Khan, Genghis

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Khan, Genghis

[c. 1167–1227]

Mongol conqueror

The name of Genghis Khan (born Temüjin, son of Yisugei) is synonymous with bloodletting, barbarity, and wanton massacres in much of the Arab world, Europe, and the Americas. In Turkey and Central Asia, however, Genghis is not an uncommon name, and the legacy of his Turco-Mongol empire is viewed in a positive light. The globalization imposed by his Eurasian hordes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries roused strong reactions. Those biases remain present in the early twenty-first century.

Temüjin's harsh rise to power was the catalyst that resulted in the formation of the largest-ever contiguous land empire. He was born around 1167 on the banks of the Onan River, Mongolia, reputedly clutching a clot of blood in his right hand. He emerged first as the young son who fought for the survival of his destitute family, abandoned by their clan after the murder of his father, a minor chieftain. Then through ruthless determination, he was eventually accepted as tribal leader and thereafter as the supra-tribal ruler who unified the peoples of the Eurasian steppes. Finally in 1206 he was elected Genghis Khan, the supreme leader of the Turco-Mongol nomadic tribes and the world conqueror whose offspring accomplished spectacular feats, the outcome and influence of which are felt to this day. The relationship between Tibet and China was first defined by a Mongol ruler; the Sufi songs of Rūmī that resound around the world from California to Tokyo were nurtured under Mongol rule; the cultural and spiritual links between western Asia and the East were cemented under Mongol auspices. From Temüjin whose name once evoked derision, to Genghis Khan who cowed and riled the princes of Russia and Eastern Europe, and would awe emissaries from a fearful outside world, this Mongol emperor is more deserving of fame than of infamy. He was not only a world conqueror but also a world unifier.

The legacy of Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes has been shrouded and obscured by the mythmakers of history and indeed by the propaganda of the Mongols themselves. Genghis Khan remains the epitome of evil and the Mongols are associated with barbarian rule and destruction. Their defenders are few and until recently their apologists rare.

Genghis Khan was a steppe ruler who transferred the cruel realities of steppe life to a sedentary urban environment. His initial raids into China c.1211 were in search of plunder and were intended to inspire awe, shock, and terror. His ferocious forage against the Islamic world c.1220 sought to avenge the wanton killing of his envoys by the Khwarazmshah. But even at this early stage, Genghis Khan was selective in his destruction and massacres. Craftsmen and artisans, poets and painters, and clerics and holy men of all faiths were spared the fate of their countrymen and taken to the increasingly cosmopolitan and luxurious Mongol camps. Genghis Khan, unlike steppe rulers before him, realized that the world outside the steppe would offer far greater wealth tamed and harnessed rather than cowed and defeated. After the notoriety and horror of his initial attacks, there were few who would oppose him, and in the emerging Pax Mongolica he established the foundations of a great and prosperous empire. Unfortunately, it is the legacy of those early years that has endured and inspired many in more recent times, including such twentieth-century leaders as Joseph Stalin. They remember the blood and the fury and disregard the religious tolerance and nurturing of trade and cultural exchange. Genghis Khan was a harsh and mercilessly determined ruler. The empire he established through bloodshed and awe survived until his death in 1227, which strongly suggests that he gave his descendants more than just a taste for violence, rapine, and destruction.

SEE ALSO Mongol Conquests


Bartold, W. (1977). Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. London: Luzac & Co. Ltd.

Morgan, David (1986). The Mongols. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Onon, Urgunge (1993). The Golden History of the Mongols. London: Folio Society.

Ratchevsky, Paul (1991). Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. London: Blackwell.

Waley, Arthur (2002). The Secret History of the Mongols. New York: House of Stratus.

George Lane