the mongolian leader berke khan -- 8/9/22

Today's selection -- from The Horde by Marie Favereau. Berke Khan (died 1266), one of the greatest of the Mongolian leaders, led his people to follow Islam:
"As the [Mamluk emissaries from Cairo] approached the banks of the Volga [to reach the leader of the Mongolian horde], the number of tents, people, and herds kept growing. Russian boats and caravans from many corners of the world, loaded with food, drink, and goods, were slowly converging on a single point. That point was the envoys' destina­tion, too: the horde of Berke Khan. As the envoys approached, a high official welcomed them. They were assigned a tent and given food. Soon they were taken to the khan's precinct and instructed on proper behavior in the ruler's presence. They were to leave their weapons, including knives, outside the tent, and they were not to keep their bows in their cases, leave them strung, or put arrows in their quivers. On pain of death, the Mam­luks were not to touch or walk on the threshold of the khan's tent.

"Berke's tent was lavishly decorated, its white-felt walls lined with silk and carpets embroidered with gems and pearls. The tent was also enor­mous and packed with people -- as many as five hundred horsemen, ac­cording to the envoys' reports. The guests entered the tent from the left side and found Berke sitting on a throne. He wore a Chinese silk robe and donned, by way of a crown, a Mongol hat. The envoys made a note of his thin beard and his hair gathered in braids, revealing the precious stones set in gold rings in his ears. His belt, too, was inlaid with gem­stones. The envoys saw no sword on his side; instead Berke was adorned with black horns hooped with gold and a purse of green leather. His boots were made of red velvet, and his feet rested on a cushion, as if he were suffering from a gout attack. His chief wife and two other ladies were beside him. More than fifty begs were seated in a semicircle, all scaring at the visitors.

The domains of the Golden Horde in 1389. The gold star shows the location of New Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde.

"The emissaries handed over their letter. The khan seemed intrigued and asked the high official to translate it. Only then did the khan allow the envoys to pass to the right side of the tent, where they kneeled down against the felt walls. This was likely an indication of their acceptance. Berke questioned the envoys about Egypt and the Nile. Satisfied with the answers, he ordered his servants to bring the foreigners kumis, meat, fish, and mead. The Mamluk envoys stayed in the khan's horde twenty-­six days. They were invited several times to be in the presence of the khan and his chief wife. The ruling couple offered them food, drinks, gifts, and cash and kept enquiring about elephants, giraffes, and the Nile and its floods. Finally Berke gave them an answer to bring to the sultan.

"The emissaries headed back to Cairo with joyous news, confirming what the sultan had heard through merchants: the khan, together with his wives and horsemen, had indeed converted to Islam. Berke's horde hosted muezzins, imams, and shaykhs, and it had mobile schools where children learned to read the Koran. The rest of the khan's reply was perhaps even more consequential, for the khan agreed to an alliance with the sultan and promised to sell slave warriors to the Mamluks.

"Berke was a transformative figure in the Horde. He was the first khan installed exclusively by the Jochid begs, without confirmation by the great khan. This was a signal of what was to come, as Berke solidified the Horde's independence from the Toluid-dominated Mongol center. He also redirected the Horde toward Islam, dramatically altering its in­ternal culture and politics and reorienting its place on the world stage by pivoting toward Muslim rulers and traders. Yet, for all his divergence from Mongol traditions, Berke maintained a distinctively Mongol re­gime, one that prioritized commerce and redistribution, acceptance of diversity, and rule through vassalage. It was not always easy. Competi­tion with other Mongols, in particular the Ilkhanids to the south, nearly suffocated the Horde economically. Yet the Jochids persevered, thanks in large measure to their engagement with the Mamluks and other new trading partners. In his person and his policies, Berke epitomized the adaptiveness of Mongol ways of life and rule."



Marie Favereau


The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World


The Belknap Press of Harvard University


Copyright 2021 by Marie Favereau


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