Categories: History & Heritage

The Legacy of Genghis Khan

His Story | His Life | His Legacy

Genghis Khan was undoubtedly recorded in history as a brutal barbarian, and founder of the largest connected land empire the world has ever seen. But his story is rarely explored, which prevents us from understanding his life and motives. 

In the year 1162, a child was born deep in the heart of Asia between Mongolia and Siberia. A child that would one day become known as the world’s most notorious warlord. Arriving into the world clutching a blood clot in his hand, people took this as a sign that he would one day become a ruler. 

Genghis Khan was undoubtedly recorded in history as a brutal barbarian, and founder of the largest connected land empire the world has ever seen. But his story is rarely explored, which prevents us from understanding his life and motives. 

Throughout his semi-nomadic life, he regularly waged war on an immense scale, to the extent that in 25 years, the Mongol Empire had conquered more territory than Romans had in 400 years.

By the time of his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, encompassing up to ten million square miles of connected land. To understand this in today’s world, this equates to an area about the size of the African continent. These invasions made him one of the most successful military commanders the world has ever seen.

Born with the name Temüjin, he was the son of a tribal warrior chief. At the age of nine, his father fell extremely ill after being poisoned by rivals known as the Merkit tribe. Though it was an unfortunate event for young Temüjin, he became accustomed to experiencing sorrow and grief from a young age, which in turn made him extremely resolute. From that day on, his father’s enemies became his enemies. 

Hearing the news of his father’s demise, many from Temüjin’s people began leaving to join other tribes, as it was customary to only stay associated with a tribe that had a strong leader.

It seemed that Temüjin’s time to become a leader had arrived earlier than anticipated. As the eldest son of his family, Temüjin lead his small tribe, in the vast open land of Mongolia.

Photo by Usukhbayar Gankhuyag, Unsplash 

Temüjin was always concerned about the safety of his tribe. Ten years after the death of his father, the nineteen-year-old began making decisions as he knew his tribe was exposed. The tribe was made of very few people, making them vulnerable and prone to attacks. There was only one way to prevent this from happening: marriage. Borte was the first of many wives. Marrying into a local tribe meant two things: a future that has a potential successor and a stronger army. 

Despite the marriage and the increase in men, Temüjin was not destined to live a peaceful life as it would not be long until adversity would come knocking on his door. 

The Merkit tribe that feuded with his father now had come for Temüjin and his new wife. In the chaos that followed, Temüjin’s new bride was taken captive. But he could only think of one thing as he escaped; “Only a fool fights a battle he cannot win”. All the while he intended to return to invade the Merkit tribe when they least expected it.

The one friend Temüjin could rely on, and trust was Jamukha. Swearing to protect one another by becoming blood brothers, both created an everlasting bond that tied them together in each other’s aid. 

In desperate need of a new alliance, Temüjin went to the local khan (ruler) and asked for help. Though this Khan was no ordinary ruler. He was a ruler who happened to fight alongside Temüjin’s father, giving Temüjin the advantage of receiving sympathy. After reminding him about the relationship the Khan had with his father, and offering an expensive gift which he had received on his wedding, Temüjin was successful; his plea was accepted. His army expanded as the allied troops came together under one banner. 

Temüjin wasted no time in taking revenge against the wrongdoers. With a strong army, he headed to the Merkit camp in northern Mongolia. Intent on finding his wife, Temüjin raided the camp in the middle of the night causing bloodshed and chaos without precedent. Temüjin was not letting them go easily. These cruel conditions helped shape him into a fierce warlord and taught him the merit of establishing alliances. 

Nine months after this, Temüjin’s wife gave birth to his first son. It was never clear whose baby it was, as rumour had it that his wife may have been raped whilst taken captive by the Merkit tribe. But despite the uncertainties surrounding the topic, Temüjin treated the newborn like his very own son. 

Buuz is a Mongolian steamed dumpling filled with lamb or beef.  Photo by Tuguldur Baatar on Unsplash 

Whilst Temüjin and Jamukha lead the tribe somewhat concomitantly, a tension always existed between the two. The cause of disagreement between them was in their approach to the following question, ’How is a person’s worth calculated?’. That became their cause of tension which eventually led to a rift between the two blood brothers. Whilst Temüjin was more interested in recruiting men who were skilled, trained and knowledgable, Jamukha believed that only those who were born into a noble family were deserving of this privilege. 

This tension gradually expanded and eventually led to a split in the tribe; this was the one thing Temüjin had feared the most. 

It wasn’t until two years later that a war broke out between the two brothers. They would finally see one another again, but not in the same delightful way. This time, armies from both sides were rigorously trained to go into combat with one another. 

At daybreak, Jamukha lead his tribe to the heights of a hill from which he saw Temüjin and his army. This was the first time anyone would face the army of a man that would eventually conquer ten million square miles. Whilst Jamukha’s men advanced with their fierce roars, the army of Temüjin moved forward in silence with arrows flying from their direction. The war ended in victory for Temüjin and his men, while Jamukha escaped, leaving behind many of his men lying dead in battle. 

