In the year 1162, in the Khentii Mountains of what is today Northeastern Mongolia, a baby by the name of Temüjin was born.
He would go on to become the world’s single greatest conqueror and establish the largest contiguous empire in history.
His empire would reverberate throughout history and is still being felt today, both politically and genetically.
Learn more about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Empire on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The impetus for this episode comes from the fact that I have a whole bunch of episode ideas that deal with the Mongol Empire, but I’ve never really done an episode explicitly about the Mongol Empire.
So, I figured it was time to give an overview of the Mongol Empire, so I have a reference point for future shows.
The Mongol Empire was not like any other Empire in world history, before or since.
What made this empire different started with the Mongols themselves.
The Eurasian steppes were home to many different tribes of nomadic herdsmen. The Eurasian steppes are a massive grassland that stretches from northeast China and Mongolia through Central Asia, all the way to Eastern Europe.
The steppes are great for growing grass and little else. The people who lived there weren’t engaged in agriculture but rather in raising livestock.
Horses, goats, sheep, cattle, and camels were central to the lives of these people. Their diets were almost exclusively dairy and meat, with most of the meat coming from hunting game. Their livestock provided milk for food, wool to make tents and clothing, leather for saddles, and even dung which was used as fuel for their fires.
The number of horses and livestock someone had reflected their wealth.
Because their lives were centered on their herds, they had no permanent settlements. They lived in felt tents and would move seasonally so their animals could have fresh pasture.
What I’ve just described is antithetical to every other civilization which created a great empire. The Chinese, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Incas, and Aztecs were all based on cities and agriculture.
These tribes mostly spent their time fighting with each other but occasionally raided more settled locations.
If you remember back to my episode on the Great Wall of China, it was built specifically to stop these raids.
The Chinese actually took advantage of their constant infighting. They would bribe one tribe to attack another to keep them occupied fighting themselves.
It was in this environment that the aforementioned boy named Temüjin was born in 1162.
According to legend, he was born holding a blood clot in his fist, which was a sign that he was destined for greatness.
His father was a chief in a Mongol federation, and he came from a noble family.
He basically spent 22 years, from the age of 22 to 44, uniting all of the Mongol tribes.
I’m really skipping a lot because his rise to power was pretty much half of his career as a leader.
He managed to achieve this feat through a combination of brilliant generalship, cunning diplomacy, and a superior intelligence network.
He was eventually named the supreme ruler of the Mongols in 1206 and was given the title of Genghis Khan. Khan is the title given to the rules of a tribe, and Genghis Khan simply means the “universal Khan.”
It is also sometimes pronounced Chinggis Khan, but I’m going to continue with the Angliziced “Genghis Khan” for the rest of this episode.
I can’t help but think of a comparison with another empire. The Macedonians Empire united all of the Greek city-states under Philip II. Uniting all the disparate groups domestically was necessary before going out to conquer Persia.
Philip II did the dirty work that allowed his son, Alexander the Great, to engage in foreign conquests.
The difference between the Mongols and Macedonians is that Genghis Khan did it all on his own.
Once the tribes were united, Genghis Khan began a series of conquests which unlike anything else seen in history.
He started by going south into China.
China at the time was actually three different kingdoms: the Xia Dynasty, the Jin Dynasty, and the Song Dynasty.
The closest to the Mongols was the Xia Dynasty in the north. They began the invasion in 1207. In 1209, they began the invasion of the Jin Dynasty, which was further to the east in what is today Manchuria.
Subduing the Xia and Jin Dynasties took over a decade, but while that was happening, they also expanded into Central Asia in 1211.
This took them into the modern-day countries of Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. They went into Northern Iran and invaded the Khwarazmian Empire.
From there, he went around the Caspian Sea and went north through the Caucuses and then into Ukraine and Russia.
Genghis died in 1227, and by that time, he had created one of the largest empires in history.
However, this wasn’t even close to being a one-man operation. Genghis was clearly the leader, but he was graced with several very talented generals.
It wasn’t just talented people in charge. They had tactics that their opponents had a hard time countering.
For starters, the Mongols were extremely pragmatic. When they invaded China, they encountered walled cities which required siege warfare. The Mongols were used to fighting on the open plains. They had no experience in siege warfare.
So, they learned.
This would have stopped most armies cold, but not the Mongols. They simply captured experts in building siege engines and then adapted these new techniques.
They recognized talent and skills that they didn’t possess. When they captured a city, they went out of their way to protect and gather up everyone who had some technical skill. Blacksmiths, weavers, engineers, or anyone who had a unique skillset was valued. They were often taken back to Mongol camps where they could ply their crafts.
