Genghis Khan and the Mongols killed millions, but were they actually woke AF? Let's tackle the surprisingly progressive (yet blood-drenched) legacy of one of history's most mysterious empires.
Genghis Khan and the Mongols killed millions, but were they actually woke AF? Let's tackle the surprisingly progressive (yet blood-drenched) legacy of one of history's most mysterious empires.
Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. 2004.
Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. 2016.
Weatherford, Jack. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. 2010.
McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. 2015.
Waterson, James. Defending Heaven: China’s Mongol Wars. 2013. Bergreen, Laurence. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. 2007.
Turnbull, Stephen. Genghis Khan & the Mongol Conquests, 1190-1400. 2003.
Turnbull, Stephen. Mongol Warrior, 1200-1350. 2003.
Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
I’m your host, Zach Cornwell, and this is Episode 9: Pax Mongolica.
In the late 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, over 100,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the country of Mongolia.
The Soviet Union had absorbed that impoverished nation of herders and nomads into the colossal yoke of its global influence, and the Soviet forces were there, ostensibly, as a check against the growing power of an increasingly independent Communist China.
But a small division of the Soviet military machine had another mission in that barren, windswept country – a directive shrouded in secrecy.
They were there to closely guard a piece of land. A place which was known only by the bland codename “Highly Restricted Zone”. The perimeter of this 240 square kilometer stretch of land was guarded 24 hours a day by Soviet soldiers. Tanks rumbled along its border. State-of-the-art MiG fighter jets could be scrambled at a moment’s notice from nearby airbases.
But the weird thing was, this area of Mongolia was totally…empty. It contained no vital population centers. No targets of strategic military value. Not even a paved road. It was nothing but barren wilderness. Rolling, grassy plains and craggy mountains.
Nevertheless, anyone and everyone was forbidden from entering this area by the Soviet forces. If they caught you, you’d be shot on sight.
Now. with all of this security, you’d think the Soviets were guarding something terrifying. Something apocalyptic. It sounds like a movie premise. What in the hell were these soldiers guarding at the edge of the world?
The truth was, they were guarding something they could not find. Something that no one could find. Somewhere, within that 240 square mile area, was a grave. The final resting place of a man who’d lived 800 years before.
This tomb, wherever it was, belonged to Mongolia’s greatest hero. In fact, this sacred area had been the place where he had been born and the place where he had been laid to rest. And the Soviets, always paranoid about potential insurrections, rebellions, and nationalist uprisings, did not want the Mongolian people to have access to this rallying point of their national heritage.
They did not want the Mongolians remembering who they really were.
This stranglehold around the “Highly Restricted Zone” lasted until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. And all those troops went back home to Russia.
For the first time in decades, researchers began to tiptoe into this massive, deserted area. To look for clues to the whereabouts of this extremely important archaeological site. The final grave of the most important Mongolian who ever lived.
Since then, hundreds upon hundreds of researchers, adventurers, and archaeologists have tried every conceivable technique in attempts to locate this grave. Ultrasonography. Satellite imagery. Drones. But to this day, all expeditions and projects have failed to locate this man. And while his physical body may be lost, almost every educated person in the world knows his name.
In the West, you’ll often hear it pronounced GEN-gis with a hard G But in Mongolia, it’s pronounced with a “ch” sound. Chingiss Qa’an. However you say it, it’s a name – well, a title actually - that has shaped the world arguably more than any other in recorded history.
In fact, a 2003 genetics study famously claimed that 1 in 200 men in the world are direct blood descendants of Genghis Khan. You can find men that share his Y-chromosomal lineage from Armenia to India to Japan. 16 million living individuals.
But for a man who has almost universal name recognition, and who millions more share a direct bloodline with, we know almost nothing about him, at least physically. We don’t know how tall he was. We don’t know what he looked like. We don’t know if his voice was deep or high. We don’t even know how exactly he died.
As National Geographic researcher Albert Lin observed: "It is undeniable that Genghis Khan changed the course of history. Yet I cannot think of another historical figure of comparable impact that we know so little about.”
But yet, paradoxically, everyone has at least a passing familiarity with Genghis Khan and the Mongols. And the image that most people hold in their mind’s eye is deeply, deeply unflattering. We think of the Mongols and we think of hell on wheels. An unstoppable force of pure killing power that burnt every corner of the “civilized world” they touched to ashes. A rolling, thunderous sea of raping, pillaging, murdering demons.
And the reason we see them like that, Is because for the longest time, the only historical records we had about the Mongols, came from their enemies. People who experienced what it was like to fight them, to be defeated by them, and to be subjugated by them. And of course they wrote that down. From the forests of Eastern Europe to the deserts of Iran. And obviously you would not write nuanced, fair-minded critiques of people who had just killed all of your friends in a battle, or surrounded your city and pummeled it into submission with siege engines.
And you can notice an almost apocalyptic language that seeps into the sources when describing the consequences of being defeated by the Mongols. For example, one medieval Persian historian described the aftermath of a Mongol siege:
And that night every male was drowned in the ocean of destruction and consumed by the fire of perdition. […] Many a lord, soldier, and townsman had taken a sip from the cup of destruction.
And a medieval English historian wrote the following about them:
The rage and fury of the Mongols have now shaken the whole of Eastern Europe with the terrors of manifold calamity. […] They are an immense horde, of that detestable race of Satan. The men are inhuman and of the nature of beasts, rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and human beings.”
And from a Chinese source:
In vain the people hid in mountains and caves to escape the Mongol might. The fields were covered with human bones.
As I said, very apocalyptic.
For centuries, the image of the Mongols in people’s minds was incredibly one-dimensional. Barbaric. Bloodthirsty. Almost cartoonish evil.
And why wouldn’t it be?
There were no Mongol historiographers or writers to rebut this demonic characterization. Wordsmiths, the early Mongols were not. They had a written language, but it was far from robust. Most Mongols were functionally illiterate. They passed information down primarily through oral traditions.
For a long time, we had absolutely no records from the their point of view. Nothing that explained – in their own words – the thoughts, desires, ambitions, or opinions of their people or leaders. Which begged the question: How had Genghis Khan and his army suddenly emerged from a desolate, backwater plateau in central Asia to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world? For a long time, we could only guess.
But then, in the late 19th century, an amazing discovery was made.
A Russian scholar, pouring over texts in a forgotten corner of the Chinese archives, discovers a document. A chronicle. It told, in vivid detail, the life story of Genghis Khan. Intimate details of his childhood, family life, even his personal fears. It told of his military campaigns, conquests, and family squabbles. It provided an incalculably valuable window into medieval Mongolian culture. Their religion. Their values. Their cultural quirks. It was a goldmine.
This chronicle became known as the Secret History of the Mongols.
The reason it was “secret”, the reason it had stayed hidden for so long, was that it had only ever been intended for the eyes of the Mongolian royal family. It was their story to read and remember, no one else’s. In Genghis Khan’s time, the Mongols did not teach their language to the people they conquered.
In fact, the copy found by the Russian scholar had been written in Chinese characters to phonetically mimic the sound of the Mongol language. Read normally, it was just gibberish. But once its secrets were unlocked, The Secret History of the Mongols went on to become one of the most significant historical documents in the world.
But today’s story is not about Genghis Khan - not really. It’s about the vast gulf between his vicious reputation in popular culture and the contributions he made to the world.
Today, we’re going to examine how the Mongols - a backwater, outcast tribe from the grasslands of Central Asia - shaped the world we are living in right now. How an argument could be made, that the existence of the modern world as we know it is deeply indebted to them. How their relatively progressive ideas about equality, religion, commerce, and government stand in stark contrast to their bloodthirsty reputation.
What if the Mongols…were actually woke as hell?
But to discover the truth of that central question, to uncover what they became, we have to examine who they were. And to do that, we need to hop in our time machine and zap back to the 1100s AD.
EARLY MONGOLS & RISE OF TEMUJIN
Almost 1,000 years ago, the area that we now call Mongolia was an extremely harsh place to live. I mean, It still is a harsh place to live. It’s cold, it’s flat, and it’s surrounded on all sides by huge mountains and endless deserts. Geographically, it’s sandwiched between Russia to the North and China to the South. Although, those political entities did not exist at the time.
If you were to take a stroll through 12-century Mongolia, the most common thing you’d see would be…grass. Vast, endless stretches of empty grassland. Wide open plains with almost zero tree coverage. You’ll often hear these rolling grasslands referred to as The Steppe. That’ s-t-e-p-p-e.
If you looked West, you’d see mountains towering in the distance. If you walked south you’d run into the massive deathtrap known as the Gobi desert. And to the southeast, you’d find the jagged mountains of Korea. And even further east, the islands of Japan.
Now - In the 1100s, Mongolia was not a unified nation. Not even close. It was a harsh, lawless place with zero centralized government. The area was dominated by a patchwork of dozens, even hundreds, of nomadic clans and tribes that spent their time feuding, fighting, and stealing from each other. At the time, the concept of these groups ever uniting into one coherent nation was a ridiculous fantasy. They were too worried about basic survival in the harsh Mongolian climate, or consumed by generational blood feuds, to ever imagine what they could accomplish together.
And one of these tiny tribes was called the Mongols.
Now, if the eastern steppe was a middle school cafeteria, the Mongols were the kid no one wanted to sit with. The other tribes looked down on them with nothing short of revulsion.
Why? Well, for one, they looked weird.
In comparison with other groups, they were ghostly pale. Their skin was so white that historian Jack Weatherford describes it as being “nearly translucent”. Their intensely white complexion was a defining characteristic, and a later Chinese source said the Mongols looked “like so many white demons.”
The Mongols would completely shave their heads except for long patches just above their ears.. And they’d grow these patches out and braid them into long, twisting horns. Aside from those gnarly hair-dos, they were pretty much completely devoid of body hair. And when they laughed or smiled, you would’ve noticed gleaming, pearly white teeth, thanks to the complete lack of starch in their diet.
But the most distinctive feature of the Mongols, according to sources, was their eye shape. The Chinese were fascinated by the complete lack of bags or wrinkles around Mongol eyes. And a Muslim source described them as “cat eyes – so narrow and piercing that they might have bored a hole in a brazen vessel.”
That all sounds…beautiful, to be honest. Well, the other tribes certainly didn’t think so. They looked down on the Mongols as disgusting scavengers:
“The Mongols have always stunk and worn filthy clothes. They live far away; let them stay there. Perhaps we can bring their daughters here, and if they wash their hands we might let them milk our cows and sheep.”
