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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens

“The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire” is a 2010 book by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens such as Mandukhai the Wise and Khutulun. The book references Mongolian, Central Asian, Persian, European and Chinese sources such as Altan Tobchi, Erdeni Tobchi, Erdenyin Tunamal Sudar, Tarikh-i-Rashidi, Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i Juvaini, and Ming shi in addition to various secondary sources in English, Mongolian, and German.

Weatherford also analyzes the role of Mongol women in the Mongol Empire and how they influenced the Mongol nation, modern Mongolia, and most of the modern world.

...Being pregnant, giving birth, and raising children did not initially slow Mandukhai’s military campaigns. She and Dayan Khan continued to live the life of nomadic warriors. Like Genghis Khan, Mandukhai recognized that a nation conquered on horseback had to be ruled from horseback. Genghis Khan had fought and lived in the field, but his sons and grandsons had settled down to build cities, and eventually their descendants had lost all that Genghis Khan had acquired for them.

The couple crisscrossed the land fighting border skirmishes, raiding into China, trading along the Silk Route, putting down revolts, and imposing a stronger centralized rule than Mongolia had enjoyed in the intervening centuries since Genghis Khan’s death. The combination of fighting and giving birth became ever more strenuous for Mandukhai. She was forty years old when she became pregnant for the fourth time, with what turned out to be her final set of twins, and when she entered into what would be almost her final battle.

Although advanced in her pregnancy, Mandukhai insisted on leading her troops into battle, just as she had so often done over the past fifteen years. In a scene reminiscent of her helmet falling from her head in the middle of battle during her first campaign against the Oirat, Mandukhai unexpectedly lurched in her saddle. She then swiveled awkwardly and plunged to the ground, where she lay in a twisted heap. Had she been wounded, fainted, gone into labor, or simply fallen? Was she alive or dead?

The sudden fall of the highest commander on the battlefield presents a shocking spectacle for the soldiers, and such a misfortune can easily change the outcome of an engagement by disrupting the chain of command and confusing the warriors, as well as disheartening them at a crucial moment in their struggle. If seen by the enemy, the fall will almost certainly encourage them and reinvigorate their fighting.

Such an event can also provide an unexpected opportunity for potential rivals within the commander’s army, giving them an opening into which they might rush forward and seize control. The year 1488 was the Year of the Earth Monkey, a capricious creature in whose era earthshaking events like this could be expected.

Horse-herding nomads, who spent their lives in the saddle, understood well that such a fall from a horse not only could result in serious damage, paralysis, or death, it carried extra symbolic significance. For a khan or other leader, the horse can symbolize the nation, and control of the horse parallels control of the state; a rider who cannot master a horse certainly cannot master a tribe or nation of unruly people. Thus Mandukhai’s fall from the horse held a deeper and more sinister meaning. The death of Genghis Khan himself had been preceded only a short time earlier by a fall from his horse. Through the literate history of Mongolia, chroniclers and observers had recorded the falls of khans from horses with more avid precision than their marriages, battles, or other events to which sedentary people might attribute greater importance.

For Mandukhai, the fall occurred not only at an unfortunate moment in the battle, but at a potentially devastating moment in her life. After almost two decades of struggle, she had nearly, but not yet, achieved the complete reunification of all the steppe tribes that had followed Genghis Khan. Her goal loomed tantalizingly close as she led her troops into battle that day, but this one fall could jeopardize all that she had struggled to achieve.

Mandukhai no longer displayed the physical strength or emotional stamina that she had had as a younger woman. She had fought many battles on and off the field of war; she had struggled against seemingly impossible odds to unite and rule the Mongol nation. It would seem only logical that at this stage in her life, even her most ardent followers might begin to waiver in their support or to wonder how much longer her destiny would allow her to rule and to lead.

