The Steppes of History

The Roots of War, Part 3

In the last article, we examined the origins of the Scythians, the descendants of Magog who terrorized the southern steppes of Russia from the 10th to the 3rd century b.c. In this article, we will continue to review the colorful and stormy past of the descendants of Magog, so infamous for their disastrous nuclear setback that appears to be prophesied in Ezekiel 38 and 39, and which increasingly seems to be looming on our near horizon.

For the peoples living in the interior of the huge Eurasian landmass, consisting primarily of snow and ice, mountains and deserts, agriculture was virtually impossible. Within Inner Asia lies an almost unbroken strip of grassland, or steppe, stretching approximately 6,000 miles from Manchuria to Hungary in southern Europe. While the steppe is interspersed with semideserts and major mountain ranges, there are some passable routes along which people, goods, and ideas can travel. Necessity drove the peoples of this region to become nomads, wandering in search of food and pasturage. They became herders, shepherds and, of course, warriors.

The domestication of the horse increased the range, speed, and general mobility of the steppe nomads. Their movements often encroached on their neighbors' pastures or on the borderlands claimed by the sedentary civilized centers. Practically every nomad with a horse and bow was a tough, ferocious, and resourceful warrior, whereas only a small percentage of the civilized population was equipped and trained for war. When a charismatic and ambitious chieftain formed a confederation of nomads, called a horde, large-scale military activity occurred. Such hordes not only dominated the steppe but also posed a serious threat to the civilized populations. The nomadic cavalry of the hordes was superior to the infantry units of the sedentary civilizations.

The Huns

The Huns were an aggressive nomadic people of great vigor and had developed considerable skill in the techniques of warfare, particularly in military horsemanship. Before the beginning of their recorded European history, one of their tribes was known in western China as the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) (206 b.c.-a.d. 8). Their power in the East was weakened during the following century, and they separated into two distinct camps, one of which went southward, while the remainder, after attempting to maintain themselves on the Caspian steppes (the areas north of the Caspian Sea), went west and northwest in search of new homes. They spread from the Caspian steppes to make repeated incursions into the Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries a.d. Their attacks culminated in a series of wars under Attila, the most renowned of its leaders, which brought both parts of the Roman Empire, East and West, to the verge of destruction.

Of those who went northwest, a large number settled for a time on the banks of the Volga River. In the second half of the 4th century a.d., under a leader called Balamir, they advanced into the territories of the Alans, a powerful people dwelling between the Volga and the Don rivers, and in a battle fought on the banks of the Don routed the army of the Alans. Their next conquest was the country of the Ostrogoths, whose retreat they followed as far west as the Danube River. In the process they threatened and uprooted the Visigoths, who then sought the protection of the Roman Empire. A few years later the Goths revolted against Roman authority, and the Huns crossed the Danube to join them.

After Attila's death in 453, however, the power of the Huns was broken, and they no longer played a major role in European history. Many Huns took service in the Roman armies, while others joined fresh hordes of invaders from the north and east, assisting them in their repeated attacks upon the Empire.


The Khazars, a now-extinct Turkic people, flourished from about a.d. 200 to about 950, living at first in the region of the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea and later on the steppes of southeastern Russia. But by the middle of 7th century, the expanding Muslim empire had penetrated as far northward as the northern Caucasus, and from then on until the mid-8th century the Khazars engaged in a series of wars with the Muslims, eventually penetrating south of the Caucasus into present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Muslim counterattacks eventually compelled the Khazars to permanently withdraw north of the Caucasus. The Khazars' initial victories were important, though, since they had the effect of permanently blocking Muslim expansion northward into Eastern Europe.

By the second half of the 8th century, their empire had reached the peak of its power - it extended along the northern shore of the Black Sea, from the lower Volga and the Caspian Sea in the east to the Dnieper River in the west. The Khazars controlled and exacted tribute from the Alani and other northern Caucasian peoples (dwelling between the mountains and the Kuban River); from the Magyars (Hungarians) inhabiting the area around the Donets River; from the Goths; and, from the Greek colonies in the Crimea. The Volga Bulgars and numerous Slavic tribes also recognized the Khazars as their overlords.

In the 7th century their Khakan, or sovereign, embraced Judaism, and a large part of the population converted thereafter. Some scholars link the Khazars with the sect of the Karaites, who would not accept the oral traditions of the Talmud but defended the Torah and the Prophets as the sole source for religious doctrine and practice and protested against the rigidities of Talmudic Judaism. Beginning in 8th-century Persia, it spread to Egypt and Syria, and later to Europe through Spain and Constantinople.

