The most famous Mongol ruler is undoubtedly Genghis Khan. However, there’s another more unique person who transcended traditional gender roles and managed a sprawling empire fraught with political tension. Her name was Töregene and she maintained power in various degrees for over three decades.
When Genghis Khan conquered the Merkit clan, he brought back a woman for his third-born son Ogedei. Named Töregene, this new wife became increasingly influential as she gave her husband five sons. When Genghis died, Ogedei became Khan in 1229. He was not effective like his father and records show he spent most of his time drunk. Töregene took advantage of his ineptness to work on her own projects, such as reprinting the Taoist canon. A discovered order for these texts shows Töregene controlled part of the empire’s civilian administration. While men busied themselves with war and conflict, Töregene supported education, religion, and infrastructure.
Years as regent
Obgodei died of his alcoholism in 1241 and Töregene assumed power as regent. In theory, she was only supposed to hold power until a successor was determined, but she shrewdly delayed the process. She quickly replaced her husband’s old ministers and appointed her own. One of these people included Fatima, a Persian woman. She was the most important adviser and one chronicler, Juvaini, writes of how Fatima was the only one to have constant access to Töregene. Juvaini seems to disapprove of the women’s relationship, writing that Fatima became the “sharer of intimate confidences and the depository of hidden secrets.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to say this was his roundabout way of implying the two women were lovers.
While questions about succession continued, Töregene gained military power. After decisive battles, the Mongols ended up with the Chinese cities of Hangzhou and Sichuan. At this time, China was in the Song Dynasty. Eventually, the Mongol Empire had three powers pledging their allegiance to them: the Sultanate of Rum, Lesser Armenia, and the Empire of Trebizond.
Töregene was not popular, however, and many of her decisions had lasting negative effects on the Mongol Empire. She and Genghis Khan’s most trusted adviser did not get along, so a lot of the advice that made Genghis so successful fell on deaf ears. Delaying succession for so long also caused long-term rifts that would eventually weaken the once-great empire. This isn’t to say Töregene should be the only one to blame, and the fact that she was a woman certainly biased chroniclers and historians against her.
During her five years as regent, Töregene planned on having her son Guyuk become Khan. When he was living, Ogedei had always favored another one of his sons, but Töregene made sure Guyuk was supported in her court. In 1246, Töregene finally gave over power and went to spend the rest of her days by the river Emil.
However, peace didn’t last. Guyuk proceeded to undo many of his mother’s laws. Koden, another of Töregene’s sons, accused Fatima of using witchcraft to make him sick. When he died, Guyuk ordered Fatima’s execution. Töregene refused to hand her over, so Guyuk took the woman by force. She was executed in an extremely inhumane way. Töregene died soon after, but historians aren’t sure how. Her son might have had her executed. As for Guyuk, he didn’t last long as Khan. He died in 1248, just two years after gaining power. The cause is uncertain, though it might have been due to health effects of his alcoholism. Like father, like son.
Ambitious and unpopular, Töregene stands out in a culture where women usually stood back and let men rule. Though her actual policies were mostly undone by her son and might have done more harm than good for the Mongol Empire, she is an intriguing figure in history.
Hypatia was another woman in a time where men made all the rules. Like Fatima and Töregene, she met a grisly fate.