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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 14, 2021

Our previous two episodes have taken you through an overview  of the history of  the Chagatai Khanate, the middle ulus of the Mongol Empire. From its establishment following Chinggis Khan’s western campaign in the 1220s, through rebuilding efforts by Mahmud Yalavach and Mas’ud Beg, to the turmoil of the 1260s and 70s with the Mongol civil wars and then consoldiation under Qaidu and Du’a, then the many successions of Du’a’s sons to the throne in the first three decades of the fourteenth century. At the end of the last episode, the sixth and last of Du’a’s sons to rule the Chagatais, Tarmashirin Khan, was murdered in the early 1330s, killed in a rebellion led by his nephew Buzan, supported by emirs from the eastern half of the Chagatayids. Over the period we saw the slow spread of Islam among the Mongols and their khans, as well as a widening gap between the western half of the Khanate, in Transoxania, and the Eastern half, Moghulistan. Today, both of trends continue as the Chagatai Khanate descends into anarchy following Tarmashirin’s murder, finally culminating in Emir Temur seizing control of the western half of the ulus  Chagatay in 1370, and forever changing the face of western Asia. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Tarmashirin Khan’s murder in 1334 had a significant impact on the Chagatai Khanate. The last in the long lateral succession of Du’a Khan’s sons, his death essentially opened up the throne to any willing claimant. His antagonizing of the Mongols of the eastern half of the khanate, particularly through his Islamic policies, supposedly abandoning of the laws of Chinggis Khan and leaving them out of government, ensured his reign ended bloodily. The Mongol chiefs of the eastern half of the Khanate rose up behind Buzan, Tarmashirin’s nephew, who had allied with other grandsons of Du’a. They invaded Transoxania hunting down and killing Tarmashirin and causing a flight of pro-Tarmshirin, Islamic Mongol chiefs to the Ilkhanate and Delhi Sultanate in India. 


Buzan, according to most sources, was not a Muslim, though ibn Battuta wrote of him as a ‘tainted Muslim.’ Most sources accuse him of being anti-Muslim and strongly pro-Christian, though it seems more likely he was just religiously tolerant, simply allowing Jews and Christians to rebuild their religious structures. It seems he wanted to rule in a more traditional, steppe based fashion, a strong counter reaction to Tarmashirin’s rule.. At least he would have, if Buzan wasn’t murdered only a few months into his reign by a cousin, Changshi, another grandson of Du’a. If we believe ibn Battuta, Buzan was strangled by a bowstring. The thing about violently overthrowing your predecessor, is that it does not leave a lot of the legitimacy that is needed to prevent you being overthrown in turn by the next power-hungry individual. What we start to see in this period is princes refusing to recognize the legitimacy of these new Khans, and deciding to remedy this by replacing these new Khans with themselves. So begins an exceptionally chaotic period in the Chagatai realm.


    The new Khan of the Chagatais, Changshi,  did not take the throne because he was a supporter of Tarmashirin. Like Buzan, Changshi sought to bring the center of power back to the steppe and Almaliq, the traditional capital of the Chagatais, rather than having it based in the more sedentarized, Islamic Transoxania as Tarmashirin had sought to do.  He was apparently a devout Buddhist, ordering the construction of many Buddhist and temples and supposedly, ordering sculptures of the Buddha painted in mosques throughout the Khanate. Yet he also showed great favour to Christians, especially Catholic Franciscans. He was apparently cured of a cancer through the prayers of one Franciscan, and in response heaped rewards on them. Changshi had at least one of his sons baptized, taking the name of Johannes, and placed the Franciscan in charge of their education. A bishopric was established at Almaliq in the 1320s and flourished under Changshi. At Almaliq, Changshi also met with Nicholas, the newly appointed Archbishop of Khanbaliq, who was on his way to China. Changshi gave Archbishop Nicholas authorization to preach freely throughout the Chagatai lands, to repair and build churches and provided him lands on which to build a friary. News of Changshi’s friendship to the Christians reached Pope Benedict XII, who sent a letter to Changshi in 1338. This was not the first letter between the popes and the Khans of Central Asia. In 1289 Pope Nicholas IV sent letters to Qaidu Khan; in 1329 Pope John XXII sent a letter to Eljigidei Khan in response to a message of friendship Eiljigidei had sent prior; and Benedict XII’s letter in 1338 urged Khan Changshi to build stronger relations with Christianity and sponser the growth of the faith in his kingdom. Changshi never received the letter, for in 1337 he and his four sons were killed by his brother, Yesun-Temur. 


