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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 7, 2022

Our previous episode took you through important transformations of the Golden Horde during the long-reign of Özbeg Khan; the islamization, and urbanization, of the khanate. Today we share the first part of our coverage of the political dimensions of Özbeg’s nearly thirty year reign, focusing on Özbeg’s interactions with the Ilkhanate and the Mamluk Sultanate, an area in which Özbeg suffered almost continual defeats.  I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


As we covered previously, upon becoming khan of the Golden Horde in 1313, Özbeg ordered a wide purge of the Jochid princes, a two-pronged assault to both remove potential rivals and promote Islam among the elite, for those who refused to convert were punished mortally. After his first year in power Özbeg would be remarkably tolerant to other religions within his empire, but he made it abundantly clear that the religion of the Khan and the court was Islam. One of Özbeg’s earliest actions was the construction of a mosque in the Crimean city of Solkhat, or as it’s known for Turkic speakers, Eski Qırım, or Staryi Krym after the Russian annexation. [note for David: Qırım=Crimea, hard K sound]. Built in 1314, parts of the mosque are still extant, though in the sixteenth century parts of it were moved into a new building some distance away.


Özbeg was no idle khan. With the assistance of the powerful bey Qutlugh-Temür, Özbeg further weakened the power of the remaining Jochid princes with the establishment of the qarachi beys as the lead ministers of the empire, putting greater administrative power into the non-Chinggisid elite. The qarachi beys were headed by the beyleribey, the chief bey,  held first by Qutlugh-Temür, and later his brother ‘Isa. These two men were instrumental in Özbeg’s control. Powerful, islamic lords, their early backing had not just been key in Özbeg seizing power in the first place, but in solidifying Özbeg’s islamization of the khanate’s upper echelons. Their support and influence among the military-elite were significant in Özbeg’s centralization of authority, and in the smooth function of the empire as lands and territories were redistributed with the change in authority. And Özbeg went to great effort to ensure their loyalty, creating  a reciprocal marriage alliance with them that the Mongols called quda. Qutlugh-Temür married a Jochid princess named Turabey, while ‘Isa married one of Özbeg’s daughters, and in turn Özbeg married one of ‘Isa’s daughters. The brothers were then assigned some of the most economically important and lucrative regions within the khanate; Qutlugh-Temür as governor of Khwarezm, but with his authority expanded to stretch to the Lower Volga, while ‘Isa was situated in the Crimean Peninsula.  With Özbeg in the capital on the Volga River, three of them were like three weights balancing the khanate.


In 1314, only the second year of Özbeg’s reign, the Khan of Chagatai Khanate, Esen Buqa reached out to Özbeg. The ten years since the Pax Mongolica in 1304 had hardly instilled the desired unity among the khanates. Esen Buqa Khan was in the midst of growing tensions with the Ilkhanate and Yuan Dynasty, and feared a combined Toluid assault on the Chagatai lands.  By then Esen-Buqa had taken captive Ilkhanid and Yuan envoys, and contacted Özbeg in an effort to bring him into an alliance, telling him that the Great Khan, Ayurburwada, saw Özbeg as illegitimate, and wished to depose him. Özbeg, likely on the council of the experienced Qutlugh-Temür, refused the request for support. The Golden Horde did not take part when Yuan forces invaded the Chagatai lands in 1316 while Esen-Buqa was campaigning in the Ilkhanate. The effort at neutrality with the khanates who had influence in Central Asia was also likely influenced by Özbeg’s success at bringing the Blue Horde, the eastern wing of the Golden Horde, closely under his control, especially after 1321. The once autonomous, if not outright independent, khanate became essentially a province of the Golden Khan through Özbeg’s effort. As the Blue Horde, backed by Özbeg’s troops, in this period extended to the Syr Darya and incorporated former Khwarezmian cities of Otrar, Jand and others, Özbeg did not want the Yuan Dynasty intervening with this profitable expansion.


Throughout his life Özbeg retained amicable relations with the Yuan Khans, sending them tribute, gifts and his nominal allegiance in exchange for revenues from Jochid estates in China.  He valued this income higher, and was not above sending his envoys to the Yuan court to remind them to keep up the payments. Some historians have gone as far as to suggest that Özbeg, influenced by the Yuan administrative system, based his reforms in the Golden Horde upon it’s two-tiered system.  Others see Özbeg’s four qarachi beys an adoption of the system employed by the Yuan, where the keshig’s four day-commanders had to countersign the orders of the khan. Furthermore, Özbeg encouraged and profited greatly from the great overland trade. Wares both originating from, and influenced by, China  are found within the remains of the Horde cities. The trade across Asia, from Egypt, India, China, the Chagatais and even the Ilkhanate, was the source of much of the great wealth enjoyed by the Jochid khans in the fourteenth century. For more on that, be sure to listen to our previous episode though. 


