Kunya Urgench - Turkmenistan, Der Staat Choresm-Schahs, State of Khorezm-Shahs, État de Khwarezm-Chahs, Stato di Khorezm-Shahs, Государство Хорезмшахов

State of Khorezm-Shahs

The state of Khorezm-Shahs: a historical view of the power and culture of Central Asia

The state of Khorezm-Shahs (Horezm, Turkish; Xorazm, Uzbek; Khwārazm, Persian: خوارزم) is the name of the Central Asian state of Khorezm as it is commonly understood in Oriental studies. It is located on the lower Amu Darya River and was ruled by the Anushteginid dynasty, descended from the Oghuz Turkmen Begdili tribe. The Khorezm Shahs ruled over much of Central Asia and Iran from about 1077 to 1231, first as vassals of the Seljuks and Qara Khitais, then as independent rulers, until the Mongol invasion of Khorezm in the 13th century. The state covered 2.3 (or 3.6) million square kilometres.

The dynasty was founded by the warlord Anush-Tegin, a former Turkic slave of the Seljuk sultans, who was appointed governor of Khorezm. His son, Qutb ad-Din Muhammad I, became the first hereditary Shah of Khorezm. It reached its peak at the beginning of the thirteenth century under Ala ad-Din Muhammad II. The rulers of Khorezm bore the title Khorezm-Shah. The state of Khorezm-Shahs fell to the Mongols under Genghis Khan.


It is known that the title Khorezm-Shah was established in 305 AD by the founder of the Afrigid dynasty and lasted until 995. After a period of time, the title was restored. During a rebellion in 1017, Khorezm rebels killed Abu-l-Abbas Mamun and his wife Khurrakshi, the sister of the Ghasnevid Sultan Mahmud. Mahmud retaliated by capturing and occupying the territory of Khorezm, which included Nasa and Ribat Farawa. As a result, Khorezm became a province of the Ghaznevid Empire from 1017 to 1034. In 1077, the governorship of the province, which had belonged to the Seljuks from 1042 to 1043, passed into the hands of Anush Tegin, a former Turkish slave of the Seljuk Sultan. In 1097, the Turkish governor of Khorezm, Ekinchi ibn Kochkar, declared his independence from the Seljuks and proclaimed himself Shah of Khorezm. He was assassinated in the same year. The Seljuks conquered Khorezm and appointed a Turk from the Oghuzo-Turkmen family, Qutb ad-Din Muhammad I, as Shah of Khorezm. Throughout his reign, he remained a subject of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar and kept loyalty to him.

Khorezm Shah Atsyz

His successor, Ala ad-Din Atsyz, made constant efforts to get rid of the protectorate of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar. He rebelled against his overlord in 1138, but was defeated by Sanjar and had to flee. In return, Ahmed Sandjar placed Suleyman Shah, a nephew of Atsyz, on the Khorezm throne. In 1141, Sultan Sanjar placed Atsyz on the throne again.

In the same year, new invaders arrived in Central Asia from the East, the Caracites led by Yelü Dashi. Seljuk Sultan Sanjar was forced to come to the aid of the Qara Khitai Khan Mahmud, who was his closest relative. The battle with the Qara Khitai at Samarkand ended in complete defeat for Sanjar. Khorezmshakh Atsyz immediately took advantage of the defeat of Sanjar and conquered Merv in 1141, and by 1142 he was already approaching Nishapur.

But already in 1142 Sultan Sanjar forced Atsyz to pay tribute again, and in addition Khorezm had to pay tribute to Qara Khitai.

Moreover, the Sultan continued the policy of land grabbing initiated by his predecessors and annexed Jend and Mangyshlak to Khorezm. Many nomadic tribes were dependent on the Khorezm Shah. By the end of his life, Atsyz had subjugated the entire northwestern part of Central Asia under Khorezm and achieved its independence from its neighbours.

Khorezm Shah Il-Arslan

In 1156, Atsyz died and was succeeded to the throne of Khorezm by his son Taj ad-Din Il-Arslan.

