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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Dec 13, 2021

Having taken you, our dear listeners, through the Yuan, Chagatayid and Ilkhanates, we now turn our attention to the northwestern corner of the Mongol Empire: the Jochid ulus, the Golden Horde. Ruled by the line of Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi, this single division of the Mongol Empire was larger than the maximum extent of most empires, dominating from the borders of Hungary and the Balkans, briefly taking the submission of Serbia, stretching ever eastwards over what is now Ukraine, Russia, through Kazakhstan before terminating at the Irtysh River. Under its hegemony were many distinct populations; the cities of the Rus’ principalities, the fur trading centres of the Volga Bulghars along the Samara Bend, the mercantile outposts of the Crimean peninsula which gave the Jochid Khans access to the Mediterranean Sea, to the Khwarezm delta, giving them a position in the heart of the Central Asian trade. These distant frontiers, hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres apart, were connected by the western half of the great Eurasian steppe, the Qipchaq Desert as it was known to Islamic writers. Thus was the Golden Horde, and over the next few episodes we’ll take you through its history, from its establishment under Batu, to the height of its glory under Özbeg, to its lengthy disintegration from the end of the fourteenth century onwards. This first episode will serve as an introduction to the history of the Golden Horde, beginning first with its very name and important historiographical matters, then taking you through its origins, up to the death of Berke and ascension of Möngke-Temür, the first ruler of the Golden Horde as an independent state.  I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    As good a place to start as any is terminology, and the Golden Horde is known by a host of names. Firstly and most famously, we can note that the Golden Horde is a later appellation, given to the state centuries later in Rus’ chronicles. In Russian this is Zolotaya Orda (Золотой Орды),  which in Mongolian and Turkish would be Altan Orda. The English word “horde” comes directly from Mongolian ordu, though also used in Turkic languages, and signifies, depending on the case, a command headquarters, the army, tent or palace- quite different from the image of uncontrolled rabble that usually comes to mind with the term. While commonly said that the Rus’ chronicles took the term from the golden colour of the Khan’s tents, we actually do see the term Golden Horde used among the Mongols before the emergence of the Golden Horde state. For the Mongols and Turks, all the cardinal directions have colour associated with them. Gold is the colour associated with the center; while the divisions of the army would be known by their direction and colour, the overall command or imperial government could be known as the center, the qol, or by its colour, altan. This is further augmented by the association of the colour gold with the Chinggisids themselves, as descent from Chinggis Khan was the altan urugh, the Golden Lineage; and the name of a well-known Mongolian folk band. For example, in 1246 when the Franciscan Friar John de Plano Carpini travelled to Mongolia as an envoy from the Pope, he visited a number of camps of the new Khan, Güyük. Each camp was named, and one of these was, as Carpini notes, called the Golden Horde. In this case, Carpini also describes Güyük’s tent as being literally covered in gold, with even the nails holding the wooden beams being gold.


    So Altan orda, or Golden Horde, may well have been in use within the Golden Horde khanate. However, the term is never used to refer to it in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. What we see instead is a collection of other terms. In the Ilkhanate, it was common to refer to the rulers as the Khans of Qipchap, and the state as the Desht-i-Qipchaq, the Qipchaq steppe or desert. Hence in modern writing you will sometimes see it as the Qipchap Khanate. But this seems unlikely to have been a term in use by the Jochid Khans, given that the Qipchaps were the Khan’s subjects and seen as Mongol slaves; a rather strange thing for the Mongols to name themselves after them. Given that it was the pre-Mongol term for the region, and the Ilkhanid writers liked to denigrate the Jochid Khans whenever possible, it makes rather good sense that they would continue using it.


