12. Genghis Khan’s Sons Gave Him No End of Trouble
Genghis Khan had numerous sons and daughters by multiple wives and concubines. Nomadic women were treated with greater equality than their sisters in settled lands, but the Mongols were still a patriarchy. As such few details are known of the great khan’s daughters except for one, Alakhai Bek, whom her father granted the title “Princess Who Runs the State” and left her to run parts of conquered China in 1215 when he returned to Mongolia. For the most part, Genghis treated his daughters as chips to marry off in order to cement alliances, or to show favor to some of his favorites.
Sons were the ones who truly mattered to Genghis, and of those, the ones who mattered the most and of whom there is any detail in the historic records are his sons by his first and official wife, Borte: Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei, and Tului. All of them were capable enough in some areas in their own right, but none of them possessed their father’s complete repertoire of gifts as a great politician, strategist, and leader of men. Their frequent squabbling gave the Great Khan no end of grief.
The biggest headache caused Genghis Khan by his sons stemmed from a fierce sibling rivalry between his eldest son, Jochi, and his second son, Chagatai. It is possible that Jochi might not have been the Great Khan’s biological son. His mother had been abducted by enemies shortly after her marriage to Genghis, and was given to a chieftain as spoils of war. Her husband got her back some months later – the record is obscure about just how many months – and she gave birth to Jochi soon thereafter.
To his credit, Genghis did not treat Jochi different than his other sons, but questions about his parentage dogged him for the rest of his life. His younger brother Chagatai developed a nearly pathological hatred of Jochi, and never ceased to attack and mock him as a supposed bastard. Genghis’ attempts to reconcile Chagatai to his older brother by reminding him that whoever his father, both of them came out of the same womb, were unavailing. Jochi naturally resented Chagatai’s attacks, and loathing between the brothers became mutual.
10. The Beef Between Genghis’ Two Eldest Sons Threatened to Wreck the Mongol Empire
Eventually, Genghis Khan had to face the possibility that all of his work might be undone after his death because of the mutual hatred between his sons Chagatai and Jochi. If Jochi succeeded him as great khan, it was a certainty that Chagatai would rise up in revolt and plunge the empire into a potentially ruinous civil war. If he bowed to the whispers about Jochi’s questionable parentage and designated his next eldest son Chagatai as successor, Jochi would not accept and would also rise up in revolt.
To solve the conundrum, Genghis designated his third son, Ogedei, as his successor. Although he was not as warlike as his other three brothers, and was an alcoholic to boot, Ogedei had his pluses. He was a good politician who knew how to get along with people, and was generous and easy going. Most importantly, he did not have any beefs with any of his brothers, but was liked by all of them. Jochi, Chagatai, and their youngest brother, Tului, all accepted Ogedei as their father’s successor.
9. The Division of the Mongol Empire Among the Great Conqueror’s Sons
The designation of Ogedei as Genghis Khan’s successor averted the risk of a ruinous civil war between his sons Jochi and Chagatai if either of them had been named instead. Genghis’ four sons by Borte were given conquered realms over which they were to rule as khans and expand via more conquest, but they were to remain subject to the overall suzerainty of their brother Ogedei. Jochi was given the lands north of Mongolia and everything “as far west as Mongol horse hooves may tread”. That was potentially the greatest realm, as it presumably granted him rights of conquest over everything as far west as Europe’s Atlantic coast.
Jochi did not get that far, but he and his successors eventually established the Golden Horde, which ruled much of the Eurasian Steppe, Russia, and extended into Eastern Europe. Chagatai got today’s Central Asian states, while Tului got the Mongol heartland. Ogedei got China and everything south, plus overlordship of his other brothers. Genghis intended for the Mongol Empire to remain united under a Great Khan, but it eventually fractured into separate khanates, or hordes, along the lines of the division among his sons.
