Many people feel we are witnessing grim times these days, but at least there are no Mongol invasions on horseback coming from the mysterious steppes of Central Asia like in the 13th century. What with civil wars, hurricanes, and other disasters, man-made or natural, dominating headlines around the world. Sometimes it seems we are living in a particularly violent time as social media carries bad news at an instantaneous speed with humanity’s inhumanity seeming to have no bounds.
But examining any period in history reminds us that, in relative terms at least, we are living in a more or less peaceful time. Overall, with the exception of localized wars in various countries, we are enjoying global peace. At least we are not mired in world wars, as our forefathers were in the early and mid-20th century.
A Russian archaeological excavation is finding out just how violent and inhumane invasions could be. Like, for example, the graves of three generations of one family recently uncovered in Yaroslavl, Russia. Several burial pits have been found, and one of them contained a tangle of 15 bodies. Researchers, upon examining these remains, realized they were looking at the skeletons of three generations of one family – a grandmother, a mother, and her son. They were slaughtered by Mongol invaders in the area in the 13th century.
The Mongols invaded Russia in 1238, under the leadership of Batu Khan, grandson of the notorious leader Genghis Khan. Asya Engovatova, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology in Russia notes that the remains have indications of gruesome torture, including piercings and severe cuts and blows, giving the picture not only of the fall of a whole city, but the sad ending of one family.
Historians have known for some time that Yaroslavl fell to the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. But the level of violence inflicted upon civilians has not been as well known, or understood, until the last decade or so. The city’s Assumption Cathedral was razed in 1937, but mass graves were not found beneath it until 2005; the graves contained the remains of more than 300 people. This latest discovery is just more evidence of the brutality the town suffered.
Engovatova stated, “What we now know about those raids suggests that chronicle descriptions of ‘a city drowned in blood’ were not merely a figure of speech.” Science is uncovering the grim reality about how this city fell to its invaders, and it is an ugly reminder of just how lawless and cruel those invaders were. She continued, “Batu Khan’s conquest of Russia was the greatest national tragedy, surpassing any other event in cruelty and destruction. It is not by chance that it is among the few events that made its way into the Russian folklore.”
Every child understands stories of the “boogeyman” and tales about dark forces that hide under the bed or in a closet. Russia, perhaps more so than other nations in this respect, has good reason for dark tales about bad spirits; after all, historians estimate that over the course of its two-centuries long rule, the Mongol Empire invasions killed as many as one million civilians across Europe.
And while historical texts indicate that most people submitted to their rule without argument, this new evidence suggests that many atrocities were committed during their conquests. This family, for example, recently uncovered: researchers say the bodies were first merely chucked into the snow. They were buried for health reasons, finally, and likely because of the stench.
And so, while it is easy to get carried away about the troubles facing our modern world, we must remember that, by and large, these days civility reigns supreme, at least in most countries. What happened in Russia during that 13th century invasion puts the world’s current troubles into some kind of perspective.