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According to the Wikipedia article on the Timurid dynasty:

The Timurid dynasty called themselves "Gurkani". The word "Gurkani" derives from "Gurkan", a Persianized form of the Mongolian word "Kuragan" meaning "son-in-law". This was an honorific title used by the dynasty as the Timurids were in-laws of the line of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, as Timur had married Saray Mulk Khanum, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

The Mughal empire was a successor state to the Timurid empire and Babur himself was a direct descendant of Timur from his father's side. But he was also a direct descendant of Genghis Khan from his mother's side. So why did the Mughals adopt a name that essentially meant "in-laws of Ghengis Khan" when they were direct descendants of his?

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    I believe that Babur was not a direct descendant as the Mongols reckon descent Why doesn't WIkipedia answer the question?
    – MCW
    Nov 23, 2023 at 1:45
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    How reliable is that etymology? E.g. Gürkhan is an actual Mongolian (though possibly not Mongol) royal title and sounds very similar. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurkhan
    – Jan
    Nov 23, 2023 at 7:45

1 Answer 1

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Altan Urugh (Golden Clan)

Under steppe imperial tradition, only patrilineal descent from Chinggis Khan with his senior wife, Borte -- male descendants of Jochi, Chaghadai, Ögцdei and Tolui -- are entitled to this privilege (a member of the Golden Clan) and therefore be considered for the position of emperor (supreme ruler, Qhagan).

Timur (1336-1405) is not considered a direct descendant of Chinggis Khan. His affinity with Chinggis Khan is shared ancestry, but not direct descent (from wikipedia). Their common ancestor was Tumbinai Khan. So, since Timur would never have been chosen as Qhagan by Mongol ruling council, or kurultai, the most he could do was to claim "son-in-law" status by marrying important females of the Golden Clan.

This practice was not uncommon and many Mongol tribes with imperial ambitions in Central Asia tried to associate themselves with the revered Chinggis Khan in this manner. It was not solely restricted to Timur and his line, which includes Babur.

From Nomadic Pathways in Social Evolution (2003), pp.158-9:

The most important decisions concerning the dynasty were resolved by congresses (khurultais) that served as an "an organ maintaining the state" in which the descendants of Chinggis Khan, as members of the ruling dynasty, played a decisive role. It was at such khurultais that the election of a new khan was officially proclaimed.

During the 14th century, those Chinggisids living in western part of the Mongolian possessions in Eurasia had largely accepted Islam as their dominant religion. But at the same time "they considered the rights inherited from Chinggis Khan traditionally to be of more importance" because it was descent from "the Great Conqueror of a World" (and not religion) that in the eyes of their subjects legitimized their monopoly of the imperial throne. However, over time substantial real power to rule fell into the hands of their non-Chinggisid governors. These governors, who could not claim direct patrilineal descendant of Chinggis Khan on a man's line, often tried to elevate their social status by marrying Chinggisid princesses to gain the right to the title of "son-in-law" (güregen) to the khan’s family.

The most famous example of this was Central Asian conquer Timur who in the beginning of his reign employed only the title of emir (leader). After the marrying a Chinggisid princesses he became a güregen and wielded immense power in the name of powerless puppet Chinggisid khans.


Notes for context:

  1. On steppe imperial tradition: Imperial Statecraft: Political Forms and Techniques of Governance in Inner Asia, 6th–20th Centuries (2006), Chapter 1 - The Türk Imperial Tradition In The Pre-Chinggisid Era by Peter Golden (pdf)
  2. On noble Mongol women and their importance as part of the Golden Clan (Altan Urugh): Cult of Alan-Gho'A and The Unique Position of Women in The Chinggisid Dyasties (2017) (pdf)
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  • But Babur was a direct descendant from his mother's side, wasn't he?
    – Elon Tusk
    Nov 25, 2023 at 11:01
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    Babur may well have been born of a Golden clan mother but it would still not have allowed him to be selected in a ruling council because of the requirement for patrilineal/male-lines. In addition, Timur's line is known as the "Gurkani" (sons-in-law). This was a respected, though not to be confused with legitimate, imperial claim to rule. It would be foolish for anyone from Central Asia to ignore the Gurkani appellation. In most cases, it would it would be good enough given who Timur was. And as a direct descendant of Timur, Babur's use of the Gurkani was expected (in my opinion).
    – Pūnicus
    Nov 25, 2023 at 12:08

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