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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 21, 2020

As Kublai Khan and Ariq Boke fought for the Grand Khanate in the east, in the western half of the Mongol Empire another dramatic war broke out. This was the Berke-Hulegu war, the concurrent civil war which permanently fragmented Mongol unity. Though influenced by the war for the throne, the battles between Berke and Hulegu emerged from long simmering tensions, brought violently to the surface with the absence of a central imperial authority, and set the stage for an antagonism which defined the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate for the next sixty years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of  Conquest.


To understand the conflict which broke out in 1262, we must step back to the mid 1220s. Around 1225 or 1227, Jochi, the eldest son of Chinggis Khan and Borte, died. Though there had been tension between Jochi and his father, Chinggis did not extend this to Jochi’s many, many children. In fact, they continued to hold suzerainty over the ever-growing Mongol dominated western Eurasian steppe, led by Jochi’s two oldest sons, Orda and Batu. While Orda was the older, Batu was the more ambitious, maneuvering himself into leadership of the Jochid lineage. By the start of the great western campaign in 1235, Batu held not just a preeminent place on the campaign, but in the Chinggisid hierarchy. Only Ogedai Khan and Chagatai, Chinggis’ two surviving sons with Borte, ranked higher. Batu led Mongol armies to seize the remainder of the western steppe, the Rus’ principalities and into Hungary. When he departed from Hungary in 1242, Batu’s influence grew with the deaths of Ogedai and Chagatai, leaving Batu as the aqa, the senior prince of the family. Insteading of returning to Mongolia or his Jochi’s ordu along the Irtysh River, Batu set up on the rich grasslands of the lower Volga, where he built a capital, Sarai. As we have covered in previous episodes, Batu butted heads with Ogedai’s successors, the regent Torogene and her son Guyuk, before finally taking a lead role in the election of Mongke Khan in the 1250s. Outside of political machinations, Batu strengthened the Jochid ulus. He oversaw the rebuilding of overland trade routes and cities, established administrative ties to the Rus’ cities and sought to enforce Jochid hegemony over the Caucasus, Anatolia, Mazandaran, Khurasan and Khwarezm. In the initial dispensation of lands, Chinggis Khan had granted Jochi and his heirs everything as far west as the hooves of their horses would carry them, something Batu took very seriously.


Mongke Khaan largely confirmed these holdings, and Batu was essentially the Grand Khan’s viceroy of western Eurasia. Though immensely powerful, Batu still had to accept Mongke’s tax collectors, census takers and provide troops when demanded, as he did when Hulegu set out on his campaign against the Ismaili Assassins and Baghdad. By the time of his death in early 1256, Batu created a fine foundation for his successors. So influential was his reign that the citizens of his realm remembered him as Sain Khan, the “good Khan.” 


We should briefly touch on a somewhat confusing matter. You will recall we mentioned Batu’s older brother Orda. See, Orda, as with the rest of Jochi’s children, got his own territory, with Orda’s number 2 only to Batu’s. Orda and his descendants ruled over the steppe east of the Ural River, the left wing of the Jochid ulus bordering on the Chagatayid ulus and towards Mongolia. This was called the Blue Horde… or maybe the White Horde. See, Persian and Rus’ sources give conflicting descriptions: that Orda ruled the Blue Horde and Batu the White, or Orda ruled the White Horde, and Batu the Blue. Further confusion comes from a tendency to refer to the section ruled by the Batu as the Golden Horde. For our purposes, we’ll assume Orda ruled the Blue Horde, for that also corresponds with the Turko-Mongolian colour designations for the directions; Blue for east, White for west, and yellow or gold for the centre. Black by the way, is the colour for the north, and red for the south. The specific relationship of the Blue Horde to Batu’s territory is unclear. Was it fully independent, as the Chagatayid ulus was? Was it subject to the line of Batu? Or was Batu and his descendants, the “Jochid Khans,” merely first among equals within the lines of Jochi’s children? The answer is unfortunately vague, and shifts depending on the specific period we’re talking about. 