On top of all that, the Mongols were an extremely poor tribe. Relatively, all the Steppe clans were impoverished compared to the decadent empires in China to the south or in Persia to the west. But the Mongols were poor, even by those meager standards. As one Persian historian wrote:
“Their clothing was of the skins of dogs and mice, and their food was the flesh of those animals and other dead things.”
Living among this poor tribe of hunters and scavengers, there was a young woman named Hoelun. Hoelun was actually not a Mongol at all, she’d been kidnapped in one of the frequent raids the different tribes waged against each other. But she’d married a Mongol man, or more likely been forced to marry one, and she soon became pregnant.
In 1162, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Temujin.
There was something odd about Temujin’s birth, though. The Mongols were deeply superstitious, and in the moments after Temujin was born, his parents found a large clot of blood clenched in his tiny fist. He’d apparently grabbed it while in his mother’s womb and managed to hold onto it through the entire delivery process. To the Mongols, this was considered an omen – ominous at best, and deeply creepy at worst.
The young boy, Temujin, had a hard upbringing. When he was 10 years old, his father died. With their main provider gone, he, his mother, and other siblings were cast out of the tribe to fend for themselves. In the harsh environment of the Steppe, this was essentially a death sentence.
At this critical moment, only one person in the tribe stuck up for them, an old man who started angrily yelling that it wasn’t right to abandon a young mother and her children to die. Fed up with his loud, incessant complaining, another tribesman stabbed the old man to death in broad daylight.
One of Temujin’s very first memories was crying as he watched this old man bleed to death in front of him.
But despite being cast out of the tribe, Hoelun, Temujin’s mother, was determined to keep her son and the rest of her children alive. As the Secret History of the Mongols describes:
“She choked on her own hunger in order to feed them. She worried constantly how to make them into adults. She cleaned them and pulled them up by their heels to teach them to walk. She stretched them by the shoulders to pull them up to become men. She did these things because she was the mother with a heart as bright as the sun and as wide as a lake.”
During this period of unfathomable hardship, Temujin proved to be an incredibly resourceful kid. He learns to hunt and fish and do the tough physical labor that his Mom could not. Together, they helped the family survive in the wilderness, against all odds. Even then, there was something striking and unique about Temujin; one source describe him as having “fire in his eyes, and light on his face”. Another said that in these early years, “intelligence came bursting forth; his mind began opening.”
But he was still just a kid, and he had kid fears just like the rest of us. Apparently the young Temujin was terrified of dogs.
But even as things were starting to look up for the little family, all was not well between Temujin and his siblings. Temujin despised his older half-brother, who with their father gone, was technically head of the family. And he lorded this fact over the young Temujin, stealing his food, and bullying him relentlessly.
So at age 12, Temujin decides to do something about it.
While they were out hunting, Temujin waits until his older brother’s back was turned, and notches a fresh arrow onto his bowstring. The older brother hears this motion and looks back to see Temujin aiming an arrow right at him. He begs Temujin not to do it… but no dice - Temujin releases the arrow and it skewers the older boy through his abdomen. Temujin walks away as his hated half-sibling bleeds out facedown and alone in the woods.
In committing his first murder, Temujin learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes to win, you had to play dirty. The ends would justify the means.
When Temuijn goes back to his mother to tell her what he had done, she explodes in grief and rage. She screams in his face:
“You are a destroyer! A destroyer! You came from my hot womb clutching a clot of blood in your hand. You are like an attacking panther, like a lion without control, like a monster swallowing its prey alive. Now, you have no companion other than your shadow.”
But no words said in anger could change that fact that Temujin’s mother loved him more than life itself. And nothing, not even the murder of a sibling, could cause a rift in her and her son’s relationship. With the guidance of his fiercely devoted mother, Temujin grows up to be an extremely competent and intelligent young man.
One of the very rare descriptions we have of him says he was:
“A man of tall stature, of vigorous build, robust in body, with cats’ eyes, possessed of dedicated energy, discernment, genius, and understanding, awe-striking, a butcher, just, resolute, an overthrower of enemies, intrepid, sanguinary, and cruel.”
That description is a little fawning, but only a person like that could have done what Temujin proceeds to do. Over the next several decades, he navigates the complex intertribal politics of the Steppe clans, brokering alliances and outmaneuvering rivals.
He slowly, but surely, consolidates more and more power. Through sheer force of personality, he puts an end to the infighting and petty politics of the Mongols and coheres them into a single unified clan.
Then, he goes after the other tribes.
Before long, the older, richer, and more established groups that had always looked down on the Mongols as rat-eating savages, were soon riding in Temujin’s army and paying tribute to him.
And Temujin continues to work his way up the tribal food chain, not destroying these groups entirely, but decapitating their aristocracies –figuratively, and occasionally literally - and absorbing them into his own clan. Transforming them all into Mongols.
But a process like that is not without its costs. In his quest for power, Temujin didn’t just have to murder rivals and enemies, but close friends, mentors, even relatives. He was utterly ruthless.
In the Spring of 1206, Temujin was a 44-year old man. The boy who’d survived off rats and dead animals with his outcast mother years earlier was now the most powerful man on the Mongolian steppe. When he was born, the country had been a patchwork of impoverished tribes, fighting over scraps, loot, and resources like a pack of dogs. Five decades later, they were a nation.
In the year 1206, Temujin summons the leadership of all the clans in Mongolia to recognize his authority at a great gathering, called a Kurultai.
This meeting, this Kurultai, was a huge deal - a once in a generation event. And all the clans come, from every corner of the Steppe. Historian Jack Weatherford describes the sheer diversity of all the different kinds of people who came to pledge their allegiance to Temujin:
The Turkic tribes and the Tartars of the steppe came dressed in felt with ornaments of exotic turquoise and coral. Delegations from the Siberian Forest People came dressed in fur and deerskin, as did the western tribes with their hunting eagles and the eastern tribes with their snow-leopard pelts, antelope-skin blankets, and bearskin rugs. The Onggud came across the Gobi mounted high on their camels and bringing garments of embroidered silk and the softest camel wool, more beautiful than anything ever seen in this remote hinterland.
The closest modern visual comparison I can think of is some kind of massive music festival. It would have had a celebratory, all most circus-like vibe. Historian Jack Weatherford paints a vivid picture of what it would’ve been like to walk around this massive gathering:
Tens of thousands of animals grazed nearby to provide milk and meat for the festivities. The lines of tents stretched for miles in every direction. Days of great solemnity and massive ceremony alternated with days of celebration, sports, and music. The court shamans pounded their drums and sang by day, and musicians performed at dusk. The night air filled with the mesmerizing drone of the distinctive type of Mongolian throat singing, or overtone singing, in which men make sounds from so deep inside their bodies that they can follow two musical lines simultaneously. As with every major political event, young people competed in wrestling, horse racing, and archery.
But despite all the partying, the sights, the sounds, and the smells…the true purpose of the gathering was deeply serious.
Temujin demanded displays of absolute loyalty from all the clans and tribes, and, one by one, they obeyed. Anyone who was not at this gathering was marking themselves as Temujin’s enemy. And *no one* was not at this meeting.
So, at the Kurultai of 1206, Temujin puts aside the name his mother gave him, and takes on the title that the world would remember him by.
Unshakeable chief. Universal ruler. Fearless King.
As one Persian historian later said:
“All the tribes were of one color and obedient to his command. Then he established new laws and laid the foundation of justice.”
After witnessing a lifetime of pointless killing and petty backstabbing on the Mongolian Steppes, Temujin, now Genghis Khan, used those experiences to inform a new code of laws, which he built from the ground up. He completely restructured Mongol society and enacted a judicial system that was surprisingly humanitarian for its time.
For one, he completely banned torture and mutilation of any kind. If you were going to kill an enemy, just kill them. Unnecessary pain and suffering was counterproductive, immoral, and a waste of energy.
Secondly, he reformed the way marriage contracts worked in Mongol society. For centuries, women had been kidnapped and sold like cattle, often as children. Genghis’s own mother had suffered in this way, and he decided that none of his five daughters, nor any daughter of Mongolia, should have to endure that.
And thirdly, he breaks up all the old clans and tribal structures, sending different leaders to live among different groups and basically giving society a big healthy shakeup. This kind of radical desegregation was his way of defusing all the old resentments and blood feuds that had kept the tribes disunified for so long. If you live side-by-side with your rivals, you’re much more likely to understand and respect them. The goal was to make everyone understand that none of the old rivalries mattered. They were all Mongols now.
But even after this spectacular coronation and series of impressive judicial proclamations, the 44-year old Great Khan was far from the world conqueror we know him as today. He ruled over a nation of herders and nomads. His castle was a felt tent, not a stone fortress. As Jack Weatherford points out in his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World:
“His empire was grass, and contained far more animals than humans.”
So at this meeting, Genghis Khan and his court have a big decision to make.
Would they be content existing as they had always lived? Barely surviving. Scratching a living off boiled horse meat by day and getting drunk on fermented mare’s milk by night? Or would they turn their eyes south, and challenge some of the wealthiest, most sophisticated, technologically advanced empires that the world had ever known?
After a lifetime of killing, Genghis Khan decided he was just getting started.
The army that rode south from Mongolia, led by the newly crowned Genghis Khan, was one of the deadliest collections of human beings that ever existed.
It consisted of anywhere from 65,000 to 100,000 men, all of them mounted. And, to say that the Mongols had a close relationship with their horses would be a laughable understatement. The horse was everything in Mongol society. It was the focal point around which their entire culture, livelihood, and basic survival revolved. If the rolling plains and flat grasslands of the Steppe were good for anything, they were an ideal environment for raising and grazing horses.
Children were nursed in the saddle. They were taught to ride at age 4. And they were experts by the age of 8. They spent so much of their lives riding horses that by the time they were adults, they would be naturally bow-legged.
All Mongols were taught to hunt as small children, and that required mastery of the bow and arrow. They favored small, powerful compound bows that could send an arrow whistling towards a target with frightening accuracy. And every single Mongol warrior was an expert with one. Each man could fire six arrows in 60 seconds.
In fact, I shouldn’t even say “Mongol warrior”. The Mongols had no word for “warrior.” In a harsh environment like the Steppe, anyone who wanted to survive past childhood had to be a natural fighter. Being a talented killer was table stakes for the Mongols.
