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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 24, 2020

Surely, you have heard of the phrase ‘rags to riches,’ indicating the rise from abject poverty to untold wealth? You may be interested in its 13th century equivalent, ‘rags to ruler of Eurasia.’ I hope you are interested because this is the story you’re about to hear, of a boy who lost everything but by the end of his life, he conquered an empire larger than Rome. An Empire which continued to expand decades after his death to incorporate most of Eurasia. An Empire which would leave his name etched into the fabric of history. It is time for the rise of Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.


    The previous episodes in our series should have provided you with the foundation for this episode, demonstrating Mongolian nomadism, the politics and tribes of mid-12th century Mongolia, and the relationship with China. So cozy up in your ger with a nice cup of airag, and let’s get into it. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol conquests.


    It is 1162, Mongolia. The Khamag Mongol Confederation, the brief military alliance of the Mongol tribes of the Borjigon, Taychiud and others, has collapsed under the assaults of the Tatars, supported by their masters, the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in China. In a raid against the Tatar, a young relation of the Khamag Khans named Yesugei Ba’atar captures a Tatar chief, Temujin-Uge. Returning to his own camp, he finds his second wife, Hoelun, recently stolen from her Merkit husband, has just given birth. The boy is born clutching in his tiny fist a blood clot the size of a knucklebone, an omen foretelling of future greatness or bloodshed. To celebrate the birth of the boy, Yesugei sacrifices the Tatar chief Temujin-uge, giving his name to the boy: Temujin, meaning, ‘blacksmith,’ denoting strength and iron. The man who would be known to posterity as Chinggis Khan has just been born. 


    We can assume Temujin was raised like any other Mongol, learning to ride a horse before he could walk; to make and shoot a bow, the prized weapon of the Mongols; the skills of herding the animals necessary for survival; how to hunt and track prey; and he would have been familizared with the grudges of his people, most notably the Tatars, the sworn enemies of the Khamag Mongols, and the Tatars’ masters, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. Temujin was the eldest child of Yesugei’s second wife Hoelun, with three brothers and a sister following. Yesugei’s first wife, Suchigel, had two sons, one of whom, Begter, was slightly older than Temujin. The only other detail that comes to us from these early years is that Temujin, the future conqueror of cities and master of war, was afraid of dogs. 


    Our main source for Temujin’s early life is the Secret History of the Mongols, a Mongolian epic chronicle written sometime after his death in 1227 for the imperial family and records most of the main events of his life. While the broad course of events and general flow is probably accurate, for these early years it is sometimes hard to say what details are based in fact, which are half-truths or which are simply legends.


    The first recorded event of young Temujin’s life occurred when he was about 9 years old in the early 1170s. His father Yesugei took the young lad to choose a bride, intending one from the Olqunuut, the tribe of Temujin’s mother, but on the way came into the camp of the Onggirat. The chief of this camp, Dei Sechen, greeted Yesugei, and was impressed by his son. He told Yesugei of a dream he had the night before, wherein a white gerfalcon brought him the sun and the moon in its talons. Obviously, this was a powerful omen, but since the Secret History of the Mongols is full of these, we should wonder if they were added retroactively by the Secret History to demonstrate Heaven’s support for Chinggis Khan. Of course, another option is that Dei Sechen pulled this move on every traveller coming by to marry off his daughters.


    Whatever the answer, Yesugei agreed to marry Temujin to Dei Sechen’s daughter, a slightly older girl named Borte. Yesugei left Temujin in Dei Sechen’s camp and returned home, on the way stopping in a camp of the Tatars. Traditionally, guest rights were highly valued on the steppe. A hungry traveller could, if he came unarmed and bearing no ill will, expect to be fed and provided shelter for the night. In an era without photographs, it would be easy for someone to go about unrecognized. Unfortunately,Yesugei was recognized as the captor of Temujin-uge, and poisoned. He survived long enough to make it back to Hoelun and his family, but by the time Temujin arrived, Yesugei was dead.


    You may recall from a previous episode our mention of the distinction between the Borjigon and Taychiud lineages of the Mongols. Yesugei was a lead representative of the Borjigon. The Taychiud maintained their grudge from when the leadership of the Khamag Mongol had moved from their representative, Ambaghai, back to the Borjigon. The Taychiud in Yesugei’s camp,  including widows of Ambaghai and the nefarious Targutai conspired against Yesugei’s widows and his young sons. At a feast which soon followed, Hoelun was excluded from taking part in the ceremonial sacrificial meal, signalling their isolation. Despite Hoelun’s impassioned efforts, the Taychiud killed a servant who tried to stop them, and Hoelun, Suchigel, and seven children were left abandoned on the steppe with no herds or supplies. Surely, they would not have been expected to survive the winter.


