“I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
Temuijin – Early Years and Rise to Fame
For about a 5 or 6 year period in the late 1980’s to early 90’s, Mike Tyson was almost unanimously considered to be the “baddest man on the planet”. Meaning he was the last man anyone wanted to be caught in a fight with. A well deserved title. He was literally paid to destroy people, and he was very, VERY good at it. Some prominent boxers in his time were accused of ducking him. There were very capable men, all paid and trained to fight, who just wanted no part of him. But Mike never killed anyone. Probably never set out to kill anyone. In this post I would like to talk about my nominee for the undisputed, all time “baddest man on the planet”, Temüjin. Or as he was later known, Genghis Khan.
There is debate as to who is the greatest conqueror in history — Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. There is no doubt that both were brilliant military strategists. Both died abruptly in the midst of their conquests. I favor Genghis simply because his battles were harder won and he conquered almost twice the amount of land. I would say that the Chinese armies he faced were superior to the ravaged armies of Persia that Alexander conquered. After Alexander’s first few victories, many other cities simply surrendered to him. China never relented to the bitter end. But it’s safe to say a conflict between Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde and the armies of Alexander would be something to behold. Hard to say who would win.
Genghis Khan’s rise to power begins with the death of his grandfather, Khabul Khan in the early 13th century. Khabul was leader of the Mongol tribe in his area. The title of Khan was given to a tribe’s chief. The mongols were in constant conflict with the Tatars. The Jin Dynasty, in northeastern China, also wished to see Khabul dead after his invasion of northern China, so they threw their support behind the Tatars. The Tatars eventually killed Khabul and there was a dispute over his successor. Some favored Genghis Khan’s father, Yesugei, a tribe chief. Yesugei eventually became Khan, but it was challenged by tribes descending from Ambaghai, Genghis’ cousin. However, Ambaghai was captured by members of the Tatars, under orders from the Jin Dynasty, brought to the Imperial court, and executed. Apparently his crime was attempting to broker peace between his tribe and the Tatars by arranging a marriage between the children of chiefs. Jin did not want a unification of two powerful tribes.
To say this pissed off the Mongols is an understatement. It is a grudge that would be held for a long time. Eventually the Mongol state was broken and their power dropped considerably. The tribes retreated further into the steppes. Young Temuijin was exposed to a harsh life. His family had provisions but not as much as when his people were flourishing. Even the chief’s family had to cut back. At 9 years old he was “sold” to another tribe in an arranged marriage. About a year later, Temuijin’s father was poisoned by Tatars on his way home from a hunt. Apparently they stopped to share food with him, which was a sacred custom, but poisoned the food. A very shitty betrayal. One many Tatars would have thought unforgivable. Upon learning the news, Temuijin rushed back home to his tribe to claim his place as the new chief. The tribe refused to be led by a child and abandoned Temuijin and the rest of his family.
Temuijn and his remaining family spent years in poverty and desolation. Scavenging and hunting for whatever they could find. During one particular hunt, Temuijin grew angry with his half brother, Bekhter, during a dispute over hunting spoils. It is said that Temuijin killed him during a fight. Accidental or not, it was at least manslaughter and 10 year old Temuijin was now a fugitive. At the age of 20 he was captured and imprisoned by former allies of his father. With the help of a watchmen sympathetic to his story, he is able to escape the encampment. He gains some fame and notoriety for being able to escape such a large, well guarded encampment. All the time Temuijin has been traveling Asia, he has been watching the way Mongols handle their politics. Arranged marriages were used to ensure short term compliance from political allies. Constant infighting and outside pressure from the Chinese dynasties kept most tribal chiefs on edge. Temuijin’s mother, Hoelun, taught him the nuances of Mongolian politics and the crucial need for alliances. Temuijin then readily accepted his previous arranged marriage.
Temuijin gained his first alliance when he swore himself as a vassal of his father’s blood brother, Ong Khan. When Temuijin’s wife, Börte, was captured by Mekrits, He turned to Ong Khan for support. He gave 20,000 soldiers to Temuijin and suggested he allow former Khan, and Genghis’ childhood friend, Jamukha to tag along with him. The campaign is a success. Borte is saved and the Mekrit forces are wiped out. It was during this campaign though that splits began forming between Temuijin and Jamukha on how to lead and form a true Mongol empire. The pair were blood brothers and had sworn eternal loyalty to one another. The bond would be tested. Greatly. After his victory, Temuijin was able to unite the small Mongol confederacy he had once been a part of with his father’s tribe. The greater Mongol population was still split on it’s loyalties.
