3. Sorghaghtani Beki

Sons and Husbands

Sorghaghtani stared into the glowing embers of the fire. Her sons were asleep. Her sons. What would happen to them if she married? Ögodei would not hate them, but Töregene would. Töregene wouldn’t want a powerful rival, and she had sons of her own. Sorghaghtani could imagine, all too easily, what would happen: she and Töregene ripping the empire apart in pursuit of victory for their sons. There would be no empire for either woman’s sons if it came to civil war. The Great Khan Genghis himself had chosen Ögodei rather than risk war between Jochi and Chagatai. The Mongols should not fight amongst themselves. She and Töregene must not come to war.

But she had no intention of letting her rival set up her son as khan, when her own sons were just as worthy. Sorghaghtani listened to the wind rustling the felt walls of the ger. Tolui had died to save Ögodei, and Ögodei hadn’t forgotten. He had great respect for her, princess of the centre, and that was why he had offered her marriage. She couldn’t marry him and protect her sons – but what if she married his son? Güyük was rumoured to be a worse drunk than his father, and hotheaded as well; she wouldn’t prosper with Güyük, but there was another son, Khodan, who Ögodei favoured. And she thought of Alakhai, the daughter of Ghengis, who had married at least three men to keep control of the Ongud lands. Perhaps she should do the same. Here, she held the heart of the empire, and had sons and warriors and wealth. She nodded to herself. She would not marry Ögodei, but she would marry his son, and she would wait, and one day she would see the kuraltai proclaim her son great khan.


The Great Khan Ögodei died that year, some said by the plots of his sister-in-law, but most agreed that his death was from his own drunkenness. Töregene Khatun quickly moved to have herself proclaimed regent, and for the next three years ruled over the Mongols. All that time, she schemed so that her oldest son, Güyük, might be proclaimed Khagan, the Great Khan. But she dismissed the ministers of her husband, and gave power to others. Worst of these was a Persian slave, Fatima, who became the intimate favourite of the Great Khatun, and enjoyed more power than was right for a woman and a slave. The Great Khatun listened only to this woman.

But the Khatun’s plans for her son were undone by her own hand. For she called the kuraltai too soon, and the other lords of the Mongols would not come. Batu remained in Russia with his armies, while Khodan and the sons of Sorghaghtani remained at their camp near the river Kherlen. Instead Khodan, who as widower of Sorghaghtani was prince of the centre, called a rival kuraltai, in the homeland of Ghengis Khan himself, and championed Möngke, oldest son of Sorghaghtani, as Khagan. It was said that before she would marry him, Sorghaghtani had made Khodan promise to treat her sons as his own. The noble lady, and her baby son, had died some years before.

And then these two khans, Güyük and Möngke, went to war, and Möngke and his brothers attacked the royal capital of Karakorum with all their armies. But Güyük had also assembled his warriors in the city, having brought them there for his kuraltai. And Mongol slaughtered Mongol, and Möngke and his brother Hulagu, and Güyük and his mother Töregene all died in that battle. And the grandsons of the great Ghengis Khan, in fighting each other, destroyed the empire that their grandfather had won, and who now fears the Mongols?

But Batu was declared Khan of the Golden Horde, and his descendants still rule those lands today.

Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Jami’ al-tawarikh

What really happened…

Sorghaghtani Beki didn’t marry anyone after her husband’s death, although Ögodei did ask (he may have been a drunk, but Ögodei appreciated a competent woman). Instead, she raised her four sons and bided her time. The result?

Son #1: Möngke Khan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

Son #2: Kublai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and founder of the Yuan dynasty in China

Son #3: Hulagu Khan, Khan of the Ilkanate dynasty in Persia

Son #4: Ariq Böke, Great Khan of Mongol Empire, until defeated by his brother Kublai.

Not a bad legacy. Her greatest rival was another woman, Töregene Khatun, who for five years as regent of the Mongol Empire was the most powerful woman in the world. Ghenghis’s own sons weren’t the best leaders, but his daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters were the match of any leader.



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