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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 8, 2021

Qaidu was raised in Chinggis Khan’s camp, and after Ogedai Khaan he served in Mongke Khaan’s retinue. After him, he was with Ariq Boke, conspiring and amking efforts to elevate him to the khanate. When Ariq Boke went before Kublai Khaan and submitted to him, Qaidu was wary of Kublai Khaan because it was the law that no creature should change the Khaan’s command or decree, and any who did would be branded as criminals. He had transgressed the law and rebelled, and from that time until present, ona account of his rebellion, many Mongols and Tajiks have been annhilated, and flourishing land has been devastated.”


    So our oft-cited friend Rashid al-Din describes, rather negatively, his contemporary Qaidu, Khan of the house of Ogedai and master of Central Asia in the late thirteenth century. Qaidu is best known for his daughter Qutulun, the wrestler-princess, his long resistance against his cousin Kublai, Great Khan of the Yuan Dynasty, and enjoys a popular image as a spirited defender of traditional Mongolian culture- or, for writers like Rashid al-Din, an image of little more than a brigand harassing settled regions. To explore Kublai’s failed attempts to exert power over the western half of the Mongol Empire, we will look at the long life of Qaidu, master of the uluses of Ogedai and Chagatai. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


While Kublai Khan overcame his brother Ariq Boke to become Khan of Khans in 1264, that was not the end of his troubles from his Mongolian kinsmen. Many refused to recognize Kublai’s authority, or actively took up arms against him, most famously Qaidu, a grandson of Ogedai Khan who led a 40 year campaign of resistance against Kublai Khan. While most famous for stories of his warrior daughter Qutulun and for his own personal sternness and military ability, Qaidu’s reign has often been misportrayed as an effort to seize the title of the Great Khan. His main focus however, was securing the position of the descendants of Ogedai within a fragmenting Mongol Empire.


    Chinggis Khan had granted parts of eastern Kazakhstan, Xinjiang and western Mongolia as personal ulus, or territory, to his son Ogedai, serving as a base for Ogedai’s family until the 1250s. The Toluid Revolution, which by now you should know very well, saw the seizure of the throne by the sons of Tolui, away from the line of Ogedai following the death of the final Ogedeid Great Khan, Guyuk, in 1248. After Tolui’s eldest son Mongke became Khan in 1251, he discovered an alleged conspiracy against him by Ogedai’s family. This served as pretext for a purge of the Ogedaids, killing many and confiscating their lands and armies, effectively dissolving the Ogedaid ulus, as explained back in episode 21 of this series. Those few who survived, such as the young Qaidu, were granted distant lands to appease them but which were too poor to serve as a base for resistance. Born only around 1235 or 6, Qaidu was only just entering manhood when Mongke carried out his purges, deemed too young to be a threat. In proper Ogedeid fashion Qaidu’s father, Ogedai’s fifth son Qashi, drank himself to an early death shortly before Qaidu’s birth, leaving Qaidu’s early years to quietly rule over what little people, herds, pastures and towns Mongke Khaan had allotted him around Qayaliq, in what is now southern Kazakhstan. We can only imagine Qaidu’s frustration and anger, a sense that everything that was his by right had been taken from him, anger at the theft by the house of Tolui- not of the Great Khanate, which Qaidu was unlikely to have ever inherited, but of the ulus of Ogedai itself, the personal territory Chinggis Khan had granted that line of the family. One tradition from Qaidu’s earliest youth that survives, recorded by Jamal al-Qarshi, is that Ogedai Khaan once held the young boy and was so impressed with the 5 year old, that he stated Qaidu would one day succeed him and ordered his every need to be provided for. Even if the story were true, it must be remembered that Ogedai indicated about half of his sons and grandsons should have succeeded him at various points, and anyways, Qaidu was no mroe than six years old at the time of Ogedai’s death. No, the young Qaidu was not ever destined, nor likely ever considered himself to be, for the throne of the Great Khan.


