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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 20, 2020

The crowd that had assembled was mighty. The princes, sons, and generals from across the Mongol Empire had collected on the Kerulen [Хэрлэн] river in September 1229 to elect Ogedai, third son of Chinggis Khan, as Khan of Khans. From the line of  Ogedai’s late brother Jochi, his sons Orda, Batu, Berke and more made the journey from the Qipchaq steppe; Ogedai’s two surviving full brothers and their children, Chagatai and Tolui (to-loo-i), stood present, as were the only living siblings of Chinggis Khan, his brother Temuge and half-brother Belgutei (bell-gu-tai). It was a huge gathering, perhaps the final meeting of many members of the old guard: the last of those who had fought alongside Temujin to unify the Mongols now watched as the reins of power were handed to the next generation. I am your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest podcast: The Mongol Invasions!


    Chinggis Khan had died in August 1227. Two years had been needed for the appropriate funeral arrangements, for the various princes to return to Mongolia and preparations for the coronation. Tolui had been appointed regent of the empire during those two years, and despite some later rumours, there can have been little doubt as to the decision. Chinggis Khan himself had decreed Ogedai to succeed him, and there could be no serious thought of challenging his will. To quote the Persian writer Juvaini, writing in the 1250s, Chinggis Khan spoke thus: 


If it is your wish to pass your lives in ease and luxury and to enjoy the fruits of sovereignty and wealth, my advice, as I have lately given you to understand, is that Ogedai should ascend the throne of the Khanate in my place because he stands out amongst you for the excellency of his firm counsel and the superiority of his perspicacious understanding; and that the government of the army and the people and the defence of the frontiers of the Empire should be executed by his auspicious advice and good counsel. I therefore make him my heir and place the keys of the Empire in the hands of his valour and ability.”


To which his sons are said to have replied after kneeling before him, 


    Who hath the power to oppose the words of Chinggis Khan and who the ability to reject it?”


    Removing their hats and belts as signs of submission, Chagatai took Ogedai’s right hand, Temuge his left, and hoisted him onto the throne while Tolui passed a cup to Ogedai, symbolically showing the three main alternatives supporting him. Then, all in attendance kneeled three time before Ogedai, saying “May the Kingdom prosper by his being Khan!”, then exited the grand tent, knelt to the sun three times, and returned into the tent to drink and cheer: Ogedai was now ruler of the Mongol Empire, taking not his father’s title of Khan, but the older Turkic title Khakhan, “Khan of Khans,” often transliterated as Khan written with two ‘a’s.


    So, who was Ogedai? Born in 1186, the third son of Chinggis Khan and Borte,  Ogedai was 43 years old when he became Khaan. Not as skilled a military commander as his brothers, Ogedai instead had a reputation as generous, easy-going and incredibly fond of alcohol. Unlike his surviving brothers, who could be unyielding like iron, Ogedai was one to compromise and seek solutions- and therefore stabilize the empire his father had created. It was Ogedai who famously constructed the imperial capital of Karakorum in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. Early on in his reign, Ogedai took to administration with vigour, not just streamlining but in many respects creating an actual bureaucracy and tax system for the empire. Compared to Chagatai, Ogedai was rather positively portrayed by Muslim historians of the period, who shared numerous anecdotes, although many of questionable verocity, of Ogedai intervening to save the lives of Muslims about to be executed for transgressing a law of Chinggis Khan, such as washing in a river. Of course, this is not to say Ogedai was a man of peace. As we will see in the coming episodes, the conquests continued rapidly on his orders: crushing the Jurchen Jin and remnants of Khwarezm, as well as driving into Europe in the 1240s. Ogedai could also fly into horrific rages and order slaughter and sacrifice: from sending 40 virgins to join Chinggis Khan in the next world, to a terrible rape of the women of the Oirat tribe to continued destruction in China, Ogedai could order the deaths of thousands just as easily as his father. Later in his reign, Ogedai found increasing solace in alcohol and withdrew from government, leading to his sudden demise in December 1241. 


    But in 1229, Ogedai was an energetic and ambitious monarch, one eager to prove himself a worthy successor to his father’s enormous legacy. Ogedai needed to not just consolidate an empire, but set out finding long term methods to rule one as well, rather than the temporary garrison occupation it had been to that point. Civilian administration had been completely subordinate to military rule. The general in the theater who held the highest office, such as Mukhali in north China from 1218-1223, had also acted as governor general. Being engaged in ongoing conquest at the same time meant that civil matters were secondary, and the population was subject to the whims of whatever local power had survived the Mongol onslaught, or been appointed to govern them. This often ended up an appointed general concerned with how to best mobilize their resources for the Mongol war effort or to enrich himself. Furthermore, Chinggis Khan had never established a system of regular taxation. Taxes were collected in kind, that is, in whatever goods the Mongols felt they needed for the war effort, be they animals, weapons, iron implements to be turned into weapons or food stuffs. There was no regular interval for this, nor a set level of assessment. Mongol parties came and took what they needed, when they needed it, and the local populations were thus exploited, suffering depredations well beyond their initial subjugation.

