Genghis Khan, the World-Conqueror

by David Sorenson

     For nearly eight hundred years the name of Genghis Khan has conjured up an image of an invincible warlord rampaging through the medieval world, leaving a trail of appalling destruction in his wake. Regardless of the interest in or knowledge of history in the individual, everyone has heard of this man, whose very name is a byword for ultimate military barbarism. This reputation for barbarism has suffered a bit lately, with the activities of mechanized killers like Hitler; nonetheless Genghis Khan nearly stands comparison with Hitler for sheer bloodshed, despite the latter's advantages in equipment. The lord of the Mongol hordes eclipses infamous tyrants like Atilla, Ashurbanipal, and the "First Emperor" of China, whose wall proved no obstacle.

Mongol horse-archer. Dirhem of Turakina, 1241-1246 AD. Lot 514.

     The Mongols were the latest in a long line of nomad raiders and conquerors from the Central Asian steppes, following in the track of Scythians, Huns, Avars, Turks, Magyars and others who ravaged the settled areas on the periphery of the plains, conquered and ruled for a while, then were driven out or absorbed by those they conquered. The last of the nomadic invaders were the Manchus who established themselves in China up to 1911, when the last ruler was overthrown in a native revolution. With that the long history of nomad conquests came to a definite end.

     The "World-Conqueror" was born Temujin, son of a minor chief of Mongols, when the name of Mongol was less that that of Naiman, Kerait, Merkit or many another long-vanished nomad tribe. The Mongol legends about the origin of their tribe cite as ancestors the Blue Heaven Wolf for the father and a pale white doe as the mother. They worshipped, as though an ancestral deity, the Eternal Sky, whose colors - blue for the sky, and gold for the sun - provided colors for their standards.

     Nearly everything about Temujin derived in some way from the endless feuds which the Mongols, like all the other steppe tribes, carried on with their neighbors. His father, Yesugei, was constantly warring against somebody; his mother Hoelun was the bride of some Merkit tribesman who Genghis's father abducted soon after her marriage; this made the Merkits somewhat uncooperative. The name Temujin was that of a petty Tartar chief, one of two whom Genghis's father defeated in battle; as the future World-Conqueror was born - grasping a clot of blood shaped like a knuckle-bone, according to legend - during this campaign, he was named Temujin in honor of his father's victory. This was around 1160; nobody knows the exact year.

     Chickens have a habit of coming home to roost, and in the interminable feuds on the steppes Yesugei fell victim. One evening he was riding home from some affray and he stopped at a Tatar camp to rest and eat. He was under the impression that these Tatars were unaware of who he was.      He was mistaken. They knew exactly who he was, and they gave him dinner. They added poison to it as well. It took three days for it to kill him, but it did the job in the end.

     Temujin, aged nine, had three brothers and a sister; that was about all, with the domestics, which remained with the widow. Most of the late chief's retainers decided to look elsewhere, leaving this group adrift.

     Temujin and his brothers grew up eking out a living, catching fish using bent needles as hooks. As one of the brothers was in the habit of grabbing the best portions for himself, Genghis soon ran out of patience and shot him with an arrow; this did not improve family harmony.

     As the most noted son of a former chief, Temujin inherited his father's quarrels. In addition he was a member of a very small unit. This made his family a favored target for all sorts of bad neighbors. Some of them decided to deal with this family once and for all by capturing Temujin, since the others were of little consequence. Temujin himself escaped, running into the trackless forest; the enemy waited him out, and when he tried to sneak past them he was caught.

     Kept a prisoner, he was handed round from tent to tent, as was the custom. Eventually he found a captor he could beat; accordingly he knocked him down and escaped into the nearby river. He would have had no chance of escape, but one of the enemy retainers, Sorqan by name, decided to help him escape. For several days he sent the pursuers on fools' errands, then hid Temujin under a pile of wool, telling the searches that nobody could possibly be hiding under that - it was too hot - and they weren't inclined to argue. Thus the searchers went elsewhere. Sorqan sent Temujin home.

     Temujin's next adventure involved a band of horse-thieves, who came and raided, stealing all the horses they could find - which weren't very many. One, however, they missed; one of the brothers was away hunting marmots on it. Temujin rode out on that horse after the thieves. On the way he stopped to ask someone who was milking a mare - fermented mare's milk was the mainstay of a traveler's food supply - and the stranger not only pointed out where the thieves had gone, but mounted up and rode with him. This companion, named Borchu, decided to help a stranger, and they trailed the thieves, took them by surprise, and brought the stolen horses away. The thieves did not take kindly to this, but the two raiders soon taught them with arrows that pursuit wasn't a good idea.

     Arriving at Borchu's father's camp, Temujin offered to split the horses with him; Borchu replied that he did not help a stranger in distress for loot, and in any event he had more than sufficient, certainly he could afford not to take horses from one who had a herd of nine animals only. Instead they put on a feast for Temujin, who had found himself a friend of some standing.

     Temujin's next project was to get a wife. His father had arranged for him a match with Borte, daughter of a relative of Hoelun his mother. He went to pay the tribe a visit; everything went as planned, and Temujin returned with his wife, as well as a sable robe given by her mother.

     When the Merkits got wind of this some of them decided that it was the perfect opportunity to avenge the abduction of Hoelin. Accordingly some of them staged a raid and carried off Borte, along with various valuables.

     This time Temujin went out in search of allies. The most powerful of those with some connection was the famous (in his day) Ong Khan; the chief of the Keraits; the name is in fact the Chinese title "Wang", king, awarded for service against Tatar enemies. His given name was To'oril. This man was the reality behind the medieval legends of "Prester John"; he, like many of the Keraits, was a Nestorian Christian.      Nestorian missionaries had established Christianity in China during the Sui dynasty immediately preceding the T'ang; a monument, now in Paris, inscribed in Chinese and Syriac attests to the establishment and spread of Christianity by the 680s when it was inscribed.

     To this man Temujin appealed, having previously made him a gift of the robe as a mark of submission and petition. Ong Khan took little persuading; Temujin was useful to have around, and the family connections were of importance.

     The Kerait and allies mustered a large army, some twenty thousand light cavalrymen, and launched their attack. The Merkits were no match for this force, and some fled while others were caught and destroyed. Temujin got his wife back, and one enemy was severely damaged, although not destroyed.

     The result of this was that Temujin had behaved like a chieftain, and he began to attract a following. As the saying goes, "nothing succeeds like success", and suddenly Temujin became once more the legitimate chief of the Mongol tribe. True, they were relatively few, but under a commander like Temujin - whose personality seems to have been both magnetic and commanding - numbers, within reason, meant nothing. Temujin in particular attracted ambitious men who were frustrated in their own tribes; younger sons of chieftains and noted warriors, who preferred being attached to an army which had the prospect of plenty of loot.

     Given both his family and his abilities, it was only reasonable that when the motley assemblage of nomads generally known as Mongols met to choose a leader they chose Temujin as khan. His election as khan included an additional title; henceforth everyone called him Genghis, essentially "world conqueror". At this time he was still a vassal of Ong Khan, who entirely approved of the proceedings.

     Some of Genghis's allies turned out to be unreliable; many feared his growing power and attempted to check it. One such was his "blood-brother" Jamukha, whose attitude became increasingly strained. An increasing tendency for Jamukha's vassals to leave him in favor of Genghis Khan didn't improve relations. Eventually the two became enemies; Jamukha, alarmed at Genghis's growing power allied himself with all sorts of other tribes, including Merkits and Jurchen looking for revenge. Genghis once more appealed to Ong Khan, and the combined forces defeated their enemies in a hard-fought battle. Genghis himself received an arrow in his neck; only the care of Jelme kept him alive. By the next morning he had recovered sufficiently to resume command.

     As a result of this battle, Sorqan, who had helped Genghis out of a tight spot earlier joined him; as he explained, he had to worry about the consequences to his family if he had defected earlier. Genghis was satisfied with this explanation; he he tended to favor an honest enemy over a false and opportunistic friend; and he particularly favored a "friend in need" like Sorqan. Part of Genghis Khan's skill was the ability to turn old enemies into loyal subordinates.

     Eventually it became the turn of Ong Khan himself to feel the wrath of Genghis. He had a son named Sanggum, who resented the rise of Genghis, and as Ong Khan regarded Genghis as a son, in fact the favored son (due to Ghengis having rescued him, along with his army, from a very tight spot), Sanggum was somewhat put out. He did his best to stir up enmity between his father and Genghis. Ong Khan at first tried to reason with Sanggum - after all, Genghis's father had been a great friend, and Genghis himself had done great benefits and no wrong. Genghis himself did his best to turn Sanggum into an ally; he attempted to set up a political marriage - good polygamist that he was - and marry Sanggum's younger sister. Sanggum himself refused in insulting terms.

