The army surrounding the fortress were a kaleidoscope of cultures and centuries. Red-coated Muscovite infantry primed their muskets next to engineers trained at faraway European universities. Feudal knights in clanking armor sat horseback amid high-caliber siege artillery.
Defending forces inside the wood-plank citadel were no less diverse. Turkic horsemen reared their mounts above tall-capped Finnic archers. Bulgar nobles with Arabic names – who traced their rule from Genghis Khan – intoned prayers for Allah’s deliverance from the infidels.
On the morning Kul Sharif learned that the full force of the Russian army had massed outside his city’s walls, he likely had little idea he would die before sunset, fighting ferociously amid his own students, defending his khan’s palace to his last breath.
That crisp October morning in 1552, Kul Sharif – along with the other 110,000 inhabitants of the city of Kazan – awoke to dire news: the 150,000-strong Muscovite army, led by Tsar Ivan the Terrible, had crushed the defending cavalry of Nogai Turks in the forests northeast of the city.
Now nothing stood between Kazan and the invading army. Defenders gathered atop the walls to gaze out on the myriad forces arrayed across the plain: infantry, cavalry, artillery of every caliber – a horde stretching to the distant horizon, outnumbering the population of the city they’d come to conquer.
Then, from deep within the Russian ranks, a new superweapon rolled forth: a 40-foot-tall (12-metre) “battery tower” bristling with 60 iron cannons – all trained on the timber walls of the rebellion’s final stronghold.
And still, the defenders refused to give up. They would die in their tens of thousands before the day was through – laying down their lives in a hopeless last stand to protect the city they called home.
In the the 1200s CE, unstoppable Mongol armies were sweeping eastward and westward across the Eurasian steppe, toppling one ancient citadel after another. Christians, Muslims and Confucians alike prayed for a miracle – anything to bring the slaughter and devastation to an end.
Those prayers appeared to have been answered in 1227, when Genghis abruptly died of mysterious causes. But though the Great Khan’s death would have stopped any other conquest, the Mongols soon burst forth with a second wave of ferocious attacks – led by Genghis’s brilliant general Subutai in China, and by his son Ögedei in the Middle East.
Genghis’s successors, like the Great Khan before them, always treated direct military aggression as a last resort – much preferring to acquire territory through diplomacy, espionage, bribery and political chess. Using this indirect approach, the Mongols frequently conquered large swathes of territory without ever having to fight a single pitched battle.
Using a practiced system of whistles and flag signals, Mongol armies ten thousand strong could easily split up into multiple sub-forces — then charge their enemy from several different directions simultaneously, only to scatter a moment later, then loop around and attack along the army’s flanks.
What’s more, Mongol armies would often alter and adapt these tactics in real time, coordinating unpredictable retreats, regroupings and flanking maneuvers from opposite ends of a noisy battlefield — as if by telepathy — with a precision that’s hard to even imagine in a pre-digital world.
Mongols were no slouches on the engineering front, either. When Ögedei’s army encamped outside the city of Baghdad and found no boulders to load in their catapults, Ögedei ordered all the forests around the city chopped down – then shattered Baghdad with thousands of catapulted trees.
For the first time since the Islamic jihads of the 700s, Mongol conquests opened up trade and travel from Turkey and Italy all the way to the east coast of China – bringing European culture Eastward through travelers like Marco Polo, while introducing inventions like gunpowder and printing presses to Europe.
Rumors of poison abounded — and the battle for the Mongol Empire was on. The army encamped outside Vienna thundered back to Mongolia, to support Genghis’s grandson Batu in his bid for the throne. The resulting intra-Mongol war ripped the empire to pieces — re-partitioning Asia along political lines that still look familiar today:
The Golden Horde’s Mongol aristocracy ruled a motley melting pot of vassals – primarily Bulgars, Tatars, Kipchaks, Cumans and other nomadic Turkic peoples, who in turn ruled farming and herding classes of East Slavs, Mordvinians, Greeks, Georgians, and Armenians.
While they maintained an uneasy peace with their Polish and Ottoman neighbors to the west, the Golden Horde traded actively with Egypt, which at the time was ruled by the Mamluks – Islamic Turkic slave-soldiers who’d ousted their Arab masters and set up a highly successful multi-ethnic state in North Africa.
Somewhere along the way, the state religion shifted from the Mongols’ indigenous shamanic creed, Tengrism, toward increasing adoption of Islam. The new religion brought with it the Arabic language and writing system – which, in turn, brought the Golden Horde a wealth of literature, architecture, music and art from Cairo and Baghdad all the way to Persia.
From their capital city of the same name, the Kazan khans ruled only a tiny corner of the Golden Horde’s vast realm. But situated as they were between Moscow, the Ottoman Empire and the sprawling steppes of Asia, they were perfectly positioned to carve out a new trade empire astride the Silk Road.
Like so many Central Asian empires before it, Kazan became an eclectic entrepôt – a land where Bulgar imams studied Persian poetry at Islamic universities; where Hungarian traders spent Czech coinage for Egyptian cotton; where the bells of Orthodox churches mingled with Muslim calls to prayer amid the primordial chanting of pagan Chuvash shamans.
Strolling through Taş Ayaq in the mid-1300s, you would’ve heard a babel of tongues: the clipped Turkic syllables of Tatar and Kipchak, the rolling Uralic sounds of Mari and Mordvin, and the rhythmic accents of Byzantine Greek; spiced with flecks of Georgian, Armenian, and Old Slavic – perhaps even snatches of Hungarian and Italian from especially far-traveled traders.
The crowds, too, would’ve been a cultural cornucopia: turbaned Bulgar scholars in colorful Egyptian cotton, jostling against herds of cattle driven by pipe-smoking Finnic herdsmen. As you coughed amid the thick smoke and manure, you might’ve noticed fur-coated Muscovite traders inspecting gold tableware displayed by Venetian sailors who shivered in the frosty air.
If you were especially fortunate, you might’ve even caught sight of a member of khan’s own family – swathed in embroidered Chinese silks, surveying the scene from astride his lithe Arabian stallion, surrounded by the steel-armored champions of his elite royal guard.
But despite the splendor of Kazan’s royal house, the khanate found itself embroiled in near-ceaseless civil strife. In the 115 turbulent years between 1437 and 1552, the khan was replaced no less than 19 times – with the very same person sometimes ascending, fleeing, then later re-ascending the throne on multiple occasions.
With no clear succession system in place, the next khan could appear from almost anywhere. Some khans were elected by Turkic nobles, while others were backed by their own family members, or supported by the military, or chosen from among the common people. A few appear to have seized the throne on their own initiative, by murdering the current occupant.
Ever since the breakup of the Mongol Empire – which had subjugated most of the Russian city-states and forced them to pay yearly tribute – the Grand Duchy of Moscow had emerged as the clear military leader, pushing aggressively outward to conquer long-time rivals like Kiev and Novgorod.
Throughout the 115 years of Kazan’s sovereignty, Moscow became embroiled in numerous territorial wars against the khanate – with semi-nomadic peoples like the Astrakhan Khanate, the Crimean Khanate and the Nogai Horde frequently serving as proxy forces for the rival empires.
Still, pro-Moscow elements remained among Kazan’s nobility. Many of them favored an appeasement policy that would keep trade flowing – while others secretly longed for a Moscow-ruled Kazan, whose tsars might bring stability to the region.
Pro-Moscow nobles ran riot in the palace, violently deposing Safa Giray and installing the ruler of a neighboring khanate – named Şahğäli – in Safa’s place. While this may have calmed the Russians for the time being, it did little to stabilize Kazan.
Tensions simmered for the next four years – until Safa suddenly reappeared, backed by a nomadic army of Nogai Turks. He seized back the throne, executed most of the nobles who’d opposed him (the rest escaped to Russia), and renewed his offensive against Moscow.
Safa’s regent Qoşçaq, who ascended the throne upon his death, continued his aggressive policies, infuriating the pro-Moscow nobility even further. The nobles rioted again, placing their man Şahğäli back on Kazan’s throne – only to see him re-deposed when another anti-Moscow khan, Yadegar Moxammad, seized the khanship with nomadic Nogai backing.
A mere two months later, Kul Sharif and the rest of the defenders stood atop their city’s walls, dodging a hail of high-caliber cannonballs that shredded the stout timber beams into toothpicks.
Meanwhile, Russian sappers – siege excavators, allegedly led by an Englishman named Butler – tunneled under those same walls, setting explosive charges that tore the city’s foundations out from beneath the defenders’ feet.
Kul Sharif must have known Kazan’s cause was lost. He was a well-traveled scholar – in fact, as a statesman, he’d personally participated in diplomatic negotiations with Russia. He was even more well-read – as a university professor, he would’ve been familiar with the classical military works of Herodotus and Thucydides, not to mention more recent Persian accounts of the Mongol conquests.
Russians outnumbered Tatars in Kazan now. As the fighting raged house-to-house, the streets ran slick with blood. The air grew choked with musket fire and the screams of the dying. Whole neighborhoods roared in flame, as Muscovite artillery shattered the stonework of mosques and manors.
Kul Sharif was last seen in front of the royal palace, raising a copy of the Quran above his head, exhorting his students to welcome martyrdom for their God and their city. Then a wave of Russian infantry swallowed the defenders and battered down the palace doors – and when the living were counted in the battle’s aftermath, Kul Sharif was not among them.
As for the Duchy of Moscow, her victory over Kazan only fueled the fire for war and colonial conquest. Tsar Ivan’s army would return to the field with scarcely a pause for breath. They decimated the Tatar Khanate of Astrakhan in 1556 – which further whetted their appetite for more gold and territory.
By the 1580s, Moscow-backed mercenaries would be pushing northeast into Siberia’s frozen pine forests, where the Khanate of Sibir maintained a loose rulership over indigenous hunting and herding peoples like the Daurs,
Yakuts and Chukchis. (Those brutal woodland battles will form the backbone of this series’s next installment.)
A full 465 years, almost to the day, after the fateful siege, I found myself awed by the majesty of Kazan’s mosques and Orthodox cathedrals, charmed by the Parisian elegance of her streets, and deeply moved by the tragic, triumphant story of her people.
Not only do Kazan’s museums proudly tell the tale of Tatar resistance against tsarist imperialism – the city’s public signs and announcements are given in two languages: Russian, and the Turkic Tatar tongue, which many people in Kazan still speak fluently.
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