The Rise of Genghis Khan

  By Invictus, January 2006; Revised


The rise of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan was one of the most dramatic in history. No other has risen from such a low position, as part of a family eating roots and rodents for survival, to become a great world conqueror. Genghis Khan’s founding of the Mongol Empire was one of the most significant events in history. 

Much of what we know about Genghis' early life comes from the famous script Yuan Chao Bi Shi, translated as The Secret History of the Yuan Dynasty (or alternatively, “The Secret History of the Mongols”). It was probably completed in 1240, a little over a decade after the death of the Khan. The bulk of the Secret History describes Genghis Khan's early life - his adventures and exploits before world conquest. The story about to be told here is mainly based on these events described in the Secret History. An alternative account of Genghis’ early life is The History of the Tribes, by the Persian historian Rashid ad-Din, who had access to the Secret History. The two works do contain some contradictions, but there is a good agreement between the two sources on the general flow of the story. In any case, the story is difficult to fully verify with historical sources, which do have conflicts to the Secret History’s timeline. Thus, any tale of the rise of Genghis Khan will ultimately be a mix of legend and history.

 12th Century Mongolian steppes. Mongol clans are shown together as one tribe ("Mongols").

The Early Childhood of Temujin
The Mongolian Steppes of the 12th century was a zone of chaos and warfare. The Mongols were a tribe that had been shattered into many disunited clans. They, along with neighboring nomads such as the Tartars and Naimans, lived uneasily in a land of false alliances and betrayal… 

In 1167 Temujin, the future Genghis Khan, was born. His father was Yesugei, the head of the Kiyad sub-clan and leader of a small coalition of clans. When Temujin was nine, his father brought him to visit the Okhunugud tribe. During the visit, Yesugei met Borte, the daughter of the Okhunugud leader known as Dei the wise. Seeing a natural affinity between the two, Yesugei proposed marriage between Borte and Temujin, which Dei gladly accepted. As a steppe tradition, Temujin was to stay with his future wife's family for some time.

Leaving Temujin behind, Yesugei proudly rode back to his camp. However, misfortune struck on the way back. Yesugei stopped for a feast with a group of men he met, but little did he know that they were Tartars, archenemies of the Mongols. While they harmlessly feasted together, the Tartars secretly poisoned Yesugei's food. Yesugei left unknowingly, but when he finally returned to his camp, he was already near death. Temujin was summoned back to assume leadership of the coalition, but the other clan leaders were not impressed by his young age. The other clan leaders of the coalition abandoned Temujin's camp, and soon, even his Kiyad clansmen deserted. In the end, all that was left of Temujin's camp was his mother, his four siblings, his two stepbrothers, and a family servant.

Temujin and his ragtag clan took a life of hardship, living off of plant roots and what little there could be found. One day, when Temujin and his brother Kasar caught a fish, his half brothers snatched it out of his hand and ate it for themselves. In such desperate living conditions, a single fish meant everything, the difference between survival and starvation. Temujin was outraged by his half brother’s selfish actions. He got his bow and shot his half brother Bekter at close range. Even at such an early age, Temujin had developed his defining personality when he would become Genghis Khan. Although we often think of his being exceedingly brutal against his enemies, Temujin was also exceedingly kind to those loyal to him. Temujin pardoned his other half brother, and the two eventually became good friends.

Despite the hardships and the murder of his half brother, Temujin and his family lived on. Temujin had many adventures, including capture by the Tayichigud clan, and dealing with raiding horse thieves. However, Temujin did not seem to be weakened by any of these events. In fact, he kept getting stronger. At age 15, he was old enough to return to Dei's camp to claim his wife, Borte. Without doubt, Temujin had already developed great personal strength, but he still had no political power. His private army numbering only five men, far fewer than what he needed. Shortly though, this would change. 

Warfare on the Steppes

One day, the Merkids Tribe attacked Temujin's camp. Temujin and his family fled safely into the forests but Borte was captured. The Merkids were a strong tribe and he was in no position for direct confrontation. But Temujin realized that long ago his father had an anda (blood sworn brothers), Toghrul Khan of the Keyerids. Temujin traveled to Toghrul and beseeched for help. Since Toghrul still held great memories with Yesugei, he agreed to aid the youngster. Toghrul raised an army of 1500 men and enlisted his ally, Jamugha, who brought an additional 1500 men. Meanwhile, Temujin sent messages to the former clansmen who once served under his father and was able assemble an additional force of about 500 men. Temujin' army was by far the smallest, but it was the first one in his command. The three men marched together in front of their armies against the Merkids. The battle was victorious for Temujin and crushing blow against his foe. During the battle, Temujin recovered his wife Borte.

Through alliances and friendships, Temujin was able to hold military power for the first time. Coincidentally, one of leader in the three men alliance, Jamugha, was also a Mongol, and had been anda with Temujin during childhood. Jamugha and Temujin became reunited friends and together they gained control over a good amount of Mongol clans. They became a force to be feared, and to an extent it seemed as if though the fallen Mongol kingdom was in the stage of resurrection.

One day, while Temujin and Jamugha were riding together in front of their tribesmen, in typical nomadic fashion, Jamugha suggested to Temujin to stop and pitch tent. Temujin, however, "did not understand" Jamugha's words, and after "asking his mother what Jamugha meant," he decided to keep marching even though Jamugha had stopped. As the two leaders separated, the Mongols were dumbstruck. But soon, it became clear to them that they had to choose which leader to follow. Some followed to Temujin while other stayed with Jamugha. The Mongol that went with Temujin then swore loyalty and in return, Temujin swore to lead them to glory. Shortly later, in a huge assembly, Temujin was proclaimed Khan by his followers. Although he now had a new enemy to face, one who was an old friend, Temujin was now sole leader of his men. The old alliance with Toghrul and Jamugha had allowed him to reach for power, and indeed Temujin seized it.

Almost immediately after Temujin was proclaimed Khan, horses of his tribesmen were stolen by those of Jamugha's men. This simple event escalated into warfare between the two leaders. Fighting broke out and Temujin was defeated. What happened next is a confusing timeframe of ten years unmentioned in the Secret History. According to Rashid ad-Din, Temujin was deserted by his followers, and was later captured by his enemies. Possibly, he was exiled to China. Several years later he returned to the steppes, defeated Jamugha and resecured power. Sometime around Temujin’s return, Toghrul Khan also lost the throne to his tribe and was exiled to the Kara-Khitai kingdom. Like Temujin, Toghrul was restored to power, possibly with the aid of Temujin himself.

The Secret history does not describe these events, but instead, skips ahead a decade later to 1198 to, in which Temujin and Toghrul victoriously campaigned against the Tartars. Meanwhile, Jamugha had created powerful alliances with the Merkids, Naimans and the Oyirads. Similar to how Temujin was later proclaimed Genghis Khan, Jamugha was named Gur Khan.

Tension between Jamugha and Genghis grew again. Finally, Jamugha gathered his allies and marched against Genghis for a decisive battle at Koyitan. Upon hearing the threat, Temujin called Toghrul Khan to join him again his anda. Toghrul agreed. Despite the fact that he himself and Jamugha were once allies, alliances on the steppes were nothing but stable. The two armies met at Koyiten for a great, decisive battle but the weather suddenly turned into a severe snowstorm. With both armies stuck in the snow, the battle was call off and both sides withdrew. However, during the withdrawal, a stroke of fortune for Temujin allowed him to successfully attack the Tayichigud, an clan of old rivals to Temujin who turned to serve Jamugha. After a fierce battle, the Tayichigud were destroyed.



The long-awaited clash between Temujin and Jamugha was broken up, and the two sides made peace. But Temujin did not waste time. He attacked the already weakened Tartars, and in 1202, the long time enemy tribe who shattered the old kingdom of the Mongols and murdered Temujin’s father were finally defeated and put to the sword. The defeat and annihilation of the Tartars was great news for the Temujin’s reputation. Meanwhile, Toghrul Khan was becoming old and weary. Manipulated by his son who hated Temujin, the tired and confused old khan became convinced that it was no longer wise to remain as Temujin' ally. Toghrul plotted to assassinate Temujin at an assembly, but unfortunately for him, his plans were overheard and reported to Temujin.

Temujin decided to move eastward to a safer location. As he rode east, an army appeared on the horizon with Toghrul and Jamugha riding at its front. Another worthless alliance has been turned around! Genghis was forced to fight. He was heavily outnumbered but was able to hold off the onslaught until nightfall, where he was able to escape to the Khalka River. Genghis' army was heavily damaged, but along the river, he met various friendly tribes who decided to join his ranks, including the Okhunuguds, the clan of his wife. 

