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The Mongols had a new Khan, Genghis Khan (also Cinggis Khan), born in 1167 by the more simple name of Temügin.

By 1206, he had defeated all his rivals and when they all attended upon him to pay homage, he had a surprise for them.

Illiterate himself, he wanted a consolidated Mongolian state and he knew that this meant law.

So he asked his advisor Tatatungo to come up with the Yasak, a code of law to maintain the peace and order amongst his citizens.

Also known as the Great Law of Genghis Khan, no copy of the Yasak has survived. Indeed, it was only reluctantly that Genghis Khan even tolerated a basic form of script language, and only to allow for a basic administration of his Mongolian dominions.

The Yasak was unique in that it did not pretend to derive its authority from divine revelation, as has Hammurabi’s Code, as well as Jewish and Islamic law.

Another innovation: Genghis did not exempt himself from the Yasak.

Some provisions of the Yasak:

  • The kidnapping of wives was prohibited (Genghis had lost his own wife Borte this way) as was the selling of women into marriage;
  • Raising a steel weapon towards another caused the aggressor to have his hand cut off, whether he strikes or not;
  • A petty thief was punished by blows by a rod: ten for each item stolen;
  • Animal rustling was punished by death and in order to ensure a food supply during the cold Mongolian winter, hunting was prohibited from March to October. Horse or ox thieves were branded or cut in two with a sword, unless they could afford restitution;
  • Adultery was outlawed but in Mongol style: it was still acceptable for a woman to have sexual relations with her husband’s close relatives or for a man to have sexual relations with a slave woman;
  • Marriages between dead children was common, complete with marriage feast and dowry. Images of the dead would be paraded on horseback;Genghis Khan
  • The slavery of fellow Mongols was forbidden;
  • All religions were to be treated with respect making it one of the first known legal codes to provide for religious freedom;
  • Those providing essential services were exempt from taxation including religious leaders, doctors and undertakers, lawyers, teachers and scholars;
  • No-one was allowed to bath in a running stream and cattle were prohibited from drinking from a well;
  • Any Mongol chief discovered in communication with a foreign diplomat was to be executed;
  • Genghis Khan was to go by the simple name of Khan and upon his death and the death of future khans, the Mongols chiefs were obliged to meet and decide upon a successor from amongst his descendants. Claiming to be khan without such an election was punishable by death;
  • The property of a person dying without heirs did not revert to the Khan - it went to whoever had looked after the deceased;
  • Members of his armies had to be at least 20 years old;
  • Any soldier that abandoned his military duties was to be executed;
  • No one was convicted of a crime unless they were caught in flagrant delit or had confessed; and
  • A special elite guard unit was appointed to act as his personal bodyguard and to assist in the enforcement of the law and of any judgments handed down under the Yasak.

To administer the Yasak, to be supreme judge, Genghis Khan chose a relatively disinterested party, a foreigner, a captured Tatar called Shigi-Kutuku to whom he charged: "punish the thieves and put right the lies".

The Yasak substantially changed Mongolia, which to that point had survived by constant war and bickering between its rival gangs.Before the Yasak, women and children were routinely killed and indeed Genghis Khan himself, on his march to his unified rule of Mongolia, has wiped out many rival tribes - soldiers and families. He was known to measure all prisoners against the height of a wagon wheel and all those above were beheaded. The rest, he reasoned, were young enough to become loyal to him.

In his biography of Genghis Khan, Brent writes that as a result of the Yasak:

"Petty wars and the sudden, ferocious raids of neighbors disappeared. Banditry almost vanished. The ordinary tribesman, travelling across those endless pastures with his tent, his wagon, his family and his flocks, a new peace now brought him comfort."

In August of 1227, as Genghis lay dying, he urged his family to obey Yasak which, by then, he had ordered to be carved onto iron tablets. He warned: "If they depart from my Yasak, the realm will rock and crumble."

The Yasak traveled with the Mongolians as Genghis and his successors ravaged East and West bringing with it, and spreading the Yasak.

But within 150 years, the Mongolian empire had crumbled. Save perhaps to the North in what is now Russia, and to the South in China, few of the former conquests to the West retained any of the Yasak, so foreign was its content to their religious and monarchial style of law.

The Yasak itself collected dust. Neither the iron tablets nor any other copy has ever been found.

REFERENCES:

  • Bergreen, L., Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (New York: Knopf-Doubleday Publisher, 2007)
  • Brent, Peter, Genghis Khan (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976), page 45
  • Cleaves, F. W., The Secret History of the Mongols (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982). English translation; see altaica.ru/SECRET/cleaves_shI.pdf
  • Prawdon, M., The Mongol Empire (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2005).
  • Weatherford, J., Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004).

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