Genghis Khan

From New World Encyclopedia

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan portrait
Birth name: Temüjin Borjigin
Family name: Borjigin
Title: Khagan* of Mongol Empire
Birth: circa 1162
Place of birth: Hentiy Province, Mongolia
Death: August 18, 1227
Dates of reign: 1206 – August 18, 1227
Succeeded by: Ögedei Khan
Marriage: Börte Ujin, Kulan, Yisugen,
Yisui, many others
  • Borjigin Jochi, son
  • Borjigin Chagatai, son
  • Borjigin Ögedei, son
  • Borjigin Tolui, son
  • Others
* Title conferred posthumously

Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227), the founder of the largest contiguous land empire, the Mongol Empire, ever established. He was the son of Yesugei, head of the Borjigin clan, and his wife, Hoelun. Born as Temüjin, he united the Mongol tribes and forged a powerful army based on meritocracy, and became one of the most successful military leaders in history. He believed himself commissioned by heaven to establish a world empire.

While his image in much of the world is that of a ruthless, bloodthirsty conqueror, Genghis Khan is celebrated as a hero in Mongolia, where he is seen as the father of the Mongol Nation, who brought law, literacy, and learning to his people. The image of his legacy has been clouded by association with the exploits of his lesser, and sometimes dissolute, successors who lacked his own disciplines and his deference to shamanistic spiritual traditions, that would lead him at times to commune alone with the blue sky before undertaking military operations.

Genghis Kahn's forces were practically invincible, as they combined mobility, discipline, adaptability, strategy, strength, and endurance in direct battle with skills in intelligence gathering, psychological warfare, siege warfare, and superb communications. Their battles were brutal, as all war is brutal regardless of whether the military commander is Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or Hitler. In the aftermath of the battles he led, Genghis Khan established an empire that brought peace, stability, and unity to much of central and eastern Asia, and practiced religious tolerance to a remarkable degree at a time when conformity to the doctrines of the established church was rigidly policed in many European countries. Before becoming a Khan, Temüjin united the many Turkic-Mongol confederations of Central Asia, giving a common identity to what had previously been a territory of nomadic tribes.

Starting with the conquest of Western Xia in northern China and consolidating through numerous campaigns, including against Khwarezmid Empire in Persia, Genghis Khan laid the foundation for an empire that was to leave an indelible mark on world history. Several centuries of Mongol rule across the Eurasian landmass—a period that some refer to as Pax Mongolica—radically altered the demography and geopolitics of these areas. The Mongol Empire ended up ruling, or at least briefly conquering, large parts of modern day China, Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Korea, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Kuwait, Poland, and Hungary.

Early life


The Onon River, Mongolia, where Temujin was born and grew up

Little is known about Temüjin's early life, and the few sources providing insight into this period do not agree on many basic facts. He was likely born around 1162, although it is possible he was born anywhere between the years of 1155 to 1168,[1] in the mountainous area of Burhan Haldun, in Mongolia's Hentiy Province, near the Onon and the Herlen (Kherülen) rivers. Folklore and legend stated that when Temujin was born, he clutched a blood clot in his fist, a divine sign that he was destined to do great things. He was the eldest son of Yesugay Ba'atur, a minor tribal chief of the Kiyad and a nöker (vassal) of Ong Khan of the Kerait tribe,[2] possibly descended from a family of blacksmiths. Yesükhei's clan was called Borjigin (Боржигин), and his mother, Hoelun, was of the Olkhunut tribe of the Mongol confederation. They were nomadic, like almost all Central Asian Turkic and Mongol confederations.


Mongolian ger (yurt) similar to the one where Temüjin was born and grew up

Based on legends and later writers, Temüjin's early life was difficult. Yesukhei delivered Temüjin to the family of his future wife, members of the Onggirat tribe, when he was only nine, as part of the marriage arrangement. He was supposed to live there in service to Deisechen, the head of the household, until he reached the marriageable age of 12. Shortly thereafter, his father was poisoned on his journey home by the neighboring Tatars in retaliation for his campaigns and raids against them. This gave Temüjin a claim to be the clan's chief, although his clan refused to be led by a mere boy and soon abandoned him and his family.

Temüjin was related through his father to Qabul Khan, Ambaghai, and Qutula Khan, who had headed the Mongol confederation under the patronage of the Chinese imperial dynasty until they switched their support to the Tatar tribe in 1161, and destroyed Qutula Khan. Genghis' father, Yesugei, khan of the Borjigin and nephew to Ambaghai and Qutula Khan, emerged as the head of the ruling clan of the Mongols, but this position was contested by the rival Tayichi’ud clan. When the Tatars, in turn, grew too powerful after 1161, the Chinese moved their support from the Tatars to the Kerait.

Temüjin had three brothers, Imaad (or Jöchi Khasar/Qasar), Khajiun, and Temüge, and one sister, Temülen (or Temulin), as well as two half-brothers, Bekhter and Belgutei.

