The First Khan and the Mongol Empire
Before Genghis Khan became the leader of Mongolia, he was known as Temujin. He was born around 1162 in modern-day northern Mongolia into a nomadic tribe with noble ties and powerful alliances. These fortunate circumstances helped him unite dozens of tribes in his adulthood via alliances. In his early 20s he married his young wife Börte, a bride from another powerful tribe. Soon, bubbling tensions erupted and she was kidnapped by a rival tribe. During this era, and possibly spurred by the capture of his wife, Temujin united the nomadic, previously ever-rivaling Mongol tribes under his rule through political manipulation and military might, and also reclaimed his bride from the rebellious tribe.
As Temujin gained power, he forbade looting of his enemies without permission, and he implemented a policy of sharing spoils with his warriors and their families instead of giving it all to the aristocrats. His meritocratic policies tended to gain a broader range of followers, compared to his rival brother, Jamukha, who also hoped to rule over greater swaths of Mongolian territory. This split in policies created conflict with his uncles and brothers, who were also legitimate heirs to Mongol succession, as well as his generals.
War ensued, and Temujin prevailed, destroying all the remaining rival tribes from 1203–1205 and bringing them under his sway. In 1206, Temujin was crowned as the leader of the Great Mongol Nation. It was then that he assumed the title of Genghis Khan, meaning universal leader, marking the start of the Mongol Empire. The first great khan was able to grasp power over such varied populations through bloody siege warfare and elaborate spy systems, which allowed him to better understand his enemy. He also utilized a lenient policy toward religious and local traditions, which convinced many people to follow his lead with promises of amnesty and neutrality.
Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan-era album. He was the first leader of the unified Mongols and first emperor under the Mongolian Empire.
Innovations Under Genghis Khan
As a ruler over a vast network of tribal groups, Genghis Khan innovated the way he ruled and garnered power as he expanded his holdings. These unprecedented innovations encouraged a relatively peaceful reign and helped to develop stabler trading routes and alliances, marking his rule as one of the most successful political entities of the era. He also successfully brought technology, language, and goods farther west. Some of his major accomplishments include:
- Organizing his army by dividing it into decimal subsections of 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000, and discarded the lineage-based, tribal bands that once dominated warfare.
- Founding the Imperial Guard and rewarding loyalty with high positions as heads of army units and households no matter the class of the individual.
- Proclaiming a new law of the empire, called the Yassa, which outlawed the theft of property, fighting amongst the population, and hunting animals during the breeding season, among many other things.
- Forbidding the selling of women. He also encouraged women to discuss major, public decisions. Unlike other leaders in the region, Ghengis allowed his wives to sit at the table with him and encouraged them to voice their opinions.
- Appointing his adopted brother as supreme judge, ordering him to keep detailed records of the empire.
- Decreeing religious freedom and exempting the poor and the clergy from taxation. Because of this, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians from Manchuria, North China, India, and Persia were more likely to acquiesce to Mongol intrusions and takeovers.
- Encouraging literacy and adopting the Uyghur script, which would form the Empire's Uyghur-Mongolian script.
Destruction and Expansion Under Genghis Khan
Despite his many successful political and social changes, Genghis was also a destructive and intimidating leader. He initially forged the Mongol Empire in Central Asia with the unification of the Mongol and Turkic confederations on the Mongolian plateau in 1206. Then Mongol forces invaded westward into Central Asia including:
- Western Xia Dynasty in 1209
- Kara-Khitan Khanate in 1218
- Khwarazmian Empire in 1221
These conquests seriously depopulated large areas of central Asia and northeastern Iran, complicating the image of Genghis Khan as a peaceful ruler practicing religious tolerance. Any city or town that resisted the Mongols was subject to destruction. Each soldier was required to execute a certain number of persons in cities that did not cooperate. For example, after the conquest of the city of Urgench, each Mongol warrior, in an army that might have consisted of 20,000 soldiers, was required to execute 24 people.
Sack of Baghdad
Illustrations of Mongol advances show the deeply militaristic reality of this empire's success, and the darker side of Genghis Khan's rule.
By 1260, the armies of the Mongol Empire had swept across and outward from the Asian steppes. The dark side of Genghis Khan's rule can be seen in the destruction of ancient and powerful kingdoms in the Middle East, Egypt, and Poland. During the same period, Mongol assaults on China replaced the Sung Dynasty with the Yuan Dynasty. Many local populations in what is now India, Pakistan, and Iran considered the great khan to be a blood-thirsty warlord set on destruction.
The Mongols' military tactics, based on the swift and ferocious use of mounted cavalry, cannons, and siege warfare crushed even the strongest European and Islamic forces and left a trail of devastation behind. Even populations that appreciated the new legal code and relative religious tolerance did not have much free will when it came to Mongol advances. Many times Jewish kosher traditions and Muslim halal traditions were also cast aside in favor of Mongol dining and social customs.
Genghis Khan died in 1227 under mysterious circumstances in possession of one of the largest empires in history. He left these vast holdings in the hands of his sons and heirs, Ögedei and Jochi, who continued to expand outward with attacks and political alliances in every direction.