It is difficult to attempt an objective analysis of Genghis Khan as he is probably one of the most unfairly depicted characters of history, and often unfavorably so. The reason is not difficult to understand. Genghis Khan rose from humble beginnings in a small and insular ethnic group (Mongols) and he and his descendants completely overpowered the three biggest civilizations of the time -Chinese, Western, Muslim- along with a few others. It is quite understandable that, for centuries to follow, scribes and historians of these three civilizations would be unsparing in their vitriol against Genghis Khan and Mongols.
However, the last half century has thrown up a much fairer image of Genghis Khan. It is still that of a brutal warrior but no more brutal than Alexander, Caesar, Tamerlane, or Napoleon. However, it portrays Genghis Khan’s genius as a general and an administrator alike and his powerful legacy with a greater objectivity.
So strong became the opprobrium in the West that the name Mongol came to carry a loathsome tenor. When nineteenth-century scientists wanted to portray the inferiority of Asian and Indian American populations, they catalogued them as Mongoloid. When doctors looked to explain why mothers of the superior white race could give birth to retarded children, they said it was because one of the child’s ancestors had been raped by a Mongol warrior. Gaudy rich capitalists were scoffed as moguls, the Persian name for Mongols.
Over time the Mongols became scapegoats for other nations’ failings. When Russia lagged behind the West and Japan, it was because of the awful Tartar Yoke put on her by Genghis Khan. Persia also blamed its decline on the Mongols. When China could not keep up with Europe and Japan, it was because of the cruel exploitation by the Mongols. When India succumbed to British colonization, it was because of the Mughal rule. Arabs also blamed Muslim decline on the Mongol conquests.
While the Renaissance writers and explorers treated Genghis Khans and the Mongols with greater objectivity, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment turned Europe manifestly racist. A rampant anti-Asian spirit focused on the Mongols, in particular, as representing everything evil. In 1748, Montesquieu set the tone in his treatise “The Spirit of the Laws” by holding the Asians in arrogant disrespect and describing the Mongols as detestable. He summarily dismissed all of Asian civilization, “There reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off.”
Genghis Khan became the main object of attack. While Alexander and Caesar had a lots of admirable qualities, Genghis Khans and his Mongols were simply loathsome creatures. Voltaire portrayed Genghis Khan as an ignorant and a cruel villain. In Voltaire’s snobbish view the Mongols were “wild sons of rapine, who live in tents, in chariots, and in fields.”
European scientists were even more pernicious than their artists and philosophers. Compte de Buffon compiled the first encyclopedia of natural history. His utterly racist description of Asians is not worth repeating in this place. Suffice it to say their culture seemed as ugly to him as their faces and bodies. Buffon’s work -translated into many European languages- was held as a classic source of information during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By comparison to the white race, Robert Chambers said, “Mongolian is an arrested infant newly born.” The system of Mongoloid classification prompted outrageous application.
Amidst so much political fustian, pseudoscience, and scholarly deceit, the truth of Genghis Khan remained buried. His homeland and country remained closed to the world by the communists of the twentieth century, who kept it as tightly sealed as was possible. The documents carrying the original Mongolian history disappeared into the oblivion of the past. However, two things happened in the last century that helped partly correct the record about Genghis Khan. One was translating and interpreting the manuscripts containing the valuable lost history of Genghis Khan. The other was the dissolution of the Communist empire that led to the liberation of Mongolia and its heritage. It helped the world know that the Mongols had been much more than barbarians who ransacked superior civilizations around them.
Genghis Khan was born to a poor Mongol nomad, Yesugei. His mother Hoelun had been kidnaped by his father. He was named Temujin by his father. Only a few details have survived from Temujin’s early life, and they indicate that he was not much valued by his father. When he was eight his father took him in search of a wife for his son. Yesugei seemed to have wanted to get rid of him. He was looking to find a family that would accept Temujin as a laborer for several years, in return for which they would give him their daughter in marriage.
