You’re Probably Pronouncing His Name WrongWhile most Westerners pronounce “Genghis” with a hard “G,” that’s actually incorrect. In Mongolia, the “G” is soft. So if you want to be accurate, you should pronounce it “Chin-gis.”
Genghis Wasn’t His Birth NameThe man who would unite the Mongol tribes was actually born “Temujin,” meaning “of iron.” His name was said to have come from a Tatar tribesman who had been captured and brought home by the boy’s father. The name “Genghis Khan” wasn’t bestowed on him until 1206, when he was 44 years old, as part of his coronation as the Khan of all Mongols.
Temujin Was Born Destined for GreatnessMost of what we know about Temujin/Genghis comes from The Secret History of the Mongols , an anonymous record of the early days of the united Khanate. According to that book, written for the Khan’s successors, Temujin was born sometime in 1162, on the banks of the Onon River. His father, Yesugei, was the chieftain of the Borjigin clan, the ruling class of the Mongol tribes. And the boy came out clutching a blood clot – an omen that he was destined to be a great leader. Whether this is actually true is anyone’s guess.
Temujin Had a Rough Childhood (and Murdered His Half-Brother)Despite being born destined to be a leader, The Secret History of the Mongols makes it clear that Temujin’searly life was brutal. His father, Yesugei, was murdered by steppe rivals when he was only nine, and his own tribe expelled his family when Temulin tried to claim his rightful place as leader of their clan. This left his mother, Hoelun, to raise seven children alone on the steppe. As an adolescent, it’s likely Temujin murdered his own half-brother in a dispute over food. A few years later, rival clans abducted him and his young wife, holding them as slaves until Temujin escaped.
He Was Taught a Great Military Lesson by His MotherLegend has it that Temujin and his brothers were each given one arrow by their mother, and told to break it. It broke easily. Then they were each given a bundle of arrows, which they were told to break. The bundle held fast – and Temujin learned a powerful lesson about the importance of unity, and how it led to strength.
He Married Young and His First Son May Not Have Been HisAround the age of 16, Temujin took his first wife, Borte, in a marriage arranged by his father before his death. Borte would become Temujin’s principal wife, but by no means was she his only wife. In 1185, Borte birthed a son named Jochi, but due to her kidnapping and the timeline of the birth (i.e., nine months after she was taken), the parentage of Jochi is cloudy. Jochi would grow to become a great military leader, but was excluded from Genghis’s line of succession. The couple had three more sons, Chagatai, Ogedai, and Tolui.
Temujin/Genghis Had Many Other Wives and ChildrenWhile Borte was Temujin’s empress, he took a number of other wives. Some of their names were Kunju, Khulan, Yesugen, Yesulun, Isukhan, Gunju, Abika, Gurbasu, Chaga, and Moge.
Many of these women were taken as war trophies, and it’s not clear that all of these marriages were consensual. They bore him numerous children, including a number of daughters whose names weren’t recorded. For historical purposes, only Borte and her four sons are truly significant.
The Mongols of the 13th Centurty Were in ChaosDuring the early days of Temujin’s conquests, the various tribes of the Central Asian steppe were scattered and mostly had control of their local area. The tribes warred often, routinely stealing horses and treasure from each other, along with taking slaves and concubines. Many of these conflicts were spurred on by China, which kept the Mongols warring among each other, and not attacking their own country.
- Nobody Knows What Genghis Looked LikeVery little is known about Genghis Khan’s personal life or physical appearance. No contemporary portraits or sculptures of him survived, and the scant information written at the time is unreliable. Most accounts describe him as tall and strong with a flowing mane of blonde hair, blue eyes and a bushy beard. But 14th century Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din claimed Genghis had red hair and green eyes. Al-Din never met the Khan in person – but these striking features were not unheard of among the Mongols.
Temujin’s First Conquest Was the Tribe Who Stole His WifeIn 1181, shortly after Borte and Temujin married, rival tribe the Merkits kidnapped Borte. Temujin would not let this aggression stand, and teamed up with the Khereid tribe, led by Toghrul, who was a blood brother of Temujin’s father. Along with a blood brother of Temujin, named Jamuka, Temujin led an army of 20,000 whodestroyed the Merkit tribe, absorbed their warriors, and slaughtered their women. By the time Temujin was crowned Genghis Khan, the Merkits were completely gone.
His Own Blood Brother Turned on HimAfter Merktis were crushed, Temujin’s relationship with Jamuka crumbled. 1186 saw Temujin elected khan, but he was still lesser than both Jamuka and Toghrul. Jamuka took the opportunity of an incident between the two men’s troops to attack his would-be rival, and Temujin was defeated by a 30,000-strong army. But Jamuka quickly lost control of his forces when he gruesomely executed some of Temujin’s men, a violation of Mongol religious codes.
Temujin Vanished for 10 Years During the Late 1100sAfter being beaten by Jamuka at the Battle of Dalan Balzhut in 1186, Temujin is absent from history for 10 years. It seems inconceivable that a major figure like Genghis Khan would have such a blank space in his biography, but nobody knows where he was or what he was doing. It’s likely he was hiding in China, as his patron Torghul had been exiled, and Jamuka had taken control of his holdings, but it’s not known for sure.
He Got Revenge on His Father’s Killers, Exterminating Their TribeIn 1197, 10 years after his defeat by Jamuka, Temujin returned to the Steppe. He was leading a band of Jin Chinese warriors in an attack against the Tatar tribe – and he had his old patron Torghul by his side. Temujin and Torghul rolled up the Tartars from the rear, met the Jin in the middle, and slaughtered the Tatars, who Temujin blamed for killing his father. The tribe was essentially exterminated.
Temujin United the Mongol Tribes in 1206, Taking the Khan TitleFrom 1196 to 1206, Temujin went on a rampage, destroying his enemies and adding their surviving soldiers to his ranks. Finally, he turned his attention to the Naiman tribe, which had been his chief enemy for years. The Naiman were crushed, and at a tribal gathering (called a kurultai) on the banks of the Onon River, Temujin was elected Khan of all Mongols, choosing the name Genghis. The origin of this name remains unknown.
Genghis Had a Complex Relationship with CultureGenghis Khan is likely to have been illiterate, but established a tradition of Mongol literacy. He created the yam, a great postal system meant to send written orders to the far-flung outposts of his empire. He also adapted an official script in 1206 upon his election as Khan, and kept written books of his laws – a complex and far-reaching system of edicts called the yassa. Diplomatic exchanges with other empires became a crucial part of Mongol conquest, as Genghis would send letter-bearing emissaries out to empires he sought to sack, demanding they surrender.
At the same time, Genghis and his generals ordered the destruction of countless works of art, priceless artifacts, cultural sites, and precious objects. Chinese, Russian, Persian, and Muslim traditions of printing, sculpture, and painting were subjugated, with their masters almost always killed. While other Mongol leaders appreciate the cultures of the “sedentary people” they wiped out, the Mongols themselves left little in terms of cultural heritage, and almost no written works.
Genghis Khan Never Spilled Royal BloodWhen Jamuka was turned over to Genghis Khan, the great leader honored his enemy’s request to be killed in the way Mongol leaders honored the leaders of their foes. That is, his blood would not be spilled. In one of many such executions that Genghis would carry out, Jamuka was killed by having his spine broken. He was then buried with a golden belt – a gift from Genghis when they became blood brothers. Other beaten leaders, both Mongol and those from around the world, were put into sacks or carpets and trampled to death, honoring the tradition of not spilling blood.
Genghis Mongol Completely Reorganized the Mongol ArmyAfter uniting the tribes, Genghis organized his highly-trained warriors into an obedient and disciplined army. The tumen was the largest unit, with 10,000 men, 60% of which were horse archers. The tuman contained 10 minghans, with 1,000 men, and each minghan contained 10 zuuns of 100 men; Ten arbans of ten men each made up a zuun.
Tumens were lead by experienced generals, and often fought in groups of two or three. Men in a unit were given wide latitude to carry out their orders, with virtually no oversight. One rule was rigidly enforced, though – desertion of one man in an arban was punished by the execution of the entire unit.
