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The Death of Genghis Khan: How Did He Die?

Dr. Thomas Swan has PhDs in physics and psychology and is an avid student of world history.

Genghis Khan's death is a mystery but some theories are more likely than others.

Genghis Khan's death is a mystery but some theories are more likely than others.

How Did Genghis Khan Die?

Genghis Khan died in 1227 at the age of 65. There are several conflicting theories about his death, many of which are legends created by friends or foes to honor or denigrate his memory. These theories and legends suggest that Khan either:

  • Died from injuries that he sustained after falling from his horse.
  • Died from an illness such as pneumonia or the bubonic plague.
  • Fell in battle during his final campaign against the Chinese Xia and Jin dynasties.
  • Succumbed to blood loss after being castrated by a captive Chinese princess.

As Genghis Khan's body has never been found, no autopsy or forensic evidence can be offered to conclusively prove one of the above theories. Instead, we must rely on what little history there is from this period and the motivations of those who created and disseminated the stories.

Was Genghis Khan Castrated?

This salacious and insulting theory about Genghis Khan's death is disputed (Heissig, 1964), although the motive for its dissemination is fascinating.

In 1226, Khan had returned from his military campaign in Persia to quash a rebellion in China. Despite conquering the Chinese Xia and Jin dynasties over a decade earlier, both had sought to restore their independence in his absence.

Khan quickly crushed the uprising and, in 1227, he had most of the Xia royal family (the Tangut lineage) executed to prevent another betrayal.

Khan's invasions of China. He returned to destroy the Xia dynasty (Tanguts) in 1226.

Khan's invasions of China. He returned to destroy the Xia dynasty (Tanguts) in 1226.

On the night of the final battle against the last defiant Tangut prince, Khan reportedly had a dream about "red blood on white snow" that caused him to consult his oracles (according to a story passed down by Mongol tribesman). Khan's oracles told him the blood was that of the prince, and the white snow signified the prince's beautiful daughter who had rejected the advances of all suitors.

The next day, when the prince was killed in battle, Khan took the Tangut princess to his bedchamber. He was preparing to rape her when she drew a hidden dagger from her hair and castrated him.

Genghis would have died soon after from blood loss, although the Mongol version contends that he fell into a deep sleep, awaiting a divine instruction to lead the Mongol people once again.

The princess committed suicide (to avoid her inevitable execution) by throwing herself into the Yellow river. Ever since, the river has been known as the River of the Princess (Khatun Gol).

The Yellow River; also known as River of the Princess (Khatun Gol).

The Yellow River; also known as River of the Princess (Khatun Gol).

If Genghis Khan was murdered in this way, the motive was clearly revenge and the prevention of a physical assault. However, many authors have noted that it was an unusually humiliating way to die.

These authors have suggested that the story was created by the Chinese or by the Oirat tribe of "Western Mongols" who had been rivals to Khan's Eastern Mongols for centuries. This tribe had fought under Genghis' enemy, Jamukha, and had only submitted to his leadership when their cause was lost. Furthermore, whenever Khan or his descendants were threatened with an uprising, the Oirats had sided against them.

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The castration legend can also be dated to the 17th century, long after Khan's death, and in an era of hostilities between the tribes, which does suggest it was an invention of malicious gossip.

Was Genghis Khan Killed in Battle?

According to the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle within the Hypatian Codex, Genghis Khan died in his final battle against the Chinese in 1227. The Chronicle describes the historical period 1201-1292 and was written at the end of the 13th century, approximately 70 years after Khan's death, meaning it was not an eye-witness account.

Was Genghis Khan felled in battle?

Was Genghis Khan felled in battle?

This account of Khan's death contends that he was killed by the Tanguts, which seems unlikely as he was 65 years old and would have been well protected. However, it is possible that he wanted to die in battle to prevent his weakening condition (from age or illness) from threatening the integrity of the Mongol Empire.

