By Catriona Macpherson


The scattered nomad tribes were confined to the steppes of middle Asia, hemmed in by formidable barriers on nearly every side; arctic ice to the north, the Khingan Mountains to the northeast, and the snow-capped Tibetan massif to the south. Two natural corridors were the only way out; southeast toward China and westward toward the steppes that became Russia, and from there into the fertile valleys of Europe. The major tribes in this area were the Mongol, Tatar, Merkid, Kereycid, Naiman and Oyirad. For hundreds of years the nomads were cut off from the rest of Asia; their lifestyle almost unchanged. Hunting and herding supported them; there was no farming because the land could not be irrigated. Since grass grew only where there was water, the nomads had to take their flocks and herds to the water. They lived in tents which could be moved quickly. From wood and leather they made light articles, i.e. saddles and weapons, which could easily be carried in carts or on animals. They made nothing for trade so merchanting was not part of their life. Meanwhile, the outside world, began to change. The Chinese wore silk clothing and cultivated the land. Dry years on the steppes eventually drove the nomads southeast toward these cultivated lands and here ended the isolation of the nomads. On early raids they carried off what they needed to survive, primarily cattle and grain. Survival, a law of nature, forced the nomads to raid. Their philosophy was to raid when they could do so fairly easily and then retire and wait for their next opportunity. The steppe dweller was not mentally inferior; he was a specialist in survival. His life was shaped by a continual struggle against his harsh environment. He could not, as yet, read or write but he did have a prodigious memory. He did not have the engineering skills to build a bridge across a river but he knew how to tie his horses together and swim them across, while holding onto their tails. The nomad did not want to build towns and cultivate fields, for he saw sedentary life as a threat to his strength and courage, which were born out of a lifetime of cold, fatigue, poverty and danger. He felt himself superior to the agrarian society.

He remained a hunter and fighter, while his sedentary counterpart learned the peaceful arts. The steppe dweller had learned to adapt himself quickly to whatever came his way. Often with little or no advance warning, he had to move his family, his belongings and his herds a hundred or more miles away to new and unfamiliar pastures. He must assess the danger and promptly decide on a course of action, for hesitation could be fatal. Early in life, he learned that it was useless to pray to the gods so he acted first to save himself and then took time to offer a sacrifice to the Eternal Blue Sky when he was out of danger. He felt the way to survive was to be fierce and warlike, and to dominate those he came into contact with. Sedentary people had difficulty adapting to a new situation. They had learned to depend on walls, weapons, bridges, and irrigated fields. In addition, they must obey their overlords and the priests in the temples, which made decision- making nearly impossible. The gap between the nomads and sedentary people grew larger as time passed.

In a matter of time nomad raiders began to penetrate deeper into the settled areas. They killed the men, took women and children to be slaves or raised as warriors if they showed promise. Silver and gold, they realized, were not merely ornamental but had trade value. They discovered sweet fruits and intoxicating wines, and Mongol women wanted silks from the markets to replace their coarse homemade woolens. Caravans, ripe for the plucking, yielded additional wealth, enabling them to trade at leisure with merchants from distant lands. Security could be had by conquest, which soon became a new way of life. A large conquest might bring enough wealth to last a lifetime. But as history shows, conquest led to further conquest, and therein lies the corruption that often comes with acquisition by force of arms.

The skillful, nomad hunter attacked towns much like he stalked a herd of antelope; circling relentlessly and firing volleys of arrows until the frightened inhabitants gave up or were killed. With his feet and legs, he could maneuver his horse and shoot from horseback with deadly accuracy. The horse archer was to have a profound effect on Asia and Europe for many years to come. Eventually tribal society changed. Individual warriors Tarkhans, who protected their herds with armed followers, became the aristocrats of the steppe, the noyans or princes. The family usun, replaced the great clan. A wealthy family could support many armed riders with slaves to do the menial work. Under Jenghiz Khan a feudal society replaced the clan structure. All men would be loyal to the khan instead of to individual clan chiefs.

