By the year 1251 when Mongke(1209-1259) was elected the Khan, he ordered his brother Hulegu (1218-1265) to lead an army to conquer the Muslim states in southwest Asia. Hulegu conquered much of the Persian heights. Upon his conquest of Baghdad, he executed the last Caliph in 1258 and declared the establishment of the Ilkhanate. [1]

The Golden Horde, or the ulus of the Jochids, was granted to the descendants of Jochi. During the reign of Berke Khan ( ? – 1266), the empire ruled the Kiqchap steppes and conducted several expeditions to the European states. [2]

Before the death of Mongke, the relationship between the 2 khanates remained cooperative. However, hostility between Hulegu and Berke quickly escalated after the death of Mongke. until war broke out. In the following articles, the origin, process and legacies of the war will be analyzed from Marco Polo‘s account.


From Section 222 to section 227 of Chapter 6, the Description of the World made an account on the wars fought between Hulegu and Berke in the 1260s.


As part of the Toluid civil wars, the rivalry between Hulegu and Berke contributed to the fragmentation of the Mongol empire in the years to come. Their personal conflicts also left legacies for the rivalry between the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate in the next century. By studying from Marco Polo’s description on the war, historians can get a better understanding of the origins of geopolitical conflicts in the region from the wars between Hulegu and Ilkhanate.1


However, the historical value of Marco Polo’s records was often questioned for its lack of authenticity. For Marco Polo, one who did not personally present throughout the rivalries between the khans, it was likely that he learnt about the battles between Hulegu and Berke from the mouths of other travelers or merchants. It was also possible that Marco Polo learnt about the battle from his father or uncle, both of whom were stranded in the city of Bukhara due to the war between Hulegu and Berke. [3]Either way, Marco Polo’s account on the war should be considered as a secondary source. In fact, much of Marco Polo’s account only provided a limited description of one battle, with much imaginary elements on how the battle was fought. The description of the fighting, for instance, was no different from Marco Polo’s usual cliché on other battles and only gave a brief description on the intensity of the combat, while providing little historical inferences.[4]



To evaluate the validity of the Marco Polo’s words, this webpage investigates how reliable Marco Polo’s account on Hulegu-Berke conflicts reflect actual rivalry between the two khans. Based on Marco Polo’s text, we will evaluate the origin and legacy of such rivalry that shaped relationship between Golden Horde and Ilkhanate for the next century.



1 Reliability of Marco Polo’s account on Hulegu-Berke conflicts

  • On the Causes and Preparation of the battle

  • On the Location and Process of the war

2 Legacy of rivalry

3 Evaluation on Marco Polo’s writing

  • On the cause and preparation of the battle

Berke’s personal desire for the rich province of Azerbaijan, as mentioned indirectly in Macro Polo’s text, lead to subsequent military actions aimed at the region. In Section 222, Marco Polo briefly introduced the cause of the war between the two khans and how they prepared for battle. He mentioned that the battle was due to conflict over “a province at the borders between them: for each wanted for himself“. [5] However, Marco Polo did not specify on the location of the province. Historians had suggested that the provinces in Azerbaijan could be Berke’s targets. It was also claimed that according to the last words of Chingiz Khan, the khanate of the Jochids should be given territories “west of the Amuya river and the Aral Sea”. [6] According to Peter Jackson, Berke had taken for granted that “territories south and west of the Amuya” should be naturally regarded as his sphere of influence. [7] Having assisted in the conquest of Iran, Berke may had expected Hulegu to bestow rich pastures in Azerbaijan to him. However, Qubilai ‘s choice to recognize Hulegu’s claim on regions from the west bank of the Amuya river to Egypt went against Berke. This, as a result, clashed directly with Berke’s interests. Also, the Azerbaijan region was home to “strong textile industry” and was a “center of commerce in South Caucasus”. [8]Berke Khan’s interest in Azerbaijan would be reasonable and in accordance with his economics interest. Overall, this confirmed Marco Polo’s account on how “each wanted the province for himself”.


A major limitation on Marco Polo’s records was that it did not identify Azerbaijan as Berke’s target, nor did he account for other reasons behind the war. After conquering Baghdad in 1255, Hulegu’s decision to kill the Caliph angered Berke, who converted to Islam in 1252. [9] In fact, according to Juzjani’s records, Berke was under Islamic influence from other Muslims, such as Sayf al-Din Bakharzi, and had expressed interest into Islam even before his conversion. [10] When Hulegu murdered Caliph Al-Musta’sim, Berke’s fervor into Islam lead to his increased hostility to his southern neighbor. [11] Rashid al-Din had recorded Berke’s vow of vengeance to Hulegu for his atrocity in Baghdad, that he would “call him (Hulegu) to account for so much innocent blood.” and accused him of violating the Great Yasa by killing the Caliph without consultation with other Khans. [12]


Therefore, we can see that religious conflict was an important reason behind the war, one that Marco Polo failed to recognize. It would be understandable for Marco Polo, who did not personally experience the campaigns, to learn only some basics information about it. However, this also meant that Marco Polo’s account only provided brief and limited information on the cause of the war. From the perspective of evaluating an historical account, we may conclude that Marco Polo’s account on the cause of the war, despite being indirectly correct, did not fully introduce the background of the war.

