Genghis Khan

In less than 100 years, Genghis Khan and his descendents established the largest empire in the world, exceeded only by the British Empire in the 19th century. Through cunning diplomacy, spiritual mission, and brute force, Genghis Khan unified the incompatible Mongols and then set out east and west to swiftly conquer vast parts of Asia. The Mongol army swept down on cities and villages, taking anything as booty or victims. By 1280, Mongol rule stretched from China’s Yellow Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, a total of 12 million square miles. Among the descendants of Genghis Khan, the most well-known is his grandson, Kublai Khan, admired for his enlightened rule and famous for his opulent lifestyle. During its brief existence, the Mongol Empire was responsible for an estimated 30 to 40 million deaths, the destruction of several major dynasties, and retarding or altering the development of many other civilizations. Yet, at the same time, Genghis Khan and his descendants increased Europe’s knowledge of the Orient, established major trade routes between East and West, and unified large regions in western Russia and China that remain united today.


When Temujin was 9, his father took him to live with the family of his future bride, Borte. On the return trip home, Yesukhei encountered members of the rival Tatar tribe, who invited him to a conciliatory meal, where he was poisoned for past transgressions against the Tatars. Upon hearing of his father’s death, Temujin returned home to claim his position as clan chief. However, the clan refused to recognize the young boy’s leadership and ostracized his family of younger brothers and half-brothers to near-refugee status. The pressure on the family was great, and in a dispute over the spoils of a hunting expedition, Temujin quarreled with and killed his half-brother Bekhter, confirming his position as head of the family.Genghis Khan was born in north central Mongolia and named “Temujin” after a Tatar chieftain that his father, Yesukhei, had captured. Young Temujin was a member of the Borjigin tribe and descendant of Khabul Khan, who briefly united Mongols against the Jin (Chin) Dynasty of northern China in the early 1100s. According to the “Secret History of the Mongols” (a contemporary account of Mongol history), Temujin was born with a blood clot in his hand, a sign in Mongol folklore that he was destined to become a leader. His mother, Hoelun, taught him the grim reality of living in turbulent Mongol tribal society and the need for alliances.


At 16, Temujin married Borte, cementing the alliance between the Konkirat tribe and his own. Soon after, Borte was kidnapped by the rival Merkit tribe and given to a chieftain as a wife. Temujin was able to rescue her and soon after she gave birth to her first son, Jochi. Though Borte’s captivity with the Konkirat tribe cast doubt on Jochi’s birth, Temujhin accepted him as his own. With Borte, Temujin had four sons and many other children with other wives, as was Mongolian custom. However, only his male children with Borte qualified for succession in the family.


When Temujin was about 20, he was captured in a raid by former family allies, the Taichi’uts, and temporarily enslaved. He escaped with the help of a sympathetic captor and joined his brothers and several other clansmen to form a fighting unit. Temujin began his slow ascent to power by building a large army of more than 20,000 men. He set out to destroy traditional divisions among the various tribes and unite the Mongols under his rule. Through a combination of outstanding military tactics and merciless brutality, Temujin avenged his father’s murder by decimating the Tatar army and ordered the killing of every Tatar male less than 3 feet tall. Temujin’s Mongols then defeated, the Taichi’ut, using a series of massive cavalry attacks, and had all the Taichi’ut chiefs boiled alive. By 1206, Temujin also had defeated the powerful Naiman tribe, thus giving him control of central and eastern Mongolia.


The early success of the Mongol army owed much to the brilliant military tactics of Genghis Khan and his understanding of his enemies’ motivations. He employed an extensive spy network and was quick to adopt new technologies from his enemies. The well-trained Mongol army of 80,000 fighters coordinated their advance with a sophisticated signaling system of smoke and burning torches. Large drums sounded commands to charge, and further orders were conveyed with flag signals. Every soldier was fully equipped with bow, arrows, shield, dagger, and lasso. He also carried large saddlebags for food, tools, and spare clothes. The saddlebag was waterproof and could be inflated to serve as a life preserver when crossing deep and swift-moving rivers. Cavalrymen carried a small sword, javelins, body armor, a battle-ax or mace, and a lance with a hook to pull enemies off their horses. They were devastating in their attacks. Because they could maneuver a galloping horse using only their legs, their hands were free to shoot arrows. The entire army was followed by a well-organized supply system of oxcarts carrying food for soldiers and beasts alike, as well as military equipment, shamans for spiritual and medical aid, and officials to catalog the booty.


Following the victories over the rival Mongol tribes, other tribal leaders agreed to peace and bestowed on Temujin the title of “Genghis Khan,” which means “universal ruler.” The title carried not only political importance, but also spiritual significance. The leading shaman declared Genghis Khan the representative of Mongke Koko Tengri (the “Eternal Blue Sky”), the supreme god of the Mongols

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