    Many modern historians, and our series researcher, like to refer to it as the Jochid ulus, the patrimony of the house of Jochi, particularly before the actual independence of the Golden Horde following 1260. This term appears closer to what we see in Yuan and Mamluk sources, where the Golden Horde was usually called the ulus of Batu or Berke, or ulus of whoever was currently the reigning Khan. Either designating themselves by the current ruler, or by the more general ulug ulus, meaning “great state or patrimony,” with perhaps just the encampment of the Khan known as the altan ordu, the Golden Horde, among the Jochids themselves. Over the following episodes the term Jochid ulus will be used to refer to the state in general, and Golden Horde will be used specifically for the independent khanate which emerged after the Berke-Hülegü war in the 1260s.


    There is another matter with terminology worth pointing out before we go further. The Jochid domains were split into two halves; west of the Ural river, ruled by the line of Batu, Jochi’s second son. And east of the Ural River, ruled by the line of Orda, Jochi’s first son. Now, Batu may have been the general head of the Jochids, or a first amongst equals, or Orda and Batu may have been given totally distinct domains. Perhaps the ulus of Orda simply became more autonomous over the thirteenth century. Opinions differ greatly, and unfortunately little information survives on the exact relationship, but the ulus of Orda was, by 1300, effectively independent and the Batuid Khans Toqta and Özbeg would, through military intervention, bring it under their influence. So essentially, there were two wings of the Jochids with a murky relationship, which is further obfuscated by inconsistent naming of them in the historical sources. Rus’ and Timurid sources also refer to the White Horde and the Blue Horde. The Rus’ sources follow Turko-Mongolian colour directions and have the White Horde, the lands ruled by the line of Batu, the more westerly, and Orda’s ulus being the Blue Horde to the east.  Except in Timurid sources, this is reversed, with Batu’s line ruling the Blue Horde, and Orda the White. 


    There has been no shortage of scholarly debate over this, and you will see the terms used differently among modern writers. This is not even getting into the matter if the Golden Horde was then itself another division within this, referring to territory belonging directly to the Khan within the Batuid Horde. For the sake of clarity, this podcast will work on the following assumptions, with recognition that other scholars interpretations may differ greatly: that following Jochi’s death around 1227, the Jochid lines and lands were divided among Batu and Orda, with Batu acting as the head of the lineage. The western half of this division, under Batu, we will call the White Horde, and Orda’s eastern division will be the Blue Horde. Together, these were the Jochid ulus, with the rest of their brothers given allotments within the larger domains. While Batu was the senior in the hierarchy, Orda was largely autonomous, which following the Berke-Hülegü war turned into the Blue Horde becoming effectively independent until the start of the fourteenth century, as apparently suggested by Rashid al-Din and Marco Polo, 


    One final note is that we have effectively no internal sources surviving from the Golden Horde. In the opinion of scholars like Charles Halperin, the Golden Horde simply had no chronicle tradition. Any records they maintained were likely lost in the upheavals of the late fourteenth century that culminated in the great invasion under Tamerlane in the 1390s, where effectively every major city in the steppe region of the Horde was destroyed.  The closest we come to Golden Horde point-of-view chronicles appear in the sixteenth century onwards, long after the dissolution of the Horde. The first and most notable was the mid-sixteenth century Qara Tawarikh of Ötemish Hajji, based in Khiva in the service of descendants of Jochi’s son, Shiban. Sent to the lower Volga by his masters, there he collected oral folk tales which he compiled into his history. While often bearing intriguing and amusing tales, they reveal little in the way of the internal machinations of the Golden Horde. Luckily we are serviced from more contemporary sources, most notably Ilkhanid and Mamluk sources- once again our friend the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din is of utmost importance, who provides us an important outline of the Golden Horde’s politics up to 1300. The Mamluks and Ilkhanid sources largely collected information from Jochid diplomats or refugees. Most of our understanding of Golden Horde political events, and the details of the following episodes, comes from these sources.


Post-Ilkhanid Timurid and Jalayirid authors help somewhat for the later fourteenth century, while the Rus’ sources provide information on the Golden Horde almost exclusively in the context of its interactions with the principalities, similar to other European and Byzantine sources. A few details can be gleaned too from travellers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, and even distant Yuan sources from China. Archaeology has provided some interesting details, particularly relating to trade and the extensive coinage circulation of the Jochids. Despite this, the Golden Horde remains, regardless of its fame, arguably one of the poorer understood of the Mongol Khanates.