    Yet, survive they did. Hoelun showed that her will was as strong as the mountains. She organized her family, gathering roots, berries, and even fishing, seen as a lowly activity by the Mongols. Through her determination, not one child was lost to hunger, not even her infant daughter Temulun. Hoelun could protect Yesugei’s children from starving, but not however, from each other. Temujin and Suchigel’s eldest son Begter, Temujin’s half-brother, were at odds. Begter stole food from the others, bullied them, making the stress of their situation worse. As Yesugei’s oldest child, Begter had the legal right to inherit Hoelun, his step-mother, as his wife, which would have cemented his authority, meager as it was, over Temujin. Felt pushed to the edge, Temujin made a decision. With his younger brother Khasar, the best archer among them, the two of them ambushed and killed Begter. Before his death, Begter only asked that they not harm his own young brother, Belgutei. Hoelun was furious; after all they had suffered that they still chose to fight amongst each other. 


    Shortly after Begter’s death,  Targutai of the Taychiud came hunting. Perhaps having heard of Begter’s death through the few families they must have been in contact with, Targutai came and captured Temujin. Placed in a cangue, a sort of wooden neck brace trapping the hands and neck of the prisoner, Temujin was paraded around the Taychiud camp and humiliated. The prisoner was moved to the ger of a different family every night, but some of these families showed him kindness, even removing the cangue at night to allow him to sleep. When he found an opportunity to escape, one of these families, that of Sorqan Shira of the Suldus, even provided Temujin a horse and a bow so he could make it back to his family.  This is often emphasized as a major turning point in the life of the young Temujin. Routinely, he had been showed nothing but cruelty from people who were his relations: the Taychiud under Targutai and Ambaghai’s widows, and his own half-brother Begter. But humble herdsmen, former servants of his father and people of no direct relation to him showed him mercy and kindness. 


    A few years after the escape, Temujin returned to Dei Sechen to claim Borte, a joyous reunion. Borte’s mother sent a gift of a black sable coat for Hoelun, which Temujin took, travelling south to the court of Toghrul, Khan of the Kereyit. Toghrul, you may recall, had been blood brothers with Temujin’s father Yesugei, who had helped him secure his throne. A powerful and wealthy lord, having him as an ally would make the Taychiud think twice about raiding Temujin. Toghrul was delighted by the fine gift, and happily took Temujin into his retinue.


    This was the late 1170s, and things were looking up for Temujin. They had a small but loyal group of comrades building around them, Temujin had his wife and the protection of an overlord. Temujin likely envisaged living out his days as a minor chieftain, perhaps in time leading small raids against the Tatars but with little hope of achieving power comparable to Toghrul. Fate, however, often has little interest in our expectations.


    What put Temujin on a collision course with humanity occurred around 1180.  You may remember that Yesugei had stolen Hoelun from her Merkit husband. Well, the Merkits remembered that too. Learning of the marriage of Yesugei’s oldest surviving son, the brothers of that Merkit, the tribe’s leaders, led a raid against Temujin. Temujin and his brothers fled but Borte, Suchigel and their servants were captured and carried off north to Merkit territory. Temujin, seeking refuge on Burkhan Khaldun, was distraught: he had struggled so hard to build himself back up from the death of his father, and again everything was ripped away. 


Once he cleared his head, with his brothers in tow he traveled to the court of Toghrul, and demanded his justice. Toghrul, his mouth watering at the thought of loot from Merkit camps, agreed, and reintroduced Temujin to a childhood friend, a fellow Mongol named Jamukha of the Jadaran, now an ambitious warchief in Toghrul’s service. For the first time in his life Temujin was now a part of an army: they took the Merkit by surprise, their forces dissolving before them. Borte was rescued, but pregnant, or had already given birth. 


    It never will be known if the child Borte carried was Temujin’s or a Merkit’s. For his part, Temujin always treated him as fully legitimate son, but the shadow of doubt hung over the boy his entire life, with huge consequences for the Mongol Empire. He was named Jochi, meaning ‘guest,’ and would become the father of the Khans of the Golden Horde, who would rule Russia for centuries. Temujin and Jamukha renewed their oaths of anda, blood brothers, and enjoyed a blissful year and a half together.  


