Genghis Khan (1164 – 1227) was a fierce and brilliant military commander, who achieved unprecedented success in setting up the Mongol Empire which stretched across Europe, China and Asia. His Mongol armies left a trail of fear, death and destruction. But, he also created a vibrant empire with a common language, booming trade, tolerance of religion and some basic customs and laws.
Short Bio of Genghis Khan
The young Temujin was born the son of a local tribal leader, Yesugei – sometime between 1163 and 1167. This was a period of turbulence, intermittent warfare and internecine conflict. At a young age, Temujin’s father was murdered by rival tribesman; this left Temujin powerless and at the mercy of rival tribes. For a few years, he and his family lived in great poverty. Then in 1177, he was captured by former allies of his father and imprisoned with a wooden head brace. However, on one occasion, sensing a weakness in the guards, Temujin used the wooden head brace to knock out a guard and then through great good fortune and tenacity, he escaped. One anecdote about his escape is that coming across a farm, Khan implored a stranger for a horse. So impressed was the stranger with Khan’s presence he helped him escape and pledged life-long loyalty. It is typical of how Khan could inspire awe and reverence from those who met him. Free of his former captives he gained a reputation as a fearsome warrior and leader of men. He gathered together a band of men who were very loyal and he astutely created alliances to increase his power base. Reports suggest many instances, where people saw something in his eyes that encouraged great loyalty and devotion. It was a loyalty Temujin was keen to exploit as he held great determination and ambition.
At the age of 16, he married his childhood bride Borte, whom he had great admiration for. Shortly after the marriage, Borte was kidnapped, but Temujin was able to call on some friends to lead a rescue operation. This was successful, and although Borte was found to be with child, Temujin would bring up the child as if it was his.
One of his most important early victories was leading a small unit and allies in defeating the Merkit tribe who bore a grudge against Temujin. Temujin routed his opponents and proceeded to kill all people taller than a cart axle. It was typical of Temujin’s ruthlessness and determination to quell any possible rebellion by having potential rebels killed.
Temujin becomes Genghis Khan
With the backing of the three strongest tribes, in 1206 Genghis Khan was now able to unify the various Mongol tribes into a united nation and one of the most impressive war machines ever assembled. It was at this council meeting that Moghul tribesmen declared Temujin as ‘Genghis Khan – meaning ‘Oceanic Ruler of the Universe.’ This loyalty and unity were very rare in that era. For the first time, it created a concept of a unified Mongol nation, and despite the frequent civil conflict, the modern state of Mongolia can be traced to Genghis Khan’s unification of the different tribes.
However, unifying local tribes was only a starting point for Khan. Genghis Khan had a tremendous ambition to conquer and plunder loot. He first turned his attention to the powerful Chinese empire, who was at the time divided by internal conflict. He was successful in capturing the Tangut Kingdom and then conquering the Jin Empire in 1211. In 1215, he captured the ancient city of Beijing and effectively gained the obeisance and surrender of the Chinese. This allowed him to turn his attention to the West and Genghis Khan led his Mongol armies west – deep into the heart of Europe – spreading fear and destruction.
“The Greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who live him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.”
– Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan did not just look to kill people; he was mainly interested in conquering and gaining wealth. He would accept the surrender of a defeated enemy and often used a consummate skill to avoid conflict merely through emissaries who would spread tales of fear about the impending force of Genghis Khan’s war machine.
Genghis Khan could show great loyalty to those who were loyal to him, and equally, he could turn on those he considered to be disloyal or resisted. After the conquest of China, Khan turned his attention to Khwarazm a region in modern-day Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan. In this case, Khan was furious that the Khwarazm ruler had attacked Muslim merchants under the protection of Genghis Khan. He turned his fury on the Empire and was particularly brutal in destroying and killing huge numbers of subjects. The brutality and scale of killing were remembered for many centuries.
Despite a well-deserved reputation for brutality, Genghis Khan also encouraged trade and commerce within his realm. He forbade his troops to attack merchants, and through his control of the main trading routes, trade and culture flourished as people could travel within the Mongol Empire stretching from China in the East to the Black Sea in the East. Genghis Khan was also tolerant of religions and exempted priests from paying tax.
The personality of Genghis Khan
The personality of Genghis Khan is often hard to decipher. He was interested in religious matters and often felt a sense of a divine mission. He worshipped the supreme deity of the Mongols – ‘The Eternal Blue Heaven.’ He also received a Daoist sage, Qiu Chuji who talked about religious issues. In some respects, Khan was adaptable and willing to take advice – including his mother, wife, and close friends. But, he could be both brutal in taking revenge on those who he felt had wronged him and was willing to slaughter civilians who had surrendered if it suited his needs. He was adept in using psychological warfare and was often successful in instilling sufficient fear to encourage whole cities to surrender. But he also had a more pragmatic side and fostered trade, commerce and respected local customs. He took numerous wives and had innumerable children. It is estimated that 8% of Asians can have their DNA traced back to Genghis Khan.
Ironically, he died after falling from a horse in 1226. By his own request, he was buried in an unmarked grave within Mongolia.
How did Genghis Khan change the world?
Genghis Khan conquered Mongolia, much of China and a large part of eastern Europe and Central Asia. His conquests also led to the growth of towns, cities and intra empire trade. His grandson Kublai Khan completed the conquest of China, but after his death, the Mongol Empire started to break up amongst different factions. Yet, although the Mongol Empire did disintegrate, Genghis Khan undoubtedly changed the course of world history. He created a new sense of Mongol identity and helped bring in modern inventions such as writing and the adoption of the Uyghur script. He also encouraged a degree of religious tolerance and trade – helping to strengthen the infrastructure of the Silk Road – trade between east and west. Yet, despite these ‘progressive’ developments for many on the receiving end of Khan’s conquest, he remained a byword for genocidal killing and ruthlessness that stayed long in the popular imagination.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
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