9 Lessons From Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

Mongol leader Genghis Khan (1162-1227) rose from humble beginnings to establish the largest land empire in history. After uniting the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian plateau, he conquered huge chunks of central Asia and China. His descendents expanded the empire even further, advancing to such far-off places as Poland, Vietnam, Syria and Korea. At their peak, the Mongols controlled between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of Africa. Many people were slaughtered in the course of Genghis Khan’s invasions, but he also granted religious freedom to his subjects, abolished torture, encouraged trade and created the first international postal system. Genghis Khan died in 1227 during a military campaign against the Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia. His final resting place remains unknown.

Genghis Khan: The Early Years
Temujin, later Genghis Khan, was born around 1162 near the border between modern Mongolia and Siberia. Legend holds that he came into the world clutching a blood clot in his right hand. His mother had been kidnapped by his father and forced into marriage. At that time, dozens of nomadic tribes on the central Asian steppe were constantly fighting and stealing from each other, and life for Temujin was violent and unpredictable. Before he turned 10, his father was poisoned to death by an enemy clan. Temujin’s own clan then deserted him, his mother and his six siblings in order to avoid having to feed them.

Did you know? Mongol leader Genghis Khan never allowed anyone to paint his portrait, sculpt his image or engrave his likeness on a coin. The first images of him appeared after his death.

Shortly thereafter, Temujin killed his older half-brother and took over as head of the poverty-stricken household. At one point, he was captured and enslaved by the clan that had abandoned him, but he was eventually able to escape. In 1178 Temujin married Borte, with whom he would have four sons and an unknown number of daughters. He launched a daring rescue of Borte after she too was kidnapped, and he soon began making alliances, building a reputation as a warrior and attracting a growing number of followers. Most of what we know about Genghis Khan’s childhood comes from “The Secret History of the Mongols,” the oldest known work of Mongolian history and literature, which was written soon after his death.

Genghis Khan Unites the Mongols
Going against custom, Temujin put competent allies rather than relatives in key positions and executed the leaders of enemy tribes while incorporating the remaining members into his clan. He ordered that all looting wait until after a complete victory had been won, and he organized his warriors into units of 10 without regard to kin. Though Temujin was an animist, his followers included Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. By 1205 he had vanquished all rivals, including his former best friend Jamuka. The following year, he called a meeting of representatives from every part of the territory and established a nation similar in size to modern Mongolia. He was also proclaimed Chinggis Khan, which roughly translates to “Universal Ruler,” a name that became known in the West as Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan Establishes an Empire
Having united the steppe tribes, Genghis Khan ruled over some 1 million people. In order to suppress the traditional causes of tribal warfare, he abolished inherited aristocratic titles. He also forbade the selling and kidnapping of women, banned the enslavement of any Mongol and made livestock theft punishable by death. Moreover, Genghis Khan ordered the adoption of a writing system, conducted a regular census, granted diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors and allowed freedom of religion well before that idea caught on elsewhere.

Genghis Khan’s first campaign outside of Mongolia took place against the Xi Xia kingdom of northwestern China. After a series of raids, the Mongols launched a major initiative in 1209 that brought them to the doorstep of Yinchuan, the Xi Xia capital. Unlike other armies, the Mongols traveled with no supply train other than a large reserve of horses. The army consisted almost entirely of cavalrymen, who were expert riders and deadly with a bow and arrows. At Yinchuan, the Mongols deployed a false withdrawal—one of their signature tactics—and then initiated a siege. Though their attempt to flood the city failed, the Xi Xia ruler submitted and presented tribute.

The Mongols next attacked the Jin Dynasty of northern China, whose ruler had made the mistake of demanding Genghis Khan’s submission. From 1211 to 1214, the outnumbered Mongols ravaged the countryside and sent refugees pouring into the cities. Food shortages became a problem, and the Jin army ended up killing tens of thousands of its own peasants. In 1214 the Mongols besieged the capital of Zhongdu (now Beijing), and the Jin ruler agreed to hand over large amounts of silk, silver, gold and horses. When the Jin ruler subsequently moved his court south to the city of Kaifeng, Genghis Khan took this as a breach of their agreement and, with the help of Jin deserters, sacked Zhongdu to the ground.

In 1219 Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm Empire in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty, but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. Despite once again being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers such as carpenters and jewelers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were killed. Unskilled workers, meanwhile, were often used as human shields during the next assault. No one knows with any certainty how many people died during Genghis Khan’s wars, in part because the Mongols propagated their vicious image as a way of spreading terror.

Genghis Khan’s Death and the Continuation of the Empire
When Genghis Khan returned to Mongolia in 1225, he controlled a huge swath of territory from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless, he didn’t rest for long before turning his attention back to the Xi Xia kingdom, which had refused to contribute troops to the Khwarezm invasion. In early 1227 a horse threw Genghis Khan to the ground, causing internal injuries. He pressed on with the campaign, but his health never recovered. He died on August 18, 1227, just before the Xi Xia were crushed.

Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much land as any other person in history, bringing Eastern and Western civilizations into contact in the process. His descendants, including Ogodei and Khubilai, were also prolific conquerors, taking control of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the rest of China, among other places. The Mongols even invaded Japan and Java before their empire broke apart in the 14th century. Genghis Khan’s last ruling descendant was finally deposed in 1920.

10 Things You May Not Know About Genghis Khan
Explore 10 facts about a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman and bloodthirsty terror.

1. “Genghis” wasn’t his real name.
The man who would become the “Great Khan” of the Mongols was born along the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin, which means “of iron” or “blacksmith.” He didn’t get the honorific name “Genghis Kahn” until 1206, when he was proclaimed leader of the Mongols at a tribal meeting known as a “kurultai.” While “Khan” is a traditional title meaning “leader” or “ruler,” historians are still unsure of the origins of “Genghis.” It may have may have meant “ocean” or “just,” but in context it is usually translated as “supreme ruler” or “universal ruler.”

2. He had a rough childhood.
From an early age, Genghis was forced to contend with the brutality of life on the Mongolian Steppe. Rival Tatars poisoned his father when he was only nine, and his own tribe later expelled his family and left his mother to raise her seven children alone. Genghis grew up hunting and foraging to survive, and as an adolescent he may have even murdered his own half-brother in a dispute over food. During his teenage years, rival clans abducted both he and his young wife, and Genghis spent time as a slave before making a daring escape. Despite all these hardships, by his early 20s he had established himself as a formidable warrior and leader. After amassing an army of supporters, he began forging alliances with the heads of important tribes. By 1206, he had successfully consolidated the steppe confederations under his banner and began to turn his attention to outside conquest.

3. There is no definitive record of what he looked like.
For such an influential figure, very little is known about Genghis Kahn’s personal life or even his physical appearance. No contemporary portraits or sculptures of him have survived, and what little information historians do have is often contradictory or unreliable. Most accounts describe him as tall and strong with a flowing mane of hair and a long, bushy beard. Perhaps the most surprising description comes courtesy of the 14th century Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din, who claimed Genghis had red hair and green eyes. Al-Din’s account is questionable—he never met the Khan in person—but these striking features were not unheard of among the ethnically diverse Mongols.

4. Some of his most trusted generals were former enemies.
The Great Khan had a keen eye for talent, and he usually promoted his officers on skill and experience rather than class, ancestry or even past allegiances. One famous example of this belief in meritocracy came during a 1201 battle against the rival Taijut tribe, when Genghis was nearly killed after his horse was shot out from under him with an arrow. When he later addressed the Taijut prisoners and demanded to know who was responsible, one soldier bravely stood up and admitted to being the shooter. Stirred by the archer’s boldness, Genghis made him an officer in his army and later nicknamed him “Jebe,” or “arrow,” in honor of their first meeting on the battlefield. Along with the famed general Subutai, Jebe would go on to become one of the Mongols’ greatest field commanders during their conquests in Asia and Europe.

5. He rarely left a score unsettled.
Genghis Khan often gave other kingdoms a chance to peacefully submit to Mongol rule, but he didn’t hesitate to bring down the sword on any society that resisted. One of his most famous campaigns of revenge came in 1219, after the Shah of the Khwarezmid Empire broke a treaty with the Mongols. Genghis had offered the Shah a valuable trade agreement to exchange goods along the Silk Road, but when his first emissaries were murdered, the enraged Khan responded by unleashing the full force of his Mongol hordes on the Khwarezmid territories in Persia. The subsequent war left millions dead and the Shah’s empire in utter ruin, but the Khan didn’t stop there. He followed up on his victory by returning east and waging war on the Tanguts of Xi Xia, a group of Mongol subjects who had refused his order to provide troops for his invasion of Khwarizm. After routing the Tangut forces and sacking their capital, the Great Khan ordered the execution of the entire Tangut royal family as punishment for their defiance.

6. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how many people perished during the Mongol conquests, many historians put the number at somewhere around 40 million. Censuses from the Middle Ages show that the population of China plummeted by tens of millions during the Khan’s lifetime, and scholars estimate that he may have killed a full three-fourths of modern-day Iran’s population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire. All told, the Mongols’ attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent.

7. He was tolerant of different religions.
Unlike many empire builders, Genghis Khan embraced the diversity of his newly conquered territories. He passed laws declaring religious freedom for all and even granted tax exemptions to places of worship. This tolerance had a political side—the Khan knew that happy subjects were less likely to rebel—but the Mongols also had an exceptionally liberal attitude towards religion. While Genghis and many others subscribed to a shamanistic belief system that revered the spirits of the sky, winds and mountains, the Steppe peoples were a diverse bunch that included Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and other animistic traditions. The Great Khan also had a personal interest in spirituality. He was known to pray in his tent for multiple days before important campaigns, and he often met with different religious leaders to discuss the details of their faiths. In his old age, he even summoned the Taoist leader Qiu Chuji to his camp, and the pair supposedly had long conversations on immortality and philosophy.

