Genghis Khan: A ruler between colonialist stereotypes and nationalist sentiments

I wrote this assignment for HIST 221 (History of Medieval Turko-Persian Societies) but I changed its order a bit in order to understand what the article aims. Enjoy reading!

ilk türklerde devlet anlayışı ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Genghis Khan was ascending the throne in 1206 (Jami’ al-tawarikh, Rashid al-Din.)

Genghis Khan is one of the prominent leaders in world history in terms of his influences on the course of history. He established and enlarged his Mongol Empire for 21 years (1206-1227) by invading large parts of Central Asia and partially the Far East. Under his leadership, a variety of tribes submitted the Mongols and paid tribute to them. However, his rule has been a hotly debated issue among historians for centuries due to whether Genghis is a barbarian man or a peace provider via trade. In this regard, a number of scholars have written various works to describe his aspects. Even though he is not portrayed a pure merciful leader towards other nations, it can be seen that Genghis Khan was mostly not a cruel looter according to some older works as well as recent studies that scrutinized him with a different understanding.

Historians have criticized Genghis Khan’s personality in terms of his attitudes towards his enemies and his environment as well as his Mongol and Asian identity. To begin with his behaviors as a leader, it is claimed that he ordered to punish many people because of his unstoppable suspicions. For example, he arrested his brother Qasar without any clear reason after hearing some gossips. As De Hartog put it,

“this suspicion resulted in Genghis Khan’s refusal to allow anyone but himself to wield any authority. As his power increased, he became more and more anxious to protect his own position.”1

By doing so, he began to massacre all who challenged his undeniable authority. Thus, he became a “barbarous” commander who slaughtered millions of people and harmed hundreds of cities in Central Asia. Additionally, his Mongol identity aided him to be a slayer. De Hartog also argues that

“the Mongols were far more barbarous than their neighboring tribes. For this reason, Genghis Khan, as the cultivated Chinese put it, was nothing more or less than a barbarian.”2   

Rene Grousset also evaluates Genghis in this way despite remarking his positive sides. He remarks that his certain nobility and loftiness of mind

“combined with ruthless barbarian sentiments”.3

   In this case, however, it is needed to analyze who and why the adjective of “barbarous” used for Genghis. Weatherford and May put forward that “Barbarous Genghis” is an invention of European authors in order to justify their rules over Asian societies. May mentions that

“much of this has to do with Western and Eastern stereotypes of ‘barbarians’ (that is any non-sedentary cultures).”4

Accordingly, this stereotype is reflected in a variety of branches within Western art. To exemplify, Voltaire depicts him as

“this destructive tyrant . . . motivated by the basic barbarian desire to ravish civilized women and destroy what he could not understand”5

in his the Orphan of China. In painting, as Weatherford searches, his portrait exhibits “the quintessential barbarian with a fierce visage and fixed cruel eyes, ugly”6 characteristics. Moreover, those prejudices have been repeated even in comics and cinema. For example, Dr. Donald, one of the Marvel characters, mutters that

“the only thing that could make this day worse would be if Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde ran me over.” 7

It is possible to find similar themes in famous Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo movies. As May detects

“in all instances, the ‘worst thing’ one could be confronted with was some incarnation of Chinggis Khan and the Mongols.”8

According to Weatherford, the degradation of Genghis in such a level stemmed from colonial ideology. This negative perception

“developed as an integral theme in the ideology of European conquest and colonization. The supposed horrors of Genghis Khan and the Mongols became part of the excuse for rule by the more civilized …colonialists.” 9

he says. This menacing perception of Genghis created a central figure to attack and the stereotype of the barbarian in Orientalist way of thinking. By benefitting from unreliable knowledge, Western fears and phobias projected in magnifying disputed crimes of Genghis.

genghis khan money ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Genghis Khan in Mongol currency (tögrög).

   In addition to the blame of being barbarous, Genghis Khan has been targeted due to a horrifying decline in population with high numbers alongside the ruin of numerous settlements. Mustafa Kafalı asserts that especially in invaded Islamic countries Genghis and his army

“brutally murdered everyone, including women and children. The Mongol soldiers destroyed the most important centers of Islamic culture and civilization. Mosques were used as stables.”10

Grousset alleges similar crimes that

“he made terror a system of government and massacre a deliberate and methodical institution. His destruction of eastern Iran exceeds in horror anything attributed by Europe to Attila…”11  

Especially, the contemporary Muslim historians of that time heavily condemned Genghis. To Ibn al-Athir, his conquests are the

“greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity . . . since God Almighty created Adam until now.”12

Juzcani also claims that millions of people died during the Mongol invasion. To him, even in one massacre, 2.400.000 people could be slaughtered with no mercy13. In this context, even De Hartog who pursuits in a defending manner for Genghis accepts that

“during the Mongol conquest inconceivable numbers of people died.”14

Likewise, Weatherford underlines that he

“killed at an unprecedented rate and used death almost as a matter of policy and certainly as a calculated means of creating terror.”15

   On the other hand, it is necessary to take the destruction of other kingdoms and empires into account. Furthermore, the point that the bloodshed of “millions” demonstrates a reality or an exaggeration must be analyzed in understanding whether Genghis Khan’s destructive policy is a sui generis one or not. Weatherford remarks that

“other contemporary rulers used the simple and barbaric tactic of instilling terror and horror into people through public torture or gruesome mutilation. Civilized rulers and religious leaders from China to Europe depended upon these gruesome displays to control their own people through fear and to discourage potential enemies through horror.”16

He also gives examples from the Byzantine emperor Basil and Frederick Barbarossa in Lombardy. All these instances have parallel methods like destroying cities and mass slaughter.

   Besides, the death of millions in the 13th century in a not widely-populated area is suspicious. De Hartog indicates that

“numerically Genghis Khan’s army was always smaller than those of his opponents.”17

This factor makes the slaughter of millions harder in a large area. David O. Morgan stresses that

“such statements should not be taken too literally, however. It is by no means easy to raze a city to the ground, even with the aid of 20th-century destructive technology”18

As for the reason behind exaggerating death numbers, it is a policy of Genghis own in Weatherford’s view. He writes that he let people

“circulate the worst and most incredible stories about him and the Mongols….Each victory released a flood of new propaganda, and the belief in Genghis Khan’s invincibility”19

In this regard, Weatherford also gave importance to the demographic and geographic dimensions of assaults.

“It would be physically difficult to slaughter… ratios of up to fifty to one. The people could have merely run away, and the Mongols would not have been able to stop them. The dry desert soils of these areas preserve bones-no trace of the millions said to have been slaughtered by the Mongols.”20

Therefore it might be thought that Genghis Khan destroyed the centers of his enemies and decreed many people (not huge numbers) to be killed like any other ruler.

   The administrative mentality of Genghis Khan has been differently assessed in understanding his personality. Grousset charges him as

“this nomad could barely apprehend the nature of an agricultural and urban economy. Having conquered eastern Iran and northern China, he found it natural to reduce these countries to steppe land…”21

Likewise, Kafalı argues that he did not understand how to manage a country. He

“only worked for himself and his relatives. Because the organization he founded in the empire was based on primitive principles, the Mongols could only last forty years after his death.”22

However, it must be kept in mind that, during and after the times of Genghis Khan, cultural and economic exchanges revived on the Silk Road. Weatherford says that when Genghis Khan died he left

“an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and improved civilization.”23

While refusing economic thinking of Genghis, Grousset accepts his judicial side and appreciates it as an achievement.

“Massacres were forgotten, while the administrative accomplishment…continued. And this work was in the end…to be to the advantage of civilization.”24

genghis khan and the making of the modern world ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Genghis from a Persian miniature

By implementing his code Yasa wherever he conquests, throughout Mongolia and Turkistan a kind of “Pax Mongolia” (Mongol Peace) emerges as contemporary writer Joinville celebrates him as keeping the people at peace.25 However, Yasa is not a written code and “had a much more customary and ad hoc character” according to Morgan26.

