On the Nature of Chinggis Khan

The global impacts—political, economic, and otherwise—of the thirteenth century Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan on the course of history can hardly be overstated; at the time of his death, his empire extended from the coasts of the Pacific to the Caspian. The Mongol Empire soon became the second largest empire in history. Recently, there seems to have been an effort in the West to soften the image of this Chinggis, with some individuals going so far as to claim he was an enlightened ruler. While Chinggis Khan indeed established in his empire various institutions rather uncommon in the medieval world, such ideas in no way compensate for his cultural insensitivity, lack of respect for women, and abominable acts of murder and destruction, indicating that “enlightened”—reflecting rationality, modernity, and progressiveness—is by no means an accurate term to characterize this world-conqueror.
Temüjin, born circa 1162 CE the son of a Mongol chief in the grassy central Asian steppe, experienced a rough childhood in the mountains, his family deserted by their clan after his father’s death. Through charisma and determination, however, Temüjin rapidly accumulated followers and built up an army to rival the strongest clans on the steppe; in the dawning years of the thirteenth century, Temujin conquered the last of his rivals, ending the era of cyclical inter-tribal raiding, and united Mongolia under his rule. The kurultai, or council of Mongol princes, of 1206 proclaimed Temüjin as Chinggis Khan, supreme ruler of the all Mongols, initiating a century of ferocious conquest (“Genghis Khan,” Encyclopedia of World). Until his death in 1227 CE, Chinggis led his armies across the Asian steppe, through northern China, and into the Muslim world at an unprecedented rate. The Mongol archer cavalry was seemingly invincible—not to mention exceedingly ruthless—and tales of their prowess and terror preceded them; cities surrendered promptly upon receiving word of Chinggis’s approach. In just over two decades, the Great Khan’s conquests subjugated twice as much territory as the Romans governed at their height. To this day, Chinggis Khan leaves a conflicted legacy: tolerance, integration, and exchange, but also fear, blood, and destruction. For example, meritocratic government and diplomatic immunity were instituted, and flourishing overland Eurasian trade was fostered. In spite of his various reforms and achievements, however, Chinggis cannot be called enlightened.
Often, in an effort to highlight the modernity of Chinggis Khan’s empire, his policies of religious tolerance are brought forth by sympathizers, claiming an moral and theological interest in other religions. In reality, the motives for Mongol tolerance of the diverse spiritual followings were far from the “enlightened” sense. Indeed, often the Mongol rulers were rather insensitive to the diverse cultures of their subjects, as the principal motive behind the policy of religious tolerance had little to do with personal spiritual conviction or appreciation of foreign gods, but rather governance. Chinggis “recognized that good relations with the religious potentates in a region facilitated Mongol control over its inhabitants” (“Genghis Khan,” Encyclopedia of Asian). Religious leaders were utilized to ensure the submission of conquered peoples, as illustrated by Chinggis’s letter in 1223 to the Daoist patriarch in his empire, Chang Chun, asking if he had won over the common people (Jackson 263). As they were predominantly political tools, Chinggis and other Mongol rulers were unafraid to eliminate those who grew too powerful, e.g., Chinggis’s execution of his own shaman, Teb Tenggeri, who had accumulated a significant following among the Mongols (Ratchnevsky). People were not persecuted on the basis of religious beliefs, but the Mongols did intervene in areas that conflicted with their traditional steppe customs to reassert their political domination. As a result, numerous groups experienced notably intolerant rule. For example, the Mongols made efforts to suppress daily Muslim observances, which simply “entailed the infringement of important Mongol customs.” Washing in running water during the spring and summer was prohibited, and an edict by Chinggis forbade Muslims from performing animal slaughter in the manner mandated by Shari’a law (Jackson 260).
Another characteristic of Chinggis Khan that unambiguously resists the label of “enlightened” was his lack of regard for many rights of women. Chinggis is infamous for having a massive harem—he had an estimated five hundred or so other wives and consorts (Stone). In no way can this behavior be referred to as “enlightened” in any modern sense of the word. After subjugating the Tatars, Chinggis took two Tatar sisters, Yisügen and Yisüi, as his wives and executed the latter’s former husband (Onon 134–135). Upon the completion of each conquest of a region, Chinggis would inquire for the most beautiful women in the area. Then, he would search, or send his generals to search, for them. In one instance, Naya’a, a trusted general of Chinggis’s, brought the daughter of the defeated Merkid clan chief, and said,
Whenever I encounter
foreign people’s girls and women
of beautiful complexion
or geldings with fine rumps
each time I say: “These are the Khan’s.”
