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Genghis Khan

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Genghis Khan

How did one man rise from nomadic peasant to leader of the largest land empire in all of world history? How did a brutal warlord institute an era of peace and trade between distant lands, effectively revitalizing the connection between Europe and Eastern Asia? This is the story of Genghis Khan, a ruthless conqueror who led hordes of horseback warriors to battle in establishing the mighty Mongol Empire.

Genghis Khan Biography

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was born into a nomadic tribe in modern-day Mongolia, near the northern border with Russia. The Mongolian society that Genghis Khan was born into was ridden with infighting between many rival clans. To make matters worse, the land was harsh and cold, demanding much of those who wanted to survive.

The name of the Khan:

Genghis Khan's birth name was Temujin Khan, meaning 'blacksmith' or 'iron'. He would later inherit the honorary name 'Chinggis Khan' (meaning 'Universal Ruler') after uniting most of Mongolia. Through Arabic translations which did not possess a "ch" in their spelling, Chinggis transformed with time into Genghis, the name that most people use today to refer to the man named Temujin. For purposes of this article, he will be referred to as 'Genghis Khan'.

Genghis Khan Life Timeline

  • 1162 CE: Genghis Khan is born into a nomadic Mongol tribe.

  • 1171 CE: Genghis Khan and his family are abandoned by their tribe.

  • 1187 CE: Gathering a small force beneath him, Genghis Khan saves his wife Borte from captivity.

  • 1206 CE: Genghis Khan unites Mongolia through conquest and alliances.

  • 1214 CE: Zhongdu, capital of the Jin Dynasty, is sacked by Genghis Khan.

  • 1219 CE: Genghis Khan invades the kingdoms of the Middle East.

  • 1227 CE: Genghis Khan dies after incurring injuries from falling off his horse.

Genghis Khan Early Life

Genghis Khan reportedly came from the womb with a blood clot in his right hand, an omen in Mongolian society. When Genghis became a teenager, his father set him to marry a girl from another tribe named Borte. Genghis's father was poisoned by a rival clan and the marriage was postponed. Without their politically influential patriarch, Genghis Khan's family was abandoned by their tribe in 1171 CE and left to survive alone on the brutal Asian steppe.

Genghis Khan Child Study SmarterYoung Genghis Khan in captivity. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The sons of the family stepped up to the mantle, each ready to take leadership. During a dispute with one of his half-brothers, Genghis Khan shot and killed him with a bow and arrow, openly asserting his dominance within his family. It was his first of many killings.

After a brief incident where Genghis was captured and escaped the clutches of a rival clan, the young man was finally in a stable position to marry Borte, his betrothed. Borte would later give birth to Genghis Khan's main four sons.

Mongolian life in writing:

Much of the information regarding Genghis Khan's life comes from Secret History of the Mongols, which was written in the 13th century by an unknown Mongolian author after Genghis Khan's death. Later, it was preserved and translated into Chinese by the Yuan Dynasty. The epic opens with a mythical account of Genghis Khan's origin but continues in great detail as an account of Genghis Khan's life, the Mongolian lifestyle, and major historical events involving the Mongolians. While some historians debate its accuracy, others, such as René Grousset, assert its historicity and praise the work for its value in understanding Mongolian culture.

Unable to catch a break, Genghis Khan's wife was also captured by his opponents. He traveled from tribe to tribe, employing the aid of allies and local chieftains through diplomacy, coercion, and force. Genghis Khan reclaimed his wife. Simultaneously, the rising warlord began to realize his skills in leadership and combat tactics. A small army was already following him.

Genghis Khan Later Life

With many tribes already unified beneath him, Genghis Khan continued to absorb allies and rivals in Mongolia into his people. Each victory increased his ruthless reputation and the size of his horseback army. Genghis also had a knack for administration, appointing leaders in his army through meritocracy, not bloodline inheritance, as was Mongol custom. Through tactical discipline, political manipulation, and cultural tolerance, Genghis Khan's tribe became a smashing success.

Meritocracy:

A system of appointed officials based on their merit, or proven capabilities

In 1206, Genghis Khan conquered all rival tribes and was declared the great leader of Mongolia. The conquering did not stop there, however. For the next two decades, he led seemingly unstoppable raids into settlements from Eastern Europe to China. Every opponent was given two options: submit to the invading Mongols as a vassal to a new empire, or die. Enemies were severely punished and allies handsomely rewarded by the Great Khan.

Genghis Khan Portrait Painting Study SmarterGenghis Khan portrait painting. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Once his opponents were conquered, Genghis Khan implemented flexible and tolerant policies that assured their satisfaction within his great empire, proving to be a worthy ruler as well as a warrior. In 1227, Genghis Khan died from injuries incurred from being thrown by his horse while riding to crush a rising resistance in Xi Xia.

Genghis Khan Conquests

Genghis Khan built his empire through continued conquests and political alliances over a lifetime of war. The map below displays his conquests into China and western territories.

Genghis Khan Conquest Map Study SmarterMap of Genghis Khan's Invasions. Source: Bkkbrad, CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated, Wikimedia Commons.

Mongolian Unification

Genghis Khan spent the majority of his 30's unifying the disparate Mongolian clans and bringing small nearby kingdoms under his fist. Battle after battle, he defeated his greatest Mongolian rival and former blood brother Jamukha, further solidifying his right to rule. After defeating the rival Tartars, Kereyids, Merkids, and Naimans by 1206, Genghis Khan created new laws and traditions to control the roughly one million people beneath him.

