GENGHIS Khan (1167-1227), was the great Mongol military general and strategist who conquered and founded the mighty Mongol Empire, which had stretched across the Asian continent at the time of his death. Originally named Temujin, he was born on the banks of the Onon River, near the present-day border between northern Mongolia and southeastern Russia. Native folklore is the only source for details about his ancestry, birth, and early life, and thus the facts are intermingled with purely legendary material. His line of descent is traced back, through many generations, to the mythical union of a gray wolf and a white doe. The newborn infant is said to have held in his hand a large clot of blood, thus presaging the future career of the world conqueror.
GK’s father, Yesugei, was a local tribal chief and nephew of the former khan (ruler) of the Mongol tribe. The Mongols had long played the leading role in eastern Mongolia but had lost their supremacy and sunk into comparative insignificance after their defeat in 1161 by a rival tribe, the Tatar, in alliance with the Jin (Chin) rulers of North China. (The name Tatar, or Tartar, was later used by Europeans to refer to the Mongol invaders of Europe in general.) Yesugei named his son Temujin after a Tatar chieftain whom he had taken as prisoner at the time of the child’s birth. When Temujin was nine years old his father took him on a journey into the extreme east of Mongolia to find him a bride among his mother’s people, the Konkirat. Temujin was betrothed to ten-year old Borte, daughter of the chieftain, and left, according to custom, to be brought up in the tent of his future father-in-law. Yesugei was traveling home when he fell in with a party of Tatars who invited him to share in their feast. However, they then recognized their old enemy and poisoned his food. Yesugei survived only long enough to reach his own encampment and send one of his men to fetch Temujin home again to succeed him as chieftain.
After his death, Yesugei’s wife and young children were deserted by his followers under the influence of the Taichi’ut, a clan whose leaders aspired to take the dead chieftain’s place. The widow attempted to rally the tribe to her but was unsuccessful. Soon the family was left to fend for itself. When Temujin had grown into a young man, his encampment was attacked by the Taichi’ut. He escaped into the forest but was finally captured. The Taichi’ut spared his life but kept him as a prisoner with a wooden collar around his neck. One night, when the group was feasting on the banks of the Onon, Temujin eluded his captors and hid, almost completely submerged in the river. He was detected by a member of the party, who, however, befriended him and persuaded the Taichi’ut to hold up the search for their prisoner until daylight. In the meantime, Temujin made his way to the tent of his benefactor, who concealed him from a search party and then provided him with the means of escape.
Shortly afterward, Temujin visited the Konkirat to claim his bride, Borte. As a dowry, he was given a black sable coat, which was to prove the foundation of his fortune. He decided to present it to Toghril, later known as Ong-Khan, the powerful ruler of the Kereit, a tribe in central Mongolia. Toghril, who had been an ally of Temujin’s father, took the young man under his protection and promised his support, which Temujin was soon to need. The Merkit, a tribe in the north, raided his encampment and carried off his wife. Temujin appealed for help to Toghril and to Jamuka, a young Mongol chieftain, and together the three were able to defeat the Merkit and rescue Borte. For a time, Jamuka and Temujin remained firm friends, setting up camp and herding their animals side by side, but then they became estranged. This break mirrored the larger political landscape of the time, in which loyalties and alliances shifted constantly. It was at this juncture that the Mongol leaders declared themselves for Temujin and acclaimed him as their ruler with the title of Chingiz-Khan (Genghis Khan), which translates roughly as ‘universal monarch.’
From then on he began to play a major role in the intertribal wars, but still as the protégé of Toghril rather than his equal. In 1198 the two rulers took part, as allies of the Jin, in a successful campaign against the Tatar. Toghril was rewarded for his share in the victory with the Chinese title of wang (‘prince’), and thereafter he was known as Ong-Khan (‘Ong’ is a corruption of wang). They remained allies and on several occasions between 1200 and 1202 defeated a coalition of tribes headed by Genghis Khan’s former friend Jamuka. In 1202 Genghis Khan conducted a final campaign against the Tatar, which resulted in the total extermination of that people. His relations with Ong-Khan had been steadily deteriorating, however, and in 1203 they fought. After an indecisive battle G.K withdrew into the extreme northeast of Mongolia, then, recovering his strength, returned to the attack and inflicted an overwhelming defeat on his adversary later that year.
G.K was now master of eastern and central Mongolia. In 1206, with the death of his old rival, Jamuka, he was at last in undisputed possession of Mongolia. In the spring of 1206, at an assembly of the Mongol princes held near the sources of the Onon, he was proclaimed Great Khan. The powerful ruler proceeded to organize the military forces of his empire.
G.K was now in a position to embark upon foreign conquests. Hostilities with China commenced in the spring of 1211, and by the end of that year the Mongols had overrun northern China. By the beginning of 1214 all China north of the Huang He (Yellow River) was in the Mongols’ hands, and they were closing in on the Jin capital at Beijing. Peace was purchased by the Chinese emperor at the price of an immense dowry for a Jin princess as G.K’s bride, and the invaders began to withdraw northward. However, fighting broke out again almost at once. Beijing was besieged and sacked in the summer of 1215.
