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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 19, 2021

After the long reign of Abaqa Il-Khan, as covered in our previous episode, the Ilkhanate entered it’s somewhat messy “middle period.” These are the years between the death of Abaqa, in 1282, and the ascension of Ghazan in 1295. In these 13 years, four men came to the Ilkhanid throne: Teguder Ahmad, Arghun, Geikhatu and Baidu. Their reigns, if  we believe the historians writing under Ghazan and his successors, constituted a period of disorder and anarchy before the stabilizing and centralizing rule of Ghazan. Usually glossed over in favour of Abaqa or Ghazan, today we take you through one of the lesser known periods of the Ilkhanate, beginning with the ilkhans Teguder and Arghun. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Our last episode ended with the death of Abaqa, son of Hulegu and a great-grandson of Chinggis Khan.  A capable enough monarch, Abaqa had ruled the Ilkhanate stably from the mid 1260s until his death in April 1282. His death left three primary candidates: two of his brothers, Mongke-Temur and Teguder, and Abaqa’s eldest son Arghun. The death of Mongke-Temur only a few weeks after Abaqa’s  death removed him from the running, and the more senior, powerful and well connected Teguder was able to claim the throne over the young Arghun. Prince Arghun was very bitter of the loss, and nursed his resentment though accepted Teguder’s election. In June 1282 Teguder was installed as the third Ilkhan. In many ways he sought continuity with late brother. The beleaguered vizier Shams al-Din Juvaini and his brother ‘Ala al-Din ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, the historian and governor of Baghdad, were retained in their posts, as were many other officials in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. 


     The new Ilkhan’s  reign differed from his late brother’s in one significant respect though: Teguder was a Muslim, who on his enthronement took the name of Ahmad and the title of Sultan. For this reason he is often known, somewhat interchangeably, as Teguder Ahmad or Ahmad Teguder in modern writing, and usually just as Sultan Ahmad in the 13th and 14th century sources. As with so many Mongol converts to Islam, it is unclear when he converted; according to the contemporary Armenian writer Het’um Patmich’, known also as Het’um of Corycus,  Teguder had been a Christian in his youth with the baptismal name of Nicholas, but had converted sometime before taking the throne in 1282. It seems he was converted by sufis, as a number of dervishes were attached to his court and inner circle. One sufi in particular, Shaykh Kemal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman held such great influence over Teguder that he continually consulted with him and referred to him as father.


    Teguder’s Islam has been a tricky thing to define, as his commitment to islam varies depending on the source. In a letter Teguder sent to the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun, Teguder spoke of how he has established sharia law in the Ilkhanate, protected pilgrimage routes and built new religious buildings. Indeed, Teguder argued, based on their shared religion it should have been now easier for the Mamluk Sultanate to submit to him. Armenian writers from Cilicia like Het’um of Corycus generally portray Teguder as a great prosecutor of Christians who also destroyed churches, while his countryman Step’annos Orbelian believed Teguder wanted to exterminate Christianity. Yet at the exact same time, the Syriac churchman Bar Hebraeus wote of Teguder as a friend to Christians, an upholder of religious toleration who exempted churches and Christians from taxation and allowed Hebraeus to build a new church. 14th century writers from both the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ilkhanate write of Teguder’s Islam in doubting terms. The Mamluks seem to have been largely skeptical of his conversion, while the great Ilkhanid vizier and historian Rashid al-Din, writing at the start of the 1300s under the aegis of the mighty Muslim monarch Ghazan and his brother Oljeitu, remarked Teguder only “claimed to be a Muslim.” 


    Teguder’s conversion to Islam was not the start of Islamization of the Mongols; it instead reflects the gradual trend for conversion among some of the younger generation, but at the same time it does not seem to have been an issue for the acceptance of the new Ilkhan, with the exception of the opinion of the his nephew Arghun. Arghun, as Abaqa’s oldest son, felt the throne was his by right. Teguder Ahmad’s extended generosity on his enthronement, including many gifts for Arghun, did not ease Arghun’s hard feelings. The always suspicious Teguder must have taken note of it, but Teguder had an empire to run and wanted to avoid civil strife so showed Arghun his due respect.


 In our last episode, we left of with the Juvaini brothers, the vizier Shams al-Din and the historian ‘Ala al-Din, placed in a bind due to the efforts of their enemy, Shams al-Din’s former protege Majd al-Mulk. Majd al-Mulk had found a willing ear in Prince Arghun, who in Abaqa’s final  years managed to imprison, fine, and generally harass the powerful Juvainis. On Teguder’s ascension in summer 1282, the new Ilkhan had ‘Ala al-Din released from prison and restored to favour, bestowing on him gifts to make up for his expenses. Likewise was ‘Ala al-Din’s younger brother Shams al-Din maintained in his role as vizier.


