Genghis Khan - Jacob Abbott

Dominions Of Genghis Khan

After the ceremonies of the inauguration were concluded, Genghis Khan returned, with the officers of his court and his immediate followers, to Karakorom. This town, though nominally the capital of the empire, was, after all, quite an insignificant place. Indeed, but little importance was attached to any villages or towns in those days, and there were very few fixed places of residence that were of any considerable account. The reason is, that towns are the seats of commerce and manufactures, and they derive their chief importance from those pursuits; whereas the Monguls and Tartars led almost exclusively a wandering and pastoral life, and all their ideas of wealth and grandeur were associated with great flocks and herds of cattle, and handsome tents, and long trains of wagons loaded with stores of clothing, arms, and other movables, and vast encampments in the neighborhood of rich and extended pasture-grounds. Those who lived permanently in fixed houses they looked down upon as an inferior class, confined to one spot by their poverty or their toil, while they themselves could roam at liberty with their flocks and herds over the plains, riding fleet horses or dromedaries, and encamping where they pleased in the green valleys or on the banks of the meandering streams.

Karakorom was accordingly by no means a great and splendid city. It was surrounded by what was called a mud wall—that is, a wall made of blocks of clay dried in the sun. The houses of the inhabitants were mere hovels, and even the palace of the king, and all the other public buildings, were of very frail construction; for all the architecture of the Monguls in those days took its character from the tent, which was the type and model, so to speak, of all other buildings.

The new emperor, however, did not spend a great deal of his time at Karakorom. He was occupied for some years in making excursions at the head of his troops to various parts of his dominions, for the purpose of putting down insurrections, overawing discontented and insubordinate khans, and settling disputes of various kinds arising between the different hordes. In these expeditions he was accustomed to move by easy marches across the plains at the head of his army, and sometimes would establish himself in a sort of permanent camp, where he would remain, perhaps, as in a fixed residence, for weeks or months at a time.

Not only Genghis Khan himself, but many of the other great chieftains, were accustomed to live in this manner, and one of their encampments, if we could have seen it, would have been regarded by us as a great curiosity. The ground was regularly laid out, like a town, into quarters, squares, and streets, and the space which it covered was sometimes so large as to extend nearly a mile in each direction. The tent of the khan himself was in the centre. A space was reserved for it there large enough not only for the grand tent itself, but also for the rows of smaller tents near, for the wives and for other women belonging to the khan's family, and also for the rows of carts or wagons containing the stores of provisions, the supplies of clothing and arms, and the other valuables which these wandering chieftains always took with them in all their peregrinations.

The tent of the khan in summer was made of a sort of calico, and in winter of felt, which was much warmer. It was raised very high, so as to be seen above all the rest of the encampment, and it was painted in gay colors, and adorned with other barbaric decorations.

The dwellings in which the women were lodged, which were around or near the great tent, were sometimes tents, and sometimes little huts made of wood. When they were of wood they were made very light, and were constructed in such a manner that they could be taken to pieces at the shortest notice, and packed on carts or wagons, in order to be transported to the next place of encampment, whenever, for any reason, it became necessary for their lord and master to remove his domicile to a different ground.

A large portion of the country which was included within the limits of Genghis Khan's dominions was fertile ground, which produced abundance of grass for the pasturage of the flocks and herds, and many springs and streams of water. There were, however, several districts of mountainous country, which were the refuge of tigers, leopards, wolves, and other ferocious beasts of prey. It was among these mountains that the great hunting parties which Genghis Khan organized from time to time went in search of their game. There was a great officer of the kingdom, called the grand huntsman, who had the superintendence and charge of every thing relating to hunting and to game throughout the empire. The grand huntsman was an officer of the very highest rank. He even took precedence of the first ministers of state. Genghis Khan appointed his son Jughi, who has already been mentioned in connection with the great council of war called by his father, and with the battle which was subsequently fought, and in which he gained great renown, to the office of grand huntsman, and, at the same time, made two of the older and more experienced khans his ministers of state.

The hunting of wild beasts as ferocious as those that infested the mountains of Asia is a very dangerous amusement even at the present day, notwithstanding the advantage which the huntsman derives from the use of gunpowder, and rifled barrels, and fulminating bullets. But in those days, when the huntsman had no better weapons than bows and arrows, javelins, and spears, the undertaking was dangerous in the extreme. An African lion of full size used to be considered as a match for forty  men in the days when only ordinary weapons were used against him, and it was considered almost hopeless to attack him with less than that number. And even with that number to waylay and assail him he was not usually conquered until he had killed or disabled two or three of his foes.

Now, however, with the terrible artillery invented in modern times, a single man, if he has the requisite courage, coolness, and steadiness of nerve, is a match for such a lion. The weapon used is a double-barreled carabine, both barrels being rifled, that is, provided with spiral grooves within, that operate to give the bullets a rotary motion as they issue from the muzzle, by which they bore their way through the air, as it were, to their destination, with a surprising directness and precision. The bullets discharged by these carabines are not balls, but cylinders, pointed with a cone at the forward end. They are hollow, and are filled with a fulminating composition which is capable of exploding with a force vastly greater than that of gunpowder. The conical point at the end is made separate from the body of the cylinder, and slides into it by a sort of shank, which, when the bullet strikes the body of the lion or other wild beast, acts like a sort of percussion cap to explode the fulminating powder, and thus the instant that the missile enters the animal's body it bursts with a terrible explosion, and scatters the iron fragments of the cylinder among his vitals. Thus, while an ordinary musket ball might lodge in his flesh, or even pass entirely through some parts of his body, without producing any other effect than to arouse him to a phrensy, and redouble the force with which he would spring upon his foe, the bursting of one of these fulminating bullets almost any where within his body brings him down in an instant, and leaves him writhing and rolling upon the ground in the agonies of death.

