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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jan 31, 2022

Kings and Generals: Mongol Empire Podcast

Episode 64: Golden Horde #4, Tele-Buqa and the Third Mongol Invasion of Poland


    Our previous episode saw a watershed moment in the normally stale politics of the Golden Horde: in the aftermath of the second Mongol invasion of Hungary, the reigning Khan, Töde-Möngke, was deposed by his nephew, Tele-Buqa. Accusing his uncle of insanity, Tele-Buqa and a group of allies now ruled in a four-way alliance, dividing the Golden Horde between them. Over the next four years, all sorts of hell broke loose, as Tele-Buqa ordered a number of new military ventures, all of which ended in failures. An increasingly desperate Tele-Buqa brought the princes Nogai and Toqta into a whirlpool, which would spell disaster for Tele-Buqa, and open warfare as the Golden Horde approached its first civil war. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest. 


    Tele-Buqa was a great-grandson of Batu Khan, a son of Tartu, the older brother of Khans Möngke-Temür and Töde-Möngke. As is standard for the Jochid Khans, we know almost nothing about his life before he took the throne of the Golden Horde in 1287, just over 80 years after Chinggis Khan first declared the Mongol Empire. A great-great-great-grandson of Chinggis, Tele-Buqa shared little in common with his illustrious ancestor, though certainly sought to emulate him through military ventures. Tele-Buqa first appears leading the army into Hungary in 1285, as covered in our last episode. You’ll sometimes see in the literature and Wikipedia that Tele-Buqa and Nogai both took part in the 1259 attack on Poland. We covered this campaign in our first episode on the Golden Horde, where it was commanded by Burundai Noyan. The placement of Nogai and Tele-Buqa in the 1259 attack first appears in the fifteenth century chronicle of Jan Długosz, which almost certainly conflated it with the attack Tele-Buqa did lead on Poland in 1287. No other contemporary source supports it, and given that Tele-Buqa was born in the sixth generation of Chinggisids, he was at best a young boy when the 1259 attack occurred. Though children can be known for their lack of mercy, it’s rather doubtful even the most ruthless of toddlers would be given an army. 


    When Tele-Buqa took the throne in 1287, he was probably in his late twenties or early thirties. As we discussed in our last episode, Töde-Möngke Khan entered in a religious or mental torpor by the mid-1280s, and the Golden Horde was governed by a widow of Möngke-Temür Khan, Jijek-Khatun. While Nogai is popularly said to have deposed Töde-Möngke and sat Tele-Buqa onto the throne, our series researcher, Jack Wilson, has demonstrated in his own studies how this is not the portrayal in the surviving primary sources. Rather, it seems Tele-Buqa eyed the throne himself, and the ensuing attack on Hungary in 1285, led by Tele-Buqa, was an effort to garner the status and resources to succeed his uncle Töde-Möngke. As we detailed in the last episode, this campaign resulted in the loss of much of his army while crossing the Carpathian mountains. 


    Tele-Buqa was furious over his defeat, particularly as Nogai’s forces had escaped comparatively whole with considerable loot. Requiring a new plan, Tele-Buqa conspired with his brother, Könchak, and two sons of Möngke-Temür, Alghui and To’rilcha. As the Mamluk chronicles recorded Töde-Möngke exiling a number of these sons during the succession to Möngke-Temür, we might suspect they had nursed their vengeance throughout Töde-Möngke’s reign. Together, they forced Töde-Möngke to abdicate early in 1287. The justification they told the Mamluks was that Töde-Möngke willingly stepped down to live as a religious hermit; the justification within the Golden Horde seems to have been that Töde-Möngke was insane and unfit to rule. This was what Rashīd al-Dīn learned in the Ilkhanate, and when Ötemish Hajji was collecting folktales from former Horde lands in the sixteenth century, stories of an insane Töde-Möngke had grown in popularity and particularly vulgar ones were supposedly favourites around the campfire.