For the next few years, Temüjin and his family lived the life of impoverished nomads, surviving primarily on wild fruits, marmots, and other small game. In one incident, Temüjin murdered his half-brother Bekhter over a dispute about sharing hunting spoils. Despite being severely reproached by his mother, he never expressed any remorse over the killing; the incident also cemented his position as head of the household. In another incident in 1182, he was captured in a raid by his former tribe, the Ta'yichiut, and held captive. The Ta'yichiut enslaved Temüjin, but he escaped with help from a sympathetic captor, the father of Chilaun, a future general of Genghis Khan.

His mother, Hoelun, taught him many lessons about survival in the harsh landscape and even grimmer political climate of Mongolia, especially the need for alliances with others, a lesson which would shape his understanding in his later years. Jelme and Bo'orchu, two of Genghis Khan's future generals, joined him around this time. Along with his brothers, they provided the manpower needed for early expansion and diplomacy.

Temüjin married Börte of the Konkirat tribe around the age of 16, being betrothed as children by their parents as a customary way to forge a tribal alliance. She was later kidnapped in a raid by the Merkit tribe, and Temüjin rescued her with the help of his friend and future rival, Jamuka, and his protector, Ong Khan of the Kerait tribe. She remained his only empress, although he followed tradition by taking several morganatic wives. Börte's first child, Jochi, was born roughly nine months after she was freed from the Merkit, leading to questions about the child's paternity.

Temüjin became blood brother (anda) with Jamuqa, and thus the two made a vow to be faithful to each other for eternity.

Uniting the Central Asian confederations

This image is a zoomed-in version of the Eastern Hemisphere in 1200 C.E. Author: Thomas A. Lessman.

The Central Asian plateau north of China was divided into several tribes or confederations, among them Naimans, Merkits, Tatars, Khamag Mongols, and Keraits, that were all prominent in their own right and often unfriendly toward each other, as evidenced by random raids, revenge attacks, and plundering.

The main opponents of the Mongols by around 1100 were the Naimans to the west, the Merkits to the north, Tanguts to the south, the Jin and Tatars to the east. By 1190, Temüjin and his advisers had united together the Mongol confederation only. As an incentive for absolute obedience and following of his code of laws, the Yassa code, he promised civilians and fighters wealth from future possible war spoils. However, the exact words of the Yassa are unknown because it was never found.

From Temüjin to Genghis Khan

Temüjin began his slow ascent to power by offering himself as a vassal to his father's anda (sworn brother or blood brother) Toghrul, who was khan of the Kerait and better known by the Chinese title Ong Khan (or "Wang Khan"), which the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) granted him in 1197. This relationship was first reinforced when Borte was captured by the Merkits; it was to Toghrul that Temüjin turned for support. In response, Toghrul offered his vassal 20,000 of his Kerait warriors and suggested that he also involve his childhood friend Jamuka, who had himself become khan of his own tribe, the Jajirats.[3] Although the campaign was successful and led to the recapture of Borte and utter defeat of the Merkits, it also paved the way for the split between the childhood friends, Temüjin and Jamuka.

Toghrul's son, Senggum, was jealous of Temüjin's growing power and he allegedly planned to assassinate Temüjin. Toghrul, though allegedly saved on multiple occasions by Temüjin, gave in to his son[4] and adopted an obstinate attitude towards collaboration with Temüjin. Temüjin learned of Senggum's intentions and eventually defeated him and his loyalists. One of the later ruptures between Toghrul and Temüjin was Toghrul's refusal to give his daughter in marriage to Jochi, the eldest son of Temüjin, which signified disrespect in the Mongol culture. This act probably led to the split between both factions and was a prelude to war. Toghrul allied himself with Jamuka, Temüjin's blood brother, and when the confrontation took place, the internal divisions between Toghrul and Jamuka, as well as the desertion of many clans that fought on their side to the cause of Temüjin, led to Toghrul's defeat. This paved the way for the fall and extinction of the Kerait tribe.

Genghis Khan

The next direct threat to Temüjin was the Naimans, with whom Jamuka and his followers took refuge. The Naimans did not surrender, although enough sectors again voluntarily sided with Temüjin. In 1201, a Khuriltai elected Jamuka as Gur Khan (“universal ruler”), a title used by the rulers of the Kara-Khitan Khanate. Jamuka's assumption of this title was the final breach with Temüjin, and Jamuka formed a coalition of tribes to oppose him. Before the conflict, however, several generals abandoned Jamuka, including Subutai, Jelme's well-known younger brother. After several battles, Jamuka was finally captured in 1206, when several shepherds kidnapped and turned him over to Temüjin. According to the pro-Genghis histories, Temüjin generously offered his friendship again to Jamuka and asked him to turn to his side. Jamuka refused and asked for a noble death—without spilling blood—which was granted (his back was broken). The rest of the Merkit clan that sided with the Naimans were defeated by Subutai (or Subedei), a member of Temüjin's personal guard who would later become one of the greatest commanders in the service of the Khan. The Naimans' defeat left Genghis Khan as the sole ruler of the Mongol plains. All these confederations were united and became known as the Mongols.

