The Indonesian Connection – Islam in South Africa


During my exploration in the beautiful city of Cape Town, I came across a most remarkable tale. It is the story of one man’s perseverance against immense odds and the profound influence he left on a society hundreds of years later.

It is the story of how Islam spread in South Africa, from Cape Town through a man from Indonesia who was jailed in Robben Island (the very same island another great man was jailed for 27 years almost two centuries later – Nelson Mandela) by the Dutch. Globalisation was very much a part of life then as it is now! Robben Island also has now the dubious distinction of having hosted (against their will) of a number of great reformers!

This is the story of how the Auwal Mosque came to be in the Bo-Kaap (the Cape Malay part of Cape Town) and the fascinating tale of a man fondly known by all as Tuan Guru (or Sir Teacher in Malay).

Auwal Mosque, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

Tuan Guru or Imam Abdullah Qadhu Abdus Salaam (born 1712)was a man belonging to royalty from the Sultanate of Tidore ( part of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia). Abdullah led the Indonesian resistance against the Dutch invasion in the 1700s until he was finally captured along with a handful of other Indonesian resistance fighters. (It is worth bearing in mind that the Dutch East India Company brought slaves, political exiles and other prisoners from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ceylon amongst other places to South Africa from the 1700s onwards).

The Dutch made it a point to remove all religious paraphernalia especially the Quran from Abdullah and his men before they were sent into exile to Robben Island. The rationale for this was that by removing Islamic religious material, Abdullah will not be able to propagate Islam in South Africa and in the process curtail his ability to lead a religious resistance against them.

Abdullah was incarcerated in Robben Island from 1780 to 1792. Now, the Dutch were confident that Abdullah’s ability to preach Islam was going to be limited due to the lack of religious materials. However what they failed to understand that merely removing the Quran physically from Abdullah wasn’t going to be sufficient because Imam Abdullah was a hafiz or someone who had committed the entire Quran to memory.

During his time on Robben Island, Imam Abdullah wrote several copies of the Quran entirely from memory, two of which are preserved top this day. One of the handwritten copies is now on display at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. Imam Abdullah also wrote a book on Islamic Jurisprudence which became a reference manual for Muslims in South Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Imam Abdullah did not allow his incarceration to fulfill what he felt was his manifest destiny nor quench his zeal to remain free spiritually whilst he was imprisoned.

One of the remaining copies of the handwritten Quran by Tuan Guru at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

When Imam Abdullah was released, he was already 81 but that did not dampen his enthusiasm nor his sense of purpose. He stayed on in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town and started the first madarasah or Islamic School and he taught Islam and Arabic to freed slaves. Over time, he also organised prayers and established the first mosque, the Auwal mosque in 1794

Tuan Guru (Imam Abdullah) teaching children at his madrasah. An mural in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town


It is worth bearing in mind that the practice or indeed the propagation of Islam was deemed a criminal offence until 1804. It was Tuan Guru’s unstinting efforts that led to the establishment of the first mosque in Southern Africa.

Auwal Mosque (est 1794) in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
Interior of Auwal Mosque

Imam Abdullah or Tuan Guru died when he was 95 (in 1807) and left behind the foundations of what is Islam in South Africa today. Tuan Guru remains a testament to the indomitable spirit and will to effect change in a society despite the challenges and opposition to any reforms. This remains inspiring today as it was over two centuries ago.

Mural depicting the development of Islam in South Africa, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

Dhanushkodi Dreams

I had the pleasure of visiting the most south-eastern tip of Rameshwaram, a place called Dhanushkodi (a word which means ‘tip of the bow’ as the Ramayana epic has Lord Rama marking this as the spot to connect Sri Lanka to India with the tip if his bow). This entire village was destroyed almost to the day on the 23rd of December 1964, 52 years ago by the Rameshwaram Cyclone of 1964.

This area is under just 30 kilometers from Sri Lanka (Talaimannar) and was a bustling port city during British rule. It is also a spot where the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar meet. The ruins of a bustling port city can still be seen here and is a reminder of how immensely powerful nature can be. This area remains fairly difficult to reach but efforts are being made to make it more accessible for people to reach and regale in the beauty of the place.

My forefathers used to ply the trade route between India and Sri Lanka through Dhanushkodi and it was a thoroughly humbling experience being here.

Of Pianos and Harmony

At the Africa National Congress office in Kliptown

This is Thamba (in the photo next to me), originally from Swaziland but who was born and brought up in Soweto, Johannesburg. I had the pleasure of Thamba’s company as he showed me Soweto and helped me understand the history of South Africa, the impacts of apartheid era on society and on him personally. He went to school with Mandela’s daughter and therefore had the unique experience of having walked with Mandela and been very much a part of the struggle for equality as a young man.

