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Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

by James Chambers

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Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century emperor, was infamous for his bloodthirsty, ruthless campaigns, but he was also one of the great commanders of history. Though a master of terror – his campaigns in northern China and Iran were accompanied by a level of slaughter that was not seen again until the twentieth century – he was just and generous to his


Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century emperor, was infamous for his bloodthirsty, ruthless campaigns, but he was also one of the great commanders of history. Though a master of terror – his campaigns in northern China and Iran were accompanied by a level of slaughter that was not seen again until the twentieth century – he was just and generous to his subjects and often magnanimous in victory. His broad, ambitious strategies and elusive tactics were so far ahead of their time that they were acknowledged models for some of the most successful tank commanders of the Second World War. At the beginning of the thirteenth century Genghis Khan united the nomad tribes of Mongolia, turned them into a formidable army and led them to rule over the largest empire ever conquered by a single commander. By the time he died, in 1227, his dominions stretched eastward from the Caspian Sea to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

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"The student of current affairs would do well to take a serious look at Central Asian history, beginning with this lively, unlabored work . . . A dramatic retelling of some remote, but surprisingly pertinent, events."  —Kirkus Reviews on The Devil's Horsemen

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Genghis Khan

By James Chambers

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 James Chambers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8663-5


The Sons of the Grey Wolf

Across the heart of the northern hemisphere, from Hungary to China, there are almost a hundred thousand square miles of desolate, treeless grassland known as the steppes. Throughout their long winter most of their earth is frozen solid. In the spring and the autumn their air is often thick with torrential rain. At the height of their short summer the yellow grass is baked brittle. For the most part they are good for very little other than hunting and herding hardy livestock; and they are so inhospitable that many of the people who first lived there moved on as soon as they could, migrating to conquer and settle in the richer soil of Europe, the Middle East or China.

At the eastern end of the steppes, however, the landscape is different. At first the grassland degenerates into a barren desert, the Gobi, but in the north, beyond the desert, there are rich rolling pastures rising amid many rivers to the forested foothills of Mount Kentey, a sacred mountain which was known long ago as Burkhan-Khaldun, 'God's Hill'. The people who live there today are the people who have always lived there and, like the haunted land itself, they are different.

According to their ancient legends, the nomads of the eastern steppes are unlike any other people on earth. At the dawn of time, they say, after the God of Eternal Heaven, Mongke Tengri, had made all the animals, he made the first human beings, moulding them out of clay. But the eastern nomads were not created until later, when the grey wolf, the great hunter, wandered down out of the forests on the side of the sacred mountain. Some say that he mated with a woman. Others say that he mated with a swift tawny doe. But all are agreed that the offspring of this union are the Mongols.

After ten generations, when the Mongols had multiplied, a direct descendant of the grey wolf's firstborn, Dobun the Sagacious married a woman called Alan the Fair, who came from a tribe of hunters in the forest. A few years later, Dobun died suddenly, leaving two infant sons. During the next three years, however, Alan, who did not remarry, gave birth to three more sons. Throughout their childhood and youth, her two elder sons believed understandably that their half-brothers were the children of a handsome young servant whom their father had bought as a boy for a hunk of venison. But when all her sons were grown to manhood, Alan called them together and, as sometimes happens in legends, convinced them that the three younger sons were divine. At the conception of each, she claimed, the God of Eternal Heaven, in the form of a shining golden man, had come down through the smoke-hole in the top of her tent, impregnated her with a ray of light and then, after turning into a yellow dog, returned to heaven on a moonbeam. Later, he had visited her again in a dream and told her that the descendants of her sons would rule the world.

After making her revelation, Alan gave each of her sons an arrow and asked him to break it. When they had all done so, she handed each a bundle of arrows and asked him to break that. When all had failed, she explained her parable. If each stood alone, he would easily be broken, like a single arrow; but if they all stayed loyally together, no power on earth would be strong enough to destroy them.