8. He created one of the first international postal systems.
Along with the bow and the horse, the Mongols most potent weapon may have been their vast communication network. One of his earliest decrees as Khan involved the formation of a mounted courier service known as the “Yam.” This medieval express consisted of a well-organized series of post houses and way stations strung out across the whole of the Empire. By stopping to rest or take on a fresh mount every few miles, official riders could often travel as far as 200 miles a day. The system allowed goods and information to travel with unprecedented speed, but it also acted as the eyes and ears of the Khan. Thanks to the Yam, he could easily keep abreast of military and political developments and maintain contact with his extensive network of spies and scouts. The Yam also helped protect foreign dignitaries and merchants during their travels. In later years, the service was famously used by the likes of Marco Polo and John of Plano Carpini.

9. No one knows how he died or where he is buried.
Of all the enigmas surrounding the Khan’s life, perhaps the most famous concerns how it ended. The traditional narrative says he died in 1227 from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse, but other sources list everything from malaria to an arrow wound in the knee. One of the more questionable accounts even claims he was murdered while trying to force himself on a Chinese princess. However he died, the Khan took great pains to keep his final resting place a secret. According to legend, his funeral procession slaughtered everyone they came in contact with during their journey and then repeatedly rode horses over his grave to help conceal it. The tomb is most likely on or around a Mongolian mountain called Burkhan Khaldun, but to this day its precise location is unknown.

10. The Soviets tried to snuff out his memory in Mongolia.
Genghis Khan is now seen as a national hero and founding father of Mongolia, but during the era of Soviet rule in the 20th century, the mere mention of his name was banned. Hoping to stamp out all traces of Mongolian nationalism, the Soviets tried to suppress the Khan’s memory by removing his story from school textbooks and forbidding people from making pilgrimages to his birthplace in Khentii. Genghis Khan was eventually restored to Mongolian history after the country won independence in the early 1990s, and he’s since become a recurring motif in art and popular culture. The Great Khan lends his name to the nation’s main airport in the city of Ulan Bator, and his portrait even appears on Mongolian currency.

Quotes By Genghis Khan

“I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
― Genghis Khan

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“If you’re afraid – don’t do it, – if you’re doing it – don’t be afraid!”
― Genghis Khan

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“an action comitted in anger is an action doomed to failure.”
― Genghis Khan

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“Who can’t stop drinking may get drunken three times a month. If he does it more often, he is guilty. To get drunken twice a month is better; once, still more praiseworthy. But not to drink at all – what could be better than this? But where could such a being be found? But if one would find it, it would be worthy of all honour.”
― Genghis Khan

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“I am the flail of god. Had you not created great sins, god would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
― Genghis Khan, Genghis Khan’s Rules for (Warriors) Writers

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“There is no value in anything until it is finished.”
― Genghis Khan

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“An action committed in anger is an action doomed to failure.”
― Genghis Khan

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“Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”
― Genghis Khan

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“The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”
― Genghis Khan

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“A man’s greatest joy is crushing his enemies.”
― Genghis Khan

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“If you’re afraid – don’t do it, – if you’re doing it – don’t be afraid!” Genghis Khan”
― Genghis Khan

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O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
― Genghis Khan

As quoted in Ta’Rikh-i-Jahan Gusha [History of the World Conqueror] by ‘Ala-ad-Din ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini (ca. 1252-1260), translated by J.A. Boyle (1958), p. 105

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Be of one mind and one faith, that you may conquer your enemies and lead long and happy lives.
― Genghis Khan

As quoted in The Mongol Empire : Its Rise and Legacy (1940) by Michael Prawdin, p. 224

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In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work and uniting the whole world in one Empire.
― Genghis Khan

As quoted in The Tyrants : 2500 Years of Absolute Power and Corruption (2006) by Clive Foss, p. 55 ISBN 1905204965

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If one must drink, then let one drink thrice a month, for more is bad. If one gets drunk twice a month, it is better; if one gets drunk once a month, that is better still; and if one doesn’t drink at all, that is the best of all.
― Genghis Khan

As given in Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Chronicles (Jami’ al-tawarikh) (Can find a translated version on google books:)

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God is everywhere, and you can find him everywhere.
― Genghis Khan

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If my body dies, let my body die, but do not let my country die.
― Genghis Khan

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The merit in action lies in finishing it to the end.
― Genghis Khan

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Those who were adept and brave fellows I have made military commanders. Those who were quick and nimble I have made herders of horses. Those who were not adept I have given a small whip and sent to be shepherds
― Genghis Khan

