Photo by Sebacalka, Wikimedia Commons
Genghis Khan had a vision to unite all the different tribes under one Mongol rule.
By Hayley Leong / 04.27.2018
The early Mongols did not understand the culture and lifestyle of settled living. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that land could not be owned, much like air, or the ocean. Viewed by settled societies as barbarians, the Mongols were first united and conquered by Temüjin in 1206, where he eventually went on to form the largest neighbouring empire in history known as the Mongol empire. The name Genghis Khan, which roughly translates to ‘widespread king’, was given to him after he led a series of successful conquests.
Genghis Khan / Public Domain
Born to a mother who was a kidnapped from her village to be a bride, Temüjin was said to have a blood clot in his hand at the time of his birth, a sign indicative of a great leader. Temüjin’s father, Yesügei, was the chief of his tribe. He died at the hands of his enemies when Temüjin was still a young boy, resulting in the tribe abandoning Temüjin and his family, leaving them vulnerable and unprotected, with very low status in the Mongol society.
After spearheading numerous attacks on neighbouring tribes, Genghis Khan was defeated at the hands of a former blood brother before rising back into power in 1197. During his time of authority over the tribes that formed the Mongol confederation, Genghis Khan had a unique style of work, which we will explore more in this article.
Important to our understanding of the history of the Mongols, Genghis was the first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, whose rule over the empire affected the way that the Mongols led their lives to a large extent. His heavy influence on the Mongol empire was evident in Mongol warfare, as well as some parts of their religious and traditional practices. However, there were also certain aspects of Mongol life, such as their burial culture, that remained relatively untouched.
Genghis Khan’s Vision and the Mongol Conquest
Before the time of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan had a vision to unite all the different tribes under one Mongol rule and to conquer other lands to expand the Mongol empire. Growing up in the plains, Genghis was not particularly knowledgeable of the other empires’ methods of conquest, but his obsession for conquest, mainly for revenge and acquiring trade goods and human labor, resulted in the conception of the ‘surrender or die’ policy. This policy rendered the withdrawing enemy a chance to live if they surrendered. Although it seems like an unconventional strategy, we believe that Genghis saw people as valued labour that could contribute to the expansion of his relatively small army at the time. On the contrary, the Mongol troops never surrendered and their soldiers were known to be faithful subjects that fought ruthlessly for their leader.
The success of his conquest which eventually spread over 12 million square miles was owed to his brilliant planning, quantum leap in military technology and psychological warfare. It is rather breathtaking that the rule of an empire under one great Khan was 43 thousand times larger than Singapore!
A map of the areas under Genghis Khan rule at the time of his death including modern day China, Korea, Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
Another vision Genghis Khan had was for his empire to be united in commerce under the stability and protection of the Mongol rule. Diplomacy and economic agreements were often made before the actual combat in the hopes of arbitrating in more optimal conditions and to give themselves an early psychological advantage.
If Genghis Khan were alive today, he would still be an excellent leader. Through teachings from his mother, he learnt the importance of forming alliances and relations. He was famously known for understanding and reading the character of his enemies, and adopting the most appropriate strategy for different conquests. He was a man we would either love deeply or hate with disgust. For example, he tried to peacefully resolve the conflict with the Shah of Khwarezm before resorting to wage war with him. Upon knowing that the Shah often approached matters with a straightforward mindset, Genghis Khan tactically invaded Khwarezm from the opposite side of where they were expected to invade from. This left the Khwarezm army unprepared and led to a successful conquest for Genghis Khan.
Recognizing their relatively small military strength, the Mongol army worked within an efficient system made up of strong physical, logistical and operational capabilities. Prior to each attack, the Mongols spent months mapping precise roads and routes, winding around fortresses and surpassing hills with vicious terrains. This allowed the Mongol warriors to adequately estimate their enemies’ capability to resist invasions. They would also force smaller towns to surrender by cutting off their food supply and even rerouted a stream to flood a nearby town, displaying their tactical superiority.
As evident from their rich supply of silk and livestock, the Mongols were well equipped with military armour and food supplies. Hardy horses known to be of the finest breeds and could gallop long distances were part of the Mongols’ calvary due to their nomadic lifestyle. Apart from their genetical advantages, the horses and the riders were heavily armoured. Both the Mongol soldiers and their horses were in the best of conditions, possessing the innate ability to adapt to the rigours of war, which gave them a clear advantage over China, Khwarizm and Russia.
Mongolian warrior on an armoured horse, using a “recurved bow”, also known as the legendary bow of history.
Besides their ‘superhorses’ and skilled warriors, the Mongols often practiced coordinated tactics such as decoy armies and feigned retreats. The Mongols would light extra campfires and place straw soldiers on spare horses to convince their enemies that the Mongol army was larger than it actually was. The skilled labour from enemies that surrendered came into play, where cartographers, meteorologist and engineers would work for them to create these illusions. The Mongols’ play on their feigned retreat tactic was based on their excellent communication, where they would divide their troops in a decimal system featuring separate formations of 10, 100, 1000 or 10,000. This allowed the army to work flexibly as they could take commands from their respective generals in their fleets. They would ambush their enemies from another direction, successfully fooling their enemies who withdrew their troops thinking that the Mongols had surrendered. Some would say Genghis Khan adopted many ‘dirty’ tactics but, at the end of the day, a successful conquest was what really mattered to him.
A pictorial representation of the Mongol Army’s flanking formation, surrounding the enemy in the Battle of Mohi.
