Who was Genghis Khan? - Facts, Quotes & Biography

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Genghis Khan, the leader of the Mongol empire in the 12th and 13th centuries C.E., built one of the largest empires in history and earned a reputation as a brutal and fearsome warrior and ruler.

A Legendary Terror

The name 'Genghis Khan' is still used today to conjure images of a brutal, terrifying warrior and conqueror. Even if you don't know the story of the historical Khan, you probably know to be scared of the name. This is because Genghis Khan was the founder and ruler of the largest and one of the most violent empires in recorded human history.

Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire spread fear and terror across central Asia and China in 12th and 13th centuries, building a land empire from the Korean peninsula all the way to Austria and northeastern Italy. And even after Khan's death in 1227, his successors continued to rule the conquered areas for decades using his techniques of mass slaughter and terror.


Genghis Khan was born with the name Temujin sometime around 1162 C.E. in modern-day Mongolia in northern Asia. At the time the Mongols, the ethnic group that lived in northern Asia, was made up of dozens of tribes and clans that were frequently at war with one another. His mother had been kidnapped by his father from a rival tribe and forced into marriage. His father was killed by the leader of a rival clan when Khan was 10. With their father dead, the clan abandoned his family so they would not have to feed them.

As a young teenager, Khan killed his older brother and took over as head of his household. As a young man, he started making alliances with nearby clans and attracting followers. He went against custom and put people into positions of power in his new clan based on their ability, not family relationships. By 1205, he had defeated his rivals and was the most powerful of the Mongol leaders. He brought together the other leaders and formed a unified country. It was then he was given the name Genghis Khan, which means 'Universal Ruler' or 'Supreme Leader.'

As ruler, Khan instituted many practices to modernize and civilize the Mongols. He outlawed kidnapping of women and the enslavement of Mongols and instituted a writing system. He also allowed freedom of religion, as his followers were a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and animists.

At the same time, he began to expand his empire by going south and battling the dynasties that ruled various areas of modern-day China. He brought the Xi Xia and Jin dynasties under his control and in 1214 took the Jin capital city of Zhongdu, which is modern-day Beijing. He then went west to battle the Khwarezm Empire, which was an empire that was situated in what is now the modern-day Middle East. Throughout these conquests, Khan gained a reputation as a brutal general and ruler, often massacring entire city populations, often over what he saw as grave insults to his people; his complete erasure of the Khwarezm Empire was revenge for beheading a Mongol interpreter and shaving the heads of the Mongol ambassadors.

Khan returned to Mongolia in 1225 having amassed the largest contiguous land empire in history. However, just two years later he died after being thrown from a horse during a battle with the Xi Xia dynasty, who had refused to send troops for eastern invasion. Khan's descendants, however, continued to rule the empire into the 14th century, when the empire began to fall apart. Some remained in power, however, and the last descendant of Khan was overthrown in 1920, nearly 700 years after Khan's death.


Genghis Khan has had many famous quotations about war, conquering, and governing attributed to him. Though he probably did say some of these things, they cannot be definitively attributed to him and many were probably later attributed to him due to his reputation.

'Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.'

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