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The Persianisation of the Mongols

I had Mongols on my mind; hordes of them. Three-quarters of a millennium earlier, thirteenth-century Persia had witnessed two terrible waves of Mongol invasions; their depredations are well-known. The first was unleashed by Chengiz Khan’s vengeful crossing of the Syr Darya in the summer of 1219. Transoxiana, Khwarazm and Khorassan were mercilessly reduced in a tornado-like campaign directed by the Great Khan himself. Centres of learning and culture - among them the great cities of Samarqand, Bokhara, Herat, Merv and Nishapur - were decimated; and the Mongol scourge, as Moslem chroniclers described their invaders, left much of northern and central Persia in ruins. An unstoppable force of these steppe-warriors drove north-west, eviscerating the kingdoms of European monarchs and striking eventually as far as Poland and Moscow. Another branch conquered as far as northern China, and soon after the middle of the thirteenth century the Mongols ruled the greatest empire known to history. The momentous task of subduing Persia and the territories of the Middle East fell to Hulegu Khan, a grandson of Chengiz Khan. In 1258, his cavalry rode almost unopposed to Baghdad, snuffing out en route the Assassins in their hitherto impregnable mountain fortresses.

But in Persia itself, the calamitous character of these early Mongol campaigns has tended to obscure what came next. Returning to the conquered territories east of the Fertile crescent to rule as Il-Khan, or viceroy to the Great Khan in China, Hulegu and his successors oversaw an empire nearly as large as that of the Sassanians a thousand years earlier. They also rebuilt it. Reconstruction began all over Persia under Hulegu; cities were restored to prosperity, and during the ensuing, century-long period that historians have called the pax mongolica, Persia witnessed an extraordinary cultural flourishing. Its Mongol inheritors were, it seems, proud, ambitious, and increasingly worldly. They also possessed phenomenal wealth, and were fond of indulging it on a conspicuous scale. Vast palaces, mosques, mausoleums, caravanserais, observatories and gardens were commissioned to outstrip any structure that had gone before. At Tabriz, where the city walls quadrupled in length under Ilkhanid rule, fourteen thousand workmen were employed to build a mausoleum and complex to rival Persepolis itself; and the city’s congregational mosque, explicitly designed to outdo the colossal arch at the Sassanian capitol of Ctesifon, boasted a vault a hundred feet wide springing from walls of equal height. At Sultaniyya, another imperial capital - the remains of which I was on my way to see - a mausoleum  was built to surpass the largest rival of the time, that of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar  at Merv.

Even their books were magnificently large. Paper-making machines from China were used to produce sheets three feet across for giant Qur’ans, whose titanic script swelled the glowing verses to thirty volumes, and hundreds of artists and calligraphers were set to work at royal scriptoriums on manuscripts lavishly illustrated with epic scenes of battle, hunting, and supernatural encounters.

Trade flourished too under these internationally-minded rulers, and for the first time since the end of the Roman empire, the Mediterranean was linked to China along a thriving commercial corridor. It was the era of the world’s first global wanderers - Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, and the Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubric. European delegations even set up permanent communities at the Ilkhanid court; residential complexes were built for foreign scholars; and an entirely new discipline - world history - was initiated with the vizier Rashid al-Din’s Assembly of Chronicles. Architecture grew increasingly innovative and refined, and a corresponding enrichment occurred in the iconography of the visual arts, where far Eastern motifs - the peony and the lotus and the chrysanthemum, serpent-like dragons, clouds like swirling flames, and the enigmatic gaze of moon-faced, slant-eyed princes - all appear for the first time in Persia. Nowhere, to my eye, does the Chinese influence seem more at work than in those angular friezes of interlocking tilework, where the lithe and graceful ciphers of the Arabic script seem to have been melted down and re-cast in disused moulds for hexagrams, emerging metamorphosed and at the very limit of intelligibility into maze-like and eye-teasing patterns.

Yet the early Ilkhanid rulers were not themselves Moslems, and their eclecticism is a reminder of the heterogeneous character of the dynasty. Many were Buddhists, but held on to their native Shamanistic beliefs; many had Nestorian Christian wives. They glorified the military traditions of their Turkish dynastic predecessors, wrote in a Persian version of Arabic script, and stamped their documents with Chinese royal seals. On matters religious, they seem to have kept an open house, inviting Buddhist teachers from India and Tibet to their capital in Tabriz, and showed particular respect towards Islam’s own mystical discipline, Sufism. Despite the turmoil of the era - or perhaps indeed because of it - the early fourteenth century was a golden age for Sufism and its literature. The Ilkhanids commissioned dervish monasteries and hospices, protected communities dedicated to the study of Sufism, and raised shrines dedicated to Sufi saints. A number of prominent Sufis also served at the royal court, and it seems likely that their influence was at least partly responsible for drawing their rulers into the spiritual fold of Islam - the consequences of which can hardly be overstated. When, at the end of the thirteenth century, the Ilkhanid ruler Ghazan Khan embraced the religion of his subjects, the political tide turned decisively in favour of the faith. Henceforth the Ilkhanids declared themselves the Great Kings of Islam, all future rulers of Persia would be Moslems; and their dynastic relatives would carry Islam through most of south Asia and as far as the archipelagos of the Indonesian sea. Having a few decades earlier been threatened with virtual extinction, Islam was restored to the status of World religion.

The warriors from the North and the scourge of Civilization, once universally feared as Godless and bloodthirsty predators, had been tamed; guided, educated, refined and ultimately seduced by the very culture they had nearly destroyed. It is a momentous transformation. We need no longer picture them under the glare of the steppe, peering from a tent-flap to escape the fumes of steaming yak-meat; or pacing for weeks in the saddle across desert and mountain or the vaporous deltas of Eurasia to unleash their quivers against the cavalries of Teutonic knights...for their homes are by now no longer made from felt, but columns of ornamented brick faced with panels of lustrous mosaic, and their inlaid bows lie idle on embroidered cushions. The Mongol nobles of Persia gaze, instead, through doors of chamfered alabaster and across courtyards of lustrous marble into gardens built on the template of Paradise itself, where dragon-headed fountains feed pools of milk and wine. Within, gold candlesticks the size of trees and chandeliers of lacquered glass spread light across their palace interiors, glittering across cascades of stalactitic vaults and the irridescent glaze of star-shaped turquoise and cobalt tiles. Giant palimpsests and codices rest in ivory stands. Gold and the opulent bloom of lapiz are everywhere; their celestial hues cover every wall, which rise towards gilded bands of encircling stucco and, above them, hovering ceilings of honeycombed plaster or domes covered with kaleidoscopic mosaics of multiplying stars and trapezoids.

Cross-legged on carpets and velvet bolsters, the nobles sip from cups of translucent jade. They are dressed in snow-leopard trousers and shimmering multicoloured tunics woven from silver thread, caught at the waist with belts of solid gold and decorated with dragons coiled in silken roundels. Eagle feathers sprout from the bifurcated rims of their brocaded hats, and their Confucian moustaches glisten with wine from Shiraz and Herat...but it is dawn now, and the call to prayer sounds through the inlaid window-grilles...and glances of self-censure ripple momentarily through the assembly. With a final tilt of forefinger and thumb and a hasty dabbing of whiskers against sleeve, the party rises and files towards the mosque...the Mongols have been Persianised.


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