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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 26, 2021

After the death of the Ilkhan Arghun in 1291 at the end of our last episode, the Ilkhanid throne came to Arghun’s brother, Geikhatu, the governor of Anatolia. Geikhatu’s ascension set off one of the most unstable periods in the Ilkhanate’s  history so far, which would ultimately culminate in the rise of perhaps the most significant ruler of the Ilkhanate’s later history, Ghazan, who would skillfully weld Chinggisid ideology with Islam. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    On the death of Arghun Ilkhan due to excessive consumption of mercury and sulphur in at the start of 1291, there were three candidates for the throne: Arghun’s brother Geikhatu, the governor of Anatolia; Arghun’s  cousin Baidu, based in Baghdad, and Arghun’s son, Ghazan, who was stationed in the east of the Khanate battling the rebelling general Nawruz. While some members of the military elite, particularly the noyans Taghachar and Qunchuqbal, wished for Baidu to take the throne, a number backed Geikhatu. Among those who flocked to Geikhatu were the noyans Qurumshi, son of Alinaq, and Choban,  better known as the Emir Choban.This is the first mention of Choban in the sources, though for today’s episode he will play on a minor role.


    On the 23rd of July, 1291 Geikhatu was elected as Khan of the Ilkhanate. Neither Baidu nor Ghazan challenged him, though in accounts such as Marco Polo’s, Ghazan was rather quietly furious at the matter. In his early thirties when he took the throne, like his late brother Arghun, Geikhatu was a Buddhist. Arghun had placed Geikhatu as the viceroy of Anatolia, bringing a region considered a distant frontier into closer connection with the rest of the Ilkhanate. Perhaps the greatest distinction from his brother though was his clemency. In part, it seems to have been a mixture of a personally more peaceful nature, and a belief that Arghun’s reign was cut short by the many executions he had ordered in his final years. One of Geikhatu’s first actions upon taking the throne was personally overseeing an investigation and trials into events surrendering the deaths of Arghun, his vizier Sa’d al-Dawla and other misdeeds undertaken by the noyans in Arghun’s final days. The blame for these murders and abuses were, rightfully, laid onto the noyans Taghachar and Qunchuqbal, who had led the efforts.  While Arghun would have met their disloyalty with the removal of heads, Geikhatu showed himself of a different ilk. Almost all of the conspirators received simple pardons, while others were subject to a temporary prison sentence. Taghachar, who was making a habit of being a traitorous sot, was given a pardon as well. Once the trials were completed, and Geikhatu hoped everyone could now start off fresh, the new Il-Khan immediately returned to his preferred Anatolia. His Noyan Shiktur was left to oversee almost the entirety of the Ilkhanate east of Anatolia as a supreme deputy.


    The Ilkhan’s sudden removal back to Anatolia left a sort of vacuum behind. It’s not clear to us today exactly what Geikhatu was doing in Anatolia, and it certainly wasn’t clear to contemporaries as rumours spread that the Ilkhan had been killed in  an uprising by local Turkic tribes. In Geikhatu’s absence, his clemency paid dividends as the noyans he forgave almost immediately conspired against him. Taghachar Noyan, aided by his deputy Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani, started to organize a coup to topple Geikhatu and enthrone one of Geikhatu’s cousins, Anbarchi. The plot was discovered and foiled, but again, Geikhatu pardoned most of the conspirators. Taghachar himself was given an army to relieve an Ilkhanid fortress besieged by the Mamluks late in 1292 (something which he was unsuccessful at) and Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani, after a brief imprisonment, was even made Geikhatu’s vizier before the end of the year. Suffice to say, these men did not learn their lessons.


