The Dualistic Reign of Ghazan Khan Of The Ilkhanate

The Mongolian-descended Mahmud Ghazan was born around 1271 and was raised by his grandfather (Abagha Khan, r. 1265-1282) and his father (Arghun Khan, r. 1284-1291) to be a follower of the Buddhist faith. When Abagha Khan died, his son, Teguder, became the new khan of the Ilkhanate. Yet, Teguder’s brother, Arghun successfully raised a large faction against the khan, with one of the main complaints being that Teguder had forsaken Buddhism for Islam. Arghun managed to overthrow Teguder and continued Buddhist dominance over the Mongolian-ruled Ilkhanate.


(Abaqa on horse, Arghun standing, Ghazan as a child in his arms, in Rachid al-Din, Djami al-Tawarikh, 14th century. Reproduction in “Ghengis Khan et l’Empire Mongol”, Jean-Paul Roux [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


In 1284, Arghun Khan named his teenage son, Mahmud Ghazan, as the new viceroy or governor in charge of the Ilkhanate’s lands around the region of Persia. Ghazan remained in this post for about ten years, during the reigns of both his father, Arghun Khan, and his uncle, Gaykatu Khan (r. 1291-1295). During his post in Persia, Ghazan battled against a rival faction of Mongolians, known as the Chagatai Mongols, and also defeated a rebellion led by an officer named Nawruz. Even though the revolt was finally crushed in 1294, Nawruz’s life was spared. Interestingly, the rebel leader would play a significant role in Ghazan’s later rise to power.

Ghazan’s status quo as a viceroy or governor was upended in 1295, when his uncle, Gaykatu Khan, was overthrown and killed by another member of his family, known as Baydu. Ghazan quickly sided against the new upstart Baydu Khan, and withdrew to the mountains near Tehran to consolidate his forces. During this mountain retreat, the same Nawruz from the earlier rebellion reportedly convinced Ghazan to abandon Buddhism and convert to Islam. Following the example of their leader, Ghazan’s troops were said to have also converted. Therefore, when Ghazan made his next move against Baydu, he was at the head of a Muslim army. In the end, Baydu Khan was captured and ultimately executed.


(Negotiations between representatives of Ghazan and Baydu. Jami’ al-tawarikh, from Rashid al-Din, image produced c. 14th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons) 


As a ruler, Ghazan Khan, also known as Ghazan the Great by the more Islam-inclined, had the aura of an enlightened monarch. He was a very intelligent man, who reportedly knew multiple languages from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He also gave his patronage to artists, scientists and educators. One of Ghazan’s more notable contributions was his support of the historian, Rashid al-Din, who composed a history of the Mongolian people. Furthermore, Ghazan Khan and his advisors ushered in economic and administrative reforms that arguably saved the Ilkhanate from bankruptcy.

Despite Ghazan Khan’s many laudable characteristics, the leader also had a prominent cold and brutal side. After living through several coups and usurpations, Ghazan was understandably a paranoid man. When he came to power, he quickly began purging his rivals and potential threats. Among the many men he executed for treason or suspicion of conspiracy was the former rebel Nawruz, and at least five royal Mongolian princes also lost their lives.

Although Ghazan considered religion to be important—he is credited with converting the Mongolian Ilkhanate to Islam—after his conversion, the khan also persecuted religious minorities. Despite having been born a Buddhist, he gave several Buddhist scholars the ultimatum to chose between Islam or exile. In the worst period of persecution, he destroyed Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. Nevertheless, Ghazan’s persecutions eventually became milder with time.


(Mongolian horse archers engaging Mamluk cavalry in the Battle Of Homs1299, produced c. 14th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Curiously, many scholars question if Ghazan Khan was ever truly a devout Muslim. In fact, a common theory is that the khan was simply a pragmatic who converted to gain a religious advantage over his rivals. Ghazan Khan certainly felt no restraint in attacking other Muslim countries. In particular, Ghazan captured the city of Damascus around 1300, during a war against the Mamluk Sultanate. The Mamluks quickly captured the city back as soon as Ghazan Khan returned to Persia. In response, Ghazan (who still claimed to be a Muslim) sent a message to Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, proposing to coordinate his Mongolian troops with Christian forces in an attack against the Mamluks. Ghazan was not the only ruler of the Ilkhanate to make such a suggestion—his father, Arghun Khan, had also sent a similar proposal to Pope Honorius IV in 1285. Ghazan’s outreach to the West, however, just like that of his father, did not come to fruition. He invaded Syria without the support of Christian troops in 1303, but was defeated in battle by the Mamluks. In 1304, while the khan was still in his early thirties, Ghazan became ill and died, probably while planning yet another invasion of the Mamluk Sultanate.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Depiction of Ghazan and Öljaitü. Jami’ al-tawarikh, Rashid al-Din, image produced c. 15th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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