Among the most remarked institutions of the Crimean Khanate was the presence, alongside the Chinggisid ruler, of four family chiefs, the qarachu begs, who used to transmit their pre-eminence generation after generation. These “commoner commanders” (as their title can be translated) represented, however, the uppermost layer of Tatar nobility jealously guarding their exclusive privileges even against the khans’ will. The assent of the four begs was necessary for the enthronement of a new sovereign, as were their seals and counter-signatures for all documents (particularly those addressed to foreign powers) and every coronation significantly included mutual obligations by these chieftains and by the khan himself. Collective withdrawal by the qarachu begs thus paralysed the polity and was usually followed by the fall of its ruler. This seemingly unique situation stimulates C. P. Atwood to trace factors of mutation and conservatism in the evolution of this political function of the Turko-Mongol establishment in the unified Mongol Empire, under the Yüan dynasty, and in the western khanates, searching connecting links between the dignities of earlier keshig elders and later qarachu commanders and revealing the networks created by participation in coronation rituals and by quda (marriage ally) ties.
The system of four keshig guards, operating on a twelve-day cycle and headed by elders (ötögü) appointed by Genghis Khan, lies at the origin of the begleribeg (commander-in-chief) post. Both under the founder of the dynasty and under his immediate successors, keshig elders did not represent families and were chosen on an individual basis by each khan. It is possible that among the keshigs of Genghis’ elder sons, the ranks of the elders soon became associated with particular families, but it was Qubilay who initiated a linkage of these structures with concrete clans in his realm and introduced the practice of them countersigning imperial decrees which swiftly spread to all the separate khanates. Only the Hulaguid Ilkhanate, at least, did not adopt the system of drawing the keshig commanders from fixed lineages. The creation of personal guards probably beginning even before the break of the Great Mongol Ulus, the recruitment of keshigten for regional viceroys of royal blood was already common in Chinggisid practice from the end of the thirteenth century. The designation of a begleribeg from among keshig elders began in the Ilkhanate after its inception; the other elders took the name of ulus emirs. Identical usages also appear later in the Jochid and Chaghatayid domains, but whether the appearance of borrowing from the Hulaguids is only the result of better documentation on the latter is not sure. However, it is in later fourteenth century, in the decaying realm of the Chaghatayids, that the full qarachu beg office emerged in which four families rigidly dominated the khan’s councils and monopolised intermarriage with the Golden Kin.
While much about this procedure of aggrandisement of the keshig elders remains unclear, enough is known to show its importance as a case study in Mongol institutional evolution. Rather than being an example of single institution inherited from the days before the empire split in 1260, however, it is a demonstration of the continuing exchange between the different successor states of the Mongols that went on despite their wars and rivalries. This growth in the power of keshig elders and their kinsmen marked the transformation of the Mongol polities from one type of monarchy to another. Christopher Atwood even deems it apt to explicitly cite Machiavelli and Montesquieu, while describing the evolution of the Chinggisid power from a principality run “by one prince with the others as his servants, who, as ministers, through his grace and permission, assist in governing the kingdom” (despotism) into a state ruled “by a prince and barons who hold that position not because of any grace of their master but because of the nobility of their birth” (monarchy). Bold enough, but fruitful methodologically is the author’s suggestion that the distinctions traced in “The Prince” and “The Spirit of the Laws” are more applicable to Inner Asia than the classical Greco-Roman typologies such as the Aristotelian “monarchy – aristocracy – republic” triad, as European mediaeval and early modern power conceptions can be applied to polities formed in nomadic conditions which are in many ways analogous to political forms found among sedentary societies.