Temujin, who grew to become Genghis Khan, was the son of a minor Mongol chieftain. When Temujin was nine, his father was murdered, and tribal rivals then banished his widow and her family of five children to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppe. It was a veritable death sentence, but Temujin’s mother managed to keep her children alive. Or at least managed to keep most of them alive: the family endured such dire want and poverty, and things got so bad, that Temujin killed an older brother because he refused to share a fish.
Even before he became a great conqueror, Temujin’s youth was a real-life action-adventure saga. Among other things, the tribal rivals who had banished his family grew alarmed when they didn’t die on the Steppe as expected. Especially when they heard that Temujin was morphing into a tough and charismatic youth, who might grow into a formidable man who’d come after them for revenge. So they captured and enslaved him, and to humiliate him, put him in wooden stocks, in a board with holes cut out for his hands and head. He managed to club a guard unconscious with the board and made a dramatic escape. He then roamed the Steppe as a freebooter and began to collect a band of devoted followers.
Temujin had an instinct for tribal politics, which he demonstrated with his exploitation of a series of tribal alliances. He used his band of freebooters to tip the balance in various rounds of tribal warfare, and eventually became a powerful warlord. He then brought the disparate Mongol clans under his sway, one after another, until they were all united under his leadership. Temujin then implemented sweeping reforms, with which he erased intra-tribal distinctions. He accomplished that with an extreme but effective expedient: he exterminated the Mongols’ fractious tribal aristocracy. Temujin then combined the commoners into a unified tribe, bound by their personal allegiance to him.
Next, he set his sights on neighboring tribes. His first target were the formidable rival Tatars. After he defeated them, Temujin executed all Tatar males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, he had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and the formerly squabbling tribes had been united into a Mongol nation. So a grand assembly known as a Kurultai was held that year, where he revealed a vision, endorsed by shamans, in which he claimed that the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols supported that vision and proclaimed Temujin “Genghis Khan”, the Great Khan or Universal Ruler.
22. The Creation of a War Machine That Could Conquer All Under the Sky
In order to fulfill his heavenly mandate and rule all under the sky, Genghis Khan set about to transform the Mongols into a war machine capable of conquering all under the sky. A good judge of men and a great talent spotter, he created a military meritocracy, in which advancement was open to all who proved themselves capable, regardless of their origins. He subjected the hitherto fractious nomadic warriors to strict military discipline that was hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable. And he drilled and trained them constantly. He had good material to work with.
For thousands of years, Steppe nomads had preyed opportunistically on their settled neighbors. The nomads, who grew up and lived on horseback, had strategic mobility that allowed them to raid settled lands, loot, and leave before the locals could mobilize a response. That mobility also allowed the nomads to choose when, where, and whether to fight the forces sent to chastise them. Nomadic war bands often raided to seize booty, but when nomadic tribes were united under strong leadership, those raids could grow into devastating attacks that destroyed empires. As seen below, Genghis set out to maximize their destructive potential.
The Steppe nomads’ strategic mobility was supplemented by tactical advantages. First, their horses gave them battlefield mobility. If their civilized opponents managed to force them into a standup fight, it was still difficult to make it a decisive battle. Unlike armies comprised in the main of infantry, if things went wrong for nomadic mounted armies, they were seldom forced to surrender or fight to the death. Unless constricted by some natural obstacle or some other rare situation, the nomads usually had a third option: ride off the battlefield, and live to fight another day.
Another advantage was that the Steppe nomads’ preferred weapon, the recurved bow. It often had a greater killing range than the weapons wielded by their opponents of the settled lands. That created tactical mismatches and gave nomadic warriors a safe standoff from which to kill with relative impunity. They could thus subject less mobile enemies to a rain of arrows, winnow their ranks until they grew disordered and demoralized, then charge in to break them. A prime example is the 53 BC Battle of Carrhae. There, a 50,000 strong Roman army, comprised of the main infantry, was annihilated by a 10,000 strong Parthian cavalry force comprised in the main of mounted archers armed with recurved bows.
