LXIV: Tigerish Woman

n the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s massive Mongol Empire was parceled out to be ruled in small khanates by his numerous heirs. Genghis Khan’s great-grandson Kaidu was the head of his Khan’s dynastic household and emperor of the Changatai region of the Mongol Empire, rapidly rising to become the most powerful ruler in Central Asia by the year 1280. Renowned travelers Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din both visited (or claimed to have visited) Kaidu’s empire, but instead of writing about the khan himself, they wrote about his remarkable daughter.

Kaidu had fourteen sons and an unknown number of daughters, but his clear favorite was his daughter Khutulun. In the Mongol Empire at the time, it was not at all uncommon for women to take full administrative authority over a region while their husbands or fathers went to war, and it was even standard protocol for Mongol women to ride out into battle and to be extremely skilled and renowned warriors. Khutulun was one such warrior. Marco Polo wrote of her great boldness in battle; while most female Mongol warriors were expert archers, easily shooting down the enemy while riding at full gallop, Khutulun was the absolute best athlete in Mongolia’s national sport: wrestling. As commander of her father’s heavy cavalry, she was known to ride out onto the field of battle and snatch up the most valuable enemies with her bare hands before beating the absolute crap out of them and dragging their sorry butts back to Kaidu’s court as prisoners. Marco Polo referred to her as “Kaidu’s hawk”.

Eventually Khutulun reached marriageable age (because she was only a teenager when she became the greatest cavalry warrior in Mongolia) and had to find a husband. Reminiscent of the mythical Atalanta, who said she would marry any man that could outrun her, Khutulun told her father she would marry any man who could beat her in a wrestling match, and the losers would be required to pay her a debt of 10 horses each.

When Marco Polo met her in 1280, when she was about twenty years old, Khutulun owned ten thousand horses and was still single.

Eventually Khutulun did get married to an soldier from a neighboring khanate who had been captured as a prisoner of war and spared for his courage to face execution without fear. Ironically, he was the only suitor who never tried to wrestle Khutulun; she personally selected him as her husband after witnessing his skill and bravery as a warrior. It is also possible that she was in a hurry to quell rumors that she was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with her own father, which seems to be par for the course for many powerful historical women. Presumably there were quite a few Mongol men out there who wanted to be commander of the heavy cavalry, plus fourteen older brothers who feared that she, as the favorite, would get her father’s throne.

Which is exactly hat happened. Kaidu attempted to install Khutulun as katun (the female version of a khan) in Changatai, but was met with stiff resistance from his fourteen sons. Her brother Chapar challenged her while her other brother Orus stood by her side, and Khutulun eventually agreed to withdraw her claim on the condition that she would serve as Chapar’s highest general when he became khan. It didn’t matter though, because the khanate eventually selected a counsin, Duwa, as Kaidu’s successor, leaving both Chapar and Khutulun out of the equation.

After Kaidu’s death, Khutulun’s story becomes unclear. Some say she served as a general for many years before dying in battle, while others say she turned on Duwa trying to claim her rightful throne and was executed for treason. Her life story inspired a tale called “Turandot”, a Persian phrase meaning “Central Asian Daughter”, which eventually evolved into a famous opera by the same name that portrayed her as a once-strong “tigerish” woman forced into submission by her love for a stronger man, completely leaving out the fact that she was one hell of a princess.

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