But they weren’t just deadly. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, they were intensely organized and disciplined. When a group of Mongols were in the saddle, they were like a flock of birds, moving with an almost-otherworldly level of coordination and agility. They communicated across battlefields through the use of flags; they didn’t shout orders of yell commands. The effect was an army that entered battle in perfect formation - and a complete, unnerving silence, except for the thundering repetition of hundreds of thousands of horse hooves.
And because every single soldier was mounted, they could move across vast distances in an incredible amount of time. Some accounts claim they could travel 600 miles in a week. Each individual man would have, in addition to his main horse, anywhere from five to sixteen(!) extra horses following behind him. When one got tired, he’d hop on a different one, and let it rest. And so on and so on. This also conferred the added benefit of making the Mongol army look 3, 4, 5 times it’s actual size. And the psychological effect that had on the enemies they encountered was immense.
The French conqueror Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach. Well, the Mongol army was one of the only armies in history that could feed and supply itself with relative ease and efficiency. Their horses provided milk and meat; and if a hungry Mongol needed a mid-ride snack, they would make a small incision on their horse’s back and suck a little blood from it. Get a little protein. But that was only in desperate times; the Mongols were all excellent hunters and foragers, in amazing physical shape, and acclimated to going days without food.
All of these advantages would prove pivotal, in the years to come.
When Genghis Khan and his army emerged from the Gobi desert, they found themselves at the literal crossroads of the world economy.
The famous Silk Road, the long, twisting trade route which had developed over thousands of years, stretching from the streets of Rome to the heartlands of China, was unfurled before the Great Khan.
The people of the Steppe had always been aware of this trade route’s existence, and had some limited 2ndand 3rd hand contact with its merchants, but seeing the full extent of its goods firsthand must’ve been a staggering, paradigm-shifting experience.
Imagine, after a lifetime of eating boiled, unsalted horsemeat, experiencing the tangy snap of ginger root or the pleasant heat of cinnamon. Imagine rubbing a soft piece of silk fabric on your cheek after weeks of wind and sand stinging your face in the Gobi. Imagine seeing the colors of a sunset like blue, purple, and gold infused into clothing with strong dyes. Imagine taking your first swig of strong red wine.
For the first time in their existence, the Mongols caught a glimpse of the mind-blowing luxury available to the powerful civilizations of the world.
And they wanted more.
Genghis Khan had stumbled upon the veins, the cardiovascular system of the global economy, pumping goods from East to West and back again in a slow, but steady trickle. But he wasn’t content to just raid caravans and peck at the trade routes like a vulture. The scavenger days were over. Genghis knew that all this wealth had to be coming from somewhere. So he followed the veins, the capillaries of world trade, to the closest vital artery he could find: China.
In the 13th century, China did not exist. At least not was we think of it today.
The region we now call China is gigantic, absolutely colossal. At the time, the total amount of people living in Mongolia was about 1 million. In China, it was 120 million. And that sprawling, fertile geography was home to dozens of kingdoms and competing dynasties. In fact, there’s enough drama and intrigue packed into the dealings of pre-Mongol China to sustain multiple seasons of an intricate, Game of Thrones-style series.
But the one thing they all had in common, was spectacular wealth and abundant natural resources. And just like a wolf on the Mongolian steppe, Genghis Khan had caught the scent.
But the Chinese were not concerned. They believed they had nothing to fear from this backwater tribe who they called "a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel’.
One King is supposed to have sent a message to Genghis Khan that read:
“Our empire is like the sea. And your empire is nothing more than a handful of sand. How can we fear you?”
Well, these Chinese kingdoms were the first to discover the awe-inspiring killing power that Genghis Khan’s army could bring to bear.
The technologically advanced Chinese used long pikes, automatic crossbows and even napalm grenades against the Mongols, but they were absolutely ineffective against the sheer speed and mobility of the Khan’s horsemen. The swarms of mounted Mongol archers were able to easily encircle the Chinese foot soldiers, saturate them with withering arrow fire, before retreating out of range of the Chinese crossbows.
As one Chinese soldier said: “they come as though the sky were falling, and they disappear like the flash of lightning.”
If any of the Chinese infantry were foolish enough to chase after the Mongol cavalry, the horsemen would just turn around – in the saddle, while moving, at full gallop - and fire back at their pursuers.
And then, when you were exhausted from the constant peppering of arrows and shaking with fatigue from keeping your shield up. That’s when the Mongols would send in the heavy cavalry.
Heavily armored lancers, protected head-to-toe in iron scales, carrying round shields and a devilish array of melee weapons like axes, maces, and curved sabers. And once the light archers had exhausted the Chinese infantry, the Mongol shock cavalry could slam into their ranks and send them running for their lives.
As Genghis Khan and his armies continue to wreak havoc all throughout Northern China, they develop two key skills that would really define how they waged war in the future.
The first was psychological warfare. The Mongols were skilled propogandists, and gleefully encouraged the worst, most horrific stories about them in order to amp up the fear factor in enemy territory.. There’s one story from the time period, it’s probably not even true, but it’s so colorful that I have to share it.
The story goes like this. A Mongol army arrives at the gates of the Chinese city. And they tell all the people inside that they’ll let them live on one condition: The residents of the city have to give them all the cats and birds inside the city as plunder. The city’s residents think that’s a little weird, but okay. And they turn all the animals over. Then, rather than retreating, the Mongols tie burning torches to the tails of the cats and birds and turn them loose. The animals freak out and run back into the city. Soon all the buildings catch fire, and the city burns to the ground. Which the Mongols promptly loot.
Again, probably not true, but it was the kind of ridiculous story the Mongols would spread around to make their enemies even more scared of them.
Eventually, after losing battle after battle, the Northern Chinese retreat to the safest place they know of. To the tall walls and heavy fortifications of their capital, Beijing.
Here’s how historian James Waterson describes the defenses of Beijing during the Mongol siege:
“The Mongols marched on Beijing but could do little except sit beneath its walls and terrorize the surrounding countryside.. The city was encircled and defended by four fortified villages with four thousand Jin troops in each. Each village also had its own granary and arsenal and was linked by tunnels to Beijing. The city was also protected by three moats […] and a 15-kilometre rectangle of rammed earth walls that were 15 meters thick at their base and 12 meters high. Each of its thirteen gates and nine hundred guard towers was protected by double and triple crossbows, capable of hurling 3-metre quarrels over a kilometer.”
Against a challenge like this, other commanders might’ve given up or settled for an easier prize. But that was not how Genghis Khan rolled. Something you’ll hear about him all the time is how incredibly adaptable he was. He saw a problem, and if his initial strategy couldn’t crack it, he’d try another. If that didn’t work, he’d try another.
As Jack Weatherford says of Genghis: “He never fought the same war twice.”
Now, this is where the second skill comes in.
Walled cities were absolutely not a thing in medieval Mongolia. They’d never seen anything like a densely populated, well-defended urban center before. It was a completely alien concept. And initially, they had no clue how to get through Beijing’s 15 meter walls. So their solution, was to find some people who did know how to get through 15 meter walls.
Genghis Khan starts collecting Chinese defectors, engineers who knew how to build catapults and trebuchets, even big gunpowder rockets, and he puts them to work. Before long, the Mongols were equipped with the tools they needed to crack the city like a nut.
The Mongols are tenacious in their siege of Beijing. They keep the pressure up for about a year, and eventually the starving populace inside gives up, and opens the gates.
Beijing was one of the first cities to discover a very harsh reality about the Mongols: they did not like being delayed, defied or inconvenienced. In any way.
Throughout his entire career, Genghis Khan had a firm “surrender or die” policy. It was a very simple, black-and-white policy. If you open your gates, throw down your weapons, and pledge loyalty to the great Khan, you would not be harmed. Your city would be left intact. Your people wouldn’t get hurt.
But if you refused, or resisted in any way, it was game over. There was nothing you could do or say to avert the awful, apocalyptic consequences you’d just invited upon yourself.
The Mongols, as we will see several times in this episode, were capable of monstrous butchery when they sacked a city. It’s arguably what they’ve become known for, the origin point of their vicious reputation. Out of the hundreds upon hundreds of towns and cities all across Asia that would suffer the consequence of defying Genghis Khan, Beijing was one of the first in line.
As historian Frank McLynn describes in his book:
The victorious troops tore down temples, destroyed massive gates, laid waste palaces and parks and raped and murdered by the tens of thousands. One of the imperial palaces was set on fire, and the inferno burned for a month. The human slaughter was terrific. According to one story, 60,000 virgins killed themselves by jumping from the city walls rather than become sexual prey of the ‘barbarians’.
And according to writer James Waterson, years after the sack of Beijing, a visitor to that conquered city saw the grisly aftermath of the Mongol’s retribution on the stubborn populace: “The bones of the slaughtered formed mountains and the soil was greasy with human fat.”
It’s estimated that anywhere from 300,000 to a million people were massacred within the walls of Beijing.
But it’s worth noting, the Mongols did not understand the concept of a “civilian” or a “non-combatant”. Every person in their society was born and bred to fight and kill, or could at least defend themselves. So they didn’t’ see these people as defenseless innocents They were more like enemy combatants who conveniently could not fight or defend themselves. (were really bad at fighting)
And out of that slaughtered city, the Mongols hauled a staggering amount of stolen wealth. According to Weatherford:
“In addition to silk, satin, brocade, and gauze, the bundles contained whatever objects the Mongol eye fancied and could be moved, including lacquered furniture, paper fans, porcelain bowls, metal armor, bronze knives, wooden puppets, iron kettles, brass pots, board games, and carved saddles. The Mongols carried jugs of perfume and makeup made from ocher, yellow lead, indigo, flower extracts, fragrant waxes, balsam, and musk. They brought hair ornaments and jewelry crafted from precious metals, ivory, or tortoiseshell and studded with turquoise, pearls, emeralds, and diamonds. Wagons loaded with skins of wine, casks of honey, and bricks of black tea followed camels that smelled of incense, medicines, aphrodisiacs, and special woods of cinnabar and sandalwood.”
But the treasure taken from Beijing included more than just material wealth. The Mongols knew that, wonderful as these things were, they did not possess the skills to replicate these newfound luxuries. So they took another kind of plunder from Beijing:
“Behind the animals came the endless lines of marching captives—thousands upon thousands. Princes and priests. Tailors and pharmacists. Translators and scribes. Astrologers and jewelers. Artists and soothsayers. Magicians and goldsmiths. Anyone evidencing a skill had been rounded up, together with those who merely attracted the attention of one of the Mongols for whatever reason or fancy.”