    The four-way princely junta  that Tele-Buqa ruled through is not well understood, beyond the fact that it was some sort of division of power between them, with Tele-Buqa the first-amongst-equals rather than overlord. Rashīd al-Dīn simply remarks that they ruled jointly. The Rus’ chronicles typically mention Alghui alongside Tele-Buqa, indicating that he may have been Tele-Buqa’s #2. As Alghui was the oldest of Möngke-Temür Khan’s sons, it was unsurprising that Alghui was likewise predominant. Their division of power is also supported archeaologically. In the Mongol Empire, coinage generally bore the khan’s name and the tamgha, a sort of individual stamp or crest. In the Golden Horde, Möngke-Temür had been the first to mint coins not in the name of the Great Khan, but in his own name. Likewise, Töde-Möngke followed him in this pattern, and so did Tele-Buqa. Except under Tele-Buqa, it was not just his name on coins. As coins usually bore the city and date of minting, the following pattern emerges. Tele-Buqa’s name is on coins minted in Crimea, but in Sarai, Ukek and Khwarezm—the central and eastern parts of the Golden Horde— coins bearing the tamgha of the deceased Möngke-Temür predominant. These, in the opinion of scholars like Roman Reva, indicate coins minted by  Möngke-Temür’s son, Alghui and To’rilcha. A different tamgha in the northern part of the khanate, the important centre of Bulghar on the Volga likely belonged to Tele-Buqa’s brother, Könchak. 


    Interestingly, at the same time, there is evidence that Nogai, from his base on the lower Danube at Saqchi, modern Isaccea in Romania, began minting coinage as well. It seems on a whole, Tele-Buqa oversaw a decentralization of the Horde, something understandable given the size of the khanate, Tele-Buq’s own inexperience, and the perceived right of all of the sons of Möngke-Temür to rule.  The Mamluk chronicles indicate that most of Möngke-Temür’s sons joined the princes too, though Tele-Buqa, Könchak, Alghui and To’rilcha remained the dominant. Had this union lasted longer, we might be able to discuss how such a princely division worked; were these all new administrative wings, with all the leaders considered khans equal in status, in a sort of Mongolian version of the Roman tetrarchy? Certainly foriegn authors understood Tele-Buqa as the senior, but our lack of internal Golden Horde documents means we can’t, at the current time, understand precisely how this worked in practice.


    With the administration supposedly settled, Tele-Buqa could devote himself to other pursuits; namely, war. Tele-Buqa had a major problem facing him. By usurping the throne, his legitimacy was questionable, particularly without much of a military reputation to justify himself. Additionally, both the textual and climatic proxy data indicates the Golden Horde saw a decrease in precipitation after 1280. What this meant in the steppe, was an associated decrease in pasture, in the form of both aridisation and less bountiful pastures. And a consequence of this, was famine among the herds of the Horde. Starving, sick and dying animals, meant less supplies for the nomadic element of the khanate, the valuable Turkic and Mongolian troops who made up the Horde’s military.  For the usurper Tele-Buqa, already know for a catastrophic defeat in Hungary, to now be in the midst of an ever worsening climate, it could have appeared rather dangerously like Heaven was expressing its displeasure.  Therefore, Tele-Buqa thought he might remedy the solution, and shore up his legitimacy, with military victories.


    The first target was Poland.  In 1241 and in 1259, the Polish duchies had been horrifically ravaged by the Mongol armies. Tele-Buqa undoubtedly expected the same result.  Jan Długosz directly connects the attack as a reaction to famine within the Golden Horde, supporting the earlier thesis. The new Khan, soon after the coup, summoned Nogai and his forces, as well as a body of Rus’ troops, and possibly Lithuanians as well, and in December 1287, his armies entered Poland in two main bodies; one under himself and Prince Alghui, and the other under Nogai. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle informs us that discord still existed between Nogai and Tele-Buqa, and it seems they refused to interact in person. It was, in the words of that same chronicle, a great host, though no specific numbers are given. After taking the time to array his troops in a field and perform an inspection, the campaign was underway. Largely Tele-Buqa bypassed fortifications, ravaging suburbs and outlying communities. He had not come for conquest, but to loot, to return with wagons of slaves and goods in order to demonstrate how Heaven had granted him victory, and therefore smiled upon his place as khan. His efforts to cross deeper into Poland were stymied by initial difficulty finding ice thick enough to bear his army over the Vistula River. Next, a large body of the Rus’ troops withdrew, on account of the mortal illness one of the lead Rus’ princes suffered from. Pressing on without them, Tele-Buqa’s army encircled and assaulted the city of Sandomierz. In the two previous Mongol invasions, the city had fallen to them in quick order. But this time, resistance was stiff, and finally Tele-Buqa lifted the siege when it was clear it would not be overrun except with great struggle.


