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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 31, 2021

    While the Chagatai Khanate, the division of the Mongol Empire encompassing much of Central Asia and Northwestern China, has a reputation as the Mongol Khannate to fragment into infighting first, this would not have been the view for an observer on the ground in the early fourteenth century. Following the death of Qaidu, the Ogedeid master of Central Asia in the last decades of the thirteenth century, his former ally Du’a, Khan of the Chagatais, stood dominant, particularly with the Great Peace he achieved between the Khanates in 1304. Picking up from our previous episode, we take you through the history of the Chagatai Khanate in the early fourteenth century, from Du’a’s singular rule in 1301 through the reigns of the six of his sons who became Khan, ending with Tarmashirin in 1334.  I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    At the close of the previous episode, Qaidu Khan was dead. Qaidu was a descendant of Great Khan Ogedai, and as we covered thoroughly in episode 41, had from 1271 until 1300 been the most influential figure in Central Asia. Over the 1270s he came to dominate the Chagatai Khanate, finally consolidating his hold over them in 1282 when he appointed Du’a, a grandson of Chagatai, as their Khan. Du’a and Qaidu worked well together, ushering in a period of rebuilding for the Chagatai Khanate after the tumultuous 1260s and 70s. Qaidu was definitely the senior partner in the relationship, and led their wars against Khan Khubilai in northwestern China and western Mongolia. But with Qaidu’s death in 1301, Du’a had had enough of the fighting. Du’a had been injured and forced to retreat before the Yuan armies. Only the year before, his eldest son Qutlugh Khwaja was killed fighting in India, and the Khan of the Blue Horde, the eastern wing of the Golden Horde, was attempting to rally the other Khanates into making a joint attack on the Ogedeids and Chagatayids.  For the Central Asian Khanates, such a coalition would be absolutely disastrous. A combined Golden Horde, Ilkhanate and Yuan assault from all directions would be unstoppable. Du’a wanted to rest, recoup his strength and throw Mongol energies away from each other, and against unconquered lands like India.


    Interfering with the Ogedeid succession after Qaidu’s death, Du’a ensured Qaidu’s less compentent son Chapar was on the throne, then sent an embassy to the Great Khan Temur Oljeitu offering to recognize his authority. Temur Oljeitu was delighted, immediately accepted and over 1304 and 1305 messengers were sent across the Mongol Empire, inviting the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate to once more recognize the Great Khan. The Great Rapproachment saw the resumption of tribute and revenues back and forth across the empire, reconstruction and expansion of postal stations, the travelling of envoys and merchants, and the true start of a pax Mongolica. Against the Delhi Sultanate of India Du’a sent more armies, though no joint-Mongol campaign against India ever materialized.


    Du’a made good use of the partnership with the Yuan, for he was soon skirmishing, and then at war with, the Ogedeids. Many of the Ogedeid princes had not taken kindly to Du’a efforts to divide them, and had begun to oppose him. In 1306 Du’a, in conjunction with a Yuan army under the future Khaghan Qaishan, defeated a Ogedeid army under Qaidu’s sons Chapar and Orus. Chapar surrendered, and the Ogedeis were left splintered. Chagatai horsemen were unleashed to hunt down those princes who still resisted; it is in these raids that Qaidu’s famous daughter Qutulun was likely killed.


    Du’a would have wiped out the last of the Ogedeids, had he not died the next year in 1307. So ended the life of the longest reigning Chagatai Khan, who had overseen a recovery of the weakened ulus. Realigning their diplomatic position with their Mongol kinsmen, the Chagatais seemed poised to enter a new period of strength. Du’a was succeeded by his son Konchek, who continued his father’s policies until his sudden death in 1308. Power was then seized by a distant cousin, Naliqo’a. Naliqo’a was the brother of a man who had briefly been Khan in the 1270s before Du’a took the throne, and was a great-grandson of Chagatai via his son Buri. 


    Naliqo’a’s reign as Khan was a shock to the Khanate. Firstly was the fact that he was not of the line of Du’a Khan. Du’a had been Khan for many years, and had many sons desiring the throne. Many within the Chagatai Khanate, especially those same sons, felt the throne belonged to the line of Du’a, and that Naliqo’a was thus a usurper despite his Chagatai heritage. Additionally, he was a Muslim, and sought to impose islamisizing policies upon the Chagatais. While the Chagatai Khanate is often dismissed as one of the Khanates which immediately converted to Islam, the conversion of the Chagatai realm was a slower and more difficult process than in either the Golden Horde or Ilkhanate. Mubarak Shah, during the few months he had been Khan in the previous episode, may have been a Muslim, but had not reigned long enough for that to matter. Baraq Khan allegedly converted to Islam just before his death in 1271, but this had no impact on his reign. No Chagatai Khan since had been a Muslim, and for many in the Khanate, particularly in the eastern half where there was little contact with Muslims, the strong pro-Islam stanch of Naliqo’a Khan was seen as inherently conflicting to the yassa of Chinggis Khan. 


