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The Mughal Empire Series:In Brief By Anne Davison

Genghis Khan

The story of the Mughal Empire can be traced back to the life of Genghis Khan, sometimes referred to as the ‘Great Khan’ or ‘Universal Ruler’, who founded the Mongol Empire in 1206. Most of what is known about Genghis is taken from the Secret History of the Mongols, which is the oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language.
The Mughal Empire Series:In Brief
The Mughal Empire Series:In Brief By Anne Davison

It was written in 1227 by an anonymous author after the death of the Great Khan and tells the story of his life, his rise to power and creation of an empire that eventually stretched from the Black Sea in the West to the Eastern coast of China.

Genghis was born Temujin, Temu meaning ‘iron’, around 1162 in the mountainous area of Burkhan Khaldun in today’s northern Mongolia. He was the second son of Yesugei who was chief of the Borigin clan and he was the first son of Hoelun, his father’s chief wife. He was therefore considered to be of minor noble birth. It is said that the child was born with a clot of blood clenched in his hand which was traditionally considered by the Mongols to be a favourable sign, signifying that he would grow up to be a great leader. However, it is likely that this embellishment to his birth narrative was added after his death.

At that time, there were numerous tribes and clans spread across the steppe lands of today’s Mongolia, China and into the Gobi Desert. The tribes were grouped into loose confederations such as the Mongols, Tatars, Merkits, and Naimans. They were nomadic and competed for grazing pastures, a situation that led to tribal raids and inter-clan warfare. In order to survive they formed friendly alliances that were often sealed through inter-clan marriage and it was not unusual for a clan chief to steal a wife from another tribe in order to cement an alliance. In fact, this is what happened in the case of Temujin’s parents. Yesugei snatched Hoelun from the chief of the neighbouring Merkit tribe, just as she was about to become the chief’s bride. Since a clan’s wealth was judged by its size, the theft of horses, women and children, all of which were highly prized, was a quick and useful way to enlarge the clan.

In accordance with Mongol tradition, Yesugei arranged a marriage between his nine-year old son Temujin and Borte of the Khongirad tribe with the aim of cementing a friendly alliance. As a sign of good faith in the alliance, Temujin was sent to live with Borte’s family until they were of marriageable age, which was usually between 12 and 15 years.

When Temujin was about 15 years he received the news that the Tatars, traditional enemies of the Borijin, had killed his father by poisoning. He therefore decided to go back to his tribe and take over Yesugei’s role as head of the clan. But he was not made welcome by the other male relatives and his claim to headship was rejected. His widowed mother Hoelun, and all her children were cast out leaving them with no clan protection. A few centuries later Babur, a descendent of Temujin and the first Mughal Emperor, was to suffer the same experience.

Being without a clan the small group of refugees, which included his brothers and half-brothers, were forced to wander the steppe in poverty, surviving on wild fruits and small hunted game.

There were inevitable tensions between the brothers, which finally erupted when Temujin’s eldest half-brother Begter, claimed the right to take Hoelun as his wife. Under Mongol law, since Hoelun was not the mother of Begter, he was within his rights. But this angered Temujin. A fight broke out and Temujin, with the help of his full brother Khasar, killed Begter.

Sometime after this a rival clan captured Temujin. He was imprisoned in a cangue, which is a type of portable wooden stocks, but eventually, with the help of a friendly guard, he managed to escape. He was now free to marry Borte but soon after the wedding she was captured by the Merkits. This could have been a tit for tat act in revenge for Yesugie’s earlier theft of his mother Hoelen from the Merkits.

Temujin turned to his friend Jamukha and also to the Toghrul Khan of the Keraite tribe for help and between them they were able to rescue Borte. About nine months later Borte gave birth to a son Jochi. This naturally led to speculation that Temujin may not be the father of the child. As a result, Jochi was never accepted as the natural successor to his father. Borte went on to have three more sons: Chagatai, Ogedei and Tolui. Temujin fathered numerous other children with further wives and concubines but his sons with Borte remained in senior position and his direct heirs.

