When it comes to the history of Mongols, most people are aware of Genghis Khan and his expeditions/conquests. However, the same amount of recognition is not enjoyed by many other Mongol leaders — some far greater than Genghis himself. In this article, I will be writing about one such man who was one of the greatest leaders the Mongol world ever produced — Berke Khan.
Berke Khan (also spelled as Birkai Khan) was the grandson of Genghis Khan. Much like other Mongols, Berke too began his military career at a young age. He took part in several military expeditions, but the highlight of his career was his rule over the Golden Horde (1257-66), one of the most powerful states within the Mongol Empire.
Berke embraced Islam in 1252 in Bukhara. It is said that he met a caravan that was passing through the city and questioned them about their faith. Impressed by Islamic concepts of iconoclasm and faith, Berke became a devout Muslim and remained so all his life.
Hulagu Khan was another grandson of Genghis Khan (and Berke’s cousin). He was the leader of the Ilkhanate, another semi-autonomous state within the Mongol Empire.
Enamoured by the beauty of his Christian consort Doquz Khatun, Hulagu harboured a dislike for everyone that Khatun disliked. Naturally, when the apostles of the Nestorian Church visited Hulagu, they found it easier to woo him against ‘the infidel Muslims’. Eager to impress his consort-queen, Hulagu marched onwards to demolish the Islamic World. 
Hulagu’s path of destruction lasted for years. Starting from Persia in 1256, he set out to bring down virtually every major state that stood in his way. In 1258, following the Battle of Baghdad, Hulagu’s forces destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate and murdered the then-Caliph Al Musta’sim Billah. Killing the titular leader of the Islamic World was a major blow.
The Ayyubids of Damascus too fell prey to Hulagu’s merciless onslaught. Noticing the fact that Mongols were a formidable force and going by the concept of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, many kingdoms of Christendom, including several Crusader states, were happy to offer support to Mongols.
Mongols and the Mamluks
Having taken out all the major Muslim powers of West Asia and supported by vassal states such as the kingdoms of Georgia and Cilician Armenia, Hulagu turned his attention towards the Mamluk Sultanate. He sent his envoy to Sultan Qutuz of Mamluks with the following letter: 
From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords. You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor armies stop us.
Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.
It is said Sultan Qutuz was infuriated by the tone of the letter (especially the part in bold above), and responded by executing the Mongol envoy. Surely not a very Islamic thing to do!
It was easy to guess that Mamluks were possibly no match for the Mongols and their allies. However, Allah had other plans. The Great Khan died in China, and Hulagu had to retreat home. Plus, he could not sustain a very large army economically for a longer duration.
This was when the Mamluks saw the opportunity and grabbed it. Sultan Qutuz and Baibars led the expedition against the remaining Mongol forces in the region and was able to successfully defeat Hulagu’s generals and their Georgian/Armenian allies at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, 1260.
This, of course, did not sit well with Hulagu himself. Upon return from China, he decided to make the mission against the Mamluks his personal goal.
The Berke-Hulagu War
In 1262, Hulagu decided to launch a campaign against the Muslim states to avenge the defeat at Ayn Jalut. Fuelled by vengeance and commanding a military force much larger than that of Mamluks, Hulagu was certainly capable enough to decimate his opponents.
This was where Berke Khan stepped up. In his letter addressed to the Great Khan of Mongols, Berke wrote: 
Hulagu has sacked all the cities of the Muslims, and has brought about the death of the Caliph. With the help of Allah, I will call him to account for so much innocent blood.
And Berke kept his word.
Hulagu could not launch any further attack on Muslim lands. The Berke-Hulagu War of 1262 was the first major civil war in the western Mongol Empire. Fought in the Caucasus Mountains, this war resulted in the effective end of Hulagu’s power. His forces were crushed near the Terek river by Berke’s nephew Nogai, and Hulagu was forced to retreat. He died in 1265, thus ending his reign of terror against the Muslims.
While Berke Khan was quick to respond to the crisis, he was hesitant in fighting Hulagu, his cousin. In his own words: 
Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world.
But Berke could not sit by and watch Hulagu kill millions of innocent people with each passing day. He had to do the needful, and that he did.
Berke Khan: Legacy
Berke Khan passed away roughly a year after Hulagu, in 1266-67. He was succeeded by his grand-nephew, Mengu-Timur, who continued Berke’s policy of alliance with the Mamluks and opposition to the Ilkhanate.
In his short tenure as the Khan of the Golden Horde, Berke left a long-lasting impact. While most historians are quick to view the Battle of Ayn Jalut as the decisive event that checked Mongol onslaught, it was only a partial victory. Hulagu himself was not part of the battle. While the Mamluks were still outnumbered and outmatched, and defeating Hulagu’s generals and their allies was a praiseworthy feat, the threat was not fully averted.
It was only through Berke Khan’s efforts that massacres of Muslims came to a halt. The intervention by Berke Khan saved Islamic Holy Cities, including Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, from the forces of Hulagu. Everyone had witnessed how millions were killed in cold blood during the Fall of Baghdad, all thanks to Hulagu. If it were not for Berke Khan, many other cities would have suffered the same fate.
It is rather unfortunate that many modern-day students of History have not even heard of Berke Khan.
Sure, he was probably not an exemplar of sainthood. But Berke Khan was someone who realized that murder in cold blood, as perpetrated by Hulagu, was wrong. He did not shy away from doing the right thing at the right time. Unlike the leaders of today, Berke Khan did not hide behind diplomacy or personal gains or fake borders of nationhood.
- Jackson, Peter (2014). The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-87898-8.
- Blair, S. (1995). A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Din’s Illustrated History of the World. Nour Foundation.
- Johan Elverskog (6 June 2011). Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-0531-6.
- Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons
- Other Images (order of appearance): 1 / 2 / 3
- A version of this article appeared in Muslim Memo