    He gave his troops leave to ravage a broad strip of Poland for 10 days while he decided his next maneuver. As December 1287 gave way to January 1288, Tele-Buqa settled on Kraków, and the city he marched. Near Torzk he halted, for there he learned that Nogai had been lain siege to  Kraków since Christmas. His frustration had not subsided with Nogai, and having felt denied his great victories throughout the campaign, Tele-Buqa Khan abandoned the effort altogether; the imperial equivalent of taking the ball home with you at recess, once you stopped having fun. He’d be damned if he, the Khan of the Golden Horde, would assist Nogai in a siege. Thus in early January 1288 did Tele-Buqa leave Poland, ravaging all the territory he could as he went; including Galicia, his own subjects. And Nogai too was soon forced to withdraw, unable to break the defences of Kraków. For their valiant defence, the Polish Duke Leszek the Black granted the krakowianin [people of Kraków] generous tax exemptions. 


    The immediate consequence of the 1287 attack on Poland was in furthering the divide between Tele-Buqa and Nogai. There was no outright defeat, and no great numbers had been lost as had been in the withdrawal from Hungary. Certainly, the Mongols left with a good deal of loot and slaves, given the amount of time they spent ravaging the countryside. But both Nogai and Tele-Buqa blamed the other for the rather inconclusive outcome. There had been attempts to take cities, and these were repulsed, and Nogai knew that Tele-Buqa had actively chosen to not assist in the siege of Kraków. Tele-Buqa’s military dreams were not dashed, though; he simply found another target. In May 1288, only a few months after the return from Poland, Tele-Buqa ordered an attack on the Ilkhanate, under the command of Tamma-Toqta. The Il-Khan, Arghun, rapidly turned back and repelled the Jochid troops, as well as their followup assault that October. And in spring 1290, when Tamma-Toqta once again led Jochid troops into the Ilkhanate, they were again met with defeat. The Ilkhanid forces killed a great many, and captured numerous Jochid princes in the army. It was a humiliating defeat.


    From 1285 through to 1290, Tele-Buqa had led or ordered a number of military ventures. Most of them ended in outright, or even catastrophic, failure. Only in Poland could the result be, somewhat charitably, described as inconclusive. If we imagine Tele-Buqa had undertaken these campaigns in order to shore up his position— a usurpation in the midst of drought and famine— then these efforts had instead looked like Heaven offered no support for Tele-Buqa’s rule; for if it did, surely it would have signaled this through some sort of victory? Alas for Tele-Buqa Khan, this was not the case.


    His legitimacy shaky, his right to rule questioned, rumours may have come to Tele-Buqa of doubt in his leadership, that Heaven was displeased at him and now the princes and noyad whispered of how ill-fit he was. He had usurped the throne from a man seen as incompetent; what would stop someone else from doing the same to him? At this point, Tele-Buqa may have decided to strike first at his perceived rivals. This manifested in two main figures; one was Nogai, who Tele-Buqa had already blamed for military defeats. The powerful prince on the Danube  seemed a great potential threat. And the other was Toqta; a son of Möngke-Temür Khan, Toqta is described in all sorts of manly virtues, a real figure to rally anti-Tele-Buqa support around. More significantly, there is no evidence for Toqta taking part in the princely-power sharing arrangement Tele-Buqa had organized with Möngke-Temür’s other sons. Or perhaps he had been, and an ever-more paranoid Tele-Buqa threw him out on some perceived slight, and then decided he should have killed him. Regardless of the process, Toqta felt that Tele-Buqa was threatening his life, and fled to the most powerful person he could: Nogai. Tele-Buqa had inadvertently made the alliance that would cost him his life.


    Fleeing to Nogai’s ordu,  according to Rashīd al-Dīn, Toqta gave this message to the elder prince: “My cousins are trying to kill me, and thou art the aqa. I will take refuge with thee so that thou mayst preserve me and prevent the hand of their oppression from reaching me. As long as I live I shall be commanded by my aqa and shall not contravene thy will.” While scholarship usually presents Nogai as the khanmaker deposing the Jochid rulers at will and the man actually running the state, our series researcher has argued against this. If Nogai was the less dominant man, then this offer from Toqta must have been an enticing promise; to have the ruler of the Golden Horde essentially be your man, especially when the current one was making threatening moves? It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Nogai quickly came up with a stratagem to bring down Tele-Buqa and get Toqta to the throne.


