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Genghis Khan, the man, the myth, the legend was undoubtedly a fierce and ruthless warrior. The New York Times called him “the original bad boy of history” and tales of his conquests have inspired shock and awe for much of the last millennium. During his reign as Khan of the vast Mongol empire, as many as 40 million people were killed. That’s roughly 11 percent of the world population at the time. He showed no mercy to his enemies, wiping them out by the millions, sometimes slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the cities he conquered. But was he a bloodthirsty madman or an ingenious diplomat? Did you know that despite all the killing, Genghis Khan’s empire was far more civil than the rest of the world? Let’s fix that. 


Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re sifting through the legends to, hopefully, uncover the truth behind the fearsome Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. 


A quick note about his name because by now you’re all probably like “ew, why does she keep saying jinghis it’s genghis” and I get it cause I totally thought it was genghis too and jinghis sounds real silly. But, it is actually jinghis. At least, that’s the version that’s closest to the actual pronunciation of his name in Mongolian which was Chinggis, like with a ch, like your chin on your face and then gis. Chinggis. So yeah, I’m officially converting to Jinghis because, as someone who’s had their name mispronounced their whole life, I’m a real believer in pronouncing people’s names correctly, or at least trying to. I’m sure I’ve absolutely butchered a few names since I started this podcast, but oh well, I try.


I’ll never forget my high school senior year awards ceremony. I won like 8 awards and they said my name wrong every time “She-yah, She-yah, She-yah,” just over and over again. You’d think she could have read the names over ahead of time but, clearly didn’t. Anyway, maybe I’m still scarred from that. So jinghis it is. 


So after that whole speech about his name being Jinghis, I have to break the news to you… that’s not even his name. He was born with the name Temujin, that’s his actual name. Now how do we know this, how do we know anything about Temujin AKA Genghis Khan? There was no written language in 12th century Mongolia, not before Genghis Khan established it in 1204. Also, he never allowed anyone to capture his likeness during his lifetime - no portraits, sculptures or engravings on coins. Almost everything we know about Genghis Khan comes from a record called “The Secret History of the Mongols” which was written by an anonymous author shortly after the Khan’s death. Any portrait, statue, or image of him you’ve ever seen was created well after his death, most likely by someone who had no idea what he actually looked like. It’s no wonder the story of Genghis Khan has taken on a mythic quality. We might as well be talking about Hercules or Odysseus. But this guy was real. 


Genghis Khan was born and named Temujin around 1160 near the border of modern day Mongolia and Siberia. So just a cold, vast, horrible place to be a baby in the middle ages. There was no unified Mongolia at this point, just a bunch of different nomadic clans and tribes. Nomadic, so they moved around, they didn’t settle in one place. Temujin’s father, Yesuge, was a clan leader. He supposedly ruled over quote “40,000 tents.” Now, Yesuge had kidnapped Temujin’s mother from a rival clan and forced her to marry him. This, apparently, was a common practice at the time. 


Temujin was supposedly born with a blood clot clutched in his right hand which was a sign that he would be a great warrior. A warrior baby born to a clan leader, it’s looking promising. He’s set to marry another clan leader’s daughter Borte. They’re betrothed when they’re only 9 and 10 years old. A match that will unify these great clans. 


Then, Temujin’s father is poisoned by an enemy tribe. And, it’s not like the power passes to Temujin or his brothers, no, the clan just abandons them. His mother and her six children are deserted, cast out, so they don’t become a burden, I suppose, on the rest of the clan. Someone else rises to power, and they just move on. Getting major Game of Thrones Dothraki vibes here, right? These nomadic clans on horseback, savage warriors, one Khal falls and someone else rises up to take his place. Yeah its, they were definitely inspired by the Mongolians, that’s for sure. 


So Temujin’s family has totally fallen from power. They are destitute, struggling to survive, hiding from Yesuge’s enemies out in the pastures of Mongolia. Temujin is like “enough, I was clutching a freaking blood clot when I was born, this ain’t happening.” He kills his half brother and takes over as head of the household. At one point he gets kidnapped by his father’s old clan but he escapes and somehow still manages to marry Borte, his betrothed clan leader’s daughter girl and it’s really just up and up from there. 


