Sure, he was a ruthless warlord who decimated armies and wiped out entire civilizations. But it turns out Genghis Khan (real name: Temujin) was anything but barbaric when it came to ruling. His cultural and political policies helped unify a previously disjointed collection of tribes and fiefdoms, creating a Mongol Empire that ruled a vast swath of Asia and Europe for more than a century. Here are a few of Genghis’s practices that were most definitely ahead of their time.
1. HE ESTABLISHED FREEDOM OF RELIGION.
The great Khan, who was born a Tengrist, passed laws allowing subjects freedom of religion, and even gave tax exemptions to places of worship. This was a strategic move, since Genghis Khan knew subjects would be less likely to rebel. It was also practical, as the Mongol people observed so many different religions that unifying them under a single one would have been impossible. Tolerance aside, Genghis did establish one religious decree: That his was the word of God.
2. HE BANNED TORTURE.
In contrast to many civilized armies at the time, the Mongols did not maim or torture their prisoners. Instead, Genghis Khan believed the surest way to inspire terror was through speed and efficiency in battle. Many of the stories about building pyramids out of enemy skulls and boiling people alive, scholars believe, are fear-inspired myths.
3. HE INCORPORATED ENEMIES INTO HIS ARMY.
Rather than execute rival soldiers, Genghis Khan often absorbed them into his army. In 1201, when he was nearly killed in battle after his horse was shot out from under him, Genghis asked enemy prisoners who had fired the arrow. A man bravely stepped forward to take the blame, and said he would accept punishment of death or swear undying loyalty if spared. Genghis immediately made him an officer in his army. “Jebe,” or “arrow,” as Khan called him, would go on to become one of the great Mongol field commanders.
4. HE LEFT CONQUERED CITIES ALONE.
After capturing a city, Genghis Khan would leave behind a few officials to oversee municipal matters and essentially let people carry on with their lives (provided they were loyal to the Great Empire, of course). Most citizens knew better than to revolt against their minders, but a few did and ended up facing the wrath of the full army all over again. Nishapur, located in what’s today northeast Iran, tried its luck in 1221 and saw every last citizen killed.
5. HE PROMOTED PEOPLE BASED ON INDIVIDUAL MERIT.
The feudal system that existed throughout Asia before Genghis Khan’s time primarily rewarded aristocratic privilege and birth. Despite being the son of a chief, Genghis despised this system, and as he swept across the continent he implemented a new one that rewarded loyalty and individual achievement on the battlefield.
6. HE OUTLAWED SLAVERY.
Genghis Khan understood the bitterness and economic strain that slavery created. He’d also been a slave himself during his teenage years, when he and his wife Börte were captured by a rival clan. So when Genghis Khan began unifying the Mongol tribes, he outlawed the taking of Mongols as servants or slaves.
7. HE ESTABLISHED UNIVERSAL LAW.
Adopted from Mongol common law, Genghis Khan’s system of law, known as the Yassa, prohibited theft, adultery, blood feuds, and bearing false witness. Some versions also incorporated the Mongol’s respect for the environment by outlawing bathing in rivers or streams and requiring soldiers to pick up anything that had been dropped on the ground.
8. AND A UNIVERSAL WRITING SYSTEM.
To enforce his law, Genghis ordered the creation of a writing system based on the Uyghur alphabet. It wasn’t the first writing system in Asia, but it was the first one to be widely adopted and taught to the people.
9. HE ESTABLISHED FREE TRADE ALONG THE SILK ROAD.
Genghis Khan believed in the unifying power of foreign trade as well as using it to gain valuable knowledge (many of his spies posed as merchants). As he swept across Asia, Genghis turned the towns and cities he conquered into waypoints for trade. In time, his conquests into Europe established key trade routes between East and West.
10. HE CREATED ONE OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL POSTAL SYSTEMS.
Knowledge was power in Genghis Khan’s empire, and that’s why one of his first orders as ruler was the creation of a Pony Express-like courier system known as the Yam. Riders carried messages across a network of huts, and could cover as much as 200 miles a day by constantly changing mounts. In addition to delivering messages, riders also acted as scouts who could monitor enemy forces and keep tabs on assimilated towns and cities.
11. HE REDISTRIBUTED THE WEALTH HE GAINED.
Genghis Khan is frequently listed as one of the richest people in history—but only in terms of the land he conquered. Rather than hoard the money and goods he gained through conquering, Genghis gave it to his soldiers and commanders (who were otherwise prohibited from looting without permission), injecting it back into the economy.