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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 7, 2022

In [this year] Nogai sent his wife [Yaylaq] Khātūn to the king Țuqṭā with a missive she would carry to him, and advice she would give to him. When she arrived at the [Golden] Horde he greeted her with honor, and celebrated hospitality and gifts with her, and she stayed in the hospitality for days. Then he asked her as to the reason for her coming, she said to him, “[Nogai] says to you that there are some thorns left on your path, so clean them up!” [Toqta] said, “What are the thorns?” so she named off the emirs who Nogai had mentioned to her, who were [23 in numer]. These were those who had conspired with Töle Buqa against Nogai.  When this missive was conveyed to him, and she told him this story, [Toqta] sought after those emirs, one after another, and killed all of them. So [Yaylaq] Khātūn returned to Nogai, informing him of their killing, so his worry subsided, and his fear gone.”  

    So the Mamluk chronicler Baybars al-Mansūrī records an interaction between Nogai, the Mongol master of the lower Danube and southeastern Europe, and Toqta, Khan of the Golden Horde. In 1291 Nogai had assisted Toqta Khan to the Jochid throne, overthrowing the previous Khan, Tele-Buqa. Now both expected favours of the other, which would have deadly consequences.  Our last episode looked at Nogai’s role in Europe; today, we look at his interactions with the Khans of the Golden Horde, culminating in the destructive civil war between Toqta and Nogai at the end of the 1290s. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    As noted before, much of this is based off the research of our series historian, Jack Wilson, who offered a reinvestigation of Nogai in the process of his Masters thesis. If you’re curious about more on this matter of his reinterpretation of Nogai, you can speak with directly through his Youtube channel The Jackmeister: Mongol History, where he is in the midst of sharing this reinterpretation in a video form. 


    While Nogai was the governor of the Golden Horde’s territory in southeastern Europe, he was hardly removed from wider Jochid affairs. After the death of Möngke-Temür Khan in 1280 or 1282, Nogai was the aqa of the Jochid lineage, as a few sources state, including an interesting letter from the Il-Khan Tegüder Ahmad to the Mamluks. As aqa,  he was one of the senior-most members of the family, respected and consulted on all sorts of familial and government matters. And indeed, this is the role he often appears in; when Töde-Möngke Khan considered releasing a captive son of Khubilai Khaan, he is recorded consulting with Nogai as well as other prominent members of the Jochids. Most of Nogai’s interactions from the Jochid khans Töde-Möngke, Tele-Buqa and Toqta all seem based on this aqa relationship.

While scholarship has often accused Nogai of putting these various khans on the throne, and reducing the khans Töde-Möngke and Tele-Buqa to puppets, this is unsupported by the sources. In the royal succession, Nogai is unmentioned in the transition except in the overthrow of Tele-Buqa, as we covered in a previous episode. Over these years Nogai appears focused on the territory he was assigned to in southeastern Europe. On occasion he sent troops to assist Rus’ princes in raids in Poland and Lithuania, but Nogai only did so when requested by these princes, as described in the Rus’ chronicles. Likewise, when he led armies into Hungary and Poland himself, as we discussed in our previous episodes, Nogai only did so when demanded by Tele-Buqa. 


If not presented as overthrowing khans, or reducing them to figureheads, literature often presents Nogai actively undermining the khans, or undertaking his own diplomatic efforts. But the evidence for this is likewise weak.  An interesting case of Nogai possibly undermining Tele-Buqa Khan comes in 1288, when he sent an embassy to the Il-Khan, Arghun, which gave him Buddhist relics. A few weeks after this meeting, Tele-Buqa unleashed his first invasion of the Ilkhanate. It’s tempting to see this as Nogai having his own Ilkhanid diplomacy or alerting Arghun of Tele-Buqa’s attack, but this is the only record of such an embassy, and Arghun was caught unawares by the invasion, as he was in the midst of leaving the Caucasus when the attack occurred. We might wonder if Nogai had actually been instructed to placate Arghun, sending him gifts in order to not suspect any Jochid attacks; Arghun may have seen little reason to believe the truce with the Ilkhanate was in any danger. Neither did Nogai carry out a marriage alliance with the Il-Khan, as if sometimes stated; references to him marrying one of his sons to a daughter of Abaqa Il-Khan have confused Nogai of the Golden Horde with another Nogai, a non-Chinggisid general who lived in the Ilkhanate, and the father of Abaqa’s son-in-law, in this instance. 


    Nogai did gave shelter to at least one Rus’ prince, who was out of favour with the reigning khan. Dmitri Alexandrovich, a son of the famous Alexander Nevskii, had a decades long feud with his brother Andrei for the title of Grand Prince. Most usually, you’ll see this presented as a sort of proxy war between Nogai and the khans, with Nogai pushing forward Dmitri as his candidate, and the khans supporting Andrei. While the khans did give Andrei armies and a yarliq to support his candidacy, there isn’t evidence for those who claim that Nogai did the same for Dmitri. In the early 1280s, Andrei Alexandrovich went to the khan, likely Töde-Möngke, and received military support for his claim to Grand Prince of Vladimir, the chief of the Rus’ princely titles. Dmitri fled before Andrei, and after a lengthy flight made his way to Nogai for shelter. As the Nikonian Chronicle records;


    “Grand Prince Dmitrii Aleksandrovich with his druzhina, princes, children and entire court fled to the horde of Khan Nagai, to whom he told everything in order, relating it with tears, and gave him and his nobles many gifts. Khan Nagai listened to him and kept him in honour.”


    What exactly being kept in “in honour” means in this context is unclear. Dmitri arrived with a great many gifts for Nogai to earn Nogai’s favour, a wise move. Nogai only the year before had taken fugitives like Ivaylo and Ivan Asen III to his court; as we noted in the last episode, Nogai, on the urging of his Byzantine father-in-law Michael VIII, had killed Ivaylo and almost executed Ivan too. Dmitri was wise to bribe Nogai for his favour, but should not have expected Nogai’s hospitality to go far if the request from the khan came for his head. But none came. By the next year Dmitri returned from Nogai and made peace with his brother Andrei. This is notable to emphasis; Nogai did not send Dmitri back with an army, or a yarliq. And later that year, Dmitri restarted the war with Andrei himself when he assassinated one of Andrei’s boyars. Only at this juncture, do ‘Tatars’ appear in Dmitri’s service. Their origin is uncertain, but they cannot be directly linked to Nogai, as the Rus’ chronicles themselves do not do so. The presence of Tatar troops of unspecified origin should not be too surprising. Similarly, at the famed Battle on the Ice against the Teutonic Order in 1242, Dmitri’s father Alexander Nevskii had nomadic horse archers fighting alongside him, but their identity, or origin, goes unmentioned. Since this is the closest the sources come to showing Nogai directly challenging the Khan in influence over the Rus’, we shouldn’t rely too much either on this image.


    Our last episode discussed the fall of Tele-Buqa Khan and the enthronement of Toqta in 1291. This, in all of the primary sources, is the only actual removal and enthronement of a khan that Nogai took part in. Toqta had come to Nogai for aid, and promised to carry out Nogai’s will once he became khan. Nogai, as a pragmatic fellow, agreed, for who wouldn’t want the Khan to owe you a favour? Particularly since Nogai had already learned Tele-Buqa was plotting against him. Faking a severe illness, Nogai convinced Tele-Buqa and his allies that he was dying, and wanted to make final amends. With their guard let down, Toqta arrived with an army and executed Tele-Buqa Khan.  After Toqta was enthroned, Nogai returned to the Danube, where he carried out a rush of activity, bringing the submission of many of the banates and Serbia that we mentioned last week. New raids are recorded on Poland in the early 1290s, and Mongol emissaries reached even the King of Bohemia. Though unmentioned, it seems likely they originated from Nogai, who devoted most of his attention before 1295 on Europe.


A young man, Toqta was likely overawed at first by the experienced aqa. Nogai recognized that Toqta’s reign faced threats from loyalists to Tele-Buqa who still lived, and therefore sent word to Toqta; these princes needed to be killed in order to secure the throen. In 1293 a list of 23 noyans was provided, and Toqta duly carried out Nogai’s suggestions. More deaths of such Tele-Buqa loyalists, and presumably enemies Nogai had made over his career, followed the next year. This was much to Nogai’s relief, we are told, as he had been quite concerned over the matter. But Toqta was hardly the pushover he’s often presented as. In 1294 Toqta sent a message to Nogai, demanding the death of Jijek-Khatun and some of her followers. Jijek-Khatun was a widow of Berke and Möngke-Temür Khan, and had briefly served as regent in the final years of  Möngke-Temür and Töde-Möngke’s reigns. Nogai carried this out swiftly. 


These reprisals, in which both Nogai and Toqta made demands of the other, seem to have been the extent of effective cooperation between them. Toqta in the early 1290s undertook his own actions which Nogai is not recorded affecting; in response to a request from Andrei Alexandrovich, Toqta ordered a devastating attack on the Rus’ principalities in 1293. This campaign permanently broke the power of Dmitri Alexandrovich, who had once sought shelter with Nogai. In 1294, Toqta also reached a peace agreement with the current Il-Khan, Geikhatu. Once more, it seems Nogai’s influence on Toqta was limited to that of the aqa, rather than a puppet master.


    It appears that the actual fallout between Nogai and Toqta was not out of desire for one to depose the other, but more familial. Nogai had a number of wives and children, and despite his proclamation of Islam in his letter to Baybars in the early 1270s, seems to have not forced it onto any of his family. As noted he married the Greek Orthodox Christian Byzantine Princess Euphrosyne; no indication is provided of her ever abandoning her faith. Another wife, Yaylaq-Khatun, was baptized into the Catholic faith by Franciscan missionaries in Crimea around 1287. One of Nogai’s daughters, Qiyan, married a son of Salji’udai Güregen, who was Toqta’s grandfather and father-in-law. It was obviously a prominent alliance  related to Toqta’s ascension, as Salji’udai was close to Toqta and held great influence over his grandson. Salji’udai’s wife was Kelmish Aqa, a lady not only powerful in the Golden Horde, but respected in the Ilkhanate. Marrying into the family cemented Nogai’s relevance to the central court. After the marriage though, Nogai’s daughter Qiyan converted to Islam, to the great displeasure of her Buddhist husband. The husband began to abuse her, and Qiyan alerted her father. Nogai was furious at his daughter’s treatment, and demanded justice from Toqta; hand over Salji’udai and his son, or dismiss them. Toqta of course, was hardly about to hand over his grandfather.


    It should be said that the abuse of Nogai’s daughter was unlikely to have been the sole cause of the conflict, but perhaps rather the spark that set off a growing pile of kindling. Rashīd al-Dīn records that Nogai was greatly frustrated already by Salji’udai’s influence over Toqta compared to his own. As Rashīd says, allegedly quoting Nogai’s response to one of Toqta’s embassies:


“It is known to all the world what toil and hardship I have endured and how I have exposed myself to the charge of perfidy and bad faith in order to win for [Toqta] the throne […]. And now Saljidai Küregen has authority over that throne. If my son Toqta wishes the basis of our relationship to be strengthened between us, let him send Saljidai Küregen back to his yurt, which is near Khwārazm.”


    Nogai knew he had undertaken an extreme action by taking a lead role in the death of Tele-Buqa, and had expected greater reward for his actions. Rather than Toqta being a figurehead in Nogai’s shadow, as scholarship so often presents, Toqta had failed to give Nogai the respect and influence he felt he was owed. That is, Toqta was always rather independent and powerful, and Nogai lacked authority over him, yet still had hoped for it. Even before the marriage, Nogai may have been frustrated at his lack of influence over Toqta compared to Salji’udai, and perhaps the marriage had been an effort to address this. But the beating of his daughter was pushing things too far for this. And Toqta’s refusal to give justice for Nogai, even after multiple embassies only worsened things.


