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How Genghis Khan Became the Most Feared Ruler in the World

The tale of one of the most feared rulers in history

Leo Saini
Leo Saini
Jun 8 · 10 min read
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Image by François Philipp on Flickr

It’s said that he was born carrying a blood clot in his hand — a sign that he would one day rule the world.

Near the border between modern Mongolia and Siberia, on 16 April 1162, in the humble nomadic Mongolian tribe of the Borjigins, Genghis Khan was born as Temujin.

Going forward, to avoid confusion, just remember that Genghis Khan was known by his birth name Temujin in his earlier days.

Losing His Father at Age Nine Teaches Him the Reality of Life

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Image — US Public Domain

Genghis Khan’s father was the head of the Borjigins and he had kidnapped Temujin’s mother for marriage. When Temüjin, who was later known as Genghis Khan, was just nine years old, his father was poisoned by the rival Tatar clan.

Even though Genghis Khan was barely ten years old, he volunteered to claim his father’s position as the leader of the tribe. The tribesmen refused to crown young Temujin as their leader and left him and his family to fend for themselves. Now little Temujin, who would later rule the world under the name Genghis Khan, was alone with his small family in the harsh Mongolian mountains.

Temujin and his brothers used to survive by eating fruits, rotting carcasses, and hunting marmots and other animals. His half-brother Begter was the eldest male in their little circle and he started taking charge of the family.

The young Genghis Khan didn’t like Begter’s dominance in the family and grew resentful towards him. Then one day on a hunting expedition, Begter refused to share the meat with young Temujin, and the future Genghis Khan along with his brother Khaser killed Begter for this insult.

Bringing Back His Kidnapped Wife

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Image by KoizumiBS / CC BY-SA

After killing Begter, Temujin became the head of the family. But being a leader in the 12th century Mongolia came with a price. Inter-tribal warfare was common and as a general rule, the leader of any tribe was the favorite target of the enemies.

One day in 1183, a rival tribe attacked Temujin’s camp in order to kidnap his wife Borte. Instead of fighting back and saving his wife, Temujin fled the raid to save his life and let his enemies kidnap his spouse.

“Only a fool fights a battle he knows he cannot win,” said Temujin.

He knew that he had to live to see another day and form alliances with other tribes to bring his wife back — instead of staying there and fighting.

During the time of this crisis, Temujin’s blood brother Jamukha was his biggest moral support. Jamukha and Temujin were not related by blood, but they took an oath to be loyal to each other for life in childhood.

However, Temujin needed more than just Jamukha’s soldiers to bring his wife back. So he decided to meet Toghrul, who was a respected leader and a great warrior from the Keraite federation, one of the five dominant Mongol tribal federations. Toghrul had an indirect obligation to protect Temujin because he was the sworn brother of Temujin’s father.

Temujin, who would be known as Genghis Khan in the future, along with Toghrul, and his blood brother Jamukha, attacked the tribe who had kidnapped his wife. The raid is described in The Secret History of the Mongols as follows:

“As the pillaging and plundering went on, Temujin moved among the people that were hurriedly escaping, calling, ‘Börte, Börte!’ And so he came upon her, for Lady Börte was among those fleeing people. She heard the voice of Temujin and, recognizing it, she got off the cart and came running towards him. Although it was still night, Lady Börte and Qo’aqčin both recognized Temüjin’s reins and tether and grabbed them. It was moonlight; he looked at them, recognized Lady Börte, and they fell into each other’s arms.”

Blood Feud With His Own Blood Brother

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Image by KoizumiBS / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Bringing his wife back from the enemy increased the power and respect of Temujin, but he was still not crowned as the Great Genghis Khan yet. He ruled his tribe with his blood brother Jamukha.

However, there was a massive conflict between the leadership styles of the two great warriors. Temujin, on one hand, only cared about a person’s ability to produce results and he promoted people from humble origins to high-ranking officials in the army.

Jamukha, on the other hand, strictly believed that higher ranks should be reserved for Mongolian aristocrats only. Temujin had seen rough days in his childhood and was fanatically against the silver spoon culture of the aristocrats.

He knew that a man’s true worth lies in his competency and not royal birth. This attitude of his became the foundation of a murderous enmity between him and his blood brother and best friend Jamukha. Unwilling to compromise, Jamukha left the tribe with his soldiers and didn’t contact Genghis Khan for two years.

However, two years later, Jamukha was responsible for the killing of a member of Temujin’s tribe who allegedly stole their horses. He also unleashed his army on Temujin’s tribesmen and soaked the battlefield with their blood. Temujin’s top generals were captured and ordered to be boiled alive by Jamukha.

Temujin couldn’t bear such a dishonor from his very own blood brother and decided to end this once and for all. He started forming a well-trained and ferocious army that would destroy anything in their way.

Temujin told his men, “One tribe is like a single arrow easily broken, but many tribes together would be strong. They could never be broken.”

The Title of ‘Genghis Khan’ Is Bestowed Upon Temujin

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National Palace Museum / Public domain

In 1204, Temujin and Jamukha’s army had a final standoff in the Battle of the Thirteen sides. Temujin’s well-trained army defeated their enemies and Jamukha, realizing that defeat was imminent, fled the scene. Jamukha went into hiding throughout the winter of 1204 but was eventually betrayed by his own generals who brought him to Temujin.

