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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 21, 2022

With the death of Nogai by 1300, one man was now master of the Golden Horde; Toqta, son of Möngke-Temür Khan, great-grandson of Batu, great-great-grandson of Jochi, and great-great-great-grandson of Chinggis Khan. After the troubles of the 1290s, Toqta ushered in a new age of stability as rivals to power were snuffed out over his twenty year reign. Today we take you through the reign of Toqta Khan. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Toqta, known also as Toqtogha, was one of Möngke-Temür Khan’s ten sons. While most of Möngke-Temür’s children had joined Tele-Buqa Khan’s alliance from 1287 to 1291, Toqta and three other brothers— Tudan, Sarai-Buqa and Bürlük—seem to have been excluded for unclear reasons. We have only reference to Toqta being seen as a strong figure of certain manly qualities, supposedly embodying Mongol ideals of rulership. Perhaps a skilled archer and rider, a fearsome wrestler and warrior, Toqta appeared an ideal rival to the always militarily-doomed Tele-Buqa.


Regardless of why, Toqta first appears in the sources being singled out as a rival by Tele-Buqa and his allies. The story, as you heard in our previous episodes, resulted in Toqta allying with Nogai and killing most of his brothers. In 1291 Toqta was enthroned as khan, perhaps also in another four way power division with his surviving brothers, according to the Mamluk chroniclers. Nogai then returned to his territory along the Danube. Popularly it is claimed that Toqta spent his first years as Khan under Nogai’s thumb, but there is relatively little information to support that. Both Toqta and Nogai demanded the other kill surviving supporters of Tele-Buqa Khan, but Nogai is given no involvement in the sources in the  major actions Toqta undertook. In 1293, on the request of the Rus’ prince Andrei, son of the famed Alexander Nevskii, Toqta sent his brother Tudan on a devastating attack on the Rus’, aimed on ousting Andrei’s rival brother, Dmitri. 14 Rus’ cities, including Moscow, were sacked, and Novgorod only narrowly avoided destruction due to a timely, and very expensive, pile of gifts. Dmitri died the next year, leaving Andrei as Grand Prince of the Rus’ undisputed. In 1294 Toqta also organized  a peace treaty with the Il-Khan Geikhatu, ending hostilities with the Ilkhanate. 


As we covered in the last episode, most of Toqta’s reign in the second half of the 1290s was caught up dealing with Nogai, as growing tensions were fanned into open war between them. After initial defeats, Toqta succeeded in overcoming Nogai, and the old dog was dead by 1300.  So ended the first decade of Toqta’s reign, and he could begin to restore the Jochid Khanate’s wider influence. On Nogai’s defeat the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II sent a daughter to marry Toqta, while the Rus’ princes reaffirmed their vassalage. At a gathering of the princes in 1304 Toqta’s influence over them was confirmed with a reallotment of certain cities.  


Like his father Möngke-Temür Khan, Toqta sought to extend the Jochids’ influence over their borders, though faced difficulties in doing so. He placed his brothers Bürlük, Sarai-Buqa and his own sons Ilbasar and Tükel-Buqa into prominent governorships. Sarai-Buqa was made the master of the late Nogai’s former territory. On Toqta’s permission, the new Bulgarian tsar Theodore Svetoslav killed Nogai’s son Chaka in 1301, and on Chaka’s death Sarai-Buqa moved into the Nogayid lands, and Toqta’s son Tükel-Buqa took Nogai’s former administrative centre at Saqchi, thus reasserting the Horde’s mastery over the region. Bulgaria, counter to some suggestions, remained a part of the Golden Horde as a vassal. Toqta might have thought the matter finished, had Nogai’s sole surviving son, Turai, not come out of hiding.  Turai, through some silver tongue-work, was welcomed into the local court of Toqta’s brother Sarai-Buqa. In short order, Turai convinced Sarai-Buqa that he should be khan, and thereby had Sarai-Buqa march against Toqta. Sarai-Buqa sought to get another brother, Bürlük, in on the plot. Bürlük made a show of agreeing, while contacting Toqta in secret. With his brother’s permission, Bürlük turned on Turai and Sarai-Buqa, capturing and killing them. Toqta’s son Ilbasar was then made overseer of Nogai’s former lands. 


