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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 7, 2020

Mongke Khaan was dead. Over his 8 year reign, he had ruled the Mongol Empire firmly, strengthening government and renewing the conquests. Yet had not solved the tensions and problems which had been simmering below the surface since the death of Ogedai. Having not designated a successor, Mongke’s brothers Kublai and Ariq Böke would stand in to fill the void, with disastrous results for the empire. In the aftermath of Mongke’s death, the Mongol Empire was irrevocably torn apart, ending the dreams of Chinggis Khan for Mongolian unity. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Before we carry on with our narrative, we must note that following events are highly coloured by who won- quite literally a case of history being written by the victors seeking to justify their victory. Based on recent scholarship and recognition of these biases, we will try to offer a slight reinterpretation of the events, though the outcome remains the same.


Mongke died in August 1259 while on campaign in China, fighting the Song Dynasty in Sichuan. His plan to overwhelm the Song came to a crashing halt, bogged down in sieges and mud, before his demise caused his army to fall back. Perhaps the sole safe guard left in place in event of his death was his youngest brother, Ariq Böke, left as regent in the imperial capital, Karakorum, while Mongke marched on China. Intended to keep the empire running smoothly in Mongke’s absence, it’s possible Mongke, as with so much of his reign, had tailored this as reaction to the regencies after the deaths of Ogedai and Guyuk. Rather than repeat the chaotic periods of control by Torogene and Oghul Qaimish, Mongke may have wanted Ariq to seamlessly step up and guide the empire to an organized quriltai, rather than rely on conniving mothers to do it themselves. Thus was Ariq brought to the forefront of the world stage.


So who was Ariq Böke? The youngest son of Tolui and Sorhaktani Beki, he was born sometime in the early 1220s, putting him in his early forties at Mongke’s death. Unlike his older brother Kublai, Ariq never showed any affinity to Chinese culture, despite being provided Confucian advisers. Instead, he is generally portrayed as a proud supporter of Mongolian culture, priding himself as a nomad uncorrupted by the sedentary world. The second part of his name, Böke, is an epithet, which means variously ‘bull, strong/unbreakable, wrestler.’ Evidently, he was a man of quite some physical prowess, perhaps a star in that favourite Mongol pastime of wrestling. He seems to have had an affinity to Christianity: the Franciscan Friar, William of Rubruck, during his visit to Mongke’s court in 1254 interacted with Ariq and noted that he listened to Christian oratory several time, made the sign of the cross and stated that he knew the Messiah is God. Considering that Rubruck remarked on Mongke’s own refusal to convert to Christianity or Islam and his personal failures to convert anyone, there’s no reason to think he lied on Ariq’s interest in the religion. Ariq’s mother Sorhaktani and at least one of his sons, Mingliq-Temur, were Christians. His chief wife was an Oirat princess, Elchiqmish (el-chiq-mish), described as very tall and as a granddaughter of Chinggis Khan via his daughter Chechiyegen (Chech-ee-yeg-en), she was also Ariq’s cousin. They had no children, but Ariq is said to have loved her very much. 


One of Mongke’s sons who accompanied him on the campaign into China, Asutai, brought his father’s body to Mongolia in autumn 1259. Immediately, Ariq Böke stepped into his duties as regent. Messages were sent across the empire to alert princes and notables of the Great  Khan’s demise: Kublai, Mongke’s brother closest in age and also campaigning in China, learned of his death in September. Their third brother, Hulegu, learned of it in spring 1260. Representatives of the family were told to come to Mongolia in order for Ariq to arrange a quriltai and decide who would succeed Mongke. But trouble came from a perhaps expected direction: Kublai, their brother who had often butted heads with Mongke, now refused to return to Karakorum. 


