Simply Chinggis
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Simply Chinggis

Timothy May

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eBook - ePub

Simply Chinggis

Timothy May

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About This Book

The man we know as Chinggis Khan (c. 1162-1227) began as a young boy named Temüjin, who was born in obscurity in the steppes of Asia. Far from immediately setting out to conquer the world, Temüjin had to overcome numerous hardships and setbacks, allowing him to gradually rise from a minor figure to one of increasing importance. Following an initial alliance with his father's blood brother Toghril, Temüjin went on to lead a series of wars that unified the Mongolian tribes, and made him the ruler of a vast empire. In this role, he not only built Mongolia into a great power, but introduced revolutionary reforms that changed steppe society forever.

In Simply Chinggis, Professor Timothy May offers an engaging and authoritative chronicle of the numerous battles and conquests that transformed an unknown boy into the legendary Mongol leader whose legacy continues to reverberate in our own day. At the same time, Professor May makes clear that there is much more to the story of Chinggis Khan than just conquest and empire making—he was a complex man with a large network of family and friends, and his wit and wisdom belie his reputation as simply a warrior.

Few figures loom as large in the imagination of the world as Chinggis Khan. Simply Chinggis helps us understand not only why this is so, but also how our changing views of this legendary figure say as much about society and popular culture as they do about the man.

