Who is Chinggis Khan?

Chinggis Khan

(b. 1162, near Lake Baikal, Mongolia—d. Aug. 18, 1227)

One of the most famous conquerors in history is the Mongolian warrior-ruler Chinggis Khan. He was also known as Genghis Khan, although his original name was Temüjin. He consolidated tribes into a unified Mongolia and then extended his empire across Asia to the Adriatic Sea.The chronology of Temüjin’s early life is uncertain. He may have been born in 1155, in 1162 (the date favoured today in Mongolia), or in 1167. According to legend, his birth was auspicious because he came into the world hold-ing a clot of blood in his hand. He is also said to have been of divine origin, his first ancestor having been a gray wolf, “born with a destiny from heaven on high.” Yet his early years were anything but promising. When he was nine, his father, Yesügei, a member of the royal Borjigin clan of the Mongols, was poisoned by a band of Tatars, another nomadic people, in continuance of an old feud.

With Yesügei dead, the remainder of the clan—led by the rival Taychiut family—abandoned Yesügei’s widow, Höelün, and her children, seizing the opportunity to usurp power. Temüjin was later captured by the Taychiut, who, rather than killing him, kept him around their camps, wearing a wooden collar. One night, when they were feasting, Temüjin knocked down the sentry with a blow from his wooden collar and fled. Although the Taychiut searched all night for him, he was able to escape.Temüjin rose to defeat several rival clans, including the Merkit, Jürkin, Kereit, and the formidable Tartars, ruth-lessly crushing them and leaving him master of the steppes. In 1206 a great assembly was held by the River Onon, and Temüjin was proclaimed Chinggis Khan. The title proba-bly meant Universal Ruler. He distributed thousands of families to the custody of his own relatives and compan-ions, replacing the existing pattern of tribes and clans by something closer to a feudal structure.

The year 1206 was a turning point in the history of the Mongols and in world history, when the Mongols were first ready to move out beyond the steppe. Mongolia itself took on a new shape. The petty tribal quarrels and raids were a thing of the past. A unified Mongol nation came into existence as the personal creation of Chinggis Khan and has survived to the present day, despite many chal-lenges. Chinggis Khan was ready to start on his world conquest, and the new nation was organized, above all, for war. His troops were divided up on the decimal system, were rigidly disciplined, and were well equipped and sup-plied. The generals were his own sons or men he had selected and were absolutely loyal to him.

The great conquests of the Mongols, which would transform them into a world power, were still to come. For now, China was the main goal. Chinggis Khan first secured his western flank by a tough campaign against the Tangut kingdom of Xixia, a northwestern border state of China. His forces then fell upon the Jin empire of northern China in 1211. In 1214 he allowed himself to be bought off, tempo-rarily, with a huge amount of treasure, but in 1215 operations were resumed, and Beijing was taken. Subsequently, the more systematic defeat of northern China was in the hands of his general Muqali. Chinggis Khan himself car-ried out the conquest of the Muslim empire of Khwārezm, in the region of the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya(Jaxartes).

This war was provoked by the governor of the city of Otrar, who massacred a caravan of Muslim mer-chants who were under Chinggis Khan’s protection. Warwith Khwārezm would doubtless have come sooner or later, but now it could not be avoided. During this war theMongols earned their reputation for savagery and terror. City after city was stormed, the inhabitants massacred or forced to serve as advance troops for the Mongols against their own people. Fields, gardens, and irrigation works were destroyed as Chinggis Khan pursued his implacablevengeance against the royal house of Khwārezm. He finally with drew in 1223 and did not lead his armies into war again until the final campaign against Xixia in 1226 and 1227.

Chinggis Khan’s military genius could adapt itself to rapidly changing circumstances. Initially his troops were exclusively cavalry, riding the hardy, grass-fed Mongol pony that needed no fodder. With such an army, other nomads could be defeated, but cities could not be taken. But before long the Mongols were able to undertake the siege of large cities, using mangonels, catapults, ladders, burning oil, and even diverting rivers. It was only gradu-ally, through contact with men from the more settled states, that Chinggis Khan came to realize that there were more sophisticated ways of enjoying power than simply raiding, destroying, and plundering. It was a minister of the khan of the Naiman—the last important Mongol tribe to resist Chinggis Khan—who taught him the uses of lit-eracy and helped reduce the Mongol language to writing.

It was only after the war against Khwārezm, probably in late 1222, that Chinggis Khan reportedly learned from Muslim advisers the “meaning and importance of towns.” And it was another adviser, formerly in the service of the Jin emperor, who explained to him the uses of peasants and craftsmen as producers of taxable goods. He had intended to turn the cultivated fields of northern China into grazing land for his horses. Chinggis Khan chose his successor, his son Ögödei, with great care, and passed an army and a state in full vigour on to him. At the time of his death in 1227, Chinggis Khan had conquered the landmass extending from Beijing to the Caspian Sea, and his generals had raided Persia and Russia. His successors would extend their power over the whole of China, Persia, and most of Russia.