The History of the Kereyid Tribe

Known as: Kerait, Kerayit, Nine Tatar Tribes, Zubu

Rulers: Marcus (Marghuz, Mogusi), Sariq, Qurjaqus (Cyriacus), Toghoril Ong Khan

Extant: 9th to 13th century


In the mid to late 12th century, the Kereyid were the dominant power in central Mongolia and after 1162 included many of the important Mongol clans in their number. As a result, the influence of the tribe was the most important factor in Temujin’s rise to power; their khan, Toghoril, took Temujin under his wing providing protection and the connections Temujin needed to grow his own reputation.

It turns out that the Kereyid are also one of the few tribes that had a definitive history constructed. For this episode I have drawn heavily on Chen Dezhi’s article The Kerait Kingdom up to the Thirteenth Century, supplemented with L.N. Gumilev’s Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom and the primary sources Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh, and Wittfogel and Feng’s History of Liao. If you can get hold Chen Dezhi’s article I highly recommend it. It can be found in the book Chinese Scholars on Inner Asia edited by Luo Xin and Roger Covey. Chen Dezhi draws on a huge amount of material published by Chinese and Japanese scholars and uses primary sources which aren’t readily available to western audiences. As always, the sources used in this episode will be added to the master bibliography on so check them out there.

Early history

According to the analysis provided by Chen Dezhi, we are able to identify the Kereyid tribe from the middle of the ninth century. The Uyghur Qaghanate was the dominant power in northwest China and the steppe until 840 when the Kirghiz sacked their capital at Ordu Baliq, killing the Qaghan and scattering the nation. It has generally been assumed that the Kirghiz then settled in the region but there is little evidence of this happening; instead we see that by 924 the Kirghiz have been pushed back to their homeland around the Yenisei River and an alliance of Tatars have moved in. These Tatars, much like the Tatars of the 12th century, were originally located in Eastern Mongolia, but the power vacuum created by the Kirghiz conquest allowed them to gradually spread west. The spread of the Tatar clans created two distinct branches, with the western Tatars coming to be known in Chinese sources as the Zubu.

The migration of the Zubu into land previously held by the Uyghur saw them initially settle around the Khangai Mountains and upper reaches of the Orkhon River in Central Mongolia. In addition to Chinese sources providing this information, we have Mahmud al-Kashgari’s Turkish Dictionary, completed in 1070, which states that a group of Tatars lived in the Khangai Mountain region who had their own language but also spoke good Turkish – this must be referring to the Zubu. The mix of Turkish and Mongolian elements is consistent with what we know about the 12th century Kereyid tribe who continued to use Turkish, Mongolian and Christian names in their society.

History under Liao

A broken history of the Zubu can be made from information provided by the Chinese source History of the Liao. In 924 Abaoji, the founder of the Liao Dynasty came through the region and is reported to have fought only one tribe – the Zubu. This brought the tribe into the Khitan sphere of influence, where they would stay, rather begrudgingly at times, until the fall of the dynasty. In 946 Liao Emperor Taizong named Zubu chief Hela as Grand Prince of the tribe, thus giving the Zubu standing in the Empire and responsibility for maintaining the peace in the north and west. This arrangement seems to have lasted for nearly 40 years until 982 when an alliance of Zubu clans started a rebellion that would last until 1004 when the Liao finally regained control, built a series of fortifications in the region and installed a Military Commissioner to oversee the tribes.

It is at this point that the Kereyid entered into the consciousness of the Christian world. Gregory Bar Hebraeus, a Maphrian in the Eastern Orthodox Church and consecrated as Bishop of Gubos, which included the region of Malatya in modern Turkey, noted in his Chronicum Ecclesiasticum that a khan of the Kerait got lost on the steppe and was rescued by a vision of Saint Sergis. Once reunited with his tribe he sent someone to the Nestorian bishop of Merv, now a ruin in modern Turkmenistan, to obtain a priest to baptise himself and his tribe. The date of the mass baptism is given by Bar Hebraeus as 1009 and involved some 200000 Kereyid people.

The source implicitly states that the tribe’s name was the Kerait, or Kereyid, whilst that isn’t really enough to definitively link them with the Zubu, it is quite a coincidence that the event happens soon after the conclusion of the rebellion. The number involved in the baptism, although probably inflated, suggests that despite being defeated by the Liao, the Kereyid or Zubu were still a strongly unified entity.

