GENGHIS KHAN TRIVIA
c. 1162 – August 18, 1227
Between 1206 and his death in 1227, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered
nearly 12 million square miles of territory—more than any individual in
history. Along the way, he cut a ruthless path through Asia and Europe
that left untold millions dead, but he also modernized Mongolian culture,
embraced religious freedom and helped open contact between East and West.
He was a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman
and bloodthirsty terror.
1. “Genghis” wasn’t his real name.
The man who would become the “Great Khan” of the Mongols was born along
the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin,
which means “of iron” or “blacksmith.” He didn’t get the honorific name
“Genghis Kahn” until 1206, when he was proclaimed leader of the Mongols
at a tribal meeting known as a “kurultai.” While “Khan” is a traditional
title meaning “leader” or “ruler,” historians are still unsure of the origins
of “Genghis.” It may have may have meant “ocean” or “just,” but in context
it is usually translated as “supreme ruler” or “universal ruler.”
2. He had a rough childhood.
From an early age, Genghis was forced to contend with the brutality
of life on the Mongolian Steppe. Rival Tatars poisoned his father when
he was only nine, and his own tribe later expelled his family and left
his mother to raise her seven children alone. Genghis grew up hunting and
foraging to survive, and as an adolescent he may have even murdered his
own half-brother in a dispute over food. During his teenage years, rival
clans abducted both he and his young wife, and Genghis spent time as a
slave before making a daring escape. Despite all these hardships, by his
early 20s he had established himself as a formidable warrior and leader.
After amassing an army of supporters, he began forging alliances with the
heads of important tribes. By 1206, he had successfully consolidated the
steppe confederations under his banner and began to turn his attention
to outside conquest.
3. There is no definitive record of what he looked like.
For such an influential figure, very little is known about Genghis
Kahn’s personal life or even his physical appearance. No contemporary portraits
or sculptures of him have survived, and what little information historians
do have is often contradictory or unreliable. Most accounts describe him
as tall and strong with a flowing mane of hair and a long, bushy beard.
Perhaps the most surprising description comes courtesy of the 14th century
Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din, who claimed Genghis had red hair and
green eyes. Al-Din’s account is questionable—he never met the Khan in person—but
these striking features were not unheard of among the ethnically diverse
4. Some of his most trusted generals were former enemies.
The Great Khan had a keen eye for talent, and he usually promoted his
officers on skill and experience rather than class, ancestry or even past
allegiances. One famous example of this belief in meritocracy came during
a 1201 battle against the rival Taijut tribe, when Genghis was nearly killed
after his horse was shot out from under him with an arrow. When he later
addressed the Taijut prisoners and demanded to know who was responsible,
one soldier bravely stood up and admitted to being the shooter. Stirred
by the archer’s boldness, Genghis made him an officer in his army and later
nicknamed him “Jebe,” or “arrow,” in honor of their first meeting on the
battlefield. Along with the famed general Subutai, Jebe would go on to
become one of the Mongols’ greatest field commanders during their conquests
in Asia and Europe.
5. He rarely left a score unsettled.
Genghis Khan often gave other kingdoms a chance to peacefully submit
to Mongol rule, but he didn’t hesitate to bring down the sword on any society
that resisted. One of his most famous campaigns of revenge came in 1219,
after the Shah of the Khwarezmid Empire broke a treaty with the Mongols.
Genghis had offered the Shah a valuable trade agreement to exchange goods
along the Silk Road, but when his first emissaries were murdered, the enraged
Khan responded by unleashing the full force of his Mongol hordes on the
Khwarezmid territories in Persia. The subsequent war left millions dead
and the Shah’s empire in utter ruin, but the Khan didn’t stop there. He
followed up on his victory by returning east and waging war on the Tanguts
of Xi Xia, a group of Mongol subjects who had refused his order to provide
troops for his invasion of Khwarizm. After routing the Tangut forces and
sacking their capital, the Great Khan ordered the execution of the entire
Tangut royal family as punishment for their defiance.
6. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how many people perished during
the Mongol conquests, many historians put the number at somewhere around
40 million. Censuses from the Middle Ages show that the population of China
plummeted by tens of millions during the Khan’s lifetime, and scholars
estimate that he may have killed a full three-fourths of modern-day Iran’s
population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire. All told, the Mongols’
attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent.
7. He was tolerant of different religions.
Unlike many empire builders, Genghis Khan embraced the diversity of
his newly conquered territories. He passed laws declaring religious freedom
for all and even granted tax exemptions to places of worship. This tolerance
had a political side—the Khan knew that happy subjects were less likely
to rebel—but the Mongols also had an exceptionally liberal attitude towards
religion. While Genghis and many others subscribed to a shamanistic belief
system that revered the spirits of the sky, winds and mountains, the Steppe
peoples were a diverse bunch that included Nestorian Christians, Buddhists,
Muslims and other animistic traditions. The Great Khan also had a personal
interest in spirituality. He was known to pray in his tent for multiple
days before important campaigns, and he often met with different religious
leaders to discuss the details of their faiths. In his old age, he even
summoned the Taoist leader Qiu Chuji to his camp, and the pair supposedly
had long conversations on immortality and philosophy.
8. He created one of the first international postal systems.
Along with the bow and the horse, the Mongols most potent weapon may
have been their vast communication network. One of his earliest decrees
as Khan involved the formation of a mounted courier service known as the
“Yam.” This medieval express consisted of a well-organized series of post
houses and way stations strung out across the whole of the Empire. By stopping
to rest or take on a fresh mount every few miles, official riders could
often travel as far as 200 miles a day. The system allowed goods and information
to travel with unprecedented speed, but it also acted as the eyes and ears
of the Khan. Thanks to the Yam, he could easily keep abreast of military
and political developments and maintain contact with his extensive network
of spies and scouts. The Yam also helped protect foreign dignitaries and
merchants during their travels. In later years, the service was famously
used by the likes of Marco Polo and John of Plano Carpini.
9. No one knows how he died or where he is buried.
Of all the enigmas surrounding the Khan’s life, perhaps the most famous
concerns how it ended. The traditional narrative says he died in 1227 from
injuries sustained in a fall from a horse, but other sources list everything
from malaria to an arrow wound in the knee. One of the more questionable
accounts even claims he was murdered while trying to force himself on a
Chinese princess. However he died, the Khan took great pains to keep his
final resting place a secret. According to legend, his funeral procession
slaughtered everyone they came in contact with during their journey and
then repeatedly rode horses over his grave to help conceal it. The tomb
is most likely on or around a Mongolian mountain called Burkhan Khaldun,
but to this day its precise location is unknown.
10. The Soviets tried to snuff out his memory in Mongolia.
Genghis Khan is now seen as a national hero and founding father of
Mongolia, but during the era of Soviet rule in the 20th century, the mere
mention of his name was banned. Hoping to stamp out all traces of Mongolian
nationalism, the Soviets tried to suppress the Khan’s memory by removing
his story from school textbooks and forbidding people from making pilgrimages
to his birthplace in Khentii. Genghis Khan was eventually restored to Mongolian
history after the country won independence in the early 1990s, and he’s
since become a recurring motif in art and popular culture. The Great Khan
lends his name to the nation’s main airport in the city of Ulan Bator,
and his portrait even appears on Mongolian currency.
Genghis Khan on the Mongolian 1,000 tögrög banknote