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Age of Conquest: A Kings and Generals Podcast

English, Education, 3 seasons, 226 episodes, 5 days, 17 hours, 13 minutes
Mongol Invasions, Napoleonic Wars, Diadochi Wars, Rome and the Cold War. Every part of your life -the words you speak, the ideas you share- can be traced to our history, but how well do you really know the stories? We’ll take you to the events, the times and the people that shaped our world. Hosted by David Schroder for Kings and Generals.
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History of the Mongols SPECIAL: Chinggis Genetic Legacy

At the start of the twenty-first century, a study was released which brought the thirteenth century starkly into the present. A 2003 study led by Chris Tyler-Smith published in the American Journal of Human Genetics simply titled “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols,” determined that an alarming number of men across Asia, from China to Uzbekistan, carried the same haplotype on their Y-chromosome, indicating a shared paternal lineage. 8% of the studied group, just over 2100 men from 16 distinct populations in Asia shared this haplotype, which if representative of the total world population, would have come out to about 16 million men. This was far beyond what was to be expected of standard genetic variation over such a vast area. The researchers traced the haplogroup to Mongolia, and with the BATWING program determined that the most recent common ancestor lived approximately 1,000 years ago, plus or minus 300 years in either direction. The study determined that this could only be the result of selective inheritance, and there was only man who fit the profile, who had the opportunity to spread his genes across so much of Asia and have them be continually selected for centuries to come; that was Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire. Identifying him with the Y-Chromosome haplogroup, the C3* Star Cluster, the image of Chinggis Khan as the ancestor of 0.5% of the world population has become irrevocably attached to his name, and a common addition in the comment sections on any Mongol related topic on the internet will be the fact that he is related to every 1 in 200 men in Asia today. Yet, recent studies have demonstrated that this may not be the case, and that Chinggis Khan’s genetic legacy is not so simple as commonly portrayed. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.       Inside each human being are the genes we inherit from our parents. Distinct alleles within the thousands of genes of our 23 chromosomes affect the makeup of our bodies, from our physical  appearances to blood type. Each allele is inherited from our parents, who inherited from their parents, and so on, leaving in each human being a small marker of every member of their ancestry. Due to interbreeding and mixing over time, people living in a certain region will share  alleles, given that various members of their community shared ancestors at some point. A collection of these alleles is a haplotype, and a group of similar haplotypes with shared ancestry is a haplogroup. Tracing specific haplogroups attached to the Y-Chromosome, for instance, allows us to trace paternal ancestry of selected persons. It was the haplogroup dubbed the C3*star cluster that the researchers identified as Chinggis Khan’s haplotype, though later research has redefined it to the C2* star cluster. Thus, while you may see it somewhat interchangeably referred to as C3 or C2, depending on how recent the literature you’re reading is. Whoever carried the markers on their chromosome associated with this haplogroup, according to the study, was therefore a descendant of Chinggis Khan. The lineage, it should be noted, does not start with Chinggis Khan; it is detectable in the ancestors of the Mongols dating back at least to the fifth century BCE, to the Donghu people in eastern Mongolia and Manchuria. It is found in high frequencies in populations which had close contact with Mongols from Siberia to Central Asia, as as the Buryats, Udeges, Evens, Evenks, Kazakhs, and in lower frequencies in places conquered by the Mongol Empire. As demonstrated by the 2003 study, a map of these haplogroups lines up rather neatly with a map of the Mongol Empire at the time of Chinggis Khan’s death.        The 2003 study found that 8% of the men sampled had high frequencies of haplotypes from a set of closely related lineages, the C2*  star cluster. With the highest numbers of this cluster found in Mongolia, it was the logical origin point for this cluster. Its frequencies in so many populations of the former Mongol Empire seemed to suggest it spread with Mongol imperial expansion. The researchers therefore identified Chinggis Khan and his close male-relatives as the likely progenitors. While the public has understood this as Chinggis Khan and his family raping a massive percentage of the thirteenth century human population, this was not quite what the study implied. Rather, the selective marriage into the Chinggisid royal family, with each son having high numbers of children, and so on for generations due to prestige associated with the lineage, was the cause for the haplogroup’s spread.        The study decided that, since the haplogroups showed up in high frequencies among the Hazara of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as they were deemed to be direct descendants of Chinggis Khan, then this must have meant no one else other than the Great Khan himself was the most recent common ancestor for this haplogroup. The high frequencies across Asian populations, an origin point in Mongolia, an estimated common ancestor approximately a thousand years ago, and association with the supposed Chinggisid Hazaras was the extent of the evidence the study had to make Chinggis Khan the progenitor.       