I’d always thought, in line with the stereotype, that Genghis Khan was a barbaric bloodthirsty Muslim conqueror, but this book told me his religion was Mongolian shamanism. That was the biggest surprise of this book, but reading it exposed my tenuous grasp of world history, for which I blame our school curriculum; we were hardly taught any world history at all. Today, the name “Khan” is a common Muslim surname, but Webster’s tells me that a “khan” is “a local chieftain or man of rank in some countries of Central Asia.”
Genghis Khan was born in a Mongolian family with some claim to pedigree: his great-grandfather, Kabul, was the first leader to rule over all the Mongols and the first to take the title of “khan.” However, Genghis Khan’s father was just an ordinary chieftain. In an unexpected modern touch, Genghis Khan was raised by a single mother. He also killed one of his brothers after a heated dispute when he was just 13, an act that caused his mother much grief. But the family held together. And the murder underscored the ruthlessness of the future conqueror.
The Mongols raised cattle and rode horses. They practiced pastoral nomadism and regarded farmers with contempt as “earth grubbers.” Their lifestyle was mobile, in contrast to the settled farmers and city dwellers, and their mobility served them well in warfare. The Mongols were divided into feuding clans, and sudden eruptions of violence over disputes were common. Over to John Man:
Despite complex rules governing access to pastures, disputes were endemic, violence common. War was not something separate from peace — old Mongol had no word for either “soldier” or “civilian,” for a herder was both. Fighting demanded no huge investment in equipment, no need to abandon one way of life and adopt another. Hunting and herding readily stretched to cattle-raiding, kidnapping other chiefs or their wives, taking revenge for wrongs, and outright warfare. Every man and woman, every family, had their bonds, but all had to reach out on occasion — for pastures, trade goods, marriage partners — and test the dangerous borders where the bonds of family and friendship came up against enemy territory. A young man might pledge himself to a leader; friends might swear eternal brotherhood; but it could all evaporate. A chief who could no longer guarantee protection and booty would see his disgruntled power base evaporate in a cloud of dust across the steppe. Today, as ever, the Mongolians are individualistic in ways that charm and infuriate outsiders in equal measure. No wonder that to Genghis, loyalty was the moral equivalent of gold: rare, hard-won, easily lost.
It was Genghis Khan who united the fractious Mongolian clans under his leadership — and sterling qualities of leadership he had in plenty. The book gives an excellent account of his boyhood and rise to power, complete with dramatic betrayals, kidnappings, and great escapes. Once he became the leader of the Mongols, he looked outward for a simple reason: he needed booty to appease his vast army. His main weapons were speed, subterfuge, and the ability to learn on the job and adapt. The speed was due to their horses, on whom the Mongol soldiers were as much in their element as fish in water. They also outwitted their enemies with “software,” plain old-fashioned psychological tricks. Here is a typical example from the book:
This [Mukden, today called Shenyang], proved impregnable by direct assault, so Jebe did what the Mongols often did. He pretended to flee, leaving baggage scattered as if in panic. When the Jin scouts confirmed that the Mongols were 150 kilometers away, the delighted citizens started celebration for the New Year of 1212 by gathering up their unexpected windfall, which lured them ever further from the city. The Mongols sprang: after a nonstop 24-hour ride, they found the city open and the inhabitants partying. Surprise was total. They plucked Mukden like a ripe plum.
And the audacity displayed below boggles the mind:
One major task was to capture the old Liao provincial capital of Pei Ching, which fell into his lap in an extraordinary fashion. A Mongol officer named Yessen, who spoke both the local Turkish language and Chinese, ambushed a new Jin commander arriving to assume control of the city, took over his documents, persuaded the guards that he was actually the incoming general, and then, as the city’s new boss, ordered virtually all the guards off the walls. Mukhali walked in virtually unopposed, taking possession of the city’s 100,000 households, together with their food and weapons.
The Mongols conquered most of China, and then turned their attention westward to the Muslim kingdom of Khwarezm. Genghis did not want war but trade, but the arrogant ruler of Khwarezm, Mohammed, unwisely executed the envoys Genghis sent to him. This was an insult that had to be avenged. Now, the Mongol army that marched to Khwarezm was greatly strengthened by the military siege technology learned from their Chinese experience.
The sieges of Beijing and other Chinese cities had provided the Mongols the best in siege technology and equipment. Tied onto horses and camels, dragged in wagons or on their own wheels, were battering rams, scaling ladders, trebuchets with their many different types of fire- and smoke-bombs, flame-throwing tubes, and the huge double- and triple-bowed siege bows, which could fire arrows like masts to punch holes in baked-earth walls a kilometer away. It’s a fair assumption they had taken these and their crew from China: 40 years later, in 1258, 1,000 Chinese siege-bow crews accompanied the Mongol army in their assault on Baghdad. This formidable combination of nomadic cavalry and siege weaponry had never been seen before.
