1/15/10 - genghis khan

In today's excerpt - the Mongols amassed the largest contiguous land-based empire in history, larger than both the Roman and the Muslim Empires at their height, and exceeded in size only by the British Empire, which was not contiguous:

"The Mongols originally were a tribe from the region of Lake Baikal, to the north of Mongolia in modern-day Russia, but by the [the 13th century] they had become a multiethnic federation of nomadic tribes ruled from the high Mongolian plateau: a region of bitterly cold winters, searingly hot summers, and vast open expanses of desolate terrain. The tribes had been united at the end of the twelfth century by a leader originally known as Temujin, who in 1206 was declared their undisputed leader. Temujin then proceeded to launch an astonishing series of military campaigns that, by the time of his death in 1227, put him in control of the largest contiguous land-based empire in history, one that extended from China in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and from Siberia in the north to northwest India in the south. Temujin and the Mongols considered their campaigns of conquest to have been ordained by the supreme sky god, Tenggeri, and the whole world they believed was a Mongol empire-in-the-making. 'Through the power of God,' Great Khan Guyuk would announce to the West in 1246, 'all empires from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them.' Those who refused to submit to Mongol rule were rebels against the divine plan, and punishment for this refusal was often the outright slaughter of whole cities and peoples.

"The conquests led by Temujin were legendary, and to celebrate them the Mongols posthumously bestowed on him the title Fierce Ruler, or Chingis Khan. Today, thanks to an imperfect Arabic transliteration of that name, he is widely known as Genghis Khan.

"Chingis Khan recognized that his people, resilient horsemen accustomed to lives of hardship, deprivation and perpetual motion, were natural warriors. They traveled with huge numbers of spare horses, and by using them in rotation managed to travel up to a hundred miles a day—a distance far greater than any other army of the time could travel. As nomads, they knew how to live off the land and the peoples they conquered, but during times of privation and hard travel they could sustain themselves by drinking the blood of their own horses—and if necessary by eating them. Such practices, coupled with the ferocity the Mongols displayed in battle, fed rumors in Europe of the Mongols as cannibals and savages. 'The men are inhuman and of the nature of beasts,' [an English monk] reported, 'rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and human beings.'

"The Mongols' savagery was calculated. They wanted their reputation to precede them. Often, on the eve of an invasion, they would send advance word of their mission of conquest to their adversaries and would demand submission without a fight. Inevitably, many opponents would acquiesce having already heard terrifying rumors about what would happen to them if they did not—and as a result when the promised invasion actually did take place, the Mongols' ranks would already be swollen with captives. Some would be forced to fight as foot soldiers on the front ranks. Others would be enlisted as guides, interpreters, engineers, and spies."


Toby Lester


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name


Free Press a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Toby Lester


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