When released, this study made headlines around the world. You’ll find no shortage of articles stating that “Genghis Khan was a prolific article,” with the underlying, thought generally unstated, assumption that these genes were spread by a hitherto unimaginable amount of rape, “backed up” by the medieval sources where Chinggis is described taking his pick of conquered women after the sack of a city. It’s a useful addition to the catalogue of descriptions to present the Mongols as mindless barbarians, with this study being essentially the scientific data to back up this presentation.  It’s now become one of the key aspects of Chinggis Khan’s image in popular culture.       However, as more recent studies have demonstrated, there are a number of problems with this evidence presented in the 2003 study. Firstly, later researchers have pointed out how indirect the evidence is for the connection of Chinggis Khan to the C2 lineage. The estimates for the most recent common ancestor can vary widely depending on the methods used; while some estimates can place a figure within Chinggis Khan’s epoch, other estimates put the most recent common ancestor for the C2* cluster over 2,000 year ago. Even going by the 2003 study, it still gives a 600 year window for the most recent common ancestor, who still could have lived centuries before or after Chinggis Khan.   One of the most serious assumptions in the study was that the Hazara of Afghanistan were direct descendants of Chinggis KhanThis is an assumption which rests more on misconception than medieval materials. In fact, the thirteenth and fourteenth century sources indicate that Chinggis Khan spent only a brief time in what is now Afghanistan, only from late 1221 and throughout much of 1222, which he largely spent campaigning, pursuing Jalal al-Din Mingburnu and putting down local revolts before withdrawing. There is no indication that a Mongol garrison was left in the region by Chinggis, and it is not until the 1230s that Mongol forces returned and properly incorporated the region into the empire. Still, it was not until the end of the thirteenth century were Chinggisid princes actually staying in the region, when Chagatayid princes like Du’a’s son Qutlugh Khwaja took control over the Negudaris. The sources instead describe waves of Mongol garrisons into Afghanistan which began almost a decade after Chinggis Khan’s death, from the initial tamma garrisons under Ögedai Khaan’s orders to Jochid troops fleeing Hulegu to Afghanistan in the 1260s. Later, from the late fourteenth century onwards, Afghanistan was the heart of the Timurid realm, and while the Timurids shared some descent from Chinggis through marriage, it’s not exactly the process which would have led to high percentages of Chinggisid ancestry.Together, this strongly suggests that the Hazara would not bear Chinggisid ancestry in any considerable quantity.   Perhaps most prominently, there is little evidence that connects the C2* star cluster to known descendants of Chinggis Khan. The fact that no tomb of Chinggis Khan or any other known members of his family has been found, means that there is no conclusive means to prove what haplogroups he possessed. Without human remains which undeniably belong to one of his close male relatives or himself, Chinggis Khan’s own haplogroup can not ever be reliably identified. Most royal Chinggisid lineages in the western half of the empire, such as that of the Ilkhanate or Chagatais, disappeared long before the advance of genetic sciences. You might think that looking in Mongolia, you’d find a lot of Chinggisids running about, but this is not the case. Even during the empire, many members of the Chinggisid family were spread across Asia, leaving by the end of the fourteenth century largely lines only from his brothers, and of his grandsons Ariq Böke and Khubilai. In the fifteenth century, a massive massacre of the royal family was carried out by the leader of the Oirats and the true master of Mongolia, the non-Chinggisid Esen Taishi. Mongolia was reunified some fifty years later under the Khubilayid prince Dayan Khan, and it was the descendants of his sons who made up the Chinggisid nobility for the next centuries. Then, in the 1930s Soviet supported purges resulted in the near annihilation of the Chinggisid princes, Buddhist clergy and other political enemies. From 1937-1939, over 30,000 Mongolians were killed, and the Dayan Khanid nobility nearly extinguished.   While it is true that today in Mongolia, you can find many people who claim the imperial clan name of Borjigin, this is largely because after democratization in Mongolia in 1990, Mongolians were encouraged to take clan names- a fact that, as many commenters have pointed out, historically the Mongols did not do, unless they were actually members of the Chinggisid royal family. While the 1918 census in Mongolia recorded only 5.7% of the population as being Borjigid, during the recent registering of clan names some 50% chose, of course, the most famous and prestigious name for themselves. Therefore, it’s rather difficult to find a lot of a Chinggisids today.   