Updated: Dec 18, 2018
In 1162, on a bleak and bitterly cold night in northern Mongolia, a child was born clutching a blood clot in his right hand. In Mongolia’s shamanic culture, this foretold that the child would be gifted with the ability to communicate outside the realm of the physical world, be of great intellect, and become a celebrated leader. Destined to realize what his father Yesugei could not, the child would one day unite the many warring nomadic tribes of Mongolia, and carve out the largest contiguous empire that ever was. The child’s life would become legend, his name, Genghis Khan!
Western historians often record Temüjin, later to be hailed as Genghis Khan, as the embodiment of evil, painting him as foul, nefarious; and malevolent. As with anything, the reality is far more intriguing. How did a malnourished illiterate, mould Mongolia’s nomadic warring tribes into a systematic fighting machine that would eventually annex over 12 million square miles, and stand poised to conquer Europe?
In 12th century Mongolia, there was but one law, that if a man wanted something, he simply took it! Temüjin’s appetite for combat, and his first great battle would be brought about by a twist of fate. Long before Temüjin was born, his father Yesugei, chieftain of the powerful Khamag Mongol Confederation, kidnapped a girl by the name of Hoelun. Wife stealing was common on the steppes of 12th century Mongolia, and Hoelun was already betrothed to Yehe Chiledu, chieftain of the Merkit, a long established enemy clan. The kidnapped Hoelun, would in time bear Yesugei 5 children, Temüjin, Hachiun, Hasar, Temüge, and Temülen. Years passed, and when Temüjin was of marriageable age, he wed Börte of the Qongirat tribe. Through the years, relations with the Merkit had not thawed, the two tribes often coming to blows. So it was, some 20 years after Hoelun was kidnapped, the Merkit raided Temüjin’s homestead, kidnapping his wife Börte.
Temüjin had neither the manpower nor arms to defend his wife and tribe against the Merkit attack, his only option was to retreat. The Merkit ravaged Temüjin’s homestead, leaving a trail of bloody destruction in their wake. Vowing revenge, Temüjin sought an audience with the one man that could help him, Toghrul Khan of the Keraites, leader of an uneasy alliance of tribes, and blood brother of Temüjin’s father Yesugei. Toghrul, himself no friend of the Merkit, was happy to aid Temüjin. Newly bolstered, Temüjin, Toghrul, and Jamukha, Temüjin’s own blood brother and future rival, rode their now united tribes into battle. Börte was rescued, and the Merkit were decimated. In one night, a vengeful Temüjin, the man who would become Genghis Khan, extinguished one of Mongolia’s great tribes.
Jamukha, A Blood Brothers Betrayal, Battle at Dalan Balzhut
According to the Secret History of the Mongols, as children, Jamukha and Temüjin took the sacred, unbreakable and lifelong vow of ‘Anda’. An oath under which two men pledged their allegiance to each other becoming blood brothers. Through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, Temüjin and Jamukha remained at each other’s side, loyal to the last. So close were the two, in their early days they shared leadership of their burgeoning tribe, yet even then, there was an unspoken tension germinating between them. Temüjin, caring only for the strength in a man’s heart, rewarded loyalty, and ability alone, a progressive attitude Temüjin would display throughout his life, but one that flew in the face of Mongol tradition. Jamukha on the other hand, believed that only those privileged with birth right, should be honoured and hold high rank.
It was when Temüjin began promoting men of low birth, the sons of simple herder’s, cracks in their relationship began to show, but it would be the Prophecy of the Mongol Holy Land’ that would bring them to deadlock. The tribes’ shaman spoke of how in a trance he’d ascended into heaven, where the supreme god had told him that he would bestow upon Temüjin and his sons the whole surface of the world. The prophecy meant Jamukha was no longer Temüjin’s equal, ego bruised, and feeling there was no longer a place for him at Temüjin’s side, Jamukha split the tribe. What Temüjin feared most had come to pass, one tribe had become two, and a blood brother had become an enemy.
In 1187, 30,000 men strong, Jamukha ambushed Temüjin’s men at Dalan Balzhut. Jamukha would show Temüjin and his men no mercy, defeat for Temüjin was as swift as it was brutal. No one can be sure how many men lost their lives that day, but Temüjin’s men lay as carpet across the plains of Dalan Balzhut, and the earth was slick with their blood, yet this would not be the worst of it. Enslaving men captured in battle was as common on the steppes as wife stealing, but what Jamukha would do with the warriors he captured at Dalan Balzhut would revolt even his own men. Exacting a terrible vengeance on those he had once fought alongside, it is said that Jamukha, in 70 cauldrons boiled his prisoners of war alive! When Temüjin, who had fled into the Jurchen ruled Jin empire, heard of Jamukha’s barbaric punishment, he swore a vow; that never again would he be defeated, nor his loyal warriors so dishonoured!