Thamba recounted a very interesting anecdote about Nelson Mandela’s view on social cohesion and the need for harmony between the different races in post-apartheid South Africa. Madiba  (as Mandela is known fondly in his homeland) used the parable of a piano to highlight why everyone needed to march together to achieve progress. He explained that playing the piano with just the white keys or just the black keys, whilst able to produce a tune, will never be as rich as the symphony one can create if one was to use both the black and white keys together. This, he explained, was the route towards a  better and greater society and stressed the need for the white, black and other communities to all work together to achieve social progress. 

A simple message, elegantly put and to very powerful effect!

A Man’s A Man For A’ That by Robert Burns (a Tamil Translation)

Speech delivered to the Mother Club (established 1801), Greenock Burns Club.

6th October 2016, Greenock

Good evening everyone

My name is Reza Ali.

I would like to first thank the honourable members at the Mother Club for allowing me to be here this evening.

It is indeed my privilege and my honour to be able to address this esteemed audience.

I must also of course thank the boss and my mentor, Raymond Jack, for his support and for inviting me to my first Burns Supper earlier this year which was an eye-opening experience.

I live between Singapore, Glasgow and London but am originally from the southern coast of India, from Tamil Nadu. Not unlike Robert Burns, I also come from a line of farmers!

I was based out in Glasgow for a big part of last year on work and during the time I had the opportunity to explore the different parts of Scotland and it was on one of those trips that I visited Ayrshire and explored Robert Burns’ home and got drawn into the fascinating life and times of Rabbie Burns. His depth and breadth of writing from nature to hardship to love to family demonstrated a mind and soul that was as unique as it was brilliant. His ability to recognise and more crucially to empathise with the nature of the human condition is something is what makes Robert Burns truly great.

It was then I came across the poem ‘A Man’s a Man for A That’ and was drawn to its messages of universal brotherhood, liberty and social equality.

It is also my view that Rabbie Burns’ egalitarian world view is the perfect antidote this deeply divided world needs.

It was with this in mind that I embarked on this journey of translating ‘A Man’s a Man For A That’ into Tamil as I thought promoting and propagating the virtues and ideals espoused in this poem will benefit the wider community. Tamil is the language of my birth, an ancient language, and one that is still spoken by over 70 million people today. It is my hope that this Tamil translation can be further improved by my peers and also further bring the genius and the universal and timeless messages of Robert Burns across southern India.

With the Executive Committee of the Mother Club (L-R: Bill McCready (Past President), me, Jim Donnelly (President), Jamie Donnelly (Senior Vice President))

Robert Burns, ராபர்ட் பர்ன்ஸ்

A Man’s A Man For A’ That 

மனிதன் என்பவன் மனிதனே அதற்காகவே

(The full translation and a brief history of Tamil can be downloaded here:)

அங்கே, யாரேனும் ஏழ்மையான ஆனால் நேர்மையானவர் உள்ளனரா,

வறுமையின் காரணமாக அவர் தலை தொங்குகிறது, அதற்காகவே.

நாமும் கடக்கிறோம் அந்தக் கோழை அடிமையை,

வறுமையை விரும்ப மாட்டோம் அதற்காகவே.

அதற்க்காகவே, அதற்க்காவே.

நமது கடின உழைப்பை மறைதுவைப்போம் அதற்காகவே.

சாதனை என்பது நமக்கு தங்கத்தில் முத்திரை பதித்த முகமே,

அவன் தங்கமே அதற்காகவே.

நாம் நமது வருமானத்தில் சிறந்த உணவை உண்டாலும்,

சாம்பல்நிற முரட்டு கம்பளியை அணிந்தாலும்,

முட்டாளுக்கு கொடுங்கள் பட்டாடையும், திராட்சை ரசத்தையும்,

மனிதன் என்பவன் மனிதனே அதற்காகவே.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவர்களின் ஆடம்பர பகட்டைக் காட்டிலும்,

நேர்மையானவன், ஏழையே யாயினும்,

அவனே அரசன்.

நீ பார்க்கலாம் எஜமான் என்றழைக்கப்படும் கனவானை,

விறைப்புடனும், கர்வத்துடனும் செல்பவனை

பல நூற்றுக்கனக்காநூர் அவன் சொல்லை வணங்கினாலும்,

அவன் முட்டாலன்றி வேறில்லை.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவரது பட்டமும் பெருமையுரைக்கும் நாடவும் மற்றும் அனைத்தும்,

சுதந்திர புத்தியுள்ள மனிதன்

அதைப் பார்த்து நகைப்பான் அதற்காகவே.

ஒரு இளவரசன் உருவாக்கலாம் ஒரு வீரனை,

ஒரு கனவான், பிரப்பு, அதற்காகவே.

