Posts filed under 'Mongol Empire'

1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan

Add comment August 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.

The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.

Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.

In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.

Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.


Tekuder receives an ambassador.

This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.

Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.

Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.

Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.

-The Travels of Marco Polo

* Quote from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

** We have met Arghun Khan in passing in these pages, as the executioner of Georgian prince Demetre II, the Self-Sacrificer.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Iran,Mongol Empire,Notably Survived By,Persia,Power,Summary Executions

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1205 or 1206: Jamukha, Genghis Khan’s brother and rival

2 comments April 4th, 2013 Headsman

It was in the spring of 1206 that the Mongol warlord Temujin was formally elevated by a council of nomadic chiefs to the title posterity knows him — “Genghis Khan”.

Sun Honglei as Jamukha in the 2007 Russian epic Mongol.

That makes this as good a time as any to mark the completely undated but deeply personal execution that Temujin inflicted on his childhood friend turned rival Jamukha in order to attain that position.

Jamukha was one of the last obstacles to consolidating Temujin’s own rule. His elimination cleared the way for the spring 1206 council adorning Temujin with the title Genghis Khan; this event also marks the traditional founding moment for the renowned Mongol Empire.

Temujin was by this time already past his 40th year, and he had spent that lifetime — for this much was already a plentiful allotment for a steppe warrior — maneuvering by conquest and diplomacy into leadership of Mongolia’s multifarious clans and confederations.

According to our only source for the execution, The Secret History of the Mongols,* Jamukha (or Jamuka, or Jamuga) was the young Temujin’s blood-brother; he had risked himself as a companion-at-arms with the teenage Temujin to recover the latter’s kidnapped bride from a neighboring tribe.

But Jamukha, too, was a young man on the make then, and it was not yet written that it was he who would be a foil in Temujin’s story instead of the other way around; indeed, it was Jamukha’s Jadaran clan that had rank and to whom Temujin’s family had once owed allegiance. Genghis Khan began his political life as a parvenu with questionable innovations like raising commoners to military command and sharing spoils outside of aristocratic circles. To judge from the results, history vindicated these decisions.

As both men rose to prominence in their own webs of family and alliance, it chanced that Jamukha headed the last bloc of nomadic Mongols opposing Temujin. They sparred, often savagely, for close to a decade before Temujin finally prevailed.

The Secret History records a spring 1205 campaign commencing against the Naiman and Merkids, tribes of Jamukha’s holdout coalition who eventually succumbed to Temujin’s arms over what reads like a period of months. This sent Jamukha fleeing into the wilderness with just a handful of followers.

At an unspecified point presumably either late in 1205 or early in 1206, those followers turned on Jamukha and handed him over to Temujin.

The Secret History says Temujin was maybe still a little sentimental about his old friend even after the bloodshed that had passed between him. For one thing, he immediately executed Jamukha’s betrayers.

But now that he had the humbled Jamukha in hand, defeated and no longer a threat, Temujin implored his rival to accept forgiveness and a place in that future greatest land empire in history.

Let us be companions. Now, we are joined together once again, we should remind each other of things we have forgotten. Wake each other from our sleep. Even when you went away and were apart from me, you were still my lucky, blessed sworn brother. Surely, in the days of killing and being killed, the pit of your stomach and your heart pained for me. Surely, in the days of saying and being slain, your breast and your heart pained for me.

Jamukha was, maybe, a little more realistic about things.

Now, when the world is ready for you, what use is there in my becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heart. I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door-panel.

Kill me and lay down my dead bones in the high ground. Then eternally and forever, I will protect the seed of your seed, and become a blessing for them.

And on that prophecy, too, you’d say that history vindicated the Mongols.

Temujin had his old friend and rival’s back broken — a noble death without any blood spilled — and gave him a decent burial. And then, perhaps with Jamukha watching over them as promised, Temujin and his heirs started conquering pretty much everything in sight.

* There are full text transcripts of the Secret History in various languages here.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Back broken,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Soldiers,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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1318: Mikhail of Tver

9 comments November 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1318, the Russian knyaz Mikhail of Tver was executed at the command of the Mongols.

Mikhail was the nephew of legendary prince and allegory Alexander Nevsky.


Not directly Mikhail-related. Just awesome.

Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongol yarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.

This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.

Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.

We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.

And then, she died in his custody.

This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.

The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.

The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.

When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.

Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.

Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.

Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.


(cc) photo of Saint Mikhail’s monument in Tver.