Khazar power came to an end when, after a series of wars, they were assimilated by the Russians. (It is interesting that in 19th century Russia, the Karaites had so distanced themselves from Talmudic ("Rabbinic") Judaism that they were relieved of the double taxation, were exempted from military conscription, and were permitted to acquire land. The Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible, was acquired through their efforts.)

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Most Biblical students are familiar with the Roman Empire, which reached its peak during the 2nd century. After Commodus (180-192 a.d.), son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (featured in the recent movie, Gladiator), the age of leadership began to decline with the collapse of political institutions, weakening of the army, and economic disaster. Even under such perverse emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus, the government of the empire had continued its normal functions of collecting taxes, protecting the frontiers, and distributing food. The insane emperors persecuted the senatorial elite, but they had limited effect on the population outside Rome.

However, after the murder of Commodus in a.d. 192, a civil war between rival claimants to the imperial throne penetrated every corner of the empire and changed all aspects of Roman life. Between a.d. 193 and 235 a series of rulers known as the Severan dynasty ruled Rome, but for much of that time civil war continued in many areas. The Severan dynasty stayed in power for several decades by indulging the troops, but the enormous cost became clear during the next half-century. For 50 years generals caused incredible destruction in their quest for power, but their efforts were largely in vain. Between 235 and 284, the troops acclaimed about 20 "emperors" and another 30 "pretenders," although the two groups only differed in that the emperors briefly managed to control the city of Rome. Only one of these emperors died of natural causes, so the imperial throne was a dangerous prize.

The reforms under Diocletian included appointing a co-emperor to assist in the administration of the empire, which set the stage for its ultimate separation into eastern and western segments. He was succeeded by Constantine, who relocated the capital of the empire to the "New Rome," Constantinople, on the shores of the Bosporus at the intersection of Europe and Asia. His Edict of Toleration legitimized Christianity, which was to emerge as the state religion a couple of emperors later.

Theodosius I (379-395) was the last emperor of the united Roman Empire. At his death he left the eastern portion to his 18-year old son, Arcadius, and the western portion to his 10-year old son, Honorius. A succession of child emperors weakened the throne, and no emperor ever again successfully controlled both East and West. For a number of reasons, including a much stronger economic base, the eastern "leg" of the Roman Empire endured 1,000 years longer than the western "leg."


The Seljuks were a Turkish dynasty prominent in the Middle East during the 11th and 12th centuries. Originally a clan belonging to the Oghuz, a Turkmen tribe of Central Asia, they were converted to Islam in the 10th century and established themselves in the Iranian province of Khorasan in the early 11th century. The empire of the Seljuks was further extended into Syria, Palestine, and Anatolia. Their victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert (1071) alarmed the Christian world, and Seljuk aggressiveness was a major reason for launching the First Crusade (1096).

The main enemy of the Seljuks, however, was the Shia Fatimid dynasty of Egypt. Ruling from their capital at Isfahan in Iran, the Seljuk sultans used the Persian language in their administration and were patrons of Persian literature. They founded madrasas (colleges) to train future administrators in accordance with Sunni doctrine. After the death of Malik Shah, the empire gradually declined. A branch of the dynasty, the sultanate of Rum, survived in Anatolia (Central Turkey) until subjugated by the Mongols in 1243.

Genghis Khan

The Mongols emerged out of the shifting sociopolitical landscape of the steppes. On the harsh Mongolian plateau, pastoral Mongol tribes, led by a type of political-military aristocracy, fought each other as well as all outsiders. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols conquered and ruled the largest contiguous empire in recorded history. (See Map).The Mongol empire's five great khans, with their goal of world domination, impacted all of the major Eurasian civilizations, severely disrupting some while revitalizing and globalizing others.

A unique document called The Secret History of the Mongols embodies early Mongol folklore and contains many pronouncements of Genghis Khan, the first great Mongol emperor. Apparently written in 1228, shortly after Genghis' death, the document traces Mongol beliefs and folklore, such as their belief in their account of the impregnation of an early human ancestor by the sky god, Tengri. (This is most suggestive of the Nephilim of Genesis 6 and the subsequent Rephaim of Canaan.1 )

The Mongols viewed themselves as a type of chosen people and felt they had a divine right to conquer and rule the entire world. As their national epic moved from myth to legend to true history, specific personalities emerged. One such personality was Yesugei, who reportedly fathered a son named Temujin, which means "smith" or "metal worker," born in 1167. By 1206, Temujin was master of almost all of Mongolia, and that year a great national assembly declared him universal ruler with the title Genghis Khan. This charismatic leader was destined to unite all of the Mongol tribes and to unite most of Eurasia into a single, vast empire.

