Princess Sorghagtani: The Woman Who Saved Europe
She was Genghis Khan's favorite daughter-in-law. She grew up in the tents of the khans of the steppes and was no stranger to political intrigue. She was the most admired woman among the Mongol nobility. Her sons were the first of the Mongol princes to read and write.
She was a Christian and a woman of good works. She had watched her father-in-law build the empire and she was watching weak men destroy it.
Her nephew by marriage Guyug, son of the Emperor, hated Muslims and saw himself as the ruler of Christendom. Against his father's wishes, he took the throne when his father died.
Immediately, Guyug decided that the Mongol Army, the greatest superpower of the Middle Ages, would ride West, against Europe.
Guyug wrote to the Pope in Rome demanding his submission. He hated Muslims and began to punish those in the mosques and bazaars, policies that were against the Code of Laws of Chinggis Khan.
Guyug was about to plunge the empire into civil war because he intended to take over the riches of the Khan of Russia to wage his war. Batu was a rich man and Guyug was spending the empire into ruin, paying off his sycophants.
So the Lady Sorghagtani, widow of Chinggis Khan's youngest son and his father's chief of staff, made an alliance that put her sons on the throne. Her sons were able men, far more capable than the line of Ogodei.
Her ally was Batu Khan, the senior prince of Chinggis Khan's line, and the Khan of the Golden Horde in Russia. He was talented and smartm and he saw that the one great weakness of Chinggis Khan, his grandfather, The Conqueror, was that he failed to provide for an orderly succession.
Batu thought that this was no fault of The Conqueror. Too many of the empires that he toppled were ruled by men who inherited their position. His was an empire of merit, not birth.
It was a bloodless coup d'etat and SOrghagtani was the mastermind. It was bloodless, unless you count the death of the Emperor Guyug, whom some say was poisoned at her command.
How did she do it? While the royal women of China were not allowed to own property and did not ride horses, Sorghagtani did both. This is why John of Plano Carpini, a Franciscan friar, and the envoy of the Pope of Rome called her the most remarkable woman of her age.
This is the story of how she saved the empire from the designated heir to Chinggis Khan.
The Mongol Empire
The Emperor Ogodei succeeded his father Chinggis Khan as Supreme Khan of the Mongol Empire. After the Great Assembly of the Mongol nobility that elected him, Ogodei took up residence in the capital.
The Princess Sorghagtani lived in the capital after the death of her husband Tolui, who had inherited Chinggis Khan's army. She was a Christian, devoted to good works, and a counsellor to the Emperor Ogodei.
Of all the sons of Chinggis Khan, Ogodei and Tolui loved one another best. For two years after his brother's death, Ogodei was continually drunk. It was the Mongol vice. He even had his French goldsmith make him a huge goblet so that he could tell his older brother Jagadai, the stern Chief Judge of the Empire, that he was only drinking one glass of wine a day.
Ogodei's principal wife, the Empress Dorajin, a woman of exceedingly bad temperament, resented her husband's admiration of and dependence on Sorghagtani. The truth was that Dorajin feared Sorghagtani's sons. It was a matter of inheritance. In theory, any son of the nobility could stand for election as Supreme Khan. Dorajin had one child, Guyug, a sickly son of bad temperament, and she feared the manly, talented sons of a woman she considered her rival.
The sky was a black cupola fixed with a yellow moon and thousands of stars when the Princess Sorghagtani traveled from her apartments in the Imperial Residence to church. She knelt before the altar and prayed with the rosary of lapis lazuli which her husband Tolui had brought from the Church of the Virgin in Kiev, the most glorious church in Rus, or Russia, that General Subudei had burned to the ground.
At dawn, she heard the muezzin calling The Faithful to prayer in the Muslim quarter of Khara Khorum, his voice quavering, Prayer is better than sleep, Rise and Worship.
She was a princess of the Kereyid, a tribe that had converted to the Eastern rite of Christianity one hundred years earlier. She was a woman of faith and good works, but she was no stranger to the plots, plans, conspiracies and betrayals that occurred in the tents of the rival khans in the days of the steppe wars. Her uncle had once been the most powerful man in the steppes, an ally of Chinggis Khan on his rise to power. This uncle, the Ong Khan, had been foolish enough to betray Chinggis Khan and he had been defeated and his army integrated into the Mongol Army, his lands turned into the capitol of the Empire, for Khara Khorum was easier to supply than Chinggis Khan's native pastures in the Kentei. He was not the first nor the last ruler to resent and fear The Conqueror.
Dawn, noon, dusk, the days had become a blur to her, punctuated only by the church bells and the call of the muezzin to prayer.
