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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 23, 2021

Our last episode dealt with the reign of Ghazan Khan, ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanate from 1295 to 1304. A powerful Muslim monarch, Ghazan’s reign reinvigorated the Khanate, greatly advancing the already underway islamization of the region’s Mongol population. With his death, we enter the final phase of the Ilkhanate’s history.  First, we will look at the reign of Ghazan’s brother and successor, Oljeitu Khudabandah, the penultimate ruler of the united Ilkhanate. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


When Ghazan Khan succumbed to his illness on the 17th of May, 1304, the always thorough Ghazan had been prepared. Leaving no male heirs behind and wishing to avoid having the realm descend into warfare, he had forced the military elite and princes to elect his younger brother Oljeitu as Khan. The 24 year old Oljeitu was duly enthroned that July, under the title of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din. The process was remarkably peaceful, with no resistance or massacres accompanying it- with the exception of Oljeitu preemptively having Prince Ala-Fireng, a son of the former Il-Khan Geikhatu, killed, for he had been seen as a potential rival. As far as Ilkhanid successions went, it was nearly as calm as you could hope for. Granted, Ghazan had killed most potential claimants during his own reign.


Oljeitu was a son of Arghun Il-Khan, born in 1280. He and Ghazan were of different mothers: Ghazan was born to one of Arghun’s concubines, whereas Oljeitu was born to Arghun’s third wife, a Kereit Nestorian Christian named Orug Khatun.  If Oljeitu’s life could be remarked upon for one thing, even before he became Il-Khan, it was experimentation with religion, usually accompanied by a change of name. Firstly, it seems he was born and raised a Buddhist, much like Ghazan and their father Arghun. The name he was originally given is unclear: in some sources it was Oljeitu or Oljei Buqa, a Mongolian Buddhist name meaning “blessed.” Yet in others, he is confusingly called Kharbandah or Khudabandah. The two names confused even medieval sources. Khudabandah in Persian means “servant of God,” and it seems that Oljeitu often went by this name in his adult life. However, he was also called Kharbandah, which means “donkey driver,” or “servant of the donkey.” No one, medieval or modern, has provided a fully accepted explanation for why he bore such competing names. The Mongols had a custom for a child to be named after the first thing the mother saw after giving birth. Ibn Battuta, travelling through the Ilkhanate in the 1330s, reported that Oljeitu’s mother Orug Khatun had first seen a donkey driver. Yet, as none of her other children bore Persian names, it is confusing that she would not have given him the Mongolian equivalent, Qulanchi. Other sources have him first called Kharbandah, and then change it to Khudabandah upon his enthronement, while others have him take Oljeitu at that time, after the reigning Great Khan, Khubilai’s grandson Temur Oljeitu. Historian Timothy May suggests the kharbandah/khudabandah matter was a rude pun given to him by Sunni schoalars upon Oljeitu’s conversion to Shia Islam. Of course, this is not helped by the fact that the main biography of Oljeitu’s life, written by Qashani soon after the Il-Khan’s death, has him also called Temuder at some point in his youth too. 


Regardless if Oljeitu had the name of Oljeitu or Khudabandah at birth, when he was around 10 years old he was given another name and religion: Nicholas, after Pope Nicholas IV. Arghun, during negotiations with said Pope, had Oljeitu baptised and given a Christian name, or rather it’s Mongolian form, Nikolya.  The young Oljeitu did not stick with Christianity, as he returned to Buddhism in his teenage years. But this was not to be his final conversion, no sir. He soon joined his brother Ghazan in becoming a Muslim, when he took the name Muhammad. This was not enough for him: first he was an adherent to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, before choosing the school of Shafi’ism. Disgusted by infighting between these schools, some of the noyans who had less love for Islam convinced Oljeitu to “return to the Old ways.” This meant a brief return to Buddhism, possibly a dabble in traditional Mongol Tengriism, before in 1309 or 1310, settling onto Twelver Shi’a Islam. And if that wasn’t enough for you, some authors then have him return to Sunni Islam on his deathbed in 1316, though this may just be a posthumous effort by Sunni authors in the Ilkhanate to rehabilitate him.