    Many islamic sources portray Yesun-Temur Khan as fanatically anti-Muslim and an absolute madman. Not just murdering his own brother, he was accused of cutting the breasts off his mother, among other unsavoury actions. Whether any of this is warranted is difficult to tell, as he may have been so strongly pro-Buddhist and continued Changshi’s policy of sponsoring Christian missionaries that it left Islamic chronclers little good to say about him. There is circumstantial evidence of a somewhat capable administrator, demonstrated by survival of government documents from his reign from Turfan and an apparent increase in money circulation under him as well. He was challenged though by rounds of epidemics, particularly in the Issyk Kul region.


    Things took another shift again when Yesun-Temur was deposed in 1339 by ‘Ali Sultan bin Uruk Temur. ‘Ali Sultan differed from his predecessors in two important ways: he was a fanatic Muslim, and was not a Chagatayid, but a descendant of Ogedai. The fact that an Ogedeid was even able to take the throne of the Chagatayids demonstrates the extent to which access to the succession had been opened up. ‘Ali Sultan’s reign was brief, less than a year. In that time, the most notable action he did, other than usurp the throne, was unleash violent programs against the Christians in his empire. Those who refused to convert to Islam, be they Nestorian or Catholic, were to be killed. The Nestorian Christian community in the Issyk Kul region was almost totally exterminated by ‘Ali Sultan’s effort, either by forced conversion or by the sword. The bishopric of Almaliq was destroyed, its clergy put to death on ‘Ali Sultan’s order. The martyred Bishop, Richard of Burgundy, had only taken the post a year prior. The brief introduction of Cathololicism died out in the region by the end of the fourteenth century.


 ‘Ali Sultan Khan’s Ogedeid usurpation greatly undermined the integrity of the Khanate. In 1340 the Khan of the Golden Horde, Ozbeg, invaded the Chagatai Khanate, an invasion which only halted due to Ozbeg’s death in 1341 but did nothing to unite the conflicting tension within the Khanate. Even before ‘Ali Sultan’s death in 1340, it seems in the southern part of the western half of the Chagatai Khanate a great-grandson, or great-great-grandson of Du’a Khan, Muhammad bin Bolad, or Muhammad Bolad, declared himself Khan. Around 1342 Muhammad Bolad Khan briefly reigned in Almaliq, while in the western half of Chagatai power was taken by Khalil Sultan bin Yasawur, who may be the same figure as Qazan Khan, who may have also been Khalil Sultan’s brother and co-ruled with him. By1343-1344, Qazan was the sole ruler of the Chagatai khanate, though whether he exerted much power in the eastern half of the realm is uncertain.


Qazan Khan, if you don’t mind a minor spoiler, often appears as a “bad last ruler,”  in sources of the Timurids, a despot who preempted a final period of anarchy. Whatever the truth, he did usher in some stablization, and increased the power of the Chagatais over Khurasan, taking advantage of the collapse of the Ilkhanate into rival powers. He likely did little less in his reign except fight off rivals, with a particularly tough opponent in the form of Qazaghan, the chief of the Qara’unas. The Qara’unas were descendents of Mongols stationed in Afghanistan or who had fled there following the outbreak of war between Berke and Hulegu in 1262. They had remained a largely independent, rebellious force resisting efforts by the Ilkhanate and the Chagatai Khanate to bring them under control. Not until the 1290s did the Chagatais succeed in doing so, and the Qara’unas became a useful arm of the Chagatayid miltiary. Often, prominent heirs or brothers, especially under the reigns of Du’a and his sons, were placed in command over the Qara’unas. They were a major military element in the western half of the Chagatai Khanate, and once their chief, the ambitious Qazaghan, began challenging Qazan Khan, it was no easy task for the precariously perched Qazan. After some considerable effort, in 1347 Qazaghan finally killed Qazan, the final effective Khan in the Western Chagatai Khanate. 