     Jamukha, still at large, got wind of this and tried to stir up trouble. Ong Khan objected, but his resistance was eventually worn down. Sanggum attempted a trick; to appear to suddenly agree to the match, then assassinate Genghis during the festivities. One of the parties to the plot went and told Genghis, who escaped back to his own tribe.

     Ong Khan pursued; another hard-fought battle ended in a draw, which given the disparity in forces was a victory for Genghis Khan. Although the Keraits were the more powerful force, Ong Khan commanded somewhat reluctantly, perhaps with a guilty conscience. The initial battle was a draw, but Ong Khan chose not to pursue. After an exchange of defiant messages and insults both tribes gathered their full strength; the Mongols, however, struck first, catching their former allies unaware, at a feast. Genghis won a total victory over his former allies, incorporating the remnants of the Keraits into his own people.

     This intertribal warfare taught Genghis one lesson: an enemy not destroyed is future trouble. Accordingly he resolved never to let an enemy survive to trouble him. He adopted the unpleasant way of dealing with prisoners known as "measuring them against the linchpin", killing all male prisoners tall enough to stand above the height of the linch-pin of a typical Mongol wagon. This assured that there would be no one left alive to rebel, as anyone not killed would be too young to know anything but the Mongol tribe.     

     The Naiman, also largely Nestorian Christian, next felt his wrath, as escaped elements from his former conquests stirred them up against him. The step-mother of the Naiman khan tried to dissuade him - after all, she told him, there was no real ground for quarreling, and besides, the Mongols smelled bad and wore scruffy clothing; they lived far away and the farther the better - so why fight them?

     The Naiman force was much larger than that of the Mongols, but their khan Tayang was no commander - described by one subordinate as being so wimpy that "harsh words would kill him" - and he found it difficult to decide anything. When the Mongols, mounted on worn-out horses which had wintered on barely adequate fodder, were easy prey, the Naiman khan vacillated, and finally set his army into a defensive position on a mountain. This suited Genghis perfectly well, who could attack them at leisure. Eventually the trapped Naiman army succumbed, crowded into a decreasing space, losing its freedom of maneuver.

     This crushing victory resulted in Genghis's second installation, this time as Chakhan or great Khan of all the nomad tribes. This time there was no possible rival. In 1206 Genghis Khan stood at the head of a united nomad nation, and had to decide his next move. With an army of twelve tumens - each of 10,000 cavalry - he was ready to obey the command of Heaven and bring foreign enemies under his control.

     His first campaigns, in the east, were directed to secure his position against the Tatar kingdoms in north China. First working to secure his southern flank, Genghis attacked the kingdom of the Tangut, known as Hsi-Hsia, whose people were of Tibetan origin. This campaign forced the Mongols to learn siege warfare, at which they never excelled, but were sufficiently skillful to take most objectives eventually. His next campaign was against the powerful Turkish Buddhist kingdom of Kara Khitai in the west, which he easily overcame due to its disunity.

      The kingdom of the Chin ("Gold"), the most obnoxious to the Mongols because of past offenses, he attacked at last. The Chin could raise an army of half a million men. Numbers, however, are useful only so long as they are handled properly, and the Chin emperor failed miserably.

     It took the Mongols three campaigns to eliminate resistance due to the sheer size of the enemy, but energetic maneuvering - and some atrocities; a general massacre of the inhabitants of the capitol Cheng-tu (modern Beijing) which left heaps of rotting corpses in the streets for the edification of foreign envoys, among them - eventually reduced the Chin to a province, along with Manchuria and Korea.

     So far the Mongols had made little impact on settled peoples; those they attacked were either nomads or former nomads, and the world thought little of the new power. All this was about to change, and the fault lay not with the Mongols but with their opponents. Having destroyed the Kara-Kitai the Mongols found themselves sharing a border with the expanding kingdom of Khwarezm, covering roughly from central Iran to the Indus river, north to Uzbekistan. This realm was assembled by a vassal of Kara-Khitai, one Tekesh, whose son Mohammed was extremely ambitious. Mohammed welcomed the destruction of his overlords and benefactors, and when the Mongols established themselves announced himself willing to initiate trade.

Mohammed ibn Tekesh. Silver Dirhem. Lot 508.

