Genghis Khan 1162-1227
“I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
Genghis Khan is probably the most quotable warlord in human history. For such a relentless despot and part-time continent-conquering badass, he was also quite the philosopher. I mean, yeah sure, he was also truly terrible at being a halfway decent human being, but Genghis had the soul of poet… that is, if he ever had a soul to begin with. He united the Mongols under a singular goal: to rule the world!
Much like Lord Voldemort, Genghis did great things – terrible things, but great…
THE SECRET ORIGIN OF GENGHIS KHAN
In the year 1162, a boy named ‘Temüjin’ was born somewhere between what we now know as Mongolia and Siberia. He was born to a mother in captivity, and grew up in one of several nomadic clans who constantly fought one another for control of the central Asian steppes. Temujin (aka lil’ Genghis) grew up in an environment of extreme violence and hardship. At 9 his father was murdered by a rival tribe. Not long after he, his mother and his six brothers and sisters were all abandoned by their clan, leaving them in poverty.
While fending for themselves in the wild, Temujin killed his older brother in a fit of rage for stealing his fish. His mother scolded him as if it was a mere sibling squabble. With his brother out of the way, Temujin became the head of the household. One day, while he was out hunting, he was captured by the very clan that had abandoned his family, but eventually managed to escape. If there’s one thing that Temujin learned early on it was that the world was out to kill him and the only person he could rely on was himself.
Temujin would one day grow up to be one of the most feared warlords in the world. (spoiler alert)
Oh yeah, it’s also worth mentioning that the name Temujin literally translates to: IRON MAN.
Later on, in 1178, at 16, Temujin married a woman named Borte. They went on to have four boys and an untold number of daughters (because people, especially the Mongolian variety, were kinda super sexist back then and only saw females as commodities). A couple years later, Borte, Temujin’s trophy wife, pulled a Princess Peach and got herself captured by the Merkit tribe. Temujin rode into battle, leading a daring rescue operation against the rival clan. This time, there would be hell to pay…
This balls-out assault led to Temujin gaining a reputation as one of the most badass dudes in all of Mongolia, a reputation that he used to make allegiances with other factions and started to surround himself with a rag-tag band of insanely tough warriors. With the help of his best bud, Jamukha, and his ‘uncle’ Toghrul, aka “Wang Khan” (lol), Temujin managed to rescue his wife. 9 months later she had a son named Jochi. (Borte later had three more sons, this time with Temujin: Chagatai, Ogedei, and Tolui.)
According to the Secret History of the Mongols, their motto was: “Apart from our shadows, we have no friends.” They were basically Klingons – warriors with a warped sense of honor. At the time, the Mongolian confederations included: the Naimans, Merkits, Jadaran, Tatars, Keraites, and Khamag Mongols. Temujijn’s Uncle Wang wasn’t just his estranged father’s ‘blood brother’, he was also the Khan of the Keraites, while his childhood friend, Jamukha, was the Khan of the Jadaran tribe. When Temujin swore loyalty to Wang, it caused a rift between him and Jamukha.
In 1187, Temujin’s old friend, Jamukha, led a sneak attack against their alliance with 30,000 troops! Temujin and his followers were defeated and Wang Khan left in exile. Defeated and humiliated, Temujin laid low for a few years…
THE RISE OF GENGHIS KHAN
Like Jesus of Nazareth and Robert Downey Jr, Temujin completely disappears from the historic record for about 10 years with no explanation. Then, in 1197, out of nowhere, Temujin returned! Temujin and Wang rode into battle against the Tartars, leading the Keraites and Mongols in the name of the Jin Dynasty of China, for some unknown reason that still causes historians to scratch their heads.
This massive attack earned Temujin and Wang respect in the royal court along with positions of power. As a leader, Temujin broke with tradition in a number of ways, he placed loyalty above family, spread the spoils of war evenly among his soldiers and would even take conquered foes under his protection if they served him well. Slowly, Temujin and his tribe began to gain a following.
Wang Khan’s son (Senggum) started to get jealous. He secretly hatched a convoluted plan to assassinate the young up and coming warlord. Temujin wasn’t having any of it though and kicked his ass. Then things got even more awkward between Temujin and Wang Khan when Wang refused to let Temujin’s son, Jochi, marry his daughter. Like any sensible adults, they decided to fight over it.
Wang Khan teamed up with Temujin’s old freinemy, Jamukha, and got some back up from the Naimans. As further insult, Jamukha had taken on the title of Gür Khan, meaning ruler of the universe. The two factions fought for years, the fate of the region hanging in the balance. Soon enough, Jamukha’s brutal tactics caused his generals to switch teams, because Temujin offered a better healthcare package. Jamukha’s own generals turned him over. The Naimans were defeated, Wang Khan was killed and Jamukha was captured.
When Jamukha was brought before him, Temujin killed Jamukha’s men for betraying their leader and then offered Jamukha friendship. Jamukha refused, saying, “There can be only one sun in the sky.” Temujin nodded and gave Jamukha a bloodless death… by having his back broken…
Slowly but surely, Temujin used his influence to unite the Mongols under one banner: his own… Then, in 1206, during a council of the united Mongol chiefs, he became the sole ruler of the Mongol steppe and took on the title: Genghis Khan!