Over Mongke’s reign, Kublai had been a repeated problem for both the Khan and his chief officials. After his return from the Dali campaign in 1254, Kublai began administering a large swath of northern China. There he showed what some modern authors interpret as inclinations to independence; or at the very least, pretensions to greater autonomy. The first sign was Kublai butting heads with the head of the Secretariat for China, the long-time servant of the Central Government, Mahmud Yalavach. Yalavach was reappointed to the position in 1251, and nominally in charge of tax assessment and collection, but found his efforts challenged by Kublai and his Chinese advisers who desired a more ‘Confucian,’ and local method of taxation and governance. Yalavach was never on good terms with the Chinese, and found many enemies among Kublai’s faction. Accused of malfeasance by Kublai’s followers, around 1254 Yalavach was removed from his post and soon died, though the exact details are murky. So ended the long career of a man who had once served as Chinggis Khan’s envoy to the Khwarezmshah.


Without Yalavach’s meddling, Kublai could strengthen his local influence and position. Most apparent was in the building of a city in 1256 in what is modern Inner Mongolia, on the very edge of the steppe and north China. Called Kaiping, it was built in Chinese style and looked rather suspiciously like a capital city, a rival to Karakorum. The next year, some of Mongke’s ministers under Alandar led an investigation into Kublai’s administration, finding numerous infractions. Kublai’s authority was curtailed, his powers of tax collection rescinded, and some of his men executed. But there were further concerns, most identifiable in Kublai’s affinity for Chinese culture. Filling his staff with Buddhist and Confucians, Kublai’s administration looked a little too Chinese for Mongke’s tastes. The Mongol Empire needed to be ruled by Mongols, afterall, and placing more power into the hands of the Chinese simply would not do. Kublai remained in Mongke’s bad graces until 1258, when Mongke needed him for the oncoming campaign against the Song Dynasty. Provided one of the main armies, Kublai led his force through Central China to O-chou, modern Wuhan, where he learned of Mongke’s death in September 1259. Ariq Böke’s officials were there to get Kublai to move north for the quriltai, only for Kublai to spurn them.  


While Kublai’s official excuse was that he could not depart with his task unfinished, an alternative explanation is often provided by modern authors. That is, that Kublai saw this as his chance to take the throne, but needed to beef up his military credentials with victories- so far unearned in that campaign. Ariq Böke, to our knowledge, had not led any armies, making this perhaps the one area Kublai could one-up his brother in the eyes of the Mongol aristocracy. Keep in mind how Ariq’s epithet stressed his strength and ability as a wrestler. In comparison, Kublai suffered from gout and may have already been overweight. Already seen as soft for his interest in Chinese culture and known for having lost Mongke’s trust as an administrator, Kublai needed every advantage he could get in an election against Ariq. If he could paint himself as the better, more experienced military commander, that could be all the edge he needed. Since elections took a while to be called to allow for the appropriate princes and representatives to return to Mongolia, Kublai e predicted he had plenty of time to take a few cities and score some victories of his own.


Kublai spent the next two month crossing the Yangzi River and taking O-chou, linking up with another commander, Uriyangqadai, the son of the illustrious Subutai. The news of Kublai’s continued campaigning was not well met back in Karakorum. Two members of Mongke’s keshig were particularly displeased by this: Alandar, the official who investigated Kublai’s administration, and most importantly, Bulghai, the chief judge of the empire, a Nestorian Christian and Mongke’s #2. Neither was friendly with Kublai. As brother closest in age to the late Khan, Kublai was a prime candidate for the throne, albeit one too interested in Chinese culture and a threat to the current top men of the empire. Therefore, Bulghai and Alandar began to organize the election of Ariq as the next Khan of Khans, if Ariq had not already begun to encourage this himself. With the burial of Mongke, his son Asutai and his generals returned and presented Mongke’s jade seal to Ariq. 