     The Muslims of Khwarezm sent a caravan which was well received. When the Mongols returned the favor it entered Khwarezm in the territory of the governor Inalchuk, a relative of the Sultan, who on a pretext had the merchants robbed and executed. Genghis sent an embassy to demand redress; the envoys were sent home by the Sultan with insults. The Sultan thought himself secure; it was a fatal error.

     The Mongol response was swift and to the point. Sweeping into the province held by the guilty governor they ravaged it and dealt with him, then split into three parts. These overran the country without much opposition, since Mohammed mistrusted his generals too much to let them take the field, preferring to garrison strong points. The Mongols roamed at will and took the cities one by one, destroying most of them and massacring the inhabitants. The capitol at Samarkand, with a hundred thousand troops, was supposed to be able to hold out indefinitely; it surrendered after five days of siege.

Jital of Kurzuwan, under Mongol siege, summer of 1221. Lot 513.

     Some important towns, such as Ghazna, submitted voluntarily (in 1221); that, however, did not save them, as all of the people who were not considered useful as artisans and craftsmen were massacred. The rest of the empire fell with little effort; when the Mongols moved on to fresh conquests the entire empire was in ruins. Mohammed fled and died in exile; his son Jelal ed-Din did his best to fight, even inflicting a defeat on his enemies, but that was too little too late, and he also died in exile.

Gold Dinar of Ghazna in name of Genghis Khan, 1221 AD. Lot 22.

     In keeping with the Mongol strategic doctrine of eliminating potential rebels and their bases, inhabitants estimated at fifteen million persons were slaughtered, and Central Asia is only now beginning to recover from the devastation caused by the Mongols in 1220-3.

     In pursuit of Mohammed, Mongol armies led by Jebe and Subudei invaded Armenia and Georgia, defeating the local armies but failing to capture the main cities. They pursued their prey into Russia, before taking time out to secure their flanks in Iran and Azerbaijan. By this time the Mongol armies were so large that disposing of a local force like that of Armenia was the work of a detachment, not a full army, and they made the most of it.

     In 1223 the Mongols re-entered Russia, destroying one tribe after another: Alans, Volga Bulgars and Kipchacks did their best to resist, but to no avail. The Russians, alarmed at the incursion, mustered their troops; like their (equally doomed) predecessors the Russians assumed that they would be able to handle this mob of scruffy barbarians. The main Russian force under Mstislav of Galich, being overconfident, followed the Mongols into an ambush, without even bothering to wait for reinforcements. Defeating enemy armies in detail suited the Mongols perfectly, and they defeated this force, the reinforcements, and yet another coming to assist.

     The Mongols were not yet ready to occupy this territory as they had unfinished business back home - the Tangut were causing problems again - but with the defeat of the Russian armies the outcome was assured. The defeat of the Tangut was relatively easy, especially over frozen flooded plains - the Mongols tied cloth around the hooves of their horses, for traction, while the Tangut cavalry did not, and slipped and slid all over, out of control - and forced the Tangut king to surrender.

     Genghis, in his seventies, survived just long enough to see the defeat of this old enemy; by the summer of 1227 he had caught a fever, and died in August. He was succeeded by his son Ogodai, who because of his intelligence and amiable character was best suited. Along with the position Ogodai inherited plenty of unfinished business: the Kin were not entirely destroyed, and had recovered some of their strength; the Russians were defeated but still defiant; Jelal ed-Din was back in Khwarezm; and the entire Moslem world was threatening to rise up against the infidel.

     His commanders were equal to the task; Batu Khan brought Russia under control, and his armies invaded Hungary and Poland, defeating the armies there. Another army, under Mukali and, alter, his successors, finally crushed the Kin in alliance with the Sung Chinese. In the Middle East Jelal ed-Din was finally defeated after hard campaigningeventually he was murdered in 1231 by a Kurdish tribesman, having alienated his remaining support by his cruelty.

     The most famous campaign was of course that of Batu Khan in eastern Europe. The essential details are these: Batu re-entered Russia in 1236, destroying the remnants of the Volga Bulgars and Kumans, and using as an excuse the escape of refugees into Russian territory, overran Russia as well. They took city after city; indulging in their usual butchery; Novgorod was spared because the ground around it was swampy and impassable for cavalry, but Kiev had its inhabitants slaughtered; their bones littered the area in 1245 when John of Plano-Carpini traveled through on an embassy.

     The Mongols received the submission of those few Russian princes who bowed to the inevitable, remained in Russia until 1240, then once more turned westward.

