If someone asked you at a party who your favorite historical figure was (a party with no chicks or booze, to borrow a line from Drew Carey), would you have an answer? I would. I’ve long been a “fan” if you can call it that, of Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire, whom many only know of as a ruthless, nomadic conqueror. So when Assignment 4 of my Rhetorical Composing MOOC course on Coursera tasked me with creating a persuasive research piece in which I engage an issue I’m interested in and find worthwhile, I used the opportunity to expand the understanding of the warrior Khan, and show that Genghis Khan was not a simple barbarian but the single most influential ruler in history.
The Mongols and nomadic hordes in media are typically presented as brutal, wild, and animalistic. Unsurprisingly, the reigns of such leaders are also presented as primitive and close-minded, a people whose daily lives are made up of intimidating, pillaging, raping, murdering, and conquering (not always in that order). When they return from a war campaign they do not bathe, and when they eat they cook their meat on the broad edges of their blades. These are the stories many have grown accustomed to. One true aspect however was the strength and dominance these nomadic tribes possessed, with the Mongol Empire being the greatest of all. Here are the reasons why (and how) Genghis Khan and his Mongols grew beyond a misinterpreted primitive empire and into the most influential in history.
The Sheer Numbers
The first and most obvious demonstration of Genghis Khan’s influence was his conquest of Asia and Europe under a unified Mongol empire. While Genghis Khan did much more than just take over lands and people, the results of his military campaigns are an undeniable aspect of his rule. I won’t deny it either – after all, the numbers don’t lie:
- Genghis Khan’s 13th century empire ruled over a quarter of the known world, totaling 110 million people out of an estimated world population of 450 million.
- The Mongol Empire remains the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching over 33 million square kilometers at its peak. Want a comparison? The peak of the great French Empire under Napoleon spanned just 2 million square kilometers.
- Having taken many wives and concubines from his conquests, according to National Geographic News, geneticists estimate there are 16 million people today who share a nearly identical Y-chromosome with Genghis Khan. That translates to 0.5% of the male population in the modern world. To put it another way, 1 in every 200 men is a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. That is ridiculous. With those odds, that’s like going to a movie theater and finding a new relative sitting in the audience with you every single time you watch a movie.
The reach of the Mongol Empire creates the framework to begin to explain how Genghis Khan was able to become so influential. After all, when you rule over a quarter of the world’s population and land spanning over 2 continents, it’s hard not to leave your mark. As Paul D. Buell of the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University puts it, “…his conquests truly marked the beginning of our world.” One of the most popular works on the topic is Jack Weatherford’s New York Times bestselling book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In it he notes that Genghis Khan ruled with exceptional cultural systems in place. Among these innovations were:
A culture of meritocracy:
- Yes, Genghis Khan pillaged tribes and lands and took slaves from those who resisted his force, but he also recognized the merits of one’s actions, skills, and loyalty over old systems of family hierarchies. Positions of honor were granted to those who had proven worthy whether in battle or by service. In The Secret History of the Mongols the earliest known Mongol account of this time period, an expert archer named Jebe had managed to shoot Genghis Khan in the neck, wounding him. After Genghis Khan went on to win the battle and defeat his rivals, he pardoned Jebe and named him as one of his generals. Jebe went on to become one of Khan’s most trusted and capable leaders.
Open trade markets and ethnic tolerance:
- With such a vast empire, roads were built to connect the East Asian lands and the newly conquered areas in Europe. The Empire was so organized and safe under Pax Mongolica (the period of Eurasian peace under Mongol rule) that it was said a woman could safely carry a sack of gold from one end of the empire to the other.
- As a result of these welcoming roads and trade routes, the spread of foreign culture and innovations was free to be cultivated under Genghis Khan. Weatherford also claims in his work that many innovations came from the combination of technologies from different cultures within their huge empire. The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the cultural legacy of Genghis Khan says:
“The political unification of Asia under the Mongols resulted in active trade and the transfer and resettlement of artists and craftsmen along the main routes. New influences were thus integrated with established local artistic traditions. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongols had formed the largest contiguous empire in the world, uniting Chinese, Islamic, Iranian, Central Asian, and nomadic cultures within an overarching Mongol sensibility.”
An unprecedented freedom of religion:
- Genghis Khan embraced diversity and promoted religious freedom for all under his rule. In Amy Chua’s book, Day of Empire she claims that “the Mongols were more religiously open than any other power in the world.” You have to understand that in the 13th century this was unheard of. Weatherford also weighs in on the issue in his book and notes that almost every religion (including modern powerhouses such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) found converts under Genghis Khan’s rule. In addition, religious leaders were exempt from taxation and from public service, a point that can draw comparisons to society even today.
The measures of Genghis Khan’s reign are not as simple as the number of women he bed or the total coups and takeovers under his watch. As one of the most successful conquerors in history there’s no doubt the way he chose to rule his empire militaristically had great effect on the world. But just as important were Genghis Khan’s cultural contributions to Eurasian society, and beyond, that amounted to an arguably greater influence and impact on history. The reasons listed above were not accidents as a result of a primitive barbarian’s acts of aggression. They were calculated acts and systems of rule that contributed to the greatest and most influential empire in history – Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire.