11/9/10 - chinggis khan

In today's excerpt - when declining temperatures created a climate crisis in Mongolia, it started Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan and his heirs on campaigns of conquests that ultimately grew to include most of China, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe—the largest contiguous land-based empire in history:

"In the late twelfth century [the Mongolian steppe] region was facing a subsistence crisis because a drop in the mean annual temperature had reduced the supply of grass for grazing animals. The man who saved the situation by gaining access to the bounty of the agricultural world for them was Chinggis (Ghengis, c.1162-1227).

"A brilliant and utterly ruthless military genius, Chinggis proudly asserted that there was no greater joy than massacring one's enemies, seizing their horses and cattle, and ravishing their women. His career as a military leader began when he avenged the death of his father, a tribal chieftain who had been murdered when Chinggis was still a boy. As he subdued the Tartars, Kereyid, Naiman, Merkid, and other Mongol and Turkic tribes, Chinggis built up an army of loyal followers. In 1206 the most prominent Mongol nobles gathered at an assembly to name him their overlord, or great khan.

"He then fully militarized Mongol society, ignoring traditional tribal affiliations to form an army based on a decimal hierarchy, 1,000 horsemen in the basic unit. A new military nobility was thus created of commanders loyal to Chinggis. They could pass their posts to their sons, but the great khan could remove any commander at will. Chinggis also created an elite bodyguard of 10,000 sons and brothers of commanders, which served directly under him. To reduce internal disorder, he issued simple but draconian laws; the penalty for robbery and adultery, for instance, was death. He ordered the Uighur script to be adopted for writing Mongol, seeing the utility of written records even though he was illiterate himself.

"His organization in place, Chinggis initiated one of world history's most astonishing campaigns of conquest. He began by subjugating nearby states. First, he would send envoys to demand submission and threaten destruction. Those who submitted without fighting were treated as allies and left in power, but those who put up a fight faced the prospect of total destruction. City-dwellers in particular evoked his wrath and were often slaughtered en masse, or used as human shields in the next battle. In the Mongol armies' first sweep across the north China plain in 1212-13, they left ninety-odd cities in rubble. When they sacked the Jurchen's northern capital at Beijing in 1215, it burned for more than a month.

"Chinggis's battle-hardened troops were capable of enduring great privation and crossing vast distances at amazing speed. In 1219 he led 200,000 troops into Central Asia, where the following year they sacked Bukara and Samarkand. Before his death in 1227, Chinggis ... ruled from the Pacific Ocean on the east to the Caspian Sea on the west.

"Chinggis's death created a crisis due to the Mongol tradition of succession by election rather than descent. In the end the empire was divided into four sections, each to be governed by one of the lines of his descendants. Ogodei, Chinggis's third son, got control of Mongolia. In 1234 he crushed the Jin and became rule of north China. By 1236 he had taken all but four of the fifty-eight districts in Sichuan, previously held by the Song, and had ordered the total slaughter of the one million plus residents of the city of Chengdu, a city the Mongols had taken easily with little fighting. Even where people were not slaughtered, they were frequently seized as booty along with their grain stores and livestock. Ogodei's troops also participated in the western campaigns begun in 1237. Representatives of all four lines ... campaigned into Europe in 1237, taking Moscow and Kiev in 1238 and striking into Poland and Hungary in 1241 and 1242. Although they looted cities in central Europe on these campaigns, the Mongols soon retreated to Russia, which they dominated for over a century."


Patricia Buckley Ebrey


The Cambridge Illustrated History of China


Cambridge University Press


Copyright 1996 by Cambridge University Press


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