    While these plotters continued to plot, most of Geikhatu’s reign was spent apparently enjoying the… uh, benefits of being king, if we should say politely. Effectively every medieval source which comments on Geikhatu presents him as a man of utter vice, enjoying constant parties, revelry, and the sons and daughters of the nobility. To quote the continuator of the Syriac churchman Bar Hebraeus, writing not long after Geikhatu’s death:


Now [Geikhatu] being ruler, [...] occupied himself with nothing except riotous living, and amusement and debauchery. He had no thought for anything else except the things which were necessary for kings, and which they were bound to have, and how he could get possession of the sons and daughters of the nobles and have carnal intercourse with them. And he would wanton with them without shame and without modesty. And very many chaste women among the wives of the nobles fled from him, and others removed their sons and their daughters, and sent them away to remote districts. But they were unable to save themselves from his hands, or to escape from the shameful acts which he committed with them. And when he had led this blameworthy manner of life for nearly four years, more or less, and he had polluted himself with the mire of wanton desire of this kind, and he had amused himself with the lusts of the body which do not bring profit, he was hated with a very great hatred by all those who held the reins of his kingdom.


If it was merely Bar Hebraeus’ continuator writing these things, we might dismiss them as regular medieval slander by one disgruntled writer. But these sorts of details make up most of Geikhatu’s source depictions. Wassaf, a Persian writer in the early 14th century Ilkhanate for instance, describes Geikhatu ignoring all duties of the throne to focus on his own pleasure, at one point writing: at length sovereign rule in turn presented to him his heart’s desire, viz. The backside.” Marco Polo, who passed through the Ilkhanate in the final year of Geikhatu’s rule, wrote of Geikhatu that he “enjoyed himself much with the ladies, for he was excessively given to his pleasures.” The Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din is, as per usual, too respectable to comment on such indecency directly. It was in the reign of Geikhatu that Rashid al-Din became attached to the Ilkhanid court, and besides that, Geikhatu had been the uncle of his patrons Ghazan and Oljeitu. Still, Rashid speaks of the wild spending habits of Geikhatu, politely describing it as incredibly generous gift giving. Wassaf and other writers instead describe wasteful extravagance by Geikhatu, encouraged by vizier Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani, which compounded some sort of troubles facing Mongol herds at the time, resulting in widespread reverberations on the Ilkhanate’s economy.


Of course, no talk of Geikhatu and the Ilkhanate’s fiscal status can be complete without mentioning his most famous disaster: an attempt to impose Chinese style paper money, or ch’ao, in the Ilkhanate. This is the first known example of an effort to implement Chinese block printing for currency outside of China, and every source describes it as an unmitigated disaster, though modern retellings of the incident have certainly exaggerated it.


The inspiration for the idea came from Geikhatu’s vizier, Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani, who had been interested in it for some time. In May 1294 Sadr’ al-Din finally broached it to Geikhatu Khan, who was interested and spoke on the matter further with Bolod Chingsang, a representative from the Yuan Dynasty at the Ilkhan’s court. Zanjani successfully convinced Geikhatu of its advantages, such as being much more difficult to forge or tamper with. Despite the opposition of some members of Geikhatu’s court, especially Shiktur Noyan, Geikhatu gave the order to proceed with a trial run in the Ilkhanate’s chief city, Tabriz, one of the major merchant hubs of western Asia. Printing started in the summer of 1294, and circulation began that September. Orders were put out that anyone who refused to accept it would be put to death. 


The result was not great. People did not understand how the paper was worth anything compared to metal coinage, and very quickly merchants were fleeing Tabriz altogether. The humid climate resulted in the Ilkhanid paper apparently nearly falling to pieces. Food and goods became scarce, and when Zanjani himself went to the streets he was threatened and insulted to his face. As Tabriz neared a tipping point of theft, starvation and anarchy, finally the paper money was withdrawn and the regular coinage made the tender again. The effort lasted hardly two months, and was not tried elsewhere. Claims that this episode had long lasting repercussions on the Ilkhanate’s economy are likely overstated due to the limited reach of the experiment. Rather, they encouraged ongoing economic woes in Geikhatu’s reign and did nothing to help the Ilkhan’s already struggling reputation. The failed episode with the ch’ao is routinely mentioned alongside Geikhatu’s massive expenditure, gift giving and debauchery in the sources on his reign, and it is no surprise that not long after the end of the fling with paper money, Geikhatu found himself next on the chopping block.


