The Mongol Empire was one of the largest empires in the history of the world, covering a massive nine million square miles at its greatest extent; approximately a quarter of the world’s population were under Mongol rule. One man in particular is credited with this awesome feat of conquest: Genghis Khan.
Born Temujin in around 1162 as the heir of a relatively weak tribe of the Mongol Steppe, his prospects would have not been all that good. Although, Mongol legend has it that the great man was born with his fist closed tightly around a blood-clot. A local shaman told Temujin’s mother, Hoelun, that her son would go on to conquer the world.
Genghis’ early life was fraught with danger and hardship, something which may have had a role in forging one of history’s most formidable and terrifying characters. Returning from a successful betrothal (to his future wife, Borte), Temujin’s father was poisoned by a group of Tatars (historic nomadic enemies of the Mongols). Instead of standing by their rightful heir the tribe abandoned Temujin. The future Khan spent the formative years of his life in poverty and in constant fear of death at the hands of his father’s old allies. Despite the difficulties he faced, Temujin managed to battle against the odds and engineer a rise to power through diplomatic marriage, political strategy and outstanding military acumen.
Showcasing his characteristic tenacity and resourcefulness, Temujin made a tactical alliance with the powerful Jin dynasty of northern China, enabling Genghis to unite the unruly Mongolian peoples. He was a brilliant general, but also crucially he appointed men based on merit, rather than birth. This meant that he not only attracted men of great ability to his cause, but also that his armies were led by men who had proved themselves in battle. Jamukha, Genghis’ greatest domestic enemy, was finally toppled and executed and Temujin was proclaimed Chingis Khan, or ‘universal ruler,’ by the Mongol Hordes. For the first time, the formidable Mongol horsemen of the steppe were united. Not a man to be satisfied with his lot, Genghis planned one of the most ambitious invasions in the history of the world: he sent his armies around the Great Wall of China and into the heartlands of his old benefactors, the Jin dynasty and also the Western Xia dynasty. The invasion was the first of many.
Over the next twenty-one years, Genghis and his generals conquered modern day northern China, the whole of Central Asia, Persia, Russia and even Hungary. In that time empire after great empire fell to the Mongol horde. The Mongol troops and their leaders were famed for their frightening mobility, savagery and ingenuity. Mongol armies were made up exclusively of cavalry; horse archers were particularly effective. In battle, the enemy would be surrounded and pounded down into submission with hail after hail arrows. The Mongols were also remarkably adaptable. They became masters of siege-warfare, and Genghis’ greatest general, Subutai, is credited with being the first commander history to use artillery in battle, rather than during a siege. The un-matched horsemanship of the Mongol troops coupled with savage fear tactics (namely massacring anyone who opposed them) was the principle reason for this nomadic people’s meteoric rise to prominence.
It is remarkable that Genghis was able to keep the empire together, considering how vast it was. It is testament to his imposing personality and ability to strike fear in his enemies and subjects that his conquests were all successful and no successful rebellions every occurred.
To this day Genghis Khan is remembered as one of the most awesome but terrible characters in history. The Mongol campaigns are believed to have caused the deaths of up to five percent of the world’s population between 1205 and 1227, an absolutely staggering statistic. The Mongols under Genghis were undoubtedly one of the most destructive forces ever to have existed. However, they also have a positive legacy. The unification of the famous silk road enabled unprecedented trade across the whole of Asia and into eastern Europe and the Mongols were remarkably tolerant of other cultures and religions. Genghis is still revered in his homeland of Mongolia to this day, and a massive statue stand in the capital of Ulaanbaatar.
After the great man died, his empire was split amongst his sons. The successor states expanded the empire even further. The Mongol legacy is remarkable and Genghis Khan is the man principally responsible for creating it.