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Volume 54, Number 1January/February 2003

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The Arts of the Mongols

"A monstrous and inhuman race of men," Mathew Paris called the Mongols in the 12th century. They "feed on raw flesh, and even on human beings," he wrote in his history, Chronica Majora." They are incomparable archers,…impious and inexorable men."

Written by Shelia S. Blair

The Mongols themselves traded on this reputation to intimidate their enemies. "Our horses are swift,...our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains.... We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations," they warned the Mamluk sultan Qutuz. And in fact, the reputation was largely deserved. Genghis Khan was as brutal as he was brilliant, uniting disparate Turko-Mongolian tribes to form the most extensive land empire known to history, stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Caucasus Mountains. In February 1258, his grandson Hülegü sacked and burned Baghdad in one of the bloodiest conquests of the age, whose aftershocks shook the entire Islamic world.

Yet these efficient and ruthless conquerors also created, in the empire they won, what historians today call the pax mongolica, a century of peace and order so complete that it was said that a young woman could walk across Asia carrying a golden tray on her head without concern for her safety. During this period, approximately 1250 to 1350, unfettered trade linked the Mediterranean and China. This was the age of Ibn Battuta, William of Rubruck and Marco Polo, the most famous globetrotters of the Middle Ages.

The Mongols adopted and adapted the religions and customs of the areas they had conquered. They became patrons of the arts and architecture, commissioning large buildings, fine manuscripts, shining ceramics and metalware, rich textiles and many other objects whose beauty stands in dramatic contrast to the destructive violence of their ascent to power.

More than 200 of the finest surviving works of Mongol art have been gathered from world collections in an exhibition called The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through February 16 and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from April 13 through July 27. The exhibition provokes broad questions: How were the nomads of the Mongolian steppe transformed into settlers in western Asia, and then into patrons of magnificent works of art? What themes distinguish the art of the Mongols in West Asia? How does their visual culture illustrate the spread of ideas and tastes across Eurasia?

All the Mongol successor states in Eurasia traced their lineage to Genghis Khan, and indeed, descent from him was the primary source of political legitimacy for centuries. Born around 1167 in northeastern Mongolia, Genghis was originally known as Temüjin ("Blacksmith"). By 1206, he overcame rival chiefs, or khans, who that year proclaimed him supreme ruler, or Great Khan. He took the name Chinghiz, meaning "oceanic" or "universal" (usually anglicized as "Genghis"), and set out on military campaigns, conquering east as far as Zhongdu (Coleridge's fabled Xanadu) and west to Caucasia and southern Russia.

Genghis's most impressive creation was the Mongol army. Organized in the typical steppe fashion based on powers of 10, it was a nearly invincible force of cavalry archers, supplemented by a siege train. But Genghis's achievements were not only military: To administer his vast territories, he also set up the nucleus of an imperial administration that incorporated administrative experience, such as the Uighurs of the Tarim Basin and the Khitans of North China. His successors went even further, maintaining a courier system to facilitate the transport of goods, the travels of envoys, the transmission of royal orders and the accumulation of intelligence. Known as the yam, it was modeled on the system established by the Khitans, including post stations set up one day's journey apart where wells were dug and grain stored, and the issuance of "passports" or tablets of authority for the use of authorized travelers. (See photograph below.)

After Genghis's death in 1227, his empire was divided among his four sons. (See "A Mongol Family Tree," opposite.) Genghis's eldest son, Jochi, received the territories farthest from the homeland: southern Russia and Khwarizm south of the Aral Sea. There, Jochi's sons Batu and Orda established kingdoms that merged in the 14th century to become the fabled "Golden Horde."

Genghis's second son, Chagatay, received Central Asia, where his descendants continued to rule for a century. Three hundred years later, one of their descendants through the maternal line, Babur, established the Mughal line of emperors that ruled India until the British conquest in 1858. (The name Mughal is a variant of mongol.)

Genghis's third and favorite son, Ögödei, was elected his father's successor, but within a generation the title of Great Khan had passed to descendants of Genghis's fourth son, Tolui. Following the Mongol practice formally known as ultimogeniture—inheritance by the youngest—Tolui had received the heartland of the empire, Mongolia itself. Tolui's sons Möngke and Qubilay succeeded their uncle Ögödei as Great Khan, and Qubilay expanded Mongol territories in China, defeating the Southern Sung in 1279 and establishing the Yüan dynasty. He transferred the capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Khanbalik, "city of the khans," site of today's Beijing.

