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Who was Genghis Khan?

Genghis Khan was a 13th-century warrior in central Asia who founded the Mongol Empire, one of the largest empires in history. By the time he died, the empire controlled a vast amount of territory in China and central Asia, and its armies had ventured as far west as Kiev in modern-day Ukraine. The successors of Genghis Khan would go on to control kingdoms with territories in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Despite his great achievements, and ferocious reputation, there is much about Genghis Khan that we don’t know. For instance, there is not a single authentic portrait of the man that survives to present day, writes Jean-Paul Raux, a professor emeritus at the Ecole du Louvre, in his book “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire” (Thames & Hudson 2003). All of the images of him that exist were created after his death or by people who otherwise never met him.

Additionally, until Genghis Khan gained control over the Uyghur people, the Mongolians did not have a writing system. As such many of the records that survive of him were written by foreigners. An important Mongolian record that survives is called the “Secret History of the Mongols,”but was written anonymously (as its name suggests) apparently sometime after Genghis Khan’s death.

From what modern-day historians can gather he was born sometime around A.D. 1160 (the exact year is uncertain) and died in August 1227, apparently of natural causes, while in the process of waging a punitive campaign against the Tangut people (who were slaughtered after Genghis Khan died).

Genghis Khan was born with the name Temujin (also spelled Temuchin). At the time, Mongolia was ruled by different clans and tribal groups. His father, named Yesukai, “was lord and leader of 40,000 tents or families. Even his brothers, including those senior to him, acknowledged him as their leader and head of the Borjigin clan,” writes the late Syed Anwarul Haque Haqqi, who was a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, in his book “Chingiz Khan: The Life and Legacy of an Empire Builder” (Primus Books, 2010).

Temujin’s mother, Hoelun, had been captured by his father’s clan and forced to become Yesukai’s wife (something that was common in Mongolia at the time). The boy was named Temujin to celebrate his father’s triumph over an enemy, also named Temujin, writes Haqqi, who notes that naming a newborn child after an auspicious event was a common practice.

We know nothing of his early life “but it is reasonable to suppose that as the years rolled by and childhood turned into youth (he) was brought up in the hard and harsh atmosphere of nomadic life, in which the tribal lords and chiefs fought, drank, and duelled, married and slept with their weapons underneath them — a rigorous life in which chiefs shared the miseries, hungers and privations of their people,” writes Haqqi.

Around the age of 9, Temujin was betrothed to Börte, the 10-year-old daughter of Dai Sechen, the leader of the Jungirat tribe (there are different spellings of these names). Haqqi believed that Temujin lived for some time with his father in-law, although this is a source of debate among scholars.

At some point Temujin’s father, Yesukai, died (apparently poisoned) and Temujin returned home to find his father dead. The family’s power faded as many of his father’s followers deserted them.

Temujin, his family and remaining followers were forced to eke out a living on marginal pasturelands, contending with thieves and old rivals of Yesukai hoping to kill his family. Around the age of 14, Temujin is said to have murdered his half brother Bektor.

After a few years, Temujin felt that he was strong enough to return to Dai Sechen and take Borte’s hand in marriage. He overestimated his own strength, and Borte was kidnapped in a raid by a tribe called the Merkit. Temujin had to seek out the help of his friends Jamuqa and Toghrul (also called the Ong Khan or Wang Khan) to free her (they were both glad to help, as they hated the Merkit).

Chinese historical sources say that at some point Temujin was captured by the Jin Dynasty (who controlled part of China) and was held there for a number of years. Whether this is accurate or not is unknown.

The records do show that around 1200 Temujin had allied himself with Toghrul and would launch a campaign against the Tatars, which they defeated in 1202. The two would later have a falling out, and Toghrul was killed after his forces were defeated by Temujin. Temujin also had a falling out with Jamuqa and eventually had him killed also.

