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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 22, 2020

You could be forgiven for not knowing the name of Guyuk Khan. Guyuk, as Great Khan of the Mongol Empire since 1246, makes a poor figure compared to the likes of his grandfather, Chinggis Khan, his father Ogedai, or cousins Mongke and Kublai. Few medieval writers had much good to say about him, and his successor, Mongke, ensured Guyuk’s legacy was tarnished. Yet, the reign of Guyuk was a turning point in the history of the Mongol Empire, the transition of the Khanate from the line of Ogedai to the descendants of Tolui. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.

Guyuk was about 40 years old when he became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in summer 1246. The oldest son of Ogedai Khaan and his wife, Torogene, not much is known of him prior to his ascension. He seems to have had little administrative experience, and only in the great western campaign does Guyuk come to notice. There, he performed well though friction developed between him and the senior prince of the campaign, Jochi’s son Batu. Guyuk and his cousin Mongke left with their troops before the campaign reached Hungary, but did not reach Mongolia before Ogedai’s death in December 1241. After Ogedai’s death, his widow Torogene began orchestrating support for Guyuk’s election to succeed his father. While Ogedai at various points -and various states of sobriety- had named several of his sons and a grandson as heirs, he never seems to have made such an explicit statement in regards to Guyuk. The Mongols did not practice primogeniture, so it was hardly a sure matter that, as the eldest, Guyuk had any right to succeed Ogedai. Neither did Guyuk seem to exert much effort for the nomination; the historical sources depict this as the efforts of Torogene, Guyuk almost a bystander to the matter. Despite this, Torogene succeeded, at quite some financial and personal cost, falling out with another son, Koten, and a grandson, Shiremun, who also wanted the throne.

So what was the character of the new monarch? Raised under the close supervision of the atabeg Qadaq, the atabeg being a Turkic institution to train young men in the art of war, the fact that Qadaq was a Christian seems to have instilled an affinity for the religion in Guyuk though he never converted. As we will explain later, Guyuk’s reputation was ripped apart by his successors. In the official accounts, he is generally depicted as suffering from some chronic, unidentified illness, engaging in daily drinking binges like his father, and generally shown as a poor monarch more interested in debauchery than ruling. Sources outside the empire, as stressed by historian Hodong Kim, provide a more balanced view. An important account is that of John de Plano Carpini, a European Friar sent as an envoy from the Pope to the Mongol Empire who attended Guyuk’s coronation in 1246. His account, uncoloured by the intrigues which emerged between the later Chinggisids, shows a strict, stern man who did not engage in frivolity, interested more so in continuing his father’s legacy, centralizing and expanding the empire. Guyuk, as we will see, probably was an alcoholic and suffering from illness, though neither was a trait unique to him among the Mongol princes. Yet, that he was also trying to restabilize the empire after Torogene’s regency and reign in local princes used to less imperial oversight, better explains the actions of his reign. Keeping that in mind, let us see what our boy Guyuk got up to.

Torogene had bitterly campaigned to place her son on the throne, in the process making several enemies, granting positions to favourites and in many respects, unintentionally weakening the central government of the empire. With her close confidant, the Shia Central Asian Fatima, she attempted to arrest Ogedai’s chancellor, the Nestorian Christian Chinqai, the head of the secretariat for China Mahmud Yalavach, Yalavach’s son and the head of the Central Asian secretariat Mas’ud Beg, and other appointees who stood against tax farming and exploitation. Chinqai and Mahmud Yalavach fled to Koten, Torogene’s son who also desired the throne, while Mas’ud Beg fled to the court of Batu in the western steppe. Others less fortunate were caught and killed. To raise the necessary funds for the bribes and gifts to secure Guyuk’s nomination, Torogene needed rapacious tax farmers, and thus appointed ‘Abd al-Rahman to the head of the China secretariat. ‘Abd al-Rahman, as we covered in the previous episode, had essentially put all of Mongol occupied north China in debt, and there is no reason to doubt that his efforts under Torogene were any less greedy. Other favours and positions were awarded to secure loyalties and remove figures who stood in Torogene’s path. The picture is of a destabilization of the empire’s bureaucracy, a general weakening of the central government over the corners of the empire. Batu, situated in what is now modern Russia and Kazakhstan, began to emerge in this period as an immensely powerful figure. With the death of Chagatai in 1242, Batu was considered the aqa, the senior prince of the Chinggisid lineage, and well outside Torogene’s influence. The cracks in the Mongol Empire were starting to form.