The 2003 study relied on a random selection of people from across Asia, rather than looking specifically for individuals who claimed Chinggisid descent. Other studies which have sought out people who claim Chinggisid ancestry do not support the C2* Star cluster hypothesis of the 2003 study. A 2012 study by Batbayar and Sabitov in the Russian Journal of Genetic Genealogy of Mongolian individuals who could trace their lineage back to Chinggis Khan’s fifteenth century descendant, Dayan Khan, found none of them matched the Star cluster proposed by the 2003 study. To overcome the previously mentioned issues about finding Chinggisids, to quote Batbayar and Sabitov, “In this study, seven patrilineal descendants of [...] Dayan Khan and two of Chinggis Khan’s brothers’ descendants were chosen for Y-chromosome DNA sequencing. Rather than testing a multitude of subjects, for the sake of accuracy, the most legitimate and proven descendants of Dayan Khan were selected. The DNA donors were selected based upon their official Mongol and Manchu titles and ranks, which were precisely recorded in Mongolian, Manchu, and Soviet documents.” Essentially, as close as you can get to a definite, unbroken paternal line from Chinggis Khan, given the 800 years since his death. When they compared the Dayan Khanid descendants, the descendants of Chinggis’ brothers, and those who could reliable claimed ancestry from Chinggis’ son Jochi, Batbayar and Sabitov demonstrated that essentially each lineage bore different haplogroups, and none, except for a small branch of the Jochids, bore the C2* star cluster of the 2003 study.    Study of the bodies of medieval Mongol burials have likewise yielded contrasting results when their DNA has been examined.  One of the most notable burials which has been studied is the Tavan Tolgoi suit, from eastern Mongolia. Essentially it was a burial of an extremely wealthy family, dated to the mid-thirteenth century. Adorned with jewelry and buried in coffins made of Cinnamon, which would have had to be imported from southeastern Asia, the researcher suggested due to such obvious wealth and power that they must have been Chinggisid. Their bodies showed haplogroups associated, interestingly enough, with western Asia populations, with effectively no descendants in modern Mongolian populations, and most definitely, not the C2* star cluster. This led to the 2016 study by Gavaachimed Lkhagvasuren et al., titled “Molecular Genealogy of a Mongol Queen’s Family and her Possible kinship with Genghis Khan,” to suggest Chinggis must have borne this haplogroup, and possibly, western Asian ancestry. He also pointed to supposed descriptions of Chinggis Khan having red hair as possible supporting literary evidence.    But this is not reliable evidence. Firstly, none of the graves conclusively can be identified as Chinggisid.  The Chinggisid’s known preference for burials on Burkhan Khaldun seems unlikely to make the Tavan Tolgoi burials a close relation.  Further, the “red hair” description of Chinggis Khan comes from a mistranslation of a phrase from Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Chronicles, where Chinggis remarks that young Khubilai lacked his grandfather’s ruddy features, indicating not red hair, but a face red in colour; hardly uncommon for a man who spent his lifetime in the harsh winds of the steppe. Therefore, the Tavan Tolgoi burials seem more likely to represent a family, possibly of Qipchaq origin, taken from western Asia, incorporated into the Mongol military and gaining wealth and power- hardly unusual in the Mongol army, but revealing nothing of Chinggis’ haplogroups. Other wealthy burials of nobility from the Mongol Empire in Mongolia and northern China have revealed differing chromosomal haplogroups, providing no answer as of yet to the question of the Great Khan’s own genetic lineage.   Much like the 2003’s study erroneous identification of the Hazaras as direct descendants of Chinggis Khan, a more recent study demonstrates the pitfalls of attempting to connect historical figures to genetic data. A 2019 study by Shao-Qing Wen et al. in the  Journal of Human Genetics looked at the y-chromosomal profiles of a family from northwestern China’s Gansu-Qinghai area, who traced their ancestry back to Kölgen, a son of Chinggis Khan with one of his lesser wives. Importantly, this family also backed up their claims in genealogical records, and had inhabited the same region for centuries. After the expulsion of the Mongols, they had been made local officials [tusi 土司] by the succeeding Ming and Qing dynasties. This family, the Lu, did not match the C2* Star Cluster, but actually showed close affinity to other known descendants of Chinggis Khan, the Töre clan in Kazakhstan. The Töre  trace their lineage to Jani Beg Khan (r.1473-1480), one of the founders of the Kazakh Khanate and a tenth generation descendant of Chinggis Khan’s first born son Jochi. Jochi, as you may recall, was born after his mother Börte was taken captive by Chinggis Khan’s enemies, and was accused, most notably by his brother Chagatai, of not being their father’s son. Chinggis, for the record, always treated Jochi as fully legitimate. As the Lu family in China traced themselves to Kölgen, who shared only a father with Jochi, then the fact that the Lu and the Töre belong to the same C2 haplogroup, with a  genealogical separation of about 1,000 years, would suggest that if this is in fact the Y-chromosomal lineage of Chinggis Khan, then Jochi’s uncertain paternity could be laid to rest, and that he was a true son of Chinggis Khan.   This theory is comfortable and convenient, but other scholars have noted that the connection of the Lu to Toghan, the descendant of Kölgen, is very tenuous. The sources connecting the Lu clan to Kölgen’s family were not compiled until the late Qing Dynasty, some four to five centuries after Toghan’s death. The sources more contemporary to Toghan’s life do not match the description of his life described in the histories used by the Lu clan, leading scholars to argue that, while the Lu clan does have Mongolian origin, and likely did have an ancestor with the very common medieval Mongolian name of Toghan, it seems likely that at some point the Lu clan’s family compilers decided to associate their own ancestor with the more well known Chinggisid of the same name, and therefore claim for themselves Chinggisid ancestry and prestige- hardly an unknown thing by compilers of Chinese family trees. Therefore, the matter of Jochi’s paternity still remains uncertain.       