Having secured the support of Toghrul, Khan of the Keraites, Temujin went on to consolidate his power by forming alliances with all other clans within the Mongol confederacy. In 1186, he was elected Khan of the Mongols. By 1206 he went further by bringing the Merkits, Naimans, Tatars, Uyghurs and numerous other smaller groups within his orbit of power. This united group of tribes became known collectively as the Mongols and Temujin acquired the title Genghis Khan. At the time of his death in 1227 his Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea, incorporating the Kwarezmian Empire, to the border of today’s Korea including the Chinese Jin Dynasty.

Genghis Khan was clearly a brilliant, though brutal, military leader. He was also a clever strategist. His new Empire stretched across the ancient Silk Route bringing him a new source of great wealth. But this had only been possible because the Great Khan had first been able to unite the Mongol tribes around a common cause instead of fighting each other.

From an early age Temujin understood the importance of acquiring strong alliances, something that had been instilled in him by his mother Hoelun. Only through forging alliances could the Mongols hope to gain and maintain power. He also knew that the alternative, clan warfare, led to instability and suffering, both of which he had experienced as a youth.

His policy therefore was to cement alliances wherever possible, often through inter-clan marriages. In order to further break down tribal loyalty he put men from different clans together rather than have units made up of the same clan or tribe. In this way, he weakened clan and tribe loyalty while at the same time unifying and strengthening loyalty to his central army.

As was the practice with all Turkic tribes, he invited defeated cities to surrender and pay tribute. If they refused, he would either kill the men or take them into his armies to use as human shields. By removing the men, he removed the possibility of future rebellion and by capturing them he acquired a useful military tool in the form of cannon fodder.

The elderly would have been of no use and were therefore killed. Younger women and children were valuable and so taken as slaves. Many women were given as wives to his men and often the healthiest children were brought up alongside Mongol children as part of the family, thereby increasing the Mongol population.

Genghis Khan increased the wealth of his Empire by taking everything of value from conquered cities. He also captured everyone who was skilled in engineering, military tactics and administration. In this way, he acquired the expertise that he needed in order to consolidate and expand. Since he had no experience in siege warfare he particularly needed that aspect of military expertise.

Two other features of leadership marked Genghis Khan’s rule. First, he appointed his generals according to meritocracy rather than on a hereditary basis and secondly, he valued loyalty above all else, even if that loyalty was to the detriment of his own position.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 at the age of 62. Because of doubts over the paternity of Jochi, his eldest son, and the instability of his second son Chagatai, Genghis decided before his death to divide the Empire between his four sons, with the succession as Great Khan passing to his third son Ogedei.

Jochi was given the Western part of the Empire that included the region of the Caucasus and parts of today’s Russia. His sons were to found the Golden Horde that ruled the region from 1240 until 1502 when it then broke up into smaller khanates. Chagatai received Central Asia and Northern Iran. Ogedei received Eastern Asia and China while the youngest son, Tolui, was given the Mongol homeland, roughly equating to present day Mongolia. In relation to Mughal history, which is the topic of this book, we are interested in Chagatai’s inheritance of Central Asia and Northern Iran, which eventually fell to the Timurids.


If the name of Genghis Khan struck fear into the hearts of those he conquered, then equally, if not more so, did Timur. He was also known as Timur the Lame on account of his disability, which then became Tamerlane or Tamberlaine in the West.

In 1336, just over a hundred years after the death of Genghis Khan, Timur was born near Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan. In common with many children of the steppe, he was taken captive by a Mongol tribe at the age of about nine, together with his mother and brothers. From an early age, he began raiding travelers and stealing sheep, cattle and horses. It is believed that on one of these raids he was shot in the leg and arm by two arrows that left him crippled for life, hence the name Timur the Lame.

At that time, Samarkand was part of the Chagatai Khanate. Timur was born into the Barlas tribe that was ethnically Mongol but had been Turkified, possibly by the Seljuk Turks who had swept across Eastern and Central Asia towards Anatolia in the 10th Century.

Although Timur had been born into the region of the Chagatai Khanate, which had been founded by Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai, he was unable to claim direct descent from the Great Khan because he was a member of the Barlas tribe rather than Genghis’s own tribe, the Borijin. By marrying Saray Mulk Khanum, a princess of the Chagatai Khanate and direct descendant of Genghis Khan, Timur legitimised his claim to be the rightful successor to Genghis. He therefore believed that he should continue the work of Genghis and restore, unify and expand the Mongol Empire.

Unlike Genghis Khan, who followed Tengrism, a Central Asian religion that features shamanism, animism and ancestor worship, Timur was born a Muslim into the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition. Most Naqshbandis trace their lineage to Ali and the Shi’a branch of Islam. However, Timur followed a pragmatic path and was prepared to treat Shi’a Muslims just as harshly as anyone else if it suited his purpose.

He styled himself ‘The Sword of Islam’ and Ghazi (Muslim warrior) and used Islamic symbols and rhetoric to urge his armies on when on campaign. In the process, he converted many of those he conquered, for example Genghis Khan’s Borijin tribe, to Islam.

From his base in the Chagatai Khanate, Timur conquered Central, Southern and Western Asia, the Caucasus and Russia. Further west he beat the Mamluks who at that time ruled Egypt and Syria. He also seized territory from the nascent Ottoman Empire in Anatolia and from the Sultanate of Delhi in India. In 1370, he became the first ruler of the vast Timurid Empire that was to last until 1507 when parts of the Eastern region succumbed to the Mughal Empire.

In contrast to Genghis, who remained a nomad throughout his life and showed little interest in settling, Timur founded and fortified great cities such as Samarkand, which became his capital. He commissioned Islamic schools and appointed governors to run towns and cities. He also encouraged his followers to intermarry and settle in conquered lands as had Alexander the Great some fifteen hundred years earlier.

Much of the area that he came to rule was Persian and gradually there developed a synthesis of Persian and Turkic culture. Timur himself became proficient in Persian, Mongolian and Turkic languages. He was a patron of the arts and literature and during his reign he commissioned magnificent monuments that became known as the Timurid style of architecture.

While Timur’s cultural legacy was positive, he is better known in the West for his brutality. He imposed crippling taxes on his subject peoples. His punishments were always public with the aim of instilling fear in the populace rather than punishment for a crime. This tactic was normal in medieval Europe with its public executions such as hanging, drawing and quartering and more recently Daesh have followed the same policy with public beheadings. In Timur’s case he regularly built pyramids of enemy skulls or cemented them into walls for all to see. A common statistic given for the number of deaths at the hands of Timur is 17 million, representing about 5% of the world’s population at the time.

He is particularly remembered for the capture of Beyizid I, the Ottoman Sultan known as the ‘Thunderbolt’ on account of his rapid marches across Anatolia. Beyizid was captured by Timur in July 1402 at the Battle of Ankara and died in captivity the following year. In December 1402, Timur laid siege to Smyna on the coast of Anatolia, which at that time was in the hands of the Christian Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of St John. Timur offered the 200 knights safe protection in return for a heavy tribute. When this was refused, he carried out his traditional act of massacre and destruction.

Two years later, while preparing for a campaign into China, Timur was taken ill. Just before his death in February 1405, he designated his grandson Pir Muhammad ibn Jahangir as his successor. The succession was contested by other male claimants and, as so often happened, there followed a period of some fifteen years infighting and instability.

By 1467, the Timurids had lost much of their Persian territory to the Ag Qoyunlu, a Sunni tribal federation that was also known as the White Sheep Turkomans. The White Sheep had ruled an area including present-day Azerbaijan, Armenia, Eastern Turkey and parts of Iran and Iraq between 1378 and 1501. In 1501, Shah Ismail I founded the Shi’a Safavid Dynasty in Persia securing even more Timurid land and between 1505 and 1507 the Uzbeks conquered the Timurid capital of Samarkand and also Herat.