So Borte was Temujin’s first wife and she would remain his main wife throughout his life. But dude didn’t stop at just one. This was not a monogamous culture. Temujin had like 7 wives and somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 concubines, princesses and noblewomen that he captured when he conquered other tribes. I feel like people love throwing out the word concubine like everyone knows what it means so I’ll take a second to clarify. A concubine like a mistress but not really. They’re specific to polygamous cultures. They were more like wives than mistresses except they didn’t have the status of an actual wife. Plus a mistress is usually like this sordid love affair where both parties are into it and it’s this big scandal. Concubines were more forced into it, they were often enslaved women who were forced into this relationship, this position which was fairly legit, but a step down from a wife. 


So 7 wives and hundreds of concubines, no birth control, this guy had lots of kids. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors of Genghis Khan’s prolific procreation. They say 1 in every 200 people on Earth is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, but is there any truth in it? Well I did some digging to determine where the rumors came from and it’s pretty interesting. 


This claim is based on a 2003 historical genetics study, which cool, I’m into it. So basically, they looked at the DNA of 16 different populations across Asia and found that nearly 1 in 12 men shared an unusual Y chromosomal lineage. So that means, most of the men had a unique genetic code, right? Which is what you’d expect. Occasionally, they’d see a pattern repeated in more than one person which indicates that those people are distantly related but these are usually only found within the same population, the same geographic area which makes sense. They likely had a common ancestor in that area and just never left. What was unusual about this 2003 study is that they noticed a particular pattern occurring at high frequencies throughout the 16 different populations from central Asia all the way to the Pacific. Most of these were showing up in Mongolia. They then used a very complicated process to determine that all of these men with this particular gene pattern were related to a common ancestor, a man because we’re looking at Y chromosomes, who lived around 1,000 years ago. 


Now we don’t have Genghis Khan’s DNA, unfortunately. We don’t even know where he was buried so we can’t even go get it if it somehow still existed. So how do they know this common ancestor was our guy? Well, they ruled out some other possibilities. It didn’t happen by chance. The probability of that is one in ten octoseptuagintillion. That’s a one with 237 zeros. So that didn’t happen. It also can’t be based on natural population expansion because we would see a few different patterns showing up and confined within certain areas. Like this khan over here and that khan over there and this clan leader and that tribal elder there… that sort of thing. So it was one man who had a bunch of kids, like a ridiculous amount of kids all over the place around 1,000 years ago. That can really only be Genghis Khan. That’s how dominant he was during his lifetime. The ultimate alpha-male. But let’s go back to that - how he achieved dominant alpha-male everybody’s daddy status. 


You see, when Temujin - cause that’s still his name right now - when he wasn’t reproducing, he was conquering… just everybody. One of his earliest exploits came after his wife, Borte, was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe. You see, Tumujin’s mother was originally part of the Merkit tribe. Remember, his father had kidnapped her and forced her to marry him? Well, they hadn’t let that grudge go and kidnapping Borte was their way of getting revenge. Borte was held captive by the Merkit for a few months while Temujin gathered his forces to attack. It wasn’t so much an attack though, Temujin showed up for this daring rescue and all the Merkit people just sort of scattered. But Tumujin starts gaining followers and forming alliances as his reputation as a fierce warrior blossoms. And I love how this sort of starts with this daring rescue of his beloved wife. It’s almost sort of romantic in an otherwise not very romantic story. According to The Secret History of the Mongols: “As the pillaging and plundering went on, Temujin moved among the people that were hurriedly escaping, calling, 'Borte, Borte!" And so he came upon her, for Lady Borte was among those fleeing people. She heard the voice of Temujin and, recognizing it, she got off the cart and came running towards him… It was moonlight: he looked at them, recognized Lady Borte, and they fell into each other's arms.” Very Hollywood. 


Not long after the rescue, Borte gives birth to Temujin’s first son, Jochi, well actually, he might not have been Temujin’s son. Borte had been a captive of the Merkit and we all know what happens to captured women in this culture. Temujin always treated Jochi like his son but his three younger brothers occasionally disputed this, especially the second son Chagadai who felt like Jochi was essentially stealing his position as heir to the Mongol empire if he was, in fact, illegitimate. But let’s go back because there is no Mongol empire yet. 


