Far away, in a part of the world utterly unknown to Europe, a world-changer had been born around 1167. Temujin, or Genghis Khan, is one of those people in history whose intelligence still shines brightly. First, Genghis is pronounced Jengis. Modern Mongolian uses Russian letters and spells it Чингис (Chingis). This throws me every time, since in American English, we commonly start it with a hard G. I have to correct the voice in my mind all the time. Genghis Khan, the name we know, is of course a title, just as we know the Caliphs by chosen titles, not by their given names. But in the Great Khan’s case, we do know his childhood given name: Temujin, man of iron. Legend says he got that name because his father had just killed a Tatar named Temujin! Imagine having to name your baby after the last thing you killed.
Learning the history of the Khan’s family is difficult because the family seems to have viewed information as power and actively prevented people from learning Mongolian if they could. When someone wrote up a history of the Khan and his family, it was only for the family’s use, and it was kept in a locked chest. Only parts of it have survived, and it may have been literally censored with scissors at points, someone removing a name that was better left hidden from posterity (in their view). This document is now known as the Secret History of the Mongols. We have a few supplemental records to help check and flesh it out. I’m indebted to Jack Weatherford’s diligent work in assembling what can be known; after the USSR fell and Mongolia became an open country, he went to live there, using the local knowledge of herders to supplement the wisps of information Soviet-era Mongolian scholars had hoarded. All credit goes to Weatherford, and I highly recommend his books.
Temujin’s Mongols were people who lived at the border of the tundra, probably genetically related to the Eskimo-like Siberians who lived on the tundra proper. They were fur hunters who traded mink and bear pelts to the south. But just south of Temujin’s Mongols were tribes they were also related to, who were herders. We think of these groups as Mongols now, but before Temujin made Mongol identity a thing, they were just Merkit, Ongut, Kerait, Naiman, and Khitan. They were part of the trading chain from north to south, but their place was more firmly in the sheep and goat pastoral niche, whereas Temujin’s Mongols also hunted. The Mongols began to move out of the harsher conditions of the mountains and tundra, toward the plains, and began to adopt some of the pastoral ways.
Temujin’s father Yesugei was a “blood brother” to the Khan of the Keraits, Toghrul. This connection didn’t help Temujin much at first. Yesugei was killed by a rival tribe or rival leaders, and his two wives and their children were driven out to die in the wilderness. They survived; Temujin was not the oldest, but he rose to family leadership. He reportedly killed one of his half brothers when he was about 12. Temujin’s early life was filled with hardship: they starved, then he was captured and enslaved by another tribe. A friendly member of the capturing tribe helped him get out of the camp, and he hid in a freezing river for a long time while dogs searched for him. His family then lived as outcasts, tribeless wanderers, for a few years.
Temujin approached the Khan of the Keraits and asked to be made a commander. Toghrul seems to have led a similarly hard life, enslaved by the Merkits but escaping to rise to leadership among his people. It’s a bit hard to figure these things out because, at the same time that we get hard-luck stories, these tribes had a rigid idea of aristocracy. Lineage was counted both maternally and paternally, and there were right and wrong ways to be descended from the same person. Temujin seems to have taken a visceral dislike to aristocracy. In his early rising years, it came back to bite him again and again: his blood line was not quite the right stuff, so his children would be turned down for marriage alliances.
Temujin’s big break came when his wife, who had been engaged to him back when his father was still alive, was kidnapped by the Merkits. Toghril Khan had no fondness for the Merkits, so he approved Temujin’s request to lead a force out to find his wife and punish the Merkits. He obliterated those Merkits and found his wife Börte. She was pregnant, and it was never clear to anyone if the father was her husband or a Merkit, but Temujin raised the child as an oldest son. (As we’ll see, Mongols had some ways of looking at life that were very different from ours.)
Temujin did wonders for the Kerait as a war leader, but when his power seemed to threaten the Khan’s family, he was cast out. It was 1203. By now he was in his 40s, with a large family. He was again an outcast on the fringes of eastern Mongolia. He had a war band but they were reduced to starvation. However, in eastern Mongolia, they were on the edge of the Gobi Desert, which traders crossed in search of Siberian furs. A trader for the Onguts fell in with them and decided to give them food. Soon after, the rebel brother of the Kerait Khan who had cast out Temujin got in touch and made marriage alliances to gain his support.
Temujin’s power increased from that day. His genius lay in seeing that tribalism was keeping his people powerless against the Jin, the northern Chinese dynasty that usually dominated them. He wanted to forge a super tribe out of all of them. With marriage alliances and force, he brought in the Siberian fur-hunting tribes, the Keraits, the Naimans, the Merkits, the Onguts, the Tanguts, and the Tatars (previously the Mongols’ fierce enemy to the north and west). In 1206, at a massive Khurultai assembly of all tribes, Temujin became the Great Khan of them all: the Khan of the Grass Sea, the Jengis Khan. He doled out former tribal territories to his wives to rule, and then began marrying off his daughters, creating a family-run empire.
One of the quirks of Mongol family life (quirk in our eyes) is that they had a tradition of marrying young boys to older girls. Giving birth and surviving is much more likely if a girl’s bone structure is mature, and survival was tight on the plains. A 12 year old boy (considered an adult fighting warrior) could father a child, but a 12 year old girl might not safely bear it. So Temujin married his sons to older girls, and his girls to younger boys: but strategically. The girls had been tutored by Börte to know how to rule a tribe. Nobody was surprised when Temujin married them out, but then he did something nobody anticipated.
When Genghis Khan married his daughter into your tribe, there were special conditions. First, other pre-existing wives were out. After the husband had an opportunity get his Mongol wife pregnant (maybe), he had to go join the Khan’s horde. (Horde, by the way, is a genuine Mongolian word.) He was needed as a son-in-law to lead a brigade, but he was not needed to rule his own land. Each daughter was charged with ruling her new tribe as a subsidiary of the Khan’s enterprise and for his benefit. The new tribe was left in no doubt what would happen if they didn’t obey her.
One daughter went to the Oirat in the fur-hunting north. One went to the Uyghurs, a southern tribe that controlled some important caravansaries along the Silk road. Another two were similarly positioned in key places along Mongolia’s border with China. The new Queen of the Uyghurs actually learned to read several languages, since her city had a rich library. The Uyghur script was the first used to write the Mongolian language, though soon after, Chinese characters were also adapted. The daughters appear to have been very intelligent and capable. Genghis Khan’s rise was certainly fueled by the tribute they kept steadily pouring in, and the border stability they maintained. When a husband died, the Queen just married the heir, whatever his age or relationship: son, nephew, uncle, whatever.
Temujin’s four sons were not as bright, and they tended to drink too much. They were all married to Khatuns (princesses) from the confederacy tribes, like the Naimans and Keraits. Their wives were from Buddhist-based tribes that had adopted Nestorian Christianity in the last few generations. Genghis Khan didn’t care; he was a Tengrist, praying to the Father Sky and Mother Earth. Later, some of his grandsons enjoyed hosting religious debates among Jews, Christians, and Buddhists.
By 1206, Genghis Khan came onto the international radar (though not yet Europe’s) by taking his united “Mongolian” tribes to conquer the Jin dynasty, the northern Chinese who represented settled civilization to the Khan. They were farmers who ate rice, instead of the meat-only diet of the plains tribes. They used writing; they networked with powers even farther south. They built walls and trained standing armies. Conquering the Jin would be quite a feat. Spoiler: Yeah, he did it.
What’s really notable about the Khan, though, is how he organized his tribes into one super-tribe. He banned the old aristocratic notions of lineage, first. Then he did what early democratic Athens had done (without knowledge of Athens): he created artificial organizations to mix tribes together.
Ten fighting men were organized into a unit that, they were told, would replace their families. Not their actual wives and children, who were left home in any case, but their brothers and cousins. From now on, they had familial duties to their brothers in the “aravt;” they were to leave none behind, betray none, and so on. Ten tens were a “zuut,” and the aravts in a zuut also owed each other extended-family loyalty. The commanders of zuuts conferred with their commander of a ten tens of tens, the “mingghan” thousand. Ten mingghans were a “tumen,” and each tumen was led by someone personally appointed by the Great Khan. A son, a son-in-law, a friend, or someone who had risen by merit.
That’s the innovation: promotion was based on merit, not blood. The Khan passed over his own kin at times for someone more effective, which is utterly shocking in comparison with Frankish and Turkish or Arab familial loyalty. How could you build a strong organization without a band of brothers? Temujin had faced that question early in his life, and he had decided that merit and oaths meant more than blood. Your family may desert you to starve. Your band of brothers, made up of outlaws and strangers, can save your life. The Khan loved personal heroism as much as he hated aristocracy.
All of the ten-based units crossed not only familial but ethnic lines, mixing Merkits with Tatars, Uyghurs with Onguts. They all became Mongols. His tumen leaders composed marching songs that recited in Tatar the new set of laws and obligations they all lived under, so that every man knew just what he owed to the tumen, mingghan, zuut, and aravt. They also had marching songs with geography rhymes, so that messengers were sent from tumen to tumen with orders made up of the scraps from familiar rhymes. They had only to remember a few new numbers or words, and the rest fitted into a jingle to get stuck in their heads. In addition to his jingle-chanting horse messengers, the Khan set up a regular pony express postal service along the Silk Road as it came gradually under his control.
That’s the state of the Mongol super-nation when it conquered the Jin, sending Chinese aristocrats fleeing to Beijing to await the return of their time. The entire Siberian north had unified. The riches of China were exactly what the Khan had been hoping to find, but the Silk Road pointed west.