Women Behind the Throne – Part Three

Sorqoqtani – ‘Munificence and Benefaction’

Shirimun and the sons of Ghaimish opposed the election of Mangke as Great Khan. They prevaricated and would not attend the quriltai to endorse the appointment. When they did at last set out for the Mongol homelands, it was with mischievous intent – or so the contemporary historians would have us believe. According to Wilhelm van Ruysbroeck, ‘ … Siremon … went in great state towards Mangu as if to do him homage. In truth, however, he intended to kill him…’
There are several versions of the story, but all are agreed that the supposed conspirators were put to death, including Shirimun, Ghaimish and her progeny. When it came to punishment, the women could be just as vindictive as the men and Sorqoqtani proved she had a savage streak equal to that of any of her male associates.


Mangke came to the throne as Great Khan in the summer of 1251. His priority was to restore order and unity to the Empire. The royal family had been divided by disputes and Temuchin’s grand design had been forgotten. Since Ogodai’s death, many of the princes had gone their own way, disregarding the assemblies, issuing decrees of their own and raising their own taxes. Mangke’s first task was to reorganise the army, which he divided and gave into the charge of two of his younger brothers. Kublai became commander-in-chief of the eastern divisions, Hulegu of the western. Mangke himself would support Kublai in completing the conquest of China; Hulegu would go to Persia and extend Mongol domination to the Mediterranean.

The new Khan also ordered a census of population, wealth and military capability throughout his empire, a policy designed to flush out extra taxes. He repealed the old tax laws and gave orders that no local decrees were to be issued without his express authority. Every citizen should pay according to his wealth. The clergy – Muslim, Christian and Buddhist – were exempt, as were the very old and infirm.

It must have seemed to the fourth son of Sorqoqtani, Ariq Boke, that he was being sidelined. Like his father before him, he had to be content for the present with responsibility for the Mongol heartlands. Mongol history records that it was not a situation he would tolerate for long.


Mangke ruled the Mongol Empire for another seven years. His brother and successor, Kublai, would rule it for thirty-four, not the last but certainly the greatest world emperor of his dynasty.

Sorqoqtani died in 1252, still very much the mother figure and supporter of good causes. Among her many projects was the founding of an Islamic college in Bukhara. She was by no means the last woman to exercise a powerful influence on the Mongol princes of Asia. Chabi, wife of Kublai, and Doquz, wife of Hulegu also played important roles in forging a stable empire.

What was the truth about these women? Both Ghaimish and Toregene, along with her confidante Fatima, (1) have been cast on the basis of contemporary opinion as scheming harpies. Khan Mangke, in a letter to the King of France later described Ghaimish as viler than a dog. Doquz for her part in sparing Christian lives during Hulegu’s sacking of Baghdad was venerated in the writings of the Christian historians Bar-Hebraeus and Kirakos. The former called her a ‘second Helen’; the latter that ‘she lived piously, aiding and supporting the Christians.’ In all probability, none was either better or worse than her male counterpart.

However, Sorqoqtani remains unique in the story of the Mongol Empire. Praised by her contemporaries, she has even made it into a 21st century book for children. (2)

I will let the Persian Ata-Malik Juvaini have the last word;

‘And her hand was ever open in munificence and benefaction, and although she was a follower of Jesus she would bestow alms and presents upon imams and sheikhs and strove also to revive the sacred observance of the faith of Muhammad (may peace be upon him).’ (3)

[This article was adapted from Chapters 5 and 6 of my book The Lion, the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky.]

‘1. See Parts One and Two

2. Sorghaghtani of Mongolia by Shirin Yim Bridges – Goosebottom Books

3. The translation is that of Professor JA Boyle from The History of the World Conqueror


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