CENTRAL ASIA v. In the Mongol and Timurid Periods



v. In the Mongol and Timurid Periods

At the death of Čengīz (Chinggis) Khan in 624/1227 the territory he had conquered was divided between his sons. To Čaḡatai (d. 642/1244-45) was allotted the region of Transoxania, from Bukhara and Samarkand in the west north to the Chu river and Lake Balkhash and as far east as the land of the Yellow Uighurs (approximately equivalent to present-day Sinkiang/Xinjiang), and Čaḡatai’s successors ruled in the eastern part of Central Asia almost without interrup­tion until 1089/1678 (see chaghatayid dynasty).

Period of the Great Khans. In the middle of the 7th/13th century Čaḡatai’s territorial holdings (ulus) included the area around Lake Issyk-Kul (Īseq-Kūl) and the region of Yetisu (“seven rivers,” approximately coterminous with the modern Alma-Ata district in southeastern Kazakhstan) and, to the east and north­east of Lake Balkhash, adjoined the land belonging to his brother Ögedei (Ögödei; Ūkadāy, Ūkatāy), who was Great Khan from 626/1229 to 639/1241. Ögedei’s ulus included the Tarbagatay mountains and extended north to the valley of the Kara Irtysh river and the Altai mountains. The two domains were not sharply delineated; they were economically interdependent and inhabited by Turks who spoke the same language. The brothers’ residences were located in close proximity: in winter on the lower Ili south of Lake Balkhash, in summer farther upriver near Kuldja (I-ning) or east of the lake in Īmīl (Emel; Chuguchak, T’a-ch’eng/Pin-yin: Ta-cheng) on the upper course of the river of the same name. Each brother received allowances from the tax revenues and had at his disposal an army of 4,000 men, and both permitted various lesser dynasties to rule as vassals; the Il-khanids (654-736/1256-1336) did the same in their own territory.

Čaḡatai was recognized throughout the Mongol empire as the guardian of the old customs and the code of law (yasa, yāsā), formulated by Čengīz Khan, and gained a reputation for active hostility toward Islam. The governor appointed by Ögödei over the urban settlements in Transoxania and the Turfan oasis, the Ḵᵛārazmian Maḥmūd Yalavač (Yalavāj, d. 652/1254 in China), thus became the defender of his fellow Muslims against the hostility of the nomadic Mongols; he was supported by the Uighur Čenqei (Jīnqāy; executed in 649/1251). Maḥmūd’s son Masʿūd took over this role from about 637/1240 until his death in 688/1289, when he was succeeded by three of his sons. During this period nothing was done to prevent Muslims, Nestor­ian Christians, and Buddhists from practicing their religions, as the Mongols, who were mostly nomadic shamanists, must have found it advantageous to watch over their economic interests. Gradually the region recovered from the particularly severe devastation that it had suffered during the Mongol conquests in 615-18/1219-21, as well as during subsequent internecine conflicts, yet it never regained its former position as a center of Islamic learning and economic prosperity. It was linked to the great khan’s newly established capital at Karakorum (Qarāqūrom), near the headwaters of the Orhon river, by means of the Mongol postal system (yam/yām).

Most of the princes of the branches of Čaḡatai and Ögedei did not take part in the election in 649/1251 of the great khan Möngke (Mūngkā; Mengü/Mangū; 649-57/1251-59), a grandson of Čengīz Khan by his youngest son, Tolui (Tūlī), and suffered death or exile for their opposition. Much of their territory was confis­cated and passed into the hands of Möngke or of his supporters from the branch of Čengīz’s eldest son, Joči (Jūjī), who reigned over the so-called Golden Horde in western Asia. The accession to the great khanate in 658/1260 of Möngke’s brother Qubilai (Qūbīlāy; d. 693/1294), who ruled from Ta-to (Daidu) near modern Peking/Beijing, unleashed prolonged disputes, first between Qubilai and his brother Arïḡ Böke (Arīq Būkā) and later between Qubilai and his successor Temür (Teymūr), on one hand, and Ögedei’s grandson Qaidu (Qāydū; d. 702/1303), on the other.

