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The Treasures of Genghis Khan

By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

By the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had begun the creation of what was to become the largest empire the world has ever known. Under the rule of his four sons and their descendants, the borders of the empire would continue to grow until Mongol rule stretched east to Korea and west to Hungary, uniting for the first and only time the entire continent of Asia. The Mongols amassed a reputation as fierce, uncompromising warriors: rulers who would not submit were killed, cities that dared to fight back were decimated. According to one witness, “They came, they sacked, they burnt, they slew, they plundered, and they departed.”

But the Mongols were not mere barbarians bent on bloodletting. If the inhabitants of a town paid a tribute, their lives would be spared; by the time the Mongols reached southwestern Iran, most towns and cities surrendered or negotiated. “The Mongols were not solely about murder and destruction,” says Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Under Genghis Khan’s rule, trade flourished and art underwent a profound change, especially in the area of western Asia. “It really is his legacy,” says Komaroff. “It’s what he helped to bring about. Not in terms of the destructive side but in terms of the creativity that comes after.”

“The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353,” an exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reveals the artistic and cultural changes that took place as a result of Mongol rule. The exhibition covers the area where Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulegu, established the Ilkhanid dynasty. The Ilkhanids eventually conquered western Afghanistan, Iran, southern Russia, eastern Turkey, and Iraq.

Opening in New York on November 5 and in Los Angeles in April, the exhibition brings together 210 pieces from this period, including ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, stone, wood, textiles, palace tile work, and illustrated manuscripts commissioned by the Mongols. It examines for the first time the immense artistic achievements that resulted from the invasions of eastern and western Asia.

Part of the impetus for artistic change came from the opening of trade routes on a newly united continent. “It’s true that the Silk Road has always been a main artery through Asia, but especially during the Mongol period, it was an absolutely open road,” says Stefano Carboni, associate curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “That’s why exchanges were particularly intense.”

These exchanges do predate Mongol rule, says Komaroff, but were not as widespread. “There’s Chinese ceramics, for instance, crossing over into western Asia. There are still silk goods, there’s glass from the Islamic world being passed into China. There are some very nice examples of early Islamic glass in Chinese collections. So trade was taking place, but not on as widespread a scale as during the Mongol period.”

A pastoral, nomadic people living on the steppes, the Mongols were used to trading for things they could not make themselves. “They would spare the lives of artisans,” says Komaroff. “They were very different from, say, the Chinese, who didn’t highly regard craftsmen and artists. They did. Nomads live quite differently. They produced whatever they had to and the rest they would get through trade. To some extent, they were very impressed by those who could produce things like textiles or other crafts or works of art because that was outside of their own tradition. So they spared artists and they moved them closer to their own center of power.”

Portable art, such as decorated saddles, weapons, jewelry, clothing, and textiles were highly prized by the Mongols. Artisans such as Islamic textile workers were especially valued for their “cloths of gold,” or gold on silk, which the Mongols used for ceremonial clothing and elaborate tents. “We certainly know that textile workers were taken from the Islamic lands to China to set up textile factories, because the Mongols loved textiles,” says Sheila Blair, professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College. “And you can see why if you’re a nomad, they’re advantageous. Muslim weavers were extremely skillful and knew how to weave cloths of gold. They actually wove with gold thread.” Some of these cloths were used in burials in the West or were preserved in church treasuries. Mongol textiles reached so far west, Blair says, that they were used for the burial of an Italian bishop and even received mention in the writings of Chaucer.

Ala’ al-Din ’Ata Malik Juvaini, a thirteenth century Persian historian, describes one such tent made for Hulegu in The History of the World Conqueror. “In obedience to the Emperor’s command the master craftsmen had been called together and consulted, and in the end it had been decided that the tent should be made of a single sheet of cloth with two surfaces. And in executing the weaving and dyeing of it they had surpassed the art of the craftsmen of San‘a [in Yemen]: the back and front were uniform and the inside and outside in the exact correspondence of the colours and designs complemented one another like the simple hearted. . . .That gilded cupola and heaven-like tent, the disc of the sun, lost its brightness out of jealousy of the truck of this tent, and the resplendent full moon wore a sulky expression because of its roundness.”

The forced displacement of some artists and perhaps the voluntary movement of others created a new visual language as the artists themselves were changed. “Artists were being exposed to new forms of art. And then you have their patrons who were saying, ‘We want something really impressive.’ So it was forcing the formulation of a new kind of art,” says Komaroff.

Tile work found at Takht-i-Sulaiman in Iran, the only excavated palace of the Mongol period, shows the influence of Chinese art. Its motifs depict soaring phoenixes and coiled dragons chasing pearls. “We have new motifs that come in, like chrysanthemums and peonies, and get introduced into the artistic vocabulary,” says Blair. “We have new kinds of scroll patterns that not only come to Iranian art, but are then introduced further west.” Other tiles from Takht-i-Sulaiman are decorated with verses and imagery from the Shahnama, or the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic.

The transmission of artistic language moved eastward as well. “This is the time that blue and white porcelain arrives in China,” says Blair. “Underglazed painting was something that was developed in the Islamic world and went to China, and the Chinese developed it in blue and white. It became a hallmark of Chinese pottery. And then that blue and white pottery gets exported from China back to Iran. It’s this wonderful ping-pong effect.”

Aside from the importance of trade in Mongolian culture, another reason for the relatively free movement of ideas came from the Mongols’ acceptance of differing religions. The Mongols were originally shamanists, who believed that shamans or animal spirits could mediate between nature and humanity. Once entrenched in the sophisticated, sedentary civilizations of China and Iran with their complicated bureaucracies, they found it easier to adapt to local religions. In China, the Mongols eventually embraced Buddhism; in Iran, they became Muslim.