Meanwhile, on his far eastern border, Toqta had another opportunity arise. There lay the Blue Horde, the khanate under the rule of the line of Orda, the older brother of Batu. Whether the Blue Horde was ever really under the authority of Batu’s line, or was in fact its own independent khanate from its inception, is a matter of hot debate in the scholarship. Regardless of the original intention, during the reign of Orda’s grandson Qonichi from the 1270s until 1300, the Blue Horde was, for all intents and purposes, its own power outside of the influence of the Batuid lineage. Independent contemporaries like Marco Polo and Rashīd al-Dīn attest to the fact. Qonichi, according to Rashīd al-Dīn, was so monstrously overweight that no horse could bear him, and he needed to be carried around in a cart. His guards had to watch over him at night just to make sure his neck fat did not crush his throat, and allegedly, a failure to do so one night resulted in Qonichi’s death. Whether we can give any credence to this story, or it was simply a yarn which made its way across the Mongol Empire we cannot know, but one thing that is apparent is that Qonichi had a keen political mind. While Qaidu Khan fought for mastery over the Chagatais and warred with the Yuan Khans, Qonichi’s realm appeared a beacon of stability. With every other Mongol khanate, Qonichi succeeded in maintaining a friendly or neutral diplomatic status, which secured his realm from the conflicts that marked the second half of the thirteenth century. 


On Qonich’s death in the late 1290s, his son Bayan succeeded him. However, here he was challenged by a younger brother, Mumkqiya, while the Chagatayid Khan Du’a and his Ögedeid ally Qaidu backed one of Bayan’s cousins, Küilük, evidently seen as a man more complimentary to the needs of the Central Asian Mongols. Bayan went to Toqta Khan for aid, but Toqta was at that point in the midst of war with Nogai, and could lend no support beyond sending envoys to Du’a and Qaidu asking them to kindly leave Bayan alone. Somehow, that did not convince Du’a and Qaidu, and we are told that they did not even bother to respond to Toqta’s messages. Qaidu’s death in 1301 didn’t halt the conflict, and by 1303 Bayan was sending out envoys to the Great Khan, Khubilai’s grandson Temür Öljeitü, and the Il-Khan Ghazan, seeking alliance against Du’a Khan. Du’a, undesiring getting caught between a rock and a hard place —that is, the Il-Khan and the Great Khan— proved amenable to the idea of a general Mongol peace. So came about over 1304 and 1305 the Great Mongol peace as Du’a Khan of the Chagatai Khanate, Qaidu’s sons in the Ögedeid khanate, Bayan Khan in the Blue Horde and Ghazan’s successor, Öljeitü Il-Khan, all recognized the supremacy of the Great Khan. When Toqta was alerted of it, he too jumped on board. For the first time since Berke became khan in the 1250s, the Jochid ruler now recognized the overlordship of the Great Khan. For the remainder of Yuan rule in China, the Golden Horde officially regarded Khubilai’s heirs as the rightful ruler of the world— albeit, nominally, and the Great Khan held no real authority within any of the western khanates. From this point onwards Toqta and his successors were provided revenues from prefectures in China.


In terms of actual peace between the khanates, 1304’s success was rather more ephemeral. Bayan of the Blue Horde continued to face struggles from rivals to power. When his cousin Küilük died, his son continued to challenge Bayan. Only around 1310, when Toqta was able to intervene militarily, was the situation calmed in the Blue Horde. On Bayan’s death by 1312 he was succeeded, apparently without issue, by his son Sasi-Buqa. However, the Blue Horde’s independence was now on a leash, and would be restricted further by Toqta’s successor Özbeg.


On his border with the Ilkhanate, Toqta was never too subtle. In the 1290s Toqta made peace with Il-Khan Geikhatu and then with Ghazan, but following Nogai’s death Toqta’s policy pivoted. In the first years of the fourteenth century Toqta sent messages to Ghazan demanding he relinquish control over the Caucasus. Like a good Jochid khan, Toqta knew not only the economic value, but the political acumen he would enjoy, if he brought these lands back under control of the Jochid lineage. Evidently he had taken note of the failures of previous efforts, and had convinced himself that diplomacy would instead convince the Ilkhanids to abandon these valuable lands. Ghazan would have none of that though, and responded succinctly with “I conquered these lands by the sword and I will defend them by the word!” If Toqta wanted them, then he’d have to come and take them by force. 


