Sarai Batu, the Once-Magnificent Capital of the Golden Horde
The Turko-Mongol Golden Horde was one of history’s most powerful empires, sweeping across the plains of Asia and East Europe, subjugating many kingdoms by their sheer might. And although the Mongols were nomadic originally, preferring a life in the saddle and in the wake of their vast herds, their powerful rulers still needed a capital from which to rule and organize their vast territories. An ancient city called Sarai was that capital for several centuries, widely mentioned in medieval sources and travelogs. But its exact location remains a matter of much debate today. What do we know of Sarai?
The domains of the Golden Horde. The rivers are shown in blue, the 2006 international borders in light brown, and important cities of 1389 with a black circle. The capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai Batu is shown with a gold star.
The Great Capital of the Khans - Sarai Batu
Sarai - also known as Sarai Batu or Old Sarai - was an ancient city located in the region of the lower Volga River in what is now modern-day Russia. Just as the name suggests, the city was founded by Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, in the mid-13th century. Batu Khan ruled the Horde from 1227 to 1255 AD, and the city was likely erected in this period.
It served as the capital of the mighty and indestructible Golden Horde, a Mongol state that ruled over much of Eastern Europe and Russia from the mid-13th to the mid-15th centuries AD - the vast creation of the legendary Genghis Khan.
This famed ancient city was widely mentioned by contemporary travelers and historians. Its name comes from Persian “sarāy”, meaning “mansion” or “court” - a clear indication that it was the capital of the great Khan. Whether it had a different, Mongol name, we do not know. But over time, every source knew it simply as Sarai, or Sarai Batu. The city was strategically located at the crossroads of several major trade routes that connected the east and west, making it a hub of commerce and cultural exchange. It quickly grew into a major political and cultural center, attracting merchants, scholars, and artists from all over the world.
In no time, thanks to its position, it became a bustling city and a major regional center. Sarai was a cosmopolitan city that was home to people of many different ethnicities and religions. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists all lived side by side in the city, and each community had its own neighborhoods, markets, and places of worship. A true ancient multi-ethnic metropole, it was a place of prospect and opportunities. The famed Muslim traveler, Ibn Batutta, wrote:
“There are various groups of people among its inhabitants; these include the Mughals, who are the dwellers in this country and its sultans, and some of whom are Muslims, then the Āṣ (Alans), who are Muslims, the Qifjaq (Cumans), the Jarkas (Circassians), the Rūs (Rus'), and the Rūm (Romans) – [all of] these are Christians. Each group lives in a separate quarter with its own bazaars. Merchants and strangers from the two ʿIrāqs, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, live in a quarter which is surrounded by a wall for the protection of the properties of the merchants.”
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The Ancient Metropolis of the Mongols
The layout of the city was typical of Mongol settlements, with a central palace complex surrounded by a series of concentric walls and a network of streets and markets. The palace complex, known as the Alṭūn Tāsh, alṭūn meaning 'gold', and tāsh, 'head', was a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards that housed the ruling Khan and his court. Remains of extravagant luxurious tilework have been discovered, which likely adorned the splendorous court of the Khan - at the time one of the most powerful men in the world.
One of the most notable features of Sarai was its impressive architecture. The city was renowned for its grand mosques, palaces, and public buildings, many of which were adorned with intricate mosaics, carvings, and other decorative elements. The city's architecture was a unique blend of Mongol, Persian, and Islamic styles, reflecting the diverse cultural influences of the region. It was said that the city had no less than 13 mosques, and many other churches of other religions. Ibn Batutta writes that he’d set out from his lodging in the early morning, and only reached the other end of town at noon.
Panorama of Sarai-Batu. The ancient multi-cultural city capital of the Golden Horde. Source: aphonua/Adobe Stock
Naturally, due to its position as a major cultural center, Sarai was also a center of learning and scholarship, with a number of prestigious schools and universities located within its walls. Scholars from all over the world came to Sarai to study and exchange ideas, and the city became a hub of intellectual activity and innovation. It was likewise an important center of diplomacy and politics, with representatives from neighboring states and kingdoms being a constant presence in Sarai. The Khan of the Golden Horde was known for his shrewd diplomacy and power, and was able to maintain the state's power and influence for many years.
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All Things Come to an End
Despite its power and prestige, Sarai was not immune to the ravages of war and conquest. The power of the Golden Horde was not eternal, and it was bound to crumble after the passing of the centuries. Political and military instability left it vulnerable to other rising powers. The city was sacked, leveled to the ground, and burned by the armies of Tamerlane in 1395 AD, a merciless conqueror who chose to intervene in the internal affairs of the ailing Golden Horde. The remnants of Sarai were once again plundered, this time by the Russian army in the 16th century, as they conquered lands to the east. It was a sudden and violent end to a once-magnificent city.
Despite its violent end, Sarai remains an important historical city, serving as a reminder of the region's rich and complex past, as well as a part of Golden Horde’s heritage. Its legacy continues to be felt in the many diverse communities that inhabit the region today, and its cultural influence can be seen in the architecture, art, and traditions of the modern-day Volga region.
However, the exact location of Sarai was never pinpointed with certainty. Further confusion arises from contemporary namings of “Old” and “New” Sarai, which were either two distinct cities - or one and the same. Nevertheless, several major archaeological sites in the area have been thoroughly excavated, all being the likely candidates for the ancient Mongol capital.
Top image: Reconstruction of the ancient mosques and buildings of ancient Sarai-Batu. (vesta48/Adobe Stock)
Ciocîltan, V. 2012. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. BRILL.
DeCarlo, C. 2017. The Mongol Empire. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Patowary, K. 2016. Sarai Batu: The Reconstructed 13th Century Capital City of the Golden Horde. Available at: