In April 1282, Abaqa Khan had died. When Abaqa’s son, Arghun, was on his way attending the assembly of election, Abaqa’s brother Ahmad succeeded the throne with consensus of the majority presented at the court. Although Arghun was forced to acquiesce, he was suspicious that the Juvayni brothers, supporters of Ahmad, poisoned Abaqa Khan to death. [5] Thus, Arghun made allegiance to minor nobles and amirs and planned for rebellion against Ahmad. In 1284, the tension between Arghun and Ahmad broke into open conflict. In a battle, Arghun was captured and imprisoned by Ahmad. However, Buqa, a baron who lost Ahmad’s favour, helped Arghun escape. In August 1284, the succession crisis in Ilkhanate ended with Arghun’s enthronement and Ahmad’s execution. [1]



In Chapter Six of The Description of the World, Marco Polo recounts the succession crisis in Ilkhanate in detail. Since Marco Polo‘s travels notes is crucial for the study of history of the Mongol empire, in this project, I am going to analyze the reliability of Marco Polo’s account of the succession crisis in Ilkanate from three aspects:

  1. Cause of rivalry between Arghun and Ahmad

  2. The Battle between Arghun and Ahmad

  3. Arghun’s escape

Legitimacy of Succession

When Abaqa Khan died in April 1282, Arghun was governor in Khurasan. Since Arghun was far in the east, Ahmad “went straight to his brother Abaqa’s court, took power and made himself lord“ (Polo 200). Although Ahmad was chosen by consensus in the election, Arghun resented Ahmad’s enthronement because Arghun was nominated by Abaqa as his heir. [5]

We can see the disagreement between Arghun and Ahmad, regarding right of succession, in their speech. In Arghun’s council with his people, he said, “you certainly know how my father loved you tendered…You know that I am the son of the one who loved you so much. And so, since this is the truth as I have told you, it is right and reasonable that you should aid me against the one who is acting contrary to reason and right…Certainly, each one of you should take comfort that we will win the battle because we are right and our enemies are wrong” (Polo 203). Because Arghun believed himself, the heir of Abaqa, to be the legitimate successor of the throne, he viewed Ahmad as a “disloyal traitor” (Polo 204) who had stolen his position.

Ahmad, on the other hand, responded to his nephew Arghun by saying: “My nephew says nothing. For the land is mine and not his; for I conquered it just as well as his father” (Polo 203) “It is quite true that Arghun was my brother Abaqa’s son and that some would say that the lordship was coming to him; but…this would not be a reasonable or worthy thing” (Polo 201). Ahmad recognizes that Arghun was the heir of Abaqa, but, to him, it did not mean that Arghun had a right of succession over him. [2]


Division of Religion

More than disagreement on legitimacy of succession, the rivalry between Arghun and Ahmad arose on the division of religion in Ilkhanate. While Arghun had taken Buddhist belief seriously, Ahmad declared conversion to Islam in the 1280s and adopted the Muslim name of Ahmad. [1] The division of religion happened not only to the two rulers, but also to their followers and the Ilkhante of Persia. Arghun and Ahmad’s subjects mostly followed the same religion with their leader, which not only made the alliances inseparable but also intensified the rivalry between Arghun, Ahmad, and their supporters. For instance, before Arghun and his people went into the battle with Ahmad, Arghun used the fact that Ahmad was a Mulism to summon the spirits of his people:

“You also know in all truth how he is not of our faith, but abandons it and has become Saracen and woships Muhammad. Now you see what kind of thing it would be for Saracens to have lordship over Tartars…you must grow your hearts and your will to do what it takes for this not to happen” (Polo, 201). Thus, we can see that religion plays an important role in this succession dispute.


Tribal Factionalism
Furthermore, the tension between Ahmad and Arghun reflected the tribal factionalism among amirs that was developing in Ilkhanate at that time. Initially, the majority of nobles and amirs supported Ahmad, including Shīktūr Jouan and Būqā of the Jalayir tribe, the most powerful Ilkhanid amirs. As Arghun had yet arrived to the court, Ahmad was elected and enthroned in May 1282. [4] After Ahmad’s enthronement, Arghun planned rebellion by making alliances. With the support of a significant group including “Arghun’s brother Gaikuhatu, his cousin Baidu, and various noyans who had served his father”(Jackson 371), Arghun went back to assume the lordship. Later, with the help of Buqa, a powerful Amir from Jalayir tribe, Arghun got support from the nobles and amirs who used to support Ahmad and was eventually enthroned in 1284. [6]

Abaqa’s death

So far, Marco Polo’s account of this event is accurate. His description matches with that of the other sources. However, Marco Polo fails to mention an important cause that led Arghun to open rebellion: Arghun was suspicious that Ahmad’s supporters, the Juvayni brothers, was responsible for Abaqa’s sudden death. [5] Neglect to mention this crucial factor to Arghun’s rebellion undermines Marco Polo’s reliability.