And as the Khan’s armies rode back towards their home base in Mongolia, they dealt one last wound to Northern China. It was a wound inflicted on the land itself. Genghis Khan looked at all these deserted villages and empty fields and saw nothing but a bunch of wasted space. The Mongols were not farmers, they were nomads. So the plowed fields and abandoned farmland were nothing but impediments, things that could slow them down if they ever needed to return to teach China another lesson.
So, in a process that must have taken quite a bit of time, the Mongol army rides over this land, churning up the soil, flattening it. They slowly but surely change it into an environment that more closely resembled their home in Mongolia. The Steppe. Wide open prairies and pastures. Good for grazing horses, herding animals, hunting game…and not much else.
They essentially do what a sci-fi movie might refer to as “terraforming”, right? An alien race, swooping down and reshaping the planet so they can live there, making it inhospitable to the current inhabitants. When you think about it that way, it’s almost kinda creepy. At least that’s how my nerd brain thinks about it.
But long story short - Genghis Khan knew this would not be the last time his armies would have to teach a harsh lesson to the kingdoms of China. And with this buffer zone of wide open grasslands, they’d be able to ride back fast, hard, and unimpeded.
But for now, southern China would have to wait. Because the blood vessels of the Silk Road didn’t just flow eastward into China. They flowed West, towards an even richer prize.
RELIGION + KHWARAZM
In comparison with some of the other great conquerors throughout history – people like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar - we know very, very little about the nature of Genghis Khan the man. What he was like as a person.
But there are enough glimpses of his character, enough little keyholes to peek through, for us to ascertain that he was a deeply complicated, and in many ways a fundamentally conflicted (DING) person. (shoutout) Up until this point, we’ve been exploring his violent side. His capacity for bloodlust and butchery. But there is another side of Genghis Khan.
In public, he was a towering figure of strength and ferocity. An all-powerful merchant of death. But in private, he was a deep-thinking, incessantly curious individual. He was awestruck by this wider world he was simultaneously conquering and discovering all at once for the first time.
And the primary object of his profound curiosity, was religion.
The Mongols were an intensely spiritual people, and Genghis Khan was no exception. At some of the lowest points in his early years on the Steppe, he found sincere comfort in the religious traditions of his people. The Mongols did not believe in a pantheon of gods or goddesses. They didn’t believe in a deity the way that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam do.
It's kind of hard to describe, but essentially they believed in a fundamental duality between the sky above and the earth below. The eternal blue sky was the watchful father, and the abundant, life-giving earth was the provider, the mother.
On its face, that seems like a simple concept. But underneath that straightforward interpretation of the world, the Mongols had a deeply complex and often contradictory set of spiritual traditions.
One of the most interesting involved blood and death. The Mongols were naturally talented killers, but to talk about death aloud or even acknowledge its existence, was seen as profanity. As Weatherford puts it:
On and off the battlefield, the Mongol warrior was forbidden to speak of death, injury, or defeat. Just to think of it might make it happen. Even mentioning the name of a fallen comrade or other dead warrior constituted a serious taboo. Every Mongol soldier had to live his life as a warrior with the assumption that he was immortal, that no one could defeat him or harm him, that nothing could kill him.
Another odd thing about the Mongols is that they were disgusted by human blood, and they’d avoid getting “contaminated” by it at all costs. It’s possible that a key factor behind why they preferred the bow and arrow above any other weapon was that it allowed them to kill from a distance, without getting spattered by the blood of their enemies.
There’s even one anecdote from the Secret History, where Genghis is hit by a poison arrow, and one of his generals starts sucking the poison out from the wound and spitting the blood on the ground. And Genghis gets grossed out by the blood and asks “Could you spit that somewhere else?”
It's bizarre. For a group of people that racked up staggering body counts in battle, they had some really weird hangups about violence and death.
Another unique feature of the Mongol religion, is they had no real established clergy or priests. And they had very little love for the concept of religious leaders or holy men in general. In fact, their word for “shaman” is “boo”, which, apparently is:
“Part of a cluster of words with loathsome connotations: foul, abominable, to vomit, to castrate, an opportunistic person without scruples; it is also the general term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs.”
Instead, the Mongols believed that all people were holy. That every human mind was attached to Mother earth by a spiritual umbilical cord, what they referred to as a “golden tether”.
Now, you read this stuff, and you go, “oh that’s so nice, and enlightened..” But then you remember the rape, murder, and slavery that the Mongols practiced on a daily basis and you start to understand that maybe all people were holy” on a purely case-by-case basis.
Whatever the case, the Mongols were not secular conquerors. And as Genghis Khan’s army moved along the path of the Silk Road, encountering new cultures and creeds, they came into contact with a lot of different religious beliefs, most of which were very different than their own.
For example, the Mongols really did not like crucifixes or other depictions of Jesus nailed to the cross. But it wasn’t because they were devils, chafing at the divine light. No, it was because they abhorred the depiction of prolonged suffering. Remember, the Mongols did not torture people, as a rule. Genghis had outlawed it and made it a cultural no-no. So a religion that seemed only to depict its deity in eternal pain and agony would have seemed extremely vulgar to the Mongols.
But the Mongols encountered dozens of religions. Taoism. Buddhism, Islam, , Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism. Followers of every religion under the sun soon found themselves living beneath the long shadow of Genghis Khan’s empire.
Now, the natural inclination for most people is to hear that sentence and go “uh-oh”, what did he do to them?
But that’s the most amazing, and surprising part of Genghis Khan’s legacy. He founded possibly the first empire in the history of the world with unilateral freedom of religion. In an era of human history where religion was the source of constant strife, persecution, wars and death, Genghis Khan firmly believed in creating a safe, nurturing home for all of the world’s differing and conflicting faiths.
He had a practical, political reason for doing this, of course. The Mongols were not a numerous people. How was an army of 100,000 going to keep millions of square miles and dozens of nations in docile tranquility otherwise? Stirring up resentments by persecuting people based on the Gods they followed was absolutely not an option.
Plus, religious men in Genghis’ day tended to be the most educated and most literate people. As a result, they made perfect administrators for his rapidly expanding empire. He may not have liked these shamans personally, but they had their uses.
So those were the rational reasons for Genghis Khan’s ethos of religious tolerance.
But Genghis had another, more personal motivation for it. He was, as we’ve mentioned, an extremely intellectually curious person. He craved new tidbits of knowledge from this wider world he had only just recently discovered.
Just as his army constantly adapted, learned, and adopted new technologies and techniques, Genghis Khan was always building on his spiritual understanding of the world around him. He didn’t see other religious beliefs as a threat, but as a buffet of stimulating concepts and interesting ideas.
Throughout his life, he had conversation after conversations with men of every faith, from every corner of his empire, seeking to understand their beliefs and glean some kind of insight from it. As one Persian, Muslim chronicler put it:
Being the adherent of no religion and the follower of no creed, he eschewed bigotry, and the preference of one faith to another and the placing of some above others. He honored and respected the learned and pious of every sect, recognizing such conduct as the way to the Court of God”
Most of the times it was out of sheer curiosity. But other times, sharing the details of your faith with Genghis Khan cut both ways. One kingdom that rebelled against Genghis was ruled by a man who was a devout Buddhist and believed in the concept of reincarnation. So when Genghis finally captured and killed him he went the extra mile:
To make sure that the executed monarch could not be reborn into his royal dynasty and seek revenge against the Mongols, Genghis Khan ordered the execution of the entire royal family. “Exterminate the mothers and fathers down to the offspring of their offspring,” he said.”
But for the most part, Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance was genuine, and even benevolent. These days, we take separation of church and state for granted, the Mongols were the first successful pioneers of that concept.
In the late 18th century, almost 500 years after Genghis Khan died, books about his life and laws were the in-vogue thing to read among the cosmopolitan elite living in the American colonies of the British Empire. And soon-to-be revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were reading the histories of Genghis Khan’s life, and taking great interest in his progressive ideas on religion.
A few years later, those men, so struck by Genghis’ tolerant ideas about religion, used them as a bedrock principle in the Constitution of the United States of America.
According to Historian Jack Weatherford:
“Mongol law forbade anyone “to disturb or molest any person on account of religion.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s law prescribed “that no man shall . . . suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” Genghis Khan’s law insisted “that everyone should be left at liberty to profess that which pleased him best.” Jefferson’s law echoed this in the statement “that all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Law of Genghis Khan and the Virginia statute were both similar in spirit to, but different in wording from, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Pretty amazing. Side note, I realize I’ve been quoting a lot of Weatherford in this episode, but he has written so beautifully and cohesively on the subject that it’s hard not to. If you’ve been enjoying this episode, go check out books by Jack Weatherford. He’s a hell of a storyteller and a foremost authority on everything Mongol.
But there was one religion that Genghis had a very complicated, love-hate relationship with. And that was Islam. It was a faith that he most identified with from a purely ideological perspective, but who’s rulers resisted him more ferociously than any Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, or Christian. And they would pay a very steep price for that defiance.
As Genghis Khan looked westward along the Silk Road, his eyes settled on an extremely prosperous and wealthy empire called Khwarazm. It was located in modern day Iran, or Persia, and it was just one of a mosaic of powerful Islamic states within the Middle East.
At the time, the Middle East possibly the most culturally and technologically advanced civilization in the world outside of China. Europe was an illiterate, feudal hellscape, but the Islamic empires were hotbeds of science, art, mathematics, and literacy.
Naturally, Genghis saw this area not as a hunting ground to conquer and subjugate, but as a potentially lucrative trade partner. He knew that if he could establish a positive relationship between these Islamic empires and his own, his people would benefit tremendously. From the exchange of both goods and ideas.
So he sends a lavish caravan of emissaries, loaded down with goods and treasures from the Mongol heartland, to establish a trading relationship with this empire of Khwarazm. And he sends a personal message along with it:
“I am Khan of the lands of the rising sun while you are sultan of those of the setting sun: Let us conclude a firm agreement of friendship and peace."
The history of the Middle East might have unfolded very differently, had the ruler of Khwarazm, the Shah Muhammed II, not responded in the way that he did.
When the Mongol emissaries arrive at the first major town in the Khwarazm Empire, the entire caravan, over 500 people, are arrested as spies. And then all of them, except for one, are executed, and the trade goods are seized and taken to the Shah.
This is the kind of diplomatic incident that would immediately spark a war in the hands of more impulsive men.