Her husband, the Great Khan, who was still in his early twenties, lacked the necessary military and leadership experience, though he had succeeded against Beg-Arslan, and he had not shown the aptitude for command needed to control the vigorous and independent Mongol tribes. He had also shown no sign of wishing to oppose his wife or to contest her leadership. Instead, he remained doggedly faithful to her, just like the thousands of men who served under her command.

If the fall incapacitated Mandukhai for even a few hours, one of her powerful or popular generals might step forward to replace her. At this moment, as she lay sprawled on the battlefield, her empire could easily be dismembered, or simply crumble. All an ambitious new commander need do, if he had the backing of even a small but dedicated band of warriors, was to grab one of her young sons, declare the child to be the new ruler, and exercise power as a self-declared regent.

At this moment, four of her closest warriors quickly raced around her like a protective wall. This maneuver came habitually to the warriors from years of training in both hunting and fighting. The protective wall that they formed on their hunts served to push the game ahead of them from an expansive area into a smaller, contained area where the hunters could more easily shoot it. In fighting, the same formation became a defensive maneuver when used to shield someone from the enemy like mares protecting their foals. Only once the protective wall had been put in place with the now stationary men did another jump from his horse to pull Mandukhai up. Behind the human wall, the soldiers hoisted her onto another horse and escorted the injured queen, still surrounded by the now moving wall of men, from the field.

Not only did her men save Mandukhai’s life, they preserved her rule without anyone making a treasonous move or showing any inclination other than following her and fighting for her. The loyalty of her men had been tested, and the effectiveness and power of her years of military training and leadership had proved itself.

The chroniclers who recorded the event carefully transcribed the name of each man who helped her in this moment of crisis, as well as a description of the yellow horse that took her to safety. More important than the names of the men, the chronicle also recorded the tribe and clan of each of them. Each man came from a different tribe, and none from Mandukhai’s tribe or that of her husband. The chroniclers showed clearly that the queen not only had survived the fall, she had created a fast and strong loyalty among a wide range of steppe tribes. For the first time since the collapse of the empire of Genghis Khan, she had managed to unite the tribes into a single, reconstituted nation.

Mandukhai’s loyal warriors fought on to victory that day, and one month later she delivered twin sons, whom she named Ochir Bolod and Alju Bolod. They, too, would one day share in the power accumulated on the battlefield by their mother, as she gave them vast stretches of land to command in the east. Each of the men who helped to protect and rescue her that day received recognition and titles for what they had done.

In Beijing’s Forbidden City on February 3, 1487, at the approximate age of fifty-seven, Lady Wan died. She had been the emperor’s sole comfort and the one true love of his life, and he was not able to survive the loss. Seven months later, on September 9, 1487, he followed her into death. He was thirty-nine years old.

The defeat of Ismayil, followed closely by the death of the Ming emperor, opened a new opportunity for improved relations and new trade between the Mongols and China. Mandukhai Khatun and Dayan Khan sent a trade delegation to Beijing in 1488, and with it they sent a letter written in Mongolian in which Dayan Khan asserted clearly his identity as the Great Khan of the Yuan. Had it been written in Chinese, the Ming probably could not have tolerated the title claimed by Dayan Khan, but being written in Mongolian made it more tolerable, or at least more easily overlooked. With some complaining about the inelegance of the Mongolian writing, the Ming officials accepted it and permitted the trade.

The new diplomacy of that year showed some flexibility on both sides and an indication that the Mongolian and Chinese governments would tolerate each other. Without completely altering their official stances and ideology, the Mongols tacitly acknowledged that they no longer ruled China and had no plans to do so again, while the Chinese officials recognized that that they did not control the Mongols beyond the Great Wall. Future relations would still be marred by raids and skirmishes, but the two countries were beginning to move toward a mutually acceptable form of commercial and diplomatic relations.