    Majd al-Mulk was also summoned to speak before Teguder, and worried for his future. As Shams al-Din Juvaini spoke to Teguder Ilkhan of Majd al-Mulk’s misdeeds, Majd al-Mulk reached once again to his associate Prince Arghun, and convinced him that the Juvainis had poisoned his father Abaqa. This time Majd al-Mulk could not outmaneuver the Juvainis. A dried piece of lion skin was found in Majd al-Mulk’s  belongings covered in unintelligible script of red and yellow ink. The shamans and buddhist monks in Teguder’s court- another indication he was not the most devout of Muslims- confirmed that the item was one used in sorcery. Majd al-Mulk knew his game was up. The Mongols saw sorcery as one of the most heinous of charges. Despite efforts by Shams al-Din Juvaini to argue for a pardon, Teguder Ilkhan ordered Majd al-Mulk’s death. In August 1282 he was tossed to an angry mob in Tabriz, and torn to pieces.


    It can be imagined that Arghun only saw this as proof of the Juvaini’s scheming, though he felt he could not at the moment go after vizier Shams al-Din. That winter Arghun moved  to Baghdad with a body of Qara’unas troops. ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini had been reinstated as governor of Baghdad, but had not returned to the city. This was lucky for him, as while in Baghdad Arghun demanded that ‘Ala al-Din pay up the rest of the money he owed from the fines Majd al-Mulk and Arghun had levied against him, fines that Teguder had dismissed. In the process of making noise around the city, Arghun ordered one of ‘Ala al-Din’s recently deceased officers to be disinterred and his body thrown onto the street and descrecrated. 


    Arghun’s actions were insulting and were met with great concern by the Ilkhan’s court. Teguder positioned an army near Dayirbakir in the event that Arghun decided to strike northwards towards Tabriz, and poor ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini was so distressed by the event that he died in March of 1283. On his return to Khurasan in spring 1283, Arghun stopped in Rayy, modern Teheran, and had Teguder’s governor there beaten, placed in bonds and sent on the road to Tabriz on a donkey, as clear an insult as any. He sent envoy after envoy to the Ilkhan, demanding that he hand over Shams al-Din Juvaini for his role in poisoning Abaqa. 


    Teguder’s patience grew thin with his nephew. Prince Arghun’s actions looked like sedition, aimed to undermine the reigning Ilkhan. Teguder grew more suspicious; when word came to him that his brother Qongqurtai, who he had placed  in command of Anatolia, had been in contact with Arghun, Teguder ordered his brother executed. The murder of an imperial prince antagonized some members  of the artstiocracy, who then fled to Arghun. Among them were Arghun’s  brother Geikhatu, his cousin Baidu, and the Noyans Taghachar and Nawruz, all names to know in this episode and the following. The death of Qongqurtai was not the only cause for some of these princes and commanders to side with Arghun; some had wanted Arghun to succeed his father Abaqa in the first place, others had been frustrated with Teguder’s haughty and often insulting behaviour to them, and still others were simply annoyed at having a Muslim in the throne of Hulegu Khan.


As tensions rose, at the start of 1284 Teguder finally sent an army under his brother-in-law, Alinaq, to bring Arghun to heel. Over May 1284, Alinaq’s army skirmished with Arghun’s forces, forcing him to retreat. Arghun simply lacked the strength to battle the forces of the Ilkhan in a direct encounter, and ignoring requests by some of his followers to flee the Ilkhanate altogether, in the summer of 1284 Arghun surrendered to Alinaq.


    Teguder was very pleased with Arghun’s capture, and went to visit his captive nephew. Teguder resisted calls to have Arghun executed- perhaps judging, from the reaction to Qongqurtai’s death, executing another imperial prince would not do him any favours. He did order the execution of a number of Arghun’s followers, but considering the matter done with, in July 1284 Teguder was content to leave Arghun under guard in Alinaq’s camp while the Ilkhan took a small force to visit his new wife. The move ultimately cost  Teguder his throne.


    In Teguder’s absence, Buqa Noyan moved to free Arghun. Buqa had already sympathized with Arghun, and Teguder had further antagonized Buqa by insulting and idly threatening him; according to the Mamluk historian ibn ‘abd al-Zahir, Teguder had a habit of reminding Buqa and his comrades that he could have their heads cut off at anytime. While Teguder Ahmad rode off to his wife’s camp, Buqa got  Alinaq drunk and with a small party broke Arghun free, armed him, then rode into Alinaq’s tent and decapitated the noyan. Tossing his severed head to the officers and killing those who refused to submit, by the morning Arghun commanded the army. In the words of Rashid al-Din: “Arghun, who had been a prisoner when night fell, woke up in the morning as the emperor of the face of the earth.”


    Ilkhan Teguder learned of the revolt and tried to flee with his small party but was overtaken. After a quick trial he was charged with the murder of his Qongqurtai and punished to be killed in the same manner: kicked to death, according to the chronicler  ibn ‘abd al-Zahir, in August of 1284. So ended the reign of Ilkhan Teguder Ahmad, after only two years on the throne.


    The day after Teguder’s execution, Arghun was declared Ilkhan, after threats were made to those who considered other candidates. Arghun heaped rewards upon those who had helped him to the throne; Buqa Noyan was given so much gold that he was briefly buried in it. The new Ilkhan was in many respects similar to his father Abaqa and grandfather Hulegu. He was a devout Buddhist, one who regularly sought wisdom from Buddhist monks and was gifted Buddhist relics from other  prominent Chinggisids in neighbouring Khanates. Like Hulegu, Arghun loved to build; he constructed a series of new palaces in Tabriz and began construction of a new city near Rayy, which under his son Oljeitu would become Sultaniyya. Also like his grandfather, he was enchanted by alchemy, an attraction which ultimately cost him his life.


    One of the most associated traits of Arghun’s reign is an anti-Islamic sentiment. Hulegu tolerated Muslims and Islam; Abaqa had shown respect to Muslims in his empire and was remembered as a just ruler; Teguder of course had been a Muslim. However, Arghun became associated, somewhat undeservedly, as  a militant hater of Islam. While the Juvainis and other Muslims had occupied the top positions of civilian government in the twenty years since Hulegu’s death, under Arghun the top positions came into the hands of non-Muslims, Mongols and even a Jewish physician. His aggressive letters to the Mamluks differed greatly from Teguder’s more polite suggestions of submission, but despite his rhetoric Arghun never led an invasion into the Mamluk Sultanate. He showed friendship to Christians in his empire, particularly with the Nestorians Mar Yahballaha and Rabban bar Sauma; it was on Arghun’s order that Rabban bar Sauma took his lengthy trip  to Europe in an effort to organize a Frankish-Mongol alliance against the Mamluks, a trip we dedicated a special episode to already. Such was his favour to Christianity that Arghun’s son newborn son was baptized and named after the current pope, Nicholas IV. That son in time became the Ilkhan Oljeitu.


While Arghun may have played to anti-Islamic rhetoric at times, perhaps to galvanize the support of “traditional Mongols,” against the converted Teguder, Arghun did not unleash a swath of anti-Islamic policies. During his rebellion against Teguder, Arghun prayed at the shrine of a Muslim saint, Bayazid of Bistam, for victory. While he was Ilkhan, he attended and sponsored festivals marking the end of Ramadan, demonstrating his largesse as a ruler. It seems that rather than really undergoing an anti-Islamic policy, Arghun favoured minorities in his empire, notably Christians and Buddhists. In a Muslim-majority empire, it was a rather deliberate snub, particularly when he overthrew a Muslim monarch, but hardly unusual for a Mongol ruler.


Arghun began his reign by executing some of Teguder’s loyalists, among them Shams al-Din Juvaini. Having retained the vizierate through Teguder’s reign, when Arghun’s rebellion toppled Teguder, Shams al-Din fled. Knowing that Arghun hated him and blamed him for poisoning Abaqa, it was a logical move to get out of Arghun’s sight. But guilt overcame him, knowing his sons were still within Arghun’s reach. Supposedly remarking that only a foolish man left his son in the hands of the Mongols, he returned upon learning that Arghun was apparently offering clemency. Shams al-Din also hoped his old friend Buqa would intercede on his behalf. After a warm reunion with Buqa, and an icy meeting with Arghun, Shams al-Din anxiously awaited his fate. When news came that he was to be fined 20,000,000 gold dinars, money he did not have, Shams al-Din knew his time was up. He urged Buqa to stop the plot, warning him that if the Mongols began to kill their viziers, they would not stop. Buqa did nothing. Shams al-Din consigned himself to his fate, writing his will as the guards came for him. In it, he forbid his younger sons from entering imperial service for the Mongols. On October 16th 1284, Shams al-Din Juvaini was executed on the order of Ilkhan Arghun, thus ending the career of a man who had served as vizier for twenty years, the last in a line of Juvainis who had served as administers for the Khwarezmshahs, the Seljuqs, and according to family legend, all the way back to ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Shams al-Din’s lands were confiscated and one of his younger sons killed as well. He proved to be the longest lasting Ilkhanid vizier, as his warning to Buqa Noyan of the Mongols beginning to kill their viziers was accurate. Only one Ilkhanid vizier, Taj al-Din ‘Ali Shah, is known for certain to have died of natural causes in 1324. Every other vizier found their careers end bloodily, though sometimes only murdered after their dismissal. Few viziers between Shams al-Din’s death in 1284 and the appointment of Rashid al-Din in 1298  held  the position even for a few years.


