- James Houser
1206 - The Rise of Genghiz Khan
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
October 11. 1206 AD. The feuding nomadic tribes of northern Asia have been forcibly unified under a single leader. The chieftains pledge themselves, stating that “We will make you Khan; you shall ride at our head, against our foes. We will throw ourselves like lightning on your enemies.” At their head stands the Mongol known from birth as Temujin. Today he is given a new name: Genghis Khan. This is your real-life supervillain origin story.
Every now and then, there will be some headline in the news about an “undiscovered tribe” in the Amazon or in New Guinea. People of the modern world typically treat this discovery with wonder and astonishment: how can there be people out there not wired into the global network? We sometimes forget how very new and very radical our age of the Internet, cell phones, hell radio and television are. Our story begins today with a small tribe, totally cut off from the great currents of the world. As Crusades shook the foundations of the world thousands of miles away, great Indian empires rose and fell, Kings of the Middle Ages fought and Sultans of the Middle East schemed, the Mongols of upper Asia lived as they basically always had – hunting, gathering, avoiding raids and living in their tents.
The steppes of central and northern Asia were basically untouched by empires or armies for millennia. The nomadic peoples of the Asian steppe lived off horses and forage, travelling often, searching for new grazing lands and safe havens. They were not completely separate from the currents of the great empire to their south – the Chinese, the Muslims, the Hindus – but to avoid them, all they had to do was retreat further into the steppe. Out here, life was harsh and unforgiving. Men, women, children could all die forgotten if they had been cast out by their tribe. The tribes themselves warred, united, broke apart in a neverending whirlwind of shifting familial alliances and blood feuds. The vast plains of the world seemed unending, united only by the unbroken blue sky above. Such was the steppe for centuries – for most of human history – until the Tsars of Russia and the Emperors of China finally fenced it off in the 1690s.
In this enormous melting pot of peoples and tribes, occasional headwinds would form and invasions would boil out into the civilized worlds of China, India, Persia or Europe. These might be caused by a famine or climate change that forced a migration, or the rise of a strong leader with a thirst for plunder or glory. The Xionggnu had ravaged ancient China, the Huns had challenged the Roman Empire, and the Turks had overrun the Arab Caliphate to settle along the Mediterranean. Their success was fleeting, and their cultures were fragile. Many an invading nomadic tribe had gone native, assuming the customs and religion of their victims. This was the fate of every invader of China; any nomadic invader of the Chinese heartland was guaranteed to be Chinese themselves in a few generations. These were the two worlds of old Eurasia: the settled, agricultural civilizations to the south, and the harsh, violent, nomadic steppes to the north.
Our story begins with a woman named Hoelun, the second wife of a small-time tribal chief named Yesugei. Hoelun, a woman of the Merkit tribe, had been kidnapped by the Kiyad tribe after her first husband was forced to flee; Yesugei claimed her as his wife. Such was the typical fate of women on the Eurasian steppe: trophies, bargaining chips, child-bearers.
Yesugei was the ruler of the small Kiyad clan of the Mongol Confederation, an ally of Toghrul of the Keraite tribe. They were only one of literally hundreds of Eurasian tribes that roamed the vast expanses of land north of China, warring and hunting and celebrating and following the shamanistic Tengri faith. Within a year, perhaps 1162 AD, Hoelun gave birth to a son, who Yesugei named “Temujin” after a man he had recently killed. The name “Temujin” comes from a combination of words meaning “blacksmith.” According to Mongol legend, Temujin was born holding a blood clot in his hand – a sign that he would become a great leader.
Temujin’s early life was difficult. He rarely saw his father, who was often out on wars and raids; his mother raised him in the small Kiyad camp with a rapidly growing host of brothers and sisters. When he was nine years old, Temujin’s father brought him to arrange marriage with a young girl named Borte of the Khonigrad tribe. Yesugei left the young Temujin to live with his future wife’s tribe as part of this marriage alliance, but on the way home Temujin’s father was ambushed by the rival Tatars and murdered.
When Temujin returned home to the Kiyads and tried to claim his father’s position as chief, the tribe laughed at this boy who presumed to lead them. The tribe exiled Temujin, his mother, and his siblings into the desert, while they moved on. According to the stories, only one old man spoke up against leaving two women and seven children to starve in the desert; as Temujin watched, this old man was speared to death in front of everyone. The 10-year-old Temujin tried to save the old man’s life, but their only advocate died as their tribe vanished into the dust.
Temujin and his family were reduced to years of struggle and hardship in the barren wastes of the Eurasian steppe, cut off from all tribal protection and alliances. They were often reduced to eating roots and berries, as well as whatever small game they could catch. It was Temujin’s mother Hoelun who saved them, saving her dead husband’s Spirit Banner and ensuring that her hungry children were fed. At one point his older half-brother Begeter, the son of his father’s first wife, began to assert control over the isolated family. Mongol traditions placed the eldest male as head of the tribe, and Begeter began to assert this right by appropriating his brothers’ kills and harvests, angering them. When Temujin protested to his mother, she silenced him, saying that he should be worried about their enemies rather than his brother.