The True Khan
With a decent army under his belt, Temuijin set about dealing with the Mongol tribe’s enemies in the area, the Mekrits, the Naiman, the Tanguts, and the Jin/Tatar alliance. As Temuijin’s power grew, Senggum, the son of his ally, Ong Khan, plotted to kill him. Eventually Senggum brought the matter to Ong Khan himself and the Khan sought to distance himself from Temuijin. To strengthen his alliance with Ong Khan, Temuijin offered to marry his son to the Khan’s daughter. The offer was refused. A great insult in Mongol culture. Eventually, frictions between the two forces led to open war. Ong Khan sought the assistance of Jamukha, Temuijin’s sworn brother. It turned out to be a bad move as Jamukha had already decided to oppose Temuijin and constantly fought Ong Khan for control. During the war many of Ong Khan and Jamukha’s best soldiers and officers defected to Temuijin’s army. Temuijin’s armies overtook Ong Khan and Jamukha in the capital city. Jamukha fled the area before the city was secured. Ong Khan escaped too, but was killed by Naiman warriors who did not recognize him.
The tribe was absorbed into the Mongol horde and Temuijin had eliminated his first rival. He set his sights on the Naimans next, who had taken in Jamukha’s tribe. Around 1201, Temuijin began his campaign against the Naimans. Once again a large chunk of the opposing army deserted and joined Temuijin’s army. By this time, Temuijin had basically united the greater Mongol Empire and more and more people were submitting to his authority. The Naimans, unwavering, continued to fight. At one point they bestow the title “Gur Khan” upon Jamukha, making him the supreme ruler of the Naiman people. Jamukah accepts the title and it is the final nail in the coffin of his friendship with Temuijin. Jamukah pulls the remaining forces he has together and launches an assault against Temuijin. But once again, many of his best officers defect to Temuijin. Among them is Jamukha’s younger brother, Subutai. Not only was the family betrayal painful but Subutai was an already well known and accomplished military strategist and leader. Jamukha’s time as Grand Khan was short lived.
In 1206, Jamuka’s armies were routed and he was turned over to Temuijin by his own men. Temuijin, still very much loving his “brother”, offered Jamukha a chance to rejoin him. Temuijin had killed the men who had betrayed him and maybe now they could once again chase glory together. Jamukha refused. He said there could be only one sun int he sky and asked Temuijin to give him a “noble death”. This meant no blood or scars so the back is broken instead. Temuijin granted the request and immediately sent Subutai to crush the remaining Mekrit forces who had allied with the Naimans, which was accomplished in short order. With the collapse and absorption of the Naiman clans, Temuijin was now the sole ruler of the Mongol Steppes. Once the larger tribes were defeated, smaller confederations fell into place. Temuijin assumed the title of Genghis Khan, the “True Khan”. Temuijin was finally ready to attack the Jin Empire. And they would pay a heavy price for the murder of Ambaghai, decades earlier. But first, Temuijin would have to subdue the Western Xia Dynasty lest they interfere.
The Death of Dynasties
Genghis assumed an assault on Xia would not be hampered by Jin back up since they had refused to aid any one else before this. It was a correct assumption. Xia’s army could not match the Horde in open conflict, as few armies could, so the war was a series of sieges against Xia’s major cities. The campaign began in 1206 and by 1209 Western Xia surrendered to he Mongol Empire. Many upstart “empires” had spent decades trying to conquer Chinese territory. Genghis had succeeded them all in a fraction of the time. If the Jin Dynasty had not been worried before, they most certainly were now. Temuijin was also becoming more comfortable with his role as supreme Khan. Never shy about throwing himself headlong into the conflicts, felling many soldiers with his own blade, he saw the benefit of delegating and took the focus of strategy and troop morale very seriously. Years at his mother’s foot,learning the art of being a leader, had made him ready for this demanding post. Years spent scavenging, bartering, and stealing had strengthened his resolve. He would not see his people suffer as his mother had.
In 1211, Genghis Khan made known his intentions to invade Jin. It was not much of a secret anyways. The Mongols HATED the Jin empire. For generations they endured abuse at their hands. Watched them enrich their enemies while murdering their tribe’s leaders. All the while demanding tribute to their “great empire”. Genghis was ready to burn their country to the ground. In the spring of 1211, the Mongol armies began the invasion of the Jin dynasty. Unlike Xia, Jin had an army capable of facing the Mongols in combat. In many instances, greatly outnumbering them.