But Özbeg was no man of peace. His lack of involvement in Esen Buqa’s war with the Ilkhanate and Yuan was not out of a firm belief in the pax Mongolica. In 1314 Özbeg was simply not in a position of security to take part in a larger conflict, and neither did he wish to sour relations with the Great Khan. In fact, Özbeg was to take up seriously Jochid claims on the Caucasus. After his enthronement he sent envoys to the Ilkhanate demanding they cede these lands to the Golden Horde, while another letter reached the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, urging Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad to join him in an attack on the Ilkhanate. When the opportunity presented itself, Özbeg was to commit wholeheartedly to the task. 


This came after the death of Il-Khan Ölejitü in 1316, and the enthronement of the young Abu Sa’id as Il-Khan the next year. Özbeg promptly set about ordering preparations for an all-out assault; a prince of the Chagatai lineage who had recently defected to the Ilkhanate, Yasa’ur, was convinced to revolt in the eastern part of the Ilkhanate, while Özbeg rallied a great host to assault the Caucasus.  In late 1318 the invasion commenced, in what was likely the largest army put to the task since the days of Berke and Nogai almost 60 years before. In the account of the contemporary writer Wassaf, Özbeg’s official pretext was that he came to rest the regency of the Ilkhanate away from Choban, the non-Chinggisid who really ran the Ilkhanate while Abu Sa’id was still in his minority. Yet, Abu Sa’id and Choban rose to the occasion. In the east, Yasa’ur’s revolt was crushed, and the young Abu Sa’id and Choban defeated and repulsed Özbeg along the river Kur, though not before Abu Sa’id was nearly overcome by the Jochid forces.


Özbeg was not put aside though; in the early 1320s he resumed the effort, this time in conjunction with an army under the Chagatai Khan Kebek.  The dating is a bit uncertain; 1322 or 1325, or perhaps these were two distinct invasions. Regardless of the date, the result was the same. The Ilkhanate was victorious, Choban’s skilled military mind outplaying Özbeg, and Choban even pursued Özbeg’s fleeing army back into the Golden Horde. Özbeg’s dreams at conquering the Caucasian pastures did not end. In 1335 Özbeg gave it another go, rumoured to have been invited by Abu Sa’id’s wife, Baghdad Khatun. In the midst of riding north to meet him, Abu Sa’id died, possibly poisoned by his estranged wife. Yet here too, Özbeg was defeated by Abu Sa’id’s hastily chosen successor, Arpa Khan. It may have been too that Özbeg was demoralized when news came of the death of his ally, Qutlugh-Temür, late in 1335. So ended Özbeg’s final attempt to invade the lands of the Ilkhanate. No single reason is obviously apparent for the consistent defeats. It was not based on an inherent military differentiation; both armies continued to field lightly-armoured horse archers. The Ilkhans relied on knowledge of the Caucasus, fortifying and blocking the Jochids at river crossings and preempting Jochid mobility. Jochid defeats may not have necessarily been military failures, as much as an inability to advance except through strategic choke points controlled by large, well-supplied Ilkhanid armies. There is an assumption that Ilkhanid troops were on average better armed and equipped than their Jochid counterparts, even though  Özbeg may have fielded larger armies.  One factor seems to have been Özbeg himself; the Ilkhanate’s commanders he faced, Choban Noyan and Arpa Khan, were simply better commanders than Özbeg. 


Özbeg’s repeated assaults on the Ilkhanate became a main detail of his reign in numerous medieval accounts, and was evidently well known; the Book of the Knowledge of all the Kingdoms, an anonymous, late-fourteenth century work by a Spanish Franciscan, is a source where the author claims to have travelled around the world, though generally repeats nonsensical claims. Yet even here, a recognizable account of Özbeg’s invasion of the Ilkhanate is presented. A circa 1330 Franciscan account, the Book of the Estate of the Great Khaan, has Özbeg attack Abu Sa’id with 707,000 horsemen, a forced he raised “without pressing hard on his empire.” Some centuries later, Turkic histories like that of Abu’l Ghazi Bahadur Khan even retained mentions of  Özbeg’s campaigns against the Ilkhanate, even when such sources are otherwise rather brisk or religion focused when it comes to describing  Özbeg’s reign.  


With the military front making no progress, Özbeg was not above that other favoured Jochid strategy. That is,  attempting to get the Mamluks to do the work for them. Özbeg had opened contact with the Mamluks soon after his enthronement, where he signaled his support for the alliance. Özbeg heavily promoted his conversion to Islam in his letters, as well as his successes in converting the nomadic population. Coupled with allowing the Genoese back into the Black Sea ports and reopening the slave trade with the Mamluks, Özbeg was clearly marking the time had come to move past the poor Jochid-Mamluk relations that had existed during the reign of his predecessor Toqta Khan. For the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, this seemed a convincing enough transformation, and showed himself willing to commit to Özbeg’s initiative. It was this detente, as well as his dreams of a glorious Qalawunid dynasty, that led al-Nasir Muhammad to make an unusual request. In 1315, his messengers arrived in Özbeg’s ordu requesting a Chinggisid princess for al-Nasir Muhammad. Thus began the lengthy, and headache inducing, process of organizing the first, and only, marriage between a Chinggisid and the Mamluks of Egypt. 


