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Episode
123

Genghis Khan

Jan 12, 2021
History
-
23
minutes
Central Asia
War
Mongolia
China
Asia

He was the ruler of the Mongols and the most powerful man in the world.

In this episode, you'll learn about his early life, how he united the Mongol tribes, and we'll ask ourselves whether he was really as brutal as he is often made out to be.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Genghis Khan, the ruler of the Mongol empire, the largest empire in the history of the world.

[00:00:34] Now, the story of Genghis Khan is fascinating, and it is a lot more complicated and nuanced than it is often presented in the west.

[00:00:46] Genghis Khan may well have been a ruthless conqueror, responsible for the deaths of millions of people all over the world. 

[00:00:54] But he was also a skilled leader, an excellent politician, and appears to have had a deep understanding of humanity. 

[00:01:05] The story of Genghis Khan, apart from anything else, is unlikely. 

[00:01:11] He grew up dirt poor, scrounging for food, and before his fiftieth birthday he was the most powerful man in the entire world.

[00:01:21] So, let’s jump right in, and learn about the life and times of Genghis Khan.

[00:01:29] We are going to start off with two administrative points. Firstly, Genghis Khan wasn’t actually his name, it was his title. 

[00:01:38] His name was Temuchin. 

[00:01:40] He is thought to have been born in the year 1162, on the Mongolian grasslands

[00:01:47] A recurrent theme in this episode, and a problem for historians, is that there aren't a huge amount of records about his life, and only a handful exist from the Mongol perspective.

[00:02:02] A large part of our understanding about Genghis Khan and the Mongols comes from the writings of the people that he conquered. 

[00:02:10] And, naturally, if you are conquered by a foreign invading army you are not very likely to have positive memories of them.

[00:02:19] The other practical point, before we get into the heart of the story, is the pronunciation of Genghis Khan. 

[00:02:28] You might have heard it pronounced as Jenghiz Khan, or even Chinghis Khan. We’ll stick to the English pronunciation, Genghis, but in Mongolian it is pronounced more like Chinghiss.

[00:02:41] So, with those administrative points out of the way, let’s get into the more exciting stuff.

[00:02:48] Temuchin was born to a nomadic family on the Mongolian steppe, the expansive, harsh grassland of modern Mongolia. 

[00:02:59] The people that lived on the steppe were nomadic tribespeople, they migrated over huge swathes of grassland with their animals to make sure that they had fresh grass. 

[00:03:13] These nomadic peoples would normally fight amongst themselves, between tribes, and there would be rivalries that would continue for years. 

[00:03:23] Someone would be killed, or animals would be stolen then revenge would be taken. 

[00:03:30] Revenge would be taken for the revenge, and this would go on and on.

[00:03:36] The young Temuchin’s life was dominated by this warring of tribes, and when Temuchin was only nine years old it affected him personally - his father, a tribe leader, was poisoned by the Tatars, a rival tribe, and died. 

[00:03:57] The young Temuchin tried to claim his father’s position as leader of the tribe, but the other powerful men in the tribe took this opportunity to throw Temuchin, his mother and his brothers out of the tribe, leaving them on their own and having to forage and hunt for food.

[00:04:18] This was a huge embarrassment for a nomad, as they were used to having a pretty good diet, with their large herds producing more than enough meat, cheese and milk products for them to not go hungry.

[00:04:34] So, at the age of nine Temuchin was without a father, and cast out of the tribe.

[00:04:41] He was a nobody. 

[00:04:43] No reputation, no name, no father, and he was living in poverty.

[00:04:50] There isn’t a huge amount of additional information about Temuchin’s early life after his father was murdered, but it was very clear that from an early age that he was resourceful, charismatic, with natural leadership skills and a sense of bravery.

[00:05:10] He started to attract a following - people were naturally drawn to him, and he seemed to understand how to persuade and attract others.

[00:05:22] He was also very calculating, not someone to rush into a decision without considering his options. 

[00:05:31] There’s a story that demonstrates this very well from when one of his wives was captured.

[00:05:38] Now, in nomadic tribe culture it was often the case that a marriage between two people would be arranged when they were very young. 

[00:05:48] In Temuchin’s case, when he was just 9 years old, before his father was murdered, his marriage was arranged to a young girl from another tribe

[00:05:58] He didn’t marry her until years later, but after they were married she was stolen and taken away by a rival tribe

[00:06:08] Temuchin’s natural instinct was to attack the other tribe and retrieve his wife, but he realised that this was going to be impossible, it would be a fool’s errand

[00:06:21] The other tribe had superior forces, and Temuchin would almost certainly have been killed.

[00:06:28] So what did he do? 

[00:06:31] Nothing. 

[00:06:32] He waited, and waited, for 8 months until he was able to forge an alliance with another tribe and get his wife back. 

[00:06:41] When he finally was able to get her back, she was pregnant. 

[00:06:46] It’s not clear whether this child was Temuchin’s or not, but he treated it as his own, and the boy was later to become a commander in Temuchin’s army. 

[00:06:58] Of course, not all men at the time would have behaved in the same way, and the fact that Temuchin kept his cool when she was kidnapped, then treated the son as his own gives you an early indication of the fact that he wasn’t merely a cold-blooded, barbarian murderer.

[00:07:19] These calculating qualities, and evident intelligence continued to draw more and more people to Temuchin. 

[00:07:27] He seemed to have a sort of magnetic quality, and he treated those that followed him well. 

[00:07:35] He formed powerful allegiances with other tribes, and was ruthless with his enemies. 

[00:07:43] Slowly but surely, he eliminated rival tribes, often killing all of the elder leaders, leaving only the children, who wouldn’t remember what had happened, and thus not seek revenge.