But the Mongols had Genghis Khan and his brilliant group of military strategists. Many defectors from various opposition armies. This wide knowledge of military tactics and tendencies helped him gain an advantage before many battles ever began. The first major conflict of the campaign would be ought at Fox Hill in Zhangjiakou(The Battle of Badger Mouth). Khan’s forces were navigating a canyon pass when a Jin messenger happened upon them. Probably to ask them to withdraw. Instead, the messenger defected and told the Mongol Army exactly where the Jin army was stationed on the other side of the pass. The Mongol Army then went forward to slaughter thousands of Jin troops who found themselves outflanked and outmaneuvered by an army that shouldn’t have even known they were there.
The first city to fall was Mukden, a province in Manchuria. In spring of 1212, Genghis planned to march on the capital city of Zhongdu but was wounded by an arrow in combat. During this time most of the Mongol armies took a bit of a respite in the grasslands of Gobi. During this time, many leaders int he area swore loyalty to Genghis and the remnants of Jin forces in Manchuria were completely driven out. Equally helpful were the Ongud, a tribe living in Chinese territory near the Great Wall who were basically paid to guard Jin’s border. An alliance with them gave the Mongol Armies safe passage through the heart of the Jin Dynasty. During the siege of Zhongdu in 1213, the Mongol Armies suffered several defeats at the hands of general Li Ying and a coalition of other generals. It was merely a temporary setback.
The Mongol Armies spent about a year pillaging Northern China in preparation of another assault on Zhongdu. During this time the Jin emperor was assassinated and a new emperor took the throne, Wanyang Xun . When the Mongols finally breached the city in 1214, he offered a temporary tributary to the Mongols in the form of a marriage between Genghis Khan and a Jin princess(a huge gold settlement as well). Believing hostilities to be over, the Mongol Army prepared to withdraw from the city. At this point Li Ying wanted to ambush the Mongol army with a sizable force numbering tens of thousands. Xun thought this would do nothing but greatly enrage Genghis Khan and decided against it. One year later Genghis returned and finally took the city. The Jin retreated to their Southern borders and seceded their Norther empire to the Mongols.
This made the Jin all but finished. By 1234 the Mongols extinguished the last remnants of the once mighty Jin Dynasty. After the taking of Zhongdu the Mongol Army was fatigued, but riding a high of victory. Genghis Khan had basically crushed his most hated enemy and one of the most powerful armies in all of China. All of Asia trembled before him. With a strong foothold in the East, Genghis decided to shift his focus to the west and the Kara-Khitan Khanate. The Kara-Khitan, originally formed by Chinese refugees, had recently been taken over by the Naimans. Knowing he couldn’t have them buffering his western side, Genghis decided to undertake the conquest of their land. But the Mongol Army was tired. A solid decade of warring in china had drained many of them. So Genghis sent a small number of troops(around 20,000) and the Mongols basically changed their tactics. Mongol spies and infiltrators were sent in to cause unrest and revolt across the Khanate.
It was a very effective strategy. In 1218, after some much needed rest, Mongol forces invaded Kara-Khitan and found their job made easy by rampant internal feuding. The land quickly fell under their control. At the end on 1218, with the complete submission of the Kara-Khitan, Genghis Khan now ruled more land than any man ever did or ever would. And he wasn’t finished. His next conquest would almost double his current empire in size.
The Great Insult
The Khwarezmian Dynasty, was a Persian Empire on Mongolia’s southwestern border. Genghis first approached them to seek trade deals. He saw the valuer of connections to the Silk Road and wanted to form trade alliances with the various groups in the area. In 1218 Genghis sent a small caravan on a trade mission to the empire. In the city of Otrar, the governor, Inalchuq, stops the caravan and accuses them of being spies. The caravan was looted and the Mongolian delegates and troops were taken prisoner. Inalchuq refuses to repay the looting and release any prisoners he may have. Genghis, showing he is a man of patience, sends a 3 man delegation, 2 Mongolians and one Arab, to the Shah himself to discuss dealings. Now, I don’t know how well the Khwarezmian knew Genghis Khan, or how aware they were of the Mongol exploits in China, but what happens next completely baffles me. The Shah refuses to hear a word they say. He has the Mongolian ambassadors shaved, and the Arab ambassador beheaded. He sends the head back with the other two ambassadors. This act doomed his empire.
