GENGHIS KHAN SET OUT to the west, heading for Khwarizm in 1219, the Year of the Rabbit, and arrived with the following spring in the Year of the Dragon, when he crossed the desert to suddenly appear deep behind enemy lines at Bukhara. Before the year ended, the Mongols had taken every major city in the Khwarizm empire, and its sultan lay abandoned and dying on a small island out in the Caspian Sea where he had sought refuge from the relentless hounding by Genghis Khan’s warriors.
The Mongols carried the fighting deeper into the new lands, and in a campaign of four years, they conquered the cities of central Asia as though swatting flies. The names seem to run together in a numbing sequence of syllables in a dozen languages: Bukhara, Samarkand, Otrar, Urgench, Balkh, Banakat, Khojend, Merv, Nisa, Nishapur, Termez, Herat, Bamiyan, Ghazni, Peshawar, Qazvin, Hamadan, Ardabil, Maragheh, Tabriz, Tbilisi, Derbent, Astrakhan. The armies of Genghis Khan crushed every army wherever they found them, from the Himalayan Mountains to the Caucasus Mountains, from the Indus River to the Volga River. Each conquered city had its own story that followed a mildly different course of events, but the results never varied. No city withstood their onslaught. No citadel survived untaken. No prayers could save the people. No officials could bribe or talk their way out of submission. Nothing could slow, much less stop, the Mongol juggernaut.
By riding against Khwarizm, Genghis Khan attacked a newly formed kingdom only twelve years older than his own Mongol nation, but he attacked not just an empire, but an entire ancient civilization. The Muslim lands of the thirteenth century, combining Arabic, Turkic, and Persian civilizations, were the richest countries in the world and the most sophisticated in virtually every branch of learning from astronomy and mathematics to agronomy and linguistics, and possessed the world’s highest levels of literacy among the general population. Compared with Europe and India, where only priests could read, or China, where only government bureaucrats could, nearly every village in the Muslim world had at least some men who could read the Koran and interpret Muslim law. While Europe, China, and India had only attained the level of regional civilizations, the Muslims came closest to having a world-class civilization with more sophisticated commerce, technology, and general learning, but because they ranked so high above the rest of the world, they had the farthest to fall. The Mongol invasion caused more damage here than anywhere else their horses would tread.
Just as in northern China, where the formerly nomadic Khitan, Jurched, and Tangut tribes ruled over peasant populations, across the Middle East the formerly nomadic Turkic tribes such as the Seljuks and the Turkoman had conquered and ruled various kingdoms populated mostly by farmers. A series of Turkic states dominated the political landscape from the territories of modern-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, across Persia, and into the heart of the Anatolia region of modern Turkey along the Mediterranean. The civilization of the area rested on an ancient bed of Persian cultures, heavily augmented by influences from the Arab world and from earlier classical civilizations from Rome to India. The cultural mosaic of the Middle East included sizable minority populations of Jews, Christians, and other religious and linguistic groups. Overall, however, the scholars, judges, and religious leaders spoke Arabic and quoted the Koran. The soldiers spoke the Turkic dialects of their warrior tribe. The peasants spoke and sang in the many dialects of Persian.
Despite the wealth of the area at the time of Genghis Khan’s sudden appearance, the complexity of its social life left its many kingdoms riven with political rivalries, religious tensions, and cultural hatreds. As an upstart Turk, the sultan of Khwarizm could scarcely claim any allies among his fellow Muslims, mostly Arabs and Persians, who looked upon him as little more than a barbarian conqueror himself. Relations between the sultan of Khwarizm and the Arab Caliph in Baghdad were so strained that according to several chronicles, the Caliph supposedly petitioned Genghis Khan to attack the sultan by sending him a secret message tattooed onto a man’s head, who then passed undetected through Khwarizm territory to reach the Mongols. Although apocryphal, the story of the tattooed messenger circulated widely in the Muslim world and conferred a certain legitimacy on Genghis Khan’s war against the sultan for those Muslims looking for a religious reason to side with the infidel against a Muslim sultan. According to a possibly true story, the Caliph further aided the Mongol attack by sending Genghis Khan a gift of a regiment of Crusaders captured in the Holy Land. Since Genghis Khan had no need for infantry, he freed them, and some of them eventually made their way home to Europe with the first rumors of the previously unknown Mongol conquerors.
In addition to the strains with his Muslim neighbors, the sultan of Khwarizm faced numerous divisions within his own lands and family. The sultan quarreled constantly with his mother, who held virtually as much power as he did, and the threat of a Mongol invasion heightened their disagreement on everything from how to run the empire to how to prepare for war. It was her brother who had seized the first Mongol caravan that precipitated the war, but in refusing to allow her son to punish him and thereby avoid war, she exacerbated the tensions with the Mongols. If the stresses within the ruling family were not menacing enough, the masses of Persian and Tajik subjects showed little connection to their rulers and even less to the Turkic soldiers who were stationed in their cities to exploit them rather than defend them. In turn, the soldiers had minimal vested interest in protecting the lands where they were stationed, and they showed little inclination to risk their lives to save people whom they despised.
When Genghis Khan dropped down on the cities of Khwarizm, he commanded an army of about 100,000 to 125,000 horsemen, supplemented by Uighur and other Turkic allies, a corps of Chinese doctors, and engineers for a total of 150,000 to 200,000 men. By comparison, the Khwarizm ruler had some 400,000 men under arms across his empire, and they were fighting with the home advantage on their own territory.
