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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 11, 2022


With the devastating invasion of the Emir Temür, better known as Tamerlane, in 1395, the Golden Horde had suffered a grievous wound. Its armies were dealt crushing defeats; its Khan Toqtamish was sent fleeing for his life; and the major cities of the Horde had all been sacked by the Timurids. The Horde was now held together with a  wish and prayer, and in the hands of the powerful lord Edigü. Today in our final episode on the Golden Horde, we take you through its slow breakup in the century after Tamerlane’s attack. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


We should note that the fall of the Golden Horde was not a single moment or event. 1380, 1395, 1480 or 1502 are not simply switches where the Golden Horde ceased to exist. Rather, it was a centuries long process, with edges of the empire breaking away or being reclaimed, while multiple claimants for power fought each other and sometimes succeeded in reunifying parts or all of the khanates. Rather than a sudden collapse, it was more like waves ebbing to and fro with the tide, and as they withdraw, they pull back a bit further each time, only to in time not return at all.


The Golden Horde of the fifteenth century was a very different beast from the one Öz Beg had ruled in the early fourteenth century. Steadily, though not immediately the cities of the steppe along rivers like the Volga diminished in size and were largely abandoned. Even Sarai, thoroughly sacked by Tamerlane, remained the nominal capital and continued to be fought over for generations. The overland international trade networks which had once so enriched the Jochid khans dried up as the route across Asia became too dangerous, and the merchants who still made the trek were redirected elsewhere. Rounds of bubonic plague still struck on occasion, and with the end of the medieval warm period, the steppe environment itself steadily became less accommodating with colder winters and less productive grasslands. It was not the end to animal husbandry or even agriculture in the steppe, but it was no longer the great, organized system enjoyed by the Jochids in their heyday. Political instability marked the region accordingly; whereas from Batu until the 1360s the Jochid Khans had maintained peace throughout the steppes, now rival claimants raided or invaded each other, at times annually. While Tamerlane did not end the Golden Horde, his attack aggravated and worsened these problems. The ten years of relative peace Toqtamish had overseen as khan had simply not been long enough to recover from the previous two decades of troubles, and now each problem reared its ugly head once more.


After Tamerlane’s withdrawal in 1396, he left the state reeling in his wake. Toqtamish Khan had survived, but his armies were broken. Tamerlane had installed a new khan, Quyurchuq, a son of Urus Khan, but Quyurchuq had little authority without Tamerlane’s presence. Edigü, a non-Chinggisid lord and leader of the Manghit peoples, quickly maneuvered Quyurchuq Khan out of the way, and installed his own puppet, a distant relation of Toqtamish named Temür Qutlugh. Edigü was a wily figure, a skilled politician and one of the wealthiest, most powerful lords within the Golden Horde. Long had he fought Toqtamish, first alongside Urus Khan, and then alongside Tamerlane. Once Tamerlane began to withdraw from the Horde for the final time, Edigü promptly betrayed him and began gathering his own forces to overthrow Tamerlane’s puppet. 


Edigü, as a non-Chinggisid, could not claim the title of khan himself. But by making the khans dependent on him for power and military support, Edigü could hold real authority over the realm. As beylerbeyi,  Edigü commanded immense influence among the qarachu families; that is, the non-Chinggisid military elite, those generally bore the title of beğ (pronounced as bey). Every khan that Edigü would enthrone had to confirm Edigü as beylerbeyi, the bey of beys; which Khan Temür Qutlugh promptly did. This gave  Edigü an institution position akin to vizier or commander-in-chief, “advising” the khan to do exactly what  Edigü wished. In turn the khan continued to function in a more ceremonial role and remained official head-of-state, and his name continued to be minted on coinage. No matter how powerful Edigü might be, in the steppes the prestige of Chinggisid rulership was too strong to be cast aside, and attempting to rule in his own right would have presumably resulted in open rebellion against him. Almost two hundred years since Chinggis Khan’s death, his spectre still loomed large over Asia.


