Genghis Khan (1162–1227) was a Mongol warrior, who in the span of two decades led his ruthless army of nomadic tribesman to conquer vast stretches of Asia. At the time of his death, the Mongol Empire he founded was the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. Although the empire quickly disintegrated under his heirs, the bloody Mongol invasions marked a turning point in the history of both Europe and Asia and earned the Mongol king a reputation for brutality that endures to the present.
Genghis Khan was born as Temujin, the son of a Mongol chieftain. The Mongols in eastern Asia traditionally lived a nomadic lifestyle, wandering from one region to the next. After the murder of his father, Temujin became chief of a Mongol tribe at age thirteen. He was a charismatic leader.
Temujin was eventually able to unify the rest of the Mongol tribes, whose leaders then gave him the title Genghis Khan—the “emperor of all emperors.” After unifying the Mongols, Genghis Khan began a campaign of conquest that would last the rest of his life. His armies conquered portions of modern-day China, Russia, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. At its height, shortly after Genghis Khan’s death, the Mongol empire stretched from Korea to Eastern Europe.
The Mongol armies were disciplined, effective, and notoriously vicious. Their usual strategy was to give an enemy city the opportunity to surrender peacefully but then kill every resident if the offer was refused. As a result of such terror, Genghis Khan was able to convince whole nations to surrender without a fight.
Before the Mongols, contact between Europe and Asia was minimal. But the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan opened the way for trade and the exchange of ideas between the two continents. The Mongols opened the Silk Road, a trade route between Asia and Europe, and Europeans, such as the Italian Marco Polo, traveled to the land of the khans.
- Mongol nomads lived in round tents known as yurts, which could be moved whenever the tribe migrated to a different region. About 40 percent of Mongolia’s population still herds livestock, although many nomads settled in the cities during the last half of the twentieth century.
- For centuries, the splendors of the Mongol Empire fascinated Western writers. A luxurious summer capital built by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, inspired the famous 1797 poem “Kubla Khan” by the British romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- The Mongols repeatedly tried to invade the island of Japan, but their crude navy was destroyed by wind. In Japan, the legend of the kamikaze (divine wind) was passed down for centuries as evidence of Japan’s invincibility. At the end of World War II, desperate Japanese pilots crashed their planes into American ships in suicide missions meant to recreate the divine wind that had saved Japan from the Mongols.