[00:07:57] His power grew and grew, and in 1206 he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the Ultimate Khan, the leader of all of the nomadic Mongol tribes.

[00:08:10] Before Genghis Khan, there was no ultimate leader, the tribes had never been successfully united. 

[00:08:18] Now was the opportunity to take things to the next level, and coming together as a united people, of course, meant that they were a lot stronger than as a collection of smaller tribes that spent their lives fighting among one another.

[00:08:36] These different tribes weren’t just different groups of people, they had different cultures, different languages, and belief systems.

[00:08:46] Genghis Khan recognised this, and had some unique strategies for bringing these tribes together, for uniting them.

[00:08:55] One of the things he did was that, in his army, he mixed up all the different tribes

[00:09:02] His army was a slick military operation, and each unit was formed of people from different tribes

[00:09:10] There was no way of swapping, you were assigned a unit and that was it.

[00:09:16] While you might think that this was a quick way for conflict to arise between the different people within the unit, it actually worked extremely well. 

[00:09:27] With the different tribes forced together, their identities and rivalries were reduced, and they presumably saw that the other tribes that they had been fighting against for years weren’t actually that bad at all.

[00:09:43] The other thing that he did was to not try to enforce any particular belief system on the tribes

[00:09:50] He recognised that they were unique, and didn’t try to impose his own set of rules or cultural norms on them.

[00:10:01] He was also, reportedly, incredibly loyal to those that were loyal to him, and ruthless to those that weren’t.

[00:10:10] He rewarded loyalty and performance with gifts and high positions in the army. 

[00:10:16] His army was meritocratic - it didn't matter whether you were born at the top or bottom of your tribe - in Genghis Khan’s army your rank, your position, was determined by your loyalty and your performance. 

[00:10:32] When he became Genghis Khan, in 1206, he may have been the most powerful of the nomads, but he was far from the world’s most powerful military commander. 

[00:10:43] Indeed, initially he didn’t show a huge amount of interest in world conquest, and he didn’t set out right away on huge military campaigns.

[00:10:56] He had an immediate advantage though, in that life on the Mongolian grasslands was very helpful for training future soldiers, and preparing them for the battles that they would fight.

[00:11:09] Firstly, the method by which Mongolian riders hunted prepared them very well for military encounters.

[00:11:18] They would often form huge circles across the grasslands, tens of kilometres in circumference

[00:11:25] All the men would be on horseback.

[00:11:29] They would then come together, towards the centre of the circle, driving the animals into the middle. 

[00:11:37] This required huge amounts of coordination, which is evidently difficult when you are on the windy, Mongolian grassland, and the radio wasn’t going to be invented for another 700 years.

[00:11:51] A tactic they developed was to use particular types of arrows that would make different noises as they travelled through the air, and this would direct the horsemen to move in certain directions. 

[00:12:07] This meant that the commanders could give orders to their men just by firing an arrow, and this was a huge advantage when it came to fighting a more dangerous enemy than wolves or deer.

[00:12:22] Secondly, the entire Mongol army was on horseback, there was no infantry, no foot soldiers, and of course this meant that they were able to travel incredibly fast, and launch lightning attacks on their enemy.

[00:12:39] As Genghis Khan’s forces moved off the steppe, away from the grassland and towards settled populations, towards non-nomadic people, it found great riches. 

[00:12:52] One of the problems about being a nomad is that it was hard to build up wealth. 

[00:12:58] Your wealth was in your sheep and goats, it didn’t really last - sheep and goats don’t live for very long, and you have to keep replacing them. 

[00:13:09] When Genghis Khan’s forces reached places like modern-day China and Persia they found abundant riches - spices, silk, gold, and other precious goods. 

[00:13:22] Naturally, this was very enticing to the well-trained Mongolian army.

[00:13:29] The deal that the Mongol forces usually proposed to cities that they were attacking was simple: if you surrender, we will spare your lives. Fight and we will kill every last one of you.

[00:13:44] And the Mongols had a reputation for keeping their word. 

[00:13:48] If they said they’d kill you, they weren’t messing around.

[00:13:52] It was simple, but incredibly effective, and although they did slaughter entire populations, there isn’t much evidence that they did this because of some perverse enjoyment, but rather because if they developed a reputation for slaughtering entire towns and cities if they didn’t surrender, then the word would get out and cities were more likely to surrender in advance, meaning that the Mongols didn’t need to fight them.

[00:14:23] Indeed, the Mongol army was effective, but it wasn’t actually as large as you might think it was.

[00:14:30] The entire Mongol army was around 2 million strong, but it was split over multiple different fronts, over multiple different areas.

[00:14:42] There wasn’t one, individual Mongol horde that rampaged all over Asia, but a collection of diverse ones, all ultimately controlled by Genghis Khan, but each being controlled by a regional commander.

[00:14:58] These armies had traveled very far from home, and wanted to avoid losing any men if at all possible, so they would almost always offer the opportunity for their enemies to surrender, so that they didn’t actually have to fight.

[00:15:14] But, you might still be wondering, what were they actually doing by going on these huge conquests

[00:15:21] Why were they invading? 

[00:15:23] Why did they leave their grassy homelands and conquer a third of Asia?

[00:15:29] There are some popular misconceptions about this, and the main one is that they ran out of grassland in Mongolia, which meant they came off the plains in order to survive. 

[00:15:41] There’s very little evidence that this is actually true.

[00:15:46] Most historians now believe that the real reason that the Mongols continued their global quest was because they had started it, the soldiers had tasted the spoils of war, the goods they had managed to seize from these towns and cities, and to keep the soldiers united and happy, Genghis Khan needed to continue to ransack new towns and cities.