The Mongols promised justice to those who surrendered, but they swore destruction to those who resisted. If the people accepted and acted as relatives should by reciprocating the offer of kinship by offering food, then the Mongols would treat them as family members with a guarantee of protection and certain basic familial rights; if they refused, they would be treated as enemies. Genghis Khan’s offer to the besieged was as simple as it was horrifying, as when he sent this message to the citizens of Nishapur: “Commanders, elders, and commonality, know that God has given me the empire of the earth from the east to the west, whoever submits shall be spared, but those who resist, they shall be destroyed with their wives, children, and dependents.” The same sentiment found expression in many documents of the era, one of the clearest in the Armenian chronicle that quotes Genghis Khan as saying that “it is the will of God that we take the earth and maintain order” to impose Mongol law and taxes, and to those who refused them, the Mongols were obligated to “slay them and destroy their place, so that the others who hear and see should fear and not act the same.”
Some cities surrendered without fighting. Others fought for a few days or weeks, and only the hardiest of defenders held out for more than a few months. Genghis Khan had learned much from his campaigns against the Jurched cities: not only how to capture heavily fortified cities, but how to treat them afterward, in particular how to most efficiently plunder them. He did not want to repeat the mistakes of the chaotic plunder of Zhongdu. In Khwarizm, he introduced the new and more efficient system of first emptying the city of all people and animals before beginning to loot, thereby minimizing the danger to his men as they plundered.
Before the plundering began, the Mongol warriors followed a similar procedure toward the enemy population in each hostile city. First, they killed the soldiers. The Mongols, dependent on cavalry, had little use for an infantry trained to defend fortress walls, and, more important, they did not want to leave a large army of former enemies blocking the route between them and their homeland in Mongolia. They always wanted a clear, open way home. After executing the soldiers, the Mongol officers sent clerks to divide the civilian population by profession. Professional people included anyone who could read and write in any language—clerks, doctors, astronomers, judges, soothsayers, engineers, teachers, imams, rabbis, or priests. The Mongols particularly needed merchants, cameleers, and people who spoke multiple languages, as well as craftsmen. These workers would be put to use by the Mongols, who themselves practiced no crafts other than war, herding, and hunting. Their growing empire needed skilled workers in almost every service imaginable, including smiths, potters, carpenters, furniture makers, weavers, leather workers, dyers, miners, papermakers, glassblowers, tailors, jewelers, musicians, barbers, singers, entertainers, apothecaries, and cooks.
People without occupations were collected to help in the attack on the next city by carrying loads, digging fortifications, serving as human shields, being pushed into moats as fill, or otherwise giving their lives in the Mongol war effort. Those who did not qualify even for these tasks, the Mongol warriors slaughtered and left behind.
In Genghis Khan’s conquest of central Asia, one group suffered the worst fate of those captured. The Mongol captors slaughtered the rich and powerful. Under the chivalrous rules of warfare as practiced in Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades, enemy aristocrats displayed superficial, and often pompous, respect for one another while freely slaughtering common soldiers. Rather than kill their aristocratic enemy on the battlefield, they preferred to capture him as a hostage whom they could ransom back to his family or country. The Mongols did not share this code. To the contrary, they sought to kill all the aristocrats as quickly as possible in order to prevent future wars against them, and Genghis Khan never accepted enemy aristocrats into his army and rarely into his service in any capacity.
Genghis Khan had not always pursued this policy. In the first conquests of the cities of the Jurched, the Tangut, and the the Black Khitan, Genghis Khan had often protected the rich and even allowed rulers to stay in office after he defeated them. But the Jurched and the Tangut had betrayed him as soon as his army withdrew. By the time Genghis Khan arrived in the Muslim countries of central Asia, he had learned his lesson about the loyalty, dependability, and usefulness of the rich and powerful. In his keen awareness of public attitudes and opinions, he also recognized that the common people cared little about what befell the idle rich.
By killing the aristocrats, the Mongols essentially decapitated the social system of their enemies and minimized future resistance. Some of the cities never recovered enough to rebuild after the loss of aristocrats on the battlefield or from the annihilation of their families. Genghis Khan wanted officeholders who were loyal and indebted to the Mongols alone for their positions of power and prestige, and for this reason he recognized no titles other than those granted by him. Even an allied prince or king who wished to retain an older title had to have it reconferred on him by the Mongol authorities. In his report on his trip to Mongolia from 1245 to 1247, the papal envoy Giovanni Di Plano Carpini complained frequently about the lack of respect that Mongols showed the aristocratic people. The lowest-ranking Mongol could walk in front of visiting kings and queens and speak rudely to them.
The fate of the sultan’s mother, who had been the most powerful woman in the empire, showed the Mongol attitude toward aristocratic women. They captured her and killed most members of her court and some two dozen members of her family. Then they sent her off to live the remaining decade of her life in ignominious servitude in Mongolia, where she disappeared from history. Such a woman earned no prestige or consideration by virtue of her birth; she, like a captured man, was only as good as her skills, work, and service.
When the Mongols passed through a city, they left little of value behind them. In a letter written just after the invasion, the geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, who barely escaped the Mongols, wrote glowingly of the beautiful and luxurious palaces that the Mongols had “effaced from off the earth as lines of writing are effaced from paper, and those abodes became a dwelling for the owl and the raven; in those places the screech-owls answer each other’s cries, and in those halls the winds moan.”