Following Shams al-Din Juvaini’s death, Buqa dominated his late friend’s position. A proud Mongol, Buqa proved to have a taste for power. Arghun, after appointing Buqa to the position of na’ib and sahib-diwan, that is, viceroy and vizier, essentially left the running of the Ilkhanate to him. Once Buqa was in his place, and Arghun had made other regional governor appointments, such as his brother Geikhatu to Anatolia, his cousin Baidu to Mesopotamia, and his son Ghazan to Khurasan, Arghun mainly concerned himself with hunting, feasting, his many wives, and building programs, as well as diplomacy with the Mamluks and European powers. Government was largely left to Buqa, who grew in stature and placed his family in key positions. His brother Aruq, for example, became master of Baghdad, still one of the chief cities of the empire and the Eurasian trade routes even after Hulegu’s sack in 1258.


This was the way things continued from 1284 until 1288. For four years, Buqa held almost total authority in the empire, over the military, the imperial family, economic affairs and the court. No document was valid without his signature. This seemed to suit Arghun fine, and it was a relationship recognized as far as the Yuan Dynasty. When a yarliq came from Khubilai Khan in 1286 investing Arghun as Ilkhan, it came with a title to grant to Buqa, chingsang, denoting chancellor. Yet Buqa’s growing arrogance from his might and immense wealth disgruntled other members of the military aristocracy. When Buqa began freely insulting them to their faces while court was in session, it pushed many of his former allies against him. In Baghdad Buqa’s brother Aruq acted like a king, ignoring Arghun’s messengers and failing to send tax revenue from the city to the imperial treasury. The annoyed generals began to whisper to Arghun of the brothers’ actions. First they succeeded in getting Arghun to remove Aruq from Baghdad, replacing him with a skillful Jewish physician named Sa’d al-Dawla, who quickly turned Baghdad’s finances around, discovering over 5 million dinars in unpaid taxes that were promptly shipped off to the treasury. The Noyan Taghachar, once an ally of Buqa who had deserted early to Arghun during the revolt, commissioned his deputy and a future vizier, Sadr al-Din Zanjani to  undermine Buqa before Arghun - a ploy which gave Taghachar plausible deniability depending on the response of Buqa or Arghun. To the Ilkhan, Sadr al-Din Zanjani told him of Buqa’s ambition, how there were those who spoke of Buqa as the true emperor, that even yarliqs and paiza commissioned by the Ilkhan were not considered valid unless they bore Buqa’s red seal.


These reports finally irritated Arghun to the scale  of Buqa’s power, but he did not wish to throw out so dear an ally. When Buqa fell so ill he had to be briefly removed from his duties, Arghun did not remove his office, but did permanently shift a number of his responsibilities to others, including Noyan Taghachar. When Buqa resumed his office, his influence had been greatly reduced, and it did not take him long to discover what had happened. Feeling insulted, Buqa began to spend less time at court with Arghun, to the point he began to fake illnesses to avoid seeing the Ilkhan. When he learned of this disrespect, Arghun had Buqa’s men removed from prominent office. Feeling himself out of favour and perhaps soon to be directly in the Ilkhan’s  ire, Buqa moved to treachery, and spent huge sums to organize a coup. Arghun only caught wind of it when prince Jushkeb, another grandson of Hulegu, betrayed the conspirators and informed the Ilkhan. A furious Arghun rounded up Buqa and his associates late in 1288, including Buqa’s brother Aruq and their sons. Jushkeb himself delivered Buqa’s sentence, which involved a very sharp blade and the side of Buqa’s neck. The rest of Buqa’s  family was killed, but Arghun’s suspicions did not end there, and it seems Buqa’s betrayal unhinged Arghun. Even Jushkeb was put to death a few months later, a death which prompted the revolt of Nawruz, son of the late Arghun Aqa, the former head of the Mongolian Imperial Secretariat of Western Asia. When Nawruz revolted in Khurasan, Ilkhan Arghun commissioned his son Ghazan to rein him in. Other princes and officers accused of being in contact with Nawruz, such as Hulachu and Qara Nogai, a son and grandson of Hulegu respectively, were executed on Arghun’s order.


