Prologue: The Scourge from Hell, the Retreat of the West, Great Games Past and Present
Born into the royal Borjigin family in 1162, Temüjin, heir apparent to the Mongol clan’s chieftaincy, found himself, at age nine, scorned by his people, cast out of the communal fold, and reduced to hunting for rodents and roots to survive. A tribe of Tatars had poisoned his father, erstwhile ruler of the Borjigin, and his subjects, refusing to invest a scion so young, usurped power and consigned Temüjin to debasing destitution. The usurpers would have done well to note one circumstance, whether as augury or omen: Temüjin was born clutching a clot of blood.
Seven years later the Merkit, a rival Mongol tribe, kidnapped Temüjin’s wife and triggered a series of apparently local events that would result in the downcast youth’s ascension to power not only over all the Mongols but, eventually, over half the known world. Supported by the leader of the allied Kereit tribe, Temüjin, who by then had matured into a giant more than six feet tall, endowed with charisma, cunning, and formidable intelligence, raised an army of twenty thousand mounted archers, with whom he routed the Merkit and recovered his wife. Astonishingly, he then turned on and trounced his benefactors, the Kereit nobility. Impressing commoner Kereit into his cavalry, he proceeded to decimate the Tatars, imposing vassalage on those he spared; after this, the Tatars would fight alongside Temüjin’s troops. In 1206, on the wind2 swept grasslands by the river Onon, Temüjin’s moment of triumph had arrived: the twenty-seven Mongol tribes, whose elites he had either slaughtered or subjugated, invested him with the title of Supreme Ruler — or, in Mongolian, Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan was a complex figure, at once paranoiac, fearless in combat yet afraid of dogs, and fascinated by sorcery and shamanism. Believing himself divinely charged with establishing justice on earth, he set about his mission. The Mongols’ martial prowess, discipline, and military tactics were unmatched, even before he came to power, and constituted his most fateful asset.
Trained in archery as tots and reared as equestrian warriors, Mongol males amassed battle experience early on by raiding neighboring peoples for cattle, women, and livestock. Ever flexible in war, they advanced as they could and retreated when necessary. Their horses were small, hardy, and agile, capable of covering immense distances with lightning speed. Each Mongol warrior campaigned with four spares, which allowed fresh mounts as needed and dawn-to-dusk travel. Living off their livestock, hunting, or the food stocks of the people they plundered, the Mongols campaigned without provisions. They fed on the run, drinking their mares’ milk or piercing their mares’ jugulars with sharpened straws to sip their blood, or sustaining themselves with dried meat heated under their saddles. They wielded bows fashioned from bone, wood, and gut that fired bone-tipped arrows with a range of eight hundred feet (twice that of European bows) that could pierce armor. In their innovative siege techniques they employed powerful catapults called mangonels to reduce immured cities.
The Mongols lived only to fight. A Chinese chronicler of the time wrote, "They possess neither towns, nor walls, neither writing, nor books . . . legal institutions they know not. . . . They all feed on the meat of the animals which they kill . . . and they dress in their hides and furs. The strongest among them grab the fattest pieces; the old men, on the other hand, eat and drink what is left. They respect only the bravest; old age and feebleness are held in contempt." However fearsome they were, they were also notoriously fractious. To counter this, Genghis Khan created an elite personal guard unit of 10,000 men and reorganized his 100,000-strong army into divisions of 10,000, incorporating Tatars and mixing clan origins to hinder potential lineage-based conspiracies against him.
Thus arrayed, Genghis Khan and his men were ready to conquer the world. They began with China, to Mongolia’s south. They had long coveted China’s civilized riches and raided Han farmers in the borderlands. Before invading in 1213, Genghis Khan issued the Chinese an ultimatum he was to repeat across Eurasia: Accept Mongol suzerainty and become allies, or resist and perish. They declined. The Mongols then exploded across the north of the country, razing ninety cities and villages and slaughtering their populations, at times sparing people for use as human shields in the next assault. In two years Genghis Khan’s army reached Beijing, which it plundered and set afire, leaving it to burn for a month, and sallied on into Tibet and even Korea (from which, decades later, his descendants would launch an ill-starred invasion of Japan).
Then Genghis Khan turned his eyes west. Within five years he would conquer a hundred million people and ravage Central Asia, including Persia, Armenia, and Georgia. Finally, between his hordes and Europe lay only one state: Russia.