Genghis Khan was a Mongol political and military leader who united the Mongol tribes and founded the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in world history. Born to the name Temüjin in the Borjigin family, he forged a powerful army based on meritocracy to become one of the most successful military leaders in history. While his image in most of the world is that of a ruthless, bloodthirsty conqueror, Genghis Khan is an iconic and beloved figure in Mongolia, where he is seen as the father of the Mongol Nation. Before becoming a Khan, Temüjin eliminated and united many of the nomadic tribes of north East Asia and Central Asia under a social identity as the “Mongols”.
Genghis Khan was likely born around 1162 to 1167 in the mountainous area of Burhan Haldun in Mongolia’s Hentiy Province near the Onon and the Herlen rivers. His birth name was Temujin. Folklore and legend stated that when Temujin was born he clutched a blood clot in his fist, an indication that he was destined to go on to do great things. He was the eldest son of Yesükhei, a minor tribal chief of the Kiyad and a nöker of Ong Khan of the Kerait tribe, possibly descended from a family of blacksmiths. Yesükhei’s clan was called Borjigin, and his mother, Hoelun, was of the Olkhunut tribe of the Mongol confederation. They were nomads like almost all Central Asian Turkic and Mongol confederations.
Temüjin was related through his father to Qabul Khan, Ambaghai and Qutula Khan who had headed the Mongol confederation under the Jin Dynasty until Jin switched support to the Tatars in 1161 and destroyed Qabul Khan. Genghis’ father, Yesugei emerged as the head of the ruling clan of the Mongols. But this position was contested by the rival Tayichi’ud clan, who descended directly from Ambaghai. When the Tatars, in turn, grew too powerful after 1161, Jin moved their support from the Tatars to the Kerait. Temüjin had three brothers, two half brothers and one sister. Genghis Khan’s empress and first wife Borte had four sons, Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui. His childhood life was very difficult and he had to get married to Boreta when he was two years old.
Temüjin began his slow ascent to power by offering himself as a vassal to his father’s Toghrul, who was Khan of the Kerait and better known by the Chinese title Ong Khan, which the Jin Empire granted him in 1197. This relationship was first reinforced when Borte was captured by the Merkits; it was to Toghrul that Temüjin turned for support. In response, Toghrul offered his vassal 20,000 of his Kerait warriors and suggested that he also involve his childhood friend Jamuqa, who had himself become khan of his tribe, the Jajirats. Although the campaign was successful and led to the recapture of Borte and utter defeat of the Merkits, it also paved the way for the split between the childhood friends, Temüjin and Jamuqa.
Toghrul’s son, Senggum, was jealous of Temüjin’s growing power and he allegedly planned to assassinate Temüjin. Toghrul, though allegedly saved on multiple occasions by Temüjin, gave in to his son and adopted an obstinate attitude towards collaboration with Temüjin. Temüjin learned of Senggum’s intentions and eventually defeated him and his loyalists. One of the later ruptures between Toghrul and Temüjin was Toghrul’s refusal to give his daughter in marriage to Jochi, the eldest son of Temüjin, which signified disrespect in the Mongol culture. This act probably led to the split between both factions and was a prelude to war. Toghrul allied himself with Jamuqa, Temüjin’s brother and when the confrontation took place, the internal divisions between Toghrul and Jamuqa, as well as the desertion of many clans that fought on their side to the cause of Temüjin, led to Toghrul’s defeat. This paved the way for the fall and extinction of the Kerait tribe.
The next direct threat to Temüjin was the Naimans. The Naimans did not surrender, although enough sectors again voluntarily sided with Temüjin. In 1201, a Khuriltai elected Jamuqa as Gur Khan, universal ruler, a title used by the rulers of the Kara-Khitan Khanate. Jamuqa’s assumption of this title was the final breach with Temüjin, and Jamuqa formed a coalition of tribes to oppose him. Before the conflict, however, several generals abandoned Jamuqa, including Subutai, Jelme’s well-known younger brother. After several battles, Jamuqa was finally captured in 1206 after several shepherds kidnapped and turned him over to Temüjin.
According to the Secret History, Temüjin generously offered his friendship again to Jamuqa and asked him to turn to his side. Jamuqa refused and asked for a noble death. The rest of the Merkit clan that sided with the Naimans were defeated by Subutai, a member of Temüjin’s guard who would later become one of the greatest commanders in the service of the Khan. The Naimans’ defeat left Genghis Khan as the sole ruler of the Mongol plains. All these confederations were united and became known as the Mongols.
By 1206, Temüjin managed to unite the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Uyghurs, Keraits, Tatars and disparate other smaller tribes under his rule through his charisma, dedication, and strong will. It was a monumental feat for the “Mongols”, who had a long history of the internecine dispute, economic hardship, and pressure from Chinese dynasties and empires. At a Kurultai, a council of Mongol chiefs, he was acknowledged as “Khan” of the consolidated tribes and took the title “Genghis Khan”. This unification of all confederations by Genghis Khan established peace between previously warring tribes. The population of the whole Mongol nation was around 200,000 people including civilians with approximately 70,000 soldiers at the formation of the unified Mongol nation.
Before his death, Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons Ögedei, Chagatai, Tolui, and Jochi into several Khanates designed as sub-territories. Elder son of Genghis Khan, Jochi died several months before spilt the land among his sons. Therefore, Jochi’s land was handed over to Batu and Orda by Genghis Khan. Following are the Khanates in the way in which Genghis Khan was assigned after his death:
- Empire of the Great Khan – Ögedei Khan, as Great Khan, took most of Eastern Asia, including China; this territory later comprised the Yuan Dynasty under Kubilai Khan.
- Mongol homeland – Tolui Khan, being the youngest son, received a small territory near the Mongol homeland, following Mongol custom.
- Chagatai Khanate – Chagatai Khan, Genghis Khan’s second son, was given Central Asia and northern Iran.
- Blue Horde – Batu Khan, and White Horde- Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi, had received most of the distant Russia and Ruthenia. Because Jochi died before Genghis Khan, his territory was further split up between his sons. Batu Khan launched an invasion of Russia, and later Hungary and Poland, and crushed several armies before being summoned back by the news of Ögedei’s death.
In 1256, during the rule of Ögedei, Hulagu Khan, son of Tolui, was charged with the conquest of the Muslim nations to the southwest of the empire. At present, these included Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and the new khanate was named the Il-Khanate. Since, after Tolui’s death and the accession of his descendants to the office of Great Khan, his ulus were merged with the Yuan Dynasty, the Il-Khanate is considered, along with the Yuan Dynasty, Chagatai Khanate, and the Golden Horde, to be one of the four divisions of the Mongol Empire.