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The Complex Personality of Genghis Khan

The portrait of the Great Khan

The portrait of the Great Khan

Few names are as well known today as the name of Genghis Khan, the famous nomadic leader who was arguably the greatest conqueror ever seen by the world.

The Khan's successes were most certainly no flukes, as unlike many other great men of history, he was a self-made man, who rose from humble background to the top of society, and the sufferings and perils he faced during the early part of his life were what lead to the birth of the world conqueror.

The Great Khan’s personality was a very complex one, as he was capable of committing deplorable atrocities, but at the same time, he was also capable of inspiring his followers and continuously attracting more and more people to his cause through his generosity and loyalty to those who served him faithfully.


As I have mentioned earlier, Genghis Khan had a difficult childhood. Although he was born into a noble bloodline, he became orphaned aged only 9, when his father was poisoned by the Tatars. Following his father’s death, the rest of the tribe abandoned Genghis and his family, who had a struggle just to survive in the following years.

It was during these years that an early sign of cruelty came to light when Genghis and one of his brothers murdered one of their half-brothers, who refused to share food with them. Although their half-brother's behaviour was horrible, especially considering their dire circumstances, the punishment he received for his crime was way out of line, and Genghis’s mother was horrified when she found out what his sons did, describing them as little better than beasts.

Historian Frank McLynn also believes a certain amount of vindicativeness was also present in the Great Khan, as when he had the opportunity to annihilate the Tatars, he did that by ordering the killing of every male member of the tribe who was taller than the wheel of a cart, while he was much more lenient towards the tribe of his former ally Toghrul Khan when he defeated Toghrul.

Finally, the Mongol cruelty was on full display during their foreign wars, when they invaded China and Persia, and every city or town that resisted the Mongols was destroyed with its inhabitants put to the sword or enslaved.

An early advocate of diplomatic inviolability

Most historians believe the Great Khan’s respect towards envoys was a result of his father’s death, who was poisoned while he was a guest of the Tatars. Setting aside the motives, it is a fact that Genghis always treated foreign envoys with respect, and nobody shot the messenger in his court.

In return of him respecting the diplomats of other rulers, he expected them to respect his envoys in return. In hindsight, it is no surprise that the Great Khan was outraged when the Khwarezmian Shah executed and humiliated his diplomats, a move that doomed his own empire, which was destroyed by the Mongols to avenge the humiliation suffered by the Khan’s diplomats.

Anyone interested what happened to those who disrespected Mongol envoys, check out Kings and Generals.

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He promoted men based on merit rather than birth

The Great Khan’s preference to promote men based on their skills, rather than their blood, was probably the main reason why he was able to build such an effective military machine that overran most of Asia like a juggernaut during his lifetime.

One particular example of Genghis spotting a talented man was his general Jebe. Jebe initially was serving under an enemy of Genghis and nearly killed him in a battle by hitting the Khan in his neck with an arrow. The wound was terrible, and Genghis barely survived, but once he recovered sufficiently, he ordered the man who nearly killed him to be brought to him.

Jebe pleaded that as a soldier of his tribe, he was only doing his duty, but if Genghis would enrol him into his own army, he would serve him as loyally as he did his previous commanders. The honesty of Jebe won over Genghis, who spared him and Jebe became one of his greatest commanders.

This sort of magnanimity was not limited to this single individual case, as Genghis’s empire grew, he made sure to spare the lives of talented craftsmen, administrators, engineers and soldiers, who were usually offered the chance to join him. Though it also has to be noted that oftentimes defeated enemies were also forcefully enrolled on the Mongol armies and used as meatshields in their battles or sieges when the Mongols sent these men into the vanguard to minimize their own losses.

Religious tolerance

It is fair to say that in the medieval period, religious tolerance was not really the standard view of the age. Arguably the Christian countries of Europe were the most intolerant, as the frequent destruction of sects and expulsion of Jews clearly demonstrated their lack of will to tolerate different creeds. Islamic countries generally were somewhat more tolerant, as Christians and Jews were still regarded as People of the Book, and although were very much second-class citizens, so long as they paid their extra tax, they were left in peace.

The Mongols before Genghis united the tribes were mostly following their traditional religions and many of them also converted to Nestorian Christianity, like Genghis’s ally Toghrul Khan. The nomads living north of China were more tolerant of other religions than the settled civilizations of Europe and western Asia, and Genghis and his successors continued this legacy for many generations.

Loyalty to those who served him well

The Great Khan was always loyal to those who served him well and rewarded his loyal followers generously, some of them even received exemptions from the law thanks to their services.

Genghis, however, was particularly harsh towards those who betrayed their superiors, as the case of the generals who betrayed Jamukha clearly demonstrated.

Genghis and Jamukha were blood brothers and allies in their early life, but with time they become enemies. Genghis emerged victorious from their wars. Jamukha’s subordinates saw which way the wind was blowing, betrayed their leader and brought him before Genghis. No doubt, the generals expected some reward, but their reward was an execution, while Genghis offered to spare the life of his former friend, but Jamukha declined, asking only to be given a noble death( to be killed without shedding his blood).


Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy(2016), Frank McLynn, Da Capo Press

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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