Genghis Khan, the renowned and legendary leader of the Mongol Empire, is easily one of the most fascinating and notorious figures in all of world history. Known for his unmatched conquests and terrible brutality, he united countless tribes, marched them across vast expanses of Asia and Europe, and conquered one of the largest empires ever known.
His name alone evokes awe and leads us to picture a powerful and ruthless leader, even his soldiers, feared by all. But little is usually told about the experiences of those ordinary Mongol soldiers who served under Genghis Khan.
It raises the question – what was life like for the average Mongol warrior under his command? What were their lives like? How did they navigate life in a society that valued discipline, loyalty, and military prowess above all else?
What was it like to be a warrior in the Mongol Empire, where war and conquest were a way of life?
A Nomadic Lifestyle
Roughly throughout the 13th century, the Mongol Empire emerged from the effort of the great, legendary figure we know as Genghis Khan. Uniting multiple powerful Mongolian tribes, he constructed a tribal confederation that spanned vast distances and peoples.
At the time of his rise, the Mongols were largely nomadic, pastoral people. They frequently moved their settlements in search of water and grass for their herds and relied heavily on their animals for sustenance.
Unfortunately, the nomadic lifestyle of the average Mongol was often a tenuous existence, as their constant migrations made it impossible to transport stockpiles of food or other essential items.
As a result, they were often at risk of starvation and hard times, especially if inhospitable weather conditions, like a particularly harsh winter or drought, were to set in.
Epidemics among their livestock could also result in catastrophe. Although the herders engaged in some hunting and farming, they primarily depended on trade with China to survive during times of crisis.
Overall, most Mongolian people throughout the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire lived a truly pastoral-nomadic way of life. And this heavily influenced how the average Mongol warrior would come to live under the formidable rule of Genghis Khan.
Life on the Move
Life for an ordinary Mongol warrior under Genghis Khan was one of constant movement, travel, and battle.
As a military, they were often on the move, traveling from place to place, and the Mongol warrior camps were built around this nomadic lifestyle.
Mongol nomads traditionally lived in gers, circular felt-covered dwellings well-adapted to the harsh conditions of daily life. These were easy to move and could be raised and dismantled in 30-60 minutes.
When making long journeys to or from the battlefield, the Mongols would transport everything they needed to survive, including food, clothing, weapons, and their gers.
Mongol horses were the primary source of transport, with each warrior reportedly traveling with up to – and sometimes more than – ten horses on the road.
Following behind the horses and warriors would be campaign helpers and livestock. Meat and dairy could be provided from their livestock, and grains would be carried on horseback or camelback, so the army was well-fed when times were good.
However, legend tells us that Mongol warriors were so dedicated and hardened that they would survive for days on only the blood of their steeds if they had to.
Life in the camp was the most important part of the Mongol warrior’s life. It offered a respite from the long travels and vicious battles while allowing them the opportunity to refuel.
The Mongol army camps were massive logistical achievements, with a traveling ordu – a Mongol military unit – typically composing up to 30,000 Mongol warriors or more.
Camps were a hub of activity, where warriors, helpers, family, animals, and leaders would all convene, finding solace from the grind of travels.
The camp was a place to rest, eat, and let horses regain their energy and is likely where the majority of a Mongol warrior’s life would have been spent.
The Discipline and Training of a Mongol Warrior
Throughout the time of Genghis Khan, his army was feared far and wide for its military prowess, cunning tactics, and sheer might. Much of this capability is owed to its men’s impressive discipline and training.
Mongol warriors were trained from an early age to ride horses and hunt, developing a combination of toughness and expertise that made them formidable opponents. As a whole, the army was continually trained in various rotations, formations, and diversionary tactics.
Their training focused on preparation for all possible circumstances. Horsemanship, archery, and battle formations and tactics were practiced extremely often, resulting in a ready and able fighting force at all times, capable of facing any circumstance that arose.
Moreover, the discipline imposed on the Mongol warriors was hard but reasonable, and leaders were given some freedom in carrying out their orders as long as they achieved their objectives.
The Mongols avoided the pitfalls of overly rigid discipline and micromanagement, which impeded many other militaries throughout history.