While Alan lived, her five sons followed her advice. As soon as she was dead, however, the four eldest divided her herds between them, leaving the youngest, Bodunchar the Simple, to ride off alone on the ugly pony that was now all he possessed. When at last his repentant eldest brother came in search of him, Bodunchar was living in a hut on the banks of the river Onon and surviving by hunting duck with a trained hawk and begging mare's milk from a clan that was camped nearby. Back among his brothers, Bodunchar described the people who had befriended him. They had no leader. All their decisions were made in council. If they could be taken by surprise, they could be overwhelmed before they had time to organize their defence. With Bodunchar at their head, the brothers and their followers returned to the easy ambush of his unsuspecting friends and enriched themselves by seizing their herds and enslaving their families.

By the standards of the steppes there was nothing wrong in what Bodunchar and his brothers had done. In truth, as well as in legend, it was the way in which the Turko-Mongol nomads had always lived, and the way in which they were to continue to live for several more generations. These nomads measured each other's wealth by the numbers of their sheep and horses, and when the size of a clan's herds increased, it was usually as a result of audacious raiding rather than patient husbandry. Ruthless opportunists like Bodunchar were regarded as heroes, and their success bred success. Warriors often moved from clan to clan, swearing new allegiances to the men most likely to protect their families and make them rich. Although the tribes and the clans into which they were divided must have begun as extended families, their blood lines were soon diluted, not only because those with the best leaders attracted warriors from elsewhere, but also because it was the custom to marry outside the clan. Since bride prices were high, women were often acquired like horses on raiding parties.

In such a society, life was simple, selfish and precarious. But it was not always to be like this. According to an ancient prophecy, often quoted by the holy men, the shamans, the Mongols would one day be united by a pauper descendant of Bodunchar, who would come to them dressed in a goatskin cloak and mounted on a barren mare. Under his leadership they would become invincible, like Alan's bundle of arrows, and behind his standard they would ride beyond the steppes to win unimaginable riches.

This is the story of the man who fulfilled that prophecy. It is the story of an illiterate nomad called Temuchin, who rose to rule the largest empire ever conquered by a single commander – larger even than the empire of Alexander. It is the story of a military genius who created an army and an administration so effective and efficient that his dominions kept growing after his death until they had become the largest continuous empire the world has ever known. Several hundred years later, the people on the faraway island of Britain were to create an empire that was even larger. But the British Empire was scattered across the globe. The Mongol Empire, stretching eastward from the borders of Hungary to the shores of the China Sea, was all contained within one boundary.

Around the middle of the twelfth century, when legend began to mingle with history, most of the Mongol tribes were united for the first time under their first khan, Kabul. But their new strength created anxiety at the court of the Chin emperor in Zhongdu, near modern Beijing.

China was no longer a united empire. Only the south was now ruled by a true Chinese dynasty, the Sung. At the beginning of the tenth century the north, including the great city of Zhongdu, had been invaded and conquered by Khitan horsemen from the steppes. At the end of that century the weakened Sung empire had been reduced still further when the Tangut inhabitants of north-western China had seceded and established their own kingdom of Hsi-Hsia. Then, early in the following century, the north had been wrested from the Khitan conquerors by another wave of horsemen, this time Jurchen from Manchuria. A few of the Khitan fled north-east beyond Korea and the remnants of their last army followed one of their princes westward to the distant steppes beyond the Hindu Kush, where they eventually built the Buddhist empire of Kara-Khitai, 'Black Cathay'. But the majority of those who had not fallen in battle remained in China to become subjects of the Jurchen, who took over Zhongdu and installed a savage and ostentatious new dynasty, which they called Chin, 'Golden'.

The Chin knew only too well that what their ancestors had done could be done again by others. As they feared, contingents from the Mongol confederacy were soon making raids across their borders. In order to pre-empt any full-scale invasion therefore, they sent ambassadors to the Tatars, one of the most powerful and belligerent tribes outside the confederacy, and bribed them to attack it with promises of supplies and rewards. With Chin support, the Tatars had little difficulty in breaking up the confederacy. But their armies were not always successful in open battle. There were a few Mongol commanders who were able to outmanoeuvre them, and one of these was Yesugei, leader of the small Kiyat clan, who claimed descent from Bodunchar.

