Many names come to our minds when we think of conquerors. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or Napoleon Bonaparte to mention a few. But the truth is, none of these ever came as close to Genghis Khan and his heirs, to conquer all the known world. Although of noble birth, Genghis Khan didn’t start his path to greatness from a powerful or wealthy position. Instead, he entrusted himself to the knowledge acquired from the hard lessons learnt from the unforgiving Mongolian mountains and steppe, helped by the network of alliances he had so hardly fought for. The result? He and his successors creating the largest contiguous empire in history. The Mongol Empire. Check it out below.

1# The real name of Genghis Khan

Between 1155 and 1162, the boy who would one day become Genghis Khan, was born near the sacred mountain of Burkhan Khaldun, modern day Mongolia. In his hand he clutched a clot of blood, thus hinting at the bloody future that was on his hands. The boy was named Temüjin, and he belonged to the Borjigin clan of the Mongol tribe. The Mongols, together with Keraites, Tatar, Naiman, and Mergid, were the main tribal confederations that inhabited the Mongolian plateau. They were nomads and herders, living in tents known as yurts and trusting in family and clan links rather than other forms of authorithy and loyalty. Temüjin’s family was no exception. His father, Yesugei, had kidnapped his mother, Hoelun, when she was already married to another. This apparently, was a common practice in the harsh steppe to afford a wife.

A yurt on the vast Mongolian steppe girldled by mountains. This would have been a familiar sight for Temüjin. Author: Simon Falvo. Source

When Yesugei died poisoned by Tatars, his two wives and seven children, including Temüjin, were left to fend by themselves by the rest of their tribe. Forced to scavenge and hunt mice and other rodents to feed his family, Temüjin soon learnt to mistrust the tribal structure of the Mongolian plateau. Three episodes marked him during this period, the first being his killing his oldest half-brother, Behter, after the latter claimed Temüjin’s hunt as his own. This strengthened his resolution of serving under no man. The second was his experience of slavery at the hands of another Mongol clan, the Tayichiud, from whom he only escaped thanks to the help of a kind Tayichiud family. This made place little faith on the clan and tribe who had abandoned him and his family, and value personal loyalty above clan connections and blood. The third episode was the kidnapping of his wife Börte, just as his own mother had been abducted by his father many years ago.  

2# Exile and first wife

The kidnappers were no other than the Mergids, the tribe of the man who had married Temüjin’s mother in the first place, and who now fulfilled their revenge against Yesugei’s family by stealing back one wife to their ranks. The tribes raided and fought each other in an endless cicle of revenge and thievery that the young Temüjin grew to despise. Perhaps that’s why instead of stealing himself another wife as it would have been expected, he decided on rescuing Börte, with whom he might have been genuinely in love.

He set to recue her, aided by Jamukha, Temüjin’s anda (blood-brother) and Ong Khan, erstwhile Yesugei’s ally and the Keraites’ ruler. Although they sucedeed, after a time Börte was revealed to be pregnant. Their first son, Jochi, was always attacked with the circumstances of his dubious paternity but Temüjin always publicly acknowledged him as his son. Nonetheless, life seemed to improve for our young hero, who renewing his oaths of loyalty with the popular Jamukha, served as his right man, thus abandoning the hunting for the herding in order to feed his family.

Wax representations of Genghis Khan and Börte in Mongolia. The trouble is, Genghis Khan never allowed himself in life to be represented or painted, so there’s no way to know what he might have looked like. Author: CeeGee (Wikipedia user). Source

3# Rise to power

Eventually the friends grew wary of each other. Jamukha valued noble ascendancy above all, and since Temüjin was of inferior lineage, the latter felt Jamukha treated him like an inferior, and not like a blood-brother. Temüjin left Jamukha’s service in 1181, followed by his family and a small but loyal band of his own. This however, wouldn’t be the last meeting of the friends turned enemies. Fate would call them both to fight for the position of Khan of the Mongols, the supreme ruler, just as other steppe tribes like the Keraites for example, were ruled by a Khan, like Ong Khan.

For the next two decades the old friends fought, the meritocracy valued by Temüjin against the noble pedigree of Jamukha. Fearful of Temüjin’s growing power, Ong Khan turned against his erstwhile protégé, refusing to marry his daughter to Temüjin and springing a trap on him, albeit unsuccessful. Ong Khan was defeated, and so Jamukha too would be beaten for good in 1206. Although a conciliatory Temüjin offered Jamukha to renew their broterhood, Jamukha allegedly refused, saying there was no space for two suns in the sky. With his execution, Temüjin’s last obstacle to power was gone.  

