Chaghatai Khan

The Central Asia khanate of Chaghatai was ruled by Genghis Khan's second son Chaghatai and his descendants. It embraced most of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and western Xinjiang. From their seat on Lake Balkhash, Asia's third largest lake, in present-day Kazakhstan, the Mongol leader ruled over a rough, frontier kingdom made up mostly of horsemen tribes similar to the Mongols. Chaghatai attempted to preserve the nomadic style of the Mongols. For a while their "capital" was a tent encampment. Over time the Chaghatai became more settled and formed closer ties with their Muslim subjects. Many Mongols converted to Islam and leaders even entertained the idea.

The Chagatai Khanate (Mongolian: Tsagadai Khan Ul) was a Turko-Mongol khanate that comprised the lands ruled by Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, and his descendents and successors. Initially it was a part of the Mongol Empire, but it later became fully independent when the Yuan Dynasty fell in the late 14th century. The Chagatai Khans themselves recognized the sovereignty of the Mongolian Khagans between 1206 and 1270 and 1304 and 1368. At its height in the late 13th century, the Khanate extended from the Amu Darya south of the Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains in the border of modern-day Mongolia and China.[Source: Project Gutenberg ]

The khanate lasted in one form or another from 1220s until the late 17th century, although the western half of the khanate was lost to Tamerlane in the 1360s. The eastern half remained under Chagatai khans who were, at times, allied or at war with Timur's successors. Finally, in the 17th century, the remaining Chagatai domains fell under the theocratic regime of Apaq Khoja and his descendants, the Khojijans, who ruled Xinjiang under Dzungar and Manchu overlordships consecutively.

Formation of the Chagatai Khanate

Genghis Khan's empire was inherited by his third son, Ögedei, the designated Great Khan who personally controlled the lands east of Lake Balkash as far as Mongolia. Tolui, the youngest, the keeper of the hearth, was accorded the northern Mongolian homeland. Chagatai, the second son, received Transoxania, between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in modern Uzbekistan, and the area around Kashgar. He made his capital at Almaliq near what is now Yining in northwestern China. Apart from problems of lineage and inheritance, the Mongol Empire was endangered by the great cultural and ethnic divide between the Mongols themselves and their mostly Islamic Turkic subjects. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

When Ögedei died before achieving his dream of conquering all of China, there was an unsettled transition to his son Güyük (1241) overseen by Ögedei's wife Töregene who had assumed the regency for the five years following Ögedei's death. The transition had to be ratified in a kurultai, which was duly celebrated, but without the presence of Batu, the independent-minded khan of the Golden Horde. After Güyük's death, Batu sent Berke, who maneuvered with Tolui's widow, and, in the next kurultai (1253), the Ögedite line was passed over for Möngke, Tolui's son, who was said to be favorable to Nestorian Christianity. The Ögedite ulus was dismembered; only the Ögedites who not immediately go into opposition were given minor fiefs.

Chagatai Khanate after Chagatai

Chaghatai's funeral

Chagatai died in 1242, shortly after his brother Ögedei. For nearly twenty years after this the Chagatai Khanate was little more than a dependency of the Mongol central government, which deposed and appointed khans as it pleased. The cities of Transoxiana (present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), while located within the boundaries of the khanate, were administrated by officials who answered directly to the Great Khan. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

This state of subservience to the central government was ended during the reign of Chagatai's grandson Alghu (1260–1266), who took advantage of the civil war between Khubilai and Ariq Boke by revolting against the latter, seizing new territories and gaining the allegiance of the Great Khan's authorities in Transoxiana. Most of the Chagatayids first supported Khubilai but in 1269 they joined forces with the House of Ogedei.

Alghu's eventual successor, Baraq (1266–1271), who expelled the Khubilai Khan's governor in Sinkiang soon came into conflict with the Ögedite Kaidu (Qaidu), who gained the support of the Golden Horde and attacked the Chagatayids. Baraq was soon confined to Transoxiana and forced to become a vassal of Kaidu. At the same time, he was at odds with Abaqa, the Ilkhan, who ruled his Ilkhanate in Persia. Baraq attacked first, but was defeated by the Ilkhanate army and forced to return to Transoxiana, where he died not long after.

