Mongolian warrior and ruler Genghis Khan created the largest empire in the world, the Mongol Empire, by destroying individual tribes in Northeast Asia.
Born in north-central Mongolia around 1162, Genghis Khan was originally named “Temujin” after a Tatar chieftain that his father, Yesukhei, had captured. Young Temujin was a member of the Borjigin tribe and a descendant of Khabul Khan, who briefly united Mongols against the Jin (Chin) Dynasty of northern China in the early 1100s. According to the “Secret History of the Mongols” (a contemporary account of Mongol history), Temujin was born with a blood clot in his hand, a sign in Mongol folklore that he was destined to become a leader. His mother, Hoelun, taught him the grim reality of living in turbulent Mongol tribal society and the need for alliances.
The ‘Universal Ruler’
When Temujin was about 20, he was captured in a raid by former family allies, the Taichi’s, and temporarily enslaved. He escaped with the help of a sympathetic captor and joined his brothers and several other clansmen to form a fighting unit. Temujin began his slow ascent to power by building a large army of more than 20,000 men. He set out to destroy traditional divisions among the various tribes and unite the Mongols under his rule.
“Genghis” wasn’t his real name.
The man who would become the “Great Khan” of the Mongols was born along the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin, which means “of iron” or “blacksmith.” He didn’t get the honorific name “Genghis Kahn” until 1206 when he was proclaimed leader of the Mongols at a tribal meeting known as a “kurultai.” While “Khan” is a traditional title meaning “leader” or “ruler,” historians are still unsure of the origins of “Genghis.” It may have may have meant “ocean” or “just,” but in context, it is usually translated as “supreme ruler” or “universal ruler.”
He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how many people perished during the Mongol conquests, many historians put the number at somewhere around 40 million. Censuses from the Middle Ages show that the population of China plummeted by tens of millions during the Khan’s lifetime, and scholars estimate that he may have killed a full three-fourths of modern-day Iran’s population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire. All told, the Mongols’ attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent.
He created one of the first international postal systems
Along with the bow and the horse, the Mongols most potent weapon may have been their vast communication network. One of his earliest decrees as Khan involved the formation of a mounted courier service known as the “Yam.” This medieval express consisted of a well-organized series of post houses and way stations strung out across the whole of the Empire. By stopping to rest or take on a fresh mount every few miles, official riders could often travel as far as 200 miles a day. The system allowed goods and information to travel with unprecedented speed, but it also acted as the eyes and ears of the Khan.
No one knows how he died or where he is buried.
Of all the enigmas surrounding the Khan’s life, perhaps the most famous concerns how it ended. The traditional narrative says he died in 1227 from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse, but other sources list everything from malaria to an arrow wound in the knee. One of the more questionable accounts even claims he was murdered while trying to force himself on a Chinese princess. However he died, the Khan took great pains to keep his final resting place a secret. According to legend, his funeral procession slaughtered everyone they came in contact with during their journey and then repeatedly rode horses over his grave to help conceal it. The tomb is most likely on or around a Mongolian mountain called Burkhan Khaldun, but to this day its precise location is unknown.