4# Mongols and religious tolerance

In the meantime, Temüjin had also proceeded to conquer the rest of the nomadic confederations. Keraites, Tatar, Naiman, and Mergid, were finally unified under his rule together with the Mongols, by 1206. In the kurultai (an assembly of the tribes) Temujin was given a new name, Genghis Khan, thus symolising his new status as Great Khan of the tribes. Finally, he no longer took orders from other men. But he never intended to rest on his laurels. Still sporting the physical and mental scars made by the damaging system of clans and tribes, he set off to change it. First and foremost, he forbade taking slaves from his own subjects, thus breaking the cicle of revenge between the tribes. And to ban ostracism like he and his family had suffered after the death of Yesugei, he had his mother adopt children from all the newly absorbed tribes. Himself took additional wives and concubines from them, and despite he declared all children of his subjects legitimate no matter their paternity (no doubt thinking about Jochi), only Börte’s children had the right to succeed him.

Mongolia in 1207 included current Mongolia, also known as Outer Mongolia; Inner Mongolia or Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, in China; and parts of Russia including the Republic of Buryatia, whose inhabitants speak a variant of the Mongolian language. Author: Khiruge. Source

Although he believed only in the Sky God (animism and shamanism religion known as Tengrism) he declared total religious freedom for his people. Many of the steppe tribes were Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, but unlike other kingdoms, the mongols never used religion to identify themselves. It was their state in itself, which became their primary means of identity and thus loyalty. Just like almost 600 years later Napoleon would attempt to break the pillars of the Ancien Régime in Europe, by offering equal opportunities regardless of birth and status, so did Genghis Khan, who sought to promote talent and also art. In the countries he conquered he employed and collected people who could write and read in different languages; craftsmen, bureaucrats, engineers or writers, with useful skills whom he could bring back to Mongolia to teach his own people.

5# The Mongol conquest of the world

With no remaining foes inside Mongolia, Genghis Khan knew how dangerous was a lack of pursuit for his people, and so he proceeded to give them one failsafe, unifying factor: external conquest. For it was in war where Genghis Khan forged his fortunes and etched his indelible name in history. In a successful attempt to break down the clan allegiances and redirect them to his nascent state and person, he reformed the Mongol army. Men of different places and backgrounds were put to live and fight in squads of ten. These in turn were grouped in thousands, and then in a ten thousand, a tümen. By breaking the units of family, clan, or ethnicity, he brought a revolutionary change in the steppe life and warfare, which would turn him into a warlord unparalleled in history.

He institutioned public and compulsory work for those who couldn’t serve in the army and established methods to divide the booty in equal parts for everyone, thus enhancing the fighting capabilities of his army and securing their unwavering loyalty. His military reforms spread to tactics too. Soon the Mongol army, which fought mostly on horseback, became adept at hit-and-run tactics, often pretending to flee so the overconfident enemy vanguard chased, thus breaking their ranks and exposing themselves to Mongol counterattacks and ambushes.

A moder reenactment of Mongol warriors. All modern Mongols (except vassal states) were mounted, possessed several horses, and were incredibly skilfull with bow and arrows. Moreover, they could cover distances faster than any other army in the world, eating and spending most of the day on their horses if required. Author: carfull…from Wyoming. Source

Their clever use of technology and swift adoption of enemy weapons and military science, allowed them to become incredibly adept at sieges too. From fire projectiles to flooding the besieged cities, with water or with refugees from the countryside in order to starve the garrisons; together with a clever use of propaganda (they favoured and even widely circulated themselves the nasty but thruthless rumours claiming that the Mongols were killing by the millions), the armies of Genghis Khan proved nearly unstoppable. With this well-lubricated war machine, he conquered the Jin and western Xia dynasties that controlled northern China, and which dwarfed Mongolia not only in population, but were also considered the paragon of civilization, culture, and technology.

6# From Asia to the gates of Europe

It seems Gengis Khan thrutfully planned to settle after that, for the booty of the Jin and Xia campaigns was bigger than any Mongol had ever dared dreaming of, and now they had plenty of goods to trade. But the foolish Shah of the Khwarazmian dynasty humiliated and killed Genghis Khan’s ambassadors who went there to discuss a trade partnership. The Khwarazmian dynasty was a large empire than englobed the modern territories of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan amongst others. All soon met the fury of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, who crushed them and destroyed many of their cities. But they Mongols didn’t stop here. While Genghis Khan marched home with the main body of the army and again, immense booty, another 20.000 Mongols continued into the Caucasus, under Genghis Khan’s most brilliant generals, Jebe and Subutai.

They would defeat and incorporate the kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia into the rapidly expanding Mongol empire, and even destroyed the 80.000 strong army of Kievan Rus’ at the Battle of the Kalka River. In a classic yet deadly Mongol tactic, their mounted archers pretended to flee so the Rus’ would break formation and ride straight into a trap. A lesson the arrogant European kingdoms didn’t bother to assimilate when the Mongols returned in 1237. For the time being, however Subutai and Jebe were reclaimed back to Mongolia, and loyal to the Mongol style, they collected yet another string of astonishing victories with insulting ease on their return home across the north of the Caspian Sea.