Mandukhai had finished the fighting part of her career, but she had not yet completed her mission. As Genghis Khan taught, “The good of anything is in finishing it.” He had accomplished far more than Mandukhai, but the arrogant greed of his sons and grandsons had destroyed his lifetime of work. Mandukhai concentrated the remainder of her life in protecting what she had accomplished and making certain that the nation could sustain itself after her departure. With the same assiduous devotion she had applied to the battlefield and the unification of the Mongol nation, Mandukhai and Dayan Khan now set to the reorganization of the Mongol government and its protection in the future.

When Genghis Khan took over the leadership of his small Mongol tribe, he was installed as khan. After fighting to unite the tribes for two decades, he called the khuriltai  of 1206 to reorganize the government and to be recognized as the ruler of all the tribes. In the same way, when Mandukhai installed Batu Mongke as Dayan Khan when he was seven years old, they ruled only a very small group. After nearly three decades of struggle to unite the country and to raise a family, they were ready to formally install him as khan over the entire nation.

In 1206, most of Genghis Khan’s subjects had lived north of the Gobi, but by 1500, the majority of the Mongols lived south of the Gobi. The royal couple decided that the appropriate place to re-create the united Mongol nation would be in the south, which was also the land where Mandukhai had grown up prior to being sent north to marry Manduul Khan. Genghis Khan’s death at the edge of the Ordos also made it a sacred place associated with his memory.

Mandukhai and Dayan Khan came south to strengthen their hold on the area and possibly to move their capital there. Sometime in the previous fifty years, the collection of gers  mounted on carts and known as the Shrine of Genghis Khan had been brought south of the Gobi for the first time since he had died nearly three hundred years earlier. The dual monarchs’ control of the shrine together with the sulde , the banner of Genghis Khan, illustrated to everyone that they had attained the blessings of both Genghis Khan and the Eternal Sky.

Dayan Khan had not been installed in front of the Genghis Khan shrine; Mandukhai had used the Shrine of the First Queen instead. Now in the 1490s, at the height of their power, Mandukhai and Dayan Khan wanted to reinstitute their Mongol nation in a manner similar to the way Genghis Khan had created it in 1206. Mandukhai Khatun and Dayan Khan planned to reorganize the clans, install their sons in offices over them, and enthrone Dayan Khan for a second time, recognizing that he now ruled all the tribes.

The ceremony would not merely be a renewal of Dayan Khan’s office but, more important, a renewal of the Mongol nation. Since the episode of the Great Khan with the rabbit in 1399, the Mongol khans had not been the true rulers of the country. Now, nearly a century later, the power of the lineage of Genghis Khan was being restored...

*Jack Weatherford (2010) The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Queen Mandukhai the Wise

Mandukhai Khatun (1449-1510), also known as Mandukhai Sechen Khatun, was a Mongolian Empress. The word “Khatun” is the female form of the word “Khan”, as in Genghis Kahn.

Born into a family of aristocrats, she married Manduul Khan when she was 18 years old, and bore a daughter, whose name unfortunately isn’t known.

Soon after the death of her husband the Khan, Mandukhai adopted the 7-year-old orphan Batmunkh, then the last living direct descendant of Genghis Kahn. Mandukhai named him “Dayan Kahn”, meaning “Great Khan” or “Khan of whole universe”.

When Dayan Khan turned 19, Mandukhai married him, again becoming the Khatun or Empress. Older and more experienced than the Khan, she retained great influence over court and military. Together they reunified the Mongol retainers of the former eastern region of the Mongol Empire.

Mandukhai fought in battles herself, even while pregnant, and was once injured while carrying twins of Dayan Khan. She and the twins survived, and her army won the battle.

Mandukhai managed to keep Dayan Khan in power as a Chingis Khan’s descendant and defeated the Oirats, actions which have contributed to the legends which formed about her life. She left seven sons and three daughters. The later khans and nobles of Mongolia are her descendants.

In this first issue of the republished magazine “Mongoliam Women” we present you an excerpt about Mandukhai Khatun from the book “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire” published in 2010 by Jack Weatherford.



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