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The Rise of Genghis Khan

Section Contents

History >>

  1. Overview
  2. The steppes before Genghis Khan
  3. The rise of Genghis Khan
    >>The Early Childhood of Temujin
    >>Rise to Power
    >>The Khuriltai of 1206 - Building the Empire

  4. Conquests of Genghis Khan
  5. Conquests of His Successors
  6. Kubiliai Khan and the Pax Mongolia
  7. Decline and Fall
  8. History FAQ, Misc.

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1167? Brith of Temujin (Genghis/Chingis Khan)

1176? Temujin is engaged to Borte, daughter of Dei of the Okhunugud. Death of Temujin's father (Yesugei). Collapse of Yesugei's Kiyad clan. Temujin is exiled to the most desolate areas of the steppes.

1180 Temjin murders his half brother, Bekhter for stealing his fish. Temujin is later captured by the Tayichigud.

1182? Temujin marries Borte, his first wife

1183? Borte is captured during a raid by Merkids. Temujin combine with Toghrul and Jamugha to defeat Merkids and rescues Borte. Rise to power of Temujin and Jamugha among the Mongol clans.

1187. Separation from Jamugha, proclaimed Genghis/Chingis Khan (at least according to the Secret History). Defeated by Jamugha at Dalan Bajut. The following years are a long gap of scarcely recorded events. Genghis is exiled but later returns to power.

1196. Toghrul is exiled to the Kara Khitai. Restored to power by Genghis Khan in 1198.

1198. Genghis and Toghrul defeat the Tartars. Toghrul given the title Ong/Wang ("King") Khan by the Jin.

1201. Jamugha proclaimed Gur Khan. Indecisive battle at Koyitan. The tayichigud clan under Jamugha is destroyed. Toghrul and Genghis campaign against Buiruk Khan of the Naimans.

1202. Toghrul turns against Genghis Khan. Battle at Kalakalzhit. Withdrawal to the Kalka River.

1203. Genghis Khan defeats Toghrul at Mount Jeje'er. Toghrul's tribe, the Kereyids is incorporated into Genghis men.

1204. Genghis Khan defeats Jamugha and Tayang Khan of the Naimans at Mount Khangkharkhan. Final defeat of the Merkids.

1205. Honorable execution of Jamugha. Genghis becomes undisputed ruler of the steppes.

1206. The great Khuriltai (assembly) of 1206. Submission of the Uighurs.

 The Rise of Genghis Khan

The rise of Genghis Khan was one of the most dramatic in history, and has hardly, if ever, been paralleled in history. No other has risen from such a low position: as part of a family eating roots and rodents for survival; Genghis Khan and yet end up achieving so much in the end

Much of what we know about Genghis' early life comes from the famous Mongol script, The Secret History of the Mongols, which is a record of Mongol history written in 1240. The bulk of the Secret History describes Genghis Khan's early life and is written with numerous dialogues between characters. When the Persian historian Rashid ad-Din wrote The History of the Tribes, he made numerous contradictions with the Secret History, which he had access to when he wrote his script. However, the contradictions are centered on details, and there is a good agreement between the two sources on the general flow of the story.

 The Early Childhood of Temujin

Temujin, the one who would become Genghis Khan, was born in 1167. His father was Yesugei, the head of the Kiyad sub-clan and leader of a small coalition of other Mongol clans. When Temujin was nine, his father brought him to visit the Okhunugud tribe. During the visit, Yesugei met Borte, the daughter of the Okhunugud leader (Dei the wise), and found her to be quite intriguing. Yesugei proposed marriage between her and Temujin, which Dei gladly accepted. As a steppe tradition, Temujin would be left with his future wife's family for a period of time.

Leaving Temujin behind, Yesugei proudly rode back to his camp. However, misfortune struct. On the way, he met a group of men and stopped for a feast. Little did he know that they were Tartars, archenemies of the Mongols. While they feasted together, the Tartars secretly poisoned Yesugei's food. When Yesugei finally returned to his camp, hewas already near death. Temujin was summoned back to assume leadership of the coalition, but the other clan leaders were not impressed by his young age. The other clan leaders of the coalition abandoned Temujin's camp, and soon, almost all of his Kiyad clansmen left as well. In the end, all that was left of Temujin's camp was his mother, his four siblings, his two stepbrothers, and a family servant.

Left: A Mongol Ger/Yurt (Felt tent), Scenes like this were common all throughout the steppes.


Temujin and his ragtag clan took a life of hardship, living off of plant roots and what little there could be found. One day, when Temujin and his brother Kasar caught a figh, his half brothers snatched it out of his hand and ate it for themselves. In such desperate situation, a single fish was valuable, and could mean the difference between survival and starvation. Temujin was outraged. He got his bow and shot his half brother, Bekter, at close range. At an early age, Temujin had developed the personality that would mark his personality when he would become Genghis Khan. Although we often think of him being exceedingly brutal against his enemies, he was also exceedingly kind to those loyal to him. Temujin pardoned his other half brother, and the two would become good friends.

