About 34 miles (54 kilometers) outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, an immense armor-clad warrior on horseback looms over the landscape. Standing 131 feet (40 meters) tall and fashioned from 250 tons of stainless steel, the grandiose figure stares out into the distance with a cold, cruel expression, as if he is contemplating new lands beyond the horizon to conquer [source: Atlas Obscura].
The real person depicted by the world's biggest equestrian statue, Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, was only slightly less fearsome in the flesh. In the early 1200s C.E., he brought together all the nomadic tribes of Mongolia into one formidable force, and then led them on a campaign of conquest that built the largest empire in human history, a realm that stretched from the Balkans across Asia to Korea, and from India in the south to Siberia in the north. Over about a quarter of a century, Genghis Khan seized more territory — between 11 and 12 million square miles (28.5 million to 31 million square kilometers) — than the Romans did in 400 years [source: Weatherford].
Even more amazingly, Genghis Khan — whose name means "universal ruler" — conquered that vast expanse with an army of just 100,000 men [sources: Bawden, Weatherford]. He won victory after victory by revolutionizing warfare, using quick, agile units of cavalry to outmaneuver numerically superior but slower-moving opponents on the battlefield, and employing guile to lure them into traps. When he laid siege to cities, he did so with a ferocious cruelty — catapulting flaming bombs and diseased animals over the walls, damming streams to create floods and starving populations into submission [source: Field Museum].
All this conquest resulted in a massive death toll — by one estimate, Genghis Khan was responsible for the demise of 37.5 million people [source: McGlynn]. Climate researchers have calculated that Genghis Khan depopulated so many regions with slaughter that forests grew in farm fields that lay uncultivated, absorbing so much carbon dioxide that the Mongol ruler actually cooled the planet [source: Hance]. At the same time, he and his male relatives apparently impregnated so many women in their realm that a 2003 genetic study found that 16 million modern men living in the former Mongol realm — about 0.5 percent of the world's male population — are their descendants [source: Mayell].
But Genghis Khan shook up the medieval world in other ways, reshaping national boundaries and forging new diplomatic and economic relationships that still exist today. And the man who accomplished this was the illiterate son of a family of outcasts, whose sheer tenacity, brilliance and toughness enabled him to overcome those obstacles and become one of the most powerful and influential figures in history.
Genghis Khan's Early Life
Genghis Khan, whose birth name was Temüjin — was born on the grassy plains of Mongolia near the banks of the Onon River, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) northeast of modern-day Ulaabaatar [sources: Edwards, Field Museum ]. The exact date and year of his birth isn't known, though 1162 is one popular guess [source: Bawden].
Temüjin's father was a Mongol chief named Yesügei, who had kidnapped his mother, Höelün, from another tribe. His parentage ended up making Temüjin's childhood quite difficult. When Temüjin was 9, Yesügei was poisoned by the Tatars, another group of nomads, who had an old grudge because he had once robbed them. Once Yesügei was gone, another family in his clan decided to seize power, and they cast out his widow and her children, including Temüjin, leaving them to fend for themselves. Instead of dining on mutton and horse's milk like the rest of the clan, they had to scrounge for roots and catch fish from the river to keep from starving [sources: Bawden, Edwards ].
It's hard to imagine that anyone who knew the young Temüjin suspected that he would become a future conqueror of a vast realm. He never got any formal education, and he was a fearful child who cried easily. He had a younger brother who was stronger than he was, and a better archer and wrestler, and his older brother bullied him [source: Weatherford]. For a time, he even was held captive and enslaved by the rival family that had taken over his clan [source: Bawden].
But inside him, the future Genghis Khan had an indomitable will and a cunning mind that enabled him to triumph over adversity. When he was a captive and forced to wear a wooden collar, he endured the torment patiently, waiting for the moment when his guard was distracted. He then used the wooden collar to knock down the guard, and fled [source: Bawden].
Genghis Khan's Rise to Power
As Temüjin grew up into a young man, he developed other qualities that set him apart. He had a lot of charisma and was able to persuade people to have faith in him and help him. Once, for example, when he was pursuing a thief who had stolen his family's horses, he encountered a stranger who was so impressed by him that he not only gave Temüjin a fresh horse to ride but joined him in recovering the stolen animals. In another instance, when his young bride was kidnapped by a tribe called the Merkit, Temüjin in desperation went to Toghril, the leader of another tribe, the Kereit, and gave him a sable skin that was one of his own wedding gifts. That leader then not only helped Temüjin rescue his wife, but pledged to be his military ally [source: Bawden].