ஆயினும் ஒரு நேர்மையானவன் எல்லாவற்றிக்கும் மேல்,

நன் நம்பிக்கையை, அவன் அதற்காக குறை செய்யக்கூடாது.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவர்கள் தங்கள் கடப்படுகளுக்காகவும் அதற்காகவே.

மற்றும் உணர்வு மற்றும் பெருமை மற்றும் மதிப்பும் வலிமையும்,

தங்கள் உயரதிகாரம் மேல் என்று அதற்காகவே.

நாம் அனைவரும் பிரார்த்தனை செய்வோம் அது நடகட்டுமென்று,

எல்லாவற்றிற்கும் அது நடக்கட்டுமென்று அதற்காகவே,

உலகமெல்லாம் உள்ள உணர்வும், மதிப்பும்,

அதற்கான பரிசை பெற வேண்டும், அதற்காகவே.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவையனைத்தும் இன்னும் வருமென்று அதற்காகவே.

உலகிலுள்ள எல்லா மனிதர்களும்,

சகோதர்களாக இருப்போம் அதற்காகவே.

The tragedy of the Sinti and Roma

I have been reflecting over the last few months over the persecution and murders of defenceless Yazidis and Christians in ISIS-controlled territory; over the rising intolerance towards minorities in India; Islamophobic political commentary being delivered by far right segments of the political spectrum, be they in Europe or in North America. The age of immediate transmission of wanton murders, genocide and hateful rhetoric has a multiplier effect in terms of how the news is consumed and acted upon.

I was in Berlin last week and as I made my way towards the Reichstag (or the German Parliament) from the Brandenburg Gate, I walked past an unassuming little garden with a small plaque that read, “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under the National Socialist (Nazi) regime.”

Entrance to the Memorial to the Sinta and Roma of Europe at Tiergarten, Berlin.

Against the backdrop of a haunting violin music played by Romeo Franz, a German Sinti, I learnt about the fate of the Sinti and the Roma people, who were part of the “gypsy” community that was systematically murdered by the Nazis.

A reflection of the German Reichstag upon the Memorial pool.

A brief history of the Sinta and Roma.

The Sinti and Roma people have lived in Europe for over six hundred years and are believed to have travelled from India through Iran. Their languages are rooted in Sanskrit but have lived a nomadic lifestyle in Europe and were commonly referred to as gypsies. They also generally had slightly darker coloured skin, hair and eyes.

The gypsies identified themselves by the various groups they belonged to, including the Sinti, Roma, Lallere, Lovari or Manouche. The Sinti and Roma were the largest groups and numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Roma boys in the Warsaw ghetto (1941)

The Sinta and Roma people were indeed persecuted even before the National Socialists took over. They were singled out and discriminated by not only the Germans, but indeed across Europe for centuries.

The triangular stone in the centre of the pool symbolises the badges that were work by the concentration camp prisoners. The stone is retractable and fresh flowers are placed upon it daily.


 The Nazi atrocities

The Nazis however took the persecution to a horrific level and it was a very steep descent into hell for the Sinti and the Roma.

As part of their racist and puritan ideologies, they sought the active annihilation of these minorities as they were considered racially inferior. These poor and defenceless people were first subject to internment, then forced sterilisation and were all subject to forced labour. Men, women and children were seized and taken away or murdered in their hometowns, ghettos or concentration camps or killing centres.

A decree was issued in 1936, as part of the Nuremberg laws on race and citizenship, where the gypsies and Jewish people were formally defined as “Alien Races” and were forbidden to marry, have children and excluded from most professions and jobs.

IMG_5915 [264867]
Senta and Sonja Birkenfelder, deported from Ludwigshafen to Poland in 1940 with other Sinta and Roma children (Photo probably taken in the Radom Ghetto in 1941)

Two years later, over 2000 Sinti and Roma people were taken away to various concentration camps across the country as the Chief of the German Police, Heinrich Himmler, sought the “final solution to the Gypsy question.”  In 1940, entire families were deported from Germany to occupied Poland and to various other concentration camps. In the camps, they were all required to wear an armband bearing the letter, ‘Z’ which stood for ‘Zigeuner’ or ‘gypsy’ in German.


IMG_5917 [264866]
Lodz Ghetto 1941/42: Assembly point at Krawiecka Street. Waiting for transport, probably to the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination camp. (Photo from the Jewish Memorial in Berlin)

The systematic mass murder of the Roma started in occupied Soviet Union in 1942 by a mobile killing unit (or ‘Einsatzgruppe’of the Security Police and Security Services of the SS). More were gassed to death in specially equipped vans at the Kulmhof killing centres.

More forced mass deportations of the gypsies from across Europe to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Thousands died due to hunger, disease or horrific cruelty by the Nazis.