    Qayaliq was too poor to offer a base of resistance on its own, but it did not stop Qaidu from pushing his boundaries. In 1256, Mongke Khaan sent a judge to Qaidu’s territory as an official imperial representative- the exact mission unclear in the sources- and the 20 year old Qaidu promptly captured him, holding him captive for the next two decades. No reaction is recorded from Mongke, who may have been preoccupied with his forthcoming assault on the Song Dynasty to divert attention to an annoying Ogedeid boy. Perhaps Mongke had been planning to deal with him upon his return from campaign, but as we know, he never got the opprotunity: Mongke died on campaign in August 1259, precipitating the conflict between two of his brothers, Ariq Boke and Kublai, for the imperial throne. 


    Qaidu was initially neutral in the war between Ariq Boke and Kublai, supporting Ariq only when his appointed ruler to the Chagatai Khanate, Alghu, revolted and attacked Qaidu’s territory. It seems Alghu attacked Qaidu for supporting Ariq Boke, which forms the only real evidence for Qaidu’s  actual support of Ariq. With Ariq’s surrender to Kublai in 1264, Qaidu turned to the Khan of the Golden Horde, Berke, for support against Alghu. Supposedly Berke found Qaidu’s horoscope favourable, and provided him an army and resources, and a promise for rule over the ulus of Chagatai if he was successful. Winning his first encounter against Alghu, Qaidu suffered a serious defeat in the second  and seemed to be placed on the backfoot. But Heaven showed Qaidu its favour when Alghu, Berke, and the Il-Khan Hulegu all died over 1265-1267 and Kublai was focused on the Song Dynasty. This created a sudden power vacuum all across Central Asia; while his neighbours sorted out matters of succession, Qaidu expanded his territory from Almaliq to Taraz to Beshbaliq; in rapid succession, Qaidu successfully reclaimed much of the former territory of Ogedai’s ulus. Many of Ariq Boke and Alghu’s former supporters joined Qaidu, including the brilliant finance minister Ma’sud Beg, whose skills helped with the economic rejuvenation of Qaidu’s ulus. Many of these men were dispossed by the changes in power over these years, and were happy to throw their lot in with a bright-eyed, up and coming warlord showing he had some favour from Heaven. When Kublai summoned Qaidu to him in order to affirm his vassalage, Qaidu refused, claiming the distance was too great to travel. Though Kublai tried to encourage him by sending him revenues from conquered Chinese territory, Qaidu was intent on preserving his independence and fragile ulus. Kublai’s capital was moved from Karakorum in central Mongolia to Shangdu on the border with China, and then into China proper at Khanbaliq, greatly limited his ability to control his kinsmen deep in the steppe. In the next years, Qaidu’s pretensions would increased dramatically. 


    In the Chagatai Khanate power was taken by Baraq, who ruled with Kublai’s approval and was almost immediately at war with Qaidu. With the aid of the new Khan of the Golden Horde, Mongke-Temur, Qaidu defeated Baraq near Khojand in 1267, after which Qaidu proposed a joint peace between the Central Asian Khanates. Likely on the Qatwan Steppe, just south of Samarkand, in 1267 or 69, Qaidu, Baraq, and Mongke-Temur’s representatives made agreements to divide the territory of Transoxania between them,  Qaidu and Baraq became anda (blood brothers) and agreed to a joint-attack the Ilkhanate in Khurasan. Notable about this meeting was a total disregard for Kublai’s authority. Though Kublai was nominally Great Khan, by the end of the 1260s each Khanate was now an independent state, the Khans all now meeting without his consultation. Recorded in the Yuan shi, the assembled Khans apparently sent a jointly written letter, of questionable veracity, to Kublai decrying his sinicization and ‘adoption of Han laws.’ As mentioned by historian Michal Biran, this is the only direct textual evidence of Mongolian, and specifically Qaidu’s, opposition to Kublai’s adoption of Chinese policy and custom. While often presented as a “defender of the old ways,” Qaidu’s agreements on the Qatwan Steppe and actions over his life were always directed at his own power and independence in the Ogedeid ulus, rather than  whatever laws the fat Khan in Khanbaliq tried to pass.