By 1206, Temüjin managed to unite the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Uyghurs, Keraits, Tatars, and disparate other smaller tribes under his rule through his charisma, dedication, and strong will. It was a monumental feat for the Mongols, who had a long history of internecine dispute, economic hardship, and pressure from Chinese dynasties and empires. At a Kurultai, a council of Mongol chiefs, he was acknowledged as khan of the consolidated tribes and assumed the title Genghis Khan. The title Khagan was not conferred on Genghis until after his death, when his son and successor, Ögedei, took the title for himself and extended it posthumously to his father (as he was also to be posthumously declared the founder of the Yuan Dynasty).

This unification of all confederations by Genghis Khan established peace between previously warring tribes. The population of the whole Mongol nation was around 200,000 people including civilians with approximately 70,000 soldiers at the formation of unified Mongol nation.


Genghis Khan's empress and first wife Borte had four sons, Jochi (1185–1226), Chagatai (?—1241), Ögedei (?—1241), and Tolui (1190–1232). Genghis Khan also had many other children with his other wives, but they were excluded from the succession, and records on what daughters he may have had are scarce. The paternity of Genghis Khan's eldest son, Jochi, remains unclear to this day and was a serious point of contention in his lifetime. Soon after Borte's marriage to Temüjin, she was kidnapped by the Merkits and reportedly given to one of their men as a wife. Though she was rescued, she gave birth to Jochi nine months later, clouding the issue of his parentage.

This uncertainty over Jochi's true father was voiced most strongly by Chagatai, who probably wanted to make his succession clear. According to Igor de Rachewitz in his book The Secret History of the Mongols, just before the invasion of the Khwarezmid Empire by Genghis Khan, Chagatai declared before his father and brothers that he would never accept Jochi as Khagan (Genghis Khan's successor).[5] In response to this tension and possibly for other reasons, it was Ögedei who was appointed as successor and who ruled as Khagan after Genghis Khan's death.[6]

Jochi died in 1226, before his father. Some scholars, notably Ratchnevsky, have commented on the possibility that Jochi was secretly poisoned by order of Genghis Khan. Rashid al-Din reports that Genghis Khan sent for his sons in the spring of 1223, and while his brothers heeded the order, Jochi remained in Khorasan. Juzjani suggests that the disagreement arose from a quarrel between Jochi and his brothers in the siege of Urgench, which Jochi attempted to protect from destruction as it belonged to territory allocated to him as a fief. He concludes his story with the clearly apocryphal statement by Jochi: "Genghis Khan is mad to have massacred so many people and laid waste so many lands. I would be doing a service if I killed my father when he is hunting, made an alliance with Sultan Muhammad, brought this land to life and gave assistance and support to the Muslims." Juzjani claims that it was in response to hearing of these plans that Genghis Khan ordered his son secretly poisoned; however, as Sultan Muhammad was already dead in 1223, the accuracy of this story is questionable.[7] Genghis Khan himself never doubted Jochi's lineage; he claimed that he was his first son.

Military campaigns

First war with Western Xia

The Mongol Empire, created by Genghis Khan in 1206, was bordered on the west by the Western Xia Dynasty. To its east and south was the Jin Dynasty, who at the time ruled northern China as well as being the traditional overlord of the Mongolian tribes. Temüjin organized his people and his state to prepare for war with Western Xia, or Xi Xia, which was closer to the Mongol border. He also knew that the Jin Dynasty had a young ruler who would not come to the aid of Tanguts of Xi Xia.

The Jurchen had also grown uncomfortable with the newly-unified Mongols. It may be that some trade routes ran through Mongol territory, and they might have feared the Mongols eventually would restrict the supply of goods coming from the Silk Road. On the other hand, Genghis also was eager to take revenge against the Jurchen for their long subjugation of the Mongols. For example, the Jurchen were known to stir up conflicts between Mongol tribes and had even executed some Mongol khans.

Eventually, Genghis led his army against Western Xia and conquered it, despite initial difficulties in capturing its well-defended cities. By 1209, the Tangut emperor acknowledged Genghis as overlord.

In 1211, Genghis set about bringing the Nüzhen (the founders of the Jin Dynasty) completely under his dominion. The commander of Jin army made a tactical mistake in not attacking the Mongols at the first opportunity. Instead, the Jin commander sent a messenger, Ming-Tan, to the Mongol side, who promptly defected and told the Mongols that the Jin army was waiting on the other side of the pass. At this engagement fought at Badger Pass, the Mongols massacred thousands of Jin troops. When the Daoist sage Ch'ang Ch'un was passing through this pass to meet Genghis he was stunned to see the bones of so many people scattered in the pass. On his way back he stayed close to this pass for three days and prayed for the departed souls.

The Mongol army crossed the Great Wall of China in 1213, and in 1215 Genghis besieged, captured, and sacked the Jin capital of Yanjing (later known as Beijing). This forced the Jin emperor Xuan Zong to move his capital south to Kaifeng.

Conquest of the Kara-Khitan Khanate

Meanwhile, Kuchlug, the deposed khan of the Naiman confederation, had fled west and usurped the Khanate of Kara-Khitan (also known as Kara Kitay), the western allies who had decided to side with Genghis. By this time the Mongol army was exhausted from ten years of continuous campaigning in China against the Tangut and the Rurzhen. Therefore, Genghis sent only two tumen (20,000 soldiers) against Kuchlug, under a brilliant young general, Jebe (known as "The Arrow").

An internal revolt against Kuchlug was incited by Mongol agents, leaving the Naiman forces open for Jebe to overrun the country. Kuchlug's forces were defeated west of Kashgar. Kuchlug fled, but was hunted down by Jebe and executed, and Kara-Khitan was annexed by Genghis Khan.

By 1218, the Mongol Empire extended as far west as Lake Balkhash and it adjoined Khwarezmia, a Muslim state that reached to the Caspian Sea in the west and to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the south.

Invasion of Khwarezmid Empire

After the defeat of the Kara-Khitais, the extensive Mongol Empire had a border with the Muslim state of Khwarezmia, governed by Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad. Genghis saw the potential advantage in Khwarezmia as a commercial partner, and sent a five hundred-man caravan to officially establish trade ties with Khwarezmia. However Inalchuq, the governor of the Khwarezmian city of Otrar, attacked the caravan that came from Mongolia, claiming that the caravan was a conspiracy against Khwarezmia. The governor later refused to make repayments for the looting of the caravan and murder of its members.

Genghis then sent a second group of ambassadors to meet the shah himself. The shah had all the men shaved and all but one beheaded. This led Genghis Khan to attack. The Mongols crossed the Tien Shan Mountains, coming into the shah's empire.

After compiling information from many sources Genghis carefully prepared his army, which was divided into three groups. His son Jochi led the first division into the northeast of Khwarezmia. The second division, under Jebe, marched secretly to the southeast part of Khwarzemia to form, with the first division, a pincer attack on Samarkand. The third division, under Genghis Khan and Tolui, marched to the northwest and attacked Khwarzemia from that direction.

The shah's army was split by diverse internal disquisitions and by the shah's decision to divide his army into small groups concentrated in various cities—this fragmentation was decisive in Khwarezmia's defeats. The shah's fearful attitude towards the Mongol army also did not help his army, and Genghis and his generals succeeded in destroying Khwarizm.

Tired and exhausted from the journey, the Mongols still won their first victory against the Khwarezmian army. The Mongol army quickly seized the town of Otrar, relying on superior strategy and tactics. Once he had conquered the city, Genghis executed many of the inhabitants and executed Inalchuq by pouring molten silver into his ears and eyes, as retribution for the insult.

A minaret in Samarkand.

According to stories, Khan diverted a river of Ala ad-Din Muhammad II of Khwarezm's birthplace, erasing it from the map. The Mongols' conquest of the capital was nothing short of brutal: The bodies of citizens and soldiers filled the trenches surrounding the city, allowing the Mongols to enter raping, pillaging, and plundering homes and temples.

In the end, the shah fled rather than surrender. Genghis Khan charged Subutai and Jebe with hunting him down, giving them two years and 20,000 men. The shah died under mysterious circumstances on a small island within his empire.

By 1220, the Khwarezmid Empire was eradicated. After Samarkand fell, Bukhara became the capital of Jorezm, while two Mongol generals advanced on other cities to the north and the south. Jorezm, the heir of Shah Jalal Al-Din and a brilliant strategist, who was supported enough by the town, battled the Mongols several times with his father's armies. However, internal disputes once again split his forces apart, and Jorezm was forced to flee Bukhara after a devastating defeat.

Genghis selected his third son Ögedei as his successor before his army set out, and specified that subsequent khans should be his direct descendants. Genghis also left Muqali, one of his most trusted generals, as the supreme commander of all Mongol forces in Jin China.

Attacks on Georgia and Volga Bulgaria

After conquering the Khwarezmid Empire the Mongol armies split into two component forces. Genghis led a division on a raid through Afghanistan and northern India, while another contingent, led by his generals Jebe and Subutai, marched through the Caucasus and Russia. Neither campaign added territory to the empire, but they pillaged settlements and defeated any armies they met that did not acknowledge Genghis as the rightful leader of the world. In 1225, both divisions returned to Mongolia. These invasions ultimately added Transoxiana and Persia to an already formidable empire.

While Genghis gathered his forces in Persia and Armenia, a detached force of 20,000 troops, commanded by Jebe and Subutai, pushed deep into Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Mongols destroyed the Georgians, sacked the Republic of Genoa's trade-fortress of Caffa in the Crimea, and stayed over winter near the Black Sea.

Heading home, Mongols assaulted the Kipchaks and were intercepted by the allied troops of Mstislav the Bold of Halych and Mstislav III of Kiev, along with about 80,000 Kievan Rus'. Subutai sent emissaries to the Slavic princes calling for separate peace, but the emissaries were executed. At the Battle of Kalka River in 1223, the Mongols defeated the larger Kievan force. The Russian princes then sued for peace. Subedei agreed but was in no mood to pardon the princes. As was customary in Mongol society for nobility, the Russian princes were given a bloodless death. Subedei had a large wooden platform constructed on which he ate his meals along with his other generals. Six Russian princes, including Mstislav of Kiev, were put under this platform and they suffocated to death.

