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December 2020

The Christian queen Sorghaghtani with her husband, ToluiRashid al-Din, early 14th century.

The role of women in history and shaping civilizations is often neglected or sidelined. That’s what may have led Virginia Woolf to say ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’. While many of us may be aware of the conquests of Genghis Khan and the story of how one of the largest contiguous empire was built, it is less likely that we know the role of the women in this empire building.

As compared to their contemporaries in other parts of the world, the women in Mongolia had more rights and enjoyed a higher social status. Jack Weatherford in his book ‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens – How the daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his empire’ has talked at length about it. Mongolian society was patrilineal. Men had to pay a bride price for marriage. They could marry more than once however all children had legal status. They lived in tough climactic conditions. The women were multi faceted – they were archers, horse riders and also took care of the house. As nomads, setting up and dismantling the yurt tents was an important part of their lives. The women were responsible for this important task. When the men were away fighting wars, the women stepped in to take care of local issues. Many of the senior wives and mothers were advisors to the emperor and influenced key decisions. They had right to property, right to decide who they wanted to marry and right to divorce which was not common in those times.

Mongolian Yurt
Photo by Nick Bondarev on pexels.com

In a recent archeological excavation in North Mongolia, the remains of two women warriors, dated between AD 147 to 552, have been discovered. The remains indicate that the women practiced archery and horse riding.

Genghis Khan was raised by his mother, Hoelun as his father was murdered when he was very young. The family had to undergo a lot of hardships but were ably led by his mother. Genghis Khan’s first wife Borte was kidnapped by a rival tribe and spend many months in captivity. She was eventually rescued by her husband. She gave birth to her first son, Jochi soon after and thus, he was most probably not Genghis Khan’s biological son. However, Genghis Khan treated Jochi well and let him remain with the family.

He married his daughters to the kings of the allied nations and the king’s other wives were dismissed. The son-in-law would fight Mongol wars while the kingdom was in effect ruled by the daughters. The communication to the daughters was clear – they had to rule. This was a key part of the strategy to expand Mongol empire.

Later, it was the daughters in law who played a crucial role in the Mongol empire. One of the most renowned Mongolian empress was Sorghaghtani Beki, who was the niece of the powerful Keraite (one of the dominant Mongol tribes) leader and a Nestorian Christian. She was married to Tolui, Genghis’s youngest son. She ensured that all four of her sons – Mongke Khan. Hulagu Khan. Ariq Boke and Kublai Khan inherited the legacy of Genghis Khan. She recognized the value of literacy and ensured that each of her son learned a language of the different regions that were part of the empire. She continued the Mongolian legacy of tolerance and respect for all religions. When her husband Tolui died at the age of 41, Genghis Khan’s third son Ogodei proposed marriage but she declined as she wanted to focus on her role as a mother to her four sons. It was common for widows to marry in the family.

After Ogodei Khan’s death in 1241, his wife Toregene Khatun ruled till 1246 as regent. She managed to get her eldest son elected as the ruler but was outmaneuvered by Sorghaghtani who managed to install her son, Mongke Khan as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.

Yet again in the the 15th century, when the empire was in danger of collapsing. a daughter in law kept the empire consolidated. Queen Mandukhai was from a family of aristocrats and was married at the age of 16 to Manduul Khan who ruled the Mongol empire between 1473 – 79. When Manduul Khan died. she adopted the 7 year old orphan Batumunkh, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and had him proclaimed as Dayan Khan. When Dayan Khan was 19, she married him and retained control over the Mongols. It is said that she even fought in a war when she was pregnant with twins. She survived that war and so did her twin children. There is a Mongolian movie, Queen Mandukhai the wise, on her life.

There are many such stories of women in Mongolian history. The story of Khutulun who was daughter of Kaidu, a cousin of Kublai Khan is also a well known one. She was a noblewoman, wrestler and accompanied her father on military expeditions. She had proclaimed that she would only marry the man who could defeat her in wrestling. There is also the story of Il-Alti who was the ruler of the Uighurs. It is hard to say how many more such stories existed but historical accounts are scant.

Jack Weatherford is convinced that had it not been for the wisdom of the Mongolian women, the empire would have crumbled much faster than it did. Their role certainly needs to be celebrated and recognized.


  1. Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens
  2. Cartwright, M. (2019, October 30). Women in the Mongol EmpireAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/1466/
  3. https://www.livescience.com/mongolia-warrior-women-mulan.html
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