Posted in Medievalists.net
October 2, 2022

The Mongol Khans and Alcohol


By Jack Wilson

“When a man gets drunk on wine and [rice wine], he is just like a blind man who can’t see anything, a deaf man who can’t hear when he’s called, and a mute who can’t reply when he’s spoken to […] If one must drink, then let one drink thrice a month, for more is bad. If one gets drunk twice a month, it is better; if one gets drunk once a month, that is even better; and if one doesn’t drink at all, that is the best of all.”

So reads a saying attributed to Mongol imperial founder Chinggis Khan, as recorded by the great Ilkhanid historian and vizier, Rashīd al-Dīn (d.1318). While Rashīd was writing decades after Chinggis’ death (d. 1227, while Rashīd’s Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh was begun c.1300), he was doing this project at the behest of Chinggis’ descendants, the Il-Khans Ghazan (r.1295-1304) and his brother, Öljeitü Khudabandah (r.1304-1316). As vizier, a member of the keshig (imperial bodyguard) and a confidant of the Il-Khans, there was little written in Rashīd’s Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh that did not have the approval of these Mongol monarchs: indeed, Rashīd al-Dīn asserts the Mongols themselves, or their official imperial records, were his sources of information for much of what he wrote.

Scholars like Christopher Atwood and Stefan Kamola have demonstrated that Rashīd al-Dīn valued the version of events in Mongol sources over what was written in Arabic and Persian sources (such as Ibn al-Athīr or Juvainī) that he had access to. So whether Chinggis Khan in his lifetime did lament on the topic of alcohol in such a fashion is irrelevant; his great-great-grandchildren at the close of the thirteenth century certainly believed this was a saying attributable to their illustrious forebear. And for today’s article, it leads into our discussion on the matter of the Mongol royal courts and their relationship with alcohol.

A reading of the primary sources of the Mongol Empire reveals no shortage of occasions when the Mongol ruling elite partook in extravagant feasts and alcohol binges. Numerous khans are described as alcoholics, and rampant alcoholism is a common explanation for the ever-shorter reigns of khans going from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century. While Khans like Chinggis (r.1206-1227, c.1162-1227), Ögedei (r.1229-1241, c.1186-1241), and Khubilai (r.1260-1294, 1215-1294) lived last fifty (in Khubilai’s case, he was 78 years old on his death in 1294), Khans of the Yuan Dynasty (the khanate in China and Mongolia ruled by the descendants of Khubilai) and the Ilkhanate (the khanate ruling today’s Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus and Anatolia) rarely lived beyond their mid-thirties.

Alcohol, it must be noted, was hardly an unknown thing in the Mongolian plateau before the conquests began. Mostly was in the form of fermented mare’s milk, known in Mongolian as airag (айраг, or in some parts of Mongolia, chigee), and Turkic as kumis. Made from processing the milk of their horses, airag was a common drink for nomadic peoples across the Eurasian steppe throughout history; ancient Greek writers like Herodotos describe a similar drink being produced by the Scythians. Generally, airag has a low alcohol content, though it could be further distilled into a more potent qaraqumis, the preferred drink of the elite. Its low alcohol content meant airag could be consumed in great quantities, and it was considered quite a masculine thing to drink a copious amount, vomit, then drink more (though women are recorded taking part in this too).

Travelers like the Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck (who crossed the Mongol Empire in the 1250s) described how during the summer (when the mares produced their milk) the Mongolian men did little except drink, stopping only to pass out or hunt. Not surprisingly, the milking of the mares and the production of airag was also one of the few “household” tasks Mongol men were described as taking part in (beyond constructing the ger, their felt tents, and maintaining their personal equipment, saddles, and bows). While Rubruck did not enjoy his time among the Mongols, he was often offered airag and took a liking to it, noting that it gave an aftertaste of almonds, could fill a man’s belly if he was hungry, and also brought on urination rather quickly.

Airag also served cultural roles. During ceremonies it would be sprinkled on the ground or thrown to the air, or given as offerings. The felt idols (ongghon) contained in Mongol homes, would be smeared with a small bit of airag and food to ceremonially feed it. When sons and husbands went off to war or on journeys, their mothers and wives were supposed to scoop a ladle of airag and pass it in their direction to bring them luck. Even today some of these practices continue in Mongolia and Turkic countries, though vodka often takes the place of airag. Feast occasions for the Mongols, as they are in all cultures, were important events, where lords could display their largesse and highlight their power. They were also opportunities to drink considerable volumes, a trend that continued well into the Mongol Empire.

While airag might be suitable for large consumption, as the Mongol Empire expanded and the Mongols had greater access to more potent alcohols from across Asia (especially rice wines from China and fermented grape wines of western Asia) the result had a much more direct effect on their health. Chinggis Khan generally does not come across as much of a teetotaler in the sources, possibly on account of the greater difficulty for witnesses to reach him compared to his heirs due to his constant campaigning. The Daoist master, Qiu Chuji 丘处机, had to travel from China’s Shandong peninsula all the way to what is now Afghanistan to meet Chinggis. In the account of Qiu Chuji’s journey, only implication is made of Chinggis’ interest in airag, rather than explicitly described. At any rate, it would have been expected for Chinggis to partake in the regular consumption of airag with his commanders. But part of the image Chinggis cultivated for himself was his ability at personal moderation, as suggested by the quote Rashīd al-Dīn records, and in Chinggis’ letter dictated to Qiu Chuji:

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider the people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers. We always agree in our principles, and we are always united by mutual affection. At military exercises I am always in the front, and in time of battle am never behind. In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work, and uniting the whole world in one empire. I have not myself distinguished qualities. ~ Bretschneider translation, “The Travels of Ch’ang Ch’un to the West,” pg. 37-38.

For Chinggis’ son and successor, the more stationary Ögedei, rather constant reference is made to his binge drinking, particularly his fondness for wine. Numerous thirteenth and fourteenth-century sources from Juvainī, the Secret History of the Mongols, Rashīd al-Dīn, to various Yuan shi 元史 biographies describe Ögedei’s serious alcoholism. Best covered in a 2007 article by the late Dr. Thomas T. Allsen fittingly titled “Ögedei and Alcohol,” we will share a few of the most notable anecdotes.

Appropriate for the tone of his reign, his enthronement was followed by a forty-day celebration, with feasting and constant wine-binges that often mixed with state affairs. In one charming episode, according to the Yuan shi 元史 biography of the great councillor Ila Chucai (Yelü Chucai, as his name was rendered by his son), Chucai passed out in a cart during one of these drinking fests, only to be rudely shaken awake. Chucai immediately responded with anger, only to be quickly taken aback when he found that a bemused Ögedei Khaghan stood over him, and laughingly said “So you take wine and get drunk alone, rather than enjoy yourself with Us?” Chucai sheepishly returned to the feasting, where the Great Khan then apparently poured Chucai’s wine himself as the night wore on.

In the most famous anecdote, Ögedei’s brother Chagatai berated the Khaghan for his alcoholism, and forced his cupbearers to halve the number of cups of wine he drank a day. Ögedei agreed, and reduced the number of cups, but ordered new cups that were twice the size of the old. While there are endearing elements to some of these tales, they quickly turn dark. In 1232, Ögedei’s closest brother and companion, Tolui, died— almost certainly an early death brought on by his own alcoholism according to Juvainī or politely alluded to in the official Secret History of the Mongols (1252).

Following Tolui’s death, and especially after the death of his favoured son and heir Kochu in 1236, Ögedei gave himself over to the drink in an apparent effort to numb his pain. Thus we end up with anecdotes such as Ila Chucai demonstrating to Ögedei how wine corroded the metal mouth of its container, and told Ögedei “how can it not cause even more injury to the five human organs?” Ögedei told Yelu Chucai just how right he was, gifted him gold and silks, then ordered for more wine. The implication was that Ögedei did not care anymore. Rashīd al-Dīn records that Ögedei suffered alarming weight-loss towards the end of his life and was often ill, ignoring the duties of government in favour of drinking, hunting, feasting, or some combination of the three. In this atmosphere, Ögedei’s wife Törögene Khatun increased her influence and raised her favourites, ousting men like Ila Chucai. One of Törögene’s allies, ‘Abd al-Rahman,  encouraged Ögedei’s drinking, and was with him on the night in December 1241 when he finally drank himself to death. Some sources make the direct accusation of Törögene poisoning her husband, but as Thomas Allsen noted, it may well have been that Ögedei was on borrowed time.

Törögene Khatun finds the body of Ögedei Khaan, December 1241. Art by Jack Wilson

While his successors also partook in extensive alcohol consumption, none were quite as famous for it as Ögedei. William of Rubruck was an eyewitness to the drinking of Ögedei’s nephew, Great Khan Möngke (r.1251-1259), as well as the other notables across the empire. Of Batu, the viceroy of the western half of the empire who had led the invasion of Hungary in the 1240s, Rubruck noted how this prince kept some 3,000 mares near his ordu (palace-camp) solely for the production of qaraqumis. Perhaps not coincidentally, from this point onwards the Chinggisid princes and the military elite are regularly described as suffering from gout, likely brought on by their excessive drinking. While Möngke was an energetic monarch and often portrayed as a stern man, Rubruck saw him openly drunk several times during public events, or slurring his words from the drink during his private interview with Rubruck.

As noted by historian Stephen Pow, Möngke’s decision-making during his final campaign against the Song Dynasty may have been impacted by drinking; in order to avoid drinking water the Mongols saw as contaminated (with cholera, as Pow suggests), Möngke and his officers chose to drink wine instead to stay hydrated. During the Siege of Diaoyucheng 釣魚城 in August 1259 though, Möngke’s right-hand general was killed by a Chinese catapult crew, while Möngke succumbed to the water-born infection despite his efforts to survive off of wine. The succession crisis following Möngke’s death resulted in the break-up of the Mongol Empire into independent khanates.