So well known were Toqta’s demands, that they even appeared in the work of the contemporary Byzantine author Pachymeres, where Toqta is portrayed as a deceitful figure trying to steal the kingdom from Ghazan while the latter was on his deathbed. And it’s not altogether inaccurate. When Ghazan died in 1304 he was succeeded by his brother Öljeitü, with whom Toqta at first made peace with, and likewise recognized the Great Mongol Peace. But almost immediately afterwards Toqta sent his first envoys to the Mamluks, where he urged them to join him in an attack on the Ilkhanate. He sent several rounds of these messages to the Mamluks, but found an unwilling ear there. The sultan, the young al-Nasir Muhammad, had signed a truce with Öljeitü, but only a few years before had suffered a crushing defeat at Wadi al-Khaznadar at the hands of the late Ghazan. There was no mood in Cairo for any large expedition against the Ilkhan. Toqta’s hopes for any great conquest of the Caucasus would be dashed. It shows also the almost immediate failure of the Great Mongol Peace; Toqta saw it as an opportunity to settle the disputed claim with the Ilkhanate, and perhaps appealed to the Great Khan to mediate it as would have been done in times past. But no sense of Mongol unity was imposed, or past grievances really settled, by the effort.


The Mamluk Sultanate’s failure to reply positively to Toqta’s demands brought perhaps the lowest point in Mamluk-Jochid relations. The fact that Toqta was a shamanist or Buddhist meant there was not even a religious common ground for them to work with. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Toqta began to put great pressure on the Italian merchants in the Golden Horde who supplied the Mamluks with captive Qipchaps for their armies.  Over the second half of the thirteenth century, a growing colony of Genoese traders had formed along the Golden Horde’s Black Sea coastline. The most important of these sites was at Caffa in the Crimean Peninsula. The Italians made considerable income by selling the most important of the Horde’s overseas exports; grains, which were particularly important for feeding Constantinople, and slaves. With the defeat of Nogai, many of his defeated men and their entire families were sold abroad, but slaves were also procured in raids and even from desperate parents unable to feed their children, and thereby forced to sell them into servitude. The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt purchased a great many of these slaves, particularly children, who would then be raised in the skills of war to form the actual Mamluk core of the Sultanate’s armies. In theory the Genoese paid tax for this privilege, but in recent years had failed to pay the primary tax on this transaction. Their arrogance did them no favours in Toqta’s eyes.


It seems probable that Toqta aimed to put pressure onto this trade, and by extension hurt the Mamluks. The official reason given was that Toqta wanted to put an end to the sale of Mongol children abroad. While Toqta perhaps did have a personal dislike to the selling of Mongol and Qipchap children, Toqta may also have wanted to put a stop to the sale of valuable future warriors. After the destructive war against Nogai and arid years of the 1280s and 90s, it may have been necessary to recoup some of these demographic losses. That it could also force the Mamluks to play nice was a handy consequence, as far as Toqta was concerned.


In October 1307 Toqta gave the order for the expulsion of the Genoese in the Golden Horde. First in the capital of Sarai, the local Genoese were arrested, their goods confiscated. Then he sent his son Ilbasar with an army into Crimea, who laid siege to Caffa at the close of 1307. Here Caffa’s stout stone walls stood defiant. Raids at sea from Venetian rivals, and Nogai’s own vicious attack on Crimea in 1299, had led to the denizens of Caffa strengthening their fortifications. The siege wore on for 8 months, but by May 1308 the defenders knew the situation was hopeless. Thus they abandoned their posts, taking to their ships and setting flame to the city. Ilbasar sacked whatever was left. In the end, the campaign was a success, as the Genoese had been expelled,but if it was indeed intended to make the Mamluks play nice, it did not have this effect. The Mamluks remained stubbornly opposed to any attack on the Ilkhanate. By 1311 Toqta sent an embassy with considerable gifts of slaves and luxurious furs to soften matters. But Mamluk-Jochid relations remained poor until the reign of Toqta’s successor Özbeg, who would also allow the return of the Genoese.


