate, Timur did just that. Tokhtamysh took power in the eastern wing and then invaded the western wing, securing it as well. By 1380 he was the sole khan of the entire operation, marking the restoration of a unified khanate and the first time it had been ruled unquestionably by one single khan.

Easily the high point of Tokhtamysh’s reign was his 1382 siege of Moscow. The prince of Moscow, Dmitry Donskoy, had organized an army from several Rus’ or former Rus’ principalities and defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, signaling that perhaps the Rus’ states were about to throw off that whole Tatar Yoke business. Tokhtamysh led a campaign to beat the Rus’ back into submission that culminated with his sack of Moscow and set back the cause of de-Yokification by decades (Muscovy didn’t finally shed its subservience to the Mongols until 1480). Like his patron Timur in the former Ilkhanate, Tokhtamysh looked to be rebuilding a Mongolian system that had previously been coming apart at the seams. But then he made the unfortunate mistake of turning on the guy who’d put him on the throne.

Timur’s campaigns, including his campaigns against Tokhtamysh

The Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate had historically run hot and cold, and there were a couple of reasons underlying this. For one thing, in parceling out pieces of his empire to his sons and their heirs, Genghis Khan had tried to give each family little enclaves of territory inside the other khanates as a way of fostering unity. He’d also not done the best job of delineating borders. And his empire expanded after his death into territories where he wouldn’t have even bothered delineating borders. He’d never even conceived of what became the Ilkhanate because the Mongols hadn’t yet progressed that far to the southwest. So there was a lot of potential for territorial disputes, and the Golden Horde had traditionally laid claim to some important cities in the Caucasus and in what is now northwestern Iran, cities that the Ilkhanate came to hold and had no interest in giving up. The two khanates also sat on two different major east-west trade routes, each a variant of the “Silk Road” from Europe to China. This put them in commercial competition with one another.

For some reason, probably because he was feeling very good about himself after re-subjugating Moscow, Toktamysh decided in the mid-1380s, while Timur was on campaign in the east, to make good on the Golden Horde’s claims in the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. This led to a military campaign that culminated with a sack of the wealthy city of Tabriz in 1386. As you may know, provoking Timur was just not a very good idea, and Toktamysh’s invasion provoked him perhaps more than any other adversary he ever faced. Starting in 1389, Timur shifted his attention to the Caucasus and began a campaign that first secured his northern border and then took the war into the Golden Horde’s territory. The climax of this campaign, if you want to call it that, was the Battle of the Terek River on April 15, 1395, in an area that now lies along the Russian-Georgian border. We don’t know much about what happened except that Tokhtamysh and his army were thoroughly pulverized, so much so that Timur was then able to visit all the major cities in Tokhtamysh’s khanate—at least six of them—and destroy every single one.

The impact of Timur’s victory was dramatic. His campaign of destruction hadn’t just sapped the Golden Horde’s power, it had conveniently—perhaps intentionally—destroyed the northern Silk Road route, redirecting more commercial traffic through Timur’s domains. Tokhtamysh fled and was deposed in fairly short order. His attempts to restore himself to power ended when he and an allied Lithuanian army were defeated by the army of the Golden Horde in 1399, and he fled east into Siberia, where he died or was killed in the early 15th century. As for the Golden Horde, whatever Tokhtamysh had managed to achieve in terms of stitching it back together unraveled pretty quickly. Starting only about a decade after Terek, and over the course of the 15th century, it disintegrated into at least nine different khanates, some making overlapping claims and a few of which then disintegrated themselves into still more and smaller khanates. Of these the most successful in terms of its peak was probably the Uzbek Khanate in central Asia, or perhaps the Crimean Khanate in, well, Crimea. The longest lived was the Khanate of Khiva, a successor to the Uzbeks, which survived in a technical sense into the 20th century. All of these were eventually absorbed into the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.