    So, with that bit of paperwork out of the way, let’s get on with it! The kernel of the immense Golden Horde can be found in the first decades of the thirteenth century. In the first ten years of the Mongol Empire Jochi, Chinggis Khan’s first son, was tasked with leading campaigns around Lake Baikal, as well as the first expeditions that brought their armies far to the west of Mongolia. While around Baikal he had been sent to subdue the local peoples, in 1216 Jochi and Sübe’edei pursued fleeing Merkits across Kazakhstan, to the region between the Aral Sea and the Caspian. Here, the Merkits had allied with Qangli-Qipchaps, beginning the long running Mongol animosity to the various Qipchap peoples. While Jochi was the victor here, he was forced into battle with the Khwarezm-Shah Muhammad on his return, as we have previously detailed. But the result seems to have been an association of these western steppes as Jochi’s lands, in the eyes of the Mongol leadership.


    Such an association was strengthened following the campaign against the Khwarezmian Empire. The Mongols saw conquering a region as making it part of the patrimony of a given prince, and such a belief fueled into the interactions between Jochi and his brothers, especially Chagatai. This was most apparent at the siege of the Khwarezmian capital of Gurganj, where Jochi sought to minimize destruction to the city- not out of humanity, but as it would be a jewel in his domains as one of the preeminent trade cities in Central Asia. Chagatai, in a long running competition with his brother, was not nearly so compassionate. The end result was Gurganj being almost totally annihilated, and Jochi and Chagatai’s antagonism reaching the frustrated ears of their father. As you may recall, Jochi’s mother Börte had been captured by Merkits before he was born, leaving an air of doubt around the true identity of his father. Chinggis, to his credit, always treated Jochi as fully legitimate, and indeed up until 1221, in the opinion of some scholars, appears to have been grooming him as his primary heir. However, the falling out between Jochi and Chagatai over the siege of Gurganj, and Chagatai’s apparent refusal to accept Jochi as anything but a “Merkit bastard,” as attributed to him in the Secret History of the Mongols, left Chinggis with  the realization that should Jochi become Khan, it would only lead to war between the brothers. And hence, the decision to make Ögedai the designated heir.


    It has often been speculated that Jochi’s massive patrimony was essentially a means to keep him and Chagatai as far apart as possible,and appeasing Jochi once he was excluded from the throne.  Following the conquest of Khwarezm, Jochi seems to have taken well to the western steppe being his territory, the grasslands between the Ural and Irtysh Rivers. Juzjani, writing around 1260, writes of Jochi falling in love with these lands, believing them to be the finest in the world. Some later, pro-Toluid sources portray Jochi then spending the last years of his life doing nothing but hunting and drinking in these lands, but this seems to have been aimed at discrediting his fitness. Rather he likely spent this time consolidating and gradually pushing west his new realm, past the Aral Sea towards the Ural River, while his primary camp was along the Irtysh. Though effectively nothing is known of Jochi’s administration, we can regard this period as the true founding of what became the Jochid ulus, and eventually the Golden Horde. Though he died between 1225 and 1227, either of illness, a hunting accident or poisoned by his father, Chinggis immediately confirmed upon Jochi’s many offspring -at least 14 sons- their rights to their father’s lands. And Chinggis, or perhaps Ögedai, made Jochi’s second son Batu the head of the lineage. It was then that the division of the Jochid lands into two wings under Orda and Batu may have been first implemented. 


