Genghis Khan

From be­ing re­jected by his clan as a boy and hav­ing to claw his way to power, the Mon­gol leader came to be­lieve he was des­tined to con­quer the world. He all but suc­ceeded, writes Spencer Day

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

The man who united the Mon­gol tribes and cre­ated an un­par­al­leled em­pire is painted as a piti­less killer. But was he also an en­light­ened ruler?

In the early 13th cen­tury, Wanyan Yongji, mighty em­peror of the Jin, sent a mes­sage to an upstart war­lord who had had the temer­ity to in­vade his ter­ri­tory. “Our em­pire is as vast as the sea,” it read. “Yours is but a hand­ful of sand. How can we fear you?”

It was a bold state­ment, but one that was, on the face of it at least, fully jus­ti­fied. For the Jin dy­nasty of north­ern China was per­haps the most pow­er­ful polity on the face of the Earth at the time. The Jin had unimag­in­able wealth, gun­pow­der and an enor­mous army equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, such as cat­a­pults. What’s more, they could call upon the pro­tec­tion of one of the fore­most en­gi­neer­ing feats of all time, the Great Wall of China. So why should they be con­cerned about a no­mad army rid­ing roughshod over their land?

But there were a cou­ple of prob­lems. The Jin weren’t fac­ing any old bunch of no­mads, and the man com­mand­ing them wasn’t any old leader. He was Genghis Khan. Over the next two decades, the Mon­gol ruler would forge a rep­u­ta­tion as ar­guably the great­est mil­i­tary com­man­der in history. And it was at the very heart of Wanyan Yongji’s em­pire – in the streets of his mag­nif­i­cent cap­i­tal, Beijing – that he would an­nounce him­self to the world.

By the time his Mon­gol army first at­tacked Beijing in 1214, tens of thou­sands of hap­less Chi­nese men, women and chil­dren had al­ready be­come ac­quainted with Genghis Khan’s ‘tal­ents’ as a bru­tal, de­struc­tive force. A few years ear­lier, he had launched a mas­sive in­va­sion of north­west China, pil­lag­ing, plun­der­ing and killing on an epic scale. Not even the Great Wall could stop him. In­stead of at­tempt­ing to as­sault it, he sim­ply took his army around the side.


Now, hav­ing ar­rived at Beijing, Genghis Khan faced an­other wall, the one sur­round­ing the city. It was 12 me­tres high, 10 miles long and bristling with de­fend­ers ready to rain down molten me­tals, crude oil, even ex­cre­ment and poi­sons onto the Mon­gols. “I had trained my men to at­tack with the speed of the wind,” Genghis Khan re­called. “Now they had to learn the guile of the wolf.” And so he waited… and waited, slowly stran­gling the Jin cap­i­tal in a long siege. Thou­sands starved within the walls and the pop­u­la­tion re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism. And still Genghis Khan waited un­til, in early sum­mer 1215, with the pop­u­lace at break­ing point, he or­dered his men to storm the city.

The walls were scaled, the de­fend­ers over­come, and what fol­lowed was ut­ter an­ni­hi­la­tion. For one month, his army burned, plun­dered and raped

with aban­don. The city of the ut­most so­phis­ti­ca­tion, famed for its grand palaces and mar­kets over­flow­ing with silks and spices, had been re­duced to a char­nel house. A year later, vis­it­ing am­bas­sadors re­ported that the streets of Beijing were “slip­pery with hu­man fat”. They also recorded that be­yond the walls stood a moun­tain of bones.

Genghis Khan – the butt of a Chi­nese em­peror’s jokes and leader of two mil­lion il­lit­er­ate no­mads – had brought the Jin to their knees. That achieve­ment in it­self would have been enough to el­e­vate him into the pan­theon of great mil­i­tary com­man­ders. But for Genghis Khan, it was just the start.

Over the course of the cen­tury, he and his suc­ces­sors built the largest con­tigu­ous em­pire in the history of the world, a 12-mil­lion-square-mile swathe of land that stretched from the Sea of Ja­pan to the grass­lands of Hun­gary in the heart of Europe. To put that into con­text, the Mon­gol Em­pire grew to four times the size of the one cre­ated by that other great con­queror, Alexan­der the Great, and twice the size of the Ro­man Em­pire. Some three bil­lion of the seven bil­lion peo­ple alive to­day live in coun­tries that formed part of the Mon­gol Em­pire.

