In the early Middle Ages, the Order of Assassins, the Muslim sect of Nizari Ismaili, had a huge influence in the Middle East for almost two centuries. The Order of Assassins was relatively similar to modern terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, founded by the notorious Osama Bin Laden. But the Order of Assassins was incomparably more powerful.
The Assassins lived in fortified fortresses, located in the mountains of Persia and Syria. They held a strict subterfuge policy throughout the Middle East through the covert murder of Muslim and Christian leaders that were considered enemies of their state. It should be noted that the modern term of assassination is based on the tactics used by the Assassins.
The terrible sect, kept the entire region at a bay, was eradicated by the Mongol Empire during the invasion of Persian Khwarezmid. In 1256, Mongol troops captured the headquarter of the Order of Assassins, in the Alamut fortress located in the mountains of modern Iran, and captured their leader Imam Rukh al-Din Khurshakh and executed him later.
It is believed that the main role was played by the elite special forces of the Mongol Empire – Khishigten in the mission against the skilled, experienced and disciplined warriors of the Assassins.
So what kind of mysterious unit was the Khishigten, and which tasks did they perform in the Mongol Empire?
It was an elite force, who standed above other army units. Their function was to serve as imperial guards of the Mongol Empire as well as a training ground for potential young officers.
Khishigten had a unique training system that included the art of horse riding, martial arts on horseback and on foot, using numerous types of weapons and the simplest items of nomadic everyday life including a whip, a lasso, clothing accessories and improvised items such as a tree branch or ordinary stones. The fusion of the art of wrestling, throwing and fist fighting are considered as the highest skills of a warrior.
Although there are numerous references in the historical chronicles showing the existence of royal guards in the early Mongol empires such as the Hunnu (Huns) and Khitan, Khishigten was founded at the behest of Chinggis Khan immediately after he was proclaimed as the leader of all Mongols in 1206.
In those days, assassinations of the leaders of rival Mongol tribes were common because of the ever-shifting loyalties and conflicting interests at play within Mongol tribal politics. For example, Chinggis Khan’s father Yesuhei was unwittingly poisoned by one of his enemies.
The risk was especially high at night time as the ger, a Mongolian nomadic house was in lack of a solid wall, so that swords or spears could easily penetrate the walls and kill the subject inside. It is the prime reason of the Mongol monarchs to have personal guards.
But Chinggis Khan completely reorganized the royal guards during the first years of his reign, whom there were no more than one myangan or thousand warriors. But as his empire expanded, the number of the warriors of royal elite Special Forces increased to one tumen or ten thousand.
He divided his Khishigten into four groups, each of which had its own special functions and commanded by the four skillful generals, namely Mukhulai, Boorchi, Chormaqan and Borkhul.
The Khorchins were well-aimed archery and played the role of bodyguard snipers in the daytime. They did not allow suspicious persons to the Khan’s headquarters. The Khorchins also defended the khan during military campaigns on the battlefields.
The Khevtuuls guarded the Khan’s headquarters at night, but not limited to other responsibilities. They were responsible for monitoring servants and maidservants, checking all incoming and outgoing people and making sure that food and drinks were not poisoned. The Khevtuuls also provided a kind of secret service and worked as policemen for the Khan and protected him from conspiracies and coups.
The third group of Khishigten consisted of Baatar tserguud or hero warriors. They were selected from entire guards. In peaceful times, they carried usual security services. However, they were sent to the most difficult areas and performed the most difficult tasks during wars.
And finally, the fourth part of the Khishigten was Turhags or Torguts. Warriors with huge physique and remarkable strength were selected for this group. They also carried a security service and, if necessary, they were obliged to supplement force to the above three groups of Khishigten and involved in special operations during battles. It is said that their appearance on the battlefield burdened the enemy’s psychology.
As the Khisigten’s were carefully selected and well trained, they were outranked almost any other military officers in the Mongol Empire. Thus, each Khishigten had the right to command any unit of the army.
The word Khishig refers to favor or blessing in Mongolian language. And the membership in the Khishigten was regarded as a supreme honor throughout Mongol Empire. There is also another meaning of this word. It means that a shift for a herdsman who is looking after cattle for nomadic people.
Both meanings exactly fitted for royal guards of the Mongol khans.
Under such system, Chinggis Khan was personally associated with the best Mongol warriors. Once in the privileged Khishigten, all the warriors were very loyal to their Khan, tried with all their strength to save their position and considered a death as a honor for the Khan.
The Khishigten originally was consisted of Mongols exclusively. But as the Empire expanded rapidly, Chinggis Khan’s successors recruited the royal guards from Persian, Turkic, Georgian, Armenian, Alan, Korean, Russian, Chinese and even Italian units.
But Chinggis Khan’s grandson Khubilai Knan (reigned 1260-1294) restricted the functions of Khishigten, and created a system of new imperial guards. But his Khishigten were still ruled by descendants of Chinggis Khan’s four assistants. Khubilai Khan had a guard of 12 000 Khishigtens.
Under Khubilai Khan, the Kipchaks special guards were formed and the Qanqli guards were formed in 1308 after his death. A long time before it, around in 1216, Kipchak and Qangli were prisoners, who served the Mongols in North China as warriors and kharchins (clarified fermented mare’s milk makers).
Also, Tug Tumur Khan who was one of Khubilai Khan’s successors, formed a guard unit of Russians near his capital Daidu (modern Beijing) in 1330.
After the collapse of the Mongol Empire, elite Khishigten Special Forces also abolished. Probably then elite Khishigten warriors were scattered in different parts of the great empire, so it is likely that their descendants still lives in different countries of Eurasia.
Anyway, the modern Mongolian Khishigten clan was believed to be their descendants. They inhabited Khishigten Banner within Inner Mongolian autonomous region of China.