Genghis Khan – 12 things you should know about the first Great Khan

Genghis Khan_biographySource: Vintage News

Often counted as the first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire (which went on to become the largest contiguous empire in history after his death), Genghis Khan, as a figure, is both celebrated and reviled. And both of these seemingly antithetical scopes have to do with his incredible exploits in fields of conquering, pillaging, and generalship – that was prodigal and ruthless in equal measure. Just to give an example, in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan was commanding one part of his army in the vicinity of Afghanistan, another section of his army was operating in the vast expanses of Russia – thereby demonstrating the mobility and logistical capacity of the Mongols.

However, beyond just military matters, we aim to cover the history of Genghis Khan through an objective lens. In that regard, our article is mostly based on The Secret History of the Mongols, the oldest surviving work in Mongolian; often considered as the single most important chronicle of the Great Khan’s life. So without further ado, let us take a gander at 12 things you should know about the ever-resilient Genghis Khan – from his early life to his death.

1) Origins of Temüjin –

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Source: WHLovers

Born in circa 1162 AD, near the mountain Burkhan Khaldun, close to present-day Ulaanbaatar, Genghis Khan’s (also spelled Jenghiz or even Chinggis) very early life is rather shrouded in mystery with enigmatic anecdotes. For example, one particular legend talks about how he was born with a blood clot in his hand, thereby alluding to his destiny as a conqueror, while another legend mentions his divine ancestry from a guardian gray wolf. However, reverting to real life, Genghis Khan’s father Yesügei was the leader of the Borjigin clan and was also the nephew of Hotula Khan – the previous ‘Khan’ (or head, almost akin to being the king) of the Mongol tribes.

It should be noted that Genghis Khan was born as Temüjin (or Timuchin). According to conventional sources, he was named after a high-ranking enemy captured by his father – as was possibly the custom of the Mongols. Some accounts place this enemy as Temüjin-üge, the chief of the Tatars, the longtime enemy of the Mongols. As for the etymological side of affairs, the word Temüjin is derived from temür which means “of iron”, while jin denotes agency. In essence, Temüjin roughly translates to ‘blacksmith’ in Mongolian.

2) The Struggle For Very Survival –

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Source: ArsTechnica

Now, in spite of being born with the proverbial silver spoon, Temüjin’s early life was beset by conflicts and dangers – sometimes clashing with his very survival. To that end, Yesügei, his father, was fatally poisoned by the Tatars, when Temüjin was just 9 years old. And while the young son tried to follow his father’s footsteps as the next leader of the Borjigin clan, he was relegated based on the perceived ‘weakness’ of his family. The power vacuum was instead filled by the rival Taychiut family, who proceeded on to unceremoniously abandon Temüjin’s mother and her children.

In the following years, the desperate family lived in extreme poverty, often surviving on marmots, ox carcasses, and wild roots, in stark contrast to the meat and mare-milk diet of the free Mongolians. There are anecdotes regarding how the 15-year-old Temüjin was captured by the roving Taychiut during a raid and then enslaved with a cangue (wooden collar). The resourceful teenager still managed to escape by reportedly knocking a guard with the hefty collar. And even after being discovered the following day, he was not only let go but also aided by one of the other guards – who was impressed by the ‘fire’ in the determined teenager’s eyes.

3) The Issue of Wife –

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Detail of a silk scroll– “Departure Herald”, 26 m (85 ft) in length, from the Chinese Xuande reign period.

This ‘great escape’ proved to be a momentous episode in Genghis Khan’s life, with romanticized accounts of the teenager’s exploits slowly spreading across the Mongol tribal realms. Other related narratives were soon spoken about, like his heroic pursuit of a gang of horse thieves. We should also note that in spite of their impoverished state, Temüjin’s family was still counted among the prestigious members of the Borjigin clan, almost akin to royalty. Based on this ‘resource’ of prestige, the young man already had his marriage arranged (years ago by his own father) to Börte of the bigger Onggirat (or Khongirad) tribe. At the age of sixteen, Temüjin pursued this marriage alliance in bid to favorably strengthen the position of his relinquished family.