Despite the hardships and the murder of his half brother, Temujin and his family lived on. Temujin had many adventures, including capture by the Tayichigud clan, and dealing with raiding horse thieves. However, Temujin did not seem to be weakened by any of these events. In fact, he kept getting stronger. At age 15, he was old enough to return to Dei's camp and claim his wife, Borte. Without doubt, Temujin had great personal strength, but he still had no political power, and a private army numbering only five men. Shortly though, this would change.

Rise to Power - War on the Steppes

One day, the Merkids Tribe attacked Temujin's camp. Temujin and his family fled safely into the forests but Borte was captured. However, the Merkids were a strong tribe and he was in no position of taking them on. But Temujin realized long ago that his father had an anda (Blood sworn brothers), Toghrul Khan of the Keyerids. Temujin traveled to Toghrul and asked for his help. Since Toghrul had such great memories with Yesugei, he agreed to aid the youngster. He raised an army of 1500 men and enlisted his ally, Jamugha, who brought an additional 1500 men. Meanwhile, Temujin sent messages to the former clansmen that used to serve under his father and was able assemble a force of about 500 men. Temujin' army was by far the smallest, but it was the first one ever in his command. The three men marched together in front of their armies and dealt a crushing blow against the Merkids. During the battle, Temujin recovered Borte.

Through alliances and friendships, Temujin was able to hold military power for the first. Coincidentally, one of leader in trio alliance, Jamugha, was also a Mongol, and had been anda with Temujin during childhood. Jamugha and Temujin became reunited friends and together they gained control over a good amount of Mongol clans. They became a force to be feared, and to an extent it seemed as if though the fallen Mongol kingdom was in the stage of resurrection.

One day, while Temujin and Jamugha were riding together in front of their men (in the steppes, whole nomadic tribes often traveled together as a single unit), Jamugha suggested to Temujin to stop and pitch tent. Temujin, however, "did not understand" Jamugha's words, and after "asking his mother what Jamugha mean", he decided to keep marching while Jamugha stopped. As the two leaders separated, the Mongols were dumbstruck, but it was clear that they had to choose which leader to follow. Some went with Temujin and some went with Jamugha. The Mongol that went with Temujin swore loyalty and in return, Temujin swore to lead them to glory. Shortly later, in a huge assembly, Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan (1187). Obviously, Temujin had used Jamugha and Toghrul first as a protector and then as took advantage the situation and used them as a source from which to "steal" power.


Almost immediately after Temujin was proclaimed Khan, one of Jamugha's tribesman stole horses from tribesmen under Genghis Khan. This simple event escalated into war. Fighting broke out and Genghis Khan was defeated. What happened next is a confusing timeframe of ten years unmentioned in the Secret History. According to Rashid ad-Din, Genghis khan was deserted by his followers, and was later captured by his enemies. Possibly, he was exiled to China. He returned several years later, defeated Jamugha and re-secured power. Some time around Genghis' return, Toghrul Khan lost the throne to his tribe and was exiled to Kara-Khitai. He was then restored to power by Genghis Khan.

The Secret history does not describe these events, but instead, skips ahead a decade later to 1198 to, in which Genghis and Toghrul victoriously campaigned against the Tartars. Meanwhile, Jamugha created powerful alliances with the Merkids, Naimans and the Oyirads. Similar to how Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, Jamugha was named Gur Khan.

Tension between Jamugha and Genghis grew again. Finally, Jamugha gathered his allies and marched against Genghis for a decisive battle at Koyitan. Upon hearing the threat, Genghis called Toghrul Khan to join him again his anda. Toghrul agreed, despite the fact that he and Jamugha once allies. The two armies met at Koyiten for a great battle but weather became disfavorable and suddenly the two armies were caught in a snowstorm. The battle was call off and both armies decided to withdraw. However, during the withdrawal, luck was with Genghis and he was able to catch the Tayichigud, an old rival clan to Genghis now serving under Jamugha. After a fierce battle, the Tayichigud were destroyed.

Weather on the Steppes moved from one extreme to another

The long awaited clash between Genghis and Jamugha was broken up, and the two sides cease fired. But Genghis did not waste time enjoying peace. He attacked the already weakened Tartars, and in 1202, the long time enemy tribe were finally defeated and put to the sword. Meanwhile, Toghrul Khan was becoming old and weary. Convinced by his son, the tired and confused old khan decided that it was no longer wise to remain as Genghis' ally. Toghrul plotted to assassinate Genghis at an assembly, but unfortunately for him, his plans were overheard and reported it to Genghis.

