Week 2: Genghis the Conqueror

It is not concealed from the minds of the intelligent and perspicacious or those possessed of vision and insight that history consists of recording and arranging. For every strange incident and marvelous unusual event that happens and is recorded in registers and on folios, the wise call the beginning of that event its date, and the extent and quantity of time can be known thereby. . . . [A]nd what event has ever been more appropriate for making it a date than the beginning of Genghis Khan’s rule?

— Rashid al-Din, Compendium of Chronicles

Genghis’s critics have sometimes been grudging about his achievement . . . But the truth is that Genghis and the Mongols cannot be contained by such a reductive analysis. They were an original phenomenon in so many ways, not all of them pleasant. They had a universalistic ideology, were capable of massive mobilisation, covered vast distances and caused enourmous devastation. In their thinking and practices they drew from many different cultures, Turkic, Persian, Chinese and Khitan, among others. And Genghis’s new state was original too, not just an assemblage of a dozen or so tribes but a unitary people that he had created by disbanding the clan system, redistributing its individual elements, and melding and fusing them into a novel polity.

— Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy (101)

Temujin becomes Genghis Khan

We begin in 1206 AD this week, with the naming of Temujin as Genghis Khan which translates to something like “Oceanic Ruler.” The intention of this title is to indicate “world ruler.” In our readings, we will try to focus on the man, Genghis Khan, instead of the conquests. While I don’t think we can separate the two, our attempt, as far as it might be possible, is to figure out this man–this destitute boy who has become ruler of the world. Keep in mind as you read for this week a few questions:

  1. Why did the now-united tribes of the Mongolian steppe elevate Temujin to “Oceanic Ruler?” What motivations might they have had for doing so? Does this event indicate anything about the steppe peoples’ regional and international awareness?
  2. As I briefly mentioned in the last class, it isn’t really clear why Genghis Khan and the Mongols went west. There was certainly an event that was used for justification in the historical sources (about which you will read), but does this really explain it?
  3. What did “empire” mean to Genghis Khan and the Mongols? The idea of “empire” receives a lot of scholarly attention, but how Genghis Khan conceptualized his conquests remains a mystery.
  4. Is there any Temujin left in Genghis Khan? What parts of his boyhood and career as a regional leader impacted his rule over the united Mongols?

Readings for This Week

I have, below, three reading selections. The chapters from McLynn are the same as those I distributed in class. Both Rossabi and Ratchnevsky were not included in that printed material.

  1. Frank McLynn, Chapters 4, 6 and 13 from Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. In these three chapters, we’ll see McLynn attempt to smooth the knotty question of “who was Genghis Khan?” In Chapter 4, “Temujin Becomes Genghis Khan,” we learn of the details of the transformation from Temujin, regional chieftain and dominant warlord on the Mongolian steppe to Genghis Khan, the demon who leads a scourge of savages to the cities of western Asia–this, at least, is how the sources describe him. Chapter 6, “The Character and Personality of the Khan,” takes on the problem directly; and Chapter 13, “The Twilight Years,” describes the final days of the Great Khan.
  2. Morris Rossabi, the last half of Chapter 2. Continuing where we left off last week, this is a concise and well-constructed description.
  3. Paul Ratchnevsky, Chapter 4, “Personality and Achievements,” from Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. This chapter from another good biographer offers another take on the person that was Temujin/Genghis Khan. Ratchnevsky, however, bases his work on primary sources. You can see here whether or not McLynn’s biography–a synthesis of scholars’ work–differs significantly. 

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