Monthly Archives: November 2013

Mongolian Ethnographica of the Austrian Collector Hans Leder at Museums across Europe


Mongolian Ethnographica of the Austrian Collector Hans Leder at Museums across Europe

One of the most extensive collections of Mongolian ethnographica in Europe goes back to the Austrian traveler and researcher Hans Leder (1843-1921). The collection is unique as it represents a snapshot of religious everyday culture in northern Mongolia at the turn of the 19th century. This part of Mongolian culture was increasingly repressed and mostly destroyed in the late 1930s. Objects were destroyed or had lost their purpose due to the fact that the complex ritual life had been prohibited. In the course of this project, the various parts of the collection, divided to several ethnographic museums in Europe are recorded and analyzed.

Field research intends to contrast the locations and monasteries described by the collector with their present state and to record audio-visual documentations and interviews regarding the history of sacred objects and locations.

The project is supported by the programme forMuse – research at museums/BMWF

Dr. Maria-Katharina Lang (Project director) Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS) in cooperation with Museum of Ethnology Vienna (Museum für Völkerkunde Wien /MVK)



Introduction to the Mongolia Collection

The following brief remarks will hopefully give users of this webpage a clearer understanding of the origin and chief characteristics of Western Washington University’s holdings on Mongolia and the Mongols.

At the time of its establishment in 1971, the Center for East Asian Studies developed programs for the two major countries of the region, China and Japan. From the very beginning, the China Program strongly emphasized the country’s minorities, of which eventually fifty-five were officially recognized. As a result, the university now has one of the best collections on this subject, including numerous books written in all officially recognized scripts used by certain non-­Chinese groups, particularly the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols. Of these, particular emphasis was given to the Mongols, and by 1973 the first courses in Mongolian Studies were offered. In that same year, Professor Schwarz went on the first of many study trips to China where he collected books which he then donated to the Western Washington University Libraries, a practice he has continued to this day. Of the 19,000 volumes he has donated so far, a substantial portion is on Mongolia and the Mongols. His friend and former colleague at the University of Washington, the world-famous Altaicist and Mongolist Nicholas Poppe, donated his private library, and other Mongolists also contributed to what is now North America’s largest academic library collection of books on the subject, with well over 12,500 titles as of October 2013.

The creation and maintenance of a noteworthy collection of books has been one part of this university’s Mongolia Program’s activities. It hosted the first North American Conference on Mongolian Studies in 1978 and an international seminar on “Mongolian Culture and Society in the Age of Globalization” in 2005. The proceedings of both conferences were published in the Center for East Asian Studies two book series, Studies on East Asia and East Asian Research Aids and Translations. Other books on Mongolia in these series include Mongolian Short Stories (1974), Bibliotheca Mongolica (1978), Professor Poppe’s autobiography, Reminiscences (1983), Mongolian Publications at Western Washington University (1984), The Minorities of Northern China (1984), Mongolia and the Mongols: Holdings at Western Washington University (1992), Opuscula Altaica (1994) which is the festschrift presented to Professor Schwarz upon his retirement, the English edition of Academician Shirendev’s autobiography Through the Ocean Waves (1998), The Last Mongol Prince: The Life and Times of Demchugdongrub (2000), and the English edition of Academician Bira’s Mongolian Historical Writing from 1200 to 1700 (2002).

These activities have been supported since 1997 by the Henry G. Schwarz Endowment Fund for Mongolian Studies which provides in perpetuity scholarships, money for purchasing Mongolian books for this university’s libraries, and travel grants to assist scholars to come to Bellingham and use our library resources.

The university’s Mongolia collection has several features rarely found in other academic libraries, one of which being its broad and balanced nature. As the readers of these lines undoubtedly know, history has placed Mongols in many diverse places in Asia and Europe. The center of the Mongolian world is the area from Lake Baikal in the north to the Ordos Bend in the south and from the Xing’ an mountains in the east to the Altai mountains in the west. Within this huge domain one finds a continuous presence of Mongols to this day this is the Mongolian homeland, this is Mongolia. Unfortunately, in re­cent times, say, the last two centuries, foreign forces have caused political divisions, with the northern part, Buryatia, coming under Russian control, the southernmost part, Inner Mongolia, under Chinese control, and the central portion being nominally independent but actually for the greater part of the twentieth century being a Russian satellite. This division has had widespread consequences in many areas of human activity, including the collecting of Mongolian materials and indeed even the teaching and study of Mongolia. At least until about 1990, many libraries had disproportionate numbers of books from one part or another of Mongolia, depending at least in part on the political climate of the country in which the library was located. By contrast, WWU’s holdings are equally strong in publications from both major parts of the Mongolian homeland and additionally has excellent holdings of books published in Buryatia, Kalmykia and the Oirats of Eastern Turkestan.

