Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Nine


The Splintering Khanate

Between 1246 and 1264, the Mongols spread their conquests from east to west, but then watch the empire divide into four

IN 1246, the Mongol clan leaders assembled at Sira-ordu, a few miles away from Karakorum, and finally hailed Guyuk as Great Khan.

It had taken Guyuk, the oldest son of Ogodei, four years to reach this peak. After Ogodei’s death in 1242, his widow Toregene had insisted on Guyuk’s election. But a healthy segment of the Mongol chiefs preferred another grandson of Genghis Khan: Mongke, the oldest son of Genghis’s youngest son Tolui.

By this point, all of Genghis Khan’s own sons were dead. Jochi had died before his father; Tolui had drunk himself to death in 1232; Chagatai had died just a few months before Ogodei himself. Three grandsons stood in line for the succession: Mongke, Guyuk, and Batu in the west, the oldest son of the oldest son.

Guyuk was widely unpopular, in part because his father had disliked him and had repeatedly suggested that the succession pass him by. But as regent until a new khan was elected, his mother Toregene had the force of Mongol law behind her; and the Mongols, ruthless in battle, were just as unbending when it came to their own legal codes. Toregene had delayed the election for four years in order to bribe, persuade, and bully clan chiefs into supporting her son.1

On August 24, beneath a white velvet tent, surrounded by gold-armed clan chiefs, Guyuk was seated on a gold and ivory throne, studded with pearls, and acclaimed as Great Khan. The ceremony was observed by ambassadors from Moscow, Cairo, Goryeo, the Song court, Baghdad, Georgia, Cilician Armenia, and Rome: “There were more than four thousand envoys there,” records the Roman diplomat, the Franciscan friar Giovanni de Plano Carpini. “So many gifts were bestowed by the envoys there that it was marvelous to behold—gifts of silk, samite, velvet, brocade, girdles of silk threaded with gold, choice furs . . . more than five hundred carts, which were all filled with gold and silver and silken garments.”2

The gifts were both tribute and appeasement, sent by nations that had fallen under Mongol control—or were desperately hoping not to. For his part, Pope Innocent IV sent not gifts but a papal letter, carried by Friar Carpini to the new Great Khan. “[We] do admonish, beg and earnestly beseech,” Innocent IV wrote, “that for the future you desist entirely from assaults . . . and that after so many and such grievous offences you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of Divine Majesty. . . . [A]cknowledge Jesus Christ the very Son of God, and worship His glorious name by practicing the Christian religion.”3

Guyuk’s response was curt. “You who are the great Pope,” he sent back, “together with all the Princes, come in person to serve us.”

The eternal God has slain and annihilated these [conquered] lands and peoples, because they have neither adhered to Genghis Khan, nor to the Great Khan, both of whom have been sent to make known God’s command. . . . How do you know that such words as you speak are with God’s sanction? From the rising of the sun to its setting, all the lands have been made subject to me. Who could do this contrary to the command of God? . . . [C]ome at once to serve and wait upon us! At that time I shall recognize your submission. If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy.4

Guyuk could play the holy-war game as well as the next potentate; and, living outside of the Christian world, he was one of the few rulers in the world powerful enough to question the pope’s authority with absolute impunity.

Forty at the time of his election, Guyuk was prematurely aged by the traditional Mongol overindulgence in strong drink (“Then they started drinking,” Carpini wrote, of the hours just after Guyuk’s coronation, “and, as is their custom, they drank without stopping until the evening”). In April of 1248, Guyuk was traveling towards the lands of the Golden Horde, planning to meet with his cousin Batu in order to smooth out some differences between them, when he died on the road.5

In his two-year reign, though, he had set the Mongols back on the road to world domination. By 1248, Mongol forces had returned to the west and entirely subdued the Sultanate of Rum and the remaining holdout lands in Georgia; Cilician Armenia was now Guyuk’s vassal; and he had been preparing for war on the Southern Song, intending to send old Subotai at the head of the campaign, when he died.