Like his father, he paid tribute to the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar and the Qara Khitai. Only a few months after Il-Arslan came to power, in 1157, Sanjar died, completely freeing Khorezm from Seljuk tutelage.

In 1160. Il-Arslan has added Dehistan with territories to the possession of Khorezm. He succeeds in conquering some cities in Khorasan and attempts to conquer part of the cities of the Iraqi Sultanate of Maverannahr. In 1172, he successfully reflected a Qara Khitai campaign into Khorezm. Soon after, Il-Arslan dies and his sons Ala ad-Din Tekesh and Jalal ad-Din Sultan Shah begin a struggle for the throne.

Khorezm Shah Sultan Shah and Tekesh

After the death of Il-Arslan, Tekesh’s younger brother Sultan Shah succeeded to the throne, but Tekesh refused to accept his brother’s rule and sought the help of the Khorezm Shahs’ native enemies, the Qara Khitai, by promising them annual tributes.

With their help, Tekesh succeeded in overthrowing his brother and seizing the throne of Khorezm. He then ordered the death of his mother, who supported Sultan Shah, and Sultan Shah managed to go into hiding for another twenty years to contest his right to power.

Khorezm Shah Tekesh

It was only after the death of Sultan Shah in 1183 that Tekesh managed to annex Merv and Serakhs to Khorezm (1193). Tekesh also made several trips to Maverannahr to free himself from dependence on the Qara Khitais as subjects. In 1176, he conquered South Khorasan and made the ruler of Horus his liege. In 1187 Tekesh took Nishapur, in 1192 he conquered Rey and two years later Iraq.

In 1194, Tekesh defeated the forces of the Western Seljuk Sultan Rukn al-Din Togrul III and in 1196 he defeated the Abbasid Caliph Nasir.

Khorezm thus became one of the most powerful states in Central Asia during the reign of Shah Tekesh. His possessions stretched from the Aral Sea and the lower Syr Darya in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south, from the Pamirs in the east to the Iranian plateau in the west, and he managed to double Khorezm’s territories during his reign. Among other things, there are also records of a library founded by Tekesh in Gurganj.

Khorezm Shah Muhammad II

His younger son Ala ad-Din Muhammad ascended the throne after the death of Khorezm Shah Tekesh and continued to expand the possessions of Khorezm.

Muhammad II’s reign began with a war with the Gurids, who captured the major city of Merv, occupied Abiberd, Serakhs and Nisa almost without a fight, took Nishapur and captured the brother of the Shah of Khorezm, who was sent to Herat. After the siege of Herat, Muhammad’s troops had spent a month trying to break through the defences. Only after receiving a ransom did the Shah of Khorezm lift the siege. By this time, his brother Shihab ad-Din’s troops had arrived from India to support the Gurid ruler Giyas ad-Din. After a rather bloody battle, the Khorezmians were forced to retreat. In pursuit of the retreating forces of Muhammad II, Shihab ad-Din surrounded the Khorean capital of Gurgandzh, which was defended by the Shah’s mother, Queen Terken-khatun. With the support of the Qara Khitais, Muhammad succeeded in driving the Gurids out of Khorezm and making peace; however, they did not give up their attempts to start a war.

Only after the assassination of Shihab ad-Din in 1206 was this danger averted. The Gurid state broke up into parts, which soon became dependent on Khorezm.

After the victory over the Gurids, Muhammad began preparations for war against the Qara Khitais. He was a fierce rival, but in the first battle Qara Khitai, who had bribed the rulers of Khorasan and Samarkand, defeated the army of the Shah of Khorezm, whereupon Muhammad disappeared from the sight of his retinue for some time. It was not until the spring of 1208 that Muhammad returned to Khorezm. Having strengthened his state, he began a determined struggle against the Qara Khitais, supported by the Qara Khitai Muslims who saw in him a liberator. In September 1210, the Qara Khitais were defeated in a battle in the Ilamic Plains beyond the Syr Darya.

