Everything Pop Culture Taught You About Genghis Khan Is Wrong


Since Alyssa’s left me the keys to her blog, I might as well seize the opportunity to talk about Genghis Khan.

If you’re an American of about my age, your first exposure to Genghis Khan may well have been the following clip:

Even if you’re a poor deprived soul who never saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you probably hear Genghis Khan and see a barbarian warmonger at the head of a slavering horde, closer to Khal Drogo than Julius Caesar or Napoleon. But the kindest thing you can say for this popular image is that it’s incomplete.

Here are some things you should know about Temujin, the man who was Genghis Khan.

Temujin was a son of a minor Mongolian chief. His father was poisoned, and their tribe abandoned Temujin’s mother and her children. The family fled north, and lived “like wolves” in the Siberian wilderness; Temujin was ultimately captured as a slave, broke free, formed an alliance with a Christian relative, married, was betrayed, hounded his betrayers to the ends of the steppe, and by the age of fifty or so became the first ruler of the territory we now know as Mongolia.

For most nation-builders, that would be enough. Before the time of his death, though, Temujin’s empire stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean:

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

He was, to steal from that old Gladiator trailer, the prince who became a refugee who became a slave who became a war leader who became a king who became an emperor.

Before Temujin, there was no Mongolian nation. Julius Caesar seized control of a four-hundred-year-old state. Alexander inherited his Macedonian war machine. Temujin came from basically nothing and forged steppe tribes into the largest land empire the world has ever seen — and a nation that has endured for almost a thousand years. In the process, he introduced writing and a legal code to his people.

Even as he built his country, Temujin transformed the way it made war. Since time immemorial, settled peoples’ solution to Mongol raids had been “hide behind our city wall.” While the amazing Mongolian bow-cavalry could transform an opposing force to pincushions, they weren’t set up for a siege.

So Genghis Khan’s army, when they conquered a city, drafted its artisans, craftsmen, engineers, and everyone who could read or write. These recruits were ordered to solve siege warfare. Faced with a wall, Temujin’s engineers might build a taller wall around and outside it, using the high ground to rain arrows on the target’s defenders. Or they might catapult iron balls filled with gunpowder over the wall. Or simply pull the wall down with grappling hooks. Or divert a river to flood the walled city.

The weapons engineers of the Khan’s horde brought expertise from every conquered nation between Korea and the Middle East. For the first time, Chinese metallurgy and materials science connected with Arabian mathematics, and the results were, um, explosive. Fighting the Mongolian army felt less like defending Helm’s Deep, and more like fighting the aliens in Independence Day.

As an aside — though the Prester John myth predates Temujin’s empire, he and his heirs became a vital part of its success. Crusaders returned from the Holy Land with tales of a fantastically wealthy Christian monarch in the east. While the Mongolian army was not Christian, it was religiously tolerant for its day, and included a decent population of Nestorian Christians, including Temujin’s uncle Toghrul, the Ong Khan. Emissaries to Prester John ended up meeting Ong Khan instead.

All that said, conventional wisdom isn’t wrong about the violence. Temujin cultivated an image of himself as a mass-murderer, all the better to terrify cities into surrendering — and there was truth behind the image. Millions died at his warriors’ hands. Cities that resisted were butchered and burned. Cultures were wiped from history. Russian scholars argue that the Russia never recovered from the Horde’s destruction of Kievan Rus. The mind reels to imagine the loss of the siege of Baghdad. Part of the reason the Crusaders assumed Temujin and his followers were Christian was the ruthlessness with which they confronted Muslim resistance.

The Bill & Ted character is much easier to understand: a force of nature with a sword in one hand and a turkey leg in the other. History is more complicated. To learn about Genghis Khan is to admire him. He seems to have been loyal to his friends, loving to his wife, kind to his family — and for sheer ambition, military prowess, and enduring success, he puts Caesars, Alexanders, Charlemagnes, Elizabeths and Napoleons and Qin Shihuangs in the shade. He started from less, achieved more, and passed it on.

And yet he did it all by wading through a lake of blood.

This, too, we can learn from Temujin. The great figures of history are stained. A villain is often a hero seen from the other side. And if we think we know true history, we’d do well to look deeper.