The Genghis Khan
The life of Genghis Khan, particularly the empire he built, presents an engaging incongruity. A political and military genius, Genghis created the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known. Yet, the legacy he left to his heirs proved unsustainable. The Mongol Empire has riven asunder through internal disunity and a distinct lack of cultural cohesion. Before getting started with the story of Genghis Khan, it is worth noting that we lack reliable historical accounts of his life and the internal workings of the Mongol Empire.
Genghis Khan Early Life
Genghis Khan Historical Background
This entity was nominally a Chinese kingdom in central Asia, controlled by other nomads of the Steppe. That kingdom was eradicated in 1218, thus creating a Mongolian hegemony in China and the central Steppe. Next, the Mongol army conquered and destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire, which ruled parts of Iran and Afghanistan. From the Mongol perspective, this was a war for their honor and reputation. The royal house of Khwarazm had harassed and killed messengers and trade caravans under the personal protection of the emperor. Therefore, he saw the conflict as a personal vendetta. It was here that Genghis Khan won his reputation for brutality. Entire populations were decimated, and every building and garden defiled. In 1221, the Khwarazmian Empire had been decimated. Genghis was not done. Showing an understanding that Mongolia was now a massive power, he split the army. He led part of the army into Afghanistan and then onward to northern India. Meanwhile, he ordered his trusted commander, Jebe, into the Caucasus and, ultimately, Russia. Jebe and his soldiers defeated the Georgians in conflict and went all the way to Crimea.
They then defeated a coalition of several Russian princes. Genghis died in 1227 while attending an uprising by Western Xia. The circumstances of his death are unclear. He may have been killed in battle, but some sources claim he met his end in a hunting accident. No other individual in human history conquered territory on that scale before – or since – and even the conquests of Alexander the Great pale in comparison. On the other hand, the tale of a charismatic leader uniting bickering tribes into a powerful conquering force was a feature of the medieval period. These nomadic leaders are emblematic of a more significant structural issue about the socioeconomics of the time. Indeed, the era saw the last hurrah of the nomadic lifestyle and its traditional clashes with sedentary societies. The steppes of Asia had bred large and powerful nomadic cultures. Their power was increased by their mastery of horse-riding. Adding to their power was the disarray of many sedentary cultures bordering the Eurasian Steppe. The medieval era was notable for the lack of strong centralized governments. In many parts of Asia and Europe, fractured feudal or semi-feudal political systems replaced the more efficient empires of antiquity. Meanwhile, the modern state was still centuries away. Geographic elements also played a part in the rise of the Mongolian Empire. Like many other nomadic medieval cultures, the Mongols hailed from the Eurasian Steppe – the easternmost part of it, to be precise. The Steppe is a vast grassland stretching from Manchuria to modern-day Hungary. So why did that area encourage and sustain the nomadic lifestyle? First of all, it is flat and is therefore comfortable for rapid horse riding. Second, it is primarily a grassy territory and provides sustenance for horses and the other grazing animals that nomads typically rely on. When all is told, the successes of Genghis Khan would have been impossible without the specific circumstances. Nonetheless, he was a remarkable leader, able to leverage all of these advantages spectacularly. The general had an intuitive ability to keep his disparate followers focused and united.
The distribution of resources within the Mongol Empire was a case in point. Raiding nomads are primarily motivated by loot gained through incursions. Genghis made sure that the rewards were shared between the various clans and spread throughout the ranks. Therefore, even the lowliest soldiers received a fair share of the plunder. This unusual measure cemented the loyalty of the troops and helped prevent splintering and mutiny. Another brilliant measure was the manner in which Genghis integrated new clans and tribes into his military following their conquest. The Mongols would ruthlessly execute the leadership and nobility. However, they would keep the lion’s share of the soldiers and their families alive and ready to join the Mongol cause. Through these measures, Genghis overcame the spirit of clannish divisiveness and created a united military and political machine, which he used to pursue conquest ruthlessly. There is a colloquial phrase accusing reactionaries of being “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.” However, he had some reasonably tolerant and far-sighted policies. For example, the Mongol Empire practiced religious freedom. In addition, it encouraged commerce with neighboring societies and other cultures to enrich the coffers. He also forbade hunting during the breeding season. However, Genghis Khan is primarily famed for his military leadership. Raiding nomads are not known for their organization, but the troops of the Mongol Empire proved a notable exception. Genghis divided them into units in a manner not dissimilar to a modern military. A group of ten soldiers (equivalent to a small platoon) was an Araban, while a 100-soldier team, essentially a company, was a Sun. The Mingghans were similar to brigades and numbered 1,000 soldiers, while the division-like tumors comprised 10,000 men. The praise that Khan receives for his abilities is justified. However, it is important to remember that no leader can build an empire single-handedly. This fact is doubly true when we consider the unreliable modes of communication extant at the time. It would have been impossible to centralize military efforts or governance of a territory spanning from Beijing to Baghdad. The subcommanders and warriors of the Mongol Empire took the initiative in many cases and did so with remarkable aplomb. The Mongol Empire survived the death of the emperor. His third son, Ögedei Khan, inherited the title of Genghis Khan and expanded the borders of the Mongol Empire. However, the Empire did not last into the 1300s. The rivalry between competing factions blunted the military power of the Mongols. Another factor weakening long-term Mongolian holdings was the relatively weak culture of the Mongolian nomads. The increasingly smaller successor kingdoms to the Mongol Empire saw local culture and elites subsume their occupiers culturally.