Genghis Khan's army did lose to Volga Bulgars in the first attempt,[8] though they did come back to avenge their defeat by subjugating all Volga Bulgaria under the Khanate Golden Horde, which continued to rule Russia for centuries. Mongols also learned from captives of the abundant green pastures beyond the Bulgar territory, allowing for the planning for conquest of Hungary and Europe.

Genghis recalled the forces back to the Mongolia soon afterwards, and Jebe died on the road back to Samarkand. This famous cavalry expedition of Subutai and Jebe—in which they encircled the entire Caspian Sea, defeating every single army in their path—remains unparalleled to this day.

Second war with Western Xia and Jin Dynasty

Western Xia, Jin Dynasty, 1115–1234 (yellow), Song Dynasty (red), and Kingdom of Dali (purple) in 1142

The Mongol Empire campaigned six times against the Tanguts, in 1202, 1207, 1209–1210, 1211–1213, 1214–1219, and 1225–1226. The vassal emperor of the Tanguts (Western Xia) had refused to take part in the war against the Khwarezmid Empire. While Genghis was busy with the campaign in Persia against the Khwarezmids, Tangut and Jin formed an alliance against the Mongols. In retaliation, Genghis prepared for the last war against the Tanguts and their alliance.

In 1226, Genghis began to attack the Tanguts. In February, he took Heisui, Ganzhou, and Suzhou, and in the autumn he took Xiliang-fu. One of the Tangut generals challenged the Mongols to a battle near Helanshan. The Tangut armies were soundly defeated. In November, Genghis laid siege to the Tangut city Lingzhou, and crossed the Yellow River and defeated the Tangut relief army. Genghis reportedly saw a line of five stars arranged in the sky, and interpreted it as an omen of his victory.

In 1227, Genghis attacked the Tangut capital, and continued to advance, seizing Lintiao-fu in February, Xining province and Xindu-fu in March, and Deshun province in April. At Deshun, the Tangut general Ma Jianlong put up a fierce resistance for several days and personally led charges against the invaders outside the city gate. Ma Jianlong later died from wounds received from arrows in battle. After conquering Deshun, Genghis went to Liupanshan to escape the severe summer.

The Tanguts officially surrendered in 1227, after having ruled for 189 years, beginning in 1038. Tired of the constant betrayal of Tanguts, Genghis executed the emperor and his family.

Mongol Empire

Mongol Empire in 1300-1400

Politics and economics

The Mongol Empire was governed by a civilian and military code, called the Yassa code, created by Genghis. Some consider this unified code one of Genghis’ most significant achievements, since it meant that the vast territory under his rule was united by a single legal system. The code was not egalitarian, as it protected aristocratic privilege. It laid down duties for the vassals and for the princes. One interesting feature is that it protected a postal service—it was a crime to injure a courier. This system was necessary for the running of the empire.[9] The code, however, did not long survive the break up of the empire into independent units, when codes based on the dominant religion of each area, such as Islam and Buddhism were adopted.

Among nomads, the Mongol Empire did not emphasize the importance of ethnicity and race in the administrative realm, instead adopting an approach grounded in meritocracy. The exception was the role of Genghis and his family. Genghis wrote into the Yasa that only a member of his family, the Golden Family, could exercise the highest authority. The Mongol Empire was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, as befitted its size. Many of the empire's nomadic inhabitants considered themselves Mongols in military and civilian life.

There were, to some degree, ideals such as meritocracy among the Mongols and allied nomadic people in military and civilian life. However sedentary peoples, and especially the Chinese, remained heavily discriminated against. There were tax exemptions for religious figures and so to some extent teachers and doctors.

The Mongol Empire practiced religious tolerance to a large degree because it was generally indifferent to belief. The exception was when religious groups challenged the state. For example Ismaili Muslims that resisted the Mongols were exterminated.

The Mongol Empire linked together the previously fractured Silk Road states under one system and became somewhat open to trade and cultural exchange. However, the Mongol conquests did lead to a collapse of many of the ancient trading cities of Central Asia that resisted invasion. Taxes were also heavy and conquered people were used as forced labor in those regions.

Modern Mongolian historians say that towards the end of his life, Genghis attempted to create a civil state under the Great Yassa that would have established the legal equality of all individuals, including women.[10] However, there is no contemporary evidence of this, or of the lifting of discriminatory policies towards sedentary peoples such as the Chinese, or any improvement in the status of women. Modern scholars refer to a theoretical policy of encouraging trade and communication as the concept of Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace).

Genghis realized that he needed people who could govern cities and states which he had conquered. He also realized that such administrators could not be found among his Mongol people because they were nomads and thus had no experience governing cities. For this purpose Genghis Khan invited a Khitan prince, Chu'Tsai, who worked for the Jin and had been captured by the Mongol army after the Jin Dynasty was defeated. Jin had captured power by displacing Khitan. Genghis told Chu'Tsai, who was a lineal descendant of Khitan rulers, that he had avenged Chu'Tsai's forefathers. Chu'Tsai responded that his father served the Jin Dynasty honestly and so did he; he did not consider his own father his enemy, so the question of revenge did not apply. Genghis Khan was very impressed by this reply. Chu'Tsai administered parts of the Mongol Empire and became a confidant of the successive Mongol Khans.