Genghis Khan epitomized ruthlessness in the eyes of the Muslims. Chroniclers of the era attribute to Genghis Khan the highly unlikely statement that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.” Rather than finding such apocalyptic descriptions derogatory, Genghis Khan seemed to have encouraged them. With his penchant for finding a use for everything he encountered, he devised a powerful way to exploit the high literacy rate of the Muslim people, and turned his unsuspecting enemies into a potent weapon for shaping public opinion. Terror, he realized, was best spread not by the acts of warriors, but by the pens of scribes and scholars. In an era before newspapers, the letters of the intelligentsia played a primary role in shaping public opinion, and in the conquest of central Asia, they played their role quite well on Genghis Khan’s behalf. The Mongols operated a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle and spread fear wherever its words carried.
By August 1221, only a year into the campaign, Mongol officials sent their Korean subjects a demand for one hundred thousand sheets of their famous paper. The volume of paper shows how rapidly Mongol record keeping was increasing as the size of the empire grew, but the order also symbolized the Mongol emphasis on writing their history. Increasingly, paper was the most potent weapon in Genghis Khan’s arsenal. He showed no interest in having his accomplishments recorded or in panegyrics to his prowess; instead, he allowed people to freely circulate the worst and most incredible stories about him and the Mongols.
From every conquered city, the Mongols sent forth delegations to the other cities to tell them of the unprecedented horrors inflicted by the nearly supernatural abilities of Genghis Khan’s warriors. The power of those words can still be felt in the accounts of eyewitnesses recorded by chroniclers such as the historian Ibn al-Athir, who lived through the era of the conquest in Mosul, a city now located in Iraq, but at that time close to but slightly beyond the Mongol campaign. He recorded the accounts of refugees in his book al-Kamil fi at-tarikh, known in English as The Perfect HistoryorThe Complete History. At first, Ibn al-Athir seemed disinclined to believe the accounts: “Stories have been related to me, which the hearer can scarcely credit, as to the terror of the Tatars.” But he quickly warmed to the retelling. “It is said that a single one of them would enter a village or a quarter wherein were many people, and would continue to slay them one after another, none daring to stretch forth his hand against this horseman.” From another account, he heard that “one of them took a man captive, but had not with him any weapon wherewith to kill him; and he said to his prisoner, ‘Lay your head on the ground and do not move,’ and he did so, and the Tatar went and fetched his sword and slew him therewith.”
Each victory released a flood of new propaganda, and the belief in Genghis Khan’s invincibility spread. As absurd as the stories appear from a reasoned distance and safety in time, they had a tremendous impact across central Asia. Ibn al-Athir lamented the Mongol conquests as “the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims.” With a touch of the dramatic, he added, “O would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell!” He agreed to write out the gory details only because “a number of my friends urged me to set it down in writing.” He declared the invasion as the “greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity . . . which befell all men generally, and the Muslims in particular . . . since God Almighty created Adam until now.” By comparison, he noted that the worst slaughters in pre-Mongol history had been unleashed upon the Jews, but the attack of the Mongols on the Muslims was worse because of the toll of Muslims whom “they massacred in a single city exceeded all the children of Israel.” Lest the reader prove too suspicious, Ibn al-Athir promised details about the Mongol “deeds which horrify all who hear of them, and which you shall, please God, see set forth in full detail in their proper connection.” The impassioned rhetoric, however, seems to have been more an effort to arouse his fellow Muslims than to accurately chronicle their conquest.
Although the army of Genghis Khan killed at an unprecedented rate and used death almost as a matter of policy and certainly as a calculated means of creating terror, they deviated from standard practices of the time in an important and surprising way. The Mongols did not torture, mutilate, or maim. War during that time was often a form of combat in terror, and other contemporary rulers used the simple and barbaric tactic of instilling terror and horror into people through public torture or gruesome mutilation. In an August 1228 battle with Jalal al-Din, the son of the sultan, four hundred Mongol prisoners fell into enemy hands, and they knew well that they would die. The victors took the Mongol warriors to nearby Isfahan, tied them behind horses, and dragged them through the streets of the city to entertain the city’s residents. All the Mongol prisoners were thus killed as public sport and then fed to dogs. Because of this public torture, the Mongols never forgave the civilized people of that city, and it, too, would eventually pay a price. In another case where a Mongol army lost a battle, the Persian victors killed the captives by driving nails into their heads, the seat of their souls according to Mongol belief. This episode was echoed a century later in 1305, when the sultan of Delhi turned the deaths of other Mongol prisoners into public entertainment by having them crushed by elephants. He then built a tower from the severed heads of the Mongols who had been killed or captured in battle.
Civilized rulers and religious leaders from China to Europe depended upon these gruesome displays to control their own people through fear and to discourage potential enemies through horror. When the Byzantine Christian emperor Basil defeated the Bulgarians in 1014, he had fifteen thousand Bulgarian war captives blinded. He left one man out of each hundred with one eye in order that he might lead the other ninety-nine homeward and thereby spread the terror. When the Christian Crusaders took cities such as Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099, they slaughtered the Jews and Muslims without regard for age or gender, but merely because of their religion.
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who ranks as one of Germany’s greatest historical and cultural heroes, best exemplified the use of terror in the West. When he tried to conquer the Lombard city of Cremona in the north of modern Italy in 1160, he instituted an escalating series of violent acts of terror. His men beheaded their prisoners and played with the heads outside the city walls, kicking them like balls. The defenders of Cremona then brought out their German prisoners on the city walls and pulled their limbs off in front of their comrades. The Germans gathered more prisoners and executed them in a mass hanging. The city officials responded by hanging the remainder of their prisoners on top of the city walls. Instead of fighting each other directly, the two armies continued their escalation of terror. The Germans then gathered captive children and strapped them into their catapults, which were normally used to batter down walls and break through gates. With the power of these great siege machines, they hurled the living children at the city walls.