Under Genghis' skillful guidance, Mongol aspirations extended beyond traditional nomadic pillaging to ruling over the entire then-known world. Acting under what they considered a divine mandate, Genghis and his Mongols dedicated themselves to an ongoing series of military campaigns and conquests - first against the Tibetan Tanguts and then against the Chin (Juchen) of North China.

Genghis' most distant campaign, as well as one of his bloodiest and most devastating, was directed against the Khwarizmian shah in the area of northeast Persia. This expedition led to Mongol military victories and claims to north India and southern Russia. By the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan controlled most of the inner Asian steppe as well as parts of the Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern civilizations.

In addition to uniting his people and leading these early campaigns, Genghis made significant contributions to the efficiency of the Mongol military establishment, communications system, and legal structure. Genghis had a great military mind, and incorporated new tactics from the conquered civilized societies into the traditional nomadic military strategy. Instead of promoting people on the basis of blood ties, Genghis organized his followers by personal ability and experience. By sparing the lives of civilized artisans who later designed and built weapons for their captors, the Mongols learned how to break city walls with siege engines, sappers, catapults, and gunpowder bombs.

In this fashion, the flexible Genghis incorporated the siege strategy and tactics of the sedentary societies into his already powerful and mobile steppe cavalry.

To stay informed about his empire, Genghis introduced a communications system, called the yam, which relied on a series of postal relay stations that stretched across his vast empire. The 19th-century American Pony Express system was nothing more than a revival of this 13th-century Mongol practice. This period of relatively open trade and travel across Eurasia became known as the great Mongol Peace.

In accordance with Mongol custom, upon Genghis' death, Bortai, his chief wife, presided over the division of his empire among his four sons. While each son and his heirs inherited specific parts of the empire upon their father's death, Genghis' third son and chosen successor, Ogadai, was elected by the Quiriltai in 1229 to be the next great khan. Ogadai was a calm and shrewd ruler who is credited with establishing Karakorum as the permanent Mongol capital city and with developing commercial links with China, Tibetan India, and Western Asia. After eliminating the last Chin resistance in North China, Ogadai aimed the Mongol military machine against the West. After conquering Russia, the Mongol army moved into central Europe, devastating Hungary, Poland, and the eastern parts of what is now Germany.

The Mongols could have marched right through Europe to the Atlantic. Fortunately for Christian Europe and Western civilization, however, the death of Ogadai in December of 1241 and the lack of adequate pasturage for the Mongol horses in the Hungarian Plain prompted the Mongols to withdraw their European campaign in 1242. Between 1241 and 1251, a period of uncertain leadership led to a lull in Mongol activity. Mangu, who was elected great khan in 1251, decided not to renew the attack on Europe, but rather to undertake two different major campaigns to complete the conquest of South China and the Muslim Middle East. Mangu sent his brother Hulagu to attack Baghdad and its caliph and his brother Kublai to attack China.

Hulagu easily ravished Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. Baghdad fell in 1258, and all of its inhabitants were massacred. But in 1260, the Mongols suffered an unexpected reversal in Palestine as the Egyptian Mamluks defeated a nominal Mongol army at Goliath's Spring. The death of Mangu in 1259 disrupted Mongol unity and was indirectly responsible for the Mamluk victory.

Hulagu immediately supported his older brother Kublai as successor for the office of great khan. However, their cousin, Berke, khan of the Golden Horde in Russia, opposed them. Berke had converted to Islam and was so outraged by Hulagu's destruction of the Baghdad caliphate that he became openly hostile to his cousins. In response, Hulagu marched his powerful Mongol army into north Persia, leaving behind only a weak non-Mongol garrison in Palestine.

The Mamluk victory over this small force in 1260, the Mongol's first military defeat, has been hailed as the critical event that saved Islam from total conquest. It also marked the beginning of the end of the Mongol Empire. Islam was unexpectedly saved by the death of Mangu in 1259, just as Christian Europe was saved by the fortuitous death of Ogadai in 1241.