The next several Chagatayid khans were appointed by Kaidu, who maintained a hold upon the khanate until his death. He finally found a suitable khan in Baraq's son Duwa (1282–1307), who participated in Kaidu's wars with Khubilai khan and his successors of the Yuan Dynasty. The two rulers also were active against the Ilkhanate. After Kaidu's death in 1301, Duwa threw off his allegiance to his successor. He also made peace with the Yuan Dynasty and paid tributes to the Yuan court; by the time of his death the Chagatai Khanate was a virtually independent state.

End of Chagatayid rule in Transoxiana

Duwa left behind numerous sons, many of whom became khans themselves. Included among these are Kebek (1309, 1318–1326), who instituted a standardization of the coinage and selected a sedentary capital (at Qarshi), and Tarmashirin (1326–1334), who converted to Islam and raided the Sultanate of Delhi in India. The center of the khanate was shifting to its western regions, i.e. Transoxiana. Tarmashirin, however, was brought down by a rebellion of the tribes in the eastern provinces and the khanate became increasingly unstable in the following years. In 1346 a tribal chief, Qazaghan, killed the Chagatai khan Qazan during a revolt. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

Qazan's death marked the end of effective Chagatayid rule over Transoxiana. Administration of the region fell into the hands of the local tribes (which were mostly Turkic or Turko-Mongol) who were loosely allied with one another. In order to legitimatize their rule, they maintained a member of the house of Genghis Khan on the throne, but these khans were no more than puppets.[21] Using the disintegration, Janibeg Khan of the Golden Horde asserted Jochid dominance over the Chagatai Khanate, attempting to unite 3 khanates of the Mongol Empire. But the Jochids lost Azerbaijan to the Jalayirids and the Chagataids expelled his administrators after his death in 1357.

The only serious attempt to restore Chagatayid rule in Transoxiana came from Tughlugh Timur (who will be discussed below), who invaded Transoxiana twice and attempted to neutralize the power of the tribes. He was unsuccessful, however, and died soon afterwards. When his army departed the region, control of Transoxiana was contested by two tribal leaders, Amir Husayn (the grandson of Qazaghan) and Timur or Tamerlane. Timur eventually defeated Amir Husayn and took control of Transoxiana (1369–1405).

Like his predecessors, Timur maintained a puppet khan on the throne to legitimatize his rule, but his khans were members of the house of Ögedei, not descendants of Chagatai. For over three decades, Timur used the Chagatai lands as the base for extensive conquests, conquering Herat in Afghanistan, Shiraz in Persia, Baghdad in Iraq, and Damascus in Syria. After defeating the Ottoman Turks at Angora, Timur died in 1405 while marching on China. After his death his successors, the Timurids, are also reported to have had their own shadow khans until the mid-15th century. Nevertheless, the Chagatai legacy lived on; Timur's troops were called Chagatais, and the literary language used the Timurids and their Moghul neighbors to the east was called Chagatai Turkic.

Chaghatai Khanate and Mongol Empire in 1294

In Battuta in Central Asia

Between 1330 and 1333, the great Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta took the long route on the Silk Road between the Middle East and India by traveling through modern-day Turkey, Iran, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ibn Battuta spent 40 days traveling in a wagon shared with three slave girls from the Golden Horde capital of New Sara to Khwariszm, an affluent oasis south of the Aral Sea, and then spent 18 more days traveling across the desert to Samarkand.

From Samarkand, as usual, he took a roundabout route to India, passing through Meshed and Neyshabur, Persia and the desert plateau of northern Afghanistan. At Kunduz he camped for six weeks to allow his horses to graze in the high altitude pastures before tackling the snowy passes of the Hindu Kush.

Chagatayid Rule Continued in East Turkestan

In the mid-14th century, the Chaghatai khanate was split by a rivalry between Mongol shamanist in the east (the Tien Shan region, western China and northern Kazakhstan) and Mongols who had adopted Islam in the west (Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan)

Beginning in the mid-14th century a new khanate, in the form of a nomadic tribal confederacy headed by a member of the family of Chagatai, arose in the region of the Ili River. It is therefore considered to be a continuation of the Chagatai Khanate, but it is also referred to as the Moghul Khanate, since its tribal inhabitants were originally considered to be pure "Moghuls" (i.e., Mongols), in contrast to the mostly Turkic and Turkicised Mongols of Transoxiana. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

The eastern regions of the Chagatai Khanate in the early 14th century had been inhabited by a number of Mongol nomadic tribes. These tribes resented the conversion of Tarmashirin to Islam and the move of the khan to the sedentary areas of Transoxiana. They were behind the revolt that ended in Tarmashirin's death. One of the khans that followed Tarmashirin, Changshi, favored the east and was anti-Muslim.