    By the start of Ögedai’s reign, the western border of the Mongol Empire  extended past the Ural River, and Mongol armies were attacking the Volga Bulghars.  While we do not have much information on it, we may presume a level of involvement on the part of Batu and his brothers. Of course, in the second half of the 1230s Ögedai ordered the great invasion that overran the western steppe. Starting from the Ural River, within 5 years the Mongol Empire was extended some 3,000 kilometres westwards to the borders of Hungary. Whereas previously the urban area of the Jochid lands was restricted to the Khwarezm Delta and the scattered steppe settlements, now it included the cities of the Rus’ principalities, Volga Bulghars, other Volga communities, and the Crimean peninsula. All in addition to the western half of the great Eurasian steppe, and the now subdued Cuman-Qipchaq peoples. By 1242, Batu was arguably the single most powerful individual in the Mongol Empire. Enjoying the rich grasslands along the Volga between the Black and Caspian Seas, Batu created a permanent capital, Sarai. Much like the imperial capital of Qaraqorum, Sarai served as a base to collect tribute, receive embassies, and house the administration and records, while Batu and the other Jochid princes continued to nomadize. The newly conquered territories were quickly incorporated in the Mongol tax system, and the Rus’ principalities began to see Mongol basqaqs and darughachi come to collect the Khan’s due.


    But Batu was an ambitious man. There was clearly an understanding that the Jochids were granted the west of Asia as theirs, and he took this quite literally. As the Mongol Empire incorporated Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia over the 1230s through 40s, Batu ensured that Jochid land rights were not just respected, but expanded. The administration in these regions was picked either from Batu’s men, or from his consultation, such as Baiju Noyan, the commander of the Caucasian tamma forces and who brought the Rumi Seljuqs under Mongol rule. 


In the turmoil following Ögedai’s death, Batu extended his hold over western Asia. Naturally, this put him on a collision course with the Central Government. When Ögedai’s widow, Törögene tried to hunt down her political rivals, such as the head of the Central Asia Secretariat Mas’ud Beg, Batu gave shelter to him. When her son Güyük took the throne, Batu did not attend his quriltai in person, putting off any meeting due to, Batu claimed, the severe gout he suffered from preventing his travel. Batu and Güyük had been rivals ever since the great western campaign, where Güyük had insulted Batu’s leadership. Güyük hoped to put a cap on the decentralization of power which had occurred during the last years of his father’s reign and during his mother’s regency, and showed a willingness to execute imperial princes, such as the last of Chinggis Khan’s surviving brothers, Temüge. When rumour came to Batu that Güyük was planning a massive new campaign to subdue the west, Batu must have suspected that Güyük planned on bringing him to heel too; either limiting his political freedom, or outright replacing him with Batu’s older brother, Orda, with whom Güyük was on good terms with. 


The news of Güyük’s advance came from Sorqaqtani Beki, the widow of Tolui and sister of one of Jochi’s most important wives. Sources like William of Rubruck have Batu preemptively poison Güyük in spring 1248, thus avoiding civil war. Batu and Sorqaqtani then promptly had many of Güyük’s favourites executed and, in a quriltai in Batu’s territory, had her son Möngke declared Khan of Khans in 1250, before an official ceremony in Mongolia the next year. The relationship was an effective one. In being key supporters for Möngke’s otherwise illegal election, Jochid land rights were confirmed across the empire. Transoxania was cleared of Chagatayids and handed over the Jochids, Georgia confirmed for Batu’s younger brother Berke, and travellers who passed through the empire in these years like William of Rubruck basically have the empire divided between Batu and Möngke. Most of western Asia, both north and south of the Caucasus, was overseen by Batu and his men. When Batu died around 1255, the Jochids enjoyed a preeminence second only to the Great Khan himself. The special place of the Jochid leader was recognized by numerous contemporary sources, and it is notable that while the rest of the empire was divided into the great branch secretariats, that the Jochid lands were not placed into one until late in Möngke’s reign, and there is little indication it was ever properly established before Jochid independence. 


