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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 15, 2020

Over our previous few episodes, we’ve taken you from the ascension of Ogedai as Great Khan in 1229 to a whirlwind journey of conquests across Asia. The final conquest of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in North China, the subjugation of the rest of Central Asia, Iran, through the Caucasus into Anatolia, and the famous great western campaign, wherein Subutai and Batu led Mongol forces across the western steppe, conquering the independent Turkic Cuman-Qipchaps, Rus’ principalities, and culminating in battles in Hungary and Poland. Now, let us step back to the latter half of the reign of Ogedai and his ultimate demise at the end of 1241, and the seeds this sowed for the future of the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    We left off with Ogedai at the highpoint of his reign as Great Khan. Episode 13 detailed his establishment of the imperial administration, taxation systems, construction of the imperial capital of Karakorum and ordering of new conquests, while the following episode detail the fall of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1234. The final conquest of the Jin, the longtime foes of the Mongols who had managed to survive the mighty onslaught of Chinggis Khan, must have been a moment of great pride for Ogedai. He oversaw the monumental expansion of the Mongol Empire, though he himself was not at the head of most of these armies. Nonetheless, in the first half of the 1230s Ogedai took a direct and energetic role in government. Under his watch, skilled figures like Yelu Chucai in north China, Mahmud Yalavach in Central Asia and Chinqai as Chancellor became overseers of reconstruction after the initial conquests. Ogedai truly wielded an authority and influence across Asia, not to mention an immense wealth, which few monarchs in history can compare to. 


    Yet, the clouds formed over Ogedai quickly. The death of Tolui, his brother and close confidant in 1232, likely from excessive alcoholism, was a blow he struggled to recover from. The death of his son and heir Kochu in the early rounds of the Mongol-Song conflict in 1236, which began months after the destruction of the Jin, was another severe blow, marking his major withdrawal from government. Depressed, Ogedai increasingly absolved himself from the function of state to partake in excessive drinking and feasting, his health declining precipitously. As early as 1235, when the great western campaign was beginning, Ogedai may have already not been in physical shape to join them. His judgement clouded by alcohol and disinterest, the Khan was easily swayed by smooth talking officials and wife, Torogene, whose interests were more often personal enrichment than the rebuilding of conquered territories.


Yelu Chucai, the Khitan minister who fought vigorously to impose a proper and fair government in China, felt these effects keenly. Chucai, you’ll recall, had managed to persuade Ogedai against eradicating the northern Chinese and instead implement a regular taxation system, and reduce the extortion of the local people by rapacious officers. At the start of the 1230s, Yelu Chucai was met with success, and with Ogedai’s support implemented further reforms. In 1231 he was made head of the Secretariat for North China, placing him in charge of the region’s civilian government. With the fall of the Jin in 1234 and Mongol rule now established across all of northern China, Chucai was able to convince Ogedai to launch a census of the region, undertaken by Shigi Qutuqu, Ogedai’s adopted brother, and help encourage the displaced population to return to their homes. Chucai even convinced the Mongols to implement a household tax, lessening the individual taxes the Mongols used in Central Asia. Further, the grain levies were now assessed based on the value and quantity of land, rather than a flat rate. These efforts alone greatly reduced the tax burdens on many, and in 1235 Chucai was at the height of his influence. In 1230, he had collected 10,000 ingots of silver in tax from North China; by 1234, the revenue quota was set to 22,000. Chucai was turning his attention to reintegrating Jin officials to serve in the Mongol administration, and must have had high hopes for what he would accomplish.


Unfortunately 1236 marked a downhill turn for, well, everything. With the completion of the census, done on Chucai’s urging to properly organize tax obligations, the Mongol government had a rough idea of the population distribution of their northern Chinese territory. The census showed a population of North China of 1,730,000 households over ten districts: about 8 and a half million people. For comparison, the final census the Jin Dynasty took in 1207 showed a figure of 8,400,000 households, approximately 53 and a half million individuals! While there certainly was a horrific loss of life in the former Jin territory, it’s important to note much of this can be attested to population displacement, and a massive influx of refugees to the Song Dynasty in southern China, and a huge floating population. It’s difficult to count households when those very houses have been destroyed. It’s very likely the Mongol ordered census was not undertaken very well or thoroughly. Many fled before the approach of the census takers, fearing them to be raiding Mongols, or fearing the result of possibly increased taxation on the region. The fact remains though, northern China saw a terrible loss of life ove the twenty years of Mongol-Jin conflict. If not killed from the wars themselves, the destruction of farmland,the ensuing starvation,spread of disease and banditry carried off many more. 