Yet per­haps more as­ton­ish­ing still is the story of the cat­a­lyst be­hind this ex­tra­or­di­nary feat of em­pire-build­ing. Un­like Alexan­der the Great or Julius Cae­sar be­fore him, Genghis Khan didn’t fine-tune an al­ready im­pres­sive mil­i­tary ma­chine. He turned a rag-bag col­lec­tion of tribes – with no per­ma­nent homes, pre­cious few pos­ses­sions and a long history of butcher­ing one an­other – into an un­stop­pable jug­ger­naut. And he did so from fraught be­gin­nings.


Genghis Khan didn’t be­come Genghis Khan un­til well into his 40s. When he was born in c1162, the son of a tribal war­rior chief, he was named Te­mu­jin. TheSe­cret History of the Mon­gols, the old­est-sur­viv­ing lit­er­ary work in the Mon­go­lian lan­guage, set down shortly af­ter his death, tells us that he was born clutch­ing a blood clot, a sign that he would be a brave war­rior.

If Te­mu­jin was des­tined for great­ness, there were few signs dur­ing his early years. At the age of eight or nine, his fa­ther was poi­soned by a ri­val tribe, the Tatars, and he and his mother were re­jected by their clan and forced out onto the grass­lands of Mon­go­lia, where they sur­vived by for­ag­ing for berries, rats and birds. It was a hu­mil­i­at­ing, piti­ful ex­is­tence. “They left us with noth­ing,” re­mem­bered Te­mu­jin. “We had no friends but our own shad­ows.”

Be­ing friend­less in the cut­throat world of 13th-cen­tury Mon­go­lia was not


a good place to be. The young Te­mu­jin came to the re­al­i­sa­tion that his best chance of re­vers­ing his for­tunes – and cre­at­ing a power­base for him­self – lay in es­tab­lish­ing al­liances.

When he was just 16, he did ex­actly that by mar­ry­ing a girl called Börte of the Olkhonud tribe. “Börte was mine and so was her tribe,” was Te­mu­jin’s tri­umphant, if far from ro­man­tic, ver­dict on the union. Yet on the vi­o­lent, febrile Mon­go­lian steppe, even get­ting mar­ried could spell trou­ble. No sooner had Te­mu­jin and Börte been wed than a ri­val tribe, the Merkit, am­bushed Te­mu­jin and rode off with his bride.


Te­mu­jin was des­per­ate to get re­venge, but knew he couldn’t do so on his own. “A man who seeks power needs friends with power,” he would later write. So he sought to se­cure an­other al­liance, this time with a for­mi­da­ble leader named Toghrul. Te­mu­jin won over Toghrul by re­mind­ing him that he had fought along­side his fa­ther, and sugar-coated the of­fer with a lav­ish sable coat. The gam­bit worked. With the aid of Toghrul’s fight­ers, Te­mu­jin at­tacked the Merkit and won back his wife. “We de­stroyed their fam­i­lies and emp­tied their breasts,” he said. By putting a pow­er­ful tribe to sword, Te­mu­jin’s as­cent to be­com­ing the ul­ti­mate power in Mon­go­lia had well and truly be­gun.

Some­one, how­ever, stood in his way, and it was one of his great­est friends. Te­mu­jin had been blood broth­ers with a fel­low war­rior named Ja­mukha, also the son of a Mon­go­lian tribal leader, for a num­ber of years. In fact, Ja­mukha had played an in­stru­men­tal role in the de­feat of the Merkit. Yet, as the two had grown older, cracks be­gan to ap­pear in their friend­ship. Ja­mukha had grown dis­trust­ful of Te­mu­jin’s grow­ing power – es­pe­cially his pen­chant for mer­i­toc­racy, pro­mot­ing peo­ple on the ba­sis of their tal­ent rather than their breed­ing. Soon, his dis­trust mor­phed into out­right war.

When Ja­mukha struck, it was with blood­thirsty fe­roc­ity. He de­feated Te­mu­jin’s fight­ers high on the plateau of cen­tral Mon­go­lia, and then had Te­mu­jin’s cap­tured gen­er­als boiled alive. “The earth was soaked with the blood of my warriors,” wrote Te­mu­jin. “Never again would I be de­feated and my loyal warriors so dis­hon­oured.” He was good to his word, and when his re­venge came, it was to­tal. Te­mu­jin’s army fell on Ja­mukha’s warriors in the sum­mer of 1204, de­feat­ing them in a bl­iz­zard of ar­rows and cav­alry charges. Then a few months later, Ja­mukha was cap­tured. Rather than dish out a fate sim­i­lar to what be­fell his gen­er­als, though, Te­mu­jin showed him mercy… up to a point. Ja­mukha asked for a noble death, which meant with­out the shed­ding of blood. His for­mer friend granted him that, so had his back bro­ken. Te­mu­jin’s vic­tory helped make him the most pow­er­ful war­rior on the Mon­go­lian steppe. Two years later, he achieved some­thing yet more re­mark­able, unit­ing Mon­go­lia’s war­ring tribes un­der one leader. Now he would go about turn­ing them into a dy­nasty­de­feat­ing fight­ing force, and he would do so un­der a new ep­i­thet: Genghis Khan, mean­ing ‘univer­sal ruler’. Among the first peo­ple to feel the force of the newly united Mon­gol nation was the West­ern Xia of north­west China, who suc­cumbed to a sus­tained Mon­gol in­va­sion. In 1211, Genghis fol­lowed that by at­tack­ing the Jin,


gob­bling up land, cities and loot in a spec­tac­u­lar cam­paign that cul­mi­nated in the fall of Beijing.

What, other than Genghis Khan’s mil­i­tary ge­nius, made the Mon­gols so in­tim­i­dat­ing? At the heart of their suc­cess were their horse-mounted archers who, in the words of his­to­rian Frank McLynn, in­spired “a quan­tum leap in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy”. Mon­go­lians trained in archery and horse­man­ship from a young age – Genghis Khan prob­a­bly learned how to fire an ar­row from horse­back by the age of about three – and mas­tered how to achieve max­i­mum ac­cu­racy by re­leas­ing their ar­rows just as all of their horse’s hooves left the ground.

The Mon­go­lians were highly adept at com­mu­ni­cat­ing over large dis­tances, some­thing they had honed over cen­turies of round­ing up an­i­mals on the steppe. This en­abled them to slowly tighten the noose around the en­emy.

Guile was an­other key weapon in the Mon­gol ar­moury. Genghis Khan re­lied heav­ily on spies and was cer­tainly not above us­ing fake news as a tac­tic. In one in­stance, he em­ployed a cam­paign of dis­in­for­ma­tion to con­firm one Mus­lim shah’s sus­pi­cion that his sub­or­di­nates were plot­ting against him. Genghis Khan was also a mas­ter of the feigned re­treat, lur­ing op­po­nents out of de­fen­sive po­si­tions be­fore de­liv­er­ing a lethal strike.

Com­bine all this with his abil­ity to quickly as­sim­i­late new tech­nolo­gies into his own army – such as Chi­nese siege weapons, mor­tars, gun­pow­der, not to men­tion thou­sands of cap­tured troops – and you had a truly for­mi­da­ble foe.


And then, of course, there was ter­ror. “Those who sur­ren­dered would be spared,” Genghis Khan is re­ported as say­ing. “Those who did not sur­ren­der but op­posed with strug­gle and dis­sen­sion would be an­ni­hi­lated.” It was no idle boast. Cities that put up a fight were rou­tinely sub­jected to an orgy of de­struc­tion: their men butchered, women raped and build­ings razed.

As a strat­egy of war, the ‘ex­em­plary mas­sacre’ was ut­terly bru­tal, but as a means of dis­suad­ing re­sis­tance, it was chill­ingly ef­fec­tive. As many as 30 mil­lion peo­ple may have died dur­ing the Mon­gols’ cam­paigns in China alone. Yet in terms of sheer bar­bar­ity, the worst was yet to come.

Hav­ing sub­dued the West­ern Xia and Jin to the east, Genghis Khan looked to establish trade links to his west. He sent emis­saries into the Kh­warezmid Em­pire (mod­ern-day Afghanistan and Iraq). They car­ried – ac­cord­ing to con­tem­po­rary Per­sian his­to­rian Juz­jani – the fol­low­ing mes­sage to their ruler, Ala ad-Din Muham­mad: “I am mas­ter


of the lands of the ris­ing sun while you rule those of the set­ting sun. Let us con­clude a firm treaty of friend­ship and peace.” The re­sponse was em­phatic. It was the head of one of Genghis Khan’s am­bas­sadors in a sack. When he learned of this grisly snub, he flew into a rage that would change the course of history. Within a mat­ter of months, Genghis Khan had dis­patched an army of 200,000 men to teach the shah a les­son that the peo­ple of cen­tral Asia wouldn’t for­get for gen­er­a­tions.

