By Charles Allison
Genghis Khan died in September 1227, likely from complications of being thrown from a horse. The great khan did not die without planning for his successor, his middle son Ogedei, to take power after he was gone. He likely died happy, knowing that he had at least deferred a succession crisis and civil war for a generation because his eldest (likely bastard) son, Jochi, pre-deceased him.
Mongol historian Frank McLynn believes that “It was a moral certainty that Genghis Khan had Jochi poisoned.” Whether or not Jochi died from sickness or perished by an assassin’s hand is beyond the scope of this essay. The point of divergence from our history that matters is that Jochi, Genghis’s eldest son, lives beyond the critical year of 1227.
This essay will explore what happens if Genghis Khan was wrong. If Jochi survived his father, it is likely that the Mongol empire—and world history, would be very different places indeed.
The source of tension between Jochi and his brother Chaghatai was Jochi’s paternity, or more specifically, the lack of certainty regarding it. Jochi was born in 1182 shortly after Genghis Khan retrieved his kidnapped wife Borte from a rival steppe tribe, the Merkits. So who exactly his father was was always hotly debated among his siblings. This questionable paternity is even referenced in Jochi’s name—several Mongol scholars have noted that the word Jochi means ‘guest’ in Mongolian.
To Genghis Khan’s credit he implored his other sons in line for the succession (in order of birth: hot-headed Chagatai, affable Ogedei and warlike Tolui) multiple times to treat Jochi well. Afterall, he was still their mother’s son even if he was (possibly) a Merkit bastard. Nevertheless, Jochi and his brothers were instrumental in their father’s expansion of the early Mongol empire—though Genghis took especial pains to separate Jochi and Chagatai, who fought tirelessly.
Chagatai, Genghis’s hot-blooded second-son, had a serious axe to grind against Jochi well past the point of obsession. Chagatai viewed Jochi as not worthy to be considered in the succession plan of the Great Khan and constantly butted heads with his elder brother. Frank McLynn describes Chagatai as follows:
“On two issues [Chagatai] was fanatically unbending. The first was that Jochi, as a Merkit bastard, was no brother of his. He frequently brought this matter up, disrupting council meetings and angering his father…all sources agree that he was a blinkered, irascible hot-head. The second was that he hated the religion of Islam.”
Jochi seemed to feel the same way about Chagatai so there was little love lost between the two eldest brothers. One can only be called a bastard and assaulted so many times before one begins to take it a touch personally. Outside of his feud with Chaghatai, Jochi appeared to be the most independent-minded and outgoing of the candidates for the Mongol succession. This would actually serve to further alienate him from Genghis Khan, and later provide an opening, according to some sources, for Chagatai to exploit their father’s constant fear of betrayal in Jochi’s absence.
By the year 1222, the Mongol empire had prevailed over the muslim Kwazerim empire, expanding to the west at a rapid pace. It was either just before this latest expansion of the empire or in the bloody aftermath (the sack of Nishapur where the great poet Attar and countless others were slaughtered, for example) that the great khan decided to settle his succession plans. The sources differ on the timing of this meeting. He knew he would not live forever, and so a plan of action had to be decided upon.
So he called all four of his possible successors to meet. Not that Genghis had just four sons, far from it. He had a huge amount of children, not to mention adopted ‘fifth sons’ from conquered civilizations or children from orphaned soldiers under his command that were brought into the royal household. But only four were seriously considered for the rank of great khan when Genghis Khan died: Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei and Tolui.
The meeting didn’t get off to a great start. According to historian Paul Ratchnevsky: “Jochi, his first born was to succeed him…Genghis called on Jochi [while discussing the matter of succession] to speak when Chagatai burst out: ‘When you say, ‘Speak Jochi’, do you mean to declare him your successor? How could we allow ourselves to be ruled by that Merkit bastard?’ This resulted in a hand-to-hand struggle between two brothers and Genghis Khan sat silent while they grappled with each other…”
When a discussion to divvy up the empire devolves into a fistfight inside the first five minutes, things may not be going exactly as planned. Guards pulled Jochi and Chagatai apart. Both fumed, but accepted Genghis’s compromise choice. Since Jochi and Chagatai were obviously unacceptable, Genghis Khan skipped his youngest (and war-hungriest, even by Mongol standards) son, Tolui and nominated Ogedei, his middle son. Ogedei was mild by Mongol standards, best known for his generous nature as demonstrated in this quote by Ratchnevsky: “The nomads laid a not surprising emphasis on generosity as an important characteristic of a ruler—a personal quality to which Genghis Khan owed his rise to supremacy in no small degree. In this respect Ogodei completely fulfilled his father’s expectations.”
The brothers reached unanimous consent, Ogedei would become great khan upon Genghis’s death. Genghis Khan had done everything he could to reconcile his two eldest to at least tolerate each other. Suffice to say, no amount of threatening, cajoling or forced team-building exercises (through sieging cities, where Chagatai and Jochi continued to sabotage each other, resulting in the siege of Ugrench lasting months longer than it should have) could get the brothers off of a war-footing with each other.
