By Jack Wilson
A not uncommon claim on the internet is that Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, had red hair and green eyes. Often this is delivered among “shocking” facts meant to upset a person’s view of his history, or even is used as evidence in some circles that the Mongol leadership were not Mongolian in appearance, but of some sort of European background!
In terms of medieval sources, the evidence for this claim usually falls to two thirteenth-century writers; Juzjanī (d.c. 1260) and Rashid al-Dīn (d.1318), two Islamic writers who interacted with the Mongols, but never of whom ever saw Chinggis Khan directly. We will examine both of their claims below.
Juzjanī was a judge and high official writing in the Delhi Sultanate in North India in the late 1250s. Juzjanī had no love for the Mongols, and had been forced to flee Chinggis Khan’s invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire in 1219-1220. Only months before, the young Juzjanī had just gotten married, and for the rest of his life he retained a deep hatred of the Mongols, and Chinggis Khan in particular, which is apparent throughout his lengthy chronicle, the Tabaqat-i Nasiri, written in the 1250s in the court of the Delhi Sultans.
Of the appearance of Chinggis Khan, he wrote:
Trustworthy persons have related that the Chingiz Khan, at the time when he came into Khurasan, was sixty-five years old, a man of tall stature, of vigorous build, robust in body, the hair on his face scanty and turned white, with cats’ eyes, possessed of great energy, discernment, genius, and understanding, awe-striking, a butcher, just, resolute, an overthrower of enemies, intrepid, sanguinary, and cruel. The fact that there were astonishing things in several respects concerning him is sufficiently clear and apparent to all intelligent persons. In the first place, he was an adept in magic and deception, and some of the devils were his friends. (Juzjanī, Raverty translation, vol. II, pg. 1077).
The “trustworthy person,” Juzjanī names here is almost certainly a Qadi (Islamic judge) he had spoken with in the 1220s, Wahid al-Dīn Bushanji, who after being captured during a siege of Herat was brought to Chinggis Khan, and spent some time in his court before losing favour and escaping. Despite never seeing Chinggis himself, Juzjanī thus had a direct eye-witness on hand. As a result, it is among the earliest, direct descriptions of the Khan. Notice how he makes no mention of red hair (here the Khan’s hair is already white, his beard thin) but makes a strange claim of “cats’ eyes.”
This detail has been a matter of some confusion: some people believe this is a reference to eye colour, arguing that cat eyes are predominantly (variously) blue, green or yellow. This however seems a rather dramatic conjecture. It’s not altogether clear on first reading, if it’s meant as a physical detail, or a character trait, given that it is sandwiched between both.
Firstly, this is an accurate translation of the Persian, which reads gorbe-chesm, گربه چشم, literally, cat eyed. Comparing it with other passages in the Tabaqat-i Nasiri, the likely meaning becomes clearer. For instance, he refers to a tradition that spoke of the Turks, in this case the Mongols, as the “narrow-eyed” people foretold to conquer the world:
A tradition to this effect had been handed down from the ancients —May God reward them!— that, when the outbreak of the Turks should arise, and the narrow-eyed should seize upon the universe, and they should devastate the countries of ‘Ajam and kingdoms of Iran, whenever an army should reach Lahor, the dominion of that race would begin to decline, and the power of the infidels to diminish. [the following line then go onto discuss the death of Great Khan Ögedei in 1241 (Chinggis’ son and successor)and Mongol defeats and infighting after their armies reached Lahore]. (Juzjanī, Raverty translation, vol. II, pg. 1136-39).
He also compares the Turks in physiognomy to people in the mountains south of Tibet. It seems Juzjanī intends cat-eyed as a reference to the epicanthic fold of Turkic and Mongolic populations of Central and Northern Asia. This description is still used (in somewhat non-politically correct ways) in Azerbaijani and Farsi. Juzjanī is not the only medieval author to make this description of Chinggis: a 15th-century anonymous Persian work, the Kitab-Jamasp, also refers to Chinggis as cat-eyed.
So Juzjanī and other authors’ references to Chinggis Khan being cat-eyed is not an indication of eye-colour, but the epicanthic fold typical of Mongolic, Turkic and other Asian populations. This was almost certainly learned from Juzjanī’s eyewitness who had been in Chinggis’ court.
Perhaps more important is the work of Rashid al-Dīn Hamadani, the great vizier and historian of the Ilkhanate, who provides the most information on the Khan’s appearance. It is his writing—the immense Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh, a universal history written for Chinggis’ descendants in the Ilkhanate at the very start of the fourteenth century— that is most commonly cited for claims of red hair and coloured eyes. Rashid never saw Chinggis himself, and was not born until twenty years after the khan’s death. But he utilized some now-lost Mongolian documents, repeated family lore from the Chinggisids in the Ilkhanate, and also boasts of interviews with Bolod Chingsang.