Along the way they stayed with a family who had a daughter named Borte, who was slightly older than Temujin. The children liked each other, and their families agreed to betroth them. Yesugei left Temujin with Borte’s family and returned. Borte was to become Temujin’s, later Genghis Khan, most beloved woman in life. Temujin would also fight his first battle at a young age to free Borte after she had been kidnapped. When Merkid took her away from him, the boy Temujin risked all he had, including his young life, to get his Borte back. He rescued her, because she was his.
Yesugei soon fell ill and Temujin had to leave Borte behind to rush back to his father, who passed away before Temujin’s arrival, leaving behind two wives and seven children under the age of ten with no money. They were disowned by their clan as nobody wanted to feed nine people. The next few years were extremely harsh on the family with Hoelun valiantly leading the struggle for their survival. If the family did not perish, it was only because Hoelun’s monumental grit saved them all.
These early traumatic years must have played a significant role in shaping Temujin’s character that saw an outcast and a destitute child with little hope of survival growing into a great conqueror. The tragedies and betrayals his family suffered likely also instilled in him an abhorrence for the caste system, a penchant for more equal society, the ability to take charge of his fate, and to privilege merit and judgment above the ties of family or tribe. One noteworthy aspect of Tenujin’s character was the deep bonds of loyalty he had a gift of inspiring. In a society where tribes changed sides and warriors deserted their leaders at the least temptation, none of Temujin’s generals deserted him throughout his six decades. Among the great conquerors of history, this is a peerless record of fidelity.
Following about thirty years of warfare, in 1206, Temujin became the undisputed leader of Mongols. He now controlled a territory almost the size of today’s country of Mongolia, though not exactly the same boundaries, with a population of about one million people of various nomadic tribes, vastly outnumbered by the animals in their possession. He named his people “Yeke Mongol Ulus”, the Great Mongol Nation. For himself Temujin chose the title that his followers already used for him, Chinggis Khan, known as Genghis Khan in the West. It derived from the Mongolian word “chin” that means, firm, unshakeable, and fearless. It was a non-traditional and simple but befitting title for the new Khan. And Temujin thus transmogrified into Genghis Khan as the history would remember him.
THE MONGOL EMPIRE
Rising from a highly insular place, Genghis Khan, together with his family, conquered the most densely populated civilizations of the thirteenth century. Whichever way you look at it -total number of people defeated, the sum of countries conquered, or the total area occupied-, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in the history. (For example, in terms of land conquered, Genghis Khan annexed 4.86 million square miles during his reign, more than double of 2.15 million square miles for the next biggest conquer in history.) The hooves of the Mongol combatants’ horses plopped in the waters of every lake and river from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
At its pinnacle, Mongol empire covered about 12 million contiguous square miles, equal in size to the huge African continent. It stretched from the frosty tundra of Siberia to the sizzling plains of India, from the paddy fields of Vietnam to the wheat farms of Hungary, and from Korea to the Balkans. In today’s world well over 3.5 billion people live in more than 30 countries spanning the area of Genghis Khan’s conquests, conquered by the Mongol tribe which itself numbered less than one million.
The Mongols redefined the boundaries of the world. Unhappy by the vast number of little kingdoms, Genghis Khan combined smaller countries into larger ones, connecting and amalgamating many civilizations around him into a new world order. In eastern Europe the Mongols consolidated a dozen Slavic princedoms into one large Russian state. In eastern Asia, over three generations of conquests, they created the country of China by merging Sung dynasty in the South with the lands of the Jurched in the North in Manchuria, Tibet in the west, the Tangut Kingdom on the border of the Gobi, and the Uighur areas in eastern Turkistan. At the time of Genghis Khan’s birth in 1162, the world consisted of a string of regional civilizations unaware of other civilizations beyond their closest neighbors. No one in China knew about Europe and no one from Europe had made the journey to China. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them through commercial and diplomatic links that have since continued to flourish.