Reflex bow, the design similar to the Mongol bow, main and basic weapon used by Mongol armies

Genghis made advances in military disciplines, such as mobility, psychological warfare, intelligence, military autonomy, and tactics.

Genghis and others are widely cited as producing a highly efficient army with remarkable discipline, organization, toughness, dedication, loyalty, and military intelligence, in comparison to their enemies. The Mongol armies were one of the most feared forces ever to take the field of battle. Operating in massive sweeps extending over dozens of miles, the Mongol army combined shock, mobility, and firepower unmatched in land warfare until the modern age. Other peoples such as the Romans had stronger infantry, and others like the Byzantines deployed more heavily armored cavalry. Still others were experts in fortification. But none combined combat power on land with such devastating range, speed, scope, and effectiveness as the Mongol military.

In contrast to most of their enemies, almost all Mongols were nomads and grew up on horses. Secondly, Genghis refused to divide his troops into different ethnic units, instead creating a sense of unity. He punished severely even small infractions against discipline. He also divided his armies into a number of smaller groups based on the decimal system in units of tens, taking advantage of the superb mobility of his mounted archers to attack their enemies on several fronts simultaneously. The soldiers took their families along with them on a military campaign. These units of tens were like a family or close-knit group with a leader, and every unit of 10 had a leader who reported up to the next level of the 100s (10 leaders of 10s), 1,000s (10 leaders of 100s), 1,000s (10 leaders of 1,000s) or 1 tumen. The leader of the 100,000 (10 leaders of 10,000s) soldiers was the Khagan himself. Strict discipline and command under Genghis and others made the Mongol military highly efficient and better relying on scope of operation or space and the tactics, speed, and strategies that came out of it.

Modern day horsemen in Mongolia during Naadam festival.

Genghis Khan expected unwavering loyalty from his generals and gave them free rein in battles and wars. Muqali, a trusted general, was given command of the Mongol forces over the Jin Dynasty while Genghis was fighting in Central Asia, and Subutai and Jebe were allowed to use any means to defeat Kievan Rus. The Mongol military also was successful in siege warfare—cutting off resources for cities and towns by diverting rivers, causing inhabitants to become refugees—psychological warfare, and adopting new ideas, techniques, and tools from the people they conquered.

Another important aspect of the military organization of Genghis was the communications and supply route, or Yam, borrowed from previous Chinese models. Genghis dedicated special attention to this in order to speed up the gathering of military intelligence and support travelers. In military strategy, Genghis generally preferred to offer opponents the chance to submit to his rule without a fight and become vassals by sending tribute, accepting residents, or contributing troops. He guaranteed them protection only if they abided by the rules under his administration and domain, but his and others' policy was mass destruction and murder if he encountered any resistance.

Division of the empire into khanates

Before his death, Genghis divided his empire among his sons and grandsons into several khanates designed as sub-territories: Their khans were expected to follow the Great Khan, who was initially Genghis’ son, Ögedei Khan.

Modern day location of capital Kharakhorum

Following are the khanates in the way in which Genghis assigned after his death:

  • Yuan Dynasty, Empire of the Great Khan, or Yuan Dynasty—third son but designated main heir Ögedei Khan, as Great Khan, took most of Eastern Asia, including China.
  • Il-Khanate—Hulegu Khan, son of Tolui and brother of Kublai Khan, established himself in the former Khwarezmid Empire as the Khan of the Il-Khanate.
  • Mongol homeland (present day Mongolia, including Karakorum)—Tolui Khan, being the youngest son, received a small territory near the Mongol homeland, following Mongol custom.
  • Chagatai Khan—Chagatai Khan, Genghis’ second son, was given Central Asia and northern Iran
  • Blue Horde and White Horde (combined into the Golden Horde)—Genghis Khan's eldest son, Jochi, had received most of the distant Russia and Ruthenia. Because Jochi died before Genghis, his territory was further split up into the Western White Horde (under Orda Khan) and the Eastern Blue Horde, which under Genghis Khan's grandson Batu Khan, attacked Europe and crushed several armies before being summoned back by the news of Ögedei's death. In 1382, these two khanates were combined by Tokhtamysh into the Kipchak Khanate, better known as the Golden Horde.

Death and burial

Mongol Empire in 1227, the time of Genghis Khan's death

Genghis Khan died on August 18, 1227, during his last campaign with the Tangut Empire during which Genghis was fighting against the Khwarezmid Empire. The reason for his death is uncertain. Many assume he fell off his horse due to old age and physical fatigue; some contemporary observers cited prophecies from his opponents. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle alleges he was killed by the Tanguts. There are persistent folktales that a Tangut princess, to avenge her people and prevent her rape, castrated him with a knife hidden inside her and that he never recovered.