Perhaps the final nail in the coffin comes in the 2018 study by  Lan Hai-Wei, et al. in the European Journal of Human Genetics. Compiling data from previous studies that found issue with the 2003 hypothesis, they looked at groups with high frequencies of the C2* Star clusters like the Hazara or the Daur, a Mongolic-speaking people from Northeastern China who, based off of historical records, make no claims of Chinggisid descent. Newer estimates also suggest the most recent common ancestor for this lineage was over 2,600 years ago. In the most recent hypothesis then, it seems more likely that the star cluster identified by the 2003 study does not represent the lineage of Chinggis Khan, but was simply an incredibly common paternal lineage among ordinary inhabitants of the Mongolian plateau. Its presence in other peoples across Asia was not evidence of selective breeding into the Golden Lineage, but simply the movement of Mongolian troops into a region, and intermixing with the local population. In the case of the Hazaras, this is the exact scenario demonstrated by the historical sources, with waves of Mongol troops rather than a host of Chinggisids descending into the Hazarajat. The possibility cannot be excluded however, that while C2* was a dominant haplotype in thirteenth century Mongolia, that before 1200 it had already been spread across Central Asia by earlier nomadic expansions of Mongolia-based empires like the Göktürk Khaghanates or the Uighur. The Mongol expansion in the thirteenth century, then, would only be another wave of the spread of C2* across Eurasia.       While it is possible that Chinggis Khan and his close male relatives did in fact, carry the C2* star cluster, there is no evidence which directly or conclusively connects him to it. His known descendants through the line of Dayan Khan are of a different Y-chromosomal haplogroup. The descendants of Dayan Khan, himself a descendant of Chinggis Khan’s grandson Khubilai, and the Kazakh Töre, descendants of Chinggis Khan’s son Jochi, bear haplotypes so distant that their most recent common ancestor is estimated to have lived 4,500 years ago, which does not fair well for the likelihood of Jochi being Chinggis’ son. A third known and tested branch, of the Shibanids in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, does match the C2* star cluster, but has less than 1,000 known members and again, are descended from Chinggis Khan via Jochi. Chinggis Khan then cannot be said to be the ancestor of 0.5% of the world’s population, since his y-chromosomal marking remains unknown. Any attempts at identifying it conclusively can never be more than mere assumptions without finding the bodies of either the Khan or any of his close-male relatives- a prospect highly unlikely, given the Chinggisids’ preference for secret graves. Thus, it seems that his haplotypes are but one more secret that Chinggis will keep with him.       Our series on the Mongols will continue, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this, and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at, or sharing this with your friends. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.  -SOURCES- Abilev, Serikabi, et al. “The Y-Chromosome C3* Star-Cluster Attributed to Genghis Khan’s Descendants is Present at High Frequency in the Kerey Clan from Kazakhstan.” Human Biology 84 no. 1 (2012): 79-99.   Adnan, Atif, et al. “Genetic characterization of Y-chromosomal STRs in Hazara ethnic group of Pakistan and confirmation of DYS448 null allele.” International Journal of Legal Medicine 133 (2019): 789-793.   Callaway, Ewen. “Genghis Khan’s Genetic Legacy Has Competition.” Scientific American. January 29th, 2015.   Derenko, M.V. “Distribution of the Male Lineages of Genghis Khan’s Descendants in Northern Eurasian Populations.”  Russian Journal of Genetics 43 no. 3 (2007): 3334-337.   Dulik, Matthew C. “Y-Chromosome Variation in Altaian Kazakhs Reveals a Common paternal Gene Pool for Kazakhs and the Influence of Mongolian Expansions.” 6 PLoS One no. 3 (2011)   Gavaachimed Lkhagvasuren et al. “Molecular Genealogy of a Mongol Queen’s Family and her Possible kinship with Genghis Khan.” PLoS ONE 11 no. 9 (2016)   Kherlen Batbayar and Zhaxylyk M. Sabitov. “The Genetic Origins of the Turko-Mongols and Review of The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols. Part 1: The Y-chromosomal Lineages of Chinggis Khan.” The Russian Journal of Genetic Genealogy 4 no. 2 (2012):    Lan-Hai Wei, et al. “Whole-sequence analysis indicates that the  Y chromosome C2*-Star Cluster traces back to ordinary Mongols, rather than Genghis Khan.” European Journal of Human Genetics 26, (2018): 230-237.   Lan-Hai Wei et al.  “Genetic trail for the early migrations of Aisin Gioro, the imperial house of the Qing Dynasty.” Journal of Human Genetics 62 (2017): 407-411.   Shao-Qing Wen et al., “Molecular genealogy of Tusi Lu’s family reveals their apternal relationship with Jochi, Genghis Khan’s eldest son.” Journal of Human Genetics 64 (2019): 815-820.   Ye Zhang et al. “The Y-chromosome haplogroup C3*-F3918, likely attributed to the Mongol Empire, can be traced to a 2500-year-old nomadic group.” Journal of Human Genetics 63 (2018): 231-238.   Yi Liu. “A Commentary on molecular genealogy of Tusi Lu’s family reveals their paternal relationship with Jochi, Genghis Khan’s eldest son.” Journal of Human Genetics 66 no. 5 (2020): 549–550.    Zakharov, I.A. “A Search for a “Genghis Khan” Chromosome.” Russian Journal of Genetics 46 no. 9 (2010): 1130-1131.     Zerjal, Tatiana, et al. “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols.” American Journal of Human Genetics 72 (2003): 717-721.  