In Europe, the Mongols slaughtered the aristocratic knighthood of the continent, but found the continent too poor when compared with Chinese and Muslim territories to be of much interest to them. They turned back from Austria without bothering to conquer the cities, loot the countries, or absorb them into the expanding empire. Hence, Europe suffered the least but still benefited a lot from the contacts that opened up with the East. Although never ruled by the Mongols, in many ways Europe gained the most from their world system.
The Europeans who had been cut off from the mainstream civilization since the fall of Rome, eagerly benefited from the new knowledge, trade, technology transfer and the global connections. In early 1620, Francis Bacon eulogized the impact of changing technology in Europe, citing printing, gunpowder, and compass as the technological innovations founding a new world. Bacon rightly pointed out for then that nothing had ever “exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” All of these had reached the West during the era of the Mongol Empire.
The new knowledge, technology, and commercial wealth paved the way to Renaissance in which Europe revived itself and grasped the technology for printing, firearms, the compass, and abacus from the East. Apparently, every facet of European life -technology, warfare, dress, trade, nutrition, art, literature, and music- changed during the Renaissance because of the Mongol influence. Geoffrey Chaucer, the first author in the English language, dedicated the lengthiest story in “The Canterbury Tales” to Genghis Khan. He expressed an overt awe for him and his accomplishments. It is interesting to note that the erudite men of the Renaissance were so approving of the Mongols, who were later painted as archetypal, murderous barbarians.
“The noble king was called Genghis Khan,Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Squire’s Tale” (The Canterbury Tales, c 1395)
Who in his time was of so great renown
That there was nowhere in no region
So excellent a lord in all things.”
Genghis Khan’s army combined the renowned ferocity and swiftness of the steppe warrior with the highest technological prowess of Chinese civilization. As they expanded, the Mongols devised and improved weapons from different cultures and fashioned a global arsenal that could be adapted to whatever situation they came across. Genghis Khan used his fast-moving and well-trained cavalry against the enemy’s cavalry or infantry on the ground and employed unprecedented machines of destruction to pulverize the protective powers of fortress walls.
Still, superior weapons were not the mainstay of the Mongol success. Weapon technology, once used, cannot remain secret and is soon copied by others. The Mongol success was bred by their amazing cohesion and discipline, nurtured over millennia as nomads in small groups, and from their unwavering loyalty to their leader.
Warriors everywhere were taught to die for their king or ruler, but Genghis Khan never asked his men to die for him. Every war he waged and every tactic he used was steeped in a strategy to preserve Mongol life. Unlike most other generals and emperors in history who would easily order thousands of their soldiers to death, Genghis Khan was loathe to sacrificing a single one. The most important rules in his army were to prevent the loss of soldiers. The Mongols showed little concern for the loss of enemy life so long as it preserved Mongol life, often using villagers and peasants they captured as human shields.
The Mongols did not find honor in fighting, they found honor in winning. As traditional nomads, the Mongols learned early to fight on the move. While most warriors sought to drive the attacker away from the place, a Mongol sought to kill the enemy and it did not matter whether he killed the enemy while charging toward the enemy or fleeing from him. It was just a matter of what tactic suited best when.
Genghis Khan viewed war as a total commitment of one people against the other and understood that triumph did not come to the one who played by the rules; it came to the one who made rules and imposed it on their enemy. For him, victory could not be partial – it had to be comprehensive, total, and undeniable. In battle it entailed the unrestrained use of fear and surprise and in peace it required unwavering adherence to a few simple but firm principles that infused loyalty among the common people. Loyalty assured security; resistance meant death.
Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology continued to enhance throughout his career. His genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, and his unrivaled skill for organizing on a global skill derived from a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision fueled by his tremendous intellect, exceptionally disciplined mind, and focused will. In every battle, he acquired more followers and additional fighting techniques. In each skirmish, he used some new ideas. Genghis Khan never fought the same war twice.
