‘Asia under the Mongols in 1290’ from the ‘History and commercial atlas of China‘ by Albert Herrmann
‘Asia under the Mongols in 1290’ from the ‘History and commercial atlas of China‘ by Albert Herrmann

The modern state of Pakistan stands on a land that was once perhaps among the most significant crossroads in human history. This means that, aside from the multitude of nations who crossed this region, these lands have also seen the crossing of many great kings accompanied by vast armies, all of whom were put to the test against the valour of the locals who sought to defend their motherland.

One such tale of bravery comes from the year 1241 CE, when massive hordes of the Mongols poured into Punjab and descended on the ever-illustrious city of Lahore. As the city walls started to crumble before the Mongols, the ordinary people of Lahore, without a leader and army, surrounded on all sides, raised their swords in defiance and did something which hitherto had never been done by any nation facing the Mongols.


When the Mongol horsemen first galloped across the Jaxartes River in 1219 CE, it was understood that a formidable new nation had entered the Old World, which would lay to waste everything before it. The Mongols’ mettle matched their reputation, as they took to razing many notable cities and pillaging Central Asia, much of which was, at that point, a part of a state known as the Khwarezmid Empire.

The heir-apparent of this empire, a young prince by the name of Jalal-al-din Mangubarni, put up stiff resistance to the Mongol march. It was the Mongol pursuit of the prince that first brought the Mongols into South Asia and what is today Pakistan.

The Mongol attack on Lahore in 1241 CE, facilitated by internal divisions within the Delhi sultanate, marked the beginning of increasing Mongol incursions into the Indus region that ultimately changed the course of South Asia

Somewhere near Attock, in 1221 CE, a half-hearted battle ensued on the banks of Indus, in which the Khwarezmid side was defeated and the prince famously fled by forcing his horse to wade across the Indus River. Genghis Khan himself was present to witness this and is said to have even ordered his archers to not shoot at the prince. But it wasn’t long before he dispatched two of his generals, Dörbei Doqshin and Bala Noyan, with 20,000 horsemen, to chase the prince.

The prince was never captured, and his death was destined to occur nearly a decade later, near today’s Iraq. However, Genghis Khan’s generals had penetrated the Indus region now and eyed the bustling city of Multan, which was then under the administration of a Turkic ruler called Nasir-ud-din Qabacha, who briefly ruled an independent state stretching from Multan to the Arabian Sea.

The Mongols besieged Multan. The city walls were an inch away from total collapse before the Mongols raised the siege and departed, undone by the unbearable summer heat. They did, however, depart only after they had laid waste to much of southern Punjab and carried off massive amounts of loot to Ghazni.

The raid of Dörbei and Bala initiated the nearly two century-long saga of Mongol forays into South Asia, which brought utter desolation upon the Indus region. The worst of these attacks was waiting to occur 20 years later, in the winter of 1241 CE.


‘14th century illustration of a Mongol catapult’ from the ‘Jami al-Tawarikh’ of Rashid al-Din Hamadani
‘14th century illustration of a Mongol catapult’ from the ‘Jami al-Tawarikh’ of Rashid al-Din Hamadani

Soon after Dörbei and Bala’s raid, the Turkic Sultan Iltutmish of the Delhi sultanate expelled Qabacha from his stronghold and took over his territories in southern Punjab and Sindh, effectively ending all threats that Qabacha had posed to northern Punjab, especially to the city of Lahore.

With this move, Sultan Iltutmish had done away with one of the last hindrances to a consolidated rule and moved forward with the establishment of a strong and stable sultanate over much of modern-day Pakistan and northern India, with its seat at Delhi.

The 26-year-long reign of Sultan Iltutmish saw the rise of a powerful Muslim state over the Indo-Gangetic plains, marked by a balance between internal peace and external stability. But this delicate balance was all but lost when Iltutmish died in 1236 CE, and in his place was put an incapable son who was swiftly deposed.

Then, Iltutmish’s daughter, Raziyyat-ud-Dunya wal-Deen — popularly known as Razia Sultana — ascended to the throne. Razia was an able monarch and a shrewd stateswoman, who defied all those who doubted her power by quelling various revolts against her. She ruled with full authority as an independent queen, and dispensed the same justice and wisdom as her father once had.

However, Razia Sultana’s independent nature and strong will as a female monarch largely contributed to her downfall. The Turkic nobility, which had once dutifully served her father, now felt estranged by her headstrong character and conspired to do away with her and, in her place, bring her half-brother Muizz-ud-Din Bahram to rule the Delhi throne.

The plan was put in motion in 1239 CE and, by the following year, Razia had been killed and replaced by her half-brother, who proved to be another weak puppet ruler. The weakness of Bahram and the instability created by the Turkic nobility proved to be fatal when news arrived, in 1241 CE, from the sultanate’s western frontier, of vast hordes of Mongols crossing the Hindu Kush mountains and heading towards an empire too divided in itself to mount any defence.


‘14th century Illustration of Mongol warriors in pursuit’ from the ‘Jami al-Tawarikh’ of Rashid al-Din Hamadani
‘14th century Illustration of Mongol warriors in pursuit’ from the ‘Jami al-Tawarikh’ of Rashid al-Din Hamadani

In the winter of 1241 CE, a great storm of dust rose from the Hindu Kush mountains. A colossal Mongol army made its way across the Indus and entered Punjab, under a commander called Dayir Noyan. The commander’s initial plans to attack the city of Multan were abandoned as he neared the city and news reached him of the city’s governor raising a large army of his own to meet the Mongols in battle.