By comparison with the terrifying acts of civilized armies of the era, the Mongols did not inspire fear by the ferocity or cruelty of their acts so much as by the speed and efficiency with which they conquered and their seemingly total disdain for the lives of the rich and powerful. The Mongols unleashed terror as they rode east, but their campaign was more noteworthy for its unprecedented military success against powerful armies and seemingly impregnable cities than for its bloodlust or ostentatious use of public cruelty.
Those cities that surrendered to the Mongols at first found their treatment so mild and benign, in comparison with the horrific stories that circulated, that they naively doubted the abilities of the Mongols in other areas as well. After surrendering, a large number of the cities waited obediently until the Mongols had passed well beyond their country, and then revolted. Since the Mongols left only a few officials in charge and stationed no military detachment to guard a city, the inhabitants misinterpreted the Mongol withdrawal as weakness and presumed that the main Mongol army would never return that way. For these cities, the Mongols showed no mercy; they returned quickly to the rebels and destroyed them utterly. An annihilated city could not revolt again.
One of the worst slaughters was unleashed on the citizens of Omar Khayyám’s home city of Nishapur. The residents revolted against the Mongols, and in the ensuing battle an arrow fired from walls of the city killed Genghis Khan’s son-in-law, Tokuchar. In revenge for the revolt and as a lesson to other cities, Genghis allowed his widowed daughter, who was pregnant at the time, to administer whatever revenge she wished upon the captured city. She reportedly decreed death for all, and in April 1221, the soldiers carried out her command. According to widely circulated but unverified stories, she ordered the soldiers to pile the heads of the dead citizens in three separate pyramids—one each for the men, the women, and the children. Then she supposedly ordered that the dogs, the cats, and all other living animals in the city be put to death so that no living creature would survive the murder of her husband.
The most painful episode for Genghis Khan personally occurred during a battle in the beautiful valley of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, a Buddhist pilgrimage site and home of the largest statues in the world. Ancient devotees had carved giant images of Buddha in the mountainside, and one can only wonder what the Mongols thought of such large images. During the battle there, an arrow struck and killed young Mutugen, Genghis Khan’s favorite grandson. Genghis Khan received word of the death before the boy’s father, Chaghatai, was informed. Genghis Khan summoned his son, and before telling him what had happened, ordered Chaghatai not to weep or mourn.
Genghis Khan had cried publicly many times in his life and at the least provocation. He had cried in fear, in anger, and in sadness, but faced with the death of one whom he loved more than any other, Genghis Khan did not allow himself or his sons to show their pain and anguish through tears or mourning. Whenever faced with great difficulty or personal pain, Genghis Khan funneled it into combat. Kill, don’t mourn. He transformed the painful sorrow into a great fury that he poured out over the people of the valley. No one—rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, good or bad—would survive. The valley was eventually resettled by the Hazara, a name that meant “ten thousand” in Persian, who claimed to be descendants from one of Genghis Khan’s regiments of that size.
While the destruction of many cities was complete, the numbers given by historians over the years were not merely exaggerated or fanciful—they were preposterous. The Persian chronicles reported that at the battle of Nishapur, the Mongols slaughtered the staggeringly precise number of 1,747,000. This surpassed the 1,600,000 listed as killed in the city of Herat. In more outrageous claims, Juzjani, a respectable but vehemently anti-Mongol historian, puts the total for Herat at 2,400,000. Later, more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols.
Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the numbers have no basis in reality. It would be physically difficult to slaughter that many cows or pigs, which wait passively for their turn. Overall, those who were supposedly slaughtered outnumbered the Mongols by ratios of up to fifty to one. The people could have merely run away, and the Mongols would not have been able to stop them. Inspection of the ruins of the cities conquered by the Mongols show that rarely did they surpass a tenth of the population enumerated as casualties. The dry desert soils of these areas preserve bones for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, yet none of them has yielded any trace of the millions said to have been slaughtered by the Mongols.
Genghis Khan would be more accurately described as a destroyer of cities than a slayer of people, because he often razed entire cities for strategic reasons in addition to revenge or to provoke fear. In a massive and highly successful effort to reshape the flow of trade across Eurasia, he destroyed cities on the less-important or more inaccessible routes to funnel commerce into more routes that his army could more easily supervise and control. To stop trade through an area, he demolished the cities down to their very foundations.
In addition to the organized destruction of some cities, he depopulated expansive areas of land by the laborious destruction of the irrigation system. Without irrigation, the villagers and farmers left, and the fields reverted to grazing land. This allowed large areas to be set aside for the herds that accompanied the army and were kept as reserves for future campaigns. Just as when he churned up the agricultural land when he left northern China to return to Mongolia, Genghis Khan always wanted a clear area of retreat or advancement where his army could always find adequate pasturage for the horses and for the other animals on which their success depended.
After four years of campaigning in central Asia, Genghis Khan was in his sixties. He was at the height of his power without competition from any rival within his tribe or threat from any enemy external to it. Yet in contrast to this overwhelming success on the battle front, his family was already, even before he died, tearing itself apart. Leaving the Mongol homeland in the care of his youngest brother, Temuge Otchigen, he had brought all four of his sons with him on the central Asian campaign, where he hoped that they would not only learn to be better warriors, but also how to live and work together. Unlike conquerors who came to think of themselves as gods, Genghis Khan knew clearly that he was mortal, and he sought to prepare his empire for a transition. In the tradition of the steppe, each son in a herding family received some of each kind of animal that the family owned, as well as the use of some portion of the grazing lands. Similarly, Genghis Khan planned to give each son a miniature empire reflecting, to the degree practical, the diverse holdings of the whole empire. Each son would be the khan of a large number of people and herds on the steppe as well as owner of a large section of territory with cities, workshops, and farms in the sedentary zones. Above the other three, however, one son would be the Great Khan who would administer the central government, provide a final court of appeal, and, together with the advice of his other brothers, have responsibility for foreign affairs, particularly for making war. The system depended on the ability and willingness of the brothers to work together and to cooperate under the leadership of the Great Khan.
