Who’s got the Power – Women in Mongolian History

Who is the most powerful man who ever lived? There are a number of candidates who probably spring to mind, for both good and bad reasons: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hitler, Gandhi and maybe even Barrack Obama or even Mark Zuckerberg, to name but a few. 

However, who is the most powerful woman who has lived throughout history? That is a question I asked myself and was struggling to name even 3…. Queen Elizabeth, maybe? Cleopatra, though I’m not really sure why, Daenerys Targaryen?

While listening to a history podcast,  a unique woman was suggested, so obscure you’d probably have had to be relatively nerdy about 13th Century Mongolian history to even have heard of, let alone know what she achieved. In fact, she may well have been the most powerful woman who ever lived and I’d suggest that she is a candidate for one of the most powerful people who ever lived, let alone the most powerful woman.

I’m going to tell you about two women one who held political power, the other who demonstrated her own and inner strength in a male dominated army.

 

The Background

The Mongolian Empire [1]was created during a period of rapid, aggressive and violent expansion from the beginning of the 13th Century (approx. 1204) by a group of people who had previously been “horse nomads”, or tribal people. These people were united under the leadership of a man commonly known by his title –Chingis (or Ghenghis) Khan[2]. Under Chingis, the Empire expanded from the Russian Steppe into North China, Russia, the Middle East and even towards Eastern Europe. You can see estimate of the scale of the land held under Chingis here.  

After Chingis died in 1227, one of his sons took over, Ogedei Khan. His plans were to continue the expansion of his late father’s Empire – this time into South China, further into the Middle East and across the Russian steppes and into Europe. The Empire controlled and administered by Ogedei was enormous. Although Ogedei died in 1241, after his death it still kept expanding. It is difficult to get precise data as the Empire carried on expanding even after his death and by 1279 the empire was estimated to have covered 22% of the worlds landmass and hold sway over a population of over 100m people[3]. This empire covered Russia, China, Korea, Parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was enormous and is noted as the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen, and second in size only to the British Empire in history in terms of estimated land mass[4].

After Ogedei’s death in 1241, there was a power vacuum in the Empire’s leadership for a number of reasons, but essentially, there was a failure to elect new Khan. What happens after the death of the Khan is described as follows, Dan Carlin:

“In the interim though, an interesting thing happens; the Mongols are ruled by a Woman. An Empress Regent is the way a lot of historians describe that role. It is basically Ogedei’s wife and until they pick a successor, she’s the boss. I thought about this a little bit and I am at pains to think of a woman in all world history other than another Mongol Empress Regent who has ever held more power than this person, ever. And if this really is the most powerful woman in all human history, isn’t it interesting that you have to be a Mongol fanatic to have even heard of her. She is known as.. the Empress Doregene or Doregenee”  [5]

I am going to use the more common spelling – Töregene. This woman, Empress Regent Töregene essentially inherited the authority to administer, legislate and manage the largest empire in the world at that time. This Empire also had the most feared military of its age (and arguably the finest to any military right up until the 1800’s) as well as being extremely socially and technically sophisticated compared to Europe of the same time.

 

Töregene

Töregene was incredibly shrewd politically and had, according to historians, begun to assert her influence in the court even while her husband was still alive. As per Mongolian custom, it was up to Töregene to actually summon the Mongolian nobility to court in order to appoint a successor, but she elected to delay this, instead, the following happened:

“Toregene postponed calling the assembly and handing over command to a successor. Instead, she dismissed Ogedei’s ministers and appointed her own and the most powerful role in her court was given to another woman, Fatima, who became her chief advisor.

During her five years as regent, she showed herself to be a capable ruler, negotiating with and eventually invading the powerful Song Dynasty and fighting them to a ceasefire. Toregene may have also had a hand in shaping the political development of the region. Toregene supported Emir Arghun Aqa, who went on to be one of Persia’s most long-serving and effective governors.

When Toregene did hand over the throne, it went not to Ogedei’s favored son and chosen successor, Kochu, but to her eldest son Guyuk, who she supported[6]

In short, she continued the expansion of the empire, negotiated peace with an enemy who was a major threat to Mongolian authority, reshaped the political system and court of the largest Empire at that time and guided the empire in electing her chosen successor:

“She Was In Exercise Of Power In A Society That Was Traditionally Led Only By Men. She Managed To Balance The Various Competing Powers Within The Empire, And Even Within The Extended Family Of The Descendants Of Genghis Khan, Over A 5 Year Period In Which She Not Only Ruled The Empire, But Set The Stage For The Ascension Of Her Son Güyük As Great Khan[7]

What is perhaps even more astonishing is that, at the same time, other women were in power in other seats in the Mongolian Court. Sorkhokhtani, a widow of one of Ogedei’s brothers was the ruler of Northern China and Eastern Mongolia and the widow of another brother also ruled Central Asia, with both essentially reporting into Töregene[8]. Sorkhokhtani actually went on to have an incredible life herself: she was the mother to 4 sons who she trained, 3 of which would go onto to become future Great Khans themselves and the other who would found a Persian Dynasty[9].

