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Part Three: 1)
Journal Title: The Mongols
Call #: DS1 9 M67 1986
Month/Year: 1986
Pages: 49-73
Item #:
Article Author: Morgan
Article Title: Khan and the founding of the
Mongol Empire
Nomads of the Steppe: Asia before Chingiz Khän
been a grim irony, but in fact there seems to be no real basis for
the accusation.
Further west again, the successors of Saladin ruled in Syria
and Egypt, and fought among themselves and against the
remnants of the Crusading states that maintained a precarious
foothold on the Syrian coast. In Anatolia the Saljuq (Seljük)
sultanate of Rum, last representative of a once great and farflung dynasty, disputed territory with a Byzantine Empire that
was shortly to fall victim to its friends from the Christian west
in the Fourth Crusade.26 Apart from those few who took Prester
John seriously, none of the contenders in the political mael
strom of western Asia gave a thought to events in the Far East
whose consequences were soon to engulf most of them: just as,
when an earlier disaster befell that same part of the world, ‘in
the days that were before the flood they were eating and
and knew not
drinking, marrying and giving in marriage
until the flood came, and took them all away.’27

Chingiz Khdn and the founding
of the Mongol Empire
Chingiz Khãn’s rise to power
We do not know with any certainty exactly when the future
Chingiz Khãn was born. According to some traditions it was in
a Pig year of the animal cycle, which would mean 1155 or 1167.
Another version is 1162, and this was the date celebrated in the
Mongolian People’s Republic, in 1962, as the 800th anniver
sary. It happened to fall during a brief period in which Chingiz
was enjoying Marxist respectability.’ The usual scholarly pref
erence, which has the advantage of not making him improbably
old at the end of his career, is for 1167.2 This lack of certainty
usefully serves to point to the considerable degree of im
precision that afflicts our knowledge of the details of Chingiz’s
career before he commenced his attack on the great sedentary
states of Asia. The broad lines and the general character of
Chingiz’s early life are clear enough. But any attempt to provide
a detailed chronological narrative is in my view a hazardous
project, unless the historian is prepared simply to offer a
paraphrase of the Secret History of the Mongols, and to call
that history.
But we do admittedly have the earlier sections of the chronicle
of Rashid al-DIn, which draws on the other, lost, Mongolian
source, the Altan Debter as, in a more abbreviated form, do
the Chinese Sheng-wu ch’in-cheng lii and parts of the Yuan
shih. So there is a sufficient check on the Secret History for us at
See R. S. Humphreys, from Saladin to the Mongols (1977); C. Cahen, Pre
Ottoman furkey (196$).
Matthew xxiv, 38—9.
C. R. Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia (1968), pp.417—19.
p Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo (1959—73), vol. 1, pp. 284ff.
Chingiz Khdn and the Founding of the Mongol Empire
Chingiz Khdn ‘s rise to power
least to be sure that we are unlikely to be dealing with mere
fiction when we read its account of Chingiz Khãn’s rise to
power. Paul Ratchnevsky, in his magisterial study of Chingiz,
has provided an account of this phase of the hero’s life that
takes all these sources into account.3 Nevertheless I remain a
little sceptical, and I shall here offer no more than what seems to
me a reasonably secure general conspectus of the conqueror’s
formative years.
Of the Mongols themselves, called by that name, we know
very little prior to the twelfth century, though the name under
the form Mong-wu is perhaps to be recognised in Chinese
sources of the T’ang dynasty (618—907). The Mongols of
Chingiz Khãn’s period are in all probability, as was suggested
earlier, a people whose definitive formation should be ascribed to
the time of the Khitan domination of Mongolia. During the
twelfth century, according to the Secret History, they did have
powerful khãns, notably Qabul Khãn, who fought the Chin of
north China in mid century and who was among Chingiz
Khãn’s immediate ancestors. But Chingiz’s family, though of
high rank, does not seem to have exercised power of a very farflung kind. The Mongols were one among many peoples of the
steppe, and not by any means the most important.
The tribes of Mongolia in the twelfth century have to be
described as ‘Turko-Mongol’, since it is by no means clear in all
cases which were Turkish and which Mongol. Even this would
mean no more than that they spoke Turkish or Mongolian
respectively. In any case, the tribes intermarried freely, in
accordance with exogamous custom. The most important of the
tribes were perhaps the Tatars, living like the vIongols in
eastern Mongolia; the Keraits in the centre; the Merkits to the
north of them; and the Naimans to the west. A tribal map of
Mongolia would also have to fit in the Qonggirats, the Ongguts,
the Kirghiz, and others.