Bolod Chingsang was a highly regarded Mongolian official, who had served as Great Khan Khubilai’s (r.1260-1294) ambassador to the Ilkhanate after 1285, during which time he consulted with Rashid al-Dīn several times for the creation of the Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh. Bolod had spent much time with Khubilai, and Khubilai at that time was among the last living people who had ever met with Chinggis Khan. Khubilai was about 12 years old when Chinggis died in 1227. It seems possible that Khubilai’s memories of his grandfather, passed by Bolod Chingsang, wound up into Rashid al-Dīn’s work, as we shall see shortly.
Perhaps the most well-known passage of relevance in Rashid’s work, is an episode where Chinggis meets his newly-born grandson Khubilai for the first time, and remarks that Khubilai lacked the red hair of his grandfather. However, that’s not quite what it says.
…when Chingiz-Khan’s eye fell upon him [Khubilai] he said: “All our children are of a ruddy complexion, but this child is swarthy like his maternal uncles. (Rashid al-Dīn/Boyle translation, pg. 241)
…when Genghis Khan’s gaze fell upon him [Khubilai] he said, “Our sons are all of a ruddy complexion, but this boy is swarthy, just like his maternal uncles. (Rashid al-Dīn/Thackston translation, pg. 415)
In the two main English translations by John Andrew Boyle and Wheeler Thackston, Chinggis specifies that all of his children are of a ruddy complexion, while Khubilai is swarthy like his maternal uncles. Ruddy does not mean red hair, but reddish face, while swarthy refers to darker, more tanned-looking skin.
In Rashid al-Dīn’s Persian text, he uses ashgharani اشقرانی to refer to Chinggis, and siyah-charda سیاه چرده for Khubilai. Siyah-charda is straightforward: it means black-skin. Ashgharani is a bit more complex. It comes from Arabic, where the meaning relates to blondeness. But in Persian, it has two primary meanings; a red-coloured horse, or a man of white and red features. Pale skin with red undertones. That is, ruddy. Given that the text directly references Khubilai’s dark skin, this must be the intended meaning. Certainly, Mongols and Qazaqs are prone to a certain reddishness of the face, particularly those exposed to steppe winds.
Importantly, Rashid al-Dīn makes numerous references to the Mongols having reddish faces. One general, Gürin Ba’atur was called Ubchiritai, as his face was so red he was compared to a red fruit the Mongols called ubchir. Chinggis’ nephew, Yesünggü, is described as tall and red of face; the Kereyid prince Senggüm Ilqa is specified both in Rashid al-Dīn’s work and the Secret History of the Mongols as having especially reddish cheeks, looking almost swollen. William of Rubruck met Chinggis’ grandson Batu in the 1250s and described his face covered in reddish blotches. Khubilai even grew out of his swarthiness: Marco Polo described his face as partly shining like a rose. The anonymous Kitab Jamasp from the 15th century calls Chinggis both cat-eyed and a more explicit red-skinned (surkh-rang, سرخ رنگ), while also using ashqar to refer to ‘Ali ibn Talib.
Rashid makes one connection to Chinggis Khan having some red in his hair; that the khan made an oily wax out of red ubchir fruit to style his mustache. Presumably it gave his mustache a light reddish hue to it. The only explicit mention Rashid al-Dīn makes to Chinggis’ hair colour is that, while relatively young, Chinggis’ forelock of hair turned white.
Perhaps most importantly, when we compare these two early Yuan Dynasty paintings of Chinggis Khan and his grandson Khubilai, we can see that Chinggis’ face is significantly redder than Khubilai’s (with the thin, long white beard and the Mongolian fore-lock noted in these sources too). This painting of Chinggis Khan is likely an early fourteenth-century copy of the one Khubilai had commissioned of his grandfather in 1278, and carried out first by a Mongolian painter, Qorghosun. It’s probable then, that this Yuan-era depiction of a ruddy Chinggis, and the Persian description of him as red-faced, both came from the same source; the memories of Khubilai Khan, thinking of his long-dead grandfather.
To be clear the most commonly cited source for Chinggis Khan having red hair, is not talking about him having red hair, but reddish-skin: an attribute this source, and others, regularly give the Mongols. The only times Chinggis’ hair coloured is specified, is when it turned white! Meanwhile earlier, poorer translations of Rashid’s texts (before the excellent work of Boyle and Thackston) resulted in the rendering of this passage as “red-haired” or even “blond.”