On his ascension in 1246 Guyuk’s main goal was reversing these trends. Just before his official enthronement, Guyuk had a reconciliation with his brother Koten, who had fallen deathly ill. Koten was convinced that Fatima, their mother’s confidant, was a witch and had cursed him, and was the cause of the strife under Torogene- or at least, a useful scapegoat. Getting Guyuk to promise to avenge him, Koten soon died. As he had given shelter to Chinqai and Mahmud Yalavach, these experienced figures entered Guyuk’s camp and were reinstated to their old positions, and were a major influence on Guyuk’s drive to centralization. Guyuk moved quickly on Chinqai’s urging. After Guyuk’s election, Torogene fell ill, and within 2-3 months had passed away. Before she did though, Guyuk made sure to dismantle her entire support network. ‘Abd al-Rahman, the money-hungry tax collector of China, was captured and executed. Offices and privileges granted since Ogdeai’s death- yarlighs, in Mongolian- were declared void. The greatest strike to Torogene was against Fatima. The sources depict them as dear friends, and some modern online commentators have suspected the relationship was even romantic, but nothing can be proven in that regard.

When Guyuk’s envoys came demanding Torogene hand over Fatima, Torogene refused. In response, Guyuk sent an armed escort with orders not to leave without her. Under armed guard, Fatima was taken captive, bound, starved, humiliated and under torture forced to admit to charges of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. Her family and supporters were killed, but witchcraft itself needed a more severe punishment. All of Fatima’s orifices were sewn shut, then she was rolled up in felt and, still living, thrown into a river. Torogene was heartbroken, mortified at what she had created, and soon died. Fatima, on Guyuk’s orders, took the blame for the mismanagement of the previous years, sparing any official condemnations of his own mother.

The executions did not stop there. You’ll recall in the previous episode how we mentioned Temuge, the youngest brother of Chinggis Khan, and his only surviving full-brother, had attempted to seize power during Torogene’s regency. Though he abandoned this, it was not forgotten. An official investigation was launched, headed by Orda, Batu’s older brother, and Mongke, the oldest of Tolui’s children, and thus senior members of their respective branches. Found guilty of treason, Temuge Otchigin was executed. Few details of the matter are known, and we can suppose information was suppressed. Also tried was Al Altan, Chinggis Khan’s favourite daughter who was married into the Uighur royal family. At Ogedai’s final feast, Al Altan had been present and argued with her brother regarding imperial encroachment on her territory. Ogedai was dead by the next morning. Al Altan was accused of poisoning Ogedai and executed by Guyuk’s right hand man, Eljigidei (el-ji-gi-de).

Guyuk also intervened elsewhere. On Chagatai’s death in 1242 he was succeeded by his grandson Qara-Hulegu. Guyuk had Qara-Hulegu removed and appointed his friend and drinking buddy Yesu-Mongke to replace him, putting a more pliant individual in charge of the Chagatai territories. He meddled even further afield. After the victory at Kose-Dagh in 1243, the Seljuqs of Anatolia were Mongol vassals, and a dispute had emerged over who should hold the sultanate after the death of Kaykhusraw II (kay-huus-raw the second): his sons Qilich Arslan IV or Kaykaus II. As Qilich Arslan made the journey to Mongolia to attend Guyuk’s coronation, Guyuk appointed him the Seljuq Sultan. In the Kingdom of Georgia, there was a dispute as to who would succeed the late Queen Rusudan. Batu wanted Rusudan’s son, David, to succeed her, while the local commander, Baiju, wanted Rusudan’s nephew, also named David, on the Georgian throne. Guyuk’s solution was to divide the Kingdom between the two of them.

