Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes conquered lands stretching from China’s Pacific coast to the Adriatic Sea. And as a result, they created one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. Along the way, Genghis Khan gained a well-earned reputation for brutal cruelty. But he was much more than just a sadistic dictator. The warlord actually introduced a series of strict rules and codes that governed behavior both on and off the battlefield. So, from religious tolerance to pioneering combat methods, let’s explore the lesser-known measures implemented by this much-feared leader.
20. Keep the secret of Genghis Khan’s tomb
Genghis Khan died on a summer’s day in the year 1227 aged about 65. Now, you might expect that a leader who had conquered so many peoples to become the ruler of all he surveyed would be honored by a spectacular tomb. Though as the great emperor had himself decreed, this was very far from the truth.
According to the BBC, Genghis Khan ordered that he should be buried with great secrecy and absolutely nothing should mark his grave. So when he died, grief-stricken soldiers carried his body off to a secret location. They even went so far as to repeatedly ride 1,000 horses across his grave to obliterate any sign of its existence! And after 800 years the mystery endures. To this day, no one knows where Genghis Khan’s remains lie.
19. Become a master archer
One of the main factors behind the military success of the Mongol hordes was the incredible archery skills of its soldiers. That didn’t come from nowhere, either. The art of marksmanship was taught from childhood. Competitions were held to test children – boys and girls – in various martial skills. These included wrestling, horse riding and athletics as well as archery.
And it wasn’t just a high level of straightforward bowmanship that was required, according to World History Encyclopedia. Mongol warriors were also expected to be expert at firing off arrows while they rode their horses at a gallop. The soldiers had the further advantage that their bows were the best available in the era. Built with a wooden core, their efficiency was increased thanks to additional materials such as animal sinew and bone.
18. The horse comes first
Mongol supremacy and the horse were inextricably linked. It could be said that for an individual warrior, there was nothing more important than his equine partner. But soldiers didn’t have just one! No, World History Encyclopedia notes that they often traveled with a small herd of four or five steeds, so they would always have one that was fresh.
It was the ability to travel great distances at high speed on their small but robust mounts that gave the Mongols a key advantage over their rivals. The importance of the horse was underlined by the fact that as well as being essential in battle, the animals were seen as a measure of wealth. So, we can assume that any Mongol warrior worth his salt would take great care of his steeds.
17. Be prepared to retreat
The stereotype of the Mongol hordes racing across the steppe and vanquishing all in their path has a basis in fact. But they didn’t always win by charging headlong into battle. They were a lot more cunning than that. In fact, the tactical retreat was one of their main warfare stratagems – one that they used to great effect.
According to HistoryNet.com, the Mongols would attack with a relatively weak force and then suddenly retreat apparently in disarray. Yet when the enemy set off in pursuit of what was actually a planned withdrawal, the main Mongol force would strike. Taking the advancing enemy soldiers unawares, Genghis Khan’s men would comprehensively rout them. And this feigned retreat apparently resulted in many victories.
16. Tolerate different religions
Considering Genghis Khan’s ruthless efficiency in conquering large swathes of Asia, the Middle East and Europe, his religious tolerance might come as something of a surprise. The Mongols’ own beliefs centered on shamanism, spirits and ancestor worship. Yet it seems that they had no desire to impose their religion on the peoples they controlled.
Genghis Khan was apparently of the view that trying to impose religion on others would be more trouble than it was worth. The Mongols also reportedly made efforts to get on the right side of religious leaders in the lands they annexed. They even granted tax breaks to clerics and holy places. It’s said that Genghis Khan believed granting religious freedom would make it less likely that vanquished nations would rise in rebellion.
15. Compulsory military service
Perhaps above all else, Genghis Khan needed manpower. The more soldiers he had under his command, the easier it would be to achieve his territorial ambitions. So, it’s no surprise that the Mongols required their male native population to be ready to serve in the military. And they didn’t depend on volunteers – strict laws governed who must be ready to serve in the Mongol army.
All able-bodied men from the age of 16 to 60 – some sources say 15 to 70 – could be called upon to serve as soldiers. In his 2017 book The Mongol Art of War, Timothy May estimated that a staggering one in seven of the Mongol population were soldiers. By any standards, that is an astonishingly militarized society.
14. Share the plunder
If there’s one way to lose the loyalty of your soldiers, it’s failing to pay them what they believe to be their just deserts. Though Genghis Khan had that angle covered. Although his fighters didn’t get anything like regular pay, the Mongols fully expected to be richly rewarded. According to The Cambridge History of War, wealth came from the plundered booty acquired as they fought their way across new lands.
As the Mongols conquered more people, they stole valuables ranging from gold and silver to horses and even slaves. And Genghis Khan made sure there was a fair system of dividing up the loot, although that didn’t happen until an enemy was utterly defeated. A special committee called the jarqu then administered the pay outs.
13. Equality under the law
Another perhaps unexpected aspect of Genghis Khan’s rule was his formulation of a set of laws. And a byproduct of this was a certain amount of equality among the Mongol people. The book Modern Mongolia Reclaiming Genghis Khan points out that the warlord’s laws created equality among his people in two ways.
Firstly, there was the question of who was chosen for high rank within the Mongol army. Genghis Khan’s laws meant that it was the most able soldiers who were promoted rather than those with links to ruling families. Secondly, the Mongol laws actually gave protection and status to women. At a time when women’s rights were practically non-existent elsewhere, Mongol females often held positions of political power and could serve as shamans.
12. Always obey
Genghis Khan and his lieutenants were as one when it came to unquestioning obedience from soldiers. They were completely unbending; orders must be followed at all times. Soldiers and even officers could be lashed if they did not follow commands to the letter. In fact, if any of a soldier’s equipment went missing, it was the officer in charge of the man who was punished.
Some infractions were dealt with by using the ultimate sanction – execution. Offenses that were punished by death included falling asleep on guard duty, desertion or retreating without orders. According to Grunge.com, one European who traveled to the Mongol lands in 1245 – Friar Giovanni di Plano Carpini – wrote, “These men… are more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world. Fights, brawls, wounding, murder are never met with among them.”
11. Practice hit-and-run tactics
The main force of Genghis Khan’s army consisted of archers mounted on horseback, HistoryNet.com notes. These highly mobile troops were ideally suited to one of the Mongols’ favorite battle tactics. This was the hit-and-run assault, which they used to great effect. The armies would attack at speed – often making deadly use of their bows at the same time.
After launching an offensive, they would then retreat before an enemy force had time to re-form its ranks. They would make these rapid horseback sallies repeatedly – staying out of range of the enemy’s weapons. Only when their opponents were thoroughly disordered by the hit-and-run tactics would the Mongols make a final devastating attack.
10. Target enemy leaders
One way to disrupt an enemy army is to take out their leaders. And this was certainly a tactic that Genghis Khan was familiar with and encouraged his troops to pursue, according to HistoryNet.com. In fact, it was a stratagem that Genghis Khan picked up in his earliest campaigns. He fought those in his successful bid to unite the Mongolian people under one ruler – him.
While he was battling adversaries within Mongolia, Genghis Khan quickly realized that allowing opposing leaders to escape was a mistake. It meant that even after battlefield defeat they could muster their followers and live to fight another day. So, he learned from this error and afterwards always made sure that his rival generals and rulers were put to the sword.
9. Right time, right place
Genghis Khan was a master of one of the most important warfare strategies: choosing the right time and place to engage his enemies in battle. The Mongol leader would deliberately avoid attacking an opponent until he was satisfied that the circumstances were entirely to his advantage. And only then would he launch an assault.
Under Genghis Khan’s skilled generalship, the Mongol forces would sometimes split into smaller groups to avoid an unsuitable battlefield. Yet they would soon come back together when the time was right to strike a conclusive blow. Often, this would take the shape of a surprise attack that would quickly overwhelm the enemy.
8. Take the flanks
The most obvious way to fight a battle is a headlong charge at the enemy force. But Genghis Khan was a lot more subtle than that, according to HistoryNet.com. He had an array of cunning tactics in his repertoire. One of those was the flanking movement when some of his warriors would avoid the center of the enemy’s forces. Instead, they would skirt around the sides of an opposing army.
By avoiding an all-out frontal attack, Genghis Khan could surround an enemy army. This tactic could be combined with a planned retreat by the Mongol soldiers positioned to the front of the opposing army. Once the enemy advanced in pursuit, they could be attacked both in the flanks and from the rear. In addition, the retreating Mongols could now turn and mount a frontal assault. Using such tactics, Genghis Khan often defeated armies with superior numbers.
