Genghis Khan is one of the most famous people in history, but he is also the center of many myths. Some people characterize him as a bloodthirsty warlord who enjoyed cruelty and bloodshed, while others paint him as an enlightened figure who brought peace and prosperity to Mongolia. The real man was much more complex and fascinating than either of these views suggest.
Genghis Khan was not always the great ruler we know him as today. He was born in the year 1162, in the harsh region of Mongolia, under the birthname Temujin. At the time, the Mongols consisted of many small, independent tribes. His father was the leader of one, but he was poisoned by a group of enemy Tatars when Temujin was nine years old. Another family then took control of the tribe, and Temujin's family was forced to live in poverty.
In 1177, Temujin was captured by a rival family and forced into slavery. However, he was able to make a daring escape, which earned him a reputation as a brave and bold young man. Before his death, Temujin's father had arranged for him to marry a woman named Borte, which Temujin did. Shortly after their marriage, however, Borte was kidnapped by another tribe. Temujin and a few allies engaged in another bold raid to save her, which further cemented his positive reputation. Borte would be his primary wife and treasured companion for the rest of his life.
Temujin then began working with his father's former allies to gain power and respect. He quickly became noted as a brilliant tactician and brave warlord, causing to him to gain many followers of his own. However, he also developed serious rivalries. His main enemy was a former friend of his named Jamukha, who raised an army to challenge Temujin's increasing power. The two former friends fought bitterly, but Temujin won in the end. With Jamukha gone, there was no one able to present a serious threat to him. In 1206, Temujin officially became the emperor of all the Mongol tribes and became known as Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan was not satisfied with simply ruling the Mongols. He dreamed of creating an empire and set out to do so. Although he started small, just conquering neighboring tribes, his armies continued to expand throughout Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. At the height of his empire, Genghis Khan controlled an area about the size of the entire continent of Africa.
Although a lack of reliable information makes it difficult to be certain, historians believe that the Mongols killed nearly 40 million people during Genghis Khan's reign. Part of the reason for these high casualty rates was the Mongol strategy of telling people they could surrender or be killed. If the city surrendered, the Mongols would let them live peacefully as part of the empire. If the city resisted, the Mongols would massacre the inhabitants. This allowed them to take many cities peacefully, but also resulted in huge casualties when the people refused to surrender. The Chinese emperors to the east even built the Great Wall in an effort to stop the Mongols.
Genghis Khan's military strategies were cruel and brutal, but when it came to everyday life, his policies were often surprisingly progressive. Although Genghis himself was a Tengrist, which was the most common Mongol religion, he allowed conquered peoples to continue practicing their own faiths. This was unusual at the time when rulers usually forced their subjects to convert. Women were given equal rights and status in most regards, and his daughter even ruled the empire for a short time after his death while the next khan was being chosen.
Along with progressive social policies, Genghis Khan created a thriving economy. He created tax breaks for teachers, doctors, and religious figures, and developed many policies to encourage trade throughout the empire. He is often credited with the creation of the Silk Road, a famous trading route that connected Greece with China. Life for people in the Mongol empire was safe and peaceful for the time, despite the continuous state of war on the edges of the empire.
Genghis Khan's first wife, Borte, remained his favorite wife and close companion until the day he died. Unlike most Mongol rulers, who usually took multiple primary wives, he always gave Borte and her children special status, and only her sons were eligible to inherit his empire. However, Genghis Khan did have a legendary desire for women, and he is believed to have taken nearly 500 other women as secondary wives or officially recognized consorts. Only one of these women became particularly close to him, however. She was named Yisui and rose in prominence from being one of his minor wives to becoming almost as important as Borte due to her intelligence and boldness.
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With nearly 500 wives, it's no surprise that Genghis Khan fathered countless children. Most of these children's names have been lost to history, however. His children with Borte include four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei and Tolui. Jochi's parentage is somewhat unclear, however, because he was born nine months after Borte was kidnapped and reportedly married to another man. He also had four daughters with Borte, all of whom played an important role in his family life. Today, about eight percent of the male population in the former Mongol Empire can trace their lineage back to him, according to DNA studies.
Historians know that Genghis Khan died in August of the year 1227, but his exact cause of death remains a mystery. Various sources speculate that he died in battle, in a hunting accident or of simple illness, but the truth is lost to time. He was about 65 when he passed away, which was remarkably old given the harsh life he had led. His body was buried in a secret location to prevent his enemies from desecrating it, although an elaborate mausoleum was built years later as a memorial. His son Ogedei succeeded him as the emperor of Mongolia.