“The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”
– Genghis Khan
Some 750 odd years later, those same words would be paraphrased by Hollywood scriptwriter John Milius and recited by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Only in Schwarzenegger’s heavily mangled Austrian accent it comes out something like this: “Crush yoah enemies, see dem driven befoah you, and hear de lammentation of de vimmin!” Still, if Conan is lifting your lines, you know you must have been one seriously hard bastard. Through sheer force of bloody minded will, Genghis Khan united a rag tag bunch of savage, perpetually feuding tribes under the Mongol banner and turned them into the fiercest fighting machine the world has ever seen. The Mongols swept out of the Asian Steppes and across the length and breadth of the continent, vanquishing everything in their path with a ruthless abandon. Through the devices of pillage, rape and wholesale slaughter, Genghis Khan subjugated most of the known world. For their unfortunate victims, the coming of the Mongols was if the apocalypse itself was visited upon them.
Country of Rule: Mongolia. At the time of Genghis Khan’s death, the Mongolian Empire stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea – the largest Empire the world had yet seen.
From: 1206 AD (Date of unification of “Mongolian” tribes) – 1227 AD
Official Title:Named Temujin when he was born, the name Genghis Khan was bestowed after Temujinhad united the various Mongolian tribes. The exact significance of the name is shrouded in mystery, but probably means something like “Great Conqueror” or “Universal Ruler”.
Demise: Accounts vary, but was probably killed by a fall from his horse after an accumulation of war injuries in 1227 AD. Thought to be 65 years of age.
Death Toll: Hotly disputed, but almost certainly in the tens of millions. The Mongols under Genghis Khan frequently practised wholesale slaughter during their conquests, employing tactics that could only be described as genocidal. Perhaps as many as 15 million deaths were directly attributable to Mongol slaughter, with possibly tens of millions of additional deaths occurring indirectly due to famine in the wake of the Mongol conquests. Overall, Genghis Khan was responsible for perhaps as many as 30-40 million deaths.
Physical Defects:No accurate portraits of Genghis Khan have survived, so we can’t be certain of what he looked like. According to early 14th century Persian historian Rashid al-Din, however, Genghis was “tall, long-bearded, red haired and green eyed”. So it looks like one of history’s greatest military leaders might actually have been a ginger minger.
Worst Fictional Portrayal: Back in 1956, somebody actually thought it was a good idea to cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan. The result was The Conqueror – widely derided as one of the worst movies ever made. John Wayne delivers his lines exactly the same as he does in every other John Wayne movie, making Genghis Khan sound as if he’s the sheriff of a Wild West town.
Bio:At the time of Genghis Khan’s childhood, the Central Asian steppes were an uncompromisingly harsh and uncivilised environment. The region was divided among a number of unruly tribes – the Mongols, the Merkits, the Uyghurs, the Keraits, the Tatars and the Naimans. Each tribe was further subdivided into numerous clans, any of which might be at each others’ throats at any given moment. It was a lawless region, with blood feuds, raids and kidnappings being commonplace activity among the perpetually feuding factions. Uneasy alliances sometimes took place, but they were subject to shifting loyalties. More often than not, the various tribes simply regarded each other with outright hostility. Life was unforgiving and violent. You had to be tough if you wanted to stay alive.
Fortunately for the young Temujin, he was well equipped for survival, and overcame the kind of adversity that would surely have finished off lesser men. Born the third son of the chief of a fairly minor Mongol clan, the 9 year old Temujinwas sent away into arranged marriage in order to cement an alliance with a neighbouring clan. However, while returning home, Temujin’s father was poisoned and killed by the rival Tartar tribe. Temujin tried to claim the chieftainship of his clan, but understandably, they refused to follow a 9 year old kid. A rival seized control and expelled Temujin’s family, forcing them to live in a state of poverty out in the wilderness.
Vulnerable to the hostile outside world, Temujin’s family was attacked by a gang of raiders, and the future warlord was captured and enslaved. However, Temujin somehow managed to escape his tormentors and returned to his family. The escape made Temujin famous throughout the local provinces, and enabled him to attract various exiled families to band together under his name. Along with Temujin’s existing family, this formed to basis of a burgeoning clan.
Adversity struck again, however, when Merkit raiders attacked and kidnapped Temujin’s wife, Borte. Temujin sought the assistance of Ong Khan, chief of the neighbouring Keraits, along with his childhood friend, Jamuka, who had assembled a clan of his own, in order to raise and army and go to war with the Merkits. The campaign was a resounding success. Borte was returned to Temujin and the Merkits were utterly defeated. Temujinhad now cemented his reputation as a capable and respected military leader and a man who could unite various factions with his charisma and strength of will.
The importance of forging alliances in Mongolia’s treacherous political climate was well understood by Temujin. Through a series of diplomatic manoeuvres, abetted by judicious use of force where necessary, Temujin was able to unite all of the various Mongol clans under his banner by 1200 AD. He then set about conquering the Mongols’ neighbouring tribes as well. But rather than pursuing the conquered tribes into extinction, he brought them into his protection and integrated them with the Mongols as equal subjects. He encouraged loyalty by offering promotion on the basis of merit, rather than family connections, and by promising his subjects generous spoils from future conquests. By 1206 AD, Temujin had used a combination of force and diplomacy to unite all of the rival tribes in the Asian steppes under the Mongolian banner. Temujin was awarded the title of Genghis Khan (Universal Ruler) and the Mongol Empire was born.
The new Khan immediately set about instituting the rule of law in the previously chaotic region. He established the Yassa, a code of laws governing a revised military structure of Mongolian society, along wih a list of crimes and their respective punishments (usually execution). The united Mongolian tribes now had a set of rules to govern their conduct. Where previously there was violent inter clan feuding and wholesale banditry, there was now order and unity. Every able bodied man under the age of 60 was expected to become a warrior in the Mongolian army. Effectively, there was no male civilian population. Every Mongolian male was perpetually mobilised for war. The fighting force was organised according to a decimal system, with units of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 men. Cleverly, Genghis Khan split the members of the various tribes up among the units, so each man was forced to abandon his ethnic loyalties in favour of loyalty to his fighting division.
With his army organised into a fiercely disciplined fighting force, Genghis Khan immediately prepared for further conquest. For the next 21 years – right up until the Khan’s death– the Mongols would be in a state of almost perpetual war. The first target was nearby Western Xia – home of the Tanguts – a tribe of people descended from similar ancestry to the Mongols, but long since established into a settled civilisation patterned after the Chinese. The Tangut civilisation was utterly destroyed during three years of bloody warfare with the Mongols. In future generations, the remnants of the Tangut people were incorporated into Mongolia and China.
From Western Xia, Genghis Khan was able to strike at the Jin Dynasty (the northern part of China, which was divided into two distinct dynasties at this point in history). The Mongols spent four years laying waste to much of the Chinese countryside and corresponding population, before taking and sacking the Jin capital of Yanjing (later to become Beijing) in 1215 AD. The Khan then decided to send his armies west to conquer the Kara-Khitan Khanate – an Empire that geographically corresponds to parts of modern day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China. The conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire (roughly corresponding to modern day Iran) followed. Genghis Khan had now subjugated the bulk of Central Asia to his will – an Empire of formidable dimensions – stretching from the east coast of modern day Russia to the door step of Europe.
