Christians Who Changed Their World
Early Persian Christianity
Most early church history only concerns itself with the churches in the Roman Empire, yet arguably the most dynamic segment of Christianity had its origins in the Persian Empire, outside the boundaries of Rome.
These churches, collectively referred to as Nestorian Christianity, were considered heretical by the churches inside the Empire because they distinguished more sharply between Christ’s human and divine natures than the Roman churches did. They acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and his true humanity, but they were uncomfortable referring to Mary as the “mother of God” as the liturgy had it. They argued she should be referred to as the “mother of Christ” since she was the mother of Jesus’ human nature, not his divine nature.
Nestorian Christianity spread from its center in Persia across Asia. It had a presence in China as early as the 600s AD, and in central Asia several tribes converted to Nestorianism. Among these were the Keraits, a powerful Mongol tribe. In the late 1100s, the leader of the Keraits was Toghrul, also known as the Ong Khan.
Mother of the Great Khans
Toghrul was an early patron and ally of Temujin, who would later be known as Genghis Khan. As Temujin grew in power, Toghrul became worried and plotted to assassinate him. Temujin got word of this, however, and went to war against Toghrul. Toghrul was killed in battle (1203). During this war, Jakha Gambhu, Toghrul’s brother, supported Temujin, and after the battle Temujin had his son Tolui marry Sorghaghtani, Jakha’s younger daughter.
Because of her place in the Temujin’s family, Sorghaghtani became one of the most influential women in history and became known as the Mother of Great Khans.
Sorghaghtani bore Tolui four sons. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, he skipped over his first two sons and passed the title of Great Khan to his third son, Ögedai. Tolui was given authority over eastern Mongolia, northern China, and parts of Iran.
When Tolui died in 1232, Ögedai allowed her to administer her husband’s lands. Because Mongol men were often away for extended periods of time, Mongol women had a great deal of authority in the household, though giving Sorghaghtani authority over her husband’s estate was far from guaranteed. Ögedai, though, recognized Sorghaghtani’s ability and even consulted with her on matters of state. He even proposed marriage to her; when she refused, Ögedai suggested she marry his son Güyük. She turned him down as well, claiming that she needed to devote her attention to her sons.
Things didn’t always go smoothly between Sorghaghtani and her brother-in-law. She had to shame him into giving her land in Hebei province, China, which her husband had conquered and which thus should have been hers by right. Ögedai also took some of her husband’s land from her along with most of her soldiers.
Ögedai died in 1241. His wife acted as regent until she engineered the election of her son Güyük as Great Khan by a kurultai (i.e. assembly of chiefs and khans) in 1246. Güyük immediately began working to undermine the authority of his mother, of Sorghaghtani, and other women leaders in the empire.
Sorghaghtani was not about to let him get away with this. She set up an alliance with the Golden Horde, the Mongol khanate which ruled the territory north of the Caspian Sea to the Balkans. In 1248, while Güyük was leading an army east, he died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances, possibly the victim of an assassination.
With Güyük’s death, Sorghaghtani with the help of the Golden Horde organized a kuraltai which named Möngke Great Khan. The kuraltai was held in Siberia, however, not the Mongol homeland, and so its validity was challenged. Sorghaghtani then called for a new kuraltai in Mongolia. The Ögedai family put forward their own candidate for Great Khan, but Sorghaghtani countered that the Great Khan should be a descendent of Genghis, and the Ögedai candidate was not. As a result, Möngke was formally named Great Khan.
Ögedai’s family naturally opposed this election and tried to overthrow Möngke. He responded by arresting Güyük’s widow and many other members of the family and executing them. Mongol custom prohibited shedding the blood of members of a khan’s family, so they were drowned or rolled in rugs and trampled by horses.
Sorghaghtani died in 1252, shortly after Möngke’s elevation as Great Khan. She was buried in a Christian church with a Nestorian funeral. Even after her death, however, her legacy was far from over.
An enduring legacy
During her lifetime, Sorghaghtani was given lands to rule in her own right. She treated her non-Mongol peasant subjects well, with the result that they supported her rule and her lands prospered. This set an example that her sons would follow.
She also understood the importance of education. Although she was illiterate herself, Sorghaghtani recognized the need for literacy for administering the vast and diverse Mongol Empire, so she had her sons learn the languages of the territories they ruled. Since Kublai was going to inherit the family’s Chinese possessions, she made sure that he understood Confucian thought as well. More broadly, Sorghaghtani was responsible for opening up trade and intellectual exchange across the vast Mongol Empire.
Though firm in her faith, Sorghaghtani followed Genghis Khan in promoting religious toleration. She not only supported Christian churches, but gave alms to Muslims, Buddhists, and Confucians following the example of the early church in helping all in need, regardless of faith.
In addition to Möngke, two of Sorghaghtani’s other sons became khans. Her second son, Kublai, inherited the family lands in China and was elected Great Khan on Möngke’s death in 1259. He united China under his rule and formally declared the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. Her third son, Hulagu, inherited the family lands in Iran, which became known as the Ilkhanate (i.e. the sub-khanate) of Persia. As Ilkhan, Hulagu expanded his territory, eventually controlling Persia, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. He very nearly broke the Islam’s control over the Middle East and might have saved the Crusader States there, but prior to the final battle Möngke died and Hulagu returned with most of his army to Mongolia to participate in the election of the new Great Khan. A greatly reduced force under his Nestorian Christian general Kitbuqa was destroyed by the Muslims at the battle of Ain Jalut, leaving the Middle East firmly in the hands of Islam.
None of Sorghaghtani’s sons followed her faith, though all of them treated Christianity with great respect and, at times, even favor. Hulagu was married to a devout Christian, and as noted, his main general was also a Christian. Kublai Khan also supported the small Nestorian community in China out of respect for his mother. At one point, some Christians sided with a revolt against Kublai Khan; when the revolt was put down, Kublai Khan rebuked members of his entourage who mocked Christianity. He said that the rebels were acting unrighteously, and the Christian God therefore could not and would not support them, and so it was wrong to blame Christianity for the failure of the revolt.
Although Sorghaghtani’s story includes its share of bloodshed and intrigue in keeping with its era and culture, it also includes a degree of wisdom and compassion for the non-Mongol poor that is very rare, and that was founded on Christian values. (These qualities were also shared by Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife: Hulagu spared the Christians in Baghdad when he sacked the city at her request; when Möngke heard about this, he was impressed and told Hulagu that he should consult her in all his affairs.)
Sorghaghtani was rightly held in high regard by people from all cultures who encountered her. Testimonies to her came from Chinese, Muslim, Persian, and both Nestorian and Roman Catholic Christian writers. For example, Bar Hebraeus, a Syrian Nestorian scholar and church leader, said of her, “If I were to see among the race of women another woman like this, I should say that the race of women was far superior to that of men.” Her natural talents, shaped by her faith, made her one of the most important figures in world history.
Here is yet another example of a Christian “making the most of the opportunities” for serving God in her particular situation and setting. Meditate on Ephesians 5:15-17. Then talk with some Christian friends about how you might improve in this challenge in your own place and calling.
Be sure to order copies of Glenn’s book, Portals, for your friends for Christmas. Here’s a clear guide for understanding how to communicate the Gospel to lost friends. And order a copy of He Has Come to study with some friends and gain a renewed understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.