Another rare feature of these holdings is its broad inclusive coverage of subject matters. Most other academic libraries heavily concentrate on language and literature, history and some of the social sciences. Western Washington University, by contrast, not only is very strong in all of these fields but also in the natural sciences, music, and traditional medicine. One more distinguishing feature is the convenience of finding books on any given subject. It is a widespread practice among universities to house materials in Asian languages in segregated areas, sometimes even in separate buildings, forcing researchers to spend more time and effort just to access all the books they need. Sometimes books on the same geographical area are also segregated by subject matter, such as books on forestry or medicine housed in buildings for those fields. Researchers visiting Western Washington University have invariably praised the convenience of finding all books on, say, Chinggis Khan or materia medica in one place.

This introduction was written by Henry G. Schwarz



For additional information on Henry G. Schwarz see the link below:

Henry G. Schwarz – Biographical Note


A teacher and scholar of East Asian Studies, specializing in the history, political development, ethnic minorities, and languages of China and Mongolia, Henry G. Schwarz was born on December 14, 1928, in Berlin, Germany. He was educated at the University of Wisconsin, where he received a BA in Sociology in 1954, followed by the MA (1958) and PhD (1963) in Political Science. He held a Fulbright professorship at the University of the Philippines from 1964 to 1965, when he was invited to join the faculty of the Russian and Far Eastern Institute at the University of Washington. In 1969, he joined the faculty of Western Washington University where he soon established the Center for East Asian Studies and served as its first  director. He also established and edited two book series, Studies on East Asia and East Asian Research Aids and Translations, which have been favorably received by scholars here and abroad.

Dr. Schwarz spent much time in East Asia. Aside from attending several conferences, he was the first American scholar to do research in China when in 1973 he arrived at the Central Nationalities Institute in Beijing. Almost every summer from then until 1983 he continued his research in Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. He also spent two years as visiting professor at Asia University in Tokyo, and for several months immediately following his retirement he served as advisor to the Institute of Oriental and International Studies of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar.

A prolific contributor to the literature of East Asian Studies, Dr. Schwarz’s works include the classic Minorities of Northern China: A Survey (1984) and the pioneering An Uyghur-English Dictionary (1993) as well as numerous book chapters and articles in scholarly journals. Also deserving special mention is Nicholas Poppe’s autobiography, Reminiscences (1983), which was created as a result of many sessions with his friend Henry Schwarz who then compiled and edited a large amount of stenographic notes and tape recordings over a period of more than two years.

Beside his scholarly activities, Dr. Schwarz also held many leadership positions, including president of the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies and of ASPAC (Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast). He also served as member of several governing bodies, including the board of directors of the Pacific Area Intercollegiate Council on Asian Studies, the executive board of the Seattle Committee on Foreign Relations, and the board of trustees of the World Affairs Council of Western Washington. He served as the president of the Mongolia Society of the United States from 1998 to 2007, and since 2002 as vice president of the International Association for Mongol Studies.

In 1994, on the occasion of Dr. Schwarz’s retirement, thirty-three scholars around the world presented him with the volume Opuscula Altaica: Essays in Honor of Henry Schwarz (Bellingham: Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University), and in 2006, in recognition of Dr. Schwarz’ thirty years of promoting Mongolian Studies in the United States, the President of Mongolia awarded him the nation’s highest honor for foreigners, the Order of the Polar Star.

Written by Henry G. Schwarz, 2013


Mongolian Collection in Yenching Library of Harvard University

The Harvard-Yenching Library’s Mongolian-language materials are primarily written in the classical script. The collection includes the “red copy” of the Mongolian Kanjur printed in Peking in 1724 and a great variety of dictionaries and language manuals for Chinese and Manchu. Modern scholarship from Inner Mongolia, as well as Mongolian translations of the Chinese classics, is represented. Additional publications, including those written in the Cyrillic script, are held at Widener Library and can be found in HOLLIS in romanized Cyrillic. Mongolian language and history are among the course offerings in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Questions and comments, including requests for materials and inquiries about how to use the collection, may be directed to Raymond Lum  at 617-495-0585 or via e-mail.