But once again the fierce rivalry and frequent warfare between the steppe tribes reared their ugly heads, this time in the form of a grudge borne by the Merkit tribe – the clan of Genghis Khan’s mother Hoelun. According to The Secret History of the Mongols, years ago, Temüjin’s father Yesügei ‘stole’ Hoelun from the Merkit tribe and then married her. The Merkits exacted their revenge on Temüjin’s young bride by kidnapping her in turn.  

4) The Power of Shrewdness –

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Source: Pictame

However, like many perilous episodes in his life, this particular scenario proved to be stepping stone for the young Temüjin – this time in the world of high politics. His keen sense for forging timely alliances was proven by a shrewd appeal and a gift of sable skin to Toghril (also known as Wang Khan in Chinese sources) – the khan of the Keraites and one of the most powerful tribal princes among the Mongols. Interestingly enough, Toghril was the anda (sworn brother) of Yesügei, and thus his duty beckoned him to aid the teenager Temüjin.

As a result, he furnished an army (possibly numbering in thousands; 20,000 – according to The Secret History) for his late ally’s son. Temüjin was also helped by the armed folks headed by another of his childhood friends (and future rival) Jamukha. And together with this large following, the young Genghis Khan scored his first major victory over the Merkits and freed his bride.

5) The Clash of the Warlords –

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Source: Imgur

As is often the case in history, the consequent somewhat revived power (although still in its nascent stage) of Temüjin’s family possibly earned the latent ire of some of his allies, namely both Jamukha and Toghril. The Secret History is intentionally vague regarding this phase of Genghis Khan’s life, with cryptic remarks about how it was Börte, Temüjin’s young wife, who convinced him to part ways with Jamukha – citing that there could be only one candidate who can lead the Mongol tribes. The latter scope probably had to do with the ingrained cutthroat nature of the steppe politics where provincial princes and tribal leaders were loath to share power and present a unified front (sometimes even influenced by foreign elements).

As for Jamukha, he is considered an enigmatic historical character. What we know from the accounts pertains to how he was a childhood friend and later anda of Temüjin. Jamukha personally took part in the operation to rescue Börte from her Merkit captors and was later gifted with a golden belt. But the friendship with Genghis Khan, due to some ambiguous reason (possibly because of their individual ambitions), didn’t last long – and soon after, Jamukha became Temüjin’s chief rival. In the following decade, the rivalry turned into brutal enmity that culminated in the Battle of Dalan Balzhut (in circa 1187 AD). Temüjin was unceremoniously defeated in the encounter and some of his close followers were reportedly boiled alive in large cauldrons.

In fact, The Secret History makes it a point to mention some of the cruel and even wily acts of Jamukha (like his apparent penchant for abandoning his allies to precarious circumstances), while Temüjin is presented in a more favorable light. Once again reverting to history, a decade after his disastrous defeat, Genghis Khan still managed to hold to a position of power and prestige (albeit as a minor chieftain) by siding with the Chinese Jin. In circa 1197 AD, he managed to score a rear victory over the Tatars (enemy of Jin) and was subsequently awarded the title of j’aut quri by the Chinese, while his ally Toghril was proclaimed as Wang Khan (or Ong Khan) – a more honorable epithet fit for a prince.

6) The Unification of the Mongols –

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Source: WeaponsandWarfare

However, in circa 1201 AD, Jamukha, supported by Temüjin’s foes like the Merkits and Naimans, had himself declared the gur-khān (supreme leader) of the Mongolian steppes. On the other hand, the ever-tenacious Temüjin was also beginning to amass a significant following of his own, with many Mongols and other tribal members flocking to his protection because of the purported underhanded and sometimes atrocious behavior of his chief enemy. His numbers were additionally bolstered by the absorption of previous Tatar soldiers into the Mongol domain.