As opposed to any other major army in history, the Mongols traveled lightly, without a supply train other than a vast reserve of horses. The Mongol army consisted entirely of cavalry, armed riders without a marching infantry. This allowed them to inflict havoc on the foot soldiers among the armies they fought.
Each person carried precisely what he needed, but nothing more. They were used to maneuvering in extreme cold and would wait until the coldest months to make the desert crossing, so that men and horses required less water. Dew also formed during this season, which encouraged the growth of grass that offered grazing for horses and attracted game that warriors hunted for their own food.
Rather than carrying slow-moving siege engines and heavy equipment with them, the Mongol army carried a faster-moving engineer corps that could build whatever was required on the spot from available materials. When the Mongols would come upon the first trees after crossing the vast desert, they would cut them down to use wood to build ladders, siege-engines, and other apparatuses for their attack.
When the advance guard noticed a settlement after emerging from the desert, they immediately changed pace, moving now in a slow, lumbering convoy, to be perceived as merchants coming to trade, rather than rapidly moving warriors on the attack that they were. They casually strolled up to the gates of the town before the residents could realize who they were and raised an alarm.
When laying a siege, the Mongol army rolled up their on-the-spot constructed siege engines -catapults, trebuchets, and mangonels- that flung not only stones and fires, as besieging armies had done for centuries, but also pots of burning liquids, exploding devices, and incendiary materials. They engineered immense crossbows mounted on wheels, and immense teams of men pressed on with portable towers with retractable ladders from which they could shoot down at the guards on the walls. While they attacked through the air, miners simultaneously went to work digging into the earth to weaken the walls by burrowing. During this overwhelming show of technical competence in the air, on the land, and below the earth, Genghis Khan instilled fear by forcing prisoners, in some cases allies or comrades of the people under attack, to dart forward until their bodies filled the moat to form a surface across which other prisoners pushed the engines of war.
Genghis Khan was very adept at deploying propaganda and public opinion as highly effective weapons of war. He knew how to spread stories among the supporters of his enemies and to build anger among his followers against the enemy, using gossip as a weapon of choice to boost the confidence of his own men and to undermine the enemy’s resolve.
Although the army of Genghis Khan killed at an unprecedented rate and used death to sow terror, they differed from the standard practice of the combat in a surprising way. The Mongols never tortured, maimed, or mutilated or used public torture or mutilation as a means to instill terror or horror. While the destruction of many cities, where the invading Mongols were given a reason to be particularly vengeful and cruel, was extensive, the numbers given over the years by historians are often fanciful.
Persian chroniclers, for instance, report that Mongols slaughtered 1.75 million people in Nishapur, 2.4 million in Herat, and over a million in Isfahan. Most of these numbers far exceed the population of these cities at the time and require a slaughter of 400 people by every Mongol soldier. Inspection of the ruins of the cities have now established that the casualties caused by the Mongol conquests rarely surpassed a tenth of the population of the city. The arid desert ground of these areas preserves bones for hundreds of years, yet none of them has yielded any evidence to corroborate these numbers even remotely.
Genghis Khan heralded the modern world of commerce, communication, and secular state more than any other individual. He was highly modern in his organized and specialized warfare and his commitment to international trade and the rule of secular law in a large state. His outlook continued to improve with age as he learned different ways of life and strived to create something better for his people. He knotted the cultures together instead of imposing his own way of life.
Wherever he went, Genghis Khan crushed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege by birth and instituted a new system centered on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement.
His was not an empire that accumulated wealth and treasure. Instead, he widely distributed the goods acquired in combat so that more people benefited, and the wealth made its way back into commercial circulation.
He lowered taxes for everyone and abolished them completely for doctors, teachers, priests, and educational institutions.
