Sorghaghtani Beki was the daughter-in-law of Genghis Khan, wife and then widow of his son Tolui, and "mother of the great Khans." She was a Nestorian Christian, and though she never learned to read, made sure all four of her sons received an academic education, including foreign languages and administration, as well as training in combat.

When Genghis Khan first died in 1227, no heir had been named, but his favorite son Ogodei had no trouble taking the place of his father in ruling the Mongol Empire. On Ogodei's death in 1241, though, problems began -- there were just too many descendants jostling for position. Ogodei's son ruled briefly before dying; his widow tried to get her nephew in as the next ruler, but Sorghaghtani Beki pointed out that the ruler should be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

The Mongol nobles sided with her, and her son Mongke was made Khan in 1251. He ruled eight years, and on his death his brother Khubila (Kublai Khan) became ruler. Under him the Mongols conquered China. Another brother, Hulagu, went west and in 1253 established the Mongol Ilkhanate, which governed Persia and parts of the Middle East. Their mother stayed with Kubla and encouraged him to learn the works of Confucius and the ways of China in order to rule effectively. Rather than turning their new land into Mongolian-style pasture for the nomads' animals, she supported the peasant farmers; she also supported local religions even though they were not her own. She even founded a Muslim college in Central Asia. Without this "directing spirit of the house of Tolui," world history would be quite different.

Sources:
http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine8.html
http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/world-history/teaching/mongol/women.html
http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~fisher/hst373/readings/marshall.html

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