In administration, Kafalı also comes up with the idea that Genghis Khan

“remained unfamiliar with all cultures until the end of his life. Only the Mongol traditions were dominant in the state organization.”27

However, this assertion would be invalid after analyzing who participated in his state structure. According to Morgan,

“he welcomed the assistance of peoples with greater administrative experience than the Mongols had had, notably the Uighurs of the Tarim basin and the Khitans of Qara Khitay and north China: signs of many Khitan and Uighur governmental institutions, as well as personnel, may be discerned in the administrative machinery of the early Mongol empire.”28

It is striking that today the Mongols mostly commemorate Genghis as not a successful soldier but an experienced manager. May points out that

“what is notable is that most Mongolians rarely speak of Chinggis Khan’s deeds outside Mongolia, but rather of his statesmanship, vision and laws. To them the importance of the conquests is secondary to the institutions that he gave to the Mongols.”29

That is to say, though Genghis Khan cannot be looked at as a democratic leader, he gave positions people from other identities. His administration is also remarkable according to many Mongolian people today.

   On the whole, the rule of Genghis Khan is a turning point to change the flow of history in Central Asia. He managed to capture a wide part of the Silk Road in a short timescale. Therefore, historians have judged his activities in different senses. However, prejudices and stereotypes against him have been effective in this path. Particularly, Western-centered biases led to a “barbarous” image for him through ages. Nonetheless, historians have also examined him by considering his time period and his surrounding environment. Searching for his military practices and administrative policies is a good way for them. In the light of the presented evidence, it might be concluded that historians need to take historical figures into consideration in escaping from prejudices against them like Genghis Khan. 

Presenting Sources

  • De Hartog, Leo. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. Tauris Parke Paperbacks Publications. New York. 2012.

Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World leo ile ilgili görsel sonucuIn the first place, Genghis Khan: the World Conqueror and His Empire by Leo de Hartog could be regarded one of the crucial works in this field since the book explains not only the political or military aspects of Genghis but also informs the reader about the social structure of his empire through 230 pages. The book begins with geographical conditions of Mongolia along with its tribal system. De Hartog illustrates the rise of Genghis from primary sources and analyzes the fundamental reasons behind the power of Genghis. He also does not neglect the emperor’s imposed judicial contributions on his society known as Yasa. The book consists of fifteen chapters and I will analyze the twelfth chapter of it (The World Conqueror and His Empire) that draws attention to the general understanding of warfare in Genghis’ times. Nevertheless, he claims that even though he is not a “monster” among empires, he is a kind of barbarian leader.

  • Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Three Rivers Press. 2004.

   When it comes to the second book, the Making of Genghis Khan by Jackgenghis khan and the making of the modern world ile ilgili görsel sonucu Weatherford, it includes the widest explanations of the “Great Khan” to prove the fact that he might not be accepted as a barbarous because of his positive achievements like religious tolerance and the revival of Silk Road in terms of commerce. He let many kinds of social and cultural exchanges free in his view. The book consists of three main parts and ten chapters. The discussion of the khan’s personality is reflected in the introduction part, the fifth and tenth chapters. According to Weatherford, Genghis’ brutal personality is a Western-oriented invention that was used since the Renaissance. Europeans portrayed him under such an image for different reasons like criticizing their kings or humiliating Eastern societies. Additionally, he argues that the destruction of cities and the slaughter of people were quite normal and necessary for the continuation of Mongol rule. Indeed, this destructive policy was also accepted among Western principalities. Hence, Genghis cannot be responsible for pure brutality at the course of the Middle Age.

  • Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Rutgers University Press. 1970.

   The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia ile ilgili görsel sonucuAs for the third book, the Empire of the Steppes by Rene Grousset, the book is one of the pioneering works in shedding light on the historical circumstances to get an apparent image of Genghis. Grousset analyzes Attila, Genghis, and Tamerlane’s eras to grasp the nature of successful and short-termed tribal empires in 1939. Even though the book was written in a politic sense, the book’s analysis on the personality of rulers is significant. The writer accepts that Genghis has a “brutal nature” and made massacres in invaded cities. However, he is also the architect of the idea of Mongolian peace (Pax Mongolia) after invasions. Administrative developments also made content his subjects that helped to be remembered as a “good leader” in many primary sources. Along with these improvements, Genghis opened new ways in the way of civilization.

  • May, Timothy. The Mongol Conquests in World History. Reaktion Books. London. 2012.