  • On the location and process of the war

In the later sections, Marco Polo introduced the process and location of the battle, how both parties made preparation for it and how the battle was fought. Marco Polo recorded that the location of the main battlefield was “a great plain between the Iron Gate and the Saray Sea”. [13]


By the name “Saray Sea”, it was likely that Marco Polo was referring to the Caspian sea . The “Iron Gate”, one that Marco Polo identified as remnant of Alexander’s walls in the Caucuses, was introduced in Chapter 1 when Marco Polo talked about the Georgian Kingdom.[14] It was often identified as the Pass of Derbend, known to the Arab geographers as the Bab-ul-abwab, or the “Gates of the Gates”. [15]


In Wassaf’s Tarikh-i Wassaf, we could find records of how Berke’s army crossed the Pass of Derbend that confirmed Marco Polo’s account [16]:

“In the winter of 662 (A.D. 1262-1263) when the Almighty Artist had covered the River of Derbend with plates of silver, and the Furrier of the Winter had clad the hills and heaths in ermine; the river being frozen hard as a rock to the depth of a spear’s length, an army of Mongols went forth at the command of Barka Aghul…”


While Marco Polo only recorded one battle that Hulegu had won, battles continued to be fought and ultimately resulted in the defeat of Hulegu. According to Wassaf, 30,000 men from Kipchak, under the command of Nogai, “passed Derbend into the province of Shirwan”.[17] They were at first successful in the one battle that Marco Polo described. In December, Hulegu, at the head of a great army, passed Derbend, and routed the forces which met him. After several engagements, Hulegu was defeated and forced to retreat to Tabriz. Berke had also retreated due to “heavy attrition due to the weather and terrain.” [18] Therefore, we can see that Marco Polo, while gave a literary description of the battle, did not point to specific details of strategies or tactics employed.


Also, Marco Polo’s description on the military organizations of the two khanates were not entirely accurate. The number of combatants, to begin with, was often exaggerated. In the section where Marco Polo described the process of the battle, he described how both parties had used large amount of army. While Berke amassed around 350,000 men, Hulegu brought 300,000. [19] The figure on Hulegu’s side matched with the Rashid al-Din’s records on the battle of Ayn Jalut, that “Kedbuqa defiantly tells his Mamluk captors that Hulegu has 300,000 horsemen and could afford to lose him.” [20]Al-Umari also reported the military strength of the Ilkhanate as “able to raise around 30 tumens in its heyday”. [21] While historical records seem to prove Marco Polo correct, it was unlikely that both parties could effectively command a battle involving over 600,000 men. Many historians questioned the actual number of soldiers described by Marco Polo. Alsu Arslanova suggested that Marco Polo may had “inflated the number” purposely to represent the intensity of the combat. [22] On the other hand, Peter Jackson pointed out Marco Polo’s account “doubtlessly represented the total strength notionally available to a ruler”, that Marco Polo borrowed the total number of soldiers in each khanate to represent the number of combatants involved in the battle. [23] This was possibly due to a lack of information available to Marco Polo, that he had limited access to actual information of the battle.


Marco Polo’s description of the process of the battle, overall, provided an accurate account of the location of the battlefield. The exaggeration of the number of combatants, however, undermines the reliability of Marco Polo’s account on the battle. Also, the negligence on battles that followed Berke’s retreat failed to provide readers with a thorough context of the eventual outcome of the war.


The legacies of Hulegu—Berke rivalries left profound legacies for both Golden Horde and Ilkhanate. In Hulegu’s attempt to conquer Syria, the Golden Horde also dispatched an army to help his cousin. When their relationships worsened, some of these troops remained in Ilkhannid territories. Some were killed under Hulegu’s orders. A small amount of these men, around 300, fled to the Mamluk empire where they “were cordially treated and placed in houses constructed for them in al-Luka”. [24] As a result, the conditions of “an alliance between Golden Horde and Mamluk became more favorable”. [25] To reinforce such alliance, Berke had married his daughter to the Mamluk sultan Baibars and bore him Al-Said Barakah, who was named after Berke khan as a sign of friendship. [26 ]The war with Ilkhanate helped align Golden Horde and the Mamluks for the next century. When wars constantly broke out across the Caucasus and Khurasan regions, Mamluks contiuend to threaten Ilkhannid forces from Syria. While the alliance would never result in tangible military cooperation between them, it did mean that Hulegu and his heirs were stuck between two antagonistic powers on their north and south; leaving one border alone too long would allow either the Jochids or Mamluks to attack. This process of opposition continued for almost a century with alternating periods of temporary fragile peace. [27]


For the Mongol empire, this was the first time that two Mongols khans turned against each other. For Peter Jackson, he commented this as the end of a unitary empire, that Hulegu—Berke war represented the “dissolution of the Mongol empire” [28] Although Chinggisids continued to rule, there would no longer be a unified attempt of expansion. Rather, the Mongol empire was fragmented into separate uluses with a common lineage existing only by its name.