11/15/202122 minutes, 25 seconds
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History of the Mongols SPECIAL: Religious Tolerance

One of the most enduring images of the Mongolian Empire is that it was a model of religious tolerance, one where each of the Khan’s subjects were free to worship as they pleased. This is not a new belief;  in the 18th century, Edward Gibbon presented Chinggis Khan as a forerunner of the enlightenment, and for modern audiences the notion was repopularized with Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Some use the notion to counter the common presentations of Mongol brutality, usually accompanying blanket terms that all religious clergy were exempted from taxation, labour and were respected- or go as far as to present the Mongols as the inspiration for modern liberal religious toleration. While there is an element of truth to be had here, as with so much relating to the Mongols, describing the Chinggisid empire as a state of religious tolerance where all religions east and west lived in harmony fails to capture the reality of the period.       Even before the founding of the empire, Chinggis Khan interacted with a variety of religions. During his war to unify Mongolia, Chinggis Khan was supported by men of various religious backgrounds: Mongolian shamanist-animists, Nestorian Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, one of whom, Jafar Khoja, was supposedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and stood with him at the muddy waters of Lake Baljuna during one of his lowest moments. The most prominent tribes in the Mongolian steppe in the 12th century were Nestorian Christians such as the Kereyid and Naiman, and on the declaration of the Mongol Empire in 1206 Chinggis Khan’s army and administration were quite mixed. Chinggis Khan himself was an animist: in Mongolian belief, all things in the world were inhabited by spirits which had to be consulted and placated. It was the job of shamans to intercede with these spirits on the Mongols’ behalf. Generally, shamanism is not an exclusive religion; one can consult a shaman and still practice other faiths. The shaman was not like a Christian priest or Islamic imam, but a professional one could consult with regardless of other religious affiliation. The persuasion and power of religion in the Mongol steppe  came from the charisma of specific holy men -such as shamans- and their power to convene with spirits and Heaven on the Khan’s behalf in order to secure his victory.        This seems to have been the guiding principle for how Chinggis Khan, and most of his successors, approached religion. Some Mongols viewed the major religions they encountered -Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam- as all praying to the same God via different methods. This was more or less the statement that in the 1250s, Chinggis’ grandson Mongke Khaan provided to the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck during an interview, stating that “We Mongols believe that there is only one God through whom we have life and through whom we die, and towards him we direct our hearts [...] But just as God has given the hand several fingers, so he has given mankind several paths.”       Usually for the Khans, it did not matter who was right, as basically all of the major religions were. What mattered was that these religions should pray to God on behalf of the Chinggisids to ensure divine favour for their rule. Heaven’s will was manifested through victories and rulership, while it’s displeasure manifested in defeats and anarchy. Much like the concept of the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule provided by heaven could be rescinded, and thus the Mongols hoped to continually appease Heaven.       But the Mongols’ views on religion were not static and took years to develop into their political theology- and nor were they inherently tolerant, and favours were allotted more on a personal basis. For example, in 1214 Chinggis Khan, or one of his sons, had an encounter with a Buddhist monk named Haiyun. Haiyun, with his head shaved bare in accordance with his role as a monk, was told by the Khan to grow his hair out and braid it in Mongolian fashion- for at that time, the Mongols were attempting to order the general population of north China to do so as a sign of their political subordination.  Religions in China dictated how one should maintain their hair; Buddhist monks had to shave their heads, Daoist monks could keep their hair long, while the general Chinese population, on Confucian teaching, could not cut their hair in adulthood, as it was a gift from the parents, and thus was kept in topknots. Demanding that the general population adopt the unique, partly shaved Mongolian hairstyle, was therefore a decree against all of China’s major religions. The Mongols did not succeed in this policy and soon abandoned it’s implementation on its sedentary subjects, though other sources indicate it was enforced on nomadic Turkic tribes who entered Mongol service, indicating their submission to the Great Khan. Notably the Manchu would successfully implement such a policy after their conquest of China 400 years later, forcing the population to adopt the long queues at the back of the head. When the Chinese revolted against Manchu rule, the cutting of the queue was one of the clearest signs of rejecting the Qing Dynasty.   