How the Black Death Started in Asia

And Subsequently Spread Across the Middle-East and Europe

The 1910-12 bubonic plague pandemic killed some 15 million people in China and elsewhere.
A horse pulls a wagon-load of dead bodies during the 1910-12 bubonic plague outbreak in Manchuria, China. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The Black Death, a medieval pandemic that was likely the bubonic plague, is generally associated with Europe. This is not surprising since it killed an estimated one-third of the European population in the 14th century. However, the Bubonic Plague actually started in Asia and devastated many areas of that continent as well.

Unfortunately, the course of the pandemic in Asia is not as thoroughly documented as it is for Europe — however, the Black Death does appear in records from across Asia in the 1330s and 1340s noting that the disease spread terror and destruction wherever it arose.

Origins of the Black Death

Many scholars believe that the bubonic plague began in north-western China, while others cite south-western China or the steppes of Central Asia. We do know that in 1331 an outbreak erupted in the Yuan Empire and may have hastened the end of Mongol rule over China. Three years later, the disease killed over 90 percent of the Hebei Province's populations with deaths totaling over 5 million people.

As of 1200, China had a total population of more than 120 million, but a 1393 census found only 65 million Chinese surviving. Some of that missing population was killed by famine and upheaval in the transition from Yuan to Ming rule, but many millions died of bubonic plague.

From its origin at the eastern end of the Silk Road, the Black Death rode trade routes west stopping at Central Asian caravansaries and Middle Eastern trade centers and subsequently infected people all across Asia.

The Egyptian scholar Al-Mazriqi noted that "more than three hundred tribes all perished without apparent reason in their summer and winter encampments, in the course of pasturing their flocks and during their seasonal migration." He claimed that all of Asia was depopulated, as far as the Korean Peninsula.

Ibn al-Wardi, a Syrian writer who would later die of the plague himself in 1348, recorded that the Black Death came out of "The Land of Darkness," or Central Asia. From there, it spread to China, India, the Caspian Sea and "land of the Uzbeks," and thence to Persia and the Mediterranean.

The Black Death Strikes Persia and Issyk Kul

The Central Asian scourge struck Persia just a few years after it appeared in China — proof if any is needed that the Silk Road was a convenient route of transmission for the deadly bacterium.

In 1335, the Il-Khan (Mongol) ruler of Persia and the Middle East, Abu Said, died of bubonic plague during a war with his northern cousins, the Golden Horde. This signaled the beginning of the end for Mongol rule in the region. An estimated 30% of Persia's people died of the plague in the mid-14th century. The region's population was slow to recover, in part due to the political disruptions caused by the fall of Mongol rule and the later invasions of Timur (Tamerlane).

Archaeological excavations on the shores of Issyk Kul, a lake in what is now Kyrgyzstan, reveal that the Nestorian Christian trading community there was ravaged by bubonic plague in 1338 and '39. Issyk Kul was a major Silk Road depot and has sometimes been cited as the origin point for the Black Death.

It certainly is prime habitat for marmots, which are known to carry a virulent form of the plague.

It seems more likely, however, that traders from further east brought diseased fleas with them to the shores of Issyk Kul. Whatever the case, this tiny settlement's death rate shot up from a 150-year average of about 4 people per year, to more than 100 dead in two years alone.

Although specific numbers and anecdotes are hard to come by, different chronicles note that Central Asian cities like Talas, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan; Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde in Russia; and Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan, all suffered outbreaks of the Black Death. It is likely that each population center would have lost at least 40% of its citizens, with some areas reaching death tolls as high as 70%.

The Mongols Spread Plague at Kaffa

In 1344, the Golden Horde decided to recapture the Crimean port city of Kaffa from the Genoese — Italian traders who had taken the town in the late 1200s.

The Mongols under Jani Beg instituted a siege, which lasted until 1347 when reinforcements from further east brought the plague to the Mongol lines.

An Italian lawyer, Gabriele de Mussis, recorded what happened next: "The whole army was affected by a disease which overran the Tartars (Mongols) and killed thousands upon thousands every day." He goes on to charge that the Mongol leader "ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in hopes that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside."

This incident is often cited as the first instance of biological warfare in history. However, other contemporary chroniclers make no mention of the putative Black Death catapults. A French churchman, Gilles li Muisis, notes that a "calamitous disease befell the Tartar army, and the mortality was so great and widespread that scarcely one in twenty of them remained alive." However, he depicts the Mongol survivors as surprised when the Christians in Kaffa also came down with the disease.

Regardless of how it played out the Golden Horde's siege of Kaffa certainly did drive refugees to flee on ships bound for Genoa. These refugees likely were a primary source of the Black Death that went on to decimate Europe.

The Plague Reaches the Middle East

European observers were fascinated but not too worried when the Black Death struck the western rim of Central Asia and the Middle East. One recorded that "India was depopulated; Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains." However, they would soon become participants rather than observers in the world's worst pandemic.

In "The Travels of Ibn Battuta," the great traveler noted that as of 1345, "the number that died daily in Damascus (Syria) had been two thousand," but the people were able to defeat the plague through prayer. In 1349, the holy city of Mecca was hit by the plague, likely brought in by infected pilgrims on the hajj.

The Moroccan historian Ibn Khaldun, whose parents died of the plague, wrote about the outbreak this way: "Civilization both in the East and the West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out... Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed."

More Recent Asian Plague Outbreaks

In 1855, the so-called "Third Pandemic" of bubonic plague broke out in Yunnan Province, China. Another outbreak or a continuation of the Third Pandemic — depending upon which source you believe — sprang up in China in 1910. It went on to kill more than 10 million, many of them in Manchuria.

A similar outbreak in British India left about 300,000 dead in 1896 through 1898. This outbreak began in Bombay (Mumbai) and Pune, on the country's west coast. By 1921, it would claim some 15 million lives. With dense human populations and natural plague reservoirs (rats and marmots), Asia is always at risk of another round of bubonic plague.

Fortunately, timely use of antibiotics can cure the disease today.

Legacy of the Plague in Asia

Perhaps the most significant impact that the Black Death had on Asia was that it contributed to the fall of the mighty Mongol Empire. After all, the pandemic started within the Mongol Empire and devastated peoples from all four of the khanates.

The massive population loss and terror caused by the plague destabilized Mongolian governments from the Golden Horde in Russia to the Yuan Dynasty in China. The Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate Empire in the Middle East died of the disease along with six of his sons.

Although the Pax Mongolica had allowed increased wealth and cultural exchange, through a reopening of the Silk Road, it also allowed this deadly contagion to spread rapidly westward from its origin in western China or eastern Central Asia. As a result, the world's second-largest empire ever crumbled and fell.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "How the Black Death Started in Asia." ThoughtCo, Jul. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/black-death-in-asia-bubonic-plague-195144. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, July 16). How the Black Death Started in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/black-death-in-asia-bubonic-plague-195144 Szczepanski, Kallie. "How the Black Death Started in Asia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/black-death-in-asia-bubonic-plague-195144 (accessed December 16, 2017).