They were expecting a reward from Temujin for bringing him Jamukha. Instead, Temujin, who was about to be titled Genghis Khan, ordered the execution of the generals who betrayed their own leader, not to mention Temujin’s childhood blood brother, Jamukha.

Despite all the bloodshed and hatred on both sides, Temujin was glad to see Jamukha again and offered him his friendship one more time. But Jamukha refused as he believed that there can only be one leader who would lead Mongolia. He asked Temujin to give him a noble death, which was granted.

By 1205, Temujin defeated his remaining rivals and summoned the leaders of different Mongolian tribes to attend a meeting. Now, he was officially the Chinggis Khan, the universal ruler, the name which is known in the West as Genghis Khan. He now ruled a territory which was as big as modern-day Mongolia — but he wasn’t done yet. The real bloodshed was yet to come for the world to see.

First Foreign Expansion Into China (1209–1215)

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Public Domain

The campaign against the Xi Xia kingdom of northwestern China was Genghis Khan’s first invasion attempt outside Mongolia. The Mongol warriors were mostly cavalrymen and traveled only with their horses and weapons. They didn’t travel with supply trains — all they need was their bows, arrows, and a deadly bloodlust. In 1209, the rule of Xi Xia submitted to Genghis Khan.

This was just the beginning of Genghis Khan’s terror in foreign territories. The ruler of the Jin Dynasty from northern China underestimated Genghis Khan and asked him to submit to him. As you can probably guess, no one gets away with talking to the great Mongol ruler like that. Throughout 1211 and 1214, the Mongols terrorized the peasants in the hinterlands which forced them to leave their farmlands and revert back to the cities.

There was a reason for plundering the countryside first. The Mongols wanted to cut the food supply to starve their enemies. The Jin rulers had no choice but to decrease the number of mouths to feed — they ended up killing thousands of their own people. The tables finally turned in 1214 when the Mongols besieged Zhongdu (present-day Beijing).

The Jin dynasty, who at some point asked for Genghis Khan’s submission, were now the ones who submitted to the Great Khan. But the enmity didn’t end there. In 1215, the Mongols defeated the Jin dynasty in the Battle of Zhongdu which forced the Jin rulers to move out of their capital.

Attacks and Invasion of Western Asia (1219–1221)

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Credits

It’s likely that Genghis Khan had no intentions of expanding into western Asia and attack the Khwarezmian empire. But he saw a trading opportunity with the Khwarezmian rulers because they controlled the territory that had a big part of the Silk Road.

As a gesture of goodwill, the Khan sent his caravan filled with goods to officially establish trade ties between the two great empires. However, Inalchuq, who was the governor of the Khwarezmian city of Otrar, was a bit paranoid about the arrival of the Great Khan’s caravan and attacked them thinking that they were spies.

Inalchuq didn’t know who he was messing with. However, Genghis Khan acted like the bigger person and sent three men to negotiate with Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, the ruler of the Khwarezmian empire. But the Shah beheaded one of the men and sent the other two back to Genghis Khan with a severed head.

Genghis Khan couldn’t bear this insult and unleashed an army of 100,000 deadly Mongol soldiers on the Shah. The Mongols captured the city of Otrar where their caravan was attacked. Genghis ordered his men to slaughter and enslave the civilians. And for Inalchuq, the governor who attacked his caravan and rejected his partnership, Genghis Khan ordered a rather torturous punishment. The Great Khan commanded his soldiers to put molten silver into Inalcuq’s eyes and ears.

The Shah had now realized who he had offended. He knew that defeat was now certain and fled the war. He died mysteriously later and was never apprehended by the Mongols. Well, he was very lucky that Genghis Khan never found him alive otherwise the torture would have been brutal.

Genghis Khan ordered his army to destroy every bit of the Khwarezmian Empire, including the royal buildings, farmlands, and even the innocent civilians. In 1220, after causing massive destruction and innumerable killings in the capital city of Samarkand, the Mongols moved to their next target of the Khwarezmian empire — the city of Bukhara.

After burning Bukhara to the ground, the Khan’s army marched on Urgench in modern-day Turkmenistan as it was still under Khwarezmian control. Urgench turned out to be the most difficult territory to capture because the terrain of this region was totally different from what the Mongols were used to. Nonetheless, they finally won and destroyed an entire empire that insulted the Great Khan.

Death

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Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

When Genghis Khan was attacking the Khwarezmian empire, the Western Xia rulers of modern-day northwestern China refused to send troops to assist the Mongols.

The Jin dynasty, who was earlier defeated by the Mongols, formed an alliance with the Western Xia rulers (also know as Tanguts) to resist Genghis Khan’s empire. They thought that Genghis Khan couldn't handle the rebellion as he was too busy invading Persia.

When the Khan returned to Mongolia after annihilating the Khwarezmian empire, he took revenge against Western Xia for betraying him. Genghis Khan started destroying their cities one by one, and, as usual, his opponents surrendered. However, the Khan couldn't forgive them and the entire imperial family of the Tanguts was executed, thus ending their lineage.

In The Secret History of the Mongols, it’s said that Genghis Khan fell off a horse and died of injuries. But other sources suggest that he might have succumbed to the wounds that he received in battle. It’s hard to believe any source completely as Genghis Khan was very secretive about his personal life. He never even let anyone paint his portrait.

No one knows where he is buried to this day. Even the soldiers who were involved in burying the Khan’s mortal body were put to death so that they could not reveal the location of his tomb. Even after 1,000 years, no one can touch his body, and he’s still undefeated.

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