[00:16:11] Remember, the Mongols were a nomadic population, they moved their animals around, and they didn’t really have any other way to produce wealth other than taking it. When they arrived in places like China and Persia, they found huge treasures, silk, spices, precious metals, things that can only really be created by static societies.

[00:16:38] Although Genghis Khan may have been a fearsome conqueror to those that he conquered, he was a loyal, generous leader to those that followed him. 

[00:16:48] He would reward his soldiers with the spoils of war, and when these spoils were exhausted, they needed to go out and look for more.

[00:16:58] Another factor that motivated Genghis Khan’s armies to head south, to what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, was related to loyalty to his men.

[00:17:12] This area was at the time part of the Khwarezmid Empire, and was ruled by a man called Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad. 

[00:17:21] Genghis Khan had tried to make a trade agreement with him, but when Khan sent a Mongol trade mission to meet with the Shah, they were all killed and their goods were stolen.

[00:17:35] To try to resolve the situation peacefully, Genghis Khan sent three diplomats to negotiate with the Shah, but they were decapitated, their heads were chopped off. 

[00:17:49] The Shah was trying his luck.

[00:17:53] But if there was one person that you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, it was Genghis Khan.

[00:18:01] The cutting off of his diplomats’ heads was a gross insult, and within two years Genghis Khan had destroyed the entire Khwarezmid Empire, killed the Shah, and chased his son all the way down to India. 

[00:18:19] So, the primary reason for venturing all the way south to that part of Asia was, really, out of loyalty to his murdered men.

[00:18:29] What is often misunderstood about the Mongol empire is that its peak was actually after Genghis Khan’s death, in 1227. 

[00:18:38] The Khanate was passed to his son, and the systems that Genghis Khan had put in place were strong enough for the empire to continue expanding. 

[00:18:50] At its largest point it covered everything from modern day Hungary right through to the Pacific Ocean, an area the size of Africa.

[00:19:01] The empire wasn’t to last though, or at least it wasn’t to last in its original form. 

[00:19:09] The Mongols essentially became emperors of China, and formed the Yuan dynasty, which went on from 1271 to 1368.

[00:19:20] In terms of the legacy that Genghis Khan left, he is by far the most famous person to have ever come out of Mongolia, and Mongolians today are fiercely proud of him. 

[00:19:33] He is on the banknotes, the airport of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulan Bator is called Genghis Khan International, and there’s even a Genghis Khan vodka. 

[00:19:44] Far from being considered a brutal dictator, he is a national hero, a sign of Mongolian strength and power in the world, even if that strength and power ended almost 800 years ago.

[00:19:59] In the West, historians have a complicated time figuring out Genghis Khan. 

[00:20:06] There are some who blame him even for things like the treatment of the Aztecs and the Incas by the Spanish, saying that Genghis Khan was ruthlessly brutal towards muslims in central Asia and the middle east, who were in turn ruthless towards the crusaders, who brought this back to Spain and they therefore were ruthless when they went to the new world.

[00:20:30] It seems like a little bit of a stretch and there seems to not be that much evidence that Genghis Khan was any more or less ruthless than any other great military ruler, and by considering his actions with our 21st century lens we’re really failing to understand the norms at the time. 

[00:20:54] No, of course we shouldn’t condone the murder of entire populations, but if we are going to say that Genghis Khan was a terrible barbarian, the theory goes, we should judge people like Alexander the Great, and Julius Ceasar with the same standards. 

[00:21:13] One of the main differences, really, was that the Mongols were different, they came from the East on lightning fast horses, they didn’t leave a great written culture or history behind, and they left great destruction in their midst

[00:21:31] Perhaps if they had left behind great poems, songs, or books, then we would think about the legacy of Genghis Khan in a slightly different way.

[00:21:43] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Genghis Khan.

[00:21:48] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:52] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:56] We do actually have quite a few listeners from Mongolia, so if you are from Mongolia, I would absolutely love to hear your perspective on this. 

[00:22:05] You can head to our community forum which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:14] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:19] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Genghis Khan, the ruler of the Mongol empire, the largest empire in the history of the world.

[00:00:34] Now, the story of Genghis Khan is fascinating, and it is a lot more complicated and nuanced than it is often presented in the west.

[00:00:46] Genghis Khan may well have been a ruthless conqueror, responsible for the deaths of millions of people all over the world. 

[00:00:54] But he was also a skilled leader, an excellent politician, and appears to have had a deep understanding of humanity. 

[00:01:05] The story of Genghis Khan, apart from anything else, is unlikely. 

[00:01:11] He grew up dirt poor, scrounging for food, and before his fiftieth birthday he was the most powerful man in the entire world.

[00:01:21] So, let’s jump right in, and learn about the life and times of Genghis Khan.

[00:01:29] We are going to start off with two administrative points. Firstly, Genghis Khan wasn’t actually his name, it was his title. 

[00:01:38] His name was Temuchin. 

[00:01:40] He is thought to have been born in the year 1162, on the Mongolian grasslands

[00:01:47] A recurrent theme in this episode, and a problem for historians, is that there aren't a huge amount of records about his life, and only a handful exist from the Mongol perspective.

[00:02:02] A large part of our understanding about Genghis Khan and the Mongols comes from the writings of the people that he conquered. 

[00:02:10] And, naturally, if you are conquered by a foreign invading army you are not very likely to have positive memories of them.

[00:02:19] The other practical point, before we get into the heart of the story, is the pronunciation of Genghis Khan. 

[00:02:28] You might have heard it pronounced as Jenghiz Khan, or even Chinghis Khan. We’ll stick to the English pronunciation, Genghis, but in Mongolian it is pronounced more like Chinghiss.

