Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan | Biography, Empire & Facts

The Genghis Khan

The life of Genghis Khan, particularly the empire he built, presents an engaging incongruity. A political and military genius, Genghis created the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known. Yet, the legacy he left to his heirs proved unsustainable. The Mongol Empire has riven asunder through internal disunity and a distinct lack of cultural cohesion. Before getting started with the story of Genghis Khan, it is worth noting that we lack reliable historical accounts of his life and the internal workings of the Mongol Empire.

Genghis Khan Early Life

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan

The Mongols were primarily illiterate and did not have a form of writing in their earlier stages. While the empire adopted writing based heavily on the Uyghur language during its rule, literacy levels were exceedingly low amongst the rank and file and the leadership. Therefore, most of what we know comes from the accounts of their enemies. Needless to say, these sources were not particularly fond of Genghis Khan and his followers. The picture they paint is unflattering. The medieval era was filled with violence, including countless acts that today would be considered atrocities However, according to many sources, the armies of Genghis Khan stood out in their cruelty and brutality. The English Benedictine Monk Matthew  Paris wrote, “detestable nation of Satan that poured out like devils from Tartarus so that they  are rightly called Tartars.” Tartarus was the ancient Greek name for hell, so Paris was engaging in a clever and revealing bit of wordplay. Though there may have been some exaggeration in these portrayals, even the educated allies of Genghis Khan found his policies to be barbaric and frightening. Many leaders claim to be self-made, but the great  Mongol leader truly rose from utter obscurity to the pinnacle of power. On the one hand, the story of Genghis Khan was outstanding. Born with the name Temüjin, he was the son of a chieftain in Mongolia. We know so little about his background that we are unsure about the exact date of his birth; however, he most likely was born between 1155 and 1167. During the childhood of the future universal leader, his father was killed by a rival chieftain. Genghis and his mother were cast out of the clan.  According to legend, his fathers’  enemies captured the young Genghis Khan, making him wear a wooden collar and stay outside the camp. He made his escape but was detected by a member of the clan – who was so impressed with the boy and the fire in his eyes that he helped Genghis escape. Whether true or not, the story illustrates the charisma of the budding leader. After a series of crafty political maneuvers,  the young leader gained a strong following. While rising to the top, Genghis faced a rebellion from his jealous rivals. Genghis was soon challenged by Jamukha, the most potent regional clan leader, for supremacy. Emerging victorious, he united a large coalition of Mongol tribes under his banner. Though he never controlled all of the Mongolian clans, he was considered the supreme leader of the area by outsiders. By 1206, he had indeed established himself as by far the most powerful ruler on the Steppe. Temüjin was granted the title of Emperor  – of khagan. However, he preferred the title of universal leader or Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan Historical Background

Genghis Khan

The new emperor used his power to create a new political system. He removed many of the tribal structures of the Eurasian Steppe and replaced them with something akin to the  European feudal system. The Mongols were not particularly numerous people. However, Genghis added to their numbers by subjugating other ethnic groups and clans throughout the Steppe. Some of his earliest and most important successes were against the Tatars. The Mongols subjugated these peoples of Turkic ethnic descent. The great general is said to have slaughtered anyone amongst the Tatars taller than a cart axle. However, considering how many warriors he added to the Mongol army, that is undoubtedly an exaggeration. Once most of the people of the Steppe had been united behind Genghis Khan, he launched attacks against the more powerful sedentary societies in the area. At first, the campaigns were limited by a lack of knowledge and experience in siege warfare. This disadvantage meant that the Mongols’ enemies could often hide behind walls and wait until the besiegers were distracted. However, as Mongol conquests expanded into the Muslim world, Genghis and his advisors picked up many vital pointers. Amongst them were the secrets of siege warfare and the importance of controlling urban and rural areas. The increased sophistication of the Mongol war machine allowed for the defeat of more powerful enemies. In 1210, his longtime enemies, the  Western Xia Dynasty of northwestern China, became vassals of the Mongols. They provided a large tax base and an increased source of personnel to facilitate further expansion. Most importantly,  the conquest provided the Mongols with a reasonable degree of control over the Silk Road,  the center of international trade at that time. The next victim of Mongol expansion was the Jin Dynasty of northern China. In 1215, Genghis oversaw the conquest of the Jin capital of  Zhongdu. Instead of continuing to brutalize China, Genghis appointed his general, Muqali, to oversee the piecemeal subjugation of the country. Nonetheless, the consolidation of Mongol China continued apace. Seven years after the death of Genghis Khan, his son, Ögedei Khan, besieged and conquered Caizhou, the new capital, and ended the Jin Dynasty. The emperor was interested in expanding his purview to the west. Thus, the Mongols next pursued a war against the Qara Khitai kingdom.  