Although the war was not yet over—indeed the conquest of North China was not completed till 1234—G.K now decided to relinquish personal command of operations, and in the spring of 1216 returned to Mongolia in order to give his attention to events in Central Asia. Genghis Khan’s western territory abutted the state of Khwarizm, a vast but poorly organized empire, ruled by Sultan Muhammad, covering the present-day countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan and most of Iran. War between the two empires became inevitable when G.K’s ambassadors were murdered at Otrar on the Syr Darya River.
Setting out from Mongolia in the spring of 1219, G.K passed the summer of that year on the Irtysh River and by autumn had arrived before Otrar. He left a force to besiege and ultimately capture the town and, continuing west at the head of the main army, attacked Bukhara (Bukhoro) in February 1220. The city, deserted by its garrison, surrendered after only a few days’ siege.
The Mongols then advanced on Samarqand, which likewise offered little resistance and was captured the same year. Genghis Khan dispatched his two best generals in pursuit of Sultan Muhammad, who had fled to the west. The sultan finally sought refuge on an island in the Caspian Sea but was found and killed there. The generals, continuing their westward sweep, crossed Caucasia and defeated an army of Russians and Kipchak Turks in the Crimea before turning back to rejoin Genghis in Central Asia.
In the autumn of 1220, G.K captured Termiz on the Oxus River (present-day Amu Darya) and in the early part of the winter was active in the upper reaches of that river in what is today Tajikistan. At the beginning of 1221 he crossed the Oxus into northern Afghanistan and captured the ancient city of Balkh. Soon after the fall of Samarqand he had dispatched his elder sons north into Khwarizm to lay siege to Muhammad’s capital. He now sent his youngest son into eastern Persia to sack and destroy the great and populous cities of Merv (now Mary, Turkmenistan) and Nishapur (now Neyshâbûr, Iran).
In the meantime, Sultan Jalal al-Din, the son of Sultan Muhammad, had made his way into central Afghanistan and inflicted a defeat on a Mongol force at Parvan, north of Kâbul. G.K, rejoined by his sons, advanced south in the autumn of 1221 and defeated this new adversary on the banks of the Indus River. With Jalal al-Din’s defeat the campaign in the west was virtually brought to its conclusion, and G.K proceeded by easy stages on the long journey back to Mongolia. In the autumn of 1226 he was again at war, with the Chinese Tangut tribal confederation, but he did not live to witness the successful outcome of this, his last campaign. He died in August 1227, in his summer quarters in the district of Qingshui south of the Liupan Shan (Liupan Mountains) in Gansu, China.
G.K unleashed a seemingly invincible military force during his military campaigns. Although usually outnumbered, his forces prevailed on the battlefield through absolute discipline, a well-understood chain of command, superior mobility, and innovative military tactics. The Mongol forces were organized into several formations of 10,000 horse-mounted soldiers, the touman. Their tactical deployment usually relied on surprise attacks on the enemy’s flank and rear, followed by heavy cavalry assaults. Communication was by signal flags and drumbeats, and the mounted formations responded quickly to commands from the Mongol generals. Once an enemy’s initial resistance was broken, the Mongols would overrun the territory with a speed not to be duplicated until the tank warfare of the 20th century. Mongol soldiers were well trained in marksmanship and horsemanship. A soldier was clad in armor of leather strips lacquered to keep out water. His bow, backed with horn or sinew, was one of the most powerful in the world. After showering the enemy with arrows he would change to his lance or to a curved sword and charge for close fighting.
The Great G.K had many wives and concubines, but it was Borte, his first and chief wife, who gave birth to his four most famous sons: Jochi, Jagatai, Ögödei, and Tolui. Jochi’s son Batu founded the Golden Horde, a powerful Mongol state in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jagatai gave his name to a state that he founded in Central Asia. Ögödei was designated by G.K to succeed him, and he ruled Mongolia and northern China. Tolui was the father of Mangu Khan, ruler of the unified Mongol Empire from 1251 to 1259; Kublai Khan, who founded the Yuan dynasty in China; and Hulagu, who founded the il-Khanid dynasty of Persia.
G.K knew no language but Mongolian and it has been said that to the end of his days he remained at heart a robber chieftain. No mere bandit, however, could have conceived or undertaken the great campaigns against China and Western Asia, and in fact, though he spoke no foreign language, Genghis Khan was not without knowledge of the civilized nations beyond the borders of Mongolia. Already at the beginning of his career he counted among his followers certain Muslim merchants from Central Asia, and later he could rely also upon the counsel of Chinese advisers.
It was, however, mainly on native foundations that his empire was built. The legal code which he instituted, known as the “Great Yasa”, was based upon Mongol customary law. The instrument of his victories, the superbly efficient Mongol army, seems to have owed nothing to foreign models. It was developed and perfected in intertribal wars before it was turned, with irresistible effect, against the nations of Asia and Eastern Europe. It is, in fact, as a military genius that G.K lives in history.
The Great Genghis Khan was the equal of any military genius that ever lived, standing on the same historical pedestal with the likes of Alexander the Great and Napoleon I, neither of who conquered territories as expansive and long-lasting as his. His son ruled over an empire that stretched from Ukraine to Korea. His grandsons founded dynasties in China, Persia, and Russia, and his descendants ruled in Central Asia for centuries. He was a real mighty man of valour whose distinctive footprints will remain eternally etched in the sands of time.