The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xii.

How the Great Kaan Maintains a Guard of Twelve Thousand Horse, which are Called Keshican.

You must know that the Great Kaan, to maintain his state, hath a guard of twelve thousand horsemen, who are styled KESHICAN, which is as much as to say “Knights devoted to their Lord.” Not that he keeps these for fear of any man whatever, but merely because of his own exalted dignity. These 12,000 men have four captains, each of whom is in command of 3000; and each body of 3000 takes a turn of three days and nights to guard the palace, where they also take their meals. After the expiration of three days and nights they are relieved by another 3000, who mount guard for the same space of time, and then another body takes its turn, so that there are always 3000 on guard. Thus it goes until the whole 12,000, who are styled (as I said) Keshican, have been on duty; and then the tour begins again, and so runs on from year’s end to year’s end.[NOTE 1]

NOTE 1. — I have deduced a reading for the word Quescican (Keshican), which is not found precisely in any text. Pauthier reads Questiau and Quesitau; the G. Text has Quesitam and Quecitain; the Crusca Questi Tan; Ramusio, Casitan; the Riccardiana, Quescitam. Recollecting the constant clerical confusion between c and t, what follows will leave no doubt I think that the true reading to which all these variations point is Quescican.*

* One of the nearest readings is that of the Brandenburg Latin collated by Müller, which has Quaesicam.

In the Institutes of Ghazan Khan, we find established among other formalities for the authentication of the royal orders, that they should be stamped on the back, in black ink, with the seals of the Four Commanders of the Four Kiziks, or Corps of the Life Guard.

Wassáf also, in detailing the different classes of the great dignitaries of the Mongol monarchy, names (1) the Noyáns of the Ulus, or princes of the blood; (2) the great chiefs of the tribes; (3) the Amírs of the four Keshik, or Corps of the Body Guard; (4) the officers of the army, commanding ten thousands, thousands, and so on.

Moreover, in Rashiduddin, we find the identical plural form used by our author. He says that, after the sack of Baghdad, Hulaku, who had escaped from the polluted atmosphere of the city, sent “Ilká Noyán and Karábúgá, with 3000 Moghul horse into Baghdad, in order to have the buildings repaired, and to put things generally in order. These chiefs posted sentries from the KISHÍKÁN ([Arabic]), and from their own followings in the different quarters of the town, had the carcases of beasts removed from the streets, and caused the bazaars to be rebuilt.”

We find Kishik still used at the court of Hindustan, under the great kings of Timur’s House, for the corps on tour of duty at the palace; and even for the sets of matchlocks and sabres, which were changed weekly from Akbar’s armoury for the royal use. The royal guards in Persia, who watch the king’s person at night, are termed Keshikchi, and their captain Keshikchi Bashi. [“On the night of the 11th of Jemady ul Sany, A.H. 1160 (or 8th June, 1747), near the city of Khojoon, three days’ journey from Meshed, Mohammed Kuly Khan Ardemee, who was of the same tribe with Nadir Shah, his relation, and Kushukchee Bashee, with seventy of the Kukshek or guard, . . . bound themselves by an oath to assassinate Nadir Shah.” (Memoirs of Khojeh Abdulkurreem . . . transl. by F. Gladwin, Calcutta, 1788, pp. 166–167).]

Friar Odoric speaks of the four barons who kept watch by the Great Kaan’s side as the Cuthé, which probably represents the Chinese form Kiesie (as in De Mailla), or Kuesie (as in Gaubil). The latter applies the term to four devoted champions of Chinghiz, and their descendants, who were always attached to the Kaan’s body-guard, and he identifies them with the Quesitan of Polo, or rather with the captains of the latter; adding expressly that the word Kuesie is Mongol.

I see Kishik is a proper name among the Kalmak chiefs; and Keshikten also is the name of a Mongol tribe, whose territory lies due north of Peking, near the old site of Shangtu. (Bk. I. ch. lxi.) [Keshikhteng, a tribe (pu; mong. aimak) of the Chao Uda League (mêng; mong. chogolgân) among the twenty-four tribes of the Nei Mung-ku (Inner Mongols). (See Mayers’ Chinese Government, p. 81.)— H. C.] In Kovalevsky, I find the following:—

(No. 2459) “Keshik, grace, favour, bounty, benefit, good fortune, charity.”

(No. 2461) “Keshikten, fortunate, happy, blessed.”

(No. 2541) “Kichyeku, to be zealous, assiduous, devoted.”

(No. 2588) “Kushiku, to hinder, to bar the way to,” etc.

The third of these corresponds closely with Polo’s etymology of “knights devoted to their lord,” but perhaps either the first or the last may afford the real derivation.

In spite of the different initials ([Arabic] instead of [Arabic]), it can scarcely be doubted that the Kalchi and Kalakchi of Timur’s Institutes are mere mistranscriptions of the same word, e.g.: “I ordered that 12,000 Kalchi, men of the sword completely armed, should be cantoned in the Palace; to the right and to the left, to the front, and in the rear of the imperial diwán; thus, that 1000 of those 12,000 should be every night upon guard,” etc. The translator’s note says of Kalchi, “A Mogul word supposed to mean guards.” We see that even the traditional number of 12,000, and its division into four brigades, are maintained. (See Timour’s Inst., pp. 299 and 235, 237.)

I must add that Professor Vámbéry does not assent to the form Keshikán, on the ground that this Persian plural is impossible in an old Tartar dialect, and he supposes the true word to be Kechilan or Kechiklen, “the night-watchers,” from Kiche or Kichek (Chag. and Uighúr), = “night.”

I believe, however, that Persian was the colloquial language of foreigners at the Kaan’s court, who would not scruple to make a Persian plural when wanted; whilst Rashid has exemplified the actual use of this one.

(D’Ohsson, IV. 410; Gold. Horde, 228, 238; Ilch. II. 184; Q. R. pp. 308–309; Ayeen Akb. I. 270, and Blochmann’s, p. 115; J. As. sèr. IV. tom. xix. 276; Olearius, ed. 1659, I. 656; Cathay, 135; De Mailla, ix. 106; Gaubil, p. 6; Pallas, Samml. I. 35.)

[“By Keshican in Colonel Yule’s Marco Polo, Keshikten is evidently meant. This is a general Mongol term to designate the Khan’s lifeguard. It is derived from the word Keshik, meaning a guard by turns; a corps on tour of duty. Keshik is one of the archaisms of the Mongol language, for now this word has another meaning in Mongol. Colonel Yule has brought together several explanations of the term. It seems to me that among his suppositions the following is the most consistent with the ancient meaning of the word:—

“We find Kishik still used at the court of Hindustan, under the great kings of Timur’s House, for the corps on tour of duty at the palace. . . . The royal guards in Persia, who watch the King’s person at night, are termed Keshikchi.”

“The Keshikten was divided into a day-watch called Turgaut and a night-watch Kebteul. The Kebte-ul consisted of pure Mongols, whilst the Turgaut was composed of the sons of the vassal princes and governors of the provinces, and of hostages. The watch of the Khan was changed every three days, and contained 400 men. In 1330 it was reduced to 100 men.” (Palladius, 42–43.) Mr. E. H. Parker writes in the China Review, XVIII. p. 262, that they “are evidently the ‘body guards’ of the modern viceroys, now pronounced Kashiha, but, evidently, originally Kêshigha.” — H. C.]

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24