Not to be confused with Karaites.
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11th century–13th century
Nestorian Tombstone from Issyk Kul
Nestorian Tombstone from Issyk Kul
StatusSubjects to:
Liao, Kara Khitan, Genghisids
Church of the East
• 11th century
Markus Buyruk Khan
• 12th century
Saryk Khan
• 12th century
Kurchakus Buyruk Khan
• –1203
Tooril Khan (last)
Historical eraMiddle Ages
• Established
11th century
• absorbed into the Mongol Empire.
13th century
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kara-Khanid Khanate
Mongol Empire
Today part ofArgyns

The Keraites (also Kerait, Kereit, Karait; Perso-Arabic كرايت) were one of the five dominant Turco-Mongol tribal confederations (khanates) in the Altai-Sayan region during the 12th century. They had converted to the Church of the East (Nestorianism) in the early 11th century and are one of the possible sources of the European Prester John legend.

Their original territory was no doubt expansive, corresponding to much of what is now Mongolia. Vasily Bartold (1913) located them along the upper Onon and Kerulen rivers and along the Tula.[1] They were defeated by Genghis Khan in 1203 and became influential in the rise of the Mongol Empire, and were gradually absorbed into the succeeding Turco-Mongol khanates during the 13th century. Christianity among the Mongols was mostly extinct in the late 14th century due to the Islamization under Timur Lenk.


The name is recorded in Perso-Arabic spelling as كرايت or كريت (kārayit, karayit).[2] In English, the name is variously adopted as Keraites, Karaits, Karait, Kerait, Kereyit but earlier also Karaites. [3] [4]

According to the early 14th-century work Jami' al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Mongol legend traced the clan back to eight brothers with unusually dark faces whose confederation they founded was called Kerait (after a word for "black, swarthy"). Kerait was the name of the leading brother's clan, while the clans of his brothers are recorded as Jirkin, Konkant, Sakait, Tumaut, Albat.[5]

The Mongolian word kara "black" is cognate with Turkic qarā "black", [6] and the Mongol tribal name possibly became historically conflated with various other Turkic tribal names involving the term.



The Keraites first enter into history as the ruling faction of the Zubu confederacy, a large alliance of tribes that dominated Mongolia during the 11th and 12th centuries and often fought with the Liao Dynasty of northern China, which controlled much of Mongolia at the time.

It is unclear whether the Keraites should be classified as Turkic or Mongol in origin. The names and titles of early Keraite leaders suggest that they were speakers of a Turkic language, but coalitions and incorporation of sub-clans may have led to Turco-Mongol amalgamation from an early time.[7][8]

They are first noted in Syriac Church records which mention them being absorbed into the Church of the East around AD 1000 by Metropolitan Abdisho of Merv.


After the Zubu confederacy broke up, the Keraites retained their dominance on the steppe right up until they were absorbed into Genghis Khan's Mongolian state.

At the height of its power, the Keraites khanate was organized along the same lines as the Naimans and other powerful steppe tribes of the day. A section is dedicated to the Keraites by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1247–1318), the official historian of the Genghisid court in Persia, in his Jami' al-tawarikh (c. 1300).[9] The people was divided into a "central" faction and an "outer" faction. The central faction served as the khan's personal army and was composed of warriors from many different tribes with no loyalties to anyone but the Khan. This made the central faction more of a quasi-feudal state than a genuine tribe. The "outer" faction was composed of tribes that pledged obedience to the khan, but lived on their own tribal pastures and functioned semi-autonomously. The "capital" of the Keraite khanate was a place called Orta Balagasun, which was probably located in an old Uyghur or Khitan fortress.[citation needed]

Markus Buyruk Khan, was a Khereid leader who also led the Zubu confederacy. In 1100, he was killed by the Liao Dynasty. Kurchakus Buyruk Khan was a son and successor of Bayruk Markus, among whose wives was Toreqaimish Khatun, daughter of Korchi Buiruk Khan of the Naiman.

Kurchakus's younger brother was Gur Khan. Kurchakus Buyruk Khan had many sons. Notable sons was Toghrul, Yula-Mangus, Tai-Timur, Bukha-Timur.[citation needed] In union with the Khitan they became vassals in the the Kara-Khitai state. [citation needed]

Depiction of Wang Khan as "Prester John" in Le Livre des Merveilles, 15th century.

After Kurchakus Buyruk Khan died, Ilma's Tatar servant Eljidai became the de facto regent. This upset Toghrul who had his younger brothers killed and then claimed the throne as Toghrul khan (Mongolian:Тоорил хан/Tooril khan) who was the son of Kurchakus by Ilma Khatun, reigned from the 1160s to 1203.[citation needed] His palace was located at present-day Ulan Bator and he became blood-brother (anda) to Yesugei. Genghis Khan called him khan etseg ('khan father'). Yesugei, having disposed of all Tughrul's sons, was now the only one in line to inherit the title khan.

The Tatars rebelled against the Jin dynasty in 1195. The Jin commander sent an emissary to Timujin. A fight with the Tatars broke out and the Mongol alliance defeated them. In 1196, the Jin Dynasty awarded Toghrul the title of "Wang" (king). After this, Toghrul was recorded under the title "Wang Khan" (Ван хан/Van khan; Chinese: 王汗; pinyin: Wáng Hàn; also Ong Khan). When Timujin attacked Jamukha for the title of Khan, Toghrul, fearing Timujin's growing power, plotted with Jamukha to have Timujin assassinated.

In 1203, Timujin defeated the Keraites, who were distracted by the collapse of their own coalition. Toghrul was killed by Naiman soldiers who failed to recognize him as the former was fleeing from a defeat against Genghis Khan.

Mongol Empire and dispersal

Genghis Khan married Toghrul's son Tolui to one of Toghrul's nieces, the Nestorian Christian Sorghaghtani Bekhi, the younger daughter of Tooril's brother Jakha Khambu. Tolui and Sorghaghtani Bekhi became the parents of Möngke Khan and Kublai Khan. [10] The remaining Keraites submitted to Timujin's rule, but out of distrust, Timujin dispersed them among the other Mongol tribes.[citation needed]

Rinchin protected Christians when Ghazan began to persecute them but he was executed by Abu Sa'id Bahadur Khan when fighting against his custodian, Chupan of the Taichiud in 1319.

Keraites arrived in Europe with the Mongol invasion led by Batu Khan and Mongke Khan. A portion were settled in Carpathian Galicia as a result of a hostage exchange treaty between Batu Khan and the Catholic Rus' Prince Daniel of Carpathian Galicia in 1246.[11] Kaidu's troops in the 1270s were likely mostly composed of Keraites and Naimans.[12]

From the 1380s onward, Nestorian Christianity in Mongolia was destroyed, on the one hand due to the Islamization under Timur and on the other due to the Ming conquest of Karakorum. The remnants of the Keraits by late 14th century lived along the Kara Irtysh.[13] These remnants were finally dispersed in the 1420s in the Mongol-Oirat wars fought by Uwais Khan.[14]

Mongolian Christians sought refuge under the leadership of Tokhtamysh,[citation needed] and they appear to have lost all contact with their mother church after the schism of 1552. Many were absorbed into other churches, some adopted Islam, while still others became Judaizers.[citation needed]

Nestorian Christianity

Main article: Christianity among the Mongols

The Khereid were converted to Nestorianism, a sect of Christianity, early in the 11th century.[10][15][16] Other tribes evangelized entirely or to a great extent during the 10th and 11th centuries were the Naiman and the Ongud.

Rashid al-Din, the official historian of the Mongol court in Persia, in his Jami al-Tawarikh states that the Keraites were Christians. William of Rubruck, who encountered many Nestorians during his stay at Mongke Khan's court and at Karakorum in 1254–1255, notes that Nestorianism in Mongolia was tainted by shamanism and Manicheism and very confused in terms of liturgy, not following the usual norms of Christian churches elsewhere in the world. He attributes this to the lack of teachers of the faith, power struggles among the clergy and a willingness to make doctrinal concessions in order to win the favour of the Khans. Contact with the Catholicos was lost after the Islamization under Timur (reigned 1370–1405), who effectively destroyed the Church of the East. The Nestorian Church in Karakorum was destroyed by the invading Ming dynasty army in 1380.

The legend of Prester John, otherwise set in India or Ethiopia, was also brought in connection with the Nestorian rulers of the Khereid. In some versions of the legend, Prester John was explicitly identified with Toghril.[10] But Mongolian sources say nothing about his religion.[17]

Conversion account

An account of the conversion of this Turkic people is given in the 12th-century Book of the Tower (Kitab al-Majdal) by Mari ibn Suleiman, and also by 13th-century Syriac Orthodox historian Bar Hebraeus where he names them with the Syriac word ܟܹܪܝܼܬ (Karaite).[18][19]

According to these accounts, in either AD 1007 or 1012, the Karaite khan lost his way during a snowstorm while hunting in the high mountains of his land. When he had abandoned all hope, a saint, Sergius, appeared in a vision and said, "If you will believe in Christ, I will lead you lest you perish." The king promised to become Christian, and the saint told him to close his eyes and he found himself back home (Bar Hebraeus' version says the saint led him to the open valley where his home was). When he met Christian merchants, he remembered the vision and asked them about the Christian religion, prayer and the book of canon laws. They taught him "the Lord's Prayer, Lakhu Mara, and Qadisha Alaha." The Lakhu Mara is the Syriac of the hymn Te deum, and the Qadisha Alaha is the Trisagion. At their suggestion, he sent a message to Abdisho, the Metropolitan of Merv, for priests and deacons to baptize him and his tribe. Abdisho sent a letter to Yohannan VI, the Catholicos or Patriarch of the Church of the East in Baghdad (63rd Patriarch after Saint Thomas). Abdisho informed Yohannan VI that the Keraite khan asked him about fasting, whether they could be exempted from the usual Christian way of fasting, since their diet was mainly meat and milk.

Abdisho also related that the Keraite khan had already "set up a pavilion to take the place of an altar, in which was a cross and a Gospel, and named it after Mar Sergius, and he tethered a mare there and he takes her milk and lays it on the Gospel and the cross, and recites over it the prayers which he has learned, and makes the sign of the cross over it, and he and his people after him take a draft from it." Yohannan replied to Abdisho telling him one priest and one deacon was to be sent with altar paraments to baptize the king and his people. Yohannan also approved the exemption of the Keraites from strict church law, stating that while they had to abstain from meat during the annual Lenten fast like other Christians, they could still drink milk during that period, although they should switch from "sour milk" (fermented mare's milk) to "sweet milk" (normal milk) to remember the suffering of Christ during the Lenten fast. Yohannan also told Abdisho to endeavor to find wheat and wine for them, so they can celebrate the Paschal Eucharist. As a result of the mission that followed, the king and 200,000 of his people were baptized (both Bar Hebraeus and Mari ibn Suleiman give the same number).[7][20]


After the final dispersal of the remaining Keraites settling along the Irtysh River by the Oirats in the early 15th century, they disappear as an identifiable group. There are various hypotheses as to which groups may partially have been derived from them during the 16th or 17th centuries. According to Tynyshbaev (1925), their further fate was closely linked to that of the Argyn.[21]

The name of the Qara Tatar ("Black Tatar") may be derived from the Keraites, but it may also be connected to the names of various other Central Asian groups involving qara "black".[22] Kipchak groups such as the Argyn Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz Kireis have been proposed as possibly in part derived from the remnants of the Karaites who sought refuge in Eastern Europe in the early 15th century.[23]

Some Karaites in Eastern Europe have also laid claim to the "Turkic Karaite" identity (which they also relate back to the Kara-Khazars)[24] [25] [26][27] However, it is argued that this is a legacy of but a Shapshalian "Dejuzaization" necessitated to survive the anti-Semitic climate of 20th century Eastern Europe.[28]

See also


  1. ^ V.V. Bartold in the article on Genghis Khan in the 1st edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam (1913); see Dunlop (1944:277)
  2. ^ Dunlop (1944:276)
  3. ^ "History of the voyages and discoveries made in the north translated from the German of Johann Reinhold Forster and elucidated by several new and original maps" p.141-142
  4. ^ "A General History And Collection of Voyages And Travels, Arranged In Systematic Order: Forming A Complete History of The Origin And Progress of Navigation, Discovery, And Commerce By Sea And Land, From The Earliest ages to the present time." Robert Kerr (writer), section VIII.2.
  5. ^ Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Jami' al-tawarikh cited after Template:Ru-icon translation by L.A. Khetagurov (1952)[clarification needed] "It is said that in ancient times was the king; He had seven [eight] sons, all of them [were] swarthy. For this reason they were called Kerait. After a time, each of the branches, and the progeny of those sons got a special name and nickname. Until very recently, in Kerait was the name of one [tribal] branch, [i.e.] the sovereign one; the other sons became the servants of his brother, who was their sovereign, while they did not have sovereignty."
  6. ^ "EAS 107, Владимирцов 324, ОСНЯ 1, 338, АПиПЯЯ 54-55, 73, 103-104, 274. Despite TMN 3, 427, Щербак 1997, 134, there is no need to regard the Mong. word as borrowed from Turkic (although it is not excluded)." Tower of Babel Mongolian etymology database.
  7. ^ a b R. Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1970, p191.
  8. ^ Unesco. History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Volym 4. p. 74.
  9. ^ "At that time they had more power and strength than other tribes. The call of Jesus - peace be upon him - reached them and they entered his faith. They belong to the Mongol ethnicity. They reside along the Onon and Kerulen rivers, the land of the Mongols. That land is close to the country of the Khitai. [The Keraites] are much at odds with many tribes, especially tribes of the Naiman." Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Jami' al-tawarikh cited after Template:Ru-icon translation by L.A. Khetagurov (1952)[clarification needed]
  10. ^ a b c Li, Tang (2006). "Sorkaktani Beki: A prominent Nestorian woman at the Mongol Court". Jingjiao: the Church of the East in China and Central Asia. Steyler Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH. ISBN 978-3-8050-0534-0. ((cite book)): |work= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |editors= ignored (|editor= suggested) (help)
  11. ^ "Galicia: A Historical Survey and Bibliographic Guide", Paul R. Magocsi, University of Toronto Press, 1983. p.252
  12. ^ Tynyshbaev (1925)
  13. ^ Tynyshbaev (1925)
  14. ^ Tynyshbaev (1925)
  15. ^ Hunter (1991). Silverberg, Robert (1972). The Realm of Prester John. Doubleday. p. 12.
  16. ^ Kingsley Bolton; Christopher Hutton (2000). Triad Societies: Western Accounts of the History, Sociology and Linguistics of Chinese Secret Societies. Taylor & Francis. pp. xlix–. ISBN 978-0-415-24397-1.
  17. ^ Atwood, Christopher P. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. ISBN 0816046719.
  18. ^ Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon ecclesiasticum (ed. and tr. J.B. Abbeloos and T.J. Lamy, vol. 3, coll. 279-81). See Hunter (1991).
  19. ^ Bar Hebraeus Chron. Syr. (1286) 204/184
  20. ^ Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia pp. 400-401.
  21. ^ "The further fate of our Kerei is closely linked with the fate of Argyn, although they did not play such a large role as the Argyn. The Kerei [or at least the Achamail subgroup] participated in the campaign of Barak (1420) in Tashkent and Khujand. In 1723 the Kerei (as well as the Argyns) suffered relatively less than other peoples. In the wars of Muhammad Shaybani, there is mention of a tribe called Sakhiot, obviously the Kerei who had remained among the Uzbeks of Ferghana, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva." Tynyshbaev (1925)
  22. ^ G. Németh, A Hongfoglaló Magyarság Kialakulása, Budapest, 1930, 264-68, cited after P. Oberling, "Karāʾi", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. XV, Fasc. 5 (2002), pp. 536–537.
  23. ^ Dunlop (1944:289), following Howorth, Unknown Mongolia (1913).
  24. ^ A. Malgin. Евреи или тюрки. Новые элементы в идентичности караимов и крымчаков в современном Крыму [Jews or Turks. New elements in the identity of the Karaites and Krypchaks in modern Crimea] (2002)
  25. ^ «Попытки приписать крымским караимам чуждые этнос и религию, смешение этнических крымских караимов с караимами по религии, искажение истории — оскорбляют национальные чувства и создают предпосылки для национальных и религиозных конфликтов.» («Attempts to attribute the Crimean Karaites alien ethnicity and religion, mixing ethnic Crimean Karaites with the Karaites on religion, the distortion of history – offend the national feelings and create the conditions for national and religious conflicts») Караи (крымские караимы). История, культура, святыни. — Симферополь, 2000.
  26. ^ Polkanov, V. (1995). Legendi i predaniya karaev (krimskih karaimov-turkov), Simferopol.
  27. ^ Vul, R., Shlyaposhnikov, S. (1959). Krimskie legendi, Simferopol: Krimizdat.
  28. ^ "Identity in Transition: The Case of Polish Karaites in the First Half of the 20th Century" Dovile Troskovaite