On Batu’s death in 1256, it seems he had a clear successor in the form of his son, Sartaq. A Nestorian Christian and firm ally of the Grand Khan, Sartaq was duly confirmed by Mongke in Karakorum and returned to the Jochid ulus. Sartaq was a more pleasing choice to Mongke than Batu’s brother Berke. Berke, the third son of Jochi, was ambitious, overbearing, and something of a black sheep, for he was an early convert to Islam. Precisely how and when Berke converted is contradicted in the sources. He was Muslim at least by 1250, and some sources state he had been since his youth. At the time, it was very uncommon- few Chinggisids, especially of the third generation, converted. It’s possible Berke did it to make his rule more acceptable to Muslims across the Jochid ulus, but it may have been genuine devotion. Jean Richard has argued that Berke’s mother was a captured daughter of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah, thus making it possible Berke was raised a Muslim, though the evidence for his mother’s identity is not conclusive.


In most nomadic steppe societies, succession was not restricted to sons, but could go brother to brother, and it seems Berke wanted it to do just that. Sartaq’s reign was cut suddenly short before the year was even out. Armenian sources directly accuse Berke of poisoning Sartaq, and frankly it’s pretty likely. In 1257 Mongke placed Ulagchi, a young boy who was either Sartaq’s son or brother, onto the Jochid throne, with Batu’s widow Boraqchin as regent. Late in 1257 or 1258, with Mongke occupied with the beginning of his campaign on the Song Dynasty, Berke made his move. Ulagchi suddenly “disappeared,” Boraqchin was accused of treason and executed, and Berke stepped up to become the Jochid Khan. By the time he learned of this, Mongke was deep into Song territory, and could do little but turn to the west and shake his fist in frustration.


Though Mongke spent the rest of his life distracted by fortresses in Sichuan, Berke had a more immediate Toluid presence to deal with; Hulegu and his massive army rolling over the Islamic world. Hulegu, as you’ll recall, spent February 1258 sacking Baghdad and killing the Caliph, the oft-cited great psychological blow to Islam. Sometimes, you’ll see it said that Berke, as a good Muslim, took it upon himself to wave the black banner of jihad against Hulegu. Some statements from the medieval sources support this interpretation, but frankly it does not reflect Berke’s immediate actions. Baghdad was sacked early in 1258; Hulegu and Berke were not at war until 1262. At the outset of his reign, Berke had no apparent goal to unravel the Mongol Empire- in fact, his interests seemed more so securing his own power on the Jochid throne, and maintaining Jochid claims from Anatolia, the Transcaucasus across Iran and into Khurasan. 


Before his death, Batu supplied soldiers for Hulegu’s expedition; perhaps three tumens under his relatives Quli, Balaghai and Tutar. Over the march through Khurasan and Iran, the three Jochid princes had sought to reaffirm Jochid privileges at various cities on the route. Some of these, such as the Kartid dynasty in Herat, went to Hulegu, asking him to intercede between them and the Jochid princes. Hulegu sided with the local dynasties as a means to encourage them to send the tribute to him instead. Further, the Jochid princes and Hulegu argued over the conduct of the campaign itself. Local commanders affiliated with the Jochids, such as Baiju in Azerbaijan, were bossed around and ordered out of territory they had garrisoned for over two decades. After sacking Baghdad, Hulegu chose not to send the loot allocated for Berke, another thorn in the side, if the city’s destruction wasn’t already enough of an affront to Berke’s religious sensibilities. 


Both Hulegu and Berke learned of Mongke’s death early in 1260. Notably, there was no immediate outbreak of hostilities. Though tensions were mounting, the cause for war can be found in events over 1260 and 1261. In an era of massive princely egos, it must be noted from the state that Berke and Hulegu did not like each other. Back in 1251, Batu had sent his brother Berke to Karakorum for Mongke’s enthronement. Berke was in attendance on Mongke, and in this position sent constant demands to Hulegu to carry out Mongke’s whims for the coronation. As the senior prince, Berke thought he could boss Hulegu around; Hulegu found Berke burdensome and overbearing.  During his campaign against the Assassins and Baghdad, Batu and Berke’s representative princes -the aforementioned Quli, Balaghai and Tutar- had continued to berate Hulegu, challenging him and seeking to exert Jochid privileges across the region. Given a limited military command by Mongke, Hulegu had no authority to punish members of the royal family. But upon learning of Mongke’s death, Hulegu saw a chance to take out his frustrations. The sources differ on the why, when and how, but the result is the same. Quli, Balaghai and Tutar were all dead before the end of 1261. At least two of them were accused of sorcery- a serious condemnation for the Mongols- and Hulegu asked Berke if he could punish them for it. Expecting perhaps a slap on the wrist, Berke had given Hulegu permission to punish them- and was angered to find Hulegu went ahead and executed his kinsmen. 


