Genghis Khan: creating a nation and an empire

by | 9 Sep 2012 | Leaders from History


In the West, the name of Genghis Khan still fills us with an almost instinctive dread. The Mongol horde emerged unexpectedly from the East, having conquered most of central Asia, northern China and Korea, and spread rapidly into the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe. The Mongols defeated the knights of Hungary, Poland and Transylvania, and by 1241 were at the gates of Vienna. By then, Genghis Khan was dead and the Mongols were led by his son, Ogedai. When he died, the Mongol princes returned home for the traditional kureltai: the assembly which would choose his successor. Vienna was spared, but the Mongols consolidated their territorial gains around the Black Sea in the Russian Principalities.

The sack of Baghdad, 1258

Mongol besiege of Baghdad in 1258

Baghdad fell in 1258, its citizens slaughtered and its magnificent libraries destroyed—an event of huge cultural significance, in which many ancient documents were lost to the world forever. Mongol rule spread throughout the whole of the Middle East.

The Mongols went on to conquer the whole of China; the empire stretched from the Danube to the Persian Gulf and across the whole of Central Asia to the Sea of Japan.  Pope Alexander IV, who died on 1261, issued a warning to Christendom of ‘the wars of universal destruction wherewith the scourge of Heaven’s wrath in the hands of the inhuman Tartars, erupting as it were from the secret confines of Hell, oppresses and crushes the earth’.

Temujin: a family left to die

The man who transformed Mongolia and set in train the creation of this mighty empire had started life as a hunter on the Mongolian Steppes. He was called Temujin. When Temujin was a young man, his father was killed by raiders and his family, without a man to hunt for food for the two widows and seven children, were abandoned and expected to die of starvation. There were too many of them to support and the rival families did not want Temujin to succeed to his father’s eminent position in his small tribe.

The family survived by scavenging what food they could: roots; fruit; fish; small game. They were at the very bottom of the social system of the steppes, little better than animals. The experience forged what became Temujin’s core beliefs: the need to break down the caste system and to forge new alliances than went beyond family and tribe.

While still a young man, Temujin was captured and enslaved by another tribe, escaped with help from a local family, who risked everything by helping him. His fame began to grow. Temujin had been betrothed to a young girl before his father had been killed; he now sought out her family, who agreed to the long-delayed marriage. Soon afterwards, raiders attacked Temujin’s camp. With the bitter but pragmatic logic of the steppes, he fled with his companions, leaving his new wife behind. Temujin could choose the traditional course of action—to find, or kidnap, a new wife—or he could fight back. He chose to fight.

Temujin  approached the leader of another tribe, whom his father had served, and offered his wife’s dowry (a coat of black sable) as a gift. The leader was happy for the excuse to raid his local rivals with Temujin as his captain. Temujin won back his wife in a raid and began to become a successful warrior. He went on to become the most powerful leader in the land; after twenty years of inter-tribal warfare, including the defeat of his previous mentor who had turned against him, Temujin united the tribes under his rule and was acknowledged as ‘Khan’ (leader).  He was given the name ‘Chinggis’ Khan, which later became more familiar in its Persian spelling of Genghis.

From feuding tribes to mighty empire

Genghis Khan’s greatest achievement as a leader would be the complete reformation of Mongolian society. The world into which he was born was an anarchic collection of feuding tribes and families: a constant round of minor raids; of stolen wives and livestock. Genghis created a nation out of this anarchy, united under his leadership. The cornerstone of this nation was the terrifying Mongol army: an army of mounted archers and lancers. It was based on units of ten men: regardless of tribal differences or social status, these men were now brothers; no unit could leave behind a wounded member.

The eldest member was the leader, but the team could choose a different leader. Ten units of ten formed a company, whose leader was elected. Ten companies formed a battalion; ten battalions made an army, with a leader chosen by Genghis. Everybody had to serve in the army; those who were exempt would give the equivalent of one day per week in service to the Khan. Old loyalties and ties were effectively destroyed: ultimate loyalty was now to the Khan.

The reorganisation was remarkably similar to the changes introduced to Athenian society by Cleisthenes, nearly two thousand years earlier, which were also designed to break up feuding clans, and which paved the way for the golden age of Athenian democracy—though Genghis would not have heard of the Mediterranean Sea, let alone of an ancient Athenian civilisation. The unification and democratisation of both societies was similarly successful.

Merciless to its enemies, benign in governance

Mongolian Empire in late 13th century v modern ethnic Mongolians

The huge Mongol Empire that Genghis had created was merciless in the destruction of its enemies, but surprisingly benign in governance. The steppe-living Mongols had little interest in cities, or in accumulating great wealth. They had no quarrel with any particular religion, following their own essentially shamanistic religion, worshipping the Eternal Blue Sky and a pantheon of lesser gods.

The conquests of Genghis linked China with Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe for the first time in history; forging commercial and diplomatic links between nations who were previously barely aware of each other’s existence (Genghis invented the concept of diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys between nations).

The Mongols liked manufactured goods, and encouraged trade. Their huge empire became one vast free-trade zone. Taxation was relatively light, with exemptions for doctors and teachers. Wars died out as the overwhelming force of the Mongols overrode all other power struggles—just as the overwhelming might of the Roman Empire of Augustus had begun a long period of peace, one thousand years earlier. Trade between east and west became safer and easier. Ideas and goods began to flow around the world.

Genghis Khan is featured in Section 8 of History LessonsCreating Opportunities

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