Overall, we can conclude that Marco Polo’s account on Hulegu-Berke conflicts to be a generally accurate reflection. We can find relevant historical accounts on the same matter from the documents of historians of the time. However, we should not neglect on the limitation of Marco Polo’s lack of details and further discussions of key information. His description of only one battle, which resulted in the victory of Hulegu, was insufficient for historians to study the entire war which both parties suffered great losses. In addition, his exaggeration of the number of combatants from both parties prevented historians to learn about the actual details of the battle. This could be understandable, from the context of historical evaluation, that Marco Polo’s work was suffice for historians to study about the origin of the conflicts between the two khans. Although Marco Polo’s writing on battles was literary more than descriptive, his writing style does not prevent us from learning about some important information of the battle.

Moreover, Marco Polo’s discussion of Hulegu—Berke conflicts acts as an introduction to other conflicts discussed in chapter 6. Although rivalries and conflicts between Mongol lords had been common, war was never used as a resolution before the 1260s. In that sense, HuleguBerke war set the precedent for other Mongol lords. It was just years later when the war between Qaidu and Qubilai broke out that truly marked the end of a unified Mongol empire. Within independent khanates, wars would be fought between Mongol lords as historians could learn from Marco Polo’s account on the succession crisis in Ilkhanate and war between Toqto’a and Nogai.

Beyond Mongol borders, Hulegu—Berke conflicts had shaped the geopolitical situation in the middle east and Greater Turkey region. Rivalries between the two continued in later years and helped forge alliance between the Mamluks and the Golden Horde. Instead of continuing expansion, Golden Horde and Ilkhanate engaged in consistent wars in the following century. This transition from external wars to internal conflicts dominated in both the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate. Therefore, we can say that HuleguBerke war had constructed the foundation of a balance of power in the middle east region, and left enduring legacies that contributed to the fragmentation of the Mongol empire.


[1] Jackson, Peter. p 126.


[2] Morgan, David. location 1490- 1543.


[3] Yule, Henry. p 494.


[4] Description of the World. p 261-267


[5] Description of the World. p 262


[6]Amuya river is also known as the Amu- Darya river, Arslanova, p 289.


[7] Pelliot, Paul p 95-96.


[8] Arslanova, p 283-284.


[9] Jackson,Peter p 139-142


[10] Jackson,Peter p 142


[11] Pelliot, Paul p 34


[12] Jackson,Peter p 129


[13]Description of the World p 264-265

[14] Description of the World p 65-67.


[15] Yule, Henry p 490-496.


[16] Wassaf, p 163-164.


[17] Wassaf, p 163-164.


[18] Morgan, David location 1629-1711.


[19] Description of the World p 265.


[20] al-Din, Rashid p 144-156.


[21] Jackson, Peter p 255-260.


[22] Arslanova, p 274.


[23] Jackson,Peter p 202-203.


[24] Halperin, Charles J. p 237.


[25] Halperin, Charles J. p 231-234.


[26] Pelliot, Paul p 98.


[27] Biran, Michal. p 6.


[28] Jackson, Peter p 133-135.

  • 1 Arslanova, Alsu A. “Russian Research on the Interrelations of the Golden Horde with the Ilkhans of Iran and the Chaghatayids.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol. 58, no. 3, 2005, pp. 277–293., doi:10.1556/aorient.58.2005.3.6.

  • 2 “Berca .” Notes on Marco Polo Volume 1, by Paul Pelliot, Imprimerie Nationale, 1963, pp. 93–98.

  • 3 Biran, Michal. “Il-Khanate Empire.” The Encyclopedia of Empire, 2016, pp. 1–6., doi:10.1002/9781118455074.wbeoe362.

  • 4 “Golden Horde.” Taḥrīr-i Tārīh̲-i Waṣṣāf, by Ibn-Faḍlallāh Waṣṣāf al-Haḍrat ʻAbdallāh and Āyatī ʻAbd-al-Muḥammad, Mu’assasa-i Muṭālaʻāt Wa Taḥqīqāt-i Farhangī, 1993, pp. 145–177.

  • 5 Halperin, Charles J. “The Kipchak Connection: the Ilkhans, the Mamluks and Ayn Jalut.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 63, no. 2, 2000, pp. 229–245., doi:10.1017/s0041977x00007205.

  • 6 Jackson, Peter. “Hülegü’s Campaigns and Imperial Fragmentation (1253–62).” The Mongols and the Islamic World, 2017, doi:10.12987/yale/9780300125337.003.0006.

  • 7 Jackson, Peter. “The Era of Inter-Mongol Warfare.” The Mongols and the Islamic World, 2017, pp. 182–209., doi:10.12987/yale/9780300125337.003.0008.

  • 8 Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2008.

  • 9 Ṭabīb Rashīd al-Dīn. The Successors of Genghis Khan. Columbia University Press, 1971.

  • 10 Yule, Henry et al. The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Murray, 1920.