Golden Horde Mongols. Jani Beg, AR Dirhem, lot 516.

     Sending a reconnaissance force into Poland, Batu with his main force invaded that magnet for nomadic horsemen, Hungary. The king of Hungary, Bela IV, nominally controlled a powerful kingdom, but his nobility had been in constant quarrels with his father, and they were no more loyal to him. The Mongols, seventy thousand strong, forced the passes guarding the plains, and brought the main army to battle at Mohi. The Hungarian army fought hard, but was forced back on its camp and surrounded; then, offered a supposed escape, charged out into an ambush. The Hungarian army numbered, supposedly, 100,000 men; not many survived.

     Meanwhile the other force in Poland had lured one army, that of Henry of Silesia, into an ambush and destroyed it, as well as defeating local contingents in Poland and burning the capitol Krakow; the two forces reunited, then pursued Bela through the Balkans. There the Mongol army appears to have suffered a defeat, minor at the time but probably of great importance in the long run, by an army of Croats on the field of Grobnok near Fiume. Meanwhile a small reconnaissance force penetrated into Austria, where the emperor's forces defeated it; a small victory, indeed, but it allowed Frederick to boast of his military skill.

     The Mongols prepared to occupy Hungary, seizing all the major towns; but in the winter of 1241 Batu received notice that the Great Khan Ogodai had died, and a new one was to be chosen. Accordingly the Mongol army left via the southern Balkans, destroying as they went.

     The Mongol khan had left due to the necessities of Mongol power politics, but there was more to it than that. The European envoys, as well as the Mongol records, indicate the terrible losses the Mongols sustained in Hungary, even when the battle went entirely their way. The forces they defeated were large, but consisted mainly of infantry, used merely to slow an enemy's charge, and light cavalry; we hear of so many thousand knights in the battles, but the major force in north-eastern Europe at the time was the Teutonic Knights, which at their peak in the fourteenth century numbered a little over two thousand knights, accompanied by men-at-arms, so in terms of effectives the Hungarian army with its local levies was nowhere near the Mongol strength.

     Both in terms of troops - European heavy troops had proved quite resistant to Mongol archery, designed to shoot light arrows long distances, unlike the longbow, whose range is slightly less but which is designed to shoot heavy, penetrating arrows - and fortifications, Europe proved a hard nut to crack. Hungary was traditionally easy for nomad cavalry, other areas less so. This lesson had been learned before by others, including the Magyars, who easily took Hungary but were decisively defeated in Germany by infantry in 955. Batu was no fool; he had his priorities, and Europe could wait; forever, as it turned out. He left, and with the exception of two raids into Poland the Mongols were gone for good.

     Batu Khan later set himself up as an independent Khan of the Golden Horde in Russia and Central Asia, and left Europe more or less alone thereafter. His descendants ruled a shrinking realm until their elimination at the hands of Timur.

Ilkhans, Hulagu. AR Dirhem. Lot 699.

     Kubulai conquered China, destroying the Southern Sung and founding the Yuan (Original) Dynasty in 1280; the account of Marco Polo brings the dynasty vividly to life for the modern reader. Hulagu, the first Ilkhan (i. e., subordinate Khan) swept into Iran and Iraq, taking Baghdad and destroying the Abbasid caliphate in 1258. His army sent a detachment into Palestine, where it was defeated at 'Ain Jalut in 1260, setting the Mongol boundary at its farthest west. Attempts to take India, Burma and Japan eventually failed, and the slow decline set in.

Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, "Great Yuan" in Mongol. multiple cash. Lot 739.

     Eventually the Mongol empire disintegrated, and its power was swept away. Timur, from 1400, brought a brief resurgence, defeating the Ottoman Sultan, allying himself with Christian rulers in order to purge Islam of heretics, and conquering much of India. The Russians eventually threw off the Golden Horde yoke. The Chinese overthrew the last Yuan emperor in 1368, who died in exile in the mountains of Yunnan. The Mongols left one descendant who ruled an empire into the nineteenth century; one Humayun, a descendant of Timur, founded the Moghul Empire in India, whose last emperor was deposed as late as 1858.

Timur Gurkhan. AR Tankah. Lot 518.

     The Mongols left behind a legacy mainly of destruction; to the world at large, the main benefit they brought was yogurt, a variation of their traveling-food. In their wake they left unprecedented damage, and they failed to master the arts of civilized rule which would have allowed them to maintain themselves as more than mere conquerors.


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