I don’t have a strong background in History, during my high school and college years History was something I had to labor through to get to the fun stuff – chemistry and biology!
As I get older though I’m trying to close the gap in my education through Biographies and History books because it irks me that I didn’t take it seriously when I was younger.
This is my first book pertaining to Khan, but I had watched several documentaries on him before. This book really toned down how I view him. History channel has an annoying habit of over-embellishing warfare and violence to get ratings up – don’t get my wrong this guy spilled some blood – but what was way more fascinating is learning how diplomatic he could be as well. (I audiobooked this so if I spell things wrong I’m sorry, I’m googling most of the names of people and places I know I don’t know how to spell)
This book starts out with some background on Temüjin’s mother and how she was captured by a neighboring tribe which was rather customary in Steppe Culture. It briefly touches on his childhood and his half siblings.
It gets interesting when his own wife was captured by the same tribe his mother was from – in a form of revenge for stealing her away.
Temüjin was part of a small clan at the time, and under most circumstances a husband would have counted his wife as lost to him forever with little he could do to bring her back. In a show of uncharacteristic emotion among the Steppe people, he said that his “chest had been ripped open and his heart was broken” and vowed to get her back, and he did!
He was part of a clan that was lead by his half brother, but things got tense during a power struggle when his half brother went from considering him somewhat equal in power and authority, and downgraded him to a commoner status. Temüjin said fuckit, I’ll make my own clan… with black jack and hookers.
This ended up causing a major rift, and for 20 years the two tribes warred with one another. Over time, Temüjin gained more and more ground and his half brother was ousted from power and was an out cast in their society. The small band of followers his half brother had left betrayed him, and brought him to Temüjin thinking they would be granted amnesty and be accepted as part of the tribe. They thought wrong – he executed them for their lack of loyalty, and offered his half brother a place among his tribe and to welcome him back into the family despite all the blood that was spilled between them. His brother declined and asked for an honorable death.
During his rise to power, Temüjin made some serious changes to the Steppe Culture by changing the way higher ranks in the tribe were distributed. Instead of the traditional way of handing authority over to family members, he instead rewarded loyal allies and friends for their service in bringing him to power. You no longer had to be part of the ruling class or elite class to gain power and prestige.
When he conquered tribes, instead of enslaving the women and murdering all the men who had surpassed puberty, he welcomed them into his clan offering the men brides, and the women a husband (usually of their choosing). He even went as far as to adopt orphans giving them over to his mother to be raised as “adopted brothers”. Many of those adopted brothers were later elevated to generals and war lords.
After his wife had been captured and re-united, it turned out his wife was pregnant, and no one knew if it was his, or her new husbands from the clan who kidnapped her. Instead of shunning her, or making her have an abortion (which they knew how to do), or exiling the child from his family when he was born, he simply named him “visitor/guest” and continued his marriage.
Throughout history generals or war lords who failed their rulers bid to conquer certain lands or people were punished – the author of this claims that Khan was one of the few, or possibly only leader who has no record of doing anything like that.
At one point he got fed up with how the noble classes were treating the common shepherd class, and he called a tribunal to try them for their misbehavior, and was determined to overthrow the old traditions – and eventually succeeded. He did this by conquering them one by one, and assigning the men of each major House to a distant clan, not allowing hem access to their family. He did this so that all the clans would in time merge into one, with no distinct family lineages, and promoting from within workmen, shepherds and commoners who showed loyalty into higher ranks in the tribe.
After unifying all of the clans of the Steppe, he had millions under his rule, and tens of millions of herd animals. He became the leader of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
Once he had unified, he started making even bigger changes. He outlawed slavery out-right. No mongol was ever to be made a slave for any reason. He outlawed the ‘stealing of women’ making it illegal to raid neighbors for wives. He decreed that there would be acceptance and tolerance of all religions. Traditionally the people of the Steppe worshiped the ‘sky god’, but over time Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced and many people converted. He saw how problematic it could be if one of those religions started warring with each other and would put to death anyone who tried to start shit.
He also introduced a writing system so he could make all of his laws concrete, and although writing had been informally introduced to some of the Christian and Islamic members of the Steppe culture, it was not at all wide spread. He made it so that many people knew how to read and write so his laws could be passed through the empire.
He also took “hostages” from each of his generals and war lords, but instead of threatening death of their family members misbehaved… he gave each hostage a prestigious role in his Courts and Government, and the thread was instead to take that away if the family misbehaved. No general wanted to lose their voice in court, and it was a much more effective way of governing.
Ghengis of course also burned down entire villages that defied him, used human beings as catapult fodder to terrify nations he wanted to conquer, and killed tens of thousands of people. But, I had already known that before I read the book, the highlight of the book for me was learning what else he did besides rampage through the Asian continent.