The Chaghatayids entered into an alliance with Qaidu, who was recognized as the rightful great khan in Central Asia in or soon after 667/1269, and took part in his campaigns against Qubilai and his clients in the east. These included the Uighur rulers, who were forced to abandon their territories of Beshbalyk (Bīš­bālīḡ; north of the Tien Shan mountains near present-­day Urumchi), Turfan, and Kucha (Kūčā, Kūjā), which had passed into the hands of the Chaghatayid khan Du’a (Dūʾā) by about 689/1290. Čaḡatai’s descen­dants also engaged in lengthy conflict along the northern border of their territory with the White Horde, the eastern branch of the Golden Horde, ruled by the line of Joči’s son Orda (Ūrda). In conjunction with Qaidu they crossed the Oxus and established a foothold in northern Afghanistan, where they fought against the Il-khans and from where they further launched repeated incursions into northern India. Following Qaidu’s death in 702/1303 the descendants of Čaḡatai and Tolui reached an agreement, which was then briefly extended to become the Pax Mongolica announced to western European monarchs by the II-khan in 704/1305 (Mostaert and Cleaves, cited in Camb. Hist. Iran V, p. 399).

In comparison with Persia and the Near East, the Chaghatayid khanate remained quite backward, both commercially and agriculturally. Sunnite Islam gradu­ally spread into this territory from the west, progressing as far as the Tarim basin. Christianity declined, Bud­dhism retreated toward the east, although at the same time it was enjoying some success in Persia under the Il-khans (see buddhism ii. in islamic times).

The advance of Islam in the Chaghatayid khanate. The struggle between the lines of Qubilai and Ögedei came to an end with the defeat of Qaidu’s son Čapar (Čāpār) in 708/1309; the ulus of Ögedei then passed to the descendants of Čaḡatai. At that time the Mongol empire in Central Asia consisted of two distinct regions, which continued to evolve along different lines. In the west, in the original ulus of Čaḡatai, Sunnite Islam gradually prevailed. In 726/1326 the Chaghatayid khan ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn Tarmaširin (Tarmaširīn) converted, though he was overthrown only eight years later (cf. Haidar) by opponents in the east. The Mongols’ accep­tance of Islam helped to further their integration with the Muslim Turkish peoples, who were predominant among the population. Doubtless the remnants of the Iranian languages in the area disappeared at about the same time. Under the influence of Islam the rulers were encouraged to give greater consideration to the interests of the cities; for much of this period their capital was in Transoxania, at Naḵšab (Qaršī/Karshi, southeast of Bukhara), where they created a new administrative organization, based on small individual units, and minted a new type of coinage. Nevertheless, there was continuing opposition between settled inhabi­tants and nomads (which persisted into the 14th/20th century), and religious leaders, officials, and the army also sought to further their own interests. At the same time the power of certain Turkish clans, the Barlās, Arlat, and Süldüs (Sūldūs), increased substantially, and they were even able to extend their influence over large portions of Afghanistan, to the detriment of the Kartid rulers there (see āl-e kart).

In the eastern part of the Chaghatayid khanate, around Lake Issyk-Kul, in the former ulus of Ögedei, Islam met with bitter opposition and remained a minority religion in the early decades of the 8th/14th century. The struggle to establish it continued for some time longer and led to conflict and considerable de­struction in the Chu and Talas (Ṭarāz) valleys, which became visibly depopulated. Nevertheless, in 739-40/1339 the increasing power of the Muslim faith led to the dissolution of the Roman Catholic missionary center at Almalyk (Almalïḡ, Almālīḡ). The Nestorian Christians, who had been represented in Central Asia for hundreds of years, died out completely in the 8th/14th century. Buddhism, which had also played an important role in the region, declined as well. The yasa was gradually replaced in importance by the Šarīʿa (Islamic law). In 747-48/1347 a (so-called) prince gained recognition as khan and converted to Islam, along with a large portion of the population of this region. A powerful eastern monarchy now confronted the ruling clans in the west. The contrast was so marked that the eastern area was given the name Moḡolestān, which remained in use for some time. There, too, the spread of Islam was followed by a Turkicization of the general population, so that the Turkish-language area contin­ued to extend its eastern limits. The Turfan oasis was converted to Islam, and even in western China Muslim groups appeared (e.g., the Dungans), which still survive today. Only the definitive conversion of the Mongols in Mongolia to Buddhism toward the end of the 10th/16th century brought the eastward expansion of Islam to a halt.

