Genghis Khan, or Ghengis Khan as he is more widely known, was born about the
year 1162 to a Mongol chieftain, Yesugei, and his wife. He was born with the
name of Temujin which means ’iron worker’ in his native language. When
Temujin was born his fist was clutching a blood clot which was declared an omen
that he was destined to become a heroic warrior.
Very little is known of Temujin until he was around age 13 when his father declared that his son was to find a fiancée and get married. After several days of travel Temujin and Yesugei came across a tribe of Mongols that were very hospitable and welcoming. Temujin was not there long when he noticed a certain girl, Bortei the daughter of the chieftain. She was destined to become his wife.
Temüjin's father died when Temüjin was still young, poisoned by a group of Tatars. The Tatars were the chief power on the eastern Mongolian steppe at the time, and long- time rivals of the Mongols. When Temujin heard how his father had died, vowed one day to revenge the death.
Temujin left Bortei , returned to his tribe, with the intention to declare himself leader. At this time he was 13 years of age. Senior members of the tribe ridiculed his plans; rejected him as chief, and abandoned the youngster and his family to the Mongolian plains. While there were noble lineages among the Mongols, such as Temüjin's, they did not enjoy the automatic loyalty of others on the steppe. Nor did seniority guarantee a position of influence or power. Leadership seems to have often been a more informal institution, open to those with the right to contest for it. As a result of this rejection, Temujin extended his vengeful intentions to his own clan members.
Life was very hard for the family. It is related that when Temujin discovered his own brother stealing food from the group had no hesitation in killing him. News that he was a stern leader that would kill his own brother to keep order became widely known.
On a hunting trip he was ambushed by an enemy tribe and taken prisoner. While prisoner he killed his guard and escaped. The enemy searched, but excellent survival skills kept him alive until he could meet up with his own tribe. This act of courage spread his name to all parts of the Mongolian plains. Shortly after, another raid by strangers left the family with one horse and very little food. Temujin took chase but could not catch them. During his chase he met up with Bogurchi, the son of a rich man, who would become a blood- brother and trusted ally. Bogurchi helped Temujin retrieve the stolen horses but the thieves escaped. Word of these exploits became greatly exaggerated to thus enhance his reputation even further.
After four years, the time had come to marry Bortei. As a wedding present her father gave him a very rare black sable fur. This gift proved to be one of the most important assets ever given to Temujin. Temujin used it to persuade Togrul, his fathers sworn-brother, to join him in revenge attacks against the Tatars and other Mongol enemies. Togrul agreed to join and reconcile all of Temujin's fathers men.
Temujin was now aged seventeen. Already his road to glory had begun. Word of
Temujin and Togrul spread far and wide. They called all Mongols to unite and
defeat their enemies. Thousands of people came bringing weapons, food, and families.
Temujin now had thousands of people under his command.
The army became highly organised. They were divided into groups of tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands. Each soldier carried his own food which usually consisted of powdered yak milk and dried milk and when food was scarce the soldiers would open up a vein of their horse to drink its blood.
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In 1183 the Mongols that gathered declared Temujin their great Khan, giving
him the name Genghis. At this time, he was still a junior member of the lineage,
and his election is thus somewhat of a surprise. It may well have been an attempt
by senior members of the lineage to install a Khan they thought they could control.
This political maneuvering was not spectacularly successful.
The meaning of Genghis, or Ghengis, is widely debated. Some say it means "precious warrior", others indicate "spirit of light". In any case, it meant power for Genghis and an empire to command. Ghengis is credited with the creation of the Ih Zasag (‘ the Great Law’, usually rendered into English as "The Great Yasa".) Although portrayed as a codified set of laws, this is debatable. Some scholars have suggested that the Ih Zasag was in fact a codification of existing steppe customs.
Despite Temujin being declared Khan, the Mongol people were not completely united into one entity. It took several campaigns to consolidate his position. The Keraits were led by a boyhood friend of Genghis's called Jamuga. Genghis offered Jamuga the change to surrender. This offer was declined and several great battles resulted. The first in 1201 nearly destroyed all Jamuga's forces; with the final destruction of the Kerait army in 1203. Jamuga asked to be put to death without his blood being spilled. Genghis honored his old friend by having him beaten and suffocated between two felt blankets without spilling blood. The last rogue Mongol clan was defeated in 1204.
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"The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies,
to chase them before you,
to rob them of their wealth,
to see those dear to them bathed in tears,
to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters"
-- Genghis Khan
It was not until 1206 that Genghis was named Khan of Khans or King
of Kings and king of ‘all people who lived in felt tents’. With all of the Mongol
tribes united and under his control he could now concentrate his forces on expanding
In 1207 he began a crusade to conquer the lands of China. At that time China was divided into three separate empires. They were the Qin, Tangut empires in the north and the Sung Empire in the South. He himself led battles against the Tangut state in what is now present day Xinjiang (northwest China), and the Qin in northern China, taking Peking in 1215. However, although most of northern China was under Mongol control Genghis's dream to dominate all Chinese territory would be achieved but occur until the reign his grandson Kublai Khan in 1279.
