There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and all roads led to Rome, but there has never been a larger contiguous land empire than that of the Mongols. Established in 1206 by Genghis Khan — who was born Temujin and whose name, also transliterated as Chinggis, means “universal ruler” — the empire eventually reached a size of at least 9 million square miles. To call this unlikely would be an understatement. Temujin rose to power from a tumultuous childhood, and the Mongols were a nomadic people whose territorial expansion came about largely due to brutal military tactics and fierce pragmatism.
At its peak, the empire included all of modern-day China and Mongolia in addition to parts of Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Korea, among others. (This map offers a sense of its vastness.) For all of Genghis’ savvy, however, his descendants proved a fractious bunch who fought among themselves and oversaw his empire’s decline; with the exception of his grandson Kublai Khan, few others in the dynasty are recalled fondly. Even so, Genghis’ massive effect on the world might best be summarized by two staggering statistics: He was responsible for the deaths of as much as 11% of the world’s population at the time, and 1 in every 200 men living today are his direct descendants.