Khwarezm fell, followed by the cities of Merv, Herat, and Nishapur. The loss of life in these conquests borders on genocide, though Herat got off lightly because it surrendered. And this was the pattern with the Mongols: resistance was mercilessly crushed and punished with looting and wholesale slaughter, but surrender earned the velvet glove treatment. By the way, in hot pursuit of Mohammed’s son Jalal ud-din, Genghis Khan actually reached the Indus river but did not cross over into India, for an interesting reason:
One story tells that he was put off by meeting a “unicorn” that spoke to him. It was probably a rhinoceros, a sight so awe-inspiring that when Genghis heard Chutsai’s wise interpretation — turn back at once! — he did, and switched his attention elsewhere …
However, even though Genghis himself did not enter India, he did leave a posthumous imprint on it:
The dreadful Tamerlane — Timur-i-Leng [he’s known as Timur in India], the tyrant from Uzbekistan — claimed to be a Ghengisid, which he wasn’t (though his wife was). That was why Timur’s descendant Babur called himself “Mughal” when he seized power in India early in the sixteenth century, establishing a dynasty that ended only when the British shuffled the last Mughal off the throne in 1857.
Having dealt the Islamic kingdoms mortal blows, Genghis now turned his attention to Europe, smashing his way through Georgia and Russia.
Thus was born one of the most astonishing adventures in military history: a 7,500-kilometer gallop which for the first time brought the Mongols into contact with the Christian world.
However, a defeat to the Volga Bulgars stemmed the advance. Fifteen years later, after the death of Genghis, the Mongols would return to Europe, revenge themselves on the Bulgars, and conquer Poland and Hungary.
The Washington Post in 1995 proclaimed Genghis Khan to be “the most important man of the last thousand years.” The Mongols under him commanded territory from Eastern Europe to China, bringing into contact cultures that had been insulated from each other, with far-reaching effects on Eurasian history.
This book turned my uneducated opinion of Genghis Khan upside down. Far from being parochial, Genghis was a firm believer in meritocracy: Chinese, Uzbeks, Muslims, Nestorians, Buddhists, all were happy to serve under him. He was also the epitome of religious toleration:
This is the conclusion to be drawn from one of his edicts, in which he ordered that all religions were to be granted equal respect, a law that underlay one of the most remarkable qualities of the Mongol emperors from the time of Genghis onwards: their religious toleration.
He also understood the importance of writing for the administration of his vast empire and was responsible for creating a literate Mongol society:
Genghis deserves some credit for seeing the benefits of writing and bureaucracy, and briefing the men he needed to take records and conduct administration — quite remarkable for an illiterate warrior-herdsman.
Genghis Khan today is literally worshiped as a god in Mongolia. In China too, Genghis Khan is a hero: he is the founder of the Yuan dynasty, and the Chinese claim is that Genghis Khan is Chinese. There is a mausoleum of sorts in Inner Mongolia, which is a part of China, where Genghis Khan is worshiped. The man has become quite a brand: there is also a German vodka called Genghis Khan, which I now just have to sample.
After reading this book, I knew what to do next. I unpacked a documentary movie that I’d never got around to watching, called Genghis Blues. It’s about a blind American singer who masters the art of Tuvan throat singing (this has to be heard to be believed; just search YouTube), and journeys all the way to Tuva, a country (federated to Russia) that is adjacent to Mongolia, to take part in a throat-singing competition there. John Man’s book came alive for me on watching the documentary, with the Mongol faces, the Mongol countryside, the horses … I learned from Genghis Blues that one of Genghis Khan’s generals, Subedei, was a Tuvan. I’d read in the book that an honorable death for the Mongols was one in which blood is not shed; so, the preferred method of execution for high-status enemies was strangulation. The Mongols have a unique method of killing sheep in which no blood is shed. The sheep is held down, and an incision is made to open up the chest with surgical precision. What happens next has to be seen to be believed: a hand reaches inside the chest cavity and grasps the heart firmly, manually inducing a heart attack. Death is immediate. This technique was shown in Genghis Blues, and it seems a clean, bloodless, humane way to kill the animal, given that it has to be killed in the first place.
Genghis Khan apparently was no libertine, but nor was he an ascetic. Here is an anecdote from Man’s book that he attributes to the Arabic historian Rashid ad-Din:
Once when Genghis was out riding with Boorchu and other comrades, he asked what they considered man’s greatest happiness. After some debate, they replied that it lay in falconry — a sturdy gelding in spring, a falcon on the wrist, what could be more wonderful? “You are wrong,” replied Genghis. “Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize all his possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use the bodies of his women as night-shirts and supports, gazing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries on their breasts.”
In fact, Genghis Khan’s most enduring legacy may well be reproductive: he spread his genes widely across Asia and Europe. Since women were viewed as legitimate war booty in his time, this is not surprising, but the scale of the dissemination is astounding. A paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics showed that “one man living in Mongolia in the twelfth century had scattered his genetic material across all of Eurasia, with the result that it is now shared by one in 200 of all men living today.”
Yes, there’s a little bit of Genghis Khan in you and in me.