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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 28, 2022

“Account of the exalted Sultan Muhammad Uzbak Khan.  His name is Muhammad Uzbak, and Khan in their language means ‘sultan.’ This sultan is mighty in sovereignty, exceedingly powerful, great in dignity, lofty in station, victor over the enemies of God, the people of Constantinople the Great, and diligent in the jihad against them. His territories are vast and his cities great; they include al-Kafa, al-Kirim, al-Machar, Azaq, Sudaq and Khwarezm, and his capital is al-Sara. He is one of the seven kings who are the great and mighty kings of the world. [...] this sultan when he is on the march, travels in a separate mahalla, accompanied by his mamluks and his officers of state, and each one of his khatuns travels separately in her own mahalla. When he wishes to be with any one of them, he sends to her to inform her of this, and she prepares to receive him.”


So the great traveller Ibn Battuta describes Özbeg, Khan on the Golden Horde, during his visit to that khan’s camp. From 1313 until his death in 1341, Özbeg enjoyed the lengthiest of reigns of a Mongol ruler, second only to his distant cousin Khubilai Khaan. The powerful Özbeg would be long remembered as the mightiest of Jochid rulers, and his life was  a watershed for the Horde. After him, all khans were Muslims, and his life would be a model, the marker of the Horde’s Golden Age. Yet, despite the proclamations of his excellence, tensions bubbled under the surface, and Özbeg’s great power did not translate into great success. In today’s episode, we take you through the transformation of the Golden Horde under Özbeg, looking specifically at islamization and urbanization. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Özbeg was a son of To’rilcha, a grandson of Möngke-Temür Khan, a great-great-grandson of Batu, a great-great-great-grandson of Jochi, and thereby a descendant of Chinggis Khan. Özbeg’s father To’rilcha had been a part of the four-wary princely junta that ruled the Horde from 1287 to 1291 under Tele-Buqa Khan. As one of the top princes of this union, and one of the sons of the prestigious Möngke-Temür Khan, To’rilcha had certainly been a powerful prince within the horde. It seems Özbeg drew much of his initial legitimacy from this, and retained a great distaste for his uncle Toqta Khan, who had To’rilcha and the other princes  killed in the 1291 coup with the aid of Nogai. Toqta then married Özbeg’s stepmother, To’rilcha’s chief wife Bayalun Khatun, and apparently exiled Özbeg to Khwarezm, which cemented Özbeg’s hatred for his uncle. It’s not surprising then that Özbeg is often accused of being behind Toqta’s somewhat mysterious death in 1312. As we covered in our episode last week, the sources are contradictory over what immediately followed. Though Mamluk sources tend to have Toqta’s sons predecease him, a number of other accounts have Özbeg battle one of Toqta’s surviving sons. Regardless, by the start of 1313 Özbeg was duly enthroned as Khan of the Golden Horde, and if he had not done so already, made public his conversion to Islam. 


Özbeg had a particular view on how to hold onto power, which involved executing a great number of potential rivals to the throne. At least one hundred princes and members of the military elite were killed in perhaps the largest princely massacre of the Mongol Empire and its successor khanates. The justification for many of the deaths was the failure of the given princes to convert to Islam, but this was almost certainly little more than an excuse to substantially trim the branches of the aristocracy. Özbeg wanted to ensure that there would be not only no rivals to his own position, but that only his own sons would be able to succeed him.


Certainly, islamization was a key part of Özbeg’s reign. There can be no doubt over its spread amongst the Jochid elite from these years onwards, and accounts like Ibn Battuta not only stress the piety of Özbeg and his court, but how islamic institutions were now seeped into the actual administration of the Golden Horde. This ranged from readers of the quran accompanying the royal family everywhere, to Islamic qadi courts now operating alongside the initial justice system established by the dynasty, the jarquchi courts. From Özbeg’s coinage, we know he took the Islamic title and name of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad, and in his contacts with the Mamluk Sultanate he expressed loudly the notice of his conversion, and his success in converting the nomads of his empire to Islam. The specific mentions of him killing shamans and Buddhist lamas also indicates an effort to actively uproot the old ways.


