The Era of Chinggis Khan, 1206-27

Mongolia Table of Contents

Rise of Chinggis Khan

Chinggis KhanAfter the migration of the Jurchen, the Borjigin Mongols had emerged in central Mongolia as the leading clan of a loose federation. The principal Borjigin Mongol leader, Kabul Khan, began a series of raids into Jin in 1135. In 1162 (some historians say 1167), Temujin, the first son of Mongol chieftain Yesugei, and grandson of Kabul, was born. Yesugei, who was chief of the Kiyat subclan of the Borjigin Mongols, was killed by neighboring Tatars in 1175, when Temujin was only twelve years old. The Kiyat rejected the boy as their leader and chose one of his kin instead. Temujin and his immediate family were abandoned and apparently left to die in a semidesert, mountainous region.

Temujin did not die, however. In a dramatic struggle described in The Secret History of the Mongols, Temujin, by the age of twenty, had become the leader of the Kiyat subclan and by 1196, the unquestioned chief of the Borjigin Mongols. Sixteen years of nearly constant warfare followed as Temujin consolidated his power north of the Gobi. Much of his early success was because of his first alliance, with the neighboring Kereit clan, and because of subsidies that he and the Kereit received from the Jin emperor in payment for punitive operations against Tatars and other tribes that threatened the northern frontiers of Jin. Jin by this time had become absorbed into the Chinese cultural system and was politically weak and increasingly subject to harassment by Western Xia, the Chinese, and finally the Mongols. Later Temujin broke with the Kereit, and, in a series of major campaigns, he defeated all the Mongol and Tatar tribes in the region from the Altai Mountains to Manchuria. In time Temujin emerged as the strongest chieftain among a number of contending leaders in a confederation of clan lineages. His principal opponents in this struggle had been the Naiman Mongols, and he selected Karakorum (west-southwest of modern Ulaanbaatar, near modern Har Horin), their capital, as the seat of his new empire.

In 1206 Temujin's leadership of all Mongols and other peoples they had conquered between the Altai Mountains and the Da Hinggan (Greater Khingan) Range was acknowledged formally by a kuriltai (council) of chieftains as their khan. Temujin took the honorific chinggis, meaning supreme or great (also romanized as genghis or jenghiz), creating the title Chinggis Khan, in an effort to signify the unprecedented scope of his power. In latter hagiography, Chinggis was said even to have had divine ancestry. The contributions of Chinggis to Mongol organizational development had lasting impact. He took personal control of the old clan lineages, ending the tradition of noninterference by the khan. He unified the Mongol tribes through a logistical nexus involving food supplies, sheep and horse herds, intelligence and security, and transportation. A census system was developed to organize the decimal-based political jurisdictions and to recruit soldiers more easily. As the great khan, Chinggis was able to consolidate his organization and to institutionalize his leadership over a Eurasian empire. Critical ingredients were his new and unprecedented military system and politico-military organization. His exceptionally flexible mounted army and the cadre of Chinese and Muslim siege-warfare experts who facilitated his conquest of cities comprised one of the most formidable instruments of warfare that the world had ever seen.

At the time of his first kuriltai at Karakorum, Chinggis already was engaged in a dispute with Western Xia, the first of his wars of conquest. In 1205 the Mongol military organization, based on the tumen, had defeated the much larger Tangut forces easily. Despite problems in conquering the well-fortified Western Xia cities, the results were the same in the campaigns of 1207 and 1209. When peace was concluded in 1209, the Western Xia emperor, with substantially reduced dominion, acknowledged Chinggis as overlord.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress