A rough childhood in the steppes

We all know who Genghis Khan is. The dude who established the largest contiguous land empire in human history, killed 5-10% of the entire human population, and slept with more women than you will ever talk to. Nice.

That’s all the stuff he’s famous for, and at The History Buffs we hate being mainstream. So today we’re going to focus on what Genghis did in his early life – from his birth to when he realized he was destined for conquering.

Genghis Khan: You know the guy. The guy who unified the disunified Mongol Steppe and conquered the greatest empires on the planet. The Mongolian pronunciation of his name is actually Chingis

Genghis Khan adopted his name after he unified the disunified Mongol tribes and was declared the first Khan of the Mongol Empire. Before this he was called Temujin, which we’ll be using from now on. 

Khan: A title for a leader of a tribe or confederation (Khanate).

His birth year is debated, but it seems that 1162 is the most agreed upon date so we’ll roll with that. Baby Temujin was born holding a blood clot – a sign that he was destined to become a great leader. While that’s probably just some good storytelling, Temujin was born into nobility which was a great start to climbing the corporate ladder. 

His father, Yesugei, was the de facto leader of the Khamag Mongol, a powerful confederation of tribes. At this time, the Mongolian Steppe was a conglomeration of independent tribes and confederations running amuck. The bigger confederations were called Khanates, with the biggest being the Khamag Mongol, Tartars, Merkits, Keraites, and the Naimans.

*The defined terms for these Khanates will show up later if mentioned

Yesugei: The de facto leader of the Khamag Mongol confederation and the father of Temujin. 

Khamag Mongol: The tribe Temujin was born into. Ruled the area around the Onon River.

Khanates: Refers to a political entity, typically on the Eurasian Steppe. Can be equated to a chiefdom, kingdom, or empire.

Temujin spent his childhood with his siblings by the Onon River, riding horses and shooting stuff with arrows as all good Mongol children do.

Onon River: The river in which the Khamag Mongol confederation lay and the birthplace of Temujin. One of the most fertile areas in the region.

When Temujin reached the age of nine it was time for him to get married – as all good Mongol children do. The main reason of course was to create a political alliance. Yesugei went out wife hunting for his son and found Borte, a member of a friendly tribe who was only a year older than Temujin.

Borte: Temujin’s first wife and perhaps the most influential person in his life.

Onon river highlighted in red. It’s said that Temujin grew up near the modern day capital Ulaanbaatar (spelled Ulan Bator on map, circled in black).

As a dowry it was agreed that Temujin would be subjected to the terrible fate of living with his in-laws for several years. Fortunately for Temujin, his fate would be reversed… only to unfortunately be replaced with a worse one.

After negotiating the deal, Yesugei would dine with a group of Tartar men on the way back – a group of men whose friend he happened to kill a while ago. While Yesugei didn’t recognize the men – they recognized him.

Tartars: While Tartar refers to an ethnic group, in this case it refers to the Tartar Confederation. They were the historic enemies of the Chinese and were eventually incorporated into the Mongol Empire.

To exact revenge, they poisoned his food. Yesugei managed to make it back to the camp and ordered one of his retainers to retrieve Temujin from his in-laws. Temujin was safely returned, but not before his father passed away. None of Yesugei’s children were old enough to rule, thus not able to lead the tribe. 

Without a strong leader, the tribespeople wouldn’t be able to raid other tribes with success, meaning less loot and women they’d be able to steal.  So they all promptly dipped, leaving Temujin and his family to fend for themselves.

Temujin meme

Straight out of the steppe

For the next several years, Temujin, his three brothers, two half-brothers, sister, his step-mother, and mother (awkward) lived a rough life. Food was scarce and their clothes were made from the skin of rodents patched together. Temujin’s mother, Hoelun, was a strong woman who tried her damn hardest to keep the family together.

Hoelun: Temujin’s mother. She was originally from the Merkit tribe until Yesugei captured her and made her his wife. Was one of the most influential people in Temujin’s life.

 Despite Hoelun’s efforts, the family became extremely fractured, often not cooperating on many things. The eldest half-brother, Bekhter tried to establish power over the family which of course didn’t ride with Temujin.

Bekhter: Temujin’s eldest half-brother.

Tensions boiled over when Temujin was around 15 years old. He and his brother snuck up on the pair of half-brothers, and shot Bekhter point blank, while sparing the younger of the pair. While Hoelun was furious, the surviving half-brother and step-mother made a business decision and became loyal followers of Temujin.

Shortly after this, Temujin was captured by a neighboring tribe and was held prisoner. He would be imprisoned with a cangue all day and night with a guard always by his side (the head itches must’ve been terrible). 

Cangue: A device used for confining a prisoner’s neck. It was a flat rectangular device with a hole for the head to go through.

A photo of a Chinese criminal in a cangue in the 1890s

An opportunity for escape arose one night when his guard was a young and puny kid. Taking this chance, Temujin bonked him in the head with the cangue and pulled off a 500 IQ play.

Instead of running away, he hid in some nearby bushes. When the men of the tribe rode off to find Temujin, he made his escape with the help of a sympathetic family. We don’t know how long he was imprisoned for, but it couldn’t have been long since he was able to follow the tracks of his family.

It all worked out as the escape gave Temujin some clout and many started to follow him. In the ensuing time, Temujin had a bunch of other wacky adventures. Rashid ad-Din (one of the best sources on the Mongols) recalls a story Genghis told of his youth:

Before I ascended the throne I was riding alone on one occasion. Six men lay in ambush along the route, with evil intentions towards me. As I approached them I drew my sword and attacked. They, for their part, loosed arrows at me but these all flew past without one hitting me. I hacked the men down and rode on unscathed. On my return I passed close to their bodies. Their six geldings (a castrated horse) were roaming masterless in the area and could not be caught, but I drove them home before me.