With northern China under his control he now turned his attention westward. In 1218, the Khwarazm (modern Uzbekistan) Shah, Mohammed II, slaughtered a Mongolian caravan and a following delegation of ambassadors. This precipitated Chinghis's attacks on Central Asia, although in any case it may well have been merely a matter of time before he attacked. Genghis sent a message to their leader Shah Mohammed, saying that the governor must be turned over to the Mongols or war would be declared on Kwarezm.
The Kwarezm Empire refused and war was declared. Genghis led an attack force of 90,000 men from the north and he sent a general with 30,000 men to attack from the east. Despite this large army he was outnumbered by the Shah's army more than 400,000 men. Genghis's army was victorious, allowing a full scale invasion and occupation of the Kwarezm Empire. From this campaign the Mongols acquired the knowledge of the "fire that flies", burning arrows. And with subsequent victories new methods of warfare were used to made his armies stronger and more deadly.
An army of 20,000 was then sent toward Russia. In 1223 that group of 20,000 Mongol warrior's devastated a Russian army of 80,000. This was the beginning of what would become known in Russian history as the ‘Tatar Yoke.’ Events which influenced the Russian empire until present times. The Mongols quickly fought there way through Russia and into Europe. Their armies destroyed entire cities in Russia, Hungary and Poland leaving devastation in their wake.
In 1227, Genghis Khan, a master horse rider fell from his horse during a hunt. He was severely injured and died shortly after. He is reported to have said to his sons;
With Heaven's aid I have conquered for you a huge empire.
But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That is left for you.
-- Genghis Khan
His body was taken back to his birthplace, northeast of Ulaanbaatar. According
to legend, anyone meeting the funeral procession was killed, so no one would
know of Ghengis's death. The cart carrying his body is said to have bogged down
in the Ordos region of China, and only began moving again after the prayers
to his spirit by one of his followers not to abandon his people. As a result,
however, a shrine was built in the Ordos region. A herd of horses was said to
have been driven back and forth over his grave in Hentei to obscure it, and
soldiers were posted until trees grew over the area. To this day, however it
is not really known where the ruler of the world’s largest empire is actually
Upon his death the main expansionist phase of Mongol conquest ended as the armies returned home to elect a new Khan. The vast empire, now came under the banner of his son Ogadai. It was divided into three, with each region controlled by another son of Ghengis.
While normally thought of as a despot Ghengis Khan was also generous and loyal.
A highly charismatic man, he nonetheless also expected loyalty from everyone,
including those who served his opponents. He is reputed to have put to death
people who, thinking they would gain his good graces, betrayed their lords to
In the West, it is usually Ghengis's brilliance as a military commander that is dwelt upon. And indeed, this attention is deserved. It should be noted, however, that certain misconceptions appear to linger concerning the Mongols. They did not, in fact, invent the tactics they used with such effectiveness against their enemies, such as the feigned retreat. Rather, they brought to a new level old steppe nomad military tactics. Even Ghengis's much vaunted organization of the military on a decimal system was to be found among the Xiong-nu, although arranging it to cut across lineages, and thus ensure greatly loyalty to the leader, apparently was an innovation.
Innovative too, was Ghengis's tendency to pluck people from the ranks. Although noble birth may well have given one a headstart, one could only be assured of advancement through the ranks based on ability and loyalty. In present-day Mongolia, it is not so much his military attributes that are emphasized, but rather his administrative abilities.
One should further be aware that although we talk of the "Mongol" army, the reality is more complicated. The commanders were indeed "Mongol" (even defining Mongol in this context can be tricky), but the soldiers were drawn from allies and conquered areas. Engineers from conquered sedentary populations were put into action as siege experts, and even the cavalry was a mixture of Mongol and other nomadic groups.
The success of the Mongol conquests should also be attributed at least in part to two other factors. One was military intelligence. The Mongols had a extensive network of spies and usually had extensive information of an enemy before they engaged them in battle. The other was their use of psychological warfare. Much is made of the total destruction of cities in Central Asia by the Mongols. What is normally overlooked, however, is that this was more of an exception than a rule. If a city capitulated, Ghengis Khan was usually content to let them be, once their defences had been pulled down. Only those who resisted faced the sword. This not only wiped out resistance, but more importantly, word quickly spread of the wrath of Ghengis Khan, and many peoples found it easier to submit than to resist.
All who surrender will be spared;
whoever does not surrender but opposes with struggle and dissension,
shall be annihilated.
-- Genghis Khan
In short, although the Mongol successes may appear astounding, they are explainable by ordinary means. One need not look for some mystical explanation. Indeed, to do so does a disservice to the true talents of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols of the thirteenth century.
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