In a world where most rulers considered themselves above the law, Genghis Khan insisted that laws hold rulers as equally accountable as people on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
He granted total religious freedom within his realms without playing any favorites among various religions. Steppe people had converted to many religions from Buddhism to Christianity and Manichaeism to Islam and all of them claimed to be the only true religion. Genghis decreed complete and total freedom for everyone. Although he continued to worship the spirits of his homeland, he did not allow his belief to be used as a cult by his followers.
He made sure that widows and children of his soldiers killed in battles were looked after and were awarded the soldier’s share of the loot.
He created an international law. The Mongols manifested a firmly and persistently internationalist fervor in their political, economic, and intellectual outlook.
He took the fragmented and torpid trading towns along the Silk Route and weaved them into history’s largest free trade zone. The Mongols looked not just to conquer the world but to create a global order based on free trade, a universal law, and a common alphabet to write all languages.
The Mongols launched the world into not only the commerce and trade of goods, but also into the exchange of ideas and knowledge. They moved talent and knowhow all across, for instance, bringing German miners to China and Chinese doctors to Persia. They recruited French and English technicians in their service and took the practice of Chinese fingerprinting to Persia. They financed building of Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim places of worship and education alike.
Their engineers combined Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowing, and European ball-casting technology to invent the cannon, an important technological innovation which has spawned the vast modern armory of weapons from pistols to missiles.
To promote the flow of trade and movement of merchants, Mongol authorities invented a rudimentary type of passport and credit card combined in one. It was called “paiza” and was a tablet of metal or wood that could be worn on a chain around the neck or attached to the clothing. Depending on the material and symbols used in a “paiza”, illiterate people could ascertain the importance of the traveler and them provide appropriate level of service. The “paiza” allowed the holder to travel uninhibited throughout the empire, while being assured of protection, accommodation, transportation, and exemptions from taxes and duties.
Genghis Khan proclaimed the supremacy of the rule of law over any individual, even the sovereign. Thus, implementation of the law and the obligation to follow it started at the highest level, with the khan himself.
He was a stickler for the rule of law and abolished torture. He regularly mounted campaigns to hunt for and kill bandits and terrorist assassins.
He refused to hold hostages.
He instituted the formal practice of diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, including those from nations with whom he was at war.
He established a regular census and created the first international postal system.
Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan introduced a paper currency intended for everywhere.
Kublai Khan also attempted to build a universal education system for all children in order to make everyone literate. Historians mention the number of schools created during Kublai Khan’s reign as over 20,000. Even after generously discounting for exaggeration, the Mongol achievement is amazing as no other empire had attempted such an effort for universal education. In the West, it would be another five hundred years before governments began to assume responsibility for basic education for all.
The Mongols refined calendars to make them more accurate than ever before. They also sponsored most extensive maps ever put together till then.
History has condemned many of the great conquerors to miserable, untimely death. Alexander died at 33 under mysterious circumstances, and his followers killed his family and divvied up his land. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his own fellow aristocrats. Napoleon died in solitary confinement in one of the remotest places on earth. Tamerlane also died a horrible death. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, passed away in full dignity, lying in his bed surrounded by a loving family, faithful friends, and steadfast warriors ready to risk their life for him. It happened in the summer of 1227, during a campaign against Tangut nation along the upper reaches of the Yellow River.
Genghis Khan’s death in a nomad’s ger, similar to the one he had been born in, showed how successful he had been in preserving the traditional way of life of his people, while he transformed the human society. Despite the tremendous wealth and power he possessed, he continued to live a simple life, wearing the same clothes, and eating the same food as a common soldier in his army or a cowherder. In his letter to a Taoist monk he wrote, “We make the same sacrifices, and we share the riches. I hate luxury and I exercise moderation.” He described his relations with his officials as respectful and cordial, “We always agree in our principles, and we are always united.” After his death, his followers buried him anonymously in the soil of his homeland in Mongolia. According to Mongol belief they did not leave a marker where in the soil the greatest conqueror of human history lay, and Genghis Khan departed quietly back into the countryside of Mongolia from whence he came.