Records of the Great Khan’s early life are sparse and contradictory. He was likely born in 1162, though some sources give it as 1155 or 1165.
We know that the boy was given the name Temujin. His father Yesukhei was the chief of the minor Borijin clan of nomadic Mongols, who lived by hunting rather than herding.
Yesukhei had kidnapped Temujin’s young mother, Hoelun, as she and her first husband rode home from their wedding. She became Yesukhei’s second wife; Temujin was his second son by just a few months. Mongol legend says that the baby was born with a blood-clot in his fist, a sign that he would be a great warrior.
When Temujin was nine, his father took him to a neighboring tribe to work for several years and earn a bride. His intended was a slightly older girl named Borje.
On the way home, Yesukhei was poisoned by rivals, and died. Temujin returned to his mother, but the clan expelled Yesukhei’s two widows and seven children, leaving them to die.
The family scraped a living by eating roots, rodents, and fish. Young Temujin and his full brother Khasar grew to resent their eldest half-brother, Begter. They killed him; as punishment for the crime, Temujin was seized as a slave. His captivity may have lasted more than five years.
Free at sixteen, Temujin went to find Borje again. She was still waiting, and they soon married. The couple used her dowry, a fine sable-fur coat, to make an alliance with Ong Khan of the powerful Kereyid clan. Ong Khan accepted Temujin as a foster-son.
This alliance proved key, as Hoelun’s Merkid clan decided to avenge her long-ago kidnapping by stealing Borje. With the Kereyid army, Temujin raided the Merkids, looting their camp and reclaiming Borje.
Temujin also had help in the raid from his childhood blood-brother (“anda”), Jamuka, who would later become a rival. Borje’s first son, Jochi, was born nine months later.
After rescuing Borje, Temujin’s small band stayed with Jamuka’s group for several years. Jamuka soon asserted his authority, rather than treating Temujin as an anda, and a two-decade-long feud developed between the nineteen-year-olds. Temujin then left the camp, along with many of Jamuka’s followers and livestock.
At the age of 27, Temujin held a kuriltai among the Mongols, who elected him khan. The Mongols were only a Kereyid sub-clan, however, and Ong Khan played Jamuka and Temujin off one another.
As khan, Temujin awarded high office not just to his relatives, but to those followers who were most loyal to him.
In 1190, Jamuka raided Temujin’s camp, cruelly horse-dragging and even boiling alive his captives, which turned many of his followers against him.
The united Mongols soon defeated the neighboring Tatars and Jurkins, and Temujin Khan assimilated their people rather than following steppe custom of looting them and leaving.
Jamuka attacked Ong Khan and Temujin in 1201. Despite an arrow to the neck, Temujin defeated and assimilated Jamuka’s remaining warriors.
Ong Khan then treacherously tried to ambush Temujin at a wedding ceremony for Ong’s daughter and Jochi, but the Mongols escaped and returned to conquer the Kereyids.
Unification of Mongolia ended in 1204, when Temujin defeated the powerful Naiman clan. Two years later, another kuriltai confirmed him as Chingis Khan (“Genghis Khan”), or Oceanic Leader of all Mongolia.
Within five years, the Mongols had annexed much of Siberia and modern Chinese Xinjiang.
The Jurched Dynasty, ruling northern China from Zhongdu (Beijing), noticed the upstart Mongol khan and demanded that he kowtow to their Golden Khan. In reply, Genghis Khan spat on the ground.
He then defeated their tributaries, the Tangut, and in 1214 conquered the Jurcheds and their 50 million citizens. The Mongol army numbered just 100,000.
Tribes as far away as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan heard about the Great Khan, and overthrew their Buddhist rulers in order to join his growing empire. By 1219, Genghis Khan ruled from northern China to the Afghan border, and Siberia to the border of Tibet.
He sought a trade alliance with the powerful Khwarizm Empire, which controlled Central Asia from Afghanistan to the Black Sea. Sultan Muhammad II agreed, but then murdered the first Mongol trade convoy of 450 merchants, stealing their goods. Before the end of that year, the wrathful Khan had captured every Khwarizm city, adding lands from Turkey to Russia to his realm.
In 1222, the 61-year-old Khan called a family kuriltai to discuss the
succession. His four sons disagreed over which should be Great Khan. Jochi, the eldest, was born soon after Borje’s kidnapping and might not be Genghis Khan’s son, so second son Changatai challenged his right to the title.
As a compromise, the third son, Ogodei, became successor. Jochi died in February 1227, six months before his father, who passed away that autumn.
Ogodei took East Asia, which would become Yuan China. Chagatai got Central Asia. Tolui, the youngest, took Mongolia proper. Jochi’s sons got Russia and Eastern Europe.
After Genghis Khan’s secret burial on the steppes of Mongolia, his sons and grandsons continued to expand the Mongol Empire.
Ogodei’s son Kublai Khan defeated the Song rulers of China in 1279, and established the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan would rule all of China until 1368. Meanwhile, Chagatai pushed south from his Central Asian holdings, conquering Persia.
Within Mongolia, Genghis Khan revolutionized the social structure and reformed traditional law.
His was an egalitarian society, in which the humblest slave could rise to be an army commander if he showed skill or bravery. War booty was divided evenly among all warriors, regardless of social status. Unlike most rulers of the time, Genghis Khan trusted loyal followers above his own family members (which contributed to the difficult succession as he aged).
The Great Khan forbade the kidnapping of women, probably due in part to his wife’s experience, but also because it led to warfare among different Mongol groups. He outlawed livestock rustling for the same reason, and established a winter-only hunting season to preserve game for the hardest times.
Contrary to his ruthless and barbaric reputation in the west, Genghis Khan promulgated several enlightened policies that would not become common practice in Europe for centuries more.
He guaranteed freedom of religion, protecting the rights of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus alike. Genghis Khan himself worshiped the sky, but he forbade the killing of priests, monks, nuns, mullahs, and other holy people.
The Great Khan also protected enemy envoys and ambassadors, no matter what message they brought. Unlike most of the conquered peoples, the Mongols eschewed torture and mutilation of prisoners. Finally, the khan himself was bound by these laws as well as the common people.