Many of Genghis’s Best Generals Were Former FoesMongol tribes beaten by Genghis had their soldiers absorbed into his army. Among the battles in which a tribe was beaten was the 1201 “Battle of the Thirteen Sides” against the Taijut tribe. Genghis was hit in the neck by an arrow, and when he demanded to know who had fired, one Taijut admitted to being the shooter. Stirred by the archer’s boldness, Genghis made him an officer and nicknamed him “Jebe,” or “arrow.” Jebe would go on to become one of the Mongols’ greatest field commanders during their conquests in Asia and Europe.
The Khan Relied on His Four “Dogs of War”In The Secret History of the Mongols, the chronicler claims Genghis Khan had four generals that he called his “dogs of war.” Besides his enemy-turned-confidant Jebe, he had Kublai (NOT the famous Mongol leader Kublai Khan, who was Genghis’s grandson); Jelme, the man who saved Genghis’s life when he was shot by Jebe; and Jelme’s brother Subutai.
Of these, Subutai was his best general, a truly gifted leader who it’s said personally led 20 campaigns, conquered 32 nations, and won 65 battles – taking more land than any conqueror in history.
The Khan Was a Master TacticianHow did the Mongols conquer massive empires like the Jin Chinese, the Khwarizmi, and much of Europe? Through tactics and strategy. Genghis made use of his small but expert army’s mobility, firepower, and speed. He had spy networks all across Europe and Asia, communications riders who could cross hundreds of miles per day, and time and again would trap enemy forces by faking defeat, retreating, then surrounding the pursuing foes.
He also developed siege techniques that would be used in warfare for centuries, including blockading, damming rivers, and the use of catapulted corpses to carry disease.
Genghis Turned Mongol Warriors Into the Best in the WorldSteppe horsemen began learning how to fight and live off the land as children. When they came of age, they had mastered how to ride, shoot, fight, and go for days at a time without provisions. They fought using both swords and the composite bow, which could fire an arrow up to 350 yards – far farther than anything else that existed. They carried everything they needed with them and rode with multiple mounts, often cutting one open on the leg to drink its blood for sustenance. No contemporary army could match the Mongol warrior’s skill, bravery, and tenacity.
For All His Killing, Genghis Was a Religious ManGenghis Khan passed laws declaring religious freedom in conquered lands, and even granted tax exemptions to places of worship. The Mongols generally had an exceptionally liberal attitude towards religion. While they subscribed to a shamanistic belief system that revered the Eternal Blue Sky, the Steppe peoples also included Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and others. No one was persecuted for their faith.
The Great Khan also had a personal interest in spirituality. He was known to pray in his tent for multiple days before important campaigns, and he often met with different religious leaders to discuss their faiths.
Once Ruler of the Mongols, Genghis Conquered Northern ChinaAfter his election as Khan, Genghis turned the unified Mongols east, against China. First, he sacked the Western Xia dynasty. Then came the Jin, his former allies – who had had hundreds of thousands of troops killed by a Mongol force 10 times smaller. In 1215, the Mongols sacked Zhongdu, modern-day Beijing, leveling the city and killing the population.
After 10 years of combat, the Mongols had all of Northern China under their control, leaving a swath ofmurder and plunder in their wake. Populations were enslaved, then either executed or used as human shields.
After China, He Had a Million People KilledConquering the Western Xia and Jin was a matter of survival for Genghis. He had no intention of war with the powerful Khwarezmid Empire, in modern day Iran, but it became inevitable after the Kwarizmian Shah executed Genghis’s ambassadors to him and massacred a peaceful caravan. In a war lasting just three years, from 1218 to 1221, the Khwarezmid Empire was annihilated, with its population culled and its beautiful walled cities sacked.
Final defeat was inflicted at the Battle of the Indus River, where 50,000 men, led by the Shah’s son, were beaten and killed. The Mongols exacted such a toll on the Khwarezmid Empire that of its nearly three million people, at least one million were killed – usually executed methodically, using swords or axes.