    Numerous sources,  such as Rashīd al-Dīn and Marco Polo, record that at various points, both Nogai and Toqta began ignoring the embassies of the other, which may have occurred at any step of the process but only deepend antagonism between them. Feeling denied options, Nogai decided to force Toqta’s hands. He sent a wife, Chübei, and three sons, Chaka, Teke and Büri, to push a number of princes and generals in the western steppe into running amuck and causing damage, perhaps harassing officers of the khan. After essentially starting a revolt, many of these princes fled to Nogai’s court, where one married another of Nogai’s daughters. Messengers came from Toqta, demanding that Nogai hand over the rebellious princes. Nogai refused, unless Toqta would hand over Salji’udai and his son. That was the price, and it was not one Toqta was willing to pay. More rounds of envoys came, and finally, according to the Mamluk chronicler Baybars al-Mansūrī, Toqta sent a message bearing a plow, an arrow, and a pile of dirt as a riddle. The advisers of Nogai pondered it, but Nogai swiftly deduced what it was, declaring: 


    “For the plow, with it Toqta wants to say: if you went into the very depths of the earth, all the same I will pull you out from there with this plow; as for the arrow, with it Toqta wants to say: if you climbed to the very skies, then with this arrow I will force your descent;  as for the land, he says: choose for yourself the land on which our meeting will take place."


    It was Toqta Khan’s declaration of war on Nogai. Nogai spoke simply to Toqta’s envoy, “tell Toqta that our horses our thirsty, and wish to drink from the Don.” The Don River was deep in the steppes, northeast of the Black Sea. Nogai was going to march against Toqta Khan.


    War thus broke out around 1297. The initial advance in winter failed, as the rivers did not freeze, preventing either from crossing. A rest followed over the spring and summer of 1298, Toqta rested his troops near the Don river. Nogai advanced tentatively with a small force, including his wives and sons. Realizing that Toqta’s forces were dispersed until the fall, Nogai sent a messenger, telling the khan that Nogai was coming for a quriltai to make peace. In reality, he was hoping to capture Toqta with his small force before Toqta’s tümens could be recalled. Toqta saw through the ruse too late, and had only a small force with him when Nogai fell upon him near the Don. 


 Nogai had the better of this first engagement, and forced Toqta’s retreat. It is this victory which actually forms the final event in most versions of Marco Polo’s manuscripts. While Toqta fled back to Sarai, Nogai did not pursue; this was not a battle for mastery of the Golden Horde, and Nogai did not have the forces to advance so deep into Toqta’s territory, particularly once a number of his noyans defected, for unclear reasons. We might wonder if this was not unease among them, for going to war with the Khan of the Horde; another indication that Nogai had not spent the last thirty years in open revolt. Nogai fell back to his own territory, lest he become overextended. His cast his eye on the Crimean peninsula though, the valuable trade center the Golden Horde Khan collected a great many revenues from. Many Crimean cities offered their submission, and Nogai left it to his grandson Aqtaji to take further tribute. While invited to dine in Solkhat, called by Mongols and Turks as Eski Qirim, Aqtaji was wined, dined, and violently murdered by the inhabitants. Needless to say, Nogai was enraged, and swiftly ordered his army into Crimea. In December 1298 a number of Crimean cities were sacked, and refugees fled as far as Mamluk Sultanate bringing word.


    Interestingly, when the survivors begged Nogai for the release of prisoners, he allowed it. Rather than a peaceful nature on Nogai’s part, we should assume this was Nogai attempting to build a base to renew trade ties with Crimea after the war, and remind them of his clemency. For Nogai’s generals and troops though, it did not have the desired effect, for they now lost out on their slaves. His forces already overstretched, and many generals having only recently allied with him, Nogai suddenly had to deal with a massive revolt as many of these discontented commanders declared for Toqta. One of his sons, Teke, seems to have sought to ally with the rebels before being captured, and Nogai’s oldest and most capable son, Chaka, with great slaughter and destruction put down the rebellion and rescued Teke. But many rebels had fled to Toqta with news of the discord; Toqta had used the intervening time to rebuild his forces, pulling troops from the borders. Truce was reconfirmed with the Il-Khan Ghazan, and the border garrisons now reinforced Toqta’s host. 