Part of organizing a quriltai was getting the appropriate bribes -again, sorry, gift giving- out in time to ensure the princes voted for the right candidate. It had taken Torogene a matter of years to organize the proper support for Guyuk’s coronation, and this was not a process done in secret. That Ariq was left as regent in Karakorum suggests he had a good relationship with those top officials of the Central Secretariat. Having these men and their government institutions on his side made for a powerful campaigning apparatus. Quickly, it seems Ariq gathered widespread support, particularly from the imperial administration and Mongke’s family, especially his sons Asutai and Urungtash who, for reasons we cannot discern, do not seem to have ever been considered as candidates.


In November 1259, messages reached Kublai from his wife, Chabi, at that time in Kaiping. Kublai highly valued Chabi’s advice, and when she sent word that Ariq looked to be moving to claim the Khanate, Kublai was forced to give up his advance to China. That this exchange occurred suggests Kublai’s primary interest was not carrying out the expansion, but securing his own claim for the throne. Withdrawing north to Kaiping, he left only a token force behind to guard his conquests, which was soon crushed when an army was sent by the Song chancellor, Jia Sidao. Sidao portrayed it as a great victory, playing it up to secure his newly taken place at the head of the Song court. Kublai could only send envoys seeking a diplomatic settlement, who were imprisoned by the chancellor, an anticlimactic end to Kublai’s effort at military glory in time for the election.


Returning to Kaiping in Inner Mongolia in the first days of 1260, Kublai watched the support for Ariq’s election continually grow. Having been forced to give up his military conquests in the south, and therefore not creating a reputation as a great conqueror, Kublai may have felt he lost the chance to win an election on Ariq’s term. Perhaps fearful that Ariq may try to arrest him if he approached Karakorum with a small entourage, yet knowing approaching with a larger escort would look like he was attacking the city, Kublai felt he had only one choice: declare himself Khan first, on ground of his choosing. In April or May 1260, at his own city of Kaiping, did Kubla Khan a stately reign decree, and in doing so signed the death warrant for Mongol imperial unity. By all standards, it was illegal: Kublai had neither the support of the four branches of the family and the election was not in the Onon-Kerulen region, the homeland of Chinggis Khan, but in his Chinese-style city. Kublai Khan had just usurped the throne. 


He had one small feather in his cap; Kublai could boast he was already recognized by a foreign power. When moving northwards, Kublai met the travelling Crown Prince of Korea, Wang Chon. Having been sent as a royal hostage to Mongke’s court, his timing was poor: while on the road, both Mongke and Wang Chon’s father, King Kojong, died. Korean sources assert that upon learning of Mongke’s death, like a good loyal subject Wang Chon sped to recognize Kublai as the rightful Khan. The idea that Wang Chon had any choice of the matter is generally dismissed by modern scholars. As part of Kublai’s entourage, he witnessed Kublai’s election and was soon sent back to Korea to be installed as the new King, Wonjong. A powerful opening move, it was the beginning of a decades-long close relationship between Kublai, Wonjong and their descendants. Kublai followed up his election with official messages to the Song and official proclamations; that his goals were to feed the hungry, reduce taxes and burdens on the people. Within days of becoming Great Khan, Kublai took a Chinese era name. In Chinese imperial tradition, emperors denoted sections of their reign as eras, which was used for year identification. It’s the kind of thing one does if they want to be associated with Chinese customs of leadership. From the start, Kublai Khan did not just hold an illegal election, but a shockingly Chinese one as well.  For Ariq’s faction in Karakorum, this was a shocking demonstration against the legacy of Chinggis Khan. More immediately, it was a dangerous grab for power.


In reaction, in July of 1260 Ariq Böke finally held his election and was declared Khan in an appropriately placed, decidedly non-Chinese process. Ariq held a better claim to legitimacy, for it seems he actually had the support of the branches of the family. The regent of the Chagatai Khanate was the popular Orghina Khatun, sister of Ariq’s beloved wife Elchiqmish, who gave her support. The Jochid Khan, Berke, sent his support, as did some Ogedeid princes, and it seems so did Kublai and Ariq’s brother, Hulegu, whose son Jumqhur attended.  Mongke’s sons Asutai and Urungtash, his widows, his keshig and the Central Secretariat led by Bulghai and Alandar, sided strongly with Ariq, and so did the venerable Shigi Qutuqu, an adopted son of Chinggis Khan now well into his 70s. 