In 1223, Jochi headed to the lands between the Caspian and Aral seas, at the time the furthest west the Mongol empire reached. He would never see his father alive again. The fact was, Genghis Khan realized, that his hard-won empire wouldn’t be in any shape to expand or consolidate if both Chagatai and Jochi lived when he died. Coupled with Jochi’s refusal to attend to his father when summoned, pleading illness—something the great khan, rightly or wrongly, interpreted as defiance—and the father and son had a falling out. Chagatai may have had had a hand in interpreting his hated brothers actions in the worst possible light.
Whether the great khan had his son poisoned or not is besides the point. The fact is that healthy, forty-year old Jochi died early in 1227, nominally of sickness. Genghis Khan followed his eldest in August of that same year, and after a two year regency by the youngest, Tolui, Ogedei ascends to the khanship and expands the unified mongol empire beyond his father’s imaginings.
But what if Jochi doesn’t pre-decease his father?
Genghis Khan dies, Jochi survives, Chagatai acts swiftly.
The empire that Genghis Khan left behind was largely concentrated on the steppes of central Asia. The Mongols, like other pastoral nomadic empires before them like the Xiongnu and Scythians could move across this ‘highway’ faster than anyone else thanks to their messaging system, use of horses and superb organization. Even still, it is likely that people at the edge of the empire—like Jochi—would be the last to know of the great khan’s death.
In our main timeline, Tolui was left with over one-hundred thousand troops at his command, compared to the other brother’s ‘pure Mongol’ divisions of four thousand each. As the youngest of the candidates for succession, Mongol tradition dictated that he guard the home of the Mongols in Central Asia. It took two years to gather the necessary Mongols from the corners of the empire and assemble them into a congress to confirm Ogedei’s ascension. Mongol expansion slowed in North China and the Middle East, then largely ceased. During this time Tolui was regent of the unified empire, and had the most troops available, making him the key player in our little fraternal drama. Whoever’s side the warlike Tolui came down on would be the likely winner of the first-generation Mongol-civil war.
Chagatai, in all likelihood, would have used the word of his father’s death—and his likely advantage about hearing about it first—to its maximum potential. The most likely scenario is that Chagatai would try to launch a surprise attack on his hated brother. The gamble was that he could get his forces to Jochi’s camps between the Aral and Caspian seas ahead of the death notification, and deal Jochi a crushing defeat before he had time to mobilize—or any of his brothers had time to formally condemn or take actions to prevent such actions. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
As to whether this hypothetical first strike succeeds doesn’t matter. Steppe warfare was in general protracted affair, lasting through the generations. In fact, feuds and running vendettas were the primary check on the steppe tribes, historically, a trait exploited by sedentary civilizations, most notably the Chinese, to keep their foes weak and divided.
A First-Generation Mongol Civil War
Let us assume the worst, from Chagatai’s point of view. He gets the sneak attack he wants on Jochi, but not the desired outcome: Jochi escapes and rallies what forces he has left. He would likely then petition the regent, Tolui, and the heir-designated, Ogedei, for help and justice against this unprovoked attack. It is anyone’s guess what happens after that, with the two remaining brothers asked to choose sides. Again, the answer scarcely matters, the essential truth of the matter is that there is a Mongol civil war in the first generation, rather than the third (specifically the Toluid Civil War between sons of Tolui that helped accelerate the division of the unified empire into four separate khanates).
A civil war means that the period of expansion (1229-1260) that marked Ogedei, Guyuk and Mongke’s khanships likely doesn’t occur. The empire would likely be divided and struggling inside the borders drawn by 1227, or 1228 at latest. Even with a swift resolution could have strange outcomes—there is no certainty, for example, that Tolui would allow Ogedei to rule the empire after the dust settled, relishing his role as kingmaker and turning that power into a grab for khanship himself.
The precarious social order that Genghis Khan had so painstakingly laid out with his life’s work would be smashed by even the briefest of internal military squabbles, and deprived of any weight of tradition. While Genghis Khan had to foresight to ordain a successor before his death, he did not, as several historians noted, leave a mechanism for placing a successor after Ogedei, insuring future conflicts and squabbles.
The Mongol Empire would eat itself from the inside inside a generation: at best it could rally under a khan and slowly begin rebuilding, at worst it would devolve into small central-asian principalities, never to grow into the world-striding colossus it did in our timeline.
A Changed World
This means a number of things for civilizations that the Mongols had heard of or only had so far glancing contacts with so far.
Lets take a brief look of what happens, or is likely to happen, if the Mongols engage in a first generation civil war and thusly, fail to expand west in any further significant way. If they engage in a first generation civil war, then they have almost no chance whatsoever of conquering the Southern Song, Northern Jin or Korean dynasties—all of which took a unified Mongol empire to bring down, hence the focus on lack of expansion west.