In the summer of 1294, Geikhatu’s cousin Baidu visited the Ilkhan’s camp. Though he appeared reluctant to claim the throne in 1291, Baidu must have still felt some resentment at losing his chance, in addition to his distaste in how Geikhatu ran the kingdom. It would explain how, when Baidu got quite drunk one evening, he lashed out and insulted Geikhatu to his face. The normally easy going Geikhatu responded furiously and probably drunkenly, ordering Baidu beaten. Once they had sobered up Geikhatu regretted his action and sought to make amends, which Baidu made a show of accepting. Once out of the Khan’s camp, Baidu returned to his own territory and began to organize a rebellion over the winter of 1294. When Geikhatu learned of it, he sent an army against Baidu commanded by the always loyal [sarcasm] Taghachar. Whatever was behind Geikhatu’s choice is unknown. Perhaps he was a large fan of multiple chances, or thought this was an opportunity for Taghachar to display his loyalty. Geikhatu was sorely mistaken. Taghachar immediately sided with Baidu and brought his army to Baidu’s service. A panicked Geikhatu tried to flee to Anatolia, but was overtaken and captured. His captors were men he had imprisoned for earlier crimes, but who Geikhatu had later released on the urging of Taghachar. In late March 1295, Geikhatu’s captors had him strangled to death with a bow string, apparently without the knowledge or approval of Baidu. So ended the reign of the fifth Ilkhan, Geikhatu, only in his mid-30s and having reigned hardly four years.


A few weeks after Geikhatu’s death, Baidu was enthroned as the new Ilkhan in April 1295. A grandson of Hulegu via his son Taraqai, Baidu appears to have been raised a Chritian but converted to Islam. Bar Hebraeus’ continuator remarks that Baidu’s conversion to Islam was a half hearted one aimed to bring him support for the throne; an indication of the growth of Islam among the Mongols of the Ilkhanate. Marco Polo meanwhile was under the impression that Baidu was a Christian throughout his reign. We may suspect he simply was an exponent of Mongol religious tolerance, and did not favour any of these religions but instead tried to appear a friend to each, though it is difficult to tell due to the nature of his reign. Unlike his predecessors, Baidu appears as a much quieter figure, one who seemed lacking in vision for the position of Khan, and was overshadowed by his powerful noyans like Taghachar. Taghachar was given immense power, and Taghachar’s allies, the murderers of Geikhatu, were granted governorships and other positions throughout the empire.


Baidu’s reign had a major obstacle in the form of Geikhatu’s nephew and Arghun’s son, Ghazan. The oldest son of Arghun, Ghazan had since his father’s reign taken a prominent position in the eastern part of the Ilkhanate,  Khurasan, where he had acted as chief military governor. Almost yearly he fought off raids by the Qara’una Mongols and from 1289 onwards, fought the rebelling general Nawruz. These conflicts kept him too preoccupied to act after the death of Arghun, and from playing any role in the politics that led to Geikhatu’s overthrow. Nonetheless, Ghazan had been primed for leadership. Well educated, able to read and write the Uighur script for Mongolian and seemingly proficient in Persian as well as athletic and a skilled warrior, the powerful position Ghazan had been granted by Arghun as military commander of the east gave Ghazan useful contacts and backing. Having both military experience and reputation was always a useful boon for claiming leadership among the Mongols. If we are to believe Rashid al-Din, Ghazan’s energetic biographer, then even Abaqa Il-Khan, Ghazan’s grandfather, had recognized the boy’s talent and loved him dearly, though we can suspect this is reminiscent of Qaidu’s claims as a boy that Ogedai Khan had loved him and wanted to make him his successor. More of a useful claim for legitimacy, rather than a necessarily true representation of their relationship, though perhaps Ghazan remembered it fondly.


