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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 6, 2020

From Anatolia to Central China; from northern Korea to the eastern edge of Europe; from the forests of Siberia to the borders of India.  This was the empire of Grand Khan Mongke, perhaps the single most powerful monarch in history. No other king, sultan or emperor could compare to the sheer swath of humanity that Mongke ruled over, a man who reformed, centralized and expanded the empire even further. Yet, he was to be the last as uncontested Khan of the Empire, and on his death, the dream of Mongol unity was to be shattered. Today’s episode will present the reign of Mongke Khaan and his efforts to strengthen the Mongol Empire in the 1250s, while our following episodes will take us through the conquests launched and completed under his orders. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Mongke, as we covered in episode 21, came to the throne in what historians call “the Toluid Revolution.” On Chinggis Khan’s death back in 1227, it seemed the throne was to remain in the line of his third son, Ogedai. After the death of Ogedai’s son, Guyuk Khaan in 1248,  the next Khan was the son of Ogedai’s brother Tolui, supported by the descendants of Jochi. Mongke, the oldest son of Tolui and his wife Sorqaqtani Beki, was enthroned in 1251 in Mongolia. A failed attempt to oust Mongke resulted in a great purge against the line of Ogedai, seizing most of their territory. Several figures of the Chagatai lineage were killed and the Chagatai Khan replaced, while top officials were forced into a very bloody retirement. The new line of the Great Khans held the throne with the permanent animosity of many of the surviving Ogedaids and Chagatayids. But with the full support of the Toluids and the Jochids under Batu Khan, Mongke had the strength to keep everyone in line. A Toluid Khan without that support would find it very difficult to extend his authority westwards, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves…


Enthroned as the fourth Great Khan in summer 1251, Mongke immediately set out reorganizing government. Mongke came to the throne with a view of ‘getting things back on track,’ since the death of Ogedai. The empowerment of the ortoq merchants as tax collectors, the strengthening of regional Mongol princes at the expense of the central government and infighting was a distraction to the Empire’s true purpose: bringing everything under Heaven under Mongol rule. That this had not yet been accomplished was an embarrassment as far as Mongke was concerned. Everything Mongke did was for this goal, this destiny, and none would stand in his way. The house of Ogedai had shown resistance, and for this had been crushed. Though raised to the throne by the efforts of Batu and Sorqaqtani, Mongke was no puppet. Sorqaqtani died soon after her son became Khaan, and Batu and Mongke reached an agreement, wherein Batu was essentially viceroy of the west. Given great autonomy and little imperial interference in his affairs with the integrity of the Jochid realm confirmed, Batu, until his death in 1255, was a staunch supporter of the new Khaan.


Mongke presented himself as the ideal Mongol ruler in the mould of Chinggis Khan. With his brother closest in age, Kublai, the two had a proudly shared experience with their famous grandfather. On a hunting trip with the old Chinggis, the young boys had fat from the kill spread on their fingers by the Great Khan himself. Considering how many grandchildren Chinggis had in his final years, to be singled out in any manner was a proud thing. Mongke’s father Tolui was often on campaign, leaving Mongke to be raised under the auspices of Sorqaqtani. Alongside the necessary riding, hunting and warfare abilities ingrained into all Mongol children, Mongke and his brothers were also taught leadership skills, administration, how to read and write Mongolian and were introduced to foreign cultures. Mongke was groomed to be a ruler. Taking part in the great western campaign, Mongke made it as far as Kiev, and led in various theaters, battles and sieges, forging a reputation as a skilled general. By Guyuk’s death in 1248, Mongke was a well respected and leading figure among the third generation of Chinggisids. Intelligent, brave, and ambitious, he stepped into the mantle of leadership easily. Vengeful, domineering and merciless to those he deemed as standing in his way, he was a dangerous foe. 

Mongke’s reign from 1251 to the beginning of 1258 was largely focused on political and administrative needs in order to support large military campaigns across Asia. In contrast to the campaigns of his grandfather Chinggis, the conquests of the 1250s come across almost as an institutionalized form. For Chinggis Khan, government was somewhat of an accidental creation out of military-tribal structures and conquests: necessary, but minimal. For Mongke, the government served as a tool of organizing conquest, an arm of the Khan with which to pursue his will. Mongke’s control was not totalitarian by any modern sense, but it dominated the system in its most influential levels. Not constrained by any pesky constitutions or parliaments to pass laws through, Mongke wielded a level of power that perhaps no other figure in history could truly compare to.