    Toqta also played his hand at monetary reform, perhaps inspired by increased contact with the Yuan Dynasty, and Ghazan’s reforms in the Ilkhanate. His efforts seem more focused on coin weights, and which sites were allowed to mint, while retaining regional variety. Thus in islamic parts of the khanate, the shamanist-buddhist Toqta is given the very Islamic title of sultan.


    Much of the remainder of Toqta’s actions within the Golden Horde are unknown. He was struck by personal tragedies, as it seems between 1308 and 1312 his sons predeceased him. The general image we have is of relative, much needed stability, within the Golden Horde, a period of respite after the war against Nogai and its other neighbours. In the spring of 1312, Toqta apparently decided on a visit to the Rus’ lands himself, making him the first reigning Jochid monarch to do so. Or at least, he would have been the first. Toqta made the unusual decision to travel by ship up the Volga river; the details remain vague, but in an ensuing shipwreck, or from illness aboard the vessel, Toqta died in August 1312. Suspicion, even by contemporaries, was that his nephew, Özbeg, had a role in it. Özbeg was a son of Toqta’s brother, To’rilcha, who had been one of the top allies of Tele-Buqa Khan. Toqta had killed To’rilcha in the coup of 1291, then married To’rilcha’s chief wife, Bayalun Khatun, Özbeg’s stepmother.  The young Özbeg was exiled from court, and is commonly assumed to have spent his time in the Jochid lands in Khwarezm near the Aral Sea. Determined and ambitious, Özbeg stood to gain greatly from the death of the childless Toqta.


    What followed next is foggy, to say the least, as the sources offer various, competing narratives. Here we feel the loss of Rashīd al-Dīn, who around the time of Toqta’s death was in the midst of copying the Jami’ al-Tawarikh, and no longer adding information to it. His clear eyed sourcing and reporting of information goes much amiss, as Qashani, Rashīd al-Dīn’s successor when it came to recording events after 1305, provides an account of Toqta’s succession sourced apparently directly from Jochid envoys in 1313. However, Qashani’s account confuses names and chronologies and is totally contradictory with the Mamluk accounts; Toqta’s sons, for instance, are alive in Qashani’s writing, whereas the Mamluks have them all die before their father. Qashani also makes the emir, Qutlugh-Temür, a rival of Özbeg, while the Mamluks and other accounts had Qutlugh-Temür as Özbeg’s chief ally from the start.


To save your ears, our dear listeners, we’ll simplify this as best we can, based on recent research.  First we can mention an interesting hypothesis from  historian Thomas Tanase.  A long running problem was that contemporary Fransican accounts of the 1320s spoke of a certain Coktoganus being a khan of the Golden Horde who converted to Catholicism, and died before Özbeg. The identity of Coktoganus has been a troublesome thing, with suggestions ranging from this referring toToqta himself, to simple wishful thinking on the part of the Fransciscans in the Golden Horde. However, neither explanation is sufficient. The sources are fairly consistent of Toqta’s position as a shamanist or Buddhist. Further, Fransciscans were generally careful with their gathering of information, and learnt local languages; the idea being that an individual had to be rather knowledgeable of local affairs and language to better convert them. These Franciscans were also stationed within the Golden Horde, from Crimea to Sarai, and likely learned these facts first hand.


Tanase offers a likely explanation; that Coktoganus was not Toqta, but one of his brothers, Kutukan. If we drop the latin ending -us, Coktogan is a fairly decent rendering of Kutukan, and indeed the Fransicans also noted Coktoganus was a brother of the “Tartar emperor.” The most convincing evidence is that one of these Franciscan accounts lists three of Coktoganus’ sons, whose names match exactly with the sons of Kutukan listed by Rashīd al-Dīn. Mamluk accounts had Kutukan among the brothers killed by Toqta in the 1291 coup, but we might wonder if this was not an accidental or anachronistic addition by the Mamluks, who saw a son of Möngke-Temür missing and added him to the list of dead princes. Based on Tanase’s suggestion, we can propose the following timeline. Toqta died on the Volga in the summer of 1312, with no surviving children. Per Tanase’s idea, the Christian convert Kutukan declared himself khan to succeed his brother, but died within a few weeks or months. A very brief reign would explain how the Mamluks did not record him, particularly if he was never officially enthroned as khan, while also aligning with the Franciscan reports of a natural death for Coktoganus, while also aligning with Qashani’s and al-Aharai’s reports of a member of Toqta’s family being a contender against Özbeg. In these accounts, as well as later Turkic ones, Toqta’s son Tükel-Buqa is alive and battles Özbeg for the throne. Perhaps they confused Kutukan with Tükel-Buqa, or perhaps the Mamluks falsely reported Tükel-Buqa’s death.