Back to the Buddhist monk Haiyun, who Chinggis had ordered to grow out his hair in Mongol fashion. Haiyun told Chinggis that he could not adopt the Mongol hairstyle, as growing his hair out violated his duty as a monk. Learning this, Chinggis Khan allowed Haiyun to maintain his baldness, then in time extended this allowance to all Buddhist and Daoist clergy.  Even with this first privilege, Haiyun and his master did not receive coveted tax exempt status until 1219, and then on the recommendation of Chinggis’ viceroy in North China, Mukhali. This is the earliest indication of Chinggis Khan granting of such a favour, followed soon by the extensive privileges granted to the Daoist master Qiu Chuji. The Daoist had made the journey from North China to meet Chinggis Khan in Afghanistan on the Khan’s urging, ordered to bring Chinggis the secret to eternal life, as the Mongols had been told Qiu Chuji was 300 years old. Master Qiu Chuji told Chinggis that not only did he not have such power, but Chinggis should also abstain from hunting and sexual activity. Not surprisingly, Chinggis Khan did not take this advice, but he did grant the man extensive privileges, tax exempt status and authority over all Daoists in China. Importantly, Chinggis’ edict was directed personally at Qiu Chuji and his disciples, rather than Daoism as a whole. The value Qiu Chuji had to Chinggis was on his individual religious charisma and ability to intercede with the heavens on the Khan’s behalf, as well as his many followers who could be induced to accept Mongol rule. In Chinggis’ view, the fact that Qiu Chuji was a Daoist leader did not entitle him to privileges. Neither did the Mongols initially differentiate between Buddhism and Daoism. In part due to the vaguely worded nature of Chinggis’ edicts, Qiu Chuji’s Daoist followers used these decrees to exert authority over Buddhists as well, seizing Buddhist temples and forcing Buddhist monks to become Daoists, beginning a Buddhist-Daoist conflict that lasted the rest of the 13th century.       The point of these anecdotes is to demonstrate that the conquests did not begin with a specific policy of general religious tolerance or support for local religious institutions. Governmental support and privilege was provided on an ad hoc basis, especially when a group or individual was seen as influential with the almighty. Toleration itself was also advertised as a tool; in the Qara-Khitai Empire, in what is now eastern Kazakhstan and northwestern China, an enemy of Chinggis Khan, prince Kuchlug of the Naiman tribe, had fled to Qara-Khitai and eventually usurped power. Originally an Eastern Christian, that is a Nestorian, in Qara-Khitai Kuchlug converted to a violent strang of Buddhism and began to force the Muslim clerics, particularly in the Tarim Basin, to convert to Chrisitanity or Buddhism on pain of death. When Chinggis Khan’s forces under Jebe Noyan arrived in 1217 pursuing the prince, they recognized the general resentment against Kuchlug and, in order to undermine his support, declared that anyone who submitted to the Mongols would be free to practice their religion. The announcement worked well, as the empire was quickly and successfully turned over to the Mongols, and the renegade prince Kuchlug cornered and killed. Notably, this announcement did not come with statements of privileges or tax exemptions at large for the Islamic religious leaders. It was a decree spread to deliberately encourage the dissolution of the Qara-Khitai and ease the Mongol conquest- in this region, it was a comparatively peaceful conquest, by Mongol standards. But it was not coming from any specific high-mindedness for the treatment of religion, but an intention to expand into this territory and defeat the fleeing Kuchlug.       By the reign of Chinggis’ son Ogedai in the early 1230s, the Mongol stance towards religions became more solidified. A major advancement, on the insistence of advisers like the Buddhist Khitan scholar Yelu Chucai, was that privileges were to be granted on religious communities and institutions rather than based on individual charisma, which made them easier to regulate and manage. Chucai also impressed upon the Mongols that Buddhism and Daoism were distinct beliefs, though the Mongols seem to have often continually erroneously thought both creeds worshipped a supreme deity a la Christianity and Islam. Buddhist and Daoism became, alongside Christianity and Islam, the four main “foreign religions” which the Mongols would issue edicts regarding privileges. It was not an evenly applied thing. With Islam, for instance, it can be said the Mongols often had the greatest difficulties. For one thing, the rapid annihilation of the Khwarezmian empire, the world’s single most powerful islamic state at the time, resulted in the deaths of perhaps millions of Muslims as well as the belief that the Mongols were a punishment sent by God- a belief the Mongols encouraged. The reduction of Islam from “the state religion” to “just another religion of the Khan’s subjects,” was a difficult one for many an imam and qadi to accept. For a universalist religion like Islam, subjugation to a pagan entity was a difficult pill to swallow, and the destruction of cities, mosques, agriculture and vast swathes of the population would not have been eased by statements of how tolerant the Mongols supposedly were.        