Yesugei attracted warriors from many other clans to his banner, and he made a formidable alliance with Toghril, king of the mysterious Christian Keraits. While most of the peoples on the eastern steppes still believed in a huge hierarchy of gods and spirits, with whom the shamans acted as intermediaries on their behalf, the Keraits had been converted to a form of Christianity by Persian followers of Nestorius, the fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople who was deposed for denying that the Virgin Mary could be regarded as the Mother of God. Their faith did little to modify their conduct, however. Toghril won his throne at the end of an ugly, fratricidal civil war, in which the arrival of Yesugei and his band of experienced professionals finally tipped the balance in his favour. The two men became blood brothers, anda, and in gratitude for his support Toghril swore a solemn oath of eternal friendship to Yesugei, his children and his children's children.

Like many Mongols, Yesugei stole his first wife, although in this case the incident engendered uncustomary resentment because the lady was already another man's bride. She was Ho'elun of the Onggirats, a tribe whose women were famous for their beauty. Her husband was a prince in one of the largest tribes, the Merkits, and he was bringing her home when they were ambushed by Yesugei and his two brothers. Knowing that her new husband was no match for three men, Ho'elun persuaded him to run for his life and, after pulling off her smock and throwing it to him as a keepsake, waited quietly for her inevitable fate. Yesugei had chosen even better than he realized: the beautiful Ho'elun transferred her loyalty to him and his clan for ever, and in time her courage, common sense and energy were to be all that stood between his family and oblivion.

Ho'elun bore Yesugei four sons, Temuchin, Kasar, Kachun and Temuge, and one daughter, Temulun; and by his second wife, Suchigu, Yesugei had two more sons, Bekhter and Belgutei. Some say that the eldest, Temuchin, which means man of iron, or blacksmith, was named after a Tatar commander whom Yesugei had captured shortly before his birth, but it seems more likely that iron was simply a favourite theme of Yesugei's since he used it again for another son, Temuge, and a daughter, Temulun.

Mongols cared little for age. Few of them knew how old they were. As a result, the date of Temuchin's birth was unrecorded and remains uncertain. However, since it was said that he was born in a 'year of the pig', the most probable year was 1167. Like all Mongol boys, Temuchin learned to ride and shoot a bow when he was very young. In his lessons and his games, his companions were his brother Kasar, his half-brothers Bekhter and Belgutei, who were older than his other full brothers, and above all a friend from another camp, Jamuka, heir to the leadership of Jadirat clan. Along the banks of the River Onon, Temuchin and Jamuka conducted imaginary hunts and led imaginary armies, and one day, in an earnest ceremony, they exchanged gifts and swore the eternal vows of blood brothers.

When Temuchin was only nine years old, Yesugei decided to strengthen the uneasy alliance which his marriage to Ho'elun had imposed on her people by arranging a more willing marriage between their eldest son and the daughter of one of the Onggirat chiefs. With Temuchin at his side, he set out for the Onggirat pastures, which lay far off near the northern end of the Great Wall of China. Before they found the camp of Ho'elun's clan, however, they rested for the night at another Onggirat camp, where the chief was greatly impressed by Temuchin. The boy was tall for his age and already had the piercing 'cat's eyes' and quiet dignity that were to inspire so many men in the future. Protesting that his own women were as beautiful as any Onggirats, the chief offered one of his daughters, Bortei, as a bride. Yesugei was equally impressed and accepted. The terms of the marriage were agreed. In accordance with the tradition among chiefs, Temuchin was left to live with Bortei's family for a while, to learn their ways and to share some of his childhood with his future bride. As he mounted to ride away, Yesugei anxiously warned his new friend that his son was afraid of dogs.

On the journey home Yesugei halted to share a meal with a small group of herdsmen. It was customary to offer hospitality to travellers on the steppes, but these men were Tatars and one of them recognized the unsuspecting Yesugei as a commander who had once defeated and plundered them. As he continued his journey, growing weaker and weaker, Yesugei realized that they had put slow poison in his food. Back at his camp, he summoned his friend and servant Monglik to his bedside, ordered him to bring Temuchin home from the Onggirats and warned him to say only that he was missing his son and not to reveal that he was dying. Monglik, as always, obeyed the order, but by the time Temuchin returned, his father was dead.

The strong, skilful leader had been succeeded by a helpless nine-year-old boy. The warriors who had sworn allegiance to Yesugei returned to their former clans, taking with them their families, their sheep and their horses, and the Tayichi'uts, close kinsmen of the Kiyats, who made up the majority of these warriors, gratuitously humiliated his widow by excluding her from their religious ceremonies.