[00:02:41] So, with those administrative points out of the way, let’s get into the more exciting stuff.

[00:02:48] Temuchin was born to a nomadic family on the Mongolian steppe, the expansive, harsh grassland of modern Mongolia. 

[00:02:59] The people that lived on the steppe were nomadic tribespeople, they migrated over huge swathes of grassland with their animals to make sure that they had fresh grass. 

[00:03:13] These nomadic peoples would normally fight amongst themselves, between tribes, and there would be rivalries that would continue for years. 

[00:03:23] Someone would be killed, or animals would be stolen then revenge would be taken. 

[00:03:30] Revenge would be taken for the revenge, and this would go on and on.

[00:03:36] The young Temuchin’s life was dominated by this warring of tribes, and when Temuchin was only nine years old it affected him personally - his father, a tribe leader, was poisoned by the Tatars, a rival tribe, and died. 

[00:03:57] The young Temuchin tried to claim his father’s position as leader of the tribe, but the other powerful men in the tribe took this opportunity to throw Temuchin, his mother and his brothers out of the tribe, leaving them on their own and having to forage and hunt for food.

[00:04:18] This was a huge embarrassment for a nomad, as they were used to having a pretty good diet, with their large herds producing more than enough meat, cheese and milk products for them to not go hungry.

[00:04:34] So, at the age of nine Temuchin was without a father, and cast out of the tribe.

[00:04:41] He was a nobody. 

[00:04:43] No reputation, no name, no father, and he was living in poverty.

[00:04:50] There isn’t a huge amount of additional information about Temuchin’s early life after his father was murdered, but it was very clear that from an early age that he was resourceful, charismatic, with natural leadership skills and a sense of bravery.

[00:05:10] He started to attract a following - people were naturally drawn to him, and he seemed to understand how to persuade and attract others.

[00:05:22] He was also very calculating, not someone to rush into a decision without considering his options. 

[00:05:31] There’s a story that demonstrates this very well from when one of his wives was captured.

[00:05:38] Now, in nomadic tribe culture it was often the case that a marriage between two people would be arranged when they were very young. 

[00:05:48] In Temuchin’s case, when he was just 9 years old, before his father was murdered, his marriage was arranged to a young girl from another tribe

[00:05:58] He didn’t marry her until years later, but after they were married she was stolen and taken away by a rival tribe

[00:06:08] Temuchin’s natural instinct was to attack the other tribe and retrieve his wife, but he realised that this was going to be impossible, it would be a fool’s errand

[00:06:21] The other tribe had superior forces, and Temuchin would almost certainly have been killed.

[00:06:28] So what did he do? 

[00:06:31] Nothing. 

[00:06:32] He waited, and waited, for 8 months until he was able to forge an alliance with another tribe and get his wife back. 

[00:06:41] When he finally was able to get her back, she was pregnant. 

[00:06:46] It’s not clear whether this child was Temuchin’s or not, but he treated it as his own, and the boy was later to become a commander in Temuchin’s army. 

[00:06:58] Of course, not all men at the time would have behaved in the same way, and the fact that Temuchin kept his cool when she was kidnapped, then treated the son as his own gives you an early indication of the fact that he wasn’t merely a cold-blooded, barbarian murderer.

[00:07:19] These calculating qualities, and evident intelligence continued to draw more and more people to Temuchin. 

[00:07:27] He seemed to have a sort of magnetic quality, and he treated those that followed him well. 

[00:07:35] He formed powerful allegiances with other tribes, and was ruthless with his enemies. 

[00:07:43] Slowly but surely, he eliminated rival tribes, often killing all of the elder leaders, leaving only the children, who wouldn’t remember what had happened, and thus not seek revenge.

[00:07:57] His power grew and grew, and in 1206 he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the Ultimate Khan, the leader of all of the nomadic Mongol tribes.

[00:08:10] Before Genghis Khan, there was no ultimate leader, the tribes had never been successfully united. 

[00:08:18] Now was the opportunity to take things to the next level, and coming together as a united people, of course, meant that they were a lot stronger than as a collection of smaller tribes that spent their lives fighting among one another.

[00:08:36] These different tribes weren’t just different groups of people, they had different cultures, different languages, and belief systems.

[00:08:46] Genghis Khan recognised this, and had some unique strategies for bringing these tribes together, for uniting them.

[00:08:55] One of the things he did was that, in his army, he mixed up all the different tribes

[00:09:02] His army was a slick military operation, and each unit was formed of people from different tribes

[00:09:10] There was no way of swapping, you were assigned a unit and that was it.

[00:09:16] While you might think that this was a quick way for conflict to arise between the different people within the unit, it actually worked extremely well. 

[00:09:27] With the different tribes forced together, their identities and rivalries were reduced, and they presumably saw that the other tribes that they had been fighting against for years weren’t actually that bad at all.

[00:09:43] The other thing that he did was to not try to enforce any particular belief system on the tribes

[00:09:50] He recognised that they were unique, and didn’t try to impose his own set of rules or cultural norms on them.

[00:10:01] He was also, reportedly, incredibly loyal to those that were loyal to him, and ruthless to those that weren’t.

[00:10:10] He rewarded loyalty and performance with gifts and high positions in the army. 

[00:10:16] His army was meritocratic - it didn't matter whether you were born at the top or bottom of your tribe - in Genghis Khan’s army your rank, your position, was determined by your loyalty and your performance. 

[00:10:32] When he became Genghis Khan, in 1206, he may have been the most powerful of the nomads, but he was far from the world’s most powerful military commander. 

[00:10:43] Indeed, initially he didn’t show a huge amount of interest in world conquest, and he didn’t set out right away on huge military campaigns.