Genghis Khan asked to be buried without markings. After he died, his body was returned to Mongolia and presumably to his birthplace in Hentiy aymag, where many assume he is buried somewhere close to the Onon River. According to legend, the funeral escort killed anyone and anything across their path, to conceal where he was finally buried. The Genghis Khan Mausoleum is his memorial, but not his burial site. In 2004, Genghis Khan's palace was allegedly discovered, and that may make it possible to find his burial site. Folklore says that a river was diverted over his grave to make it impossible to find. Other tales state that his grave was stampeded over by many horses, over which trees were then planted and the permafrost also obscured the burial site. The burial site remains undiscovered.

Genghis left behind an army of more than 129,000 men; 28,000 were given to his various brothers and his sons, and Tolui, his youngest son, inherited more than 100,000 men. This force contained the bulk of the elite Mongolian cavalry. By tradition, the youngest son inherits his father's property. Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei and Kulan's son Gelejian received armies of four thousand men each. His mother and the descendants of his three brothers received three thousand men each.

After Genghis Khan

Contrary to popular belief, Genghis didn't conquer all of the areas of Mongol Empire, but his sons and grandsons did. At the time of his death, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan. The empire's expansion continued for a generation or more after Genghis' death in 1227. Under Genghis' son, Ögedei Khan, the speed of expansion reached its peak. Mongol armies pushed into Persia, finished off the Xi Xia and the remnants of the Khwarezmids, and came into conflict with the imperial Song Dynasty of China, starting a war that would last until 1279, and would conclude with the Mongols gaining control of all of China.

In the late 1230s, the Mongols, under Batu Khan, started the Mongol invasions of Europe and Russia, reducing most of their principalities to vassalage, and pressed on into Central Europe. In 1241, Mongols under Subutai and Batu Khan defeated the last Polish-German and Hungarian armies at the battles of Legnica of Mohi.

During the 1250s, Genghis's grandson, Hulegu Khan, operating from the Mongol base in Persia, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad as well as the Hashshashin (the Assassins). It was rumored that the Assassins had sent four hundred men to kill the Khagan Mongke Khan. The Khagan made this preemptive strike at the heart of the Islamic kingdom to make sure that no such assassination would take place. Hulegu Khan, the commander in chief of this campaign, along with his entire army returned back to the main Mongol capital Karakorum when he heard of Khagan Mongke Khan's death and left behind just two tumen of soldiers (20,000).

A battle between a Mongol army and the Mamluks ensued in modern-day Palestine. Many in the Mamluk army were Slavs who had fought the Mongols years before as free men but were defeated and sold via Italian merchants to the Sultan of Cairo. They shared their experiences and were better prepared for Mongol tactics. The Mongol army lost the Battle of Ayn Jalut near modern-day Nazareth in part because a majority of the Mongol army had returned to Mongolia, but also because this war was fought in summer when the land was parched and the Mongol armies could not keep enough mounts fed in the absence of pastures. This was the first defeat of the Mongol Empire in which they didn't return to seek battle again.

Mongol armies under Kublai Khan attempted two unsuccessful invasions of Japan and three unsuccessful invasions of modern-day Vietnam.

One of the defeats of the Mongols was in the hands of the Delhi Sultanate in India (1299). However, the later Mughal Dynasty was of Mongol origin, and proudly maintained some Mongol customs.

Genghis Khan's personality

Did you know?
Genghis Khan believed that Heaven had commissioned him to establish a world empire


It is not entirely clear what Genghis Khan's personality was truly like, but his personality and character were doubtlessly molded by the many hardships he faced when he was young, and in unifying the Mongol nation. Genghis appeared to fully embrace the Mongol people's nomadic way of life, and did not try to change their customs or beliefs. As he aged, he seemed to become increasingly aware of the consequences of numerous victories and expansion of the Mongol Empire, including the possibility that succeeding generations might choose to live a sedentary lifestyle. According to quotations attributed to him in his later years, he urged future leaders to follow the Yasa, and to refrain from surrounding themselves with wealth and pleasure. He was known to share his wealth with his people and awarded subjects who participated in campaigns handsomely.

Honesty and loyalty

He seemed to highly value honesty and loyalty from his subjects. Genghis put trust in his generals, such as Muqali, Jebe and Subudei, and gave them free rein in battles. He allowed them to make decisions on their own when they embarked on campaigns very far from the Mongol Empire capital Karakorum. An example of Genghis Khan's perception of loyalty is written, in The Secret History of the Mongols, that one of his main military generals, Jebe, had been his enemy. When Jebe was captured, he agreed to fight for Genghis if he spared his life or would die if that was what he wished. The man who became known as Genghis spared Jebe's life and made him part of his team.

Accounts of his life are marked by a series of betrayals and conspiracies. These include rifts with his early allies such as Jamuka and Wang Khan and problems with the most important shaman. At the end of his life, he reportedly was considering an attack against his son Jochi. There is little reason to believe all of these were genuine. This may suggest a degree of paranoia in Genghis Khan's personality based on his earlier experiences.

Genghis believed that Eternal Heaven, or Tengri, had commissioned him to establish a world empire. This explained his wrath towards those who resisted conquest; they were rebelling against heaven itself.[11]


Toward the later part of his life, Genghis became interested in the ancient Buddhist and Daoist religions. The Daoist monk Ch'ang Ch'un, who rejected invitations from Sung and Jin leaders, traveled more than five thousand kilometers to meet Genghis close to the Afghanistan border. The first question Genghis asked him was if the monk had some secret medicine that could make him immortal. The monk's negative answer disheartened Genghis, and he rapidly lost interest in the monk. He also passed a decree exempting all followers of Daoist religion from paying any taxes. This made the Daoists very powerful at the expense of Buddhists.