However, despite even Möngke recognizing Batu’s power, as a part of his wider centralizing efforts he reminded Batu of the leash on him. Batu’s interactions with William of Rubruck indicate that Batu saw his power to conduct foreign diplomacy was limited; the Jochid lands were not exempted from Möngke’s empire-wide censuses, and when Möngke demanded Batu provide troops for Hülegü’s campaigns against the Nizari Ismailis and Baghdad, Batu duly complied. During Batu’s lifetime it was the name of the Great Khan who continued to be minted on coinage in the Jochid lands, and Rus’ princes still had to receive yarliqs, or confirmation, not from Batu but from Qaraqorum. And in 1257, Möngke ordered the Jochid lands to be incorporated into a new Secretariat, and thus bring them better under the control of the Central Government. There is no indication from the sources that Batu or his successors resisted Möngke in any capacity in these efforts


Following Batu’s death, Möngke promptly ratified Batu’s son Sartaq as his successor, but as Sartaq returned from Qaraqorum, he died under mysterious circumstances; in a few sources, the blame falls onto his uncles, Berke and Berkechir. Sartaq’s son or brother Ilagchi was made Khan under the regency of Batu’s widow Boraqchin Khatun, but soon both were dead. Though Ilagchi’s cause of death is unmentioned, for Boraqchin the Mamluk sources note that Berke had her tried and executed for treason. Still, for Sartaq and Ilagchi the tendency for Mongol princes to die at inopportune times can’t be forgotten, and Berke may have simply reacted to a favourable circumstance.  The fact that he stood with the most to gain from their deaths made him the likely scapegoat even to contemporary writers, even if he happened to actually be innocent of the matter. Much like how Batu may or may not have poisoned Güyük, the deaths are a little too convenient for the relevant Jochid princes to be easily dismissed.


Between 1257 and 1259, possibly waiting for Möngke to begin his Song campaign and be unable to interfere, Berke became the head of the Jochid ulus. As the aqa of the Jochids, that is, the senior member of the line of Jochi, he did this with the approval of his fellow Jochid princes and military leaders. But there is no indication that Berke ever received support from Qaraqorum for his enthronement. Given that Chinggis Khan had confirmed upon Batu the right to rule, the shift from brother-to-brother, though common in steppe successions, was still an extreme matter.


Part of the success of Berke’s ascension may have been achieved through an agreement with Batu’s family. According to the fourteenth century Mamluk author al-Mufaddal, the childless Berke designated Batu’s grandson Möngke-Temür as his heir. Some historians like Roman Pochekaev have suggested that Berke’s enthronement may have been leveraged as part of an agreement; that Berke, as the most senior member of the Jochids, could take the throne following the death of Ilagchi Khan. But, the prestige of Batu made his line the designated leaders of the White Horde. Without his own children, on Berke’s death the throne would fall back to the line of Batu, under his grandson Möngke-Temür.  And so it would remain among Batu’s descendants until the 1360s, almost 100 years after Berke’s death. 


As you likely know, Berke was the first Mongol prince known to convert to Islam. The exact time of his conversion varies in the sources, but a convincing argument has been put forward by professor István Vásáry. Essentially, that Berke, likely through a Muslim mid-wife that raised him (and not a Khwarezmian Princess, as sometimes suggested) was either in his youth a convert to Islam, or at least extremely influenced by it. By the time of the 1251 quriltai in Mongolia which confirmed Möngke as Great Khan, Berke is attested in independent sources writing at the same time to have sought to Islamize the event; getting the meat to be slaughtered for the feast to be halal, according to Juvaini, and trying to get Möngke to swear on the Quran, according to Juzjani. On his return from Mongolia, he was contacted by a Sufi shaykh in Bukhara, Sayf ad-Din Bakharzi, who is mentioned in a number of sources in connection with Berke’s conversion. Having heard of a prominent Mongol prince’s interest in Islam, the Shaykh invited Berke to Bukhara, and there gave him a formal education in the religion, leading to Berke to make a more official declaration of his faith likely around 1252. Berke’s conversion was accompanied by the conversion of his wives, a number of other princes, members of his family and his generals, though all evidence suggests there was only limited spread of the faith among the rank and file Mongols at the time. 


