The name Genghis Khan struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. At the head of the world's most powerful army, he carved out a huge empire, crushing all resistance. Yet, to his people, he was a far-sighted leader who united the Mongols and rewarded loyalty. Which version was true?
Genghis Khan was a brutal megalomaniac who delighted in mass slaughter and would do anything in the pursuit of power. He was an inspired warrior-king who united the disparate tribes of Mongolia and created one of the world's greatest empires.
Little Hand, Big Future
Genghis Khan was born around 1162, as Temujin, the son of Yesugei, a member of the royal Borjigin clan of the Mongols, nomadic people who roamed across the vast steppes of east-central Asia. Legend states that, when the boy was born, he emerged holding a blood-clot, traditionally an auspicious sign. But he would have to wait for his good fortune. When Temujin was nine, his father was poisoned by a rival and he, his mother and his siblings were cast out.
The family survived by foraging from the countryside, a dishonourable way for nomads to live. At one point, Temujin was captured by a rival family and restrained by a wooden collar. But, thanks in part to the force of his personality, he persuaded one of his captors to help him escape (he is pictured hiding in a pile of cotton, above left). In time, Temujin's leadership qualities set the family fortunes back on the road to recovery, as he began to amass followers and forge alliances.
Kidnap on the Steppes
Around 1184, Temujin's wife, Borte, was kidnapped by the rival Merkit tribe. Temujin responded by using his growing political skill to assemble a large force to attack the Merkits and rescue Borte. The operation succeeded and led to the conquests of further Mongol tribes. Temujin's reputation grew and increasing numbers of Mongols pledged themselves to the man they saw as the natural leader of their people.
By 1206, Temujin was the most powerful Mongol chieftain. He was proclaimed Khan (ruler) of all Mongols and given the title "Genghis", which has been variously interpreted as "Ocean", "Universal" and "Fierce". During his rise to power, he had re-distributed conquered peoples across tribal boundaries, placing them under the command of trusted generals.
As a result, Mongolian society steadily became more feudal than tribal. Soldiers rose as a result of their military prowess and loyalty, rather than because of their family connections. Loyalty was an attribute that Genghis Khan prized. Luckily for him, it was also a characteristic that he inspired in most of those that followed him. The result was the creation of the most disciplined, terrifying and effective military force operating in the world at the time.
Once he had secured his position on the steppes, Genghis Khan began to look beyond the borders of Mongolia. He conquered large parts of northern China before turning west and attacking Khwarezm (modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). It was during these campaigns that the Mongols earned their reputation as pitiless practitioners of war.
There's no doubt that Genghis Khan was a ruthless leader who used brutal warfare to achieve his ends. He would not hesitate to order wholesale slaughter to make an example of his enemies. The inhabitants of entire cities would be massacred and their farmlands razed. But many historians point out that, in this, he was no different to many leaders of his time. Early 13th-century warfare was a barbaric business.
Accounts of his rule also suggest that there was more to this man than megalomania. He introduced a series of proclamations governing the behaviour of his people that were in essence an embryonic legal code. Once conquered, non-nomadic people were often left to run many of their own affairs. He also espoused religious tolerance – an approach that helped him defeat rulers who persecuted their subjects along faith lines.
Death and Reputation
Genghis Khan died in 1227, while campaigning in north-west China. He left his sons an empire which stretched from what is now Beijing to the Caspian Sea. His descendents went on to conquer China, Persia and large tracts of Russia, creating the medieval world's greatest continental empire. So, was Genghis Khan a warrior-king or a power-crazed brute? The true answer probably lies somewhere in the middle but this interpretation won't wash with everyone.
To the descendents of those who were on the wrong end of his military campaigns, for example, Genghis Khan and the Mongols he led were barbarians whose brutality knew no bounds. By contrast, modern Mongolians honour him as a hero who united their homeland and forged a nation. Genghis Khan will remain a man defined by rival mythologies for some time to come.