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From Ogedei to Mongke the Reformer


Mongke representation today in Mongolia

Ogedei had been like some other sons of great men – something less than his father. He had been a profligate spender of money, burdening his conquered subjects with unpredictable increases in taxes for his sudden needs of money. And torn between duty and tiring of it, Ogedei had drunk so heavily that a functionary had been assigned to count the number of wine goblets that he had emptied daily. He had died at the age of fifty-six after binge drinking during a hunting trip.

However burdensome the position, there was no shortage of young men from Genghis Khan's extended family eager to become the next Great Khan. Ogedei's widow, Toregene, began administering Ogedei's estate, ruling her late husband's realm in his name and acting as regent for her eldest son, Guyuk, in his late thirties. Military operations slowed, including a reprieve of the fighting in Korea. Conflict arose among men in the extended ruling family. In 1246, Guyuk was able to buy support and win selection as Ogedei's successor. He showered gifts on people whose support he continued to seek, from princes to lowly scribes, as if money was in endless supply.

In 1246, Guyuk Khan received an envoy from Pope Innocent IV. In a letter carried by the envoy, the pope ordered the Mongols to “desist” from their invasion of Europe. The pope offered a synopsis of the life of Jesus and Christianity's tenets. Hoping to convert the Great Khan, the pope described himself as having been delegated by God as having all earthly power and as the only person authorized by God to speak for Him. Guyuk Khan replied that God had given the Mongols, not the pope, control of the world, from the rising sun to the setting sun. God, he claimed, intended the Mongols to spread His commandments in the form of Genghis Khan’s Great Laws. And he sent back to the pope the demand that the pope submit.

Guyuk's reign from 1246 to 1247 ended with Guyuk dying mysteriously amid royal family squabbling. The selection of the new Great Khan went in 1251 to another of Genghis Khan's grandsons: Mongke. A plot by rivals to assassinate Mongke at his coronation was uncovered, and this was followed by torture, purges, trials, confessions and much letting of blood – purges within the royal family as well as among government officials.

Mongke Khan attempted to establish efficiency in governing all of his subjects. The postal relay system was freed of being jammed by elites using it for their personal benefit. He established predictable taxation that permitted planning by the empire's farmers. He demanded that local rule not interfere with productive work. The death penalty was to apply to officers who seized vegetables from the gardens of Chinese peasants. Princes were forbidden to issue orders without approval from the imperial court. Officials, civil and military, were forbidden to enter areas where they had no jurisdiction. Military campaigning was to be done without devastating agricultural land or devastating cities, actions seen as reducing potential tax revenues for the imperial treasury. Private property was to be respected. Theft and brigandage were to be punished, and the importance of law was emphasized by death as the punishment even for minor offenses.

Under Mongke Khan, women could own property and pursue litigation. They served as auxiliaries in the military, remaining hidden in the encampment during combat but joining the fight if an emergency made that necessary. Clergymen and monks were exempted from labor on community projects.

As under Genghis Khan, people were allowed to worship as they chose, and Buddhism, Islam and Christianity flourished. In 1252, Mongke's regime made official the worship of Genghis Khan.

Baghdad and the Limits of Empire

In the 1250s, France's king, Louis IX hoped for an alliance with the Mongols in order to destroy Islam. Mongke was not interested. But, to add to his rule of the world, he sent an army led by one of his brothers, Hulegu, from the middle of Persia toward Baghdad the largest and richest city in the Muslim world. Mongke planned to lead the conquest of the whole of China, himself.

As Hulegu and his army were passing through Persia, they destroyed the Muslim sect known in Europe as the Assassins (Hashshashin), opening their route to Baghdad, the largest and richest city in the Muslim world.

Some Christians in Baghdad used the coming of the Mongols as an opportunity to free themselves from Muslim rule or to avenge past wrongs, and Mongol military leaders, as was their habit, used such conflicts to their advantage. Within Hulegu’s army were Christians and Shi’a Muslims, and they are said to have been the most fervent participants in attacking Baghdad’s Sunni Muslim inhabitants. In 1258, Baghdad was destroyed and many Sunni inhabitants butchered, while Christians and Shi’a Muslims were spared. The conquest of Baghdad ended the Abbasid caliphate and Baghdad as an Islamic spiritual capital.

In 1259, Hulegu's army entered the great Syrian city of Damascus, Christians there greeting the Mongol army with joy. The Mongol army then headed southward toward Egypt, and they learned that even great empires under God had limits: In 1260, their advance was stopped near Nazareth by the Mamluks, Muslim slave soldiers who had taken power in Egypt. Taking revenge on the Christians for having allied themselves with the Mongols, the Mameluks attacked Crusader strongholds in the Middle East, the beginning of the end of the Crusaders there, leaving them only on the Mediterranean coast at Acre, Tyre and Tripoli.


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