Even before he left on the Khwarizm campaign, the plan encountered difficulty when, despite the strong taboos against discussing or preparing for death, he summoned a family khuriltai to deal precisely with that subject. The meeting turned into one of the pivotal episodes of Mongol history by bringing together all the rivalries of the past and foreshadowing the way in which his empire would eventually be broken apart.
In addition to his sons, Genghis Khan had several of his most trusted men with him to be a part of the discussion, since their agreement and support would also be necessary to guarantee the succession after his death. As the meeting began, the two eldest sons, Jochi and Chaghatai, seemed tensely poised, like steel traps ready to snap. If Ogodei, the third son, arrived true to character, he would have already had a few drinks and been mildly inebriated, although it seems unlikely that he would have been completely drunk in his father’s presence. Tolui, the youngest, remained quiet and seemed to have disappeared into the folds of the tent while his older brothers dominated center stage. Genghis Khan opened the family khuriltai by explaining the business of selecting a successor. He was quoted as saying that “if all my sons should wish to be Khan and ruler, refusing to serve each other, will it not be as in the fable of the single-headed and the many-headed snake.” In this traditional fable, when winter came, the snake’s competing heads quarreled among themselves and disagreed about which hole was better for them to find refuge in from the cold wind and snow. One head preferred one hole and pulled in that direction, and the other heads pulled in other directions. The other snake—with many tails but only one head—went immediately into one hole and stayed warm throughout the winter, while the snake with many heads froze to death.
After explaining the seriousness and importance of the issue, Genghis Khan asked his eldest son, Jochi, to speak first on the matter of succession. Order of seating, walking, speaking, drinking, and eating all carry heavy symbolic value among Mongols even today. By setting this order of speaking, the khan was publicly emphasizing that Jochi ranked as his eldest son, and this set him up as the likely successor. If the younger sons accepted this order of speaking, it would be tantamount to accepting Jochi’s legitimacy and seniority over them.
Chaghatai, the second son, refused to allow that assumption to pass unstated and untested. Before Jochi could answer his father, Chaghatai spoke up loudly. “When you tell Jochi to speak,” he defiantly asked his father, “do you offer him the succession?” Then he blurted out the rhetorical question that was intended as a statement of fact, no matter how much Genghis Khan disagreed, about the suspicious paternity of Jochi, who had been born forty years earlier, but too soon after Borte’s rescue from her Merkid kidnappers. “How could we allow ourselves to be ruled by this bastard son of a Merkid?” demanded Chaghatai of his father and brothers.
Jochi snapped at being called a bastard by his brother. He let loose a scream, lunged across the tent, and seized Chaghatai by the collar. The two men pummeled each other. In painfully emotional words that were probably spoken by Genghis Khan himself, but which the Secret History attributes to an adviser in an effort to preserve the dignity of the khan, Chaghatai was reminded how much his father loved and respected him. The father pleaded in obviously painful words with his sons to understand how different things were in the old days, before the boys were born, when terror ruled the steppes, neighbors fought neighbors, and no one was safe. What happened to their mother when she was kidnapped was not her fault: “She didn’t run away from home. . . . She wasn’t in love with another man. She was stolen by men who came to kill.”
Genghis Khan almost meekly implored his sons to remember that despite the circumstances of their birth, they all sprang “from a single hot womb,” and that “if you insult the mother who gave you your life from her heart, if you cause her love for you to freeze up, even if you apologize to her later, the damage is done.” The councillor reminded the sons how hard both parents worked to create their new nation, and he listed the sacrifices that both of them made to make a better world for their sons.
After the long, emotional scene, Genghis Khan knew that he could not impose a choice on his sons that they would reject after his death. He had to negotiate a compromise agreement that all of them would be willing to accept. He invoked his limited parental authority by reasserting that he himself accepted Jochi as his eldest son, and he commanded his other sons to accept this as fact and not to repeat suspicions about his paternity again.
Chaghatai submitted to the command of his father but made it clear that even in abiding by his edict, words could not make it true. Chaghatai grinned and said that the “game killed by mouth cannot be loaded onto a horse. Game slaughtered by words cannot be skinned.” Outwardly, the sons would all recognize Jochi’s legitimacy as long as their father lived; but inwardly, they would never do so. Recognizing the legitimacy of Jochi as the eldest son, however, did not guarantee him the succession to the office of Great Khan because such an important office was supposed to be based upon ability and support from the others, not on age.
Having incurred so much anger from his father, Chaghatai knew that the father would not then agree to his taking the office of Great Khan, but he still wanted to prevent Jochi from having it. So Chaghatai offered the family a compromise, which may have been spontaneously conceived or already agreed upon by the younger siblings. He said that neither he nor Jochi should become khan; instead, the succession should fall to their third brother, the mellow, good-natured, hard-drinking Ogodei.
With no other option open to him other than war, Jochi agreed to this compromise and endorsed Ogodei as the successor. Genghis Khan then allotted personal lands and herds to each son by doing what parents always do to quarreling youngsters: He separated Jochi and Chaghatai. “Mother Earth is broad and her rivers and waters are numerous. Make up your camps far apart and each of you rules your own kingdom. I’ll see to it that you are separated.” He then warned the sons not to behave so that people would laugh at or insult them.
