The Splendor of Karakorum, 1251

In 1251, the Mongol Empire went through an internal coup. Temujin’s son Ögedei had died in 1241, and his widow got their son Güyük installed as Great Khan. But when Güyük died and his widow tried to do as her mother in law had done, installing her son, she was thwarted by the other family branches. Batu Khan, leader of the Golden Horde in Sarai, Russia, colluded with the widow of Temujin’s youngest son Tolui. Batu’s family could not inherit the Great Khanship, but it could help select who did. Batu’s clear choice was another grandson who had ridden out with them in Russia and Poland: Möngke.

When Tolui’s widow and Batu succeeded in transferring the Great Khanship away from Ögedei’s lineage, rule passed to Tolui’s four sons, who (like Batu) were all more capable than the average Mongol grandson. Their mother Sorkhokhtani had been one of the first princesses married into the family (remember when Temujin and his men were starving in the Gobi Desert and a rebel chief’s brother rescued them? that was her Nestorian Christian Kereyit father). Her sons Möngke, Hulagu, Ariq Böke, and Kublai received much better educations than any of their father’s generation. They had tutors in reading the new Mongol script and Chinese and Persian languages, in addition to learning the traditional Mongol manly arts of archery and riding.

In the wake of Möngke’s election, some of his other cousins attempted a coup. Sorkhokhtani held a trial for Güyük’s widow, who was convicted of black magic and executed accordingly: sewn into a sack and thrown into the river. Many of the Golden Family cousins were executed, leaving open ruling positions for the families of Batu Khan and Sorkhokhtani’s younger sons. After 1252, only those two lineages ruled Mongol lands. Hulagu became a subordinate Khan, or an Il-Khan, in Iran. Kublai was given North China to rule.

Möngke Khan retrenched and reformed the central government, putting an end to the spendthrift luxury of Ögedei’s lineage. His cousin Güyük had issued paper money as IOU’s, and to everyone’s surprise, Möngke insisted on honoring and paying them off to keep Mongol credit good. He printed new paper money with a new Department of Currency and sent out officials to make a full tax census of the entire area of conquest. The poll tax he set forth was a cut for some, and increase for others, but it was predictable and universal. No clergy of any religion was taxed, nor was any church or monastery—or any medical doctor!

Louis IX sent an ambassador to Karakorum in 1254, seeking an alliance against the Muslims and to convert the Tatars and Mongols to Catholic Christianity. William was a Franciscan friar in Rubruck, Flanders. William’s party came first to the western Mongol lands of Batu Khan at Sarai. Batu Khan declined to convert, but sent him with an escort to Möngke Khan at Karakorum.

Karakorum meant Black Stones; it was the only stone city the Mongols built or maintained. Each khan had added to it, and Möngke’s addition was the stupa temple wall that now encloses the oldest monastery in Mongolia. He also commissioned a Parisian goldsmith and sculptor to make a tree of silver and gold. The tree became the central wonder of the palace, shown to visitors.

The tree was a machine that used medieval technology to make announcements and serve drinks. Its tall silver trunk supported branches and silver leaves and fruit, but four golden snakes were also wrapped around the trunk. An angel sat at the top, with a trumpet. Möngke Khan could signal for the angel’s mechanism to raise his arm and blow the trumpet. At this signal, the golden snakes poured piped-in wine into a silver basin.

Father William of Rubruck was otherwise unimpressed. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis and nothing in Karakorum could come close to its grandeur. He described a city with four gates and one large palace, of which the silver tree was really the only thing worth describing. There was a Muslim quarter and a Chinese quarter, as well as craftsmen from every part of the Mongol conquest. Every religion had a church or temple in Karakorum: Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and possibly some the priest could only identify as “pagan.”

Möngke Khan explained to the Franciscan that the Mongols believed in one God who gave different ways to men. The Mongols had shamans, the Catholics had their Bible. “To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them,” he added. The Khan’s interpretation of God’s will was very direct: sending an army against his rule would be rebellion against God, and he would deal with it quickly. He was doubtless disappointed that King Louis had not sent tribute.

Father William spent Christmas with Möngke and his wife, who gave out gifts after the Christmas Mass (at this time in Europe, nobody gave gifts on Christmas). Christmas dinner was mutton and carp, with copious amounts of grape wine, rice wine, and airak.

William also participated in a debate with Muslims and Buddhists, for the Khan’s appreciation and entertainment. They had to form teams—the Franciscan had to work with Armenians, Assyrians, and Byzantines!—and the Khan appointed 3 judges. Debate topics included whether reincarnation was real, how had evil come into existence if God made the world, and whether animals have souls. In keeping with the Mongol tradition of wrestling competitions, fermented mare’s milk (airak) was passed around between rounds. Gradually everyone got drunk. The Christians grew frustrated and began to sing a hymn. The Muslims felt this was very unfair because they did not use music in worship. The Buddhists just started to meditate. Finally, the judges called it a draw and passed the airak again. (with thanks to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World!)

During all these centuries, we have sometimes noted the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia made up of refugees who fled Turkish invasion of their original mountain home. By the 13th century, these Armenians were tightly tied to the Christians of both Antioch and Constantinople. In 1252, King Hethum traveled to Karakorum to offer submission of their small Armenia to the Mongols, in exchange for protection. He was graciously received by Möngke Khan, who patiently explained that the Mongols would never force their entire conquest to follow the Christian religion. However, he said, he planned a new expedition to march on Baghdad. Should the Armenians join him in victory, he would gladly give them Jerusalem. Prince Bohemund IV of Antioch and Tripoli joined the Armenian king in submitting to the Mongols.

And so the ground was laid for what we might call the Mongol Crusade, though historians never use that term. As Möngke Khan’s kingdom came into better order, he began to look about and plan the next wave of expansion.

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