David Nightingale: Genghis Khan (~1160 - 1227 AD) (Temujin)

Sep 17, 2017

Portrait of Genghis Khan
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Imagine standing somewhere on the Great Wall of China and looking north. Before Russia there would be the Gobi desert, and Mongolia.

About 900 years ago Genghis Khan-- pronounced internationally with a soft "g" -- was born in Mongolia, and he came to be the leader (or khan) of the world's second greatest empire (by land mass), greater than the land-mass holdings of the Roman empire. Genghis was a member of a Mongol tribe and a herder, and was born not far south of Russia's Lake Baikal. His empire was won by violent attacks on neighboring tribes, ruthless cruelty and millions of beheadings. His armies were not cannibals per se, but, when starving, had been known to eat the flesh of dead bodies in the streets. The Mongol empire later -- under a grandson --  included all of China.

Today, DNA studies, from the American Journal of Human Genetics [ref.1] have shown a pattern in present-day Y-chromosomes of male populations stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west, right across to the Pacific and Korea in the east. The DNA pattern of interest shows that now about 8% of men in this huge region might be descended from Genghis Khan and/or his sons. Living to his 60s (he was born around 1162 +/- and died in 1227) Genghis acquired 9 or 10 actual wives (and invoking a line from Tom Lehrer "... god knows how many between".) What would typically happen was that in defeating a tribe he would demand the leader's prettiest daughters, often giving away the lesser ones to his own commanders, who were mostly his sons. Of course, the real check on these DNA findings would be to find his body and retrieve some actual DNA for direct comparison. The genetic markers only point to a man of 8-900 years ago, but it's an interesting study.

Genghis had an arranged marriage at about the age of eight [ref.2]  but it wasn't until he and his wife Boorte had each reached 16 that they actually married. A year or two later, in a battle between clans, Boorte was abducted, and not reclaimed in further battles until some months later. She was by then pregnant, and so there was always some doubt about whether Boorte's first son's father was Genghis or not. Nevertheless, she and Genghis went on to have many children.

The Mongolians were nomads and horseback riders, who carried their yurts with them on huge wooden-wheeled wagons drawn by a dozen or more oxen. Their yurts, or gers, were large domed tents with walls of woollen felt, and yurts are still used today.

Warfare depends strongly on weaponry (as the current ruler of North Korea knows well). Genghis' weapons were fast horses, and particularly powerful bone-and-wood bows plus sharp arrows. The Mongol skill-set included a specialty of twisting around bareback -- no stirrups -- and shooting arrows at pursuers.

Genghis Khan's empire lasted about 250 years, and his famous grandson was Kubla Khan (1215-1294) whose followers were the Yuans, who ruled China for about 100 years. This grandson is the one in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

                        A stately pleasure dome decree:

                        Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

                        Through caverns measureless to man

                        Down to a sunless sea ...

Finally, what was Genghis Khan's aim? A desire to conquer the world has been common of course -- or, like Trump, a drive to acquire ever-increasing wealth. But other famous people have pursued things without negatively affecting everyone else. Einstein for example never sought power or repute, but just wanted to unlock nature's secrets; and Mozart was driven to create beautiful music. Millions of corpses were not the result.

To my mind, that is what Genghis, and Hitler and Stalin, and Caesar, and plenty of others, achieved. Millions of corpses.


1.   American Journal of Human Genetics, 78, 334-338 (2006). See also European J.of Human Genetics, 23(10): 1413-22 (2015).

2.  "Genghis Khan; life, death and resurrection", by John Man; St.Martins Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010. (2005).

3.  "Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire", by Jean-Paul Roux; Discoveries, Harry N.Abrams, Inc., New York, NY (2003).

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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