After being defeated by Temüjin and his men, Jamukha went into hiding in the winter of 1204. But things changed drastically for him when he was captured and returned to Temüjin. Giving him a second chance, Temüjin was eager to have him return to become one of his, but Jamukha’s final wish was to die a noble death for the actions he had committed. 

Photo by Bolatbek Gabiden, Unsplash

It seemed that Mongolia was in need of one thing right now: one leader for all tribes. This was something unheard of amongst the Mongolians. In 1206 he received his notorious title of Genghis Khan, meaning “the leader for all people”. This title was long overdue as he had already established himself as a warrior and ruler prior to Jamukha’s death. But it seems that the right opportunity made this title even more befitting. With Jamukha now gone, Temüjin’s tribe would never again have two parallel leaders. 

At this point in his life, Genghis Khan turned his attention towards China. Acknowledging that there would be tension on his arrival, Genghis Khan and his men made their way across the Gobi Desert and decided to invade the north of China. But the Mongolians were not a match for the Chinese. Being one of the most civilised and richest people at the time, the Chinese had tactics up their sleeves and were ready to employ an army immediately. This led to the Mongols forging alliances with a force of mercenaries whom they met at the border of China. Reinforced by them and now stronger than before, the Mongols had the courage to charge forward to invade China. 

This was an unusual invasion as the Chinese and Mongols rarely interacted with one another. With a wall preventing Genghis Khan and his men from entering Beijing, they camped outside the city and prevented all supplies from entering. Enduring hunger over a long period of time, many of the Chinese eventually died with some even resorting to cannibalism. With a weak and desperate population, this was the perfect time for Genghis and his men to take action. 

With catapults, a strong army, and the bombardment by Genghis and his men, the Chinese still had an advantage. The Chinese were always a step ahead of the game. They filled pots with chemicals, metal and crude oil and flung those pots towards the Mongols. Although this resulted in many casualties and filled the Chinese with hope, in no way did it stop Genghis and his men from advancing towards climbing the protective walls of Beijing. For the next month, Beijing City witnessed one of the worst annihilations as the Mongols plundered, burnt and shed blood. 

By this time, news of Genghis Khan’s notorious reputation was spreading. 

With all this in mind, his attention was now directed towards the West, but this time with the aim of developing trade relationships. With a network of routes throughout Central Asia, his men were able to travel at great lengths regularly, making it possible for messages to pass around quickly. By sending ambassadors to the Persian Lands, Genghis was confident that sooner or later, these lands would also be under his control. But he was wrong. Well, at least in the beginning.

In 1218, the Sultan of Persia sent a message to Genghis which would change the course of history for those in Persia. The severed head of one of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors was presented to him by a messenger which instigated the uproar that was about to come. Sending 200,000 men to Persia, Genghis ordered that every city, town, and village be burnt to the ground if there is no submission. There was no room for mercy as Genghis took this mighty opportunity to plunge his way deep into the West; this was something that may have seemed far-fetched ten years prior. 

With an empire even bigger than before, and an open road ahead of them in Persia and beyond, the troops of Genghis charged forward to see how far they could go. Going as far as Kiev and Moscow, invading became easier, as it seems that the news of the ruthless Mongol invasions was heard by all. At this point, there was no stopping the army of this mighty and fierce Mongol warlord. 

Mongol invasions never stopped. Their sudden explosion and military expansions are quite remarkable considering that they started off as a small tribe in northern Mongolia. They did not stop even when they reached the borders of the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Syria were all reduced to nothingness. Literature and academic achievements were either drowned or burnt. After all, the Mongols were known to be an illiterate empire and had no use for books.

Genghis Khan died in the year 1227 after leaving behind his final words: 

“I have conquered for you a large empire but my life is too short to take the whole world. That I leave to you.” 

Ogedei Khan was appointed as his successor, so the bar had been set very high for him. He and his army invaded Russia, Poland and Hungary with an army that was double the size of the empire. But he died in 1242 whilst on his way to invade Vienna. Struggling to appoint a new leader, the Mongol army retreated leaving Vienna as well as the rest of Europe free of invasion. Things may have been different for Europe if he were to die a little later. The Muslim world got lucky too. Whilst Ogedei was alive, his eyes were set on invading the remaining Muslim countries. But it seems that he was more interested in crossing the Ural Mountains to conquer Europe.

Genghis Khan believed that he was born to conquer the world. What’s more, he attempted to make arrangements with a Taoist monk to give him a potion for immortality. His aim was to conquer the entire world at whatever cost, even if this may be with an eternal life. Though he failed to achieve immortality, his story and legacy is an immortal one as it makes it way from one generation to another. 

But that’s not the only thing from Genghis that lives with us today. Genghis was not only married to Borte, his life companion and first wife. He was in fact married to hundreds of women all of whom bore him many children. Research suggests that it was because of this that today, one in every 200 men alive can trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan. 

Main Image – by Jean seller, Unsplash 

Juber Ahmed

Juber Ahmed is our Digital Editor and travel enthusiast with a keen interest in Islamic history and heritage. He travels with his wife to various places around the world and writes about his experiences.   Juber's favourite Quote... "The World Is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only One Page" [Saint Augustine]

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