In spite of this defeat, the Mongols still controlled all of the Middle East, except Egypt. Hulagu and his successors ruled the Middle East from Persia, where they established the il-Khanid or subject khanate. Caught between the hostile Golden Horde to the northeast and the Mamluks to the southwest, the Mongol khans of Persia repeatedly tried to form an alliance with Latin Europe to the northwest, especially with the Christian Crusader states in the Levant. Eventually the Mongol khans in Persia converted to Islam, and they ruled the Middle East until they were overthrown in the mid-14th century.

Kublai Khan and China

In the East, Kublai was bogged down in South China, where he demonstrated Mongol skill in large-scale strategic envelopment movements. The Mongols outflanked the Sung from the west and south as they traveled down the Yangtze River, virtually surrounding them and finally completing the conquest of South China in 1280.

At first, Kublai was fairly successful in balancing his Mongol steppe heritage with his role as a Confucian ruler. On the one hand, his ongoing military campaigns against Java and Japan demonstrated his efforts to maintain his basic Mongol warrior identity. On the other hand, Kublai was able to appear as a traditional Confucian emperor to his Chinese subjects. Most of Kublai's advisers and officials were international in origin and orientation; his Tibetan, Muslim, and Confucian advisers played a significant role throughout his reign. He died in 1294 at the age of 80. Kublai's successors ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty until they were overthrown in 1368.

The Four Khanates

The Mongol Empire was an amazing and impressive entity in the late 13th century. In addition to the Inner Asian steppe, the empire included the civilized centers of China, north India, the Middle East, and Russia. Nevertheless, by the early 14th century, this gigantic empire was already beginning to crumble due to overextension, assimilation, and internal dynastic rivalries.

The Mongols had overextended themselves in trying to expand their empire into the extremities of Eurasia. Despite their extraordinary speed, mobility, and communication system, the Mongols had difficulties ruling their vast empire. As they continued their military conquests, they were incapable of establishing centralized control of their far-flung territories. Consequently, the Mongols soon discovered that they could not effectively manage what they had already conquered.

Moreover, the Mongols were outnumbered and outclassed developmentally by their subjects. They were therefore prone to assimilation into the more sophisticated civilizations that they ruled. As soon as Mongol warriors dismounted to enjoy the spoils of their conquests, they began adopting the languages, religions, administrative structures, culture, and technology of their more advanced subjects. Once the Mongols were assimilated into the sedentary civilizations they had conquered, they lost their steppe heritage. Indeed, within three generations, they lost their identity and unity as Mongols.

Dynastic rivalries between the heirs of Genghis' four sons added to the internal fragmentation of the Mongol empire. Irreconcilable splits within the royal family led to the emergence of regional khanates. One indication of this was Kublai's relocation of his capital from Karakorum to Peking. In addition, Kublai, the last great khan, had no real authority outside of China. While he was becoming a Chinese emperor, the khanates of the Golden Horde in Russia and of the Jagatai khanate in inner Asia went their own ways. Rulers of the il-Khanid in the Middle East accepted Islam. Even the Mongols in Mongolia came under the influence of Buddhism. Mongol rule was in serious trouble everywhere by 1350.

The Mongol conquests impacted all of the Eurasian civilizations. But they had the most dramatic impact on the sedentary centers of China, the Middle East, and Russia, which the Mongols had ruled directly for more than a century. Since Latin Europe was the farthest from the center of Mongol power, Western civilization experienced the least amount of damage and destruction. This allowed Western civilization to catch up to their eastern neighbors after the end of Mongol rule. By adopting the new ideas and practices exchanged during the great Mongol Peace, as other Eurasian societies stagnated or turned inward, Europe eventually surpassed them.

The Myopia of the West

The Scriptures clearly indicate that the forthcoming world leader, commonly called the Antichrist, will emerge from the Roman Empire.2 The common presumption of most of us is that this implies Western Europe. Most of us overlook the possibility that he may emerge from the eastern leg of that empire, which we happen to call the Byzantine Empire. This myopia will be explored in our next installment of The Roots of War.

I often quip, "Film at eleven." In this case, we really have one: check out our 160-minute video, Roots of War.


  1. See our conference series, Alien Encounters, or our briefing package, The Return of the Nephilim, Koinonia House.
  2. Daniel 9:26 indicates that the people of "the prince that shall come" would destroy the city and sanctuary. This was fulfilled by the Romans in 70 a.d.


Missler, Chuck, Roots of War.

Guzman, Gregory G. Monumenta Latina Rerum Mongolorum, a primary collection of Latin sources on the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries. Also, "Mongol Domination of Eurasia," Encarta Reference Library 2002.

Encyclopdia Britannica, Inc.

Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia.

Encyclopdia Judaica, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, Israel.