Over summer 1260, as tensions heightened, messengers sped between the two brothers. Each wanted the other to submit and recognize their rule. Neither yielded. While Ariq had the official support, Kublai was decidedly in the advantage in terms of position. Kublai could exert his hold across northern China, ousting officials who had declared for Ariq and allying with  Qadan, a son of Ogedai and the prince holding the Uighur territories around Beshbaliq. Between them, they sought to close off access to north China to Ariq. For Ariq in Karakorum, this placed him in an unsustainable position. Karakorum could not support itself, requiring hundreds of cartloads of supplies daily, largely from northern China. With his army stationed there, this was even more imperative. In a contest of resources, Kublai’s hold of north China was a trump card. 


To further starve out Karakorum, Kublai sought to install a new Chagatai Khan loyal to him, a great-grandson of Chagatai named Abishgha. With a small party, Abishgha was sent to oust Orghina Khatun and take power there, denying the Chagatai ulus’ resources and men to Ariq. Abishgha and his small party were captured and brought to Ariq. Tensions boiled. It was a diplomatic impasse. By autumn, it was war. Kublai began to occupy Mongolia, while Ariq sent an army under Alandar to seize the former Tangut territory, the Gansu corridor, the conduit which links north China to Central Asia. In October, Alandar was killed and his  army defeated by Kadan and Kublai’s loyalists. Kublai could now exert control across the northern Chinese right to Kadan in Uighuria. At a similar time, part of Ariq’s army was also defeated by Kublai’s troops at an unknown site called Baski. A panicked Ariq had Ahishgha executed, then moved his army from the untenable position at Karakorum, falling back to the Yenisei River valley. Northwest of Mongolia proper, the Yenisei is a valuable region producing wheat, millet, barley and craftsmen, but no place to conquer China from. Sending messages of peace to Kublai, Ariq managed to diplomatically hold off Kublai, stopping him from seizing Karakorum and providing Ariq time to think of new plans.


With the start of 1261, Ariq implemented his new schemes. While popular in the Chagatai ulus, Orghina Khatun, regent for her young son Mubarak Shah, was not a war leader. Ariq had her replaced by Alghu, a grandson of Chagatai who could hopefully rally the ample resources of the Middle ulus for Ariq’s needs with loss of access to resources of China. In the summer, Ariq sought to wrest control of Mongolia from Kublai’s men. Ariq won the first engagement, but Kublai merely sent another army against his brother. In November 1261, at Shimu’ultu Lake in southeastern Mongolia, Ariq Böke Khan’s army was defeated and forced to retreat. Ariq had to abandon Mongolia for good, falling back to the Yenisei River. 


Ariq could never come back from the defeat at Shimu’ultu. He lacked the manpower to engage in any attrition with Kublai, and over 1262 the chance of victory was wrenched from his grasp. That year Kublai’s forces entered Karakorum, though his direct actions against Ariq were limited due to an uprising within his Chinese territory. In the west, Ariq’s ally Berke was unable to provide support with the opening of war between him and Hulegu over the Caucasus.  Alghu, Ariq’s appointee in the Chagatai realm, started to attack Jochid possessions in Khwarezm and Tranosxiana, ousting Berke’s representatives. Killing Ariq’s envoys, by the end of the year Alghu declared for Kublai. Ariq’s only chance at securing anything depended on the resources of the Chagatais, and in 1263 from his base on the Yenisei he attacked Alghu. Alghu won in the first two engagements, but Ariq had the better of the third, forcing Alghu to flee to Kashgar. 


Ariq took the Chagatai capital of Almaliq, in modern Xinjiang close to the border with Kazakhstan. It was here that Ariq spent the final days of his reign. An incredibly harsh winter in 1263 brought famine to men and horses on the steppe. A frustrated Ariq Böke took his anger out on captured Chagatai prisoners. Harsh treatment of fellow Mongols alienated Ariq’s supporters and coupled with the conditions, led to desertion. Hulegu’s son Jumghur left, as did Mongke’s son Urungtash, who brought his father’s seal to Kublai. The omens were bad: harsh winds tore Ariq’s tent right from its pegs, causing it to crash about and injure many. At its end and with an ever decreasing circle of supporters, Ariq knew the gig was up. In August of 1264, he came in person before Kublai at Kaiping, now renamed to Shangdu. Per the account of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din, Ariq waited in front of Kublai’s ger for permission to enter, and upon coming face to face with his brother burst into tears. An emotional Kublai asked, “my dear brother, during this strife and contention, were we right or were you?”


To which, as written by Rashid al-Din, Ariq Böke replies “we were then. But you are today.”


Blame was placed onto Ariq’s generals, who were accused of instigating Ariq’s “revolt.” 10,  including Bulghai, were executed. Ariq was to be put on trial before the other heads of the family, but all of them- Berke, Hulegu and Alghu, refused to come. Yet Kublai’s generals demanded punishment. The problem was fixed when illness very conveniently struck down the erstwhile healthy Ariq Böke. The timing was certainly handy, and accusations fall on Kublai. Yet it’s possible that a depressed Ariq, brought down by a difficult and fruitless civil war, drunk himself to an early grave. So it was that Kublai was the sole claimant as Khan of Khans. 


Having won the war, Kublai lost the empire. Only Hulegu provided his nominal support, but neither he nor Berke or Alghu ever made an attempt to submit in person. Over 1265 and 1266, the three of them died. Hulegu’s successor, his son Abaqa, received an official investiture from Kublai, but Kublai had no power to depose or appoint him or his successors. Kublai sent another descendant of Chagatai, Baraq, to take Alghu’s place, but Baraq soon operated independent of the Great Khan, and fought with the rising prince of the Ogedeids, Qaidu. By 1269, a brief peace was organized between Baraq, Qaidu and the new Jochid Khan, Mongke-Temur. The Peace of Qatwan as it’s known, saw territorial distribution and allotment totally without Kublai’s consideration, circumventing utterly the Great Khan’s authority. Kublai’s rule as Great Khan was nominal in the western half of Mongol territory, a spectre of illegitimacy hanging over him. By 1271, we can speak in earnest of the divisions of the Empire as independent entities, khanates:  the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate and the Yuan Dynasty, the latter being the Chinese dynastic name Kublai gave to his reduced empire. As well, there is the matter of the Ogedeid Khanate under Qaidu, the Neguderis and the Blue and White Horde, but we will illuminate these in future episodes.


Most of our sources from within the Mongol Empire come from areas ruled by the descendants of Kublai and Hulegu, the Yuan Dynasty and the Ilkhanate. In the Yuan Dynasty, the need to justify Kublai’s election as legitimate is obvious. The most influential of Ilkhanid authors was the vizier Rashid al-Din, whose Compendium of Chronicles is among the most valuable of all medieval sources on the Mongols. Writing around 1300, Rashid was personally informed of the events of the 1260s from Bolad Chingsang, one of Kublai’s judges who took part in the trials against Ariq and his generals. This pro-Kublai bias strongly affected Rashid al-Din’s work, who dubbed the war as “Ariq’s revolt.” Like so many other figures of the Mongol Empire, only by carefully sifting through the surviving sources can we hope to see through the biases of the winning side. Doubtless, had Ariq had won, Kublai’s name would have been the one tarnished. But Kublai secured his empire, and now the long reign of Kublai Khan was to begin. 


The Mongol Empire as a united entity ceased to exist by Kublai Khan’s victory in 1264, but it’s history does not end there. Our future episodes will discuss the other great breakup of the empire, the Berke-Hulegu war, and the continued histories of the successor Khanates, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!