They were also brutal.
Before Hitler and the Nazis became the universal example people referred to of something bad, they used the Mongols and Genghis Khan.
They would not hesitate to kill everyone in a city who didn’t surrender and put up resistance. There were many cases of cities with tens of thousands of people being put to the sword.
This made it very easy to conquer other cities that learned of what happened to the cities before them. They would often open up their gates to let the Mongols in, and they often wouldn’t suffer anything worse than having to pay a tax.
They would often also round up people from outside the city walls and drive them in front of their soldiers at the beginning of a siege. The city defenders would be put in the position of killing their own to fend off the Mongols.
Of course, there was another really big thing that the Mongols had going for them: horses.
Pretty much every army centuries ago had cavalry. However, the cavalry was usually much smaller in number compared to the infantry. Horses were expensive, and they were usually reserved for the rich and powerful.
The Mongols, however, were all cavalry. Every soldier literally had a horse, and more often than not, multiple horses.
This allowed them to travel faster than almost any other army in history up until that point. Mongol riders could cross deserts by drinking blood from their horses and cooking meat by putting it under their saddle.
They also, and this is key, could shoot a bow and arrow from horseback. This made them incredibly lethal. They could continuously fire arrows into enemies without them ever being able to touch them.
The Mongols were the best light cavalry in the world. If heavier armored cavalry attacked, they would retreat, firing arrows the entire time, while the larger attacking horses tired out. They would then turn around and go on the attack again.
Mongol pragmatism also extended to how they governed their empire. They allowed for complete freedom of religion. They ruled over Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians and didn’t particularly care how people worshiped.
When Genghis Khan died, the empire and conquests didn’t end. It was already twice the size of the Roman Empire at its peak.
He declared his third son, Ögedei, as his heir, and they kept expanding. They made it all the way to Austria and Northern Italy. They began an invasion of the Song Dynasty in Southern China.
Ögedei died in 1241 and was replaced by his son Güyük Khan who reigned for 2 years and was then replaced by the son of Genghis’s eldest son, Möngke.
He saw the Mongols invade Mesopotamia, the Levant, Persia, Tibet, and Korea.
With the death of Möngke in 1259, the empire started to fracture. It was divided into four different Empires.
China became the Yuan Dynasty under the rule of Kublai Khan. He managed to finally defeat the Song Dynasty and unify most of China under Mongol rule.
In the west, the Golden Horde ruled over what is today Russia and Eastern Europe.
The Chagatai Khanate ruled Central Asia, including regions such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
Finally, the Mongols ruling Persia, Mesopotamia, and Eastern Turkey were known as the Ilkhanate.
There were several civil wars fought between these groups as they struggled for power and territory.
This was another striking similarity with the Macedonian empire. After Alexander died, his generals also broke up the empire into four parts that fought with each other.
By the end of the 13th century, the unified Mongol Empire was gone, and these successor states became totally independent of each other and followed their own paths and interests.
In 1357, the Ilkhanate in Persia and the Middle East fell and was broken into many pieces.
The Yuan Dynasty in China fell in 1368 and was replaced by the Ming Dynasty.
The Golden Horde in Europe was split into White and Blue Hordes, and it lasted until 1502.
Finally, the Chagatai Khanate was split into eastern and western empires in the 1340s, with the western empire ending in 1370 and the eastern empire lasting until 1680.
The Mongol Empire was like a supernova.
It came out of nowhere and rapidly took over much of the known world. They were the first real empire that united both east and west. They controlled an area from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
At its largest extent, it controlled 24 million square kilometers and 18% of the world’s population.
It wasn’t just the size, however.
Genghis Khan regularly took princesses and queens from the lands he conquered as concubines. He supposedly had at least 500 concubines in addition to his 12 wives.
Only sons from his formal wives were ever mentioned, but it is estimated that he sired hundreds of children from his concubines.
Via genetic analysis of the Y-chromosome, which is passed along only by men, it is estimated there are over 16 million direct male descendants of Genghis Kahn alive, which represents one-half of one percent of all the men on Earth today.
Those are only the direct male descendants which have passed along the Y-Chromosome. If you include everyone, male and female, the total number of descendants might be in the hundreds of millions. These aren’t just people in Asia, but people scattered all over the world.
The impact of the Mongol Empire can still be seen in the borders in the world today, and even right down to the very DNA of a sizable portion of humanity.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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