We can infer that Genghis Khan was a leader with farsight, with his flexibility in warfare earning the respect of his fellow men. After his death, he helped pave a smooth path for the succession of his son, Ögedei Khan who continued his legacy of great leadership. Hence, Genghis Khan is said to have affected the Mongol warfare to a great extent.
Religion and Burial Culture
Despite Genghis Khan’s reputation for being one of the most merciless warlords, one drastic contrast was his tolerance towards the different religions existing in the empire. He envisioned today’s ‘melting pot’ ideal of a homogenous society for his empire, where his would people identify as Mongols first instead of their individual religions. Early in Genghis Khan’s rule, the Mongols adopted their own religion known as Shamanism.
Through his various conquests, the Mongols diversified into a number of different religions including Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam.
Genghis Khan did not agree with institutionalised religion. He embraced the different religions as he saw value in each culture. He was not only quick to adapt war strategies but also efficient in incorporating the best people for different skilled jobs. For instance, Islamic scholars who excelled in astronomy and medicine where brought in to advise scientific methods and contribute their knowledge in their various fields of expertise. Genghis’ tolerance towards religious seems to denote some practical advantages, apart from religious open-mindedness and kindness. By allowing the conquered villagers to remain with their faith, their support for the Mongols would be less forced. It is also worth noting that Genghis Khan displayed some religious favoritism when he was in control of the villages he conquered, evident in his conquest in Iran, where the appointed bureaucrats would either be Christians or Jews.
His acceptance of diversity can be seen in the burial culture of the Mongols as well, resulting in several burial practices, depending on their religion or statuses. Mongol culture was most notable for their “sky burials”, similar to the Tibetans, which consisted of leaving the corpse on a mountaintop to be exposed to the elements, or devoured by scavenging animals such as carrion birds. Sky burials were considered a type of excarnation, where the flesh and organs are removed from the deceased before burial, leaving only the bare bones. This practice occurs due to practicality and convenience, and also originates from their Animistic beliefs.
Marinasohma, Sky Burial
Apart from sky burials, there were other funeral practices that the Mongols practiced, including cremation, embalming, and the “water-burial”, which was another form of open-air burial, similar to the aforementioned sky burial. The type of funeral practice was often determined by geographical location, convenience and, at times, the cause of death.
However, all these religious burial practices did not directly come from the influence of Genghis Khan but were instead based on religious beliefs and practical reason over the centuries. Despite being a ruler and conqueror over the Mongols, Genghis Khan did not stifle the religious freedom of his people or impose his own beliefs on his empire. He allowed for religious freedom and through that, he earned more respect from his fellow Mongols.
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Scythian warrior tombs found in the Altai region of Mongolia,
Something particularly intriguing was the ‘tomb’ of Genghis Khan. With his dying wish, Genghis Khan demanded to be buried in a strangely secretive fashion, ordering his soldiers to ride 1,000 horses over his grave, destroying any trace of his burial. It has been 800 years since his death and his tomb is still yet to be found. Genghis Khan simply did not want his tomb to be discovered, and his people respected his dying wish. Even today, it is taboo to seek his grave in Mongolia. Sounds like this could be the perfect job for Lara Croft.
Mongol nobles were also buried in coffins that were surrounded by weapons and horses, a practice originating from the belief that the buried objects would aid them in the afterlife. This shows the honour that the warriors wanted to take with them into the afterlife. However, all these myths have not been proven true due to contradicting accounts from scholars and the forbidding of access to the sacred mountains for everyone but the members of the royal family. Nevertheless, Genghis Khan impacted the Mongols significantly by promoting freedom of practices and by applying realpolitik, inducing personal pride from his followers.
Genghis Khan had asserted some influence in the way that the Mongols dressed. With clothing and jewellery mainly self-crafted or obtained through trading with other merchants, Genghis Khan made wearing a scarf compulsory when he unified the empire. This was to symbolize a part of the Mongol flag on their head and express their pride as Mongols. During festive occasions, important diplomats would be given special robes for the events, with specific colors for specific events. Furthermore, this was a strict practice. If one were caught wearing the festive outfits on an unsuitable occasion, severe punishment would be dealt as breaking the rule is an extreme sign of disrespect.
One distinguishing part of Mongol clothing is that their concept of headdress differed according to their gender, age, tribe and social class. Certainly sounds like information we would find in a modern day identification card. What the Mongols wore formed the first impressions and gave other people cues on how to behave in front of them. Hence, choosing the right clothes and accessories were extremely important as it was used display authority and power.
Postcards with a variety of traditional headdresses
Although it seemed that Genghis Khan did not have much direct influence on their everyday traditions, food and clothing preferences, he was said to have distributed to all his horsemen silk vests. The vest prevented arrows from breaking upon being embedded in the flesh, allowing them to be removed by gently by teasing the silk open. This was a stark improvement over the usual method of removing barbed arrows by pushing them out through an injured limb. These silk vests functioned much like the padded armour used by European and Byzantine soldiers of the era, such as the gambeson.
The Mongol Empire, united by their leader, Genghis Khan, was a large and dominating army, armed with superior horses, fighting skills and weapons. We can derive many learning points on building a great nation. His impact on Mongol life is evident in their superior warfare abilities, directing permanent change in history. In other areas such as religion and tradition, his impact is less straightforward. Although he does not impose any strict rules, his tolerance for religious and traditional diversity yields respect and loyalty of his followers. Khan, you have our respect!
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