EP 020: The Great Khan

EP 039: 221B BAKER STREET Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What was, unbelievably, even more exciting than the first Glenfiddich single malt Scotch, or a man circumnavigating the world on a Penny Farthing? In this episode, we're talking about deerstalkers, magnifying glasses, and the one thing that really got the Victorians to talk about their feelings.

In the spirit of the 21st Century, I feel compelled to point out that before Genghis Khan became a slightly murder-y conqueror, he had a very rough childhood. It’s about 1169 BCE, and North East Asia is populated by mostly nomadic, mostly independent tribes. Many of the leaders try to make temporary alliances by marrying their children into other tribes, which has the added bonus of them becoming someone else’s problem. Also, they very sneakily set the marrying age at 12, which means they get to ship them off before they start listening to punk rock, slamming doors, and communicating in monosyllables. Fortunately, they have a lot of children, so this is easy to do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a very good success rate, so there’s still a fair amount of warring and maiming and very uncomfortable family dinners.

Genghis Kahn, or Temüjin, to use his real name, is nine years old, and he’s been taken by his father to the home of the girl he’s betrothed to marry. As we said, he’s only about nine years old, so he’s more interested in riding horses and killing ants with a magnifying glass than in taking out the bins and driving his wife to Lamaze classes; but the custom is that he’ll live in his father-in-law-to-be’s house until he hits the far more sensible age of twelve. At which point he’ll settle down into the monotonous bliss of matrimony and try not to be crushed under the weight of his own joy.

Unfortunately for him – and his dad – his father is poisoned by the Tartar tribe on his way back. The Tartars have been enemies of Temüjin’s tribe for a long time, so possibly the most surprising thing here is that his dad thought it was a good idea to share a beer and a toastie with them. Genghis Khan returns home to his mother and his eight siblings, but this is not the kind of ancient community that puts you onto a casserole rotation for six months after a bereavement. They chuck the family out so that they don’t have to spend resources on them, or deal with the threat of jumped up adolescents who think they’ve inherited the right to be in charge. The ancient world is littered with stories of wars that could have been avoided if first, second and third born sons hadn’t decided to have coffin-side brawls over the will, and a lot of people died as a result, which is obviously not a vibe. The death of a leader is also a great time for ambitious generals to get a foot in the door, and the trifling matter of a grieving widow with children isn’t usually enough generate any sort of pause.

So Temüjin’s family lived in a state of fairly abject poverty, and he was eventually captured by another tribe and forced into slavery. One night, he notices that his guards for the evening are obviously the runners up in the B team, and whacks them over the head with his wooden collar. Word of his escape spreads, and a couple of people help him to return to his family. The early years of Genghis Khan’s life are full of stories about people helping him at quite considerable personal cost, and for quite little in return. Whether you think this shows incredible force of personality, or that he already had the murderous glint in his eyes, is totally up to you.

Not a lot survives about Genghis Khan’s early years, because not a lot was ever written down. We know there was a long period of struggle for survival, and a lot of rivalry between the various siblings. Also, he may or may not have murdered his brother. He definitely managed to find time to circle back to the girl he’d originally been meant to marry, but the honeymoon was barely over before she was captured by a tribe who seems to have had some idea of punishing Temüjin’s for the fact that his father and once kidnapped his mother. That’s Temüjin’s mother, not his father’s mother, although the Ancient world of revenge dramas is a lot like season 14 of Grey’s Anatomy, so anything is possible.

Temüjin is understandably quite upset about this, and manages to raise a lot of support from other tribal leaders to get her back. He also trades a sable skin for an army of a reported 20000 men, which probably helps. I don’t know how big the sable skin was, but no record survives of how the 20000 men felt they had fared in this deal.

Temüjin did pretty well out of it though. Firstly, he got his wife back, which was nice for him and probably even better for her. Secondly, this victory gives him the power and respect he needed to start really consolidating his power, which famously came in pretty handy when he woke up one day, stretched, scratched, and decided to take over the world.

By 1206, Temüjin had succeeded in uniting the Mongolian tribes into one nation. And by uniting, obviously we mean threatening, maiming and murdering the Mongolian tribes into one nation. There’s a whole ethical thing here to be unpacked by another podcaster, but that aside, it was quite the political feat. These tribes had been warring amongst themselves for generations, and under his rule they were, for the first time, a single political force. Whether they were happy about it is another matter entirely.

This is when Temüjin is given the title of Genghis Khan. The chieftains all get together for a ceremony and a toot, and they make a very nice speech just to prove they aren’t cross:

“We will make you Khan; you shall ride at our head, against our foes. We will throw ourselves like lightning on your enemies. We will bring you their finest women and girls, their rich tents like palaces.”

They name him Genghis Khan – or the universal ruler.

Unfortunately, he seems to have taken this to heart. Over the course of his career as one of the most terrifying conquerors in history, he expanded the Mongolian empire to the formidable size of 13,500,000 km². To put that in perspective, because most of us find it hard to visualize even our own bedrooms when we’re trying to buy a bed, that’s about a third of Asia, and more than double the size of the empire of Alexander the Great. That’s a lot of lawn to mow on a Sunday, which might explain why he mysteriously dropped dead in 1227. 

He also, and I cannot emphasize this enough, killed a lot of people. The conservative bookies, only counting civilians, and giving Genghis Khan a free pass for anyone who died of famine and plague under his stewardship, start the numbers at about 4 million. The more daring have been know to offer odds on figures as high as 60 million.  If that was in grains of rice, with one million weighing about 25 kilograms, you’d seriously need to consider limiting your carbohydrate intake.

Genghis Khan didn’t always murder everyone, everywhere. He liked to redistribute survivors and surrender-ers (and slaves) so that their chances of forming rebellious after-hours protest groups would be limited. (This still resulted in widespread depopulation and death, by the way, so in no way are we saying that this is a guy you should bring home to meet your granny).

There are also a few gruesome stories that haven’t yet been supported by any hard evidence or archaeology, and may have been exaggerated over time. But on a few occasions, regardless of where you draw the line, and how forgiving you want to be to ancient people in ancient times, he crossed it so fully that he could barely see the banks of the other side.

In 1221, Genghis Khan had taken an army to Nishapur, a city in North Eastern Iran. The residents decided they weren’t super keen on being forced into Genghis Khan’s Empire, and revolted. In the ensuing scuffle, the Khan’s son-in-law was shot and killed by an arrow.

Genghis Khan, who keeps literally thousands of concubines, decides that this is a good time to start tuning in to the thoughts and feelings of women. He asks his pregnant daughter what she would like to do in revenge, and she responds by saying that she wants the entire population to be killed, including – allegedly – their dogs and cats and pets of any shape. She wants no living thing to outlive her dead husband. Genghis Khan, deciding to take the advice of a grieving, traumatized woman, and apparently not questioning whether he maybe took his bloodthirsty angel to too many bring-your-daughter-to-work days, gives in.

Over the course of 10 days, he and his army murder absolutely everyone. The entire population is slaughtered and decapitated, and some reports suggest that their heads are piled into pyramids. The entire city is abandoned and falls into ruins, until a team of excavators dig it up in the mid-20th Century.

 In amongst all of this war and hardship and death, Genghis Khan found the time (somehow) to create an entirely new political system for the Mongolian empire. The laws that governed it are known as the Yassa, and they seem to have started as wartime decrees which were later expanded and codified. Genghis Khan, brilliantly, never made any of them public, which meant they could change at the drop of a hat. Genius. They’re a fascinating study, even though no original copies have ever been found. But those will have to be words for another day.

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