Genghis Khan (1165-1227)

Genghis Khan (1165-1227)

Genghis Khan (1165-1227)

Genghis Khan (1165-1227)


Although Genghis Khan (more properly known as Chinggis Khan), is mainly thought of in negative terms in the West, he is one of history's more charismatic and dynamic leaders. During his lifetime, he conquered more territory than any other conqueror, and his successors established the largest contiguous empire in history. Even today his legacy continues in Asia, for without Genghis Khan there would not be a Mongolia.

The fact that Genghis Khan was able to command a place in history is perhaps more amazing than the deeds that earned him fame as much of his life prior to 1200 was fraught with hardship. Born to the noble family of Yesugei and Ho'elun, Genghis Khan was first called Temuchin. At an early age, he was betrothed to Borte who belonged to another tribe. After leaving Temuchin with Borte's family, Yesugei was returning to his own camp when he was poisoned by Tatars. After his father died, Temuchin returned to his family, still a boy. According to the primary source of information on Temuchin's life, The Secret History of the Mongols, he endured many hardships, including the kidnapping of his wife Borte, but slowly recruited supporters and assumed a mantle of leadership among the Mongols.

After rising to power in 1185, Temuchin experienced numerous setbacks and, eventually, victories. A key to his success was an alliance with his father's anda or blood brother, Toghril Ong-Khan, Khan or King of the Keraits, which were another tribe. With Toghril's support, Temuchin regained Borte and slowly became the paramount power in the steppe. Eventually, relations between Temuchin and Toghril soured and led to a war that left Temuchin victorious. By 1206 Temuchin dominated Mongolia and received the title Genghis Khan (thought to mean Oceanic Ruler or Firm, Resolute Ruler). The years between 1185 and 1206 were, without doubt, the most difficult years for this feared and respected man.

Although Genghis Khan now ruled Mongolia and had united the various tribes into one tribe (the Mongols), he was not content to remain there. Scholars have proposed several reasons why Genghis Khan embarked on a career of conquest, including the demand for booty, revenge for past offenses and megalomaniacal greed for territory and riches. However, as with most wars, there was never a single reason; and, certainly, a variety of factors came into play.

In 1207, the Mongols began operations against Xi-Xia, which comprised much of northwestern China and parts of Tibet. This campaign lasted until 1210 with the Xi-Xia ruler submitting to Genghis Khan. During this period, the Uighurs also submitted peacefully to the Mongols and became valued administrators throughout the empire.

Peace did not last long. In 1211, after a great quriltai or meeting, Genghis Khan led his armies against the Chin Dynasty that ruled northern China. War continued against the Chin until 1234, well after Genghis Khan's death. Perhaps he would have succeeded against them, but he was pulled away from the campaign because of an incident in central Asia. In 1219 a caravan under the protection of Genghis Khan had been massacred in Otrar, a city of the Khwarazm Empire, which consisted of all or parts of modern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

With his armies engaged in China, Genghis Khan attempted to find a peaceful solution, but Muhammad Khwarazmshah, the ruler of the Khwarazm Empire, forced the issue, unaware of the might of Genghis Khan. After the execution and humiliation of his envoys, Genghis Khan left a trusted general, Muqali, to battle the Chin while he led an army to central Asia. Mongol armies had clashed with those of Khwarazm earlier in 1218 when Genghis Khan's son Jochi and a general (Jebe) completed the conquest of Qara-Kitai, which was to the northeast of Khwarazm.

From 1219 to 1222, the Mongols waged a war in central Asia and destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire. Striking from several directions, Genghis Khan-accompanied by his four sons: Jochi, Ogodei, Chaghatai, and Tolui-carried out a campaign that remains strategically remarkable. Though a few Khwarazmian princes escaped, the defeat was complete; but Genghis Khan still had a matter of revenge to settle.

The ruler of Xi-Xia, who had submitted in 1210, had not provided troops for the campaign. Although this act of rebellion gravely insulted Genghis Khan, for the time being the defeat of Muhammad Khwarazmshah was much more important. After the conquest of the Khwarazmian Empire, however, Genghis Khan turned his armies once again against Xi Xia.

In 1226, his armies invaded Xi-Xia. During the campaign, Genghis Khan fell from his horse when it startled while the emperor hunted. Although he eventually died from internal injuries as a result of the fall, he did not allow his followers to halt the campaign. They continued the siege of the capital of Xi-Xia even after his death. When the conquest was complete, Genghis Khan was buried in a secret location that remains a mystery although several modern expeditions have attempted to find it.

Even today the legacy of Genghis Khan remains impressive. His wars were often a matter of retaliation as well as bids for territory or riches. As an organizational and strategic genius, Genghis Khan created one of the most highly-disciplined and effective armies in history; this same genius also gave birth to the core administration that ruled it. Even after he died on campaign in 1227, the Mongol armies dominated the battlefield until the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Adriatic Sea.

His non-military achievements include the introduction of a writing system based on the Uighur script (still used in Inner Mongolia today), the idea of religious tolerance throughout the empire, and the achievement of tribal unity among the Mongols. Genghis Khan's greatest accomplishments, however, cannot be counted in terms of territory or victories, but in the presence of a Mongol nation and culture. Mongols today venerate him as the founding father of Mongolia.

Dr. Timothy May
Assistant Professor of History
Young Hall
North Georgia College and State University

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