Who Was Genghis Khan?

By Albert Lin, National Geographic emerging explorer

Ten thousand mounted riders race across a scorching desert, galloping into almost certain death against foes that outnumbered them a hundred to one. These riders, ready to die for their new lord, vanquished enemies and unified former rivals under a single banner as never before. In coming together, Mongolia’s warring clans formed a hammer that forged the greatest military domination the world has ever seen.

How did it come to be that nomadic herdsmen of the northern plains would accomplish more in a single generation than the Roman Empire did throughout its entire existence? Who was the individual who inspired such a movement, and what drove him to do so? This is the story of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Qan).

Mongolia Photo Gallery
Photo: A man cycles toward a campsite
One of the highest countries in the world, Mongolia is a land of harsh extremes—snowy mountains, wide expanses of grassy steppe, and windswept desert.

A Khan Is Born

Born in the late 12th century, Temujin, as he originally was named, spent his childhood as a student to the cruelty of the world. By his 16th birthday he had already experienced the murder of his father, the desertion of his family, and the life of an outcast barely sustained on hunting and gathering throughout Mongolia's harsh winters. But he did survive, and despite it all Temujin found love and married. As in so many great epics, it was the defense of this love that transformed the outcast into a legend.

At the lowest point in his life Temujin was forced to decide between accepting the fate of his wife, who had been kidnapped, or rising up against the churning tide of tribal warfare that had left him alienated, vulnerable, and alone. He chose action, deciding to end the warfare and unite the people of Mongolia under a single banner. This decision would define him and the political and military landscape of the world for hundreds of years to come.

The great warrior was successful—26 years later all of his tribal enemies were dead, and the people who remained gathered at a massive event (a khuritai) to recognize his greatness. The men who for generations had been at war among themselves laid down their arms to create a nation, one led by the man they now called Genghis Khan, the king of the ocean, the king of everything.

Creating an Empire

On that day in 1206 the world to the south had no notion of the wave of terror that would soon engulf them. Until now the disorganized tribes had been easily nullified, pinned against each other and exploited by the merchants and lords of the Silk Road. Surging out of the Gobi desert, Genghis's army fought not to supplement the wealth of a greedy king, but to define the way of life and the nation that their new lord had created. The same fire that had fueled the subjugation of tribes burned across the world. The khan had decided that coexistence could be obtained only by total domination.

The campaign that followed conquered more lands and subjugated more people then any other in the history of the world. With an empire spreading from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, Genghis's influence left its mark on most of the globe. Recently, a large-scale genetic study showed that roughly 16 million people today—about 0.5 percent of the world's male population—carry unique Y-chromosome markers that likely originated from Genghis. Yet no portrait exists of the man from his own time, and there are few firsthand written accounts of him.

The Mystery: Where Is His Tomb?

In August 1227, while leading a second campaign in China, Genghis died from reasons that remain unknown today. Speculations of the cause range from a fever that developed from an infected wound to a fall from his horse during a hunting accident. Even less is known about what happened to his body after his death. Some accounts have suggested a large elaborate burial near the sacred mountains of his youth. The site, however, has never been found—according to legend, all who attended Genghis's burial or witnessed the funeral procession were killed to maintain the secret of his tomb's location. Some have speculated that it lays beneath a river, some sources suggest it could be found near his birthplace, other sources indicate it was placed near his sacred mountain. Fascinatingly, none of the tombs of the 33 khans who followed Genghis have been found. Today, with remote sensing technology and the power of thousands of internet explorers like you, we have new noninvasive tools to find and preserve the legacy of one of the most important individuals in world history and his descendants—join us in the search of the Valley of the Khans.