The Ilkhan Turns Muslim, 1291-95

In 1291, the Mamluks finally captured Acre, the last outpost of the Crusader states. The Christian world didn’t know that they’d never take back any of that land, but in fact, they never would, until after World War I.

At the same time, Marco Polo set out from Yuan Dynasty China with a Mongolian princess named Kököjin, conveying her across Asia to Khorasan (Iran), where she was to marry the Ilkhan Arghun. Marco was unknown to Europe at this point; he had been living in Mongol-ruled China since he was about 18. Giving him the task of traveling with the princess was Kublai Khan’s way of allowing him to return home to Italy.

Kublai and Marco had no way to know that after Arghun’s envoys left Khorasan, the Ilkhan died. But it wouldn’t matter; it was understood among the Mongols that the political treaty that this marriage represented would involve whoever the Ilkhan was at the time. During this time of Mongolian civil war, the Ilkhanate wanted stronger ties with Kublai Khan. So when the caravan arrived in Khorasan in 1293, about 3 years after the envoys had sent for a new wife, Kököjin married Arghun’s son Ghazan. Because of her status, she became the principal wife, but it’s possible she was truly the first wife since Ghazan was a young man.

Arghun didn’t die a natural death; he was assassinated by a conspiracy of generals. His son didn’t immediately or easily become the Ilkhan. Between 1291 and 1295, the conspirators put Ghazan’s cousin on the throne so they could rule the Ilkhanate through him. One of the regional governors, an Oirat Mongol who had converted to Islam, rebelled against Arghun, and also against his successors. Ghazan made an alliance with him that included, as one of its terms, his own formal conversion to Islam. This alliance put him firmly in power.

There appears to be a great difference between his relative Berke Khan’s conversion in the 1250s and Ghazan’s in 1295. Berke had been living in a Muslim area and converted as an individual, from the heart. Ghazan, by contrast, converted in a public way for political reasons. It was much more like Kublai Khan’s strategy of adopting Chinese culture as a form of conquest. Ghazan pretty clearly did not convert from the heart. He had been raised as a traditional Mongol, speaking Monglian while riding horses from his earliest years, living in a ger and practicing Tengri shamanism. As a Muslim, he adopted the name Mahmud, but he probably continued carrying out Tengri rituals.

And unlike Berke Khan in Russia, Ghazan Ilkhan continued to encourage free religious practice. He didn’t suppress Shi’ite Muslims in Iran nor put any conversion pressure on the Christian Armenians and Georgians who paid him tribute, and he protected Tibetan Buddhists. His brother succeeded him, and he followed the same practices. However, the Ilkhanate was now officially Muslim, which probably meant that the tax structure began to include Sharia-related taxes.

Nawruz, the Mongolian Muslim who had first helped Ghazan gain power, persecuted Christians, Buddhists and Tengrists in his district. He destroyed temples and churches and forced the jizya tax on non-Muslims. Ghazan called it treason, undid what could be undone, and eventually executed Nawruz. He appointed a Persian Jew, now a Muslim, to be his vizier. This man, Rashid Hamadani, was a medical doctor and poet, as well.

Rashid Hamadani wrote a comprehensive history of the Mongols, in Persian, with a team of assistants at a library and workshop in Tabriz. The book was supposed to help Mongols remember their roots as they became assimilated to Iran, and it was also a propaganda work to help Iranians accept Mongolian rule. As the years passed, the project grew until it was something like a History of Mankind from Adam. We still have some copies of this book, called the Jami al-Tawarikh, and probably some of the facts about Ghazan and his relatives originated in those pages. A few years after he finished the book, Rashid apparently poisoned Ghazan’s brother, who had succeeded him. Rashid went from the height of wealth and influence to an executioner’s block: sic transit gloria mundi.



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