He Split His Force Into Two and Brought Russia to Its KneesAfter destroying the Khwarezmid Empire, Genghis split his army into two units. One, which he led personally, headed back to Mongolia, but not before laying waste to Northern India. The other, a small unit of two tumen led by Subutai and Jebe, headed west, toward what’s now Russia, pursuing the Kwarezmian Shah. They didn’t catch him, but they made history anyway.
In a raid of such power and destructiveness that it’s never been equaled, two of Genghis’s “Dogs of War” sacked Georgia, Armenia, and defeated a gigantic Kievan Rus force at the legendary Battle of the Kalka River. In keeping with Mongol tradition, the Russian princes who resisted were crushed to death under a platform, their blood never spilling. Hundreds of thousands of peasants weren’t so exalted, and were slaughtered. Russia itself would take centuries to recover from the Mongol invasion, and its geography was permanently changed.
Genghis Had to Put China in Its Place More Than OnceIn 1225, Subutai and his men returned from the great raid on Russia, but Jebe died along the way. Genghis consolidated his territory, which included huge swaths of Northern China, Russia, the Baltic States, India, and Iran. He prepared his army to head west again, this time for the fertile lands said to lie west of Russia. But first, he needed to finish off the Western Xia in China.
The Xia had refused to fight alongside the Khan in Persia, which was a death sentence. In 1226, the Khan led a huge force against them, and crushed a coalition of Xia and surviving Jin. The Tangut royal family was executed in its entirety, ending their lineage – a problem that would soon engulf the Khan.
In 1227, Genghis Khan Died, but Nobody Knows HowDuring the sack of the Western Xia capitol, in August 1227, Genghis Khan died. Historians of both the time and the future are still completely in the dark as to how it happened. Some say he was killed in battle, others that he died of illness; still others say that he fell off a horse while hunting. One chronicle even says he was killed by a Western Xia princess he was attempting to add to his harem.
After his death, the traditional kurultai was held, meaning all Mongol conquests were put on hold, and all leaders met at the Onon River. Bypassing Jochi, whose parentage was never confirmed, they elected Genghis’s third son, Ogedai, as the new Khan.
The Location of His Grave Is UnknownAfter his death in China, Genghis’s body was brought back by his generals as they returned to Mongolia for the kurultai. The Khan took great pains to keep his final resting place a secret, and according to legend, his funeral procession slaughtered everyone they came into contact with during their journey. Then they rode horses over his grave to help conceal it, and might have even changed the course of a river to go over it. Numerous excavations have been undertaken to find Genghis and the treasure said to be buried with him, but even with satellite imaging used recently, its precise location is unknown.
After His Death, His Empire Grew MightyOnce declared Khan, Genghis’s third son Ogedai picked up where his father left off. From 1229 through 1241, Mongol armies reestablished control in Northern China by finishing off the Jin, invaded and sacked the mighty Song Dynasty, invaded and conquered much of India, conquered most of Korea, and most notably, invaded Western Europe.
Ogedai’s forces re-took much of Russia, crushed two massive European armies in three days in April 1241, sacked Poland and Bulgaria, crossed into the Holy Roman Empire, and had riders scouting battle sites near Vienna. Then news that Ogedai had died reached the Mongol force in late 1241, a kurultai was called, and the Mongol leadership fell into disarray. Western Europe was never threatened so badly again.
Genghis Khan Radically Altered the World’s PopulationBy the time they finally petered out in the late 1300s, the Mongol conquests had killed as many as 40 million people around the world. China, Russia, and the Baltic states didn’t recover for centuries, while Iran and Iraq, which were brutally conquered by Genghis’s successors, only did so in the 20th century. As much as 10 percent of the entire world’s population died due to the Mongols.
Beyond that, Genghis Khan’s legendary ability to father children permanently changed the genetic makeup of humanity. A 2003 DNA analysis of over 40 populations living the areas conquered by Genghis and his brood (each of whom had dozens of children as well) showed that as much as 0.5% of the entire male population has the same Y-chromosome sequence, and can eventually trace their lineage back to the former Temujin.