Biography of Genghis Khan, Founder of the Mongol Empire

Official court portrait of Genghis Khan

Bridgeman Art Library / Getty Images

Genghis Khan (c. 1162–August 18, 1227) was the legendary founder and leader of the Mongol Empire. In a span of just 25 years, his horsemen conquered a larger area and greater population than the Romans did in four centuries. To the millions of people conquered by his hordes, Genghis Khan was evil incarnate; in Mongolia and Central Asia, however, he was widely revered.

Fast Facts: Genghis Khan

  • Known For: Khan was the founder and leader of the Mongol Empire.
  • Also Known As: Temujin
  • Born: c. 1162 in Delun-Boldog, Mongolia
  • Died: August 18, 1227, in Yinchuan, Western Xia
  • Spouse(s): Borje, Khulan, Yesugen, Yesulun (plus others)
  • Children: Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei, Tolui (plus others)

Early Life

Records of the Great Khan's early life are sparse and contradictory. He was likely born in 1162, though some sources say 1155 or 1165. We know that the boy was given the name Temujin. His father Yesukhei was the chief of the minor Borijin clan of nomadic Mongols, who lived by hunting rather than herding or farming.

Yesukhei had kidnapped Temujin's young mother, Hoelun, as she and her first husband were riding home from their wedding. She became Yesukhei's second wife; Temujin was his second son by just a few months. Mongol legend claims that the baby was born with a blood clot in his fist, a sign that he would be a great warrior.

Hardship and Captivity

When Temujin was nine, his father took him to a neighboring tribe to work for several years and earn a bride. His intended wife was a slightly older girl named Borje. On the way home, Yesukhei was poisoned by rivals and died. Temujin returned to his mother, but the clan expelled Yesukhei's two widows and seven children, leaving them to die.

The family survived by eating roots, rodents, and fish. Young Temujin and his full brother Khasar grew to resent their eldest half-brother Begter. They killed him and as punishment for the crime, Temujin was seized as a slave. His captivity may have lasted for more than five years.

Youth

Set free at age 16, Temujin went to find Borje again. She was still waiting for him and they soon married. The couple used her dowry, a fine sable-fur coat, to make an alliance with Ong Khan of the powerful Kereyid clan. Ong Khan accepted Temujin as a foster son.

This alliance proved key, as Hoelun's Merkid clan decided to avenge her long-ago kidnapping by stealing Borje. With the Kereyid army, Temujin raided the Merkids, looting their camp and reclaiming Borje. Temujin also had help in the raid from his childhood blood-brother Jamuka, who would later become a rival. Borje's first son Jochi was born nine months later.

Consolidation of Power

After rescuing Borje, Temujin's small band stayed with Jamuka's group for several years. Jamuka soon asserted his authority, rather than treating Temujin as a brother, which started a two-decade feud between the 19-year-olds. Temujin left the camp, along with many of Jamuka's followers and livestock.

At the age of 27, Temujin held a kurultai (tribal council) among the Mongols, who elected him khan. The Mongols were only a Kereyid sub-clan, however, and Ong Khan played Jamuka and Temujin off one another. As Khan, Temujin awarded high office not just to his relatives, but to those followers who were most loyal to him.

Unification of the Mongols

In 1190, Jamuka raided Temujin's camp, cruelly horse-dragging and even boiling alive his captives, which turned many of his followers against him. The united Mongols soon defeated the neighboring Tatars and Jurchens, and Temujin Khan assimilated their people rather than follow the steppe custom of looting them and leaving.

Jamuka attacked Ong Khan and Temujin in 1201. Despite suffering an arrow shot to the neck, Temujin defeated and assimilated Jamuka's remaining warriors. Ong Khan then treacherously tried to ambush Temujin at a wedding ceremony for Ong's daughter and Jochi, but the Mongols escaped and returned to conquer the Kereyids.

Early Conquests

The unification of Mongolia ended in 1204 when Temujin defeated the powerful Naiman clan. Two years later, another kurultai confirmed him as Genghis Khan or universal leader of all Mongolia. Within five years, the Mongols had annexed much of Siberia and what is today the modern Chinese Xinjiang province.

The Jurched Dynasty, ruling northern China from Zhongdu (Beijing), noticed the upstart Mongol khan and demanded that he kowtow to its Golden Khan. In reply, Genghis Khan spat on the ground. He then defeated their tributaries, the Tangut, and in 1214 he conquered the Jurchens and their 50 million citizens. The Mongol army numbered just 100,000.

Conquests of Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus

Tribes as far away as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan heard about the Great Khan and overthrew their Buddhist rulers in order to join his growing empire. By 1219, Genghis Khan ruled from northern China to the Afghan border and from Siberia to the border of Tibet.

He sought a trade alliance with the powerful Khwarizm Empire, which controlled Central Asia from Afghanistan to the Black Sea. Sultan Muhammad II agreed, but then murdered the first Mongol trade convoy of 450 merchants, stealing their goods. Before the end of that year, the wrathful Khan had captured every Khwarizm city, adding lands from Turkey to Russia to his realm.

Death

In 1222, the 61-year-old Khan called a family kurultai to discuss the matter of succession. His four sons disagreed over which should become the Great Khan. Jochi, the eldest, was born soon after Borje's kidnapping and might not have been Genghis Khan's son, so the second son Chagatai challenged his right to the title.

As a compromise, the third son Ogodei became the successor. Jochi died in February 1227, six months before his father, who passed away on August 18, 1227.

Ogodei took East Asia, which would become Yuan China. Chagatai claimed Central Asia. Tolui, the youngest, took Mongolia proper. Jochi's sons controlled Russia and Eastern Europe.

Legacy

After Genghis Khan's secret burial on the steppes of Mongolia, his sons and grandsons continued to expand the Mongol Empire. Ogodei's son Kublai Khan defeated the Song rulers of China in 1279 and established the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan would rule all of China until 1368. Meanwhile, Chagatai pushed south from his Central Asian holdings, conquering Persia.

Within Mongolia, Genghis Khan revolutionized the social structure and reformed traditional law. His was an egalitarian society, in which the humblest slave could rise to be an army commander if he showed skill or bravery. War booty was divided evenly among all warriors, regardless of social status. Unlike most rulers of the time, Genghis Khan trusted loyal followers above his own family members—which contributed to the difficult succession as he aged.

The Great Khan forbade the kidnapping of women, probably due in part to his wife's experience, but also because it led to warfare among different Mongol groups. He outlawed livestock rustling for the same reason and established a winter-only hunting season to preserve game for the hardest of times.

Contrary to his ruthless and barbaric reputation in the west, Genghis Khan promulgated several enlightened policies that would not become common practice in Europe until centuries later. He guaranteed freedom of religion, protecting the rights of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus alike. Genghis Khan himself worshiped the sky, but he forbade the killing of priests, monks, nuns, mullahs, and other holy people.

A 2003 DNA study revealed that about 16 million men in the former Mongol Empire, about 8% of the male population, carry a genetic marker that developed in one family in Mongolia about 1,000 years ago. The most likely explanation is that they are descended from Genghis Khan or his brothers.

Sources

  • Craughwell, Thomas. "The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan's Mongols Almost Conquered the World." Fair Winds Press, 2010.
  • Djang, Sam. "Genghis Khan: World Conqueror, Vols. I and II." New Horizon Books, 2011.
  • Weatherford, Jack. "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World." Three Rivers Press, 2004.