Rubruck also describes the most famous feature of the Mongol court, the great silver tree at the imperial capital of Qaraqorum. Designed and built by a captured Parisian goldsmith named William Buchier, it stood in the centre of Möngke’s court with conduits running through it, coming out at the base through four silver lions and higher up via spouts shaped as snakes. From the lions’ mouths came airag; from the gilded mouths of the snakes poured grape wine, (bor darasun as the Mongols called it); qaraqumiss, refined mare’s milk; bal, a honey drink; and from the fourth a rice wine (darasun). At the top of the tree was a silver angel with a trumpet. On command, a man inside the tree sounded it, alerting stewards in another room to feed the alcoholic beverages through their respectives conduits. Below each animal was a vessel to collect the drinks, and when filled they were carried to the guests, who, presumably good and sozzled, cheered at the show.

Though the silver tree was a unique structure and its final fate uncertain, it was part of a long-line of Mongol courts centered around alcohol dispensing. The serving of alcohol took special function within Mongol courts; the cupbearers were men from the keshig, the imperial bodyguard. In Ögedei’s court, Juvainī describes large, immovable vats of alcohol from which his cupbearers would bring him his drinks. Illustrations from Ilkhanid artworks show tables covered in cups before the Khan’s throne.

In the court of Khubilai Khaan (r.1260-1294) at Dadu (Khanbaliq, modern day Beijing), Marco Polo describes a massive urn of alcohol at the centre of his hall:

And in the middle of this great hall where [Khubilai] keeps his table is a most beautiful structure, large and rich, made in the manner of a square chest, and each side is of three paces, cunningly worked with very beautiful carving of gilded animals; and in the middle it is hollowed out, and there is a great and valuable vessel in the shape of a great pitcher of fine gold which holds quite as much wine as a common large butt of six barrels or of six salme, and it is full of wine or of some other good drink. And round the foot of this pitcher, that is in each corner of this chest, is a smaller one of silver, of the capacity of a grape-tub, full of good spiced drinks, very fine and of great value, in one of which is mares milk, and in another camels’, and so with the others, according as there are different kinds of drinks. And on the said chest stand all the vessels of the lord with which he is supplied with drink. And from that large one comes the wine, or from the two small ones the drinks which are in those lesser ones. The wine or the dear drink which may be there is drawn out of those four small ones and great golden vessels very beautiful, which are called lacquered bowls are filled with it, which are indeed such that they hold so much wine or other drink that eight men or ten would have enough of it. ~ Marco Polo, Moule and Pelliot translation, pg. 218-219.

This urn, moreover, is also a testament to the reliability of Marco Polo, as Koichi Matsuda notes that this exact same urn is described in independent sources written after Polo, such as the Gongque zhidu 宮闕制度 in the Nancun Chuogenglu 南村輟耕録, the Huangyuan chaoyi zhi tu 皇元朝儀之圖 in the Shilin guangji 事林廣記 and by Odoric of Pordenone, a fourteenth-century Franciscan missionary to the Yuan court who made an account of his voyage. As is the case of so many criticisms of Polo, if he was a liar, he was an implausibly meticulous one, who somehow managed to make the earliest description of the exact urn in the court of Khubilai Khaan attested to by later writers. In fact, despite his reputation as a person who exaggerated many claims, Polo actually understates the urn’s scale; the Gongque zhidu specifies that the urn was 5.4 metres tall!

Alcohol did not leave the tables of the khans, but generations of alcoholism seem to have taken its toll on the Mongol leadership. After Khubilai’s thirty-four-year reign, from his death in 1294 until the accession of Töghön Temür Khaan in 1333, nine Yuan Khans succeeded each other, with an average reign of five and a half years. Though some were murdered, poor health increasingly plagued them. In the Ilkhanate, few Khans lived past 35, and each generation had fewer and fewer heirs. While the Ilkhanate’s founder, Hülegü (d.1265) produced some 25 sons and daughters, by the end of the century his great-grandson Ghazan had only a daughter survive childhood. Ghazan’s brother Öljeitü Il-Khan, despite having twelve wives, only had three children ever reach marriageable age, with numerous stillbirths. Öljeitü’s son and successor, Abu Sa’id (r.1316-1335), despite considerable efforts, only succeeded in impregnating his widow by the time of his death.  Rampant alcoholism is commonly associated to be a contributing cause for both the health and reproductive woes of both branches of the dynasty.

These problems were recognized by the Mongols. The Secret History of the Mongols was a chronicle written for the Mongolian royal family most likely in 1252 on the orders of Ögedei’s nephew, Möngke Khaan (r.1251-1259), and features a posthumous assessment of Ögedei’s character. The closing lines have Ögedei list off his successes and faults, and states:

But, being placed on the great throne by my father [Chinggis] and being made to take upon myself the burden of my many peoples, I was at fault to let myself be vanquished by wine. This was indeed one fault of mine. ~ The Secret History of the Mongols, de Rachewiltz translation, §281

As Allsen suggested, this posthumous lamentation by Ögedei was likely intended to serve a similar function to the saying by Chinggis Khan recorded by Rashīd al-Dīn at the start of this article. That is, a warning against overindulgence; not that alcohol should be utterly avoided (though that might be ideal), but rather, moderated. Unfortunately for the Khans, few heeded this advice.

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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Medievalists.net October 2, 2022 at 10:18AM

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