Conquest of China

The first target of Genghis's Chinese conquest was the kingdom of Xi Xia (the same country that he was riding to when he died). After successfully besieging Xi Xia and demanding tribute, Genghis attacked the Jin Dynasty of China. Again, the Khan's enemies refused to submit. By 1214, the capital Zhongdu (modern-day Beijing) was sacked by the Mongolian cavalry hordes. Many thousands were slaughtered in Genghis Khan's bloody raids. Populations in Xi Xia and the Jin Dynasty were seriously reduced during this time.

If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.

-Genghis Khan

Conquest of Central Asia and the Middle East

The Mongolians rode into Kara-Khitan Khanate in Central Asia in 1216, quickly deposing their much-disliked leader who persecuted the Muslim population in his kingdom. Conquering this kingdom opened the gates to the Middle East.

Just how brutal were the Mongols when invading new territories?

It was demanded of Mongolian soldiers to provide a tithe to Genghis Khan; riches, women, but most of all, deaths. After conquering a nation, each Mongolian soldier was often required to execute as many as twenty-four captured citizens. Take, for example, Genghis Khan's massive invasion of the city of Urgench. If his fifty-thousand men were required to execute twenty-four citizens each, as many as a million people could have been wiped out during the conquest.

Initially, Genghis Khan wanted to establish peaceful trade routes with the kings of the Middle East. After they beheaded his ambassadors in 1219 CE, Khan launched an invasion of 200,000 horsemen into the land of the Khwarazmian Empire. Using brutal tactics and even Chinese siege weaponry, Genghis Khan massacred his foes in the Middle East. Farmlands, buildings, and entire populations were mercilessly destroyed.

Genghis Khan Achievements

Genghis Khan established the largest contiguous land empire in human history, stretching from the Caspian Sea to China and over two continents. Often regarded as the greatest military commander of human history, Genghis Khan utilized archers on horseback, acute tactical adaptation, fear, and constant pressure to succeed in his many bloody conquests.

Genghis Khan Temporary Palace Study SmarterGenghis Khan's temporary palace in Hebei, China. Source: Fanghong, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

After initial conquests, life in the Mongolian Empire was peaceful and tolerant, often regarded as the Pax Mongolica by historians. Kingdoms were allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture, and trade flourished along the Silk Road once more. Genghis Khan himself advocated for literacy and forbade infighting, theft, and the selling of women in the Mongol Empire.

Pax Mongolica:

Period of peace and stability in Eurasia during the 13th and 14th centuries, following the initial conquests of the Mongols.

Genghis Khan Descendants

Before his death, Genghis Khan made plans to distribute control of the Mongol Empire to his prominent sons. He divided his lands among his sons Jochi, Tolui, Chagatai, and Ogedei. Ogedei would become the new Great Khan until 1241. Decades later, Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan would lead legendary conquests into China and Japan, toppling the Chinese Song Dynasty and establishing the Yuan Dynasty. The descendants of the Great Khan carried on his legacy of conquest and Eurasian domination.

Genghis Khan - Key takeaways

  • Genghis Khan was a ruthless Mongolian warlord who successfully conquered land from the Caspian Sea to China.
  • Genghis Khan's tactics and methods were excessively brutal, slaughtering millions during his many conquests.
  • After conquests, Genghis Khan was fairly lenient on his subjects. They could largely maintain their language, religion, and culture, as long as they offered tribute and taxes to the Great Khan.
  • Trade flourished along the Silk Road during Genghis Khan's reign. Goods, religions, and cultures safely traveled great distances across Eurasia.
  • Genghis Khan's sons inherited divisions of his great empire. Prominent among them were Ogedei Khan and Kublai Khan, who continued successful conquests for the Mongolian Empire.

Frequently Asked Questions about Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan established the largest land empire in world history through brutal conquests and relatively fair treatment of his subjects. His empire stretched from Eastern Europe to China. 

Genghis Khan lost battles during his rise to power, but no defeat was final. He continued successful campaigns against foreign kingdoms until his accidental death in 1227.

Genghis Khan had thousands of children during his conquests. Prominent among his children were Jochi, Tolui, Chagatai, and Ogedei. His grandson, Kublai Khan, was also a successful Mongolian warlord. 

Genghis Khan established the largest land-based empire in human history. He conquered lands in China, Central Asia, and the Middle East. His large kingdom reinvigorated the Silk Road and trade between western and eastern Eurasia. 

Genghis Khan was never finally defeated in battle against his enemies. He fell from his horse in 1227 and died of resulting injuries. His sons inherited his vast empire. 

Final Genghis Khan Quiz

Question

What was significant about the size of Genghis Khan's empire? 

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Answer

He established the largest land-based empire in human history.

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Question

What was Mongolian society like before Genghis Khan rose to power?

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Answer

Many disparate, rival clans. 

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Question

What more accurately describes a raid by Genghis Khan?

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Answer

Brutal. Many citizens were executed and their lands plundered. 

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Question

Define meritocracy. 

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Answer

A system of appointed officials based on their merit, or proven capabilities 

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Question

How did Genghis Khan die? 

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Answer

He fell from his horse in 1227 and died of resulting injuries. 

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Question

What was Genghis Khan's first primary target after unifying Mongolia? 

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Answer

Xi Xia

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Question

What happened to the Silk Road after Genghis Khan had conquered much of Eurasia? 

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Answer

Trade was reinvigorated.

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Question

Which of Genghis Khan's descendants established the Yuan Dynasty? 

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Answer

Kublai Khan 

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Question

What Chinese technology did Genghis Khan implement in his conquests after attacking the Jin Dynasty?

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Answer

Siege Weaponry 

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Question

Describe Genghis Khan's tolerance of religions among his many subjects.

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Answer

Genghis Khan allowed for freedom of religious practices, as long as tribute was paid. 

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