Stories Of Our Family: Genghis Khan?

Genghis Khan’s Blue Eyes


Karl Earlson

GENGHIS KHAN The Mongol leader Temujin (AD 1167-1227), better known by his title Genghis Khan (Universal Ruler), was a man of strongly Nordish racial ancestry. According to the Persian historian Ab ul Ghasi, the tribal clan to which Temujin belonged, were known as the Bourchikoun (Grey-Eyed Men). [Günther (1934) 185; Lamb (1928) 22.] The ancestral mother and founder of this clan was known as Alan goa (beautiful Alan). According to the Mongol and Chinese legends on the subject, she was said to have been visited in her tent by a divine being, who possessed golden hair, a fair complexion and grey eyes. Shortly after this visitation, she gave birth to the first member of the Bourchikoun clan. [Günther (1934) 184.

Temujin himself was noted in Chinese descriptions of him, for his tall stature and heavy beard. [Günther (1934) 185.] We should also note the following depiction of Temujin’s appearance, as given by Harold Lamb, in his biography of the great Khan:

    “He must have been tall, with high shoulders, his skin a whitish tan. His eyes, set far apart under a sloping forehead, did not slant. And his eyes were green, or blue-grey in the iris, with black pupils. Long reddish-brown hair fell in braids to his back.” [Lamb (1928) 23.]

 Ab ul Ghasi also observed that the family of Yesugai, the father of Temujin, were known for the fact that their children often had fair complexions, and blue or grey eyes. [Günther (1934) 185.] Temujin’s wife, Bourtai, bore a name which means “Grey-Eyed”. [Lamb (1928) 23.] As both Günther (1934) and Lamb (1928) note, Temujin’s relatives and descendants also possessed fair features: Temujin’s son and successor Ogadei (1229-41), had gray eyes and red hair; Temujin’s grandson Mangu (1251-9), had reddish eyebrows and a red-brown beard; Subatei, who conquered China, had a long, reddish beard. Indeed, it was said that people were surprised Kubilai Khan had dark hair and eyes, because most of Genghis Khan’s descendants had reddish hair and blue eyes. [Günther (1934) 185.]

TAMERLANE Another of Genghis Khan’s descendants, the great conqueror Tamerlane (1336-1405), also inherited Nordish racial characteristics. According to a contemporary, Ibn Arabshah, Tamerlane was tall and strong, with broad shoulders, a large head and high forehead, he had a heavy beard, was white-skinned and had a ruddy complexion. He also seems to have been fair-haired. [Günther (1934) 187; Lamb (1929) 153.]

This description has been confirmed in recent times. In 1941, the Soviet Archaeological Commission opened the tomb of Tamerlane, which resides in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Within it, Tamerlane’s physical remains were discovered: they proved that he had indeed been a man of strong build and imposing stature. Most interestingly of all however, the last few hairs of a reddish-brown moustache were found adhering to the skull. [Brent (1976) 237-8.]

* * *

Do portraits prove that Genghis Khan was predominantly Mongoloid? There are various images which depict Genghis Khan with the distinctively Mongolian epicanthic eyefold. However, it should first be noted that all such images were executed many years after the Khan’s death, by artists who never actually laid eyes upon him. The portrait below, taken from the Imperial Palace Museum, Beijing, is just one example. [Paludan (1998) 152.] Many others exist, painted by unknown artists, at an indefinite period of time. The provenance and value of such works for racial classification, is therefore rather feeble. Put simply, the accuracy of these images cannot be vouched for.

[Paludan (1998) 152]

Equally, we cannot rely with great certainty on the judgement of the portraitists. As Day correctly comments, there is always the ethnic bias of the artist to contend with, since “artists perhaps tend to give their subjects something of their own physical traits”. [Day (2001) 360.] A vivid illustration of this fact can be found in the portrait below, of the nineteenth-century American seaman, Commodore Perry. This contemporary picture, by a Japanese artist, depicts Perry as strongly Mongoloid in type, with a definite epicanthus. Perry, of course, was entirely Caucasian, yet the artistic conventions of the Japanese make him appear otherwise. Thus, we must be extremely cautious when accepting such “portraits”, quite literally, at their “face value”.

[Smith (1979) 231]

Were the ancient inhabitants of East Asia entirely Mongoloid? Craniological evidence reveals that during the second millennium BC, Caucasians were predominant throughout much of Central Asia, and they maintained hegemony over several areas in the region. Thus, as Day notes: “Caucasoids not only outnumber[ed] Mongoloids in Xinjiang; they also predate[d] them.” [Day (2001) 192.] Even into later eras, a Caucasian minority, strongly “Northern European” in physical type, was retained. [Day (2001) 138.] The Buddhist murals at Bezeklik (see below), in the eastern part of the Tarim Basin, near the Mongolian border, bear witness to the fact that just over a thousand years ago, rugged Caucasoids, with reddish-brown hair and blue eyes, could still be found in abundance. [Day (2001) 138-9.] Eickstedt argued that these murals depict individuals of Nordic and “Proto-Nordic” (protonordoidem) type. [Eickstedt (1934) 276.] At this point, it would be germane to remember the fact that it was precisely these features (reddish hair and blue eyes) that were found as an ancestral inheritance among the family of Genghis Khan.

[Day (2001) ii] [Barber (1999) xxix]

Do the experts agree that Genghis Khan was red-haired and blue-eyed? The German physical anthropologist Egon von Eickstedt, who was an expert on the racial types of Asia, stated clearly that the ruling classes of the Far East, most particularly those among the Mongols, included Nordic racial elements. He affirmed that Genghis Khan’s family was characterised by its blue eyes and reddish hair, and that although Kubilai Khan (1259-94) had a ruddy-fair complexion, he had hair and eyes that were unusually dark for Temujin’s clan. Eickstedt even noted that Temujin’s grandson Batu (†1256), the first Khan of the Golden Horde, was freckled! Therefore, there is nothing at all extreme or unusual in attributing Nordish physical features to Genghis Khan: on the contrary, it is an historical fact, well-attested to by the major authorities in this field of expertise. To conclude, here is the original quotation from Eickstedt on the subject, with my emphasis added throughout:


    “Aber auch noch später machte sich die protonordische Komponente in China bemerkbar, denn sie wurde selbstverständlich auch von den im Mittelalter China erobernden Barbaren der westlichen Steppen noch mitgeführt. Das hat offenbar sogar besonders für deren Oberschichten gegolten. Ein Beispiel dafür ist der berühmte Kaiser Kublai Khan, der Gönner Marco Polos, von dem eine rötlich-weiße Komplexion ausdrücklich berichtet wird. Aber trotzdem war Dschingis-Khan, der Eroberer Asiens, nicht etwa d a r ü b e r erstaunt, sondern im Gegenteil über die relative Bräune des Kaisers, da ja „die meisten Mitglieder seiner Familie sonst blaue Augen und rötliche Haare hatten!“ Dabei war Dschingis-Khan, der „Kaiser der Welt“ — und er war es beinahe wirklich, der einzige, der je diesen Titel mit einem gewissen Recht trug —, selbst rassisch höchst interessant. Denn er entstammte dem Geschlecht der Buschikun oder Grauäugigen, einem unter allen Stämmen Zentralasiens weitverbreiteten Herrscherclan, und wird geschildert als hochgewachsen, mit weißlicher, schimmernder Haut, mit grünen oder grauen Augen, die nicht geschlitzt waren, und mit langem, rötlichbraunem Haar, das ihm in Zöpfen über den Rücken fiel. Seine vom Vater gewaltsam geraubte Mutter Yühlun war sibirischer (sibirider?) Herkunft. Man kann nur schließen, daß in den Adern dieses größten Abenteurers und Machtmenschen aller Zeiten auch Blut aus nordischer Quelle floß. Seine Erst- und Lieblingsfrau war Burtai, die „Grauäugige“. Weiterhin wird der bekannte Prinz Batu auch als sommersprossig geschildert.” [Eickstedt (1934) 274-5.]


BIBLIOGRAPHY Barber, E. W. (1999) The Mummies of Ürümchi (London: Macmillan).

Brent, P. (1976) The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Triumph and His Legacy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Day, J. V. (2001) Indo-European Origins: The Anthropological Evidence (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man).

Eickstedt, E. von (1934) Rassenkunde und Rassengeschichte der Menschheit (Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke Verlag).

Günther, H. F. K. (1934) Die nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens (Munich: J. F. Lehmanns Verlag).

Lamb, H. (1928) Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men (London: Thornton Butterworth).

Lamb, H. (1929) Tamerlane: The Earth Shaker (London: Thornton Butterworth).

Paludan, A. (1998) Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors (London: Thames & Hudson).

Smith, B. (1979) Japan: A History in Art (Tokyo: Toppan Printing Company).


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