Edigü and Temür Qutlugh’s confirmation took place not a moment too soon, for Toqtamish and his sons were in the midst of collecting forces to retake the khanate. Assisted by the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great, Toqtamish and his Lithuanian allies invaded the Golden Horde in 1399, only to be defeated but Temür Qutlugh Khan and Edigü at the Vorskla  River in 1399. The battle solidified Edigü’s dominance, with Vytautas’ army annihilated, many Lithuanian princes killed and both Vytautas and Toqtamish sent fleeing for their lives. Though Toqtamish continued to seek the throne until his death in 1406, it was clear that Edigü was too strong to be ousted so quickly. And lest Temür Qutlugh Khan have grown too haughty after such a victory, he died in unclear circumstances soon after the battle. Edigü then enthroned Temür Qutlugh’s brother, Shadi Beğ, as khan.


Under Edigü’s stewardship, efforts were made to stabilize the Golden Horde. He retook Khwarezm after Tamerlane’s death, often raided the Rus’ principalities and laid siege to Moscow in 1408, sparing the city in exchange for a ransom of 3,000 rubles. Some economic recovery is indicated from the restarting of mints in some of the Horde’s major cities. A considerable quantity of coinage entered the markets, some of it quite high quality, a sign of Edigü’s effort to jump-start the economy. To help legitimize himself in light of his lack of Chinggisid credentials, Edigü made himself the standard bearer of Islamization of the remainder of the nomadic population, continuing the process begun by Özbeg. He went as far as to claim descent from the sufi shaykh  Baba Tükles, a mythical figure who in popular legend had converted Özbeg to Islam. As in turn Baba Tükles was supposed to be descended from the Caliphs, this gave Edigü an ancient, if almost entirely fictitious, pedigree. Still, descent from the successors of Muhammad was useful when portraying oneself as an almighty Muslim monarch and a champion of Islam. 


But powerful as Edigü was, his might was not supreme. His puppet khan Shadi Beğ did not enjoy being a puppet and sought to remove Edigü from the scene. Learning of the plot, Edigü routed and chased Shadi Beğ from the Horde. He then enthroned Shadi Beğ’s nephew, Bulad, a son of the late Temür Qutlugh. This relationship was likewise fraught; according to the Rus’ Nikonian Chronicle, Edigü had to rush to lift his siege of Moscow when he learned that Bulad had grown irate at Edigü. When Bulad died in 1410, Edigü then enthroned Bulad’s brother Temür. Khan Temür proved even less amenable to Edigü, for upon becoming khan Temür refused to confirm Edigü as beylerbeyi, the institution which gave Edigü his power. Edigü’s supporters abandoned him as Temür sought to capture him, his armies pursuing Edigü to Khwarezm. Nearly was Edigü’s life forfeit, until he was saved by an unlikely source; Jalal al-Din, known to the Rus’ as the Zeleni Sultan, and a son of the late Toqtamish Khan. Jalal al-Din had aided Duke Vytautas of Lithuania against the Teutonic Order at the famous battle of Grünwald in 1410, and in turn for his support was provided troops to assist him in reclaiming the Horde. While Temür Khan’s armies had Edigü under siege in Khwarezm, the khan himself was killed by Jalal al-Din bin Toqtamish. News of it reached Temür Khan’s generals, who lost heart and dissipated while Jalal al-Din was enthroned as Khan in Sarai, inadvertently saving Edigü’s life.


After years of dreaming for the position and restoring his family to honour, Jalal al-Din Khan had accomplished his greatest desire, and could begin the hunt for Edigü… until he was murdered by his brother, Qibaq, in October 1412.  Another brother, Kerim Berdi, took the throne, while Qibaq, backed by Vyautas of Lithuania, challenged him for it. The only thing which had held these brothers together had been their father and the quest for the throne; with the throne now theirs, they tore themselves apart for it. 


The 1410s and 20s went on in this fashion, highly reminiscent of the tumultuous 1360s and 70s. Kerim Berdi killed Qibaq in battle, only for both Edigü and Vytautas to declare new khans. Vytautas had another of Toqtamish’s sons, Jabbar Berdi, declared khan in Vilnius, while Edigü chose another Tuqa-Temürid, Chekre. Cherke seized Sarai, only for Jabbar Berdi to kill Kerim Berdi, take Sarai and chase out Edigü’s candidate. And that situation lasted until one of Kerim Berdi’s sons, Sayyid Ahmad I, was declared khan and threw out Jabbar Berdi. And the pattern continued, with Vytautas and Edigü both declaring new khans immediately upon learning the news. This went on until 1419, when one of the last of Toqtamish’s sons, Kadir Berdi, and Edigü himself, were finally killed in battle.


The 1420s proved no better in the aftermath of Edigü’s death. A man named Muhammad was enthroned as Khan, but his identity in uncertain, and could possibly be a number of notable Chinggisids who bore the name. In the 1420s the khan in Sarai became just one khan amongst several, and so passed a bewildering number of khans, the order and lengths of the reigns of which are a continuous subject of debate. While more ambitious khans dreamed of reinvigorating the Horde, the borders of the state broke away, with the Timurids, for instance, retaking Khwarezm. The situation stabilized slightly over the 1430s as three main powers emerged; east of the Ural river, Abu’l Khayr Khan, founder of the Uzbek Khanate; Küchük Muhammad Khan, a grandson of Temür Qutlugh, in the Volga steppe, and Sayyid Ahmed II Khan, another Tuqa-Temürid, west of the Don River. Küchük Muhammad’s nearly twenty year reign, from 1435-1459, is when scholarship begins to call the state the Great Horde, to distinguish it from its neighbours, the newly emerging successor khanates. 


    While Küchük Muhammad is usually designated the most ‘legitimate’ khan of the Golde Horde, at least in scholarship, each of the competing khans in these years saw themselves as the actual ruler of the Horde. Each tended to demand the Rus’ princes pay tribute to them, a source of much confusion and fear for the Rus’, who watched closely the political developments. The Rus’ were not idle spectators or skillfully playing off the khans, for they spent much of these years locked in their own lengthy civil wars. The Grand Prince, Vasili II Vasilivich, still had to flee his capital due to Mongol attacks, and was even captured by troops of Ulugh Muhammad Khan. Regularly, the Rus’ still paid annual tribute to the Khan of the Great Horde.


But even the relatively calm 1430s were no salve for the unity of the Horde, and the fragmentation continued, with both the emergence of more Chinggisid and non-Chinggisid polities. Kazan, in the lands of the Volga Bulghars, became an independent realm under the heirs of Ulugh Muhammad Khan, who had been khan of the Golden Horde until his ouster in 1438. Along the Ural River emerged the Nogai Horde under the sons of Edigü. As Edigü’s sons belonged to the Manghit clan, the ruling strata of the Nogai Horde, you will sometimes see this Horde called the Manghit yurt or ulus. North of the Nogais emerged a proper Khanate of Sibir, or Siberian Khanate, ruled by a branch of the Shibanids. In 1459 on the death of Küchük Muhammad, Khan of the Great Horde, he sought to divide the khanate between his sons Mahmud and Ahmad. But Ahmad soon chased out Mahmud, who fled to Hajji Tarkhan, modern Astrakhan at the Volga Delta. Mahmud and his sons turned Astrakhan into their powerbase, and in turn its own independent khanate. In the far east, the newly emerged Uzbek Khanate fell into internal fighting after the death of Abu’l Khayr Khan, which led to a group of young princes breaking off and founding the rival Kazakh Khanate in the 1450s. In 1442, Crimea and the surrounding steppes came under the rule of Sayyid Ahmad II Khan’s nephew, Hajji Giray, establishing the Crimean Khanate’s long ruling Giray Dynasty. Hajji Giray, and his son Mengli Giray, dedicated their lives to the hatred of the heirs of Küchük Muhammad, whose line monopolized the position of Khans of the ever declining Great Horde. For over twenty years, Hajji Giray fought repeatedly with Küchük Muhammad’s son, Ahmad Khan. Ahmad enjoyed few successes; his alliance with Poland against the Crimean Khan brought little help, while the Nogais and other khanates and Hordes bordering him raided his lands, splitting his attention in every direction. His situation was further hampered with the obstinence of the new Grand Prince of the Rus’, Ivan III of Moscow. 