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The strength of walls depends on the courage of those who guard them.
― Genghis Khan

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People conquered on different sides of the lake should be ruled on different sides of the lake.
― Genghis Khan

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Just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men.
― Genghis Khan

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One of the joys of travel is visiting new towns and meeting new people.
― Genghis Khan

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Heaven is weary of the luxury of China. I shall remain in the wilderness of the north. I shall return to simplicity and moderations once again. As for the clothes I wear and the food I eat, I shall have the same as cowherds and grooms and I shall treat my soldiers as brothers. In a hundred battles I have been at the forefront and within seven years I have performed a great work, for in six directions of space all things are subject to one ruler.
― Genghis Khan

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In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work and uniting the whole world in one Empire.
― Genghis Khan

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If one must drink, then let one drink thrice a month, for more is bad. If one gets drunk twice a month, it is better; if one gets drunk once a month, that is better still; and if one doesn’t drink at all, that is the best of all.
― Genghis Khan

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A man’s greatest moment in life is when his enemy lays vanquished, his village aflame, his herds driven before you and his weeping wives and daughters are clasped to your breast.

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Despite all expectations, the time of my last campaign and of my passing is near. I wish to die at home. Let not my end disarm you, and on no account weep for me, lest the enemy be warned of my death.
― Genghis Khan

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Heaven has appointed me to rule all the nations, for hitherto there has been no order upon the steppes.
― Genghis Khan

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Perhaps my children will live in stone houses and walled towns – Not I
― Genghis Khan

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The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.
― Genghis Khan

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Happiness lies in conquering one’s enemies, in driving them in front of oneself, in taking their property, in savoring their despair, in outraging their wives and daughters.
― Genghis Khan

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My life was too short to achieve the conquest of the whole world.
― Genghis Khan

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It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.
― Genghis Khan

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The Greatest Happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you. To see his cities reduced to ashes. To see those who love him shrouded and in tears. And to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.
― Genghis Khan

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Not even a mighty warrior can break a frail arrow when it is multiplied and supported by its fellows. As long as you brothers support one another and render assistance to one another, your enemies can never gain the victory over you. But if you fall away from each other your enemy can brake you like frail arrows, one at a time.
― Genghis Khan

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I hate luxury. I exercise moderation…It will be easy to forget your vision and purpose one you have fine clothes, fast horses and beautiful women. [In which case], you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.
― Genghis Khan

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If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
― Genghis Khan

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If you’re afraid – don’t do it, – if you’re doing it – don’t be afraid!
― Genghis Khan

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The strength of a wall is neither greater nor less than the courage of the men who defend it.
― Genghis Khan

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Man’s highest joy is in victory: to conquer one’s enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.
― Genghis Khan

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Oh people, know that you have committed great sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you!
― Genghis Khan

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Remember, you have no companions but your shadow
― Genghis Khan

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An action committed in anger is an action doomed to failure.
― Genghis Khan

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All who surrender will be spared; whoever does not surrender but opposes with struggle and dissension, shall be annihilated.
― Genghis Khan

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Come and sip from the cup of destruction.
― Genghis Khan

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It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.
― Genghis Khan

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A leader can never be happy until his people are happy.
― Genghis Khan

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With Heaven’s aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you.
― Genghis Khan

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Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.
― Genghis Khan

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Heaven grew weary of the excessive pride and luxury of China… I am from the Barbaric North. I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and horse-herders. We make the same sacrifices and we share.. our riches. I look upon the nation as a new-born child and I care for my soldiers as though they were my brothers.
― Genghis Khan

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If unable to abstain from drinking, a man may get drunk three times a month; if he does it more than three times he is culpable; if he gets drunk twice a month it is better; if once a month, this is still more laudable; and if one does not drink at all what can be better? But where can I find such a man? If such a man were found he would be worthy of the highest esteem.
― Genghis Khan

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There is no good in anything until it is finished.
― Genghis Khan

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I am the punishment of God. If you have not committed sins then God wouldn’t have sent me.
― Genghis Khan

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Even when a friend does something you do not like, he continues to be your friend.
― Genghis Khan

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A man’s greatest work is to break his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all the things that have been theirs, to hear the weeping of those who cherished them, to take their horses between his knees and to press in his arms the most desirable of their women.
― Genghis Khan

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The pleasure and joy of man lies in treading down the rebel and conquering the enemy, in tearing him up by the root, in taking from him all that he has.
― Genghis Khan

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Be of one mind and one faith, that you may conquer your enemies and lead long and happy lives.
― Genghis Khan

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One arrow alone can be easily broken but many arrows are indestructible.
― Genghis Khan

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Man’s greatest joy is to slay his enemy, plunder his riches, ride his steeds, see the tears of his loved ones and embrace his women
― Genghis Khan

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