[00:10:56] He had an immediate advantage though, in that life on the Mongolian grasslands was very helpful for training future soldiers, and preparing them for the battles that they would fight.

[00:11:09] Firstly, the method by which Mongolian riders hunted prepared them very well for military encounters.

[00:11:18] They would often form huge circles across the grasslands, tens of kilometres in circumference

[00:11:25] All the men would be on horseback.

[00:11:29] They would then come together, towards the centre of the circle, driving the animals into the middle. 

[00:11:37] This required huge amounts of coordination, which is evidently difficult when you are on the windy, Mongolian grassland, and the radio wasn’t going to be invented for another 700 years.

[00:11:51] A tactic they developed was to use particular types of arrows that would make different noises as they travelled through the air, and this would direct the horsemen to move in certain directions. 

[00:12:07] This meant that the commanders could give orders to their men just by firing an arrow, and this was a huge advantage when it came to fighting a more dangerous enemy than wolves or deer.

[00:12:22] Secondly, the entire Mongol army was on horseback, there was no infantry, no foot soldiers, and of course this meant that they were able to travel incredibly fast, and launch lightning attacks on their enemy.

[00:12:39] As Genghis Khan’s forces moved off the steppe, away from the grassland and towards settled populations, towards non-nomadic people, it found great riches. 

[00:12:52] One of the problems about being a nomad is that it was hard to build up wealth. 

[00:12:58] Your wealth was in your sheep and goats, it didn’t really last - sheep and goats don’t live for very long, and you have to keep replacing them. 

[00:13:09] When Genghis Khan’s forces reached places like modern-day China and Persia they found abundant riches - spices, silk, gold, and other precious goods. 

[00:13:22] Naturally, this was very enticing to the well-trained Mongolian army.

[00:13:29] The deal that the Mongol forces usually proposed to cities that they were attacking was simple: if you surrender, we will spare your lives. Fight and we will kill every last one of you.

[00:13:44] And the Mongols had a reputation for keeping their word. 

[00:13:48] If they said they’d kill you, they weren’t messing around.

[00:13:52] It was simple, but incredibly effective, and although they did slaughter entire populations, there isn’t much evidence that they did this because of some perverse enjoyment, but rather because if they developed a reputation for slaughtering entire towns and cities if they didn’t surrender, then the word would get out and cities were more likely to surrender in advance, meaning that the Mongols didn’t need to fight them.

[00:14:23] Indeed, the Mongol army was effective, but it wasn’t actually as large as you might think it was.

[00:14:30] The entire Mongol army was around 2 million strong, but it was split over multiple different fronts, over multiple different areas.

[00:14:42] There wasn’t one, individual Mongol horde that rampaged all over Asia, but a collection of diverse ones, all ultimately controlled by Genghis Khan, but each being controlled by a regional commander.

[00:14:58] These armies had traveled very far from home, and wanted to avoid losing any men if at all possible, so they would almost always offer the opportunity for their enemies to surrender, so that they didn’t actually have to fight.

[00:15:14] But, you might still be wondering, what were they actually doing by going on these huge conquests

[00:15:21] Why were they invading? 

[00:15:23] Why did they leave their grassy homelands and conquer a third of Asia?

[00:15:29] There are some popular misconceptions about this, and the main one is that they ran out of grassland in Mongolia, which meant they came off the plains in order to survive. 

[00:15:41] There’s very little evidence that this is actually true.

[00:15:46] Most historians now believe that the real reason that the Mongols continued their global quest was because they had started it, the soldiers had tasted the spoils of war, the goods they had managed to seize from these towns and cities, and to keep the soldiers united and happy, Genghis Khan needed to continue to ransack new towns and cities.

[00:16:11] Remember, the Mongols were a nomadic population, they moved their animals around, and they didn’t really have any other way to produce wealth other than taking it. When they arrived in places like China and Persia, they found huge treasures, silk, spices, precious metals, things that can only really be created by static societies.

[00:16:38] Although Genghis Khan may have been a fearsome conqueror to those that he conquered, he was a loyal, generous leader to those that followed him. 

[00:16:48] He would reward his soldiers with the spoils of war, and when these spoils were exhausted, they needed to go out and look for more.

[00:16:58] Another factor that motivated Genghis Khan’s armies to head south, to what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, was related to loyalty to his men.

[00:17:12] This area was at the time part of the Khwarezmid Empire, and was ruled by a man called Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad. 

[00:17:21] Genghis Khan had tried to make a trade agreement with him, but when Khan sent a Mongol trade mission to meet with the Shah, they were all killed and their goods were stolen.

[00:17:35] To try to resolve the situation peacefully, Genghis Khan sent three diplomats to negotiate with the Shah, but they were decapitated, their heads were chopped off. 

[00:17:49] The Shah was trying his luck.

[00:17:53] But if there was one person that you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, it was Genghis Khan.

[00:18:01] The cutting off of his diplomats’ heads was a gross insult, and within two years Genghis Khan had destroyed the entire Khwarezmid Empire, killed the Shah, and chased his son all the way down to India. 

[00:18:19] So, the primary reason for venturing all the way south to that part of Asia was, really, out of loyalty to his murdered men.

[00:18:29] What is often misunderstood about the Mongol empire is that its peak was actually after Genghis Khan’s death, in 1227. 

[00:18:38] The Khanate was passed to his son, and the systems that Genghis Khan had put in place were strong enough for the empire to continue expanding. 

[00:18:50] At its largest point it covered everything from modern day Hungary right through to the Pacific Ocean, an area the size of Africa.

[00:19:01] The empire wasn’t to last though, or at least it wasn’t to last in its original form. 

