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 Merk