Yet there remains considerable evidence to continued religious plurality within the Golden Horde and for Özbeg himself. For example, at the very start of his reign he wedded his step-mother, Bayalun Khatun, a widow of both Toqta and his father To’rilcha. An experienced political player with many contacts, her support was important in Özbeg’s ascension. Yet wedding his own step-mother was quite against Islamic law and practice. Here Özbeg’s qadis conveniently found a loophole; as neither of her previous husbands had  been Muslims, neither marriage was thus legal, and hence technically Özbeg was not marrying his own step-mother. We can’t know if that convinced anyone, but noone had the power to tell Özbeg “no.” 


Moreover, we know that Özbeg did not seek to convert the Christian populations of his realm to Islam. The Rus’ chronicles mention no effort on the part of Özbeg to do so, and only rarely do they even remark on his status as a Muslim. One of his earliest actions as khan, even in the midst of the most zealous period after his conversion, was going out of his way to welcome the Genoese back to Caffa, and in 1332 granted the Venetians right to build a quarter at Tana, on the mouth of the Don River. In quick order he confirmed tax exemptions for the local Franciscan community and gave them permission to build a cathedral in Caffa. Even when a nominal order went out banning the ringing of church bells, it seems there was little enforcement of it, given that this Franciscan cathedral continued to ring them according to other sources. These were not the only privileges they were granted, for the Franciscans were also given freedom to perform missionary activities deep within Horde lands. A Franciscan letter from 1320 indicates that their missionaries had reached as far as Bashkiria, only six years into Özbeg’s reign.  A number of extant Franciscan letters survive speaking of the success of their missions due not just to Özbeg’s tolerance, but of even his family. Özbeg’s chief khatun after Bayalun’s death was Taydula, who was specifically noted for her patronage of Christian communities. In fact, letters remain from Pope John XXII and Pope Benedict XII thanking Özbeg and Taydula for their favourable treatment of Christians in the Horde.


Though Christians received privileges from Özbeg, there is also references to his treatment of other religious groups. During his trip to the Golden Horde, Ibn Battuta met a Jewish person from Spain. Buddhist Uyghurs remained a part of Özbeg’s court. And from other evidence too we know of the continued practice of non-Islamic beliefs well after Özbeg. The Golden Horde’s powerful beylerbeyi, Edigü, who took power some fifty years after Özbeg’s death, also made a name for himself having to stamp out Buddhism and shamanism. And in the fifteenth century a few eye witness reports, such as Johann Schiltberger, indicate a limited presence of traditional folk religions. In other lands of the former Golden Horde, such as in what is now Kazakhstan, the advance of Islam among the Kazakhs remains a topic of debate, with some arguing that it was not until late in the nineteenth century that the islamization was really complete among the nomads there. Özbeg, much like his predecessors Berke and Töde-Möngke, could make a show of the islamization of their states in diplomacy with the Mamluks, but nomads clung, often quite stubbornly, to their old ways.


Yet no mistake should be made; for Özbeg and his successors, their government was now Islamic, and there was no question about that. Özbeg’s active promotion of Islam, and invitation of Islamic administrators to his cities and government did a considerable amount to promote the religion and bring more converts. Moreover, Özbeg actively had much of his support come from Islamic beys within the Horde, such as his powerful ally Qutlugh-Temür, the governor of Khwarezm. And the effort stuck. Every khan to succeed Özbeg seems to have been a Muslim. According to the Mamluk chroniclers ibn Taghriberdi and al-Safadi, Özbeg ceased to wear his hair in traditional Mongol fashion or to Mongolian hats. Contemporary accounts from the Ilkhanate written before the 1330s such as Wassaf and Qashani portray Özbeg as a pious Muslim, who strictly punished soldiers who harassed sufis. Özbeg’s first embassy to the Mamluks arrived in Cairo in April 1314 and loudly proclaimed their lord’s conversion to Islam. And of course Ibn Battuta, traveling and meeting Özbeg in the 1330s, present Özbeg unambiguously as a Muslim, albeit one who enjoyed large feasts and drinking during ramadan.  The image that comes across then, is a relatively adaptable monarch when it came to religion, who knew how to press hard when he could and thus promote Islam, but when necessary to remain flexible to local custom, and keep his empire running smoothly.  The fact that Özbeg would sit on the Jochid throne for thirty years speaks much to his success in these matters, compared to the very short reigns of many contemporary khans. 