    Upon taking the throne, Ogedai had several issues to deal with, such as the matter of how to accommodate the large sedentary populations of north China and Transoxania while completing the conquest of the Jin Dynasty and Khwarezmian Empire. The Jin were now based behind the great defensive line of the Yellow River, with new generals leading a valiant defensive effort, while in western Iran the son of Khwarezm-shah Muhammad II, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, had reappeared after years in India, making claim to restore his father’s empire. Challenged from these fronts, on his ascension to Khaan in late 1229 Ogedai held a council to decide the courses of action to take.


    Some choices were obvious: new military forces needed to be raised to crush these opponents. Chormaqun Chor-mah-hun) Noyan, a member of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, was given a large force to destroy Jalal al-Din and subdue Iran. We will look at his campaign later in this series. In China, the Jin Dynasty, though reduced, was not yet broken, and had even reclaimed some territory in the years during the Khan’s absence. A final Mongol invasion of the Jin would be forthwith, though difficult, as their remaining territory was well fortified by the Yellow River guarding the north, and the great fort of Tongguan protecting the western approaches. The Chinese Song Dynasty bordered the Jin to the south, and while no friend to the Jin, they remained neutral in the war. Careful planning was needed, and we will explore Mongol strategy in the final war against the Jin  in our next episode. 


    The other question raised at this council was what to do with the sedentary populations, especially in occupied north China. For some Mongols, the solution was simple: an extreme faction led by a general Bedger (bed-ger) suggested the total annihilation of the northern Chinese, turning the now empty land into pasture for their horses. For some at the meeting, this was beyond the pale. One such was the scholar, Yelu Chucai. Chucai, you will remember, was a Khitan, a semi-nomadic people related to the Mongols who had once ruled China before the establishment of the Jurchen Jin Empire; though adopting aspects of Chinese culture in the following centuries, they retained their identity and many had risen up against the Jin with Chinggis Khan’s invasion. Yelu Chucai entered the Khan’s service in 1218. Having lived through the terrible siege of Zhongdu, he spent three years learning Buddhism before being called into Mongol service. His height - well over 6 feet, or 182 centimetres tall- deep voice and long beard down to his waist instantly caught the attention of the Mongols, as did his promulgations of loyalty, a trait Chinggis Khan always valued. Yelu Chucai accompanied Chinggis Khan west into Khwarezm, where he served as a court astrologer, scribe and advisor, building a network of contacts and a respected reputation among the Mongols, as well as a keen understanding of how the Chinggisids viewed the world. A great humanitarian, Yelu Chucai could not allow Ogedai to approve this genocide, and vehemently argued against it. His suggestion was to instead begin a system of regular taxation. Chucai knew that appealing to the Mongols’ sense of empathy would be fruitless, so essentially argued this simple tenant: kill everyone, and you’ll only gain their wealth once, but tax them every year, and long term you’ll make more revenue at less danger to yourself.


    Ogedai was intrigued, and allowed Yelu Chucai to try out his strategy as part of the newly created Branch Secretariat for China. At the same time, a similar Branch Secretariat was established for the Islamic lands the Mongols controlled, headed by Mahmud Yalavach, a Turkic merchant who had been a part of the embassy to Muhammad Khwarezm-shah in 1218. Yalavach likewise instituted tax reforms and rebuilding, and Ogedai was  immediately pleased by the results. What Yalavach and Chucai did in both Secretariats was basically set up systems of regular, categorized taxations, though each with regional differences based on local tradition. 


In his Secretariat, Yalavach’s taxes were on every adult male, as per Islamic tradition, while in time Chucai’s would align with the Chinese model of taxation based on the household, with different rates for urban and rural peoples. Streamlining taxation and reducing the numbers of minor officials and princes collecting taxes at whim meant that the revenues coming to the Mongol court increased significantly. Ogedai allowed Chucai further power for more reforms, and by 1231 Yelu Chucai was responsible for the administration of North China. Former officials of the Jin Dynasty were rescued to aid Chucai’s burgeoning bureaucracy, rebuilding efforts were launched, the power of monasteries were curtailed and fiscal obligations forced onto monks conducting business. Chucai had further ambitions, such as continued refinement of his tax system and hoping to reduce the power of regional princes to strengthen the central government. Long term, his intention was a return to his idealized, Confucian style of Chinese governance. You could almost say he looked to rescue the Chinese from Mongol rapaciousness, allowing northern China a chance to heal from the ravages of the Mongol-Jin wars. Chucai even managed to convince Ogedai to allow a census to be undertaken, something Chucai later came to regret, as we will discuss in future. 


