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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > November 2018 > Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

From being rejected by his clan as a boy and having to claw his way to power, the Mongol leader came to believe he was destined to conquer the world. He all but succeeded, writes Spencer Day
By revolutionising his army and his ruthlessness in battle, Genghis Khan established the largest land empire in history
GETTY X2
The Great Wall of China proved an inadequate defence against Genghis Khan – he marched his army around it
ALAMY X3, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1

In the early 13th century, Wanyan Yongji, mighty emperor of the Jin, sent a message to an upstart warlord who had had the temerity to invade his territory. “Our empire is as vast as the sea,” it read. “Yours is but a handful of sand. How can we fear you?”

It was a bold statement, but one that was, on the face of it at least, fully justified. For the Jin dynasty of northern China was perhaps the most powerful polity on the face of the Earth at the time. The Jin had unimaginable wealth, gunpowder and an enormous army equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, such as catapults. What’s more, they could call upon the protection of one of the foremost engineering feats of all time, the Great Wall of China. So why should they be concerned about a nomad army riding roughshod over their land?

But there were a couple of problems. The Jin weren’t facing any old bunch of nomads, and the man commanding them wasn’t any old leader. He was Genghis Khan. Over the next two decades, the Mongol ruler would forge a reputation as arguably the greatest military commander in history. And it was at the very heart of Wanyan Yongji’s empire – in the streets of his magnificent capital, Beijing – that he would announce himself to the world.

By the time his Mongol army first attacked Beijing in 1214, tens of thousands of hapless Chinese men, women and children had already become acquainted with Genghis Khan’s ‘talents’ as a brutal, destructive force. A few years earlier, he had launched a massive invasion of northwest China, pillaging, plundering and killing on an epic scale. Not even the Great Wall could stop him. Instead of attempting to assault it, he simply took his army around the side.

DID YOU KNOW?

Before he became Genghis Khan, responsible for an estimated 40 million deaths, he was Temujin, who, according to one account, killed his half-brother as a boy in a dispute over food.

There are no surviving contemporary portraits of Genghis Khan. This Chinese painting comes from the 14th century
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About History Revealed

When faced with an obstacle as imposing as the Great Wall of China, most attackers would be forced to admit defeat. Not Genghis Khan. He simply went around it and invaded China by the back door. And that's not the end of his tale - we explore how the nomadic pauper created the largest contiguous land empire in the whole of human history. Plus: The spectacular falling out between Henry II and Saint Thomas Becket, how World War I birthed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, five key moments in the American Revolutionary War, and more.