By Katia Wright
Many scholars of Mongolian history focus on the politics and warfare which resulted in an empire that stretched from Egypt to China. However, the absence of women in these discussions does not mean that Mongolia’s women, and indeed their khatuns (or queens), had little political, social, or economic power. Royal Mongolian women were prevalent in all key aspects of their husbands’ and sons’ careers and could be incredibly influential throughout major political events. This can be seen most notably in the wives of Genghis Khan.
As with all royal marriages, politics played a prevalent role in the choice of a bride. In medieval Mongolian culture marriages took place in two ways – either through a political alliance, or the more violent kidnapping or conquest – and there was no exception to this at the top of the hierarchy. Genghis Khan’s marriage to his first wife, Börte Khatun, was arranged through political union. Following Mongolian custom, Temüjin (Genghis Khan’s name before his rise to power) was expected to serve at the camp of Dai Sechen, Börte’s father, to pay off the customary ‘bride price’ expected as payment for the loss of his daughter. For wealthy families, the bride price could be paid in goods and wealth, but for others it was paid through service to the bride’s family, which also enabled the future bride and groom to become better acquainted.
Mongolians were polygynous, Genghis Khan’s married his other wives after his rise to power. All eight of his junior wives were chosen from conquered peoples and represented both his political and military successes.
Status was incredibly important in Steppe culture, and though each man had multiple wives there was always one who stood above the rest, as his senior wife. The senior wife sat in the place of honour, bore and raised the husband’s children that would one day inherit, and she managed her husband’s largest and wealthiest camp and livestock. In the case of Genghis Khan, Börte remained his senior wife for her whole life. However, a man’s first wife was not always a senior wife, and the denoting of hierarchy amongst the wives came down to their capability and skill, as much as any marital affection.
Börte bore Genghis Khan nine children within the first sixteen years of their marriage – four sons, and five daughters. She raised all the children herself, likely with the aid of a wet nurse and her mother-in-law, Hö’elün. Börte provided political allies through her natal tribe, the Qonggirats – a powerful tribe on the Mongolian Steppes – and fulfilled her duties as a senior wife. These included managing her husband’s camp and his herds of animals, as well as her own. The junior wives who did not have their own camps fell under her management, as did concubines, servants, and the officers of the keshig (royal guard) assigned to them. Royal camps were incredibly large and could result in thousands of people being managed by one wife – when more than one wifely camp was together, they fell under the purview of the senior wife.
A key part of Mongolian culture, and the duties of a wife, was to provide suitable hospitality to her husband’s guests. It would have been at Börte’s hearth that important negotiations and agreements took place to enable Temüjin the political and military support he needed to succeed. Börte also possessed serious political clout, and her guidance was respected by her husband – not only were her Qonggirat brothers and cousins heavily active in Genghis Khan’s army, but he often listened to her advice that proved important in aiding his success. Indeed, as the senior wife, Börte would have been present at all important events such as quriltais (large meetings where major decisions were made and khans were elected), and she would have influenced the decisions and discussions held there as a key political player.
In her analysis of women and the Mongol empire, Anne Broadbridge notes that Börte ‘emerged as the single most important figure in Temujin’s life, and she made unparalleled contributions to his political career and the establishment of the empire.’ However, this does not mean that Genghis Khan’s junior wives had little power or responsibilities. Two interesting examples show both the other side to royal Mongolian marriages, and the power these women could wield.
Ibaqa Khatun, of the Kereit tribe, married Genghis Khan in c.1204. Their marriage was born from the dispute between her uncle, Ong Qan, and Temujin, that resulted in the eventual military defeat and conquest of the Kereit tribe. Several of Ibaqa’s younger sisters married sons of Börte and Temujin, and together they formed a Kereit network within their new marital family. Through this network they likely exchanged news and information with one another as well as their father, Jaqa Gambu, who was influential over Genghis Khan. For unknown reasons, two years after their marriage Genghis Khan divorced Ibaqa and remarried her to Jürchedei, a trusted supporter. It is not known why the divorce took place.
Nevertheless, despite her new marriage arrangements, Ibaqa retained both her influence and power as a junior wife of the grand khan, and the Kereit network continued. This is highlighted by Broadbridge in Ibaqa’s annual return to Mongolia to ‘renew her connections at court, host parties, and confer with her sister Sorqoqtani’ who was married to Tolui, a son of Genghis Khan. As such, though Ibaqa was a junior wife, she was still able to utilise her position and influence to further the benefit of her family.
Yisügen Khatun and Yisüi Khatun are other examples of marriage through conquest, and highlight the complexity of a Mongolian wife’s loyalties to both her conquering husband and her natal family. Yisügen, and her sister Yisüi, of the Tatar tribe, married Genghis Khan around the autumn of 1202. In the chronicles it is noted that the Tatar tribe had a longstanding feud with Genghis Khan, and after their military defeat Yisügen visited the grand khan and offered her older sister, Yisüi, as his wife. The move was purely strategic – after watching the men of her tribe being slaughtered, Yisügen was taking matters into her own hands to protect the women who survived. Genghis Khan agreed to marry both sisters and left them in charge of the surviving women and children of the Tatar tribe. Though junior wives of an opposing tribe, both sisters were placed in charge of royal camps, highlighting both their capability and successes as junior wives. However, their loyalties to their natal tribe never wavered. When two young Tatar brothers who had escaped the slaughter were found, both sisters pleaded with Genghis Khan to allow the boys to live. He gave permission for the brothers to work for Yisüi, and later they developed careers under Genghis Khan’s sons. Years later, Yisüi returned to Genghis Khan and this time asked that the two brothers be returned to their remaining family who had survived. The request was well timed, possibly just after the birth of Yisügen’s son, Char’ur, and utilised the influence she held as a junior wife and as the aunt of his youngest son. Broadbridge notes that Yisüi was doing more than aiding the two brothers and sought to unite the surviving Tatars who were hidden throughout the empire, thus easing conditions for her natal people, though the use of her status as Genghis Khan’s wife and her position of favour.
Mongolian Khatuns, though sometimes overlooked in history, were incredibly influential royal women who maintained complex loyalties and political alliances between their natal and marital families. Though a hierarchy denoted differences between senior and junior wives, this did not limit a khatun’s influence over her husband nor her political agency. The women discussed here led fascinating lives during a period of great change in both Mongolian society and in developing its geographical reach.
Broadbridge, A. F., Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Weatherford, J., The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire (Broadway Books: New York, 2010).
It should be noted that all quotes have been taken from Broadbridge, Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire.