Climate Change Insufficient to Explain Genghis Khan’s Greatness

A recent scientific study has concluded that Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde has the weather to thank, in part, for its successful conquests. The first great period of Mongol expansion in the early 13th century was characterised by a wet, mild climate that would have provided an abundance of grass from which to feed warhorses. Genghis Khan’s cavalry was, of course, crucial to the Mongols western advancement.

Dendroclimatology - the study of tree-rings tom determine the climate of the past - has been undertaken in Mongolia
Dendroclimatology – the study of tree-rings tom determine the climate of the past – has been undertaken in Mongolia

Amy Hessl, a Dendroclimatologist working on the project, argues:

The transition from extreme drought to extreme moisture right then strongly suggests that climate played a role in human events…It wasn’t the only thing, but it must have created the ideal conditions for a charismatic leader to emerge out of the chaos, develop an army and concentrate power. 

Whilst the climatic conditions may have proved conducive to the development of a strong Mongol army, they cannot be argued to have precipitated Genghis Khan’s emergence as a leader of a united Mongol force. Expert horsemen, the Mongols were capable of looking after their animals in harsh climates and their nomadic lifestyle ensured that they were always capable of adapting to fresh terrain if necessary.

By the mid-13th century the Mongol cavalry was feared throughout Eurasia
By the mid-13th century the Mongol cavalry was feared throughout Eurasia

Genghis Khan was a unique leader who would have made the most of any circumstances. Furthermore, his armies did not rely on overwhelming numbers (be it horses or humans) for their success. As Jack Weatherford notes, Genghis Khan was a master of psychological warfare:

Genghis Khan employed the basic strategy of his earlier steppe wars by trying to win the battle before the first arrow was shot across the battlefield, to defeat the enemy by first creating confusion and then instilling fear to break his spirit (Weatherford, 2004, p.89)

Rather than attacking citadels, the Mongols would devastate the surrounding countryside, allowing tales of their atrocities to travel far and wide. This both masked their basic weakness in terms of numbers and siege weaponry whilst also nurturing their fearsome and uncompromising reputation.

“The Mongol way of fighting was a refinement of the traditional steppe system that had been developed in Mongolia over many thousands of years”. (Weatherford, 2004, p.90) This was no overnight success initiated by climate change.

That Genghis Khan was able to unite the Mongol people, to develop strong personal relationships with many of his warriors, and to elevate the disciplined cohesion of small nomadic bands to a national scale accounts for the Mongol triumph. It is for this reason that he will never be replaced as the historic figurehead of the Mongolian people.

This statue near Ulan Bator sums up the significance of Genghis Khan to the Mongolian people
This statue near Ulan Bator sums up the significance of Genghis Khan to the Mongolian people

Climatic anomalies, however scientifically meritorious, merely offer an interesting aside.

Source

Weatherford J, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2004

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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