Genghis Khan Founds Mongol Empire

The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, defeated the Naiman, a Turkic tribe that controlled much of what is now western Mongolia, and thereby gained control of all Mongolia. Although Genghis Khan did not ascend to the throne until 1206, the victory over the Naiman gave the Mongols complete military superiority over the steppes of Mongolia and allowed them to build the Mongol Empire.

Summary of Event

After a series of wars and shifting alliances, by 1204 only two tribes remained as significant powers in the steppes of Mongolia. Controlling central and eastern Mongolia were the Mongols led by Genghis Khan, and in the west were the Naiman Naiman (literally, “eight tribes”), under the leadership of Tayang Khan Tayang Khan . In 1203, Genghis Khan had defeated his former overlord, Toghrïl Toghrïl (Kereit ruler) (later known as Ong-Khan), khan of the Kereit Kereits tribe who ruled central Mongolia. His victory made the Naiman realize that they would have to deal with the Mongols at some point, and they decided to go to war against the Mongols. On hearing of their decision, however, Genghis Khan took the initiative and immediately marched against them. His decision was precarious, as the Mongols marched in early spring, before their horses had sufficient time to recover from the winter. [kw]Genghis Khan Founds Mongol Empire (1204)
[kw]Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan Founds (1204)
Genghis Khan
China;1204: Genghis Khan Founds Mongol Empire[2190]
Expansion and land acquisition;1204: Genghis Khan Founds Mongol Empire[2190]
Government and politics;1204: Genghis Khan Founds Mongol Empire[2190]
Genghis Khan
Tayang Khan

Thus, in the spring of 1204, the Mongols encountered the Naiman, who were reinforced by other tribal groups that also wished to avoid Mongol domination. One leader who joined the Naiman was Jamuqa Jamuqa , the leader of the Mongol Jadaran clan and anda, or blood brother, of Genghis Khan.

To initially confuse the Naiman, the Mongols lit numerous campfires at night, hoping to convince the Naiman that Genghis Khan’s army was larger than it was. Additionally, this tactic helped stall the action so that the Mongol army and their mounts could rest. Tayang Khan, realizing the weakened state of the Mongols’s horses, wanted to lure the Mongols across the Altai Mountains, where the Naiman could then ambush them. However, his more militant son Küchlüg Küchlüg and others insisted on attacking directly rather than relying on subterfuge. Their desires won the day, and the Naiman took the offensive. Meanwhile, Genghis Khan ordered his men to advance.

The Mongols pressed their advantage and defeated the Naiman. Tayang Khan fled but was captured at Naqu Cliff in 1204. Although Küchlüg established a fortified camp and resisted Mongol attacks for a brief time, he was forced to flee again to the Irtysh River. All the Naiman who survived the onslaught were incorporated into the Mongols. Furthermore, a number of minor tribes who had accompanied Jamuqa submitted to Genghis Khan. These included the Jadaran, Qatagin, Salji’ut, Dörben, Taychi’ut, and Onggirat.

With the victory over the Naiman, Genghis Khan now controlled the Mongolian plateau, although remnants of the Naiman and Merkit tribes continued to linger on the fringes of Mongolia. In addition, despite some voluntary submissions to Genghis Khan, many of the Northern Forest people remained outside Genghis Khan’s control. Despite this, the Mongols still found it necessary to complete their destruction of the Naiman and their longtime foes, the Merkit Merkits , in 1206 in the Altai. In a battle near the Ulagh Tagh, the Naiman and Merkit were defeated. Factions still led by Küchlüg of the Naiman and Toqto’a Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit fled farther west. Meanwhile, Jamuqa fled northwest into Tannu Tuva near the Yenesei River.

Yuan chao bishi (1240; The Secret History of the Mongols, 1982) does not mention any operations against the Naiman in 1206; however, historian Rashīd ad-Dīn recorded a campaign against Buyiruq Khan. It appears that Buyiruq Khan Buyiruq Khan emerged as the leading figure among the Naiman after the battle in 1204. In 1206, shortly after Genghis Khan ascended the Mongol throne, he launched an attack against Buyiruq. Genghis Khan successfully defeated and killed him and thus incorporated Buyiruq’s territory into his own. In a curious twist, Rashīd ad-Dīn wrote that in this battle, Küchlüg escaped and fled to the Irtysh River (now in Russia) along with Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit. It is not clear if this battle that Rashīd ad-Dīn describes was a merging of events from 1204 and those in 1208, or if it actually took place.

