1205 or 1206: Jamukha, Genghis Khan’s brother and rival

Add comment April 4th, 2013 Headsman

It was in the spring of 1206 that the Mongol warlord Temujin was formally elevated by a council of nomadic chiefs to the title posterity knows him — “Genghis Khan”.

Sun Honglei as Jamukha in the 2007 Russian epic Mongol.

That makes this as good a time as any to mark the completely undated but deeply personal execution that Temujin inflicted on his childhood friend turned rival Jamukha in order to attain that position.

Jamukha was one of the last obstacles to consolidating Temujin’s own rule. His elimination cleared the way for the spring 1206 council adorning Temujin with the title Genghis Khan; this event also marks the traditional founding moment for the renowned Mongol Empire.

Temujin was by this time already past his 40th year, and he had spent that lifetime — for this much was already a plentiful allotment for a steppe warrior — maneuvering by conquest and diplomacy into leadership of Mongolia’s multifarious clans and confederations.

According to our only source for the execution, The Secret History of the Mongols,* Jamukha (or Jamuka, or Jamuga) was the young Temujin’s blood-brother; he had risked himself as a companion-at-arms with the teenage Temujin to recover the latter’s kidnapped bride from a neighboring tribe.

But Jamukha, too, was a young man on the make then, and it was not yet written that it was he who would be a foil in Temujin’s story instead of the other way around; indeed, it was Jamukha’s Jadaran clan that had rank and to whom Temujin’s family had once owed allegiance. Genghis Khan began his political life as a parvenu with questionable innovations like raising commoners to military command and sharing spoils outside of aristocratic circles. To judge from the results, history vindicated these decisions.

As both men rose to prominence in their own webs of family and alliance, it chanced that Jamukha headed the last bloc of nomadic Mongols opposing Temujin. They sparred, often savagely, for close to a decade before Temujin finally prevailed.

The Secret History records a spring 1205 campaign commencing against the Naiman and Merkids, tribes of Jamukha’s holdout coalition who eventually succumbed to Temujin’s arms over what reads like a period of months. This sent Jamukha fleeing into the wilderness with just a handful of followers.

At an unspecified point presumably either late in 1205 or early in 1206, those followers turned on Jamukha and handed him over to Temujin.

The Secret History says Temujin was maybe still a little sentimental about his old friend even after the bloodshed that had passed between him. For one thing, he immediately executed Jamukha’s betrayers.

But now that he had the humbled Jamukha in hand, defeated and no longer a threat, Temujin implored his rival to accept forgiveness and a place in that future greatest land empire in history.

Let us be companions. Now, we are joined together once again, we should remind each other of things we have forgotten. Wake each other from our sleep. Even when you went away and were apart from me, you were still my lucky, blessed sworn brother. Surely, in the days of killing and being killed, the pit of your stomach and your heart pained for me. Surely, in the days of saying and being slain, your breast and your heart pained for me.

Jamukha was, maybe, a little more realistic about things.

Now, when the world is ready for you, what use is there in my becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heart. I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door-panel.

Kill me and lay down my dead bones in the high ground. Then eternally and forever, I will protect the seed of your seed, and become a blessing for them.

And on that prophecy, too, you’d say that history vindicated the Mongols.

Temujin had his old friend and rival’s back broken — a noble death without any blood spilled — and gave him a decent burial. And then, perhaps with Jamukha watching over them as promised, Temujin and his heirs started conquering pretty much everything in sight.

* There are full text transcripts of the Secret History in various languages here.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Back broken,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Soldiers,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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