But the scale was ultimately tipped in favor of the foes of Genghis Khan, with even his long-time ally Toghril switching sides and forming a league with Jamukha (possibly convinced by his own son). Unfortunately for Toghril, his ‘internal’ relation with Jamukha was cold, and the intrinsic shrewdness of Temüjin took advantage of this rift to isolate his former ally. By this time, Temüjin already boasted a worthy host and inflicted a crippling defeat on the weakened Toghril and his Kerait tribe.

A significant number of other tribal leaders and princes also began to abandon Jamukha, including Subotai, the future brilliant general of the Mongols. Finally, in circa 1206 AD, after a string of military reversals, Jamukha was finally handed over to Temüjin by his own men. And while Jamukha was offered friendship by his childhood friend, he preferred death befitting a prince (that is without shedding blood). Consequently, Jamukha was executed by having his back broken.

Now beyond dramatic endings, on the practical scheme of things, Jamukha’s death provided the first real opportunity for Temüjin to unite the tribes of the Mongolian steppes. And finally, after the defeat of the Naiman coalition (the last remaining proximate enemy), Temüjin set out to this incredible task with zest and rigor. Thus in the very same year of 1206 AD, a kurultai (or khurultai – ‘great assembly’) was called by the River Onon. And in this crucial military council, comprising various Mongolian and other Turkic princes, Temüjin declared himself as the Genghis Khan (possibly meaning ‘Universal Ruler’). In essence, he astonishingly achieved the enviable feat of uniting warlike tribes of the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraites, Tatars, Uyghurs, and other assorted clans, while also succeeding in consolidating his political power as the sole overlord of these disparate hosts.

7) The Far Flung Campaigns of Genghis Khan –

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Source Wikimedia Commons

For the first time in many centuries, a Mongol nation came into being under the rule of Genghis Khan. And from the very beginning of its existence, the generals and princes within its domain could discern and admire the sheer ambition of their overlord; an ambition for a realm that stretched far beyond the traditional boundaries of the Mongol tribes. Hence, the first order of ‘strategic’ business for Genghis Khan was to demonstrate his military power to the proximate agricultural civilizations. But while Jin China was certainly a desirable target, the Mongols had to secure their western flank – and there existed the Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom of the Tanguts.

This very first major military campaign conducted by Genghis Khan (in circa 1209 AD) bore the characteristic tactical maneuverability and prowess of the Mongol army. For example, in the long and hard expedition that covered over 650 miles (with 200 miles of the unforgiving Gobi Desert), the Mongols were ‘forced’ to revert to false withdrawal (a ruse that was to become a trademark maneuver of the Mongols in the future) and make use of siege weaponry (machines that were relatively ‘alien’ to native Mongolian battles), with the latter playing its instrumental role in taking down Yinchuan, the mighty fortress capital of Xixia.

After the submission of the Xixia ruler and laden with expensive tributes, Genghis Khan turned his attention to the Chinese Jin Empire of the Jurchens that occupied the expansive lands north of the Yangtze River. In circa 1211 AD, the Jurchens were dealt a crushing defeat at the Battle of Yehuling. And then, after a temporary respite (that involved enormous sums of bribe from the Chinese), Genghis Khan resumed his successful campaign deep inside Chinese territories, culminating in the capturing and sacking of Zhongdu (modern Beijing), the Jin capital in 1215 AD.

The victorious Mongol armies then followed it up by defeating the Kara-Khitai, who provided refuge to Kuchlug of the Naimans, one of the long-time enemies of Genghis Khan. From the historical perspective, the defeat (and subsequent integration) of the Kara-Khitai proved to be important since they occupied the corridor to the rich lands of Islamic Central Asia. In essence, like a domino effect, the small campaign of 1218 AD set the stage for the inevitable showdown between the ever-aggressive Mongols and the powerful Khwarazmian Empire that considered itself as the very guardian of the proximate Islamic realms.