GENGHIS KHAN VS THE WORLD
It turned out that the Mongol plains just weren’t enough for Genghis, so he immediately set about conquering pretty much everywhere else. The Xi Xia Dynasty, Qara Khitai, Crimea, Georgia (not the state), Bulgaria and most of China all eventually fell to the mighty Khan. In 1211, Genghis’s troops went around the Great Wall of China and led a siege against the city of Zhongdu (today known as Beijing) in the heart of the Jin Dynasty, forcing Emperor Xuanzong to flee for the south, leaving Northern China up for grabs.
During his conquest the “Great” Khan murdered at least 40 million people and conquered a record breaking 12 million square miles of territory. He killed more people than Stalin! Genghis often made friends with his enemies, but wouldn’t hesitate to murder his own family if they so much as talked back to him. Despite all the Mortal Kombat levels of bloodshed, Khan also had a hand in creating one of the first international postal services and was surprisingly tolerant of religious differences. There was even a Christian legend about a King of the Far East named “Prester John”.
Khan certainly lived up to his title as he conquered everything in sight and ruled over it with an iron fist, between siring an astronomical number of heirs. Whole villages would bow down before him, simply because they’d heard of the unpleasant alternative. Most surrendered on sight, but unfortunately that did not always spare one from a horrific and torturous death. You see, the Mongols had a policy of not ‘spilling royal blood’, which meant they had to come up with a number of creative ways to execute royalty, from suffocation to boiling alive – all in an effort to avoid ‘barbaric methods’. With an army of one-hundred-thousand, Genghis Khan took on the world, and won.
Genghis Khan’s most impressive feat however was conquering the Khwarazmian Empire in 1221. It all started when Khan sent a ‘modest’ caravan of 500 to establish a trade route with the Silk Road. The governor of Otrar (Inalchuq) attacked the caravan and looted their cargo. In response, Khan sent three ambassadors (2 Mongols and 1 Muslim) to work something out with the Shah. The Shah had the men shaved and beheaded the Muslim messenger, then sent them back. Furious, Genghis decided if he wanted something done, he needed to do it himself.
He packed up his things, gathered his best generals, rallied over 100,000 troops and took his sons on a family road trip. Khan’s army attacked the Khwarazmian forces in small chunks. When the Mongols arrived at the city of Otrar, it was a wholesale slaughter. Genghis then enslaved the rest of the population and used captured enemy soldiers as body shields. Then there’s Inalchuq, that governor who attacked Khan’s convoy? Genghis personally murdered him by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears! (and yes something very similar happened on ‘Game of Thrones’)
The city of Urgench underwent one of the bloodiest massacres in all of human history, when 50,000 Mongol soldiers were told to execute 24 prisoners each! (For you math geeks out there, that’s 1.5 million people!) Pyramids of severed heads were built in victory. According to a high official in the Mongol ranks, “all the people, both men and women, were driven out onto the plain, and divided in accordance with their usual custom, then they were all slain.”
In less than two years, the Khwarezmid Empire was decimated…
Then, in 1227, Genghis Khan died. We’re not exactly sure how, but theories range from an infection from an arrow wound to falling off his horse. There’s even a story about him getting shanked by a vengeful woman. Either way, he was buried in secret and left behind an army of 129,000 men. Legend has it that he was buried at the place of his birth and that those who buried him were killed to keep its location a secret. Genghis’s possessions were split up among his numerous heirs.
SON OF GENGHIS KHAN
Genghis had so many sons that out of the entire world’s population today, 1 in 200 can trace their genetic lineage back to him. The empire Genghis left behind eventually stretched from the Eastern Coast of Asia to Germany! (That’s larger than any single country today!)
Genghis’s sons fought over succession, but eventually Ögedei Khan won out. While the Mongols continued to expand into modern day Russia (a feat later attempted by both Napoleon and Hitler with disastrous results), Ogedei was a shadow of his old man. Ogedei had a bit of a drinking problem that soon led to his death. (more about that here)
The Mongolian legacy was eventually inherited down the line by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, who established the Yuan Dynasty of China. Kublai is also well known for that one time he hung out with Marco Polo. Like his grandfather, Kublai Khan also decided to expand the Mongol Empire. He soon set his sights on Japan, a couple of tiny islands just off the coast. The Mongols were basically the only ones in history to lead a successful assault on Russia (in the middle of winter!) – So naturally they figured those islands off the coast of Korea shouldn’t be too much trouble, right?
Well the Mongols launched two increasingly unsuccessful invasions against the Japanese where they got hit by not one, but two gigantic typhoons! (read more here) Kublai Khan was planning a third assault, but died. Not long after the Mongol Empire started to fall to pieces…
The Mongols split into four factions: The Golden Horde of Russia, the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, the Chinese Yuan Dynasty and the Chaghatai of Central Asia. Today there is little left of the empire that Genghis Khan forged in his lifetime. After all, only destruction was left in Khan’s wake…
Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”: Wrath of the Khans (podcast)