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Discovering The Controversial Figure of Genghis Khan

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The name “Genghis Khan” often conjures up images of brutality, barbarism, and warmongering. His image struck fear into the people of the steppe and even today, almost 800 years after his death, is one of the most famous things to come out of Mongolia. However, it can be contended that his brutality overshadows his quality in leadership. His stewardship and management skills united his domain into a force to be reckoned with.

Genghis (or Chinggis) Khan (formerly Temujin), of house Borjigin lived from roughly 1162 to 1227 CE. In his 21 years of rule he led the Mongols, an East Asian tribe of warriors who were experts in both riding horses and archery. From the area we call Mongolia today, he turned the tribe into a terrifying powerhouse known as the Mongol Empire. At its’ furthest it extended all over Asia. While his brutality and lust for power is portrayed often, what is often ignored is his political prowess, and credit for his work in transforming the Mongols is not given enough.

Temujin was born to Yesugei, a chief of the Mongols, in 1162. After growing up in both riches and poverty after his father’s death, he began to set the foundations for his own ascent to power at a young age. Using his nobility, he began to make allies of several Mongol and non-Mongol tribes in the area. After his wife, Borte, was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe, he led a campaign with the help of his blood brother Jamukha (who himself was also trying to establish power) and his Keraite ally, Toghrul Khan. Having the foresight to establish allies and the military skill to lead troops, he crushed the Merkits and rescued his wife. Temujin was eventually elected Khan of the Mongols in 1186. This did not last long, however, as Jamukha (having been disillusioned with Temujin’s growing power) attacked him with 30,000 men in what is called the Battle of Dalan Balzhut within a year.

After becoming a general in the Jin (a Chinese dynasty) army in the 10 years that followed, Temujin was given power after a successful campaign against the Tatar tribe, who had betrayed the Jin some time prior. It was here that he began to adopt the progressive ways he is known for. Mongol customs favored nepotism, but Temujin usually delegated governmental and military roles based on skill and ability. When he conquered, he adopted the conquered people into his empire, rather than killing or exiling them all. Aside from certain practices like Jewish circumcision and Halal butchering, Temujin was religiously tolerant and regularly had advisors of all different religions.

After finally beating Jamukha once and for all, and conquering all tribes in the area (like the Naimans, Keraites, Tatars and Uyghurs), a Kurultai (a meetup-council of Mongol chiefs) was arranged, and there in 1206 Temujin was from then known by lesser chiefs as the Khan (ruler) of the Mongols. With all the tribes of the area under his rule, and with the end of infighting and internal strife, Temujin, who had now adopted the title of Genghis Khan (eternal ruler), was free to conquer all his surroundings and turn it into what is now known as the Mongol Empire.

The area Genghis Khan inhabited was one of much war and strife. With no centralized government, tribes were nearly always at war with each other, constantly backstabbing each other and throwing the concept of loyalty out the proverbial window. Under Genghis Khan, all this changed. With the united armies of the area under his control, his sheer numbers and tactical ability made the Mongol Empire a force to be reckoned with. Genghis Khan and his generals, such as the famous Subutai, practiced military organization that was unheard of in the area. The Mongols relied heavily on horses and archery to win their wars. As each soldier owned multiple horses, they could change their mount from a tired one to a fresh one. Often the Mongols could cover up to 100 miles a day, which was terrifyingly fast at the time. The higher ups crafted a system of rigid but not harsh discipline that effectively commanded the loyalty of the lower troops. Most officers were free to command their small units as they saw fit, which made them wholly unpredictable on the battlefield. The Mongols’ strengths in battle were their speed and unwavering loyalty. With their base 10 unit system, they were often more organized than their opponents. Their ability to farm and eat their animals even while traveling meant the issue of famine (which often affected armies up until the modern age) was not usually applicable to them. Under Genghis Khan’s rigid but fair leadership, the Mongols almost always began battles with a huge advantage over their opponents, even when outnumbered.

Under Genghis Khan’s rule, which lasted from 1206 to 1227, his empire extended from the western coast of the Sea of Japan to just east of Baghdad. The Mongols invaded places like China under the Jin dynasty, Khwarezmia, the Qara Khitai, the Western Xia dynasty, and even as far west as Georgia. The preconception of the brutal Mongol leader comes from later conquests such as these where he sometimes led mass executions as revenge for underhanded tactics in battle. However, he also created the Yassa, which was a law code that governed the entire Mongol Empire fairly and effectively. Generally the Empire functioned as a meritocracy without nepotism, which was progressive and uncommon at the time. As the Yassa was kept secret from the general public, most people only had a general idea of how to follow the law. However, this meant most people understood what was right and wrong without having it blatantly spelled out for them. It controlled everything in the Empire from culture to the military. Some European and Arabic visitors to the court of Genghis Khan compiled a list of certain laws that were part of the Yassa, and while now they seem rather outdated, the Mongolian word today for “custom” is “yoso”, which comes from the same root as Yassa.

Genghis Khan, while a brilliant leader in his own right, has mixed views at best worldwide. While one of his greatest contributions to the world was solidifying the Silk Road and inspiring a new network of communication in Eurasia, he is, for example, viewed extremely negatively in the Middle East. He did many great things, but many bad things as well. Many, many people died under his rule. He is often credited with a population decline in the world during his 21 years in power. While he practiced religious tolerance in his own empire, he was quite hostile to Islam outside of it. His rampages through Eastern Europe, Asia and Arabia came at the cost of many cities’ livelihoods and some never recovered. For example, the population of the northern part of China decreased by roughly 40 million in about 40 years due to migration and Mongol killing. Almost 75% of the Iranian population at the time died under Mongol rule. However, some people like Mongolians and Turks praise him heavily. In Turkey he is praised for his militaristic and administrative skill. In Mongolia he is a national hero. He is essentially the biggest feature in Mongolian culture. Many places, buildings, and landmarks are named after him, not least of which is the Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar. Recently, Mongolians have begun to celebrate his birthday on the first day of winter as a national holiday. His progressive views on race and religion are still highly praised in Mongolia and elsewhere.

His death was the subject of mass mourning in the Empire in 1227. The actual circumstances of his exit from this mortal coil are debated. Some say it was due to internal injuries sustained from falling from a horse while he attacked Yinchuan in China. Marco Polo claimed he died in battle from an infection caused by an arrow wound. Whatever the circumstances of his death, his actual location of burial is still unknown to this day. Legend has it that the funeral procession killed everyone along the way to prevent anyone from knowing where their leader was buried.

Genghis Khan, born Temujin Borjigin, was a strange leader. Brutal in some areas, progressive and tolerant in others, he is polarizing in actions and in others’ views on him. What cannot be debated, however, is that he led the Mongols to a golden era of conquering and prosperity. In video games such as Civilization V and Crusader Kings II his virtual counterpart behaves in a barbaric, poorly administrated manner. Unfortunately, his skill in stewardship and quality in leadership is overshadowed by some of his atrocities in the early 13th century in many places, and maybe rightfully so. But Genghis Khan as the leader of the Mongol Empire was a force to be reckoned with, and an important historical figure.

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