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Genghis Khan at the coronation of his son

8 brutal acts of Genghis Khan and his successors

Image: Early 14th century painting of Genghis son (c) at the coronation of his son, Ögedei, by Rashid al-Din | Public Domain

In the 13th and 14th centuries, an enormous empire straddled half of the Eurasian landmass. At its zenith, it stretched from the Pacific shores of the Korean Peninsula to the cold forests of Eastern Europe. This was the mighty Mongol Empire, and its emperors, known as Khagans, were some of the most bloodthirsty and powerful rulers in human history. Here we look at eight of their most shocking acts.

1. The decimation of Merv

Genghis Khan was born with the name Temuchin in the mountains of northern Mongolia in 1162. He later founded the Mongol Empire, ruling from 1206 to 1227.

In February 1221, Genghis Khan’s forces laid siege to the city of Merv, in modern-day Turkmenistan. When the people of Merv surrendered to the Mongols, the conquerors responded by virtually wiping the city off the map, murdering, pillaging, and wrecking the ancient metropolis.

Khan was reported to have given himself a front row seat for the mayhem at Merv. He sat on a golden throne and watched as men were dragged before him and executed. It was said to have been a ‘memorable day for shrieking and weeping and wailing’. The invaders tortured the wealthy citizens of Merv so they’d give up their money and jewels.

One source puts the number of dead in the Merv massacre at 700,000, while a contemporary Persian chronicler estimated the number of corpses at a staggering 1.3 million. Khan apparently ordered each of his soldiers to kill at least 300 people.

2. The crime against the Oirat

Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, ruled as Khagan-Emperor of the Mongol Empire from 1229 to 1241. Like his father, Ögedei loved war, sending the vast Mongol hordes thousands of miles in nearly every direction to fight and expand the empire.

He was also responsible for an act that one historian has called ‘one of the worst Mongol atrocities recorded’. This was the mass rape of the Oirat girls.

In 1237, the Oirat people, according to Persian chroniclers, failed to contribute the expected cohort of young women to the Mongol emperor’s harem. A furious Ögedei decided to punish the Oirat. He ordered that 4,000 Oirat girls were to be repeatedly raped by his soldiers and that the girls’ families were forced to watch. Two of the girls died, and the rest were distributed as sex slaves among the harem, merchant caravans, and the Mongol army.

3. The destruction of Baghdad

Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, led an army of perhaps 150,000 men to Baghdad, the capital of the mighty Abbasid Empire, in modern-day Iraq.

The Mongol forces, which included Chinese siege engineers, captured the city on 10th February 1258. The victors poured into the city and began a week of carnage, inflicting on the residents a campaign of pillaging, raping, torture, and murder.

One contemporary account reported that 800,000 were killed during the siege of Baghdad and its aftermath. However, this source also says that this number does not include those who drowned, ‘children thrown in the mud’, or those dying from disease, hunger, and ‘fear’. Some sources even go as high as two million for the total number of dead, though the true figure is not known.

The Baghdad destroyed in 1258 was the city of the Islamic Golden Age, resplendent with grand libraries, palaces, and mosques, a centre of learning for centuries. One chronicle says that the Tigris river ran black with the ink from the books of the destroyed House of Wisdom, and red with the blood of murdered philosophers and scientists.

4. The annihilation of Nishapur

The siege of Nishapur (modern-day Iran) in April 1221 was bloody and fierce. A huge Mongol army attacked the city, hurling hundreds of fireballs, a quarter of a million large stones, and much more at the defences. Nishapur finally fell and bloody house-to-house fighting ensued inside the city.

Survivors were, like every other resident of Nishapur, beheaded after being pulled from underground hiding places, mounds of rubble, and piles of bodies. The Mongols made three mountains of skulls from those they’d beheaded at Nishapur – one pyramid each for men, women and children.

Genghis Khan had been clear to his commanders that he wanted nothing in Nishapur to survive, so even the city’s dogs, cats and vermin were exterminated.

400 skilled workers were lucky enough to be spared, but all of the remaining 170,000 population of Nishapur were massacred.

5. The brutal funeral procession of Genghis Khan

In August 1227, Genghis Khan died. It is said that the mighty warlord had stipulated that his burial place was to remain a secret.

Marco Polo, the famous Venetian explorer who served as an envoy for the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1270s and 1280s, told the sinister story of Genghis’ funeral.

According to this version of events, 2,000 slaves that worked on burying the late emperor were butchered by their guards, who in turn were cut down by the second unit of infantry. These soldiers then made their way through the countryside, away from the burial place, and murdered everyone who saw them, so that no trace of their presence or witnesses to their route was left. This final group of men then committed suicide when they returned to their base.

Modern experts have concluded that the most likely location of Genghis Khan’s grave is in the area of the Mongol sacred mountain, Burkhan Khaldun, in the far north of Mongolia.

6. The terrible treasure hunt at Termez

In 1220, Mongol forces sacked the ancient city of Termez in modern-day Uzbekistan. According to legend, a local woman pleaded with the Mongol invaders to spare her life, saying that she had swallowed pearls. Her captors duly sliced her open and retrieved the precious gemstones. This prompted an order by the Mongol commander that the corpse of every citizen of Termez was to be disembowelled, believing it would yield similar riches.

7. The massacre of Otrar

In 1219, after Inalchuq, governor of the city of Otrar in modern-day Kazakhstan, had severely provoked Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor led a vast army to invade the Khwarazmian Empire and lay siege to Otrar. After five months the oasis town was captured.

The Mongols executed Inalchuq by having molten silver poured down his neck (some accounts say it was poured into his ears and eyes).

The fighters defending Otrar were all killed, and the entire population of the city was brought out onto the plain by the victorious Mongols. Every one of them – numbering about 100,000 – was put to the sword.

8. Sacks of severed ears

At the Battle of Legnica in modern-day Poland in April 1241, the Mongols were said to have counted the number of dead European foes by cutting the right ear off of every enemy corpse. The severed ears reportedly filled nine large sacks.

This macabre method of battlefield data collection by the Mongols also may have happened in Bulgaria and Russia around the same time. There, according to some sources, the number of bloodied trophy ears was in the thousands.