It is also said that Rashid al-Dīn wrote that Chinggis Khan had yellow or green eyes, and explains that the clan name, Borjigin, means yellow-eyed, and often gets connected to Juzjanī’s cat-eyed reference. This is only partly true. Rashid does say Borjigin means yellow-eyed, but also grey-eyed, dark-eyed, yellowish-grey eyed, or mostly grey-eyed with a yellowish colour. Rashid didn’t really know how to translate Borjigin.
Borjigin is the royal clan to which Chinggis Khan belonged, and to a specific lineage within it, the Qiyat. Borjigin indicates descent from an ancestor called Borjigidai, a name Rashid al-Dīn understood as coming from the Mongolian word boro. It’s a fairly common part of names, most famously Börte, the name of Chinggis Khan’s first wife and legendary earliest ancestor, Börte Chino. But it’s something of an infamously difficult term to translate (and even great linguists like Paul Pelliot refused to even do so) There are a dozen variations (variations of blues, greys, greens, mottled colours, even to brown) but most usually falling along the lines of blue-grey, often compared to a sort of moonlit, silvery quality, or the colour of wolf’s fur. The relative looseness in translating it perhaps led to the origins of Chinggis being blue or green-eyed, though Rashid al-Dīn, despite claims, does not make such a translation.
Regarding the Yellow colour, people often interpret this literally, but I believe Rashid himself, somewhat clumsily, tells us what he meant. This was likely referencing the ancient Yellow Man who impregnated Chinggis Khan’s ancestor, Alan Qo’a. In a legend reported across Mongolian imperial sources (from the Secret History of the Mongols and beyond) a ray of light from heaven, taking the form of a Yellow Man, impregnates the widow Alan Qo’a, thus giving a heavenly, immaculate conception to Chinggis Khan’s lineage. The medieval sources always present this literally as a ray of light; heaven itself has fostered the family of Chinggis Khan, thus symbolizing their divine right to rule the world. In Turkic and Mongolian imperial tradition, yellow and gold are auspicious colours representing imperial power; it’s not a coincidence that descent from Chinggis Khan was known as the altan urag, the Golden Lineage.
As Rashid himself wrote, these specific, grey eyes he assigned to the Borjigin (in one passage) indicated descent from the Yellow Man.
Borjiqin means having gray eyes, and as it happens the sons who were born to Yesügäi Bahadur and to his sons and offspring down to the present mostly have gray eyes and are of a yellowish color. This is attributed to the fact that when Alan Qo’a was pregnant she said, “A light like a person comes before my eyes at night and then goes away. It is of a yellow color in form and has gray eyes.” When this trait re-emerged in the eighth generation, which was Yesügäi Bahadur [Chinggis Khan’s father], they said it was the sign Alan Qo’a had spoken of, that her sons would be rulers, and it indicated the truth of her words and that it was imminent. (Rashid al-Dīn/Thackston, pg. 128).
Basically, that ‘Heaven’s will’ was visible in the eyes of the Chinggisids to symbolize their divine mandate, that they were therefore “sons of Heaven,” as Alan Qo’a directly states in the Secret History of the Mongols. Additionally in the Secret History, one of the common poetic descriptors of young Chinggis was having “fire in his eyes, light in his face.” It’s an indication of his heavenly character to say it was visible upon him in such a manner, rather than a physical description. In Rashid’s case, this was likely also a bit of flattery for his Mongol masters: indicating that just by looking at them, you could tell Tenggeri’s will manifested in the family of Chinggis Khan.
Furthermore, no primary source I found ever gives the Chinggisids light coloured-eyes. Marco Polo mentions the black eyes of Khubilai; the Secret History of the Mongols refers in different passages to black-eyed Mongols and the black eyes of Chinggis Khan. Mistranslations of Borjigin, alongside a misportrayal of Juzjanī’s “cat-eyed,” is the origins of faulty claims of yellow, blue or green eyes. And this is not even the only way to translate Borjigin either: Turkic Bört Tigin (“wolf prince”) or Mongolian borjin (“wild duck”) are popular, though far from the only, alternative explanations. Part of Rashid’s difficulty in translating and applying it could have just been because he translated it wrong.
These are but a few of the examples of myths around Chinggis Khan’s appearance. To learn more about what other thirteenth-century sources say (or don’t say) about Chinggis Khan, you can see my video on this matter.
Jack Wilson completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth-century Golden Horde. He returned to CEU in Fall 2022 for his PhD, focusing on the Golden Horde in the late thirteenth century. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.
Top Image: The “fire-y red-headed Chinggis Khan.” Art by Jack Wilson