Qaidu did provide forces for Baraq’s assault on the Ilkhanate, but they were instructed to abandon Baraq before battle was met. Baraq’s army was crushed by the Il-Khan Abaqa at Herat in 1270, and his death shortly afterwards was Qaidu’s most important opportunity. Many of Baraq’s commanders and armies fled to Qaidu, and only a month after Baraq’s death Qaidu was declared Khan of the Ogedeid ulus. We must emphasize this: he was declared Khan of the territory belonging to the House of Ogedai. He was never declared Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, or Khan of the Chagatayid ulus. He never made pretensiosn to claim either of those thrones, and his conflict with Kublai was not over who should be the Great Khan, but over Qaidu’s personal autonomy- and his right to appoint the Chagatai Khan after Baraq’s demise. When Qaidu’s first appointee rebelled alongside the sons of Alghu and Baraq, Qaidu overcame them and chose Baraq’s son Du’a as Chagatai Khan in 1282. Du’a would be Qaidu’s right hand man for the next twenty years, and as co-rulers they dominated Central Asia from the Yenisei River to the borders of India, and from Transoxania to the Mongolian Altai, a border keeping Kublai’s control confined to the east.


Kublai’s campaign against the Song Dynasty kept him from interfering with Qaidu’s domination of the Chagatai Khanate, instead relying on defence. As early as the mid 1260s, Qaidu was raiding Kublai’s frontier: in 1268 Kublai’s armies had to push Qaidu’s forces from Beshbaliq and the Uighur lands. By the end of the 1260s, Kublai was posting a large garrison in Mongolia under his son Nomukhan. Nomukhan was not terribly successful: he was betrayed by his subordinates and sent over to the Golden Horde in 1276, and Karakorum fell into the hands of these rebellious princes. Qaidu played no role in this, distracted as he was at that time by trying to exert control over the ulus of Chagatai. In an effort to make the local garrisons self sufficient, Kublai spent considerable amounts attempting to expand agriculture and set up military colonies in the Tarim Basin, Gansu corridor and Mongolia, but only in Mongolia did he see limited success. Qaidu’s raids were too successful and the regions too arid, and Kublai only succeeded in throwing away huge sums of money and resources.


By the 1280s, Qaidu had a firm hold on Central Asia and loyal ally in his appointed Chagatai Khan, Du’a. Finally, they could take advantage of rebellions across Kublai’s frontier, such as that in Tibet in 1285 and of Nayan in Manchuria in 1287, with whom Qaidu tried to coordinate with. Kublai, realizing Mongolia itself was now threatened, took to the field himself. Sending an army west to counter Qaidu and an army into southern Manchuria to distract the other local Mongol dissident, Khadan, the aging Kublai led the third army from a platform mounted on the backs of four elephants. Nayan was swiftly caught and executed. Qaidu had advanced on the old Mongol capital of Qaraqorum as per the suggestion of Ariq Boke’s sons, but the threat of facing Kublai himself led to Qaidu’s withdrawal. This was the closest the two ever came to fighting one another in person. While Karakorum may have held symbolic value, strategically it would be nearly impossible for Qaidu to hold it, and as he was making no claim to the title of Great Khan, its symbolism was useless to him. Karakorum was but a brief flirtation for him, egged on by his allies to take advantage of Kublai’s perceived weakenss, rather than a long awaited goal. The aging Kublai had shown he still had teeth, and Qaidu would not make such an attempt again for the remainder of Kublai’s life.


    Qaidu does not seem to have taken advantage of Kublai’s death in 1294, and Kublai’s successor, Temur Oljeitu, abandoned his grandfather’s foreign adventures, focusing greater resources on combating Qaidu along the northwestern frontier. In winter 1298, Qaidu’s Chagatai Khan Du’a attacked the Yuan frontier and captured Temur Oljeitu Khan’s brother-in-law Korguz, who died before he could be rescued. This was an embarrassment and insult for the new Khan of Khans, and Temur Oljeitu sprung into action, ordering his nephew Qaishan to Mongolia, where he assembled a great army and marched west to crush Qaidu in 1300.


