Trick or ... Khan?

With Halloween upon us, I’ve tried to get my local acquaintances to tell me traditional ghost stories. Nothing doing. Either they don’t know any or Mongolian superstitions are too terrifying to utter aloud. But it just so happens that October 31st is also a holiday here: the birthday of Chinggis Khan! As he’s the scariest thing by far to come out of Mongolia (and we’re talking about a country that still has the Black Death), this seems entirely appropriate.* Chinggis Khan is Mongolia’s greatest hero, and his face is everywhere: embedded into mountains, printed on the money, stenciled in gold on vodka bottles. People worthy of national recognition are inducted into the Order of Chinggis Khan. It’s possible to invest in Chinggis Bonds, catch a flight out of Chinggis Khan International Airport, and race trucks in the Chingghis Master Cross.

Chinggis Khan Gold
Chinggis Khan Gold

But Chinggis’ impact stretches far beyond the country’s borders. There was a time when he controlled everything from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan, the largest contiguous empire in world history. He ruled with a legal code of his own devising, granting religious freedom and mail service to all. As he assimilated other peoples into his empire, he in turn absorbed their knowledge, crafts, and technology. Also, he was indirectly responsible for the invention of hamburgers, which in my books makes him a great humanitarian.

Not scary enough for you? Imagine how he got that empire in the first place.

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.

This quote may sound pure Hollywood, but the speaker makes Conan the Barbarian look like Strawberry Shortcake.** Chinggis Khan and his warriors streamed across Asia like the wind and swooped like eagles upon their prey. To their enemies, the Mongols seemed to come out of nowhere, tireless and merciless, masked by the dust rising off their horse’ hooves. News of their approach made brave men wet their pants and women throw themselves off the city walls.***

But one of the creepiest stories about Chinggis Khan comes from his attempts at diplomacy. In 1218AD, he sent an ambassador to the Khwarezm Empire to discuss a possible treaty. The Shah of Khwarezm spurned the suggestion and, legend has it, sent back only the ambassador’s head. Upon receiving this insult, Chinggis saddled up and leveled  Khwarezm. City after city was swallowed in a wave of murderous rage. He killed the adults, then he killed the children, and then he killed their pets.

Thus the world learned a very important lesson: do not piss off the Mongolians.


*Chinggis Khan’s birthday is a floating national holiday, and the date changes every year. We do know that we was born around 1162AD and died about 75 years later. By the way, making it to his seventies in that time period with that lifestyle? Spoooooky.

**This quote was attributed to Chinggis Khan over 700 years ago. However, since he died nearly 800 years ago, I can’t promise that he really said it.

***I have no historical basis for the suggestion that Chinggis made men wet their pants. At least one of these reactions is historically accurate; Chinggis Khan got around in all senses of the phrase.