Further, it is apparent that the Mongols' rule for the first decade or two of their interaction with the Islamic world was not tolerant. Part of this comes to an inherent conflict between the sharia law of Islam, and the yassa of Chinggis Khan. The yassa and yosun of Chinggis Khan were his laws and customs set out to provide a framework for Mongol life, which regulated interactions for the state, individuals, the environment, the spirits and the heavenly. As a part of this, it was decreed that animals had to be slaughtered in the Mongolian fashion; the animal usually knocked unconscious, turned onto its back, an incision made in the chest and its heart crushed. The intention was to prevent the spilling of the animals’ blood needlessly upon the earth, which could beget misfortune. Contravening this was forbidden and punishable by death. The problem was that this is inherently conflicting with halal and kosher slaughter, which entailed slitting the throat and draining the blood. At various times over the thirteenth century, this was used as an excuse to punish and lead reprisals against Muslims. A number of Persian language sources assert that Ogedai Khaan’s brother Chagatai was a harsh enforcer of the yassa on the empire’s Muslim population. In the 1250s ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini asserted that Muslims in Central Asia were unable to make any halal killings due to Chagatai, and were forced to eat carrion from the side of the road. The Khwarezmian refugee Juzjani meanwhile said Chagatai planned a genocide of the Muslims. While these sources like to depict Chagatai as a foil to Ogedai’s more ‘friendly to islam’ image, it remains clear that for many Muslims, it was felt that the Mongol government had a particular hatred for them. But Chagatai was not the only one to enforce this. Ogedai himself briefly sought to enforce this rule, and the famous Khubilai Khan grew increasingly unfriendly to religion in his old age, and in the 1280s launched anti-muslim policies, banning halal slaughter and circumcision on pain of death. The incident which apparently set him off was a refusal of Muslim merchants in Khubilai’s court to eat meat prepared in the Mongolian manner, though it may also have been an attempt to appease some of the Chinese elite by appearing to reduce Islamic and Central Asian influence in his government, particularly after the assassination of Khubilai’s corrupt finance minister Ahmad Fanakati.        Even Daoism, favoured early by the Mongols thanks to the meeting of Qiu Chuji and Chinggis Khan, suffered stiff reprisals from the Mongol government. As the conflict between the Daoists and Buddhists escalated, in the 1250s on the behest of his brother Mongke Khaan, prince Khubilai headed a debate between representatives of the two orders. Khubilai, inclined to Buddhism on the influence of his wife and personal conversion, chose the Buddhists as the winners. Declaring a number of Daoist texts forgeries, Khubilai ordered many to be destroyed and banned from circulation, while also reducing their privileges. This failed to abate the tensions, and in the 1280s an older, less patient Khubilai responded with the destruction of all but one Daoist text, Lau Zi’s Daodejing, and with murder, mutilation and exile for the offending Daoists.       Privileges only extended to religions the Mongols saw as useful, or offered evidence that they had support from heaven. Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism and Hinduism were usually totally ignored by the Mongols and did not receive the same privileges as the Christian, Buddhist, Daoist and Islamic clergy. Judaism may have received tax exemption status in the Ilkhanate for a brief period in the 1280s  and 90s due to the influence of a Jewish vizier, Sa’d al-Dawla, while in the Yuan Dynasty it took until 1330 for Judaism to earn such a status. As these religions lacked states which interacted with the Mongols, the Mongols saw these religions as having no power from heaven, and were therefore useless to them. Without any political clout, and of small representation within the Empire, these groups largely escaped the notice of the Khans.       The Mongols were also not above ordering the annihilation of a religion or religious groups when they defied them. The most well known case was a Shi’ite sect, the Nizari Ismailis, better known as the Assassins. Due to their resistance against the Mongol advance, the sect was singled out for destruction not just politically, but religiously, as Mongke Khaan had become convinced of this necessity by his more orthodox Islamic advisers. This task fell to his brother Hulegu, who enacted his brother’s will thoroughly. Soon after the destruction of the Ismaili fortresses, which was lauded by Hulegu’s Sunni Muslim biographer ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini,  Hulegu famously sacked Baghdad and killed the Caliph in 1258. Juvaini’s chronicle, perhaps coincidentally, cuts off just before the siege of Baghdad. This attack on Baghdad was not religiously motivated; the Caliph had refused to accept Mongol authority. As a seemingly powerful head of a religion, his independence could not be abided. It was not a specifically anti-Islamic sentiment here, but a political one. Had the Mongols marched on Rome and the Pope also refused their mandate, such a fate would have awaited him as well. The presence of Christians in Hulegu’s army, many from the Kingdom of Georgia and Cilician Armenia who partook with great enthusiasm in the slaughter of Muslims on Hulegu’s request at Baghdad and in his campaign into Syria, as well as the fact that Hulegu’s mother and chief wife were Chrisitans, would not have been lost on many Muslims, as well as the fact that Hulegu himself was a Buddhist.  