Returning to the History of Liao, the Khitan were forced to expand the number of centrally appointed Military Commissioners as the Zubu regained their strength. The peace did not last long. In 1012 one group of the Zubu murdered their Commissioner and fled to the region around Ordu Baliq, spreading into the area held by Toghoril Khan in the 12th century.

Very little about the Zubu is mentioned between 1012 and 1089 but we have evidence for the continuation of Christian traditions instituted by the baptism of 1009. The History of Liao notes that one Zubu leader was called Yugunan, which is the Chinese transliteration for Yohanan and in 1089, we are introduced to Mogusi, or Marcus – Toghoril’s grandfather.

In this year Marcus was appointed as head of the Zubu tribes by the fantastically named Pacification Commissioner of the Northwest Route. Three years later a different Pacification Commissioner mistook Marcus’ peaceful tribe for the rebellious tribe he was actually pursuing and attacked him. Unsurprisingly this incompetence led to Marcus rebelling and joining a coalition that included tribes that we have encountered such as the Naiman and Merkit. It isn’t clear whether Marcus was the leader of this alliance, but he did inflict a large number of defeats on the Liao army. He was finally captured in 1100 and put to death.

Rashid al-Din records the event:

‘At that time the Tatar tribes were enormously powerful and strong, but they submitted to the monarchs of Cathay and the Jurchids. When they had the chance, the king of the Tatars captured Marcus and sent him to the king of the Jurchids, who had him killed by being nailed to a wooden donkey.’

Rashid al-Din mixes up a few facts here, including who ruled northern China but the story is plausible. It also highlights the fact that the Mongol and Kereyid were natural allies, sharing a hatred of the Tatar. Whilst the Tatar tribe would get their comeuppance a century later, the widow of Marcus was apparently able to get some revenge pretty quickly.

She sent a message to the Tatar saying that she wanted to hold a banquet for the khan, offering a hundred sheep, ten mares and 100 large bags of kumis which were instead filled with armed and angry warriors. Thinking that this was some kind of Kereyid submission, the Tatar khan accepted. As the banquet went on the bags of kumis were brought forward, the Kereyid soldiers jumped out and slaughtered everyone, including the khan.

Despite the death of Marcus at the hands of the Liao, the Kereyid/Zubu returned to being loyal vassals of the Khitan and remained so until the dynasty fell to the Jin in 1125. As the Jurchen closed in on the Liao emperor, a Khitan general named Yelu Dashi attempted to build a new powerbase north of the Gobi Desert with the aim of initially resisting the invaders and then reclaiming the lost Empire and the Kereyid were almost certainly a part of this. However, his attempts to stall the Jurchen conquest failed and as the Jin announced the foundation of their dynasty, Yelu Dashi took a small band of followers and moved out west where he founded the Qara Khitai.

At this point we will drop the Zubu name and just call the tribe the Kereyid. Rashid al-Din notes that there were five major clans within the tribe named Jirgin, Dongqayit, Tubegen, Albat and Kereyid whom the tribe are named after. Whether the name Kereyid was a personal name used by the tribesmen prior to the mid-12th century is unclear, it may be the case that the name Zubu also represented a powerful clan and much like Kereyid came to represent the entire tribe and then just stuck until Liao power disappeared. I have no evidence for this theory, so there may be an actual reason that I have completely overlooked. I’m open to suggestions.

As we explored in episode 2, the defeat of the Liao also meant the end of direct imperial control over steppe. The Jin were focused on their southern neighbours the Song and only intervened militarily when a tribe grew too powerful and threatened the northern frontier.

The Mid-12th Century

There seems to be a bit of a gap between the death of Marcus and the elevation of his son Qurjaqus (Cyriacus) to khan. Qurjaqus had many wives and concubines who provided him with 40+ sons, the eldest was Toghoril. As a contemporary of Temujin’s father Yesugei, Toghoril was probably born in the 1130s. His childhood was rough, aged 7 he was captured by the Merkit and forced to pound grain in mortar, he was released by his father. But aged 13 the Kereyid suffered a much more serious reverse at the hands of the Tatar. The Tatar claimed most of the Kereyid territory and enslaved a large number of people, including Toghoril and his mother. The defeat was so bad that the Kereyid Khan, Sariq, was forced to take his remaining 40 men to the Naiman and ask for help. An alliance was agreed and was sealed by the marriage of Qurjaqus to one of the daughters of the Naiman khan.