Of course, nothing can be said about Özbeg’s islam without mentioning Baba Tükles. This famous sufi became, in legend, the man who converted Özbeg to Islam. The story goes that he and Özbeg’s shamans were to hold a competition to prove whose religion was true by seeing who could survive inside a hot oven. The shaman, as most humans would, burnt to death, but when they checked on Baba Tükles, he was sitting comfortably in the oven wearing nothing but a suit of maille and reciting prayers. Seeing that they had opened the oven’s entrance, Baba Tükles asked what the hurry was. Thus was everyone amazed at this miracle, and converted happily to Islam, mashallah.  This conversion narrative, masterfully explored in an excellent monograph by Devin DeWeese, became hugely popular in Turkic and Tatar accounts from the sixteenth century onwards. However, Baba Tükles is a mythic figure, not appearing until centuries after Özbeg’s death. Sources contemporary to Özbeg name several other individuals, such as a Bukharan sufi named Ibn ‘Abd-ul-Hamid, as the leading men who converted Özbeg. Perhaps one of them became the inspiration for Baba Tükles, though no fourteenth century account references men burnt inside ovens.


After the massacres of the Jochid princes, Özbeg set about reorganizing the Jochid administration.  In short, the power of the princes was broken, and Özbeg ruled through the non-Chinggisid noyad. For Özbeg, these were the four ulus emirs, called also qarachu begs or ulus begs. Essentially, the four most powerful clan leaders within the Golden Horde not of the dynasty of Chinggis Khan. The head of these four was the beylerbeyi,  who acted like the viceroy of the khan. Essentially, these four men discussed and carried out policy with the khan, and their stamp or signature was necessary on all official documents. The origins of the institution are unclear. Similar institutions are recorded in the other khanates; in the Ilkhanate, we know that chancellery documents had to be signed off by the heads of the keshig day guards, powerful, prestigious and hereditary positions. There is some argument that the positions actually were always a part of the Mongol Empire, while others see it as an innovation of Khubilai Khaan, and during the detente between the various khanates after 1304, it spread to other khanates. In the Golden Horde though, the qarachu begs appear distinct from the keshig, and appears as a formal institution throughout all of its successor khanates. For Özbeg, his first beylerberyi was Qutlugh-Temür, the skilled governor of Khwarezm who had been such a stalwart ally of Özbeg in his rise to power. Until his death in the 1330s, Qutlugh-Temür was the number two man in the Golden Horde. Together they led an administrative transformation, redistributing lands, islamicizing parts of government and greatly strengthening the central might of the khan.  The Blue Horde, the khanate of the line of Orda east of the Ural River, was nearly totally subsumed in this period and lost its autonomy. 


Özbeg’s new government also fostered the growth of cities within the steppe. The urbanisation of the Horde in the Volga Steppes had been ongoing steadily for years. In a trade network based along the major rivers of the steppe, important camps of the khans and princes, or those few-existing steppe settlements, had flourished under the stability wrought by the Jochids. It should be noted that the nomads of the Golden Horde did not aimlessly wander from one side of the khanate to another. Instead, the entire empire was divided into appanages, and allotted to minghaans. A given minghaan, meaning a thousand men and their families, was given access to pastures and natural resources within that appanage to provide for themselves. When nomadizing, they travelled between these allotted pastures, and were forbidden from accessing those of another minghaan without permission or paying a fee. These minghaans were placed under the control of princes and the military elite, essentially like a feudal estate. What this meant was that the lands of the Eurasian steppe were kept remarkably stable, and no longer divided between warring factions where each sought to claim more land from another.


