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The Death of Genghis Khan

Updated on February 4, 2017
Genghis Khan's death is still a mystery, but some theories are more likely than others.
Genghis Khan's death is still a mystery, but some theories are more likely than others. | Source

How Did Genghis Khan Die?

Genghis Khan died in 1227 A.D. at the age of 65. There are a plethora of conflicting theories describing the death of Khan. Many of these are legends created by friends and foes to honor or denigrate his memory.

One widespread story suggests he died from injuries sustained after falling from his horse. Other accounts include succumbing to blood loss after being castrated by a Tangut princess; dying from pneumonia; and falling in battle against the Chinese.

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.

Khan returned to destroy the Xia dynasty (Tanguts) in 1226.
Khan returned to destroy the Xia dynasty (Tanguts) in 1226. | Source
The Yellow River; also known as River of the Princess (Khatun Gol).
The Yellow River; also known as River of the Princess (Khatun Gol). | Source

Was Genghis Khan Castrated?

In 1226, Khan returned from his military campaign in Persia to quash a rebellion in China. Despite conquering the 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.

According to a story passed down by Mongol tribesman (told in the book `In the footsteps of Genghis Khan'), a dream of red blood on white snow prompted Khan to consult his oracles. It was the night before a battle against the last defiant Tangut prince, and 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 fair Tangut princess to his bedchamber. He was preparing to rape her when she drew a hidden dagger from her hair and castrated him. Genghis probably died soon after from blood loss, though 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 by throwing herself into the Yellow river; preventing her execution. Ever since the river has been known as the 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, it is also quite a humiliating way to die, and according to some authors, the story may have been a creation of the Oirat tribe. This tribe was known as the `Western Mongols', and for centuries they were rivals to Khan's Eastern Mongols. They fought under Genghis' enemy, Jamukha, but submitted to his leadership when their cause was lost. However, whenever Khan or his descendants were threatened by revolution, the Oirats sided against them.

The castration legend can be dated to the 17th century. This is long after Khan's death, suggesting it was an invention of malicious gossip. It is also within the time frame for hostilities between the tribes.

Was Khan felled in battle?
Was Khan felled in battle? | Source

Was Genghis Khan Killed in Battle?

According to the Hypatian Codex, which includes a copy of the original Galician-Volhynian Chronicle, Genghis Khan died in his final battle against the Chinese in 1227. The original chronicle is an account of the historical period 1201-1292, written at the end of the 13th century. The Hypatian Codex was written in 1425 and is stored at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.

This historical account claims that Khan 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 threatening the integrity of the Mongol Empire.

The Galician-Volhynian chronicle was written approximately 70 years after Khan's death, and cannot be an eye-witness account. Nevertheless, a death in battle is rather vague and could refer to injuries sustained on the battlefield that later led to his death. It may even refer to exhaustion from illnesses (such as pneumonia) that were referred to later as battle injuries.

A Documentary of "Secret History of the Mongols."

Did Genghis Khan Fall from His Horse?

In the Mongol chronicle, Secret History of the Mongols, it is alleged that Khan fell from his horse and died from his injuries. According to this chronicle, Genghis told his army to "set forth against the Tang'ud people" (the Chinese). In preparation, he stayed for the winter in southern Mongolia and "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 refers to a feverish illness such as pneumonia. Khan lived to direct the slaughter of the Tangut Chinese, and died slowly from his illness during the war.

The Secret History of the Mongols was written by an unknown author in 1240 A.D. and is said to be an eye-witness testimony from Khan's adopted son. The only surviving version is a Chinese translation, though there doesn't appear to be any manipulation of the text.

This account of Khan's death seems plausible. A man of 65 years may well have contracted pneumonia during the winter, especially after suffering injuries from a fall. It also appears to be unbiased, given that the death is neither heroic nor humiliating.

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

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, he found a way to slaughter innocents.

According to legend, a river was diverted over his resting place to ensure that he would never be found. Ancient leaders including Gilgamesh and Attila the Hun are 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.

Summary

It is likely that Genghis Khan died from a protracted and feverish illness that followed an injurious fall from a horse. The injury would have left his body in a weakened state during the winter of 1226. This story is the oldest, most plausible, and has the least apparent bias. It can also be made to agree with two of the other theories about his death, namely, that he died from pneumonia, and was killed during the battle with the Chinese.

The only disagreeable story contends that Genghis Khan was castrated by a Tangut princess. This is a humiliating account that may have been created by the rival Oirat tribe. It is also a story that has been dated to around 400 years after Khan's death.

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