To this day, the name of Genghis Khan is infamous throughout Eurasia. He is the paradigm of a Mongol lord and marauder, whose hordes have been responsible for invading and plundering vast territories in the Middle Ages.
The Mongol Empire started expanding since the early 1200s in every direction out of Central Asia. In particular, it spread into the Near East, Middle East, and much of what is China and Russia today. On one end, the Mongol Empire bordered India, while on the other, it stretched into the eastern areas of Europe. In spite of the plundering that accompanied the expansion of the Mongol Empire, the fields of trade and the exchange of contemporary ideas and technologies saw a rapid development throughout the empire’s domain.
In a similar fashion, the traditional Armenian territories came under the Mongol control and suffered under its yoke. However, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, which had been located on what now is the southeastern coast of Turkey, chose the diplomatic way of allying with the Mongols against their common threats, namely, the regional Arab and Turkish powers. This is an unlikely example of a Christian kingdom reaching out to a distant, invasive, as-of-yet-pagan force in order to face the Muslim powers of the region – geopolitics par excellence.
Among the kings of Armenian Cilicia, Hethum I has been the one to reign the longest, ruling from 1226 to 1270. In 1247, Hethum sent his brother Smbat to the Mongol court in Karakorum, the Mongol capital. The diplomatic achievements of this mission were minimal, even though Smbat returned married a Mongol princess. In 1254, Hethum himself undertook the mission, concealing his identity for some part of the way. In both cases, traveling overland from the Mediterranean Sea coast, circumventing the Caspian Sea, and passing through Asia took over a year.
Hethum I thus was the very first Christian ruler to visit the Mongols. Some accounts claim that Mongol Khan converted to Christianity on this occasion, but there is no evidence to support them. It is known however that after negotiations, Christian institutions would be exempt from taxation on the vast Mongol territory, large parts of which were populated by Armenians, as well as other Christians. In return, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia along with two other semi-independent areas in historical Armenia allied with the Mongol Empire in their campaigns against the Muslim presence in the region.
In the following years, the Armenians fought under the Mongol banner, particularly, when Aleppo and Damascus were conquered around 1260, marking the highest point of the Mongol expansion. Over the following decades, joint military operations carried on, even though Cilicia faced numerous regressions, and even though Genghis Khan ultimately adopted Islam.