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Genghis Khan - Famous and Infamous Rulers
2390    Dibyendu Banerjee    16/07/2018

Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian warrior-ruler and one of the most famous conquerors of history, was born around 1162, near Lake Baikal or along the banks of the Onon River or somewhere near the border between modern Mongolia and Siberia. Originally, he was named Temujin, which means ‘of iron’ or ‘blacksmith.’ He is the man, who consolidated different tribes into a unified Mongolia and then extended his empire across Asia to the Adriatic Sea.

Since his early life, Genghis was forced to get habituated with the brutalities of life. In fact, during those days life on the central Asian steppe was not that easy. The nomadic tribes of the area were constantly engaged in fighting and plundering from each other. Even, his mother was kidnapped by his father and forced her into the marriage.


Before Temujin turned 10, the rival Tatars poisoned his father and subsequently, their own clan deserted his mother and her siblings in order to avoid the responsibility to feed them. Temujin grew up hunting and foraging to survive, and save the family. During those early days in his life, his small family had to lead a life of extreme poverty, eating roots and fish instead of the normal nomad diet of mutton and mare’s milk. It is said that, at one point, he even killed his older half-brother in a dispute over food. Once he was abducted by his former clan, along with his young wife, and he made a daring escape. He married Borte in the year 1178, with whom he would have four sons and an unknown number of daughters.

Defying all these hardships, Temujin had established himself as a formidable warrior and a leader, attracting a growing number of followers. He successfully amassed an army of supporters and began to forge alliances with the heads of important tribes. Ultimately, he could successfully consolidate the steppe confederations under his banner by 1206, and began to turn his attention to outside conquest.

Temujin intentionally avoided depending on his relatives and put competent allies in key positions for proper and clean administration and executed the leaders of the enemy tribes while incorporating the remaining members into his clan. He ordered to stop plundering, before the complete victory over the enemies and organized his warriors into units of 10 without regard to kin. Temujin was an animist, who believed that all things have a spirit or soul. But, his followers included Christians, Muslims and Buddhists and he united the diversities. Within 1205, he had vanquished all his rivals, including his former best friend Jamuka. In 1206, he called a meeting of the representatives from every part of the territory and established a nation, which is similar to the size of modern Mongolia. He was unanimously bestowed with the title ‘Chinggis Khan’, which roughly means ‘Universal Ruler’, a name that became known in the West as Genghis Khan. Thus, after uniting the steppe tribes, Genghis Khan became the ultimate ruler of over one million people, and for promulgating social justice, he prohibited the kidnapping and selling of women, banned the enslavement of any Mongol and abolished inherited aristocratic titles. He also made livestock theft punishable by death. The other aspects of his remarkable administrative reforms include adoption of a writing system, conducting regular census, granting diplomatic safety to foreign ambassadors. Probably he was the first ruler in history to allow religious freedom in his territory and even granted tax exemptions to places of worship.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan as portrayed in black and white in a 14th-century painting

Genghis Khan’s first campaign outside his territory was against the Xi Xia kingdom in the northwestern China. After a series of smaller raids, the Mongols launched a major drive in 1209 and came very close to the doorstep of Yinchuan, the capital of Xi Xia. There, the Mongols deployed one of their signature tactics. At first they feigned a false withdrawal and then initiated a siege. Though their attempt to flood the city failed, the Xi Xia ruler had no other way, but to submit and present tribute.


His next target was the Jin Dynasty of northern China, as their ruler demanded Genghis Khan’s submission. Here Genghis Khan took a long term tactics. From 1211 to 1214, the Mongols ravaged the countryside and pushed thousands of refugees into the cities, which resulted in a shortage of food. To solve the unthinkable problem, the Jin army desperately butchered tens of thousands of their own peasants. Genghis Khan was waiting this situation and in 1214, he sieged the capital of Zhongdu, now known as Beijing. Naturally, in view of the situation, the Jin ruler had no other option, but to hand over large quantity of silk, silver, gold and horses to the Mongols to purchase peace. However, that was not the end of the story. Later, when the Jin ruler moved his court to the city of Kaifeng, Genghis Khan took his move as a breach of agreement and, with the help of Jin deserters, razed Zhongdu to the ground.


