Located in present-day Russia, roughly 194 miles outside of Moscow, Sarai was founded as the capital of the Golden Horde. Batu, son of Jochi and grandson of Chinggis Khan, during the thirteenth century had been engaged in a two-pronged assault across Eastern Europe. Batu’s forces defeated the Polish troops in Liegnitz in April 1241 and continued on to take Hungary and eventually succeeded by occupying Budapest. After these very successful victories the path seemed clear to continue the campaign to the Atlantic Ocean. But in 1242 Batu suddenly stopped the campaign and withdrew.

The Mongol empire.
The location of Sarai on the map is identified, roughly, by “Golden Horde.”

Historians have grappled with why Batu would disengage from the campaign. Some suggested the death of Ogodei, Batu’s uncle, in December 1241 required Batu to return to the khuriltai to select the next Khan of the Golden Horde. This argument proved reasonable because the khuriltai, a group composed of leading Mongol nobles that were directly descended from  Chinggis Khan, only could select the next Great Khan. More plausibly, however, the Mongol’s horses had exhausted the Hungarian pastures. The troops had to search for pasture and eventually found it on the grasslands of the Pontic Steppe. They pitched tents along the Volga which led to the founding of Sarai by Batu.

The founding of Sarai also signified Batu’s intent on occupying the upper Volga lands, territories up to the Ural Mountains and the Northern Caucasus. Batu sent agents (basqaq) out to settle nearby communities in nearby territories. These agents also oversaw the grow of the newly established communities for Batu by collecting taxes and conducting censuses. A traveler Ibn Battuta (b. 1304 d. 1368/69) traveled to Sarai and jotted down a few of his observations from Sarai. He indicated twelve mosques had been erected, which accounts for the growing conversion to Islam by Turks and Mongols. Also Ibn Battuta noticed the power of the Khatuns, the Khan’s wives. This further supports the claim that Mongol noble women had access to more rights than other societies in the fourteenth century.

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Painting of Ibn Battuta

Some Persian sources have speculated that the Golden Horde capital moved in ca. 1257, to a new site named New Sarai or Sarai Berke. An archaeological dig, however, proved the site never relocated. Rather, the same site was just referenced by another name when Batu’s brother, Berke (r. 1257-1967) took control of the capital following Batu’s death in 1255-56.