Did Genghis Khan Really Kill 1,748,000 People in One Hour?

Under Soviet rule, Mongols couldn’t even utter Genghis Khan’s name out loud, nor visit his home province. But since the collapse of communism in Mongolia in the 1990s, citizens have reclaimed the legacy of the person the New York Times referred to as “the original bad boy of history.”

This resurgence in popularity has also made some people reconsider Genghis Khan. Was he a bloodthirsty heathen, or a fair and just statesman? Although his reign left behind no tangible artifacts — like architecture or art — does Khan’s role as champion of diplomacy, religious tolerance and equal rights for women serve as legacy enough? And what of the incredible bloody legends that surround him?

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Perhaps no other historical figure has as much death directly attributed to him as Genghis Khan. A quick glance at the many lists of his supposed deeds yields a recurring and startling attribution: Genghis Khan is said to have once killed 1,748,000 people in a single hour!

While Khan inarguably killed his fair share of people, it’s impossible that he — or anyone else — personally ever took as many lives in such a short time (at least not without dropping a bomb). For Khan to have killed that many people in an hour, he would have had to take 29,133 lives per minute.

While this isn’t possible, there’s a fascinating story behind legend. And why such an oddly specific number? Find out in the next section.

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The Truth About Nishapur

The 1,748,000 refers to the estimated population in April 1221 of a Persian city called Nishapur [source: Hinson]. This city, located in what is now Iran, was a bustling cultural center during Khan’s time. And during his campaign to the West, following his successful subduing of China, Nishapur was one of the cities his troops sacked.­

Genghis Khan (whose adopted name means “Universal Ruler” in Altaic, his native tongue) was something of a populist conqueror. He generally followed a self-imposed rule that those who surrendered to him were allowed to live. Common folk were often spared, while their rulers usually were put to death. The same fate met anyone else who dared resist.

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In Nishapur, Khan’s favorite son-in-law, Toquchar, was killed by an arrow shot by a Nishapuran. It’s not entirely clear whether a revolt broke out after Khan’s troops had already overtaken the city, or if the fateful event took place during an initial siege. Either way, this proved to be the death warrant for the inhabitants of the city [source: Lange].

Khan’s daughter was heartbroken at the news of her husband’s death and requested that every last person in Nishapur be killed. Khan’s troops, led by his youngest son Tolui undertook the gruesome task. Women, children, infants, and even dogs and cats were all murdered. Worried that some of the inhabitants were wounded but still alive, Khan’s daughter allegedly asked that each Nishapuran be beheaded, their skulls piled in pyramids. Ten days later, the pyramids were complete [source: Gabriel].

Exactly how many died at Nishapur during the siege is questionable, but it does appear that a great many people were killed and beheaded. There is no evidence that Genghis Khan was at the city when the massacre took place, however.

It’s unclear why the legends say these events transpired in just one hour. And when the 1.75 million deaths became attributed directly to Khan is equally murky. Even more difficult to understand is how the idea made it on so many lists of amazing statistics. Regardless, a great many people died at the hands of Genghis Khan or his men. But in a strange, roundabout way, he put back more than he took. Thanks to his far-flung travels and his appetite for women, a 2003 study found that as many as 16 million people alive today — or about 0.5 percent of the global population — are descendants of Khan [source: Zerjal, et al.].

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Sources

Lange, Brenda. “Genghis Khan.” (March 30, 2022) https://www.google.com/books/edition/Genghis_Khan/Yclu5Rw-3WUC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=nishapur+genghis+khan&pg=PA66&printsec=frontcover

Hinson, John. “100 (More) Stories: The Lesser Known History of Humanity” March 30, 2022 https://www.google.com/books/edition/100_More_Stories_The_Lesser_Known_Histor/U9t9DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=nishapur+population+genghis+khan&pg=PA27&printsec=frontcover

Pocha, Jehangir S. “Mongolia sees Genghis Khan’s good side.” New York Times. May 10, 2005. (March 30, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/10/world/asia/mongolia-sees-genghis-khans-good-side.html

Pressley Montes, Sue Anne. “Genghis Khan Statue Sought.” The Washington Post. October 6, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/05/AR2006100501534.html

Williams, F. Leon. “The Savage Fury: The Life of Genghis Khan.” Trafford Publishing. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=pciCKJNf-aAC&pg=PA515&lpg=PA515&dq=nishapur+genghis+khan&source=web&ots=842xwoRpYQ&sig=hGGv1hoM7JIeczWrh9_exCtIwQs#PPA526,M1

Zerjal, Tatiana, et al. “The genetic legacy of the Mongols.” American Journal of Human Genetics. 2003. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1180246/

“Genghis Khan and the Mongols.” Macro History.http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h11mon.htm

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