The family of Genghis Khan was fearsome. His sons and grandsons ruled large swaths of Asia, but his fearsome genes didn’t stop with just the men. Enter Khutulun. Her name meant “shining moon” or “moonlight”, but she was not all sweetness and light.
Born about 1260 to Kaidu Khan, who ruled the Chagatai Khaganate, which stretched from western Mongolia to the Amu Dayra river in the west and from central Siberia in the north to India in the south. Kaidu preferred the old ways of a nomadic life along the Steppes, so Khutulun could ride and shoot with the best of them. She was given a traditional Mongol education alongside her forteen brothers. Some of the highlights include- riding, archery, sharpening swords, drinking blood and milking yaks. Also, responding with violence to any slights directed her direction. However, she excelled at wrestling. According to tradition, she beat all comers- man or woman. Note, this is not Greco Roman wrestling, this was no holds barred punching and kicking Mongolian wrestling. As with all things from the Mongols, it was spectacularly violent. Khutulun was the undefeated champion.
Unfortunately, this life put her family in direct conflict with her cousin, Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan preferred the more settled lifestyle of China, and would go on to found the Yuan dynasty. This difference of opinion set the two branches of the families fighting, and bloomed into a war. The two families fought over western Mongolia and China for thirty years.
During this war, Kaidu Khan relied on Khutulun more than his sons and she was vaunted as his favorite child. In his account of his travels in the east, “Il Milione”, Marco Polo described Khutulun as a superb warrior, one who could ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as “easily as a hawk snatches a chicken”. That’s pretty badass. On top of that, Khutulun proved herself a valued advisor on both political and military matters. She was her father’s right hand man.
On top of all this, Khutulun was rich in her own right and beautiful to boot. As you can imagine, she was quite a catch and Kaidu was eager to find her a suitable husband. However, Khutulun wasn’t as excited. Both Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din Hamadani, considered the most important single source on the Ilkhanate period in the Mongol Empire, discuss the deal she struck for her hand. Khutulun had a standing offer, she would marry the man who could beat her in a wrestling match. If he lost, he owed her one hundred horses. The Mongols were a nomadic people, and so horses were wealth. This was a big deal. Man came and tried, but they all left one hundred horses poorer. One cocky lad decided to up the ante and bet one thousand horses, even after pleas from her parents to throw the match, she handed him his ass. According to Marco Polo, her herds numbered up to 10,000, which was equal to the emperor’s.
However, this couldn’t last. Several slanderous rumors went round about Khutulun that she was having an incestious relationship with her father. That couldn’t stand, so Khutulun knew she had to marry. There is confusion over who she finally wed. One story said it was her father’s companion from another clan. Rashid al-Din Hamadani said she fell in love with and married Ghazan, the khan of the khanate of Persia. However, this is a more romantic story that is told. It is said Abtakul, a handsome assassin, was sent by Kubai Khan to take the life of her father Kaidu. Despite being an elite soldier, Abtakul failed and was captured. Abtakul’s mother offered her own life in place of her son, but he refused, wanting the honorable death of a Mongol soldier. While this was going on Abtakul caught the eye of Khutulun and between this show of honor and some well placed words from his favorite child, Abtakul was released by Kaidu. Abtakul and Khutulun were then married.
Before Kaidu died in 1301, he attempted to make Khutulun his heir. However, she was not allowed to do so because men. Specifically, her two brothers Chapar and Duwa contested her rise to power. Duwa was eventually named Great Khan and Khutulun remained the general of the knanto or army. Khutulun lived for another five years after this, and died either in battle or assassinated by one of her many rivals.
And there she moldered in the dust for years until a Frenchman named Francois Petis de La Croix found her story while writing a biography of Genghis Khan. He wrote a story about her in 1710 called Turandot, or Turkish daughter. Apparently, her life was interesting enough so he changed the facts all around and made her suitors solve riddles instead of beating her at wrestling. Turandot was turned into an opera by Giacomo Puccini in the early 1900s.
The biggest tribute to Khutulun is in her home country of Mongolia. Even today, wrestling is a popular sport. All wrestlers must wear a traditional costume to prove they are male. Writing in Lapham’s Quarterly in 2010, a professor of anthropology at Macalester College, Jack Weatherford, explained, “They wear a particular vest with long sleeves but no shoulder covering and a completely open front exposing the whole of the chest, thereby allowing each wrestler to be certain that his opponent is male. At the end of each match, the winner stretches out his arms to display his chest again, and he slowly waves his arms in the air like a bird, turning for all to see. For the winner it is a victory dance, but it is also a tribute to the greatest female athlete in Mongolian history, a wrestling princess whom no man ever defeated,” Weatherford, who wrote Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, continued.
Even today they know they can’t beat her.