Jochi and Chagatai accepted that their younger brother Ogedei would succeed their father as Great Khan. Whatever disappointment they felt at not having gotten the nod was salved by the satisfaction of knowing that, at least, the position would not go to their hated brother. However, their mutual hatred and intrigues – especially by Chagatai – continued unabated. In the meantime, relations between Genghis and Jochi had been rocky, in large part because the great conqueror’s oldest son thought his father was too harsh on the conquered. Not that Jochi was a bleeding heart – he had his share of Mongol massacres and widespread rapine. Compared to his father, though, he believed that a lighter touch would reconcile the conquered subjects to the Mongols, and make it easier to rule them.
Chagatai eventually exploited that, and arranged to have a letter presumably written by Jochi in which he criticized the Great Khan – although it might have been forged – fall into their father’s hands. It enraged Genghis, and Chagatai added fuel to the fire by whispering poisoned words into his ear. Genghis summoned Jochi to explain himself, but Jochi, who was thousands of miles away, wrote back that he was too ill to travel. Chagatai convinced his father that it was just subterfuge and further defiance by Jochi. The incensed father sent his henchmen to Jochi’s camp, where they killed him. As it turned out, Jochi really had been too ill to travel, but by the time that became clear, the deed had already been done, and Genghis eldest son was dead, killed on his father’s orders.
By 1210, Genghis Khan had reduced the Western Xia in China to vassalage, and for nearly a decade, they served him against the Jin and other enemies. However, when war broke out with the Khwarezmians, the Western Xia took the opportunity to renounce their vassalage and ally with the other Chinese. Genghis responded to the betrayal with an invasion of the Western Xia again in 1225, and this time his goal was not to reduce them to vassalage, but to exterminate them. He conducted a genocidal campaign, in which he systematically reduced and destroyed their cities, and slaughtered both the urban and rural populations.
After two years’ of savagery in Western Xia, during which his men carried out a series of massive massacres, each with a toll of victims that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Genghis’ quest to conquer all under the heavens ended when he fell off a horse in 1227, and died of his injuries. His death did not save the Western Xia: the Mongols continued the campaign, with redoubled ferocity in honor of their deceased leader. Today, the Western Xia are almost unknown beyond a small circle of academics, precisely because Genghis’ campaign to annihilate them was so successful.
6. Tens of Millions Today are Descended From Genghis Khan
One of the more chilling quotes attributed to Genghis Khan, which says quite a bit about what he was all about, is about what made him happy. As he put it: “My greatest joy is to defeat my enemies and drive them before me. To see their cities reduced to ashes. To see their loved ones shrouded and in tears, and to embrace their wives and daughters”. His wide-sweeping conquests afforded him the opportunity to embrace many an enemy’s wives and daughters.
That is backed up not only by the historic record but by science. A 2003 DNA study showed that 1 out of every 200 men in the world is descended from the great Mongol conqueror. That is based on a study of Y chromosomes, which are only passed from fathers to sons. The Great Khan’s paternal chromosomes are even more prolific within the borders of what had once been his empire. Within those vast expanses, roughly 1 out of every 10 men is descended from Genghis.
5. The Great Conqueror’s Successors Continued His Conquests
Genghis Khan conquered an empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and from the Siberian forests in the north down to Persia and Afghanistan in the south. The Mongol expansion did not stop with his death, however, as Genghis had left behind a formidable army, and capable military commanders whom he had trained to get the most out of the Mongol forces. That military machine kept on conquering for decades after its creator’s demise.
His successor Ogedei was not his father’s military equal, but he was wise enough to know that. From his capital in Mongolia, the new Great Khan directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts, separated by thousands of miles. He entrusted their execution to his father’s capable generals, whom he authorized to act independently within their theaters, subject to Ogedei’s orders, which were relayed via a swift horse relay communications network. By the time Ogedei died in 1241, the Mongol Empire had reached its furthest southward extent, into southeast Asia, and westward all the way to the outskirts of Vienna.
