Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan, as he’s known in Mongolia) has been a reviled historical figure throughout the world for almost 800 years. The wars he waged spanned nearly the entire Eurasian continent, from the East China Sea to the Black Sea, and resulted in over 30 million deaths by some estimates. Also, his conquests led to the destruction of numerous cities and settlements across this vast landscape. However, a closer look into the life of Chinggis Khan reveals a more complex man than the usual image of him as a brutal barbarian. This list shows 10 reasons why Chinggis Khan wasn’t a simple warmonger; if you know any other notable accomplishments of Chinggis Khan, please let us know in the comment section.
Mongols at the time predominantly believed in a form of shamanism called Tengrism. Tengrism is an animistic belief that holds that the land, rivers, lakes, and mountains hold spirits within them that are both powerful and ancient. The head deity in Tengrism is called Munkh Khukh Tenger, or Eternal Heaven. Chinggis Khan himself was a devout follower of Tengrism, even going so far as to believe that a powerful spirit of the mountain Burkhan Khaldun had blessed him and his family. Although the Mongols were devout people, they did not forcibly convert their conquered subjects; instead, they emphasized religious freedom. This was due to both the incompatibility of Tengrism to peoples and lands outside Mongolia as well as a genuine curiosity about other religions. The Mongols would hold debates between believers of diverse religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam to understand more about them. Many of Chinggis Khan’s advisers were also men of diverse faiths. Chinggis Khan’s son and heir, Ogedei Khan, eventually built a capital in Mongolia, Karakorum, which had religious buildings catering to the previously mentioned religions.
Creating a National Code of Law
Chinggis Khan decreed a set of national laws called Yassa, or Ikh Zasag, which governed all Mongols. While it’s problematic that no actual copy of the Yassa has ever been found, there are numerous records of the Yassa’s laws being noted by different scholars. The Yassa stressed equality between ethnic Mongols and prisoners of war who wanted to become soldiers in the Mongol army, hospitality for strangers by requiring hosts to offer their guests food and accommodation, preservation of the environment (with punishment for Mongols who washed their clothes in or bathed in rivers), respect for local traditions (non-Mongols were permitted to bathe in rivers), and women were given priority in managing the property of a household. It is, however, interesting to note that the Yassa also stressed loyalty to Chinggis Khan while having severe punishments (death) for most transgressions.
Establishing a Meritocratic Society
As opposed to his ancestors or contemporaries in the Mongol political scene, Chinggis Khan prioritized rewarding people based on their merits rather than family history and reputation. This also had a positive effect on military morale, as even soldiers from unknown families could rise to prominence. What was especially valuable to Chinggis Khan was loyalty and bravery in battle. A particularly prominent story of this merit system was how Subutai, a blacksmith’s son, eventually became a general in the Mongol army. However, these positive changes to Mongol society and politics would not last forever and within a few decades after his death, a strong culture of nobility had resurfaced. This would especially prove problematic after the fall of the Mongol Empire with numerous rival nobles fighting each other for power.
Contributing to Diplomatic Protocol
Chinggis Khan was a firm believer in diplomatic immunity and even began a war against the Persian Khwarazmid Empire due to their mistreatment (read: execution) of Mongol diplomats and traders. Interestingly enough, after the Mongols captured the Persian noble responsible for the death of the Mongol diplomats they melted and poured gold and silver into his eyes and mouth as a punishment for his greed. This was possibly the inspiration for the infamous scene of Khal Drogo killing Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Also, the Mongols had a rudimentary passport used by messengers and nobles called either Paiza or Gerege that was used as proof of that person’s diplomatic immunity. The Gerege also could be made of different materials to denote the status of the person holding it. These materials included gold, silver, bronze, etc.
Encouraging Global Trade
Chinggis Khan and his descendants were mindful of the importance of trade to the management of an empire and were keen to revive the Silk Road after it had fallen into disrepair and disuse after the Crusades. While Chinggis Khan died before the Silk Road was safe enough to use properly due to the war with the Khwarazm Empire, it would enter a new age of prosperity under his grandson, Khubilai Khan, and would allow numerous explorers – including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta – to document the world. It would also revive the trade between the West and China. Through the Silk Road, numerous inventions common in China were brought to Europe including, but not limited to, paper, gunpowder, printing (not press printing), and the compass.
Setting the Foundation of Modern Mongolia
Before Chinggis Khan, Mongolia was divided into numerous tribes that fought one another for dominance, with the occasional support from China (especially the Jin Dynasty). Even Chinggis Khan’s father, a respected noble, was poisoned by a rival tribe. Therefore, an important priority for Chinggis Khan was to unite these disparate tribes into a single political entity. He did this by effectively reorganizing the country; by enforcing a decimal system of military organization putting soldiers into units of 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000. Within a unit of 10, men from different tribes were put together to serve on the front line. Desertion and cowardice were severely punished, and after the many decades of warfare, the tribal differences had basically dissolved and a tribal structure would never again achieve prominence in Mongolia.
Promoting Literacy and Learning
Chinggis Khan also decreed that the Uighur script (the same Uighurs living in Xinjiang, PRC today) would be the official alphabet of the Empire and promoted literacy. He was also especially lenient towards scholars, engineers, scientists, and architects working under his enemies. Yelu Chucai, a subject of the Jin Dynasty in China, and Shikhikhutug, a man of the tribe that killed Chinggis Khan’s father, were all taken into his inner council and helped him formulate national policy. Chinggis Khan himself had a teacher known as Tata Tonga who was responsible for adapting the Uighur script into the Middle Mongolian language, which is still used in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region to this day (while Cyrillic is employed in Mongolia).
Not Starting Wars Out of Bloodlust
Contrary to popular belief, none of Chinggis Khan’s wars began as an attempt to simply destroy. While we cannot deny the devastation that his wars caused, we must also be mindful of why they started in the first place. The war against the Jin Dynasty began due to the Jin’s consistent meddling in Mongol internal affairs by pitting one Mongol tribe against another. The war against the Kara Khitai (a kingdom that existed in China) started because a Mongol lord that launched an unprovoked attack onChinggis Khan escaped and usurped the throne of the Kara Khitai. The war with Persia started because a Mongol trade mission to Persia was slaughtered. The war with kingdoms around the Black Sea began as an expeditionary force to scout, pacify and secure the north front in the war against Persia. A final war against the already subjugated Xi Xia occurred because they did not send Chinggis Khan his promised reinforcements. Chinggis Khan was not a mindless maniac. He was a calculating statesman with a keen eye for strategy.
Jamukha was a childhood friend of Chinggis Khan and assisted him many times during his early wars. When a rival tribe, the Merkits, kidnapped Chinggis Khan’s wife, Borte, Jamukha helped him to get her back. However, Jamukha had ambitions of his own. He betrayed Chinggis Khan and fought against him for rule of Mongolia. After he was defeated, Chinggis Khan offered to forgive him and accept him back into his inner council. However, Jamukha refused, knowing that he had already dishonored himself by betraying his friend and asked for a clean death. Chinggis Khan obliged and allowed him to die a bloodless death by having his back broken (a death reserved only for people of nobility in Mongolian tradition).
Nine months after Borte, Chinggis Khan’s first wife, was rescued from the Merkits, she gave birth to a baby boy named Jochi (meaning “guest” in Middle Mongolian). There were questions relating to his parentage and such doubts would plague Jochi for the rest of his life. Jochi’s younger brother, Chagatai, was especially suspicious of him and this eventually created a rift in the family, not to mention questions concerning succession. Chinggis Khan, however, treated and raised Jochi as his first born. Eventually, while he chose another of his sons, Ogedei, as his heir, Jochi was still given sizable land to govern between Xinjiang and the Ural Mountains. It is curious to speculate why Chinggis Khan chose Ogedei over Jochi as heir. While Jochi died soon after this decision and was actually not in Mongolia during the meeting that decided his father’s succession, it does make one wonder whether this is how Chinggis Khan had planned the succession in the first place. We may never know.
Saikhnaa is a writer who's passionate about history, philosophy and culture. He's spent the last 5 years working on youth leadership development in Mongolia, Thailand, Pakistan and China. He is now writing his own blog (medium.com/@mementomori) as well as working on the Untold Mongolia podcast with SoWhyMongolia.