To complete the conquest of the world, Mongke needed a stable and efficient government to take stock of the resources and materials necessary for expansion at an enormous scale.  For this project, Mongke had a fine group of men to fall upon. The top officials of the empire came from each Khan’s keshig, the imperial bodyguard. Part guard, part retinue, part administration, the men in Mongke’s keshig were a varied lot, a number of whom had served in the keshig of Tolui, and even Chinggis Khan. Intensely loyal, they had eaten, drank, lived and fought alongside one another for years. They had also prepared for the possibility of stepping into the lead roles of state. 


It’s no surprise than that Mongke’s #1 and #2 were both from his keshig. The first was Menggeser Qorchi, a Jalayir Mongol who was inquisitor, judge, and executor in Mongke’s purges. He served as chief judge of the empire, head of the imperial guard and head of the Central Secretariat; essentially, Mongke’s Chancellor, replacing the late Chinqai. #2 was Bulghai of the Kereyit, a Nestorian Christian in charge of the many, many scribes and chamberlains of the Central Secretariat and the capital. An entire third of Karakorum was set aside for them. A good many were translators. Every edict of the Great Khan was translated into the main languages of the empire- Mongolian, Uighur, Persian, Chinese, Tangut and Tibetan, in order for them to be distributed properly. Upon Menggeser’s death in 1253, Bulghai was promoted to his position as well. From Mongke’s keshig, the holes made by the destruction of Ogedaid officials were filled. In the words of historian Thomas Allsen, describing Mongke’s keshig: “These people, recruited from his own household staff, were the only individuals with whom Mongke ever willingly shared power.”


With the Central Secretariat in reliable hands, Mongke looked to the regional Secretariats. Here Mongke kept some continuity with Guyuk. Mahmud Yalavach was reinstated as the head of the Secretariat for North China, and his son Mas’ud Beg back to the Central Asian Secretariat. Under Guyuk, a Secretariat for Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia was created, headed by the Oirat Mongol Arghun Aqa, who Mongke confirmed in this position. Another secretariat was ordered for the Rus’ territory in 1257, headed by a man called Kitai.  All were competent enough and not too closely associated with the Ogedeids to have survived the purges. Mongke envisioned a return to the regular taxation system under the early years of Ogedai proposed by Yelu Chucai. The tax farming of ‘Abd al-Rahman could not do; not out of a sense of empathy to the civilian populations of Asia, but because it was terribly inefficient. Beggaring the taxbase in a single year reduced revenues for years to come, simply unacceptable when armies needed to be supported for long campaigns. Yalavach, Mas’ud Beg and Arghun Aqa were able bureaucrats associated with economic rebuilding and reliable taxation, rather than personal enrichment. But to tax efficiently, the government needed to know what resources and how many people lived in each region, to ensure the most efficient demands could be made.


For this end, Mongke ordered an empire wide census. This was not unusual: the Mongols had employed censuses for decades. Guyuk had made such an order shortly before his untimely demise. The new Khan did not just want a population count though. He wanted to know the resources of the empire, numbers and locations of skilled craftsmen, who could provide what and what could be mobilized. Knowing the local population, their economic status and quality of local resources allowed the government to set taxes at appropriate levels- and made it harder for government intermediaries to skim off the top, when the Central Secretariat had its own registers to compare to. At the same time, if the population was found to be too low or too poor to pay their current rate, it could be adjusted to fit the location. This also affected recruitment, allowing the government to allocate skilled craftsmen and engineers to each army as needed. 


The census moved relatively quickly given the scale of the operation: beginning in north China and Central Asia in late 1252, by 1259 Novgorod, the northernmost Rus’ principality and furthest outpost of the empire, was registered. After being surveyed, supplementary censuses were launched to catch the floating population or accommodate newly conquered territories, ensuring the Central Secretariat had reasonably up-to-date information for setting their demands. Registers were carried out by imperial agents alongside representatives of the regional Mongol prince and local rulers, for assistance and protection.  In Novgorod, the famed prince Alexander Nevsky had to provide military protection for the census takers against an agitated Rus’ populace. 


Under Mongke, three main categories of taxation existed, varying if the given population was nomadic, agricultural or urban. The first was the qubchir, a head tax. For nomads, 1 in every 100 head in a herd was paid in tax. Less than 100 animals, and no tax was paid. In most of the Muslim territories, this was imposed on all adult males and paid in silver dinars; in China, this was assessed on household, and could be paid in silver or precious goods like silk. For populations without coinage like the Rus’, furs and other valued commodities were accepted tender. Khalan was an agricultural tax, paid in kind in rural areas based on local tradition, while tamgha was basically a sales tax, collected in urban markets and customs stations. This tax was placed on services and products manufactured, including artisans, fisherman and prostitutes!

In general the Mongols encouraged payment in coinage, and local mints were established throughout Iran, the Caucasus and Central Asia to produce large volumes of coins. In 1253, they even began circulating paper money in China, each stamped with the seal of Mongke Khaan. No effort was made to collect unpaid taxes from before Mongke’s enthronement, setting everyone on a clean slate. Tax exemptions for clergy continued, but many who had gained exemption under Guyuk, such as a fair number of merchants, had their exemptions rescinded. Mongke was not going to disregard the merchants though; he paid the outstanding debts of Guyuk and the regents, despite the resistance of some top ministers, leading to the Persian writer Rashid al-Din to remark “in what history has it ever been read that a king paid another king’s debt?”


Also rescinded were numerous paizas and gerege, that is, the passports allowing an individual use of the yam system, the vast continental messenger stations. The gerege, depending on the material it was made from, granted an individual use of the horses and resources of a given station to allow them swift passage over the empire, changing horses and getting provisions at each station to continue at speed. Intended for members of the dynasty, envoys and messengers of the Khan, under Guyuk and the regents many a merchant had been given a gereg, and thus saw fit to travel the yam leisurely, enriching himself as he went. On Mongke’s order, all gerege were handed back to the Central Secretariat and redistributed on a more limited basis, greatly reducing the pressure on the local populations who supplied the resources for the stations. The yam itself was improved and routes set up by regional Khans were tied into the main imperial system. For these regional Mongol princes, new restrictions were forced on them, forbidding them to intervene on fiscal matters or set new taxes without approval from the Central Secretariat. These measures helped reduce the power of local forces who could compete with Mongke’s interests.


The rebuilding of devastated regions was ordered and destruction while on campaign was to be limited. How successful these initiatives were is hard to measure, but a few Mongol officers were punished for transgressions in these areas. Mongke placed agents who reported directly back to him across the Secretariats to keep him informed of such matters and enforce his will. This was not an innovation of government, but a domination of it. The Central Secretariat wielded greater authority than ever, supported by a highly energetic and motivated emperor. 


Mongke, certainly more than his predecessor, understood the value of image. Knowing that the movement from the line of Ogedai to Tolui brought shade upon his legitimacy, Mongke strived to portray himself as the very embodiment of the words and laws of Chinggis Khan. Guyuk, Torogene and Oghul Qaimish were portrayed in as negative a light as possible, while Mongke and his father Tolui were elevated. Posthumously, Tolui was promoted to Great Khan, a position he had never held in life. In 1252, Mongke established an official Cult of Chinggis Khan and his worship. An entire department of government was made responsible for dealing with sacrifices, shamans, fortune tellers and more, suggested by Thomas Allsen to have been the ‘managers’ of the Chinggis cult. We might say these propaganda efforts were successful: almost all of our written sources from the empire come from regions ruled by the Toluids, and as such Mongke seems ever the greater and his predecessors all the more inept. 


Per the suggestion of historian Christopher Atwood, the famed Secret History of the Mongols may have been a result of this program, written at a quriltai in 1252. As our only surviving Mongolian language history from the 13th century, the Secret History of the Mongols was a chronicle intended for the royal family, and is hugely influential on how we view the early Mongol empire. Further, it influenced several of the later histories we also rely upon. In the Secret History, several embarrassing stories are told of Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedai, and Guyuk, the last appearing as a peutlent, whiny brat. Tolui and Mongke are treated much more reverently in the Secret History, which has Chinggis Khan give allowance for another branch of the family to take over should the line of Ogedai prove incapable. A rather useful clause to suddenly uncover; one, we may note, not found in other sources.


In this vein, he also understood the importance of maintaining the Mongol policy of religious toleration. Mongke was quite effective at it, as there were both Christians and Muslims at the time convinced Mongke had converted to their religion. Mongol religious toleration was not the same as our modern liberal sense of toleration, but more in the sense it was literally tolerated, as long as the given religion did not oppose the Mongols. The Mongols generally wanted to ensure religious figures were on their side: their prayers, and those of their followers, were useful for ensuring divine favour for the Khaan. Having religious leaders and priests persuade and preach about how important it was to be a loyal subject of the Mongol Khaan also served as a useful means of maintaining order. Our previous episode briefly detailed the encounter of the European Franciscan Friar, William of Rubruck, with Mongke, and that probably best encapsulates Mongke’s own view on religion. Just as there are five fingers leading to the palm, Heaven had provided multiple means to the same end. To Mongke, no religion was more true than another, but all were equally useful for his goals. While Mongke’s armies would destroy the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, this was not done out of a need to spite Islam, but because the Caliph had failed to submit to the Khaan. As Mongke firmly believed Heaven had decreed the world to belong to the Chinggisids, resistance against the Chinggisids was therefore resistance against Heaven’s decree. Everything Mongke did was through this worldview and the belief in the eventuality of Mongol dominion.


With internal matters set and the resources of the empire being recorded, Mongke could plan for outward expansion- the topics of the next episodes in our series. In early summer 1252, a quriltai was held to plan for the subjugation of the rest of the world. It is this quriltai that Dr. Atwood suggests the Secret History was composed at, where Mongke made his plans for the future. His brothers were to lead armies both to the south and the west. 


To the south lay the Song Dynasty, controlling southern China. Warfare with the Song had begun in the 1230s, but progress was slow and the fighting inconclusive. Mongke’s brother Kuublai was granted much of north China under his princely jurisdiction, and then was to lead the opening move of the new round of warfare with the Song. Kublai was not to move directly against them, but against the smaller Kingdom of Dali, in what is now China’s Yunnan province. On the Song Dynasty’s southwesten border, the conquest of Dali would open a second front against the Song. In the west, their younger brother Hulegu was to lead a massive army against the remaining independent Muslim powers, first the Order of the Assassins, and then the Caliph in Baghdad. From there, presumably Hulegu would drive right to the Meditteranean. Both brothers set out in later 1253, and we will pick up with their campaigns in following episodes. Armies were also sent to complete the conquests of Tibet and Korea. By the mid 1250s, Tibet was mostly subjugated, though Korea was a bit more complicated. Our next episode will cover the Mongol-Korean wars from start to finish, and look at how this peninsula managed to prove such a thorn in Mongol efforts for decades.


Kublai was to be the prince overseeing most of China, and Hulegu most of the Muslim world west of the Chagatai Khanate. It was hardly a coincidence that Mongke’s two closest brothers were being situated to command two of the most valuable economic regions of the continent.  Mongke envisioned a sort of Toluid axis across Asia, keeping tight imperial control across distant regions through brotherly ties. But if they overstepped their bounds, Mongke was not above reproaching them. 


After Kublai completed the conquest of Dali by the early months of 1254, he returned to oversee matters in North China, promoting government reform and reconstruction efforts. Lil’ Kublai started to get a bit too big for his britches however. In 1256 Kublai began building a summer residence in what is now Inner Mongolia- in time it would be called Shangdu, the Xanadu of Marco Polo. It suspiciously looked a bit too much like a capital, though. Rumours of Kublai’s ambitions reached Mongke, and on pretexts of irregularities in Kublai’s revenue collection, Mongke sent investigators into his brother's domains. Administrative records were seized, Kublai’s officials harshly tortured and numerous infractions found. Some of Kublai’s officials were executed, others dismissed, extraordinary levies placed on his domains and Kublai himself saw his administrative power reduced. We are told Kublai had to be convinced out of a hasty retaliation by his advisers, and was not able to get Mongke’s forgiveness until the start of 1258.  While the Chinese sources depict it as an act of brotherly attachment, the two weeping in each others’ arms, the reality is that Mongke had need of Kublai again. The Khaan was about to launch an invasion of the Song Dynasty, and needed to secure loose ends. One such loose end was well suited to Kublai and his inclination to Chinese culture: a rather violent, ongoing conflict between Buddhists and Taoists in Northern China threatening to undermine local stability. Kublai was ordered to bring this matter to a close, which he largely accomplished at a famous debate between leading members of both creeds in later 1258. The Buddhists had the better of the debate, no doubt aided by Kublai’s own Buddhist leanings and support of his ardent Buddhist wife, Chabi. The result was an end to the ascendency of the Taoists, begun, somewhat accidentally, by Chinggis Khan and his support of the Taoist Master Qiu Chuji back in the 1220s. Taoist texts deemed forgeries were destroyed, they were forced to return occupied Buddhist temples and other privileges were lost. In turn, Buddhism saw an ascendence in influence among the Mongols, not for the last time.


Mongke also needed Kublai to lead one of the armies in the multi-pronged assault on the Song, in what was to be a massive operation. Planning for the Song campaign was thorough, intending to completely overwhelm the Dynasty from multiple points. The census efforts came to full fruition: Mongke had an enormous, well prepared army drawn from across Asia. Contingents from as far west as the Alans of the Northern Caucasus were mobilized for this assault. Setting out in 1258, nothing would quite go as expected, putting true the old adage that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. One area Mongke’s foresight proved remarkably poor was his failure to nominate an heir to succeed him. Not that we’re foreshadowing anything in that regard… But, we’ll return to Mongke’s war with the Song in a few episodes time. Prior to that, we will be exploring the other campaigns launched during his reign, first in Korea and then his brother Hulegu’s western campaign, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one