However, the soldiers had to be unconditionally loyal to their superiors and to each other, especially to the Khan – orders were still meant to be followed, with no exceptions. To ensure this, if a soldier ran from danger in battle, he and nine of his comrades could face the death penalty together.
This combination of training, discipline, and leadership made the Mongol army an incredible, unconquerable force.
It’s worth noting that the average Mongol warrior under Genghis Khan would have also been influenced to adopt a more Mongolian identity, as opposed to their own tribal identity.
Early on, the cunning leader decided to dismantle the tribal affiliations of his followers. He believed that tribal identity would be more powerful than any loyalty to him, and so he aimed to replace that identity with a broader Mongol identity.
To do so, he disbanded tribes that joined him and integrated their members into his units, spreading them out, and reinforcing a Mongol identity, above all.
A Mongol and his Horse
The Mongols’ relationship with their horses was integral to not only their military success under Genghis Khan, but also to their daily lives.
Understanding the value of their horses, Mongol soldiers took great care of them. Horses were not only a means of transportation but also a source of sustenance and weaponry.
Each cavalryman cared for three or four horses, which they rotated during lengthy journeys to prevent overburdening. Meanwhile, each soldier would have had two to ten horses, if the histories are indeed accurate, making the Mongol army one of the fastest and most mobile in the world.
Before combat, horses were armored and covered with leather. Mongol horses were also known for their hardiness, being able to survive on very little food and able to traverse the most difficult areas, even after battle.
Furthermore, the Mongols relied on their horses for more than just transportation and combat. When needed, they could be sources of food – milk and meat – and their hides could be used for bowstrings, shoes, and armor, dried dung for fuel, and their hair for rope, battle standards, musical instruments, and helmet decorations.
Their milk was even used for religious ceremonies to help ensure victory. If a warrior died in battle, a horse would sometimes be sacrificed with him to provide a mount for the afterlife. Evidently, horses were important both spiritually as well as tactically.
The relationship between the Mongol warrior and their horse was essential to their successes in battle. Yet, even deeper than that, the Mongols understood and respected their horses and held them in quite high esteem – truly important to the life of the Mongol warrior.
Fighting for the Spoils of War
When a campaign was successful, the Mongol warriors could always look forward to being rewarded with the spoils of war.
The loot and plunder from their conquests was often vast and varied. They would take anything of value, including livestock, food, textiles, precious metals, and even sometimes gems and other rarities.
The Mongols especially had a particular love of silk and gold, which were both highly prized throughout the empire. These and other resources would be used to fund further campaigns, provide for the army, and ultimately, enrich the Mongol rulers and their loyal subjects.
Importantly, the distribution of the spoils was a key aspect of Mongol warrior culture. Loot was divided among the warriors according to a strict system of merit and rank wherein the most successful and highest-ranking warriors would receive the largest shares, while lower-ranking soldiers would receive proportionally less.
However, even the lowest-ranking warriors would receive some portion, providing a powerful incentive for all Mongol soldiers to fight hard and contribute to the campaign.
Additionally, this system served as a source of honor for Mongol warriors. The display of wealth and treasures was seen as a symbol of a warrior’s success and prowess in battle, and contributed to his reputation as a skilled fighter.
On the whole, loot, plunder, and the spoils of conquest were not just a matter of material gain for Mongol warriors, but instead, were truly a crucial element of their culture and identity.
Legacy of the Mongol Warrior
The legacy of the Mongol warrior is one of loyalty, extreme toughness, resilience, and constant battle. Despite the often-difficult nature of life under the Mongol Empire and Genghis Khan, the warriors lived by a code that disregarded fear and instead placed honor and bravery at the forefront.
Their willingness to endure torturous journeys, go without food and water for days at a time, and always charge into battle without hesitation made them some of the toughest and most impressive warriors of all time, leaving a deep and lasting legacy in the records of history.
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Pittard, Dana J. H. “Director’s Select Article.” Genghis Khan and 13th-Century AirLand Battle, Army University Press, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/Directors-Select-Articles/Genghis-Khan/.
Rossabi, Morris. “All the Khan’s Horses.” The Mongols in World History, Columbia University, Oct. 1994, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols/conquests/khans_horses.pdf.
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