    Much of Ogedai’s early reign was caught up with continued war with the Jin Dynasty, subject of our next episode but completed by 1234. Mongol victory there had been a long time coming, but Ogedai needed to continue his father’s work should he wish to step out from under his shadow. In 1235,  preparations began to be made for the Great Western Invasion. As you may recall, during the expedition of Jebe and Subutai, they had fought Rus’, Cuman-Qipchaqs and Volga Bulghars, all peoples who now needed to be brought under Mongol rule. By this time, the Mongols were increasingly supporting the belief in their united destiny to rule the world. Those who rebuffed initial Mongol demands for submission, or worse, fought and even defeated Mongol armies were an affront to the obvious will of Heaven. The Song Dynasty had made an unfortunate effort to claim, by force, the territory of the fallen Jin Dynasty, and now the south of China too fell prey to Mongol designs. 


    The scope of Ogedai’s empire was increasing dramatically year-by-year. Don’t worry, though, we’ll cover these regionally rather than overburden a single episode. Ogedai made adjustments to suit this expansion. One such was the expansion of the yam system, essentially a relay system to quickly transport messages across the empire. It was similar to the American Pony Express, except the Mongol system actually lasted longer than 18 months. During Chinggis’ reign, the yam  was confined to Mongolia, but Ogedai oversaw its extension into north China, the former Qara-Khitai and occupied Khwarezmian territories, tying these far flung corners to the central administration. The yam was made up of relay stations which a messenger could reach on a day's ride, quickly acquiring a new horse and provisions and continuing onwards to the next station. As Ogedai, much like his father, was concerned with encouraging trade he allowed merchants to utilize the system. To determine who could use what at each station, travellers were assigned with a gereg, known also as paiza, essentially a passport. The material the passport was made of -wood, iron, silver or gold- determined what provisions the carrier could access at each station, and allow them unimpeded or protected movement across this empire. Not that this system was without any issues, as it was the responsibility of local communities to provide provisions and animals for their nearest yam station, leaving them exposed to exploitation of merchants or commanders lining their own pockets.


To further facilitate these trade routes, Ogedai also ordered the construction of protected wells, security patrols, improved roads and bridges, all in order to encourage merchants to make the trip in Mongolia.  But Ogedai knew that merchants would need a definite location to carry their wares too, as well as a place for diplomatic envoys to always find the Khan’s representative: the extensive march of Qiu Chuji from northern China to Afghanistan to find Chinggis Khan was too inefficient to repeat. Partly for this purpose, in 1235 Ogedai ordered the construction of his most famous project: Karakorum, an actual capital city for the Mongol Empire. Once again, this may have been Ogedai expanding upon another of his father’s ideas, though the specifics are somewhat murky. 


Chinggis Khan seems to have had a semi-permanent, but poorly understood, base at Avarga along the Kherlen River, in northeastern Mongolia where he spent so much of his life. Archaeologically, little remains of Avarga, perhaps being little more than a location to store loot and house envoys, or hostages, from the sedentary world. Two large mounds have been discovered there, and it has been speculated that each mound held a palace, one built for Chinggis and the other by Ogedai, though they were likely unimpressive structures surrounded by Mongolian gers rather than walls. More interestingly is that for decades, the site continued to serve as a cultural and religious destination, and thousands of burned animals bones have been found there, indicating large and ongoing sacrifices. Perhaps rather than palaces, it has been speculated that the  mounds were temples, and as the site had been associated with Chinggis it became a holy memorial to him. 


Chinggis Khan may have not been totally averse to the notion of a capital then, though he may have seen them more useful as places to store treasures too inconvenient to carry with him. BUT, there is some evidence he actually chose the site of Karakorum and wanted to build a capital there: late Yuan Dynasty transcriptions and the Yuanshih, ‘History of the Yuan Dynasty,’ from 1370, assert Chinggis founded Karakorum in 1220. This is unlikely, as we know Chinggis spent all of 1220 campaigning in the Khwarezmian Empire. He did, however, pass through the Orkhon Valley, where Karakorum would later be built, on his way to invade Khwarezm in 1219. Entering the valley, Chinggis would have noted much to find attractive. Rich in water and grass, vital to maintaining the Mongols’ valuable animal herds, it’s central location in Mongolia also placed it in easier reach of merchants and envoys while still a safe distance from any sedentary foe. Further, it was a region of cultural and imperial significance to nomads, as the Orkhon Valley was associated with the capitals of earlier steppe empires and confederations , such as the Uighur Empire, whose capital of Qarabalaghun (Kh-ara-bal-a-ghun) had been built there. Qarabalghasun’s (Kh-ara-bal-gha-sun’s) ruins, or Ordu Baliq, are only 30 kilometres north of where Karakorum was built. It’s also the home of the famed Orkhon Inscriptions of the Turkic Khaganates. For an ever growing Mongol imperial identity as the masters of the steppes, it was a powerful political connection to lean on. 