Although the “Tartar yoke” would eventually be thrown off, that was hardly the end for political domination in Russian history.

Experiencing a like phenomenon in altogether different circumstances, the 19th century Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, aka Marlinsky reclaims the long-ago Mikhail for an updated usage.†

His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were

struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡

* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.

** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.

† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.

‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.

“Mikhail Tverskoy”

by Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy

In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.

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1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

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1289: Demetre II the Self-Sacrificer

4 comments March 12th, 2008 dogboy

On this date in 1289, Georgia’s King Demetre II, beholden to the Mongol regional ruler Arghun Khan, earned the name “Self-Sacrificer” (tavdadebuli) by giving himself up for execution in a bid to spare his nation the ruins which befell other resistors of Mongolian rule. He was tortured and beheaded for allegedly participating in a plot to overthrow the khan. The Georgian Orthodox church canonized Demetre a martyr and saint.

Demetre sat on the Georgian throne in tumultuous days, when its influence spanned only the eastern half of present-day Georgia. His nation’s position in the Caucuses Mountains between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea placed it at the center of action during the Dark Ages, crushed between European Crusades from the west, Mongolian military expansion from the north and east, and Turkish and Iranian influence from the south.

This left the so-called Caucasian isthmus a political boiler room from the 9th to 18th centuries, during which its dominion waxed several times, and waned even more spectacularly twice as often (a rather complete description is given by Ronald Grigor Suny in The Making of the Georgian Nation).

The Christian polygamist was a fifth-generation descendant of “golden age” Georgian ruler King David II, III, or IV (depends on who you ask), who earned the only name he would need as Georgian ruler for refusing to cede power to Byzantium and expelling the Seljuk Turks — considered the dreaded Muslim invaders — from Georgia, northern Armenia, and some of present-day Azerbaijan. King David the Builder united these nearby Transcaucasian cultures under a single banner shortly after 1100. A century later, in 1204, after the inception of the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (now in western neighbor Turkey), Georgia reached its zenith under the reign of Queen T(h)amar the Great: from the ruins of Constantinople after the fourth Crusade, in the Eastern center of Orthodox Christianity, the dynastic Kingdom of Georgia entered its glory days.

Georgia at its height under Queen Tamar.

But such days did not last. T(h)amar’s son had no children when he fell fatally ill after a defeat in support of the persistent Crusaders. Within six decades, the Mongols would conquer Georgia at least twice, demanding gold in tribute to protect the once mighty kingdom from the Turks, and eventually other Mongolian factions. The nation’s religious heart felt more threatened by the Muslim onslaught than by the prospect of Mongolian overlords, and residents frequently took up arms alongside the Mongols to repel the southern invaders. Which is not to suggest that rebellion against the region’s ruler, the Mongolian Ilkhanate, was unknown.

Indeed, Demetre II was sired during just such a time and held the dubious distinction of taking power immediately after David VII (David Ulu, “the Senior”), whose efforts at revolt resulted in a three-way carving of Georgia. In 1262, David Ulu and his cousin David VI (David Narin, “the Junior”) ended their largely unsuccessful attempt to pry away the Mongol thumb after being forced to hole up in Kutaisi, the birth city of David the Builder. Ulu and Narin made peace with the Mongols and ruled the eastern and western partitions, respectively.

Their surrender was precipitated largely by the kidnapping of large portions of their families at the invaders’ hands, but it was a year too late to save Demetre’s mother. Three years after the surrender, in a show of pure subjugation, David Ulu agreed to aid the local Ilkahn — himself a subordinate to the Mongolian khan — in battle against the Golden Horde in the neighboring northern Azerbaijani region of Shirvan. Still attempting to exert his own pressure over the kingdom, David Ulu watched his domain shrink further as the southern province of Samtskhe broke away to submit more immediately to the Ilkahnate.

Coins dating to the reign of Demetre II. (From the National Bank of Georgia)

In 1270, David Ulu died, and his 11-year old son ascended to the throne, regency passing to Demetre’s uncle Sadun Mankaberdeli while Demetre was schooled at the court of the khan. At 18, Demetre took control. He had stood side-by-side under Mongol Buddhist-maybe-turned-Christian Abaqa Khan with his Armenian brethren (under the rule of Leon II [or III, depending on the counter]) in four years of service. He distinguished himself in a losing march on Syria at the Second Battle of Homs (1281), yet another Ilkhanate attempt at opening the Crusade routes. This curious cast at a connection with Europe — mirrored through the dispatch of the likes of ambassador Rabban Bar Sauma to the West — ended poorly for both sides: the Mongolians saw their influence diminish even further in the southern Caucases, but the subjugated, Christian Georgia still needed their services. Demetre maintained a relationship with the Mongols, the only way to retain a semblance of power in a time of flux in the region.