Genghis was, by and large, tolerant of the multiple religions he encountered during the conquests as long as the people were obedient. However, all of his campaigns caused wanton and deliberate destruction of places of worship. Religious groups were persecuted only if they resisted or opposed his empire.

Perceptions of Genghis Khan's legacy

Positive perception of Genghis Khan

Views of Genghis Khan range from very positive to very negative. He is especially highly regarded in Mongolia. In addition to the pride Mongolians take in the memory of a once great empire, they remember Genghis for reinforcing many Mongol traditions and for providing stability for the Mongol nation at a time of great uncertainty as a result of both internal factors and outside influences. He also brought in cultural change and helped create a writing system for the Mongolian language based on existing Uyghur script.

Mongolian writers tend to gloss over his treatment of enemies. However, as de Hartog argues, Genghis Khan was not crueler—only more successful—than other rulers of the time. Following Mongolia's repudiation of communism in the early 1990s, Genghis became a symbol of the nation, which some call "Genghis Khan's Mongolia" or "Genghis' nation." Mongolians have given his name to many products, streets, buildings, and other places.

Genghis Khan is also counted as a “national hero” in China, presumably by including Mongolia within China's wider geo-political sphere, which Mongolians resent. Similarly, he is a heroic figure in Turkey, while in such countries as Persia and Hungary Genghis and the Mongols are generally described as causing considerable damage and destruction.

Consequences of Mongol conquest

Drawing of the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258

There are many differing views on the amount of destruction Genghis Khan and his armies caused. The peoples who suffered the most during Genghis Khan's conquests, like the Persians and the Han Chinese, usually stress the negative aspects of the conquest and some modern scholars argue that their historians exaggerate the numbers of deaths. However, such historians produce virtually all the documents available to modern scholars and it is hard to establish a firm basis for any alternative view. Certainly, his legacy includes incidents of mass slaughter. Yet, contrary to the popular European perception, it also includes unifying, under a stable and peaceful rule, a huge territory, in which merit could earn promotion and religious liberty was in the main upheld, at a time when such a thing was non-existent in Europe.

The vast spread of the Mongolian Empire no doubt is one of the significant contributing factors to the widespread distribution today of the Mongolian blue spot, a birthmark appearing on the buttocks or back of young children[12] in what some have estimated to be more than two-thirds of the human population.


  1. Leo de Hartog, Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1989). ISBN 0760711925), 12-13.
  2. David Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). ISBN 1405135395
  3. Rene Grousset, Conqueror of the World: The Life of Chingis-khan (New York: The Viking Press, 1944).
  4. John Man, Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection (New York: Bantam Press, 2004). ISBN 0593050444
  5. Igor de Rachewiltz, (tr.) The Secret History of the Mongols: a Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004). ISBN 9004131590
  6. Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). ISBN 0631189491
  7. Ratchnevsky, 136-137.
  8. Leo de Hartog, Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1989). ISBN 0760711925
  9. Hartog, 40.
  10. International Herald Tribune, Mongolia sees Genghis Khan's good side. Retrieved October 15, 2007.
  11. Hartog, 146.
  12. Medline Plus, Mongolian blue spot. Retrieved September 7, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bretschneider, Emilii. Mediæval Researches: From Eastern Asiatic Sources Fragments Towards the Knowledge of the Geography and History of Central and Western Asia, 13th to the 17th Century. Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Private, Limited, 2000. ISBN 8121510031
  • Charny, Israel W. (ed.). Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review. New York, NY: Facts on File Publications, 1988-1994. ISBN 0816019037
  • de Hartog, Leo. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 1989. ISBN 0760711925
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor (trans.). The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004. ISBN 9004131590
  • Grousset, Rene. Conqueror of the World: The Life of Chingis-khan. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1972. ISBN 978-0670003433
  • Kahn, Paul (ed.). Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chingis Khan (expanded edition). Boston, MA: Cheng & Tsui Asian Culture Series, 2005 (original 1998). ISBN 0887272991
  • Kennedy, Hugh. Mongols, Huns & Vikings. London: Cassell, 2002. ISBN 0304352926
  • Lister, Richard P. Genghis Khan. New York, NY: Cooper Square Press, 2000. ISBN 0815410522
  • Man, John. Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection. New York, NY: Bantam Press, 2004. ISBN 0593050444
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. ISBN 1405135399
  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. ISBN 0631189491
  • Saunders, John Joseph. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. ISBN 0812217667
  • Stewart, Stanley. In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey among Nomads. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2002. ISBN 1585747033
  • Valentino, Benjamin A. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 0801439655
  • Weatherford, Jack McIver. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. New York, NY: Crown, 2004. ISBN 0609610627
  • Zerjal, Tatiana, et al. The American Journal of Human Genetics (2003): 717-721.

External links

All links retrieved April 18, 2024.


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