As Temüjin built such alliances, he developed into a formidable warrior with a reputation for treating those who dared to oppose him with extreme brutality. He avenged his father's murder by the Tatars by slaughtering all of the males who were taller than the height of a cart's axle, and then enslaved the women and children. As a result, the enemy tribe basically ceased to exist [sources: Edwards, Bawden].
Amid the shifting intrigue and struggle for power within the Mongol tribes, Temüjin turned on former allies with the same ferocity. When he was in his early forties, his old ally Toghril and his childhood friend Jamuqa, both of whom had aided him in his rise, decided to oppose him. Temüjin beat Toghril's Kereit army in a fierce three-day battle, and then absorbed his soldiers into his own force. In 1205, he defeated the last powerful tribe that opposed him, and captured and executed Jamuqa — though he did grant his friend's last wish to get it over with quickly [sources: Edwards, Bawden].
There was no one left to challenge Temüjin. In 1206, the Mongol tribes held a kurilai, or great assembly. They proclaimed Temüjin as the ruler of all, and gave him a new name, Genghis Khan.
But he was just getting started.
Building a Fearsome Military Machine
Once the Mongols were unified under his rule, Genghis Khan set about reshaping the clans into a real nation. There would be no more petty quarrels and stealing from one another, or jockeying for power, and the Mongols even stopped using the old clan names that had indicated divisions. Instead, Mongols were to be loyal only to him [source: Bawden].
Genghis Khan also set about building a well-equipped, disciplined fighting force that was capable of venturing outside Mongolia to conquer other lands. At the top, he appointed generals who were loyal to him, some of whom were his own sons [source: Bawden]. Under them, the Mongol warriors were organized into small units of 10, all of whom were responsible for one another. If one of them failed, they all were punished for the failure [source: Field Museum].
The heart of Genghis Khan's army was his cavalry units. They were composed of skilled Mongol horsemen, who rode sturdy, grass-fed steeds that could live off the land [source: Bawden]. They were outfitted with armor made of lightweight, flexible chain mail or leather plates, to allow them a fuller range of movement than more heavily armored opponents. They were armed with bows capable of shooting flaming or armor-piercing arrows up to 350 yards (320 meters), and small, light sabers that could be easily manipulated with one hand to cut and slash. Another ingenious Mongol weapon, a hooked lance, allowed them to drag an adversary off his horse [source: Field Museum].
Genghis Khan's forces also developed sophisticated tactics and strategy. Before they attacked an enemy army or besieged a city, they often spent months scouting their opponent's defenses, mapping roads and gathering intelligence about supply sources and escape routes. They also developed a communication network in which riders brought messages to relay stations, so that generals got information quickly. Once they went into battle, they used hit-and-run attacks and subterfuge to negate an enemy's numerical superiority. One favorite trick was for cavalry units to fake a retreat to get an opposing army to pursue them — and then suddenly turn back and go on the attack [source: Field Museum].
But Genghis Khan also realized that the hit-and-run tactics that the Mongols used so effectively wouldn't be enough to conquer a fortified city. So he also amassed weapons such as catapults and ladders to conduct sieges [source: Bawden]. Their ferocious attacks often left cities in ruins [source: Field Museum].
Genghis Khan's Conquest of China
Once Genghis Khan solidified his hold upon Mongolia, he began looking outside its borders. China, with its vast lands and wealth, was an alluring target. One by one, he took on and subjugated the three medieval kingdoms that made up China.
His first major campaign was against the Tanguts, a people who had established a kingdom known as Xi Xia in northwestern China, and had become involved in a tariff dispute with the Mongols. The Mongol army attacked Xi Xia and chased the Tangut forces back to their fortified capital. The Tangut king capitulated. He recognized Genghis Khan as his master, agreed to supply him with troops, and even gave him a princess as a bride to cement their alliance. For Genghis Khan, the conflict was a chance to test out his military, and to see that he needed siege capabilities as well as mobile cavalry [sources: Lane, Lococo].