The Emir Qazaghan then became the true power in Transoxania, though as he was not a descendant of Chinggis Khan, he could not rule in his own right. Wisely, he continued to appoint puppet Khans who ruled in name only. These Khans were total figureheads, some not even of the line of Chagatai, but of Ogedai. Doing so was absolutely necessary. While there could be argument over the legitimacy of a particular Khan, if he was a good candidate or from the right lineage, among the Turko-Mongolian military elite it was still undebatable that the only legitimate ruler had to be  descended from Chinggis Khan; it was to the house of Chinggis that the right to rule the world had been given, and no Qara’unas chief, no matter how powerful, could claim that throne if he had not even a drop of Chinggisid blood in him. 


While Qazaghan seized power in Transoxania and ushered in a brief period of stability, an important event happened concurrently in the eastern half of the Khanate. In 1347, as Qazaghan killed Qazan Khan, a descendant of Chagatai and grandson of Du’a named Tughluq Temur was also declared Khan. With now two major rival claimants for power, 1347 becomes the usual date in scholarship for the division of the Chagatai Khanate into two realms: Transoxania in the west, sometime still called the Chagatai Khanate, and Moghulistan east of the Syr Darya River. 


    Tughluq Temur was raised to the throne by a coalition of the powerful Mongol chiefs of the eastern half of the Khanate. Mentioned briefly in the last episode, these were the chiefs who felt out of power by the Khans more interested in sedentarized and Islamic culture, while at  the same time finding themselves under less and less direct influence of the Khan. The result was the chiefs who became more powerful and more dissatisfied with the ruler in the west. The usurption of power  by the non-Chinggisid Qazaghan and his appointment of puppet Khans was the final straw for these chiefs. Of the tribes in the eastern Chagatai realm, the mightiest were the Dughlats. A proud Mongol tribe, the Dughlat leaders made themselves rich through control of the altı shahr, the six cities in Turkish. These were the rich trade cities along the silk routes through the western Tarim Basin and eastern Turkestan; Kashgar, Yangi Hisar, Yarkand, Khotan, Ush-Turfan, Aksu. 


The heads of these tribes, including the Dughlats, were qarachu, ‘blackboned,’ or commoners. That is, they were not of the altan urag, not descendants of Chinggis Khan and like Qazaghan of the Qara’unas they could not claim the throne themselves. The head of the Dughlats, called the ulusbegi or beylerbey as the most powerful of the eastern chiefs, acted as a sort of spokesperson for them. The Dughlat, while the single most powerful tribe, were not strong enough to totally overpower the others and had to act in concert with them. Thus, in 1347 in cooperation with the other tribal heads, the ulusbegi Bulaji Dughlat, enthroned the 18 year old Tughluq Temur as Chagatai Khan, a blatant refusal to recognize Qazaghan or his puppet khans.


Both halves of the Chagatai khanate considered themselves the true heirs of Chagatai, and referred to the other with disparaging terms. To the easterners in Moghulistan, the westerners were qara’unas, a term which had connotations to the Mongols of half-breed, according to Marco Polo when he learned of them. They saw the westerners as corrupted  by sedentary culture ruled by a petty non-Chinggisid. To the western half in Transoxania, the easterners were jatah,  a term at its kindest reffering to ne’er-do-wells and rascals, and at its worst robbers and thieves. The westerners saw the east as little more than raiders, for such was their interaction with them.