The Secret History tells of the first ancestors of the Mongol tribe who came across an inland sea called Tenggris (probably Lake Baikal) and settled near the head waters of the Onon River, in present day western Mongolia. The tale-legend began with an animal pair, Borte Cinoa a blue-gray wolf and Quua Maral a white (tawny) doe. They begot a son called Bataciqan and some twenty-five or so generations later we come to Yesugei Bahadur (the Valiant) who sired Temujin, later known as Jenghiz Khan. (The Altan Tobci gives a figure of more than forty generations later). Between 1368 and 1404 the text of The Secret History was translated into Chinese. The Yuan Dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan, was descended from the Mongol tribe, and since the Chinese did not appreciate being descended from a wolf and a doe, Borte Cinoa became a bluish man and Quua Maral became a white woman. The rest of their translation fairly well follows the Mongol version.

At the time of Temujin's birth, (c1167), (various dates are 1155, 1162, 1165) there was no central power in Mongolia. As part of a long-standing Chinese tradition of using one "barbarian" tribe to weaken another, the Kin encouraged conflict between the various tribes.

Yesugei the Valiant, was a direct descendant of Khabul Khan, who had once ruled the Mongol clan. During a conflict between the Tatar and the Mongol, he had distinguished himself as a strong leader and as a result had become leader of a large camp, made up of families from his own royal Borjigin clan and the Tayichigud clan of Ambaghai who had ruled after Khabul Khan. Yesugei belonged to the Kiyat "bone" of the Borjigin clan. He was killed by enemies when Temujin was nine years old. Most of the families who had followed Yesugei felt that a young boy was not strong enough to protect them, and left to seek the protection of some powerful lord, leaving Temujin and his family to fend for themselves. Temujin knew why they left and would have done the same in their place. For nearly a decade his family's existence was precarious, to say the least, living at times on roots, berries, occasional mice, and other small animals. These lean years taught Temujin to be steady, shrewd and practical, rather than foolishly brave and adventurous. Above all he was adaptable, a man who could learn. A patient steadiness was his main characteristic throughout life, and he made his moves only after he knew what lay ahead.

When the time was right he went to claim the girl who had been betrothed to him before his father was killed. Part of her dowry was a black sable coat, which he was later to use as a gift to Togrul-Khan of the Keraits. Wishing to improve his station in life, he needed the protection and help of someone stronger. Togrul-Khan and his father had been friends and adopted brothers anda. As a descendant of royal blood, he considered himself an aristocrat of the steppes. He was the head of a family that included three valiant warriors, Kasar, Belgutei, and Jelme, had married well, and had Bogurchi, as a vassal; but he wanted more. Togrul-Khan promised to help him regain the relatives and vassals who left when his father died. He had to acquire power which would attract strong families into alliances and force enemy tribes into neutrality or submission. Togrul-Khan kept his promise, influenced by what he thought was a show of wealth, evidenced by the splendid coat of black sable, and a modest string of victories.

In 1187, the Year of the Sheep, after a number of military successes, many of the aristocrats of various clans and their families joined Temujin. They had come to offer their allegiance to him, for they saw Temujin as the ideal steppe warrior, the best man to lead them. While still in his twenties they elected him Khan and gave him the name Jenghiz, expecting him to lead them to conquer rich pastures, capture beautiful women, and acquire good horses and hunting grounds, for to the strongest khan or chieftan went the best grazing and hunting grounds.

His first years as khan were anything but auspicious. His strength and power were unstable. He had authority over a number of chieftains but if things went badly, any or all of them might desert him. What tipped the scales in his favor was a group of his own loyal followers who, as time was to tell, stood by him no matter what took place. But first he must organize his camp ordu. To protect himself from sudden raids, he appointed a personal guard of armed warriors, 80 night guards, kabtaut, and 70 day guards, tunghaut. Next he provided for the care and protection of the herds of horses, and the training of remounts.

Mongols had always been magnificent warriors, but then so had all the nomad tribes. The riders of each clan formed a natural army with the ability to move swiftly and shoot accurately. Their rigorous life and alility to hunt skillfully permitted the steppe tribes to field a horde of wild horsemen who were so savage they seemed impossible to defeat. Jenghiz realized these hordes were not an army. They needed discipline and organization to mold them into an effective fighting force, a task he set himself to immediately. The horsemen drilled in simulated battles, and learned to obey unquestionably, their captain's commands. In tight formation, they wheeled and retreated by turns, shooting over the backs of their horses, turning again to attack still maintaining tight, well-ordered formations. This constant drill allowed the army to present a united front and act as one man. At this point, even though his army was defeated occasionally, his men always retreated in an orderly formation and regrouped around him to fight again. Customarily when an army was defeated, the men scattered in confusion. Discipline and organization were the keys to his victorious army.


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