The Golden Horde


Another expanded section, now uploaded here.

The Golden Horde

Throughout the 1240s and 1250s the Mongol Empire continued to grow, until it was too large to be effectively governed from one place. Thus, under Genghis Khan’s grandsons it broke up into four smaller but still formidable states. Batu Khan’s family received the portion described previously — the valley of the Volga, the plains just north of the Caucasus, a piece of Kazakhstan, and western Siberia — with the Ukraine added. They built a capital city named Sarai near the Volga delta, but because its inhabitants were used to the nomadic life, it was basically a tent city. At an uncertain later date, another capital, New Sarai, was built a few miles upstream, with more real buildings than tents. Sometimes we call this city Sarai Berke, out of the belief that this project was done by Batu’s brother Berke. And as noted in an earlier section, Batu’s descendants (the so-called "Blue Horde") were the official rulers, but descendants of Batu’s brothers Orda and Shiban were the ones really in charge of the lands east of the Urals.

Batu Khan.

Batu Khan.

Unlike the Mongols in the Persian and Chinese portions of the empire, the ruling elite refused to adopt the civilization of their subjects, but tried to hold onto both their identity and the customs of the steppe. To give one example, a few Mongols were Christian, but instead of following the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, these Mongols were Nestorians, a Christian denomination that had been based in Asia since the fifth century. Still, it appears that they were outnumbered by the Turkic tribes (Polovtsi, Bulgars, Kyrgyz, Khazars, etc.) living around them, and were absorbed within two generations; e.g., after 1280, the Golden Horde’s coins bore Turkish inscriptions instead of Mongolian ones. Europeans didn’t bother to distinguish between the different Mongol and Turkic groups living on the steppes, and tended to simply call them all "Tartars."(8)

The Golden Horde

Map of the Golden Horde.

The Mongols chose not to rule the Russians directly, because in the forests of northern and western Europe, the mounted archers of the steppes would find both their speed and the range of their arrows reduced, putting them at a great disadvantage against the natives. Instead, they gathered tribute every year, giving one of the Russian princes a permit called a yarlyk to gather the wealth of Russia for the Khan. If the annual collection of gold and slaves did not meet the Khan’s demands, the Mongols would raid the offenders to show they meant business. Any tribute gathered beyond what the Mongols called for went to the holder of the yarlyk, so the Russian princes often fought for the right of holding this "honor." Under this system the Russians learned a lot about tyranny, brutality, and inhumanity in general, and it shows in the types of governments they would establish in the future. Before 1240 the Russians were generally a friendly, trusting people; those traits do not characterize the Russians who have lived since then.(9)

Batu died in 1255. His son Sartaq, a Nestorian Christian, happened to be in Mongolia at the time; the Great Khan approved of him succeeding Batu, but as soon as he got back from this trip he died, too. The Great Khan next appointed a ten-year-old named Ulaghchi. We don’t know if Ulaghchi was a son or a brother of Sartaq, and it doesn’t matter, for he was just as short-lived. Berke, Batu’s brother, took over after this, and his reign of nine years (1257-66) meant he was the first khan after Batu to get anything done.

Berke was a ruler of action. To the west, he let Europeans know the Khanate still meant business by launching a raid into Lithuania, Poland and Prussia (1259-60), which sacked the Polish cities of Sandomierz and Cracow, devastated the Teutonic Knights, and persuaded the king of Hungary to come and pay him homage. Berke also demanded a meeting with the most powerful king in western Europe, Louis IX of France, but both the khan and the king were too busy for such a meeting to ever take place. Then in 1265 he sent a raid into the Balkans to trash Bulgaria and Byzantine Thrace.

However, it was his actions regarding religion that put the Khanate on a new course. Berke was the first Mongol khan to embrace Islam, having converted while on a trip to Central Asia in the 1240s. However, he did not end Genghis Khan’s tolerance for all religions, and it took another fifty years for the rest of the ruling family to accept the new faith. One result was that it poisoned relations between him and Hulagu, his cousin who had been assigned the Middle Eastern portion of the Mongol Empire. Berke denounced Hulagu for destroying Baghdad and executing the last Abbasid caliph. At first he held off, resisting the temptation to start a war among family members, but when another war broke out in the east between two brothers of Hulagu, Kublai and Ariq Böke, over who would become the next Great Khan, Berke supported the claim of the latter. Then in 1261 he gave in and started a border war with Hulagu; besides claiming to avenge Islam, he wanted the province of Azerbaijan, part of Hulagu’s realm that contained good pasture lands for horses. This conflict in the neighborhood of the Caucasus lasted for the rest of Berke’s reign; neither side won a decisive victory, and no territory changed hands. In 1263, he forged an alliance with the Mamelukes, the new dynasty of ex-slaves ruling Egypt, and together the Golden Horde and the Mamelukes stopped further Mongol expansion into the lands south and west of Iraq; that probably saved both Jerusalem and Mecca from the ravages of a Mongol invasion. All the activities mentioned in this paragraph ensured that the breakup of the Mongol empire would be permanent.

