December 23, 2016

Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World

Instead of buying this newish biography from a little bookstore in Kanab, Utah, I waited to borrow it from the Vancouver Public Library. I skimmed a lot of it, looking for the juicy bits to share. Here are a few:

Food for journeys

The mounted archers on campaigns mainly ate meat jerky, kept under the saddle where it could be massaged and tenderized, and dried cheese, which could be rehydrated in a water flask.

Different sense of time

Genghis Khan made a famous Taoist travel for four years to visit him, because he was interested in immortality.

Origin story

Genghis Khan killed his own brother for grabbing and eating a fish without sharing, which was in keeping with Mongol steppe acceptable recourse.

Vision, illiteracy, and making it up as you go along

Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. He and his sons vanquished peoples from the Adriatic to the Pacific. The Mongols eventually reached Austria, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam, Burma, Japan and Indonesia. 


All this was achieved by a man who seemed to come from nowhere; the only similar feat, though in a very different sphere, was that of Jesus of Nazareth. Genghis had no tradition to build on, for although there had been powerful steppe kingdoms and nations before him, he was unaware of them. Alexander the Great had a powerful military machine constructed by his father Philip of Macedonia; Julius Caesar had three hundred years of Roman military superiority to build on; Napoleon could rely both on the ancient French tradition of Condé and Turenne as well as the élan of the French Revoluation and the mass mobilization it unleashed.

In a real sense Genghis had to invent his own tradition and solve a plethora of political and social problems as he went along.  Besides his military and administrative genius and his uncanny ability to read men, Genghis was truly original in that he saw how it was possible for nomads, employing the quantum leap in military technology afforded by his mounted archers, to dominate civilised societies and extract tribute from them. All this he did while being illiterate and having no access through books to the wisdom of the ages.


Every winter, a massive hunt or "battue" would be organized, taking up to three months for an ultimate animal massacre.

The battue was a central event in the Mongol calendar and it had a threefold significance, as military training, an important source of food and as a great social event that inculcated the idea of the organic solidarity of the nation.

All soldiers (i.e. every man, except those who wanted to be unpaid labourers for the empire) would start on a line up to 80 miles long. Eventually the ends would form a semicircle and then a circle. Each section of the circle was commanded by a commander of a minqan (unit of 1,000 men).

Finally, the animals were contained within a narrow circumference, within which was a panicky melee of roaring lions, bleating stags, lowing wild oxen and the ululation and cacophony of scores of different breeds.

Genghis Khan and anyone looking to appear brave and capable would enter the melee, on horse or on foot, and begin the killing. They would let enough animals escape to keep up populations.


Before invading China, Genghis wanted to subdue the “Forest Peoples” in the northwest.

Much of this vast area was an immense forest of birch, poplar, cedar, larch and fir, with an interpenetrating undergrowth of rhododendron, mosses and lichens.

Sounds nice.


Geneticists have recently established that about 0.8 per cent of the population of Asia has an identical Y-chromosome, indicating the likelihood of a common ancestor, possibly some time around 1000 AD. This would imply that about 0.5 per cent of the world’s population has this common ancestor and that he has 16-17 million descendants.


As he was dying:

To his sons he reiterated the arrangements about the succession and the division of the empire, remarking sadly: 

‘Life is short. I could not conquer all the world. You will have to do it.’

1 comment:

Yay for comments! Nothing mean please, and that means you, Anonymous.