No longer concerned about raiding by Qipchaps, and rivers now marked by permanent ferries sponsored by the khans, merchants moved relatively freely across the steppes, paying taxes and tribute but able to make a tidy profit for a bit of work. With then came either imports from Europe, Mediterranean, Central Asia or China, to exports, such as grains, horses, glass, beads, pottery Siberian furs, honeys, horses and slaves, which travelled to the Rus’, Ilkhanate, Mamluk Egypt and as far as India. Indeed, as the Horde’s cities grew, so did its ability to manufacture goods for both internal and external trade. And industries grew around them to support these networks, either by importing the materials needed for manufacture, to feeding the employees and housing the merchants who transported it. A wetter climate in the early fourteenth century coupled with the careful control the Jochids kept of land allowances also allowed for a wider cultivation of farmland within the steppes to better feed growing settlements. Then these people’s spiritual and entertainment needs had to be met, requiring the construction of mosques and other places of worship, market places, bath houses, manors for the elite and more, which made steady work for builders and stone masons.


Altogether this fostered a veritable explosion in the growth of the Horde’s major cities during the reign of Özbeg, recorded both in written sources and the extensive archaeological work in the former Horde lands.  Well over a hundred such Golden Horde settlements are now known. The most important of these were along the lower reaches of the Volga River, towards the Delta where it meets the Caspian Sea. Here lay the Horde’s capitals; the first of these was Sarai, founded by Batu after the withdrawal from Europe. Berke had apparently founded a settlement further upstream, and Özbeg moved the capital there. It is assumed it was to better lay out his desired city, and avoid the flooding which plagued old Sarai, for the Caspian Sea was rising every year of the 1320s. Hence, the new capital was called Berke’s Sarai, or Sarai al-Jadid, “New Sarai.” While originally made up of a few hundred felt gers and a handful of permanent structures, these cities rapidly transformed. Felt gers were replaced with immobile homes, originally maintaining the same shape before over time becoming polygonal, then square. Most of the Horde’s major cities followed a similar layout as evidenced by archaeological study; one or more main squares surrounded by large buildings, with streets radiating out from it in rectangular districts. They contained great complex manor houses for the nobility; numerous craft workshops, from bone carving, pottery, iron works, glass-blowing, brick making, bronze casting, and jewellery production, as well as bathhouses, mosques, madrassas, necropolises, and orchards. 


The largest of the ruins is the site known as Selitrennoe, which scholarship currently associates with Sarai al-Jadid, the second capital of the Golden Horde. Its remains stretch over 7 kilometres along the Akhtuba River, a minor branch off the Volga, and 2 kilometres into the steppe, and at its height in the mid-fourteenth century some estimates give it a population of 75,000. Ibn Battuta visited the city in the 1330s, and his description is as follows:


“The city of [Sarai] is one of the finest of cities, of boundless size, situated in a plain, choked with the throng of its inhabitants, and possessing good bazaars and broad streets. We rode out one day with one of its principal men, intending to make a circuit of the city and find out its extent. Our lodging place was at one end of it and we set out from it in the early morning, and it was after midday when we reached the other end. We then prayed the noon prayer and ate some food, and we did not get back to our lodging until the hour of the sunset prayer. One day we went on foot across the breadth of the town, going and returning, in half a day, this too through a continuous line of houses, where there were no ruins and no gardens. The city has thirteen mosques for the holding of Friday prayers, [...]; as for the other mosques, they are exceedingly numerous. There are various groups of people among its inhabitants; these include the [Mongols], who are the dwellers in this country and its Sultans, and some of whom are Muslims, then the [Alans], the [Qipchaqs], the [Circassians], the Rus’ and [Greeks]. Each group lives in a separate quarter with its own bazaars. Merchants and strangers from the two ‘Iraqs, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, live in a quarter which is surrounded by a wall for the protection of the properties of the merchants. The sultan’s palace in it is called Altun Tash, altun meaning ‘gold,’ and tash ‘head.’”


