Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
After his son Jochi died, Genghis Khan named his grandson Batu as khan of the Golden Horde, the Mongol state overseeing much of Central Asia and what is now southern Russia. When Genghis Khan died, Batu’s uncle Ogedei became the Khan of Khans. And in 1235 Ogedei ordered Batu to conquer Europe. A year later Batu and his forces began invading Russian lands in earnest, and by 1238 they had burned Moscow to the ground and sacked essentially all other cities in historic Russia. The state of Novgorod escaped destruction by surrendering preemptively before incurring Batu’s wrath. (Regarding Novgorod’s prince Alexander Nevsky’s choice to side with the Mongols and fight Swedes and Germans, see my earlier post.) By 1240, Batu had also taken Kiev.
Batu then turned his attention to Central Europe. Under a strategy devised by Batu’s deputy Subutai, the Mongols split into three columns. One column defeated the Poles and Moravians at the Battle of Legnica, the second defeated the Moldavians and Wallachians in modern Romania, while the third marched into Hungary. The three columns recombined at the Battle of Mohi where the Mongols crushed King Bela IV of Hungary. The invasion killed half the Hungarian population, leaving the country later to have to invite its neighbors to send settlers in order to repopulate the land. It was also because of the Mongol destruction of Esztergom, the country’s erstwhile capital, that the Hungarians made Budapest their new center.
Bratislava, where Jana was telling me about the pasta dinner that burned down the castle, was at the time a Hungarian city, Slovakia having been incorporated into Hungary back in the 11th century.
Vienna was now only a stone’s throw away. Batu sent small detachments to test the Austrians while he prepared a full-scale attack against Austria, and beyond that, Germany and Italy. One can imagine what trepidation the Viennese must have felt in the face of these apparently unstoppable wild horsemen of unspeakable savagery springing forth from the mysterious east. In the event it must have seemed apocalyptic, as though the judgement of God was upon them. Indeed a Russian chronicler not many years earlier had written that it was “for our sins” that the Mongol hordes had descended upon Rus. Winston Churchill later wrote of this pivotal moment in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: “At one moment it had seemed as if all Europe would succumb to a terrible menace looming up from the East.”
But the Austrians, and behind them the Italians and the Germans and the French, were lucky. Just then news arrived that Ogedei had died. By the Yassa, the secret body of laws that Genghis Khan left behind, Batu was now required to return to Mongolia to attend the “kurultai” or assembly of the princes in order to elect a new Great Khan. With their leader departed, the Mongol armies withdrew to Russia.
But for Ogedei’s “providential” death (Churchill’s word), perhaps all Europe would’ve become a khanate of the Mongol Empire. And if such a khanate in Europe had lasted as long as the Golden Horde, then Mongol government in Europe would have persisted until the early Renaissance. Which is to say, there likely would’ve been no Renaissance, or a very different Renaissance, one with Eastern characteristics. World history would’ve turned out very differently indeed.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."