In Marco Polo’s account, the battle between Arghun and Ahmad was “very cruel and terrible” (Polo 204). However, none of the sources give detail of this specific battle. If the battle between Arghun and Ahmad suffered such heavy casualties as Marco Polo depicts, it would be unlikely there is no record of this severe clash. Also, Marco Polo’s description of this battle is identical with that of the other battles in The Description of the World. “Particularly towards the end there are set battle-scenes, in which identical phrases occur with remorseless regularity: men and horses are slain in profusion, severed arms and legs strewn about, and the din is so great that ‘you could not hear God thundering’”(Jackson 87). From his dramatic and repetitive portrayal of the battle-scenes, it is reasonable to suggest that Marco Polo has exaggerated the scale of the battle between Arghun and Ahmad. The fact that The Description of the World was not written alone by Marco Polo adds on to that. Since Marco Polo’s co-writer, Rusticello, was a professional romance-writer, it is very likely that he used exaggeration to add style to the work, which makes the account of the battle between Arghun and Ahmad less reliable. [3]


In the battle, Arghun was caught and imprisoned by Ahmad. When Arghun was in despair, a great Tatar baron, Buqa, gathered a group of people and rescued Arghun.

Why did Buqa risk to save Arghun?

According to Marco Polo, Buqa wanted to help Arghun because of pity and guilt. Buqa “took great pity on Arghun and said to himself that they were committing a bad and very disloyal act to hold their lord captive…So he he didn’t delay, but immediately went to many other barons and said to them that they were doing a very bad thing to hold their liege lord captive, and it would be a very good things if they delivered him and made him their lord as he should be” (Polo 205). The other barons that Buqa spoke to recognized his words as the truth and agreed to help Arghun. [2]
But, is Marco Polo’s description accurate here? Is it possible that some random barons on Ahmad’s court decided to help their lord’s rival escape just out of pity?

When we look into other sources, the case seems to be more complex. Buqa Jalayir was actually an orphan raised by Abaqa and served Abaqa during his reign. He sought to repay Abaqa by enthroning his son Arghun. [3] But as Ahmad was seated on the throne with the support of most nobles and amirs, Buqa left Arghun and became Tamghāchī and chief military commander under Ahmad. Although Buqa achieved a high status, he harboured resentment and inclined to support Arghun’s rebellion because of Ahmad’s distrust and ignore: Ahmad ordered his amirs to not transgress Buqa’s command and favored Buqa’s rival Āq Būqā over him. [5] When Arghun was held captive, the opportunity came to Buqa. So, “with the help of his brothers and two other Jalayir Kinsmen, [Buqa] engineered a coup that freed Arghun and began a purge of Ahmad Tegüder’s supporters” (Wing 51). By the time Arghun was enthroned, he gained consensus from the nobles and amirs who used to support Ahmad. [6]

In Marco Polo’s account of Arghun’s escape, he captures the big picture but fails to provide important context to the event. His account is mainly reliable but a certain degree of oversimplification exists, which requires the readers to be more careful in their reading.


To sum up, the succession crisis in Ilkhanate was not only a succession dispute between two candidates, it was a conflict between powerful parties in Ilkhanate. This event revealed the potential problems in the dynasty that led to the fall of Ilkhanate in the 14th century, which was tribal factionalism and division in religion. In The Description of the World, Marco Polo’s account of the succession crisis of Ilkhanate is mostly reliable. He had the correct big picture and got accurate details of the places, people, and sequence of events. However, there is still some exaggeration and omission in his description: he fails to mention the trigger of Arghun’s open rebellion, exaggerates the scale of battle between Arghun and Ahmad, and oversimplifies the cause that Buqa helped Arghun. These negligences undermine Marco Polo’s reliability in a certain degree.

  1. Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2008.

  2. Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. AMS Press, 1976.

  3. Jackson, Peter. “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’”. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

  4. Wing, Patrick. “The Jalayirs and the Early Ilkhanate.” The Jalayirids: Dynastic State Formation in the Mongol Middle East. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2016, pp. 48–62. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.

  5. Jackson, Peter. “Unbelieving Monarchs and Their Servants.” The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion. Yale University Press, NEW HAVEN; LONDON, 2017, pp. 269–296. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.

  6. De Nicola, Bruno“Political Involvement and Women’s Rule in the Ilkhanate.” Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206-1335. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2017, pp. 90–129. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.