The Golden Coins of Chinggis Khan and the Early Mongol Empire

By Jack Wilson

A not uncommon stereotype online of the founder of the Mongol Empire, Chinggis Khan, is that refused to allow his image or name to be born on anything, and did not mint coins— usually a part of a presentation aiming to portray his extreme humility in comparison to other monarchs, who otherwise commissioned statues, paintings and other “graven images” of themselves. This, however, has little basis in fact. Rather, we have a number of coins from Chinggis Khan’s life, written perhaps unexpectedly, in Arabic script! In this piece we will look at these coins, and what they tell us about the early Mongol Empire.

This golden dinar shown below [fig. 1] dates to 1221, and bears several inscriptions, indicating its mint in Ghazni, in today’s Afghanistan.


Duriba hadha al-dinar bi-balada Ghazna fi shahur sana thaman ‘ashar was sittamia
al-Khaqan al-a’dil al-a’zam Chingiz Khan

This coin is struck in Ghazni in six hundred eighteen (1221 CE)
The Khan of Khans, the Great Lord Chinggis Khan

Fig. 1: Image from Badarch Nyamaa, The Coins of Mongol Empire and Clan Tamgha of Khans (XIII-XIV), Ulaanbaatar: Admon, 2005, page 117

Now initially it might be wondered what a coin of Chinggis Khan was doing in Afghanistan in 1221, but that is rather straightforward. At the end of 1219 Chinggis had begun the invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire in Central Asia. Over the next two years he steadily ground it down, and in late 1221 chased the final Khwarezmian ruler, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu to the borders of India, defeating him along the Indus River in November 1221.

Thus Chingggis Khan was in Afghanistan in 1221, reducing cities and forts that held out against him. But why would a steppe nomadic leader have interest in coinage? In truth, steppe nomads understood the value of currency just as well as anyone else, and stereotypes have played up their inability to comprehend it. In fact, they often showed themselves more cooperative to the merchant class and money than other contemporary monarchs. This is because steppe peoples understood quite well that there were many fine or useful goods they desired that they could not produce or access in the steppes (particularly fine textiles, silks, ingredients) or could produce on their own, but only in limited quantities (such as metal goods). Merchants therefore not only gave steppe peoples access to these, but also brought with them another valuable commodity: information.

Fig. 2: Battle of the Indus River, late November 1221. A Mongol army under Chinggis Khan defeats the Khwarezmian Ruler Jalal al-Din; at the climax of the battle Jalal al-Din ran his horse off a cliff into the river to escape the Mongols. Miraculously, he survived and continued to evade them for the next decade. Art by Jack Wilson.

Chinggis Khan and his successors greatly valued merchants for these roles. Individuals who have mercantile experience rose to great prominence in the early Mongol state. Men like Mahmud Yalavach (d.1254) and Jafar Khoja (d.1227) were merchants who became close allies to Chinggis Khan and were raised to great positions. Mahmud Yalavach was a Khwarezmian-born merchant, who had been Chinggis Khan’s envoy to the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad II (r.1220-1220) in 1218 (for which he earned the title of Yalavač, “ambassador, messenger”). In time he became the chief governor of Mongol territories in Central Asia and, briefly, North China. His son Mas’ud Beğ (d.1289) succeeded him in the Central Asian position.

Jafar Khoja meanwhile was (according to his official Mongol-era biography in the Yuan Shi) a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who brought aid to Chinggis Khan at one of his lowest moments, then became a valued spy and messenger during the first years (1211-1215) of war against the Jin Dynasty in North China—the suggestion being his knowledge of the frontier from his merchant days crossing the border gave him special knowledge of it. After the fall of the Jin capital of Zhongdu in 1215 (what is now the site of Beijing), Jafar Khoja became one of the men responsible for it and the occupied northern Chinese territories. He was one of the first recorded individuals to bear the title of darughachi for the Mongols. At this point in time, the duty of the darughachi was a combined military and civilian one, putting down local rebellions, banditry and keeping Mongol rule as efforts at reconstruction and day-to-day life resumed.


Of course, the darughachi also enriched themselves along the way. The most prominent of these merchant-governors was an individual named Chinqai (d.1252) whose precise origin is uncertain (Uyghur or Önggut) but was likely of mercantile background. He rose to become the effective prime minister of the Mongol Empire under the reigns of Ögedei (r.1229-1241) and his son Güyük (r.1246-1248) before falling out of favour and ultimately being killed in the reign of Möngke (r.1251-1259). Many other merchants (usually of Central Asian background) served in other administrative roles for the Mongols, especially as tax-collectors. In North China and Rus’ lands, these Central Asian merchants became rather infamous tax-farmers upon the local population.

To bring these men to their banner, and encourage them to make the difficult trek over the steppes to Mongol camps and cities, the Khans instituted a policy of greatly overpaying for merchant wares, generally in the form of ingots of gold or silver called balish. The Mongols also had a relationship with the merchants called ortogh. Essentially, the Mongols would provide loans (generally silver and other valued currency taken from campaign in China) to merchants at low-interest rates to fund their journeys across Asia. They reduced the risk for the merchants who could thus earn a very handsome profit, safely (comparatively speaking) transporting, for example, silk from China to the western reaches of Asia, and then returning with more wares for the Mongols.

As the Mongol Empire began to mature, coinage was increasingly valued for these transactions and for tax purposes, as the Mongols were slowly persuaded to the utility of regular taxation (as opposed to one thorough plundering, a concept that the Mongols took to slowly, to the frustration of their advisers like Yelü Chucai who sought to convince them of it). By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols seemed to prefer to collect taxes in coin rather than in kind, and arguments have been made for the Mongols’ expanding the general adoption of coinage across Asia and Rus’. Coinage also served as an important marker of political legitimacy, for it also bore the symbols of the ruling monarch who had the right (sikkah) to mint it. Thus the Mongols took to not just placing their names on coins, but also their tamgha, a sort of crest or stamp that each Khan bore.

Fig. 3. Tamgha of Mongol khans present on their coinage. Badarch Nyamma (2005): pg. 83. Each successive khan modified the tamgha of their predecessor. Often these tamgha are the primary means of identifying under whom these coins were minted. While it was common to include the place, date and name of the monarch they were minted under, this information is not always present or in some cases, is unreadable due to wear on the coin.

To facilitate distribution, the Mongols’ coinage sought to emulate existing local designs and customs, with inscriptions in one of the regional languages and scripts for the area the coin was intended to circulate in (or least, reflective of the centres it was being minted in). Some level of continuity is always important for ensuring easy adoption of new coinage. Even though the inscriptions generally featured messages in local scripts (extant coins are in Chinese characters, Arabic/Persian script and even the Greek alphabet) usually they also included one of the imperial scripts and languages, especially for the khan’s name. This was usually either the Uyghur Mongolian script, first adopted by the Mongols at the very start of the thirteenth century. After the 1270s they could include the ‘Phags-pa script, a new alphabet developed on the order of Khubilai Khan (r.1260-1294) and intended as a universal script for the empire but never caught on beyond official inscriptions on monuments, currency and government documents. While Khubilai and his successors’ rule over the other parts of the empire was nominal (in practice restricted to the lands of the Yuan Dynasty in China) khans of the western khanates would at times include ‘Phags-pa on their coinage when they recognized the Yuan’s supremacy.

One unique feature of this early coin of Chinggis Khan though, is the inscription it features on the reverse side: the Islamic tawhid and the name of the ‘Abbasid Caliph reigning at that time, al-Nāṣir li-Dīn Allāh (r.1180-1225).

La illaha illa Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah al Nasir Li-Din Allah Amir al-Mu’minin

There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet; al-Nasir Li-Din the Commander of the Faithful

Now it should not be assumed that Chinggis Khan had declared the shahada, converted to Islam and recognized the worldly supremacy of the Caliph in Baghdad. Though the inscription brings to mind the rumours that the Mongols had attacked Khwarezm on the Caliph’s invitation (perhaps something encouraged by these coins, either unintentionally or on purpose?) there is perhaps a much simpler answer. As 1221 was the very beginning of the establishment of the Mongol administration in the newly conquered Khwarezmians lands and these coins were produced quickly, the same mints were simply reused from the existing Khwarezmian coinage for the new Mongol coins. Fig. 3 is another Chinggis Khan coin from the same years, albeit minted in Bukhara.

Fig 3. Nyamaa (2005): pg. 118

Coins over the rest of the 1220s underwent several changes in the titulature of the Khan, some dropping Chinggis’ name entirely and just referring to al-khaqan, “the khan of khans,” or al-urdu al-a’zam al-’adil, “the Great Ordu.” Yet the name of the Caliph and the tawhid or just a simple Allah remained a standard feature on these coins. In fact, Mongol coins bearing the name of Caliph al-Nāṣir continued into the reign of Ögedei Khan over the 1230s; well after al-Nāṣir’s death in 1225! Though some began to be updated with the name of al-Nāṣir’s grandson, Caliph al-Mustanṣir (r.1226-1242).

Precisely why the Mongols continued this practice is uncertain. Bydarch Nyamaa suggested it was just a means to date the coinage, indicating the period they had been minted in a way most significant for their Muslim subjects. The Mongols generally seem to have had decent relations with the Caliph in Baghdad until quite late. While skirmishing had occurred between Caliphal and Mongol forces in ‘Iraq in the late 1230s, for the coronation of Güyük Khan in 1246, the Caliph al-Mustas’ṣim (r.1242-1258) sent representatives to attend on his behalf. There is some indication (though not uncontroversial) that the Caliph undertook some sort of nominal submission to the Mongols, paying a danegeld-esque tribute to keep the peace between them.

Whatever it was, it was abandoned or insufficient. When Hülegü was sent by Möngke Khan in the 1250s against Baghdad, the principal sources on the matter from the Mongol point-of-view tend to portray it more as punishing the Caliph for his failure to pay homage after giving him an opportunity to do, rather than a campaign with the intent of conquering Baghdad from the outset. The Persian writer Juvainī (d.1283) who was in Hülegü’s entourage on the campaign does not present Baghdad as a military target (he stops his account shortly before the siege of Baghdad, perhaps shocked by the outcome), while the Ilkhanid vizier Rashīd al-Dīn (d.1318) records Möngke’s orders to Hülegü as “If the Caliph of Baghdad comes out to pay homage, harass him in no way whatsoever. If he is prideful and his heart and tongue are not one, let him join the others.”

Regardless, Mongol coinage remains a topic requiring further study. Even the titulature on it remains a matter of debate; whereas it is normally suggested that Chinggis Khan did not take the title of Khagan (Khan of Khans, Khaan, Qa’an’) and that it was only formally adopted by Ögedei, we see al-khaqan on Chinggis’ coins as well as others who should not have born it. Evidently, these coins have much they can still teach us about the Mongol Empire.

Jack Wilson completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth-century Golden Horde. He returned to CEU in Fall 2022 for his PhD, focusing on the Golden Horde in the late thirteenth century. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.

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Top Image: Photo by 乌拉跨氪 / Wikimedia Commons