Between 1206 and his death in 1227, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered nearly 12 million square miles of territory—more than any individual in history. Along the way, he cut a ruthless path through Asia and Europe that left untold millions dead, but he also modernized Mongolian culture, embraced religious freedom and helped open contact between East and West. Explore 10 facts about a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman and bloodthirsty terror.
1."Genghis" wasn't his real name.
The man who would become the "Great Khan" of the Mongols was born along the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin, which means "of iron" or "blacksmith." He didn't get the honorific name "Genghis Kahn" until 1206, when he was proclaimed leader of the Mongols at a tribal meeting known as a "kurultai." While "Khan" is a traditional title meaning "leader" or "ruler," historians are still unsure of the origins of "Genghis." It may have may have meant "ocean" or "just," but in context it is usually translated as "supreme ruler" or "universal ruler."
2.He had a rough childhood.
From an early age, Genghis was forced to contend with the brutality of life on the Mongolian Steppe. Rival Tatars poisoned his father when he was only nine, and his own tribe later expelled his family and left his mother to raise her seven children alone. Genghis grew up hunting and foraging to survive, and as an adolescent he may have even murdered his own half-brother in a dispute over food. During his teenage years, rival clans abducted both he and his young wife, and Genghis spent time as a slave before making a daring escape. Despite all these hardships, by his early 20s he had established himself as a formidable warrior and leader. After amassing an army of supporters, he began forging alliances with the heads of important tribes. By 1206, he had successfully consolidated the steppe confederations under his banner and began to turn his attention to outside conquest.
3.There is no definitive record of what he looked like.
For such an influential figure, very little is known about Genghis Kahn's personal life or even his physical appearance. No contemporary portraits or sculptures of him have survived, and what little information historians do have is often contradictory or unreliable. Most accounts describe him as tall and strong with a flowing mane of hair and a long, bushy beard. Perhaps the most surprising description comes courtesy of the 14th century Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din, who claimed Genghis had red hair and green eyes. Al-Din's account is questionable—he never met the Khan in person—but these striking features were not unheard of among the ethnically diverse Mongols.
4.Some of his most trusted generals were former enemies.
The Great Khan had a keen eye for talent, and he usually promoted his officers on skill and experience rather than class, ancestry or even past allegiances. One famous example of this belief in meritocracy came during a 1201 battle against the rival Taijut tribe, when Genghis was nearly killed after his horse was shot out from under him with an arrow. When he later addressed the Taijut prisoners and demanded to know who was responsible, one soldier bravely stood up and admitted to being the shooter. Stirred by the archer's boldness, Genghis made him an officer in his army and later nicknamed him "Jebe," or "arrow," in honor of their first meeting on the battlefield. Along with the famed general Subutai, Jebe would go on to become one of the Mongols' greatest field commanders during their conquests in Asia and Europe.
5.He rarely left a score unsettled.
Genghis Khan often gave other kingdoms a chance to peacefully submit to Mongol rule, but he didn't hesitate to bring down the sword on any society that resisted. One of his most famous campaigns of revenge came in 1219, after the Shah of the Khwarezmid Empire broke a treaty with the Mongols. Genghis had offered the Shah a valuable trade agreement to exchange goods along the Silk Road, but when his first emissaries were murdered, the enraged Khan responded by unleashing the full force of his Mongol hordes on the Khwarezmid territories in Persia. The subsequent war left millions dead and the Shah's empire in utter ruin, but the Khan didn't stop there. He followed up on his victory by returning east and waging war on the Tanguts of Xi Xia, a group of Mongol subjects who had refused his order to provide troops for his invasion of Khwarizm. After routing the Tangut forces and sacking their capital, the Great Khan ordered the execution of the entire Tangut royal family as punishment for their defiance.