Genghis Khan: Birth of a Conqueror
In the 1200s Genghis Khan and his horde came bursting out of the steppes of Mongolia to create the largest land empire the world has ever seen. In less than a century the Mongol Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, controlling two-thirds of the known world--roughly 16% of the world's landmass. Some say Genghis was a blood-thirsty barbarian responsible for the deaths of millions, the destruction of entire cities, and the pillaging of priceless treasure. To his fans, Genghis was a man of vision who created the world’s first global trade network and ushered in an age of peace and prosperity that forged the modern age. So who’s right? They both are. In fact, the Washington Post named him “Man of the Millennium”. Take that barbarian haters!
You can blame it all a bad childhood. Born as Temujin, Genghis had the bad luck to be born to the most outcast tribe in the most remote part of the Mongolian steppes– right on the border with Siberia. You just can’t get much more remote than that. The dozens of nomadic tribes– who would all one day take the name of Genghis’ tribe– eked out a living on the steppes as herders raising livestock and raiding their enemies for whatever goods they could steal. In fact, that’s how Genghis’s parents met. Too poor to afford his own bride, Temujin’s father kidnapped his mother–on her honeymoon no less. To make a tough story even worse, his tribe abandoned Temujin’s family after his father was poisoned. The tribe decided that they just couldn’t afford to feed nine extra mouths and snuck away one night, but not before stealing the families’ animals. To be abandoned in this nomadic world was a death sentence. But somehow through sheer determination his mother fed her family by foraging for roots and hunting rats. This was the hardscrabble world that Genghis grew up in. However, Temujin was a boy who ruled fate, not the other way around.
The Big Mongol Shakeup
Genghis may have been the king of the steppe today but the people he conquered would always be back to raid another day. Genghis initiated some radical changes that would put an end to the Mongol’s warring ways (at least amongst themselves) once and for all. In the old Mongolia, tribal raids were about grabbing as much loot with as little risk to yourself as possible. Genghis put an end to this too. He ordered that the enemy be completely crushed before his soldiers began trashing the place. If you were caught stuffing your pockets you could be sure of being denied any share of the booty. Genghis himself redistributed the stolen loot as he saw fit. But Genghis wasn’t greedy and this won him the admiration of his soldiers. Bravery and loyalty were rewarded above all else. Genghis also made another important change to the Mongol “income redistribution system”. If one of Genghis’s soldiers fell defending the Horde his widow and children could count on getting their fair share.
The final and biggest change—this guy was a ‘doer’ that’s for sure—was the complete reorganization of the army. The soldiers of Genghis’ army were no longer organized by tribe. Instead, Genghis completely smashed tribal society by organizing his men into groups called a tumen.
Each tumen consisted of 10,000 soldiers whose leader was handpicked by Genghis. Each tumen was further divided into units of 1,000 called a battalion, which was divided into units of 100 and further divided into units of ten. Every unit of 10 was a family and strict rule was put in place that no man would leave his brothers behind to be captured in battle. The punishment for abandoning your unit was—you guessed it, death. To bring all of his people together he gave them a new name “The People of the Felt Walls” after the tent-like gurs that all the steppe people lived in. The Mongols were united for the first time in history—and that meant trouble for the rest of civilization.
Genghis Khan turned his attention beyond the borders of Mongolia to the rich Khwarizm Empire of Central Asia, conveniently located along the Silk Road. Genghis sent an ambassador to establish trade relations. The Shah of the Khawrizm accepted and Genghis sent a caravan loaded with Chinese goods. But when the Mongols arrived, the greedy governor of the town of Otrar, who just so happened to be the Shah's brother—hijacked the caravan and killed the merchants. It goes without saying that Genghis was none too happy when news of the massacre reached his ears. But Genghis was a reasonable conqueror. He sent his ambassadors to the Shah to demand that the governor be handed over to face punishment. Instead, the governor had the ambassadors beheaded. Genghis flew into a rage. The Khawrizm Empire was about to get a taste of Mongol justice firsthand.
To say that Temujin was a survivor is an understatement. In a world where having a formal education meant being able to herd animals and ride a horse by the age of four, street smarts meant everything. The law of the steppes was rob or be robbed. Temujin learned quickly how to stand up for himself. His older half-brother Begter was a notorious bully; so Temujin killed him with an arrow. When he was enslaved as punishment for his crime he escaped with the help of a servant family he befriended. When a rival tribe stole his family’s horses a friend helped Temujin steal them back. When the Merkit tribe kidnapped his wife and mother, he raised an army and stole them back too. Only this time he crushed the Merkits, killed the men and redistributed the women, children, and animals amongst his warriors. While he was away kidnapping back his family his lands were raided by the Jurkins, who were supposedly his allies. Those Jurks! So he crushed them too. By crushing his enemies and rewarding his allies Genghis moved his way to the top of the Mongol ladder.
About 40% of Mongolians follow the lifestyle of their nomadic ancestors; some with more modern toys.
Genghis Khan believed the strength of a man was defined by the children he left behind. Therefore, it should come as no suprise that 1 out of every 200 men alive today are decendants of the great Khan.
Mongols leading the enemy
into an ambush.
The Fall of the Khwarizim Empire
Genghis Khan had a loyal army of warriors but the Mongols had one small problem. They were almost always outnumbered and outgunned on the battlefield. During the Khwarizm conquest, the Mongol army was outnumbered 15,000 to the Shah's 400,000: odds of 30 to 1! The cities along the Silk Road thought themselves safe behind their big, fancy walls. To the Chinese, Muslims, and Europeans; the Mongols were nothing more than barbarians on horseback. What could an army of archers on ponies do? Well, they were about to find out—the hard way.
Every Mongol practically grew up in the saddle. Most Mongol children could ride a horse, bareback, by the age of five. The Mongol horsemanship became the stuff of legend. A Mongol could steer a horse using only his legs leaving his arms free to shoot his bow and arrow. Every Mongol boy had to learn to archery. If you couldn’t shoot an arrow you weren’t really a man in Mongol society. The Mongols rode small ponies that were fast and agile. Compared to the massive warhorses that the Muslims and Europeans used, these ponies were like toys. But what the Mongols lacked in size they made up for in speed and some mad archery skills.
Being outnumbered, Genghis preferred trickery to direct confrontation. When confronting a larger army, Genghis would employ several techniques to psych the enemy out. The Mongols often placed straw dummies onto their spare horses to make their own army look much bigger than it actually was. One of the Mongols favorite tactics against a superior army was to lead them into an ambush. The Mongols would split their army into two. One flank would race full speed towards the enemy. The other would circle around and wait at a designated spot. When the enemy saw the tiny Mongol force coming they would charge. Once the enemy got to within 400 yards, safely out of distance of enemy fire, the Mongols fired their recurve bows, showering the enemy with arrows. Then they would turn and run like the wind. The enemy thinking that they had overwhelmed the Mongols would give chase all the way into the waiting Mongol trap. Enemy annihilated; undefended enemy city now ready to be cracked open like a crab shell.
The Mongols’ best weapon was good ol’ fashioned terror. Before attacking an enemy Genghis always gave them a chance to surrender and become allies of the Mongols. If you accepted you were treated well. If you refused, Genghis got nasty. Genghis Khan might be called the first “shock and awe” general. By the time you saw his horde ride into town, it was already too late. After completely annihilating a village he would send any survivors fleeing to the safety of the city. The panic-stricken refugees would overwhelm the cities food and water supplies. In addition, they brought with them horror stories of what the Mongols had done to their villages. This whipped the citizens into a frenzy. Once Genghis arrived outside of your city gates you had two choices: surrender or die. Most chose (foolishly) to fight.
Genghis might have been an illiterate herder, but he was no dummy. Genghis embraced new ideas and technologies that he found useful and turned them to the Mongol advantage. Without siege weapons the Mongols could never hope to breach the stone walls and fortifications of the major cities of Asia. But Genghis always had some trick up his sleeve.
From the Chinese, the Mongols learned the art of building siege weapons like battering rams, catapults, and trebuchets which were handy for softening up the city walls. Unlike every other army who carried these lumbering machines with them, the Mongols brought along a small army of Chinese siege engineers who built the machines on site. This kept their army light and mobile for those infamous lightening attacks.
However, if a siege wasn’t doing the trick the Mongols would use the river against their enemy. The Mongols also learned dam building from their Chinese campaigns and would build dams to redirect the rivers. Then they would break open the dam and send the surge into the doomed city. If there were no rivers available or those pesky citizens just refused to surrender Genghis had another trick up his sleeve. He used the enemy’s own people against them. Driving the peasants ahead of his army, they served as a human shield to absorb the brunt of the enemy counter-attack. The peasants would then be put to work digging under the walls—while having all sorts of nasty things rained down upon them—until the walls the walls were weak enough to breach.
Once the Mongols captured a city the leaders and any wealthy people would be put to death. Anybody with a skill such as engineers, blacksmiths, priests, doctors, and teachers would be sent back to Mongolia to work as slaves. If you didn’t have any skills you would be made a slave to the army—or simply put to death. The Mongols really didn’t care for extra baggage.
In just two years the mighty Khwarizm Empire was in Mongol hands. Many of its cities were reduced to ruins. The arrogant Shah was dead. The Mongol Empire stretched from Northern China to the border of Afghanistan. But the rest of the empire building would have to be carried on by later generations. Genghis was about to fight his last battle.
Death of Genghis
On August 18, 1227 the Great Khan was dead. Historians still are debating the cause. Some claim that he died of injuries he sustained a year earlier after falling from his horse. Others say that pneumonia brought him to his end. A third theory says that succumbed to an arrow wound in an attack on the Tangut people of northwest China. Whatever the reasons, Genghis Khan was no more. Genghis asked to be buried in an unmarked location so that his enemies couldn't desecrate his body. To this day no one knows the exact location of Genghis tomb, although most believe the Khan's body rests near the Onon River. Legend has it that the slaves who dug Genghis tomb were slaughtered by a group of horsemen. Those horsemen were in turn massacred by another group who were themselves killed by a third group of guards. This story is very similar to many other famous places, like the Taj Mahal in India, and is probably false (sorry). But to the Mongols Genghis Khan is a national hero. So much so that when the communists took over Mongolia in 1921, the entire area was sealed off as a top secret Soviet military zone until the Mongols gained their independence in 1991.