    With some sixty tümens, according to Rashīd al-Dīn, Toqta led the army himself against Nogai, who was still reeling from the revolt. Along the Dnieper River in the last days of 1299, Toqta faced off against Nogai’s much smaller army. The old dog had one last trick to play. Nogai stalled for time, claiming he was deathly ill, sending messengers to Toqta begging forgiveness. Nogai’s message laid the blame for the war all on his sons; while at the same time, the eldest of those sons, Chaka, was leading a force upstream in an effort to flank Toqta. Toqta, having taken part in Nogai’s ploy against Tele-Buqa almost a decade prior, saw right through it and spotted Chaka’s army. The gig was up. Toqta’s full weight fell against Nogai’s army, which disintegrated before it. Nogai tried to flee with a small group of horsemen, only to be caught by a detachment of Rus’ cavalry. Nogai was injured in the attack, and told the Rus’, “Do not not kill me! Take me to Toqta, for he is the khan, and I must speak with him.” The unit returned to Toqta, but Nogai died en route, either of injuries, or as one of the Rus’ decapitated him. In the account of Baybars al-Mansūrī, Toqta had the man who killed Nogai executed; no matter if Nogai was a rebel, he was still a Chinggisid, and this lowly Rus’ druzhina had no right to harm him. So ended the reign of Nogai.  


    Nogai’s armies and sons were dispersed. Chaka briefly rallied them from his base in Bulgaria, but when his younger half-brother Teke, and Teke’s mother suggested surrendering to Toqta, Chaka had them executed. The resistance of Chaka was cut short in 1301 when he was betrayed, imprisoned and soon strangled by the new Bulgarian Tsar, his brother-in-law Theodore Svetoslav, the son of Tsar Giorgi Terter. Svetoslav’s murder of Chaka was done only after getting the permission of Toqta Khan, who reconfirmed the vassalage of Bulgaria. The region was then reincorporated into the Golden Horde, and put under the jurisdiction of Toqta’s family, though he constantly had trouble with whoever was in the position. The remainder of Nogai’s family and forces submitted to Toqta, fled to the Byzantine Empire or even the Ilkhanate. All now recognized the authority of Toqta Khan, who quickly set about reasserting the authority of the Jochid khan.


    Nogai’s influence and life ended suddenly at the start of the fourteenth century. Often presented as an all powerful, crafty mayor-of-the-palace type figure, Nogai’s actually handling of the khans seems somewhat clumsy. While true he knew how to play a trick, and could be a devious fellow, he grew rather over confident as soon as he had leverage over the khan— and even quicker, frustrated when he realized how little influence he actually had over Toqta. His actual power over the Golden Horde itself was minimal. Unlike real kingmakers in the Golden Horde in the late fourteenth century, named Mamai and Edigü, Nogai was totally forgotten about after his death. Turkic histories written in the fifteenth centuries onwards which collected some folk tales from the former Horde lands, such as those written by Ötemish Hajji and Abu’l Ghazi Khan, make no mention of Nogai, despite retaining stories of the reigns of Möngke-Temür, Töde-Möngke and Toqta. Some of you might make reference to the Nogai Horde, the Golden Horde successor state which emerged in the fifteenth century. But despite its name, the Nogai Horde bears no connection to Nogai of the thirteenth century; the Nogai Horde emerged in the lands northwest of the Caspian Sea, where Nogai’s influence never extended, and indeed, he was never known for certain to have even traveled east of the Volga. More importantly though, the Nogai Horde traced its rulers not to Nogai, but to the sons of Edigü, the later Golden Horde kingmaker until his death in 1419. Edigü remains a prominent folk hero among many Tatars, but no historical source connects him in any capacity to prince Nogai. A regional commander who once overthrew a khan, and once went to war with another, posthumously Nogai was turned into the most powerful figure of the Golden Horde by modern writers. While we can imagine he might have been flattered by the picture, it’s probably not one he would have recognized. Such was the reign of Nogai Khan. 


    Nogai’s life remains one of the most interesting, yet misunderstood parts of the thirteenth century Golden Horde. If you’re interested in learning more about that, you can check out the work of our series historian, Jack Wilson, who is sharing his ongoing research on Nogai through his Youtube Channel, the Jackmeister: Mongol History, and it forthcoming articles in Golden Horde Review, and Acta Orientalia Hungarica. For now, our series will continue with the reign of Toqta Khan in our next episode, 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 Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!