If you feel that Arghun had suddenly become rather execution happy, you’re not the only one. By the end of his reign, Arghun executed, just in Rashid al-Din’s chapter on him, 41 named men. 16 were members of the Turko-Mongolian aristocracy. Mostly these occurred in Arghun’s final years after 1288. The fourteenth century Ilkhanid writer Wassaf remarked that  Arghun had initially been adverse to blood letting, until the rise of his Jewish vizier, Sa’d al-Dawla. Of course, this comes from the Muslim writer Wassaf’s distaste for a Jewish man to have become overseer of the Ilkhanate’s Muslim population, and Sa’d al-Dawla did not become sahib-diwan until after Arghun started removing heads. 


Sa’d al-Dawla was a good choice for the position of vizier.  Chosen to replace Buqa, Sa’d al-Dawla was an excellent fiscal mind. He had shown his skill in Baghdad, and when placed at the top of the Ilkhanate’s economy he quickly recouped losses for the imperial treasury  and gained Arghun’s full backing. Some Muslim voices in the government were outraged with the appointment of a Jewish man in such a prominent position, but when Arghun had the chief complainer executed, Sa’d al-Dawla was able to comfortably go about his business without inordinate resistance, and was able to put his brother as well as Jamal al-Din Dastjirdani, a future vizier, in charge of Baghdad. This favouring of a Jewish man probably did much to cement Arghun, to writers like Bar Hebraeus and Wassaf, as a bitterly anti-Muslim man. Sa’d al-Dawla was not in total control, however. When he tried to provide lands to support the destitute sons of the late Shams al-Din Juvaini, Arghun had those lands confiscated and Shams al-Din’s sons killed. 


    By 1290 Arghun was feeling comfortable and secure in his empire. Sa’d al-Dawla restored the Ilkhanate economy after mismanagement by Buqa. His son prince Ghazan fought  Nawruz in Khurasan. The noyan Taghachar repulsed a Golden Horde attack on the Caucasus in 1290, and Arghun waited for news of the expected arrival of Christian forces from Europe to aid in an attack on Mamluk Egypt. Arghun was planning for the future, and needed to be around for it, for he anticipated great things. So in order to maintain a longer life, in 1290, on the advice of an Indian mystic, Arghun began taking a concoction of mercury and sulphur. For 8 months he took this mixture,  topped off by a 40  day retreat to the fortress in Tabriz where he cut himself off from the world. Not surprisingly, he fell seriously ill. Once Sa’d al-Dawla, a well trained physician, had Arghun removed from the mystics, his health improved dramatically, but during a lapse in guard, or on Arghun’s approval, they were let back into his presence and gave him another concoction, supposedly of wine. Almost immediately Arghun relapsed, and in the closing days of 1290 it was clear that Arghun was dying. 


    Certain high ranking noyans used this opportunity to get their retaliation in first. The noyans Taghachar and Qunchuqbal began rounding up their enemies and killing them. When vizier Sa’d al-Dawla contacted Arghun’s son Ghazan to return and put a stop to this, and likely to assume rulership, they had him killed as well. On the 10th of March, 1291, Arghun, son of Abaqa, grandson of Hulegu, great-grandson of Tolui and great-great-grandson of Chinggis Khan, died. He was 30 years old. Such was the effort at prolonging his life.  Immediately the various noyans supported different candidates; Taghachar and Qunchuqbal supported Arghun’s cousin Baidu, another grandson of Hulegu, though Baidu himself seems to have been a reluctant candidate. However, the noyans Choban and Qurumshi backed Arghun’s brother Geikhatu, the governor of Rum’, a very wealthy man who controlled the Anatolian silver mines. Arghun’s son Ghazan was an obvious contender, but was still occupied battling the rebelling Nawruz in the far east. Geikhatu, at a quriltai, won the day, and on July 23rd, 1291, was enthroned as the fifth Khan of the Ilkhanate. It is his reign we begin with in our next episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at Please also consider leaving us a positive review and rating on the podcast catcher of your choice, and sharing us with your friends; each one helps the podcast out alot. 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.