IMG_5916 [264865]
Warsaw Ghetto, August 1941 (Photo from the Jewish Memorial, Berlin)

It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people identified as ‘gypsies’ were murdered under the Nazi regime. There is no way of ever determining the final number.


The memorial site was a source of immense pain, solitude and remembrance.

As I reflected on the atrocities meted out to these poor people, whose only crimes were that they were born into a different creed and caste, I thought about the people of our times going through the same horrors. A truly strong society looks after its most vulnerable and helpless, not oppress them further.

Particularly over the last couple of years, I have been getting increasingly worried about the rise of far-right extremism across the spectrum. The savagery exhibited by terrorist death cults such as the IS is well-known. However, to see politicians such as Donald Trump voice out hateful ideology is frightening. In Singapore, an ex-nominated member of parliament, Calvin Cheng, suggested all children of terrorists ought to be killed along with their parents, as a preventative measure.

It is already terrible that there has always remained within the fringes of society, a segment that feeds off hate and rancour. These groups of lunatics have either been outlawed or are regularly derided. To see this same hate and extremism enter its ugly head into the mainstream is tragic and has the potential to rupture the very delicate fabric of our society.

Humanity as a whole cannot afford to let this state of affairs continue. Lest we think that it is improbable that the world will witness another genocidal event, it is worth remembering the words of Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor:

Each and every one of us, whether we be Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hindus Buddhist, Bahais or atheists, has a responsibility for the safety, fair-treatment and dignity y our fellow women, men and children, regardless of their beliefs, customs or creed.

I pray that the light of our collective humanity overcomes the darkness of hate that some attempt to it hit on us all.

Below is a poem by an Italian Roma, Santino Spinelli at this most poignant of memorials which conveys more eloquently than I ever could, the sentiments I felt at the memorial.



Sunken in face

extinguished eyes

cold lips


a torn heart

without breath

without words

no tears




Tsubotei – the greatest Mongol general

Tsubotei – the greatest Mongol general

Following my recent trip to the beautiful steppes of Mongolia where I had the opportunity to experience the warmth of the people and the beauty of the land, I felt moved to write about Tsubotei, a legendary Mongol general leading the armies of Genghis Khan (who was first known to all as Temujin) but who is not as familiar outside of Asia.

I must also state from the outset that the most comprehensive account of Tsubotei’s life (and indeed the basis of most of the rest of this article) comes from Richard A. Gabriel’s excellent book, “Genghis Khan’s greatest general – Subotai the Valiant”.  (Link to Amazon). I must also highlight, the Secret History of the Mongols, as another great source of information on Mongol history (which R. Gabriel draws from significantly as well).


“I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket the covers the horse, I’ll gather up soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent.”

Tsubotei’s oath to Temujin (Genghis Khan) as a boy

A brief introduction to the man
Humble beginnings
Early promise of military genius and development
The conquest of China and Korea
Unfolding events in Central Asia, Russia and Europe
The end of a fearsome era

A brief introduction to the man

Tsubotei Baghatur (Tsubotei the Valiant) was one of Genghis Khan’s greatest generals. He, along with Khalid ibn Waleed a Muslim general of the 7th century, is considered to be one of the finest, most astute strategists known in ancient military history.

This is a man who was called one of Genghis Khan’s four dogs of war (the others were Jelme, Jebe and Kublai). He was Genghis’ Orloock (or eagle) who defended the Great Khan’s lands and struck fear into the hearts of enemies.

He started off as a mere attendant of Genghis Khan’s tents and rose to become one of Mongolia’s most brilliant generals with a flair for the genius and remarkable. Tsubotei, along with Jebe, became the first equivalents of modern day Field Marshals in Genghis’ new military structure.

He lived till seventy three and when he died, both his Chinese and Muslim enemies erected monuments in his honour. In his lifetime, he conquered thirty two nations and won sixty five battles. He was also responsible for the conquest of lands to the east and west of Mongolia – from China and Korea to Persia to Russia and Hungary.

Tsubotei’s conquest of Hungary decimated every major army between Mongolia and the threshold of modern-day Western Europe. It is often said that history makes monumental shifts on the slender wisps of fate. In this instance, it was the death of the Great Khan (Ogedai – the third son of Genghis and his successor), which saved Western Europe from a Mongolian conquest. At the time of Ogedai’s death, Tsubotei’s armies controlled everything from the Baltic Sea to the Danube River.

They had overcome European armies five times the Mongol army’s size. As Tsubotei’s army was conducting a reconnaissance of Vienna (and as the populace of the rest of Europe trembled in fear), Tsubotei received word that the Great Khan had died. Mongolian custom had it that all Mongolian royal princes had to return for the election of the new Khan. As Tsubotei’s army had three royal princes, he had little choice but to return to the Mongolian capital.

The history of the world as we know it now could have been altered remarkably had Tsubotei continued heading West.

