Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Not The Savage He Was Named

Genghis Khan: a savage, ruthless conqueror. He led hordes of savage Mongols who ravaged the civilized world. That's what most people know about.

There's only one problem: it's not entirely true. Its true Genghis Khan was a ruthless conqueror, it's true that he was a Mongol. However, the bit about Mongol hordes ravaging the civilized world--not so true.

Before Genghis Khan, Mongolia was divided into many warring tribes. They raided and kidnapped amongst each other constantly. It was kind of the national pastime. Many of these tribes were poor so war and kidnapping was how they survived.

In the midst of this unending cycle of violence Genghis Khan was born into one of the poorest tribes. Mere scavengers, they had no great standing among the other tribes. At an early age Genghis Khan’s father, Yesugei, the Khan—chief—of their small tribe was killed. Genghis Khan and his family, his mother, younger sister, two younger brothers, and two half brothers were kicked out of the tribe in a coup by one of Yesugei former lieutenants. Their exile amounted to a death sentence. In the harsh Mongolian winter they could not have been expected to survive. Without a tribe they would have been in constant danger from other tribes. Yet somehow they survived. At least most of them did. Genghis Khan older half brother Bekhter was killed. By him. Now the killing wasn’t for any reason. While Genghis Khan and his family were starving Bekhter stole some food for himself. He was a leech on the family. From a pragmatic point he had to go.

Not much is known about Genghis Khan’s childhood. What is known is that he was enslaved at least once. He also made an extremely important friendship in Jamuka, slightly older than Genghis Khan his family camped near Genghis’s. He was also betrothed to his future wife, Borte.

As a young man, Genghis was in charge of a small band (including his family and now Borte, his wife) he was close friends and allies with Jamuka and his father’s old ally Ong Khan. In fact he originally teamed up with Ong Khan and Jamuka to regain Borte, who had been kidnapped by a rival tribe. When they regained her Genghis was Jamuka and Ong Khan’s firm ally.

Some time later, for reasons unknown, Genghis and Jamuka broke off and became rivals in the struggle to rule over all the tribes of Mongolia, although Genghis was still subservient to Ong Khan. And then for the first time Genghis went on a series of raids as the sole commander. Predictably, he won and instituted the radical new process of incorporating the conquered tribe into his own tribe.

It took him decades but eventually Genghis defeated Jamuka, and later Ong Khan, who had betrayed him. He had united all of the Mongol tribes and took on the name that made him famous, Genghis Khan.

As the leader of the newly unified Mongols he instituted a series of radical changes. The conquered tribes were incorporated into his tribe as full members, not slaves. Genghis Khan created a meritocracy, enforced rule of law, and declared complete freedom of religion. Many, if not all, of his reforms were well ahead of his time.

Now he was ready for war. During Genghis Khan’s lifetime the Mongols conquered, part of modern day China, the Khwarezmid Empire (which was in Central Asia), Afghanistan, part of Russia, and Georgia. The fact that Mongol hordes overpowered through sheer numbers is wrong. Mongolia had a relatively small population, and not all were soldiers. Genghis Khan was almost always outnumbered so he won the day with brilliant tactics and strategies instead of the overwhelming numbers that were depicted.

As head of the Mongol Empire Genghis Khan pieced together the Silk Route, granted immunity to all diplomats (even if they were from hostile nations), he lowered taxes for everyone and abolished taxes for teachers, doctors, and priests.

The story of Genghis Khan is fascinating and complex and cannot be labeled simply as the work of an evil conqueror. All the cards were stacked against him. He was not handed the throne like most conquerors. He had to struggle and claw his way up from poverty, even slavery, to become the most effective conqueror the world has ever known. But more than that, he did good things too. Many of the reforms he used, such as freedom of religion and the rule of law, are in place in many modern countries.

If you want to learn more about Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire I recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.


  1. What about the ponies? Didn't those tough little ponies the mongols used have something to do with their success in war?

    Interesting post! It's a chapter of our history we're kind of ignorant about.

  2. Yes, that's quite true. The Mongols had very impressive horses. Their horses were very sturdy and had excellent endurance--they had to be, to survive the harsh Mongolian winter. Mongol warriors could ride for days without stopping.
    Another huge advantage the Mongols had were their bows: they were the most powerful bows in the world. The Mongol bow had a range of, maybe, 350 yards. Each warrior was a superb marksmen.
    Genghis Khan utilized these two advantages to great success. The bow and the horse won him his empire.

  3. ok, bows, arrows, yadaya..lets get back to the ponies. I heard they could go 700 miles in 9 days on those ponies. and they didn't need supply trains like other armies because they could tap a vein in the pony's neck and drink some blood or drink the milk from the that right? i guess all the bows in the world wouldn't have helped if they couldn't cross the distances they did...

  4. Yes, their horses could go extraordinary distances at great speed. This enabled them to appear where they were least expected by the enemy.

  5. Great warriors had great horses. Horses are extremely sturdy if we allow them to be. Thank you Ghengis Khan for freedom of religion, thank you God for freedom of choice, and thank you to the mystical horse for giving us the feeling we could fly.