Lady (Khatun) Doquz: One of Many Powerful Christian Mongolian Queens
Though most of us have heard of Genghis Khan sweeping over Asia, eventually conquering the land from China to Hungary, we have probably never heard that the queens of this conquering family were Christians. Despite these women being little known today, they held great power and respect since the beginning of the Mongol empire!1 Explorers, church emissaries, and missionaries traveling through the Mongol empire recount astonishment at the extent of the influence of these women. One Muslim traveler noted the honor women received in the Mongol society, “namely the respect in which women were held by them, indeed they are higher in dignity than the men.”2
“Arguably the most powerful woman who ever lived,” Sorghaghtani Beki (1190–1252, Beki is a title for “lady” or “queen”) was a Christian and began the trend of Christian queens exerting their influence to shape their empire.3 Sorghaghtani came from Turkic Christianity and married Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui.4 Praising her abilities as surpassing that of any man, historians credit Sorghaghtani with modernizing the nation from its nomadic origins “into a cosmopolitan realm with a structured administration.”5 Following in Sorghaghtani’s footsteps, her daughters and nieces continued in prominent roles that expanded the influence of Christianity and opened the land to Christian evangelism and testimony for hundreds of years.
Lady (Khatun) Doquz Saves the Christians of Persia
These queens took their faith and their position seriously. Sorghaghtani’s niece, Lady (Khatun) Doquz stands out for the protections she afforded the Christians in Persia. Her husband Hulagu and son of Sorghaghtani, swept through Western Asia and Persia in a “scorched earth” campaign, ridding Baghdad of people and their cultural heritage. Historian Philip Jenkins said of the destruction, “the city was utterly ruined, amidst a slaughter that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It remains one of the cultural catastrophes of human history.”6
Like Esther appealing to the king for the lives of her people, Lady (Khatun) Doquz interceded for the Christians and their places of worship. According to Jenkins, in the midst of near total devastation, most of the Christian population survived and the houses of worship were preserved.7 Historian Rashid-al-Din recounts:
[S]he strongly supported the Christians so that under her protection [they] had great influence. In order to please her, Hulegu supported and promoted this community, so it was able to build new churches everywhere. Near [her] tent, there was always set up a chapel, where bells rung.8
Queens Who Ruled After Their Husband’s Death
This pattern of Mongol queens leading, protecting, and saving the minority Christian population continued into the next generation. Lady (Khatun) Qutui immediately followed Lady (Khatun) Doquz, both in leadership and Eastern Christian faith. She married Lady (Khatun) Doquz’s son, Abaqa Khan, and after he died, she largely ruled the kingdom due to her son’s poor leadership.9 The pattern of ruling after a husband’s death was noted by European travelers, as seen in Plano Carpini’s reflections that after a Khan died,
It is ruled by one of his wives, for it is the custom among the Tartars that the courts of princes or nobles are not destroyed but women are always appointed to control them and they are given their share of the offerings just as their lord was in the habit of giving them.10
In Lady (Khatun) Qutui’s situation, when the population finally revolted against her unpopular son, she used her influence to reduce hostility against the church, saving many lives.11
Christian queens and royal mothers continued to influence the Mongolian empire for generations. Queens rose to the unique power and opportunities afforded them in this empire, resulting in princes and kings being baptized, the church strengthened, and lives saved.
The Western church recognized in these women the same potential as the early European Christian queens who used their relationships and influence in royal courts to spread Christianity throughout Europe.12 Just as Pope Gregory the Great honored Queen Bertha’s request that missionaries be sent to Kent, resulting in the baptism of her pagan husband and 10,000 Anglo-Saxons on Christmas day in 597, the popes of the Middle Ages recognized the same power in the Mongol queens.13
Among the many communications between the church and the queens, Pope Nicholas IV (1289–1291) encouraged the queen mother, Nukdan, praising her as a shining light, congratulating her faith, and encouraging her in evangelism.14 Pope John XXII (1316–1334) urged the Mongol Khan Abusca to imitate his wife in receiving baptism, and the next year congratulated him on his son’s (and heir apparent) baptism.15
While the Mongol queens hailed from Eastern and Greek churches, these communications across church traditions marked a unique time in church history when the church highlighted their faith commonalities amidst their diversity of traditions. The Holy Spirit honored that era, empowering the queens and enlivening churches throughout the Mongolian Empire.
Little is written about these women and their era, and most of it is not accessible to the general population. But if you are interested in learning more about Pope Gregory the Great and his views on women, see Equality and Pastoral Rule.
Evidence of early royal conversions due to their wife’s faith: Women’s History Month: The Early Church.