Although by 1507 the Timurid Empire had collapsed, the dynasty survived in the form of separate Timurid emirates. A Timurid prince named Babur founded one such emirate in Kabul, modern Afghanistan. He was later to found the Mughal Empire.


Genghis Khan was the second son of the chief of the Borijin clan that was one of the many clans that made up the Mongol federation. At the time of his birth in the 12th Century, numerous nomadic tribes competed for pastures and control of the lucrative Silk Route. This led to inter-clan warfare and great instability. Only the sealing of alliances could bring a measure of peace.

Genghis Khan’s genius was that he not only recognised the need for peace between the clans but that he was also able to seal valuable alliances. This ability put him on the path to power. It was not unusual at that time for alliances to be broken and clan chiefs to swap sides. Consequently, Genghis placed great emphasis on loyalty. In an effort to break down clan loyalty in favour of loyalty to himself as rightful leader of all Mongols, he formed multi-clan fighting units. He also appointed his generals on merit rather than the traditional hereditary system. This further strengthened the central army.

Throughout his lifetime, Genghis Khan remained a nomad and follower of the Central Asian religion of Tengrism. When he died in 1227 his vast empire was divided between his four sons. His third son, Ogedei, succeeded as Great Khan and was given Eastern Asia and China. Jochi, the eldest son received the Western Region including the Caucasus and his sons later founded the Golden Horde.

Chagatai, the second son received Central Asia and Iran, which by this time was Muslim. Consequently, when Timur was born in 1336 near Samarkand in the Chagatai Khanate, he was born a Muslim and he styled himself ‘The Sword of Islam’. Through his marriage to a Borigin princess, Timur claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan and legitimised his aggressive territorial campaigns on the grounds that it was his duty to restore and reunite the Mongol Empire. He also believed that it was his Islamic duty to conquer the infidel.

In contrast to Genghis Khan, Timur founded great cities and patronised art and culture. Some wonderful examples of Timurid architecture and works of art can still be found in Central Asia and in museums around the world.

From a Western perspective both Genghis Khan and Timur, or Tamerlane, have been portrayed as perhaps the most brutal conquerors in history. But in Central and Eastern Asian countries they are viewed as heroes. Indeed, since the fall of communism in the region, both have enjoyed a renaissance. An example would be the impressive Amir Timur Square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which commemorates the life of Timur and has become both a place of pilgrimage and a popular tourist attraction.

Prince Babur, who was to found the Mughal Empire, was a direct descendent of both Genghis Khan and Timur. He was a Timurid and when he invaded Hindustan in 1526 he took with him a Turkic-Mongol heritage and a Timurid dynasty.


Babur the Conqueror

The Early Years

Babur, which means ‘tiger’ in Persian, was born on the 14th February 1483 in Andijan, which is a city in the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan. At that time, it was part of the Timurid Empire. He was the eldest son of Umar Sheikh Mirza who was the Amir, or ruler, of Ferghana. He was also a direct descendant of Timur on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side.When Babur was about 12 years old his father died following a fall from a dovecote that was attached to the side of the palace. The young Babur then became the rightful successor as Amir of Ferghana. However, as is often the case when a minor inherits a kingdom, other male relatives were quick to challenge his accession.

We get most of our information about the life of Babur from his own autobiography, known as the Baburnama, meaning the ‘Book’ or ‘Letters of Babur’. The book was written in the Chagatai language of the Andijan-Timurids and was later translated, during the reign of Akbar the Great, into Persian. It contains not just details about Babur’s many military campaigns but also his reflections on Hindustan, together with illustrations of the fauna, flora and people of the region. The autobiography reveals him to be a competent and ambitious military leader but also a man of deep sensitivity and creativity.

Babur begins the Baburnama with the words:

‘In the month of Ramadan of the year 899 and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Farghana.’

