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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 30, 2021

It was this Khudhābandah who embraced Islam [...] when he died, there succeeded to the kingdom his son Abū Sa’īd Bahādur Khān. He was an excellent and a generous king. He became king while of tender age, and when I saw him in Baghdād he was still a youth, the most beautiful of God’s creatures in features, and without any growth on his cheeks. His vizier at that time was the amīr Ghiyāth al-Dīn Muḥammad, son of Khwāja Rashīd; his father was one of the migrant Jews, and had been appointed vizier by the sultan Muḥammad Khudhābandah, the father of Abū Sa’īd. I saw both [the sultan and his vizier] one day on the Tigris in a launch [...]; in front of him was Dimashq Khwāja, son  of the amīr [Choban], who held the mastery over Abū Sa’īd, and to the right and left of him were [...] musicians and dancers. I was witness to one of his acts of generosity on the same day; he was accosted by a company of blind men, who complained to him of their miserable state, and he ordered each one of them to be given a garment, a slave to elad him, and a regular allowance for his maintenance.


    So the great Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta describes Abu Sa’id in the early 1330s, the final ruler of the Ilkhanate to preside over the united ulus, and to hold any authority. Succeeding his father Oljeitu as a 12 year old boy in July 1317, Abu Sa’id spent his first years on the Ilkhanid throne in the shadow of the great emir, the Noyan Choban. Today, we take you through the life and reign of Abu Sa’id, the last of the Khan in the line of Hulegu, grandson of Chinggis and conqueror of Baghdad. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Abu Sa’id’s early life was spent under the control of Choban. Unlike his contemporary, El-Temur, the Yuan Dynasty chancellor who left the boy-khan Toghon Temur a mistreated and ignored puppet who feared for his life; Choban protected the young Abu Sa’id and ensured he had a proper Islamic education, teaching him to read, write and speak Persian and Arabic, while also versing him in the history and genealogies of the house of Chinggis Khan and the noyans. In the opinion of the great historian of the Ilkhanate, Charles Melville, Choban viewed himself as a servant of the state, a man who combined pride in service to the Chinggisids while observing sharia law. He was, granted, an exceptionally powerful servant. But his Khan, Oljeitu, had put Abu Sa’id in the care of Choban, and Choban was going to provide for the young lad. Needless to say, almost all decrees of the early reign of Abu Sa’id, if not all of them, first had to pass the approval of Choban, if they did not come from his mind originally. A military man, Choban was not always aware of, or cared for, court protocols both in the Ilkhanate or those it engaged in diplomacy with. Yet he was still a pragmatist, who recognized the strengths and weaknesses of the khanate he now oversaw.


Initially, Abu Sa’id Il-Khan and Choban had kept Rashid al-Din and Taj al-Din ‘Ali-Shah in place as Ilkhanid viziers. Rashid al-Din had of course served since the last years of Ghazan’s reign, and ‘Ali-Shah had been appointed to the position in 1312 by Oljeitu. Neither man much liked the other, and ‘Ali-Shah saw the new khan as an opportunity to oust Rashid. Only two months after Abu Sa’id’s enthronement, ‘Ali-Shah’s whispers succeeded in getting the young Khan to dismiss Rashid al-Din from service. Rashid’s retirement did not last long, as Choban swiftly recalled him, telling Rashid that his service to the state was as necessary as salt to food. Choban seemed to genuinely recognize Rashid al-Din’s talents and wanted to keep him on, but had not counted on Taj al-Din ‘Ali Shah conspiring with Rashid al-Din’s enemies, who loathed him for his wealth, success and still doubted the authenticity of his conversion to Islam. Rashid al-Din, of course, had been born and raised in  a Jewish family. While he had converted to Islam over four decades prior, his Jewish heritage was reason enough for some to despise him. 