With his death, war was once again put on hold, while the clans argued—for three years—over his successor. When Batu and the Golden Horde threw their favor behind Mongke, the son of Tolui finally gained his long-delayed title of Great Khan. He was acclaimed on July 1, 1251, in a ceremony that lacked the over-the-top magnificence of Guyuk’s; Batu had called the assembly himself, and when Mongke’s detractors refused to attend, Batu insisted on the appointment of Mongke by the clan chiefs who were present.6

It was the first time that a Great Khan had been elected by only a partial assembly. Mongke remained in full control of the entire empire for nine years (helped in part by his ruthless execution of both his opponents and their sons), but the partial victory cracked the foundation of the Mongol house, and the fissures were already spreading.7

Mongke was forty-three years old, the veteran of wars against the Jin, the Rus’, the Bulgars, and more, raised by his strict mother—a convert to Christianity—to avoid alcohol. Under his direction, Mongol conquest began again. He directed his armies towards two points of the compass simultaneously: according to the contemporary chronicler Rashid al-Din, he put his younger brother Kublai in charge of the eastern force, tasked with bringing down the Southern Song; his youngest brother Hulagu was given the task of renewing war in the west. “Each of them,” al-Din explains, “with the armies that they would have, would be his right and left wings.”8

From this moment on, the complicated and detailed story of country after country, from east to west, flattened itself into a single narrative arc: Mongol conquest.

Kublai planned to invade the Song from the west. He led his Mongol horde south, to the borders of the small southwest Asian kingdom of Nanzhao.* Nanzhao, circling Lake Erhai, had fought off the Tang in the eighth century and had remained independent through three changes of dynasty. But Kublai, approaching in 1253 from an unexpected direction, drove the Nanzhao defenders back to their capital city of Dali and besieged it. When Dali surrendered, the only captives executed were the king himself, and two of his officials who had murdered a Mongol ambassador.

Kublai, later accounts tell us, had been studying Chinese philosophy, and took as his motto an ancient tenet of the Confucian teacher Mencius: He who takes no pleasure in killing people can unite them behind him. It took another two years for Nanzhao to be entirely united under Mongol control, but once the kingdom had reached stability under a Mongol governor, Kublai used it as a base to begin attacks against the Song border.9

In Goryeo, the state of half war, half peace observed by the court on the island of Kanghwa and the Mongol occupiers in the north broke down. Repeated Mongol attacks on the independent south had killed an untold number: “As many as 206,800 men and women became prisoners of the Mongol troops this year (1254),” the Koryeo-san mourns, “and the number of people massacred cannot be accounted for. The provinces and districts we pass have all been reduced to ashes.” Finally, King Gojong arranged the assassination of Choe-U, the military dictator responsible for the ongoing resistance, and as soon as Choe-U was dead sent his own son, the Crown Prince, to Mongke’s court to offer Goryeo’s surrender. In 1259, the surrender was made official.10

Kublai sent another branch of his force into the kingdom of the Dai Viet. In 1257, the Mongols captured the capital city Thang Long, although they then retreated for a time, leaving the Dai Viet king Tran Canh on his throne. Immediately Tran Canh—still only a vigorous forty years old, with thirty-three of those years spent on the throne—abdicated and crowned his eighteen-year-old son Tran Hoang in his place. Officially, the change in power was intended to keep quarrels over succession from breaking out in the middle of a new invasion. But Tran Canh, despite dreading the Mongol return, had finally gained the chance he had been waiting for: to abandon the throne in favor of the monastery, battle in favor of reflection.11

Meanwhile Hulagu, with reinforcements sent by Batu from the Golden Horde lands to the north of his target, took a different direction from that of previous Mongol invasions to the west. He planned to push towards the Mediterranean and then turn south, towards Egypt.

In 1256, he crossed the Oxus river and laid siege to his first targets: the fortresses of the “Assassins,” the mountainous state of the Nizari. The Nizari were led by their chief, Rukn al-Din, who had been their ruler for a single year when Hulagu arrived at his walls. The thirteenth-century Muslim scholar Abu’l-Faraj records Rukn al-Din’s panic; he wanted to surrender, but the other Nizaris held him back. While his men were distracted by the sight of siege engines being erected outside their fortress, al-Din sneaked out and surrendered to Hulagu, on condition that he be allowed to travel east and appeal to the Great Khan himself. Hulagu duly sent his captive east, but when he arrived at Mongke’s camp, the Great Khan ordered him killed without an audience.12

Hulagu’s branch of the army rapidly reduced the Nizari to rubble, and he advanced steadily forward, against the Ayyubid holdings. In 1259, he reached Baghdad and swept through it, putting the last Abbasid caliph to death. In 1260, he drove the last Ayyubid governors out of Damascus and Aleppo.

Before he reached Cairo itself, news of the Great Khan’s death reached him. And, like all of the Mongol generals before him, he turned immediately back towards Karakorum to be present for the election of the next Mongol supreme leader.

Mongke Khan had left the youngest of his brothers, Arik-Boke, to guard the homeland and had joined Kublai’s attack on the Southern Song in person. The two had stormed through the south, but in the vicious heat of a south Chinese August, Mongke had sickened with dysentery. The two brothers were laying siege to the southeastern city of Erzhou when Mongke finally collapsed; and on August 11, 1259, the Khan died.

As the next-oldest, Kublai expected to be acclaimed the next Great Khan. But he lingered in hostile Song lands, reluctant to abandon the siege of Erzhou. Hulagu, leaving a skeleton crew of ten thousand to guard the new frontier, had started home immediately, but he had the longer way to go.

In their absence, Arik-Boke marshaled the support of the more insular Mongol chiefs—those who were suspicious of Kublai’s interest in Chinese culture, and wary of expanding the empire as far as Egypt. He managed to summon a rump assembly in Karakorum and got himself elected Great Khan before either of his elder brothers could make it back home.

When word of his youngest brother’s coup reached Kublai, he convened his own assembly, made up of the clan chiefs who were with him, and had himself confirmed as Great Khan in his brother’s place. Neither assembly was entirely regular, not according to Mongol law. Arik-Boke had not given the full quota of clan chiefs time to assemble, and Kublai had called his assembly on non-Mongolian soil, which made it unofficial. But both brothers had simply followed the pattern Mongke had established at his own election: they had taken partial support as enough justification to seize the single title of Great Khan.13

And with their actions, the Mongol empire split apart.

Answering his wife’s plea to return lest the empire slip away from him, Kublai finally abandoned the Song conquest and headed back to Karakorum with his battle-hardened troops. For over two years, Arik-Boke fought against his brother’s advancing men. But Kublai was by far the more experienced soldier, and the better generals were on his side. On August 1, 1264, Arik-Boke finally agreed to surrender. Kublai spared his life (although he put most of Arik-Boke’s supporters that he could find to death).

He was now Great Khan, but still not without opposition.

Batu, loyal to his cousin Mongke, had died in 1255; his brother Berke now controlled the lands of the Golden Horde and rejected Kublai’s clan to be his overlord. In the lands east of the Oxus, Chagatai’s grandson Alghu—who had supported Arik-Boke’s khanship—seized the opportunity to declare his own independent rule over the Chagatai Khanate. And Hulagu, afraid that whoever he swore allegiance to might end up on the bottom of the heap when the fighting stopped, had withdrawn entirely.

Kublai still ruled in the east, but the Golden Horde khanship and the Chagatai Khanate would continue to claim their independence. Hulagu’s own conquests, growing apart from the other Mongol lands, would become the Il-khanate, a separate Mongol kingdom in the Middle East. The empire that had stretched from the Chinese coast to the Black Sea had fractured into quarters, and then broken entirely apart.


49.1 The Four Khanates


*See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 381–383.

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