It should first be noted that the marriage of Chinggisid women to non-Mongol dynasties was not uncommon. Numerous examples can be found with the other khanates, but for the Golden Horde alone, shortly before al-Nasir’s offer Özbeg had married his own sister Konchaka to Prince Yurii Daniilovich of Moscow, and during the 1250s the khans had offered princesses in marriage to the Hungarian king Béla IV. To the Mongols, such a marriage symbolized one thing; submission to the house of Chinggis Khan, for only a subject could have the right to marry a daughter of his lineage. And Özbeg certainly thought so. As we noted in earlier episodes, the Golden Horde likely imagined the Mamluks as their vassals, and Özbeg must have seen this as a confirmation of it, even if the Mamluks did not view it as such. Negotiations went on, and Özbeg’s demands for a great dowry —some 27,000 dinars, which the Sultan had to borrow from merchants—were reluctantly met. The princess, Tulunbey, arrived in Cairo in 1320 after five years of back and forth, and the marriage was undertaken. 


Unfortunately for Tulunbey, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad was not the most loving of husbands. Al-Nasir Muhammad had, by that point in his life, lost his throne three separate times, and his youth been manhandled by greedy emirs; the consequences of these emirs resulted in the  boy sultan suffering an humiliating defeat at the hands of Ghazan Il-Khan in 1300. Extreme paranoia of all those around him was al-Nasir Muhammad’s primary personality trait, and he was not exactly unjustified in this. But it seems the Sultan rather quickly came to doubt Tulunbey’s heritage, and accused her of not actually being a Chinggisid. The Mamluk chronicles are confused over her background; variously, they identify her as a descendant of Batu, of Berke, or as Özbeg’s daughter, sister or niece. Yet these chroniclers do not share al-Nasir Muhammad’s doubt over the fact of her being a Chinggisid, and appear almost embarrassed at his accusation. As the Mamluks’ general portrayal of Özbeg is as a pious and sincere Muslim monarch, such an accusation of an important ally was a bit of a needless incident. Furthermore, it seems an unusual ploy for Özbeg to play given the scenario, and his outrage over al-Nasir’s treatment of her seems rather much had Özbeg in-fact sent a dummy Chinggisid. 


But even before al-Nasir’s suspicions of Tulunbey developed, his detente with Özbeg had already begun to fray.  Özbeg had used the marriage to make greater economic and military demands of the Mamluks, requesting that al-Nasir Muhammad attack the Ilkhanate.  As the early 1320s saw the ongoing peace talks between al-Nasir Muhammad and the Il-Khan Abu Sa’id, Özbeg’s demands for military asssitance were evermore discomforting.  The frustration of Özbeg Khan resulted in him sending lower-ranking embassies to the Mamluks, beginning a spiraling game of tit-for-tat where each side further disrespected the other’s envoys in an ever-escalating series of diplomatic slaps. At one point Özbeg even forbid the sale of slaves to Egypt in reaction. Perhaps not coincidentally, Özbeg also began to build up his own body of mamluk guards, according to Ibn Battuta. This fall out hardly bode well for the relationship between Sultan al-Nasir and Tulunbey.


The marriage to Tulunbey produced no children, and by 1327 al-Nasir divorced her and married her off to a lower ranking commander. It took Özbeg some time to learn of this, but once he did he was furious. In 1334 his letter arrived in Cairo, and lambasted the Sultan, telling him that Tulunbey should have been sent back to the Horde, and wrote “Someone like you should not injure the daughters of the Qa’ans!” Özbeg, like all khans, thought little of the Mamluks’ origins as Qipchap slaves. For him to divorce and humiliate a Chinggisid princess was an insult beyond measure.


Al-Nasir’s very thoughtful response was to claim that Özbeg had been misinformed, and that actually Tulunbey had sadly died. In fact, Tulunbey was still very much alive; her second husband had recently died though, so al-Nasir forced her to marry another commander. This fellow too predeceased her, and Tulunbey was married to a fourth husband. She never returned to the Golden Horde, and died in Cairo in the 1360s, where her tomb remains today. 


Özbeg requested that al-Nasir Muhamamd provide him a daughter to marry in recompense. Just like he would do with the Ilkhanate when they made the same request, al-Nasir equivocated, claiming his daughters were too young to marry. At the same time, he was marrying them off to Mamluk emirs. The relationship between their two states remained strained. While Mamluks chronicles retain a high opinion of Özbeg, neither al-Nasir or Özbeg cared much for the other, and tension remained until both died in 1341. In effect this was the great result of much esteemed Jochid-Mamluk alliance. What initially may have proved promising, largely turned into diplomatic squabbling, annoyance at the failure of the other party to meet expected demands, and never materialized into actual cooperation against the Ilkhanate. At best it stopped the Ilkhanate from truly concentrating too greatly on the Mamluk or Golden Horde frontiers. At worst, it was coincidental diplomatic posturing with two states the Ilkhanate had gone to war with independently. Özbeg, the mighty Islamic khan, proved no more effective with the Mamluks than his non-Muslim predecessors.


Özbeg’s “southern policy” with the Mamluks and the Ilkhanate then, was not one of great successes. But what of his western frontiers, with Europe and the Rus’? That will be the topic of our next 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 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.