Whatever Yelu Chucai’s intentions were for the completion of the census, Ogedai quickly dashed them. With this information, Ogedai divided up large tracts of north China into princely appanages, khubi, to give to the various third and fourth generation Chinggisids and the military officers. As the Mongol Empire was considered the shared patrimony of the Chinggisids, all of them had to be provided for- and there were a lot of Chinggisids running around now. Ogedai granted them agricultural lands and the families upon them to supplement their incomes. Among those who gained lands to oversee was Tolui’s widow, Sorhaqtani Beki, and her son, the twenty year old Kublai. In 1236 the future Kublai Khan had his first post over Chinese- which he, like many other Mongols, did not do well, absentee landlords in Mongolia.  Yelu Chucai was aghast at this: part of his efforts had been to centralize government, but this parcelling up of North China was a huge step to decentralization, another nightmarish level of princely egos and officers he had to jump through, as well as another level at which the Chinese population could be oppressed. While Chucai got Ogedai to agree on continued government control of taxation in these appanages, the actual implementation in practice was poor. 


The following years were only worse. Chucai had enemies in the court- those who wished to plunder the riches of China to line their own pockets- and though Chucai and Ogedai had a personally warm relationship, the death of Ogedai’s son Kochu in November 1236 sapped much of his remaining energy. In 1237 Chucai’s foes were bold enough to publicly denounce him for misappropriating funds- charges which went nowhere, but were an opening salvo in an ongoing fight for power. Chucai managed to convince Ogedai to allow him to hold civil service examinations in China to staff the bureaucracy, but few of the 4,00 who passed in 1238 were ever called up for service. The Mongols were unwilling to hand over control to the Chinese. Chucai, as a Khitan and therefore seen as kin to the Mongols, was tolerated despite his sinicization, and respected for his long service to both Chinggis and Ogedai. But as Ogedai grew clouded by drink, without the Khan’s backing Chucai was unable to hold back those who wished to loot China. With Mongol demands for higher and higher levels of tax assessment, Chucai’s efforts were undone by Central Asian Muslim merchants. Long had the imperial family fostered a good relationship with this diverse group, an important source of information for the Mongols in their campaigns in the west. Ogedai infamously overpaid for their goods, sometimes astonishing amounts. Recall how we said the tax revenue of North China in 1230 was 10,000 silver ingots? On several occasions, Ogedai gave 500 silver or gold ingots to individual merchants. The reason for such overpayments was to help restore the overland trade and encourage merchants to make the difficult trek to Karakorum. Freely giving away such amounts also demonstrated the wealth and majesty of the Great Khans- who else could afford such generosity but the most powerful monarchs under Heaven? The partnership between Mongol princes and Muslim merchants was very common and earned a specific name in Mongolian: ortogh. Mongol princes, including Ogedai, financed Muslim merchants with huge quantities of silver. The was a huge drain of the treasury, going to the enrichment of individual princes and merchants. 


In late 1239 Ogedai was convinced to place the taxation of north China into the hands of tax farmers, led by a notorious individual named ‘Abd al-Rahman.  In the words of historian Thomas Allsen, “a more ruinous and exploitive system is difficult to conceive.” In this system, the Central Asian merchants placed bids on the right to collect various categories of taxation, and substantially raised the tax quota they said they’d collect for the Mongols. Whatever the merchants collected over these quotas was profit, and they’d collect as much as they could. Unable to pay the new tax levels, the same merchants would then lend money at usurious rates to the Chinese. And the source of the money being given as loan? Why, the silver provided by the Mongols- that which had originally been taken as tax revenue!


Despite Chucai’s objections, this was undertaken in China and Central Asia, and the result was an unmitigated disaster. The revenue taken as taxes from northern China in 1234 was 22,000 silver ingots; in 1240, the efforts of the tax farmers had raised the tax burden to 44,000 silver ingots- not counting what they took as profit above this, or the interest on their loans! We are told of people being forced to sell their lands, homes, animals, even family members to pay these taxes, or fleeing outright. Ogedai “magnanimously set out a decree ordering that the interest rate could not exceed the original amount borrowed, but the damage was clear. Even though Ogedai removed ‘Abd al-Rahman from office in late 1241, his short tenure had economically devastated northern China- which, it should be noted, had hardly recovered from the initial Mongol conquests. Ogedai ordered that public funds would be used to pay the outstanding debts, totalling 76,000 ingots. Of course, this meant ‘Abd al-Rahman and his gluttonous merchants still got paid. With ‘Abd al-Rahman’s removal Ogedai appointed Mahmud Yalavach, the head of the Secretariat for Central Asia, to the head of the administration for North China to restore order and implement a proper system of taxation. Yalavach had little time to do this, as Ogedai was dead a month later.