In the 1340s as a series of ephemeral khans struggled to hold power in Transoxiana, little attention was paid by the Chagatayids to the eastern regions. As a result, the eastern tribes there were virtually independent. The most powerful of the tribes, the Dughlats, controlled extensive territories in Moghulistan and the western Tarim Basin. In 1347 the Dughlats decided to appoint a khan of their own, and raised the Chagatayid Tughlugh Timur to the throne.

Chaghatai Khan was baptized according to Marco Polo

Chagatai in the Age of Tamerlane

The Chaghatai khanate became weak, paving the way for a new power to emerge in Central Asia: Tamerlane (Timur). Tughlugh Timur (1347–1363) was thereby made the head of a tribal confederacy that governed the Tarim Basin and the steppe area of Moghulistan (named after the Moghuls). His reign was contemporaneous with the series of puppet khans that ruled in Transoxiana, meaning that there were now effectively two khanates headed by Chagatayids: one in the west, centered in Transoxiana, and one in the east, centered in Moghulistan. Unlike the khans in the west, however, Tughlugh Timur was a strong ruler who converted to Islam (1354) and sought to reduce the power of the Dughlats. In 1360 he took advantage of a breakdown of order in Transoxiana and his legitimacy as descendant of Chagatai Khan to invade the region and take control of it, thereby temporarily reuniting the two khanates. Despite invading a second time in 1361 and appointing his son Ilyas Khoja as governor of Transoxiana, however, Tughlugh Timur was unable to keep a lasting hold on the region, and the Moghuls were ultimately expelled by Amir Husayn and Timur, who then fought amongst themselves for control of Transoxiana. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

Chagatayid rule in Moghulistan was temporarily interrupted by the coup of the Dughlat amir Qamar ud-Din, who likely killed Ilyas Khoja and several other Chagatayids. The Moghuls that remained obedient to him were constantly at war with Timur, who invaded Moghulistan several times but was unable to force its inhabitants into submission. A Chagatayid restoration occurred in the 1380s, but the Dughlats retained an important position within the khanate; for the next forty years they installed several khans of their own choosing.

This cycle was broken by Uwais Khan (1418–1428), a devout Muslim who was frequently at war with the Oirats (Western Mongols) who roamed in the area east of Lake Balkash. He was usually defeated and even captured twice by the Oirat Esen Tayishi, but was able to secure his release both times. Uvais Khan was followed by Esen Buqa (1428–1462), who frequently raided the Timurid Empire to the west. Late in his reign he was contested by his brother Yunus Khan (1462–1487), who had raised to the khanship by the Timurids in an attempt to counter Esen Buqa. Yunus Khan defeated the Uzbeks and maintained good relations with the Kazakhs and Timurids, but the western Tarim Basin was lost to a revolt by the Dughlats. In 1484 he captured Tashkent from the Timurids.

Turkification of the Mongols in Central Asia

During the fifteenth century the Moghul khans became increasingly Turkified. Yunus Khan is even mentioned to have the looks of a Tajik instead of those of a Mongol. This Turkification may not have been as extensive amongst the general Moghul population, who were also slower to convert to Islam than the khan and top amirs (although by the mid-fifteenth century the Moghuls were considered to be largely Muslim). The khans also adopted the Islamic sharia in favor of the Mongol Yassa. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

After Yunus Khan's death his territories were divided by his sons. Ahmad Khan (1487–1503), who took eastern Moghulistan and Uighuristan, fought a series of successful wars against the Oirats, raided Chinese territory and attempted to seize the western Tarim Basin from the Dughlats, although he was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1503 he traveled west to assist his brother Mahmud Khan (1487–1508), the ruler of Tashkent and western Moghulistan, against the Uzbeks under Muhammad Shaybani. The brothers were defeated and captured; they were released but Tashkent was seized by the Uzbeks. Ahmad Khan died soon after and was succeeded by his son Mansur Khan (1503–1545), who captured Hami, a Chinese dependency, in 1513. Mahmud Khan spent several years trying to regain his authority in Moghulistan; he eventually gave up and submitted to Muhammad Shaybani, who executed him.

