Genghis Khan
Mongol conqueror

1162 - 1227

Genghis Khan was a Mongol conqueror who founded the largest land empire in history. He ruled an area that stretched across central Asia from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan. His name is also spelled Chingis or Jenghis.

Genghis Khan was a political and military genius who united Mongol and other nomadic tribes into an effective, disciplined fighting force. The Mongols were also known for their use of terror. When they met resistance, they would often kill most of their prisoners.

Genghis Khan was an intelligent man with superior organizational abilities. He showed great generosity to his followers. Although he had little interest in cultural matters, he promoted literacy among his people. He also established the first Mongol code of laws, called the Yasa or Yasak. The order he created throughout his vast empire promoted the growth of trade between China and Europe.

Genghis Khan's original name was Temujin, which means ironworker. His father was the chief of a small Mongol tribe. Temujin inherited that position at about the age of 13, when members of an enemy tribe poisoned his father. But according to The Secret History of the Mongols, a Mongol epic written during the mid-1200's, the members of the tribe left their new chief. For a while, Temujin and his family lived a harsh and lonely existence. They owned few sheep or other livestock and had to dig roots for food.

Soon, however, Temujin began to attract followers, form alliances, and build an army. He used harsh training and strict discipline to create a superior fighting force. He also ensured that his troops were well equipped and that they quickly adopted new tactics and weapons. Temujin appointed officers on the basis of achievement instead of for their family connections, as was customary. In this way, he gained officers who would remain loyal to him alone.

Temujin used his army to extend his power over neighboring tribes. By 1206, he had become ruler of Mongolia. That year, an assembly of Mongol chieftains proclaimed him Genghis Khan, a title that probably means either universal ruler or invincible prince.

After becoming the ruler of Mongolia, Genghis Khan set out to conquer China. He first attacked a kingdom in northwestern China called Xi Xia (also spelled Hsi Hsia). He then invaded northeastern China and in 1215 took Beijing (Peking), the capital of the Jin (Chin) Empire.

In 1218, Genghis Khan broke off his assault on China and swept into central Asia. He crushed the kingdom of Khorezm, also spelled Khwarezm, in what are now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In 1220, he destroyed the cities of Bukhara and Samarqand (Samarkand) in present-day Uzbekistan and Neyshabur (Nishapur) in modern Iran. Two smaller armies invaded the plains north of the Caspian Sea. By 1223, they had conquered the Kipchaks, and had defeated the Russians at the Kalka River. From 1225 until he died in 1227, Genghis Khan again attacked Xi Xia. His grandson, Kublai Khan, completed the conquest of China.

Contributor: Andrew C. Hess, Ph.D., Prof. of Diplomacy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts Univ.


Additional resources

Grousset, Rene. Conqueror of the World. Orion Pr., 1967. Translation of 1944 French edition. The standard biography.

Humphrey, Judy. Genghis Khan. Chelsea Hse., 1987. Also suitable for younger readers.

Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Basil Blackwell, 1992. Translation of 1983 German edition.


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