Under Jamukha, Temujin began to be taught the ways of war, something his own father never had the chance to do. But in time, the friendship frayed. Temujin grew unsure of his friend, and Borte warned Temujin that Jamukha was fickle and tired of his friends easily. They may have feared that should they remain in Jamukha’s retinue, he’d spend his life a follower rather than come into his own. And so Temujin and his small group of followers went their own way, but surprisingly, some of Jamukha’s men and their families joined them, supposedly due to a vision of Temujin’s future greatness- though we might wonder if Temujin had not been encouraging some of these defections. 


    A year or two after this, a steady stream of followers and an emerging reputation for fairness to his men and their families regardless of their status made Temujin the most influential Borjigon. The surviving sons of the Khamag Khans, Temujin’s various uncles and relations, held a quriltai, a tribal meeting, and elected Temujin as Khan of the Borjigon. He sent his emissaries to Toghrul and Jamukha: Toghrul sent his congratulations, whereas Jamukha laid the blame for his separation with Temujin on the sons of the Khamag Khans. 


Jamukha’s concerns were realized when he learned that his younger brother Taichar had been killed by Temujin’s men. That Taichar had also been stealing horses from Temujin’s men mattered little. Jamukha saw this as an act of war.  They met in battle around 1186 at Dalan Baljut, or seventy marshes. For the first battle he is known to have commanded, Temujin was soundly defeated. Outnumbered by Jamukha, who had more military experience, Temujin’s army was broken and dispersed: his men taken prisoner by Jamukha were, according to the Secret History of the Mongols, boiled alive in cauldrons, and a leading prince was beheaded, Jamukha then tying his severed head to a horse’s tail.


Now, as I am sure most of us can attest, there is no teacher like failure. One of Temujin’s skills was his ability to learn from both his own failings and those of his enemies. In this case, Jamukha had failed to finish off Temujin, allowing him to escape and to continue to be a threat, a rallying point for his army to gather around. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, Jamukha’s exceptionally harsh treatment of the prisoners encouraged defections from his force, which taught Temujin another lesson: Jamukha’s men were uneasy with the level of cruelty of the punishments, and with Temujin still alive, he served as a beacon for discontents to flock to. A staple of Temujin’s future strategies would be the relentless hounding of enemy leaders, preventing them from becoming such rallying points, weakening the enemy’s ability to resist and discouraging defections.


The next ten years or so of Temujin’s life are not covered in the sources, and he next shows up in 1196. Possibly, he spent that time just rebuilding his forces, essentially repeating the previous ten years and nothing of interest was there to be recorded. We’re also assuming the Secret History is accurate with chronology. However, there is a third option. This theory goes that after his defeat at Dalan Baljut, Temujin fled to the Jin Empire in the south. Fled to his enemies, you might say? How unlikely! But there is both precedent, and evidence for this. Precedent, in that steppe leaders sought shelter with sedentary powers when out on their luck- Toghrul in the same period was pushed from power and went to the Tangut Xi Xia and the Qara-Khitai. 


Not having Toghrul to fall back onto, Temujin had few options other than the Jin. When Temujin shows back up on the scene in the Secret History of the Mongols, he is fighting alongside both a Jin army and Toghrul against the Tatars, who were revolting against the Jurchen- an example of Chinese dynasties employing steppe tribes against each other when they got too rowdy. So if Temujin had spent part or all of the previous 10 years in Jin company, looking for a chance to win their support for his entrance back into steppe politics, that would explain why he was fighting beside them in the mid 1190s.  


Anyways, the Tatars were defeated, Temujin and Toghrul each got loot, followers, and Chinese titles were awarded to them-  Toghrul earned the title wang, meaning ‘king’ in Chinese. In Mongolian this became ong, and hence, he is often known as the Ong Khan. Both of them were now considered vassals by the Jin. With a boost to their positions, Temujin and Toghrul were very busy over the remainder of the 12th century: they campaigned against the Merkit tribes in the north, the Naiman in the west, and defeated vassal tribes who proved unreliable. 


Their reputations and power grew immensely in these years: Temujin in particular showed himself a skilled student of war, and a keen organizer. Defeated tribes were not slaughtered, but absorbed and spread among his people, increasing his numbers. Followers who showed loyalty and ability were amply rewarded and given higher commands. While blood ties were not ignored and a number of these commanders were Temujin’s relations, blood was not the only factor as it often was for his rivals.


Speaking of rivals, Temujin and Toghrul’s actions created a swath of enemies across Mongolia. Merkits, Naimans, Tatars, Taychiud and other minor groupings were now all seeking revenge. In 1201 they elected a military leader to defeat Temujin once and for all, choosing a certain Jamukha. At Koyiten in 1201, the armies met and despite Jamukha’s shamans allegedly summoning a snowstorm, this time Temujin had the better of the engagement, and Jamukha’s coalition fractured. In the collapse, to offset his own losses Jamukha looted the camps of his allies before he fled. Toghrul was sent after him, while Temujin avenged himself against the  Taychiud. The Taychiud did not go quietly: Temujin, not only had a horse shot out from under him but also suffered a grievous neck wound which nearly cost him his life. 


Yet he was victorious, and the Taychiud were defeated and absorbed, their vassal tribes also submitting. Sorqan Shira and his family, who had helped Temujin escape as a captive, were welcomed with honours. The man who shot Temujin’s horse came forward, admitting what he had done. He urged Temujin to spare him: if he was allowed into his retinue, he would lead armies for him. So the man was renamed Jebe, meaning ‘arrow,’ and brought into Temujin’s service. He became one of Chinggis Khan’s top commanders, leading armies in China and Qara-Khitai, pursuing the Shah of Khwarezm to his death and, alongside Subutai, marched through the Caucasus Mountains into southern Russia. All for his honesty about shooting the Khan’s horse.


    In 1202 he had his revenge against the Tatars, defeating them and killing all of their men taller than the lynchpin of a cart. Before the battle began, he sent an order to his forces that there would be no looting until the enemy was totally defeated. Men breaking rank to pillage allowed the enemy a chance to escape: by forbidding this, not only was the total defeat of the enemy ensured, but it allowed a more organized looting. Loot was even provided for families who lost loved ones, which strengthened the loyalty of Temujin’s followers to him, knowing he would provide for their families. None of his followers would suffer the abandonment he had. Fortifying Mongol discipline was always one of his top priorities, and he considered the laws applicable to everyone. Thus when the Khamag princes who had elected him Khan broke rank to loot early, they were harshly punished and their loot confiscated. The princes felt this was a violation of their rights as nobles and split with Temujin, fleeing to Toghrul Ong Khan.


    Toghrul was by now perhaps in his late 60s, and not as decisive as he had once been. The vultures were circling, awaiting to succeed him as Kereyit Khan. Temujin, who had closely worked with Toghrul for years, seemed an obvious choice, and indeed, he proposed a marriage alliance between their families, Toghrul’s daughter to wed his son Jochi, and for his daughter Qojin (Ko-jin) Beki to marry Toghrul’s son, Senggum (seng-gum) Ilkha (Ilk-ha). Senggum Ilkha baulked at this. He wanted his father’s throne and saw Temujin’s proposal as a brazen ploy. On the insistence of Senggum Ilkha, Toghrul declined the offer. With this gap in the Toghrul-Temujin alliance, the vultures flew in. The Khamag princes and Jamukha now whispered into Senggum Ikha’s ears, and in turn, he urged the Ong Khan to betray Temujin. Toghrul gave in, and a plan was made. A message was sent to Temujin informing him that Toghrul had agreed to the marriage proposal, and that Temujin should come at once. When Temujin and his small entourage arrived, the trap would spring on the unsuspecting Mongol.


    While Temujin seemed to believe Toghrul had come to his senses and happily agreed, his followers had their doubts, and convinced Temujin to send envoys ahead to learn more. This brief pause gave time for sympathetic herders in the Kereyit camp, Badai and Kishlik, to overhear the plotting and warn Temujin. Alerted to the betrayal, Temujin fled and when Toghrul and the others realized the plot was found, they pursued.  


The army caught Temujin and his hastily assembled force at Qalqaljit Sands in eastern Mongolia, and despite a ferocious engagement-  Temujin’s third son Ogedai was wounded in the neck, a top commander was fatally injured, and Toghrul’s son Senggum took an arrow to the cheek- Temujin’s forces were defeated, and he withdrew. But there was infighting in the enemy command- Toghrul showed himself unable to take leadership,and  a frustrated Jamukha sent warnings to Temujin- meant the coalition could not pursue and finish off Temujin. 


    Temujin and the survivors fled to Lake Baljuna in 1203, and drinking the muddy waters, those who stayed with him swore their loyalty, an event famous among the Mongols as the Baljuna Covenant. Though he had lost once again, Temujin had his allies, and he had those sympathetic to him, such as Central Asian Muslim merchants, come with supplies and sheep  to feed Temujin’s forces as they trickled in. Meanwhile, the enemy coalition disintegrated: the vultures wanted Toghrul’s throne, no one could assert leadership over the various factions, and there were assassination attempts. Temujin encouraged this division by sending messengers to the various leaders, reminding them of past loyalties and promises, or making threats, sowing dissension and mistrust.


As the enemy splintered, Temujin saw his opportunity.  Under cover of night in 1203, Temujin’s army fell upon the Kereyit while they were feasting. Though they put up stiff resistance, Toghrul and his son fled in the chaos. With their leadership gone, the Kereyit surrendered to Temujin Khan. Toghrul fled west to the Naiman, but a patrolman saw the poor wretch and, refusing to believe him to be the mighty Ong Khan, killed him. Thus ended Toghrul, Khan of the Kereyit. 


Strengthened by the absorption of the Kereyit, Temujin now controlled eastern and central Mongolia. His enemies flocked together one last time, to the Tayang Khan of the Naiman in the west: Jamukha, the Merkit under Toqto’a Beki who had captured Borte so many years prior, Kereyit and other disaffected remnants of former tribes gathered for the final stand. Even still, as fate was on the knife’s edge, infighting weakened the coalition’s leadership. Tayang Khan’s  brother, Buiruk, refused to supply forces from his branch of the Naiman. Tayang Khan, his son Kuchlug, wife Gurbesu and top commanders fought over strategy. In an effort to outflank Temujin, Tayang sent messengers to the Onggut tribes to Temujin’s south. Wary of the new power on their north, the Onggut warned Temujin of the Tayang’s plans. 


Temujin’s preparations were careful: he reorganized the army into its famous decimal composition, units of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000, appointing new commanders and strengthening discipline. They would not fight based in their tribes, but in their units, strengthening the chain of command. He set out early in spring 1204, while the horses were still thin from winter- the Naiman would not expect a campaign so early in the year. He allowed a Mongol scout on a particularly lean horse and poor saddle to be captured, causing the Naiman to underestimate the quality of the Mongol forces and their horses. Deeper into Naiman territory, when they knew they would be spotted by Naiman scouts, at night each man lit five fives. The Naiman watchmen returned with over exaggerated reports of the size of the Mongol army, telling Tayang Khan the Mongols were as numerous as the stars. 


Tayang Khan panicked, and was unsure of what to make of the Mongols, who seemed to be growing in size each day. His instinct was to withdraw, drawing them deeper into Naiman territory and wearing them down. His son and commanders accused him of cowardice. Tayang Khan was now forced to confront the Mongols to save face. 

A life means to die, a body means to suffer: it is the same destiny for all! That being so, 

let us fight!” he said, as he marched to his doom. 


    At Naqu Cliffs came the final battle. Tayang’s command was weak; Temujin was thoroughly prepared, his battle lines and commanders ready. Naiman forces were pushed back. Jamukha, seeing the battle could only end one way, frightened Tayang with tales of Temujin’s ferocity:

“My sworn friend Temujin is indeed drawing near, slavering thus like  a greedy falcon. Have you seen him? You Naiman friends used to say that if you saw the Mongols, you would not leave them even the skin of a kid’s hoof. Behold them now!”


Jamukha then took his men and abandoned the Tayang to his fate. When night fell, many of the Naiman tried to flee, only to fall off the cliffs to their deaths. Whatever resistance remained when morning broke was finished off by Mongol troops, the Tayang killed, and the survivors incorporated into the Mongols. Temujin took the Tayang’s wife as his own, and the Naiman’s Uighur scribes were taken: their writing system became the basis for the first written Mongolian.


1204 sealed Mongolia’s future.  Though there were minor holdouts, none in Mongolia could now defeat Temujin. The son of Tayang fled to the Qara-Khitai, where he would usurp power in 1211, and Mongols came for him in 1217. The surviving sons of the Merkit chief fled to the Qipchaq-Qangli tribes in the far west, but not even that was far enough to protect them from the Mongols. Jamukha himself was betrayed in 1205 by his final five followers: for betraying their master they were killed, and Temujin offered Jamukha a chance to rejoin him. In a famous, emotional scene in the Secret History of the Mongols, Jamukha declined, asking Temujin to provide him a bloodless death, and that his soul would watch over his friend’s family.

In Mongolian tradition, Temujin buried his sworn friend with the golden belts they had once given each other. In the account of the Persian Historian Rashid al-Din, writing a century later, Jamukha was instead cut to pieces while shouting his revenge at Chinggis Khan. This less romanticized version is much less often included in retellings of the story."


    In 1206, a great quriltai was held, and Temujin was proclaimed as ruler of all the steppe tribes: no longer were they Kereyit, Naimans, or Tatars, but Mongols. Temujin took a new title, Chinggis Khan: fierce or stern ruler. And now the whole of the world would tremble at what he was about to accomplish.  



In the next episode we will begin the Mongol Conquests, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!