    Nogai was the aqa of the Jochids; that is, the senior member of the lineage. As aqa, he held great influence, and was expected to be consulted on prominent matters, delivering his experience and wisdom to those younger generations who simply didn’t know any better. “Kids these days!” we might imagine the one-eyed Nogai mumbling after a frustrating council session with Tele-Buqa. His consultation is recorded when Töde-Möngke released the captive son of Khubilai Khaan, for instance. In fact, most of his influence within the Golden Horde is certainly attributable to this status. And it was this status that Nogai would employ for his plan.


    Two slightly different versions of what he did exist, recorded separately by Rashīd al-Dīn in the Ilkhanate and Baybars al-Mansūrī in the Mamluk Sultanate. It’s possible both accounts are correct, and this is how it may have looked. In the Mamluk account, Nogai received summons from Tele-Buqa, that the khan demanded his presence, on the pretext of needing his advice, though in truth planned to kill him. Nogai gathered his allies, and with foreknowledge accepted Tele-Buqa’s summons, and advanced to meet him. Both the Mamluks and Rashīd recorded that before the meeting though, Nogai contacted Tele-Buqa’s mother, who was not involved in the plot. He convinced her that he had only peaceful intentions; he was the aqa, and only wanted to advise Tele-Buqa, and therefore the lady should convince her son to come, unarmed, with a small party to meet Nogai. Rashīd’s account differs slightly, in that at the same time Nogai feigned that he was deathly ill; he needed the Khan and his allies to come and make final amends before he passed on.  He sold the show further by swallowing blood clots, which he would then dramatically cough up. The weakening Nogai assuaged the fears of all others who came across him, telling them “Old age has set in, and I have abandoned conflict, fighting, and disputes. I have neither intention of contending with anyone nor thought of doing battle. However, we have been commanded by [Chinggis] Khan that if anyone in his ulus or urugh goes astray and upsets the ulus, we must investigate and make them content to agree.”


    Tele-Buqa’s mother was utterly convinced, and sent word to her sons, “Go as fast as possible and meet that weak old man who is about to depart this life for the hereafter. If you do not, your mother’s milk will be forbidden to you.” Tele-Buqa and his allies arrived as Nogai had desired, unarmed without any army. Perhaps they had indeed fallen for Nogai’s trick, or perhaps Tele-Buqa wanted a final chance to gloat over the old-man. 


    As Tele-Buqa and the princes arrived in the camp, and were beguiled by Nogai’s smooth talk and pained coughs, a messenger was sent to Toqta, bringing him and his men out of hiding. In quick order, Tele-Buqa and the sons of Möngke-Temür were surrounded. Their eyes must have darted back and forth in confusion and terror, from the armed horsemen under Toqta, to the suddenly perfectly fine Nogai rising from his bed, who promptly gave the order for Tele-Buqa and the princes to be tied up. Nogai turned to Toqta, and pointed to Tele-Buqa, almost dismissively saying, “This one took over the kingdom of your father, but these sons of your father agreed with him to seize and kill you.  I give them into your hands;  kill them as you wish.”


    Out of respect to their imperial status, the bound princes had their heads covered, and backs broken. So ended the four year reign of Tele-Buqa Khan. It was not just Tele-Buqa and his closest allies killed; all of the sons of Möngke-Temür Khan, Toqta’s brothers, were likewise executed Swiftly, Toqta was confirmed as khan of the Golden Horde; Nogai stayed close to confirm it, and Toqta’s few surviving brothers swore their loyalty to him. Upon the completion of the ceremonies, Nogai swiftly returned to the lower Danube. For Nogai’s khanmaker reputation, this was the first, and last, overthrow of the ruling khan that he took part in, according to the primary sources. Even Marco Polo, passing through Anatolia only a few years later, recorded a muddled version of events, making Töde-Möngke and Nogai work together to overthrow Tele-Buqa. Tele-Buqa’s brief reign would largely be forgotten in succeeding generations, but it had ushered in a process of decentralization that would require some time to be corrected. Toqta would begin the process; but not before things came to a head with Nogai. Both men had made promises of assistance, and both were about to find that the other was not as keen to keep their end of the bargain. To see how their conflict develops, be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great khan-tent, please consider supporting us on patreon at and generals, 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.