While Temujin was rebuilding his army, he suddenly discovered that Toghrul's had followed his path and was closing in. This time, Temujin decided it was time to eliminate Toghrul, his old friend, once and for all. He quickly assembled his men at night and surrounded Toghrul's camp in a surprise attack. The battle lasted three days but in the end Toghrul was finally defeated. Toghrul's Kereyids tribesmen were slaughtered and the survivors were assimilated into Temujin’s tribe. Toghrul himself escaped but only to be killed later by a patrolling Naiman warrior.

With Toghrul defeated, one two remained to challenge Temujin: Jamugha’s Mongols and his ally, Tayang Khan of Naiman Tribe. In 1204, Genghis assembled his men and marched though the Keluren Valley into Naiman territories. Genghis continued advancing until he reached Mount Khangkharkhan, where the army of Tayang Khan, later to be joined by Jamugha, awaited him. Genghis in his brazen armor, along with his brothers and his “hounds of war” generals led a ferocious attack. After fierce fighting, Tayang and Jamugha were driven up the mountain. Tayang and Jamugha held out into the night but in the end Temujin was victorious. The Naiman Tribe and Jamugha's seven Mongol Clans surrendered and were assimilated into Temujin’s Dominion. Jamugha escaped from the battle, but was completely deprived of power and was forced into a life of banditry. 



With the Naimans defeated and Jamugha's Mongol clans surrendered, Temujin had nearly gained complete mastery of the Mongolian steppes. There were only two minor groups left to conquer: the Merkids, who had regrouped after suffering several defeated and the Oriats in the extreme north of Mongolia. The Merkids were annihilated shortly after the victory over the Naimans, and the latter one, the Oriats, would eventually be defeated. 

Jamugha was soon defeated as a bandit leader. His gang of bandits betrayed him and turned him in to Temujin Khan. Although the two had been strong political enemies, Temujin still remembered that they were still andas – once a brother, always a brother. He realized that "when two men become andas, their lives become one…"

The brotherhood between Jamugha and Temujin was interesting. Although they were political rivals, they never considered themselves to be personal enemies. They fought each other only for conquest and control over other people. Now that Jamugha was no longer a political rival, Temujin was ready to pardon and fully accept Jamugha into his service. But Jamugha declined. Temujin had surpassed him in every way and thus, Jamugha realized that there was no longer a place for his service. Jamugha requested an execution, a request that was honored. According to the Secret History, Temujin had Jamugha executed without shedding blood and had his bones buried with honor.

The Khuriltai of 1206

In the year of the Tiger, 1206, the whole steppes stood watching as the great Khuriltai (assembly) was being held. Temujin became Genghis Khan, emperor all who lived in felt tents - emperor of the steppes. As the ruler of Mongolia, Genghis wanted to ensure the longevity of his empire, a somewhat a daunting task, since not so long ago his empire had been a chaotic battleground of many nomadic powers. To accomplished stability, Genghis created a system that would stress the unity of the empire, and would wipe out tendencies towards local tribal authorities. The entire population was divided into 95 military units, each responsible for maintaining 1000 warriors. Each of these units had a commander personally assigned by the Khan himself. During times of war, each commander was expected to effectively assemble a thousand men. Failure to do so would mean removal from office and a new commander from the thousand would be elected. To ensure availability of warriors, every male at the age of fifteen were required for military duty.

Genghis also created various offices of power within his empire, including imperial administrators and the chief justice. Furthermore, he decreed a number of specific laws, including the toleration of religion, exemption of priests in taxation, the prohibition of contaminating running water, and death penalty for crimes such as robbery, adultery, military desertion, and unreasonable exploitation of traveling merchants. All of these laws and decrees made by Genghis Khan were compiled into one piece, the Great Yasa. While Genghis is often thought to be a vicious barbarian, there is no doubt that he was also a brilliant statesman. 

The new military superstructure ensured a stable and militaristic society, but was not enough to conquer the world. Genghis went on to make several military reforms, including a decimal organization of the army (from units of 10 to 10,000 men), a strict system of regularly performed military drill, and a strict system of military laws. All of these regulations installed a sense of unity and maximum discipline to men who already had a lifetime of experience in horsemanship and archery. Every man in the Mongol army was both a lifetime warriors and a soldiers fighting as part of an army. The Mongol army soon became the most disciplined, experienced, and feared force the world had yet to see.

Yet the Mongols were far from a recognized power. To the south laid the mighty Jin Empire and the prosperous Song Empire. In the west were the Kara Khitai Khans and Shahs of Khwarezm. Unification of the Mongolian steppes was only the beginning.