There were many Mongol tribes: the most reliable source for the names of the most powerful tribes is the 13th century work ‘Secret History of the Mongols’, believed to have been composed by Chingis’s adoptive brother, Shigi Qutuqu. These tribes occupied their own individual territories on the Asian steppes and the most powerful were the Taychi’uts, Naimans, Mongols, Tartars, Merkits, Keraits, Ongirads and Uighurs.

There was no national identity - tribes waged war on each other and the practice of the blood-feud was a deeply entrenched aspect of nomad society, with successive generations inheriting the burden of these rivalries.

There were about two million Mongols spread out across central Eurasia, a bleak, inhospitable region which is still largely deserted today. The Mongol heartland stretched from the Altai and Tienshan mountains in the west to the vast waterless immensity of the Gobi desert in the east. The northern reaches of the steppes were swallowed by the boreal forests of the Siberian Taiga: in the south, beyond the Gobi, the desert sands gave way to the undulating windswept grasslands of southern Mongolia.

Temperatures in summer can exceed 40 degrees Celsius and drop to well below freezing in winter.

Mongol Life

The foundation of Mongolian life was horses and herds of livestock: sheep, cattle and goats. Their herds furnished them with all the necessities and comforts of their existence: felt (made from matted animal hair) was used for clothing and as a covering for the ger (sometimes known as a yurt), the traditional domelike tent.

The ger was crafted from a latticework of willow wood lashed together with rawhide and covered with one or two layers of greased felt. The outer layer of felt was sometimes whitened with powdered bone. It could be up to 4.5 metres in diameter. The floor would be covered with rugs of felt or furs, and horns were fastened to the latticework to hang food, weapons etc. The leader of the household faced the entrance, which always faced south: women to the east, men to the west. Food was cooked over a central fire.

Large gers were sometimes permanently erected on wagons and hauled from site to site by teams of oxen.

The Mongolian pony evolved from the Przewalski horse: the Mongolian breed was tough, compact and well suited to life on the harsh steppes. It could endure sub-zero temperatures, scraping away at the snow to graze upon the withered grass beneath. They were famed for their spirit and hardiness.

Mongol’s were taught to ride from a tender age - children would sometimes be strapped to a horse’s back before they could walk. A herdsman could slit a vein in his horses neck and drink the blood for sustenance. Fermented mares milk gave the Mongol’s their favourite alcoholic drink: airag, known in Turkish askoumiss. In the words of Friar William Rubrouck: ‘As long as one is drinking, it bites the tongue like vinegar. When one stops, it leaves on the tongue the taste of milk and almonds, and greatly delights the inner man.’

The Mongols possessed a tremendously powerful weapon: the recurved composite bow, crafted from wood, horn, sinew and glue. Mongol bows could loose arrows as far as 350 metres and drawing the most powerful has been likened to performing a one-arm pull-up with 3 fingers.

The Mongols pursued an animistic creed of spiritual belief. Chief in their pantheon was ‘Mongke koko Tengre, the ‘Eternal Blue Sky.’ They believed spirits dwelt in many things, such as fire, water and wind. Thus a blade could never be thrust into a fire, and bathing and urinating in running streams was forbidden on pain of death.

The harsh climate and lifestyle produced a superlative breed of exceptionally tough and skilled natural warriors who, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, would ride across Asia to carve out the largest land empire the world has ever known.

Genghis Khan Life, Death and Resurrection

John Man

Bantam 2005

The Mongol Conquests AD 1200-1300

Editors of Time Life Books