In 1323, a peace agreement was negotiated between the Mamluks, who controlled Egypt, Syria, and the Hijaz (i.e. Makkah and Madinah), and the Ilkhanate Mongols, who controlled Iraq and Iran. This brought an end to a war that had begun in 1260, when Hulagu Khan’s army had invaded the Mamluks’ territory in Syria. There had been many turning points in the 63 years since then. At the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260), the Mamluks had become the first army in the world to decisively defeat the Mongols. At around the same time, the Mamluks also became the protectors of the ‘Abbasid caliphate after the destruction of Baghdad (1258), adding to their prestige. But most importantly, the Ilkhanate had slowly been embracing Islam, leading to a gradual softening of relations between the two rival empires that now shared a common faith.
This entire process was very complicated, as one can expect―there were many factors which ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Aleppo (1323). One of these was the newly-converted Mongols’ desire to perform the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetimes if they are able to. Since Baghdad had been destroyed in 1258, the caravan that had regularly set out from Baghdad to the Hijaz had also stopped. Pilgrims from Iraq and Iran now travelled to Mamluk-controlled Syria and joined the Syrian caravan. Of course, the Hijaz itself was also controlled by the Mamluks. And while the Mamluks don’t seem to have ever explicitly prevented the Mongol Muslims from performing Hajj, strained relations between the two empires often had that effect. This changed in 1323.
One of the first Ilkhanid Mongols to take advantage of the new opportunity was a Mongol princess, El Qutlugh Khatun, daughter of Abagha Ilkhan (r. 1265-82) and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan himself. Al-Safadī, a biographer from the time, describes her as “a devout, esteemed, God-fearing, pious woman” (333). Both her father Abagha and her brother Arghun (r. 1284-1291) were devout Buddhists, but she was closer to Islam, the religion that her nephews Ghazan (r. 1295-1304) and Oljeitu (r. 1304-1316) famously embraced. However, she also held on strongly to Mongol traditions, and Safadī says that she was “sharp-minded and courageous/skilled in horsemanship” and greatly respected by the Mongol. Her strength of character comes out most clearly in the story of her personally avenging the death of her murdered Mongol husband, ‘Urab Tī, and firmly rejecting the proposal of a senior Mamluk commander for her hand in marriage (333).
In 1323, the same year in which the Treaty of Aleppo was signed, El Qutlugh set out to perform the Hajj. For years, she had been part of a secretive “peace party” made up influential Mongols in the Ilkhanate who had been working for peace with the Mamluks (346). The fact that she set out for Hajj as soon as this long-sought peace was finally achieved might indicate that her desire to go for Hajj was a primary reason for her advocating for peace. A century after her distant ancestor, Genghis Khan, first began to invade and ravage the Muslim-majority regions of Central Asia in his quest for world domination, a member of his family was on her way to make the time-honoured pilgrimage of Islam.
She arrived in Damascus in the month of Ramadan, with an entourage of many Mongol servants. She was personally welcomed by the Mamluk governor and treated with the utmost respect. The great mufassir (commentator) of the Qur’an, Ibn Kathīr, was a young student living in Damascus at the time and remembered that the princess was given residence at the Ablaq palace and all of her expenses were paid for by the Mamluks. El Qutlugh must have been at least in her early 50s at this time (350).
Her journey from Damascus to Makkah must have been quite a spectacle for the pilgrims of her day. She was especially remembered for leading traditional Mongol ring hunts in the desert throughout the trip. This was a hunting technique in which encircling a certain area and then slowly closing in on the game from all sides. El Qutlugh led the hunt with remarkable passion and skill, a stark contrast from the ‘Abbasid or Mamluk royal woman who remained relatively reserved while making the journey for Hajj. She also rode a horse for long stretches of the journey, appearing more comfortable travelling this way than she was on the camel.
While hunting displayed the princess’ Mongol heritage, El Qutlugh was keen to immerse herself in her newly-embraced Islamic identity, too. One of the ways in which she did this―as affluent Muslim women have done throughout history―was to give large amounts of sadaqah (charity) while on her journey, and she gave 30,000 dinars in charity in Makkah and Madinah alone (359). However, her actions throughout the pilgrimage seemed to be strongly independent, unlike that female relatives of the Mamluk sultan who often seemed to be acting on his behalf. Nor was she as extravagant as they often were.
Very little is known about the rest of El Qutlugh’s Hajj or her life. The famous scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalānī described her as “a good Muslim who often gave good advice to the Muslims” (358). For biographers like al-Safadī―whose mission was “to record a person’s contribution, whether religious, cultural, military or economic, to the Muslim community as a whole” (357)―including the stories of unique individuals like El Qutlugh Khatun in their collections was key to understanding and appreciating the ever-increasing diversity of the Muslim community.
The fact that it was El Qutlugh’s grandfather Hulagu Khan who had destroyed the ‘Abbasid caliphate and, in many ways, had brought an end to the golden age of Islamic civilization made it especially important to record such a fierce embrace of Islam within his own bloodline.
Source: Brack, Yoni. “A Mongol Princess Making Hajj: The Biography of El Qutlugh Daughter of Abagha Ilkhan (r. 1265-82).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 21, no. 3 (2011): 331-359. Featured image (“Mongols Travelling”) courtesy of Medievalists, originally from 14th century historian Rashīd ad-Dīn’s Jāmi al-Tawārīkh.