What Is a Kurultai?

The Mongolian State Honor Guard
The Mongolian State Honor Guard performs during the opening ceremony for Exercise Khaan Quest. Stocktrek Images Getty Images

A kuriltai is an assembly of Mongolian or Turkic clans, sometimes called a "tribal council" in English. Generally, a kurultai (or kuriltai) would meet for the purpose of making a major political or military decision such as the selection of a new khan or the launching of a war.

Ordinarily, the nomadic Mongols and Turkic peoples lived scattered across the steppe-lands. Therefore, it was a momentous occasion when a chief called for a kurultai and was generally reserved only for great deliberations, proclamations, or celebrations of victory after a long war.

Famous Examples

There have been a number of these great meetings through khanate rule of Central and South Asia. In the vast Mongol Empire, each of the ruling Hordes had separate kuriltai since it was generally impractical to gather everyone together from across Eurasia. However, the 1206 assembly that named Temujin as "Genghis Khan," meaning the "Oceanic Ruler" of all the Mongols, for instance, started the largest landmass empire in the history of the world.

Later, Genghis's grandsons Kublai and Arik Boke held dueling kuriltai in 1259, in which both were granted the title "Great Khan" by their followers. Of course, Kublai Khan eventually won that contest and went on to carry his grandfather's legacy forward, continuing the spread of the Mongol Empire across much of Southeast Asia. 

Originally, though, kurultai had a much simpler—if not still culturally important—as the Mongol usage. Oftentimes these gatherings were called to celebrate weddings or large events like feasts for local khanates to celebrate the year, season, or newlywed couple.

Modern Kuriltai

In modern usage, some Central Asian nations use the world kurultai or variants to describe their parliaments or for conferences. For example, Kyrgyzstan boasts a National Kurultai of Kyrgyz Peoples, which deals with inter-ethnic strife while Mongolia's national congress is called the "Great State Khural."

The word "kurultai" comes from the Mongolian root "khur," which means "to gather," and "ild," which means "together." In Turkish, the verb "kurul" has come to mean "to be established." In all of these roots, the modern interpretation of a gathering to determine and establish power would apply. 

Although the epic kuriltai of the Mongol Empire may long be gone from history, the tradition and the cultural impact of these large gatherings of power echo on throughout the region's history and modern governance. 

These types of large cultural and political meetings didn't only serve to make huge decisions in the past, though, they also served to inspire such art and writings as J.R.R. Tolkien's about the Entmoot—a gathering of the great sentient tree-people of his epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy—and even the Council of Elrond in the same series.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Kurultai?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-kuriltai-195366. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). What Is a Kurultai? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-kuriltai-195366 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Kurultai?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-kuriltai-195366 (accessed June 2, 2023).