Ho'elun and her family withdrew to the upper reaches of the River Onon, between the steppes and the forest, in the foothills of the sacred mountain. Here they kept themselves alive for several years by hunting and fishing and picking wild berries. They were unmolested simply because they were too poor to be worth the risk of providing one of Yesugei's former allies with an excuse for vengeful retaliation.

The surviving records of Temuchin's early life were not written until long after he had become master of an empire. It may be therefore that they exaggerated the poverty of his childhood to make a dramatic contrast with his later achievements, just as those that were written by his descendants' courtiers sometimes omitted episodes which might reflect badly on the reputation of the great ancestor. Nevertheless, even the source closest to the steppes, The Secret History of the Mongols, described the deprivations suffered by Ho'elun and her family, and this is the only source which also recounted the more shameful episodes in the life of the future khan.

One such episode was the death of Temuchin's half-brother Bekhter. There seems to have been a rivalry for leadership of the family between the eldest sons of Yesugei's two widows. When Temuchin was about thirteen the rivalry came to a head in a quarrel over game. Ignoring the custom of the steppes, Bekhter and his brother Belgutei refused to share their kills with their brothers and sometimes stole the game that the others had killed. Although Ho'elun advised her sons to ignore it, Temuchin and Kasar decided to take action. They crept up on Bekhter while he was taking his turn at guarding their precious horses while they grazed, and drew their bows. He heard them and turned. When it became clear that pleading for his life was futile, he pleaded only that his innocent brother Belgutei should be spared. Temuchin and Kasar agreed and then loosed their arrows.

When she deduced what had happened from their sullen silence, Ho'elun was outraged. According to The Secret History of the Mongols, which was almost certainly written by someone close to Temuchin, she berated her murderous sons for quarrelling among themselves when they had no companions but their shadows and were not even strong enough to avenge the betrayal and insults done to them by the Tayichi'uts. As for Belgutei, despite his brother's murder, he stayed with his father's family and grew up to be one of Temuchin's closest and most valued counsellors.

Soon afterwards the Tayichi'uts attacked Ho'elun's little camp. At the first sight of them the family fled into the forest. While the women and two youngest boys hid in a ditch, Belgutei built a barricade with logs and Temuchin and Kasar, who was already earning a reputation as an archer, held off their assailants with their bows. But the leader of the Tayichi'uts called out that the only one they wanted was Temuchin. When she heard this, Ho'elun put her son on a horse and told him to run. The Tayichi'uts set out after him and eventually surrounded him in a thicket. After nine long days, when their starving quarry tried to slip past them by moonlight, they captured him.

None of the surviving accounts give any reason for this attack. Temuchin's commanding presence was already being talked about across the steppes, and it may be therefore that the Tayichi'uts were afraid that he might one day attract his own band of warriors and punish them for deserting his mother, or it may be that they had heard about the murder of Bekhter and had taken it upon themselves to avenge it, particularly since they treated him like a criminal. He was locked into a cangue, a heavy wooden collar like a yoke with long wings resting on the shoulders, to which the prisoner's wrists were tied. By day he was displayed in a cage in the centre of the camp, and by night each family was required to take its turn guarding him in its tent.

One evening, after many weeks, when the Tayichi'uts were preoccupied with the carousing that followed the Festival of the Red Moon, Temuchin stunned his guard with the end of the cangue, crept out of the camp and hid in the reeds beside the bank of the river. When the guard regained consciousness he raised the alarm. In the drunken, disorganized search that followed, Temuchin was discovered, not by one of the Tayichi'uts but by Sorkan, a member of the small Suldu clan, which had come as it did every year to pay tribute to them. Sorkan had no quarrel with Temuchin. He persuaded the others in his party that the prisoner was not in the reeds. When they had all moved on, Temuchin worked his way downriver to the Suldu camp, where Sorkan's family took off his cangue and burned it and then hid him in a cartload of wool. On the following evening, when the search had been called off, Sorkan gave Temuchin some food, a cloak and his least valuable horse and sent him off into the darkness.


Excerpted from Genghis Khan by James Chambers. Copyright © 2012 James Chambers. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James Chambers is the author of Christopher Wren and The Devil's Horsemen.

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