Capital Cities & Commerce

Capital Cities & Commerce

As a nomad, Genghis Khan had no use for cities, but his successor Ögödei decided the Mongols needed a base from which to administer their widespread empire and entertain foreigners. Ögödei established Karakorum as his new capital, patterning it after other walled cities like those destroyed by his father.

Despite its great distance from the Silk Road, Karakorum became an international center of politics and commerce, hosting ambassadors, traders, and artisans from China, the Middle East, Russia, and Western Europe. And true to Genghis Khan’s legacy, the city welcomed all religions.

When Kublai took the throne and conquered the remainder of China, he embraced Chinese culture, moving his winter capital to Beijing and his summer capital to Shangdu (Xanadu). But he kept Mongol tradition by supporting all religions, encouraging the arts and sciences, and fostering diplomatic relations.

Marco Polo, the Venetian courier to Kublai’s court for two decades, provided an account of the Mongol Empire to Europeans that stimulated interest in and trade with the Far East long after the fall of the dynasty. Mongol policies, diplomacy, and other traditions continue to impact our world today.

A Harsh Childhood

Temüjin’s early life was especially brutal, living among nomads where alliances shifted frequently. Wife snatching, child slavery, and revenge killing were normal events.

Before Temüjin was 10 years old, the Tatars—enemies of the Mongols—poisoned his father. Rejecting the young boy’s claim to his father’s title, the clan abandoned him along with his mother and other children.

They lived in poverty, until several years later, Temüjin and his brother murdered their bullying half-brother and firmly established young Temüjin as the head of the household.

Mongolian Women

Two women influenced Temüjin’s early life: his courageous mother Höelün and his brave wife Börte. Organizing Börte’s rescue from kidnapping was one of his first challenges as a leader.

In nomadic tribes, women cooked, raised the children, and managed the animals and dairy production: making yogurt, cheese, and airag (a fermented drink) from mare’s milk.

Women contributed to the Mongol’s military success as well, collecting bows and arrows and finishing off wounded enemies after the battles. Temüjin’s own daughter later led a successful attack in Central Asia.

What’s in a Name?

The name “Temüjin” was appropriated by Genghis Khan’s warrior father from one of his captives.

Temüjin’s adopted name of Genghis is spelled and said in more than one way. Mongolians and Russians call him Chinggis (chin’-ghus). Westerners commonly use Genghis (ghen’-ghus or jen’-ghus). The first part of his name, Chin, means “strong.”

The word Khan is not a name but a title, meaning “sovereign ruler.”

Conquest of China

In 1207, the Mongols made their initial foray into the state of Xi Xia, but their first attempt at siege warfare went poorly, and the battle ended in a draw.

Next, the Mongols attacked the Jin Empire, winning the three-year war in 1215 after cutting off supplies to starve out the inhabitants of Zhongdu (Beijing).

In 1226, Genghis Khan’s second attempt to take Xi Xia ended in his death. It was his grandson, Kublai Khan, who finally manage to subdue all of China and bring it under Mongol rule.

Conquest of Khwarizm

Genghis Khan sought peaceful trade with the Khwarizm Empire, but in 1218, the Shah accused some Muslim traders of spying for the Mongols, executing all 450 of these men.

After demands for reparations went unmet, the Mongols took revenge. They brutally sacked Samarkand, the pearl of Khwarizm and an important trading capital on the Silk Road. Thirty thousand soldiers were butchered and the populace was driven out of the city.

Years later, Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai and grandson Hülegü incorporated the lands of Khwarizm into the Mongol Empire.

Conquest of Russia

The Kipchak Tribes of the Ukraine supported the Khwarizm Empire and killed Genghis Khan’s favorite son-in-law during the campaign.

Genghis sent his great general Subotai to take revenge and capture the fleeing Khwarizm Shah. Twenty thousand Mongols pursued their prey into Russia, which had pledged to aid the Kipchak.

The Russian princes were literally squashed under a large wooden platform while Subotai and his officers sat on it eating dinner! The groundwork for the Golden Horde—the conquest of Russia by Genghis’s grandson Batu—had been laid.

Excerpts from the Great Yasa

All religions are to be respected and no preference is to be shown to any of them.

Lies, theft, treachery, and adultery are forbidden, and one ought to love one’s neighbor as oneself….Whoever violates these commands is to be put to death.

A man is not to be considered guilty if not caught in the act of a crime, or if he did not confess.

Do not pronounce words with an emphasis, or use honorary titles. When speaking to the Khan or anyone else, simply use his name.

Don’t behave as high as a mountain. Though a mountain is high, it will be climbed by animals.

Genghis Khan’s Death

Legend surrounds the death of Genghis Khan. Various sources mention a painful fall from a horse, malaria, lightning, even a deadly bedroom ambush by the wife of the Xi Xia king, whom Genghis had executed.

Even more mystery surrounds Genghis Khan’s burial. One account records that his body was carried back to Mongolia and buried in the sacred Land of the Ancestors in the Khentai Mountains, adding that everyone who saw the funeral procession was killed.

For years, explorers have searched for the tomb, but nothing has ever been found.

The Secret History

The oldest original Mongol source revealing details about Genghis Khan is The Secret History of the Mongols. Likely written after his death by a former member of his court, it was the first book in Mongol script.

The work provides a reliable account of Genghis’s early life and career. Its author doesn’t shy away from criticism of Genghis, nor portray him in a heroic light.

Lost for centuries, a version written in Chinese was discovered in the 19th century. After decades of research, scholars were able to translate it into several modern languages.

Religion in Karakorum

A Buddhist temple lay at the heart of Karakorum. Mongols had adopted the Tibetan School of Buddhism, which emphasized ritual magic and charms rather than reincarnation—although they still practiced Mongol shamanism, or Tengerism, which focused on worship of the spirit of the Eternal Blue Sky.

A Nestorian Christian church, a sect brought to Asia by Persian missionaries in the sixth century, sat at the far end of town. Genghis Khan’s wife was a Nestorian.

Two mosques provided places of worship for Muslims, typically Arab traders who traveled from the Silk Road to Karakorum.

Marco Polo’s Tales

A member of a family of Italian merchants, the 17-year-old Marco Polo left his native city of Venice in 1271 with his father and uncle, who had already visited China.

Following the Silk Road, they arrived at Kublai Khan’s palace at Shangdu (Xanadu) nearly four years later, where they remained for two decades.

Marco Polo’s account of his experiences, Il Milione, provided Europeans with their first glimpse into these exotic lands. But Marco didn’t write it. He told the story to a fellow prison inmate, a writer, after being captured during the battle of Genoa.

The Prolific Patriarch

According to a study by The American Journal of Human Genetics, Genghis Khan may be the most successful breeder in history. Close to eight percent of the men in the region of the former Mongol Empire carry identical y-chromosomes to Genghis.

How could this happen? Genghis Khan had five wives and hundreds of concubines who bore him children, while his troops decimated the populations of those outside Genghis’s gene pool.

His heirs continued to build his genetic legacy at the expense of competitive genes. This combination created a highly unusual representation of Genghis’s genes in Asian populations to this day.

Mongol Armored Warriors

In battle, horses were one of Genghis Khan’s greatest advantages. Their speed and maneuverability allowed the Mongols to ride up to 100 miles per day—much farther than larger armies of foot soldiers could travel.

The small but powerful Mongol horse had great stamina and could survive solely on grasses. It also provided food (milk and meat) for warriors. Genghis Khan’s men were renowned for sandwiching ground “horse burgers” beneath their saddle blanket, allowing the heat from their mount to cook the meat as they rode.