In darker pink, Mongolia in 1207. In lighter pink, the Mongol Empire until 1227. Notice that Subutai’s march into the Russian principalities or Rus’, in 1222 was but an expedition. If the Mongols would have wanted to take it all, they would have done it easily enough. Author: Bkkbrad (made from an image belonging to historicair. Wikipedia user). Source

7# The death of Genghis Khan 

The Western Xia, who had refused to send soldiers to Genghis Khan as his vassals during the Khwarazmian conquest, found themselves on the bad end of the Great Khan’s temper. Enraged by the betrayal, Genghis Khan had their cities and towns levelled in another classic Mongol tactic. Those who surrendered peacefully were spared, those who resisted were obliterated. Although cruel, this is a far call from the sources that blatantly claimed that Genghis Khan commited mass genocides and killings on an unseen scale. For if this was true, then modern archaelogy should have been able to find a considerable amount of mass graves and common pits, given the sheer size of victims that the accounts offhandedly attribute to Genghis Khan. Bodies are not so easily disposed of without a trace, while many victims of plague were also freely attributed to the Mongol invasion.

Nevermind that, this time Genghis Khan had no mind for pardoning the rebel Xia Emperor, but before he could see the insolent emperor executed, he died in August 1227, while besieging the Xia capital of Yinchuan. The circumstances of his death are not entirely clarified, although there seems to be some consensus that since his fall from the horse six months earlier, his health had been in decline. He was certainly past sixty years old and so not so able anymore to withstand the rigours of campaign. Be as it may, the greatest conqueror of history succumbed to the one invincible enemy that nobody can hope to defeat. Death.

Onan River, Mongolia. Because Genghis Khan asked to be buried according to Mongol tradition, that is without markings, his tomb hasn’t been found yet. Tradition claims it lays somewhere close to the Onan river and Burkhan Khaldun, the sacred mountain. Author: Chinneeb. Source

8# His descendants

Of his many sons and daughters, only his four sons by Börte had been considered for the succession. Those were Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui. Although successful as a conqueror like few others, it seems things within the family weren’t precisely encouraging for Genghis Khan during his last years. The fears of the empire breaking apart on his death were very present, given the enmity between Jochi and Chagatai, who mischievously and openly questioned Jochi’s paternity, even in front of Genghis Khan himself. In the end, it was decided between them that Ögedei, the third son, would become the next Great Khan. Genghis Khan accepted, and it was also decided the rest of the sons would inherit their own fiefdoms, although under the suzerainty of Ögedei himself.

On 1229, Ögedei was elected Supreme Khan by the kurultai. Under him and his son Güyük Khan, in turn succeeded by Tolui’s son, Möngke, the empire continued the legacy of Genghis Khan and further expanded. When Möngke Khan died however, the beginning of the end was certainly spelled by his younger brother, Kublai Khan, who usurped the throne from his other brother, Ariq Böke. Despite that it was the latter who had been elected by the kurultai, Kublai refused to abide. Despite the fact that he ultimatelty obtained victory in the subsequent civil war, and despite his successful completition of the conquest of China, the Mongol Empire had been fatally weakened. Kublai Khan was only Great Khan in name, and by his death in 1294 the empire was divided into four independent khanates: the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate, and the Yuan dynasty. These in turn would fracture into a myriad of states over the time.

The four successors, or khanates, of the Mongol Empire. Author: Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Source

9# The legacy of Genghis Khan

Although their huge empire remained united and strong for little less than fifty years after the death of its founder, the Mongols left quite a strong impression after them. Despite the fact they promoted talent, religious tolerance, trade, and science, nowadays they’re unjustly remembered solely on account of their destructive capabilities. It’s easily forgotten that they limited the use of torture―when in Europe it was becoming a very common practice―didn’t discriminate on account of race or ethnicity, built roads and a very modern postal system, and even promoted and pushed the use of paper money. Moreover, our greeting chant of ‘hooray’ is borrowed from the Mongols themselves. They were certainly brutal if provoked and many cities were entirely razed as a result. However, it’s worth considering that many might just despise them because their own countries fared soo poorly against them. But as Genghis Khan used to say:

It’s not sufficient that I succeed. All others must fail

Genghis Khan

Well said, mate. Hooray to you!

If you enjoyed it please leave a comment and subscribe, and don’t forget to check this fantastic book about Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire written by Jack Weatherford, and which I used as the basis for this article. Any mistakes found here are mine and only mine. Check out a free sample below: