Born: Temüjin Borjigin (birth name), c. 1162, Khentii Mountains, Khamag Mongol, Mongolia
Died: 18th August 1227 (aged 64-65), Yinchuan, Western Xia Province, China
Titles: First Khagan and Emperor of the Mongol Empire | Supreme Khan of all the Mongols | King of Kings (Jin Emperor)
Reign: Spring 1206 – 18th August 1227
Marriages: approximately 11
Children: 22 acknowledged children, estimates of up to 2000 illegitimate children in total
Early Life (c. 1162-80)
Temüjin Borjigin (who later adopted the title Genghis Khan, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to him as Genghis or Genghis Khan throughout this blog post) was born into a small clan in the Khentii Mountains in North Eastern Mongolia around about 1162. Although we know little of his early life, there is still sufficient evidence to piece together his early years.
Genghis’ father was poisoned when he was only eight years old, and his father was head of the clan. Lacking any sort of effective chieftain, the rest of the senior members of the clan banished Genghis’ mother, his brothers, his half-brothers and Genghis himself. One early record written two or three decades after Genghis’ death reported that as a child and adolescent, Genghis and his immediate family had to forage for food, living primarily on carrion, mice and plants to survive. In other words, this great leader to be had been at the very bottom of a societal pecking order and still managed to rise to the top.
It took Genghis until he was in his forties before he managed to achieve the title of Genghis Khan (literally translating as “Great Ruler”). But how did he do this?
Empire Building (c. 1180-1206)
Although the largely romanticised account suggested that Genghis had been at the very bottom of society (which he had in truth), it did not mean that his family had also come from the bottom. Genghis’ grandfather, Khabul Khan, had defeated the Jin Dynasty in China on numerous occasions, and was a successful Mongol warrior.
In around 1180, a sudden decrease in temperature on the steppe had brought about a climatic crisis: it was too cold for the grass to grow, and thus there was insufficient grass for the tribes’ animals to graze. This situation was eventually rectified by none other than Genghis himself: he unified the warring tribes and led them south to the agriculturally rich Chinese lands
Historian Bamber Gascoigne argues that Genghis united the various Mongol tribes and clans through a combination of trust and terror. While building up his following, Genghis rewarded courage and loyalty – anyone who had fought well against him, but had been defeated, was offered a promotion in Genghis’ army. Only cowardice and treachery were punished. However, in later years when he was expanding into alien lands, the conditions were reversed: towns which had put up a brave resistance were rounded up and brutally massacred in public. One source reported that Mongol troops were given battle-axes and told to set to work with them on the citizens of the towns which were unfortunate enough to be in Genghis’ path. On one occasion, a tally of ears was required as proof that the Mongol soldiers had dispatched their allotted quota. Fear ultimately played its part in the expansion of Genghis’ empire: spies infiltrated city walls and spread the word that the immediate surrender might be rewarded with mercy. Citizens rarely needed persuading to surrender quickly.
Yet aside from the psychological aspect of empire building, Genghis also physically strengthened his empire, and this was via one famous medium: horsemen. The Mongolian horsemen were notorious wherever they went. They were specially trained from a young age, and able to stand up in the stirrups while their horses were charging in battle, and able to fire their heavy bows with incredible accuracy to devastating effect. The horsemen were also able to communicate news at a rapid speed across the empire by galloping in relay, day and night, across the steppes and deserts of Central Asia.
Major Conquests and Later Years, c. 1206-27
The first image many of us conjure when we hear the term “Mongols” is one of bloodthirsty, unreliable, chaotic tribal warriors. In fact, under Genghis Khan, the rise of the Mongols was the complete opposite: the result of ruthless planning, streamlined organisation and a clear set of strategic objectives. One of the most devastating of which was his decision to defeat the Western Xia in China in 1209.
In the immediate years preceding this invasion, Genghis had defeated his rival tribes north of the wall (from approximately 1206-09), and after some careful planning, set out to northern China in 1212.
The Mongol armies swept across northern China between 1212 and 1213, laying waste to over ninety cities, and by 1215 they had taken the Jin capital of Yanjing (modern-day Beijing), forcing the Jin Emperor Xuanzong to flee south to Kaifeng. This left the Mongols to occupy the northern half of his kingdom, and for Genghis Khan to proclaim himself Jin Emperor, or Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. All that remained of the Laio Dynasty was an area referred to as the Western Liao, and Genghis conquered this the following year.
In 1218-19, Genghis sent out a five-hundred man strong caravan to the Silk Road (the major trade route connecting Europe to China) after he saw the benefits of opening up trade links with the Kwarezmian Empire (which covers territory in modern-day Iran). However, his caravan was attacked by the governor of the Kwarezmian city of Otrar (now a ghost-town and archaeological site in modern-day southern Kazakhstan), which infuriated Genghis. To add insult to injury, any envoys he sent were beheaded, forcing Genghis into action. In 1219-20, a huge Mongol force set out from the Empire, and defeated the Shah’s army. Genghis followed up by taking Samarkand and Bukhara (both cities in modern-day Uzbekistan), tearing everything from royal palaces to towns and innocent civilians to the ground. By late 1220, the Kwarezmian Empire had been completely destroyed by Genghis’ forces.
After the destruction of the Kwarezmian Empire in 1220, the Mongols split into two forces: Genghis returned to Mongolia with half of his army, raiding through Afghanistan and India on the way back, while two of his most trusted generals, Jebe and Subutai rode through the Caucasus and into Russia. They spent the winter by the Black Sea before returning back to Mongolia. Thanks to their conquests north, and Genghis’ east, the area known as Transoxiana – the part of Central Asia that covers modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and southwest Kazakhstan – and Persia – was now part of the Mongol Empire.
During the mid-1220s (estimates rally from Summer 1224 to Spring 1225), the Tanguts of the Western Xia and the defeated Jin Dynasty joined forces in an attempt to subdue what they believed to be an exhausted Mongol army. In 1226, Genghis Khan attacked and quickly took Heisi, Ganzhou, Suzhou and Xiliangfu by the autumn. In early 1227, he destroyed the Tangut capital of Ning Hia, and continued onwards with his advance. By summer 1227, he had already taken the imperial family as prisoners and had them executed.
The most widely reported incidence of Genghis’ death comes from this area. It was reported that he was castrated by a Tangut princess in revenge for his treatment of her people, and to prevent him from raping her. He is said to have died as a result of his wounds. And thus came the end of Genghis Khan!
Genghis’ legacy did not end rolling on the marbled floor of a Tangut castle. As was customary at the time, his empire was divided up between his four sons, creating four great Mongol kingdoms, known as khanates: The Yuan Dynasty in the East, containing China and Mongolia; the Chagatai in Central Asia around Transoxiana; the Golden Horde to the northwest, stretching from Siberia to Eastern Europe; and the Ilkhanate, trickling down to Persia.
Genghis Khan and his descendants had created the largest land empire in history, stretching from the East China Sea to Poland at its peak in the mid-thirteenth century, uniting millions of people under one rule. This rule was tolerant in some respects, but largely founded on the principles of total and complete warfare.
Readers may remember my last blog post about the Black Death, and how I mentioned that the Mongols were referred to as “Tartars”. This name was a reference to Tartarus from Ancient Greek mythology: the abyss of torment. This was how many Europeans saw these huge hordes of Mongol warriors – and largely how they are remembered today. Reports of their advance reached as far as Scotland in the thirteenth century, and according to one source, herring went unsold in ports on the eastern coast of Britain, because the merchants who usually came to buy it from the Black Sea dared not to leave home for fear of the Mongols ransacking their towns and villages.
By 1241, the Mongols had reached Europe, and split into two hordes: one heading for Poland and the other for Hungary. Their philosophy was simple: they had a worldview which stopped at nothing short of global domination, and conquering Europe was their next logical step in imperial expansion. For a medieval empire to reach this far was not only an incredible achievement, but synonymous with the supreme ability and legacy of the Great Ruler himself: Genghis Khan.
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Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015)
Bamber Gascoigne, A Brief History of the Dynasties of China: 3500 Years of Chinese Civilisation (2003)
Dan Jones, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors (2017)
Gordon Kerr, A Short History of China: From Ancient Dynasties to Economic Powerhouse (2013)