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The Secret History of the Mongols

The Secret History of the Mongols is a chronicle written in the 13th century CE (with some later additions) and is the most important and oldest medieval Mongolian text. The book covers the origins of the Mongol people, the rise to power and reign of Genghis Khan  (r. 1206-1227 CE) and the reign of his son and successor Ogedei Khan (r. 1229-1241 CE). Written from a Mongolian perspective, unlike most other medieval sources on the Mongol Empire, the work is an invaluable record of their legends, oral and written histories and, with its treatment of Genghis Khan and his imperial orders, it gives a unique insight into one of the most important leaders in world history. The title includes the word ‘secret’ because either only members of the imperial family and those given special favour or only Mongols were permitted to read it, even if other versions were in circulation in some remote places like Tibet.

The author of the Secret History is not known but judging by the scope of the work’s content it was clearly written by someone who had access to the inner workings of the Mongol imperial court. One name put forward as a likely candidate is Sigi-quduqu, an adopted son of Genghis Khan. Another possibility is the senior minister Onggud Cingqai, and a third is Tatatonga, the seal-keeper of Genghis Khan. Some scholars have even suggested that the two khans who are the subject of the work had a part in its writing.

The longer version of the Secret History has 12 chapters, 282 paragraphs, and is divided into four parts. Part one concerns Mongol legends and, more a poetic saga contains no dates. Part two is more historical, even if it contains what claim to be direct speeches from the characters involved, and covers the ancestors, rise, and reign of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368 CE). Each year is covered in sequence and particular attention is given to how Genghis subdued and made alliances with the many different tribes of the Asian steppe. Part three consists of additional documents relating to the previous part, notably jarliq or imperial orders. Part four deals with the reign of Genghis’s son and successor Ogedei Khan up to c. 1240 CE, just before his death in 1241 CE. This final part is written in the same style as part two which suggests it was written by the same person. The shorter version of The Secret History, although seemingly a purer version than the longer Chinese text, is missing some odd paragraphs and the whole of part four. Some scholars have taken this as evidence that the original Secret History ended with the death of Genghis Khan and part four is a later addition, even if added by the original author.

The value of the Secret History as a source of history is debated amongst scholars, particularly the earlier parts which have no corroborating external source; such is the problem with ancient texts that are unique. However, it would be unwise to dismiss the Secret History as pure fiction when it deals with subjects for which we have no other information. In addition, the text does contain several negative aspects of Genghis Khan - that he killed his half-brother, for example, and this would seem to at least partially answer any criticism that the Secret History may be a wholly biased portrayal of Mongol superiority, even if it is a very favourable one.

When the text moves on to 12th-century CE affairs it is shown to be, if not in every detail, at least generally reliable by comparing it with Chinese and Persian sources. Finally, as a Mongolian source, the chronicle gives a unique insight into how the Mongols themselves viewed their empire and their own history. The work’s preoccupation with Mongol tribal affairs and the importance of conquering China compared to their equally successful campaigns in Western Asia and Eastern Europe are surprisingly different from the coverage of Mongol history in other contemporary sources and, one might also say, in modern textbooks. In Mongolia, the Secret History is today considered one of the most important pieces of the nation’s literature and is both studied and memorised in schools.

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