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Simply Charly


Family Matters

As the saying goes, you can pick your friends, but you cannot choose your family. This chapter explores Chinggis Khan’s relationship with his family members in more depth. Chinggis Khan elevated his family to the status of royalty and installed safeguards to protect them. He also instituted a system of checks and balances to ensure that his relatives could not challenge his authority, as it is apparent that he did not fully trust them. At the same time, with the creation of the altan urugh or Golden Kin, as the Chinggisid family became known, a new royalty came into existence that influenced events in Eurasia for several hundred years. The last Chinggisid ruler, Muhammad Alim Khan of Bukhara, only vacated his throne in 1920 due to the rise of communism in the Soviet Union, which “Sovietized” Mongolia. Additionally, the altan urugh provided a network to rule the empire, whether through the sons and grandsons, the daughters, and even sons-in-law. The Mongol Empire was very much a family-run business. While other institutions existed and contributed to the administration of the empire, the altan urugh was unquestionably the primary means of governance. Although Chinggis Khan kept the altan urugh under control, he also established it so that other lineages could not possibly consider themselves above the altan urugh. Of course, a major factor in this was the prestige of Chinggis Khan, which gave unrivaled legitimacy to his family’s claim to power.
With Yisügei’s death, Chinggis Khan’s most immediate family was his mother and siblings, including his half-brothers Bekter and Belgütei. As mentioned earlier, the young Temüjin, with the aid of his younger brother Jochi Qasar, murdered their elder half-brother Bekter as the latter stole food. This incident is only recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols, which laconically details Chinggis Khan’s faults as much as it also indulges in hagiographic praise. Yet this scenario is more than simply sibling rivalry and unchecked anger.
Bekter’s theft of food did more than risk the welfare of the family—it also demonstrated how an individual placed his own welfare above that of his family. As discussed previously, the fratricide also prevented the possibility of Bekter marrying Hö’elün, Temüjin’s mother. Steppe tradition allowed the possibility of a relative, including sons, to marry their stepmothers. There were several reasons for this. The economic reason was to keep the dowry and wife’s property within the family. Secondly, on a more practical level, and considering the low population density among the nomads, it also eased the task of attempting to find another husband and allowed the family unit to continue with its division of labor. Thus, the murder prevented Bekter from assuming the patriarch position of the family. We will never know what Hö’elün would have thought of the idea of marriage. Her reaction to the murder, as recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols, suggests that she was at least not completely opposed to the idea, but the murder genuinely horrified her. One must remember that she did not marry Yisügei out of love—they kidnapped her while traveling to her original Merkit husband’s pastures. Under these circumstances, the option of marrying her stepson may have seemed reasonable, though likely odd to the modern reader.
The murder propelled Temüjin to the top of the male hierarchy in his family. Clearly, his mother still wielded authority and influence—by the time of Bekter’s death, Temüjin was not even a teenager. Still, as he aged, he gradually assumed the mantle of leadership. When the family’s horses were stolen, he was the one to pursue the thieves, even though it was Belgütei who returned from hunting with their remaining horse.
Jochi Qasar was the next eldest brother, and Temüjin’s co-conspirator against Bekter. In many ways, Jochi Qasar became the muscle behind Temüjin’s schemes. While Temüjin shot and killed Bekter from behind, Jochi Qasar shot him from the front. Their attack ensured that Bekter could not escape. When the Tayichi’ud attacked, Jochi Qasar was the one who kept the Tayichi’ud at bay with his archery skills, eventually becoming a renowned archer and warrior. Early on, Qasar often accompanied Temüjin or served as his envoy. However, there are some signs that Qasar’s archery skills caused tension between the two brothers and they were not always on good terms. Indeed, in 1203 Jochi Qasar was with the Kereit, although he eventually joined Temüjin. It is not clear why he was there, whether it was his own choice, whether he served Toghril directly as a nökör, or perhaps even as a hostage. At the 1206 quriltai, Chinggis Khan allotted him 4000 people, fewer than he gave his sons. Later tensions became even more apparent when a shaman suggested that Jochi Qasar would eventually replace Chinggis Khan as the leader of the Mongols.
Like Temüjin’s younger sister Temülün, Börte’s third son Qachi’un received little attention in the Secret History of the Mongols beyond the mention of his birth; even less attention is paid to him in other sources. We know he existed but have little knowledge of what he did. One gets the sense that this middle child possessed a less dominant personality and preferred to assist rather than lead. Indeed, considering the staggering talent of Temüjin and the prowess of Jochi Qasar, one can see why he might have lacked the same level of confidence. There is no indication that he received an allotment of people, so perhaps he died before 1206, or maybe much earlier.
Temüjin’s relationship with his stepbrother Belgütei was interesting. Before he died, Bekter asked Temüjin to spare Belgütei, his younger brother. Temüjin consented, and he and Belgütei developed a strong bond that was not adversely affected by the fratricide. One might wonder if guilt strengthened Temüjin’s affection for Belgütei. He became a trusted councilor and given responsibility, although one must wonder if Temüjin’s trust in Belgütei’s abilities was warranted. Belgütei, it must be remembered, was wounded in the Jürkin brawl. However, he got his revenge by breaking the spine of his assailant in a wrestling match. That Temüjin fixed the match does not matter—he could have chosen anyone to wrestle. In medieval Mongolia, as today, wrestling was considered one of the three manly sports, archery and horse racing being the others. The vengeance aspect of this incident is important, but one cannot ignore that Chinggis Khan placed his brother in a position to succeed and play an important role, including that of executioner. Belgütei, however, had his faults as well. While supervising the captivity of the Tatars after their defeat, Belgütei let it slip that they were probably going to be executed. This led to active resistance by the prisoners and the wounding of several Mongols. After this event, they did not include Belgütei in the counsels. His lack of discretion proved to Chinggis Khan that they could rely on him to carry out orders, but not to be trusted with confidential matters. Temüjin, however, permitted him to serve as a judge over minor offenses. In 1206, Temüjin allotted 1500 people to him.
Temüge was the youngest of Chinggis Khan’s brothers. He appeared to lack the gravitas of Temüjin and Jochi Qasar. As the youngest, his initial deficiency of determination and charisma may have been simply due to his youth. He took part in the unification of Mongolia and was present at the battle of Chakirma’ut, in charge of the rearguard. This might seem like a relatively unimportant position, but it actually was key, considering the mobility of nomadic armies. Protecting the rear was essential, as encirclement was a frequent risk and the rear guard had the role of filling gaps and launching counterattacks in case the main body was forced back. Still, it took assistance from Temüjin to develop Temüge’s strength of character, which seemingly came so naturally to Temüjin. It occurred, and Temüjin gradually trusted Temüge with great responsibilities. He served as regent when Chinggis Khan went on campaign and ruled in his stead. Chinggis Khan’s trust in his youngest brother was well placed. When he departed for the Khwarazmian campaign, Chinggis Khan remained outside of Mongolia for six years. Although Xi Xia rebelled (and only after the death of the nearest military commander, Muqali), Mongolia remained stable and the cornerstone of the empire. There is no indication that Temüge ever sought to usurp the throne. Indeed, it appears he only actively thought about taking the throne after the death of Ögödei, Chinggis Khan’s son and successor, and this was only four or five years after Ögödei’s death when the throne sat vacant. (Juvaini, 244) While he contemplated a coup, he ultimately withdrew. A lateral succession was not out of the question as it was a common practice among the Central Eurasian nomads. Unfortunately for him, the eventual successor, Güyük (Ögödei’s son) viewed Temüge’s actions as a threat and had him executed, ending the possibility of the throne ever going to one of the families of Chinggis Khan’s brother.