Rashid’s rivals, aided with money and whispers, raised new charges: that Rashid al-Din’s son Ibrahim had poisoned Oljeitu Il-Khan on Rashid’s orders. As Rashid al-Din had been Oljeitu’s physician during his final illness, it was a damning charge. Choban, never one skilled in the subtleties and conspiring of government, either believed the rumours or was paid off by ‘Ali-Shah. He informed Abu Sa’id of the accusation, and various bribed commanders affirmed the veracity. It was a tough trial, and Rashid al-Din fought vigorously. But Abu Sa’id wanted revenge for his father. In July 1318, Rashid al-Din watched helplessly as his son Ibrahim was decapitated before him. As the executioner's blade came for him, he yelled his final defiance: “say to ‘Ali Shah, “You have had me killed for no crime. It will not be long before fate will requite you of me, and the only difference between us will be that my grave will be older than yours.”  Rashid al-Din was then cut in half at the waist and his head paraded around Tabriz while people chanted “this is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God’s curse be upon him!” His quarter built outside the city, the Rab-e Rashidi was looted and burned. So ended the long career of Rashid al-Din Hamadani, vizier and historian, the author of our much relied on Compendium of Chronicles. Taj al-Din ‘Ali-Shah only outlived Rashid by six years, though he would be the only Ilkhanid vizier for sure known to have died a natural death.


    Following Rashid’s death, a more pressing crisis struck the Ilkhanate. The pax Mongolica achieved in 1305 finally unraveled violently in 1318 and 1319. A Chagatai prince in Ilkhanid service revolted and requested aid from his kinsmen in Central Asia, threatening an invasion from the east, while in the north an army under the new Khan of the Golden Horde, Ozbeg, raced over the Caucasus. It was narrowly fought. Husain Noyan was sent to crush the Chagatai uprising, while the young Abu Sa’id, always one to heedlessly dismiss risks,  marched to face mighty Ozbeg. Defeated in the first battle, only the timely reinforcement by Choban Noyan saved Abu Sa’id and forced Ozbeg to retreat at the Kur River. The Chagatai and Jochid threat did not dissipate though. Both khanates invaded again over the 1320s, though repeatedly it was Choban’s family who proved decisive in repelling them. Ozbeg’s second invasion was defeated by Choban around 1325, and in 1326 an attack by the future Chagatai Khan Tarmashirin was overcome by Choban’s oldest son, Hasan. 


    While these external foes were faced, internal rebellion also rocked the khanate. Commanders who fled before Ozbeg were severely punished by Choban, and in response they plotted to overthrow Abu Sa’id and replace him for his uncle, Irenjin. The plot was discovered, and Abu Sa’id once more led the army. This time victory was gained: despite even Irinjin’s wife, a Chinggisid warrior princess named Konchek, fighting for him on the battlefield, they could not overcome the Il-Khan. Konchek was so notable for her courage, at least, that according to the Persian writer Mustawfi in his Zafarnama, the Mongols recognized Konchek’s bravery on the battlefield by posthumously giving her a man’s name, Ahmad. She was not the only one recognized for courage in the revolt.  The young khan himself showed great bravery in battle, riding into the thick of danger. For this he earned the sobriquet Baatar, “hero, brave, valiant.” Hence, you will often see his name as Abu Sa’d Bahadur Khan, by which he liked to style himself for the rest of his life.


    Despite their victories Choban was very aware of how stressed Ilkhanid resources were. In addition to natural disasters destabilizing things, the vast fronts they needed to protect against Ozbeg, the Chagatais, the Neguderis and internal rebellions left no extra troops for the frontier with the Mamluks. Having taken part in Ghazan and Oljeitu’s campaigns into Syria, Choban was under no illusion of the difficulty in operating there and dealing with the Mamluks in open battle. Not only that, in 1321 Choban’s own son Temurtash, the governor of Anatolia since 1316, had revolted and declared himself an independent monarch. Not just a steppe khan, mind you, but as the Islamic messiah who heralded the end of days, the mahdi. He had been in touch with the Mamluks for some time, upon his revolt Temurtash requested they provide him with an army to defend his frontiers. The Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, for his part, did not provide one. It was a great embarrassment for Choban, who dragged his son kicking and screaming back to the Ilkhanate in 1324. Even when not physically fighting, the Mamluks' potential to support rebellion, especially among the constantly seditious Anatolian governors, meant they were an intrinsic threat to order within the khanate. To protect the khanate, Choban needed an end to the fighting with the Mamluks, and he knew it could not be won through an invasion. 


