The lost fleet of Khubilai Khan

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. James Delgado from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Delgado is giving a lecture at HMNS on Tuesday, April 21 at 6:30 p. m. Dr. Delgado will be discussing Khubilai Khan’s failed naval attacks on Japan in the thirteenth century; he was part of the expedition that uncovered part of Khubilai Khan’s lost fleet in 2001.

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When people hear the words “Mongol invasion,” they probably think of fast riders on horseback.  They most likely do not think of warriors on the decks of ships.  In 1274 and in 1281, however, Khubilai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongols and conqueror of the Song Dynasty in China, sent invading fleets against Japan.  His troops, consisting of Mongols, Korean vassals and conquered Chinese were defeated, according to legend, by a divine wind sent by the gods in answer to Japanese prayers for victory.  The Japanese term for those divine winds, “kamikaze,” has come down through history as a potent phrase more famous for its use in World War II, when pilots crashed their planes into the sides and decks of enemy ships.  Many people do not remember the legendary events of several hundred years ago, when Mongol invaders twice tried, and failed, to add Japan to the globe spanning empire started by Genghis Khan, Khubilai’s grandfather.

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Archaeologists seeking traces of Khubilai’s invasion were finally successful in the 1980s when evidence of the ships and the battles fought around them surfaced from Imari Bay, off the southern coast of Kyushu

I was fortunate to join a team of Japanese archaeologists in 2001 when they found and began to excavate the remains of the Khan’s lost fleet.  What they found and what I had the opportunity to dive on was amazing – scattered timbers, swords, armor, ceramic pots used to store food and water, and amazing technological marvels in the form of clay bombs, filled with gunpowder and metal shrapnel that the Mongols hurtled at the Japanese from ship-mounted catapults.  These bombs, the earliest explosive devices ever found and used in naval warfare, are a reminder that “modern” technology dates back centuries and that China, as one of the oldest civilizations on earth, was an early innovator and inventor of many things that we still use today such as gunpowder and paper.

In my presentation on Tuesday night, I am going to share images and impressions of the invasions of Japan by the Mongols, and show you what was found underwater and what we’ve learned from the excavations including the incredible work done by Texas A&M nautical archaeology graduate student Randall Sasaki.

Join us at HMNS Tuesday night as Dr. Delgado presents the story of Khubilai Khan and the findings from the Japenese archaeological team that uncovered the lost fleet.

Genghis Khan Invades HMNS – This Friday

Genghis Khan is back – with a vengeance. He’s popped up in a best-selling book, an award-winning movie - and now, a world premiere exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

During his life, Genghis Khan conquered more of the globe than any other man – including popular favorites Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. His fame and repute lasted for centuries: in The Canterbury Tales‘ longest story, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of him –  

This noble king was called Genghis Khan
Who in his time was of so great renown
That there was nowhere in no region
So excellent a lord in all things.
He lacked nothing that belonged to a king
As of the sect of which he was born
He kept his law, to which he was sworn.
And thereto he was hardy, wise and rich
And piteous and just, always liked;
Soothe of his word, benign and honorable,
Of his courage as any center stable;
Young, fresh and strong, in arms desirous
As any bachelor of all his house.
A fair person he was and fortunate,
And kept always so well royal estate
That there was nowhere such another man.
This noble king, this Tartar Genghis Khan.

Compare this admiring portrayal to Genghis Khan in modern (OK, 80′s) pop culture. Or, what we think we all “know” of him - as the cunning barbarian who spread terror across Asia.  


In reality, Genghis Khan was also the brilliant architect of one of history’s most advanced civilizations. Though he was raised in a climate of brutal tribal warfare, he forbade looting and torture. Though unable to read, he gave his people a written language and a sophisticated society, with fair taxation, free trade, stable government, and freedom of religion and the arts.


Now, you can discover the real Genghis in our newest special exhibition, opening Friday – the largest-ever presentation of 13th century treasures related to his life. More than 200 spectacular artifacts will be on display, including the first-ever printing press and paper money, imperial gold, silk robes and sophisticated weaponry of the world’s most visionary ruler and his descendants.

Plus – we’re giving away cool stuff. Check out the exhibition web site for details on how to enter the “Conquer Your Fears” giveaway, and learn more about exhibition-related events. Hope to see you there!

Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut

Reading history never gets boring. Why make it up if one can read up on the real stuff? (There are exceptions to this, but in general I would argue that this is true).

Consider the battle of Ain Jalut.

The year is 1260AD. The place is in modern Israel. The combatants were the Mamluks and the Mongols. On the sidelines: the Crusaders and the eyes of Europe. Firsts: this was the first decisive defeat of the Mongols and it was one of the first battles in which firearms were used (yes, firearms in 1260 AD).

Mongolian warriors were known for their skill
with the bow & arrow – such as the one pictured
here. See it on display in the world premiere
exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

In 1260, thirty-three years after the death of Genghis Khan, a mighty army was poised to strike into Egypt. Led by Hülegü Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, this army had swept into Iran, Iraq and Syria laying waste to cities like Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus.  Their goal was to expand the Mongol empire as far as they could. Upon the capture of these famous cities, envoys were sent to the court of the Mamluk leader Qutuz in Cairo.

The envoys brought with them a demand for unconditional surrender. Qutuz was urged to “Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled… Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together.”

Qutuz refused to yield. He ordered the Mongol envoys to be beheaded and went on to prepare for war. He faced a Mongol army of more than 300,000 extremely mobile and battle-hardened soldiers. Then the unexpected happened. Word reached the Mongol army that the Great Khan, Möngke, son of Genghis Khan, had died. According to tradition, all princes had to return to elect a successor. The bulk of the Mongol army withdrew, leaving a much more modest force of 20,000 behind to tackle Egypt. The odds had improved tremendously for Qutuz and his cause. Because of this changing situation, he decided to go on the offensive.

A Mongolian siege, depicted in a mural that will
be on display in the world premiere exhibition
Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

On July 26, 1260, the Mamluk army marched northeast. The Mongol leader took his army to meet them. The armies met at a place called Ain Jalut (“the Spring of Goliath”), in the Plain of Esdraelon. This plain was bordered on the south by Mount Gilboa and on the north by the hills of Galilee. Ideal ambush country, it turned out. Qutuz ordered the bulk of his troops to hide in the hills, while the rest of his army moved toward the Mongols.

The Mamluk general in charge of the troops who had engaged the Mongols ordered a retreat at one point. Whether this was a genuine order, caused by the ferocity of the Mongol attack, or a strategic feint, is still up for debateit seems. However, the end result was that this withdrawal drew the Mongols into the area where the bulk of the Mamluk army lay in wait. The Mamluk heavy cavalry rode down from the hills and attacked the Mongol flanks. The retreating Mamluk army stopped and turned around as well. The battle was on.

At first the Mongols proved superior and started to envelop the Mamluk left flank. Qutuz rallied his troops and fate intervened again. The Mongol general was captured, causing the Mongols to experience their first defeat. They abandoned the battlefield, pursued by the Mamluks. Damascus and Aleppo were re-taken by Muslim forces.

Victor Lawson 'Crusader' (1850-1925)
Creative Commons License photo credit: puroticorico

This battle is important and interesting for many reasons. In some cases, one has to wonder “what if” the outcome had been different. The Mongol tide has reached its zenith. In the following years, Mongol attempts to avenge this defeat were rebuffed. Mamluk Egypt remained a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim world for another 200 years. Crusader forces played a minor role in these hostilities. They were very small, certainly in comparison with the overwhelming might of the Mongol army. Most of them were holed up in fortified positions, like the city of Acre. Realpolitikeventually caused the Crusaders to abandon a policy of neutrality and allow the Mamluk army on the march to come through their territory, camp and acquire provisions. Seeing a huge Muslim army camped outside the walls of their cities must have caused many a Crusader heartburn, to say the least.

The battle may also be one of the earliest in which firearms were said to have been used. These handheld devices were extremely primitive, but may have served a purpose of frightening the Mongolian cavalry with loud noises and smoke.

Unfortunately for Qutuz, all was not well in the end. Before he could return to Cairo for his triumphant entry, he was murdered by a close ally, who took over the reigns of his dominion. Without Qutuz’s decisive actions, however, the world would have looked very different today.

Learn more about Genghis Khan and the mighty Mongolian civilization he built in the world premiere exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.