Mansur Khan's brother Sultan Said Khan (1514–1533) conquered the western Tarim Basin from the Dughlats in 1514 and set himself up in Kashgar. Thereafter the Moghul Khanate was permanently divided, although Sultan Said Khan was nominally a vassal of Mansur Khan in Turpan. After Sultan Said Khan's death he was succeeded by Abdurashid Khan (1533–1565), who began his reign by executing a member of the Dughlat family. A nephew of the dead amir, Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat fled to Mughal Empire in India and eventually conquered Kashmir, where he wrote a history of the Moghuls. Abdurrashid Khan also fought for control of Moghulistan against the Kirghiz and the Kazakhs, but Moghulistan was ultimately lost; thereafter the Moghuls were largely restricted to possession of the Tarim Basin.

End of Chagatayid Rule

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Moghul khanate of Kashgar underwent a period of decentralization, with numerous subkhanates springing up with centers at Kashgar, Yarkand, Aksu and Khotan. At the same time, the khans increasingly gave up secular power to the khojas, until they were the effectively the governing power in Kashgaria. The khojas themselves were divided into two sects: the Aq Taghlik and the Kara Taghlik. [Source: Project Gutenberg ]

This situation persisted until the 1670s, when the Moghul khans apparently tried to reassert their authority by expelling the leader of the Aq Taghlik. The Aq Taghlik responded by requesting the assistance of the Dzungars (who were Oirats); the Dzungars invaded Kashgaria, imprisoned the khan, and installed the Aq Taghlik in Kashgar. They also helped the Aq Taghlik overcome the Kara Taghlik in Yarkand. A short time later, the Moghul kingdom of Turpan and Hami was also conquered by the Dzungars, although its ruling dynasty remained in place until 1930. Maqsud Shah was the last of them, who died in 1930. The Tarim Basin fell under the overall rule of the Dzungars until it was taken by the Manchu Emperors of China in the mid-18th century.


Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “From the end of the fourteenth century, all nomadic clans of different extraction who lived on the steppes between the Ural and the Irtysh rivers were known under the collective name of the Uzbeks. In the fifteenth century they formed an autarchic community with the beginnings of state organisation, of which the Chengiz-inspired ‘decimal’ military machine was the most notable feature. Like any other nomadic polity, it was bedevilled by the absence of legitimacy and clear rules of succession, and the central political authority remained viable only as long as it could wage successful wars, which provided clan aristocracy with plunder and status. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“By 1512, the Uzbeks had gradually conquered Mavarannahr and pushed vast masses of the sedentary population out of the fertile river valleys. This was the last large-scale influx of nomads into Turkestan. Afterwards, a distinctive demographic pattern emerged in what now is Tajikistan: mountainous regions were inhabited almost exclusively by the Tajiks; the broad river valleys and steppes were dominated by the Kipchak Uzbeks; while the expansive transitional areas between the two ethnic and geographic zones were characterised by a mixture of the indigenous sedentary population (Tajik and Turkic) and semi-nomadic Uzbeks. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Chagatai Khanate in 1490

“Once the Uzbeks captured Mavarannahr, each clan was quartered around a certain city from which it collected taxes. In such circumstances the demise of the state of the nomadic Uzbeks was inevitable, but permanent warfare against the Safavids put it off until the mid 1580s. The Khans tried to find alternative means to create unity amongst the clans and sponsored Sufi orders, especially Naqshbandiya, to this end. This policy backfired, however, for the dervish brotherhoods failed to engender strong bonds in the society, and at the same time these orders became substantial economic and political forces themselves, due to lavish endowments made by the rulers. At the end of the sixteenth century, ‘the Uzbek polity demilitarised itself and became a kind of Polish commonwealth: weak king, irresponsible aristocracy and dominant clericalism. The dervish orders became the leading institution in state, society and culture.’

“The period of feudal sedition that ensued had disastrous results for Turkestan, comparable with those produced by the Mongol invasion. The endless fighting amongst Uzbek clans, exacerbated by the dramatic decline of the transcontinental caravan trade in the seventeenth century, led to economic devastation, which reached its nadir in the first half of the eighteenth century, when ‘there were no citizens left in Samarkand’ and ‘Bukhara had only two inhabited mahallas’. Even the rise of relatively centralised states—the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva and later Kokand—could not reverse the trend. The history of the principality of Uroteppa is illustrative of this process. In the period 1800–66, Uroteppa (Istaravshon) suffered some 50 attacks; as a result, it lost two-thirds of its population and turned into ‘one of the most devastated areas of Central Asia’.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.