At the time of Chingiz Khãn’s birth the Tatars were probably
the most influential of the tribes: they were the people who had
Chin support. Unfortunately they were also something of a
hereditary enemy of the Mongols. In due course, we are told,
Chingiz Khãn in the days of his power virtually exterminated
the Tatars, who ceased to exist as an identifiable tribe, though
individuals can be traced. Of these the most notable was Shigi
Qutuqu, whom Chingiz’s mother adopted as her son when the
tribe was destroyed.4 In these circumstances it is odd that
‘Tatar’ should have become so widely the name by which the
conquerors as a whole were known. This has never been
satisfactorily explained, though in Europe Tatar, if spelt Tartar,
had the convenient advantage of suggesting that the Mongols
emanated from Hell, Tartarus. Matthew Paris ascribes the pun
to Louis IX of France. It has been suggested on philological
grounds that in the context of the Mongol Empire, ‘Tatar’
carried the implication of ‘people who have become (politically)
Mon gol’.6 This might solve the puzzle if the point is valid
historically as well as philologically. It seems just as likely,
however, that perhaps because of the former prominence of the
Tatars, the name had become for outsiders a conventional
general label for the peoples of Mongolia, and that the label
stuck. It is worth noting that the Sung envoy Chao Hung in
1221 described all the ‘Mongols’ as Tatars, dividing them into
Black, White and Wild.7
Chingiz Khãn’s father, Yesugei, was a minor chieftain of
noble descent, not of sufficient status to rate the title of Khin,
though Chingiz is shown referring to him posthumously as
Yesugei Qan. He named his son, the future Chingiz Khãn,
Temüchin, after a Tatar he had defeated shortly before his son’s
birth.8 In due course, however, he was himself murdered by the
Tatars, and this while Temüchin, his eldest son, was still a small
bo. The feud with the Tatars had to be left till later: mere
survival was the immediate problem, for Yesflgei’s followers
promptly and unsurprisingly took themselves off. No one
wanted a nine-year-old chieftain. Years of struggle, we are told,
See P. Ratchnevsky, ‘igi-qutuqu, em mongolischer Gefolgsmann im 12.—13.
Jahrhundert’, Central Asiatic Journal, 10 (1965), pp. 88—120.
JJ. Saunders, ‘Matthew Paric and the Mongols’, in T. A. Sandquist and M. R.
Powicke teds), Essaes in Medieval Histor’ presented to Bertze Wilkinson (1969), p. 124.
0. Pritsak, ‘Two migratory movements in the Eurasian steppe in the 9th—I Ith
centuries’, in Proceedings of the 26th lnterncitional Congress of Orientalists, New Delhi
1964. vol.2(1968), p. 159.
P. Olbricht and E. Pinks (trs), Meog.Ta pci-itt nod Hei-Ta sI,ih-Iiieh (1980i, p. 3.
Secret History, paras 177 and 59: tr. F. XV. Cleaes, The Secret History ot the
Mongols (1982), pp. 104 and 14.

P. Ratchnevsky, t.inggis-Khan Scm Leben nod Wirken t1983), chapters 1 and 2.
Chingiz KIdn ‘s rise to power
up in peace, he might some day make a nuisance of himself.
However, failing to have the courage of their convictions, they
neglected to kill Temüchin when they had captured him, and in
due course, with characteristic resource, he was able to make
his escape.
What we are to make of these Mongolian tales of the hero’s
childhood is extremely hard to say. Taken as a whole they
ptpitmoLathi1dwho trlliphs over jjjdvejsity to
fulfil his destiny and to reclaim his birthright and more; who
enjoys the favour if somewhat rraticay vouchsafed, of
Heaven; and who shows rneris ingenuity as well as nascent
powers of leership in overcoming all the disadvantages result
ing from his father’s sudden death and his followers’ faithless
ness. Perhaps it is rather too good to be true. But on the other
hand the boy who later became Chingiz Khãn is no doubt likely,
in reality, to have been remarkable enough; and we have seen
before that the Secret History does not shrink from relating
such tales, discreditable though they may be to the young hero,
as that of his murder of his half-brother Bekter. So again I
would propose reserving judgement on some of the details while
accepting the probable general truth of the picture presented.