Once Choban successfully convinced Abu Sa’id to the wisdom of the preposition, in 1321 a secret embassy reached Cairo to speak to Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad: it brought word of peace, an end to the 60 years of war the Mamluks and Ilkhans had fought. The 1321 embassy is the first recorded attempt, though feelers may have been secretly sent in either direction in the previous years. Al-Nasir Muhammad was immediately struck by the idea. Never had he been an effective military leader, and he still recalled with dread his defeat at Ghazan’s hands two decades prior. It helped that the Ilkhanid message bore no demands of submission or tribute; only fine gifts, and words of friendship between two equal states. Though there were conditions, such as asking al-Nasir to stop sending assassins after Mamluk defectors in the Ilkhanate like Qara-Sunqor and to end raiding each other’s borders, there was not even a hint of the ideology of Chinggisid world domination which had previously permeated all diplomacy between the two. Indeed, this has led some historians like Reuven Amitai to suggest Abu Sa’id abandoned the idea of Chinggisid global hegemony, though he maintained respect for his lineage and ancestry. We may suspect it was simply a recognition of the reality of the situation on the part of Abu Sa’id and Choban.


Thus by 1322, the Mamluk Sultanate and Ilkhanate were at peace. Embassies went back and forth at regular intervals for the rest of Abu Sa’id’s life. Generally, they went well; the Mamluk ambassador to Abu Sa’id’s court was a man named Aytamish, of Mongolian heritage who knew the language and genealogies, as well as being a man of fine Islamic piety. He was absolutely adored by Abu Sa’id. The Il-Khan soon made a surprising suggestion: a marriage alliance linking their houses and solidifying the new order. Now, this was not itself uncommon. It was a regular Mongol ploy to tighten control over  vassals with marriages, though a marriage alliance with a non-submitted state was a slightly different matter. Al-Nasir Muhammad himself had already married a princess from the Golden Horde, Tulunbey, in 1320 though it ended in divorce and was a rather embassasing matter all around, as the always paranoid al-Nasir had accused her of not actually being a Chinggisid. What al-Nasir wanted was to marry a Chinggisid princess of absolutely certain lineage in order to elevate his own dynasty. The Ilkhanid response did not fill him with much hope. They wanted a Mamluk princess to marry Abu Sa’id or one of Choban’s sons, with the hint being that they preferred the latter. The implication, as far as al-Nasir believed, was clear. The Il-Khan and Choban, despite the peace, did not think al-Nasir as a Qipchaq Mamluk was worthy to marry a Chinggisid. Al-Nasir’s reaction was, rather typical of himself, somewhat petulant. He made the bride price too high: demanding the city of Diyar Bakir, and for his own name to be read out in sermons in the Ilkhanate before Abu Sa’id’s. He always managed to insist that none of his daughters were of marriageable age. This is despite these talks going on over the entire 1320s, when  al-Nasir married off a number of his daughters throughout the decade. No marriage would ever materialize between al-Nasir and the Ilkhanid dynasty.


    Though fighting came to an end, there was another space in which Abu Sa’id could challenge al-Nasir Muhammad: the religious one. Both Choban and Abu Sa’id were staunch Sunni Muslims, and wanted to press their claims as the heads of a good Muslim empire. One of the best ways to do this was charitable works and patronizing pilgrimages to the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.  The problem was the Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad considered himself the Guardian of the two Holy Cities, and as an always suspicious man, any effort the Il-Khan undertook in that region looked like an attempt to undermine him. His most direct challenge to al-Nasir came in 1319. That year he had sent a fine new set of kiswa, or black curtains, to be placed on the Kaaba, the square structure at the centre of Mecca which serves as the holiest place in Islam. Placing new curtains on the Kaaba was one of the symbols of sovereignty as the chief Muslim monarch, and was perhaps Abu Sa’id’s most overt effort to challenge al-Nasir. For his part, al-Nasir ensured the pilgrim caravan he sponsored entered before Abu Sa’id’s, and prevented the curtains the Il-Khan sent from ever being used. Though Abu Sa’id did not try to so directly challenge al-Nasir’s hegemony there again, the Il-Khan and Choban continued to throw out suggestions and sponsor projects in the region. At one point Abu Sa’id proposed going on hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca himself. Choban meanwhile spent considerable sums to restore a much needed well outside Mecca for pilgrims, and also had a large public bath, school and tomb for himself built in Medina beside the mosque of the Prophet. Whenever news of their efforts came to al-Nasir, he would promptly panic and explode in anger. Personally going on hajj three times, he threw piles of money at the Holy Cities in an effort to remind everyone that he was the greater Muslim and their protector. After their peace in 1322, Abu Sa’id largely accepted al-Nasir’s superiority in religion and stewardship over Mecca and Medina, though on occasion surprised the Mamluk Sultan. In 1330 Abu Sa’id sent an elephant, with no immediate explanation, on the pilgrimage. It succeeded in doing little but confusing the locals and costing an inordinate amount of money to feed before dying near Medina. The most effective show of the power of the Chinggisid monarch, it was not. 


