Genghis Khan was the first emperor of the Mongol Empire, an ancient world power that is widely believed to have been the largest and longest-lasting empire in history. In ancient dialects, the word “Genghis” meant something along the lines of “supreme leader,” and “Khan” was the honorary title given to monarchs and rulers. In combination, then, there is nothing tremendously unique about the name, but the man behind it has become a well-known figure in world history. Legend has it he gave himself the name after assuming power in the early 1200s; his birth name was Temujin. He is known primarily for his military prowess, and is credited with uniting many if not most of the tribes of what is today Mongolia into a coherent empire with uniform laws, rules, and politics. Some of this union came as a result of Khan’s leadership and influence, but much of it was also owing to his policies of brutality and forced submission. He is primarily remembered by historians as a man of both immense power and tremendous destruction. His legacy is arguably one of the anchors of the modern world, but it came at a price.
Mongolia in Context
The Mongol landscape was one of frequent wars and rival clans in the early 1200s when Khan came to power. The land was sparsely populated and there were many tribes competing for the same limited resources. In general the tribes people lacked any sort of formal educational structure, and the majority of their energy was spent on coordinating attacks and planning strategically for land-based warfare and defense. Though people often focus on the brutality of the Khan Empire, it’s important also to remember that the violence that regime introduced wasn’t really anything new. Khan’s efforts were more coordinated and on a larger scale, and in part this is what makes them remarkable; however they didn’t change the tone of the landscape as much as they heightened it.
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Rise to Power
Most scholars don’t think Khan was born into royalty or any sort of hereditary leadership. His family was probably a member of one of the more powerful nomadic tribes, though, and he likely saw warfare from a very young age. He may have been trained as a warrior, and it’s usually agreed that one of his first battles was entered into as vengeance for the death of his father at the hands of the Tatars, one of the most powerful tribes of the time.
One of the first things he is thought to have done as a young warrior was to create a confederation or common allegiance between tribes to unify their force and ability to fight. By 1202, he had created an intimidating force and they attacked and conquered the Tatars to the east. His early success against is believed to have impressed the aging Mongol king, and the young Temujim was made heir to the throne.
According to ancient documents, he was coronated in 1206, and gave himself the name “Genghis Khan” or "emperor of all emperors." With this title he continued the process he had already begun, namely organizing warriors and consolidating Mongol tribes.
Role in Uniting Tribes and Introducing Uniform Laws
Khan grew his troops and worked to unite tribes from all across what is now Mongolia. By 1210 he overtook the Tangut kingdom, and fought against the Ruzhen in northeast China. His string of conquests was bolstered by his innovative military strategies. He conquered Transoxiana, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and Samarkand. In later years he and his troops conquered Persia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
In 1225, he returned as the ruler of vast swaths of land from the Caspian Sea all the way to Korea, a mass of land known as the Mongul Empire. This empire was significantly bigger than the country today known as Mongolia, though the modern nation is believed to be the origin and the birthplace of Genghis Khan. He had power over more of the world than any other conqueror at any time of history, and his empire surpassed even Rome’s. The tactics he employed are widely believed to have been quite brutal, and he used tremendous force against warriors and townspeople alike.
Other Cultural and Societal Contributions
Khan’s conquests did more than simply amass land. Most scholars think he did a great deal of work trying to unite the people who lived in all parts of his kingdom, and he was able to inspire many ideas of Mongol unity. He is credited for introducing record keeping and the rule of law into the agrarian society. Additionally he is believed to have established efficient trade routes and rewarded profitable business ventures, and he insisted upon a society that was tolerant of many different religious traditions and faith customs.
In 1227, another battle was raging between the Mongols and the Tangut, who lived in what is now central China. It is believed that during this battle, Khan fell off of his horse and died; he is estimated to have been about 65 years old. The huge Mongolian empire was then ruled by Genghis Kahn's sons and grandson: Ögedei and Kubilai Khan.