On the Boulevard des Italiens, in Paris, is the manufactory of Devisme, who makes these carabines for the lion-hunters of Algiers. Promenaders, in passing by his windows, stop to look at specimens of these bullets exhibited there. They are of various sizes, adapted to barrels of different bores. Some are entire; others are rent and torn in pieces, having been fired into a bank of earth, that they might burst there as they would do in the body of a wild beast, and then be recovered and preserved to show the effect of the explosion.

Even with such terrible weapons as these, it requires at the present day great courage, great coolness, and very extraordinary steadiness of nerve to face a lion or a tiger in his mountain fastness, with any hope of coming off victorious in the contest. But the danger was, of course, infinitely greater in the days of Genghis Khan, when pikes and spears, and bows and arrows, were the only weapons with which the body of huntsmen could arm themselves for the combat. Indeed, in those days wild beasts were even in some respects more formidable enemies than men. For men, however excited by angry passions, are, in some degree, under the influence of fear. They will not rush headlong upon absolute and certain destruction, but may be driven back by a mere display of force, if it is obvious that it is a force which they are wholly incapable of resisting. Thus a party of men, however desperate, may be attacked without much danger to the assailants, provided that the force which the assailants bring against them is overwhelming.

But it is not so with wild beasts. A lion, a tiger, or a panther, once aroused, is wholly insensible to fear. He will rush headlong upon his foes, however numerous they may be, and however formidably armed. He makes his own destruction sure, it is true, but, at the same time, he renders almost inevitable the destruction of some one or more of his enemies, and, in going out to attack him, no one can be sure of not being himself one of the victims of his fury.

Thus the hunting of wild beasts in the mountains was very dangerous work, and it is not surprising that the office of grand huntsman was one of great consideration and honor.

The hunting was, however, not all of the dangerous character above described. Some animals are timid and inoffensive by nature, and attempt to save themselves only by flight. Such animals as these were to be pursued and overtaken by the superior speed of horses and dogs, or to be circumvented by stratagem. There was a species of deer, in certain parts of the Mongul country, that the huntsmen were accustomed to take in this way, namely:

The huntsmen, when they began to draw near to a place where a herd of deer were feeding, would divide themselves into two parties. One party would provide themselves with the antlers of stags, which they arranged in such a manner that they could hold them up over their heads in the thickets, as if real stags were there. The others, armed with bows and arrows, javelins, spears, and other such weapons, would place themselves in ambush near by. Those who had the antlers would then make a sort of cry, imitating that uttered by the hinds. The stags of the herd, hearing the cry, would immediately come toward the spot. The men in the thicket then would raise the antlers and move them about, so as to deceive the stags, and excite their feelings of rivalry and ire, while those who were appointed to that office continued to counterfeit the cry of the hind. The stags immediately would begin to paw the ground and to prepare for a conflict, and then, while their attention was thus wholly taken up by the tossing of the false antlers in the thicket, the men in ambush would creep up as near as they could, take good aim, and shoot their poor deluded victims through the heart.

Of course, it required a great deal of practice and much skill to perform successfully such feats as these; and there were many other branches of the huntsman's art, as practiced in those days, which could only be acquired by a systematic and special course of training. One of the most difficult things was to train the horses so that they would advance to meet tigers and other wild beasts without fear. Horses have naturally a strong and instinctive terror for such beasts, and this terror it was very difficult to overcome. The Mongul huntsmen, however, contrived means to inspire the horses with so much courage in this respect that they would advance to the encounter of these terrible foes with as much ardor as a trained charger shows in advancing to meet other horses and horsemen on the field of battle.

Besides the mountainous regions above described, there were several deserts in the country of the Monguls. The greatest of these deserts extends through the very heart of Asia, and is one of the most extensive districts of barren land in the world. Unlike most other great deserts, however, the land is very elevated, and it is to this elevation that its barrenness is, in a great measure, due. A large part of this desert consists of rocks and barren sands, and, in the time of which we are writing, was totally uninhabitable. It was so cold, too, on account of the great elevation of the land, that it was almost impossible to traverse it except in the warmest season of the year.

Other parts of this district, which were not so elevated, and where the land was not quite so barren, produced grass and herbage on which the flocks and herds could feed, and thus, in certain seasons of the year, people resorted to them for pasturage.

Throughout the whole country there were no extensive forests. There were a few tangled thickets among the mountains, where the wild beasts concealed themselves and made their lairs, but this was all. One reason why forests did not spring up was, as is supposed, the custom of the people to burn over the plains every spring, as the Indians were accustomed to do on the American prairies. In the spring the dead grass of the preceding year lay dry and withered, and sometimes closely matted together, on the ground, thus hindering, as the people thought, the fresh grass from growing up. So the people were accustomed, on some spring morning when there was a good breeze blowing, to set it on fire. The fire would run rapidly over the plains, burning up every thing in its way that was above the ground. But the roots of the grass, being below, were safe from it. Very soon afterward the new grass would spring up with great luxuriance. The people thought that the rich verdure, which the new grass displayed, and its subsequent rapid growth, were owing simply to the fact that the old dead grass was out of the way. It is now known, however, that the burning of the old grass leaves an ash upon the ground which acts powerfully as a fertilizer, and that the richness of the fresh vegetation is due, in a great measure, to this cause.

Such was the country which was inhabited by the wandering pastoral tribes that were now under the sway of Genghis Khan. His dominion had no settled boundaries, for it was a dominion over certain tribes rather than over a certain district of country. Nearly all the tribes composing both the Mongul and the Tartar nations had now submitted to him, though he still had some small wars to wage from time to time with some of the more distant tribes before his authority was fully and finally acknowledged. The history of some of these conflicts will be narrated in the next chapter.