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