If true, a "death in battle" is also vague and might refer to injuries sustained on the battlefield that later led to his death. For example, Marco Polo wrote that Khan was hit by an arrow and died from a later infection (Lange, 2003). It may even refer to exhaustion from illnesses that were later referred to as battle injuries (e.g., pneumonia).

Did Genghis Khan Fall from His Horse?

In the Mongol chronicle "Secret History of the Mongols" (de Rachewiltz, 2004), it is alleged that Genghis Khan died from injuries sustained after falling from his horse.

According to this chronicle, Khan had just proposed that his army "set forth against the Tang'ud people" (the final conquest of the Chinese). In preparation, he had stayed for the winter in southern Mongolia where he "hunted the many wild horses of Arbuqa."

However, disaster struck: "When the wild horses came passing by, Josutu Boro became terrified when Khan fell from his horse." Companions then spoke of how Genghis "has passed the night; his flesh has become hot," which appears to refer to a feverish illness such as pneumonia, although recent work has attributed the symptoms to bubonic plague, which was beginning to grip China and Khan's army at the time.

Although Khan lived to direct the slaughter of the Tangut Chinese, it is claimed that he died slowly from this illness during the war.

Did Khan die from injuries sustained after falling from his horse?

Did Khan die from injuries sustained after falling from his horse?

The Secret History of the Mongols was written by an unknown author in 1240 and is said to be the eye-witness testimony of Khan's adopted son, Sigi-quduqu (among other possible candidates). The only surviving version is a Chinese translation, although there does not appear to be any manipulation of the text.

This account of Khan's death appears to be plausible and it is potentially from a primary source. A man of 65 years may well have contracted pneumonia or the bubonic plague during wintertime, especially after suffering injuries from a fall. It also appears to be unbiased, given that the death is neither heroic nor humiliating.

Genghis Khan's Burial

At Khan's request, he was buried in an unmarked grave, somewhere close to the Onon River. To keep the location secret, all who observed the funeral caravan were executed. Thus. even in death, Genghis found a way to slaughter innocents.

According to legend, a river (possibly the Onon River or a tributary) was diverted over his resting place to ensure that he would never be found. Ancient leaders including Gilgamesh and Attila the Hun were said to have been granted the same elaborate burial. Another story claims that a thousand horses were driven over the grave before trees were planted to conceal it.

Is the Onon River the location of Genghis Khan's resting place?

Is the Onon River the location of Genghis Khan's resting place?

The Most Likely Theory About Khan's Death

Despite there being several theories about Genghis Khan's death, the most plausible is that he died from a protracted and feverish illness that followed an injurious fall from a horse. The injury would have left his 65-year-old body in a weakened state during the winter of 1226 and the subsequent battles against the Chinese, allowing an illness such as pneumonia or the bubonic plague to ultimately cause his death months later in 1227.

This story is the oldest, has the least apparent bias, and is consistent with recent research about his alleged symptoms (You, 2021). It can also be made to agree with the theory that he was killed (or at least died) during the battle with the Chinese.

The only theory that is completely inconsistent is the claim that Genghis Khan was castrated by a Tangut princess. However, as described above, this humiliating account may have been created by the rival Oirat tribe, and it has been dated to around 400 years after Khan's death.

Sources

  • de Rachewiltz, I. (2004). The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. Brill: Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • Man, J. (2007). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.
  • You, W., Galassi, F. M., Varotto, E. & Henneberg, M. (2021). Genghis Khan’s death (AD 1227): An unsolvable riddle or simply a pandemic disease? International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 104, pp. 347-348.
  • Heissig, W. (1964). Die Mongolen. Ein Volk sucht seine Geschichte. Düsseldorf.
  • Lange, B. (2003). Genghis Khan. New York City: Infobase Publishing.

© 2013 Thomas Swan

Comments

Ghenghis khan was killed by Dada Jashraj in Lahore on January 21, 2019:

I am from lohana sect and we found that islamic book jalal e jugnuma itself describes how ghenghis khan was killed by dada Jashraj, an indian lohana raghuvanshi ksatriya king, but lohana didnt rule long after that and hence history was tried to be manipulated by mughals to rule india.

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