Berke was succeeded by a grandson of Batu, called Mengu-Timur in Turkish or Möngke Temür in Mongolian (1266-80). The main event of his reign was participation in a Central Asian civil war between Genghis Khan’s grandsons. Also worth remembering is that he showed his toleration of Christianity by exempting the Orthodox Church from the tribute the Russians had to pay, and he stopped putting the image of the current Great Khan, Kublai, on Golden Horde coins — in effect declaring independence from the rest of the Mongol Empire. And around 1266, he allowed the Italian city-state of Genoa to establish an outpost in the Crimea, Kaffa; this would become an important port for trade between Russia and the Mediterranean.

The next two rulers, Töde Möngke (1280-87) and Töle Buqa (1287-91), were not very competent. During their reigns, real power was held by a nephew of Batu named Nogai. Nogai commanded the warriors in the western part of the realm, and led raids into Lithuania, Poland, and Bulgaria; the latter was done to assist an ally, the Byzantine Empire. Acting as a kingmaker, he deposed Töde Möngke and killed Töle Buqa, but the khan he installed in place of them, Toqta (1291-1312), refused to act as his puppet. Nogai and Toqta acted as rivals, until a civil war broke out between the factions they controlled. Nogai won the first battle, at the Don River, in 1297, but old age caused him to make the mistake of not marching on Sarai after that victory. The second battle, fought near the Dnieper in 1299, went Toqta’s way; Nogai’s followers deserted him, and he was killed by a Russian serving in Toqta’s army. After that, Toqta put down a rebellion in the White Horde to the east, and attacked the port of Kaffa because of some Italian trade practices he did not like. Finally, trivia fans should note that Toqta was a Shamanist (Mongolian pagan) with an interest in Buddhism, meaning he was the last non-Moslem ruler of the Golden Horde.

Muhammad Özbeg, also called Uzbeg or Ozbeg Khan, was a nephew of Toqta. Toqta didn’t like him because like Berke, he was a convert to Islam, and had him exiled, but upon Toqta’s death Muhammad Özbeg promptly returned and seized power. His reign (1312-41) was the longest of any Golden Horde ruler, and is now considered the time when the Golden Horde reached its peak. It has been said that he transformed the Khanate into a Sultanate, because he encouraged the whole ruling class to convert, but because he was not a fundamentalist (he belonged to a Sufi sect), he continued to tolerate other religions, especially Christianity. In 1327 he put down an anti-Mongol revolt from the Russian city of Tver, executed its ruler, and transferred the yarlyk from Tver to Moscow; that would have a very important effect on Russian history.

After Muhammad Özbeg came his son Tînî Beg, who only ruled for a year, and then another son, Jânî Beg (1342-57). Under Jânî Beg the previous religious tolerance disappeared; the conversion to Islam that Muhammad Özbeg recommended was now ordered. In partnership with Moscow, Jânî Beg led raids on Lithuania and Poland in the 1340s. However, his reign also saw the arrival on the steppe of an enemy the Mongols could not fight, the Black Death. This plague killed both his subjects and his vassals; the loss of many taxpayers is bad news for any nation, and it set the Golden Horde on a rapid, permanent decline. Even worse, the Mongols made another attack on Kaffa while they were infected, allowing the plague to spread to Europe. Below the Caucasus, the breakup of the Mongol state in the Middle East allowed Jânî Beg to capture Azerbaijan in 1355, but the Golden Horder was only strong enough to hold that territory for three years.

Jânî Beg was poisoned, and his son Berdi Beg was in turn assassinated two years later (1359). Berdi Beg’s only child was a daughter, who married a general named Mamai. With no heir to the throne, the Khanate fell into anarchy, with as many as four khans competing for the top spot at the same time. Mamai thus became the most powerful man in the realm, leading the army until he was defeated at the battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 (see the next chapter). By then, nine official khans, and maybe ten pretenders, had risen and fallen; when the last one was gone, the dynasty of the Blue Horde became extinct. Order and unity were restored when the Blue Horde’s former vassals, the White Horde, took over, first under Urus Khan (1372-77), and then under Tokhtamysh (1380-97). Meanwhile, Genoa gained control over the whole southern coast of the Crimea, and Lithuania and the Principality of Moscow grew tremendously. Although these two newcomers were not yet as strong as the Golden Horde, they would challenge the Mongols soon.


8. Early in Genghis Khan’s career there was a Mongolian tribe called the Tatars, but Europeans who used the name "Tartars" were more likely thinking of Tartarus, the deepest pit of Hell in classical mythology. For them Mongolia was beyond the known world until a few brave travelers went there, of which Marco Polo is the most famous.

9. Of all the Russian states, Galicia was probably in the most pitiful situation. Located in the western Ukraine, it was surrounded by four larger neighbors in the early fourteenth century, and it paid tribute to all of them: the Mongols, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland.

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