The Muslim scholars serving at the Mongol court evidenced a tortured difficulty in recording this event, since for them a man’s honor rested on his control of the sexuality of the women around him. It was almost inconceivable that a man as powerful as Genghis Khan might have had a son sired by another man, or even be accused of such a thing by his own sons. Unlike the Secret History, written by a Mongol and including a full account of the family fight, the first Persian chronicler, Juvaini, wrote the conflict out of his history completely by making the family khuriltai into a gathering of serene decorum and complete unanimity. In his version of events, Genghis Khan delivered a beautiful speech on the admirable qualities of Ogodei, and all of his sons agreed. The sons obediently “laid the knee of courtesy upon the group of fealty and submission and answered with the tongue of obedience, saying ‘Who hath the power to oppose the word of Genghis Khan and who the ability to reject it?’ . . . All Ogodei’s brothers obeyed his commandment and made a statement in writing.”
With a little more distance from the original events, Rashid al-Din offered a slightly more honest account, but his manuscript has blanks in crucial places that would impugn the honor of Genghis Khan or his wife. He wrote that “because of , the path of unity was trodden upon both sides between them,” but the good members of the family “never uttered that taunt but regarded his as genuine.” Whether the blanks were entered into the original work by Rashid al-Din or made by later scribes copying it, they show the symbolic and political importance of the issue of Jochi’s paternity for generations to come.
At the end of the emotionally intense family encounter between Genghis Khan and his sons, it is doubtful that anyone knew how far-reaching the effects of this meeting would be. In this family khuriltai, the victors had just carved up the world in a way that would presage the Vienna Congress following the Napoleonic Wars, the Versailles Conference after World War I, and the meetings of the World War II Allies at Yalta and Potsdam.
Although repeatedly mentioned in the family conference, Borte was absent, but presumably still alive. It is not known if she heard of what went on among her sons, and no reliable information exists on exactly what happened to her. Oral tradition maintains that during this time, she continued to live in the beautiful steppe at Avarga on the Kherlen River, only a few days ride from where she and her husband had lived in the first days of their marriage. She likely died there, or in the vicinity, sometime between 1219 and 1224.
The unpleasant episode cast a pall over the remaining years of Genghis Khan’s life and particularly over the central Asian campaign. The fighting among his sons made him keenly aware of how much work he needed to do to preserve the empire after his death. His sons did not match up to the needs of the empire. While pursuing his great quest to unite the steppe tribes and conquer every threat around him, he had never devoted the attention he should have to his sons, and now they were all reaching middle age and were still unproven men. In his mistrust of his own relatives and his lifelong reliance on his companions and friends from youth, he had not built a working relationship among his own sons nor trained them to replace him.
Throughout his final years of life, Genghis Khan sought, without success, to mend the relations between Jochi and Chaghatai by assigning them to a joint campaign against the city of Urgench, a former capital of the sultan south of the Aral Sea. The tension seething between the two brothers nearly erupted into fighting against each other during the siege. Both brothers knew that the city would belong to Jochi as a part of his patrimony, and because of this they could not agree on the tactics to conquer it. Jochi suspected that because Urgench would belong to him, his brother was trying to destroy it utterly. Chagahatai, in turn, suspected that Jochi’s greed made him want to protect the buildings and structures of the city even at the risk of killing more Mongol soldiers.
Whereas most cities had fallen in a matter of days or weeks, the Mongol conquest of Urgench required an unprecedented six months. The city’s defenders fought fiercely. Even after the Mongols broke through the city walls, the defenders continued to fight from house to house. Uncomfortable with fighting in the claustrophobic confines of a nearly destroyed city, the Mongols set fires to burn down the city. The defenders continued fighting from the charred ruins. Finally, the Mongols built a dam, diverted the river, and flooded the city, thereby killing the remaining warriors and destroying nearly everything in it. Urgench never rose again, and although allotted to Jochi, nothing remained there for him and his descendants to rule over.
Angry with the quarreling between his sons, Genghis Khan summoned them, momentarily ostracized them by refusing to admit them to the court, then, when he finally admitted them, alternately berated, scolded, and pleaded with them. More conversations and quotes survive from this phase of Genghis Khan’s life than any other, and they show a growing concern but lessening power to control his family. After too long a neglect of their education, he tried to teach his sons everything at once, and in doing so he struggled to articulate lessons he had learned and ideas he had but had not verbalized clearly. He was accustomed to giving orders, not making explanations.
He tried to teach them that the first key to leadership was self-control, particularly the mastery of pride, which was something more difficult, he explained, to subdue than a wild lion, and anger, which was more difficult to defeat than the greatest wrestler. He warned them that “if you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead.” He admonished them never to think of themselves as the strongest or smartest. Even the highest mountain had animals that step on it, he warned. When the animals climb to the top of the mountain, they are even higher than it is.
In keeping with the laconic Mongol traditions, he warned his sons not to talk too much. Only say what needs to be said. A leader should demonstrate his thoughts and opinions through his actions, not through his words: “He can never be happy until his people are happy.” He stressed to them the importance of vision, goals, and a plan. “Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others,” he told them.