[00:19:09] The Mongols essentially became emperors of China, and formed the Yuan dynasty, which went on from 1271 to 1368.

[00:19:20] In terms of the legacy that Genghis Khan left, he is by far the most famous person to have ever come out of Mongolia, and Mongolians today are fiercely proud of him. 

[00:19:33] He is on the banknotes, the airport of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulan Bator is called Genghis Khan International, and there’s even a Genghis Khan vodka. 

[00:19:44] Far from being considered a brutal dictator, he is a national hero, a sign of Mongolian strength and power in the world, even if that strength and power ended almost 800 years ago.

[00:19:59] In the West, historians have a complicated time figuring out Genghis Khan. 

[00:20:06] There are some who blame him even for things like the treatment of the Aztecs and the Incas by the Spanish, saying that Genghis Khan was ruthlessly brutal towards muslims in central Asia and the middle east, who were in turn ruthless towards the crusaders, who brought this back to Spain and they therefore were ruthless when they went to the new world.

[00:20:30] It seems like a little bit of a stretch and there seems to not be that much evidence that Genghis Khan was any more or less ruthless than any other great military ruler, and by considering his actions with our 21st century lens we’re really failing to understand the norms at the time. 

[00:20:54] No, of course we shouldn’t condone the murder of entire populations, but if we are going to say that Genghis Khan was a terrible barbarian, the theory goes, we should judge people like Alexander the Great, and Julius Ceasar with the same standards. 

[00:21:13] One of the main differences, really, was that the Mongols were different, they came from the East on lightning fast horses, they didn’t leave a great written culture or history behind, and they left great destruction in their midst

[00:21:31] Perhaps if they had left behind great poems, songs, or books, then we would think about the legacy of Genghis Khan in a slightly different way.

[00:21:43] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Genghis Khan.

[00:21:48] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:52] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:56] We do actually have quite a few listeners from Mongolia, so if you are from Mongolia, I would absolutely love to hear your perspective on this. 

[00:22:05] You can head to our community forum which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:14] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:19] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Genghis Khan, the ruler of the Mongol empire, the largest empire in the history of the world.

[00:00:34] Now, the story of Genghis Khan is fascinating, and it is a lot more complicated and nuanced than it is often presented in the west.

[00:00:46] Genghis Khan may well have been a ruthless conqueror, responsible for the deaths of millions of people all over the world. 

[00:00:54] But he was also a skilled leader, an excellent politician, and appears to have had a deep understanding of humanity. 

[00:01:05] The story of Genghis Khan, apart from anything else, is unlikely. 

[00:01:11] He grew up dirt poor, scrounging for food, and before his fiftieth birthday he was the most powerful man in the entire world.

[00:01:21] So, let’s jump right in, and learn about the life and times of Genghis Khan.

[00:01:29] We are going to start off with two administrative points. Firstly, Genghis Khan wasn’t actually his name, it was his title. 

[00:01:38] His name was Temuchin. 

[00:01:40] He is thought to have been born in the year 1162, on the Mongolian grasslands

[00:01:47] A recurrent theme in this episode, and a problem for historians, is that there aren't a huge amount of records about his life, and only a handful exist from the Mongol perspective.

[00:02:02] A large part of our understanding about Genghis Khan and the Mongols comes from the writings of the people that he conquered. 

[00:02:10] And, naturally, if you are conquered by a foreign invading army you are not very likely to have positive memories of them.

[00:02:19] The other practical point, before we get into the heart of the story, is the pronunciation of Genghis Khan. 

[00:02:28] You might have heard it pronounced as Jenghiz Khan, or even Chinghis Khan. We’ll stick to the English pronunciation, Genghis, but in Mongolian it is pronounced more like Chinghiss.

[00:02:41] So, with those administrative points out of the way, let’s get into the more exciting stuff.

[00:02:48] Temuchin was born to a nomadic family on the Mongolian steppe, the expansive, harsh grassland of modern Mongolia. 

[00:02:59] The people that lived on the steppe were nomadic tribespeople, they migrated over huge swathes of grassland with their animals to make sure that they had fresh grass. 

[00:03:13] These nomadic peoples would normally fight amongst themselves, between tribes, and there would be rivalries that would continue for years. 

[00:03:23] Someone would be killed, or animals would be stolen then revenge would be taken. 

[00:03:30] Revenge would be taken for the revenge, and this would go on and on.

[00:03:36] The young Temuchin’s life was dominated by this warring of tribes, and when Temuchin was only nine years old it affected him personally - his father, a tribe leader, was poisoned by the Tatars, a rival tribe, and died. 

[00:03:57] The young Temuchin tried to claim his father’s position as leader of the tribe, but the other powerful men in the tribe took this opportunity to throw Temuchin, his mother and his brothers out of the tribe, leaving them on their own and having to forage and hunt for food.

[00:04:18] This was a huge embarrassment for a nomad, as they were used to having a pretty good diet, with their large herds producing more than enough meat, cheese and milk products for them to not go hungry.

[00:04:34] So, at the age of nine Temuchin was without a father, and cast out of the tribe.

[00:04:41] He was a nobody. 

[00:04:43] No reputation, no name, no father, and he was living in poverty.

[00:04:50] There isn’t a huge amount of additional information about Temuchin’s early life after his father was murdered, but it was very clear that from an early age that he was resourceful, charismatic, with natural leadership skills and a sense of bravery.

[00:05:10] He started to attract a following - people were naturally drawn to him, and he seemed to understand how to persuade and attract others.

[00:05:22] He was also very calculating, not someone to rush into a decision without considering his options. 

[00:05:31] There’s a story that demonstrates this very well from when one of his wives was captured.

[00:05:38] Now, in nomadic tribe culture it was often the case that a marriage between two people would be arranged when they were very young. 

[00:05:48] In Temuchin’s case, when he was just 9 years old, before his father was murdered, his marriage was arranged to a young girl from another tribe

[00:05:58] He didn’t marry her until years later, but after they were married she was stolen and taken away by a rival tribe

[00:06:08] Temuchin’s natural instinct was to attack the other tribe and retrieve his wife, but he realised that this was going to be impossible, it would be a fool’s errand

[00:06:21] The other tribe had superior forces, and Temuchin would almost certainly have been killed.

[00:06:28] So what did he do? 

[00:06:31] Nothing. 

[00:06:32] He waited, and waited, for 8 months until he was able to forge an alliance with another tribe and get his wife back. 

[00:06:41] When he finally was able to get her back, she was pregnant. 

[00:06:46] It’s not clear whether this child was Temuchin’s or not, but he treated it as his own, and the boy was later to become a commander in Temuchin’s army. 

[00:06:58] Of course, not all men at the time would have behaved in the same way, and the fact that Temuchin kept his cool when she was kidnapped, then treated the son as his own gives you an early indication of the fact that he wasn’t merely a cold-blooded, barbarian murderer.

[00:07:19] These calculating qualities, and evident intelligence continued to draw more and more people to Temuchin. 

[00:07:27] He seemed to have a sort of magnetic quality, and he treated those that followed him well. 

[00:07:35] He formed powerful allegiances with other tribes, and was ruthless with his enemies. 

[00:07:43] Slowly but surely, he eliminated rival tribes, often killing all of the elder leaders, leaving only the children, who wouldn’t remember what had happened, and thus not seek revenge.

[00:07:57] His power grew and grew, and in 1206 he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the Ultimate Khan, the leader of all of the nomadic Mongol tribes.

[00:08:10] Before Genghis Khan, there was no ultimate leader, the tribes had never been successfully united. 

[00:08:18] Now was the opportunity to take things to the next level, and coming together as a united people, of course, meant that they were a lot stronger than as a collection of smaller tribes that spent their lives fighting among one another.

[00:08:36] These different tribes weren’t just different groups of people, they had different cultures, different languages, and belief systems.

[00:08:46] Genghis Khan recognised this, and had some unique strategies for bringing these tribes together, for uniting them.

[00:08:55] One of the things he did was that, in his army, he mixed up all the different tribes

[00:09:02] His army was a slick military operation, and each unit was formed of people from different tribes

[00:09:10] There was no way of swapping, you were assigned a unit and that was it.

[00:09:16] While you might think that this was a quick way for conflict to arise between the different people within the unit, it actually worked extremely well. 

[00:09:27] With the different tribes forced together, their identities and rivalries were reduced, and they presumably saw that the other tribes that they had been fighting against for years weren’t actually that bad at all.

[00:09:43] The other thing that he did was to not try to enforce any particular belief system on the tribes

[00:09:50] He recognised that they were unique, and didn’t try to impose his own set of rules or cultural norms on them.

[00:10:01] He was also, reportedly, incredibly loyal to those that were loyal to him, and ruthless to those that weren’t.

[00:10:10] He rewarded loyalty and performance with gifts and high positions in the army. 

[00:10:16] His army was meritocratic - it didn't matter whether you were born at the top or bottom of your tribe - in Genghis Khan’s army your rank, your position, was determined by your loyalty and your performance. 

[00:10:32] When he became Genghis Khan, in 1206, he may have been the most powerful of the nomads, but he was far from the world’s most powerful military commander. 

[00:10:43] Indeed, initially he didn’t show a huge amount of interest in world conquest, and he didn’t set out right away on huge military campaigns.

[00:10:56] He had an immediate advantage though, in that life on the Mongolian grasslands was very helpful for training future soldiers, and preparing them for the battles that they would fight.

[00:11:09] Firstly, the method by which Mongolian riders hunted prepared them very well for military encounters.

[00:11:18] They would often form huge circles across the grasslands, tens of kilometres in circumference

[00:11:25] All the men would be on horseback.

[00:11:29] They would then come together, towards the centre of the circle, driving the animals into the middle. 

[00:11:37] This required huge amounts of coordination, which is evidently difficult when you are on the windy, Mongolian grassland, and the radio wasn’t going to be invented for another 700 years.

[00:11:51] A tactic they developed was to use particular types of arrows that would make different noises as they travelled through the air, and this would direct the horsemen to move in certain directions. 

[00:12:07] This meant that the commanders could give orders to their men just by firing an arrow, and this was a huge advantage when it came to fighting a more dangerous enemy than wolves or deer.

[00:12:22] Secondly, the entire Mongol army was on horseback, there was no infantry, no foot soldiers, and of course this meant that they were able to travel incredibly fast, and launch lightning attacks on their enemy.

[00:12:39] As Genghis Khan’s forces moved off the steppe, away from the grassland and towards settled populations, towards non-nomadic people, it found great riches. 

[00:12:52] One of the problems about being a nomad is that it was hard to build up wealth. 

[00:12:58] Your wealth was in your sheep and goats, it didn’t really last - sheep and goats don’t live for very long, and you have to keep replacing them. 

[00:13:09] When Genghis Khan’s forces reached places like modern-day China and Persia they found abundant riches - spices, silk, gold, and other precious goods. 

[00:13:22] Naturally, this was very enticing to the well-trained Mongolian army.

[00:13:29] The deal that the Mongol forces usually proposed to cities that they were attacking was simple: if you surrender, we will spare your lives. Fight and we will kill every last one of you.

[00:13:44] And the Mongols had a reputation for keeping their word. 

[00:13:48] If they said they’d kill you, they weren’t messing around.

[00:13:52] It was simple, but incredibly effective, and although they did slaughter entire populations, there isn’t much evidence that they did this because of some perverse enjoyment, but rather because if they developed a reputation for slaughtering entire towns and cities if they didn’t surrender, then the word would get out and cities were more likely to surrender in advance, meaning that the Mongols didn’t need to fight them.

[00:14:23] Indeed, the Mongol army was effective, but it wasn’t actually as large as you might think it was.

[00:14:30] The entire Mongol army was around 2 million strong, but it was split over multiple different fronts, over multiple different areas.

[00:14:42] There wasn’t one, individual Mongol horde that rampaged all over Asia, but a collection of diverse ones, all ultimately controlled by Genghis Khan, but each being controlled by a regional commander.

[00:14:58] These armies had traveled very far from home, and wanted to avoid losing any men if at all possible, so they would almost always offer the opportunity for their enemies to surrender, so that they didn’t actually have to fight.

[00:15:14] But, you might still be wondering, what were they actually doing by going on these huge conquests

[00:15:21] Why were they invading? 

[00:15:23] Why did they leave their grassy homelands and conquer a third of Asia?

[00:15:29] There are some popular misconceptions about this, and the main one is that they ran out of grassland in Mongolia, which meant they came off the plains in order to survive. 

[00:15:41] There’s very little evidence that this is actually true.

[00:15:46] Most historians now believe that the real reason that the Mongols continued their global quest was because they had started it, the soldiers had tasted the spoils of war, the goods they had managed to seize from these towns and cities, and to keep the soldiers united and happy, Genghis Khan needed to continue to ransack new towns and cities.

[00:16:11] Remember, the Mongols were a nomadic population, they moved their animals around, and they didn’t really have any other way to produce wealth other than taking it. When they arrived in places like China and Persia, they found huge treasures, silk, spices, precious metals, things that can only really be created by static societies.

[00:16:38] Although Genghis Khan may have been a fearsome conqueror to those that he conquered, he was a loyal, generous leader to those that followed him. 

[00:16:48] He would reward his soldiers with the spoils of war, and when these spoils were exhausted, they needed to go out and look for more.

[00:16:58] Another factor that motivated Genghis Khan’s armies to head south, to what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, was related to loyalty to his men.

[00:17:12] This area was at the time part of the Khwarezmid Empire, and was ruled by a man called Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad. 

[00:17:21] Genghis Khan had tried to make a trade agreement with him, but when Khan sent a Mongol trade mission to meet with the Shah, they were all killed and their goods were stolen.

[00:17:35] To try to resolve the situation peacefully, Genghis Khan sent three diplomats to negotiate with the Shah, but they were decapitated, their heads were chopped off. 

[00:17:49] The Shah was trying his luck.

[00:17:53] But if there was one person that you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, it was Genghis Khan.

[00:18:01] The cutting off of his diplomats’ heads was a gross insult, and within two years Genghis Khan had destroyed the entire Khwarezmid Empire, killed the Shah, and chased his son all the way down to India. 

[00:18:19] So, the primary reason for venturing all the way south to that part of Asia was, really, out of loyalty to his murdered men.

[00:18:29] What is often misunderstood about the Mongol empire is that its peak was actually after Genghis Khan’s death, in 1227. 

[00:18:38] The Khanate was passed to his son, and the systems that Genghis Khan had put in place were strong enough for the empire to continue expanding. 

[00:18:50] At its largest point it covered everything from modern day Hungary right through to the Pacific Ocean, an area the size of Africa.

[00:19:01] The empire wasn’t to last though, or at least it wasn’t to last in its original form. 

[00:19:09] The Mongols essentially became emperors of China, and formed the Yuan dynasty, which went on from 1271 to 1368.

[00:19:20] In terms of the legacy that Genghis Khan left, he is by far the most famous person to have ever come out of Mongolia, and Mongolians today are fiercely proud of him. 

[00:19:33] He is on the banknotes, the airport of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulan Bator is called Genghis Khan International, and there’s even a Genghis Khan vodka. 

[00:19:44] Far from being considered a brutal dictator, he is a national hero, a sign of Mongolian strength and power in the world, even if that strength and power ended almost 800 years ago.

[00:19:59] In the West, historians have a complicated time figuring out Genghis Khan. 

[00:20:06] There are some who blame him even for things like the treatment of the Aztecs and the Incas by the Spanish, saying that Genghis Khan was ruthlessly brutal towards muslims in central Asia and the middle east, who were in turn ruthless towards the crusaders, who brought this back to Spain and they therefore were ruthless when they went to the new world.

[00:20:30] It seems like a little bit of a stretch and there seems to not be that much evidence that Genghis Khan was any more or less ruthless than any other great military ruler, and by considering his actions with our 21st century lens we’re really failing to understand the norms at the time. 

[00:20:54] No, of course we shouldn’t condone the murder of entire populations, but if we are going to say that Genghis Khan was a terrible barbarian, the theory goes, we should judge people like Alexander the Great, and Julius Ceasar with the same standards. 

[00:21:13] One of the main differences, really, was that the Mongols were different, they came from the East on lightning fast horses, they didn’t leave a great written culture or history behind, and they left great destruction in their midst

[00:21:31] Perhaps if they had left behind great poems, songs, or books, then we would think about the legacy of Genghis Khan in a slightly different way.

[00:21:43] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Genghis Khan.

[00:21:48] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:52] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:56] We do actually have quite a few listeners from Mongolia, so if you are from Mongolia, I would absolutely love to hear your perspective on this. 

[00:22:05] You can head to our community forum which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:14] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:19] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]