The Humiliation Temüjin suffered at Dalan Balzhut, would be the driving force behind his resolve to transform his army. Realising that to win a battle, his men must fight not as individuals but as part of a whole, Temüjin set about turning his men into a ferocious, but more importantly, practiced, and skilful war machine. Horsemanship and archery became compulsory, not only for the men, but for the tribe’s children. Flexible, robust, and powerful, the tribes recurved composite bows were fashioned from layers of horn and sinew attached to bamboo. The fletching’s were made up of crane feathers, stabilising the bow to such a degree they had a range of over 500 yards. Each warrior was now taught not to release his bow until his horse’s hooves left the ground, this would ensure maximum efficiency
It would not be until the early 1190’s, that Temüjin had regained enough power to once again be a force on the steppes of Mongolia. In the intervening years, it seems Temüjin developed a relationship of sorts with the Jin, this may well have been the reason for his return to the steppes. Politics was at play, the Jin and Tartar had once been allies, however, the mighty Jin had become concerned with the Tartars ever increasing influence on the steppes. In 1197, switching allegiance, the Jin enlisted the help of Toghrul and Temüjin’s respective tribes, the Keraites and Mongols. What the Jin may not have known, is that Temüjin’s issues with the Tartars were not those of power or politics, they were decades old and very personal, after all, they were responsible for murdering his father. The Tartars, caught between the grip of the Keraites and Mongols on one side, and the Jin on the other, did not stand much of a chance. The Tartars were not completely wiped out, those that had managed to flee with their lives allied themselves to other tribes in the surrounding area, regrouped and readied themselves for counter attack. Between 1197 and 1201, the Keraite - Mongol alliance would engage the Tartars in battle. In 1202, Temüjin, wanting to put an end to the Tartar threat once and for all, went to war with the Tartars without the aid of Toghrul and his men; it would be Temüjin’s army and their ruthless efficiency that bought about the Tartars decisive and bloody defeat. To quell the Tartar threat conclusively, Temüjin gathered every Tartar male on the steppes, his orders, any male taller than the hub of a wagon be killed. The surviving children were raised as Mongols, and Tartar women were made wives and concubines, thus Temüjin’s destruction and assimilation of the Tartars in Mongolia was complete.
As Temüjin’s power and influence on the steppes grew, so did the reputation of his army’s tactical prowess. Temüjin’s explosive rise to power meant he had also begun to be considered a threat by his own allies, Toghrul was now wary of his protégé. Temüjin tried to allay his friends’ fears, but to no avail, by 1203 the alliance was no more, and the Keraites attacked. Blood was shed, and though initially it looked as though the Keraites may be victorious, resilient as ever, Temüjin rallied his men and humbled the opposition. The Keraites though defeated would not suffer the same fate as the Tartars, instead of exterminating the Keraites, Temüjin, with one eye on the future, and wishing his one-time allies no ill will, married Toghrul’s many daughters and granddaughters to his own sons. Temüjin now governed Central as well as Eastern Mongolia. The only tribe on the steppes that had not yet fallen, were the Naimans. The Naimans forces certainly outnumbered those of Temüjin’s, their number further inflated by their allies the Merkit, and none other than Jamukha, Temüjin’s traitorous blood brother. In the summer of 1204, shadowed by the Khangai mountains, Temüjin prepared for combat. Temüjin’s aptitude for strategy would be a deciding factor in the vicious assault that would ensue. Knowing his opposition would send scouts to ascertain his position and the number of men at his side, Temüjin ordered each of his warriors to light not one, but five fires. Temüjin understood the sway of psychological warfare, the Naiman scouts reported that Temüjin’s army was so large they had more fires than there were stars in the sky! Temüjin’s artifice worked, the Naiman, no longer sure of the true strength of Temüjin’s army, delayed, then changed their plan of attack. They would no longer lure Temüjin further into the mountains, but meet him head on in a full-frontal attack, a change that for the Naiman would be ruinous. The Naiman, Merkit, Jamukha, and his men were blotted out, the entirety of the Mongolian plateau was now under Temüjin’s rule. Mongol society had never in its history accepted or recognised one man as the leader of all the Mongol tribes. What Temüjin had achieved was nothing short of miraculous, and so it was, that in 1206, Temüjin was honoured with a new epithet; ‘Universal King, Ruler of All Men’, ‘Genghis Khan’!
Genghis Khan had carved out a nation, but he now faced a new and far more potent threat than anything he had encountered on the steppes, to the East lay the vast empire of China!
The Jurchen nobility of the Jin dynasty had enlisted Genghis Khan to wipe out the Tartar threat, but for Genghis the alliance had been one of convenience. For generations prior to the alliance, the Jin had kept Mongolia and its once divided tribes subjugated by encouraging and facilitating clan rivalries. Khan was no longer the leader of a tribe, he was the ruler of a unified nation. Knowing that the Jin would not long tolerate such a powerful leader on their border, Khan would strike pre-emptively.