As Khan, Berke sought to ensure Jochid hegemony on frontier regions. His troops crushed a newly independent Ruthenian Kingdom in Galicia, and in 1259 his armies under Burundai Noyan led a devastating raid into Poland. Possibly in this time Bulgaria began paying tribute to the Jochids as well. Berke demanded the submission of the Hungarian King, Béla IV, and offered a marriage alliance between their families. As Hungary was spared any damage in Burundai’s 1259 campaign, it has been suggested that Béla undertook a nominal submission to Berke, sending tribute and gifts in order to spare Hungary from another assault. 


In Khwarezm and the Caucasus Berke continued to exercise influence. But tensions were fraying with his cousin Hülegü, who in 1258 sacked Baghdad and killed the ‘Abbasid Caliph. Obviously, as a Muslim Berke was not keen to learn of the Caliph’s death. According to the contemporary author Juzjani, writing from distant Delhi, Berke had been in contact with the Caliph in the years preceding the siege. Much of Berke’s anger though, as gleaned from his letters to the Mamluks and the writing of Rashid al-Din, was at Hülegü’s failure to consult with Berke as the senior member of the family, and as the master of western Asia. Though Jochid troops partook in the siege, and we have no indication from the sources that Berke tried to prevent them taking part, it seems Hülegü did not reach out to Berke regarding the fate of Baghdad, or in the dispensation of loot.


Berke was greatly angered at this, and relations only worsened over the following years, once Hülegü killed the Jochid princes in his retinue on charges of sorcery; it just so happened that these same prince had previously annoyed Hülegü through attempting to enforce Jochid land rights over Iran and Iraq. The final straw came in early 1260 once Hülegü learned of Möngke’s death. Hülegü by then had already set up in the pastures of Azerbaijan, land Berke considered his. As he learned of the fighting between his brothers Khubilai and Ariq Böke which broke out later that year, Hülegü decided to use the interregnum to seize the pastures of the Caucasus, as well as all of the land between the Amu Darya and Syria, for himself. Berke’s officials in these lands were driven out or killed. With no Great Khan to intercede, Berke felt forced to resort to violence to avenge his fallen kinsmen and retake his lands; in 1262 he went to war with Hülegü, and so did the Mongol Empire in the west split asunder.


We’ve covered the Berke-Hülegü war in detail in a previous episode, so we don’t need to repeat ourselves here. The end result was both Berke and Hülegü dead by 1266, and the frontier between them set along the Kura River, where Hülegü’s son and successor Abaqa built a wall to keep out the Jochids- though the jury is out on whether he made them pay for it. The conflict set the border between the newly emerged Ilkhanate and the Jochid state for the next century, and the Jochids would not forget the sting of losing this territory to the Ilkhanids for that time either. 


On Berke’s death his coffin was carried back to Sarai.  Berke’s reign, though much shorter than Batu’s, had been a decisive one. For not only did it determine many aspects of the Golden Horde’s diplomacy and character, notably antagonism to the Ilkhans, a predatory view to the Chagatayids who in the 1260s retook control of Transoxiana and killed Berke’s officials, and a cool, distant view to Khubilai Khaan’s legitimacy. He helped begin the alliance with the Mamluk Sultans, which never materialized into any actual military cooperation but uneased the Ilkhans and allowed the Mamluks to continue to purchase Qipchaq slaves from the steppe. This alliance too would survive essentially until the dissolution of the Golden Horde at the start of the fifteenth century. 


But it also seeded the kernel for eventual islamization of the Khanate, a slow process which would only be fulfilled some sixty years later under Özbeg Khan. While their father was the true founder of the Jochid ulus in the 1200s, both Batu and Berke could argue for this title. Batu posthumously became the Sain Khan, the Good Khan, while to the Mamluks the Golden Horde rulers ascended to the throne of Berke. With his death, it seems at Sarai a quriltai was held to confirm the enthronement of his grand-nephew, Möngke-Temür, the first true independent ruler of what we can call the Golden Horde, and subject of our new episode, 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, consider supporting us on patreon a, or giving us a like, comment and review on the podcast catcher of your choice, and share with your friends, it helps immensely. 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.