8) The Showdown with the Khwarazmian Dynasty –

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Mongol Keshik (on the left) fighting against a Khwarezmid cavalryman. Illustration by EthicallyChallenged (Deviantart)

Muhammad of Khwarazm, or the Khwarazm Shah, having Turkic ancestry (possibly part Kipchak on his mother’s side), ruled a massive empire that covered much of the eastern Islamic lands including Khorasan, Persia, and parts of Afghanistan. But while the Khwarazmian Empire was the most powerful of all Muslim states of the era (especially with the western Islamic realms like Egypt’s Ayyubid Kingdom still embroiled in fighting with the Crusaders), its military structure was relatively disorganized – resulting from the deep divisions within the varied subjects and even generals of the realm.

As for Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, their unprecedented successes on the battlefield were mostly achieved within the periphery of steppes or by fighting with cultures they were familiar with. However, in 1219 AD, he got the chance to ‘test’ his host’s prowess well beyond the limits of familiarity – with the casus belli being recklessly provided by the Khwarazm Shah himself.

The ruler, partly fueled by arrogance and partly angered by Mongol border encroachments, personally ordered an execution of two members of a Mongol envoy (while a remaining one member was humiliated and sent back to Genghis Khan) – on basis of their alleged ‘spying’ activities. Suffice it to say, the Great Khan, in spite of his initial anger, took the opportunity with aplomb, by setting up logistical lines, expeditionary maneuvers and then finally marching into a well-planned campaign in the autumn.

The result of this massive endeavor had far-reaching consequences and a shocking effect on the Muslim world, with cities and towns falling one after the other to the unstoppable ‘horde’ from beyond ‘civilization’ – as some contemporary authors painted the Mongols. From the strategic perspective, Genghis Khan proceeded in a meticulous manner by besieging the major cities in a piecemeal fashion by isolating their garrisons (and reinforcements) and then storming their defences – thus causing important settlements like Otrar, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Urgench (the capital of the Khwarazm Shahs) to be pillaged. And while most of these strongholds boasted heavy defenses, the situation was soured for the uncoordinated Khwarezmian armies with their internal rivalries and lack of clear communications.

After pacifying Muhammad of Khwarazm, who went into hiding on a Caspian Sea island and died lonely from possibl pneumonia, Genghis Khan turned his attention to the Shah’s heir Jalal al-din who escaped to Afghanistan. In the consequent campaigns (undertaken by a split Mongol army; the other divisions, under Subotai, being committed to the conquest of Georgia, Armenia, and Russia) cities like Tirmiz, Merv, and Nishapur fell to unrelenting Mongol onslaught – and this was the epoch when the nomads ‘reinforced’ their infamy for ruthlessness and barbarity (aspects we will talk about later in the article).

The rampaging force returned to its Mongolian homeland in 1223 AD, and finally, in 1226 AD, Genghis went on his last military expedition – this time dealing with the remnants of the Tanguts of Xixia and capturing cities like Lingzhou and Ning Hia. After the subjugation of the Tanguts (possibly entailing the execution of entire imperial family), the Great Khan breathed his last in the August of 1227 AD, at the age of 65.

9) Death and Succession –

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250-ton stainless-steel statue of Genghis Khan outside the Mongolian capital. Credit: Daniel Traub/Newsweek

Mirroring the vivid exploits of his life, the (almost) mysterious death of Genghis Khan also brought forth its fair share of presumptions – with The Secret History mentioning how the Mongol ruler died from an injury received during hunting by falling from his horse. On the other hand, the 13th century Galician–Volhynian Chronicle (whose oldest known copy survives in the form of the Hypatian Codex) recounts how he was killed in action in a battle against the Xixia (Western Xia). Marco Polo expanded upon this narrative by detailing how the Great Khan died from an infectious injury from a Xixia arrow. Furthermore, a 17th-century chronicle (possibly written by the rival Oirats or Kalmyks) puts a twist to the tale of how Genghis was assassinated by a Xixia princess with the help of a small dagger hidden in her shoes.