To cement control of his western frontier, Möngke sent a third brother, Hülegü, across Asia in 1253. Hülegü moved slowly but inexorably, overcoming the Ismailis of northern Persia in 1256 and routing the Abbasid caliph from Baghdad in 1258, putting an end to the dynasty that had ruled the Islamic lands in name, if not always in fact, for some 500 years. Hülegü's military steamroller continued west into Syria, but was finally stopped by the Mamluks of Egypt at 'Ayn Jalut in Galilee. Retreating to Mesopotamia and Persia, he and his successors, under the title of ilkhan ("sub-khan"), ruled the lands of western Asia for the next century. Inheriting a rich cultural legacy, their contributions to Islamic art became some of the greatest.

Over the first few generations, the Ilkhanids, as they are known today, adapted to local traditions, like their Mongol brethren farther to the east. For example, the Ilkhanids maintained the Mongol custom of seasonal migration, moving regularly between winter quarters in the lowlands of Mesopotamia and summer pastures in the highlands of northwestern Iran. But their tent encampments were gradually replaced by more permanent structures, as their capitals at Baghdad, Tabriz, and Sultaniyya (see "Memories of Sultaniyya," page 32) became entrepôts on the web of trade routes connecting Europe and Asia.

At first, the Mongols maintained the shamanist beliefs they had held in the Mongolian steppe, but under Qubilay, the Mongols in China adopted Buddhism in a form heavily influenced by Tibetan Lamaism. The Ilkhanids in Iran and Mesopotamia also flirted with Buddhism and other religions, but a watershed change occurred on June 17, 1295 when Hülegü's great-grandson Ghazan, seventh ruler of the Ilkhanid line, officially converted to Islam and adopted the Persian title padshah-i Islam, or "Great King of Islam."

The reigns of Ghazan, his brother Öljaytü and Öljaytü's son Abu Sa'id in the 14th century mark the apogee of Ilkhanid culture, as the Ilkhanid court used art and architecture to flaunt what had become extraordinary wealth and power. Ilkhanid princes and courtiers decked the capital cities with fine buildings housing innumerable luxuries. Across different media and styles, however, a few themes underlay all the arts they commissioned.

Large size readily distinguishes the art of the Ilkhanids from that of their predecessors and contemporaries. To a greater extent than the art of other rulers in other times and places, Ilkhanid art is simply very big. For example, the congregational mosque erected by the vizier 'Ali Shah at Tabriz comprises a single huge iwan (open barrel-vaulted room) 30 meters (100') across, whose walls had to be 10 meters (33') thick to absorb the enormous thrust of the vault Öljaytü's charitable foundation in his new capital of Sultaniyya comprised six or seven separate structures, including a congregational mosque, a madrasa (Islamic school), a hospital and a hospice, along with lodgings for guests, descendants of the Prophet and reciters of the Qur'an. The complex was centered around the sultan's tomb, the biggest building on the site, with an enormous dome 25 meters (80') wide and 50 meters (160') tall. A contemporary Mamluk historian reported that 5000 stonecutters, carpenters and marble workers were employed to build it.

The 30-volume manuscripts of the Qur'an with which these rulers endowed their foundations were equally magnificent. Most were written on sheets of handmade paper 50 cm (20") high-very large for the time-and at least one copy donated to Öljaytü's complex at Sultaniyya was transcribed on even larger sheets of the full baghdadi size, more than 70 cm (24") high.

One reason that the Ilkhanids could commission such large works of art was simply financial: They had deep pockets. Ghazan had inherited a kingdom on the verge of bankruptcy due to long-term mismanagement, rapacious taxation and royal profligacy. The 1294 introduction of paper money—which the Mongols had used in China—was a fiasco that brought commerce in the bazaars of Tabriz to a sudden halt. To remedy the fiscal crisis, Ghazan, under the supervision of his vizier, Rashid al-Din, instituted reforms to control greedy officials and establish realistic taxation. His program succeeded, and he and his immediate successors reaped the rewards. Technical innovation also helped the Ilkhanids work on a grand scale. For example, the introduction of new methods of beating paper pulp, perhaps using mechanical hammer mills introduced from China, may have contributed to the manufacture of the large, fine sheets of paper used for these magnificent manuscripts.

But most importantly, size brought prestige. It connoted raw power. The Ilkhanids exploited size to display their might over that of their predecessors and rivals. 'Ali Shah's mosque at Tabriz, for example, was explicitly designed to be 10 cubits wider and taller than the giant Taq-i Kisra ("Arch of Khosraw"), the Sasanian palace whose ruins stood at Ctesiphon outside Baghdad-a graphic assertion of the Ilkhanids' superiority over the pre-Islamic Persians. Öljaytü's tomb at Sultaniyya was designed to surpass the one that the Seljuq sultan Sanjar had erected in the mid-12th century at Merv, then the largest mausoleum in the Muslim lands. Monumental tombs became one of the most visible symbols of Mongol power and authority, erected by their successors all the way down to the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his construction of the most famous tomb in the world, the Taj Mahal.

Large manuscripts too were designed for conspicuous consumption. The huge sheets of paper used in Öljaytü's copy of the Qur'an, like most large manuscripts of their type, contain only five lines of writing per page. The empty space around the text reflects and enhances the glory of the calligraphy. Such a profligate use of paper meant that 1000 sheets, each a whopping 100 x 70 centimeters (39 x 27 1/2"), almost 12 times the area of the page you are reading now, were required to transcribe the 30-volume set. The inlaid bronze candlestick that one vizier ordered for a religious site at Bastam is the largest to survive from Iran in Muslim times. (See photograph, page 26.)

Vibrant color also distinguishes the art of the Ilkhanids. Most Ilkhanid buildings, though now weathered to a monochrome dusty brown, were once covered in glistening glazed tiles, which Iranian builders had made at least since the 12th century in dark and light blue. The Ilkhanids also produced them in black, white, brownish purple and yellowish green. With the matte buff tone of unglazed tile, artists were able to employ a full seven-color palette. Tile-makers cut the individually glazed tiles into small pieces and fitted them together in elaborate floral and geometric patterns, a technique that was to become the hallmark of Persian architecture for centuries. The play of light and shade over relief patterns worked in monochrome brick that had characterized earlier Persian architecture was now superseded by the glint of sunlight on smooth and glassy multi-colored surfaces.

Interiors were even more lavishly decorated. Small rectangular, octagonal or x-shaped tiles were molded to give them surface relief and then painted with a luster glaze that shimmered like gold. Floors were fitted with brightly woven woolen carpets and walls were hung with patterned brocades. Stunning objects filled these rooms, including manuscripts enriched with glowing headings, as well as polychrome paintings and metalware inlaid to resemble pictures painted in silver and gold.

Again, there were both practical and symbolic reasons for this extensive use of color. Materials for making pigments are readily available on the Iranian plateau, especially the cobalt used for glazing and the lapis lazuli that is ground to make ultramarine. Big sheets of paper allowed more space for illustration, and painters soon replaced the strip-like boxes filled with thin washes of color, used in the earliest Ilkhanid manuscripts, with larger, squarer paintings in which opaque pigments covered the surface. The brilliant colors also satisfied Mongol taste: They were attention-grabbers.

The Mongols' favorite colors were blue and gold. Blue was traditionally considered auspicious and carried celestial connotations. Visually satisfying, it also connoted luxury, as ultramarine blue was the most expensive of all pigments. Persian potters in the Seljuq period had already developed the technique of painting in cobalt blue under a transparent glaze, and under the Mongol Yüan dynasty in China potters at the great kilns of Jingdezhen took up this idea in the first half of the 14th century. Their magnificent porcelains, underglaze-painted in blue on white, became a hallmark of Chinese art. Exported to both East and West, they were imitated in a wide area across Eurasia, from Spain to Japan, and the color combination remains popular to this day.

To the Mongols, gold was even more desirable. The early Mongols of the steppe had adored gold, using it as commodity, currency and luxury good. Ilkhanid rulers continued the tradition, drinking from gold and silver cups. Most were subsequently melted down to retrieve the precious metal when times turned tough, but a few examples belonging to the Golden Horde have been excavated along the Volga River, and others appear in contemporary scenes depicting the Mongol court. The Mongols even wrapped silk thread with gold and wove sumptuous textiles of it for ceremonial robes, and such cloth-of-gold was an important trade item. Panni tartarici, or "Tartar cloth," was prized as far away as England, and Chaucer describes it in The Canterbury Tales when mentioning an Indian king named Emetrius. Nevill Coghill's translation reads:

On a bay steed whose trappings were of steel
Covered in cloth of gold from haunch to heel
Fretted with a diaper. Like Mars to see.
His surcoat in cloth of Tartary Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.

The magnificent arts produced under Ilkhanid patronage in western Asia also illustrate how ideas traveled in the pre-industrial world, culminating in the creation of a new and integrated visual language. On the simplest level we can trace the transfer of motifs.A favorite Chinese one, the coiled dragon, often depicted with a tuft of hair at its neck, crops up in western Asia in many places, ranging from the ruined, possibly Buddhist, buildings in Viar to glazed tiles from the Ilkhanid palace at Takht-i Sulayman in northwestern Iran. The motif found its way further westward as well, emerging in Armenian manuscripts and eventually in European painting. It is possible to trace a similar path for the motifs of the phoenix with outstretched wings, the chrysanthemum and the lotus. Most motifs moved from east to west, but a few traveled the opposite way: the halo, set around the head of holy personages in European painting, also appears in Persian art at this time.

Artistic designs moved not only in space but also from one medium to another. Dense patterns of alternating animals set in roundels are typical of textiles and tiles. The idea of depicting landscape with receding planes of mountains and trees outlined with heavy contours was probably transmitted through textiles, particularly the Chinese kesi, or silk tapestries, which often depicted lush aquatic scenes or swirling dragons set in roundels. In China, paintings served as guides to make woven versions of the same scenes, which could be reproduced in quantity for maximum display and easy portability. In Iran, the process was likely reversed: The imported weavings may have been used as sources for drawings and paintings.

Many of these motifs and designs were adopted without necessarily understanding their original meaning. The dragon, for example, was an auspicious sign in Chinese mythology, but we have no evidence that it was interpreted this way in western Asia. Similarly, the halo, used to denote sanctity in the West, was clearly not used this way in western Asia, where it shows up around the heads of kings and other secular notables. This misunderstanding also seems to have occurred when works of art from western Asia, especially gold textiles, were transported to Europe. There, garments themselves were reused for different purposes and depicted in different ways. Thus, Italian painters sometimes showed the Virgin Mary wearing blue robes inscribed with gold bands of Arabic letters, whose originals contained such phrases as the Muslim profession of faith, "There is no god but God." Artistic adaptation does not always imply mutual understanding.

About the middle of the 14th century, this extraordinary period of international exchange came to an abrupt end. Abu Sa'id left no immediate heir in the Ilkhanid realm, and for two decades rival claimants to the throne jockeyed until local dynasties carved up the remains in 1353. The Chagatayids too disintegrated in the 1330's among rival claimants. More decisively, the Yüan of China were deposed in 1368 by the native Ming, who cut off contact with the outside world.

The causes of this upheaval were not only political: The free exchange of goods and ideas across the Mongol realms also brought disease, specifically rats carrying the fleas that transmitted the Black Death, as the bubonic plague became known in the West. It began during the early 14th century on the Asian steppes, where a permanent reservoir of plague infection existed among the wild rodents of the region. Riding on the coattails of international trade, the pandemic spread south and west, descending first on China and India, then moving west through Central Asia to the Crimean Peninsula on the north shore of the Black Sea. From there, merchant ships brought plague to Constantinople in 1347 and then to other ports around the Mediterranean. According to some estimates, a quarter or even a third of the population of Eurasia died, and in many places it took centuries for full demographic and economic recovery. When it finally occurred, Ottoman Turkey, Europe and-the last flowering of the Mongol legacy-Mughal India were in the ascendant. The pax mongolica was a memory, one of the most remarkably fruitful periods of intercultural exchange that grew from one of the most remarkably inauspicious of beginnings.

Sheila S. Blair, Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College, writes on all aspects of Islamic art. Her most recent book, co-authored with Jonathan Bloom, is Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (2002, Yale UP). She is working on her 10th book, a survey of Islamic calligraphy, to be published by Edinburgh University Press. She can be reached at [email protected].

Memories of Sultaniyya

Though now a mud-brick village in the middle of a grassy plain, this was the site of one of the summer capitals of the Ilkhanids. The Mongols selected the site for its cool climate, verdant pastures and abundant game. Under Öljaytü, it became a bustling entrepôt known as Sultaniyya ("royal"). The Spanish ambassador Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, who passed through the city in the early 15th century en route from the court of Henry III of Castile and Leon to the Mongol court of Tamerlane in Samarkand, described the fabulous wares on sale in its bazaars. Every summer, he wrote, caravans of camels arrived with spices from India, all the silk that was produced in Gilan, the province along the southern shores of the Caspian, and Shamakhi in Caucasia, many kinds of cloths woven of silk or cotton, and great quantities of pearls, mother-of-pearl and rubies brought by ship from Cathay [China] via the port of Hormuz on the Gulf. Merchants from the Christian lands, namely Kaffa [in the Crimea] and Trebizond [on the Black Sea], met Muslim merchants there from Turkey, Syria and Baghdad. The town was laid out with many water conduits, streets and squares where merchandise was exposed for sale. Hostels for merchants were conveniently disposed in all quarters. Genoese and Venetian merchants flocked to the city, and in 1318 the Pope even established an archdiocese there. All that survives, however, is the single gargantuan tomb of Sultan Öljaytü.

This article appeared on pages 24-33 of the January/February 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2003 images.