    Khan Naliqo’a  thus received stiff resistance. By 1309 he was murdered at  banquet in a coup led by one of Du’a’s son, Kebek. Kebek was a clever man but did not want to be Khan, inviting his brother Esen-Buqa to take the throne. This upheaval in the Chagatai Khanate prompted a last ditch attempt by the Ogedeid princes to rebel against the Chagatais, which Kebek and Esen-Buqa, with difficulty, crushed by 1310. With the last of the Ogedeid princes fleeing to the Yuan Dynasty, the Khanate of the house of Ogedei was finally dissolved, its territory split between the Chagatai and the Yuan. 


    The popular image of the Mongol Empire dividing into four Khanates -the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate, Yuan Dynasty, and Chagatai Khanate- only truly existed from 1310 onwards with the dissolution of the Ogedeids, domination of the Blue Horde by the Golden Horde, and the Qara’unas in Afghanistan largely coming under Chagatai control. Later authors, both medieval and modern, would anachronistically throw this back to the time of Mongke’s death, or even Chinggis’ division of the empire amongst his sons, but it was a gradual evolution in no-way planned. The “four successor khanates” of the Mongol Empire did not exist in their popularly imagined way until the first decade of the fourteenth century.


    Without the Ogedeis as a common enemy, the Chagatai and Yuan were soon squabbling over the border. In the process of dividing up the Ogedeid territory, in which the Yuan took the land east of the Altai mountains and the Chagatai the west, some of the Chagatayid pasture lands came under Yuan control. Khan Esen-Buqa sought to get the Yuan border garrisons to redraw the border, but they would not budge. The Yuan garrison commander refused to recognize the legitimacy of Esen-Buqa’s status as a Khan. Esen-Buqa began to fear that the Yuan and the Ilkhanate were planning a joint attack on the Chagatayids, and began to make his own plots. He tried to ally with the new Khan of the Golden Horde, Ozbeg, and in 1312  sent  his nephew to attack Ilkhanid Khurasan, where he was repusled. Tensions mounted, and in 1313 Esen-Buqa detained Yuan envoys to the Ilkhanate, and finally in 1314 he assaulted the Yuan border outposts. The garrison commander was a veteran though, who had warnings of the plot. Moving the families of his men back, Esen-Buqa’s forces were met only by a crack tumen of troops who forced the Chagatais back. 


    Esen-Buqa tried to offset his losses in the northeast by launching an attack on the Ilkhanate with his brother Kebek in 1315.  The campaign was cut short when they learned that the Great Khan Ayurburwada, furious at Esen-Buqa’s provacations, had ordered an all out invasion of the Chagatai Khanate. Esen-Buqa had, in his fear, created the situation he had so dreaded. The armies of the Yuan advanced as far as Lake Issyk Kul and Talas before withdrawing, and strengthened their border positions. The situation remained strained; after the invasion one of the Chagatai princes in Transoxania, a Muslim named Yasawur, defected with 30-40,000 troops to the Ilkhanate, while the Yuan prince Qoshila, son of Qaishan, fled to the Chagatais. Sporadic border fighting continued, and threat of an open resumption of hostilities remained until both Esen-Buqa and Great Khan Ayurburwada were dead by 1320. Their successors, Esen-Buqa’s  brother Kebek and Ayurburwada’s son Shidebala, proved more amenable to peace, and by 1323, after being convinced that there was no plot to overrun inner Asia, Kebek Khan recognized the supremacy of Great Khan Shidebala, though as you’ll recall from episode 44, Shidebala did not have long to remark on the triumph. Sending two princesses for Kebek Khan to marry and resuming trade and tribute, the Yuan and Chagatai relationship remained amicable for the remainder of Yuan rule in China.

    Kebek Khan was a competent and able ruler. Almost immediately after becoming Khan, the new Ilkhan Abu Sa’id invited Kebek Khan to attack the rebel Chagatai prince Yasawur, who had since revolted against the Ilkhans. The campaign was successful and Yasawur was killed, but Kebek was then assured of his military strength and the weakness of the Ilkhans. In 1321 he ordered attacks on the Delhi Sultanate in India, and in 1322 invaded the Ilkhanate in a joint effort with the Golden Horde Khan Ozbeg, who was in the midst of repeated rounds of conflict with the young Ilkhan Abu Sa’id. The campaigns were failures. Both Ozbeg and Kebek found themselves hampered by weather and a skillful defence by the teenage Abu Sa’id and his amir, Choban. When Kebek moved his brother Tarmashirin into Ghazna in Afghanistan in 1326, the Ilkhan’s suspected another attack, and Choban’s son was sent to deliver a crushing defeat onto Tarmashirin and occupied Ghazna. Despite the fact Tarmashirin recaptured Ghazna later that year, it did little to offset the frustration at the setbacks.


    While Kebek’s military ventures were never really successful, in internal matters he proved himself a capable administrator. Unlike the previous Chagatai Khans who ruled from the steppes and based themselves around Almaliq, Kebek moved himself into Transoxania, or Mawarannahr. At Qarshi he built a new capital, and oversaw efforts to revitalize and improve agriculture and trade. Minting new denominations of coins, he also consistently minted these coins in his name unlike previous Chagatai Khans. The coins were, due to this, known as kebeks, and became a widely used currency in Central Asia. Arguments have been made that these are the origin of the Russian word for a certain denomination of the ruble, the kopek. Khan Kebek sought to limit the power of regional princes, dividing the realm into new administrative units, tumens. Essentially, districts which could support the raising of 10,000 men for war. His reforms and control of power garnered him a reputation and legacy as a just, respectable ruler, even among Muslims. The famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who passed through the Chagatai Khanate in the early 1330s, recorded anecdotes of Kebek’s just nature and friendliness to Islam.


    The reign of Kebek had other, unforeseen consequences for the Chagatai Khanate though. Kebek spent his reign in the western half of the Khanate, Transoxania. This was the more densely populated half of the Chagatai Khanate between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the heart of the former Khwarezmian Empire. The great cities of Bukhara and Samarkand sat here, and the influence of both Islam and Persian culture were great. There were nomads living here of course, but in close proximity to the sedentary population. The nomads here also owned mills, gardens, villages and benefitted from agriculture. Many of the Mongol noyans and princes who settled here converted to Islam first.  Culturally, this was a region very distinct from the eastern half of the Khanate. This was a diverse range of territory, stretching east of the Syr Darya and Ferghana Valley, the Chagatais controlled up to the Tarim Basin and at times, the Uighur lands in Turfan. Some of this was rugged mountain, the northern stretches of the Pamirs and the Tienshan mountains; some was inhospitable desert, as in the Tarim Basin and the frightful Taklamakan desert. The region north of the Tienshan was home to open steppe, the lakes Balkhash and Issyk Kul and lower reaches of the Irtysh River, rolling hills, and low mountains that lay west and south of the Altai Mountains, bordering on the western edge of Mongolia. Today it forms parts of northern Xinjiang, eastern Kazakhstan and western Mongolia. Often, it is called Dzungaria or the Dzungar Basin, after the Oirat kingdom based in the region in the 17th century famous for their wars against the Qing Dynasty. Before the Mongol conquests, this was the realm of the Qara-Khitai. From the 14th century until the  Dzungar conquests though, this broad expanse of land was Moghulistan; land of the Mongols.  In these steppe lands, a great many Mongols had migrated during the conquest period. The existing agricultural settlements in the steppe here had largely been destroyed and turned over to pasture for Mongol imperial usage in the mid-thirteenth century. Settlements were few and far between; even in the Tarim Basin, famed trade cities like Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan hugged the borders of the fearsome Taklamakan, and were under the thumb of Mongol chiefs. The sedentary world held no mastery over the Mongols here, who remained true  to their ways. Islam only slowly came to the region. To be the ruler here, a man needed to be a mighty steppe warlord. If not living there, the Chagatai Khan had to make yearly trips to hold council with the local Mongol chiefs to make sure they felt included. Kebek’s decision to move his government into the heart of Transoxania began a rift between the Khan and the Mongols in Moghulistan. Feeling left out of power by Khans more interested in sedentarized and Islamic culture, while also under less and less direct influence of the Khan, the chiefs of the eastern half of the Khanate became more powerful. Of these, the mightiest would be the Dughlats. A proud Mongol tribe that made themselves wealthy by controlling many of the trade cities of the Tarim Basin, the Dughlats were to become a dominant player in Chagatai politics after the end of Du’a’s sons, The might of the Dughlats will be something we will return to next episode, though they were observers to the events we describe today.