   The Mongol Conquests in World History ile ilgili görsel sonucuOther than Genghis’s own life, the books on the Mongol Empire might be useful in this framework. Timothy May’s The Mongol Conquests in World History is one of the instances in this respect. May divides his book into two main parts and ten chapters. He regards those conquests in terms of paving the way for “catalyst” and creating “exchange” in 320 pages. Investigating demographic trends and population change makes the book one of the considerable works in this field. However, Mongol Image section in chapter 3 (The World of 1350) provides the foundation of understanding Genghis Khan’s changing portrait over time. Emphasizing on how popular literature from comic books to cinema films constructed a “destructive” image for Genghis is an interesting analysis in this context. He also underlines how Genghis’s terrifying perception altered in the East and the West with the fall of Communism. He thinks that Weatherford’s book on Genghis played a pivotal role in emerging a more optimistic consideration about him.

  • Morgan, David O. “Čengiz Khan”, Encyclopedia Iranica Volume V. (1990): 133-135

   There are also a number of encyclopedia articles concerning Genghis Khan. Encyclopedia Iranica, for instance, has an article of the Mongol leader. Though this kind of articles is quite short when compared to large-volume books, this articleencyclopedia iranica ile ilgili görsel sonucu assists to understand the characteristics of Genghis more easily for readers like other articles. That article gives a chronological outline and political agenda at first. However, David O. Morgan, the writer of the article, also discusses whether the ruler of Mongolia is a brutal commander or a great administrator.  According to Morgan, the number of deaths in millions does not reflect reality since invaded cities touched such number in the 20th century. Additionally, he did not discriminate his subjects due to their religious or cultural identity like hiring Uighur people in his service.

  • Kafalı, Mustafa. “Cengiz Han”, TDV Islam Ansiklopedisi Volume 7 (1993): 367-369. Diyanet Foundation Publications. 2001.

   The other encyclopedia article on Genghis is found at the pages of TDV (Turkiyediyanet islam ansiklopedisi ile ilgili görsel sonucu Diyanet Foundation)’s Islam Ansiklopedisi (Encyclopedia of Islam). Written by Mustafa Kafalı, the article decisively mentions how Genghis Khan devastated the Islamic way of life in Central Asia by executions and massacres as well as the demolitions of cities. The writer uses the viewpoints of Muslim authors in the 13th century to exemplify his thesis. After giving information with regard to invasions and assaults, he disputes that Genghis is a merciless and irreligious man. That article’s different point is underlining the fall of Chinese leadership on the Silk Road to understand the rise of Mongols.


  1. Leo De Hartog, “The World Conqueror and His Empire”, Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World, (New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks Publications, 2012): 140.
  2. De Hartog, “The World Conqueror”, 139.
  3. Rene Grousset, “Jenghiz Khan: His Character and Achievements”, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, (Rutgers University Press, 1970): 250
  4. Timothy May, “Mongol Image”, The Mongol Conquest in the World History, (London, Reaktion Books, 2012): 103
  5. Jack Weatherford, “Introduction”, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, (Three Rivers Press, 2004): XXV
  6. Weatherford, “Introduction”, XXV.
  7. May, “Mongol Image”, 103
  8. Ibid., 103.
  9. Jack Weatherford, “The Empire of Illusion”, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, (Three Rivers Press, 2004): 259.
  10. Mustafa Kafalı, “Cengiz Han”, Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Islam Ansiklopedisi (Turkey Diyanet Foundation Encyclopedia of Islam Volume VII. , (Turkey Diyanet Foundation, 1993): 368.
  11. Grousset, “Jenghiz Khan”, 248.
  12. De Hartog, “The World Conqueror”, 139.
  13. David O. Morgan, “Čengiz Khan”, Encyclopedia Iranica Volume V. (1990): 134.
  14. De Hartog, 143.
  15. Jack Weatherford, “Sultan versus Khan”, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, (Three Rivers Press, 2004): 114.
  16. Weatherford, “Sultan versus Khan”, 115.
  17. De Hartog, 144.
  18. Morgan, “Čengiz Khan”, 134.
  19. Weatherford, 114.
  20. Ibid., 115.
  21. Grousset, “Jenghis Khan”, 249
  22. Kafalı, “Cengiz Han”
  23. Weatherford, “Introduction”, XXIII.
  24. Grousset, 252.
  25. Ibid., 252.
  26. Morgan, 144.
  27. Kafalı, 369.
  28. Morgan, 145.
  29. May, “Mongol Image”, 105.




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