But Babur’s accession was not to go smoothly. Ever since the death of Timur, the succeeding princes had fought among themselves over territory. Ferghana was just one of the many small kingdoms ruled by a Timurid prince and once news of the death its Amir spread, the neighbouring chiefs, who were all related to Babur, caste covetous eyes on his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Ferghana was set in a valley providing pasture for sheep, goats and the famous short-legged Mongol horse, which was probably the most valuable possession of the nomadic people. Measuring approximately two hundred miles long and a hundred miles wide, Ferghana had no important cities and therefore was not a particularly wealthy region. Despite this, Babur’s uncles and cousins formed an alliance with the intention of ousting the young ruler.

It was his maternal grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, who became his greatest support when he was most vulnerable. From early childhood Babur, along with other young Timurids, had instilled in him the significance of his bloodline; that he carried in his veins the blood not only of Timur the Conqueror but also the Great Khan Genghis. His grandmother encouraged him to stand firm as was befitting his bloodline and defend his inheritance.

For the next seven years, he was in constant warfare with his relatives. During this time, he twice lost Ferghana but he succeeded, at the age of 15, in taking the Timurid capital of Samarkand, only to lose it again just 100 days later. By 1501 he had not only lost Samarkand to the Uzbeks but he had also lost his home of Ferghana to his relatives. He spent the next few years wandering the mountains of Central Asia with a small band of followers. Throughout this time, he had the support of his grandmother and at one point he was given refuge in Tashkent with a maternal uncle. While in Tashkent, Babur decided to concentrate on building up his army.

In 1504, some ten years after becoming ruler of Ferghana, Babur decided to give up the fight for his ancestral homeland and look elsewhere. An opportunity came when the ruler of Kabul, from the Arghun Dynasty, suddenly died leaving an infant son as his only heir. In the usual steppe tradition neighbouring princes, including Babur, were quick to stake a claim. This time Babur was successful. The Arghuns were forced to retreat to Kandahar and Babur took the city of Kabul where he remained ruler until 1526.

Years in Kabul

Babur’s years in Kabul were relatively peaceful. By this time he had proven himself as a respected leader and the threat from other Timurid princes declined. The only real danger to his position came from the Uzbeks.

Soon after taking Kabul, realising that the city would never generate much wealth, he made his first raid through the Khyber Pass into Hindustan. At this point his aim was not to conquer but to make a quick raid, seize what he could, and return with his booty.

He also spent some time in Herat, which was a highly-cultured city at the time. Here he met the poet Mir Ali Shir Nava’i who has been credited with developing the Chagatai language and is thought to have influenced Babur in his decision to use Chagatai for his autobiography, the Baburnama.

During his time in Kabul, Babur developed good relations with the two main Islamic Empires in the region. First, he forged an alliance with the Safavid Shah Ismail I of Persia so that together they could fight off the Uzbeks. Secondly, his relationship with the Ottomans strengthened when the Sultan offered to provide Babur with artillery expertise and munitions such as cannons and matchlock rifles. This military hardware was to give him a huge advantage when he later invaded Hindustan.

While in Kabul, Babur put down numerous rebellions and gradually the remaining Timurid princes and chieftains looked to him for protection against their enemies and particularly against the Uzbeks. As a result, Babur assumed the title Padshah (King) among the Timurids. Although by this time large swathes of the Timurid Empire had been lost to the Ottomans, Safavids or Uzbeks, the title of Padshah was symbolically important and augured well for Babur’s future.

Into Hindustan

Although Babur was now King of Kabul and Padshah of the Timurids, he was still under constant threat from the Uzbeks. He therefore decided to give up the idea of establishing a kingdom in his homelands and to try his luck to the East, in Hindustan. In 1519, he crossed the Khyber Pass into the Punjab. His intention was to establish a new Kingdom that would be safe from invading Uzbeks. Another attraction was the great wealth to be found in the cities of Lahore and Delhi. Furthermore, by conquering the region of modern Pakistan he would be restoring territory that was previously part of the Timurid Empire.

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