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Genghis Khan, 1167-1227, was the Mongol conqueror and administrator of an empire stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan.
Born near the Onon River in Mongolia, he was named Temujin. His father, Yesugei, was chief of the Borjigin tribe. His father was killed when Temujin was a boy, and merely to keep alive he had to develop political acumen.
He had to overcome many hardships during his youth after his father's death and his abandonment by tribal allies. He laid the foundation of his unprecedented empire by uniting and organizing fragmented Mongol tribes through alliances, marriage, and sworn brotherhood association.
By a combination of discipline, cunning, ruthlessness, superior organization, and the ability to attract and retain personal loyalties, he eliminated his enemies and brought under his rule the related Tatar, Kereit, Naiman, and Merkit tribes. In 1206 he had his role as supreme leader of the Mongols confirmed in a great assembly called the huraltai. The assembly conferred upon him the title "Genghis Khan" meaning "universal ruler."
Having united the Mongols, Genghis turned to conquest in 1207, beginning with northern China. He campaigned against the Chin empire from 1211 to 1214. Genghis Khan had unlimited conquest as his goal, and he increased and strengthened his political and military power to achieve it. The many tribes he conquered furnished sufficient manpower for an army of conquest. To increase the efficiency of this huge force, Genghis Khan added a cavalry, which became the nucleus of his army. The cavalry gave speed and mobility to the Mongol invaders and contributed greatly to their innumerable conquests.
He took Peking in 1215 and in the next decade overran Central Asia, subdued Iran, and invaded Russia, with the help of extremely able generals. Between 1219 and 1225 he defeated the Khitans and the Turkish empire of Khorezm, and his armies penetrated as far west as the Caucasus. By claiming a divine mission he gave his empire a religious sanction. Only the core of his armies was Mongol, and around this ruling minority was built a feudal hierarchy of conquered peoples.
Superb military organization and battle techniques gave the Mongols their success in war. Genghis Khan was a military genius. His Mongol cavalry, with great mobility and striking power, used flying horse columns to encircle and compress an enemy, which could then be eliminated with armor-piercing arrows capable of killing at distances of more than 200 yards (183 meters). The Mongols perfected the tactic of feigned retreat. They were masters of espionage and psychological warfare and were quick to adopt new weapons and techniques.
They conquered Afghanistan and raided much of Persia (now Iran). The Mongols reached present-day Bulgaria before returning to Asia.
Genghis did not live to complete the conquest of China or Russia. After his death in the Ordos desert in 1227, his empire was expanded by his sons and grandsons and divided into four khanates. He was succeeded as great khan, or supreme ruler, by his son Ogadai (Ogodei).
The beginning of the final battle scene from the film Mongol
Contributions and Influence
Genghis brought order out of the chaos of feuding Mongol tribes and gave the conquered lands security and peace. This Pax Mongolica reopened the Silk Road and enabled Marco Polo, Christian missionaries, and others to travel across Asia. The East-West cultural exchange that he brought about was one of his greatest achievements.
In 1206, Genghis drew up an important law code, the Great Yasa (iasagh), superior in authority to the Khan himself. He laid basic rules for the court, army, and nation in civil, criminal, and commercial law. Mongol law and political administration made a strong impression on early Russian institutions during more than 200 years of "Tatar" domination. The Khan was a man of great flexibility and insight, and he learned much from others. He adapted an alphabetic script from the Uigur Turks, employed Chinese hydraulic engineers, and made wise use of aliens in the Mongol civil administration.
At his death his empire stretched from the China Sea on the east to the Caspian Sea on the west. He ruled his domain from his capital at Karakorum in the central Asian steppes, where he brought together the most prominent philosophers, scientists, and priests of the conquered peoples. Genghis Khan also brought a semblance of unity and order to northern China. The Mongol army kept the peace throughout the empire, which enabled merchants to travel in safety and fostered trade between Europe and China.
In the past, unsympathetic Persian, Chinese, and Arab writers condemned Genghis as a ruthless and cruel destroyer, but his terrorism was in reality calculated psychological warfare. He never set out to annihilate a people, like Hitler, or a social class, like Stalin and Mao. Although Genghis did destroy some centers of culture, his administration was generally very tolerant in religious matters and toward ethnic minorities. Today China champions and Russia condemns him, while in Mongolia he is venerated as a symbol of Mongolian nationhood.