In 1211, with a cavalry of over 50,000, Genghis Khan crossed the Gobi Desert, his goal, to conquer China. The harsh environs and extreme temperatures of the Gobi would not be Khan’s greatest obstacle, that lay in how he and his men would penetrate China’s seemingly impregnable defence, ‘The Great Wall’! Khan’s solution was surprisingly practical, he would simply go around it. With the aid of the Ongud chief Ala Qush, Khan and his horde made entry at the strategically located ‘Juyonggun Pass’. Many a battle would be fought, the first of which was the ‘Battle of Yehuling’. It would take 3 months to cut down the Jurchen mercenary’s, but when the time came, Khan’s victory was absolute. Khan’s horde was unrelenting, in a grisly campaign that would last 6 years, the Mongol horde would lay waste to Jurchen settlements, leaving nothing but corpses in their wake. Complete conquest of the Jin empire, which covered much of inner Asia, and all of present day North China, would take more than brute force alone; Khan would use his wits, cunning, and powers of persuasion to outsmart his adversaries. Khan also had the foresight not to slaughter captured Chinese generals, or those who wished to defect, instead they were made to impart their superior knowledge of medicine and engineering to the ‘Mongol Horde’. Khan’s forces now knew how to weaponise chemicals, build catapults and battering rams, just the armaments needed for siege warfare.
13th century Zhongdu, present day Beijing, was lauded for its grandiose palaces, ornate temples, and trade markets pregnant with jewels, fine silks and exotic spices. Zhongdu was also heavily fortified, something Khan would turn to his advantage. Upon arrival Khan’s men set up camp outside the cities 10-mile-long, 40ft high walls, within those walls was a populous of over 350,000, preparing themselves for an imminent Mongol attack. What they could not have known is that Khan was in no hurry, if he could not get in, he would force them out. Ordering his men to stop all food supplies entering the city, Genghis Khan turned Zhongdu into a prison! Thousands would die of starvation, those that didn’t had turned to cannibalism. While residents grew weak, Khan’s horde grew strong on stolen food supplies, months would pass before Khan attacked. Though starving, within Zhongdu’s walls there was still a formidable garrison, equipped with a powerful array of weapons. The Chinese threw everything in their arsenal at Khan’s men, vats of acid, molten metals, boiling oil, and excrement were propelled into the heart of the Mongol horde, but once again Khan’s brilliance as a tactician would pay off. Battle was as intense as it was exhausting, but the Chinese were no match for the ferocity of Khan and his men, and so it was, on 1st of June 1215, Zhongdu fell. Genghis Khan had now secured the North and North East portions of the ‘Jin Empire’.
Persia - Conquest of the Islamic States:
Historians do not often highlight Khan’s attempts at diplomacy. Though Jamukha, his blood brother had betrayed him, when captured Khan had offered him a chance to rejoin the tribe. It was Jamukha who rejected the idea, asking only that Khan give him a noble death, Khan obliged. Prior to battle with Toghrul, his father’s ‘Anda’, and his own one-time ally, Khan had tried to assuage Toghrul’s growing paranoia; offering to unite the clans through marriage, it was Toghrul’s choice to wage war. Before the felling of the Jin, Khan had tried to broker a peace deal. If the Jin had continued to pay the agreed upon tribute, war may never have broken out, but it was they who would not keep up their end of the bargain, forcing Khan’s hand. Likewise, Khan held out the hand of friendship to Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, leader of the Islamic Khwarezmian Dynasty. Genghis Khan had no plans to invade the ‘Khwarezmian Empire’, his only wish was to open the lines of trade. In 1218, Khan dispatched a caravan of around 500 Mongol and Muslim men to Khwarezmia, aiming to broker a trade deal, and establish official trade ties. The caravan carried a message of Khan’s intent to the Shah. "I am master of the lands of the rising sun, while you rule those of the setting sun, let us conclude a firm treaty of friendship and peace". Khan’s offer of peace, and his men would meet with a crude and unexpected answer. The caravan, on arriving in Otrar, an important political and economic centre located along the Silk Road, were promptly arrested, the charge, espionage. It is true, Khan had often used merchants to gather intelligence on his enemies before engaging in battle, in Otrar, Khan’s reputation proceeded him. His caravan, with the permission of Shah Ala ad-Din were slaughtered, Khan’s hopes of peaceful trade had been rejected. The slaughter of Khan’s men was a grievous affront, however, Khan did not set about organising retribution, instead he made a second attempt at diplomacy. Khan sent a small envoy of 2 Mongols and 1 Muslim into Khwarezmia. Shah Ala ad-Din’s response, to send all three back to Khan, the Mongols shorn, the Muslim beheaded. Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, left Khan with no choice, such an insult was too great to bear. In 1219, the Mongols crossed the Tien Shan mountains, the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia had begun.
