It is, as medievalists of all kinds are aware, immensely difficult to penetrate the mind-set and thought-processes of men and women who lived centuries ago.G. R. Hambly, ‘Becoming Visible’, 1998
Introducing the Khātūns
By 1206, Temüjin, a young Mongol prince, had concluded his military campaigns in the Mongolian steppes, finding himself enthroned by his peers and rivals and renamed Chinggis (usually known as Genghis) Khan from then on. While this date marks the end of a bloody period in Mongolian history, it also symbolises the beginning of an even bloodier era in the history of Eurasia. The Mongol armies, now united under Chinggis Khan would, over the course of three generations, conquer all that lay in their path from the Yellow Sea to the Danube in Central Europe and from Siberia to the Indus. Yet, when speaking of nomadic empires, conquest does not necessarily lead to territorial unity. As soon as Chinggis Khan died in 1227, the conquered territories were divided among his four sons and their descendants, prompting the fragmentation of the empire into four khanates (China, Central Asia, Iran and the Golden Horde of Russia) that would be fighting each other only a few years after the death of Ögetei Khan (d. 1241), first successor of Chinggis Khan.
The Mongol armies did not simply pass through or conquer and withdraw from the territories they defeated, as other nomadic peoples such as the Huns had done before them. Instead, they came to stay, and their women and children followed immediately after the army to join them and settle in the places where the military had succeeded. As these women began to dwell in the growing empire, those belonging to the higher classes and who were married to members of the Chinggisid family began to be addressed by the honorific title of khātūn (pl. khawātīn; however, I will use the more common Anglicised plural of khātūns) to distinguish their higher status, and recognised union with a male ruler, from other women in the court such as concubines. The word itself is of uncertain origin, possibly coming from old Turkic (or perhaps even the Sogdian language), but it is widely used in medieval Persian and Arabic sources alike. The meaning of the term is ‘lady’ or ‘noblewoman’ and had been used to refer to noblewomen long before the Mongols appeared in Central Asia in the early thirteenth century.