So, for those of you who had trouble following that, his full name and title was Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad Khudabandah Oljeitu, and his religious path went Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, Sunni Islam in two different schools, Buddhism, Shi’a Islam and then a possible return to Sunni Islam. As Oljeitu is the most common name by which he is known, we’ll stick with that.


When Oljeitu became Khan of the Ilkhanate in 1304, he was in the midst of his Sunni Islam phase. Much of his initial years in power was spent following in the footsteps of his late brother, whose tomb he regularly visited for guidance and solace. He reaffirmed the viziers Rashid al-Din and Sa’d al-Siwaji in their posts, as well as Ghazan’s great commander Qutlughshah as the viceroy. Like Ghazan, Oljeitu initially called for the destruction of Christian churches and imposition of the jizya, the poll-tax Christians and Jews had to pay under Islamic law. Also like Ghazan, he quickly rescinded these measures, and by 1305 was writing letters to the Pope and Kings of England and France seeking to orchestrate a military alliance against the Mamluks. Unlike Ghazan, he was greeted soon after his enthronement with messengers from the Great Khan, his namesake Temur Oljeitu, from the Chagatai Khan Du’a and the Ogedeid Khan Chapar. They bore glad tidings: news of the Great Mongol Peace. Du’a and Chapar had already recognized Temur Oljeitu’s overlordship, and now Oljeitu Il-khan was invited to reaffirm the Ilkhante’s loyalty as well. He promptly agreed, as did the then reigning Khan of the Golden Horde, Toqta. By 1305 the pax Mongolica was properly established, and Oljeitu and his son, Abu Sa’id, born in 1305, sent tribute to Temur Oljeitu’s heirs for the remainder of their lives. Of course, the peace did not long last anywhere. Even before Oljeitu’s death in 1316, conflict resumed with the Chagatai Khanate, and when a new Khan came to the Golden Horde in 1313, Ozbeg, he immediately eyed the pastures of the Caucasus. 


With his Mongol borders secured for the time being, Oljeitu could focus on other issues on his mind. One was the building of a new capital, Sultaniyya. Originally begun by his father Arghun, it had lain largely derelict since his death. Some 320 kilometres southeast of the current capital, Tabriz,  Oljeitu restored and built upon the site in 1305, naming it Sultaniyya. Laying in excellent hunting grounds, the city became a home for the scholars and artists who Oljeitu richly patronized. It also housed his massive tomb complex, which still partially stands today; in fact, Oljeitu’s 49 metre tall tomb, the Dome of Sultaniyya, is one of the few structures remaining of the city, a monument to Oljeitu’s love of building. From 1318 onwards, it was also home to an archbishopric. 


Sultaniyya sits in northwestern Iran, and its location may have been behind one of Oljeitu’s next moves, the conquest of the Iranian province of Gilan. This hard to access region lies on the southernmost coast of the Caspian Sea, a mountainous enclave of dense forest and humidity. Since the time of Chormaqun in the 1230s, Gilan had escaped the might of the Mongols, and Oljeitu decided to end its independence, and in May 1307, a four-pronged assault on Gilan was launched. Initial successes met with the submission of a number of local rulers, but were followed with the defeat and death of the great Noyan Qutlughshah in battle. Efforts to avenge Qutlughshah were unsuccessful, and a disappointed Oljeitu ordered a withdrawal, having failed to fully annex the region.


The campaign had one great consequence for the Ilkhanate. The death of Qutlughshah left open the route for the rise of another military leader, Choban. Having been high in the noyad since the accession of Geikhatu, Choban’s wealth and prestige had only increased. A staunch Muslim and firm supporter of Chinggisid rule, Choban Noyan, or the Emir Choban as he is often known, deftly filled the vacuum left by Qutlughshah’s death. We will return to him in a few minutes. 