    Regardless of whether Tükel-Buqa or Kutukan tried to take the throne in 1312, neither claimant could overcome Özbeg. Even if he was uninvolved in Toqta’s death, Özbeg moved quickly to take the throne himself, backed by the powerful Qutlugh-Temür, the governor of Jochid Khwarezm, and perhaps the most powerful Islamic figure within the Golden Horde.  Either on Qutlugh-Temür’s urging, or to gain Qutlugh-Temür’s backing, Özbeg made a simple promise. “Back me as khan, and I will convert to islam.” What Özbeg’s campaign showed was the growing body of Muslims within the Golden Horde, particularly among the beys, or the noyad. A sizeable body of the Jochid elite were, by 1312, converts to Islam. Particularly if a Christian Kutukan had briefly tried to claim the throne, Özbeg may have had great success in rallying support. Among those who backed him included Bayalun Khatun, the widow of both his father To’rilcha, and of Toqta. This influential lady, skilled in Jochid politics, brought important support for Özbeg’s claim. 


A rallying of Islamic beys, and a conversion upon taking the throne, appears to varying degrees in later Turkic accounts like Ötemish Hajji, and Özbeg’s own letter to the Mamluks upon his enthronement, where Özbeg announced proudly his recent conversion to Islam. Qashani is again the odd man out, where Özbeg appears as a Muslim for several years before he takes the throne. In general, the sources agree that Özbeg led an Islamic faction against the entrenched shamanist-Buddhist faction, represented by some member of Toqta’s family. A recurring scene, appearing first in Qashani, and two hundred years later in Ötemish’s Hajji’s version, is that at a feast, rivals for the throne from the opposing faction sought to ambush Özbeg at a feast. Özbeg learns of their treachery, and with his allies storms out of the tent to kill his opponents.


As you should have gotten a sense after all that, the transition between Toqta and Özbeg is a murky period. Regardless of the specifics, Özbeg was enthroned as Khan of the Golden Horde in January 1313. And the experience left a sour taste in his mouth. Officially, Özbeg set out a mandate; whichever prince failed to convert to islam would be killed. Very conveniently, many of those killed also happened to be descendants of his grandfather, Möngke-Temür Khan; that is, potential rivals to the throne.  And what a great many were killed. Some of it was obviously religiously motivated; shamans and Buddhist lamas were killed en masse, and Christian privileges were reduced though they did not suffer any great executions, likely due to their limited presence among the nomadic population. The main element of the slain though, were Jochid princes. Any surviving family members and supporters of Kutukan or Tükel-Buqa, had they indeed challenged Özbeg, were hunted down and killed. Özbeg’s aim was very simple, and based on the lessons of the previous decades, perhaps as passed down by the experienced Qutlugh-Temür. At the start of the 1280s, Möngke-Temür’s successor Töde-Möngke had exiled the sons of Möngke-Temür, but not killed them. Thus they came back to seek revenge. In 1287 Tele-Buqa seized the throne with a group of allies, but had left so many rivals in place that those displeased with his reign had found a figurehead to rally around in the form of Toqta. And while Toqta had killed  a great many of the supporters of Tele-Buqa, he had not ripped them up root and bud, leaving Özbeg to nurse his vengeance for twenty years. Özbeg made no such mistake. Of all the purges carried out by the various Chinggisids, perhaps none were as total as that carried out by Özbeg. By the time he was done, the only members of the line of Batu still left, was that of Özbeg and his own sons. The results in  a way speak for themselves, for Özbeg would enjoy the longest reign of any descendant of Jochi. 


Our next episode picks up with the reign of Özbeg Khan, from 1313 to 1341, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was written and researched by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.