Hulegu after the conquest of Baghdad ordered its rebuilding, but placed a Shi’ite Muslim in charge of this task and sponsored the restoration of Christian churches and monasteries, and other minority religions in his majority sunni-islam territories.     When the Mongols did convert to the local religions, they were not above carrying out with zeal assaults on other religious communities in their empire. Such was the case for Khans like Ozbeg in the Golden Horde or Ghazan in the Ilkhanate, who converted to Islam and struck against Christian, Buddhist and shamanic elements in their realms. These were as a rule very brief rounds of zealousness, as the economic usage of these groups and the uneven conversion of their followers to Islam made it politically and economically more useful to abandon these measures.        This is not to say of course, that there is no basis for the idea of Mongol religious tolerance, especially when compared to some contemporary states: just that when the favours, privileges and state support were granted, they were usually done to the four main religious groups the Mongols designated: again, Muslims, Christians, Daoists and Buddhists. So entrenched did these groups become as the “favoured religions” that in the Yuan Dynasty by the 14th century it was believed these four groups had been singled out by Chinggis Khan for their favours. This is despite the fact that Chinggis Khan had no recorded interactions with any Christian holymen.   But not idly should we dismiss the notion of there being a certain level of religious toleration among the Mongols. Not without reason was Ogedai Khaan portrayed as friendly in many Islamic sources, and he regularly gave the most powerful positions in the administration of North China to Muslims.  European travellers among the Mongols, such as John De Plano Carpini, Marco Polo and Simon of St. Quentin, along with Persian bureaucrats like ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini and the Syriac Churchman Bar Hebraeus, generally reported Mongol indifference to what religions were practiced by their subjects, as long as said subjects accepted Mongol command. Sorqaqtani Beki, the mother of Mongke and Khubilai, was a Nestorian Christian famous for patronizing and supporting mosques and madrassas. Mongke Khaan held feasts to mark the end of Ramadan where he would distribute alms and at least one such feast held in Qaraqorum, listened to a qadi deliver a sermon. He show respect to his Muslim cousin Berke, and for him had halal meat at one imperial banquet. If the yassa of Chinggis Khan was upheld thoroughly, then the Khans and all princes present would have been executed. In the four level racial hierarchy Khubilai Khan instituted in China, Muslims and Central Asians were second only to Mongols and nomads, and ranked above all Chinese peoples.    Religious men visiting the Khans usually left with the belief that the Khan was about to convert to their religion, so favourably had they been received. Khubilai Khan asked Marco Polo’s father and uncle to bring him back  100 Catholic priests and holy oil from Jerusalem, and likely sent the Nestorian Rabban bar Sauma to Jerusalem for similar purposes. Marco Polo then goes on to present Khubilai as a good Christian monarch in all but name. Qaraqorum, the Mongol imperial capital, held Daoist and Buddhist temples across the street from Mosques and Churches. In Khubilai’s capital of Dadu and the Ilkhanid capital of Sultaniyya were Catholic archbishoprics by the early 14th century. So there certainly was a level of toleration within the Mongol Empire that contemporaries, with wonder or frustration, could remark truthfully that it was quite different from their own homelands.    Such religious syncretism survived well into the century, when claimants to the fragmenting successor Khanates in western Asia, in order to define their legitimacy amongst the largely converted Mongol armies and stand out amongst the many Chinggisids, latched onto Islamic identities. Eager to prove their sincerity, they pushed back violently against even traditional Mongol shamanism. Despite it’s early difficulties, in the end Islam largely won amongst the Mongols of the western half of the empire and their descendants, overcoming the brief revitalization Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism had enjoyed thanks to Mongol patronage. Such was the final outcome of the Mongols’ religious toleration     Our series on the Mongols will continue, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this, and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at, or sharing this with your friends. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
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