Not until 1207 did Genghis Khan decide to destroy any further resistance by the Naiman and Merkits. He moved westward to confront them; however, early in the winter of 1207, Genghis Khan’s army halted, pausing until 1208. At this time, he also accepted the submission of the Oirad. Resuming their march, the Mongols rode through the Ulan Pass over the Altai Mountains and reached the Bukhtamra River, a branch of the Irtysh River. There the Mongols battled the Naiman and Merkits. Küchlüg, although defeated, escaped and fled first toward the Qarluqs, then toward the Uighurs of Tian Shan (now in China), and then to the ghurkhan of Karakitai (now in Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan). Toqto’a of the Merkit was slain in combat, and many of his men drowned in the river attempting to flee.


The final victory over the Naiman was extremely important as it ensured that Mongolia would not face a potentially dangerous coalition of the Naiman and any other tribe dissatisfied with Genghis Khan’s rule, which could include members of his own family or even supporters. Although the Mongols spent the next four years quelling rebellions or defeating the remaining tribes that had not submitted to them, the 1204 victory ended any major threat to Genghis Khan’s superiority. Any remaining hostilities concerned only portions of the Mongol army.

After eliminating his rivals for dominance in the steppe, Genghis Khan could effectively become the emperor of Mongolia, assuming this position officially in 1206. He reorganized Mongolia, taking the numerous tribes that had engaged in internecine conflict and merging them into a single unit, the Yeke Mongol Ulus Yeke Mongol Ulus (great Mongol nation). This had the effect of making all tribes part of the Mongols and thus gave them a vested interest in the success of the empire. Those tribes that had served or allied with the Mongols in the past maintained their identities to some extent, whereas those that had continually resisted, such as the Naiman and the Merkits, were divided and distributed among the new units of the empire: minggans (thousands).

Although most of the organization of the Mongol Empire occurred in 1206, Genghis Khan had begun the organization of his empire in 1204. Shortly before the war with the Naiman, Genghis Khan had distributed spoils and divided conquered tribes among his generals and followers as a reward for their service and loyalty. The principle in this reorganization was the minggan
Minggan . The minggan, or groups of a thousand households, served not only as military units but also as community units for taxation and organizational purposes. The use of the minggan became the standard and basis of the decimal system of organization that the Mongols used for their army as well as for organizing conquered populations for taxation and corvée labor.

In addition to removing the final obstacle to complete control over the nomads of Mongolia, the victory over the Naiman in 1204 carried additional importance. As the Naiman and the Mongols were the only significant powers remaining in Mongolia, had the Naiman been victorious, it is quite likely that the Mongol Empire would have ended before it had begun.

Further Reading

  • Cleaves, F. W., ed. and trans. The Secret History of the Mongols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A translation of an early Mongolian history of the life of Genghis Khan and the rise of the Mongol Empire. An excellent translation; however, Cleaves rendered it into King James English.
  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. A general history of Central Asia with a considerable portion devoted to the rise and expansion of the Mongol Empire.
  • Hartog, Leo de. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. While not as authoritative as Ratchnevsky’s biography, Hartog’s biography of Genghis Khan serves as a highly readable introduction to the rise of the Mongol Empire.
  • Martin, H. D. The Rise of Chingis Khan and His Conquest of North China. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1950. A study of the rise of Genghis Khan and his conquests of northern China that remains the standard more than fifty years after it was published.
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Morgan’s volume remains the best introduction to the Mongol Empire in all of its aspects from its rise to its decline.
  • Onon, Urgunge, ed. and trans. The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001. Another translation of The Secret History of the Mongols that is easier to read.
  • Rashiduddin Fazullah. Jami’u’t Tawarikhi: Compendium of Chronicles, a History of the Mongols. 3 vols. Translated by W. M. Thackston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, 1998. Another important source about the Mongol Empire, Rashīd ad-Dīn’s (Rashiduddin’) work contains valuable information concerning the rise of the Mongols.
  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Thomas Nivison Haining. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. The best and most scholarly biography of Genghis Khan.