While his administrative apparatus was mired in corruption, Ogedai himself was mired in the cup. It’s difficult to overstate just how little interest Ogedai took in governing in his final years, drinking, feasting and hunting instead. On the rare occasions when he was making official decisions, he was often good and sozzled while doing so. Most medieval sources discussing Ogedai, even those most celebratory of his reign, remark on his severe alcoholism. Even the often laconic Secret History of the Mongols mentions his failure to resist the drink.  On one occasion, Yelu Chucai pointed to how wine corroded the metal mouth of its container, and told Ogedai “how can it not cause even more injury to the five human organs?” Ogedai told Yelu Chucai just how right he was, gifted him gold and silks, then ordered for more wine. The most famous anecdote is Ogedai’s older brother, the stern Chagatai, ordering Ogedai’s cupbearers to halve the numbers of cups Ogedai was given in a day. Ogedai’s response was to double the size of the cups. Often ill, and more often drunk, with his absence his wife Torogene steadily increased her influence. 


Torogene had been captured by the Mongols in 1204/5, a wife of a Merkit chief before being given to Ogedai. Torogene was neither Ogedai’s first wife nor his favourite: these honours belonged to his wives Boraqchin and Moge Khatun respectively, the latter having been a wife of Chinggis Khan before passing to Ogedai on his father’s death. However, Torogene was the only wife to bear him sons. 5 of Ogedai’s 7 children were born with Torogene, the other two with concubines. We’ve already named several of these sons over the last few episodes: Guyuk, the eldest, followed by Koten, and Kochu, the son chosen as heir who died in 1236. Kochu’s demise was a personal and political blow Ogedai did not recover from, and in the vacuum caused by Ogedai’s drunken stupors, Torogene stepped up. With her close confidant, Fatima, a Central Asian Muslim captured during the Khwarezmian campaign, Torogene began manuevering her supporters into positions of power. All sources agree that Torogene was an intelligent woman, one who hoped to ensure her oldest son Guyuk would succeed Ogedai and not let the throne pass to another branch of the Chinggisids. Many sources also call her vengeful, vindictive and domineering.


Even while Ogedai still lived, Torogene began issuing decrees in his name; a necessity considered Ogedai was incapable or unwilling to do so. The already mentioned ‘Abd al-Rahman, the tax farmer from China, was an ally of Torogene, brought to her attention by Fatima, his rise assisted by their effort. Even though Ogedai removed him from his office in China, Torogene’s influence ensured al-Rahman stayed in the court. Indeed, he became Ogedai’s drinking buddy, only too happy to pass more cups to the Khaan’s lips. Those who had tried to restrict his drinking were distant, or had long since given up: Chief Minister of the Central Secretariat, Chinqai, was pushed out by ‘Abd al-Rahman and Torogene; Ogedai’s brother Chagatai was in Central Asia, and Yelu Chucai’s influence had dissipated, reduced to court astrologer. On the 7th of December, 1241, Ogedai went on a hunting trip in Mongolia. He returned on the 10th, where a feast was held, attended by ‘Abd al-Rahman and Ogedai’s sister, Al Altun, queen of the Uighurs who was there likely protesting central encroachments on her territory. Ogedai drank copiously, ‘Abd al-Rahman giving him wine and more wine throughout the night. By the morning of December 11th 1241, Ogedai, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, was dead.  He was 55 years old. 


Accusations of poison were spread: Ibaqa of the Keryit, a former wife of Chinggis who was cupbearer at the final feast, was accused, but was exonerated by the respected general Eljigidei (El-jig-i-die), a firm Ogedai loyalist. It seemed initially that Moge Khatun, the respected widow of both Chinggis and Ogedai, was poised to assume the regency until a successor could be decided. But the childless Moge was outmaneuvered by Torogene, who had anticipated this for years. Messengers were sent to Chagatai, now the only surviving son of Chinggis Khan, who sided with Torogene to be regent. Both Chagatai and Moge Khatun died soon afterwards. The sudden rounds of deaths sure were convenient to Torogene, but nothing can be proven on the matter. Either way, initially Torogene enjoyed wide support as regent, whose goal now was to secure the succession for her son Guyuk. It was not to be easy, nor cheap. Early on, the only surviving full brother of Chinggis Khan, his youngest brother Temuge, moved to take Karakorum with an army, but was convinced out of this by both Torogene’s diplomacy and the arrival of another of Ogedai’s sons Melik, and his troops. 


It should be noted that the succession issue was not something the Mongols ever sorted out. Chinggis had declared Ogedai to be his heir, but in steppe tradition neither choosing an heir nor primogeniture was common or always accepted. In theory the election was open to all descendants of Chinggis Khan through his wife, Borte. Due to Jochi’s uncertain paternity, his descendants never seem to have been viable however. Chinggis Khan could declare Ogedai his heir as his authority was absolute by the end of his life, but Ogedai did not wield the same strength on his death. It is conflicted between sources if Chinggis Khan had actually given the imperial throne permanently to the line of Ogedai, or if it was to be chosen by whoever was the fittest candidate amongst the branches. While being the son of the previous Khan was obviously a boon to this, having seniority, armies and commanders to back up one’s claim mattered a great deal, as the Khan was to be decided upon at quriltai of the elite of the empire. In earlier steppe empires, succession often went brother-to-brother before it went father-to-son. Before his death Ogedai had named his grandson Shiremun, son of his late heir Kochu, to succeed him, but the young and inexperienced Shiremun could not field this military support. Torogene’s second son Koten threw his hat in the ring, basing his candidacy on rumours that Chinggis Khan himself had once spoken well of him. Unlike Shiremun, he had military experience and a following, making him therefore a serious contender. Torogene’s early efforts to hold a quriltai, a meeting of the imperial family, to settle the matter were hampered by the refusal of Batu, head of the Jochids, to come or even send representatives. Citing gout and poor health, Batu stayed within his own territory and did not desire to see Guyuk ascend to the throne. The two had developed an antagonism during the great western campaign, and Batu saw that the ascension of Guyuk would be a limit on his own authority. 


While Torogene continued to try to arrange the next quriltai, she was no mere caretaker of the empire, instead making her own administrative decisions. Many of the ‘progressives’ of the administration, those who argued for reconstruction and regular taxation such as Chinqai in the Central Secretariat, Mahmud Yalavach in North China, Yalavach’s son Mas’ud Beg in the Central Asian Secretariat and Korguz in Iran, found themselves chased from office. Korguz was killed by the Chagatayids on a minor charge, to the anger of the Jochids who he was associated with, while Mas’ud Beg fled to the court of Batu. Mas’ud’s father Mahmud Yalavach had run afoul of Chagatai before Ogedai’s death, so chasing him from his new office in China further appeased the Chagatayid branch. Chinqai and Yalavach ended up finding refuge with Torogene’s second son, Koten, who refused to give them up to his mother. Having such influential and experienced figures in his court was a boon to his candidacy. Our dear friend Yelu Chucai, who had already lost influence before this, was spared, having been reduced to court astrologer and lacking real power. His wife predeceasing him, the powerless Yelu Chucai died in 1243, alone and depressed at the failure of his efforts. Before Chucai’s death Torogene’s ally ‘Abd al-Rahman had already been reappointed to his position in North China. We have very little information on his second tenure in the office, but almost certainly his exploitative practices continued. 


Part of why Torogene ran the ‘progressives’ from office was to secure the support of the Mongol elite who wanted to exploit China’s resources. A number felt already the influence of non-Mongols, especially Chinese, was too great in the administration and by appealing to this crowd Torogene could build support for her son’s enthronement.  Equally effective was a substantial spending effort on her part, gift giving to convince more to her cause. Notably, this was a period with little Mongol military action. Baiju continued his operations against the Seljuqs, as we covered previously, and minor operations continued against the Song Dynasty. It says a lot about the Mongol conquests when we can consider  concurrent campaigns happening in China and Anatolia as a slowdown!


It was not until summer 1246 that Torogene felt she had the support to hold the next quriltai to decide Ogedai’s successor. The choice was down to three: her sons Guyuk and Koten, and her grandson Shiremun, but neither of the latter could compete with Torogene’s warchest. Batu refused to come to this quriltai as well, but this time did send representatives like his older brother Orda and younger brother Berke. Perhaps he had realized the dangers to the empire by continuing to stall on the matter. The meeting was held near the Kerulen River in Mongolia in August, where Torogene had again spared no expense. The deliberations took place in a massive white tent, said to hold 2,000 people, where the nobility of the empire debated the course of action. On Torogene’s expense, matching outfits were provided for each day: white, red and blue velvet robes the first three days, followed by brocade on the fourth. Mornings of discussion followed with afternoons of drinking and evenings of feasting- again, huge expenses on the part of Torogene, and not without effect.  Deciding Shiremun was too young, Koten in too poor health, Guyuk was settled upon.  As per tradition, he refused several times before agreeing, hoisted into the throne by his cousins, Orda son of Jochi, and Yesu-Mongke son of Chagatai. On the 24th August 1246 Guyuk son of Ogedai, grandson of Chinggis Khan, became the third Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.


Our next episode discusses the “long” reign of Guyuk Khaan, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!