If my desire is other than I indicate, let me die. (Onon 180)
With each new wife, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, Genghis slept and produced children; to this day, “according to an international team of geneticists, about 1 in 12 men in Asia—and therefore 1 in 200 men worldwide—carry a form of the Y chromosome that originated in Mongolia nearly 1,000 years ago” (Travis). The most valid conclusion is that this Y chromosome comes from Chinggis, the only man of the time who possessed the biological fitness required to spread it so pervasively. Chinggis’s possession of so many other wives and sexual partners besides his first wife, Börte, is thoroughly repulsive by modern standards.
Chinggis Khan’s greatest and worst legacy, however, lies in the remnants of ash and blood he left in his wake. In his conquests of the western Turkic clans, he hunted down and killed each reigning family, absorbed the fighting men into his ranks, and took the women to be wives and slaves of various sorts for himself and his warriors (Lamb 69–70). The Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir makes a scathing comparison between Dajjal—the evil Islamic Messianic imposter equivalent to the Christian Antichrist—and the Mongols (Hughes 64). He writes, “Dajjal will at least spare those who adhere to him, and will only destroy his adversaries. These Mongols, however, spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn” (Lane). Another valuable account, recorded in the Persian historian Minh?j al-Sir?j J?zj?n?’s T?abak?t-i-N??ir?, is of the aftermath of the sacking of Zhongdu, or modern day Beijing, in 1215. It recalls “a high white mound,” the whole of which was composed of “the bones of men slain,” and another area that was “greasy and dark from human fat,” where, on the day the Mongols broke into the walls, “60,000 young girls, virgins, threw themselves from the bastion of the fortress walls and destroyed themselves, in order that they might not fall captives into the hands of the Mongol forces” (J?zj?n? 965). In 1219, the Khwarezmian Empire—the first Muslim state to receive the full, merciless force of Mongol carnage—experienced similar ravages. After the ruler of Khwarezm attacked a Mongol trade delegation caravan, Chinggis “unleashed the bloody raids and merciless devastation on the Islamic west that has made his name synonymous with barbaric mass slaughter” (Lane). During the capture of the city of Otrar, the inhabitants were either executed or enslaved, the governor himself killed “by the pouring of molten silver into his ears and eyes.” Urgench, the capital of Khwarezmia, was razed in 1220 and the entire male population was massacred (“Mongols”). The simply unquantifiable devastation brought to the cities, culture, and people far outweighs the moral merit of any policies or innovations.
A common argument used by those who insist upon the modernity of Chinggis Khan is his creation of the so-called Great Yasa, a code outlining innovative and progressive laws to be followed by all imperial subjects. The traditional view of this law code claims that, at some point during his rule over the empire, Chinggis created the Great Yasa. The issues regarding this notion must first be briefly noted. Scholarly consensus has shifted toward the hypothesis that the Yasa did not exist as a single, systematic work created by solely Chinggis Khan at a certain point, but rather collections of orders and decrees issued over time. In addition, within The Secret History of the Mongols, the only surviving Mongol primary source, the word yasa is mentioned roughly nine times and does not generally reference the meaning “law.” Rather, similar to Persian sources such as Juvayni’s Ta”rìkh-i jahàn gushà, or “The History of the World Conqueror,” it references the meanings “order” or “decree.” Consequently, as one might expect, Juvayni’s chapter on the yasas discuss various military orders. The Yasa, therefore, most likely existed as “a gradually evolving body of custom, not only beginning before the time of Chinggis Khan but continuing after him” (Morgan 294–297). Not only are the origins and purpose largely uncertain, but the content of the text as well. One of the main sources for the laws of the Yasa come from the fifteenth century Mamluk historian al-Maqrìzì, who claimed to have an informant who had seen a copy of the Yasa in Baghdad—a claim which has been proven false by Israeli historian David Ayalon. (Morgan 292). Thus, a major source for the contents of the Yasa come from the works of a man who had never seen nor heard it. It seems neither Juvayni nor Rash?d al-D?n, historians who had worked for the empire itself in the 1200s, could see the Yasa for reference. Therefore, it is ridiculous to present arguments based upon largely unconfirmed information.
To portray a historical figure such as Chinggis Khan in such an apologetic, almost honorable light appears fairly attractive—the simplification provides an easily digestible encapsulation of his character. Chinggis Khan did indeed possess many progressive ideas, but these are insignificant in relation to his disregard of culture, women, and the lives of millions; to call him “enlightened” is an abominable application of the word.

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