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National Palace Museum, HO/AP

Genghis Khan

October 13, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Considered by many to be the greatest leader in history, Genghis Khan united the warring tribes of the Mongols and ruled one of the largest empires in the world. He also left an enduring legacy—and perhaps millions of descendants.

Genghis Khan’s Early Days

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Born in north central Mongolia in 1162 A.D., Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan) was a member of the Borjigin tribe. He was named after a Tatar chieftain that his father, Yesukhei, had captured. The Biography Channel Web site explains that Temujin was born with a blood clot in his hand; according to Mongol folklore, this meant that the young boy was destined to be a great leader.

When he was just 9 years old, Temujin’s father was murdered by members of the Tatar tribe, leaving the young boy, his brothers, and his mother, Hoelun, to fend for themselves. After his father’s death, Temujin was to assume the role of clan chief but the clan refused to recognize the boy as their leader, and abandoned him and his family. The family suffered extreme poverty in the unforgiving Mongolian landscape, “a world of tribal violence, kidnapping, murder, and enslavement,” according to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. After a hunting expedition, Temujin fought over the prey with his half-brother, Bekhter, and killed him.

When he was 16 years old, Temujin married his bride, Borte, creating an alliance between his own tribe and hers, the Konkirat tribe. Borte was soon kidnapped by the Merkit tribe and forced to become a wife to a chieftain. Temujin, however, rescued her, and she gave birth to her first son, Jochi. Temujin had four sons with Borte, and children with many other wives, as dictated by Mongolian custom.

Genghis Khan’s Notable Accomplishments

After escaping enslavement by the Taichi’uts, Temujin gathered his brothers and other clansmen to create a fighting unit. According to The Biography Channel Web site, Temujin “set out to destroy traditional divisions among the various tribes and unite the Mongols under his rule.”

“Unifying the Mongols was no small achievement,” Columbia University’s Asia for Educators Web site explains. Temujin’s military skill and ability to form alliances, combined with a well-trained army of 80,000 soldiers, made it possible to unify warring tribes and form the first unified Mongol nation. “This was indeed a grand achievement in a country as vast as Mongolia, an area approximately four times the size of France.” 

In 1206, a meeting of the Khuriltai (the Mongol nobility) gave their new leader a new name: “Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan,” meaning “Khan of All Between the Oceans” or “universal ruler.” But Genghis Khan wasn’t satisfied; his armies went on to rule most of Asia, stretching from China to Afghanistan.

Known for his brutal military tactics—the Mongol Empire was responsible for millions of deaths, rapes and the destruction of several major dynasties—Khan is also celebrated for his leadership abilities. William Leith, writing for The Observer, reviewed a book by John Man called “The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan.” While other leaders such as Hitler, Napoleon and Attila the Hun were “short-sighted” and “egotistical, charismatic, driven by short-term gains,” Genghis Khan “was not distracted by the silks and spices,” Leith wrote. “His mission was to unite his people and then conquer the world.”

But Genghis Khan was more than a fierce warrior and great leader. Even while raping and pillaging his way across Asia, he practiced religious tolerance, letting the people he conquered continue to worship in their own way. He also ordered the creation of the first Mongol written language and wrote a legal code, the Jasagh.

A respect for artisans and craftsmen, and the trade of goods, was also part of his legacy. At Khara Khorum, the Mongol capital, archaeologists have uncovered a vast collection of treasures gathered from far and wide by the Mongol armies.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 during a campaign against the Central Asians. According to one legend, his body was taken to northeastern Mongolia and buried with 40 virgins and 40 horses; horses stomped on the grave to hide the location. According to another legend, a river was diverted over his grave to conceal the location, and everyone involved in his burial was killed in order to keep the location secret.

“The location of the site remains one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries,” the Denver Museum of Nature and Science declares.

The Rest of the Story

The mystery may soon be solved, however. A team of scientists working together on The Valley of the Khans Project are using advanced visualization technologies to try to locate Genghis Khan’s hidden grave. The project began in 2008, and will use remote sensing techniques, satellite imagery, ground penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction and magnetometry to pinpoint the great leader’s resting spot.

Genghis Khan’s grave isn’t the only mystery to unfold. In 2004, the Associated Press reported that the site of Genghis Khan’s palace had been found. A Japanese and Mongolian research team located the foundation of the 13th century mausoleum about 150 miles east of Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

Even though he’s been dead for hundreds of years, Genghis Khan rules again—this time via statues, buildings and assorted merchandise. In 2009, Dan Levin reported for The New York Times that “Mongolia’s most famous personage” has become a national hero since Communism was driven out of Mongolia almost 20 years ago. Now, a massive 131-foot-tall statue of the leader stands watch over Tsonjin Boldog, outside of the country’s capital. His name graces the airport, a university and a hotel, and his face appears on cigarette packs, energy drinks and vodka bottles.

It may be that a little bit of Genghis Khan lives on in all of us—or at least some 16 million of us. In 2003, Oxford Ancestors, a company that offers genetic tests for people to trace their ancestry, found that up to 16 million people worldwide—8 percent of Asian men—descended from Genghis Khan. By looking at the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son, the study found that large numbers of Asian men from the area that was once the Mongol empire shared a single Y chromosome, “and that this originated in a man who lived in the early 13th century,” Mark Henderson explained in The Times of London.

Due to the fact that Genghis Khan lived during this time period and fathered “hundreds or even thousands of children as his armies swept across the continent … makes him by far the most probable source of the common chromosome,” Henderson wrote.

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