HomeCultureBooksEditor’s Picks

10 Facts about the Mongols, the nomads who seized the world

10 Facts about the Mongols, the nomads who seized the world

The mystery, magic and mayhem of the Mongol Empire is given a new lease on life in a fresh translation of the ancient saga, the Secret History of the Mongols

The Mongol empire and “Genghis Khan” (more about that title below) have captured the world’s imagination. But how much do we really know about him and the empire’s rise?

Most of what we know actually comes from the Secret History of the Mongols, a saga of the empire’s founding, written in Mongolian 25 years after the great khan died.

A new translation from Penguin Classics of this amazing work gives us an inside picture of how the Mongols began their nomadic empire.

The Mongols used hunting and weather magic for military purposes

The Mongols are famous for building the biggest land empire in history. But their military machine had some surprising features.

As nomads, the soldiers brought their base camp, with women, children, and old men, to within a day’s ride of the battlefield, so even at war, they would feel at home.

They only campaigned in the cold season, saving the summer for big parties and planning sessions, called quriltai.

"In some of their most crucial battles, they used jada (weather stones) to drop snow storms on their enemies"

When not fighting, they used huge mass hunts, covering hundreds of square miles, to practise group formation and feed themselves with a high protein diet.

And in some of their most crucial battles, they used jada (weather stones) to drop snow storms on their enemies—although sometimes that backfired and the snow fell on the magic makers themselves.

Genghis Khan’s real name was Temujin

Genghis Khan ascends the throne in the Yeke Quriltay in the source region in the Onan river .Over the course of his reign, Temujin adopted the name Chinggis Khan, meaning "oceanic" or "hard emperor"

When the great khan was born, his father named him Temujin or “Blacksmith”—not because he was a blacksmith but to commemorate the capture of a rival captain named Temujin.

When Temujin unified all the Mongols, he took the title “khan,” the Mongol word for emperor.

Khans also adopted special titles: Temujin took the title “Chinggis Khan.” Scholars still debate whether that meant “oceanic emperor” or “hard emperor”—he was certainly both.

What he couldn’t have known is that centuries later, European scholars would misread Persian manuscripts and turn “Chinggis” into “Genghis.”

Temujin was raised by a single mum

When Temujin was nine years old, his father was poisoned and rivals stole away his family’s followers. The Secret History tells how Temujin was raised alone on the steppe. He was even captured once by his enemies and had to use his wits to escape back to his family.

Temujin’s family was a victim of China’s “Use Barbarians to Control Barbarians” policy

Mongolian empire's siege of Zhongdu (modern Beijing), as depicted in the Persian Jami' al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din HamadaniTemujin held a deep hatred for the Chinese after they orchestrated the poisoning of his father

Rulers from China tried to control their northern frontier in a peaceful way—peaceful for them, that is. The usual method was to get one group of nomads to attack another—the more casualties the better to “thin the ranks” of the nomads.

Temujin’s father was poisoned as part of this strategy and he inherited a deep hatred of the Chinese and their nomad stooges who had killed his fathers and grandfathers for several generations.

The teenage Temujin killed his half-brother

Temujin’s father had two wives. As they got older, the sons of the two wives began to struggle over who would lead the family.

Things got so bad Temujin and his brother shot dead the older of their half brothers. His mother was furious with them, but from then on, it was clear who was leader.

Chinggis Khan’s wives were his most important advisors

Twice, Temujin faced hostility from key allies. First, his blood brother Jamuqa began suggesting they part ways, then the shaman Teb-Tenggeri whose visions had led to his coronation began to attack Temujin’s brothers.

Both times it was the khan’s first wife Borte who spoke up and demanded that Temujin fight for his family’s future and turn on his so-called friends. Without her, Temujin would not have become khan.

Chinggis Khan’s wife Borte had a son by another man—and he was OK with that

Portrait of Genghis Khan and wife Borte from Mongol empireChinggis Khan's wife Borte fell under suspicion of infidelity when she was captured by rival soldiers

Young Temujin’s darkest moment came when, as a newly married man, his camp was raided. The family escaped, but his new bride Borte was captured and turned over to a rival of his father’s.

Temujin turned to his father’s friends and they launched a campaign to rescue the Borte. But when she gave birth to her first son Joci, doubts remained: was he really Temujin’s son?

Decades later, when the khan set out to conquer Islamic Central Asia, his second son Cagadai attacked Joci as a “bastard.”

In the end Chinggis Khan forbade anyone from suspecting Borte’s faithfulness and Joci’s legitimacy—but he made third son Okodei, who’d kept his peace in the brawl, his heir apparent.

The Mongols organised his whole empire by the decimal system

Once Temujin became Chinggis Khan he numbered his entire kingdom into tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten-thousands. Not just the soldiers—the whole population were included in the “army in the guise of a people.”

Using this decimal organisation, the khans could mobilise the entire population for campaigns, livestock taxes, and even forced migrations to garrison the empire’s expanding frontiers.

Unlike Alexander the Great’s empire, the Mongol empire didn’t fall apart after his death

Okodei Khan portrait from Mongol empireChinggis Khan's son Okodei continued his campaign spreading the Mongol Empire across the world

When Chinggis Khan died, the Mongols still hadn’t conquered China, Russia, or Iran. It was up to Chinggis Khan’s son, starting with Okodei, to do it.

But Chinggis Khan’s choice Okodei held the empire together and made completing the conquest possible.

Even after the empire broke up in his grandson’s generation, the empire kept expanding.

Even after conquering most of the known world, most Mongols preferred to live in mobile homes

The Mongol rulers never stopped moving. Even when they occupied northern China, the Middle East and the steppes along the Volga, they regularly migrated from summer palaces to winter palaces, spending the spring and winter living in “hordes” or mobile palaces.

Christopher P Atwood's new translation of Secret History of the Mongols is published by Penguin (July 27, 2023)

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter


*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...