So Temujin starts uniting all these Mongol clans and tribes like Mance Rayder bringing the Wildlings together. Sorry, I will eventually get over the Game of Thrones references, I think. Currently rewatching season 6 so, getting there. He has a uniquely successful way of doing this that’s quite different from how it’s always been done. Traditionally, family members were put in positions of power just because they were family. Instead, Temujin appoints competent allies instead, like people who were actually good at their jobs, not just your cousin. He executed the leaders of enemy tribes and then incorporated all the other members into his clan so this is very Daenerys Targaryen “kill the masters.” Sorry, it’s, I can’t stop. 


Temujin was an animist. That’s a form of religion that’s common in indigenous tribal people. It’s kind of like shamanism. It’s based on the belief that all living things have souls, so not dissimilar to other major religions. But Temujin’s followers were Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. He was very accepting of other religions and he didn’t force them to convert to anything which is very unique during the middle ages. 


By 1205 he had vanquished all his enemies in an area similar to the size of modern day Mongolia and united all of the tribes into one empire with some 1 million citizens. At this point he is given the name Chinggis Khan which roughly translates to “universal ruler.”


So he has the start of an empire going and he’s determined to keep it and grow it without tribal warfare breaking out again. To accomplish this, he does a few more untraditional things. He completely does away with aristocratic titles, forbids the selling and kidnapping of women, bans the enslavement of any Mongol, makes livestock theft punishable by death, which, okay harsh but apparently that was a traditional trigger for tribal warfare which is what he’s trying to avoid. He orders that a writing system be developed which didn’t exist in Mongolia until now, conducted a regular census, granted diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors, and allowed religious freedom, which we’ve already touched on. 


So for a barbaric warlord, he’s actually getting a few things right here and it’s working. His empire is super strong and his people are super devoted to him. Now he starts expanding. He sets his sights on northern China. Unlike other armies, the Mongols didn’t travel with these big caravans of supplies and tents and wagons and all this stuff weighing them down. They just had horses. If food was scarce, they were known to drink the milk and blood of their horses, keeping the horses alive but just feeding off of their… fluids. This comes from an account by Italian explorer Marco Polo, yes like the game you play in the pool. He reported Mongols riding for 10 days at a time while living on dried milk and blood from their horses. They were expert riders and very good with bows and arrows. They liked to use a “false withdrawal” tactic which is, I assume, where they pretended to give up and then when the enemy let their guard down they attacked. And it’s working, they are winning big time. 


What’s very clear about Genghis Khan’ style of conquering is that, if you just do what he says you’ll be fine. If you resist or double cross him, you’re screwed. When they attacked the Jin Dynasty in Northern China, the ruler demanded Genghis Khan’s submission rather than submitting himself and providing tribute as other rulers had done under siege. The Mongols couldn’t get in cause you know everyone has these high fortress walls for protection so they just ravaged the countryside for 2 years, sending refugees pouring into the city. Food shortages got so bad the Jin army ended up killing tens of thousands of their own people. So at this point Genghis Khan has figured out a way to get the Jin to do his dirty work for him. They’re killing themselves, conquering their own people. 


In 1219, Genghis Khan goes to war with the Khwarezm Empire in present day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty but as soon as goods arrived from Mongolia, he just stole them and killed some of Genghis Khan’s men. So, yeah that was a huge mistake. The Mongols fly in on their horses and just wipe out city after city and they’re outnumbered but they’re just that good at this. Interestingly, carpenters and jewelers were spared but aristocrats, soldiers, and unskilled workers were all just destroyed.  


Apparently, during the decimation of a city called Merv in what is now Turkmenistan, Genghis Khan sat on a golden throne and watched as anywhere from 700,000 to 1.3 million people (estimates vary) were killed. He apparently ordered each of his soldiers to kill at least 300 people. 


In the city of Otrar, the governor provoked Genghis Khan who had him executed by pouring molten silver on him. Then, every single person in the city was killed, probably around 100,000. 


In Termez, a woman pleaded with the Mongols to spare her life, claiming she had swallowed pearls. So they sliced her open and did in fact find pearls. Which, like, what kind of plan was that lady? Like they were just gonna wait for you to poop them out? I don’t get it. But after her claims turned out to be true, they disemboweled all of the corpses of every citizen killed in Termez looking for more riches. 