Genghis Khan attacked the Khwarezm Empire in 1219. During that time, the empire covered an extensive area, which included today’s Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. In lieu of peace, the sultan of the empire agreed to a trade treaty. But, when the first caravan arrived his territory, the goods were stolen and the merchants were killed. As if that was not enough, the sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors in his country. In reply, the Mongols swept through the important and prosperous cities of Khwarezm one after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers were usually spared, while the aristocrats and the resisting soldiers were killed. Unskilled workers were often used as human shields during the next assault.

Genghis Khan returned to Mongolia in 1225. During that time, he controlled a huge territory from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea. By 1227, he had conquered much of Central Asia and made incursions into Eastern Europe, Persia, and India. His great empire stretched from northern China down to Beijing in the east and from central Russia down to the Aral Sea in the west.

Genghis Khan
Empire of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan died in his camp during a campaign against the Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia, which had refused to contribute troops to his Khwarezm invasion. After comprehensively defeating the Tangut forces and ransacking their capital, the Great Khan ordered the execution of the entire Tangut royal family as punishment for their defiance. It is alleged that, during that war Khan fell from his horse and died from his injuries on August 1227.

Before his death, he ordered that Xi Xia be wiped from the face of the earth. Accordingly, his obedient army men leveled all the cities and the towns, killing or enslaving all their innocent inhabitants mercilessly. The great Khan insisted to keep his final resting place a secret and his men obeyed him. It is said that, each and every person who happened to face his funeral journey, were brutally butchered by the men in his funeral procession and after the burial they repeatedly rode horses over his grave to conceal it. His grave was unmarked and hence his final resting place remained a mystery forever. Possibly he was buried around a desolate Mongolian mountain, probably around the Burkhan Khaldun. But, its precise location is unknown.

Genghis Khan rose from humble beginnings to establish the largest empire in history. With exceptional intelligence, patience and courage, he united the diversified nomadic tribes of the Mongolian plateau, formed a nation of fierce warriors and conquered huge chunks of central Asia and China and in the process, conquered more than twice as much land as any other person in history. He was ruthless while settling a score and became one of the most feared conquerors of all time. Despite his ruthlessness, he often gave a chance to other kingdoms to peacefully submit to Mongol rule, but he didn’t hesitate to bring down the sword on any society that resisted.

Genghis Khan
Portrait on a hillside in Ulaanbaatar, 2006

He slaughtered thousands of men in the course of his invasions, but he also granted religious freedom to his subjects, abolished torture, encouraged trade, modernized Mongolian culture, reformed the administrative policies and helped open contact between East and West.

The formation of ‘Yam’, a mounted courier service, was an invaluable contribution of Genghis Khan. This medieval postal system consisted of a network of a well-organized series of post houses and way stations strung out across the width and length of the Empire. A horseman often covered as far as 200 miles a day and while he took a rest in a halting station, a fresh rider used to start his journey with the courier. The system allowed goods and information to travel with unprecedented speed. Apart from that, it also acted as the eyes and ears of the Khan. With the help of the Yam, he kept himself abreast of the latest military and political developments in the country and maintained contact with his extensive network of spies and scouts. The Yam also helped to protect foreign dignitaries and merchants during their travels. In later years, Famous Italian explorer Marco pole and the medieval Italian diplomat John of Plano Carpini, who was one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan, also used this service.

Despite being a significant figure, very little is known about Genghis Kahn’s physical appearance or his personal life. Never did he allow anyone to paint his portrait, sculpt his image or engrave his likeness on a coin and none of his contemporary portraits or sculptures have found. What little information the historians do have about his appearance, is often contradictory, confusing or unreliable. Most accounts describe him as tall and well built with a flowing mane of hair and a long beard. The 14th century Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din claimed that, Genghis had red hair and green eyes, which are not uncommon among the ethnically diverse Mongols.

Of all the enigmas shrouding the life of Genghis Khan, perhaps the most famous concerns how it ended. The traditional narrative says he died in 1227 from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse, but other sources list everything from malaria to an arrow wound in the knee. Some opined he died from pneumonia. However, it is also said that, he succumbed to blood loss after being castrated by a Tangut princess, who later committed suicide.

Genghis Khan
The Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ejin Horo Banner, Inner Mongolia

Before the fall of Soviet Union, the Soviets tried to erase his memory by removing his story from the school textbooks and forbidding people from making pilgrimages to his birthplace in Khentii. During those days even the mention of the name of Genghis Khan was banned. But, since the early 1990s, he is regarded as the founding father of Mongolia. Today, the nation’s main airport in the city of Ulan Bator, is named after him and his portrait even appears on Mongolian currency.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan Monument in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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