The remains of the palace of Altan Tash have likely been identified, and what a magnificent structure it was. As the largest building found within the Golden Horde, the palace in its glory must have been over 32 metres long and over 40 metres wide. Made of fired brick and timber, its great hall alone was 5.8 by 9.4 metres across, with tiled floors and elegant, gilded polychromatic mosaics along the walls. Some 35 rooms have been identified, including a child’s room where children’s drawings were found carved into the plastered walls. Unlike the palaces of Qaraqorum or Khubilai’s capitals at Shangdu or Dadu, the palace of Sarai was not influenced by Chinese design, but Islamic. Seljuq, Khwarezmian and Iranian influences are detected throughout the remains. Similar layouts and designs, albeit on smaller scale, are found in both Sarai itself and the other cities of the Horde.


While Özbeg continued to live in nomadic encampments travelling hither and yon across the Horde, he certainly stopped in Sarai when business demanded it, and he sought to ensure he lived in style. The lower Volga from New Sarai down to Hajji Tarkhan on the Volga Delta became the densest part of a  new urban network, with these major centres each surrounded by dozens and dozens of smaller settlements, pitted with orchards, farmland and surrounded by the endless grass sea where herds of the nomads still roamed. Typical of these settlements, is that before 1360 they were built without fortifications; no enemy would march across the steppe, and if he did he would have to face the Khan’s horsemen. Only when the Horde fragmented, were there foes who could march on Sarai.


The growth of the Horde’s cities was not caused by Özbeg Khan. Rather, it was a long running process which evolved out of several developments laid down by his predecessors. But Özbeg took advantage of it, and cultivated it. Or at least, his knowledgeable ministers did, and Özbeg supported them, happy to see goods and coins fill up his warehouses while leaving the trouble of collecting it to others. He actively encouraged settlement and trade, welcoming craftsmen, merchants and administrators from across the Middle East and Central Asia to bring their knowledge and wares to his cities. As already mentioned, he granted quarters in cities along the Black Sea to Italian merchants. On their ships the goods of the Golden Horde, particularly grains and slaves, could be sold across the Mediterranean, while desired imports were brought into his empire. From those port cities merchant caravans could travel east to the Volga cities like Sarai al-Jadid; there a merchant could exchange his wares and rest, before returning home, or travelling south to the Ilkhanate, or even eastwards into Khwarezm. Here Gurganj, once destroyed by Özbeg’s ancestor Jochi, was restored to prominence and was the Jochid’s chief city in the east, a staging point for those travellers going deeper into Central Asia, or perhaps even to Yuan China. Özbeg certainly maintained contacts with the Great Khans, and routinely requested the delivery of the tribute owed him from the Jochid’s injü lands in China. Özbeg could take advantage of, and capitalize on, the development of the Jochid lands and the normalization of contacts with the other Chinggisid states. In short, he enjoyed the fruits of a tree grown generations before.  And at each ferry crossing, in each city, and each border, every passing merchant paid tax to the Khan of the Golden Horde, in coins minted in Jochid cities and bearing the names of the Jochid Khan. In this manner,  Özbeg became a wealthy man indeed.


It was a system reliant extensively on wider Eurasian trade networks; thus the Jochid economy would face a terrible consequence were something to happen to that network. But that’s a matter for another episode. Having looked at the transformation of the Golden Horde, our next episode will look at the politics and campaigns of Özbeg Khan, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at 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.