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Genghis Kahn

Mongolia is an oval-shaped country, about twice the size of Alaska, situated in Central Asia between Russia and China. Most of Mongolia consists of large, dry, grass-covered plains, situated on high plateaus. To the west and southwest are mountains and, to the south, along the Chinese border, lies the formidable Gobi Desert. Overall, less than 1 percent of the country is suitable for farming.

If you were to visit Mongolia today, you would find most of the area unoccupied, with only small bands of nomadic herdsman tending their flocks — somehow managing to survive the dust storms, drought, forest fires, and harsh winters. In fact, they would be leading virtually the same life as their ancestors did a century ago. And yet, there was a time when this isolated, desolate country was the center of the greatest land empire the world has ever known. That this was the case is due entirely to Genghis Khan (1167?-1227), the most extraordinary military leader in history.

Genghis Khan was born in the mid-12th century, a time when Mongolia was populated by tribal nomads. The most powerful tribe, the Borjigin, was led by a warrior named Kabul Khan (the designation "Khan" meaning leader). Kabul's son Yesugei was also a leader, chief of a Borjigin subclan called the Kiyat. Somewhere between 1162-1167, Yesugei had a son named Temujin ("blacksmith"). In 1175, when Temujin was still a boy, his father was killed by neighboring Tartars (another tribe) who had had a grudge against him. Because Temujin was so young, the Kiyat chose another relative to be their leader, abandoning Temujin and his immediate family to die in the wilderness.

Temujin, however, was a survivor: he struggled and, by the age of 20, he managed to take over the leadership of the Kiyat. In 1196, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather by taking over the entire Borjigin tribe. Ten years later, in 1206, Temujin attended a meeting of khans (leaders), where he was able to take control of all the tribes. As a symbol of his authority, Temujin adopted the name Genghis Kahn ("Supreme Exalted Ruler").

Genghis Khan proved to be an extraordinary warrior, leader and organizer. He set to work consolidating the various tribes into a single people. He imposed uniform laws, established a written language and, most important, built a large, efficient army. The army was organized into units called tumen, each of which had 10,000 men (similar to a modern division). Each tumen consisted of 10 groups of 1,000 men, each group being divided into smaller units of 100 and 10. As a tumen traveled, it took along not only logistical support, including 3-4 horses per soldier, but wives and children.

By today's standards, the army was primitive: the soldiers moved on horseback, and the weapons of choice were bows and arrows and spears. And yet, Genghis Khan was able to fight and conquer many other tribes. In addition, he developed methods for successfully laying siege to fortified cities. If a tribe or city resisted Genghis Khan's army, he could be particularly vindictive, slaughtering entire populations.

In 1227, Genghis Khan, the greatest military leader of all time, died, leaving a vast empire that stretched from Korea and China all the way to Russia and Iraq.

In 1227, at the age of 60, Genghis Khan died, leaving a vast empire that stretched (in modern terms) from Korea and China all the way to Russia and Iraq, boasting a large capital city, Karakorum, near the center of the region. Genghis Khan was a careful planner, even to the point of specifying what should happen after his death. His burial was carried out in complete secrecy, and his empire was divided, according to his wishes, among several sons and grandsons.

Over the years, his descendents were able to enlarge the sphere of Mongolian influence, to the west as far as the Volga River and the Black Sea. To the south and east, they were able to conquer and unify all of China. For a long time, the spoils of war — taxes and other forms of tribute — flowed from the empire into Karakorum, which became a city of palaces, feasts and celebrations. Within a century and a half, however, the Mongolian empire had crumbled and the city of Karakorum was (in 1388) reduced to a pile of rubble by the Chinese army.

Today, Genghis Khan is still remembered by the Mongolian people: his face appears on their bank notes (as well as the labels of Mongolian vodka). Genghis Khan was, arguably, the greatest military leader of all time. With his genius for organization and his capacity for merciless cruelty, if he were alive today — in a world with modern computers and modern weapons — we would all be in big trouble.


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