(Spoilers for season 2 of the Netflix series “Marco Polo” below. And a disclaimer: Yes, we know “Marco Polo” is a fictionalized dramatization of historical events and does not follow historical records to the letter. This is all in good fun, not criticism.)
Ahmad, the chief antagonist of “Marco Polo” season 2 on Netflix, is a great, layered character.
At the end of season 1, it was revealed that Ahmad, played by Mahesh Jadu, has been plotting to take down Kublai Khan for a long time, even as he sat beside the Great Khan in his court at Karakorum.
During season 2 he made his big move against Kublai, helping coordinate rebellions both from within the Empire and outside it, fomenting an uprising amongst the remnants of the Song Dynasty and setting up an alliance between Kaidu and Crusaders from the West — and pulling a coup independent of all that.
It was quite a plan, but ultimately failed — as season 2 closed, Ahmad could be found hanging at the gate of Karakorum.
Ahmad did what he did in a bid for revenge — the Mongols sacked his hometown when he was a boy, and Ahmad himself was very fortunate to even survive and thrive under the care of Kublai and Empress Chabi.
Like all things on “Marco Polo,” Ahmad’s story is rooted in history, though the idea that he hated Kublai and wanted to destroy everything he’d built isn’t really supported by the facts.
Still, history does treat Ahmad Fanakati as a villainous character. Here’s what we know about him.
Ahmad was from Fanakat (thus the name), a long-since-destroyed town in present-day Uzbekistan. Fanakat is thought to have been destroyed when the Mongols invaded the area in the mid-13th century, though it was rebuilt in the late 14th century and given the new name Shahrukhiya.
His activities until adulthood are unclear, but at some point he became a member of the court under the Mongol Empress Jamui. By the mid-1260s he had become an important financial figure in the empire, thanks to his relationship with Empress Chabi. In 1270, he took charge of the finances of the entire Empire under a newly formed financial administration, the Shengshu Sheng. This is the job Ahmad holds on the show.
Ahmad then built a completely new financial system for the Mongol Empire, one that was considered very harsh by the Empire’s non-Mongol subjects. So Ahmad became a hated figure — but being positioned so highly made him untouchable.
Ahmad was ambitious, and used his power to have his say in other facets of the government, including placing his own people (friends and Han Chinese allies) in high positions as well. Over the next decade or so Ahmad managed to really piss off a bunch of other highly placed Mongol officials — including Prince Zhenjin (called Jingim on “Marco Polo”).
After Empress Chabi died in 1281, Ahmad’s fortunes took a turn for the worse as his chief patron was no longer there to protect him. A year later, Ahmad was assassinated.
“The Travels of Marco Polo” provides an account of Ahmad’s career and assassination. Polo describes Ahmad as corrupt and oppressive, as well as an embezzler. He says that after Ahmad’s death, Kublai ordered all Ahmad’s riches transferred to the treasury, stockpile that was shockingly large.
Polo attributed Ahmad’s assassination to Chinese military commanders Chenchu and Vanchu, whom he said were hoping to use Ahmad’s death to spark a larger rebellion against the Mongol occupation of China. That rebellion did not materialize, of course.
In a nice nod to this account on the show, it was Chinese character Mei Lin, formerly of the Song, who landed the killing blow against Ahmad.
But these portrayals may not be all that accurate — history, after all, seems to have largely been written by the Chinese, who hated him. Plus, that Ahmad held real power in the Empire despite not being Mongol didn’t do him any favors. In any case, the “Jami’ al-tawarikh,” a historical record compiled by the Persian historian Rasha-al-Din Hamadani in the early 14th century, paints Ahmad as an innovative mind whose totally revamped financial system is credited with facilitating the Mongolian Empire’s success in southern China.
So as far as we know, Ahmad Fanakati was not a schemer plotting the downfall of Kublai Khan, but instead just a bureaucrat — maybe a corrupt one, though almost certainly a layered character regardless. Which is still fun, just not as dramatic as the depiction we saw in season 2 of “Marco Polo.”