Our knowledge of Islamic history is mostly focused on the Arab world. Islamic studies courses at western universities mostly have an Arab and Sunni approach, even though there is much diversity in Islam, and Arabs only comprise about 20 percent of today’s Muslims. Even in Islamic history courses, there is rarely focus on non-Arab actors, and if there is, it’s never in detail. To somewhat rectify this bias, here is a short biography of Berke Khan, the first Mongol ruler who embraced Islam, and a summary of his deeply personal conflict with nephew Hulagu.
Berke Khan (13th century, exact date of birth unknown) was the grandson of Djenghis Khan, by his eldest son Jochi. Djenghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol empire and a notorious warlord. There is some disagreement concerning Jochi’s parentage. Börte, the wife of Djenghis Khan was abducted by a rival tribe soon after her marriage. She remained with the rival tribe for several months until Djenghis rescued her. Nine months later she gave birth to Jochi, leaving doubt as to whether Jochi was the son of Djenghis or of her captor, who took her as a ‘wife’.
Nonetheless, Djenghis claimed Jochi as his son. Jochi was an accomplished military leader and contributed greatly to his father’s conquest of Central Asia. Jochi had at least fourteen sons and two daughters by his four wives. Djenghis Khan divided his empire in khanates, each khanate to be ruled by a son after his death. Jochi died six months before Djenghis however. The western khanate that was to be ruled by Jochi was thus given to Jochi’s eldest son Batu. Berke Khan succeeded to the khanate, which later became known as the ‘Golden Horde’, after the death of his brother Batu. Berke ruled the Golden Horde virtually independently. He was the first Mongol ruler to have embraced Islam. He died in 1266.
Conversion to Islam
While in the city of Saray-Jük, in the far west of modern day Kazakhstan, Berke Khan met a caravan coming from the city of Bukhara. He questioned the travelers about their faith and was subsequently convinced to convert to Islam by a man named Sufi Sheikh. Berke’s brother Tukh-Timur converted to Islam as well. Berke Khan was the first of the Mongols to accept Islam.
War with Hulagu
Berke Khan’s nephew, Hulagu, ruled northern Persia and was given instructions by his brother Mongke to incorporate the area from Persia to Egypt into the Mongol Empire. In 1256, Hulagu set off with an army of at least 100.000 men, heading first for the mountain fortresses of the Ismailis, a Shia sect. Within a year the Ismailis surrendered, and their leader, Rukn ad-Din Kurshah, was captured and murdered. Hulagu then turned his attention to Iraq, and sent a letter to the caliph, al-Mustasim, demanding his submission to Mongol rule. The caliph, of course, refused.
Hulagu headed towards Iraq, determined to subjugate the caliph. Some Shias within Iraq were alienated from the caliph, who showed little respect for their community. As a result, cities with a substantial Shia presence like Najaf, Karbala, and Mosul, surrendered to the Mongols without a fight. In January 1258 Hulagu’s entire army had arrived in Baghdad. The Mongols captured the city within two weeks. A month later al-Mustasim was executed. Baghdad, a glorious city, a city home to intellectuals and artists, a city which had stood for over six centuries, was sacked and burned to the ground. Many of Baghdad’s citizens were massacred.
When this news reached the neighbouring Muslim states, they surrendered without any resistance to the Mongols out of fear. Syria was soon incorporated into Hulagu’s area of conquest. When Berke Khan heard of the sack of Baghdad, the slaughtering of its Muslim citizens, and the subsequent subjugation of other Muslim cities, he was enraged, and vowed to take revenge:
“He (Hulagu) has sacked all the cities of the Muslims. With the help of God I will call him to account for so much innocent blood.”
Hulagu feared an invasion by Berke, and thus withdrew back into Persia, leaving behind a small garrison in Syria. By 1260 the Mongols conquered most of Syria and set off further to the South, to subjugate Palestine, in which they succeeded. Their seemingly invincible army was brought to a halt however, by the Mamluk Turks, who were at the time the rulers of Egypt, Cairo being their capital city. The Mamluk sultan Qutuz sent one of his generals, Baybars, to Palestine. The Mamluks defeated the Mongols and thus brought a halt to the expansion of the Mongol area of conquest. The Mongol general was captured and executed. The Mamluks soon recaptured Palestine and Syria.
Hulagu wanted revenge for the defeat of his troops in Palestine, and was preparing for war, but was unable to deal with the Mamluks because Berke Khan launched a series of attacks on Hulagu’s empire in the Caucasus region, forcing Hulagu to confront him. Berke was still furious because of the sacking of Baghdad. The attacks resulted in an open war between Berke and Hulagu, a conflict further intensified because both supported another claimant to rule the eastern khanate, present-day China and Mongolia. Hulagu supported his brother Kublai, while Berke was loyal to Hulagu’s other brother Ariqboke. Both claimants joined their supporters in war, but eventually, Ariqboke surrendered to Kublai. Hulagu and Berke Khan both suffered serious defeats in the war.
Though Ariqboke didn’t become khan of the eastern khanate, Berke did succeed in ruining Hulagu’s dream of a Middle Eastern empire that included Egypt. The war was still ongoing when Hulagu died in 1265. A few months later, Berke died as well, in 1266. Hulagu was able to consolidate his power in Persia before his death, his dynasty the Ilkhanids ruled Persia until 1335. His successors converted to Islam. Mengu-Timur, another nephew of Berke, succeeded him as khan of the Golden Horde. Berke’s intervention against Hulagu, which forced the latter to shift his attention from the Mamluks in the West to the conflict with Berke in the East, brought a halt to the further expansion of Hulagu’s empire, and prevented the further loss of Muslim land, thus saving other Muslim cities from a same fate as Baghdad.