Militarily, Guyuk wanted to resume the conquests after their general hiatus under Torogene. Venerable Subutai was sent on his final campaign alongside Chaghan Noyan against the Song Dynasty, though this was a brief affair. Eljigidei was sent to the Middle East with an army, and threatening letters were sent to the Caliph in Baghdad. Guyuk wanted to finally subjugate Europe, in what was effectively a massive pincer movement against the remaining independent powers on the western end of the continent. A demand for submission was sent with John de Plano Carpini to take back to the Pope and in Autumn 1247, Guyuk and his army set out.

This was something of a two birds, one stone situation. While Guyuk’s overall plan was to attack Europe, this brought him close to the territory of Batu. Batu would either have to assist the army, thus demonstrating his submission to the Khan, or he would be destroyed. This was not an attack on the Jochids, though. Guyuk got on fine with Batu’s older brother, Orda, and Guyuk may have intended to replace Batu with Orda as he had done in the Chagatai Khanate with Qara-Hulegu and Yesu-Mongke.

Batu was forewarned of the possibility from an unlikely source: Tolui’s widow, Sorqaqtani Beki. Alerted to the danger Batu prepared an army and moved eastwards, sending his brother Shiban ahead to determine Guyuk’s intentions. It seemed the Mongol Empire was veering dangerously close to civil war. This was averted as in April 1248, Guyuk Khan suddenly died, a week’s march west of Beshbaliq. The timing is convenient, and medieval sources share rumours of Guyuk being poisoned by Batu via his brother Shiban. But, as we noted earlier, the sources also mention Guyuk in chronically poor health worsened by his heavy drinking. If true, Guyuk was hardly the first, nor the last, Mongol prince undone from alcoholism and its associated risks. But the timing was rather convenient for Batu, who seems to have been a little too prepared to jump on the opportunity. Batu immediately sent messengers to Guyuk’s widow, Oghul-Qaimish, urging her to take the regency with the assistance of the able Chinqai until a quriltai could declare Guyuk’s successor. In the meantime, Batu proposed a quriltai to be held at a more central location, called Ala Qamaq. The precise location is unclear, but seems to have been somewhere south of Lake Balkhash, rather near to Batu’s territory.

The suggestion was met with uproar among the families of Chagatai and Ogedai. The traditional homeland of Chinggis Khan, the Onon-Kerulen region of northern Mongolia, had to be where the Khan was decided! Support for Batu’s suggestion came from his lineage, the Jochids, and what at first seems unlikely allies, the Toluids. To explain this, we need to step back a few years. Tolui, the fourth son of Chinggis Khan and Borte, had married a Kereyit woman, a niece of Toghrul Ong Khan named Sorqaqtani Beki. On Tolui’s death in 1232, Sorqaqtani became the head of that branch of the family. The sources across the board agree that Sorqaqtani was highly intelligent, diplomatically and commercially skilled. She was diplomatically skilled enough to decline, without issue, Ogedai’s offer for her to marry his son Guyuk after Tolui’s death. Instead, she remained independent, inheriting Tolui’s lands and making off very well in the allotment of appanages in 1236. She spent the following years fostering her territories, making ties with merchants and amassing quite the fortune. Even before Tolui’s death, he was often away on campaigning, leaving her to the rearing of their four children: Mongke, Kublai, Hulegu, and Ariq Boke, four names we’ll get to know very well in the following episodes. Teaching them to read and write Mongolian, about administration and leadership, she groomed them for leadership. She also made ties abroad. One of her sisters, Ibaqa, had been married to Chinggis Khan, while another was married to Jochi and though she bore him no sons, it allowed her to make contact with his sons from other wives and form a good relationship with Batu. And then she waited. When Guyuk moved his army westwards, Sorqaqtani was quick to have messengers contact Batu. Batu, concerned with his own autonomy, prepared for the worst. While we can offer no proof if they actually conspired to kill Guyuk, or simply took advantage of the situation as it developed, either way they deftly handled what followed. The combination of the wealth of Batu and Sorqaqtani, and their tremendous influence, made them a dangerous pair, one which outplayed their political rivals.