In 1212, a rebellion broke out in Samarkand under the leadership of the Kara-Khanid Khan Osman. It was brutally put down by Muhammad and the western Kara-Khanid Khanate  was dissolved, whereupon he decided to make Samarkand his capital. In 1212, he moved his capital from Gurgandsch to Samarkand, incorporating almost all of Maverannahr and present-day Afghanistan into his empire, which, after further conquests in western Iran (by 1217), stretched from the Syr Darya to the Zagros Mountains and from the northern Hindu Kush to the Caspian Sea. By 1218, the empire had a population of 5 million. In 1217, Muhammad set out on a campaign to Baghdad, one of the spiritual centres of the Muslim world, intending to become not only a temporal but also a spiritual ruler. However, while crossing a mountain pass, his troops got caught in a snowstorm and suffered heavy casualties. Muhammad had to abandon his plans and return to Samarkand.

By 1215, the Khorezm Shah’s power extended to Khorezm itself, Maverannahr, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Atrpatakan, Khorasan, southern Kazakhstan and other areas.

But from the east came the Mongols led by Genghis Khan.

War with the Mongols

By the beginning of the thirteenth century Khorezm was at the height of its power, uniting the territories of Khorezm itself, Maverannahr, Iran, Khorasan and what is now South Kazakhstan.

A vulnerable point in Muhammad II’s empire, however, was the all-powerful Kanglai nobility, which occupied leading positions in the administrative and military apparatus.

The mother of Muhammad’s Khorezm Shah, Terken-khatun, came from a Turkic Kangla clan and wielded enormous influence at court, appointing her relatives to all important government posts herself. With her support, she effectively led the opposition against her son. Their relations were particularly strained before the Mongol invasion.

In 1218, Genghis Khan sent a message to Muhammad proposing an alliance to fight together against rivals in the east and to trade with each other. Horezmshah refused to negotiate with the “infidels” and, on the advice of the ruler of Otrar, Kayir Khan, had the ambassador-buyers executed and their heads sent to the Khan. Genghis Khan demanded the extradition of Kaiyr Khan, but Khorezmshakh refused for fear of the wrath of the nobility, and Muhammad again had one of the participants in the next Mongol embassy executed.

Despite the more than threefold superiority of his army over the Mongol army, Khorezm Shah, fearing a conspiracy among his commanders, divided his army into several units and garrisons, effectively condemning it to defeat.

After the victory over Kuchluk, the Mongol army led by Subedei-Baghatur and Tohuchar-neon approached the borders of Khorezm and encountered the troops of the Shah of Khorezm. The right wing of Khorezm’s army under the command of Muhammad’s son Jalal al-Din Menguberdi pushed through on his flank and supported the centre and left wing of his army. By nightfall, neither side had achieved decisive results. During the night, the Mongols lit fires and left the battle site. In the spring of 1219, when the conquest of China was not yet complete, Genghis Khan sent the 50,000th army to Khorezm.

When Genghis Khan’s forces attacked Khorezm in 1219, Muhammad II did not dare to fight a general battle and left his army scattered in separate detachments in cities and forts throughout the state. One after another, Otrar, Hojent, Tashkent (Khach), Bukhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Merv, Nishapur, Herat, Urgench and other major cities of Khorezm fell under the onslaught of the Mongols. The Mongols exterminated millions of citizens, over 500,000 in Merv alone, and sold the rest into slavery.

The Shah of Khorezm first retreated with the remnants of his army to his Persian possessions, then fled with a small group to the Caspian region and died of pneumonia on the island of Abeskun in the Caspian Sea. The state of the Khorezm-Shahs ceased to exist, although Muhammad’s son and successor, Jelal al-Din Menguberdi, continued to resist the Mongols for about ten years while residing in Delhi and Asia Minor.

The last member of the Khorezm-Shahs-Anushteginid dynasty was the later Sultan of Egypt, Qutuz, who managed to stop the Mongols and save the Western Muslim world from their barbaric campaigns.

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