In any case, even before his death, the issue of Genghis Khan’s successor as the next Great Khan was perceived quite contentiously. To that end, Jochi, in spite of being the eldest son of Genghis Khan, was overlooked (after deliberations) in favor of Ögedei Khan, the third son. According to some accounts, this interesting decision was taken so as to diffuse the tension between Jochi and Chagatai – the first and second born respectively, although Jochi’s paternity was nascently questioned (since Börte conceived him just after being freed from captivity inside the Merkit camp).

However, it should be noted that all of Genghis Khan’s four sons were endowed with huge parcels of lands (basically empires) and substantial armies, thus making them Khans in their own right. For example, the youngest son Tolui possibly inherited the bulk of the army, numbering around 100,000 men and the finest cavalry divisions. But Ögedei took up the figurative mantle of the Great Khan, and during his reign, the Mongol Empire reached its greatest extent via invasions of both eastern Europe and East Asia.

10) The Military Genius of Genghis Khan –

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Illustration by Wayne Reynolds for Osprey Publishing

Unbiased studies done in our modern times have shed some new light into the logistical support and mobility of Mongol forces in the 13th century AD. Intriguingly enough, it has also been established that the Mongols were actually outnumbered by their foes in most of the battles they had emerged victorious. So, the question naturally arises – why did the Europeans and other powers perceive the Mongol generals to have astronomical hordes of soldiers supporting them? Well, the answer relates to the evolved tactics of the Mongols on the battlefield. To that end, the nomads were known for their far superior mobility and enveloping strategies that allowed them to encircle their enemies from all sides – which fueled the false notion of superior-in-number forces.

Such battlefield feats were bolstered by an unparalleled scale of organizational skill, logistical sufficiency, and ingrained discipline – the very characteristics that were the trademarks of Genghis Khan’s leadership. The Great Khan also managed to go past the disparate origins of his forces and appeal to their intrinsic desire for conquests and plunders.

Such psychological and strikingly equitable standards transformed the mobile Mongol army into a veritable warmachine that was guided by a singular purpose (as opposed to deceiving and diversionary political tendencies). Furthermore, we should also note that in spite of the popular notion of ‘barbarity’ associated with the Mongols, they were quick to adapt with far higher degree of situational awareness (when compared to contemporary armies) – which was once again a projected extension of Genghis Khan’s own astuteness.

And finally, the organizational capability of the army under the Mongol Empire was highly dependent on the discipline and tactical acumen of its officers – who were mostly chosen by Genghis Khan and his generals based on merits (not lineage). Suffice it to say, these high-ranking military men had to take greater degrees of responsibility (more so than other contemporary armies) when it came to their immediate troops.

For example, by unwritten law, it was the officer who was responsible for every soldier’s kit (that even entailed needles and thread) and preparedness under his command before a battle. And with greater responsibilities came greater punishments. To that end, premature retreat orders on a battlefield often resulted in outright death sentences for the officers and commanders responsible. And since we brought up the scope of punishment, even the ordinary Mongol soldier was not exactly exempt from rigorous discipline. Desertion, stealing (especially from fellow soldiers) or even falling asleep in sentry duty often resulted in death penalties.

11) ‘Practical’ Ruthlessness –

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Source: Scout

From the very beginning of his military career, Genghis Khan, even while he was known as Temüjin, didn’t shy away from brutal measures to suppress the enemy. For example, after emerging victorious in a relatively minor campaign against the Tatars, he ordered the deaths of entire clans of Tatar nobles. In the aftermath of one particular battle, his army exterminated all those taller than the height of a cart axle (according to The Secret History), thereby alluding to how the children were left unharmed and later indoctrinated into the Mongol way of life. Similarly, he dealt quite harshly with the remnants of Toghril’s Kerait tribe by dispersing them and absorbing many of the clan members as menial servants of the burgeoning Mongol army.

Now from one perspective, these measures may seem excessive (and probably, they were). However, we should also understand the mercurial political nature of the fragmented tribes of Mongolia during the period. Loyalty was always in low supply, while rival nobles and aristocrats had a penchant for stirring up rebellions and coalitions that could not only undermine the ambitions of Genghis Khan but also pose grave danger to himself and his family (he was ‘experienced’ in such adversities from a very young age). Simply put, some of, if not all, these rigorous actions were taken as means to unite the tribes for a singular political purpose that went beyond shortsighted vengefulness and localized animosity.