Some thoughts seem to contradict others. As much as he emphasized the importance of seizing the mantle of leadership, he seemingly sought to impart cautious conservatism in that “the vision should never stray far from the teaching of the elders.” As he explained it, “the old tunic, or deel, fits better and is always more comfortable; it survives the hardships of life in the bush, while the new or untried deel is quickly torn.” In keeping with his own sober manner and simple style of living, Genghis Khan warned them against the pursuit of a “colorful” life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures. “It will be easy,” he explained, “to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women.” In that case, “you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”
In one of his most important lessons, he told his sons that conquering an army is not the same as conquering a nation. You may conquer an army with superior tactics and men, but you can conquer a nation only by conquering the hearts of the people. As idealistic as that sounded, he followed with the even more practical advice that even though the Mongol Empire should be one, the subject people should never be allowed to unite as one: “People conquered on different sides of the lake should be ruled on different sides of the lake.” Like so many of his teachings, this, too, would be ignored by his sons and their successors.
The Mongol conquest stopped at the city of Multan, in the center of modern-day Pakistan, in the summer of 1222, the Year of the Horse. After descending from the mountains of Afghanistan onto the plains of the Indus River earlier that year, Genghis Khan had considered conquering all of northern India, circling around south of the Himalayas, and heading north across the Sung territory of China. Such a plan well suited the Mongol sensibility that one should never return by exactly the same route that one came. However, the geography and climate stopped him. As soon as the Mongols left the dry and colder region of the mountains, both warriors and horses weakened and grew sick. Even more alarming, the Mongol bows that were so well adapted to the extreme cold and heat of the steppe homeland also weakened in the damp air and seemed to lose the powerful accuracy that made the Mongol warrior such a dreaded shot. Facing these obstacles, Genghis Khan headed back into the mountains in February, and despite the tremendous loss of lives among the prisoners who cleared the snow-filled passes, he took his army to more comfortable and colder terrain. He left behind two tumen, some twenty thousand men, to continue the India campaign, but by summer illness and heat had so depleted their ranks that the survivors withdrew and limped back to the benign and healthful environment of Afghanistan.
Despite the aborted invasion of India, the campaign had achieved its main goals of conquering the Khwarizm empire and bringing central Asia and much of the Middle East under Mongol control. Before leaving the newly conquered lands, Genghis Khan called for a celebration that featured what was probably the largest hunt in history. During months of preparation during the winter of 1222–1223, his men cordoned off a large area by planting posts in the ground and stringing long pieces of horsehair twine between them. They hung strips of felt on the twine, and when the wind blew, as it almost always did, it frightened the animals away from the edges and toward the center of the area. At the appointed time, different armies began to converge on the area from different directions. Tens of thousands of soldiers took part in the ensuing hunt, which lasted for several months. They bagged all manner of animals from rabbits and birds to large herds of gazelle, antelope, and wild asses.
The hunt was part celebration, but it also seemed an effort to use the conviviality of the hunts and the entertainment that followed them to mellow relations among his sons, soothe over the hotheaded anger of the battlefield, and end the campaigns on a cooperative note. Still smarting from the wounds inflicted by his brothers and apparently alienated from his father as well, Jochi, the most beloved of the sons, claimed to be ill and refused to come even when summoned by direct order of Genghis Khan. Relations between the father and son nearly erupted into armed conflict when Genghis Khan heard that the supposedly ill Jochi had organized rival hunts in a celebration for his men.
The father and son never met again. Instead of returning to Mongolia, Jochi stayed in the newly conquered territory. He would soon die there, leaving as much mystery surrounding his death as his birth. The timing of his death, while his father still lived, sparked rumors that Genghis Khan may have killed Jochi in order to ensure political peace among his sons and for the Mongol Empire; but as with so many parts of Mongol history, only the rumors survived without convincing evidence one way or another.
Despite the tensions within Genghis Khan’s family, for most Mongols the victorious return of the army marked a high point in their lives. The triumphant spirit of the group hunt was continued throughout the long trek back to Mongolia, where the mood of pride and success erupted in a joyous homecoming and victory celebration, or naadam. Long caravans of captives preceded the main part of Genghis Khan’s army. For nearly five years, a steady flow of camel caravans lumbered out of the Muslim lands carrying packs of looted goods to Mongolia, where the population eagerly awaited each load of exotic luxuries. Mongol girls who had spent their days milking goats and yaks when the army left soon wore garments of silk and gold, while their newly acquired servants milked the animals for them. Old people who had rarely seen metal in their childhood cut meat with knives of engraved Damascus steel set in handles of sculpted ivory, and they served airak from silver bowls while their musicians sang to them.
Although Genghis Khan was once again in the land that he loved, he could hardly stop to rest before setting out on another campaign. Perhaps knowing that he was nearing the end of his life, he did not have time to stop, or perhaps he realized that his empire depended upon constant conquest. If he paused, factionalism within his own family threatened to rip the empire apart. Probably even more pressing, his followers had grown dependent on a steady flow of goods. They would not willingly return to the simple goods that he had known as a child. In order to feed this voracious appetite, he had to move on to new conquests.
He launched the final campaign in his long life against the Tangut, the first foreign enemies he had invaded in 1207, the year following the creation of the Mongol Empire. Despite their initial surrender, Genghis Khan had nourished a lingering grudge against their khan for refusing to furnish troops for the Khwarizm invasion. The Tangut king smugly sent word that if Genghis Khan could not defeat Khwarizm alone, then he should not go to war. Although irritated, Genghis Khan kept his immediate focus on the Khwarizm campaign; but once finished with it, he turned back toward the Tangut. As he again moved his army south, he almost certainly had plans for yet one more major campaign in which the Tangut war would only be an opening move. He probably intended to secure a base in the Tangut kingdom and then move on south toward the final goal of the Sung dynasty, a prize that had eluded the army he had left fighting in northern China when he invaded Khwarizm.
