Who was this Temujin Borjigin, born in 1162 or so on the steppes of Mongolia? How did this poor, illiterate child grow up to conquer all the countries around him? How did a lowly Mongolian herder become the greatest military genius the world has ever seen?
Most of what we know of Temujin Borjigin who became Genghis Khan comes from the Secret History of the Mongols, a literary work written after Genghis’ death in 1227. The Secret History is a rich source of Mongolian folklore, poetry and tall tales as well as historical elements about Genghis and his early conquests over the Mongolian tribes.
From a difficult and savage beginning, Genghis grew ever stronger. He made alliances with those tribes who could help him. Gradually, he united the entire Mongol people. From there, he led them to war against the Chinese and Persians, building his immense empire step by step. Genghis Khan was virtually a one man world war, considering the territories he conquered.
History shows one face of Genghis Khan: that of the brilliant, ruthless conqueror. When cities and people submitted to his rule, the Great Khan could be a benevolent ruler. Refuse to submit, however, and entire cites were laid waste and everyone killed. There is no doubt that Genghis was brutal and ruthless.
What else can we tell of Genghis the man? Centuries have covered many clues to his psychological makeup, but from his deeds, we can divine certain elements of his character.
Willing to Learn
Genghis and his Mongols warriors were fierce and deadly cavalry, but nearly useless against city walls. Genghis learned of siege engines and adapted them to his use. With his catapults and trebuchets, no city could stand against the Mongol army.
Open to New Ideas
Unlike the sedentary people around them, nomadic Mongols were receptive to new ideas. The Mongols had no firm cultural biases about many things, so were open to empire-wide trade, to printing technology, to new religions and to new forms of art. Whatever they didn’t have of their own, they adopted from others, making for a rich, cross-cultural mix of art and technology.
Meritocracy and One Law for All
Rather than perpetuate aristocracies, Genghis elevated men based on their abilities, courage and loyalty to him. If a man showed courage in battle and cunning in tactics, he’d find himself promoted rapidly. If a general lost a battle, he’d be demoted to the rank of common soldier. In this way, Genghis built a strong, disciplined army capable of winning all the territories he set them against. Genghis wrote a body of law called the yasa, which went on to influence law in other countries for 700 years.
Pragmatic and Organized
Genghis employed techniques and tactics that worked. To facilitate quick communication throughout his vast empire and army, he set up an empire-wide courier relay system. Safe travel was essential for trade so Genghis developed diplomatic passports and merchant associations. A man could travel from Venice to China in safety, which opened and fostered international trade for over 100 years.
Genghis Khan was brilliant, ruthless and brutal, but he was also curious, open and adaptive of new ideas. Strong and disciplined himself, he demanded the same of others and created an unstoppable army. His impact on the world was immense, reverberating throughout the empire for centuries.