Seljuk Turks Hang on a Little Longer
The Seljuk Turks were another steppe empire that made good and swept through the middle east around two centuries prior to Mongol ascendancy. Their empire stretched through Anatolia and created pressure on the Western Roman Empire (incorrectly, but catchily, referred to as the Byzantines). Without the Mongol push to the West, the Seljuks likely persist onwards for a few more decades at much greater strength, leaving them free to focus against European crusades rather than have to fight on multiple fronts as they did in our timeline. In our timeline they held on in weakened form until 1307, but their power was on the decline when the Mongols invaded the Middle East and Pontic steppe. It was the Mongol advance that created a power-vacuum that allowed the minor Osmanli tribe (later to be referred to as the Ottomans) to rise to prominence and eventually rise to create their own 500 year empire that would incorporate a lot of Seljuk, Byzantine and later Mamluk empires. With a Mongol civil war, it is unlikely we get the Ottoman Empire the same way.
Moving on, and speaking of the Byzantines, lets talk about the Eastern Roman Empire. They had some trouble with the Seljuks, the usual amount of back-biting and treachery from their European ‘allies’ in regards to the series of ill-advised Crusades against both the Seljuks and themselves.
While the empire was struggling, the Byzantines were at a point where, barring a massive wind (like say a Mongol invasion) they likely could have retained the lands in Greece, the Balkans, and Dalmatia, although not necessarily all of Anatolia. The Crusaders were uncertain allies at best—who could forget the time in 1204 where the assembled European soldiery got bored, sailed to Constantinople and sacked it instead of the Seljuks in the Holy Land? Anyway, the point to come away with here is that the Byzantines would last quite a bit longer without having to deal with the up-and-coming Ottomans. They would retain their position as the doorway between Europe and Asia, a coveted spot for trade and geopolitical influence.
The Assassin-state Continues
Speaking of the Holy Land, the Mongols had managed to place some territorial governors in the middle east, but had been unable to fully control the region beginning in 1219. This was not appreciated by anyone, but especially by the Nizari Ismaili religious sect, a group better known now as the assassins. They were notorious as killers for hire and prided themselves on being able reach anyone with their knives—and contributed heavily to keeping the middle east destabilized through targeted political assassinations.
It is anyone’s guess as to what a Ismaili state would look like that survived past 1253—without Hulegu’s Mongols destroying the assassin strongholds as they moved through the middle east. Certainly, in their own time and region, the Naziri Ismaili were major players and would continue to be as long as the Mongols didn’t head west.
Venetian Ascendancy Delayed
Speaking of covetous, the effect of waves of the Mongols being confined to the steppes weren’t confined to great empires. Venetian traders, who had sold the Mongol general Subotai’s troops accurate maps of Europe during their initial reconnaissance during a chance meeting in exchange for the Mongols roughing up their rival Italian trading power, Genoa, were fiercely ambitious as a general rule.
The decline of the Byzantine power in Dalmatia and Greece left the door open for the Venetian empire to expand and become the premier trading power and buffer between the Ottomans in our timeline-a chance that is denied to them, at least the same way in this one where there is a Mongol first generation civil war. This is a world without deep Mongol-Venetian ties—so no European access to the Silk Road and no Marco Polo. The world would be a far more segmented place for a longer period of time.
The Kievan Rus Continue To Exist
The final major western power to change due to the lack of Mongol followthrough on expansion would be the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus, centered in Kiev in today’s Ukraine, was a major regional power. The Mongols had encountered (and defeated) the Kievan Rus before. Most notably the Mongols had bested the combined militaries of the major Slavic powers of the Pontic steppe at the battle of the Kalkha River under Subtotai’s inspired generalship. However, the Kievan Rus' main power base was still untouched at this point and in this timeline, the Mongols probably won’t reach and sack Kiev which means it is likely that this slavic empire remains largely untouched for the rest of the century. This would argue against the emergence of powers that came about as a result of Jochi’s Golden Horde—who destroyed or assimilated the Kipchak steppe people in the Pontic steppe and forced the Russian principalities to vassalhood. Most notably, Moscow likely doesn’t achieve it’s late-history character or prominence without it’s role as the Golden Horde’s chief tax collector, or ever rise beyond the status of a particularly scrappy city state. Likewise Novgorod's rise to prominence would be more contested. CONCLUSION
Jochi refusing to conveniently die in 1227 spells, if not doom, considerable inconvenience for his nominal father’s dream of a united empire. But by refusing to perish, Jochi would have accidentally saved millions of lives from the Mongol conquest, though that was certainly not his intention. Mongol expansion to the west would be drastically curtailed, if not stopped completely, and their campaigns against the organized states of Asia (the Khitan Liao, the Southern Song Dynasty and Korea, to name but a few) would likely bear few results if any.