Mongol in Khwarazmian Empire

This entity was nominally a Chinese kingdom in central Asia, controlled by other nomads of the Steppe.  That kingdom was eradicated in 1218, thus creating a Mongolian hegemony in China and the central Steppe. Next, the Mongol army conquered and destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire, which ruled parts of Iran and Afghanistan. From the Mongol perspective,  this was a war for their honor and reputation. The royal house of Khwarazm had harassed and killed messengers and trade caravans under the personal protection of the emperor. Therefore,  he saw the conflict as a personal vendetta. It was here that Genghis Khan won his reputation for brutality. Entire populations were decimated, and every building and garden defiled. In 1221,  the Khwarazmian Empire had been decimated. Genghis was not done. Showing an understanding that Mongolia was now a massive power, he split the army. He led part of the army into  Afghanistan and then onward to northern India. Meanwhile, he ordered his trusted commander,  Jebe, into the Caucasus and, ultimately, Russia. Jebe and his soldiers defeated the Georgians in conflict and went all the way to Crimea.

Western Xia

They then defeated a coalition of several Russian princes. Genghis died in 1227 while attending an uprising by Western Xia. The circumstances of his death are unclear. He may have been killed in battle, but some sources claim he met his end in a hunting accident. No other individual in human history conquered territory on that scale before – or since – and even the conquests of Alexander the Great pale in comparison. On the other hand, the tale of a charismatic leader uniting bickering tribes into a powerful conquering force was a feature of the medieval period. These nomadic leaders are emblematic of a more significant structural issue about the socioeconomics of the time.   Indeed, the era saw the last hurrah of the nomadic lifestyle and its traditional clashes with sedentary societies. The steppes of Asia had bred large and powerful nomadic cultures. Their power was increased by their mastery of horse-riding. Adding to their power was the disarray of many sedentary cultures bordering the Eurasian Steppe. The medieval era was notable for the lack of strong centralized governments. In many parts of Asia and Europe, fractured feudal or semi-feudal political systems replaced the more efficient empires of antiquity. Meanwhile,  the modern state was still centuries away. Geographic elements also played a part in the rise of the Mongolian Empire. Like many other nomadic medieval cultures, the Mongols hailed from the Eurasian Steppe – the easternmost part of it, to be precise. The Steppe is a vast grassland stretching from Manchuria to modern-day Hungary. So why did that area encourage and sustain the nomadic lifestyle? First of all, it is flat and is therefore comfortable for rapid horse riding. Second, it is primarily a grassy territory and provides sustenance for horses and the other grazing animals that nomads typically rely on. When all is told, the successes of Genghis Khan would have been impossible without the specific circumstances. Nonetheless, he was a remarkable leader, able to leverage all of these advantages spectacularly. The general had an intuitive ability to keep his disparate followers focused and united.

The distribution of resources within the Mongol Empire was a case in point. Raiding nomads are primarily motivated by loot gained through incursions. Genghis made sure that the rewards were shared between the various clans and spread throughout the ranks. Therefore, even the lowliest soldiers received a fair share of the plunder. This unusual measure cemented the loyalty of the troops and helped prevent splintering and mutiny. Another brilliant measure was the manner in which Genghis integrated new clans and tribes into his military following their conquest. The Mongols would ruthlessly execute the leadership and nobility. However, they would keep the lion’s share of the soldiers and their families alive and ready to join the Mongol cause. Through these measures, Genghis overcame the spirit of clannish divisiveness and created a  united military and political machine, which he used to pursue conquest ruthlessly. There is a colloquial phrase accusing reactionaries of being “somewhere to  the right of Genghis Khan.” However, he had some reasonably tolerant and far-sighted policies. For example, the Mongol Empire practiced religious freedom. In addition, it encouraged commerce with neighboring societies and other cultures to enrich the coffers. He also forbade hunting during the breeding season. However, Genghis Khan is primarily famed for his military leadership. Raiding nomads are not known for their organization, but the troops of the Mongol Empire proved a notable exception. Genghis divided them into units in a manner not dissimilar to a modern military. A group of ten soldiers (equivalent to a small platoon) was an  Araban, while a 100-soldier team, essentially a company, was a Sun. The Mingghans were similar to brigades and numbered 1,000 soldiers, while the division-like tumors comprised 10,000 men. The praise that Khan receives for his abilities is justified. However, it is important to remember that no leader can build an empire single-handedly. This fact is doubly true when we consider the unreliable modes of communication extant at the time. It would have been impossible to centralize military efforts or governance of a territory spanning from Beijing to Baghdad. The subcommanders and warriors of the Mongol Empire took the initiative in many cases and did so with remarkable aplomb. The Mongol Empire survived the death of the emperor. His third son, Ögedei Khan, inherited the title of Genghis Khan and expanded the borders of the Mongol Empire. However, the Empire did not last into the 1300s. The rivalry between competing factions blunted the military power of the Mongols. Another factor weakening long-term Mongolian holdings was the relatively weak culture of the Mongolian nomads. The increasingly smaller successor kingdoms to the Mongol Empire saw local culture and elites subsume their occupiers culturally.

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