Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 November 2020
When Temüjin, the man who became Chinggis Khan, was born, the Mongols were but one of several groups vying to power. Shattered both militarily and politically by the Jin Empire and Tatars in the 1160s, the Mongols lacked a khan to unify them. Most of what we know of Chinggis Khan's early life comes from one of the few Mongol sources related to the Mongol Empire: The Secret History of the Mongols.11 The general narrative that follows is taken from the Secret History.
Temüjin's Rise to Power
Temüjin's rise to power faced many obstacles. Yesügei, murdered when Temüjin was approximately nine years old, had proven to be a strong military leader although he was not a khan. With his death, most of Yesügei's nökhöd (sworn companions) abandoned his family and sought service with more promising leaders, including the rival Tayichi’ud clan. Hö’elün, Temüjin's mother attempted to hold the family together but also faced the challenge of raising her sons alone, a difficult task given a developing rivalry between Temüjin and his elder brother, Bekhter (the son of Yesügei's second wife). Despite their dire circumstances, lacking flocks of sheep and possessing few horses, Temüjin murdered Bekhter as the latter stole food from Temüjin and his brother Jochi Qasar
Temüjin also spent an indeterminate time as a captive and perhaps slave amongst the Tayichi’ud. This may have been for his crime of fratricide or perhaps simply as a method to reduce any prestige that Yesügei's family may have still held. He eventually escaped and began to restore the fortunes of his family. Shortly before his father's death, Temüjin had been betrothed to Börte, the daughter of Dei Sechen of the Onggirad who saw something promising in Temüjin. Dei Sechen told Yesügei,
This son of yours is a boy
Who has fire in his eyes,
Who has light in his face.
Dei Sechen was indeed correct about Temüjin, even if it took years before his auspicious nature became apparent to others. Now married, Temüjin then used her wedding dowry to secure the protection and patronage of Toghril, Khan of the powerful Kereit confederation in central Mongolia.