1291: Sa’ad al-Dawla, grand vizier

Add comment March 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1291, Sa’ad al-Dawla, a Jewish physician become grand vizier, was put to summary death as his patron and protector Arghun Khan lay expiring on his deathbed.

The story has it that Sa’ad won the khan’s confidence by a successful medical consult, and then told the big guy all about the corruption of his courtiers.

This descendant of Genghis Khan* knew an able servant when he saw one and Sa’ad soon had charge of the empire’s finances — the latter not failing to exercise the patronage prerogatives of his office on behalf of his own kith and kin. For the khan, a Buddhist heir to steppe conquerors, he was an able man to make the caravans run on time and the treasuries burst with gold. The Muslim populace saw it a bit differently, as one Baghdad poet gibed:

The Jews of this our time a rank attain
To which the heavens might aspire in vain.
Their is dominion, wealth to them does cling,
To them belong both councillor and king.
O people, hear my words of counsel true
Turn Jew, for Heaven itself has turned a Jew!

(Source)

We have seen many times in these pages that upstart administrators elevated by the caprice of the sovereign — Jews or otherwise — often risk an extremely perilous situation should their master predecease them. Sa’ad had resentment in proportion to his power … and when the khan fell ill, the former redoubled while the latter vanished.

Expediently accused of poisoning the dying Arghun Khan, Sa’ad was seized in the royal camp and given over to summary execution/murder. (Less exalted Jews in Baghdad faced a less exalted riot.)

* Arghun Khan’s grandfather Hulagu Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson. Hulagu Khan has been seen in these pages, for he conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph in 1258.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Iraq,Jews,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions

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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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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.

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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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