Tīmūr and his successors. In 1360 the new khan of Moḡolestān, the Muslim Tuḡluq Temür (Tūḡlūq Tīmūr; 760-71/1359-70), succeeded in taking Transoxania, thus reuniting the previously divided Chagha­tayid khanate under his rule, though the structural differences between the two regions persisted for some time. He made his son Elyās Ḵᵛāja governor in Trans­oxania and appointed Tīmūr, a young amir of the Barlās tribe, as the young man’s aide, without suspect­ing that this action marked the beginning of a new era in the region.

Tīmūr (b. 736/1336 near Kaš, now Shakhrisabz/Šahr-e Sabz south of Samarkand) extended his power as far as Čāč (modern Tashkent) and Balḵ, at first in alliance with Amīr Ḥosayn, one of the powerful Turk­ish princes, but he allowed the latter to be assassinated at Balḵ in 771/1370. Between 773/1372 and 790/1388 Tīmūr then conquered Ḵᵛārazm, which was divided into two realms at that time. He was thus in control of all Transoxania; throughout his life a large propor­tion of his troops came from Chaghatayid territory and from the Barlās tribe. Although Tīmūr reinstated the yasa, the influence of Islam nonetheless continued to increase, and he himself was a lifelong adherent of the Sunni branch. Tīmūr appointed to the nominal position of Chaghatayid khan princes of the line of Ögedei, whereas he himself bore only the title beg, or amīr, and after 790/1388 solṭān.

From this territorial base the great conqueror exten­ded his power far to the west in the early 9th/15th century, up to the borders of Egypt and into Asia Minor and eastern Europe. On the other hand, despite all his efforts and repeated advances into the Tarim basin (especially in 801-02/1399-1400) and as far as Lake Issyk-Kul, he was unable to conquer Moḡolestān (cf. Manz). The political and to some extent the cultural and structural differences between eastern and western Central Asia thus persisted. In the west Tīmūr crowned his empire with a splendid capital, the reconstructed city of Samarkand, which continued to play an impor­tant role in history until quite recent times.

Tīmūr’s successors, who were, unlike him, essentially peace-loving, devoted themselves to the support of culture, the arts, and religion and to the preservation of his territorial legacy. His fourth son, Šāhroḵ (807-­50/1407-47), succeeded him as ruler of Transoxania, though he lived in Herat, and earned a great reputation as a friend of scholars and poets and as a patron of architecture. He installed his son Oloḡ (Ulūg) Beg as governor at Samarkand, where, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, he enlarged his palace and took steps to prevent the deterioration of many of his ancestor’s monuments. His personal interest was astron­omy, to which he made significant contributions (cf. Barthold, 1935). Like his father, Oloḡ Beg was entirely integrated into Persian Islamic cultural circles, and during his reign Persian predominated as the language of high culture, a status that it retained in the region of Samarkand until the Russian revolution of 1917. Many works of poetry, history, and other learned subjects were composed there in Persian (as later in the empire of the Great Mughals in India). By contrast, Persian was disappearing in Anatolia at the same period, increasingly supplanted by Ottoman Turkish.

Despite occasional forays (particularly an expedition to Lake Issyk-Kul in 828/1425), the Timurids generally tried to effect a reconciliation with Moḡolestān and to strengthen trade relations with it, as well as with China. In 822-25/1419-22 Šāhroḵ dispatched an embassy to the capital of the newly installed Ming dynasty (1368­-1644) to dispel fears of an imminent Mongol attack and to prevent the rulers of Moḡolestān from enlist­ing Chinese assistance against the Timurids. Šāhroḵ experienced considerable difficulties with the Sufis in Transoxania, who had succeeded in gaining consider­able economic influence, particularly the order of the Naqšbandīya and their spiritual leader Ḵᵛāja Aḥrār. This situation changed radically after his death in 850/1447 and the murder of his son Oloḡ Beg in 853/1449. After 855/1451 a great-grandson of Tīmūr, Abū Saʿīd, ruled in Samarkand, though only with the help of the Uzbeks. This Turkish tribe had settled in the winter of 808/1405-06 on the northern bank of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) and had conquered Ḵᵛārazm in 834/1430-31; by about 859/1445 it had taken the whole northern bank of the Syr Darya, freed itself from the domination of the White Horde (see above) in the north, and ravaged parts of Transoxania. It was impossible for Abū Saʿīd to punish these incursions; in fact, the Uzbeks had obtained a substantial voice in his affairs. Under the leadership of Ḵᵛāja Aḥrār the influence of the Sufi orders, which had been strong enemies of the khan’s predecessors, increased considerably, and tol­erance in religious matters came to an end (cf. Gross; Chekhovich; Paul).

In contrast to western Turkestan, Moḡolestān con­tinued to maintain itself as an independent power in the region of the Ili and its tributaries, Lake Issyk-Kul, the Tarim basin, and the Turfan oasis as far west as the Ala Tau mountains and the upper Yenisei (Naryn) rivers. An internal reorganization of the country occur­red in connection with the establishment of Islam and the Turkish language under the khan Esen Buqa (Īsen Būqā) II (833-67/1429-62),though these changes led to a long struggle with the “pagan” Oïrats (Ūyrāts, Qal­maqs) on the Ili and, after 855-57/1451-53, to incursions into Transoxania, which caused serious devastation there. Beginning in 860-61/1456-57, the khan had the support of the Uzbek ruler of Ḵᵛārazm, Abu’l-Ḵayr Khan, who eventually, in 873/1468, fell in battle against the rebels, or Kazakhs, as they have been known since that time. In the meantime Abū Saʿīd had managed to establish Esen Buqa’s brother Yūnos as a counterclaimant to the throne of Moḡolestān. Between Yūnos and the Oïrats, who had advanced into the region of the Amu Darya (Oxus), Esen Buqa’s power was increasingly curtailed. The Turkish amirs and clans joined forces with Yūnos, who, after his brother’s death and ten years of warfare, became ruler of Moḡolestān in 876-77/1472. During these battles the power of the tribes in Moḡolestān had increased significantly; the khan was forced to allow the Doḡlāt clan to form a kind of vassal state in the southwestern Tarim basin, which was, however, weakened by internal conflict.

The death of Yūnos in 891/1486 or 892/1487 in Tashkent, where he had resided during his last years, was followed by a civil war between his two sons, who were also forced to fend off attacks from the Timurids and the Chinese in turn. They also fought an indecisive war with the Doḡlāt clan (until about 904/1499). During these conflicts political order in Moḡolestān deterio­rated, and the situation in Transoxania became increas­ingly unstable as well. The fading of Central Asia from the main arena of world history was at hand.

Western Central Asia still enjoyed a period of flourishing cultural life under the Timurids, despite many external difficulties. But after Abū Saʿīd was killed fighting the Qara Qoyunlū in 873/1469, his two sons engaged in fratricidal conflict; after frequent clashes with Yūnos as well, they were conquered by the Uzbeks, under the leadership of Moḥammad Šaybānī (Šïbanī) Khan, at the beginning of the 10th/16th century. He took Transoxania in 906/1500 and western Moḡolestān in 914/1508. Only the area east of the Ili and south of the Tien Shan mountains remained in the possession of the house of Čaḡatai.