Some of the most no­to­ri­ous of all Mon­gol atroc­i­ties were per­pe­trated dur­ing this cam­paign, vis­ited upon the east­ern out­posts of Is­lam. The city of Gur­ganj in mod­ern-day Turk­menistan felt the full brunt of Genghis Khan’s fury. Mus­lim his­to­ri­ans record that, af­ter it suc­cumbed to a five-month siege, 50,000 Mon­gol sol­diers slaugh­tered ten men each.

Among their other vic­tims was the oa­sis city of Merv (also Turk­menistan), whose li­braries, con­sti­tut­ing the great­est col­lec­tion in cen­tral Asia, con­tained 150,000 vol­umes. By the time Genghis Khan’s forces had fin­ished, the city and its li­braries lay in ru­ins, and each sol­dier in the 7,000-strong in­vad­ing army was al­lot­ted around 300 peo­ple to kill. Most had their throats slit.

Genghis Khan was, it ap­pears, en­tirely un­re­pen­tant for vi­o­lence. “I am the pun­ish­ment of God,” was his defiant mes­sage. “If you had not com­mit­ted

great sins, God would not have in­flicted a pun­ish­ment such as me upon you.”

By 1225, the Mon­gol cam­paign in cen­tral Asia was ef­fec­tively over. Count­less cities had been razed, mil­lions lay dead and Genghis Khan now presided over an em­pire that ex­tended west to the Caspian Sea.


Was he now pre­pared to rest on his laurels? To sit back and savour the spoils of vic­tory? Not a bit of it. Mon­gol texts tells us that Genghis Khan gen­uinely be­lieved that it was his des­tiny to con­quer the world for his god, Ten­gri. What­ever his mo­ti­va­tion, within a year he was on the cam­paign trail again, lead­ing an army back into China. But it was not to be. Dur­ing 1227, he was taken ill and died only days later. His body was trans­ported all the way back to Mon­go­lia, where it was buried some­where un­known near a sa­cred moun­tain. Its lo­ca­tion re­mains a mys­tery to this day.

Ac­cord­ing to le­gend, Genghis Khan’s last words to a few faith­ful fol­low­ers were: “I have con­quered for you a large em­pire. But my life was too short to take the whole world. That I leave to you.” Whether he ut­tered these short sen­tences or not, his suc­ces­sors were more than happy to take up the chal­lenge. Genghis Khan was dead, but as the peo­ple of Asia and Europe would learn to their cost over the next seven decades, the Mon­gols weren’t done with con­quest quite yet.

By rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing his army and his ruth­less­ness in bat­tle, Genghis Khan es­tab­lished the largest land em­pire in history

The Great Wall of China proved an in­ad­e­quate de­fence against Genghis Khan – he marched his army around it There are no sur­viv­ing con­tem­po­rary por­traits of Genghis Khan. This Chi­nese paint­ing comes from the 14th cen­tury

ABOVE: For killing his fa­ther, Genghis Khan took ret­ri­bu­tion on the Tatar tribe LEFT: The Mon­gol army be­sieged and razed cities from China to Europe, leav­ing mil­lions dead along the way

LEFT: Genghis Khan is seated with his wife Börte. To­gether, they had nine chil­dren ABOVE: Mon­gols lay siege to Beijing in this 14th-cen­tury work by prom­i­nent his­to­rian Rashīd al-Dīn

Even Mon­gol rulers like Genghis Khan and his grand­son Kublai, seen in a Chi­nese silk paint­ing, mas­tered the art of fir­ing a bow on horse­back

MAIN: The stain­less-steel Genghis Khan Eques­trian Statue, on the bank of the Tuul River in Mon­go­lia, stands at 40 me­tres highLEFT: Mon­gol archers dur­ing Genghis Khan’s de­struc­tion of the west

The ru­ins of Merv, one of the world’s might­i­est cities be­fore the Mon­gols ar­rived

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