Hulegu did not stop there.With the immobilization of the central government due to Kublai and Ariq Boke’s fighting, Hulegu sought to strengthen his hand in the area west of the Amu Darya. We’ve mentioned repeatedly how the Jochids had claims on territory in Anatolia, the Caucasus, northern Iran and Khurasan. These consisted of cities and regions taken by members of Jochi’s lineage in past conquests, which then owed yearly tribute to the Jochids.  Many of these were prime estates, especially the fine pastures and trade cities of Azerbaijan, the plains of Arran and Mughan. When Mongke was alive, Hulegu had already bossed around Jochid representatives in these areas, most notably Baiju and his tamma forces in Azerbaijan. With Mongke dead, Hulegu seized these regions for himself, incorporating them into a new ulus ruled by him. Berke was aghast; this Toluid upstart was taking his lands, solely without the Khan’s authority! Combined with the murder of the Jochids princes, Hulegu was acting aggressively. The Jochid troops under Hulegu’s command were given leave by Berke to flee. Some made it back to the Jochid ulus and a major contingent fled under their commander, Neguder, to what is now Afghanistan.


Enraged by Hulegu’s occupation of territory that belonged to the house of Jochi, the execution of Jochid princes, harassment of Jochid merchants, officers, and representatives in Iran, Berke decided it was time to pay Hulegu back with more than just words. With Kublai and Ariq locked in conflict, there was no one to mediate between them. Early in 1262, Berke began mobilizing his troops to seize Jochid claims in Azerbaijan by force. Setting out in spring of 1262, Berke marched south with some 30,000 men, alongside his commander-in-chief, friend and grand-nephew, Nogai. Nogai was a Muslim, and perhaps had converted at similar time to Berke. The appointment of Nogai was hardly coincidental, for he was also the son of Tutar, one of the Jochid princes executed by Hulegu. For Nogai, this was to be a deeply personal conflict.


Early in summer 1262, Berke and Nogai took the great fortress of Derbent, guarding one of the primary passes through the Caucasus mountains and encamping outside of Shirvan.  Hulegu’s response was quick, though he had not anticipated the attack. He sent word to his dispersed forces, rapidly mobilizing and setting out with his main army in August, while multiple smaller armies, consisting of Mongol garrisons from Anatolia to western Iran, followed. Berke responded quickly, splitting his force between himself and Nogai to meet the oncoming enemy. In the pastures of Azerbaijan Berke defeated Hulegu’s vanguard in mid-October, but Nogai was forced to retreat in another engagement. Learning of Nogai’s flight, Hulegu pressed the advance and in late November met Berke’s reconstituted army outside Shemakhi, and forced the Jochids to withdraw.


In the first days of December 1262 Berke and Nogai sped past Derbent, leaving a token garrison there in an effort to slow Hulegu down. The fortress fell by December 7th.  On the 15th, Nogai took part of the army to try and slow down Hulegu’s vanguard, commanded by his son Abaqa. Nogai was defeated and continued to flee, now in the lowlands north of the Caucasus and at the edge of the Volga steppe. The more experienced commanders in Abaqa’s force, Shiremun Noyan and Abatai, told prince Abaqa it was time to return to Hulegu and the main army, fearing they would be drawn into a feigned retreat. The haughty Abaqa dismissed their concerns and instead ordered reinforcements from his father, then followed the Jochids’ trail. After several days, by 10 January 1263 they came across the camp of Berke’s army on the north bank of the frozen Terek River, where tents, herds, treasures and families were abandoned and Berke’s army was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, in their cowardice they had disappeared deep into the steppe. Abaqa rewarded his men with three days of drinking and celebrating on Berke’s captured goods, “reveling and carousing with lovely girls” Rashid al-Din says euphemistically.