In 1221 Khan’s forces wiped out the entire city of Nishapur in present day Iran - 1,748,000 people. Apparently, while in Nishapur, Genghis Khan’s favorite son in law was killed. It’s not clear whether they had already gained control of Nishapur at this point or if they were just starting the process of conquering it, but either way this was a bad move on the part of the Nishapurans. Genghis Khan’s daughter, whose husband had been killed, ordered that every single person in Nishapur be killed to avenge his death. Like, “oh daddy, I’m just so sad, please kill everyone in the city for me.” And he did, or he ordered his youngest son to anyway - all 1,748,000 of them - women, children, babies, cats, dogs - every freaking body. Fearing some of them were still alive and just left wounded, the daughter then ordered that they all be beheaded, and so they were and their heads were piled in pyramids. Three pyramids - one for men, one for women, and one for children. 


So, like, holy cow I feel like Genghis Khan’s daughter is the real psycho killer here and I can’t even find her name, of course, cause she was a woman, duh. But, also, this seems crazy, I don’t know. I mean I’m sure Nishapur really was conquered but was it actually about Genghis Khan’s daughter avenging her murdered husband’s death, I don’t know that seems too Hollywood. Remember all of this is coming from “The Secret History of the Mongols” which was written by an anonymous author. It’s reminding me a lot of “A General History of the Pyrates,” also written by an anonymous author which I talked about in episode 2 about Blackbeard. It becomes very difficult to say whether these accounts are fact or sensationalized fiction. Were stories embellished, probably. So, take it with a grain of salt, I guess.  


So here we see an interesting escalation, I feel like, and yes I’m bringing in Daenerys Targaryen again because her character follows a similar arc in Game of Thrones. Starting out, we see Genghis Khan conquering tribes and later cities by killing their rulers and adopting their common people as his own. Also, enacting these really just and civil laws - religious tolerance, humane treatment of women, the banning of slavery. And then later we see this escalate into the decimation of entire cities and the killing of all men, women, children, even the animals - cats and dogs - if he felt that he had been slighted or betrayed, disrespected by that city. 


But regardless of this escalation, this arc, what we have when it’s all said and done is a massive empire - the largest land empire ever. At its peak, the Mongol empire covered between 11 and 12 million square miles - most of Asia, the Middle East, and Russia from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.That’s an area larger than the entire continent of Africa. Which is, unheard of before or since and it really comes back to those horses. Not only were the Mongols incredibly skilled cavalrymen, AKA warriors on horseback, ahem, Dothraki. The horses allowed for transportation and communication across the vastness of the empire. 


There have been some super interesting studies done about the “hidden rule” of empire size. When you look at the Roman Empire, one of the greatest of all time, they seemed unstoppable, expanding for centuries but they eventually hit a limit. They just couldn’t overpower the Germanic Tribes. They were stuck. That’s because of the hidden rule. Rome was the center of the Roman Empire and when you look at the farthest extent of its reach, you’ll notice that the borders only ever extended within a 1 month travel time of Rome. Once you got outside of that 1 month travel time, it was unsustainable. They couldn’t hold the land if it was farther than a month away.


This rule is also why we see ancient civilizations flourishing near rivers and bodies of water. Yes they needed water but it was also about transportation. You can travel up the Nile River much faster than you can trudge on foot through the deserts of Egypt. Proximity to the river allowed Egyptian civilizations to expand, but only to a point - a one month limit. And this pattern is repeated again and again when you examine maps of ancient empires and factor in contemporary means of transportation and travel time. 


So the Mongol Empire grew larger than any of these because of the horses. The entire empire could apparently be traversed on horseback in, yeah you guessed it, one month. And that’s where the borders ended - at the one month mark. 


Genghis Khan established what was essentially a postal system across the empire which was called the “Yam.” It had a series of strategically placed post houses where riders could trade out their tired horses for fresh ones and just keep going. It’s said they could ride as far as 200 miles a day which is why that one month limit was so much farther than the other great empires. With the Yam, goods and information could travel at unprecedented speeds which allowed Genghis Khan to stay on top of military and political developments across the empire and maintain contact with his scouts and spies. 


It was also ridiculously safe which is not a thing elsewhere in the middle ages. It was said that a young woman could walk across the entire empire with a gold plate on her head and not be bothered by a soul. What a dream. We certainly can’t guarantee that in modern day America even. 