    In spring 1300, east of the Altai mountains at Kuobielie, Qaishan’s army overtook Qaidu. In a furious assault, they forced Qaidu to retreat west into the Altai mountains in western Mongolia. Qaishan was a cautious commander, only proceeding once he acquired sufficient provisions, which gave Qaidu time to call to Du’a for aid. Du’a initially refused, but did send two armies later that summer, a first to reinforce Qaidu while Du’a himself led a second. The onset of winter halted the campaign, and for most of 1301 Qaishan struggled to locate Qaidu’s smaller, highly mobile force in the Altai. Qaidu needed to hold out for the arrival of Du’a reinforcements, but couldn’t retreat lest he allow Qaishan to overrun his hard won ulus.


    Finally in August 1301, Qaishan’s scouts informed him that Qaidu’s army was encamped at Mount Tiejiangu, and that Du’a’s reinforcements were close at hand. On the 3rd of September the Yuan army attacked. The Yuan assault was devastating: Qaidu’s smaller force was overrun, Qaidu himself wounded in the battle. Only nightfall forced the two armies apart, and Qaidu employed a tool of his great-grandfather. He ordered his men to each light several fires, and to the Yuan forces, it appeared that Du’a’s enforcements had suddenly arrived and lit their own campfires. Their enemy refusing to advance, Qaidu used this distraction to pull his forces back. When morning revealed the truth, Qaishan was hesitant to immediately pursue, fearing Qaidu would employ a feigned retreat. This provided Qaidu time to meet with forces sent by Du’a two days later at Qara Qada, along the Irtysh River. Learning of Du’a’s reinforcements, Qaishan split his force: one section would intercept Du’a and his army, while Qaishan took the rest of the Yuan forces to catch Qaidu.


When Qaishan arrived at Qara Qada, Qaidu was prepared. This time, the Yuan army was not as successful, though Qaishan himself broke through Qaidu’s lines, seizing his military supplies, rescuing captive princes and turning about to lead a rear assault on a section of Qaidu’s line. But Qaidu held firm, and his horse archers kept the Yuan back until nightfall once again split them apart. Not far away at an unidentified location called Wuertu, Yuan forces defeated and wounded Du’a, who then seems to have retreated back to his own territory.


    The following day was the final confrontation. Qaidu, now approaching 70 years old, held his vetetan forces together against the Yuan’s superior numbers. Arrows filled the air, and the Yuan army was in an inconclusive engagement. An effort to pull the Yuan forces back and redeploy was foiled by a full charge by Qaidu, and the Yuan retreat now threatened to turn into a rout. Qaishan fought bravely as rearguard, and once more broke through Qaidu’s line, forcing them back and allowing the Yuan army to undertake an orderly retreat back to Qaraqorum, Qaishan burning the steppe behind them to hamper Qaidu’s pursuit. But Qaidu did not follow, instead falling back, given pause by his losses and his own injuries sustained, which were likely his cause of death a few weeks after the battle.


    The Ogedeid ulus did not long survive Qaidu’s death. Qaidu’s lifetime of carving out a restored Ogedeid state within the Mongol Empire was undermined by his own longtime ally. Almost immediately, Du’a sabotaged Qaidu’s successors. Du’a, it seems, had had enough of war with the Yuan Dynasty, and desired peace in order to resume the Central Asian trade, as well as focus resources on the border with India. To do this though, he would need to break the ability of the house of Ogedai to control the Chagatayids. Qaidu had wanted his youngest son Orus to succeed him, but Du’a maneuvered Qaidu’s ineffective and unhealthy older son Chapar to become Khan, forming rifts within the ulus. Du’a furthered the division of the Ogedeid ulus into appanages, and infighting broke out among Qaidu’s heirs. A brief attempt  to unite the Ogedeyid princes against Du’a was crushed in 1306 by Chagatayid troops with Yuan backing, and many of the top princes and generals of the Ogedeyid ulus surrendered to Du’a or to the Yuan. Du’a unleashed his horsemen to track down those Ogedeyids who remained independent, and one such Chagatayid raid even resulted in the death of Qaidu’s famed daughter Qutulun. 