But when word gets back to Genghis Khan that 500 of his subjects have been murdered, and that the ruler of a foreign nation has stolen directly from him…he keeps his cool. He gives the Shah a chance to make this right. Genghis sends three emissaries to the Shah, who relay this message directly from the Great Khan. Here’s the deal: All the Shah has to do, is turn over the governor who’d ordered the massacre, and all will be forgiven.
However, the governor is the Shah’s cousin. He’s not going to turn him over. And this is where he really messes up. Because rather than communicating his refusal with a simple “no”, the Shah kills all three of the Mongol messengers and sends their mutilated bodies back to the court of Genghis Khan.
One can only conclude that the Shah of Khwarazm thought all the stories about Genghis Khan, all the whispers and rumors about what the Mongols did to their enemies, was a bunch of bullshit. Propaganda, gossip and tall tales.
There’s no other rational explanation for why the Shah would’ve done this, aside from colossal, self-destructive hubris. Killing a messenger was an unforgivable crime in the eyes of the Mongols. A monstrous breach of decorum and morality.
This is how a Persian historian poetically describes the reaction of the Mongol high command:
“the whirlwind of anger cast dust into the eyes of patience and clemency while the fire of wrath flared up with such a flame that it drove the water from their eyes and could be quenched only by the shedding of blood.”
Genghis Khan looks at the mutilated bodies of his messengers, and says quietly, almost to himself:
“He is no king. He is a bandit.”
Then the Great Khan disappears for three days.
He spends that 72 hours alone, praying to the Eternal Blue Sky for guidance. In his prayers he says: ‘I was not the author of this trouble; grant me strength to exact vengeance.’ And when he returns to his court of generals and advisors, he calls for a scribe to take down a response to send to the Shah, and he begins dictating.
Weeks later, the Khwarazm Shah is in his palace, and he hears this message, transcribed directly from the lips of Genghis Khan. It says:
‘You kill my men and my merchants and you take from them my property. Prepare for war, for I am coming against you with a host you cannot withstand.’
Genghis Khan and the Mongol armies proceed to unleash a holocaust of destruction across the Islamic world. The Shah’s armies outnumbered the Mongols four-to-one, but they never stood a chance. These horsemen were hard men, veterans who’d spent the last ten years tearing down the cities of Northern China brick by brick. And they were anxious to put their well-honed skills into practice once again.
A terrible and horrifying pattern begins to emerge as the Khan and his armies sweep across the Khwarazm empire. Just like they had in China, the Mongols would give the defenders and citizens exactly one opportunity to surrender. An ultimatum. The proposition usually went like this:
Commanders, elders, and commonality, know that God has given me the empire of the earth from the east to the west, whoever submits shall be spared, but those who resist, they shall be destroyed with their wives, children, and dependents.”
Genghis Khan was true to his word. Any city that surrendered was spared and its population was treated humanely. But the ones who resisted, condemned themselves to what can only be described as extermination.
As one chronicler wrote about the fall of one unlucky city:
“It was a pitiful sight. Dead parents and their children were heaped on top of one another, like a pile of rough stones—old, young, children, adolescents, and many virgins. The land drank in the blood and fat of the wounded. Tender bodies, once washed with soap, lay blackened and swollen. Those who had not gone out of the city were led away barefoot into captivity.”
Anyone who’d raised a weapon to the Mongol horsemen was killed outright.
The Shah’s soldiers were either killed outright, or kept as human shields to soak up arrow fire or fill moats during later sieges.
Refugees from these Persian cities told terrifying stories.
“It is said that a single Mongol soldier would enter a village or a quarter wherein were many people, and would continue to slay them one after another, none daring to stretch forth his hand against this horseman. One of them took a man captive, but had not with him any weapon wherewith to kill him; and he said to his prisoner, ‘Lay your head on the ground and do not move,’ and he did so, and the Mongol went and fetched his sword and slew him therewith.”
Another story mentioned an old woman, who was begging for her life. She tried to bribe the Mongol soldiers by promising to give them a large pearl. It was the most valuable thing she owned. They asked where it was. She said she’d swallowed it for safekeeping, so they cut her open right then, searching her entrails for the pearl. Sure enough, they found it, and walked away.
But people were not the only casualties of Genghis Khan’s campaign of revenge. Mosques, palaces and cultural treasures were:
“effaced from off the earth as lines of writing are effaced from paper, and those abodes became a dwelling for the owl and the raven; in those places the screech-owls answer each other’s cries, and in those halls the winds moan.”
During one of these destructive sieges, a Persian man asked Genghis Khan why he was doing this to them. Why he was burning their civilization from the face of the earth, and the Great Khan answered:
“You have committed great sins. Your leaders have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
The people of the Khwarazm empire had every reason to believe they were facing a genuine apocalypse. As one source admitted:
‘Nothing like this had ever been heard of in ancient or modern times.’
Millions were murdered by Genghis Khan and his armies. The numbers vary, and it’s impossible to ever really know, but a metric often cited is 15 million people over the course of 5 years.
The Islamic world, once a blossoming nexus of trade, learning, culture and science, had offended Genghis Khan with a careless act of theft. And it had paid the ultimate price for that transgression. The regio would never recapture its former glory.
“With one stroke, a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert and the great part of the living dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust.”
In the year 1220, almost fifteen years after his coronation, Genghis Khan was an old man. At 60 years old, the Khan of Khans was beginning to feel his age. He moved a little bit slower. His bones ached more bitterly in the winter cold. It took him more effort to mount a horse.
In the five years since Beijing had fallen, he’d been very busy.
Genghis Khan’s empire spanned from the dark forests of Siberia to the humid wetlands of China to the mountains of Afghanistan. No one could defeat his army in the field. And even the tallest city walls could not withstand his siege engines. His empire was larger than Rome at its peak. Larger than Alexander the Great’s domain from antiquity. It was the largest land-based empire the world had ever known and would ever know again.
Genghis Khan the world conqueror was seemingly invincible.
But Temujin, the old man beneath the gilded armor and frightening titles , was beginning to ponder his own mortality. He wasn’t going to last forever. What would happen to his people when he was no longer around to lead them? Would they be able preserve this incredible gift he’d given them? Or would they squander it all and devolve back into a pack of dogs, squabbling over resources on the barren Mongolian steppe?
Genghis Khan desperately craved peace of mind. And to find it, he needed a worthy successor. Someone who could keep the Empire together when he eventually passed on. Someone strong, wise, and creative. Someone in whom he had unshakeable faith.
Unfortunately, his choices weren’t great.
Genghis Khan had four adult sons. Their names were Jochi, Chagatai, Ogodei, and Tolui.
The easiest way to think about Genghis Khan’s relationship with his sons, at least for me, is to think about the movie, The Godfather. You have this all-powerful patriarch, from humble origins, who’s elevated the family to heights of incredible influence. But now, in the twilight era of his life, he’s looking for someone to carry on his legacy. Well, Genghis was facing the same dilemma, because each of his four sons had a debilitating Achilles heel.
His youngest, Tolui, was a cruel man, and was known for his sadism. Not exactly good qualities for a leader of a nation which outlawed torture.
The next brother, Ogodei, was pleasant and super-popular, but…he was also a raging alcoholic.
Chagatai, his second eldest, was known for having a terrible temper and being a compulsive womanizer. The more impolite term would be sex addict.
But the oldest son, Jochi, was Genghis Khan’s first choice to succeed him as great Khan. He was mild-mannered and intelligent, with a good temperament. On paper, he seemed like the ideal choice.
But there was a shadow looming over Jochi’s parentage, one that had dogged him his entire life. When Genghis Khan was a young man trying to unite the Steppe tribes, his wife had been kidnapped by a rival clan. While she was in captivity, she was raped. Genghis managed to save her and brutally kill her kidnappers, but shortly after she returned, she started showing signs of pregnancy – and several months later, she gave birth to their first son, Jochi.
Because of the timeline, it was impossible to know for sure if Jochi was Genghis’s son or the product of rape. And Jochi’s younger brothers never let him forget it. Chagatai, the second eldest in particular, despised Jochi. He refused to acknowledge him has his true brother, and it caused a lot of tension withiin the family.
But one way or another, there had to be a successor.
So in 1220, Genghis Khan gathers all of his sons, daughters, and relatives to decide, once and for all, who would someday take his place. When it begins, Genghis urges the brothers to work together and support each other:
“if all my sons should wish to be Khan and ruler, refusing to serve each other, will it not be as in the fable of the single-headed and the many-headed snake?”
Meaning, “either you all work together or you’ll tear this damn family apart”. The conversation soon turns to the question of who would be the official heir.
Jochi, the eldest, bu possibly illegitimate, brother, is suggested as Genghis Khan’s successor. At this point, Chagatai, the second son, explodes, saying:
“How could we allow ourselves to be ruled by this bastard son?”
Jochi hears that insult and snaps. He leaps onto his brother, and starts to punch him in the face. Genghis breaks up the fight, and according to Weatherford, he:
“Pleaded in obviously painful words with his sons to understand how different things were in the old days, before the boys were born, when terror ruled the steppes, neighbors fought neighbors, and no one was safe. What happened to their mother when she was kidnapped was not her fault: “She didn’t run away from home. . . . She wasn’t in love with another man. She was stolen by men who came to kill. You all sprang from a single hot womb. If you insult the mother who gave you your life from her heart, if you cause her love for you to freeze up, even if you apologize to her later, the damage is done.”
With his emotional plea complete, Genghis’ demeanor hardens. And, once and for all, he demands that his other sons recognize Jochi as their true brother, regardless of the circumstances of his parentage.
Chagatai, the second son, just smirks and says “An animal slaughtered by words cannot be skinned”. Which was a Mongol metaphor that basically just means, you can say it, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Defying the Great Khan, even for a son, was a grave transgression. But before he can be chastised, Chagatai stands up and proposes a different solution. He could never accept his bastard brother as an overlord. And he knew that he himself had angered his father beyond repair to ever be declared his successor. Giving the crown to the youngest, Tolui, didn’t make sense either.
But what about the third brother, Ogodei? The lovable frat boy?
This was not what Genghis Khan wanted to hear. Ogodei was a notorious alcoholic, and Genghis famously had no respect for alcoholics. Having said at one point:
The only thing he obtains by his state is shame. A sovereign addicted to drink is incapable of any great deed. An officer who likes drink is not fit to lead his men. The vice (of alcoholism) disables all it afflicts.
But the brothers wouldn’t budge. And right there, in that tent, Genghis Khan had no choice but to choose his third son, Ogodei as his successor. The other three would be given kingdoms of their own, but they all owed ultimate loyalty to Ogodei.
Genghis Khan gave one final warning to his sons. To not quarrel, or fight, or betray each other. But most importantly, if you can’t get along, keep your distance:
“Mother Earth is broad and her rivers and waters are numerous. Make up your camps far apart and each of you rules your own kingdom. I’ll see to it that you are separated.”
He also offered one extremely prophetic warning to his sons who would be kings:
“It will be easy, to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women. Then you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”
Genghis Khan’s story is such a sweeping, epic family drama, that I can’t help but wonder about what someone like William Shakespeare might have done with such a colorful cast of characters. The bard famously wrote plays about England’s Plantagenet dynasty – Henry the IV, Henry the V, Richard III – all those guys. And he crafted these amazing stories using the historical facts as a template.
You have to wonder, if he’d had the Secret History of the Mongols on his shelf – and copies of it did surely exist in China at the time of his career – what could he have woven together with this amazing menagerie of personalities?
I like to think that the moment we just described, the argument over succession, would be a pivotal scene in this hypothetical play. Genghis would definitely get a very long emotional, soliloquy. The rival brothers Jochi and Chagatai would be trading brutal barbs and witty insults The frat boy Ogodei would be cracking jokes and swilling wine in the corner, blissfully unaware of the responsibility that was about to fall on his shoulders.
We also might spend some time with Jochi, the eldest brother who’s parentage was called into question. Because he takes this incident really hard. After all, he was his father’s eldest son. Genghis had always treated him like his firstborn. And now, all of a sudden, he’d been robbed of his birthright. Told he wasn’t good enough to inherit his father’s kingdom. And even worse, that inheritance had been handed to the family drunk, Ogodei.
Jochi, hurt, angry, and resentful, retreats with his supporters deep into the Northern part of the Empire. Into the frigid Siberian steppe. His relationship with his father Genghis turned equally, and irrevocably icy. The two remained estranged, and never saw each other again. A few years later, Jochi would die of a mysterious illness, and some have floated the theory that he was poisoned. Either by his hated brother Chagatai, or by Genghis himself. But no one knows the truth.
In the years that followed that pivotal decision on Succession, Genghis Khan’s army’s continued to explore the outer reaches of Central Asia. His generals took Mongol armies deep into Russia, and crushed the Slavic Princes who ruled there in less than 3 years, bringing even more territory into the Mongol Empire.
But while these globe-spanning conquests were accelerating, Genghis Khan was winding down.
Years pass, and after decades of tireless expansion and death and political maneuvering, the Great Khan decides he just wants to go home. Back to Mongolia.
It had been years since he’d looked out over the rolling grasslands or galloped beneath the mountains that his younger self, Temujin, had known like the back of his hand.
So Genghis takes a long, leisurely route back to the Steppe. Across Iran, Afghanistan, Western China. But along the way, he crosses paths with his youngest son, Tolui, who was traveling with his own sons, Genghis’s grandchildren. And oddly enough, Genghis Khan had, by chance, reunited with that branch of his family on a very important day.
His grandson, a 9-year-old boy named Kublai, had killed his first antelope in a hunt earlier that morning.
This was a massive milestone in a Mongol child’s life. Think of it like a bar mitzvah or something. It was essentially a benchmark for manhood.
And Genghis was delighted to have been present for such an occasion. The little boy, Kublai, had never met his famous grandfather before, at least not up close and personal. It’s hard to imagine, but Genghis’ extended family was massive, a sprawling clan that very rarely were in the same country, much less the same room.
And the 9-year-old boy, Kublai, was nothing short of starstruck when he comes face to face with the powerful patriarch of their world-conquering family.
To celebrate Kublai’s first hunting kill, Genghis Khan personally performs the commemorative ceremony with his grandson. He pricks each of the boys’ index fingers and mixes the blood with the fat of the animal Kublai had killed. It was a profound honor to have this done by the ruler of the Mongol nation.
The next day, they parted ways.
Old Genghis and Young Kublai never saw each other again. But if Genghis could have possibly known what fate had in store for his nine-year-old grandson, he never would have left the boy’s side. He would have tried to pour every ounce of knowledge he’d accumulated into the little kid’s malleable mind. But, Genghis Khan was a conqueror, not a fortune teller. To him, Kublai was just another grandkid in a sea of forgettable grandkids.
He had no idea he’d just met the true heir to his empire and legacy.
After parting from Kublai, Genghis Khan makes his way back towards Mongolia. But a rebellion in neighboring Afghanistan diverts his attention. One last task before he could go home and rest.
But the Great Khan never lived to set eyes on his homeland again. He died in the year 1227, at the age of 65.
No one really knows exactly how he died. The explanations range from the mundane to the scandalous. Some say he fell of his horse and succumbed to internal injuries. Others believe he was suffering from a form of cancer. Some of his enemies even claimed that he’d been murdered in bed by a vengeful queen.
But whatever the truth was, after a reign of 20 years spent conquering the largest land empire in the history of the world, Temujin finally goes home.
Some historians assert that his body would have decomposed too quickly to be taken all the way back to Mongolia. But many other scholars believe that Genghis’ men were so loyal and so obedient, that even in death, they would have moved heaven and earth to return their Khan to his desired resting place.
Genghis had always said that he wanted to be buried where he’d grown up. The same place he’d learned to survive after being cast out of his tribe. Where his mother had protected him and taught him what it meant to be a man. Where he’d murdered his elder brother in cold blood.
In that place of immense weight and memory, Genghis Khan was interred.
Naturally, there’s a very colorful legend attached to Genghis Khan’s funeral. In order to prevent his tomb from being looted or disturbed, 1,000 Mongol horsemen rode over the location, to hide any indication that the earth had been disturbed. Then, the men who rode over the spot were killed, because they knew the location. And then the men who killed *those* men were killed.
The Mongols who buried Genghis Khan did their job well. To this day, no one has found his body.
There was a phrase that Genghis was fond of saying to his sons when they were young men. He said “there is no good in anything, unless it is finished.”
The Mongols had exploded out of their homeland and reshaped the entire world. But even in old age, at the moment of his death, Genghis Khan did not believe his empire had achieved its full potential. In his eyes, the work was not done.
He would have been pleased to know that his successors were far from finished.
In the year 1266, in the city of Venice, a 17-year-old boy was packing for the biggest trip of his life. The next day, he would be leaving on a ship with his father and uncle, bound for the eastern Mediterranean.
This 17-year-old kid, his father, and his uncle, the entire family - were merchants. They traded and conducted lucrative business deals with other tradesmen from the Middle East and Persia, using the Silk Road as their primary conduit.
The older men, the father and uncle, were experienced travelers. They’d been all over the world, and had seen things most Europeans could scarcely even dream of. And now, they were going to take the youngest member of their little family, this 17-year-old kid, with them.
The kid had never been outside the city of Venice before. He’d never known anything besides the crowded canals and bustling waterways of his hometown. But now, he was about to go on the trip of a lifetime. And he was a nervous cocktail of anxiety, excitement, and anticipation.
The three merchants would be going East. Past the old Roman capital of Constantinople. Past the Holy Land, where the crusades were still raging. Past the gardens of Baghdad, across the deserts of Persia, and over the Mountains of Afghanistan.
They were going to China. The domain of the most powerful ruler in the world. The Great Khan of the Mongols.
The 17-year-old would-be world traveler had grown up with terrifying stories about the Mongols, those nomadic conquerors had appeared as suddenly as a lightning bolt in Eastern Europe only a few decades earlier. They’d destroyed cities and towns, butchered populations. They’d defeated great armies, turning entire hosts of armor-clad crusader knights into whimpering prisoners. And just as they were about to move further west, into the heartland of Europe, and possibly even to the beaches of the Atlantic…they’d vanished. No one knew why, but it was as if God himself had yanked on the leash of these demonic, bloodthirsty riders. The apocalypse had been averted.
But in spite of all that, the curious 17-year-old was chomping at the bit to learn more about them. And he was about to get his wish. Because everyone knew that the Silk Road, that vital trade route which stretched all the way to China, was under the Great Khan’s ironclad protection. Despite the satanic reputation of the Mongols, their lands were some of the safest in the world for pilgrims, traders and travelers.
It was said that a virgin girl could walk from one end of the empire to another, with a tray of gold on her head with no fear of being harassed or accosted.
This was what the world referred to as the Pax Mongolica. The “Mongol Peace”. Under the Great Khan’s leadership the entire length and breadth of Asia flourished. Trade was booming, practitioners of every faith worshipped without fear of persecution, and all the Khan’s subjects adhered to a strict, yet fair code of conduct.
The boy’s father and uncle had told him unbelievable stories about their time in China. How they’d personally met the Great Khan, and seen his wisdom first hand. And now they were going back, to honor a request the Khan of Khans had made for religious artifacts from Christendom.
And this time, they were bringing this fresh-faced, sheltered kid on the most fantastic adventure of his life. At 17 years old, Marco Polo had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Marco Polo, the famous world traveler and pool game enthusiast, left Venice when he was a teenager. But his journeys into the heart of the Mongol empire have been a treasure box of information and mind-bending anecdotes about what was life like under the Pax Mongolica.
At first, he might have thought he was heading deep into the lands of the famous Genghis Khan, the almost mythical supreme ruler who’d conquered half the world.
But Genghis was long dead.
At the time Marco Polo, his father and uncle left Venice, Genghis Khan had been in the ground for 40 years. The truth was, there was a new Great Khan on the scene:
Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan.
While Marco Polo was packing his bags, 4,000 miles away, Kublai Khan ruled a vast empire from his capital at Beijing, which at the time, was called Cambulac.
Kublai had never, ever expected to be crowned the Great Khan of the Mongols. When he’d met his favorite grandfather as a nine year old boy, and stared in awe as he was blessed by Genghis Khan on the day of his first hunting kill, Kublai had every reason to believe that was the closest he’d ever get to supreme rulership of the Mongol empire.
He was the middle child, of the fourth son of Genghis Khan. Not an ideal contender to inherit the empire. Best case scenario, he’d be given some corner of the Mongol territory to govern, and live a comfortable life of low expectations.
But after Genghis Khan had died in 1227, things went a little sideways.