These details changed the Mongolian commander’s natural inclinations and he focused north, towards another city in Punjab — one which was defenceless and previously untouched by Mongol wrath: Lahore.

Much of what we know of the events that transpired during the Mongol attack on Lahore comes from the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of the 13th-century historian Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani, who compiled his large volume of historiography some 20 years after these events had occurred.

He wrote that the Turkic governor of Lahore, Ikhtiyar-ud-din Karakash, was in all manners unprepared for the chaos that had arrived before his city on horseback. A good portion of the city’s population comprised merchants and traders who were already great distances away, conducting business in distant lands, ironically many within the realm of the Mongol empire.

Those who remained, Juzjani accused of not harmonising together and not acting in enough unison to set up a strong resistance. The besieged city was also devoid of any war provisions and stores to last the rough winter. Above all, it lacked the arms and weaponry to set up opposition, whereas the army that should’ve been dispatched from Delhi for the city’s defence was never assembled, because of inner politics amongst the many factions within the sultanate.

As time marched on, the Mongol attempts intensified. Their catapults began shattering the city walls more and more, with each blow bringing the people of Lahore closer to impending doom. Under these circumstances, with a populace unwilling to cooperate and a city whose fortifications were inches from collapse, Karakash hatched a selfish plan that took him out of the mouth of the danger.


Under the ruse of a secret night attack on the Mongol camps, the governor exited Lahore in the dead of night and marched through the sleeping Mongol encampments, in order to flee to Delhi, which he managed to do with a stroke of luck. As dawn approached and word got out of Karakash running away, the hearts of every inhabitant of the city sank at the realisation that they had been abandoned and left at the mercy of the barbarians at the city walls.

The hearts of the Mongols were, of course, emboldened in their bid to take the city. With their resolve strengthened, their attacks became more ferocious, and their catapults attacked the city walls in a manner not seen before. The city’s fortifications finally collapsed, and the last obstacle which stood between the Mongol raiders and Lahore vanished.

On December 22, 1241 CE, the Mongols poured into Lahore like a sea, wave after wave of warriors on horseback with spears, shields and swords, moving in every direction. It was under these circumstances, in the face of certain death and absolute annihilation, that something flickered in the hearts of the men of Lahore. Every able hand darted towards the nearest weapon and every willing soul marched out in front of the Mongol sea to halt it.

An extraordinary event occurred. The ordinary populace and laymen of Lahore came to the aid of their own helpless city-dwelling brethren and locked horns with the Mongol hordes, as severe clashes erupted in every street and alleyway of the city.

In the battles which ensued, two parties of Lahore’s inhabitants stood out for their unmatched valour: one was a group of men under Lahore’s kotwal [fort commander] called Aq-Sunkar [‘White Falcon’] and the other under Lahore’s Amir-i-Akhur (cavalry commander), a man by the name of Dindar Muhammad, who fought alongside his sons.

Juzjani describes the valour of the two groups in the following words:

“Two bands of Musalmans in that disaster girded up their lives like their waists and firmly grasped their swords and, up to the latest moment that a single pulsation remained in their dear bodies and they could move, they continued to wield the sword and send the Mongols to hell until the time when both bodies, after fighting gallantly for a long period against the infidels, attained the felicity of martyrdom.”


The Tarikh-i-Yamini, written by the historian Abu Nasr Muhammad, narrates that, once the fighting ended and the city fell completely, the Mongols took to killing every single inhabitant and enslaving the few who were spared.

However, even within the disastrous pillage, a vast number of Mongols too were annihilated, which the book enumerates as 40,000 horsemen and 80,000 horses. Though this number is a very clear exaggeration, the Mongols must have withstood considerable losses against the inhabitants of Lahore that, according to Juzjani, included the Mongol commander Dayir Noyan.

After the Mongol withdrawal, the city was briefly overtaken by the Khokar tribesmen from the hills in the Koh-i-Jud or the Salt Range, who were in that era notorious for their unruly behaviour and opposition to Delhi’s imperial rule. Karakash soon returned and, after doing away with the Khokars, found his marvellous city in utter ruin, a state in which it would stay until the time of Emperor Balban, who would start its reconstruction.

The horrendous events that transpired in Lahore were only the beginning of more than a century of mayhem that consecutive Mongol incursions into the Indus region incurred. As early as 1245, one of Genghis Khan’s favourite generals, Möngedü, led a new army that devastated south Punjab and, soon enough, many Mongol armies galloped further south into Sindh, laying waste to everything before them.

Annual raids by Mongol hordes became a new reality for the western borderlands of South Asia. It did not take long for the Mongols to establish a permanent presence in northern Punjab under the banner of the Chagatai Khanate. Apart from the utter collapse of social and political order, vast tracts of arable land were lost and effectively converted into grassland, as war horses and cattle associated with the nomadic Mongol lifestyle entered the Indus region.

Mongol incursions and devastations, and the occasional counter-attacks by the Delhi sultanate, remained a frequent ordeal until Tamerlane’s devastating late 14th-century invasion. After that, a brief prelude of local dynasties existed, before yet another conqueror — deriving descent both from the house of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane — arrived in Panipat in 1526 CE.

That conqueror, named Zahir-ud-din Babar, would forever change the course of South Asian history.

The writer’s areas of interest are Pakistan history and folklore. He is based in Peshawar. He tweets at @MHuzaifaNizam

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 2nd, 2022



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