20. The Harsh Life on the Steppe Transformed its Inhabitants Into Formidable Warriors
Another advantage was the nomads themselves. Life on the harsh Steppe, much of it spent on horseback, created a deep pool of tough natural cavalry. Although the population of the civilized lands that bordered the Steppe vastly outnumbered that of the nomads, only a minority of the civilized lands’ population could be mobilized as warriors. That is because civilization rests upon the employment of most civilians in sedentary civil pursuits such as agriculture or crafts in workshops or the such. Steppe nomads had few fields and less manufacture, and their food source, their grazing animals, could be tended to by children and women.
As a result, almost the entire adult male population of fighting age nomads was available as warriors. Civilization only survived because, luckily, it was often difficult to unite the feuding and fractious nomads in large enough numbers to overwhelm their settled neighbors. Small-scale nomadic raids on the borders of civilized lands were quite frequent, but leaders who could unite the nomads, and thus realize the Steppe’s terrifying potential, were rare. Nonetheless, such leaders did emerge from time to time, and when they did, the world trembled. Genghis Khan was the greatest of them, and he made the world tremble greatly.
19. Genghis Khan Conquered Despite Being Greatly Outnumbered
The Mongols and other Steppe nomads absorbed by Genghis Khan learned how to ride horses when they were toddlers and were taught how to master the bow and arrow since early childhood. That made them prime cavalry material when they joined Genghis’ army, where they underwent extensive training that transformed them into a mounted elite. Genghis saw to it that his men practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily, and had them train constantly to master unit tactics. He drilled them in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery until they became second nature.
Today, “hordes” are taken to mean huge quantities. So when people think of Mongol “hordes”, they usually picture vast swarms of disorganized barbarians who attacked in a wild charge, and overwhelmed their enemy with numbers and reckless savagery. In reality, “horde”, derived from orda, a word that never meant something huge, but simply an organized group. Genghis’ Mongols seldom had numerical superiority over their foes. Instead, they swept across Eurasia and conquered a vast empire despite being severely outnumbered by their enemies. Indeed, the Great Khan and his warriors won their empire by routinely annihilating opposing forces that outnumbered them by factors of two to one, three to one, and four to one or more. They won despite their numerical inferiority because they were professionals, who were extremely good at warfare.
Genghis Khan’s subjection of his men to rigorous training, drill, and discipline, revolutionized Steppe warfare. Tribal nomads were natural warriors, hardened by life in a harsh and often dangerous environment. Genghis transformed them from warriors into professional soldiers. He further revolutionized Steppe warfare by the placement of his men into a well-organized hierarchical structure, with an effective chain of command. In place of traditional ad hoc tribal units, based on kinship groups, he created a military organization based on decimals, with a hierarchy of ranks, and a base of squads of 10 men, known as an Arbans.
10 Arbans made a company of 100, known as a Zuun. 10 Zuuns made a regiment of 1000, known as a Minghan. 10 Minghans were formed into a division of 10,000, known as a Tuman. Two or more Tumans were formed into armies. A separate imperial guard of 10,000 men protected Genghis and key Mongol figures. Tumans are the more famous units, but Minghans were the more important outfit for the Mongols. The Great Khan saw to it that his men’s lives revolved around the Minghan, to which each Mongol was assigned for life. A typical Mongol might serve in various Tumans throughout his life, but he only served in a single Minghan. Indeed, to leave or even request a transfer from one’s Minghan to another was punishable by death.
17. The Mongol Military Was Centuries Ahead of Its Time
About sixty percent of Genghis Khan’s Mongols were trained as light cavalry archers, and the rest were trained as armored heavy cavalry who wielded lances as their main weapon. One of Genghis’ favorite tactics, for which he incessantly trained his men, was to attrit the enemy from a distance with arrows. Once the enemy was judged sufficiently weakened, a signal would be given for a charge by the heavy cavalry, which skewered the enemy with their lances, then set about with sabers. Another favored tactic in which he drilled his men was a feigned retreat. His men would lure enemy forces into an incautious pursuit to a prepared ambush, or wait until they became disorganized in their overeager chase, then suddenly turn and countercharge or surround the pursuers.