During this period of struggle the last important Timurid ruler, Ḥosayn Bāyqarā (875-912/1470­-1506), controlled large portions of eastern Persia and Central Asia from his capital at Herat. He encouraged the development of Persian literature and literary talent in every way possible; among the outstanding literary figures who benefited from his patronage were the poet ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmī (817-98/1414-92) and the his­torian Mīrḵᵛānd (836-903/1433-98). At the same time Sultan Ḥosayn also allowed his famous vizier, the noted poet ʿAlī-Šīr Navāʾī, to further the cause of his mother tongue, the Turkish spoken by the Chaghatay people (See chaghatay language and literature) and to champion its importance as a language of high culture. In fact, Navāʾī’s own works and the memoirs of the first Mughal emperor, Bābor (932-37/1526-30), guaranteed the establishment of this branch of Turkish, now known as Chaghatay, as a literary language (cf. Barthold, 1938; ʿAlī-Šīr Navāʾī; Bertel’s). This develop­ment was certainly related, at least in part, to the fact that in the early 10th/16th century Persia was converted by the Safavid dynasty to the Shiʿite branch of Islamic teaching, whereas Central Asia remained strictly Sun­nite. Chaghatay became to some extent the language of this religious community, and Persian literary works from the Safavid realm had an aura of heresy. The influence of Persian was thus substantially undermined in Transoxania, though inhabitants of the region con­tinued to look to the Persian of the earlier period, culminating in the poetry of Jāmī, and to accept it as the standard against the later “innovations.”

The end of the khanate. After vain attempts by Bābor, a grandson of the Timurid Abū Saʿīd who later founded the Mughal dynasty in India, to seize power in Trans­oxania in 917-18/1510-12, the Shaibanid (Shibanid) princes were in undisputed control of both this province and Ḵᵛārazm. ʿAbd-Allāh Khan b. Eskandar (991-1006/1583-98) in particular proved a very energetic ruler, first as regent for his father, then as his successor; it was he who took Balḵ, Samarkand, and the Farḡāna valley. After his death in 1006/1598, however, the power of the dynasty in Transoxania swiftly collapsed, and the territory was divided into several smaller individual states.

In the 10th/16th century only Moḡolestān remained in the hands of Čaḡatai’s descendents: The Tarim basin was allotted to Saʿīd Khan in 908-09/1503, when the patrimony was divided; the Yetisu, the Yulduz, and the Turfan oasis, to which Komul (modern Hami) was annexed in 919/1513, were ruled by his brother Manṣūr. As the two brothers worked together in har­mony, the country enjoyed several decades of peace. During this period the culture of Transoxania, strongly influenced by that of Persia, spread through the region, whereas Chinese influence was imperceptible.

Saʿīd embarked on an invasion of Ladakh; his suc­cessor (ʿAbd-al-)Rašīd had to deal with a branch of the Doḡlāt clan in Kashmir and lost the Ili valley to the Kazakhs, retaining control only of Kāšḡar. He and his descendants gradually lost ground to clans claiming descent from the Prophet (sayyeds) and the first four caliphs (ḵᵛājas), the latter divided into two groups, the Aqtaḡlïk (White Mountain) ḵᵛājas and the Qarataḡlïk (Black Mountain) ḵᵛājas. With various members of the Chaghatayid house as figureheads, these groups were able to take control of different regions of the country, creating a number of small city-states, especially in the Tarim basin. In general the Aqtaḡlïk were allied with the Kazakhs and the Qarataḡlïk with the (Qara-)Kirghiz tribe. The history of the country during the several decades dominated by conflicts between these groups is obscure. Only in the 11th/17th century is it reported that the Aqtaḡlïk called the Dzungars to their aid and forced the last Chaghatayid khan, Esmāʿīl, to relinquish his throne, in 1089/1678. The head of the Aqtaḡlïk then declared himself khan, initiating the “holy state” of the ḵᵛājas (cf. Hartmann; Schwarz; McChesney).

The line of Čengīz Khan and his son Čaḡatai thus came to an inglorious end in eastern Central Asia. During the centuries of its rule, sometimes only nominal, the whole of Central Asia was converted to Sunnite Islam, which made possible its cultural develop­ment and the unification of its population within the framework of the Chaghatay language.


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(Bertold Spuler)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: January 1, 2000

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 2, pp. 172-176

Cite this entry:

Bertold Spuler, “CENTRAL ASIA v. In the Mongol and Timurid Periods,” Encyclopædia Iranica, V/2, pp. 172-176, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/central-asia-v (accessed on 30 December 2012).