Genghis’ alcoholic son and heir, Ogodei, had become Great Khan. And at first, he was surprisingly competent. He’d honored his father’s wishes of expanding the Mongol empire West, fully subjugating the Middle East and Asia Minor. As mentioned earlier, the Mongol armies had even swept into Eastern Europe, places like Poland and Hungary. And no one could stop them. But then right as they were poised to destroy Christian Europe, they’d suddenly disappeared.
The Mongols, it seemed, had vanished into thin air.
The Europeans were relieved and confused. But the true reason for the Mongol withdrawal, was that Ogodei had finally died of his alcoholism. The son of the most prolific conqueror in the world had drank himself death.
So, it was time to elect a new Great Khan.
All the generals, commanders, and family convene at another great Kurultai. I’ll spare you the details about the endless political jockeying and bureaucracy, but over the next few years there are several different Great Khans. And they drop like flies. Some are poisoned, others die of disease or even alcoholism like Ogodei. Booze was actually a big problem for the Mongol elite; they couldn’t’ help themselves.
Anyway - eventually, Kublai, the grandson of Genghis, starts to realize he might actually have a shot at this thing.
He may not have ever expected or wanted that kind of power, but once he got a taste – once it entered the realm of possibility – he decides, okay maybe I do want this.
After a brief, but nasty civil war with his younger brother, Kublai ascends to the throne of the Mongol Empire and becomes Kublai Khan at the age 45. Almost the exact same age that Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia.
Meanwhile, a teenage Marco Polo is discovering that the world is much bigger than he ever thought possible. As he travels east towards China with his father and uncle, he begins to catalogue his experiences within the embrace of the Pax Mongolia.
It was not an easy journey, as historian Laurence Bergreen notes:
“A drought; a sandstorm; a debilitating disease; a renegade squad of murderous thieves; jealous rivals; predators alerted by the approaching travelers’ scent; poor directions; a poisonous spring; the lethal bite of a snake, insect, or scorpion; a parasite lurking in food or underfoot; a sudden snowstorm or bolt of lightning—any of these common occurrences could have brought the expedition to a sudden end.”
But in spite of the hardships, Marco Polo was fascinated by this immense new world he was venturing through. And the very first thing he noticed was that, unlike in Europe, all religions were allowed to practice in priest.
“These Mongols do not care what God is worshipped in their lands. If only all are faithful to the lord Khan and quite obedient and give therefore the appointed tribute, and justice is well kept, thou mayest do what pleaseth thee with the soul.”
As the Mongols themselves put it:
“Just as God gave different fingers to the hand, so has He given different ways to men.
The young Marco initially chafes at this idea. He describes the Muslims he encounters as having, “a brutish law and living like beasts in all things.”
But as he spends more and more time on the Silk Road, and he gets farther away from the dogmatic zealotry of Christian Europe, his mind begins to open up.
He begins to meet some of these Mongols along the road. The demons that were held in such terror back home. And he finds them…pretty pleasant:
“They speak prettily and ornately, they greet becomingly with cheerful and smiling face, they behave with dignity and cleanliness in eating. They are those people who most in the world bear work and great hardship and are content with little food, and who are for this reason suited best to conquer cities, lands, and kingdoms.”
Marco Polo becomes infatuated with the Mongols. He says of their women:
“In my judgment they are the women who most in the world deserve to be commended by all for their very great virtue.”
The Polos continue traveling deeper and deeper into the Mongol lands. As they made their way across the breadth of Kublai’s empire, they would’ve noticed a very modern institution in action: The postal service.
The Mongols had a highly developed system of transmitting information and messages across vast distances in a very small amount of time. It was called the “Yam”, spelled like “yam”, and it worked very similarly to the Pony Express, about six centuries before that service took off in America. Genghis Khan had created it, but Kublai Khan perfected it.
A rider would leave with a message and ride as fast as he could until he arrived at a one of the hundreds of waystations dotting the Empire. Most were located only 25 miles apart. They had dozens of fresh horses and standby riders, who would take the message onto the next waystation and so and so on. This that meant information could crisscross Kublai’s domain with astonishing speed. But what made it so remarkable, was that anyone could use it. Kublai made this lightning-fast method of communication available to everyone – businesses, religious institutions, merchants, diplomats, you name it. It was a public service, the first of its kind.
Marco Polo was impressed, but he’d only scratched the surface of the reservoir of wonders waiting within the Mongol empire. Finally, after three years, the Polos arrive in Cambulac, the seat of Kublai Khan’s power.
In 1215, the very same year that Kublai Khan was born, Cambulac, then called Beijing, had been reduced to a smoking ruin by his grandfather Genghis. But cities tend to bounce back throughout history, even after calamitous destruction, and within 50 years, the city had been transformed into a vast, cosmopolitan oasis of culture, learning, and decadence.
It blew Marco Polo’s mind.
“The city is laid out by squares, as a chessboard is, and is so beautiful and so skillfully planned that in no way would it be possible to tell of it. The streets are drawn out straight as a thread, surrounded by stalls and shops of every kind.”
As he wandered through the shops and stalls, he would’ve noticed something really weird. Something totally alien to his European mind. People were paying for things not with gold, silver, or copper…but with paper. Within the Mongol empire, almost everyone used stamped, printed standardized paper currency, just like we do today. It was backed by a massive reserve of gold and silver, and it stabilized the system of trade between all these different cultures, religions, and ethnicities. As with most things in Kublai’s empire, Genghis Khan had thought of it originally, but his grandson had expanded, sharpened, and perfected it.
And it’s funny, Marco Polo had a really tough time describing it. It was just so unlike anything the western world had. He initially didn’t really understand how it worked:
“Each year Kublai has so great a quantity of these paper notes made that he could pay for all the treasure in the world, though it costs him nothing.”
That’s not how paper money works, Marco, but whatever.
After a lovely afternoon exploring the markets and streets of Cambulac, the Polos arrive at the palace of the Great Khan, in the area of Cambulac where the Mongol royalty lived, the Forbidden City. It would have been an eerie experience.
“The people remain quiet for half a mile round the place where the Great Khan may be, out of respect for his Excellency, so that no sound or noise nor voice of anyone who shouts or talks loudly is heard,”
The Polos are allowed into the court of the Great Khan, but before they can be allowed into the presence of Kublai, they’re given special footwear. As Marco describes:
“When visitors arrived at the court, if they wish to go into the hall, supposing that the lord asks for them, they put on these beautiful white slippers and give the others to the servants; and this, so as not to soil the beautiful and cunningly made carpets of silk, both of gold and of other colors.”
For the now 20-year-old Marco Polo, this was the most opulent, fantastic building he’d ever been in.
“The walls of the halls and of the rooms are all covered with gold and with silver, and there are portrayed dragons and beasts and birds and fair stories of ladies and knights and other beautiful things and stories of wars, which are on the walls; and the roof is also made so that nothing else is seen there but gold and silver and paintings. The hall is so great and broad that it is a great marvel, and more than six thousand men would well feed there at once, sitting at table together. In that palace there are four hundred rooms, so many that it is a marvel to see them. It is so beautiful and large and rich and so well made and arranged that there is not a man in the world who would know how to plan it better nor make it.”
“The roofs above are all red and green and azure and peacock blue and yellow and of all colors, and are glazed so well and so cleverly that they are bright like crystal, so that they shine very far round the palace.
But all of that splendor would in comparison to the sight of Kublai, the Great Khan himself. As they entered the Mongol Emperor’s throne room, the Polos had to prostrate themselves show intense deference. When Marco Polo finally dared to look at Kublai directly, he saw a large, imposing man, dressed head-to-toe in flowing silk robes, colored dazzling shades of green, red, and gold, covered in white pearls and precious gemstones. Marco Polo was also struck by the characteristic ghostly white skin the Mongols were known for, saying:
“His face is white and red like a rose; the eyes [are] black and beautiful”
But in spite of Kublai’s classic Mongol complexion, the Great Khan would’ve looked and dressed very different from this grandfather, Genghis. He would’ve looked more like the Chinese emperors his legendary predecessor deposed than a typical Mongol ruler. And that was very much by design. Kublai understood that by fully embracing classical Chinese culture, he could keep a tighter, more consolidated grip over China, which was the seat of his power.
Genghis Khan had once proudly said: “I hate luxury. I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and horse-herders. We make the same sacrifices, and we share the same riches.”
But Kublai Khan fully embraced the opulence and grandeur of Chinese imperial culture. Not only because it was extremely comfortable and awesome, but because it was politically expedient to be seen as more Chinese than Mongol.
But Kublai had other, more sophisticated methods of keeping the populace in line. Previous Khans had relied on fear alone, but Kublai sought to earn the affection and devotion of his people, not just their terror. As Marco soon learned:
“Does great charity and provision and alms to the poor people of Cambulac.”
If there was a shortage of food, “then the great lord makes them take out some of his grain of which he has so much.” Every single day, Kublai’s government fed 20,000 people who did not have the money to feed themselves, completely free of charge: “Those who wish to go to the court for the lord’s bread daily can have a hot loaf; it is refused to none.”
Kublai Khan essentially created an early form of social security.
But he didn’t just focus on nourishing their bodies. He also believed in nourishing their minds through a robust public education system. During his rule, Kublai Khan created 20,166 public schools throughout his empire, and they were available to everyone, even the lowest peasants.
Unlike his European counterparts, Kublai did not fear an educated populace. The Mongols in general, and Kublai in particular, were extremely forward thinking in their approach to administration. And it paid off. The people loved him for it.
As Marco Polo said: “All the people are so fond of him that they worship him as God.”
But despite all he’d accomplished, all the power he’d accumulated, Kublai Khan could never shake the feeling that something was missing. No matter how much he did or achieved, he could never outrun the long shadow of his very famous grandfather. Genghis had been the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen. A visionary commander, pioneering administrator and a supernova of charisma.
How do you live up to something like that? Can you? Should you even try?
Kublai and Genghis, separated by a decades of time, and an immense gulf of experience, were two sides of the same Mongol coin. One a better warrior than an administrator. The other a better administrator than a warrior.
Kublai must’ve thought constantly about the one day, the only day, he’d seen his grandfather in the flesh. When he’d held his hands as a nine-year-old boy, never dreaming that they’d one day share the same title of Great Khan.
And now, in his middle age, Kublai felt an intense, irresistible yearning to prove himself as the conqueror his grandfather had been. Genghis’ career of conquest had begun late in life – why couldn’t Kublai’s as well? There was still time. Still time to rise to his grandfather’s example. And maybe even outshine him. Maybe it would be Kublai, not Genghis, who leapt most energetically from the pages of history.