Temujin would not brook this disrespect, and was determined to become the head of his family. He persuaded his younger brother Khasar to join him in a plot to kill their half-brother. They ambushed Begeter by rising from the grass, bows drawn, as he sat on a small knoll. As he admonished them, stating that “Without me you have no companion but your shadow,” the brothers loosed their shafts. Temujin had killed his first rival for power – but not his last.
As Temujin grew to manhood, he began to make allies and build a reputation. His best friend in his early years was with a slightly older boy named Jamukha, whose family camped near Temujin’s on the Onon River and was a distant relative of his father. Twice in their childhood Temujin and Jamukha swore oaths of eternal blood brotherhood and friendship. In around 1177 AD, Temujin was briefly captured by his former tribe, but made a famous escape that further enhanced his reputation; soon he was accumulating a small following of loyal warriors. As the young man Temujin grew in confidence and ability, he decided to go back and reclaim his bride.
After almost seven years, Temujin returned to the Khonigrad tribe to fulfill his father’s deal and take Borte as his bride. Borte’s father was delighted that Temujin had honored his father’s vow, and had the pair married immediately – her dowry being a black sable coat. With her father’s permission, Temujin brought Borte and her mother back to live in his family’s yurt. The young Mongol was a man on the make now, with allies and a small following. Among his allies were Jamukha, now Khan of his own clan, and his father’s old ally Toghrul. Temujin had become one of Toghrul’s most capable subordinates and commanders.
But Temujin had made enemies. One night, a tribe known as the Three Merkits ambushed his family’s camp and stole away many of the women – including Borte. Temujin’s wife was given to one of the Merkit warriors as a spoil of war. To emphasize the nature of nomadic blood feuds, this raid was actually retribution for the abduction of Temujin’s mother so many years before, and nearly mirrored the kidnapping and forced marriage of Hoelun. Unlike his mother’s past lover, though, Temujin was not about to forget Borte. Though Jamukha persuaded his friend to give her up for lost, the young Mongol could not be deterred from rescuing his wife. He rallied his followers and his allies, and with Jamukha’s help led a rescue mission around eight months later.
They hit the Merkits at dawn, thundering into their camp with swords flashing and bows thrumming. Temujin ran among the tents calling Borte’s name. His young bride, recognizing the voice of her husband, broke free from her captors and ran to him. He had raised his sword to strike the suddenly approaching figure before he knew her face. Even in the darkness, they recognized each other and embraced amongst the smoke and fire of Temujin’s raid. When they released each other, it is likely that Temujin’s eyes moved downwards to her pregnant belly.
It is not hard even for modern observers to imagine the emotions that Temujin must have experienced when he learned that his wife was pregnant. It was possible that he was the father, but not certain. Many, including Jamukha, tried to persuade him to put his wife aside. There would be other wives, from more powerful clans or more strategic alliances, and they would not be sullied by rape and captivity. But Temujin refused. When Borte gave birth to a son a month later, Temujin named him Jochi, and never questioned his parentage. Even much later in life, when his sons feuded between themselves and Temujin had many wives, he would never deny Jochi as his first-born son, and would never deny Borte as his most loyal and first wife – and eventually Empress.
The raid on the Merkits was a milestone in Temujin’s life, one of the great events that would propel him onwards. It established that he was willing to cast aside tradition and culture for his objectives and beliefs. It confirmed that he was setting his own course, not the course that tribal politics and fate seemed to set for him. And it showed the importance of loyalty above all else – not blood loyalty or familial loyalty, but the sort of absolute respect and deference that can only be proven in trial by fire. This would be shown ultimately when Temujin finally broke with his friend Jamukha.
Jamukha and Temujin had long treated each other as equals, but it had become apparent that Jamukha had more power – for now – than Temujin did. Jamukha ruled a powerful tribe, while Temujin only ruled his own family and band of dedicated followers. As they grew into their 20s, Jamukha grew more aware of his position and started to assert his rights over Temujin. One night in 1181, the two blood brothers disagreed over where to make camp. Rather than try to persuade his friend through reasoning, Jamukha asserted his tribal rights and gave him a command.
Temujin must have thought of his half-brother during those hard days of exile, and respecting his friend took the insult in stride, but Borte was the one who objected. She declared that Temujin should not knuckle under to his friend, but if that this was the way things were going to be, it was time to make a break. That night, Temujin and his followers separated from Jamukha – and many of Jamukha’s own followers accompanied them. Jamukha honored whatever shreds of friendship he had for Temujin and did not pursue his blood brother. It was the last time either would forgive the other.
Soon Temujin and Jamukha were the two rival leaders for supremacy of the Mongol tribes. Jamukha, given his birth and position, was a longtime supporter of the Mongol aristocracy and traditional ways. Temujin, on the other hand, was an advocate of meritocracy and equality. His followers tended to be more numerous and of a lower class. Temujin built on his reputation, especially his defeat of the Merkits and rescue of his wife, as well as the support of many Mongol shamans.
In 1186, Temujin had himself elected the khan of the Mongols, but this incurred the wrath of his former friend. At the Battle of Dalan Balzhut in 1187, Temujin was defeated and his followers scattered. Temujin himself was soon alone once again. At this point it would seem ludicrous that he could become a great leader. He was alone in the desert with a single horse – and he was on foot, leading the horse, as Jochi and a pregnant Borte rode double on its back. How could this man become what he became?
But he did. Jamukha had won the battle, but soon horrified and alienated the other Mongols when he boiled several captives alive in cauldrons as punishment for their “treason.” As Temujin wandered in the wilderness, rebuilding his following and his reputation, Jamukha’s harsh aristocratic ways angered the rest of the Mongol tribes. When Jamukha angered the Chinese dynasties to the far south, this opened a gap for Temujin, who gained their sponsorship. Soon he was back on the upswing, rebuilding his alliance and seeing his followers return.
Temujin’s rule was different from traditional Mongol ways. He awarded authority and rewards based on ability and loyalty, rather than clan or tribal ties. He distributed the loot from raids and conquests equally among the civilians and the warriors. When he defeated a rival tribe, rather than exerting some form of genocide as was common practice, he absorbed them into his following. His mother Hoelun adopted the orphans of the men Temujin killed, and he took the skilled generals of other tribes into his service. One famous follower was found when, during a battle, he shot the arrow that killed Temujin’s favorite horse. When he was later captured and brought before the Mongol chief, expecting to be killed in some horrible way, Temujin asked if he wanted employment. Forever after, this general’s name was Jebe – “the arrow.”
The war between Temujin and Jamukha soon grew to encompass the whole of the Eurasian steppe, far beyond their homelands. Both absorbed rival tribes, built alliances, made claims, and asserted their authority. But Temujin had the upper hand. Jamukha could offer the other tribes nothing but subservience, a return to tradition, a loose confederation that would preserve the old ways. Temujin, on the other hand, showed the way to revolution. He was destroying tradition and building a new, unified tribal organization, one that would turn them all into blood brothers. Temujin’s way was the future, Jamukha’s was the past. And Jamukha lost.
In 1201 AD, Jamukha was finally defeated in the famous Battle of the Thirteen Sides. He fled into the Qara Khitai clan, far off in modern Kazakhstan, to rally allies and somehow return to power – but Temujin followed. When Temujin defeated the Qara Khitai in 1206, they turned Jamukha over to him. After thirty years of friendship and rivalry, the blood brothers confronted each other one last time.
Rather than seek revenge, Temujin made a last offer of friendship. “Let us be companions. Now, we are joined together once again, we should remind each other of things we have forgotten…you were my lucky, blessed sworn brother. Surely, your breast and your heart pained for me.”
Jamukha was moved by the plea, and he blamed their separation on his own pride as well as their mutual enemies. But he knew they could not coexist, not after all this. “Now, when the world is ready for you, what use is there in being a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams.”
Jamukha knew that there could be only one sun in the sky. He explained that he had lost his parents, had no friends left, and despised his wife. He asked not for mercy, but for death – the traditional Mongol death, the breaking of the back without blood being shed. He vowed to be a better friend to Temujin in death than in life, “Kill me and lay down my dead bones in the high ground. Then eternally and forever, I will protect the seed of your seed, and become a blessing for them.”
Temujin, in accordance with his blood brother’s request, had Jamukha killed in the aristocratic manner, and buried him in the belt that he had given Jamukha when they had sworn their oaths. With the death of his first friend and his greatest enemy, the last obstacle was surmounted. Temujin was ruler of hundreds of thousands – almost millions – of tribespeople across the steppes of northern Asia, a land as large as western Europe. And with these, he could rule the world.
So it is that the rise of Temujin comes to an end. He had killed Begter to rule his family. He had destroyed the Merkids to rescue his wife. He had destroyed the Tatars to avenge his father. He overthrew the Mongol nobles to reform his people, and he had killed his best friend to unify all the tribes. There was no one now who would, or could, stand in his way. That year – 1206 – he summoned the greatest tribal council ever held in steppe history. The lines of men and horses approaching the campsite stretched for miles as peoples and tribes poured in from hundreds of miles away. The shamans pounded their drums, the people sang, the warriors cheered and proved their strength.
Temujin ruled a new people: no longer individual tribes or sects or bands, but a vast confederation, the People of the Tents, a Great Mongol Nation. In return, they gave him a new name, a title that no one had ever held before: the Wolf King – which translates as Genghis Khan.
With his loyal wife Borte at his side, an army of hundreds of thousands of nomadic warriors at his back, a lifetime of experience and hardship to rival any man, and a force of personality that could not be contained, Genghis Khan set his sights on the civilized world. If the world didn't tremble, it should have.