The Khwarezmian forces far outnumbered those of Khan’s, as many of Khan’s men were still engaged in the Jin war, thus Khan’s only hope was stratagem. Khan knew his forces could not withstand head on combat, his decision, to split his troops and create three smaller armies. Each army attacked different settlements from different vantage points, throwing the Khwarezmian defence into disarray. They could no longer use their numbers against Khan, instead they too had to split, in a bid to defend the numerous settlements in their empire. History shows the sacking of Khwarezmia to be one of the bloodiest Mongol campaigns waged. Between 1219 and 1221, one by one cities and settlements fell, Khan’s goal, complete obliteration. Bukhara, with no real fortification to speak of, fell after only 15 days. The Persian historian Ata Malik Juvaini, quoted his father as saying, “the Mongols came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered , they then departed.”. Khwarezmia’s capital Samarkand, though better fortified did not last long under Mongol attack, however, the prosperous city of Kunya-Urgench, would not be taken so easily. Urgench had been built along the fertile banks of the Amu Darya river, the ground underfoot was marsh like, terrain which did not lend itself to siege warfare. There were no great rocks or boulders to be found, rendering Khan’s catapults useless. In the taking of Urgench, the Horde’s casualties were in greater number than usual, but as with all things that came before the might of Genghis Khan, Urgench would eventually fall. The Mongols would sweep through Balkh, Merv, and Nishapur, like hot knives through butter; in what would become known as the ‘Khorasan Campaign’, swathes would be cut down, the Horde marched on. By 1221, after a hard won victory, now known as the ‘Battle of Indus’, the destruction and absorption of the Khwarezmian Empire was complete. The extent of the bloodshed across Khwarezmia was without precedent, when the empire finally collapsed, it is estimated over 1.2 million men, women, and children were dead!
With the collapse of Khwarezmia, Khan turned his attentions to Europe. His men were ordered to see how far West they could penetrate before being stopped, they were not stopped at all. This would be the Mongols first raid into Europe, however, it would not be their last.
Khan’s Legacy - Karakorum
Though Ögedei, Khan’s third son, his chosen successor, and second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire would further develop Karakorum, transforming it into a hub for trade and world politics, it was Genghis Khan who had nurtured what would become the Mongol capital into existence. In stark contrast with his nomadic lifestyle, Karakorum was where Khan would lay the foundations for a permanent Mongol capital. Genghis Khan, entering his 60’s and having been born into a world of eternal feuding, now craved order. Though the Mongols were illiterate, Khan understood the value of the written word. Literate members of Khan’s imperial court were made to record all of his judgements, and so it was, in Karakorum Khan birthed a burgeoning legal system, known as the ‘Yassa’. Marriage between those of first and second degree kinship was now forbidden. Those guilty of rustling livestock would be put to death, as would those that committed adultery. No subject of the empire could take a Mongol as a servant or slave, and every healthy male would be conscripted. Women were given the right to attend to the care of family property and engage in trade. Khan also legitimised children born of slaves, they would now be considered as legitimate as the children of wives. Khan would also establish an advanced medical core, trained by captive Chinese physicians. Khan would carve out a lattice of routes joined by staging posts, enabling merchants and messengers to cover 125 miles in a day. Karakorum was Khan’s attempt at a lasting legacy, he had no wish to be remembered by the sword alone. Through the 12th and 13th century that legacy would be maintained, Karakorum becoming the single most important trade point on the ‘Silk Road’.
Genghis Khan’s mettle, sheer will, and intelligence had led him to become the ruler of an empire that was 4 times the size of Alexander the Great’s, and twice the size of the Roman Empire. While most speak of his brutality, they neglect too mention Khan was a man who believed in religious freedom, was often first to extend the diplomatic hand of friendship to those that perceived him as the enemy, and was a progressive of sorts, favouring meritocracy over autocracy. In 1227, surrounded by members of his family and court, Genghis Khan, while taking his last breaths, would appoint his son Ögedei as his successor. In the years after his death, Khan’s sons and grandsons would double the size of the ‘Mongol Empire’, invading Hungary, Poland, and Russia.
Legend has it, that addressing Ögedei, the great Khan’s last words were, “with heaven's aid, I have conquered for you a huge empire, but my life was too short to take the whole world, that task I leave to you”. It is also said, that every person to witness Khan’s funeral cortege was put to death, to keep the location of his burial chamber a secret. To this day the resting place of Genghis Khan remains a mystery. There is no monument, no grave, no crypt, or mausoleum, to mark the life of the most feared and successful military commander the world has ever known!