Genghis Khan

By: Mick Yates


Genghis Khan, the creator and Leader of the Mongol empire, was born around 1165 (dates vary wildly), and died in August 1227.

Genghis Khan portraitAn excellent biographical source is Paul Ratchnevsky's book "Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy". A book written in Mongolian, straight after Genghis' death, was The Secret History. In what follows, the Leadership analysis is my own, mistakes and all.

Original art by G. Radnaabazar.    


At the time of the rise of Genghis Khan, the Mongol tribes were disunited. They had a fiercely independent nature, a strongly held system of social rules, and were essentially shamanistic in religious beliefs. Their nomadic existence meant they relied on barter rather than money, but because of long standing in-fighting between the tribes, they were economically poor. Stories of eating "anything that moved" and even of some cannibalism in hard times persist.

Politically, whilst the Mongols clearly recognized their own tribal connections and blood ties, there was no "Mongol Nation".

The Tartars to their east, and the Keraits to their immediate west were enemies of the Mongols. To the south-west were the Uighurs, and due south, the Chinese Chin dynasty was well established. The Chin were powerful enough to extract dues of various kinds from their northern, nomadic neighbors. And, to the far west, stretching to the Black Sea, the Islamic Sultanate of Muhammad of Khwarazm prospered.

The times were cruel, with execution being the usual punishment for transgressions. Wars were fought with no mercy for the opposing army. Slavery was the norm for conquered peoples. On the other hand, the Mongols had an intense sense of loyalty, hated theft, had a history of the acceptance of the beliefs and the way of life of others, and tended to be generous to people they trusted.

Not surprisingly, this background helped shape Temuchin, who later became Genghis Khan.


Temuchin's first major patron was Toghrul, of the Keraits, who he saw as an adopted father. Toghrul was probably the strongest leader amongst the Mongolian tribes at that point, although he was constantly under threat both externally and from family infighting. When Temuchin's wife Börte was abducted by the Merkits, Toghrul and Jamuka (Temuchin's blood brother, his "anda", and eventually his enemy) helped rescue her (1183/84).

But not everything went Temuchin's way, with a major defeat in 1187 leading to almost a ten year gap in his life history, until 1196. That year Temuchin successfully attacked the Tartars. He then rescued Toghrul from exile, who was given the Chin title "Wang Khan". Jamuka declared against Temuchin in 1201, when he was elected "Gurkhan". In 1202 Temuchin exterminated the Tartars, and that year Wang Khan broke with Temuchin. Thus, and perhaps inevitably, Genghis was at war with the Keraits.

In 1203 Wang Khan died, and Genghis assumed his title of King of the Keraits. Jamuka was betrayed to Temuchin, and died in 1205. Thus the stage was set for Temuchin to be elected "Genghis Khan", over all of the Mongolian tribes, in 1206.

In 1209, the Uighurs submitted to Genghis, leaving him free to concentrate on the Chin and to refuse to pay tribute to them. Eventually, after many battles and even a withdrawal to Mongolia, Genghis destroyed Zongdu in 1215. This was the Chin capital (later to become Beijing), so the Chin capital moved south to Nanking (Kaifeng).

Treacherously, and somewhat stupidly, soldiers of Sultan Muhammad of Khwarazm killed ambassadors from Genghis, forcing him to declare war on that Islamic empire in 1219. Genghis won in 1221. His Empire stretched from the Korean peninsular almost to Kiev, and south to the Indus. It was the largest land empire ever seen.

Genghis was thus now able to focus his time on establishing an effective administration of the Mongol Empire, whilst keeping internal strife under check and setting his succession in place.

He died in August 1227 (the cause is not certain), having named one of his sons Ogödei Kha'an his principal successor. Ogödei is remembered by history as probably the most principled of the sons, explaining Genghis' choice.

Genghis' youngest son Tolui (by all accounts the cruelest of his sons) was not chosen - but Tolui's son became Khubilai Khan, later the first Yuan Emperor of China.


Genghis Khan's value system was visible to all, and he certainly "walked the talk".

He totally shared his people's belief in the nomadic way of life, recognizing that, in war as in the hunt, booty is the main aim .. and winning was what counted. However, amassing material wealth did not matter much to him, as he shared everything with his loyal supporters. He was seen as a most generous Leader.

VaseAs an individual, he wanted power. He was a physically strong man, although he was probably not a "hero" in the sense of an outstanding hand-to-hand fighter. He encouraged his supporters to be frank and speak without ceremony, and usually moderated his passion and anger with thoughtful responses.

Genghis also demonstrated a rather liberal and tolerant attitude to the beliefs of others, and never persecuted people on religious grounds. This proved to be good military strategy, as when he was at war with Sultan Muhammad of Khwarazm, other Islamic Leaders did not join the fight against Genghis - it was instead seen as a non-holy war between two individuals.

Whilst Genghis was himself illiterate, he understood the power of spreading ideas via the written word, and used it to administer his empire. He was responsible for the spread of the Uighurs script as the common Mongolian alphabet. He was relentless in learning new things, absorbing ideas from other cultures as often as he could.

Against his enemies, vengeance was a constant theme, reflecting his Mongol cultural heritage, and he slaughtered people with ease. Terror was always one of his principle weapons of war. He laid waste to entire cities and populations that resisted his armies, although he often by-passed others that submitted.

He was clearly most perceptive about politics in rival tribes and cities, and he understood what drove individuals. Usually his strategies involved finding psychological ways to undermine his enemies, based on these perceptions

On the other hand, he recognized the values of his individual enemies. He would put to death a soldier who had tried to be disloyal to their own commander, by, for example, betraying the commander to Genghis. However, he would pardon and even bestow honours and responsibility on those who had fought loyally for their commander - even if against Genghis. In fact one of his most trusted generals, Jebe, was once a young opposing soldier who shot Genghis' horse from under him in battle.

Genghis Khan - Page 2