Temüjin’s uncles

Although uncle Daritai’s role in elevating Temüjin as Khan and his later betrayal of Temüjin have been discussed, there are other aspects of Temüjin’s relationship with his uncles that merit attention. Yisügei had three brothers; two older ones named Monggetü Kiyan and Nekün Taisi, while Daritai Otchigin was the youngest, as evinced by the Otichigin title: Otchigin means the one who inherited the hearth (meaning the camp) of his father. Of these four sons of Bartan Ba’atar (Chinggis Khan’s grandfather), Mönggetü Kiyan disappeared from history early. He is only mentioned once in The Secret History of the Mongols. (SHM, §50) His son, Önggür however, became a commander of a minggan and one of Chinggis Khan’s cooks; he also had a seat of honor in the presence of Chinggis Khan, next to his son Tolui. While it may seem a menial position, the cook had direct access to Chinggis Khan and thus could poison him. As a result, only a trusted individual could hold that position. As for Nekün, Taisi and Daritai, they assisted Yisügei in absconding with Hö’elün. Indeed, as they returned to Yisügei’s camp, Daritai was the one who told Hö’elün to forget Chiledü, her Merkit husband, as he has fled and would never come back for her:
The one who held you in his arms
Has already crossed many ridges;
The one you bewail
Has already crossed many streams.
If you call him, and he looks back,
He will not see you;
If you look for his tracks,
His trail you will not find.
Be quiet! (SHM, §56)
While not the most comforting, Daritai and his brother helped to bring Yisügei and Hö’elün together. Afterwards, they disappeared from the sources, but we must not conclude that they also disappeared from Yisügei’s family’s life. Still, they are not mentioned in connection with Yisügei’s death or with the ostracization of Hö’elün and his children at the quriltai. Why did neither marry Hö’elün? Indeed, Daritai did not appear again until Temüjin’s adulthood. Daritai was among those who joined Temüjin after he separated from Jamuqa, thus indicating that Daritai was part of Jamuqa’s following. The Secret History only mentions Nekün Taisi once more, and in passing during the feast that led to the Jürkin brawl. In this, it is stated that he was dead. (SHM, §130) It is not clear when he died, but as the events with the Jürkin took place after Jamuqa defeated Temüjin, he may have passed away during Temüjin’s exile.
While Daritai’s relationship with Temüjin became strained, Temüjin initially held him in respect. During the battle of Köyiten between Jamuqa’s Gur-Khanid confederation against Toghril and Temüjin, Daritai (along with Altan and Quchar) was given command of the vanguard—a position of honor. Perhaps this elevated position made Daritai and the others believe they could then ignore the “Thou shalt not plunder” edict when they fought the Tatars in 1202. While Temüjin confiscated the plunder, it did not lead to an immediate rupture between uncle and nephew, but Daritai’s stature diminished in Temüjin’s eyes. Indeed, after this event, Daritai, like Belgütei, was no longer admitted into Temüjin’s council. The exclusion from Temüjin’s company was not total, however. After Temüjin and his advisors completed their meetings, Daritai, like Belgütei, could then join his nephew for a round of drinking and socializing. It is clear, however, that Daritai had lost Temüjin’s trust. His disdain for Daritai only intensified after his uncle joined Toghril and conspired against him. During the quriltai that elevated Temüjin as Chinggis Khan, he rewarded his supporters, including his family. Even a few years after the defeat and incorporation of the Kereit into the Yeke Monggol Ulus, he had not forgiven his uncle saying “I shall destroy [him] out of the sight of the eyes.” His trusted companions, Muqali, Bo’orchu, and his foster-brother Shiqi Qutuqu, cautioned him against it, saying:
This action would be
Like extinguishing one’s own hearth-fire,
Like destroying one’s own tent. (SHM, §242)
They then advised him to let him live for the sake of the memory of his father, Yisügei. Thus, Chinggis Khan spared Daritai’s life, and his uncle faded from memory.

The foundlings

Besides his immediate family tied through Yisügei, Chinggis Khan had four adopted relatives. Depending on the source, they are depicted as either sons or brothers. I view them as brothers, as these “foundlings” were given to Hö’elün to care for. She raised them to be loyal to her sons and serve as their eyes and ears. These were not just orphans, but children who became orphans because of Chinggis Khan. Each came from a tribe that Chinggis Khan defeated during his rise to power. In order of acquisition, they were Küchü of the Merkit, Kököchü of the Besüd, Shiqi Qutuqu of the Tatars, and Boroqul of the Jürkin.
Küchü, also known as Güchü, is a lesser-known “foundling” but the first to enter Hö’elün’s care. She acquired him during Temüjin’s rescue of Börte. When the Merkit fled their camp during the rescue operation, Mongol warriors found the boy. Judging by his clothing, he was probably the child of someone important:
At the time when the Uduyit Merkit were fleeing in haste, our soldiers found a little boy of five with fire in his eyes who had been left behind...

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