While Chinggis Khan may have designated the site of Karakorum to serve as the great capital of his empire, as we have shown in our previous episodes, he spent the remainder of his life on campaign or preparing for campaign. It’s doubtful any construction was undertaken on his orders. While Ogedai may have built on a site chosen by his father, what he built was entirely his own, and served as the administrative centre of much of Eurasia for the next 30 years. 


Karakorum was not a huge city even by medieval standards- travellers to the city in the 1250s found a population of around 10,000 people. Separated into four quarters and surrounded by a low wall, Karakorum was an amazingly diverse city. Mosques, Christian churches, Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist temples stood across the street from each other. Markets were constructed for merchants travelling from across the Muslim world, while Chinese craftsmen built the imperial palace and later, captured artisans from Europe were brought back to further decorate it, most famously in the form of a silver tree with four spouts to pour various alcoholic drinks from. With its own mint for coinage, gold and silversmiths alongside blacksmiths and other craftsmen, it served as a major production centre. The major streets were paved with limestone, lined with wood to prevent displacement during the freezing and thawing cycles, and all atop gravel to aid in water drainage. A canal was even dug to bring water into the city and drive the water wheels of the smiths.


Many scribes and members of the bureaucracy could be found there, taking in messages sent from across the empire via the yam system and passing on instructions back. Numerous storehouses were built to house captured goods and tribute sent by subservient peoples, and it was to Ogedai’s delight to showcase his generosity by using this loot to overpay merchants several times what their goods were worth. This served as an effective means to encourage merchants to actually make the journey to Karakorum, which in contrast to a nomadic camp, featured amenities to keep visitors occupied and entertained. Limited agriculture was undertaken around the city, with evidence for wheat and barley, and one account mentions a proud farmer presenting his locally grown radishes to Ogedai. The city was not self-sufficient however, and at its height required hundreds of cartloads of food to be shipped to the city daily in order to feed it, something which came to be a major strategic weakness later in the century. 


The Great Khan essentially used Karakorum as his office, and the city likely had few actual Mongols within it at any given time. Rather than actually residing in Karakorum’s palace, Ogedai and his successors continued to nomadize around the capitol, venturing within it sparingly as business or ritual commanded. Ogedai himself preferred another palace he had built in Mongolia, the Wanangong, or Palace of Eternal Peace. Having a fixed location to send diplomats and treasure was to the benefit of the empire, while also helping to rebuild the overland trade routes damaged in the initial Mongol expansion. Neither was it the only city in Mongolia at the time, though it was certainly the largest. There was also Chinqai Balasagun, meaning ‘Chinqai’s city,’ named for the able minister Chinqai, a former Onggut merchant who served as Ogedai’s chancellor. Built by thousands of captured Chinese, it was intended as a logistics base in western Mongolia to prepare for the great invasion of Khwarezm but had turned into a major farming and production centre, manufacturing goods and weapons for Mongol armies.


    Ogedai’s early reign was marked by activity. New conquests were launched across Eurasia, an extensive new administration was created and a capital city built.  Perhaps initially uncertain of how fit he was for the position, Ogedai was eager to prove himself a worthy successor to his awe-inspiring and terrifying father.  The expansion of the Mongol Empire only continued under Ogedai, and his armies seemed unstoppable. Chinggis Khan bequeathed him a mighty army, but Ogedai built a political system to back it up. A number of historians for this reason consider him to be the true founder of the Mongol Empire. But the zeal was soon burned out of Ogedai, and by 1237 he essentially removed himself from most affairs of state. 


With access to most of the alcohol of Eurasia, Ogedai busied himself by sampling as much as he could. His final years were swallowed up by constant drunkenness and without his forceful presence, corruption set in. His second wife, Toregene Khatun, began exercising her own authority, pushing to the edge reform minded figures such as Yelu Chucai and Mahmud Yalavach. This later period of Ogedai’s rule and his weaknesses will be investigated in an upcoming episode, but our next episodes will detail the continued conquests by the Mongol armies on Ogedai’s orders, beginning with the final destruction of the Jurchen Jin Empire. This will carry us onto the invasion of Europe, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at and if you want to help us continue to grow our audience, be sure to leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts! Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!