Some Royal Mongol Ladies: Alaqa-beki, Ergene-Qatun and Others
By Paul D. Buell
World History Connected, Vol. 7.1 (2010)
Introduction: One of the most difficult tasks facing the historian of the Mongol Empire is ferreting out the history behind the history. This is because our largely non-Mongolian sources are little interested in it or intentionally suppress facts to suit non-Mongolian agendas or the prejudices of their majority non-Mongolian readers. This includes the histories of most of the women actors of the time. They are usually mentioned only in passing in our predominately Chinese and Persian sources. Imperial regents such as Döregene-qatun, who effectively ruled the Mongol empire after the death of her husband Ögödei (r. 1229-1241) until 1246, when she secured the election of her son, Güyük (r. 1246-48), as they are seen in them are shown as somewhat depraved, tyrannical and incompetent. In the Chinese view, in particular, Döregene was a mere weak woman perhaps driven by her sexual desires. But if Juvaynī (1226-1283) and most Chinese commentators saw her in these terms, and as somewhat illegitimate, most of her Mongol contemporaries took another view and no doubt found her regency perfectly normal, although their image of it was later colored by the politics of the 1250s. Then a new branch of the ruling house came to power, after still another female regency, led by Oqol-qaimish (killed circa 1251), the wife of Güyük.
Imperial women, in fact, if we may base our judgment upon the only Mongolian source to survive, the Secret History, enjoyed a great more respect than the non-Mongolian sources would have us believe. Chinggis Khan’s mother, Hö’elün, for example, clearly held her family together after the poisoning of Chinggis Khan’s father at the hands of enemies, and was a dominant force in his life. Likewise, Chinggis Khan’s main wife, Börte, is made to give him wise and important advice (about breaking with Jamuqa, his blood brother) on a critical occasion and perhaps, we must assume, on others. Later, under Qubilai, his main wife, Chabui (died 1281), was not only was his important advisor and confidant, but, judging from what is written about her in Tibetan sources (e.g., in Dpa’-bo gtsung-lag aphring-ba’s’ history), was probably instrumental in the conversion of his husband to Lamaism, or at least predisposing him to a strong and favorable relationship with the Tibetan lama Aphags-pa (1235-80) as the official head of religion for the court. This is evidenced by an active correspondence between her, Aphags-pa and other important Tibetans reproduced in Tibetan sources but still unstudied.
But not all the important women in the Mongolian period were imperial. Many were simply wives of princes and other powerful men, not always Mongolian. The Chinese elite of north China serving the Mongols, for example, were at least half Mongolian after their first generation since their mothers, more often than not, were Mongolian princesses, if we may judge from Chinese genealogical sources. A careful marriage policy being, to be sure, was one of the many ways that the Mongols drew locals over to their side, by making them part of the family, as it were. Unfortunately, we know little more than the names of most of the women involved with a few exceptions. One of these exceptions was Alaqa-beki (late 12th to mid-14th century) who played a pivotal role in early Mongol China.