It was not long after the return from Gilan that Oljeitu experienced his crisis of faith with Sunni Islam. A judicial dispute over a marriage held before the court in 1308 or ‘09 between representatives of the two main Sunni schools of thought, Hanafi scholars and a Shafi qadi,  devolved into mud-slinging between the representatives of the two schools. The Mongols of Oljeitu’s court were annoyed by the constant argumentation, and disgusted by the insults levied between the parties involved.  The sources indicate that both parties looked the worse afterwards, and the Mongols' frustration with complicated Islamic thought and law is evident.  This was compounded when lightning struck and killed some of Oljeitu comrades in his attendance. Worried that this was the displeasure of the almighty, some of Oljeitu’s noyans decided that this was a sign that the Mongols needed to return to their own faith. As a first step, it was suggested that Oljeitu should, in classic Turko-Mongolian custom, pass between two fires in order to purify himself, after the misfortune of the lightning strike. The Il-Khan attempted a brief flirtation with his pre-Islamic faiths, but found it either personally or politically untenable, for by then enough of the noyad was Muslim that going too far back could release a violent response. 


The solution presented itself in the form of Shi’a Islam.  Why Oljeitu chose the Shi’a branch of Islam varies widely in the sources, as various sufis, qadis or members of the military elite are credited with converting him. In one account he is touched by a visit to the shrine of ‘Ali in Najaf, while in another account he is convinced of the merits of Shi’a Islam when someone compared the succession to the Prophet Muhammad to the succession of a Chinggisid monarch. The first four caliphs recognized by Sunni Muslims, it was argued, was akin to having a non-Chinggisid succeed a Chinggisid. Regardless of whoever or whatever convinced him, around 1309 Oljeitu became a Twelver Shi’a Muslim, recognizing ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the rightful heir to the Prophet. Oljeitu like his late brother Ghazan adored ‘Ali and honoured his lineage. While not seeking to convert the population of the Ilkhanate en masse to the Shi’a faith, Oljeitu had the names of the twelve Shi’a imams on his coinage and the khutba, the Friday sermons, which prompted resistance in cities like Baghdad and Tabriz. If we believe Mamluk accounts, Oljeitu’s conversion led to rebellions across Iran.


Speaking of the Mamluks, Oljeitu’s next military action was directed against this old enemy. Ever since Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil’s assassination in 1293, the Mamluk Sultanate had been wrought with political intrigue and instability and a series of short lived usurpers. By 1312, al-Ashraf Khalil’s younger brother al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun had been enthroned three times, deposed once and abdicated once. On his third enthronement in 1310, the 25 year old al-Nasir had effectively spent his entire life a puppet thrown around between rivals, and had little military experience. He had been in nominal command during the humiliating defeat at Wadi al-Khaznadar against Ghazan in 1299. Initially on his own enthronement, Oljeitu had sent rather conciliatory messages to the Mamluks, nearly approaching a temporary ceasefire in tone. But Oljeitu was by no means opposed to an attack on the Mamluks: he simply needed time to recoup from the invasions of Ghazan’s final years, while holding out hope that the requested European aid would come to fruition. As he had indicated in his letters in 1305, the Mongol khanates were now at peace: why could the Europeans not see  this was a prime time to attack, when the Il-Khan needn’t worry over his distant frontiers? But as the years passed with no responses and no signs of any forthcoming alliance, Oljeitu gave up hope on their assistance. Therefore, when another round of Mamluk defectors entered the Ilkhanate with news of Mamluk weakness with the reenthronement of the young al-Nasir Muhammad,  Oljeitu must have thought it an auspicious time for an assault.


Unlike Ghazan’s campaign, Oljeitu’s was poorly planned. Launched late in 1312, the Mongols led a halfhearted siege of Rahbat al-Sham along the Euphrates River that December. There, it was not royal Mamluks who were levied against Oljeitu’s army, but desperate townsfolk who offered stiff resistance, inflicting heavy casualties on Oljeitu’s ill-provisioned force. By the time al-Nasir’s army had rallied and advanced, Oljeitu’s forces had already crossed back over the river into the Ilkhanate. Though neither side knew it, this abysmal showing was the final full-scale invasion the Mongols launched into Syria. Only minor border raids and diplomatic posturing would follow. Oljeitu continued to welcome and reward Mamluk defectors though, who he used to help build up the Ilkhanate’s own version of Mamluk slave soldiers, largely Mongol boys who had been sold into slavery and then later purchased by the Il-Khans. One of the Mamluk defectors, to Oljeitu’s glee, was a fellow named Qara-Sunqor, who had played a major role in the assassination of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad’s older brother and predeceassor al-Ashraf Khalil. The housing of Qara-Sunqor remained a sore point in Ilkhanid-Mamluk relations until the end of the 1320s.