Certainly Ghazan was seen as a prime candidate for the throne; before his untimely death, the Jewish vizier of Arghun, Sa’d al-Dawla, had tried to contact Ghazan to bring him to his father’s death bed to make his stake for the throne. Following Geikhatu’s murder, Ghazan was also a favourite to succeed his uncle, and had apparently received letters from Baidu asking him to assume the throne- another indication that Baidu was personally reluctant to take the position. Ghazan seemed to not anticipate trickery. He had recently taken the submission of the former rebel, Nawruz, taking control of his army on top of his own. Feeling strong and secure, he   began to travel west to the Ilkhanate’s Caucausian territory with only a small guard. Hearing of Ghazan’s movement seems to have sparked Baidu’s followers to hold a snap quriltai and quickly declared Baidu the Il-Khan.


As Ghazan advanced across northern Iran, emissaries from Baidu arrived politely but firmly telling Ghazan to turn back, that he would not be granted safe passage. Evidently, Baidu and his allies recognized that Ghazan expected to have the throne, and wished to dissuade him rather than have to fight off another contender. Baidu’s position as Khan after overseeing the murder of his predeceassor left him with shaky legitimacy.  Finally, it was told to Ghazan that Baidu would consider it rebellion if Ghazan advanced any further. Ghazan could not back down now; he quickly summoned Nawruz and his army, which prompted Baidu to rally his own army; by the 19th of May, 1295, the two sides faced off at a site called Qurban Shire in northwestern Iran. After a round of skirmishing, apparently on Baidu’s urging a truce was called and negotiations held.


The meeting was cordial and respectful, and progress was made. Baidu did not wish to fight, but now that he was declared Il-Khan he could not step down. His solution was to essentially divide the Ilkhanate between them, granting Ghazan all of the eastern half of the empire. Ghazan was amenable to the idea, but tensions did not abate. It seems, to Baidu’s frustration, that he continued to be reinforced. As the negotiations went on, more and more of Baidu’s forces trickled in. Seeing Baidu’s army grow, Ghazan feared a trap and slid away, leaving Nawruz, now his lieutenant, to continue the talks. This infuriated Baidu, who felt Ghazan was acting in bad faith. He sent some forces to pursue Ghazan and promptly took Nawruz prisoner. Some called for Nawruz’s execution, but others persuaded Baidu against it. Chief of them was Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani. Though Baidu had not reappointed Zanjani to the position of vizier -instead giving it to one of Zanjani’s rivals, Jamal al-Din Dastjirdani-  Sadr’ al-Din did not go far from the court lest the position open up again. He encouraged Baidu and those of the noyans whose ears he had access to -chiefly Taghachar- to spare Nawruz and offer him a deal. If Nawruz would hunt down Ghazan and bring his head in a bag to Baidu, then Nawruz would be greatly rewarded. In the meantime, Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani and Taghachar made their own agreements with Nawruz.


On the 31st of May 1295, Nawruz departed Baidu’s camp to hunt down Ghazan. It took only a few days to find him. Not long after, a rider came to Baidu’s camp, carrying a bag sent by Nawruz. Somewhat reluctantly, Baidu Il-Khan must have ordered an officer forward to open the bag and reveal the dreaded proof of his kinsman’s death. To their surprise, a large cauldron fell out. It was a bit of word play on the part of Nawruz and Ghazan. Qazan in Turkic languages refers to a large pot, cauldron or brass kettle. So Nawruz had brought Ghazan in a bag to Baidu; just not the Ghazan he was hoping for. Nawruz could claim to have kept his word to Baidu, while once more affirming his loyalty to Ghazan.


