Women in History: Khutulun

Today’s ‘Woman in History’ is a very different kind of Medieval princess.

Khutulun was born in 1260, the daughter of Kaidu, the powerful Mongol ruler of Central Asia, and the great-great-granddaughter of legendary Mongol leader Genghis Khan. 

While Kaidu’s cousin, the great Kublai Khan, had built his own empire with cities and a more settled and sedentary way of life, Kaidu’s empire continued in the old ways of horsemanship, weaponry and fighting, and a traditionally nomadic lifestyle. 

Khutulun was raised to be a skilled and powerful warrior who accompanied her father and his soldiers into battle, demonstrating prowess in both stealth and combat. Even when the opposing empires of Kaidu and Kublai went to war against one another, she went to war alongside Kaidu and acquitted herself in a most exemplary manner. 

Khutulun was so impressive in battle that the famous explorer Marco Polo wrote of her military exploits and abililites. Even though he was a ruler over a large empire and had an enormous army at his disposal, he would often seek her advice and support in both political and military matters. In fact, Kaidu wanted to make Khutulun his heir as the ruler of his empire, but because she had fourteen brothers, he was unable to do so. 

Khutulun would never settle for an arranged marriage and resisted her familiy’s attempts to find her a husband. Instead, she issued a challenge: any man who wanted to marry her would have to wrestle her and win.  Any suitor who lost the match would have to give her a horse. 

Clearly, she was a woman who knew her strengths and was willing to back herself in a contest. According to legend,  Khutulun won more than ten thousand horses from the eligible men of Mongolia. She did eventually marry, although it was not because someone was able to successfully win her hand in marriage by beating her in a wrestling match.

Picture: Qutulun, daughter of Qaidu. Public Domain via Gallica Digital Library. https://gallica.bnf.fr/

When Kaidu died, Khutulun took up vigil as the guard of his tomb. Her brothers continued to oppose her at every turn, and she gradually slipped out of public and military life. 

Khutulun died in 1306. The manner of her death remains unknown. 

Her story remained untold for the next four hundred years until a French historian by the name of Francois Petis de La Croix researched and wrote a biography of Genghis Khan. He wrote the story of Turandot based on her life, although he greatly altered the details of the story. It seems Shakespeare wasn’t the only one guilty of deciding he could tell a story more interesting than the truth

Khutulun certainly did things her own way and lived life by the rules that she set. Although she never got to rule the empire as her father had hoped, you’ve got to admire her ability to show all the other soldiers how the fighting should be done, and for finding a  most creative and lucrative way to deal with everyone who wanted to marry her off. 

And admire her is what the Mongolian people still do: their traditional wrestling costume is still worn widely open at the chest to prove that the wrestler is not female. 


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