In the year 1281, Kublai Khan was arguably at the apex of his power.
He was emperor of all of China, having finally brought the troublesome holdouts in the South to their knees.
Complete control of China was a goal that had famously eluded his grandfather Genghis. Some even said that his last words on his deathbed had been “Please finish the conquest of China.”
It was an endeavor that had consumed the attention of all the Great Khans after Genghis too. But it was Kublai, the 5th Great Khan, who finally achieved what his predecessors could not.
But in 1281, something seismic happens in Kublai’s personal life. His Queen, his beloved wife - a woman named Chabi - dies. Chabi was more than just a wife to Kublai. She was his closest advisor, his best friend, the Queen of his world in both a figurative and literal sense. Losing Chabi destroys Kublai.
Kublai, being the Emperor of a global empire, had several wives. And in addition to that, he had harem of literally hundreds of concubines that satisfied any sexual tick he could dream up. Supplying sidepieces for the Khan was practically an industry unto itself.
But the loss of Chabi tore a hole in Kublai’s spirit that no amount of harem girls or doting wives could fill. Chabi had been extremely important to Kublai, and in an era where Kings and Queens were matches of convenience, he seemed to have a deep, legitimate affection for her, maybe even true blue love. She was extremely intelligent, and served as a strong, mediating influence on Kublai, guiding him through political turmoil and restraining his impulsive decision-making style.
But with Chabi gone, Kublai begins to change.
Like so many of his predecessors, he loses himself in alcohol. He starts eating compulsively, too. He gains so much weight, so fast, that he develops gout and suffers other complications of obesity. Looking at the facts with a modern eye, it’s pretty clear that Kublai Khan was in the midst of a deep crippling depression. He was surrounded by sycophants and servants who couldn’t have snapped him out of it even if they tried. He probably had anybody who tried to tell him to take care of himself killed.
But when he wasn’t drinking, eating, or hiding out in his harem, Kublai was nursing a new, fast-developing obsession.
The Mongol Empire stretched far and wide, but there was one blank space on the map that piqued Kublai’s immense curiosity more than any of the others. It was a cluster of rich, isolated islands to the immediate east. A misty, mountainous archipelago that was supposed to be incredibly rich and home to an ancient, sophisticated culture.
Kublai had actually attempted an invasion of Japan before, about 7 years prior. But poor weather and storms off the Japanese coast had killed that expedition in the crib. But this time, he was going to do things right.
At the command of the Great Khan, the wheels of the Mongol war machine begin to turn in preparation for an invasion. Chinese shipbuilders, Korean conscripts, and Mongol warriors all cohere into a massive landing force that is supposed to number 100,000.
Meanwhile, Kublai sends a delegation to the Japanese on the off-chance they decide to surrender to the Great Khan right off the bat. The ruling warrior class of Japan, the famous samurai, basically just roll their eyes at the ridiculous posturing of these emissaries. They’d never heard of these…I’m sorry what did you say again? Mongols? Led by a Great Khan? Never heard of him. Get the hell off our islands.
Undeterred, Kublai sends a second delegation. This time, the samurai lords are fresh out of patience. And they execute every single one of the Great Khan’s messengers. As we know all too well, killing a Mongol emissary was a huge no-no.
But the Samurai had no idea about what had happened to the Islamic Middle East when it had defied Genghis Khan. They didn’t know about the thousands of dead knights on the frozen battlegrounds of eastern Europe. Or the empty palaces of the fallen southern dynasties in China.
They’d picked a fight with the most powerful man in the world. And if history was any guide, the consequences would be apocalyptic.
A massive Mongol armada sets out from Korea and arrives off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Kublai isn’t personally in command – he was probably too sick and overweight to travel – but the Mongol invasion force is led by men who are more than capable of crushing these defiant samurai beneath the heel of the Mongol war machine.
The Mongols start landing their troops, and almost immediately they’re attacked by the samurai. The fighting lasts for a few days, but the Japanese are driven off. Rather than making camp and landing the majority of the invasion force on the beach, the Mongols stay on their ships to avoid nighttime raids by the Japanese.
The Mongol soldiers passing the time on these ships started to notice some interesting weather patterns. First they saw big, rolling swells coming into the harbor. Three feet high waves. Then six feet waves. Then nine feet waves.
The sky, however, was clear and blue, so the Mongols, not experienced sailors, ignored the ominous forecast.
Then the wind picks up. The sea starts frothing and churning in whitecaps. Pitch black clouds form over the harbor. And a stinging rain begins to pelt their faces. The Mongols, who were nearly invincible on land, had wandered into the middle of one of the worst typhoons Japan had seen in a generation.
The wind gets up to speeds of 100 miles an hour. The men on deck literally cannot stand up straight or they’ll be knocked off their feet. Fifteen foot waves start pounding the ships over and over again. The Mongol Armada starts crashing into each other, capsizing, getting blown off course.
When the storm finally subsides, more than 3,000 ships have been destroyed by the typhoon. And 100,000 drowned men are bobbing lifelessly in the water. The Mongol invasion, and Kublai’s dreams of conquest, were over. The Samurai lords called this typhoon that had miraculously saved their islands “the Divine Wind”, or Kamikaze.
It speaks to how large this event loomed in the Japanese consciousness that 800 years later, the Imperial Japanese Navy would christen its suicidal dive bomber pilots “Kamikaze” pilots. Riders of the Divine Wind.
The Mongol Invasion of Japan is one of those huge “what-if” moments of history. Who knows what would have happened if a typhoon hadn’t come out of nowhere and ended Kublai’s designs before they even began to unfold. If history is any guide, the Mongols would’ve devastated the Japanese islands. Centuries of culture would’ve been snuffed out, priceless artifacts and architecture destroyed. And entire civilization would’ve been set back centuries. The course of history would have been altered irrevocably.
Instead, Japan remained independent, fell into a nightmarish cycle of civil war, before eventually uniting under a would-be world conqueror and launching an invasion of Korea in the 16th century. If you want to hear that story, check out our episode called “The Tiger & The Turtle”.
But I digress.
Whatever might have happened, Kublai’s dreams of adding Japan to the Mongol empire died on the vine, and the myth of Mongol invincibility along with it. The Khans had suffered setbacks before, but nothing on this scale. Now the world knew: they could be beaten. They were not unstoppable demons. They were just men.
The long propaganda war that Genghis and his descendants had waged for the better part of a century, was lost beneath the waves off the stormy coasts of Japan. Kublai spent the next decade launching failed invasion after failed invasion of places like Vietnam and Java. The Mongol empire had finally reached its limits.
Kublai Khan died at the age of 80, in his palace, in the year 1294.
100 years had passed since Genghis Khan first united the Mongol tribes. And with Kublai gone, the Mongol empire officially slid into a period of decline. It cracked and splintered into several different pieces, controlled by rival factions of Genghis’ descendants. Never again could a single Great Khan claim absolute rulership over all the Mongols.
And what happened to Marco Polo? Well the Venetian with nine lives managed to make it all the back to Europe. There he told so many fantastical tales of Kublai Khan’s wealth that people gave him the nickname “Marco il Milone.”
Or “Marco Millions”.
But other things managed to make it to Europe from the heart of China and the Mongol empire. The safety and stability of the Mongol-guarded Silk Road encouraged an unprecedented fluidity between the European and Asian continents. Ideas, goods, religions and, technology flowed back and forth with amazing rapidity.
Think of the Mongol effect on the world like a big collection of potted plants. Each culture or kingdom was safely isolated in its own clay pot. Then the Mongols swooped in and smashed all the pots, but without the constraints of their containers the roots of those plants mix and mingle and crosspollinate, creating a truly global society. Cultures that were completely unaware of each others existence were suddenly connected by a safe, thriving trade route.
One of the things that made its way back to Europe was the Chinese invention of paper. For centuries, the Europeans had been writing on parchment, which is animal hide, essentially. But paper blew their minds, sparking interest and demand for more paper, which led to the development of the printing press and a rise in literacy.
As Jack Weatherford beautifully sums up:
The new technology made the relatively minor trade of book making into one of the most potent forces of public life. It stimulated the revival of Greek classics, the development of written forms of the vernacular languages, the growth of nationalism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the birth of science, and virtually every aspect of life and learning from agronomy to zoology.
Under the widespread influences from the paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.
A small tribe of illiterate hunters and horsemen from Nowhere Ville, Mongolia, are arguably responsible for the birth of Western Civilization as we know it.
How about that?
But the Mongols didn’t just have a world-shaping impact on Western Civilization.
Before the Genghis Khan and his descendents, the ideas of a unified Russia or China did not exist. Their invasions and subsequent administration cohered the ethnic groups within those areas, cohering them into entire nations. As one Japanese historian puts it:
“The greatest legacy of the Mongol Empire bequeathed to the Chinese is the Chinese nation itself.”
Unfortunately, the Mongols are not known for their contributions to global society. Or their administrative innovations. Or their rejection of torture. Or their ideas of religious tolerance and equality that went onto inspire none other than Thomas effing Jefferson.
They are remembered – only - as killers. As rapists, butchers, and thieves. Of course they were guilty of all of that. The amount of innocent people that died at the hands of the Mongols is incalculable. Millions upon millions. No one can ever know how much untold misery and human suffering they caused in their thirst for empire and expansion.
To some, the Pax Mongolica was a time of thriving trade, tolerance and technological innovation. For others, according to one Venetian historian, it was “a peace of smoking ruins”
But the truth is, they didn’t’ enjoy killing or conquest more than other civilizations of their time, they were just better at it. Regardless of how you feel about them, Genghis Khan and the Mongols were the architects of the world as we know it.
Their story is both very big and very small.
It’s a sweeping continent-spanning struggle, full of complex, unknowably intricate political machinations. But it’s also a deeply intimate story of one family and its terrible, intimidating legacy. Of protective mothers, jealous sons, and self-destructive feuds. But the Mongols were so secretive, so guarded and mysterious, that it’s no wonder their memory has been twisted, simplified, and reduced to a stereotype.
A descendant of Genghis Khan who lived in the late 1800s, a poet named Injanish, tried to articulate this fundamental lack of understanding.
“Those who think that no Mongolian words express deep and profound concepts are like one who bathes himself on the bank of an ocean and thinks the sea is shallow.”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
=========END OF EPISODE