So Genghis Khan built this massive empire with a vast system of communication and trade, he established a written language, he came up with a very specific set of rules and regulations each with their own punishment, he allowed people to practice whatever religion they wanted, he protected and respected (I mean kinda) women, he forbade the enslavement of at least his own people, the empire was huge, and super safe, and super prosperous. Dude is killing it at this whole Khan thing… and then he dies. 


Some of my sources say he may have died of bubonic plague. Others say he was thrown from his horse and never fully recovered from internal injuries, later dying. I don’t know, maybe it wdas some combination of those. But apparently, before his death, he was adamant that his burial place remain a secret and he had a particularly horrific way of ensuring this. 


According to Marco Polo who served as a messenger to Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan was buried by 2,000 slaves after his death. Which, that seems excessive but okay. Afterwards, all 2,000 of the slaves were killed by their guards. Then, the guards were killed by soldiers. The soldiers made their way back from this mysterious burial place, killing anyone who saw them so that there would be no witnesses to the route they took. Then, when they got back, they committed suicide. So, in this way, no one alive knew where Genghis Khan was buried. But also, if this is true, this just speaks volumes about how devoted his people were to him. Absolute devotion. I mean the man is dead and they are still carrying out his wishes, just willingly dying to protect the secret of his burial place. That is some serious control. 


After Genghis Khan’s death, his son Ogedai took over and expanded the empire even more. His grandson Kublai Khan also added to the expansion. But, after Kublai Khan’s death, the empire argued over the next successor. There were 8 emperors in a span of 25 years - 2 were assassinated and the rest died young. Without a strong leader, the empire basically dissolved into civil war and destroyed itself from within.  


So as fierce and mighty and strong and vast as the Mongol empire was, it could not survive without Genghis Khan. Has any empire ever been more dependent upon a single man? Has any one man ever been more successful at building an empire? I kind of don’t think so. But the fatal flaw for the Mongol empire was longevity. Genghis Khan designed it to flourish flawlessly under his iron fist. He apparently did not take into account its survival after he was dead and gone. It’s the whole give a man a fish teach a man to fish thing. I feel like part of what made him such a successful emperor is that he was a total control freak. He controlled every minute detail of his empire and he did it all his own way, broke with tradition, really reimagined entirely what an empire should be based on and it worked beautifully. But he didn’t pass it along. He didn’t teach the men to fish and they eventually succumbed to same old tribal warfare he had worked so hard to prevent. There are some really powerful lessons to be learned there. 


With Genghis Khan and his Mongol empire, we have this crazy contradiction. We have one man responsible for taking the lives of an estimated 40 million people, literally the carbon footprint of the planet dropped during his lifetime. That’s how much breath he extinguished. This same man is also reproducing at an incredible rate - 16 million people alive today are likely direct descendents of this one man. So he’s taking people out, he’s bringing people in. He’s destroying cities, he’s building up new ones, arguably better ones. He’s breaking and rebuilding, he’s separating and unifying. The contradictions are never ending. He’s breaking the wheel. Oh my god you guys Danaerys Targaryen is Genghis Khan I’m just now realizing this. Touche George R. R. Martin, touche. 


After all the conquering, the death and destruction, after all the dust settled, Genghis Khan realized something. He realized that trade, communication, and religious tolerance were much more instrumental in conquering the minds of people than brute force. This realization led to a century of peace referred to as “Pax Mongolica.” A century of peace that allowed for incredible advancements that have impacted the modern world. 


Khan disregarded race, ethnicity, and class among his people and created a society based on meritocracy where people were rewarded for their ability and talent, not who their daddy was. He created a system of safe travel and trade that brought revolutionary new goods like paper, gun powder, and the compass to Europe, igniting the Renaissance which ushered us out of the dark ages and into the modern world as we know it. “I have conquered for you a large empire,” he said on his deathbed, “But my life was too short to take the whole world. That I leave to you.” Although his empire was short lived, his legacy certainly was not.


Bloodthirsty barbarian or inspiring world leader, maybe it’s not as black and white as that. In fact, I think few things in life are as black and white as we make them out to be. Our brains don’t like gray. You’re either this or you're that, you can’t be both. But maybe you can. The story of Genghis Khan reminds me to always leave space for gray. 


Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix. 


Information used in the episode was sourced from, the Metropolitan Museum of Art,,, American Museum of Natural History,, an Uncharted Territories blog post,, a blog about Mongol history, a YouTube video by The Life Guide, and Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.

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