Oljeitu was not finished with his military exercises, ordering an army to annex parts of Afghanistan in order to clamp down on the raids by the Negudaris. The Chagatai Khan Esen-Buqa not only saw the Negudaris as his subjects, but had feared the Yuan Dynasty and Ilkhanate were planning a two-pronged attack on his central kingdom. In an attempt to strike first, Esen-Buqa and his brother Kebek lead an invasion into Ilkhanid Khurasan in 1315, which despite early successes was called off when they learned that the Yuan Dynasty had actually invaded their eastern territory, as we saw previously in this podcast in episode 48, the second part on the Chagatai Khanate. Afterwards, Oljeitu placed his eight year old son, Abu Sa’id, as governor over Khurasan, the traditional position for Ilkhanid heirs. Oljeitu himself had held it for his brother Ghazan. 


Ghazan had favoured the vizier, Rashid al-Din, and Oljeitu likewise continued to honour him. Soon after becoming Il-Khan Oljeitu instructed Rashid al-Din to expand his History of Ghazan, turning it into the great Compendium of Chronicles we know it as. In 1312, Oljeitu took the side of Rashid al-Din when he fell out with the other vizier, Sa’d al-Din Savaji. Corrupt and arrogant, he had made many enemies over his tenure, and once he lost the support of Rashid al-Din, Savaji was alone. When Rashid made his report to Oljeitu, which included charges of embezzlement, Oljeitu had Savaji tried and executed in February 1312. His replacement was Taj al-Din ‘Ali-Shah, a former jewel seller who turned out to have all of Savaji’s negative traits in spades. ‘Ali-Shah is usually remarked upon for two things, the first being that he would be the only Ilkhanid vizier known to have died of natural causes in his own bed, and the second being his role in the death of Rashid al-Din. Rashid and ‘Ali-Shah did not get along well, and their fighting led to Oljeitu dividing the Ilkhanate into two separate administrative zones to keep them apart. 


Rashid al-Din’s standing with Oljeitu did not falter though, and he nursed Oljeitu when he fell ill in winter 1316. Suffering from severe stomach pain and intense diarrhea, Rashid’s attempt to help purge the illness by providing laxatives only weakened Oljeitu’s hold over his bowels. On the 17th of December 1316, Oljeitu Il-Khan died in Sultaniyya. He was only 36 years old.  Like many Mongol princes, his alcoholism seems to have been the key factor in his premature death. 


    Oljeitu had been adamant that his son Abu Sa’id should succeed him, and luckily had picked a good man to help ensure it was achieved. Choban Noyan, who had only grown in influence over Oljeitu’s life and married the Il-Khan’s daughter, though as devout Sunni Muslim seems to have not cared for Oljeitu becoming a Shi’ite. Wealthy, powerful, influential and respected among the princes and military elite, Choban also had the strength to boss around whoever failed to listen in the first place. Thus in July of 1317,  under Choban’s guidance, did Abu Sa’id peacefully succeed his father, without any accompanying assassinations. Oljeitu was the first Il-Khan to be directly succeeded by his son since Abaqa succeeded Hulegu back in 1265. Of course, as a 12 year old boy Abu Sa’id could not do much ruling, and Choban oversaw the actual runnings of government. Until he came of age, Choban protected the boy and ensured he received a proper Islamic education, while also being versed in Chinggisid history. Abu Sa’id was the only Il-Khan to have been a Muslim his entire life, and unlike Ghazan and Oljeitu would show no attachment to Shia Islam.  In the meantime, Choban’s sons were placed in prominent positions around the empire, and if the Chobanid family happened to enrich themselves even further along the way while leaving Abu Sa’id out of power, then where were the consequences in that? Well, there may have been a few. To see those consequences, be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue producing great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at, or sharing this with your friends. 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.