Genghis decided to move eastward to a safer location. As Genghis rode eastward, an army appeared on the horizon with Toghrul and Jamugha riding at its front. Genghis was forced to fight. He was heavily outnumbered but was able to hold off the onslaught until nightfall, where he was able to escape to the Khalka River. Genghis' army was heavily damaged, but along the river, he met various friendly tribes who decided to join his ranks, including the Okhunuguds (the clan of his wife).

While Genghis was rebuilding his army, he suddenly discovered that Toghrul's had followed his path and was closing in. This time, Genghis decided it was time to eliminate Toghrul. He quickly assembled his men at night and surrounded Toghrul's camp in a surprise attack. The battle lasted three days but in the end Toghrul was finally defeated. Toghrul's Kereyids tribesmen were slaughtered and the survivors were assimilated into Genghis' tribe. Toghrul himself escaped but only to be killed later by a patrolling Naiman warrior.

With Toghrul defeated, the only ones left to seriously challenge Genghis were Jamugha and his ally, Tayang Khan of Naimans. In 1204, Genghis assembled his men and marched though the Keluren Valley into Naiman territories. Genghis continued advancing until he reached Mount Khangkharkhan, where the army of Tayang Khan, later joined by Jamugha, awaited him. Genghis and his brothers, with his hounds of war (his generals) led a ferocious attack and Tayang and Jamugha were driven up the mountain. Tayang and Jamugha held out into the night but in the end Genghis was victorious. The Naimans and Jamugha's seven Mongol Clans surrendered and were assimilated into Genghis' "Empire." Jamugha escaped from the battle, but was completely deprived of power and was forced into a life of banditry.

Mountains on the steppes

With the Naimans defeated and Jamugha's Mongol clans surrendered, Genghis had nearly gained complete mastery of the steppes. There were only two minor groups left to conquer. There were the Merkids, who had regrouped after suffering several defeated including when Genghis first allied with Toghrul. Finally there were the Oriats, in the extreme north of Mongolia. The Merkids were annihilated shortly after the victory over the Naimans, and the latter, the Oriats, would eventually be defeated later on.

Jamugha, defeated as a Khan, was soon defeated as a bandit leader. His gang of bandits betrayed him and turned him in to Genghis Khan. Although the two had been strong political enemies, Genghis remembered that they were still andas, that "when two men becomes anda, their lives become one." The relationship between Jamugha and Genghis is somewhat interesting. Although they were political rivals, they never considered themselves to be personal enemies. They fought each other only for conquest and control over other people. Now that Jamugha was no longer a political power, Genghis was ready to fully accept Jamugha into his service, but Jamugha declined. He stated that his anda had surpassed him in every way and thus there is no longer a place for him. Jamugha requested an execution and Genghis honored his request. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, he had Jamugha executed without shedding his blood and buried his bones with honor.

 The Khuriltai of 1206 - Building the Empire

In the year of the Tiger, 1206, the whole steppes stood watching as the great Khuriltai (assembly) was being held and the implied enthronement of Genghis Khan as emperor of the steppes. As emperor of the steppes, Genghis wanted to ensure the longevity of his empire. It is somewhat of a daunting task, as not so long ago his empire had been a chaotic battleground of many nomadic powers. To do this, Genghis created a system that would stress the unity of the empire, and would wipe out tendencies towards local tribal authorities. The entire population was divided into 95 military units, each responsible for maintaining 1000 warriors. Each of these units had a commander personally assigned by Genghis Khan. During times of war, each commander was expected to effectively assemble a thousand men. Failure to do so would mean removal from office and a new commander from the thousand would be elected. To ensure availability of warriors, every male at the age of fifteen were required for military duty.

Genghis also created various offices of power within his empire, including imperial administrators and the chief justice. Furthermore, he decreed a number of specific laws, including the toleration of religion, exemption of priests in taxation, the prohibition of contaminating running water, and death penalty for crimes such as robbery, adultery, military desertion, and continual bankruptcy of merchants. All of these laws and decrees made by Genghis Khan were compiled into one piece, the Great Yasa. While Genghis is often thought to be a vicious barbarian, there is no doubt that he was also a brilliant statesman.

The new military superstructure ensured a stable and militaristic society, but was not enough to conquer the world. Genghis went on to make several military reforms, including a decimal organization of the army (from units of 10 to 10,000 men), standardization of equipment, a strict system of regularly performed military drill, and a strict system of military laws. All of these regulations installed a sense of unity and maximum discipline to men who already had a lifetime of experience in horsemanship and archery. Every man in the Mongol army was both a lifetime warriors and a soldiers fighting as part of a group -something rarely achieved before contemporary militaries. The Mongol army soon became the most disciplined, experienced, and feared force the world had yet to see.

Next: The Conquests of Genghis Khan