In the words of Rashid al-Din, Nawruz and Ghazan’s pun sparked quite the reaction among Baidu and his men. To quote Rashid’s Compendium of Chronicles, as per the Thackston translation: 

Baidu and his amirs were amazed by this subtle word play and rare joke, but there

was nothing they could do about it. To Baidu the amirs said, “The lion you caught in a trap

you let go, and you were made ridiculous.” He regretted having let Nawroz go, but there

was nothing to be done—as has been said, anyone who overcomes his foe but allows the advantage to slip away will never again have power over him, and regret and remorse profit nothing.


    Baidu likely did not have immense respect among the noyans in the first place, given that he had largely been placed on the throne by their efforts entirely. To have lost both Ghazan and Nawroz, after they had been in his hands, and then to be so humiliated by them, further undermined him. In essence, he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and his prestige among the military elite crumbled accordingly.


    While Baidu’s standing worsened, Ghazan undertook a rather momentous decision. On the urging of Nawruz and other influential advisers in his camp, shortly after Nawruz’s return to him Ghazan converted to Islam. Ghazan had been raised and educated as a Buddhist, a religion which his father Arghun and grandfather Hulegu had both been attached to. Even during his tenure in Khurasan, Ghazan had sponsored the construction of Buddhist temples. If we are to believe Rashid al-Din though, Ghazan had always had a questioning mind and found himself skeptical of some aspects of Buddhism. It is possible, though we may suspect it was also a matter of Mongol religious indifference. In the accounts of Ghazan’s chroniclers, when Nawruz impressed upon him the need to convert to Islam, all of Ghazan’s generals, and indeed, the Mongols in Iran, followed suit, a fairly regular aspect of stories of Mongol khans converting to Islam. Generally, historians are of the opinion that Ghazan’s conversion reflects the fact that a great many Mongols, both among the regular soldiers and the military aristocracy, had already become Muslims. While Nawruz may have urged Ghazan to convert out of concern for his soul, for Nawruz was a very sincere and ardent Muslim, it is not difficult to imagine that Nawruz also pointed out the political advantage it could provide Ghazan; by demonstrating that he was a true and devout Muslim, Ghazan could claim the loyalty of all the Mongols who were Muslims, as well as Persian and Arabic members of the bureaucracy. Hence, why post-Ghazan chroniclers tend to cast doubt on Baidu’s claim to be a Muslim as well. Ghazan certainly showed some fervour early after his conversion, though in the coming years it cooled whenever he did not have an urgent political usage for it. Immediately after Ghazan and his noyans began to proclaim the shahada, they observed the Ramadan of summer 1295 then advanced onto Baidu.


    As Ghazan and his army moved west once again, Baidu’s camp was still in shambles. Baidu seemed frozen in place, unable to take decisive action. His foundation built on sand, it washed away with the rising tide of Ghazan, now reinforced by his brother Oljeitu. When Baidu sent emissaries to Ghazan, they told Ghazan of the sympathy he had among Baidu’s followers, and then promptly joined him. The former vizier for the late Geikahtu, Sadr’ al-Din Zanjani, was among the first to openly desert Baidu for Ghazan. Choban Noyan and Quremshi Noyan joined with their troops and joined Nawroz in the vanguard. The duplicitous Taghachar, as usual, jumped for the winning side. He who had once abandoned Geikhatu to join Baidu, now left Baidu to back Ghazan. As the summer of 1295 drew to a close Baidu tried to flee, but was swiftly captured and taken back to Tabriz. There, he sent word that he wished for an interview with Ghazan, but Ghazan refused. He ordered Baidu executed, which was carried out on the 4th of October 1295, ending Baidu’s seven month reign as Il-Khan. Only once the deed was done, did Ghazan finally enter Tabriz later that day. He was swiftly enthroned; not as Il-Khan, but with the title of padishah-i-islam, Emperor of Islam, and took the name of Mahmud. So began the reign of Ghazan Il-Khan, or Padishah Ghazan Mahmud, the 7th ruler of the Ilkhanate and a great-great-great-grandson of Chinggis Khan. The Ilkhanate was about to be permanently transformed. 


    Our next episode focuses on the reign of Ghazan, 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.