Demetre was a prolific breeder in his day, likely managing to produce more subsequent Georgian kings than any other ruler while earning the ire of the church thanks to a trio of wives. His polygamy was decried by another Georgian saint, Basil Ratishvili, who predicted the ruin of the nation from these ungodly acts. It started with a classic merger of adjoining empires through a marriage to a daughter of Manuel I of Trebizond, which by that time was on the rise as a political center (it would become a stop on Marco Polo’s famous wander in the years immediately prior to its moment in the sun at the start of the 14th century); two of their children shared the title of King of Georgia, David VIII taking the half formerly claimed by David Narin, Vakhtang III acquiring Tbilisi and the western side.

Demetre’s second wife was Solghar, a Mongol princess who produced a son and two daughters — including one who married Trebizond’s most dominant ruler, Alexius III. His third marriage yielded a two-time leader in King Giorgi [George] V, who was brought up at his grandfather’s court after Demetre’s execution; his ascent to the throne in 1299 was a brief affair, but when he returned to power in 1314, his campaigns rid Transcaucasia of all Mongolian traces, united the previous factions, eliminated opposing nobles, secured access to Georgian Orthodox sites in the Holy Land, connected Georgia with Egypt and the Byzantine Empire as well as the Republics of Genoa and Venice, introduced the precursor to the modern Georgian flag, and resulted in his informal titles “Giorgi the Brilliant”, “Giorgi the Magnificent”, and “Giorgi the Illustrious.”

For Demetre II, Demetre the Devoted, Demetre the Self-Sacrificer, none of those achievements would be known, thanks to Solghar, daughter of Bugha Chingsang. Chingsang served as prime minister under Arghun Khan, who seized power in 1285 from his uncle after accusing the latter of poisoning Arghun’s father, Abaqa. Bugha’s attempted ouster of the new Khan ended with a resounding defeat, and Bugha and several co-conspirators were beheaded on January 17, 1289. Immediately, the Khan called on Demetre, who was advised by many that an ill fate awaited him if he complied. It is questionable whether Demetre was in any way complicit in the plot, but it is not questionable that Demetre knew what would happen at the court of Arghun Khan. The regional patriarch/bishop Catholicos Abraam reportedly offered the only support:

If you sacrifice your own life for your nation, we, the bishops of this land, will bear your sins, and will pray to God that you be numbered among the holy martyrs. For the Lord Himself said, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And if it is good for a man to lay down his life for just one neighbor, how profitable is it for a man to die for the sake of many?

Demetre agreed, taking Abraam, the priest Mose, his sons David (later VIII) and Giorgi (later V), and several other members of his court. The Georgian Orthodox church officially presents the events thusly:

At the ordu [the Khan’s camp in Azerbaijan] the Mongols could find no fault in the young Georgian king, but they imprisoned him nevertheless. Then a group of Georgian faithful forced their way into the prison to see him and offered to help him escape. The king was deeply moved by their compassion, but nevertheless he told them, “I knew from the beginning the death I would suffer, and I offered my life for this nation. If I escape now, the nation will be destroyed. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).”

The khan ordered his execution. Fully prepared to meet death, King Demetre prayed fervently, received the Holy Gifts, and gave up his soul to the Lord. Those present witnessed a divine miracle: the sun grew dark and an ominous gloom enshrouded the whole city.

The holy relics of the Royal Martyr Demetre were guarded until the catholicos and the priest Mose secretly retrieved the body and, with the help of a group of Tbilisi fishermen, returned the king to his homeland. He was buried in Mtskheta, in the burial vault of his forefathers at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

O Holy Demetre, martyr and king, pray to God that our souls may be saved!

Whether the souls of those who pray to the doomed Demetre II are saved or not, the Georgian Orthodox saint lives on largely through his efforts to revive his nation’s church and restore its places of worship. One of his more enduring acts as sovereign was to order the building of the Metekhi Church in Tbilisi on the site of an extant 5th-century church; its transformation from church to jail to theater and back to church as the fortunes of Georgia swayed may be one of the more apt reflections of the nation itself, if not the most flattering.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Power,Royalty,Torture,Treason

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