A fever had run through the city, striking down the children. She left her devotions in church, put an apron and rolled up her skirts and went to help the nuns in the Christian hospital. A wealthy woman, Sorghagtani had built the hospital in the Christian quarter with her donations.
All night long, she put cold compresses on the brows of children who were burning up. The nuns used remedies made from the plants of the steppes, ancient remedies for the curing of fevers. She wrapped them in cloth dipped in the icy waters of the Tola River. Many died, but many were saved.
At dawn she stopped her work and sat down with the women to have a cup of tea. Sweat poured down her face. She wiped it with a cloth. One of the women urged her to go home and get some rest, but outside she heard the church bells ringing. She ate a small bowl of broth that one of the nuns gave her. She slipped the women some silver for the hospital and went outside and got into her waiting palanquin. She had apartments in the Imperial Palace and an estate in North China.
The capital was a city of white felt tents on the caravan trails of the Gobi Desert. Already traffic was congested. Wagons drawn by oxen and horses filled the narrow dirt streets. Her party passed a small camel caravan unloading goods in the bazaar in the Muslim quarter where merchants were setting up stalls.
In the Chinese quarter, the brokers who handled the produce of the farmers in the countryside were arranging their wares. Ox-carts and rickshaws jostled against one another as they rushed to the bazaars eager to make the day's profit.
The great love of her life Tolui, Chinggis Khan's youngest son and chief of staff, had fought beside his father in every major campaign. Chinggis Khan had personally arranged their marriage. It was a love match. She was his favorite daughter-in-law. When The Conqueror died, Tolui became regent and took control of the Army. His job was to support the rule of Ogodei with the army. Ogodei had resumed the conquest of North China. Ogodei wanted to be present when North China fell. Tolui had taken to the field. He had died while on the final campaign.
The situation had become intolerable after her husband's death. She had watched with pride as Chinggis Khan built the empire. She was in pain as she watched his successor destroying it. She could see it because she was a woman of vision. What was to be done, she wondered.
The last time that Prince Batu, the senior prince of Chinggis Khan's line, had made the trip to the capital, he told Sorghagtani that her sons should be on the throne. Ogodei's branch of the family acted like the throne belonged to them, but Batu thought they were wrong. Chinggis Khan was not a believer in hereditary rule. The Mongol nobility elected their ruler at a khuriltai, Great Assembly. Ogodei was killing himself with his indulgences. He would not live to a late age. At the next gathering of the nobility, Batu's opinion would carry great weight. Batu was Khan of the Golden Horde. This was the Russian Khanate, a vast Mongol camp on the lower Volga River, its headquarters at a place called Sarai. Batu was growing wealthy because his camp sat aside the caravan trails of the Silk Road, and he collected tolls and taxes on trade between the East and West. His camp was a vast remount depot, poised to conquer Europe, and was said to contain a million horses.
Sorghagtani looked up and saw Ogodei's palace seeming to float above Khara Khorum, a city of tents on the caravan trails of the Gobi Desert. It was a spectral sight.
It was called the Wan-an Gung, Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities, but it was badly named. Far from being tranquil, it was a place of corruption, scandal and intrigue. This was what the empire had come to under Chinggis Khan's successor. Sorghagtani had watched her father-in-law build the empire and she was witnessing Ogodei running it into bankruptcy.
On Ogodei's orders, the Wan-an Gung had been built by Muslim craftsmen that Chinggis Khan had forced to migrate from the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand after his conquest of the Muslim lands. It was modeled on the palace of the Caliph of Baghdad, said to be the most beautiful edifice in the world.
Sorghagtani wondered to her workers what Chinggis Khan would have thought of such a building. He slept in a tent all his life and loved the free open life of the steppes. He wore the same uniform as his men and he ate the same meat broth they did. He rode at the head of his army in countless battles and in all of them was victorious.
Ogodei was a wise emperor but not a practical one. The merchants who visited the capital said that he was generous to a fault and constantly overpaid by as much as the price again. From his treasury, he gave vast sums to the needy so that his name would live forever in the hearts of men. His reputation increased among the common people to the exact degree that the contents of his treasury decreased.
The business of state bored him and he vacated the capital at every opportunity. He spent his year traveling from one hunting lodge to another living a life of pleasure and debauchery.
When he was not drinking and fornicating with concubines of every nationality, he traveled to his hunting grounds where he had erected splendid accommodations. These expensive indulgences had helped to deplete the imperial treasury. No wonder things had come to such a pass.
She told her bearers to take her to the Christian church where she attended early morning service. Afterward, she left the church to begin her rounds, performing acts of mercy--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, healing the sick in the Chinese and Muslim quarters of the city. She had given to Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, Christian schools and hospitals. Following the Yasak, the Code of Chinggis Khan, she tolerated all religions. She and Tolui had ruled as regents, and they had not been spendthrifts and hedonists. They had the virtue of being upright.
After the campaign in the Muslim lands, General Subudei, Chinggis Khan's principal strategist, had conquered Russia, the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. He had left a garrison. The formation of a Khanate, with an occupying army, followed. The steppes of Southern Russia were an extension of the steppe lands than ran across Asia into Mongolia, a highway for Mongol horses.
The Russian Khanate was the attack wing of the Empire, a staging ground for the conquest of Europe. Europe was not as rich as China, and China was always the main object of Mongol arms. It was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. Chinggis Khan believed it was his destiny to govern all peoples and so Europe was marked for conquest.
The Campaign in Russia marked the first time that the Empire ruled over Christians, but the Yasak, Chinggis Khan's Code, required toleration of all faiths. Christian churches were built in Batu's capital of Sarai, alongside mosques for the Persians and Turks who served in the Army. When Chinggis Khan's eldest son Jochi died, his son Batu became Khan. Batu was a natural leader, who had commanded armies in the Russian campaign. He was not only a military hero, he was a gifted man.
Batu had served in the Campaign in the Muslim Lands that had brought all of Central Asia into the empire. He was a grandson of Chinggis Khan and served in his grandfather's imperial guard, attending The Conqueror in his tent, listening to the Council of Generals, the brilliant commanders of the Mongol Army planning for war. In the service of his grandfather, he was witness to diplomacy with the local leaders, for Chinggis Khan employed locals to administer the conquered territories, while his military governors retained control. Batu received his political education in the tent of The Conqueror.
Batu ruled the Russian princes from his camp on the steppes. Every year, the Christian princes came to the horde with their taxes and the census that determined their service in the Mongol Army.
Alexander Nevsky, the young prince of Novgorod, the hero of the Battle of the Neva, was first among them. He had heard of the Mongols burning the Church of the Virgin to the ground in Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, and he had no desire for his city to undergo the same fate. It was better to submit to the horde than to become the subjects of the Church of Rome. The Pope had sent a Crusade against Russia to bring the Orthodox Church back to the fold of the One True Church. Alexander decided that Holy Mother Russia would have religious toleration under the Mongols.
Batu was immensely wealthy and had a huge army. As an imperial prince, he had commanded armies and had served as a younger commander with Tolui Khan, Sorghagtani's husband during the Campaign in the Muslim Lands.
Batu had a history with Tolui and Sorghagtani. Tolui was not only skilled in war, he was skilled in the art of governance. When Chinggis Khan died, Tolui served as regent for two years. He was, in fact, ruling as emperor. It was a time of peace and prosperity. His wife, the Princess Sorghagtani, was empress, and became beloved of the Mongol nobility. The reputation of these two was that they upheld the Yasak, the Code of Laws. When it was time for the nobility to gather in a Great Assembly and ratify Chinggis Khan's choice of successor, his third son Ogodei, the nobility pressured Tolui to remain as Supreme Khan, but Tolui declined. He honored his father's wishes and peacefully gave up power. This was how Ogodei came to the throne.
Batu respected Sorghagtani as the most illustrious and intelligent woman of her age. Her sons were the first of the Mongol princes who were taught to read and write. They had been brought up in the Christian faith. This was considered a mark of civilization, even though it was the Christianity of the Eastern Rite, Nestorian Chrisitanity, which had its headquarters in Baghdad. The Nestorians were considered heretics by the Church of Rome because they did not believe in the divinity of Christ.
Not only did he know Tolui and Sorghagtani, Batu was the commander in the Russian Campaign where their oldest son Mongke proved himself to be a military hero. The way to honor and respect in the Mongol Empire was success in war, and Mongke distinguished himself, and the sons of Ogodei and Jagadai proved to be spoiled and of lesser character. So there was a battlefield grudge in the background, and a natural alliance between the houses of Batu and Sorghagtani.
Sorghagtani consulted with Batu and he agreed with her about the problem of weak men at the head of state, but he counseled her to wait upon events. The time was not right. She was left to think, to wonder how she could save the empire from inferior men. She had pondered her options for years. She was the mother of good men, the two eldest who would one day be emperors, although she did not know it at the time.
It is difficult for a person of talent, a person of intelligence with an active nature to be passive in the face of incompetence. This is the problem that absorbed her thought. How could she remove the sons of Ogodei from the throne and place her sons, the sons of Tolui, a proven man, a man of justice, upon it?
Was this treason? She thought not. She thought it was the opposite. The sons of Tolui were more deserving. They were better men. They observed the Code of Chinggis Khan. They had the qualifications for rule. The plot for the coup d'etat was developed during these years. The only man she confided in was the Khan of Russia, and only later, her sons Mongke and Khubilai.