Sorghaghtani, Doquz, and Maria were only some of the many influential khatuns who steered the hearts of their Mongol khans to favor and promote the Christian communities in their lands. In fact, Pope Nicholas IV sent several letters to Christian women in Mongol courts to encourage them to continue their service to God. These included Elegag and Uruk, wives of Arghun Khan, and Nukdan, another wife of Aqaba, whom the pope praised for her example, calling her “most dear daughter in Christ.” As it is usually the case with women in church history, very little has been written about these numerous Christians who exercised their influence in one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world.
While Europe was engaged in the Crusades, a new threat emerged from Asia: the Mongols, a fearsome population the talented warrior Genghis Khan organized into a powerful empire. At the time of his death, this empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean and from Siberia to modern Afghanistan.
Concerned about the threat of a Mongol invasion of Western Europe, in 1245 Pope Innocent IV sent a Franciscan friar, John of Pian del Carpine to deliver a letter to the Grand Khan Gȕyȕk. John began the journey alone but was later joined by two more friars, Benedict of Poland and Stephen of Bohemia (the latter had to turn back due to health problems). The team reached the khan after long and difficult travels. In spite of his frequent complaints (especially about this eastern practice of demanding gifts in exchange of each favor), Carpine’s account of his travels and mission provided invaluable information on the Mongols to western Europeans.
Gȕyȕk, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was not impressed by the pope’s message and his demands that the khan repent, be baptized, and stop killing Christians. How could a pope give orders to a king of Gȕyȕk’s stature? Besides, having become acquainted with some missionaries of the Church of the East who had already reached China, Gȕyȕk didn’t understand the pope’s claim to be the head of all true Christians. Still, he allowed the friars to establish their missions in his lands.
Of the missionaries who followed, the most renowned was the Franciscan John of Montecorvino, who lived in China until his death. John learned the Mongolian language and translated the New Testament and the Psalms in that language.
In their accounts, western friars expressed their surprise in discovering that many of the khans had married Christian wives, who held impressive powes over their territories.
In fact, according to Rabban Bar Sauma, an important monk of the Church of the East who had been sent on different diplomatic missions to Rome, the khans’ toleration of Christianity had much to do with the intercession of their wives.
One of these wives was Sorghaghtani Beki, daughter-in-law of Gengis Khan, who had been given in marriage to Tolui Khan.