However Tsubotei’s legacy continues in much of modern military operations and theory. A focus on speed, manoeuvre, surprise, concealment, rear guard battle, concentration of firepower and the doctrine of deep battle were ingrained into Tsubotei’s armies and they have continued into modern day military application. Tsubotei was also unique amongst his Mongolian peers in that he preferred to observe the battles from a vantage point and strategising rather than charging at the head of the army and lose the opportunity to watch the flow and ebb of battle and to strike at pivotal moments.

Humble beginnings

As R. Gabriel writes, one of the most interesting paradoxes of military history is that one of the greatest Mongol generals ever was, strictly speaking, not actually ethnically a Mongol. The term Mongol came about after Genghis Khan unified the various tribes of Mongolia, from the Kerits, to the Merkits, the Naimans and the Tartars.

Tsubotei was technically, an Uriangkhai. They were a forest tribe whom the chroniclers of ancient history referred to as the Reindeer people who lived near the western edge of the Lake Baikal. They were a very different people to the Mongols of the steppe. They were neither nomadic nor pastoral and were hunters, fisherman and traders who lived in permanent log huts. They also maintained domesticated herds of reindeer (or reem as they called it).

Tsubotei was the son of a blacksmith called Jachigudai and whose mother died in childbirth. He was also the younger brother of Jelme (another great Mongol general who was offered when he was still a boy to Genghis’ father, Yeseguei, to serve Genghis when he grew up).

Tsubotei was supposed to have taken over his father’s trade, however, the allure of the Mongol steppe proved too strong for him and he left the comfort of his Uriangkhai people and went on to join the army of Temujin at the age of fourteen. It is also critical to bear in mind that it is very likely that Tsubotei would not have ridden horses till this point at a time when Mongol children would have mastered the age of riding by the ages of six onwards. Tsubotei also would not have had the experience of eating uncooked food, or riding on horses for long distances and surviving on the blood and milk of mares as longer distances were covered. These are all skills Tsubotei would have learnt from scratch at the age of fourteen (in an era where boys joined the army from the age of thirteen onwards) which makes Tsubotei’s progress even more remarkable.

This also demonstrates Tsubotei’s tenacious and determined spirit. He knew his limitations and knew that his experience in Mongol warfare was non-existent at the start.

Tsubotei was initially given the role of Temujin’s keeper of the tent door where he learnt the skills of a Mongol warrior such as riding of horses and shooting bows whilst riding at full pelt along with basic Mongol military manoeuvres.

As a boy, Tsubotei pledged an oath to his master, Genghis Khan: “I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket the covers the horse, I’ll gather up soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent.”

Whilst others compared themselves to bears and wolves, Tsubotei had no illusions about his lack of military knowledge but only served to seek Genghis any way he can and went as far as to compare himself to a rat or crow in his eagerness to serve his master.


Early promise of military genius and development

As Genghis Khan’s doorkeeper, Tsubotei would have been privy to the machinations to the Mongol planning and war councils. This was a fantastic military education at the feet of the Mongol generals of the time as Genghis Khan sought to consolidate and united the different tribes under one banner.

As a result, Tsubotei would have learned to think beyond individual units and tactics and think about how the various tactical operations fit under a wider strategic campaign towards a singular vision. As R. Gabriel writes, “Most new acquire this ability (the ability to conceptualise war plans and implement them on a grand scale), something that may explain why warfare has, over the long centuries of its practice, produced only a few truly great generals.”

Tsubotei’s first taste in leading a battalion was during Genghis’ campaign against the Merkits. He volunteered to lead an attack which led to a Mongol victory. Although a junior officer, he was considered to be a hugely valuable strategic asset by Genghis.

Whilst others offered their technical and physical abilities to their Khan, Tsubotei offered something more crucial – a mind that was strategic and brimming with military genius.

R. Gabriel further writes that although Tsubotei was known for his detailed planning and attention to intelligence report, Tsubotei at his core possessed the soul of a gambler, which Napoleon remarked, was the most important trait of a great general. “These traits of character, when joined with a first-rate intellect, made Tsubotei an extraordinarily innovative and imaginative commander,” explains R. Gabriel.

In the early periods of Temujin military expeditions to unite the different Mongol tribes, there was a point in 1203 where Temujin’s army was almost destroyed at the Battle of the Red Willows. Only a few of Temujin’s officers remained with him on the day, when the lake Baljuna was dry and the soldiers and officers of Temujin were dying of thirst.

Tsubotei was one of a handful of Temujin’s few loyal officers at the Baljuna lake when he and his army were almost wiped out by his one-time blood brother and then sworn enemy Jamuga and swore his oath to Temujin and remained true to the oath he made as a young boy to Temujin.                          