As the quriltai at Ala-Qamaq looked to be going ahead, Sorqaqtani likely felt she compared very well to Guyuk’s widow and the regent, Oghul-Qaimish. Nothing is known of Oghul-Qaimish until she was suddenly thrust into the regency. Like Torogene, she was originally from the Merkit tribe, awarded to Guyuk when both were young. She bore Guyuk two sons, Qucha and Naqu, and may have been the mother of his three known daughters. Unlike Torogene and Sorqaqtani, Oghul-Qaimish had no network of carefully selected allies to rely upon, and was completely unprepared for the role of imperial regent. She is described as generally ignoring the requirements of governing the empire, spending her time with shamans and merchants. Dismissive of Batu’s efforts to organize the quriltai, it seems she was under the impression that the succession would of course go to one of her sons, while also believing it could not go forth without her presence. Because of this, she also seems to have failed to undertake the extensive bribery- sorry, ‘gift giving’- necessary to help smooth along one’s nomination.

The quriltai at Ala-Qamaq was held in 1250. While it saw strong attendance from the houses of Jochi and Tolui, few Chagatayids or Ogedeids bothered to show up, refusing to see it as legitimate. Oghul-Qamish was not present, and her sons Qucha and Naqu briefly stopped in before departing and leaving a representative, Temur Noyan, to vote for them. As Qara-Hulegu, the deposed grandson of Chagatai, and one of Ogedai’s sons from a concubine, Qadan, showed up, Batu could say that all branches of the family were represented and therefore, was perfectly legal. In the absence of Qucha and Naqu, the only candidate who fielded enough respect was Mongke, though we can suspect it was engineered to choose him either way. Mongke was the eldest son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani, a fit, well respected military leader who had fought well during the great western campaign. Mongke and his mother were friendly to Batu, and made an agreement to essentially make Batu ruler of the western half of the empire. Hence, Batu ensured Mongke had the Jochid vote.

This was by no means uncontested. The house of Ogedai believed that Chinggis Khan had meant for rule of the empire to stay within their line. Batu, Sorqaqtani and her children presented various arguments against this. One was that the Ogedeids, through their actions such as the executions of Temuge and Al Altan, or by choosing to elect Guyuk to succeed Ogedai instead of his grandson Shiremun, had voided this. Another was that, in Mongolian tradition, the youngest son inherited the father’s property. As Tolui was Chinggis Khan’s youngest son, that therefore made his line the rightful heirs. The fact that Mongke was not in turn Tolui’s youngest son was thoughtfully glossed over. Generous bribery did much to convince the naysayers present, and in the end even the representative left by Qucha and Naqu voted to elect Mongke as great Khan. The assembly agreed to hold a quriltai in Mongolia as soon as possible to confirm it.

That an election went ahead without their presence sent the Ogedeids into a tailspin. They had failed to declare their own candidate in the first place: Qucha and Naqu each wanted to be Khan, while their mother Oghul-Qaimish seems to have actually picked Ogedai’s grandson Shiremun as her candidate. At each other’s throats, the three actually formed their own courts in opposition to each other. Government at the highest level ground to a halt, the minister Chinqai said to have been left in the wind as none of these courts listened to him. Oghul-Qaimish tried to raise funds for a quriltai: like Guyuk, she only paid merchants in drafts rather than, well, actual payment, and increased irregular acquisitions on the sedentary population. Even nomads saw their taxes increase: normally every 1 in 100 horses was paid in tax, but in 1250 this increased to every 1 in 10! An embassy from King Louis IX of France brought a red scarlet tent as gift for Oghul-Qaimish, which she took around to claim she had just garnered the submission of the King of France. It was all for naught.

