Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world – Frank McLynn

They reckoned that each person needed five horses to live well, which meant that a family of five would need twenty-five riding horses and four to six pack horses. A ger containing five people that had more than ten horses was considered rich. A horse was valued as being equal to five head of cattle or six sheep or goats. A two year-old counted as half a horse and a yearling as one-quarter. The Mongols used mainly mares, as these were more docile and yielded the vital milk for making koumiss. If short for food, they had a technique for making an incision in the animals vein, drinking the blood, and then sealing up the wound.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Genghis. He always seemed like a man who did not understand the word no, who simply did not know how to give up, who would take what he wanted, preferably when he wanted, but if not, he would come back later and take it. Apart from the basic knowledge, one of my earliest experiences of Genghis was in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not a classic historical study, but a film that did make me think about figures of the past that I would love to meet if I had the chance.
Next up was Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, a fictional series of Genghis’s life, although largely based on fact, it gave me a much broader understanding of Genghis, although from what I remember, and correct me if I’m wrong Conn, painted him in an entirely flattering light.
But I heard rumours, I saw odd excerpts of his more dastardly actions, the mass killings and destruction of cities, he was, they claimed, terrible. A cruel despot who sated his blood lust with an orgy of death.

The Man Who Conquered The World is a detailed, richly painted narrative of Genghis’s life. From his early days of Temujin to the ruler of the biggest empire in the world.
The sheer number  of names to remember means as a casual reader it can be difficult to keep up, there is a list of names at the beginning, and although I started flicking back to it at first, I soon gave up and lost myself in the endless stream of people, going back only occasionally if someone popped up who seemed of interest.

If you can put up with his tendency to use elaborate terms when more simple ones would suffice, which irritated me a lot more than I thought it would, McLynn’s book contains an abundance of information, set down in an informative if not mostly entertaining way.  He details the sources of his information, pointing out where they are likely to be accurate or biased and the reasons for this, and where there is no information available, his assumptions seem well founded and reasonable.

Genghis took a fractured nomadic people and united them into an unstoppable war machine that conquered and subsumed entire populations, separating the artists from everyone else, but absorbing the existing administration into the Mongol whole. The initial struggle to besiege Chinese cities was remedied by learning from and incorporating Chinese siege tactics and machines into the Mongol arsenal. From the beginning, his inclination to promote based on merit rather than heritage set him apart from the other Khans, including his childhood friend Jamuga, and also built him up an incredible group of generals and leaders, as well as administrators and vassals.

Chinqai’s administrative genius was twofold. First, he had to solve problems caused by the Mongol’s ignorance of sedentary populations. The Mongols were nomads and warriors and had no one trained for the task of administration. Nor were they linguists, and in their raw state they knew nothing of a money economy. They therefore had to depend on literate, multilingual members of the very nations they had conquered. Like the British in the nineteenth century, they had to rule vast numbers with a tiny bureaucratic force and like them depended on quislings and converts to the Mongol vision of global conquest 

After his ascendancy to Genghis Khan, Genghis built his empire on reward, knowing if he kept his army and his subjects in booty they were less likely to rebel or scheme against him. It was the main reason for the ever increasing expansion, and the main reason why, at times he massacred populations, it removed the risk of attack once his army had moved on, deeper into what was at the time, enemy territory, and also reduced the administrative burden on the relatively small native Mongol population. Cold? yes, Calculated? Certainly, but here was a man whose vision was black and white, there was little room for grey, and if there was, it wasn’t tolerated for long.

For me, perhaps the greatest achievement of Genghis was the promotion of the those who showed talent, regardless of where they came from. He was a great reader of men, and had no racial or religious prejudice. Effectively delegating the conquest of China to his favourite general Muqali, while taking his sons to conquer central Asia and the middle east, and sending Subedei and Jebe on a great raid that introduced Europe to the Mongols.

Subedei may have been the master strategist but there is no reason to dissent from the view that Jebe was ‘probably the greatest cavalry general in the history of the world’. Eight hundred years later the scale of his achievement with Subedei on their great raid is still astonishing. In three years the two captains and their men rode 5,500 miles – history’s longest cavalry raid – won seven major battles (always against superior numbers) and several minor engagements and skirmishes, sacked scores of cities and revealed the world of Russia and eastern Europe to Genghis. Subedei made sure that this would be no evanescent achievement by leaving behind him a whole cadre of spies and secret agents who would keep the Mongols informed of all future developments in the West.

These generals were given great power and responsibility by Genghis, and although he could be paranoid and capricious, he rewarded handsomely those who served him well. There were times when some were rewarded perhaps more than they should have been and others, inexplicably not given the rewards they deserved. There were other flaws of course, Genghis was by no means perfect, and there were a few he indulged a little too much or for a little too long, particularly his family. Although he was furious with them if they did not do as instructed or rebelled against him, in some cases they were given leeway to repeat their transgressions two or three times.

Despite his abilities as a tactician, leader and strategist, his detail on organisation of his army, down to the night guards that protected him as he slept, the operation of the army, that could be split in two but regroup in less than a day, McLynn posits that potentially the ‘Mongol’ empire or conquest was likely to fail, in that they had to always expand and conquer due to their nomadic lifestyle and Genghis’s reward system. Eventually they would have run out of territory to conquer or would have had to become sedentary, giving up the nomadic lifestyle which had given them their tactical advantage. After his death, the empire was divided between his sons, which went on to cause civil war as, growing up in a world where the strongest take what they want, they jostled for the top position.

So, after reading a good 500 pages, is my soft spot still there? Yes. Genghis was someone who had vision, and an unwavering belief in what he wanted, and felt, he was meant to, achieve. Ultimately he achieved it all, at great cost to those in his way, but to great reward for those that aided him. McLynn’s book does well to reveal the man behind the legend.

Genghis’s brother Qasar was famous for his skill with the bow, but his son Yisungge was even more talented: at an archery contest in 1225 he shot an arrow 550 yards. The combination of archery and horsemanship that made the Mongols so formidable came from their being put on horseback almost before they could walk. This resulted in the piece de resistance whereby juvenile archers were trained to release their arrows at the precise moment when all four of their horses’s hooves were off the ground – so that the jolt of hooves hitting the ground would not throw off their aim.