Next, in 2011, the Mongol emperor took on another foe, the semi-nomadic Jurgen people from Manchuria, who had established the Chin kingdom. In a battle at Huan-erh-tsui, the Mongols' first confrontation with a large foreign army, they outmaneuvered the Jurgens' 70,000-man force and virtually wiped it out.
The Mongols rode back to Mongolia, but they returned in 2013 to raid the Chin kingdom again, capturing vast amounts of silks and gold and taking hundreds of captives, including engineers who helped the Mongols improve their armaments. In addition to copying their rivals' catapults and giant crossbows, they appropriated another Chinese invention — explosives — and put it to fearsome use, in the form of rockets that they fired into enemy ranks to create panic [source: Lane].
Finally, Genghis Khan turned his sights toward the southernmost and largest of the three kingdoms, ruled by the Jin dynasty, one of the most advanced societies in the world. The Jin emperor was so powerful that he assumed the new Mongol ruler would become his vassal — a serious mistake on his part. When his emissaries visited Genghis Khan, the Mongol, insulted, spit on the ground to show his disdain [source: Lococo].
In 1215, Mongol forces attacked and captured Chongdu, one of the largest cities in Asia. The Mongol horsemen rode through the city's streets, firing flaming arrows into the wooden houses, and slaughtering thousands of civilians with their swords. As historian Charles Lane notes, it wasn't just random cruelty. Genghis Khan wanted to send out a message to others who might dare to oppose him [source: Lane].
Building the World's Biggest Empire
A lesser man might have been content just to rule China. But Genghis Khan's desire for land and power was seemingly insatiable.
In 1219, the Mongol ruler went to war against the Khwarezm Empire, which sprawled over an expanse of central Asia that included Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Its ruler, Shah Muhammad, had made the mistake of killing a Mongol ambassador and a trading caravan, perhaps assuming that his walled capital of Samarkand would deter the Mongols. But the Shah's forces were no match for the Mongols, who took the city and burned alive about 1,000 of the Shah's soldiers who had taken refuge in a mosque. Then they leveled the city, killing 100,000 people. They spared 30,000 men with skills — craftsmen, doctors and scribes — who were taken as captives to work in Mongolia [source: Edwards].
Genghis Khan's forces continued to advance, taking more and more territory. Eventually, they reached the edge of Europe. But keeping the vast realm under Mongol control wasn't easy. In the mid-1220s, the Tangut people in Xi Xia, Genghis Khan's first big conquest, rebelled against him, so he turned back east to attack them once again.
But while he was in Xi Xia, Genghis Khan's health mysteriously failed. By one account, he was injured in a fall from his horse while on a hunt, while another account describes him as becoming ill, perhaps from typhus. In August of 1227, on his deathbed, he ordered the extermination of the Tanguts, appointed his son Ogodei as his successor, and then died [source: Edwards]. He probably was 65 years old.
Genghis Khan's Legacy
Genghis Khan's descendants continued to extend Mongolia's power, and eventually conquered the entirety of China and most of Russia as well [source: Bawden]. The Mongols established their own dynasty in China, the Yuan, whose most famous member, Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan, became famous as the result of being visited by a Venetian trader named Marco Polo, who wrote a book about him that was widely read in Europe [source: Bawden].
But the Mongols' dominance of the world was short-lived. They were fearsome conquerors, but once in power, the Khans relied upon their subjects and foreigners to actually run their empire. Over time, the bureaucracy that developed became unwieldy, and rivalries among Mongol leaders weakened their unity. By 1368, they had lost hold of China, and by 1380, they'd been defeated by indigenous foes in Russia and the Balkans as well [source: Bawden].
The Mongol empire didn't last very long, but its influence was profound. While the Mongols weren't particularly inventive, they conquered a lot of peoples who were, and the conquerors spread that knowledge and know-how throughout their realm. They also used their might to open up the world to orderly commerce. It was because of them that playing cards, noodles and tea made their way from China to Europe. Their influence changed everything from the fabrics that Europeans wore to the musical instruments that they played, and eventually helped to make possible the European Renaissance [source: Weatherford].
Author's Note: How Genghis Khan Worked
I didn't know much about Genghis Khan before I started researching this article, so it was fascinating — and disturbing — to learn about his youth in Mongolia. I have to wonder whether his infamous cruelty was at least in part the result of the childhood traumas he experienced.
More Great Links
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