Conqueror of the World
Genghis Khan emerged from modest origins to create the most extensive land empire the world had ever seen. He conquered vast territories, connecting Eastern and Western civilizations. He was notorious for his ferocity, leading to countless casualties during his conquests.
The primary source of our knowledge about Genghis Khan is The Secret History of the Mongols, an ancient Mongolian text written shortly after his passing.
Depiction of Genghis Khan from a 14th-century Yuan dynasty collection, initially crafted in 1278
Born around 1162 near today’s Mongolia-Siberia border, he was originally named Temujin. Legends say that he was born holding a blood clot, foreshadowing his future.
When he was a child, his father, a respected tribal leader, arranged for Temujin to marry Borte, the daughter of another Mongol chieftain. However, a rival poisoned his father before the marriage could take place. At just nine years old, Temujin struggled to keep the loyalty of his father’s followers, leading to him and his mother being left alone on the Asian steppe. Despite these challenges, the family survived by foraging and living off the land.
In a turn of events, Temujin took control of the household after killing his older half-brother. During this period, the central Asian steppe was a battleground for many nomadic tribes, making life for young Temujin violent and uncertain.
A man’s greatest joy is crushing his enemies.
At 16, Temujin fulfilled his father’s wish by marrying Borte. The couple had four sons and several daughters. After a harrowing incident where Borte was kidnapped, Temujin showcased his courage by successfully rescuing her. This act, combined with his prowess in battle, helped him forge alliances and gain a growing number of loyal followers.
Breaking tradition, Temujin preferred to place skilled allies over relatives in leadership roles. He integrated defeated tribes into his own after eliminating their leaders. He once promoted a man, Jebe, to a general’s position because he had managed to strike down Temujin’s horse in battle.
Within a decade, he overcame many rival tribes and unified territories equivalent to modern Mongolia. This unification saw him crowned as Chinggis Khan or “Universal Ruler”—Genghis Khan in the West.
The tribal groups consolidated by Temüjin to establish the Mongol Empire
With the tribes united under his leadership, Genghis Khan’s rule extended to approximately 1 million people. He implemented numerous reforms to maintain peace, including abolishing hereditary titles, prohibiting the sale and abduction of women, ending Mongol slavery, and making livestock theft a capital offense. Furthermore, he introduced a writing system, ensured foreign ambassador protection and promoted religious freedom.
He also pioneered a postal system. Horse-riding couriers relayed messages across vast terrains, aided by designated stations offering food, relaxation, and fresh horses. This efficient network played a crucial role during military campaigns, ensuring timely transmission of vital intelligence.
Genghis Khan geared up for his monumental journey of global conquest. His newly formed nation was primarily built for warfare. The Mongols, skilled archers, were also resilient warriors, capable of traveling long distances with little food and water. They quickly adapted to diverse combat techniques, incorporating siege warfare and deploying gunpowder missiles and catapults. Their knack for embracing and integrating external innovations was evident, underscored by the diverse origins of Khan’s top advisors and commanders, who came from over 20 different nations.
Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.
The Mongols’ most significant victories, which would propel them to global dominance, were yet to come. Their primary target was China. Genghis Khan initiated his conquest by waging a fierce campaign against the Tangut kingdom of Xixia, located to China’s northwest. He then directed his forces toward the Jin Empire in northern China. At first, he accepted a generous tribute and halted his advance, but it wasn’t long before he resumed his campaign, ultimately leading to the capture of Beijing.
Genghis Khan then turned his attention from China to target the Khwarazm, a Sunni Muslim empire that spanned Turkestan, Persia, and Afghanistan. During this campaign, the Mongols cemented their reputation for sheer brutality. They seized city after city, either annihilating the populace or coercing them to fight against their own kin under the Mongol banner. The campaign concluded with the capture and execution of Shah Muhammad and his son, marking the downfall of the Khwarazm Dynasty.
Military campaigns led by Genghis Khan from 1207 to 1225
On 18 August 1227, Genghis Khan passed away from a mysterious illness, which might have been triggered by a horse-riding accident during a hunt a few months prior. In line with his tribe’s traditions, he was buried near his birthplace, but without any identifying marks. According to a legend, to protect the secrecy of his final resting place, his funeral procession eliminated anyone they crossed paths with and even redirected a river over the grave to further obscure its location.
Genghis Khan laid the foundation for an empire that, under his descendants, would span one-fifth of the globe. Foreseeing disputes among his heirs over the empire’s reins, he had already designated a plan for succession. He decided that the empire would be divided among his sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Tolui, and Ogedei. Each son would oversee a specific khanate, with Ogedei, his third son, taking on the role of the new Great Khan.
Words of wisdom
“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts...perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” —John Steinbeck
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” —Sigmund Freud
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” —Frank Herbert