Book review: Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World

Genghis Khan had an extraordinary mind and was a master psychologist and knew how to use cruelty to succeed. A new biography, finds Richard Fitzpatrick, explains how he became such a dominant figure.

Frank McLynn

The Bodley Head, €27.00

AS THE subtitle of Frank McLynn’s engrossing biography, Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World, suggests, the Mongol warrior took over most of the known world by the time he died in 1227.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that he did it all from a standing start unlike, say, Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte who had the armoury and apparatus of established regimes behind them.

Genghis Khan was born into a band of nomadic herdsmen yet he went on to sack the great cities of the Middle Ages, from Baghdad to Beijing, from Kiev to Krakow, and rule over them.

And while the likes of Alexander the Great had Aristotle for a tutor, Genghis was a man who couldn’t read or write.

“To be able to conceive of this vast empire, which could go from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and how the whole thing could be held together, and how he could rule territories greater than anyone else in history that was a feat of imagination which was particularly impressive when you consider that this man was illiterate,” says McLynn.

“He had no access to the wisdom of the ages. The only thing that he had was this idea that he was the chosen one of God and it was his destiny to rule the world. 

"That he could plan all this, and not just the military campaigns, which you’d have to do by drawing fairly crude maps, but also plan administration because administration par excellence means that you have to deal with written documents and so on, but he knew how an empire could be both conquered and administered, which is amazing for somebody who was illiterate.” 

He was born around 1162. Everything happened younger in those days. 

By three years of age, he would have mounted a horse, the Mongols’ most prized animals who were trained to respond to whistles and could, noted Marco Polo, turn as quick as a dog. By nine years of age, he got engaged for marriage. 

A few years later he murdered a half-brother for stealing a fish he caught, although McLynn argues it was probably motivated by a wish to remove a rival to his future succession claims.

He married when he was 16 years old. A short time later, a raiding party abducted his wife, Borte. Genghis sealed her fate by taking her horse as a remount so he could flee himself. It was a cowardly act. 

McLynn reckons he might have purposefully left her as bait so the distraction gave himself and his four brothers enough time to escape. 

She was later recovered, pregnant — her mother, too, was raped in captivity — which would have been embarrassing for Genghis although to his credit he never looked down on the illegitimate first son she bore him.

His view of women was functional. One of the maxims he’s remembered for is it is wise to judge a man by his wife. By this criterion, it would be difficult to get the measure of him. 

He had 23 official wives, 16 regular concubines, and a harem of 500 irregular women. 

He had a standing rule that after every rival army was defeated all the pretty women captured had to be paraded before him so he could have his pick of them. 

His daughters were used as domestic pawns, married off to key allies, and expected to act as court spies for him. He was riddled with paranoia and bouts of ire.

“He was particularly touchy about any infringement of his dignity,” says McLynn. 

“He could get into murderous rages with his sons. For instance, there was a famous time when they sacked a city and divided up the loot and didn’t send him his share. He was going to kill all three sons before he was talked down by his advisers.”

The blood drips off McLynn’s pages. In an early feud with the Tartars, he vowed to slaughter all their males who were taller than a wagon wheel. 

The end he administered to captured royal enemies was to wrap them up in rugs and have their horses trample them to death. 

His cruelty was not exceptional, though, for the standards of the 13th century. One of his adversaries, for example, Jalal al-Din, used to look on smil

ingly as his men drove pegs into the ears of Mongol captives.

“The idea, which is very common, that he was uniquely cruel — I try to knock that on the head,” says McLynn.

“Genghis exceeds the other killers of the Middle Ages in degree but not kind. The kind of behaviour that we would be horrified by was fairly commonplace in the medieval period.

“You have to put Genghis in historical context. He was no more cruel — and no less — than any other empire builders. I don’t think 21st century moral judgments get us very far in understanding him.

“He was original on what the point of brutality was. One of Genghis’s obsessions was casualties. He was always aware that the Mongols were numerically inferior to their enemies, which was one of the reasons they had this rather cruel practice of using prisoners-of-war in their own front ranks.

“His famous ‘surrender or die’ policy was recognition of their numerical inferiority. Genghis wasn’t mindlessly slaughterous because if people did surrender they survived and were treated quite well. It was only if they didn’t that the horror descended.”

Genghis had an extraordinary mind. He was a master psychologist, and had a knack for making shrewd, unconventional decisions. 

He nearly died once when he got hit in the neck by a poisoned arrow, only regaining consciousness after a henchman sucked the viper’s venom out of his body, having swallowed two pints of his master’s blood in the process. 

Instead of killing the attempted assassin, as anticipated, Genghis rewarded his sharpshooting by making him a commander. 

Jebe (“the arrow”) went on to become one of his most accomplished generals. This was another defining feature of Genghis — he surrounded himself with excellent generals.

“He was a very shrewd reader of people,” says McLynn.

“He knew who the treacherous ones were in diplomatic terms. He knew how other rulers were likely to react. He gave them a lot of latitude. He gave the Shah of Khwarezm chance after chance before he finally decided that he had to launch a military campaign against him. His dealings with people — except when he got into his towering rages — were extremely clever.

“He knew that if he invaded Khwarezm from the west instead of the east, as was expected, this would cause panic. He read the personality of the shah. The shah was one-dimensional.

“He expected the Mongols to come through from the east when they would be tired and they could be picked off. Of course, Genghis took his army across the desert to the west and came in on the other flank.

“That caused chaos and confusion because he realised that if you do something that is totally unexpected certain people will not have a Plan B to deal with it. And the shah was one of those. He was a chess player in that sense.”


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