    Ah yes, Qutulun! She is worth a short digression, as she is most famous among Mongolian princesses of this period, and many of you have likely wondered why we have not yet mentioned her role in her father’s battles. Qutulun is usually most well known as the famed ‘wrestler-princess.’ In the version popularized in Marco Polo’s account, wherein she is called Ay Yaruq, moonshine in Turkic, she refused to marry any man who couldn’t best her in a wrestling match. In fact, she claimed the herds of every man she was able to throw to the ground. She was such a good wrestler that, according to Polo, she had a herd of 10,000 animals she had claimed over her career. To carry on the fable-like nature of his version, Polo has an unnamed prince of quite some wealth attempt to win her hand. Qaidu, having agreed to let Qutulun marry who she wanted but recognizing it was a powerful match, encouraged his daughter to let the man win. Qutulun instead threw the prince to the ground and claimed his horses. Polo also asserts that she would fight beside her father, riding into enemy formations to grab and steal men. It’s a bebrudging respect for evidently a highly skilled and dangeorus woman! What’s more, it’s a depiction of a woman of physical prowess and military capability which is actually backed up by some contemporary writers, such as the Ilkhanid author Rashid al-Din and ‘Abd Allah Qashani. The Ilkhanid vizer Rashid al-Din was less impressed than Marco Polo regarding Qutulun, writing the following:


    Qaidu had a daughter named Qutulun… he loved her the most of all his children. She went around like a boy and often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds. She was listened to by her father, and she handled the administration for him. Her father refused to marry her off, and people accused him of having relations with her… a few years ago, because of shame and the accusations people were making, he was forced to marry her off to a man named Aitqun of the Qorolas clan.


    Rashid al-Din, as we said at the start of the episode, had no fondness for Qaidu. Rashid’s employers, the Toluid Ilkhans, were often at war with him after all. Rashid al-din is too refined to openly say he agreed with such horrendous rumours about father and daughter, but was not above mentioning the fact people were spreading them. Qutulun in the end, but likely of her own choice, married a member of his father’s  keshig, one of his royal cooks. That the fellow’s name and lineage differs in the accounts, and Qutulun is still described leading her minghaans, units of a thousand, indicates that her new husband did little to overawe her military ability.


After Qaidu’s death, Qutulun staunchly supported her father’s chosen heir, Orus. She recognized early  Du’a effort to undermine the Ogedeyid ulus and spoke out against him at an assembly. Du’a dismissed her concerns thus, saying “Women’s opinions and talk should be about the spindle and spinning wheel, not on the crown and the khanate’s throne. What do you have to do with rulership and government?” The frustrated Qutulun found no support from her brothers and withdrew with her family and followers to the Tien Shan mountains, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, where she guarded her father’s tomb. Though she largely removed herself from the affairs of the Ogedeyid Khanate, when her brothers sought to make a stand against Du’a in 1306, the contemporary author Qashani mentions that Qutulun showed up to assist them, leading her 1,000 men beside them. Even with her assistance, a combined Chagatayid-Yuan army under Du’a defeated the Ogedeyid army. Generals and even her brothers began deserting to the Chagatayids or to the Yuan realm, and as mentioned Du’a sent raiding parties to track down those who escaped. Qutulun returned to her encampment near her father’s tomb, where she held out until 1307. That year, Qashani records, Chagatayid forces found them, drowning her husband and two sons.Qutulun’s final fate is unmentioned, but it is presumed she was killed sometime around then. The Ogedeyid Khanate did not long outlive her. By 1310 when Chapar submitted to the new Yuan Emperor, Qaishan, the Ogedeyid ulus ceased to exist, only some 60 years after Qaidu had restored it. 


    Du’a died in 1307, but his sons continued to dominate the Chagatayid ulus for the next 30 years, incorporating much of the former Ogedeid territory. After the death of the last of Du’a’s sons, the Chagatai Khanate entered a period of great instability, gradually breaking into two halves, a western based in Transoxania, and another east of the Syr Darya River, which came to be known as Moghulistan. In the western half, the authority of the Chagatai Khan weakened sooner, a power vacuum which led to the eventual rise of Amir Temur in Transoxania, better known in the west as Tamerlane. But that’s a topic for another day, so please consider subscribing to our podcast to follow for future episodes. If you’d like to help us continue bringign you great content, please consider supporting on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.