Genghis’ military machine was centuries ahead of its time, with features that not seen again until the modern era. One Mongol military trait that seems remarkably modern was the wide flexibility and leeway afforded soldiers and officers to carry out their orders. The chain of command communicated the overall objectives and the commander’s vision and aim. Mongol subordinates were not micromanaged, and initiative was encouraged, so long as they carried out orders promptly and effectively served the overall plan. After the Mongols’ collapse, that trait would vanish for centuries, and not reemerge until Helmuth von Moltke reintroduced it in the nineteenth century, and made it a hallmark of the Prussian and German military.
16. Genghis Khan Was the First to Come Up With the Corps Concept
Another of Genghis Khan’s military innovations was the creation of the equivalent of modern army corps operations. His Tumans of 10,000 warriors, which were powerful enough to take on significantly larger enemy formations, usually operated independently, and marched separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of couriers who carried messages back and forth. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle on its own, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.
About six hundred years later, Napoleon Bonaparte adopted a similar methodology, that relied on the use of separate army corps to advance on a broad front. Each corps was strong enough to operate independently and handle any opposition short of a sizable army. As each of them made its own way, Napoleon’s corps advanced like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when one of them made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage in order to fix it in place, or otherwise maintain contact. In the meanwhile, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon their sister corps in contact with the enemy, and what had been a widespread advance resembling outstretched fingers would transform into a clenched fist.
15. Genghis Khan Had to be Talked Out of Committing Genocide in China
Genghis kicked off his quest to conquer all under heaven with an invasion of China, which was fragmented at the time into various dynasties. His first victims were the Western Xia Dynasty, whom he defeated and reduced to vassals by 1210. Next on his menu were the more powerful Jin Dynasty, whom he attacked in 1211. After a decisive Mongol victory in which hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were massacred, Genghis captured and sacked the Jin capital in 1215. The Jin emperor fled, and abandoned northern China.
Victory left the Great Khan in charge of conquered territories that included tens of millions of Chinese peasants. He did not know what to do with them, so he decided to kill them all, and let their farmlands revert to grasslands that could serve as pasturage for the Mongols’ herds. The Chinese were spared that genocide after Genghis’ advisors explained the concept of taxation to him, and he came to realize that many live peasants working the fields and paying regular taxes would produce great wealth for him.
The campaign in China was interrupted by a diplomatic incident with grave consequences. It was triggered when a governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its ruler, Shah Muhammad II. The Shah then committed one of history’s greatest mistakes, when he scornfully refused to hand over the offending governor. So Genghis launched an invasion of Khwarezim in 1218, that overran and extinguished it by 1221. Its ruler was forced to flee for his life, relentlessly chased across his steadily dwindling domain, until he died, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as the Great Khan’s men closed in.
The Mongols’ conduct during the Khwarezmian campaign cemented their reputation for savagery. Thousands of captives were marched ahead of their armies as human shields. Millions died, as Genghis had entire cities massacred for the least resistance. Not only men, women, and children, but all living things, down to the rats. After the capture of an enemy city, the cry “feed the horses!” signaled the Mongols to fall upon the conquered and sate themselves in an orgy of rapine, murder, and plunder. When he campaigned deep in enemy territory, Genghis preferred to leave no enemies or potential enemies behind. He made few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and frequently ordered the deaths of all who were encountered.
When the Mongols finally left a devastated city behind, the few survivors who had managed to hide emerged to scenes of utter devastation. Their grief often did not last for long. The Mongols took their massacring seriously, and when they departed, they frequently left behind killer squads near the city to kill any who came out of concealment. Otherwise, they sent detachments back to the ruins a few days or weeks after they had left in order to catch and finish off any who had escaped the initial massacre and were incautious enough to come out of hiding.
Genghis was chillingly methodical in his atrocities. He did not torture or unnecessarily abuse his victims, but had them killed quickly. Specific units were given the task of butchery, soldiers were assigned quotas of victims to kill, and the massacres were carried out swiftly. In short order, Genghis reduced Khwarezm from a prosperous empire to a depopulated wasteland. At the central mosque in the once thriving but now smoldering Khwarezmian city of Bukhara, he told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have inflicted a punishment like me upon you”.
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