Temujin soon rebuilt his forces and continued to march towards his vision of unification of the Mongol tribes under one banner. As he battled the tribe of Naiman, which was the one last remaining tribe still resisting Temujin, Jamuga (who was previously Temujin’s anda or blood brother but had turned against him subsequently) is reported in the Secret History of the Mongols to have described Temujin’s generals as follows: “These are the Four Dogs of my anda Temujin. They feed on human flesh and are tethered with an iron chain. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails, and swords. They feed on dew. Running, they hide on the back of the wind. In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs of war are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme and Tsubotei.”

Subsequently, Genghis appointed Tsubotei and Jebe as the first orloocks of the new Mongol military structure. From that point one, there was never a major military campaign that was undertaken by Genghis or his successor, Ogedai, in which Tsubotei did not contribute to.

The ability to spot talent and character is one of the key traits and pillars leading to Genghis’ genius and accomplishments. Genghis was also not concerned with the ethnicity and background of his key generals. Of his Four Dogs, none were of the Borjigin Mongols which Genghis belonged to. Jelme and Tsubotei were both Uriangkhais, Khubilai was of another tribe, and Jebe was a Tayichigud. In later times, there were even Muslims and Chinese who held important positions in the Mongol army.

Tsubotei had the military genius, the discipline and the brilliance to lead the Mongol army to victories. As R. Gabriel explains, “Courage and warrior spirit were qualities not in short supply among steppe warriors. Competent field commanders were easily available, but an officer who could plan and coordinate large-scale military operations across thousands of miles was a rarity.” Therein lay the principal reasons for Tsubotei’s ascendency in the Mongol army.

The conquest of China and Korea.

Chinese chroniclers write of the brilliance of Tsubotei in planning numerous battles against the Chin states. Tsubotei was instrumental in the Mongol war against the Chin Empire and led the assault on the Great Wall. Following the major victories in Shaanxi, Tsubotei and his men rode across Manchuria to subdue the Mongol enemies there.

Tsubotei soon arrived at the outskirts of Pyongyang, the capital then and the Korean kingdom submitted peacefully. A few decades later, Korea was incorporated into the Mongol empire as a tribute state.

Following Genghis’ death and the succession of Ogedai, there were those who insisted that there was no need for further Mongol conquests. However, Tsubotei, one of the original orloocks, argued that the Chin empire was still intact and capable of resisting the Mongol kingdom and that there were still lands in the west belong to Russian and European princes all awaiting conquest. Tsubotei belonged to an old school of Mongol warriors for whom governing empires meant little. For him, only the conquering of nations mattered. The old Mongol belief was the between the mother Earth and Tengi (the Sky father), life was only about struggle – about riding, roaming and conquering.

Tsubotei convinced Ogedai Khan that time was right to continue with the conquests and Ogedai was convinced by the Mongol army’s greatest general.

Tsubotei’s genius, cunning and adaptable nature soon led to a total and complete victory by the Mongol army over the Chin empire. It is also said that Tsubotei initially wanted to destroy every single aspect of the Chin Empire and turn the plains into fine horse breeding country. Thankfully, Ogedai’s trust Chinese advisors pointed out that it was in nobody’s interests to pursue such a scorched earth policy and Ogedai spared the Chin Empire from a very terminal fate.

Unfolding events in Central Asia, Russia and Europe

Genghis, upon his return to Mongolia, in 1217, decided that he wanted to pacify the Kara Khitai, a mostly Turkic populated region. At the time the Kara Khitai was being ruled by Kuchlug (a Naiman Mongol who fled to Kara Khitai when Genghis undertook campaigns against his father. Kuchlug also instituted a campaign of forced conversion for a mostly Muslim population living in the Kara Khitai. Strangely enough, Kuchlug had an alliance with the Muslim Shah of Khwarizm.

Genghis despatched Jebe and Tsubotei to kill or capture Kuchlug who posed threats to his dominion over the lands. Jebe’s troops were the central flank leading into the Kara Khitai region whilst Tsubotei provided the support on the flanks and to ensure that Kuchlug’s ally, the Shah of Khwarizm did not threaten the main body of Jebe’s troops.

As Jebe proceeded through Kara Khitai, he proclaimed that all Muslims would have the freedom of religion and that none of the holy places would be harmed. Jebe opened up mosques and no plundering or atrocities were committed by his army. They eventually captured Kuchlug and executed him and exerted their influence over the Kira Khatai region as well.

In 1218, Genghis decided to send a trade caravan, comprising mostly of Muslim Mongols to Khwarizm to establish trading relations with the Khwarizm and Muslim empire. The governor of Otrar then set in motion a series of events that had impacts that reverberated across the Muslim and Western world. In a moment of lunacy, he decided to execute every single member of the Mongolian trade delegation. One of the camel drivers escaped and managed to inform Genghis what had happened.

Genghis decided that perhaps the Shah was unaware of his governor’s actions and decided to send another delegation to explain to the shah that he wanted the death of the governor who had trespassed diplomatic protocol. It is at this point that the Shah killed even more Muslim members of the Mongolian delegation and shaved the beards of the Mongols. Genghis took this latest outrage very personally and declared war against Mohammad Shah, the leader of the empire of Khwarizm.

As R. Gabriel writes, “The actions of an obscure government official set in motion a chain of events that changed the world. Until this incident, there was no evidence that Genghis Khan was dissatisfied with the borders of the great empire he had established for the Mongols. Now, the events of Otrar forced him to move against the Shah, with the result that all of Persia eventually came under Mongol rule. This, in turn, led to Tsubotei’s reconnaissance into the Russian steppes, which provided intelligence for the Mongol attach and occupation of Russian, an occupation that lasted for three centuries! And the success of the Russian campaign led inevitably to Tsubotei’s assault against Eastern Europe. No one foresaw it at the time, but the murder of the Mongol caravan at Otrar changed the entire history of Central Asia, Russia, and the West.”

As Tsubotei, Jebe and Jochi (Genghis’ eldest son) pursued the Shah, Tsubotei was presented with a warrant marked with the red seal of the Great Khan in which he promised that all those who did not resist were to be spared. Anyone who resisted was to be eliminated. Genghis was a man of his word, so much so that his own son-in-law, Toguchar was asked to stand down and transfer his troops to Tsubotei when he defied the Khan’s orders and sacked a town that had already surrendered.

Tsubotei pursued the Shah until the Shah crossed the Caspian Sea and found refuge in a small island but died in poverty and despair. Thus ended the mighty kingdom of Shah Mohammed II which was then captured piecemeal by the Mongols (and sometimes in horrific and tragic ways).

Following this though, there was still a huge issue which Genghis grappled with. There was concern that the Western armies (in Arab or European lands) may raise an army to fight the Mongol army. In the East, there was intelligence that Jalal al-Din, the faithful and able son of the Shah was raising an army to avenge the loss of the Shah’s dominion. The only commander who had any knowledge of the Western front was Tsubotei and he received very clear instructions when he was camped on the Caspian to return to Samarkand, Uzbekistan where Genghis was waiting. Tsubotei, a man who lived to serve his Khan, left the Caspian and undertook a 2,000 kilometre journey in just over seven days.

Here Tsubotei assured Genghis that given the terrain and conditions, it was unlikely that any army from the West will link up with Jalal al-Din’s army in the East. He also further proposed to Genghis that he and his men be permitted to ride on further West where there was a land with “narrow-faced men with light hair and blue eyes.”

R. Gabriel describes the subsequent events as follows, “In the late autumn of 1220, Tsubotei and his troop of Mongol cavalry men began what was to become the most remarkable cavalry raid in military history.”

Tsubotei undertook this very difficult campaign armed with the tenacity of his men along with the deep intelligence gathered by his staff officers who included Chinese scholars as well as Muslim scholars. They helped him compile the maps of Hungary, Poland, Silesia and Bohemia. A majority of this information was provided through interactions with Venetian traders whom Tsubotei’s men had come in contact with.

The Venetian traders had signed a secret treaty with the Mongols that they would send me back detailed reports and intelligence from the countries they visited. In exchange, the Mongols promised to destroy all other trading stations in the lands they rode on leaving the Venetians with a monopoly.

The Russians fearing the threats posed by the Mongols joined forces and converged upon Tsubotei. He was surrounded on all sides by various Russian troops and their allies. Tsubotei tried to use diplomacy to break off possible military engagements. In an interesting anecdote, Tsubotei sent an ambassador to the Prince of Kiev trying to convince the Prince that his intentions were not on conquering Russian fiefdoms.

However the Prince of Kiev executed the ambassador. In response, Tsubotei surprised the Prince of Kiev with another ambassador, this time carrying a formal declaration of war. Mongol military etiquette required that, whenever possible, a declaration of war be issued before the commencement of hostilities.

To avoid being entrapped by the Russian armies, Tsubotei and Jebe continued to move east, away from Russia. They left a rear guard platoon to report on enemy movements and to also delay the Russians as they advanced upon the Mongols. For over a week, the Russians pursued Tsubotei and Jebe after overcoming the rearguard Mongol troops.

Finally Tsubotei camped near the Kalka River, a terrain he had been over before. He decided that he would launch his counter attack of the Russian troops here. Tsubotei lit huge Mongol fire pots that created plenty of smoke that disoriented the advancing Russian troops and the Mongol light cavalry rode forward and backward in the path of the Russian troops concentrating their arrow fire to a deadly effect. The net result of this was that a Mongol army of 18,000 overcame a Russian alliance far larger and killed over 40,000 Russian troops along with six princes and seventy nobles.

Soon thereafter, the Mongols overcame the Prince of Kiev (who was suffocated in a box – as Mongol tradition forbade the shedding of royal blood except in battle).

Tsubotei then joined Jochi’s troops and defeated the Volga Bulgars. Thereafter, Tsubotei and Jebe headed back to the Mongol capital to meet with their Great Khan. Jebe passed away and never made it. Tsubotei also left behind a sophisticated intelligence network that allowed for the gathering of information and insight that was instrumental when Tsubotei headed back West. Tsubotei’s initial venture out into the West was with a very small army and was a cavalry raid. The next time he returned, he would do in a large force.

In 1227, Ogedai had taken over Genghis as the Great Khan following Genghis’ passing. At this point, the Mongol empire was engaged in four separate engagements: one against the Chinese empire; second against Korea to suppress a widespread revolt that had broken out in the Korean peninsula; the third against kingdoms around the Caucasus and Persia; and the fourth into Russia and then Central Europe.

Tsubotei was placed in charge of the fourth engagement towards the West. Tsubotei’s key idea was to conquer Russian piecemeal so that they did not have enough time to form mighty coalitions. Another key strategy was to attack them in winter when the Russians and European armies were ill-equipped to conduct battle.

In a short four years, Tsubotei had managed to capture almost all of Russia. He then turned his sights towards Eastern Europe. At this time, Europe remained a deeply feudal society with internecine warfare and campaigns against one another. Tsubotei decided to invade Hungary but simultaneously sent a force under Kaidu Khan, grandson of Ogedai to strike at Poland, Bohemia and Silesia and distract Tsubotei’s main aims of an attack against Hungary.

The Mongols destroyed all opposition to their plans of conquest at the battle of Liegnitz in 1241 where the Silesians were routed. Following this, the Grand Master of the Templars wrote to King Louis IX of France that there was no army of significance between France and a powerful Mongol army that aimed straight for the heart of Western Europe.

“The Mongol army was truly the most organised and combat efficient army that the world had seen in almost a thousand years,” writes R. Gabriel.

Whilst Kaidu Khan was destroying the armies of Poland and Silesia, Tsubotei was waging war against Hungary. Tsubotei broke the spine of the Hungarian army led by the Hungarian king, Bela decisively at the Battle of the Sajo River. Again, Tsubotei used his cunning to create openings and gaps that lured the Hungarian troops into the space which he then closed up with his archers and infantry troops. Over two days, the Mongol war machine killed between 50,000 and 70,000 Hungarian soldiers including the entire royal army of Hungary.

As Tsubotei’s troops encircled Vienna and poised to strike into the rest of Western Europe, the Mongol army heard the news that Ogedai Khan wad dead and they had to return to the Mongol capital. As the powerful Mongol machinery made its way back to the capital, they disappeared, never again returning to Europe.


The end of a fearsome era

R. Gabriel writes that when the Franciscan monk Giovanni di Plano Carpini visited the Mongol court, he reported that Tsubotei was alive and in his early seventies. He was the most famous and admired of all Mongol general.

It was rumoured that Tsubotei had removed his badges of rank and lived in his ger (a Mongolian tent) tending his herds and watching his grandchildren grow.

The Mongols referred to Tsubotei as the Unfailing. Carpini described him as a soldier without weakness. The Muslims described him as “silent, insatiable, and remorseless.”

The Russians thought of his as “extremely disciplined.”

The Chinese held Tsubotei in very high esteem as a great warrior upon his death, bestowed upon him the title of King of Hunan because he had captured the province. They also called him, “the faithful and steady.”

When Tsubotei died, Muslim chroniclers noted that he “had conquered thirty two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles.”

In the end, Tsubotei became a man whom even his enemies respected for his military genius, brilliance in planning and strategy. Tsubotei Baghatur or Tsubotei the Valiant truly was amongst the greatest generals in military history.

An interesting anecdote about Tamerlane.

I am currently reading a very interesting autobiography of Tamerlane by J. Marozzi and I wanted to share this very interesting nugget of information.

At Tamerlane’s grave, there is a slab of dark jade which with an inscription that reads: “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.”

When a Soviet scientist, Professor Gerasimov opened Tamerlane’s casket in 1941, there was another inscription inside the casket which read, “”Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” The Uzbeks had also argued against this vehemently, convinced that a catastrophe was on its way.

A day or so later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in an operation Adolf Hitler named ‘Operation Barbarossa.’ (This remains the largest military invasion in the history of humanity – one which involved four million men of the Axis powers invading the USSR).

Interestingly, soon after Tamerlane and his grandson, Ulugh Beg, were reinterred with full Muslim burial rites in November 1942, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviets at the Battle of Stalingrad.