Temujin needed to legitimize the power he already held over a swath of land the size of Western Europe. In 1206 he called a
khuriltai, a vast meeting in which representatives from throughout the steppe gathered to demonstrate their support for him. At this meeting he declared his people the Great Mongol Nation,
Yeke Mongol Ulus, and took the name Chinggis Khan, from “chin,” meaning “firm, unshakeable, and fearless” (Weatherford 65).
It was at this meeting he set forth the
Yasa, perhaps the first unifying law to which all Mongolian tribes were held. The Yasa was a conglomeration of tradition and new ideas formed by the khan.
“The Yasa seems to have had as its main objective not to codify customary law but to supplement it in accordance with the needs of the empire superimposed on the former tribal state,” writes George Vernadsky in a study of the Yasa (360).
Still, it contained moral directives informed by Mongol tradition as well as Chinggis’ own life experiences. It forbade the enslavement of Mongols and kidnapping of women, both of which had formed painful episodes in Chinggis’ past (Weatherford 68). It also outlined military directives, from the words envoys should speak to potential targets of Mongol attack to a rule that women were liable to serve the state should their husbands fail to do so. It recommended hunting as “the best school for military training” and required universal practice in a variety of weapons (Vernadsky 345, 348, 350).
And because the Mongol nation consisted of animists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and people of other religious faiths, Chinggis enacted a law of religious freedom and exempted religious leaders from taxation (Weatherford 69). Many of Chinggis’ earliest followers were from a variety of religions, and once again he preferred to judge them on merit and loyalty above all other qualities. The same spirit would be applied when the Mongols conquered other lands, where more often than not they eventually adopted the religious customs of the conquered.
The Yasa would be revised and added onto throughout the rest of Chinggis Khan’s life, over the next 20 years in which he traveled west, conquering territories into Europe, and south to conquer the agrarian nations of China. The memory of a life cobbled together from poverty and betrayal, built up by a commitment to loyalty and the will to change the rules, was something Chinggis Khan appeared to carry with him, to the ends of the known world and back home again, to Mongolia.
List of Visuals
- Chinggis Khan's portrait on a hillside in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
- The Onon River, near where Chinggis Khan was born.
- Layout of a 1908 Chinese re-edition of the Secret History of the Mongols:
Yesügei steals Chiledu's wife, Hoelun, i.e. the future mother of Temüjin.
- Chinggis Khan meets with the Ong Khan. Illustration from a 15th century Jami' al-tawarikh manuscript.
- A map of the 13th century Genghis Khan empire, including Mongol military campaigns.
- Genghis Khan proclaimed Khan of all Mongols.
Illustration from a 15th century Jami' al-tawarikh manuscript.
- Aigle, Denise.“The great jasaq of Gengis Khan, the empire, Mongol culture and Sharia.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient , 2004, Vol. 47, No. 1: 31-79.
- Moses, Larry W.“Epic Themes in the Secret History of the Mongols.” Folklore, 1988, Vol. 99, No. 2: 170-173.
- Turchin, Peter.“A theory for formation of large empires.” Journal of Global History, July 2009: 191-217.
- Weatherford, Jack.Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
- Vernadsky, George.“The Scope and Contents of Chingis Khan's Yasa.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies , 1938, Vol. 3, No. 3-4: 337-360.