The sweeping success of Genghis Khan’s conquests can be attributed to several key factors. Most significantly, there was the quality of the Mongolian army and the effectiveness of their battleground tactics. In most regions of the world, medieval armies did not consist of highly trained warriors. Typically, armies would consist largely of peasant levies augmented with the skills of a few professional fighting men. Even the Chinese Jin Dynasty, which retained a vast standing army (over 1 million soldiers) did not have the fighting prowess of the Mongols, who emerged triumphant with much fewer numbers of men. The life of a Mongol warrior was spent perpetually attuning himself for war. When he was not at battle, he spent his time practising his horsemanship, archery and unit tactics. The principle recreation was hunting, which was carried out from horseback and in formation, allowing the warriors to further hone the skills and tactics they would utilise in battle. Even when the Mongol was engaged in play, he was preparing himself for war.
The Mongolian army consisted entirely of cavalry. There were no infantry forces. Typically, 60% of the forces would consist of light horse archers. Compared with European cavalry, these men were only very lightly armoured. Speed and mobility was the key. Mongol archers had the most advanced bow in the world at that time – a light, short recurve bow that could be used effectively and accurately from long range while on horseback. A good Mongol archer could pick off a target accurately on horseback in full flight at up to 100 metres. A far greater range than was possible by archers in any other army in the world. Massed ballistic arrow shots could be rained down upon enemy units from an astonishing range of 400 metres. The Mongols used their superior range of firepower to a devastating advantage. The light, manoeuvrable horse archers could perpetually dance out of range of enemy missiles and pick them off from a distance. The remaining 40% of the Mongolian forces consisted of more heavily armoured cavalry carrying lances. Once an opposing army was pulled into disarray by the clever manoeuvring of the horse archers, the heavy cavalry would usually mount a surprise attack from the flanks, mopping up anything that hadn’t already been dispatched in the repeated hails of arrows.
The Mongols were actually very cautious and patient fighters. They would rarely risk themselves in an open, frontal assault. Instead they would employ cagey manoeuvres and feints, always using their superior mobility and firing range to its maximum advantage. In this manner, they were frequently able to overcome what would normally be considered insurmountable numerical superiority while sustaining only a minimum of casualties themselves.
A favourite tactic involved rounding up the local civilian population and deploying them, sometimes with captured soldiers, in a vanguard in front of the Mongolian forces. The vanguard would then bear the brunt of the casualties as the Mongolian forces marched forward, protected by the human buffer.
Each warrior typically brought 3 or 4 horses with him when on a military campaign. This would allow him to frequently exchange mounts and therefore travel at high speed for days on end without tiring out his steeds. This, combined with the small, sturdy horses preferred by the Mongols, allowed them to cover incredible distances over all kinds of terrain, arriving to attack an enemy before they knew what hit them. The warriors themselves would only carry a minimum of supplies, drinking horses’ milk (or even horses’ blood) when provisions were low. No other army in the world could travel over such distances at such speed, allowing the Mongols to expand and conquer at a dramatic pace.
The speed, mobility and firepower range of the Mongol warriors, combined with the use of clever tactics that maximised all of these advantages, rendered the Mongolian army virtually invincible. Nothing could stand against them.
The Mongols were also masters of psychological warfare, and had no qualms about waging terror against civilian populations in order to achieve their aims. Because they were few in number relative to the expanse of territory they conquered, the Mongols could not afford to garrison defencive troops in their wake. So instead, they would simply butcher every able bodied male in the towns and cities they conquered. The only men who would be spared were the highly skilled craftsmen and engineers. These technicians would be incorporated into the Mongolian army and used to construct siege equipment such as catapults. In this way, the Mongols were able to incorporate the latest siege technology into their armies as well.
Along with the butchery went the mass rape. Typically, the most attractive women would be rounded up and presented for Genghis Khan’s personal selection. After he had made his choices, the rest of the women would be distributed among his troops. Such was the extent of the Khan’s appetites, and over such a distance and expanse of people did he rape and pillage, modern genealogists speculate that as many as 16 million people in the modern world can trace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. That represents an astonishing 0.25% of the world’s population. Even though Khan was responsible for wiping out a significant proportion of the medieval world, he did do his level best to repopulate it again.
After a town had been totally massacred, a few civilians would be allowed to flee to the next town to report the horrific tales of the Mongolian conquest. This became an important psychological tactic used to frighten opposing forces into submission. Many towns would simply opt to surrender to the Mongols without a fight, fearing the murderous consequences of resistance. Usually, the Mongols would spare populations that opted to surrender in this fashion, pausing only to extract tribute, fresh provisions and promises of loyalty before moving on their way. But the merest hint of resistance was punished with the most extreme measures. Resistance by one person was considered sufficient cause to massacre everybody who lived in his town.
The Mongols also practiced wholesale destruction when it suited their interests, ransacking buildings and farmland and putting entire towns to the torch, erasing them from existence. The conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire (Persia / Iran) was said to be particularly brutal in this regard. The Mongols devastated the complex system of irrigation upon which the Khwarezmian people depended for their crops, resulting in a mass famine and the eventual elimination of up to a third of the Persian population. Reportedly, Genghis Khan had been particularly miffed over the fierce resistance he had encountered among the Persian Muslims.
By 1220 AD, Genghis Khan decided that he’d unleashed sufficient carnage for one lifetime, and decided to head home to the Mongolian steppes. He split his forces into two separate contingents. Genghis Khan led the main army himself, raiding through Afghanistan and Northern India on the route back home. One of the Khan’s chief generals, Subotai, led the rest of the army back via an alternative route, ransacking its way around the Black Sea through Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In this fashion Subotai learned of the rich plunder to be had in the European lands further to the northwest such as Hungary and the Principalities of Rus. Eastern Europe would be the focus of further military conquests for Genghis Khan’s immediate successors, Ogedai Khan and Kublai Khan.
Upon the return to his homeland, however, Genghis Khan decided to wreak further vengeance upon the Tanguts. They had refused to assist in the invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire several years earlier as ordered. The Jin Dynasty promptly rose up in revolt, forcing the Khan to spend his final years at war. In 1227 AD, Genghis Khan died, said to have fallen from his horse suffering from an accumulation of injuries sustained in battle.
Earlier, he had told his sons:
“With Heaven’s aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you”
Despot Rating: The actual extent of Genghis Khan’s brutality is one of the most fiercely debated topics among scholars of Asian history today. In Mongolia and among various Turkic peoples, Khan is revered as a great leader and hero, both for his establishment of a united Mongolian state, and for his brilliant victories in war. Mongolian historians generally claim that Genghis Khan’s reputation for fearsome brutality has been exaggerated by the bias of non-Mongolian accounts.
In some of the regions he conquered, however, and among the people who suffered the most under his campaign of terror, Genghis Khan is perceived to be a bloodthirsty and genocidal tyrant. Particularly in Iran, where he’s commonly portrayed as a medieval equivalent to Adolf Hitler.
While it’s true that Genghis Khan’s achievements and skill at warfare were indeed remarkable, the methods by which he went about his tasks were uncommonly savage. With the deaths of perhaps as many as 40 million people on his hands, Khan was surely one of the most brutal and destructive Despots in human history. Carnage on that kind of scale had been unprecedented since the An Shi Rebellion in China, some 440 odd years previously, and would not be witnessed again until World War II.
To understand what made a man like Genghis Khan behave as he did, perhaps we should consider this quotation from 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche:
“There is nothing very odd about lambs disliking birds of prey, but this is no reason for holding it against large birds of prey that they carry off lambs. And when the lambs whisper among themselves, “These birds of prey are evil, and does not this give us a right to say that whatever is the opposite of a bird of prey must be good?” there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an argument — though the birds of prey will look somewhat quizzically and say, “We have nothing against these good lambs; in fact, we love them; nothing tastes better than a tender lamb.” To expect that strength will not manifest itself as strength, as the desire to overcome, to appropriate, to have enemies, obstacles, and triumphs, is every bit as absurd as to expect that weakness will manifest itself as strength.”
* Five Hitler moustaches out of five for Genghis Khan.