    Kebek’s reign saw the division into Transoxania and Moghulistan begin, but it took decades to widen. He died in 1327, succeeded by his brother Eljigidei, a more typical steppe Khan who returned the court to the traditional capital around Almaliq. A devout Buddhist, he was a proponent of religious toleration and was friendly to Christian missionaries in his lands. The most notable action of his reign was his support for the Yuan prince Qoshila. As you may recall from episode 44 when Eljigidei had his brief cameo, whe the Yuan Emperor Yesun-Temur died, a coup by the Qipchaq officer El Temur resulted in the disappearance of Yesun-Temur’s young son and successor. El Temur and Qoshila’s brother, Tuq Temur, invited Qoshila to return and take the throne, and the Chagatai Khan Eljigidei accompanied Qoshila into Mongolia proper. Eljigidei was present at Qoshila’s enthronement  north of Karakorum in February 1329, the first Chagatai Khan to return to Mongolia in decades.  Eljigidei then returned to the Chagatai Khanate, where he was understandibly quite annoyed to learn of Qoshila’s murder later that year, but did nothing about it, due to his death in 1330.


    Eljigidei was succeeded by another brother, Dore-Temur, who reigned less than a year before being succeeded by his brother, Tarmashirin, one of the most famous Chagatai Khans.  In 1331, Tarmashirin became the sixth and last of Du’a’s sons to be Khan. An experienced soldier from fighting the Ilkhanate and Delhi Sultanate, Tarmashirin moved the court back to Transoxania and continued to promote trade and agriculture as Kebek had done. Unlike Kebek, Tarmashirin was a Muslim, the first Muslim Khan since the brief reign of Naliqo’a over twenty years prior. Like Naliqo’a, he enacted a number of pro-Muslim policies. So well known was his Islam that even in the Mamluk Sultanate he was reported as a devout adherent to sharia. It’s unclear when he converted to Islam. His name, Tarmashirin, is Buddhist, suggesting that he was probably, like many of his brothers, raised in a Buddhist environment. Professor Michal Biran suggested that Tarmashirin may have converted to Islam as late as 1329. Only the year before, Tarmashirin had led an attack on India, and a letter from the Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq survives from this time asking the Ilkhan Abu Sa’id to ally with him against the enemies of Islam coming from the Chagatai khanate. Tarmashirin may have converted in order to preempt an alliance between the Ilkhanate and Delhi and open his own friendly relations with the Delhi Sultante, and to make himself stand out among candidates to the Chagatai throne.


There certainly had been a growth in Islam among the Mongols of the Chagatai ulus since Naliqo’a’s reign, largely in the western half of the Khanate. Among the Turkified Mongolian tribe of Barlas, situated near Samarkand and the ancestors of Amir Temur, by the 1330s, 50-70% of the Barlas commanders listed in the sources bore Islamic names of Arab origin. Tarmashirin, who certainly favoured Transoxania, may have hoped to appeal to these Mongols for support, particularly since there is some indication he may have seized the throne from his brother Dore-Temur. An embassy from Tarmashirin arrived in the Yuan Dynasty in 1331 announcing his enthronement, and only four months later an embassy alleging to be from Dore-Temur is recorded as arriving in the Yuan realm. Tarmashirin was in a rocky position where, for many of the military elite, adherence to the yassa of Chinggis Khan mattered a great deal more than adherence to sharia


    Ibn Battuta met Tarmashirin in 1333 during his trek from the Golden Horde to India, and his brief interaction with this famous author is probably in large part why Tarmashirin is more well known than his brothers. Battuta thought highly of the Khan, writing of him:


“He is the exalted sultan ‘Ala al-Din Tarmashirin, a man of great distinction, possessed of numerous troops and regiments of cavalry, a vast kingdom and immense power, and just in his government. His territories lie between four of the great kings of the earth, namely the king of China, the king of India, the king of al-’Iraq and the [Khan Ozbeg], all of whom send him gifts and hold him in high respect and honour. He succeeded to the kingdom after brother [Eljigidei]. This [Eljigidei] was an infidel and succeeded his elder brother Kabak, who was an infidel also, but was just in government, showing equity to the oppressed and favour and respect to the Muslims.”


Ibn Battuta then writes of his interactions with Tarmashirin, depicting him as a pious man who never missed prayer, listened intently to the complaints of his subjects and was generous: on Battuta’s departure from Tarmashirin after 54 days, the Khan gave Battuta some 700 silver dinars, a sable coat worth another 100 as well as horses and camels.  This generosity was evidently not extended to the chiefs of the eastern half of the ulus, who felt betrayed by the shift of power to the sedentary and Islamic western half. It was not just a betrayal of themselves, but of the yassa of Chinggis Khan. Ibn Battuta describes Tarmashirin violating certain aspects of the yassa, with the most notable violation coming from never visiting the eastern half of the Khanate, and never convening toi, or feasts, annual meetings with the chiefs there. The Mamluk historian al-Safadi goes further, writing that Tarmashirin entirely abolished the yassa and insulted it. For Mongol chiefs who held their identity as Mongols dear (despite the fact they largely spoke Turkic by now) it was an unforgivable crime. His favouring of Islam and apparent refusal to allow Christians and Jews within his empire rebuild their churches suggests he did not adopt the much espoused Mongol religious pluralism, implying another disavowment of the yassa. Accusations from some sources that Tarmashirin even tried to have Mongols practice agriculture and abandon nomadism would have pushed these tensions even further.


    There is another factor at play, emphasized by Michal Biran. As you may have noticed throughout our series, succession among the Mongols, though generally restricted to a specific lineage, could be a free-for-all within that lineage. In this case, the lineage was that of Tarmashirin’s father Du’a. Succession in many Turkic and Mongolian states could be linear, that is, father-to-son, or laterally, that is, brother-to-brother. Often, succession would not be linear until the lateral line of succession had been exhausted. Only once all surviving brothers had died, could the succession pass to the next generation. Tarmashirin, as the last son of Du’a, was therefore the last khan before all the sons of his brothers could throw their names in for the khanate. Tarmashirin may have pushed his brother from the throne, alienated the militarized half of the khanate by ignoring them, becaming Muslim and favouring sedentary society, and was the last obstacle before many of these annoyed  princes could make their own claims for the Khanate. Tarmashirin essentially set himself up to be violently overthrown.


    In summer 1334, a few months after ibn Battuta’s departure from Tarmashirn and only three years into his reign, rebellion arose in the eastern half of the Khanate, led by Tarmashirin’s nephews. A number of chiefs and princes declared Tarmashirin’s nephew Buzan the new Khan. Buzan was a son of Dore-Temur, the brother who Tarmashirin may have pushed from the throne, and was supported by other grandsons of Du’a. They invaded the western Chagatai realm with a large force, and a frightened Tarmashirin fled south, seemingly to Ghazna, where he had previously been stationed and may have had allies. However, Tarmashirin was captured and brought to Buzan, who had Tarmashirin executed near Samarkand sometime in fall 1334. So ended the reign of Tarmashirin Khan, last of the sons of Du’a. 

    … or was it? Ibn Battuta records that a man claiming to be Tarmashirin later appeared in India. A number of former retainers of Tarmashirin, including a physician, had also fled to the Delhi Sultante following the rebellion of Buzan. These retainers, when sent to identify this Tarmashirin, vouched for his identity. The physician claimed this man even bore the same scar from a boil the physician had removed from the back of Tarmashirin’s knee. However, Tarmashirin’s son and daughter had fled to the Delhi Sultanate, and it was decided that, based on their account of their father’s death, that this  man had to be a fraud. So, the faux-Tarmashirin was exiled from India, finally making his way to Shiraz in Iran. Ibn Battuta passed through Shiraz some time later and tried to meet this Tarmashirin for himself, but was blocked from doing so, and could therefore not confirm the identity of the so-called Tarmashirin.


    Though Tarmashirin has been often remarked upon for his conversion to Islam, his religion did not usher in a transformation of the Ilkhanate into an Islamic state. Indeed, his religion likely played a large role in his ultimate dismissal. Tarmashirin could not be the Ilkhanate’s version of Ghazan of the Ilkhanate or Ozbeg of the Golden Horde. Rather, Tarmashirin’s conversion was an indication of the gradual conversion of the western half of the Chagatai Khanate, where he spent much of his life and his entire reign. The Khanate, that is some of the Mongols, was marginally more Muslim than it had been during the reign of Naliqo’a, for instance, but it the most dangerous element, the nomadic military elite and Mongol chiefs in the east, Moghulistan, were not Muslims. It was this elite that any man hoping to rule would need to placate, but no Chagatai Khan after Tarmashirin could rule  comfortably now.


The rebellion, as we will cover in our next episode,  had dramatic consequences for the Chagatai Khanate, and brought about a period of anarchy which ultimately contributed to the rise of Amir Temur, or Tamerlane, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us 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.