Women behind the Throne – Part One

Sorqoqtani and the Mongol Succession

[adapted from Chapter 5 of my book The Lion, the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky]

In Mongolia, where Temuchin (Genghis Khan) is honoured today as a national hero, women enjoy a remarkable degree of economic and social independence compared to their counterparts in some other Asian countries. And, when studying the Mongol Empire of the 13th century, one cannot help but conclude that the emancipation of women in those days had proceeded far beyond anything existing in Christian Europe.

The dualist nature of Mongol beliefs and superstition lent itself to giving equally important roles to male and female. Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky, represented the male; Itugen, Mother Earth, and the waters were female. Some later Khans would call into question and bend this simple philosophy by acts that demean women – enslavement, prostitution and even mass rape, but to Temuchin himself it was an all-guiding principle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Great Khans ruled half the world. But often it was their wives who held the reins of power. The Mongol women of the Steppes knew how to fight; they could handle bow and sword, often with great skill. Their responsibilities went far beyond cooking, housekeeping and caring for young children to managing the clan economy. When the military leaders were away on campaign, they made political decisions and commanded armies for the defence of the cities.

One such woman was Princess Sorqoqtani. She was born around 1190 in the Chinese province of Xi-Xia, where her father, Jakha, was a prominent military commander. Jakha belonged to the Keraits, one of the great tribes of Mongolia. He was the brother of Toghrul, the Kerait chieftain once foster-father of Temuchin – Genghis Khan – soon to be World Conqueror.

In the first decade of the thirteenth century, Jakha returned to Mongolia and joined forces with Genghis against the natural sons of Toghrul, who resented the young Mongol’s power and influence. And when Genghis stood finally on the pinnacle of lordship over the tribes, their alliance was cemented in two marriages. The World Conqueror took Jakha’s elder daughter Ibaqa for himself and gave Sorqoqtani as a bride to his youngest son, Tolui. In the years that followed, those two would have four sons whose names have resounded through the centuries almost as much as that of Temuchin himself – Mangke, Kublai, Ariq and Hulegu.

Sorqoqtani was never wife of a Great Khan but she was an ambitious and resourceful woman. The contemporary historian Ata-Malik Juvaini says of her that reports of her wisdom and counsel had spread across the Empire and that no one would challenge it. Rashid ad-Din describes her as being on a different level from all other women in the world. Juvaini even quotes lines from a tenth century Arab poet in praise of her. If all women were like that, he says, women would surely be the superior sex, strong sentiments from a Muslim man whom one might expect to take a negative attitude to women in politics!

OgodeiCorminiOn his father’s death, Tolui took over responsibility for the Mongol homeland. Had he become Great Khan, it is possible that Mongol and world history might have been very different. Sorqoqtani, like the majority of her clan, the Keraits, had been brought up a Christian. Thus, as a woman of strong character, she would have been in an ideal position to woo the Khans away from their native shamanistic ways and convert them to Christianity.

There is no evidence that such a thought was ever in Temuchin’s mind or in the minds of the imperial family. However, the modern historian John Man, in his biography of Genghis Khan, hints that it may have been fear of such a loss of identity that caused Tolui to be passed over as heir to the empire. Instead, Sorqoqtani became queen of the Steppes. Her time and that of her sons had not yet come.


Temuchin’s empire passed to his son Ogodai, who ruled as Great Khan for twelve years. Towards the end of his reign, power began to drift into the hands of his wife Toregene Khatun. * Toregene came from the Merkit clan, another of the Steppes peoples conquered by Genghis, and her history was similar to that of Sorqoqtani. Though not the eldest of Ogodai’s wives, she was certainly the most capable. She was also the mother of his eldest son Guyuk.

The Persian historians Juvaini and Rashid depict Toregene unfavourably as cunning, masterful, ugly and a shrew. How could it be otherwise! Even today, successful women are rarely given proper credit for their accomplishments. Toregene undoubtedly had a ruthless streak, and was particularly vindictive when it came to dealing with politicians – and even princes – who openly defied her. But these were characteristics to be found in equal measure in the Mongol men.

When Ogodai died, she took power. Dismissing the rights of Moge, Ogodai’s senior wife, she persuaded his brothers and nephews to grant her the regency. Guyuk had not been Ogodai’s choice as successor – the Great Khan himself had named instead a grandson, Shirimun – and Toregene needed time to groom her son into an acceptable candidate.

By distributing favours and gifts, she softened up the rival princes, with the exception of Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, who remained intransigent. Sorqoqtani, the one princess who might have challenged Toregene’s supremacy, stood aside. By following her instincts and those of her four sons, and by combining their strength with that of Batu, she might have made a difference. She chose not to. Even if she had dared question tradition in the matter of the succession, she may have felt her support was inadequate to mount serious opposition.

It would be another five years before Sorquoqtani came into her own.


Toregene postponed the quriltai * indefinitely and set about making her mark on the politics of the Empire. She appointed her own ministers, including a number of women, of whom the most influential was Fatima Khatun. The title was unfortunate, because this Fatima was certainly no princess or lady. She had once been what we would call today a ‘Madam’ and was recruited by Toregene principally to spy on her relations.
The Empress may have been a shrew, but she seems to have been one who knew how to keep men on her side. From a Persian perspective, she may have had little to offer, but the Juvainis at least had reason to be grateful to her. Baha ad-Din, father of the historian, who could have so easily been brought down in the political scheming of Qaraqorum, survived the fall of his superior, the Persian governor, Korguz.
Moreover, in the end, Toregene may have done some good for it was during her reign and under her patronage that there came to prominence in Persia the man who would become its most effective and longest-serving governor. Known as the Emir Arghun, or Arghun Aqa, to distinguish him from the later Il-khan, he was undoubtedly responsible for reshaping Persia over the next thirty years.

As for Korguz, he was arrested and brought to court, though he was denied an audience with Toregene, possibly as the case was filtered through Fatima. She would have nothing to do with him and sent him on to the Chagataid Mongols who had him executed by suffocation. His mouth was filled with stones until he stopped breathing. The fate of Fatima was even more gruesome: having later fallen foul of Guyuk and having lost his mother’s protection, she was starved and beaten until she confessed to witchcraft and other spurious crimes. Finally, her torturers sewed up all her orifices and suffocated her in a rolled-up carpet. To make triply sure, they tossed the bundle into the nearest river. Such was the barbarity – perhaps even the originality – of Mongol methods.


* quriltai = the council of nobles called to elect or confirm the new emperor

** khatun = princess or lady

(next: Part Two: Sorqoqtani and Batu join forces)


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