“It’s not that they stop being Mongols,” says Komaroff. “It’s that they’ve also become part of Iran. And a lot of what they do with art and the patronage of art in Iran has to do with making themselves accepted, legitimizing themselves.” One way of doing this was by sponsoring the construction of mosques and other religious structures. Illustrated manuscripts of the period also reveal a striving for authentication.

“They were ruling over very different and very foreign countries since they started from the Mongol steppe land,” says Carboni. “Particularly in Iran, they found a tradition both historical and artistic that was very old. So they wanted to try and justify their dynastic rule over this land as foreigners by trying to show how they knew about history. As they created a pax mongolica that allowed exchanges along the entire continent of Asia, they also wanted to create a universal history that would show how their place in history was justified.”

To this end, the Ilkhan Ghazan commissioned Rashid al-Din, a Persian vizier, to write a history of the Mongols. Continuing under the reign of Oljeitu who ruled after Ghazan’s death, The Compendium of Chronicles by al-Din grew to include a history of the Chinese emperors, a history of India, a history of the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran, a history of the early Muslims, a history of the Jews, and a history of the Franks or Christians. It was the first universal history ever written.

“It’s only after they settle down that they realize the power of the written word and the power of image within the manuscripts,” says Carboni.

In the illustrations included in the histories, all rulers are painted to look like Mongols. “That’s where the propagandistic part comes in,” says Komaroff. “Visually so, because in the illustrations all of the leaders of the past are recast as Mongols. They look like Mongols, they dress as Mongols. So it’s a not very subtle way of placing themselves at the center of world history. You have an image of Noah, but he looks like a Mongol. Or you have the pre-Islamic kings of Iran but they look like Mongols. Or you have the Chinese emperors, but their faces are Mongol facial types. What it did was to put the Mongols right on the center stage of world history. Up until the time of Genghis Khan, they had been a blip on the radar screen. And now they’re giving this illustrious history of themselves, plus they are plugged into the rest of world history as it was then understood.”

“They made Caesar and Alexander the Great into figures of their own past,” says Blair. “They would have scenes of Alexander conquering the Indians, and really it’s all Mongol soldiers dressed up in the paintings. So, clearly, they were imagining themselves as successors to Alexander.”

The manuscripts were fashioned from expensive materials and contained hundreds of pages. Gold and lapis blue were used not only in the paintings, but in the writing of the texts as well. According to Komaroff, some of the text was written in gold ink outlined in black, making the books extremely rich and heavy.

In Rashid al-Din’s conception, The Compendium of Chronicles was intended to be copied in both Persian and Arabic twice a year and distributed throughout the territory. This required the efforts of numerous artists and craftsmen. “They called the best architects and the best artists to work in their royal ateliers,” says Carboni.

“What this does is it opens up the possibilities of using the arts of the book to legitimize their rulers,” says Komaroff. “They give a reason for patronizing the arts of the book. And so this continues not only in Iran, but in adjacent Islamic lands for several hundred years. Often times great art comes out of a political purpose.”

One result of this demand for illustrated manuscripts was the influence of Christian imagery in Islamic art. At the time, there were few models in Iran for the types of paintings that Mongol patrons demanded. “When they came to create some of the scenes, they didn’t have any examples to follow, so they looked to Christian manuscripts, says Blair. When one patron requested an illustration of the scene of Mohammed’s birth, for example, the artist consulted a Christian nativity scene. “They turned the three Magi into three ladies on one side. He [Joseph] gets turned into the prophet’s uncle,” Blair says.

Artists also looked to Chinese paintings as a source of inspiration, incorporating them in a new style of book illustration. “It’s a different kind of language. Especially in the use of colors, the use of backgrounds,” says Komaroff. “Scrolls were probably the basis of what the painters in Iran were looking at--for example, figures are broken by the frame as if it were the section of a scroll.”

Another illustrated manuscript in the exhibition is the Book of Kings, an epic poem of nearly sixty thousand verses that recount the tales of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran. It survives in fifty-seven paintings, though there may have been as many as two hundred at one time. “It goes from the mythical origins of Iranian kingship up to the last ruler before the advent of Islam,” says Komaroff. “It’s very important for what will come after, because although these are the pre Islamic rulers of Iran, in this manuscript or in the paintings that survive, they all look like Mongols. The Mongols are tying themselves into the ancient traditions of kingship in Iran.”

Perhaps the campaign for self-legitimization worked too well. Mongol rule in Iran survived only a hundred years before being weakened by succession struggles and assimilation. Many of the Ilkhanid rulers married women from the local elite; successive generations tended to identify more with the Muslim majority. The dynasty finally ended when the last ruler died without leaving an
heir. Although Abu Sa‘id had many children by his numerous wives, none were male.

The rich cultural exchange that took place during Mongol reign was made possible by the openness of the roads across Asia and the demand for new art from Mongol patrons. In some cases, art was created by displaced artists for patrons who were displaced as well. “We don’t always look at displacement as being an impetus for creativity,” says Komaroff. “And it very often is. Just as when we look at The Compendium of Chronicles, which the Mongols initially sponsored to remind them of where they came from. This exhibition presents a different way of looking at creativity or cultural contributions--apart from informing people about a remarkable period in the history of world art.”

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has received $250,000 in NEH support for the exhibition “The Legacy of Genghis Khan.”