In 1206, Temujin had conquered most of Mongolia and the remaining tribes were forced to acknowledge him as their leader. He took the name Genghis Khan (also spelled Chingiz Khan or Tchingis Qaghan). The name has different translations, one of them being “oceanic sovereign,” writes Raux.

In the years after taking over Mongolia, Genghis Khan would launch a successful campaign against the Jin Dynasty, taking their capital Zhongdu (near modern-day Beijing) in 1215. He then turned his attention to the west, moving deeper and deeper into central Asia. In 1219, he launched a successful campaign against the shah of Khwarezm (based in modern-day Iran) reportedly with an army of up to 200,000 men.

Why Genghis Khan felt compelled to launch these campaigns is a matter of debate among scholars. Morris Rossabi of Columbia University writes in a section of the book “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire” (University of Washington Press, 2009) that several ideas have been put forward. It’s possible that the wars in Mongolia had exhausted the country’s supply of animals and Genghis Khan needed to raid other countries to prevent starvation. Another idea is that a period of dry weather in Mongolia led to Genghis Khan decision to seize new lands for his people. Yet another idea is that Genghis Khan felt he had a divine right to conquer the world. [Related: Wet Climate May Have Fueled Mongol Invasion]

Whatever his reasons, his rapid conquests stunned the medieval world, Rossabi notes. While his tactics — the use of the composite bow, cavalry and feigned retreats — were not new, and he had to seek foreign help in order to learn how to conduct siege warfare, Genghis Khan made innovations in the form of government and organization. He transformed Mongolian society from one based on tribes to one capable of conquering and running an empire.

“Once he had conquered territories beyond Mongolia, he instituted a more sophisticated administrative structure and a regular system of taxation,” Rossabi writes. “Recruiting captured Turks, Chinese and others, he began to devise a more stable system that could contribute to a more orderly government, with specialized official positions.”

He devised a system of laws and regulations to run this new empire of his. “In accordance and agreement with his own mind he established a rule for every occasion and a regulation for every circumstance; while for every crime he fixed a penalty,” wrote the Persian writer Ata-Malik Juvayni, who lived in the 13th century, in his book “History of the World Conqueror” (Translated by John Andrew Boyle in 1958).

Genghis Khan said that plunder from his campaigns must be shared among his troops and insisted they follow a vigorous training routine focused on hunting. This was “not for the sake of the game alone, but also in order that they may become accustomed and inured to hunting and familiarized with the handling of the bow and the endurance of hardships,” Juvayni wrote.

Policies like these helped keep his army together, even when they were a long way from home. They are a “peasantry in the guise of an army, all of them, great and small, noble and base, in time of battle becoming swordsmen, archers and lancers and advancing in whatever manner the occasion requires,” wrote Juvayni.

While Genghis Khan was known for his brutality, he often ordered his troops not to harm artisans and to leave clerics alone, respecting holy men of other faiths. Khan himself followed a system of beliefs that revolved around Mongolian shamanism.

Genghis Khan sought out Daoist priests, whom he believed knew the secret to eternal life. However, in the midst of a campaign against the Tangut people (whom he said had broken their word to him) he died, apparently of natural causes. His body was returned to Mongolia and his tomb was said to have been relatively modest for a ruler of his stature, although its location is unknown today.

After his death his son, Ogedai, succeeded him until his own death in 1241. Rossabi notes that future successions were contested, leading to disputes, wars and eventually the empire breaking into different states. “Such conflicts and the ensuing disunity would be prime factors in the collapse of the Mongol empire,” he writes.

To the people who became subjects of the empire, the rise of Genghis Khan was stunning and, to some, almost divine.

“Before the appearance of (Genghis Khan) they had no chief or ruler. Each tribe or two tribes lived separately; they were not united with one another, and there was constant fighting and hostility between them,” Juvayni wrote.

But when “the phoenix of prosperity wishes to make the roof of one man its abode, and the owl of misfortune to haunt the threshold of another … neither scarcity of equipment nor feebleness of condition prevents the fortunate man from attaining his goal …”