Rashid ad-Din in his Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh in the early 14th century

A year later at the age of 16 Temujin had remembered something –  his fiancee Borte. After spending some time searching, he found her and was received well by his father-in-law and they married. Borte’s family gifted Temujin a black sable cloak (a very rare and valuable cloak), but he had other plans for it.

*On a side note here, it’s kind of wild how you could just go out and find someone back then – especially nomadic peoples. Like I can’t even drive 15 minutes to Walmart without using my GPS.

Temujin went to the Khan of the Keraites, Toghrul for protection.Toghrul was an old friend of Temujin’s father. In a sign of fellowship, Temujin offered Toghrul the sable cloak and asked for protection, which Toghrul granted and promised to help put together the dispersed peoples of the Khamag Mongol.

Keraites: One of the five major confederations of the Mongol Steppe. Eventually incorporated into the Mongol Empire. They were actually Christian, practicing Nestorianism.

Toghrul: Khan of the Keraites. An old ally of Yesugei.

Temujin meme

Then Genghis would retire to his camp. There he had his wife, family, and loyal followers. Genghis would then live a peacef – just kidding, it’s time for some kidnapping.  

Everyone is Mr. Steal yo Girl

Let’s quickly circle back to Temujin’s father, Yesugei. He was actually the original Mr. Steal yo Girl as he kidnapped Hoelun (Temujin’s mother) from a rival tribal confederation called the Merkits and made her his own wife.

Merkits: A major confederation in the Mongolian Steppe. Would eventually be incorporated into the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan.

Temujin was caught completely off guard when the Merkits came, but they were able to escape – everyone except for Borte that is. For some odd reason or another, Temujin took his followers and left her behind. Borte either got lost in the confusion or it was intentional to stall the Merkits. Either way the Merkits didn’t pursue, leaving one pissed off Mongol.

Temujin meme

Toghrul was livid that the Merkits attacked a vassal of his. He assembled 20,000 warriors and linked up with Temujin’s childhood friend Jamukha, who commanded an additional 20,000 warriors. The Merkits stood no chance and their camp was absolutely obliterated.

Jamukha: A childhood friend of Temujin. They were besties, but eventually became rivals. Jamukha would be the biggest obstacle in Temujin’s unification of the Mongol Khanates.

Temujin found Borte and all was well – except that Borte was pregnant with a son that was probably not Temujins. This caused some problems down the line, but that’s a story for another day.

And that’s the story!

The next step in Temujin’s life would be to unify the disunified tribes of the Mongole Steppe where he was pitted against his best friend Jamukha. Temujin would then go out and conquer the most sophisticated civilizations around, establishing the largest land empire in human history.

Borte would end up as one of the most influential people in Temujin’s life, leading his several other wives and the other 500 women in his harem. Temujin would then go on to be responsible for the deaths of approximately 40 million people which was about 5%-10% of the world population. Nice. 

A depiction of Borte by Baswan and Bhim of Gujarat in 1596

Moral of the story: Go hit up that ex you haven’t seen in several years. Maybe one day they will lead your harem while you go conquer the world.

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

Dates vary source to source

1162: Temujin (Genghis Khan) is born.

1171: Yesugei dies and the tribe abandons his family. The confederation falls into disarray. 

1177: Temujin kills his older step-brother, asserting seniority over his family. Then Temujin is captured by another tribe and escapes.

~1178: Temujin finds Borte, marries her, and becomes a vassal under Toghrul

1184: Borte is captured by the Merkits, but Temujin rallies the support Toghrul of his friend Jamukha and recovers her.

Bekhter: Temujin’s eldest half-brother.

Borte: Temujin’s first wife and perhaps the most influential person in his life. 

Cangue: A device used for confining a prisoner’s neck. It was a flat rectangular device with a hole for the head to go through.

Genghis Khan: You know the guy. The guy who unified the disunified Mongol Steppe and conquered the greatest empires on the planet. The Mongolian pronunciation of his name is actually Chingis.

Hoelun: Temujin’s mother. She was originally from the Merkit tribe until Yesugei captured her and made her his wife. Was one of the most influential people in Temujin’s life.

Jamukha: A childhood friend of Temujin. They were besties, but eventually became rivals. Jamukha would be the biggest obstacle in Temujin’s unification of the Mongol Khanates.

Keraites: One of the five major confederations of the Mongol Steppe. Eventually incorporated into the Mongol Empire. They were actually Christian, practicing Nestorianism.

Khan: A title for a leader of a tribe or confederation (Khanate).

Khanates: Refers to a political entity, typically on the Eurasian Steppe. Can be equated to a chiefdom, kingdom, or empire.

Khamag Mongol: The tribe Temujin was born into. Ruled the area around the Onon River.

Merkits: A major confederation in the Mongolian Steppe. Would eventually be incorporated into the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan.

 

Onon River: The river in which the Khamag Mongol confederation lay and the birthplace of Temujin. One of the most fertile areas in the region.

Toghrul: Khan of the Keraites. An old ally of Yesugei.

Yesugei: The de facto leader of the Khamag Mongol confederation and the father of Temujin. 

And win free stuff 🙂

Sources:

The History of the Mongol Conquests. J.J. Saudners. 2001

Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Paul Ratchnevsky. 1992