Ivan III brought Moscow out of its lengthy period of civil war, and renewed the drive to dominate  the other principalities. Like his predecessors, Ivan III had recognized the overlordship of the Khan. But he also recognized the reality of the situation, for he maintained diplomacy with the other emerging khans, particularly the Crimean.  From the 1440s onwards there had been gaps in the deliverance of Rus’ tribute to the Horde,  becoming ever more spotty upon Ivan’s official ascension in 1462, culminating in 1471 when Ivan ceased the payment of tribute altogether. Ahmad Khan frequently sent messengers to Ivan demanding the resumption of the tribute, or for Ivan to come and reaffirm his submission in person. The ever more frustrated Ahmad Khan, surrounded and beleaguered by powerful rivals, needed this Rus’ tribute. His first march on Moscow in 1472 was aborted, and ordered another attack on Ivan in 1480 in cooperation with his Polish ally, King Casimir IV. Ivan III did not back down, and sent his army to repel the khan. The two foes faced off across the Ugra River over the summer and into the autumn of 1480. Khan Ahmad waited in vain for Casimir, who never arrived. Arrows were shot, arquebuses were fired; Ivan worried the river would soon freeze and allow Ahmad free passage, but Ahmad retreated first, downtrodden his ally had failed to show. His son Murteza raided Moscow territory as they withdrew, and Ahmad was murdered the next year.


    So ended the Great Stand on the Ugra River, a much overemphasized staring contest. Only centuries later did chronicles see it as an epoch in the independence of the Rus’. It did not directly affect either parties’ standing, and to contemporaries was simply another scuffle amidst hundreds. Twenty years later after the Ugra stand, Ivan sent a message to Ahmad’s son and successor, Shaykh Ahmad Khan, inquiring about resuming their earlier relationship in the midst of a fierce round of struggle with Lithuania. From 1474 to 1685, Moscow sent annual tributes, under the name of pominki, to the Crimean Khans. But raids and attacks by the khans were no longer as devastating as they had once been, with the expansion of better defensive networks by the Rus’, including more stone fortifications and ever-improving firearms technology. Seemingly, the armies of the Khans no longer came with such overwhelming forces, and the chronicles which once spoke of Toqta’s brother Duden handily destroying 14 cities across Rus’, begin to describe the Rus’ repelling or pursuing Tatar raiders. Assaults on cities, such as Ahmad’s brother Mahmud Khan’s failed siege of Ryazan’ in 1460, were beaten back with heavy losses on the part of the attackers. In other cases, the Khans fell prey to other khans; Mahmud’s 1465 attack on Rus’ was intercepted by an army of the Crimean Khan Hajji Giray, who often allied with Moscow against the Great Horde. The khans of the Horde no longer enjoyed a monopoly on military power. Instead of masters of the steppe, they were now members within a political system, facing off with rivals of comparable power, while their own might had shrunk considerably. The khan could no longer unilaterally oppose his will. 


    After Ahmad Khan’s death in 1481, his sons attempted to act as co-rulers but were soon at each other’s throats, further weakening the Great Horde while their rivals grew in might. Shaykh Ahmad bin Ahmad Khan emerged the victor. While he had aspirations of reuniting the Horde, his efforts proved futile. Shaykh Ahmad Khan’s reign proved to be one of disaster. His cousin in Astrakhan openly defied him; Ivan III of Moscow allied with Mengli Giray of Crimea against the Great Horde. In an effort to outflank Moscow and Crimea, Shaykh Ahmad sought to restore the military alliance with Lithuania, but no great support ever came of it. Rounds of plague and bad seasons further harmed the Horde’s cities, pasture lands and crops; harsh winters and poor grazing resulted in the deaths of thousands of horses almost every year of the 1490s. Famine weakened his forces, destroyed his herds and caused thousands to flee to neighbouring khanates. By the start of the sixteenth century Shaykh Ahmad was desperate, and in winter 1501 he led his underfed and weakened army in one last gamble, seeking to push west of the Dnieper for greener pasture. But he was trapped in a vicious snowstorm, and cut off from the rest of his forces. His demoralized army suffered for months, and began to trickle off to the territory of the Crimean Khan, Mengli Giray. Shaykh Ahmad suffered his own personal losses; already depressed from the failure of the Lithuanians to arrive, Shaykh Ahmad watched the last of his brothers fall ill and die.  As Mengli Giray summoned the entirety of his forces to crush the khan, Shaykh Ahmad’s will finally broke when his own wife abandoned him with much of his family and most of his remaining troops— to join Mengli Giray. When Mengli Giray met Ahmad near the Dnieper in June 1502, the Khan of the Great Horde, who in the time of Özbeg was allegedly capable of raising 300,000 men, was caught with a paltry 20,000. Chased from the field, his palace ordu looted, Shaykh Ahmad Khan spent the rest of his life on the run, and spent much of his last twenty years in Lithuania a political prisoner. So, according to traditional scholarship, did the humiliating career of the final Khan of the Great Horde end, and traditionally 1502 serves as the end date for the Golden Horde.