Tughluq Temur Khan is often considered the first Khan of Moghulistan. Moghul, being the Persian word for Mongol, is generally what the scholarship uses to refer to Moghulistan’s nomadic inhabitants to distinguish them from true Mongols, a reflection of the primary source usage where the eastern Chagatayids and their lands are the Moghuls of Moghulistan. While there is evidence for use of the Mongolian language in the chancellery of Moghulistan until the end of the 1360s, various forms of Turkic had replaced Mongolian in day-to-day life. Largely still nomadic, many still adhering to the old religion and seeing themselves as true Mongols, Islam had begun to spread among them. Thus it was not surprising that in 1354, Tughluq Temur converted to Islam. Islam was a source of legitimacy for him; there is some indication that Tughluq Temur was of some uncertain paternity, due to conflicting reports on the identity of his father, so converting to Islam was an additional means to shore up his position. Unlike ‘Ali Sultan, Tughluq Temur was no fanatic; he is still recorded asking for Buddhist Lamas from Tibet as teachers for him and his sons. He did promote Islam though and his conversion was an important stage for the spread of Islam east of the Syr Darya. Statements that everyone in the area became Muslim under him are overplayed, as it took many decades still for Islam to drive out the local religious beliefs, be they Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism or Mongolian shamanism. 


Tughluq Temur’s 16 year reign saw the most consolidation of power under a Chagatai Khan in years. He was aided in part by the death of the ulusbegi Bulaji soon after Tughluq’s enthronement. Had Bulaji lived longer, he may have played more of a kingmaker role and controlled more of Tughluq Temur’s actions. But Bulaji’s death, and tensions within the Dughlat tribe, led to Bulaji’s 7 year old son Khudaidad becoming the ulusbegi. Bulaji’s brother, Qamar al-Din Dughlat, petitioned Tughluq Temur for the position as he had no support from other members of the Dughlats. Qamar al-Din was a man of violent temperament, and many of the emirs of the Dughlat seem to have desired greater freedom than they had been allowed under Bulaji. Tughluq Temur was of similar opinion; why place an ambitious man like Qamar al-Din as ulusbegi, who would certainly prove a hindrance to Tughluq Temur’s power, when Tughluq Temur could instead have a malleable child in the position? And so Tughluq Temur ignored Qamar al-Din’s petition and confirmed the enthronement of young Khudaidad, a matter which Tughluq Temur’s heirs would rue dearly.


Khan Tughluq Temur continued to strengthen his position in Moghulistan, weakening the hegemony of the Dughlats and bringing other tribal heads to heel. He apparently killed a number of them, both those who refused to convert to Islam or resisted his efforts. By 1360, Tughluq Temur was the single most powerful Chinggisid in the entire former Mongol Empire, which placed him in a  very good position to take advantage of misfortune in Transoxania. The Emir Qazaghan had paid tribute to Tughluq Temur, in large part to pay him off against attacking Transoxania. Qazaghan was a capable enough figure, keeping control, if at times tenuously, on the various disparate elements of the region, until he was murdered in 1358. Qazaghan’s son ‘Abd Allah took his position, but lacked his father’s capability. As tensions from warlords in Transoxania and Khurasan bubbled up, among other poor decisions, ‘Abd Allah chose to halt the payment of tribute to Tughluq Temur. For the Khan in Moghulistan, this was all the excuse he needed. In 1360 and 1361, Tughluq Temur invaded Transoxania twice in order to oust ‘Abd Allah and reunite the Chagatai Khanate. ‘Abd Allah fled and was killed, and Tughluq Temur installed his son Ilyas as the regional governor. Many tribal leaders joined Tughluq Temur, while others fled, including Hajji Beg, the chief of the Barlas, a Turkified Mongolian tribe near Samarkand. One member of the upper echelons of the Barlas did not flee, and he was able to convince the conquering Tughluq Temur Khan to appoint him as head of the Barlas in Hajji Beg’s absence. This was the first appearance of Temur, though you may perhaps know him better by the nicknames given to him later in life to refer to his limp: Aksak Temur, in Turkish, Temur-i-lang in Persian, which in English became Temur the Lame: Tamerlane. Temur was at this point 30 years old and given his first position of relative importance, one he soon surpassed.


