Unlimited Learning hosts virtual seminar on legendary Mongol conqueror

Genghis Khan is an imposing figure in human history, lecturer Jon Wefald said, but the Mongol warlord's legendary legacy only gains more clout the deeper you delve into his and his people's story.

"Statue of Genghis Khan" by serg_ulixes on Flickr.

For good or ill, few human beings have changed the course of history more than the likes of Genghis Khan — the medieval Mongol warlord who took a fractured coalition of tribes of the Asian steppe and forged the largest contiguous empire to ever exist.

Genghis Khan was the subject of a virtual seminar — the first to be hosted online in the series — by the educational nonprofit organization Lakes Area Unlimited Learning. Jon Wefald, the former president of Kansas State University and lecturer, gave an hour-long presentation, "A Look at Genghis Kahn and the Mongolian Horde.” In his lecture, Wefald expounded on the man he deemed to be the preeminent conquerer of mankind, outshining the likes of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and Douglas MacArthur.

Genghis Khan — first named Temujin, the son of a tribal leader — was born 1162 in the barren Asiatic plains of Mongolia, Wefald said. The Mongols were a group of six nomadic tribes living a brutal existence on the steppes and plagued by constant infighting, said Wefald, who noted Genghis Khan’s world was the world of the Dark Ages — a point of history when cultural progression took a significant regression with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D.


Wefald Genghis Khan Seminar.JPG
A screengrab of the June 9 virtual seminar titled "A Look at Genghis Kahn and the Mongolian Horde," presented by lecturer Jon Wefald and presented by Lakes Area Unlimited Learning.

“There are three months of summer, and nine months of winter, so it wasn't a great place to live. Mongolia is a barren, stark world. It's got nothing. It’s a land totally unsuitable for agriculture,” Wefald said. “So, during this period of time, Genghis Khan takes six tribes in Mongolia that have been warring against one another for centuries. He united those tribes and put together the greatest horse army in the entire history of the world, a force that was unbeatable.”

That was the thing about growing up in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, Wefald said, it produced a breed of the toughest, most brutal and effective fighters that lent a fearsome gravitas to the historical term “horde.”

Half-starved? Yes. Illiterate? Most definitely. Undersized and comparatively primitive to their Chinese and Persian neighbors? Absolutely. But, Wefald noted, when a typical Mongol soldier is riding horseback and shooting a bow by the age of 3, able to cover 80-90 miles a day and survive on horse blood for weeks at a time, it starts to make sense how an army of 200,000 became one of the most effective fighting forces ever assembled.

Jon Wefald


“These armies over history had to live off the land, but no one did it better than the Mongols. They ate what was available, if it was dogs, cats, they would kill their goats and sheep. They lived off the land,” Wefald said. “No, they didn't have a diet of McDonald's hamburgers and Diet Cokes, I'll guarantee you that.”

Under the masterful strategies of Genghis Khan and his generals, Wefald said, the Mongols swept across Eurasia — from Korea in the east to the doorstep of western Europe itself — in a series of campaigns that crushed China, Khwarazmian Persia, the principalities of Russia and eastern Europe, the Seljuk Turks and a litany of other societies.

The devastation and occupation by Mongols could be so total, Wefald said, that it effectively suppressed Russian society for three centuries and led to a cultural regression that still echoes in the autocratic rule of czars, Soviet premiers and dictatorial Russian presidents ever since.

Still, Wefald said, for all their purported savagery, the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and his descendents was a pragmatic and pluralistic society which emphasized freedom of religion, a merit-based system of authority, cultural integration, savvy administration and a strong promotion of trade and communication of ideas.

The thread of Genghis Khan’s influence can still be seen, Wefald said, in modern societies as we know them today — evidenced, in part, by the fact that 11% of Asian males can trace a direct genetic lineage to a single individual from the 1200s. That man, Wefald said, in all likelihood is the great Genghis Khan.


GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at .

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