    However, in recent decades this view has been challenged. Historians like Leslie Collins have demonstrated thoroughly how after 1502 Mengli Giray dramatically grew in strength and began to style himself as Great Khan of the Great Horde; a claim recognized in diplomacy by his Ottoman overlord, the Rus’, the Poles and the Lithuanians. What is now argued is that, to contemporaries, the Great Horde did not end in 1502; the throne was simply taken by another branch of the dynasty, as it had so many times before. Absorbing the remnants of the Great Horde’s lands, troops and wealth, the power of the Crimean Khans grew considerably as they expanded eastwards into the former heart of Shaykh Ahmad Khan’s realm. By the 1520s under Mengli’s son, Mehmed, their influence stretched past the Volga as they put candidates onto the thrones of Kazan and Astrakhan. In a sense, the Horde was briefly reestablished. However, Mehmed was killed by Nogais in 1523, who then raided as far as Crimea, precipitating years of internal fighting for the Crimean throne and leading to the Ottomans taking greater control over the Crimean succession. Meanwhile without a common enemy in the form of the Great Horde the Crimean alliance with Moscow quickly frayed. The Princes of Moscow, now masters of Rus’, were eager to gain access to the Volga trade, and take advantage of the weakness of the Volga Khanates, particularly under Ivan IV and his crusade-minded advisers. In 1552 the first khanate, Kazan, fell to Ivan’s armies; Astrakhan followed in 1554.  It is Ivan IV, by the way, who is popularly known as Ivan Grozny, or Ivan the Terrible, and who in 1547 took the imperial title of Tsar, a derivation of Latin Caesar. During the dominance of the Golden Horde, Tsar had been the title reserved for the Khans, whereas the Rus’ princes were knyaz. What Ivan was signalling, in a way, was that the now the Prince of Moscow had replaced the Jochid khan as master of the Rus’.


    The powerful Crimean Khan Devlet I Giray sought to halt Moscow’s expansion, with yearly raids and in 1571, even succeeded in capturing and burning down Moscow. This brief victory was followed by a humiliating defeat at Molodni the next year. The Crimean Khans reluctantly ceded control of the former eastern lands of the Golden Horde to Moscow. This last campaign proved to be the final great success of steppe armies over the Rus’. In the following decades, the Russian Tsardom soon stretched deep into Siberia. The continuous warfare of the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, coupled with epidemics and environmental stresses, left for the Russians nothing but depopulated, weakened khanates to pick off one by one; only to the south, in the great steppe, did the Crimean Khans armies stop Russian expansion; an expansion halted, as much as anything, by logistical difficulties in crossing the steppe, and threat of Ottoman support for the Crimean Khanate, rather than any military capability on the part of the Crimeans. Though the Crimean Khanate launched continuous raids on the southern frontier of Muscovy, Lithuania, Poland and assisted the Ottomans in campaigns into Eastern and Central Europe, they were no longer unassailable. Raids sent on Moscow’s order, or undertaken by the fiercely Cossack hosts who now roamed the steppes, now penetrated into the Crimean peninsula itself.


Still, they clung on. Over the 1700s the Russian Empire steadily encroached and isolated Crimea, while Ottoman support became ever more tepid. Only in 1783 was the Crimean Khanate finally annexed by Empress Catherine the Great, shortly after the Russians had essentially ended its political independence. The final Crimean Khan, Şahin Giray, was executed a few years later by the Ottomans. When the Kazakh Khanates were finally dissolved by the Russians in the following century, so with them went the last vestiges of the Golden Horde, and the Mongol Empire. 


    So ends our history of the Golden Horde, and in turn the Mongol Empire. Be sure to turn in next week as we wrap up our series on the Chinggisid empire, and leave you with considerations for the start of our next 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, 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.