4. Genghis Khan’s Impact on the World’s Trajectory
It is possible that Genghis Khan’s greatest and longest-lasting impact was the role that the Mongol conquests initiated by him had in the shifting of the global balance of power from the Islamic world to Europe and the West. The 1200s started well for the Islamic world. The Crusaders had been defeated and Jerusalem recently recovered, much of the Arab Middle East was unified in the Ayubbid Dynasty, and a powerful Khwarezmian Empire had emerged in Persia and Central Asia.
The latter region was the Islamic world’s center of gravity at the time, and it was flourishing culturally and economically. Difficult to imagine, looking at today’s bleak and backwards Stans, stretching from the former Soviet Islamic republics to the Indian Ocean. However, that region was once the world’s most prosperous, with an unrivaled economic, intellectual, and cultural scene. It was the equivalent of today’s California and New York, plus Detroit in Henry Ford’s day, all rolled into one. The Mongols wrecked it on a massive scale.
3. The Mongols’ Devastating Impact on the Islamic Heartland
The first and immediate consequence of the Mongol conquests was a population collapse in the Islamic heartland. Throughout much of the region, the Mongols engaged in wanton massacres, even genocide. Many of those not killed outright starved to death in the howling wastelands left in the conquerors’ wake. Many more, weakened by hunger, fell prey to the waves of epidemic diseases the swept the Medieval world after the Mongols brought the far flung parts of Eurasia into regular contact for the first time.
The Black Death did not only strike Europe: it began in China, and swept through the Islamic world. In that world’s heartland, it encountered a vulnerable population eking a living in a devastated landscape, surrounded by destroyed infrastructure. Then there was the economic impact. The Islamic lands conquered by the Mongols had been economically vibrant, but that vibrancy depended upon a sophisticated infrastructure which the Mongols destroyed. The economic foundation, both agricultural and urban, depended upon a network of underground aqueducts known as qanats. They were demolished by the Mongols.
2. The Destruction of Central Asia’s Economic Foundations
The qanat network transported water from its sources over long distances to more arid locales for use in agriculture, and to satisfy the needs of the region’s teeming cities. The network required regular maintenance and upkeep by skilled workers and engineers, paid for and supervised by a governmental bureaucracy that understood the work’s importance. During the Mongol invasions, many of the qanats were deliberately destroyed, and many of the skilled workers who maintained the water network were either killed, enslaved and taken prisoner, or fled.
The Mongol conquerors had little understanding of or interest in infrastructure projects such as the qanats. So after they settled into their recently conquered realms, the new rulers invested little time, effort, and resources, into the restoration of the ruined underground water system. By the time Mongol rule came to an end centuries later, most of the qanats had been ruined, the engineering and artisan skill sets to restore them to their heyday had been forgotten, and new economic patterns had been established.
1. The Islamic Heartland Never Recovered From Genghis Khan’s Impact
Yet another significant impact of the Mongol conquest on the Islamic heartland in Central Asia was cultural. The new Mongol rulers differed greatly from their predecessors. They spoke a different language, hailed from a very different culture, and possessed a world view alien to their subjects. In the centuries preceding the Mongol conquest, the Persian parts of the Islamic world had experienced a great cultural flowering. With the patronage of discerning Persian-speaking rulers, literature and poetry reached a peak with figures such as Ferdowsi, who composed Persia’s national epic, the Shah Namah. Mongol rulers, who spoke no Persian, or learned it only haltingly, had little interest in patronizing Persian poets and men of letters.
When they did, they seldom knew enough of the language’s nuance and linguistic intricacy to discern excellence from schlock. As a result, Persian culture went into a centuries-long decline. It was an experience similar to that of the Arabs, who flourished for centuries, only to go into a cultural decline after they came to be dominated by Turks who neither understood nor cared much for their arts and literature. The region never recovered from the adverse impacts of the Mongol invasion. By the time the locals shook off the Mongol yoke, or absorbed and assimilated their conquerors, centuries had passed. During that time, Western Europe had experienced the Renaissance, began the Age of Discovery and Exploration – and took the first steps towards eventual global hegemony. The Islamic world never caught up.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading