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Chinggis Khan: Conquering the Army That Conquered the World
(Released April 2011)

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  by Erin McCoy  


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The Steppe Tribes


According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan entered the world with a clot of blood clutched in one hand. From then on, despite a childhood of hunger and hardship, Chinggis — born Temujin to a small tribe in the northern Mongolian steppe (Weatherford 13) — believed himself to be “protected by the Sky” (Aigle 34).

The Secret History cites many omens such as the blood clot as signs of Temujin’s future greatness (Moses 171). In so doing, the text becomes something of a mixture of historical fact and an epic story. Yet it is perhaps the only source scholars have concerning the early life of the boy who would become Chinggis Khan. Read at the khuriltai of 1229 in which Mongols gathered to select Chinggis’ successor, the text was written to celebrate his life. The fact it was written was itself an achievement. One of Chinggis’ first acts as leader of the Mongols was the creation of a written Mongol language.

The Secret History is not only a source on the life of Chinggis Khan, but also provides some of the earliest recorded insight into the customs and history of the steppe tribes from their point of view.

“In it, there is a wealth of information on clans and tribes, marriage customs, politics and history,” reports Larry Moses in an essay that attempts to distinguish fiction from fact in the epic story. “But in it, as well, is a wealth of intrigue, betrayal, of love and romance, fratricide, and epic bravery” (Moses 170).

However, the social and cultural structure of the nomadic tribes that occupied the steppe when Temujin was born has been fairly well verified.

Onon River
The Onon River, near where Chinggis Khan was born.
Dozens of bands occupied the steppe, each led by a chief, or khan (Weatherford 14). They herded animals, particularly horses, from which they derived much of their livelihood, from transportation to milk to meat. Most occupied the northern Mongolian steppe, a broad, arid grassland sandwiched between Siberia to the north and China to the south. Nomads’ relationship with sedentary agricultural societies to the south was characterized by periods of trade punctuated with periods of raiding and war.

Perhaps it was the harsh environment of the steppe, in which warm weather comes only a few months out of the year, that pressed the tribes to develop enhanced survival skills. It was said that a Mongol learned to ride a horse before he or she could walk, and almost as quickly took up the bow and arrow, which any Mongol could shoot while riding a horse forward or behind them at pursuers.

The horses themselves were sturdy and capable of traveling long distances. “Experiments with well-fed Mongolian horses indicate that nomads could traverse 300 kilometres in less than a week, while a trans-Gobi raid, covering 1,800 kilometres, would require 25 days of travelling time,” writes Peter Turchin in a look at agrarian-nomadic relationships (Turchin 197).

These skills were practical; even in war the Mongols were a practical people, known for changing sides to ally with the apparent winner of a battle. Kidnappings and raids between tribes were common, but often served a particular purpose rather than contributing to extended wars of pride or passion.

“Revenge often served as the pretext for a raid, but it rarely acted as the true motivator,” biographer and anthropologist Jack Weatherford writes. “Success in battle carried prestige for the victor based on the goods brought back and shared with family and friends; fighting did not revolve around the abstract prestige of honor on the battlefield” (17).

Into this hardscrabble world of shifting alliances, Temujin was born to a minor tribe pushed by stronger tribes far to the north, almost into the Siberian forest.

Go To Temujin's Early Life

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