7. Win sieges with engineering
Genghis Khan regularly defeated armies in the field using superior battle tactics, but a fortified city presented an altogether different problem. Ensconced behind high battlements, an enemy could hold out for lengthy periods if they had sufficient supplies within their citadel. Unless such a stronghold was overcome, Genghis Khan could not feel secure in territory he had invaded.
The Mongol army actually included some men who did not have a direct combat role, too. They were engineers and specialists in conducting siege warfare. Many of these skilled men came from Chinese and Muslim territories that Genghis Khan had conquered, according to HistoryNet.com. They used gunpowder, massive catapults that could hurl boulders against castle walls, artillery and even rockets to shatter defenses.
6. Divide your enemy
Genghis Khan often conquered by sheer force of arms. But he was not averse to the use of diplomacy and convenient subterfuge when they made victory easier. Where possible, the Mongols had no hesitation in exploiting local animosities to their own advantage. Whenever they saw the opportunity, the Mongols would work to increase hostility between different factions within their enemies.
In his book The Mongol Art of War, Timothy May quoted the words of a 13th-century French nobleman called Jean de Joinville. The latter wrote, “Whenever the Mongols wish to make war on the Saracens, they send Christians to fight against them, and on the other hand employ Saracens in any war against Christians.” This was exactly how Genghis Khan weakened his enemies by using pre-existing bad blood to his advantage.
5. Move fast
One of the key ingredients of success for Genghis Khan and his horde was mobility. With their hardy horses, they could travel over great distances at speed. This allowed them to confound their enemies and often to take them entirely by surprise. It’s been said that it was not until the advent of motorized armies in the 20th century that such rapid military mobility was seen again.
World History Encyclopedia points out that Mongol warriors on horseback could cover up to 75 miles per day. To make sure they could maintain this high pace, soldiers were well-supplied with as many as 16 spare mounts. This high level of mobility meant they could travel great distances quickly. But, crucially, it also meant that they could act with deadly speed on the battlefield.
4. Gather intelligence
Genghis Khan didn’t lead his warriors into battle until he’d made thorough preparations. HistoryNet.com notes that one crucial element of this pre-attack groundwork was the gathering of intelligence. Obviously, it was important to know how many soldiers the general had at his disposal, so a head count of available troops was the first step.
The Mongols would then learn what they could about the nature of their enemy. World History Encyclopedia writes that undercover agents disguised as holy men or traders would infiltrate enemy territory to gather information. They would also hunt out any potential dissidents who might throw in their lot with the Mongol cause. Once Genghis Khan’s troops had started advancing, spies would be sent on ahead to report on the lie of the land. Yep, nothing was left to chance!
3. Use all available weapons
The thick cloud of arrows that the Mongol warriors were capable of launching must have struck terror into the hearts of their enemies. The fusillade of arrows was a favorite tactic, but the Mongols had other strings to their bows. Or to be more precise, they had a full armory of other fearsome weapons.
A good example of the varied armaments deployed by Genghis Khan’s soldiers comes from the 1221 Siege of Nishapur in modern-day Iran. According to HistoryNet.com, when the Mongols besieged it their equipment included 300 ballistae – large catapults that could launch rocks or spears at the enemy. For good measure, the Mongols had 3,000 powerful crossbows. The besieged city capitulated in just three days and all of its citizens were massacred.
2. Commandeer enemy technology
Adaptability was one of Genghis Khan’s main strengths, and he certainly wasn’t too proud to use the technology of his enemies. The Mongols’ weaponry was fairly primitive at the start of their campaigns. But as the armies conquered more lands, they began to absorb more advanced military technology and even battle tactics.
As they traveled through West Asia they took note of the effective armor that their enemies wore in battle. Medievalists.net notes that they appropriated steel helmets, chainmail, breast plates and even armor for their horses. This meant that as well as their traditional light cavalry, the Mongols could now also deploy the heavy variant to good effect.
1. Horsemanship mandatory
Horse were central to Mongol culture and a key element in their success on the battlefield. So important was horsemanship that there was even a law stating that all children must learn to ride. So, for Genghis Khan’s troops, riding a horse was as familiar as walking. The Mongols also took advantage of one simple invention – the metal stirrup.
When and where the stirrup was actually invented remains a mystery, but the Mongols certainly made full use of it. Riding with stirrups meant that a warrior could stay on his horse with both hands free. And that allowed him to fire arrows as he rode at speed – a fearsome martial skill that helped the Mongols to win so many battles.