Saturday, August 24

The Death of Chingis Khan

When Chingis Khan returned to Mongolia from the sack of Khwarezm c. 1225, he remembered the Tanghut - a western Tibetan tribe who had created the Xi-Xia or Hsia or Western Xia empire - had not lived up to their promise of sending soldiers to aid his conquest of "the Moslem people." (Although the Tangut emperor Shenzong had been willing to aid the Mongols, his court and, in particular, his general Aša-gambu or Asha Gambu, had recommended against it.) The Secret History of the Mongols says (Paul Kahn's adaptation):

During that winter Chingis Khan said:
“I will go to war with the Tanghut people.”
He reassembled his army for war
and in the autumn of the Year of the Dog he set out.
From among all his wives he took the Tatar, Yesui Khatun, as his companion.
Later that winter as they approached the land of the Tanghut,
Chingis Khan was hunting wild horses in the Arbukha region,
riding his horse known as Red-Earth Gray.
As some soldiers drove the wild horses out from the bush
Red-Earth Gray bolted and threw Chingis Khan to the ground.
The fall caused him a great deal of pain
and he pitched his camp there at Chogorkhad.
That night his condition grew worse
and the next morning
Yesui Khatun called the princes and commanders together.
“Talk among yourselves and decide what to do,” she said.
“The Khan has spent a bad night and his flesh has grown hot.”

The council recommended putting the campaign on hold - the Tanghut lived in walled cities, the Mongols could come back for them - and return for a while to Mongolia. When Chingis Khan heard this counsel he was not in agreement:

“If we do this
the Tanghut will say that our hearts have failed us.
That’s the reason they’ll think we’ve gone back.
Let’s send ambassadors to them from our camp here at Chogorkhad.
If my sickness gets worse
we can withdraw after we hear their reply.”

The Tangut general Aša-gambu threw down the gauntlet:

"Now if you Mongol know nothing but fighting and say,
‘Let’s go to war,’
well, my camp is at Alashai.
All my tents are pitched there
along with my wealth stored on the backs of my camels.
Take yourselves to Alashai and meet me there.
That’s where I will fight you.
If you’re in need of more silver, satins, and gold
take yourselves to our cities,
to Ning-hsia or Liang-chou.”
When they brought these messages back to Chingis Khan
he was enraged by what he heard.
Though his flesh was still burning with fever he said:
“Yes, that answer is more than enough!
How can we withdraw after he’s said such things?
Even if it means I die here
we must answer these boasts with a fight.
Eternal Blue Heaven, you decide who will win!”

Chingis Khan took his army to Alashai and fought Asha Gambu.
They overcame the Tanghut forces on the plains there.
Asha Gambu retreated to a fort in the mountains of Alashai
but he was captured there and his people were defeated.
All his tents and all the wealth stored on the backs of his camels were taken,
and all his soldiers were killed,
blown away like the ashes of a fire gone out.
Chingis Khan ordered this, saying:
“Let our soldiers kill every Tanghut they can lay hands on,
let them slaughter any Tanghut soldier they can get.
Kill the bold and the brave ones,
put every capable Tanghut man to death.”

The emperor Shenzong died during the fighting and was succeeded by Modi, the last of the Burkhans or Tanghut rulers. Modi sued for peace:

He brought out images of the Buddha made from gold.
Then followed bowls and vessels made of silver and gold,
nine and nine,
young boys and young maidens,
nine and nine,
fine geldings and fine camels,
nine and nine,
and every other thing in his realm,
each arranged according to its color and form,
nine and nine.
Chingis Khan ordered Burkhan to present himself outside the closed door of his tent,
Burkhan was told to wait there three days,
and on the third day Chingis Khan decided what to do.

He gave Burkhan Khan the new title Shidurghu.
One Who Has Been Made Upright.
and after allowing Burkhan Shidurghu to stand before him,
Chingis Khan said:
“See that he is executed.
Let Tolun Cherbi be the one to see that he is killed.”

Chingis Khan took everything from the Tanghut people.
He gave their ruler Burkhan the name Shidurghu
and then executed him.
He ordered that the men and women of their cities be killed,
their children and grandchildren, saying:
“As long as I can eat food and still say,
‘Make everyone who lives in their cities vanish,’
kill them all and destroy their homes.
As long as I am still alive
keep up the slaughter.”

Thus, after centuries of rule over north-western China, the Western-Xia state ceased to exist.

Chingis Khan's fall from his horse was apparently aggravated by wounds - perhaps an arrow - received in this battle. Marco Polo writes:

... he went against a certain castle that was called Caagiu, and there he was shot with an arrow in the knee, so that he died of his wound. A great pity it was, for he was a valiant man and a wise.

It is possible that Marco Polo's account aose out of a confusion between Chingis Khan's demise and the circumstances around that of Mongke Khan, his grandson by the Toluid line, which is said to have occurred during the assault of Hochau (in Szechuan province), a name which Polo might have written as Caagiu.  Friar John of Piano-Carpini relates that Chingis was killed by lightning, i.e. it could only be the wrath of God that despatched him.  Persian and Chinese historians, however, agree in speaking of Chingis Khan's death as one from natural causes, in 1227, when he was aged around 65 (72 according to Persian sources.)

Sanang Setzen Khangtaiji (1604-62), a prince of the Mongolian tribe of Ordus, who "deduces all his dynasties from the Indian Sakya, and allots between them the different provinces of Jambu-dwipa", says in his history Sanan Setsen u Namtar that Kurbeljin Goa Khatun, the beautiful Queen of the Tanghut, who had passed into the tents of the Chingis, did him some unknown-and-unknowable bodily mischief, and then commited suicide by drowning in the Karamuren (Hwang-ho), which thenceforth was called the Khatun-Gol, or the Lady’s River, by the Mongols; a name which it apparently still bears.

The Secret History just says:

... coming back to Mongolia,
in the Year of the Pig,

Chingis Khan ascended to Heaven
After-he had ascended
Yesui Khatun was given most of the Tanghut people who remained.

Chingis Khan had asked to be buried without markings. His body was returned to Mongolia, presumably to his birthplace in the Khentii Aimag, where many assume he is buried somewhere close to the Onon river, where it flows out of the Burkhan Khaldun. The funeral escort killed anyone who crossed their path, in order to conceal the location. After the tomb was complete, the slaves who built it were massacred, and then the soldiers who killed them were also killed. Other legends say that his grave was stampeded-over by cavalry, and then trees were then planted over the site. Marco Polo said that in a few generations, by the late 13th century, none of the Mongols knew the location of the burial site. Historians think that his companions would have buried him near one of his favorite places - an area of the Burkhan Khaldun mountain (roughly 48.51°N 108.81°E - about 50kms from the contemporary Khan Khentii - and where the Onon gol emerges out of the Gorkhi-Terelj park) whereunto he was wont to retreat and draw inspiration. This area was called the Ikh Khorig, the Great Taboo; about 240 square-kilometers were sealed off by the Mongols, trespass being punishable by death. It is only within the last 20 years that the area has been open to archaeologists. In this regard see the crowd-sourced Valley Of The Khans project.

In 2003, a historical genetics paper reported that 1 in 200 men in the world are direct-line descendants of Chingis Khan. The abstract reads:

We have identified a Y-chromosomal lineage with several unusual features. It was found in 16 populations throughout a large region of Asia, stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea, and was present at high frequency: ~8% of the men in this region carry it, and it thus makes up ~0.5% of the world total. The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia ~1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.

The social selection is, of course, due to the power that Chingis Khan and his direct descendants  - the Golden Family (Mongolian: Алтан ураг, meaning 'Golden lineage') -  held, especially in a society which allowed one man to have many children through polygamy and concubinage; as well as widespread rape of the conquered populations. See Descent from Genghis Khan for more.

An article discussing this paper quotes the Great Khan:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

The author goes on to say:

From what I know of the history it does not seem that Genghis Khan was any more evil or sociopathic than Julius Caesar, Charlemagne or Alexander the Great. What he had on his side was simply scale of success. So I don’t know if it truly is an example of nice guys finishing last. The biography gleaned from The Secret History of the Mongols doesn’t indicate the level of self-destructive sociopathy of Stalin or Ivan the Terrible. Rather, Genghis Khan was able to gather around himself a cadre of followers who were willing to stick with him through thick and thin.

In the life and legacy of the great Mongol warlord I suspect we see the patterns of male domination and power projection which were the norm after the decline of hunter-gatherers, and before the rise of the mass consumer society. During this period complex civilizations built on rents extracted from subsistence agriculturalists arose. These civilizations were dominated by powerful men, who could accrue to themselves massive surpluses, and translate those surpluses into reproductive advantage. This was not possible in the hunter-gatherer world where reproductive variance was constrained by the reality that allocation of resources was relatively equitable from person to person. But with agriculture and village society inequality shot up, and the winner-take-all dynamic came to the fore. And so the appearance on the scene genetically of super-Y lineages. 

The Khan is dead. Long live the Khan.

Below, Chingis Khan's nine white flags are trotted out during the annual Naadam in Ulaanbaatar (around minute 8 in the clip.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Genghis Khan was placed in a silver coffin which was placed on top of the crowns of the 78 rulers he had defeated in his lifetime. He was buried with his weapons, a life-sized jade tiger, a lion, a horse and a manuscript Bible. It's said he emerges from his tomb on the anniversary of his death to foretell world-events for the coming year!

3:14 AM  

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