Tughluq Temur Khan did not long enjoy his conquest, for like all good Chinggisid monarchs, he suddenly died in his early 30s in 1363. So powerful had he been though, that his descendants would continue to rule in parts of Moghulistan until the 17th century. Without his father’s backing, Ilyas was driven out of Transoxania in 1365 by a coalition of forces under Qazaghan’s grandson, Amir Husayn, and Temur of the Barlas. Back in Moghulistan, Ilyas was soon killed, perhaps by Qamar al-Din Dughlat. Either before or after Ilyas’ death, Qamar al-Din had his revenge for Tughluq Temur’s denial to make him ulusbegi. He launched a revolt, killed some 18 Chagatai princes and declared himself Khan. No puppet khans, no indirect rule, Qamar al-Din was the first non-Chinggisid to try and claim the title of Khan, and rule in his own right, since the Mongol conquests. If Qamar had thought he would find support for this action, he was sorely mistaken. Not even the Dughlat tribe themselves were willing to recognize Qamar’s usurption, and few of the other tribes in Moghulistan did either. Qamar al-Din faced stiff resistance as warfare broke out across Moghulistan. For the next 25 years, Qamar al-Din fought enemies within Moghulistan and from Transoxania. The other sons of Tughluq Temur were sent into hiding to keep them out of Qamar al-Din’s hands, and never did he enjoy a moment of stability until his disappearance in the 1380s. Only then would Tughluq Temur’s son, Khidr Khwaja, be enthroned in 1389 as the Chagatai khan after a nearly 30 year interregnum.


The great consequence of Qamar al-Din’s usurption is that it facilitated the rise of Tamerlane. After Ilyas was ousted around 1365, Qazaghan’s grandson Amir Husayn had resumed power over the region, but was undermined by the power hungry Barlas leader, Temur. Despite having married Husayn’s sister, Temur began conspiring with other regional powers, and when Husayn moved his capital to Balkh and fortified it, Temur convinced them that Husayn was their enemy, having moved his capital out of the traditional region and preparing to defend it against them. So, Transxonia revolted against Husayn, eventually resulting in Husayn’s death. Now the figure of real power in Transoxania, Temur had carefully observed the failures of Qazaghan, ‘Abd Allah, Husayn and of Qamar al-Din. At a quriltai in April 1370, Temur oversaw the enthronement of a Khan of the Chagatayids, a descendant of Ogedai named Soyurghatmish. Temur himself only took the title of emir, and officially was a guardian and adviser to the Khan. Marrying a Chinggisid princess, Emir Temur also took the title of güregen, a son-in-law to the house of Chinggis Khan. However, Temur was the real power, and from 1370 he began to campaign against his local enemies. One of his first campaigns was against Qamar al-Din of Moghulistan. Though never able to catch Qamar al-Din, Temur repeatedly invaded Moghulistan, wreaking great destruction, taking thousands of prisoners and further undermining the fragile powerbase Qamar had. If there had been an actual reigning Khan in Moghulistan, perhaps a figure could have rallied the tribes to resist and defeat Temur early in his career. But Qamar’s illegal rule ensured there could be no rallying behind his name, and Emir Temur only grew in might. Under him, the last vestiges of Chagatai rule in Transoxania were washed away.  Though a Chagatai Khan was appointed in Moghulistan in the last years of the fourteenth century, the Temurids never recognized them as such. Tughluq Temur and his successors were always the ulus-i-Moghul or ulus-i-Jatah, as far as Temurid historians were concerned. The fifteenth century became a century of Temurid rule, and it would not be until the 1500s that Chinggisids would again rule in Transoxania; but these were descendants of Jochi, not of Chagatai.

The career of Temur and later history of Moghulistan is  a topic for a later series, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, please 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.