Khan was furious and would not allow this great insult to stand. After giving the Arab delegate a proper burial he amasses one of his largest invasion forces to date, 200,000 men and a selection of his best generals. Genghis originally wanted trade. A chance to rule a real empire. Instead, the Shah had spit in his face. Now he would just take it from them. Genghis was also more actively involving his sons in his campaigns and a few accompanied on his conquest of Khwarezmian. The Mongol Army had to cross the Tian Shan mountain range to enter Khwazy territory where they wanted. The Shah could have used this to his advantage by amassing a large frontal assault against a tired Mongolian force, but he instead chose to divide his forces into small groups in various cities. This only helped the Mongolian forces who could engage in small conflicts while resting their greater numbers. The Mongolians quickly captured the city of Otrar and the governor was brought before Genghis Khan. His sentence for attacking a Mongol caravan was to have molten silver poured into his eyes and ears. Most of the city’s inhabitants were killed or enslaved. The conquest of Khwarezmian was particularly brutal even by Mongol standards.
Entire cities were burnt to the ground. Farmlands torched. Whole populations massacred. There is even a story that Genghis had a river diverted to completely engulf the emperor’s birthplace, erasing it from the map. Perhaps it was a message. A warning to anyone who would dare insult the Mongol empire. Regardless, by 1220 the Khwarezmian Empire was no more. Barely a trace of it remained. The best of the people were absorbed into the empire while the rest were enslaved or exterminated. The images we think of when we think of the Mongols, riding across fields burning and pillaging everything in their path, come from this campaign. It was not the norm for them and the Khwazy people paid a terrible price for their leader’s arrogance.
The End of an Era
This would be Genghis Khan’s last great conquest. He divided his forces into two, with one side pushing west while he returned home with the other. Along the way he pillaged parts of Northern India and the surrounding are, adding little chunks to an already massive empire. His army pushed as far as the Black Sea in a year and Genghis Khan had assumed an empire twice the size of Alexander the Great’s. He was truly king of the world. At home Genghis was quelling Tatar rebellions from the unified remnants of the Xia and Jin dynasties. All the while he was preparing to push into Europe. In 1227, while fending off Tatar rebellions, Genghis Khan passes away. There is no clear version of his death. Some say he died in battle, others that he was killed by a female captive in the boudoir. Following the customs of his tribe, Genghis Khan was buried with no grave markings. To this day no one knows exactly where he is buried. Many believe he was buried in his home soil near the Onon river.
Genghis Khan’s death did not immediately fracture the Mongol empire. In fact, the Mongol Horde, as it was now called, continued to add territory to their empire for many years following his passing. Eventually capturing all of China as well as parts of Russia and Europe. Today Genghis Khan is a national hero in the country of Mongolia. His name and assumed likeness is visible all over the country. In China, it’s a bit mixed. In the Middle East he is despised. Around the world he is viewed as a great conqueror and to many a great ruler. Genghis was religiously tolerant, even reportedly practicing Christianity at some point. Many of the people he conquered were Christian and Muslim, and he was respectful of both religions, allowing free practice in the whole of his empire. He often consulted people of many faiths on spiritual issues.
But we can’t deny the fact he was also capable of great cruelty toward the people he conquered. The massacre of the Khwarezmian empire left a bitter taste in the mouth of Middle Eastern people that lasts til this day. He would take the best and brightest from each tribe or empire he conquered, but most often put many of the rest to the sword. Despite his somewhat enlightened rule and interest in “equality” in his empire, he was very much the blood-soaked conqueror. And no conqueror, not even Alexander, is free of the taint of genocide. His methods were brutal but the results were magnificent. His successes as a general would not be equaled until Patton’s march through France some 700 years later. His techniques were incorporated by Germany in their blitzkrieg attack. The Mongol Army was never truly defeated until the rest of the world adopted their tactics. Unparalleled with a bow, it becomes a major factor for every army proceeding them. Cavalry techniques and blade work adopted from Mongol armies would define Chinese tactics for centuries to come.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this short history of the True Khan, Genghis Khan. A unique and effective military leader who went from common criminal to king of the known world. A skilled warrior and diplomat who was just as comfortable with a “pen” as he was a sword. The fact his empire lasted so long after his death and actually grew in size is a testament to his effectiveness as a leader and the respect his people had for him.