Genghis or Chinggis Khan means “universal ruler.” He was born Temuchin, the son of a minor Mongol chief, and overcame early obstacles to conquer the greatest empire of the world to date, which he bequeathed to his sons. Some believe he was a greater military strategist than Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
At the time of his birth the varied people of the steppes (Turkic, Mongol, and others) lived in mutually warring tribes, raiding one another for animals and women and looting nearby sedentary populations. The harsh environment of the steppes where they lived provided little opportunity for agriculture, limiting the peoples to a nomadic lifestyle of herding and hunting.
His father, Yesugei, died of poisoning at the hands of foes when Temuchin was eight years old, en route home after betrothing him to a girl from his mother, H’oelun’s, tribe. H’oelun and her sons were cast out to fend for themselves after Yesugei died; thanks to Temuchin’s cunning and ruthless determination, they survived.
Eventually he married his betrothed, named Borte; received help from his father-in-law in establishing himself with followers and animals; and won allies. Borte was the mother of four sons (Juji Khan, Chagatai Khan, Ogotai Khan, and Tului Khan) and a daughter. Juji was born around the time his mother was rescued from captivity (she had been captured in a raid by Temuchin’s enemy), casting doubt on his paternity. These four sons became Temuchin’s principal heirs.
From Temuchin to Genghis Khan
In complicated wars Temuchin and his allies won against tribes named the Naiman, Merkid, Oyirad, Tartar, Kereyid, and others, becoming master of the Mongolian plateau by 1205. A great council or khuriltai was convened in 1206 to signal the formation of a confederation at Burkan Khaldan, the holy mountain of the Mongols under Temuchin, and to give him the title Genghis Khan.
From this point on all his followers, regardless of tribal affiliation, were called Mongols. In Mongol ideology the elevation of Temuchin to Genghis Khan was blessed by heaven and therefore it was his right to conquer and to bequeath his conquests to his family.
Genghis Khan’s first great achievement was to organize his men into a unified army. He used the decimal system: Each 10-man group had a leader; 10 of these formed into a 100-man unit under a leader, and so on up, each commander being responsible for 10 men under him.
In time the Mongolian component of his army grew to between 105,000 and 129,000 men. As his empire expanded, subject peoples incorporated into his infantry and cavalry followed the same organizational rules. The Mongolian army did not possess weapons or technology superior to those of its enemies. Its superiority lay in its discipline, mobility, coordination, and maneuverability.
Records were necessary to administer his people, so in 1206 he ordered the creation a script for the Mongol language, and since the man designated for the task was an Uighur, he used the Uighur alphabet for that purpose. Genghis did not learn to read but ordered his sons to learn the written language.
He also promulgated a code of laws and regulations in 1206, called yasa or yasaq, that provided severe punishment, for example, the death penalty applied to murder, major theft, adultery, malicious witchcraft, and other offenses. The severity of the laws resulted in an obedient society, which visitors observed with awe.
Conquest of Xixia, Jin, and Khwarazm
Genghis Khan’s conquests began in 1209 and his first target was the Tangut kingdom to his southwest called Xixia (Hsi Hsia), leading his army personally. After withstanding a siege of their capital city the Xixia accepted peace terms: submission to Genghis Khan and a pledge to support him in future campaigns, and the king’s daughter given to Genghis as wife. After this demonstration of force two sedentary Turkic peoples, Uighurs and Qarluks, came to offer surrender. Both would go far under Mongol rule.
Genghis Khan’s next victim was the Jurchen Jin (Chin) dynasty in north China. He set out against it in 1211 with three of his sons and 50,000 cavalrymen. Although no longer the ferocious fighters of a century ago, the Jin still had a 150,000 strong cavalry of Jurchen soldiers and an infantry of 300,000 to 400,000 Chinese men.
Moreover the Jin Empire had over 40 million people, three million of whom were Jurchen, opposed to the Mongol nation of not much over a million people. In 1211–14 the Mongols devastated much of northern China and looted three of Jin’s five capitals, until Jin submitted to a humiliating peace. Among the captives taken during this campaign was Yelu Chucai (Yeh-lu Ch’u-ts’ai), a learned man of Khitan background who had served in the Jin government.
He would later play an important role in the government of Genghis and his son Ogotai that benefited their Chinese subjects. North China suffered enormously between 1214 and the final fall of Jin in 1234, the result of Mongol raids, uprisings against Jin, and war between Jin and Southern Song (Sung).
Meanwhile commanders under Genghis conquered the state called Khara Khitai, situated to the west of Mongolia, in 1218. This cleared the way for Genghis to march against Khwarazm (or Khwarizm), a Muslim state that included Afghanistan and northern Iran, in 1219.
It involved taking heavily fortified cities such as Harat and Samarkand, for which Mongols used the bloody tactic of using captured prisoners as human shields and moat fillers for their assaulting forces. By 1223 Khwarazm had been subdued and Mongol governors had been installed and garrisons put in place.
While his generals proceeded westward across the Caucasus and into western Eurasia, defeating the Russian princes, Genghis returned to Mongolia in 1225. There he planned the destruction of Xixia, which had earlier promised to supply Genghis with men and supplies in his future campaigns but had refused when he began his war against Khwarazm.
Never forgiving anyone who had betrayed him, Genghis personally led the campaign against Xixia in 1226, destroying cities and the countryside and wrecking the irrigation works that rendered the land cultivable, and besieging its capital. Genghis Khan died in August 1227 because of complications from a fall while hunting in 1225.
According to his wishes the war against Xixia continued until its destruction. His last orders were “The Tangut people are a powerful, good and courageous people, but they are fickle. Slaughter them and take what you need to give to the army.... Take what you want until you can take no more.” Genghis Khan’s body was returned to Mongolia; en route anyone who saw his cortege was killed.
He was buried on Burkhan Khaldun; the exact burial place was kept secret and has not yet been found. Before his death he had divided his conquests among his four sons, who were his principal heirs, and other relatives, and appointed his third son, Ogotai, his successor as Grand Khan, subject to confirmation by the Khurialtai.
The Brutal Military Leader
Genghis Khan was unequaled as a military leader and conquered the largest empire yet seen and with unprecedented cruelty. He was a shrewd strategist who used many means to achieve his goals. He was a good psychologist who used terror and precedence to induce his enemies to surrender because any city that resisted would be razed and its people killed. He was a good organizer who militarized his whole people and saw to the logistical side of campaigns.
He was adept at using spies and probing actions to take the measures of his enemies. He also used diplomacy to prevent his enemies from uniting or forming alliances. Finally he learned new military technologies and adapted to new needs, for example employing Middle Eastern siege engineers to help him take walled cities.
To Christian Europeans he was the anti-Christ and Scourge of God. China had never experienced such brutal conquerors, who threatened to turn the agricultural country into pastureland for their horses. He was especially cruel to cities and city dwellers.
In his sweep across north China in 1212–1213 over 90 cities were left in ruins. The Jin capital in modern Beijing burned for three months. Those persons his forces let live because they had skills became Mongol slaves or were allowed to return to their ruined homes to serve their new lords.