 

Khutulun

That Töregene was able to rise to such a position within an admittedly male dominated environment is testament both to her own ability but also the social structure in place at the time. The Mongolian Empire was somewhat unusual in that it was very much a meritocracy rather than aristocracy. For example, one of Chinghis Khans finest generals known as Jebe (“The Arrow) was initially an enemy who demonstrated great prowess on the battlefield and, instead of being executed actually had his life spared and became one of the most trusted advisors and great commanders[10]. In reality, a meritocracy was an essential component to the Mongol way of life – it was a harsh and dangerous environment in which to live and the empire needed the best people in place for it to succeed and when that meant the women had to work, manage the economy, give advice and even fight, then so be it.

While Töregene held political power, there are other examples of Mongolian women playing interesting and important roles in the countries history. Khutulun (1260 – 1306) was a princess in the Empire who was known for her skills as a soldier and fought alongside men in military campaigns. She was also known to have refused to marry any man who could not beat her at wrestling – a sport that she excelled at.

“With her success in battle and in sports, Khutulun refused to marry unless a man could first defeat her in wrestling. Many men came forward to try, but none succeeded. According to Marco Polo, a particularly desirable bachelor prince presented himself around 1280. Most opponents wagered ten horses, or at the most a hundred, to compete against her. This unnamed bachelor wagered a thousand horses, and Khutulun’s parents pleaded with her to take a fall and let him win. She not only defeated but humiliated him, and he disappeared, leaving behind the additional thousand horses for her herd but having shattered her parents’ hopes of marrying her to a worthy suitor[11]

Khutulun never married and Khutulun is known to have outperformed her many brothers both at wrestling and on the battlefield and was ear-marked to eventually take over command of the army before her untimely and unexplained death.

Khutulun is a great example of a women who was physically every bit as capable as her brothers, fierce in fighting for her homelands protection and maintained her own sense of pride and power by refusing to “take a fall” in order to appease her parents and secure a suitable marriage. While not necessarily “politically powerful”, she certainly had an inner sense of power and drive to succeed in an incredibly tough environment.

Interesting, Khutulun was probably only one of many women who played roles in the Mongolian military. In part this would be born out of necessity, but also because the circumstances. Where traditional armies relied on infantry, males typically had a physical advantage over females, the Mongol army relied on Calvary (i.e. mounted on horses). Women riders could be every bit as skilled and when armed with a bow and arrow, a trained female horse archer could hold her own or excel against men when in battle or when hunting[12]

 

Final thoughts

Töregene and Khutulun are two women who occupy legendary status in Mongolian history.

Töregene was massively influential politically and socially and for a period of time led the largest military and empire the world had ever seen. She was in that position not just due to circumstance, but also on merit and sought to continue the development and expansion of the empire as well as managing the political elements of the Mongol court. She did so with skill at least equal to her male successors and peers.

Khutulun was a powerful woman – both physically and mentally – and forged a role in an incredibly tough and male dominated society. She was fearless and recognised and appreciated by her peers and family for her superiority as a wrestler and fearlessness on the battlefield.

 Töregene and Khutulun – and the many other women who played a role in shaping and leading the Mongolian empire – I salute you!

 

 

 

Disclaimers

Please note, I am not by any means a historian. I am a student of history and while I studied History of Philosophy at University, do not profess to be an expert by any means. This article is written to raise awareness of one of the most impressive women in history and may contain interpretive differences with professional historians or even inaccuracies. I have made every effort to make it as factually accurate as possible and have listed my sources below.

Sources

·         Books

o    The Mongol ConquestsJ.J. Saunders

o    Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant Richard A. Gabriel

o    Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Mongol Empire Jack Weatherford

·         Digital Media

o    The Wrath of the Khans : I, II, III, IV, V : Dan Carlin

§  http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-43-wrath-of-the-khans-i/

§  https://youtu.be/qAqIdiUgIq4?t=21m28s

o    Unusual Histories : Women who ruled

§  http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/women-who-ruled-toregene-khatun-of.html

o    Noahs Ark : Töregene Khatun

§  http://www.nouahsark.com/en/infocenter/culture/history/monarchs/toregene_khatun.php

o    The Globalist : The Women who ruled the Mongol Empire

§  http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

o    New World Encyclopaedia : Mongol Empire

§  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mongol_Empire

o    All Empires : The Mongol Empire

§  http://www.allempires.com/article/?q=The_Mongol_Empire

o    The Wrestler Princess Jack Weatherford

§  http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/wrestler-princess

o    Womens role and participation in warefare in the Mongol Empire

§  http://www.academia.edu/238591/Women_s_role_and_participation_in_warfare_in_the_Mongol_Empire

o    History world: Mongolian Empire

§  http://history-world.org/mongol_empire.htm

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mongol_Empire

[2] http://www.allempires.com/article/?q=The_Mongol_Empire

[3] http://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/link-suggestion/wpcd_2008-09_augmented/wp/m/Mongol_Empire.htm

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires

[5] https://youtu.be/qAqIdiUgIq4?t=21m28s

[6] http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/women-who-ruled-toregene-khatun-of.html

[7] http://www.nouahsark.com/en/infocenter/culture/history/monarchs/toregene_khatun.php

[8] http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

[9] http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

[10] https://mongolhistorypodcast.wordpress.com/jebe/

[11] http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/wrestler-princess

[12] http://history-world.org/mongol_empire.htm