In summer 1251 the quriltai was held by the Kerulen River, where Mongke was formally enthroned at a lavish ceremony. Oghul-Qaimish and her son Qucha did not attend. Naqu did, in the company of Shiremun, and an army hidden inside large gers mounted on carts. They were going to arrive late and ambush the new Khaan in the middle of feasting. Or they would have, if not for a lost camel. A member of Mongke’ keshig, a falconer, was in search of a camel which had wandered off when he ended up in the camp of Naqu and Shiremun. There he stopped to help in repairing a broken cart, which he noticed was full of weapons and armour- something one simply did not bring to a quriltai. Politely excusing himself, he was said to have ran “three days distance in one,” to reach the new Khan. The sources present Mongke refusing to believe members of his family would march against him. We can dismiss this entirely. The possibility of such a counter effort had to have been anticipated from the beginning, and the fact that Mongke immediately had an armed company under his right-hand man, Menggeser, on standby to send against them speaks to that. Menggeser and his men apprehended Naqu and Shiremun and dispersed his force. Mongke needed to begin his reign with clearing the board of enemies, on a scale beyond even what Guyuk had done. Qucha was ordered to come to Mongke, and only reluctantly agreed. Oghul-Qaimish refused to come, calling Mongke’s messengers traitors for having taken the rule from the line of Ogedai. They returned with an armed escort, taking her captive with her hands stitched together in rawhide. Along with Shiremun’s mother, they were taken to the camp of Sorqaqtani. There, they were beaten with burning brands until they confessed to charges of witchcraft. As Sorqaqtani had fallen ill about this time, this accusation for those assembled may have felt legitimate. Put on trial by Menggeser, now chief judge of the empire, Oghul-Qaimish was stripped naked and humiliated, but defiant.

“How can anyone else look upon a body that only an emperor has seen?” she told the court. She was found guilty, then rolled up in felt and thrown into the Kerulen River, though spared having her orifices sewn. Her sons fared better, as Shiremun’s chief commander was tortured into saying the princes were innocent of the treason. Qucha was forced to live basically within sight of Karakorum, while Naqu and Shiremun were sent to the front lines in China. Guyuk’s man Eljigidei was punished for the execution of Al Altan, his sons caught and their mouths filled with stones until they died. Eljigidei was captured and sent to Batu, who either boiled him alive, or cut off his feet and head. Buri, a grandson of Chagatai and friend of Guyuk, was put to death by Batu, while Yesu-Mongke, the prince Guyuk had placed in charge of the Chagatais, was executed and replaced by Qara-Hulegu, who had originally held the position. Guyuk’s atabeg, Qadaq, was also captured and killed. The Uighur idiqut was put to death by his own brother on Mongke’s orders. Even the able and long serving Chinqai was killed, an old enemy Danishmand Hajib allowed to take out a grudge upon him.

This purge continued until the line of Ogedai had been pruned and their lands confiscated. Only a few princes, those who had sided with Mongke or were too young, such as Qaidu, the future foe of Kublai, survived on much reduced territories. The ulus of Ogedai essentially ceased to exist, most of its territory given to the Jochids, central government or Toluids. The Chagatai Khanate fared better, but saw a change in leadership and loss of several princes. This was the Toluid Revolution, a massive transformation in the Mongol Empire. The switching of the ruling line from that of Ogedai to Tolui, the near eradication of the line of Ogedai and effective division of the empire between Batu and Mongke marked a radical transformation in the composition of the empire. Mongke and the lines of his brothers wrote official histories to justify the switch to their rule, and here we see the ravaging of the reputations of Torogene, Guyuk and Oghul Qaimish. Sorqaqtani died shortly after Mongke’s ascension, and unlike Torogene and Oghul Qaimish, she passed away on good terms with her son, having seen him elevated to the highest of positions. Nevertheless, it was in part to her efforts that the empire was placed on a path to fragmentation. Deep seated grudges were now set among the lines, and the unity that Chinggis Khan had fought so fiercely to achieve was cracking. In the meantime, Mongke was going to lead the empire in another massive phase of expansion, 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!