Toghoril’s salvation varies depending on which source you read. Rashid al-Din states that he was rescued by the Naiman alliance, but the Secret History says that he was forced to herd camels and managed to escape, leaving his mother behind. Whichever way he regained his freedom, he returned to a tribe that had been restored and which had increased in size thanks to the liberation of some Mongol prisoners.

It seems likely that the alliance with the Naiman quickly broke down. Perhaps due to the marriage and the military support provided, there may have been an assumption that the Kereyid were now a junior partner of the Naiman, with their khan saying:

‘I have breathed life back into your dead soul by means of many men, and I have caused your scattered flock to stand where flocks are caused to stand at noon – meaning, I have trusted you and rescued you from the enemy. But a human being is forgetful, just as the earth is ever-changing. Henceforth you and the Mongols be my friends, and you work for me.’

After hearing this, Sariq Khan is reported to have taken his people away from the Naiman pretty sharpish.

Qurjaqus rule as khan seems to represent the beginning of a period of instability for the Kereyid. The tribe was riddled with factionalism which was entirely due to his large family and different members trying to gain advantage over each other. To try to combat this, he divided the Kereyid territory into three portions holding one for himself, giving one portion to be shared between his younger brother Gurkhan and his son Toghoril and the third portion was shared between to two other sons Tai Temur Taishi and Yulamaghus.

It didn’t help that wives and concubines were also jostling for favoured position in Qurjaqus’ yurt. It was reported that the wife he obtained from the Naiman alliance practiced magic which she used to unseat Qurjaqus from his horse every time he went hunting – of course it could be nothing to do the kumis he probably drank! Anyway, he ordered two concubines to kill his wife and then to conceal his actions from his sons, he murdered the concubines. I think the word to use for Qurjaqus reign is chaotic.

The Rise of Toghoril

All of these strained relationships came to a head at the death of Qurjaqus as what was essentially was civil war erupted. Leading the conflict was Toghoril as he moved quickly to try to secure his position as khan. He started by offering Tai Temur and Yulamaghus an olive branch but when they arrived at his camp Toghoril attacked them. They escaped to the Merkit tribe, whose leader despite refusing to get involved in Kereyid politics, arrested them and sent them back to Toghoril who executed them.

Alarmed, his uncle, Gurkhan, raised his forces in response to Toghoril’s actions and managed defeat and chase him away, claiming control of the Kereyid for himself. As Toghoril fled with 100 men, he came across Yesugei who welcomed him into his camp. Despite the protestations and advice of the Mongol leader Qutula Khan – after all it’s not good business to get friendly with a known fratricide, Yesugei and Toghoril became anda and together they raided Gurkhan driving him away and restoring Toghoril as head of the Kereyid. And from here on in, Toghoril’s position as khan was pretty much consolidated.

As always, the dating of these events is a little uncertain and the primary sources often provide conflicting information about when they took place.

Case in point being events surrounding another brother Erke Qara. Apparently intimidated by Toghoril’s power, he fled to the Naiman who were happy to help get rid of Toghoril and perhaps gain some influence over the Kereyid. They managed to drive him off once more but now we have Rashid al-Din telling us that he was restored to power by Yesugei but also, that he was saved by Temujin.

There is a possibility that this event took place later than Rashid al-Din initially suggests, and in fact relates to the restoration of Toghoril just prior to the attack on the Tatar in 1196, in which case it would certainly be Temujin doing the saving.

And this brings us up to the events of the regular series. From this point on, Toghoril’s life and that of the Kereyid tribe are tied up in the greater Mongol story. One final point of interest is that the Kereyid come out of the Secret History as one of the few tribes to retain a positive reputation and despite his actions against Temujin, Toghoril is honoured for his role as a mentor and father to the Mongol Khan; the way his death plays out is genuinely lamented.


Chen Dezhi. [2012]. The Kerait Kingdom up to the Thirteenth Century. In Luo Xin and Roger Covey (eds.) Chinese Scholars on Inner Asia. Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Indiana University.

Gumilev. L.N. [1987] 2009. Searches for an imaginary kingdom: the legend of the kingdom of Prester John. Translated by R.E.F Smith. Cambridge University Press.

Kahn, Paul. 1998.The Secret History of the Mongols: the origin of Chingis Khan. Cheng & Tsui: Boston.

Rashiduddin Fazullah. 1998. Jami’u’t-Tawarikh: Compendium of Chronicles. Translated by W.M. Thackston. Harvard University. 3 vols.

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