During the winter of 1226–1227, while en route across the Gobi to make war on the Tangut, Genghis Khan paused to hunt wild horses. He rode a reddish gray horse that shied when the wild horses charged him, and the skittish horse threw the Great Khan to the ground. Despite internal injuries, a raging fever, and the concerned advice of his wife Yesui, Genghis Khan refused to return home and instead pressed on with the Tangut campaign. Although his health never recovered after the fall, he continued the campaign against the Tangut king, whose name, by an odd coincidence, was Burkhan, which meant “god,” as in the sacred mountain Burkhan Khaldun. The name was so sacred to Genghis Khan that once he defeated the Tangut, he ordered that the king’s name be changed before he was executed.
Six months later and only a few days before the final victory over the Tangut, Genghis Khan died. The Secret History states clearly that he died at the end of summer, but although the text describes in great detail each horse that he rode, it falls suddenly silent regarding the circumstances of his death. Other sources maintain that when death finally arrived, his Tatar wife Yesui prepared the body for burial in a simple way befitting the manner in which Genghis Khan had lived. Attendants cleaned and dressed the body in a plain white robe, felt boots, and a hat, then wrapped it in a white felt blanket filled with sandalwood, the valuable aromatic wood that repelled insects and infused the body with a pleasant perfume. They bound the felt coffin with three golden straps.
On the third day, a procession set out toward Mongolia with the Great Khan’s body on a simple cart. The Spirit Banner of Genghis Khan led the mourners, followed by a woman shaman, and behind her followed a horse with a loose bridle and Genghis Khan’s empty saddle.
It is difficult to imagine what kind of image Genghis Khan thought he was leaving to the world. Only a small hint of how he saw himself can be found in the chronicle of Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani, who called Genghis Khan accursed and described his death as his descent into hell. Yet Juzjani recorded a conversation that an imam claimed to have had with the infamous conqueror. The cleric served in Genghis Khan’s court and, at least according to his own boastful claim, became a special favorite of the Mongol khan. One day during a conversation, Genghis Khan supposedly said, “A mighty name will remain behind me in the world.”
With some hesitation, the imam told Genghis Khan that he was killing so many people that there might not be anyone left to remember his name. The khan did not like this response and told the cleric, “It has become evident to me that [you do] not possess complete understanding, and that [your] comprehension is but small. There are many kings in the world,” he explained to the learned man. In reference to his future reputation, he added that there are many more people in other parts of the world and many more sovereigns and many more kingdoms. Genghis Khan confidently declared, “They will relate my story!”
We find an unusual and more informative glimpse into the mind of Genghis Khan and into his image of himself near the end of his life, which survives in the text of a letter Genghis Khan sent to a Taoist monk in China, a copy of which was made by some of the old monk’s followers. Unlike theSecret History, which mostly records deeds and spoken words, this letter recorded Genghis Khan’s analysis of himself. Although the letter is available to us only in the form written in classical Chinese by a scribe, almost certainly one of the Khitan traveling with the Mongol court, the sentiments and perceptions of Genghis Khan himself come out quite clearly in the document.
His voice comes through as simple, clear, and informed by common sense. He ascribed the fall of his enemies more to their own lack of ability than to his superior prowess: “I have not myself distinguished qualities.” He said that the Eternal Blue Sky had condemned the civilizations around him because of their “haughtiness and their extravagant luxury.” Despite the tremendous wealth and power he had accumulated, he continued to lead a simple life: “I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and horse-herders. We make the same sacrifices, and we share the riches.” He offered a simple assessment of his ideals: “I hate luxury,” and “I exercise moderation.” He strove to treat his subjects like his children, and he treated talented men like his brothers, no matter what their origin was. He described his relations with his officials as being close and based on respect: “We always agree in our principles and we are always united in mutual affection.”
Although he sent the letter on the eve of his invasion of the Muslim world and it was written in Chinese, he clearly did not see himself as the heir of kingdoms or cultural traditions in either area. He acknowledged only one preceding empire from which he personally took inspiration—his ancestors, the Huns. It is clear that he did not wish to rule in either the Muslim or the Chinese style. He wanted to find his own way as befitted a steppe empire descended from the Huns.
He claimed that his victories had been possible only through the assistance of the Eternal Blue Sky, “but as my calling is high, the obligations incumbent on me are also heavy.” He did not, however, feel that he had been as successful in peace as he had been in war: “I fear that in my ruling there may be something wanting.” He said that good officials over the state are as important as a good rudder to a boat. While he managed to find men of talent to serve as his generals, he admitted he had unfortunately not been able to find men as good in administration.
Most important, the letter shows a shift in the political thinking of Genghis Khan. After admitting to his shortcomings, Genghis Khan nevertheless shows in this document a rising sense of himself and his mission on earth. He had begun his campaign against the Jurched—his first major campaign beyond the steppe—as a series of raids for plunder, but by the end of it he had installed a vassal state. His words reveal a deeper and wider plan than mere raiding and controlling trade networks. He acknowledged that he went south to accomplish something that no one else in history had done. He was pursuing “a great work,” because he sought to “unite the whole world in one empire.” He was no longer a tribal chief, and now he sought to be the ruler of all people and all lands from where the sun rises to where the sun sets.
Perhaps the most fitting description of Genghis Khan’s passing was penned in the eighteenth century by Edward Gibbon, the British historian of the Romans and a great scholar on the history of empires and conquest. He wrote simply that Genghis Khan “died in the fullness of years and glory, with his last breath, exhorting and instructing his sons to achieve the conquest of the Chinese empire.” To fulfill the wishes and commands of Genghis Khan, there still remained much to be done.