Talking of ruthlessness, the pattern of terror and extermination was also extended (although not as often as popular notions suggest) to sedentary realms and cities, like Urgench, Balkh, and Nishapur. 13th century Persian scholar Juvayni mentioned (obviously in an exaggerated manner) how 50,000 Mongol soldiers were tasked with slaughtering 24 civilians each after the Khwarazmian fortress of Urgench fell to the invaders, which would have resulted in a number higher than a million. In the case of Balkh, the civilians were reportedly massacred even after they had surrendered. As for Nishapur, Genghis Khan’s own son-in-law Toghachar might have been killed by a stray arrow shot by one of the defenders. In an act of revenge, as Juvayni described –

[Then] they drove all the survivors, men and women, out on to the plain; and in order to avenge Toghachar it was commanded that the town should be laid waste in such a manner that the site could ploughed upon; and that in the exaction of vengeance not even cats and dogs should be left alive.

Once again, such punitive actions were unquestionably savage. But on an objective level, steering clear of modern-day sensitivity, there was a psychological element to this scope of cruelty. Sir John Mandeville (from 14th-century) termed it as the ‘great dread’ – the very essence of shock-and-awe, coupled with ‘reports’ of exaggerated numbers, that could shake the enemy morale to its core. On the other end of the scale, it should be noted that Genghis Khan also dabbled in propaganda measures to entice the local population, with the Mongols projecting themselves as potential liberators to the poor people.

12) Complexity of Genghis Khan’s Character –

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Official court portrait of Genghis Khan. Bridgeman Art Library via Getty Images

Tenacious and yet flexible, ruthless and yet judicious, ambitious and yet practical – this, in a nutshell, defines some aspects of Genghis Khan’s personality. Throughout his early life and even middle age, the Great Khan had to face overwhelming odds, often in the political realm. During such times, while holding true to his loyalty, the Mongol ruler had to persevere by keenly gaining his followers and prestige among the various tribes. At the same time, he was open to advise, from not only his experienced generals but also his household members, including wives and mother.

On the military side of affairs, we already discussed about the seemingly antithetical scopes of aggression and gumption. His relation to religion also takes this contrasting route, as described in Britannica Encyclopedia

He was religiously minded, carried along by his sense of a divine mission, and in moments of crisis he would reverently worship the Eternal Blue Heaven, the supreme deity of the Mongols. So much is true of his early life. The picture becomes less harmonious as he moves out of his familiar sphere and comes into contact with the strange, settled world beyond the steppe. At first he could not see beyond the immediate gains to be got from massacre and rapine and, at times, was consumed by a passion for revenge. Yet all his life he could attract the loyalties of men willing to serve him, both fellow nomads and civilized men from the settled world. His fame could even persuade the aged Daoist sage Changchun (Qiu Chuji) to journey the length of Asia to discourse upon religious matters. He was above all adaptable, a man who could learn.

Honorable Mention – 16 Million Male Descendants

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A study conducted in 2003 incredibly established how there were 16 million male descendants in our modern world who bear the genetic legacy of Genghis Khan. In fact, these men probably are the direct line descendants of the Great Khan, since they carry Y chromosomes (that can be only passed from father to son), with the Y providing the record of one’s patrilineage. Now just to give a perspective on Genghis Khan’s ‘impact’ even on our current state of affairs, close to 0.4 percent of the world’s total male population; i.e., 1 in 250 (and almost a whopping 8 percent of Mongolia’s population) have Y chromosome related to the royal line of the 13th century Mongol ruler. Given such astounding numbers, there is a quote often attributed to Genghis Khan (as mentioned in the 14th century Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani) that vaguely alludes to genetic domination in the form of patrilineage –

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

Book References: Genghis Khan & The Mongol Conquests 1190 – 1400 (By Stephen Turnbull) / The Secret History of the Mongols (Anonymous)

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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