Starting from a small tribe in the Steppes of Mongolia, in spite of being abandoned, betrayed, captivated and deserted (didn’t quite plan the abcd sequence of misfortunes, but this is but a fraction), Genghis Khan and his Mongol army would go on to achieve more in 25 years than the Romans did in 400 years.
Coming up with a good title is half the writing battle (at least for me). Once I have a good title and question, the writing happens faster on its own. Clogging up my thoughts too long (blocking other stuff I want to write about) is the Mongol Emperor, Genghis Khan also called Jenghis Khan and some say it should be more correctly, Chingghis Khan. Call him any name, he is the one big Khan (Emperor) and the biggest of them all (if you want to tack superlatives on top of superlatives). Now why should you read about Genghis?
- He changed the history of the world in more ways than we can imagine
- Not just geographically and politically but also in warfare, religion, currency, business, communication .. so on.
- It’s a super entertaining story - now that we are a safe millenia away from it
If you want cheap thrill, read fiction. If you want serious thrill, read histories for Truth is far far stranger than fiction.
Remember the golden crown episode from Game of Thrones? Yup, that’s what Genghis did in real life. A general would not pay his dues (Silver coins). Genghis captured him, molted all his silver and poured it on his head. Or how about setting an entire castle on fire? Cutting off supplies to a castle for months? Or .. you get the picture. Neither relishing the atrocities nor condoning them, those were but strange brutal times.
A super quick highlight reel of his early life: Born Temujin to a small tribal leader, his father would be poisoned when following a custom of accepting a meal offering during desert travel. His family deserted by all others , young Temujin would be left to fend for just immediate family. When Uncles and friends would turn against to kill, he would have to escape many times. Eventually he would grow and attract a small following. They would then go on to raid and form bigger alliances. Eventually he would ward off all his local Mongol enemies but the friction of having two big leaders (Temujin on one side and his best friend Jamaka on the other) would get too big to ignore. Temujin would go on to defeat his friend/army and call up on a “Kurultai” (a big gathering of all mongol leaders who elect their new leader) where he would be anointed Genghis Khan.
The life in the Steppes is very nomadic, they would have a huge sheep and horse (smaller kind like ponies) as cattle and their life would be following their grazing patterns and setting up Gers (huts / tents) and be on the move according to the seasons. They had very little possessions. They didn’t have any one place as home. Their diet is from the animals they grow and tend to. The Mongol kids would learn horseback riding from as early an age as 3 or 4. They did not have any one strong religion. They would learn archery too from a young age. All of these seemingly small points here and there would add up to be a much bigger sum than the parts that would uniquely contribute to the Mongol advantage in later years.
Whereas normal armies would have to stay away from families for long time, the mongols move the entire village / city with them. Which meant that the work done by support crew (mostly the ladies) such as creating uniforms, building tools, bows and arrows, shields, tending to family and cattle, … would all be taken care off. A large part of ancient warfare was about Transportation. How to move food and water and keep the big army nourished. In the case of Mongols, moving with the cattle which they ate was already part of their life. Normal arrows would go 150 yards but the Mongols had a smaller but tighter strung bow which could shoot 300-450 yards. Now combine that with expert archers that the Mongols were, they had a huge advantage even before getting closer to the enemies (who largely depended on swords and hand to hand combats). Now tack on top of that the Mongol ability to sit and ride backwards on their horses and shoot (exactly when all four hoofs of the horses are in the air so there is minimal jolt) with great precision, they were a new kind of killing machines who had no matches in the kingdoms thye would encounter who practiced the traditional way of warfare. The mongol rider could ride 2 to 3 days non-stop. The army as a whole could march twice or thrice the distances of a traditional army of the same size. The smaller horses were also moved way more flexibly in battles as opposed to armies with the much bigger (stronger) horses which became their liability.
Combine this with the leadership and astute stratetic planning of Genghis Khan. He had four generals (called his four horsemen) who he could trust. He would develop a meritocratic system where the large part of the loot would be divided to the ones who actually fought for it (bottom-up) as opposed to the traditional kingdoms where the king first takes a huge (greater than 50% share) and it flows top-down. He organized his army in groups of ten. Each subsection would have a leader. Thus dividing it into decimal subsections of arbans (10 soldiers), zuuns (100), Mingghans (1000), and tumens (10,000).
One of his strategies is to spread terror and fear more through the word of mouth and written works than the actual happening of it. When he comes by a new fort/city, he would send a messenger for them all the surrender immediately. If they consent, then the mongols will loot them, take some as slaves but leave the rest to be ruled under Mongol empire. If they don’t consent in two days, he gives them a second warning, that he will kill all men of fighting age, but atleast the old, the child and women can live. By day three, if they still don’t surrender, he would kill them all. Whether true or not, how many cities / forts he actually obliterated this way, the message was clear. If you resist Genghis, prepare to fight till death.
Patience was one of his greatest virtues where he plan and wait for his enemies to come to a location of his choosing. Often his strategy would be to get them to a narrow pass, closer to a mountain and so forth, with which he was able to defeat armies 3 to 4 times his size. It was not until he was 40 or so that he got to be Genghis Khan. Even then still a ruler only of Mongolia. But in short time would go on to capture large parts of China, Russia and Arabia.
Since they did not have any religion on their own, they would let every captured nation follow their religon of choosing. They would spare all the artists, scholars and engineers. They had no written script and hence would adopt whatever nation / scholars they captured. They would prioritize communication as a key aspect - setting up the equivalent of post-offices which had supplies and fresh horses for a mongol messenger to convey messages. They had an elaborate system of coordination with drums and flags, and a very strong army training regimen – that they would appear confused and overpowered and losing in a battle only to be able to turn it around in an instant with a few signals from their leaders. One of their strategies is to pretend they are defeated and stage a retreat. More often than not, the enemies take the bait thinking that they will slaughter the puny mongols for good so they will never come back only to find themselves very well trapped and get slaughtered.
His family wasn’t without drama. Genghis would go on to marry many wives – there is a surprising large percentage of mongol population that can trace their genes back to Genghis. His first wife Borte (who would be kidnapped and lead a slave life for over a year) would be the mother of the future kings. The first born while Borte was a slave and second son (who felt he was the true Genghis heir) would always be in conflict. That neither would get anything and be sent to far off lands to be a commander of a smaller kingdom. The third son Ogodei Khan would become the king. A few more killings, conspiracies, here and there (I lose count), two more quick successions, the next famous king in short order is Kublai Khan.
At this point, in three generations, it is the greatest rags to riches story, where the Mongols ruled the largest continguous land in the world all the way from Pacific on their Eastern border reaching as close to the Atlantic on their Western border. All of the Arabian countries were ruled by Mongols and their history (Iran/Persia, Iraq / Baghdad, Afghanistan, Turkey) would forever be changed. Dozens of cities obliterated. Architecture and Sculpture had little value to them. So were books and libraries. Baghdad was one of the riches cities in the world and its Universities and libraries were a rich treasure trove of human knowledge. All that would be destroyed.
Oh well, I can keep on going but would rather refer you to a few books that I learnt this from. Rather than start with a history book which will bore the heck out of anyone (esp. if a course or exams are associated with it), I would suggest this order.
Eternally thankful to Mano for introducing me to Genghis and also gifting me the first book long ago. (little did the rascal know he would make me incur four more books and then another half a doze books by going deep down the Mongol rabbit hole).
Start with the
five book historic-fiction series by Conn Iggluden called as the Conqueror Series`.
Theese books are un-put-downable. ON top of it, they are actually about 80+% history.
Only a small part fiction to make the narration interesting.
Conn Iggluden's Conqueror Series
1. Genghis: Birth of an Empire
2. Genghis: Lords of the Bow
3. Genghis: Bones of the Hill
4. Khan: Empire of Silver
5. Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan
At this point, you are ready for the serious history.
One of the authorities on Mongols and Genghis is
Jack Weatherford's amazing book His "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World".
But he does overdo since it is his given topic/thesis (so warning). But he lives in Mongolia! He has a few other books “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire” and “Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom”. I have not read these two.
If you are ready for another round of historic fiction, then I can heartily recommend Tom Shanely.
Tom Shanely's Heaven's Favorite Series
1. Ascent: The Rise of Chinggis Khan (Heaven's Favorite Book 1)
2. Dominion: Dawn of the Mongol Empire (Heaven's Favorite Book 2)
To continue the yin and yang between historic fiction and non-fiction narration, then next book, I would recommend is
Frank McLynn's "Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy".
These nine books have not just been enteraining but have been illuminating too about the History of the World (no less)! These teach us lots of things to NOT do. However, they do also show us the lessons we can learn from. There are many good parts to it. Having lived in the Silicon Valley for 22+ years, and seeing startups and reading startup histories and stories, the Mongols had their own way of a startup - a deadly one at it - where it truly was life or death. Even omitting the war and the gory parts, there is enough for anyone in a leadership role to learn from, enough to motivate the teams and the small startups that fight against all odds for the greater good. My humble opinion that these nine books based on real history will give us more lessons than sometimes nine months of boring classes.
From a startup lesson perspective:
- Start with a small focussed team
- As you expand, have the same basic structure in place that can be replicated
- Have a trust group of lietenants
- Do or Die situations (I mean, in their case, literally)
- Play your own game by your own rules by your own strengths
- If others set rules, not knowing them or not knowing your limitations (or what they think as disadvantages) can be your advantage
- Combine many tiny strengths to compound the effect
- Be meritocratic / share the rewards so
- Give the team what they want first
- Embrace the lessons you learn from the enemies
- Play a non-zero sum game - so everyone is well off
- Be patient
- Be strategic and plan well
- Lead by example
Extremely sadly, there is just one or two movies of Mongols. There is one by that eponymous name in Mongolian. But it is nowhere near the complete story. There is one more documentary like. There are a few animated youtube videos that go into the war side of things. Those are nice but still only part of the story. We are left with waiting for a treatment truly deserving of the Mongol history (along the likes of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones … etc).
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
by writer and philosopher George Santayana
I have another half a dozen books of Genghis and Mongols in my ever-growing Tsundoku shelf - but that’s for another day. Mongolia / Ulan Batur and the Steppes are very high on my places-to-visit list. If you have interesting books to recommend (or even movies/videos), please kindly do so and accept my sincere thanks.