Another embarrassing matter soon surfaced. In a rather poor judgement of character, or perhaps on Choban’s urging, Abu Sa’id pardoned and reinstated Choban’s son Temurtash, who only in 1321 had declared himself an independent sovereign. The arrogance Temurtash had once he was secure back in Anatolia annoyed Abu Sa’id, as did the haughtiness of another of Choban’s sons, Dimashq Khwaja. As viceroy over Azerbaijan, Iraq and Iraq-i ‘ajam, Dimashq wielded extraordinary power, as if he were vizier. Worse still, according to Ibn Battuta, Dimashq had taken it upon himself to sleep with as many wives of the late Oljeitu Il-Khan as possible. One of these women, Dunya Khatun, urged Abu Sa’id to act before she too fell victim to him. Choban had provided his sons and followers valuable positions across the Ilkhanate, and the children walked around as if they were as mighty as Chinggisids. Their father continued to ignore complaints raised against them, as long as they did not declare open defiance of the Khan as Temurtash had done. As Abu Sa’id grew to manhood, he grew more and more impatient of the influence of the Chobani, which he increasingly felt was at his expense. His anger at Dimashq and the other sons of Choban were fanned by his vizer, Rukn al-Din Sa’in. A former protege of Choban, now he plotted against him, and convinced Abu Sa’id that he now ruled as khan in name only. 


The sentiment is echoed by Ibn Battuta, who wrote that “when the Sultan Abu Sa’id succeeded, being a young boy [...] the chief of the amirs, [Choban], gained control over him and deprived him of all powers of administration, so that nothing of sovereignty remained in his hands but the name.  It is related that on the occasion of one of the festivals Abu Sa’id needed ready money to meet some expenses, but having no means of procuring it he sent for one of the merchants, who gave him what money he wished.” Entering adulthood and fed on stories of his mighty ancestors, Abu Sa’id chafed under the constraints placed on him by Choban. 


The tipping point came when Abu Sa’id set eyes on one of Choban’s daughters, the beautiful Baghdad Khatun. A proud woman who held her eye and apparently liked to carry around a sword, Abu Sa’id was instantly in love. This itself was not a problem; Choban himself had married two of Abu Sa’id’s sisters, the latest, Sati Beg, as recently as 1319. No, the problem was that Baghdad Khatun was already married to one of the most prominent noyans in the kingdom, Shaykh Hasan-i Buzurg of the Jalayir. Late in the summer of 1325, Abu Sa’id alerted Choban of his interests in his daughter. Choban was aghast; as a good Muslim, he would not allow his daughter to be led into adultery, even for the Il-Khan, and forbid the divorce. Attempting to discourage Abu Sa’id’s efforts, Choban quickly tried to move Baghdad Khatun and her husband out of the Khan’s sight. His plan was flummoxed when news came in 1326 of an attack by the Chagatai prince, the future Khan Tarmashirin, on the Ilkhanate’s eastern territory. Choban and his eldest son Hasan rode out and successfully defeated Tarmashirin, but in their absence Abu Sa’id decided it was time to rid himself of the house of Choban once and for all.