 On the 13th of January 1263, Berke and Nogai returned. They had allowed Abaqa’s men three days to get drunk and drop their guard, and when the Jochids returned it was a massacre. Abaqa ordered a retreat and his bewildered, panic stricken army sped across the frozen Terek river. The weight of the fleeing men and horses proved too much. The ice broke and the cold waters swallowed up men and horses. Abaqa, with his tail between his legs, returned to Hulegu with what was left of force. Hulegu led an orderly withdrawal from the frontier, and Berke retook Derbent, and for a time the cousins were at a stalemate. According to the contemporary Mamluk author ibn Wasil,  Berke surveyed the carnage and cursed Hulegu, stating “Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world.”


Sometime in late 1262, Berke received a surprising letter; from Baybars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. News of hostilities between Berke and Hulegu had filtered down to Baybars over 1262, with greater detail coming in that November when 200 Mongol refugees, survivors from Hulegu’s attack on the Jochids in his army, came to Cairo seeking shelter. They had been unable to return north due to the outbreak of war. Now properly illuminated on Berke’s conversion to Islam, the cunning Baybars stumbled across an idea. Though his forces won at Ayn Jalut in September 1260, he doubted he had the strength to withstand a full Mongol invasion. Without a large army, Baybars had to win every battle- Hulegu only needed to win one, and he would overwhelm the newly established, and still quite fragile, Mamluk Sultanate. Without any local allies to provide reinforcements, Baybars needed to look further afield for assistance. The Jochid antagonism with Hulegu would do the trick, the enemy of my enemy being my friend and all that. Sometime late in 1262 Baybars sent a message to Berke, playing on the co-religiosity of the two men, encouraging Berke to adhere to the jihad against the non-Muslim Hulegu, even if Hulegu was Berke’s cousin. Another embassy was sent by Baybars in the winter of 1262, again encouraging Berke to battle Hulegu, and telling him that the 200 Mongol refugees were being well treated in Cairo. It spoke of the strength of the Mamluk Sultanate, but expressed admiration and affection for Berke. Berke was delighted, and organized a prompt response


Berke’s response was encouraging. Hulegu, the letter states, had broken the yassa of Chinggis Khan, -likely reffering to the murder of the Jochid princes, the seizure of Jochid territories and refusal to send tribute to Berke. Berke reaffirmed his conversion to Islam, and his willingness to take vengeance for the death of the Caliph in Baghdad. So began the Jochid-Mamluk alliance against Hulegu. For the first time the Chinggisids had shown willingness to ally with a non-Mongolian, independent power against fellow Mongols. While the alliance would never result in tangible military cooperation between them, it did mean that Hulegu and his heirs were stuck between two antagonistic powers on their north and south; leaving one border alone too long would allow either the Jochids or Mamluks to attack.  Our understanding of this alliance comes largely from Mamluk authors, who sought to stress what good Muslims their allies were. It is difficult to gauge how Berke and his successors saw it, and it has been argued that to Berke it was not cooperation between equals, but the submission of the Mamluk Sultanate to the house of Jochi. Since the Mamluk elite were largely Qipchaps, who made up much of the population of the Jochid territory, it was only natural that they bowed to the Chinggisids- the right Chinggisids, that is. Despite his willingness to combat Hulegu, Berke had not forgotten the purpose of the empire; if the quote by ibn Wasil has any basis in fact, Berke may have rued this distraction from the continued subjugation of the world. A diplomatic submission of the Mamluks was as good as conquering them, as far as Berke was concerned.


The war between Hulegu and Berke was quieter over 1263 and 1264. Nogai made threatening moves from Derbend, while Hulegu stayed in Maragha, now his capital. Local forces, such as the Georgians, newly humbled after a brief rebellion, were forced to man border defences against attacks by Berke. In the meantime, Hulegu engaged in his other passions. Hulegu always showed an interest in sciences and astrology, constructing centres for these men and filling his court with the learned of the region. Most famous of these men was Nasir al-Din Tusi, for whom an observatory was built in Maragha. Hulegu spent considerable money on alchemists and efforts at transforming raw materials into gold. Rashid al-Din some 40 years later wrote with scorn that “in transmutation they had no luck, but they were miracles in cheating and fraud, squandering and wasting the stores of lordly power.” Hulegu took steps to organize his emerging empire, such as widening his administration. Reconstructive efforts were overseen through the appointment of the new sahib divan, Shams al-Din Juvaini. Shams al-Din’s brother, the historian ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, was appointed governor of Baghdad and the restoration process there. Members of what had been the imperial Secretariat for Iran and western Asia like Arghun Aqa were now taken into Hulegu’s new government. His sons were allotted appanages and territories to oversee: Abaqa was given most of the eastern half of the state to act as viceroy over, valuable experience for the man who would be his father’s heir.


With the surrender of Ariq Boke late in 1264, Hulegu and Berke soon learned of Kublai Khan’s victory. Kublai’s messengers demanded Berke, Hulegu and the Chagatai Khan Alghu come to confirm Kublai’s enthronement and decide Ariq Boke’s fate. All declined- Hulegu may have had little choice, as he fell ill in January 1265, and died the following February, about 50 years old. His respected wife, Doquz Khatun followed him four months later, and in June Hulegu’s eldest son Abaqa ascended the throne of the Ilkhanate. Humbled since his humiliating defeat over the ice on the Terek River, Abaqa sought to secure his rule before taking any actions against Berke. Abaqa sent armies under his brothers to guard the frontiers with the Jochids and the Chagatais; he redistributed lands to loyal emirs; political appointments like Shams al-Din Juvaini and Arghun Aqa, were maintained. Moving the capital from Maragha to Tabriz, Abaqa soon received an official investiture from his uncle Kublai Khan, a nice bit of legitimacy and homage to the Mongol Empire, but an act with little actual power.


 For Berke, it seemed  primetime to seize the Caucasus with the ascension of Abaqa. In July 1265, only a month after Abaqa’s enthronement, Nogai was sent with a large army from Derbent. Abaqa had reinforced the region with an army under his brother Yoshmut, who met Nogai on the Akshu River in what is now Azerbaijan. The fighting was fierce; during the battle an arrow took Nogai’s eye, and his army was defeated with heavy losses, withdrawing to Shirvan. Both Abaqa and Berke collected large forces to prevent the other from seizing the advantage. Sometime in 1266, both armies formed up on opposite sides of the Kura River. For fourteen days, the two armies shot arrows over the river at each other, but were unable to cross. Frustrated, Berke marched westwards towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to find a crossing there. En route, Berke fell ill and succumbed, leaving his army and empire without a Khan. Nogai, who in just a few years had lost his father, several battles, his eye and his Khan, led a general retreat back to the Jochid capital of Sarai. Having learned his lesson, Abaqa did not pursue; later in 1266 he had a wall and trench built along the Kura River to guard against Jochid attacks, then withdrew back south. So ended the Berke-Hulegu war.


This was not the end of the fighting between the Ilkhanate and the Jochid realm- what later historians call the Golden Horde, though the term was not used at the time. Fighting picked up every few years, usually taking advantage of the Il-Khan being distracted by conflict with the Mamluks, the Chagatais, or the Neguderis of Afghanistan, who began to make a name for themselves as raiders. But for decades, Berke’s efforts were the most serious attempts by the Golden Horde to take control of the Caucasus, to no success. The region remained under the hands of Hulegu’s successors until the last days of the Ilkhanate. Berke was succeeded by Batu’s grandson Mongke-Temur, who was the first fully independent Khan of the Jochid state, minting coins in his own name. It is under Mongke-Temur that we can really speak of the Golden Horde as an independent Khanate. The one-eyed Nogai continued to grow in influence, transferred to the western half of the Golden Horde where he became the prime intermediary between the Jochids and Europe. Though kept in check by Mongke-Temur, his successors would not have the same control over him. 

Abaqa began a nearly 20 year reign, during which time he undertook wide ranging diplomacy with Europe in an effort to open a second front against the Mamluks. Dealing with rebellions and invasions, Abaqa spent most of his years jumping from frontier to frontier of the massive Ilkhanate, using the odd break to order unsuccessful invasions of Syria. Though both the Ikhanate and the Golden Horde had immense military power, the days of successful foreign conquests in western Eurasia were at an end, squandering it against each other. But we will pick up with the later history of the Il-Khans and the Golden Horde in future episodes. By the end of the Berke-Hulegu war, both were fully independent of Kublai Khan. It is back to Kublai that we head to next, to see how he undertook the final push to conquer the Song Dynasty, and complete the reunification of China- all under Mongol auspices, of course. So be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast. To help us keep bringing you great content, please support us on Patron at I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.