The Tatars may, during Temüchin’s youth, have been tem
porarily the most powerful tribe, but they did not dominate,
still less rule, Mongolia. Both the Keraits and the Naimans were
serious rivals for primacy. Since there was nothing that even
approximated to a ‘central government’, and because the tribal
structure was apparently in something of a fluid state, circum
stances were propitious for a successful young nomad warrior
to build up a following of his own, if he could once make a
start. This is what Temüchin appears to have done. By his
audacity, his success in raiding those more powerful than
himself, his personal magnetism whatever it may have been
he began to attract like-minded young warriors to his standard.
He acquired as anda another Mongol of noble blood, Jamuqa,
and an increasing number of less well-born individuals re
nounced their own tribal allegiance in order to become
Temüchin’s nökers. This group ultimately became the nucleus
of his imperial guard, and supplied many of the generals who
carried the Mongol name across Asia and Europe.
Eventually Ternüchin had established his position sufficiently
Chingiz Khdn. A portrait in the Chinese Imperial Portrait Gallery
then ensued for Temüchin, his mother and his siblings. They
were at times reduced to living on berries and on what they
could grub up from the earth. In addition to all this they are said
to have had a good deal of trouble with another Mongol clan,
the Tayichi’uts, who feared that if Temüchin was left to grow
60 Chingiz Khãn and the founding of the Mongol Empire
for it to be possible for him to take two important steps: to
marry his long-betrothed wife, Bortei of the Qonggirat tribe,
and to make an alliance with the greatest of the anti-Tatar
rulers of the steppe, Toghril, Khãn of the Keraits. The pretext
for this alliance is supposed to have been that Toghril had been
anda to Temüchin’s father, Yesugei. When reminded of this fact
and given a suitable present, Toghril showed himself favourably
disposed towards his old comrade’s son. Be that as it may,
Temüchin’s following was evidently by now considerable
enough for him to be worth taking on by the Kerait khãn as a
junior partner. Later, the Chin government came to feel that
their protégés, the Tatars, were becoming over-mighty. So,
following customary Chinese practice, they looked around for a
counterweight, and found one in Toghril. Aided by Temüchin,
he inflicted a defeat on the Tatars, and as a reward received
from the Chin emperor the title of Wang, king. Hence he is
usually known in the sources as the Wang-Khan or (Mongol
ised) the Ong-Khan. Temüchin received a lesser title for his
lesser services.9
Temüchin’s rise to power still had its marked ups and downs,
but he was eventually recognised as khãn of the Mongols, and it
may have been at this time rather than later that he assumed the
title of Chingiz (‘Oceanic’ = universal?) Khãn. The Tatars were
finally subjugated. Jamuqa turned against his anda (or vice
versa, or both) and at a later date was executed at his own
request, according to the Secret History; possibly this is evi
dence that its author had a sense of humour)° The parting of
the ways with Toghril also came, and he too met his end,
allegedly at the unwitting hands of a Naiman scout. The
Naimans were next to be dealt with, but more was to be heard
of them: Kuchlug, son of the Naiman khãn, escaped and fled to
the Qara-Khitai court. Well treated and given sanctuary, he
reciprocated by overthrowing his benefactor and setting himself
up as ruler. He was to be the last. He had apparently been
brought up as a Nestorian Christian, but in the Qara-Khitai
empire he was converted to Buddhism, and he became a
militant, persecuting Buddhist. This may suggest that his Buddhist
Chingiz Khdn’s campaigns of conquest
education had been deficient in some respects. The majority of
the Qara-Khitai subject population was Muslim, and these
Kuchlug alienated by his vigorous persecution. The foolishness
of this policy was noted with interest by the Mongols.
In the years before 1206, then, the tribes of Mongolia were
one by one brought under Mongol rule, though the process was
not one of unbroken Mongol success. In some cases large
numbers of the defeated tribesmen were massacred. The Tatars
could expect no mercy, and Temüchin had a score to settle with
the Merkits. They had kidnapped his chief wife Bortei just nine
months before the birth of Jochi, his eldest son, and the
uncertainty over Jochi’s true parentage remained to trouble the
Mongol royal house. But for the most part the tribes, once
defeated, were neither killed nor driven out: their manpower
was potentially far too useful for that. They were incorporated
into the new Mongol military machine. As the author of the
Tartar Relation wrote in the 1240s, ‘he had acquired the
invariable habit of conscripting the soldiers of a conquered
army into his own, with the object of subduing other countries
by virtue of his increasing strength, as is clearly evident in his
successors, who imitate his wicked cunning’.”
Chingiz Khãn’s campaigns of conquest
Secret Histon, paras 94,96 and 134: tr. Cleaves, pp. 32—3 and 63.
Secret Histoiy. para. 201: tr. Cleaves, pp. 138—41.
By 1206 Temüchin had largely completed the task of conquer
ing, or of unifying by force, the tribes of Mongolia. A great
quriltai was held, at which Temüchin was acclaimed as supreme
khãn of all the Turko-Mongol tribes of the area. Some have
seen the quriltai as an elective assembly, and it may on occasion
have been that. But such elections rarely had more than one
candidate before them, and acclamation is probably a more
accurate characterisation of the proceedings. The Secret History
has a long account of what went on at the quriltai of 1206.12
Essentially it seems to have been concerned with laying the
organisational foundations of the new regime, and with the
granting by Chingiz Khãn (who now received that title if he had
R. A. Skelton, T. E. Marston and C. D. Painter feds and trs), The Vinland Map and
the lartar Relation (1965), p. 56.
Paras 202—34: tr. Cleases, The Secret History, pp. 141—7!.
Chingiz Khdn and the founding of the Mongol Empire

, øv

:j f

The enthronement of Chingiz Khdn at the quriltai of 1206. from a manuscript
of Rashid al-Din’s Jãmi’ al-tawhrikh
Chingi Khdn ‘s campaigns of conquest
not had it before) of rewards to his most faithful and long
standing followers. Those most favoured were the few who had
remained true to Chingiz when his fortunes had been at their
lowest ebb, three years previously; they had withdrawn with
him to the lake or river of Baijuna, reaffirming their allegiance
in the ‘Baijuna covenant’)
The question that had to be faced was: what now? The tribes
of the Mongolian steppelands, not for the first time, had a
supreme ruler. Chinese policy had been circumvented: they had
failed to keep the tribes at each others’ throats. But unless
something decisive wasdone with the newl’ formed military
machine, it would soon dissolve into quarrelling factions again,
and Mongolia would revert to its earlier state. this, to my
mind, is at least one explanation for the beginnings of the
Mongols’ astonishing career of conue. A superb army,
potentially invincible in the field in thirteecentco
diti&ns, had been successfully created. But if it was not used
against external enemies, it woukfnotremain in beinglor long.
The only matter that required a decision was in which direction
the armies were to advance.
There can have been little doubt about the answer. A
children’s strip cartoon version of the life of Chingiz Khãn
depicts the following scene: ‘Men, after some thought, I have
decided to conquer Cathay. Are you with me?’ ‘Yes, sir, a good
scheme.’ Indeed, the decision was inevitable, since China was
always the target of any successful ruler in Mongolia, and since
the Chin government of north China was the new Mongol
state’s principal antagonist. It would do whatever it could to
destroy Chingiz Khän’s power, if he did not strike first.
The years immediately after 1206 were spent in tying up loose
ends. The remnants of tribes still in ‘revolt’, such as the residue
of the Naimans and the Merkits, were dealt with. In the
meantime preparations were made for the great expedition
south. The Chin allegiance of the peoples of the Sino-Mongolian
borderlands was already weakening, and those territories
would provide a springboard for the Mongol assault on China.14
f• W. Cleaves, ‘The historicity of the Baijuna covenant’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic
Studies, 18 (1955), pp. 357—421.
P. D. Buell, The role of the Srno-Mongolian frontier zone in the rise of Cinggis
Qan’, in H. C. Schwarz (ed), Studies on Mongolia: Proceedings of the first North
American Conference on Mongolian Studies (1979), pp. 66—8.
Chingiz Khdn and the founding of the Mon gol Empire
The Mongols besiege a city on a river. from a manuscript of Rashid al-Din’s
Jkmi’ al-tawhrikh. Note the siege engines
Two small-scale attacks had already been made on the Tanguts
of Hsi-Hsia, and it was decided to mount a major campaign
against them before attempting to tackle the more formidable
enemy, the Chin. This would serve two purposes. It would be
Chingiz Khdn’s campaigns of conquest
something of a practice run against a state which was organised
largely on Chinese lines, and if successful it would open a
western route into China to add to the more direct northern
path of invasion. No doubt the Mongols, always alive to the
importance of commerce, were also interested in the control of
the major trade routes that passed through Hsi-Hsia.
Hsi-Hsia was attacked in 1209, and speedily brought to
submission. But it was not at this stage conquered. Its native
rulers remained in power, now subject to Chingiz Khãn and no
longer a danger on the flank of the projected assault on the
Chin. The great invasion of Chin began in 1211, and campaigns
in the north Chinese empire continued until in 1234, some years
after Chingiz Khãn’s death, it was finally subjugated. According
to one story, the invasion of China quickly revealed a serious
weakness in Mongol milit…
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