Late in 1326, Abu Sa’id made his move. Choban’s son Dimashq Khwaja was captured and imprisoned in the citadel at Sultaniyya, where he was killed while trying to escape in summer 1327. Choban was furious, and turned back to avenge his son’s death. Abu Sa’id raised his own army and prepared to meet his former guardian. As their armies neared each other, Choban’s followers began to desert to the Il-Khan, and Choban was forced to flee. Mirroring the fall of Ghazan’s viceroy Nawruz some thirty years prior, Choban made his way to Herat, where in the winter of 1327 he was strangled to death. When Choban’s son in Anatolia, Temurtash, learned of his father’s death he once again declared his independence, and fled to the Mamluk Sultanate seeking military support. In 1328 he was killed when Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad suspected Temurtash of having designs on the Mamluk throne. Some of Choban’s other sons under the leadership of the eldest, Hasan, fled to the Golden Horde, where in time Ozbeg Khan had them killed. By the time the dust settled, Abu Sa’id had forced the divorce of Shaykh Hasan Jalayir and Baghdad Khatun, and married her himself.  Abu Sa’id granted her the mercy of allowing Choban to be buried in his splendid tomb in Medina, though Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad had the final laugh over Choban. He denied Choban’s burial inside his tomb, forcing him to be buried in a cemetery outside the city, and sent Temurtash’s severed head to the Ilkhanid court.


By 1328 Abu Sa’id was finally the man in full control of the Ilkhanate. He once again brought up the marriage between his family and al-Nasir Muhammad. Despite his initial receptiveness, once again al-Nasir stalled and no progress was made. In practice, little government changed under Abu Sa’id’s sole rule. Restrictions against Christian were reimposed: the jizya had been permanently reinstituted, and in 1334 the order went out that Christians were supposed to bear tattoos to mark them out, in addition to signs sewn into their clothing to make them easy to distinguish. How far these were implemented remains unclear, as Abu Sa’id did not seem to interfere with the archbishopric at Sultaniyya founded in his reign. Abu Sa’id remained infatuated with Baghdad Khatun, whose influence over the Il-Khan grew. In this manner she was able to protect the remainder of her siblings and family, aided by the fact that Abu Sa’id showed a willingness to forgive. Baghdad Khatun’s former husband, Shaykh Hasan Jalayir, was accused of attempting to assassinate Abu Sa’id and imprisoned, before being pardoned and given a new position in Anatolia in 1333. Even the memory of Rashid al-Din, once accused of poisoning Abu Sa’id’s father Oljeitu, was rehabilitated, as Abu Sa’id made Rashid’s son Ghiyath al-Din his new vizier.  Able to devote himself to artistic pursuits, Abu Sa’id in his spare time composed poetry in Arabic and Persian to al-Nasir Muhammad in Cairo, comparing and discussing Abu Sa’id’s ability. 


So the early 1330s passed by relatively quietly in the Ilkhanate. Indeed, the reign of Abu Sa’id would be remembered as a Golden Age, the “Good ol’ days,” for writers of the succeeding generation.  Ibn Battuta passed through the Ilkhanate for the first time in these years, and was amazed at the power and glory of the Il-Khan. Abu Sa’id’s only problem facing him was his lack of a male heir. The efforts of Ghazan had greatly pruned the house of Hulegu, and Abu Sa’id had no son or brother to succeed him, though not for lack of trying on his part. When Baghdad Khatun failed to produce an heir for him, it seems Abu Sa’id’s interest began to wane. In accounts such as Ibn Battuta’s, Abu Sa’id doted upon Baghdad Khatun until he saw Dilshad Khatun. She was Baghdad Khatun’s niece, the daughter of her late brother Dimashq who Abu Sa’id had so hated. He apparently found her even more beautiful than he had his current wife. Once the Il-Khan married the girl, he seemingly forgot about Baghdad Khatun. Ignored, her influence dwindling, Baghdad Khatun’s fury smoldered over the following months. 


In the summer of 1335, word came to Abu Sa’id that Ozbeg Khan of the Golden Horde was planning another invasion on the Caucasus. Abu Sa’id called up his armies and advanced to defend his borders, but on the 30th of November, 1335, Abu Sa’id died en route in Azerbaijan, only thirty years old. According to Ibn Battuta, Abu Sa’id had been poisoned by the scorned Baghdad Khatun. With no child except for a pregnant Dilshad Khatun left behind, the Ilkhanate awas about to rip itself apart. Our next episodes deal with the disintegration of the Ilkhanate so 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.