They carved out an empire from the ashes of Mongol conquest – then died defending their home. Meet the Kazan Tatars, who taught the Russian steppe about Persian elegance.
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.
But the man who rallied the defenders to their final stand was no general or khan – but a poet.
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.
Their breath misting in the crisp cloudy air, the defenders watched anxiously – awaiting the Russians’ first attack.
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.
Who were these fearless rebels? What drove them to resist Russian imperialism at the cost of their very lives – and what became of them in the end?
To answer those questions, we’ve got to jump back in time nearly half a millennium before the Siege of Kazan – to the age of the Mongols.
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.
Contrary to common belief, Mongol armies were anything but a disorganized “horde” of screeching horsemen.
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.
However, any ruler foolish enough to challenge the Mongols in direct combat would face the most disciplined, tightly coordinated army in the medieval world.
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.
But even as they destroyed cities, burned libraries and slaughtered millions, Mongols wrought profound cultural change throughout Europe and Asia.
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.
After conquering Moscow and Kiev, Mongol armies were gearing up for an assault on Vienna – opening the gates for a full-scale European invasion – when the Great Khan Ögedei dropped dead during an all-night drinking contest.
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:
Although Batu failed to become Great Khan of all the Mongols, he and his successors – known as the Golden Horde – managed to hold onto a sizable chunk of conquered territory in what’s now northwest Russia.
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.
In the mid-1300s, a series of internal coups and civil wars tore the Golden Horde to shreds – and a warrior aristocracy of Turkic Bulgars stepped in to fill the power vacuum.
Tracing their royal pedigree back to Batu Khan – and through him, all the way back to legendary Genghis himself – these Bulgar elites set up a new khanate, which they named Kazan.
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.
The heart of this empire was the mighty citadel of Kazan. Originally a rough timber fortress built to fend off steppe nomads, Kazan quickly grew into a bustling trade port of 100,000 citizens.
Along with its famous palace and university, Kazan was home to Taş Ayaq (“stone foot”) – a major regional trading bazaar for handicrafts like furniture, leather and gold-work.
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.
Kazan’s foreign policy was just as unpredictable as its rulership – particularly where Moscow was concerned.
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.
In the early 1400s, Moscow itself was little more than a large timber fortress – one whose Viking-descendant rulers hungered for the same wealthy territory that Kazan controlled.
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.
But the current khan, Safa Giray, was aggressively anti-Moscow. When his troops entered the Crimean peninsula and attacked Muscovite military installations, Kazan erupted in open revolt.
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.
At last, Moscow had had enough. In August 1552, Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich – better known as Ivan the Terrible – encamped an enormous army at the Russian castle of Sviyazhsk, and laid siege to the citadel of Kazan.
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.
Before sunset that day, Moscow’s armored feudal knights charged into the city – while legions of infantry (streltsy) trampled the streets, looting houses and gunning down fleeing rebels.
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.
But in the end, it was Kul Sharif’s poetic soul that won out. He rallied his most faithful students to the khan’s palace, and prepared to die defending the city he loved.
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.
After looting the city, Tsar Ivan left a garrison of 18,000 men behind, and rode back to Moscow in triumph. Partisans fled to the surrounding forests – many only to die in guerilla skirmishes over the following years.
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.)
And what became of the city of Kazan? You might be surprised to learn that it’s a thriving metropolis today.
I myself visited Kazan – now capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan, a member of the Russian Federation – in October of 2017.
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.
Kul Sharif may have died defending Kazan. But the poetry of his tale remains alive and well – recited on the streets of the city he gave his life for, in the same tongue with which he shouted his final words of defiance.
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