The Koryo-Mongol allied invasion of Japan

The myth of kamikaze Lee Wha Rang 6/9/2004

Photo: Kublai Khan, the First Emperor of Yuan and a grandson of Genghis Khan, (left) and a contemporary painting of the Khan and his wife (center) on a hunting party. Kublai had no training or expertise in military affairs.  
Allied armies of Koryo and Kublai Khan invaded Japan in 1274 and 1281.  Both invasions failed at the hand of Mother Nature.  The sword wielding samurais of Japan were no match for the invaders, who were armed with gun-powder canons and superior fighting tactics.  The invaders succeeded in landing on Kyushu after occupying Tsushima and other nearby islands. But gathering storms forced the invaders to pack up and leave.
After conquering much of China, Kublai Khan sent armies to conquer Koryo but they were driven out time and again, and after a decade of constant war with the Mongols, Koryo gave up and became a vassal state of the Mongols.  Koryo’s King Kojong sent his crown prince to the Khan’s court as a hostage.When Kojong died in 1274, the Khan gave one of his many daughters to the prince as his wife and sent him home as the 25th king, Chung-ryol, of Koryo.  The Mongol princess brought with her an army of Mongol attendants, cooks, and guards, and turned the Koryo court into a virtual Mongol home away from home.Kublai Khan’s interest in Japan was aroused in 1265 when Cho Yi, a Koryo courtesan, informed him that Japan could be subdued easily.  In the following year, Kublai sent two emissaries He De and Yin Hong to Koryo and asked King Kojong to facilitate their entry to Japan. They were unable to meet any Japanese officials and returned home empty-handed.  The Khan’s attempt to subdue the Japanese peacefully failed and he decided to use brute force to subdue Japan.

Kublai asked Koryo to provide ships, sailors, soldiers and provisions, and so, Koryo mobilized some 30,000 carpenters and built about 300 large ships.  In October 1274, a Mongol army of 20,000 commanded by Hol Don came to Koryo. The Mongol army was joined by a Koryo army of 5,000 commanded by Kim Bang-gyong. The allied army left Masan in an armada of 900 ships manned by 6,700 Koryo sailors on 3 October, 1274.

Two days later, the Koryo army stormed Tsushima and occupied the island and the Mongols occupied Iki island.  On October 14th, the allied forces occupied Hirado and then moved on to Hakata Bay. Japanese forces suffered heavy losses and retreated inland to defend Dazaifu.

On October 21st, the allied forces returned to their ships for re-supply and rest. But a storm suddenly came upon the invasion fleet and the invaders gave up their operations and returned to Masan.

Undaunted by this failure, Kublai sent another ‘peace’ delegation to Koryo in 1275, asking the king to deliver a message to the Japanese shogun.  The king sent Suh Chan to Japan with the letter from Kublai but the Japanese executed Suh and sent back his severed head. The Khan was enraged and ordered another invasion of Japan.

The Mongols built a fortress near Masan and stationed a large garrison army there, and Cheju-do was turned into a vast pasture for Mongol army horses. The Japanese Shogun knew of the invasion plan and mobilized forces to defend Japan.  Stone fences were build along the coast and the populace was armed.

In 1281, the Khan formed two mighty armies: the Eastern Route Army of 30,000 led by Hong Da-gu, a Mongol general, augmented by a Koryo army of 10,000 commanded by Kim Bang-gyong and the Southern Route Army of 100,000 led by Bom Mun-ho, a Chinese general. Bom’s army was mostly former Sung Chinese soldiers pressed into Kublai’s service.

The Eastern Route Army, in 900 Koryo ships, departed from Masan on 3 May and occupied Tsushima, and proceeded to occupy nearby islands. On June 6, it attacked Hakata but was driven back and landed at Shiganoshima. Several days later, the army was driven back from Shiganoshima and returned to Iki and then to Hirado.

The Southern Route Army of General Bom arrived in 3,500 Chinese ships in mid-July, and the combined forces began to push back the outnumbered defenders. By the end of July, the invaders were victorious and well on the way to occupying Kyushu.  Then a severe storm kicked up on July 29 and some Mongol generals panicked and sailed to the safety of Masan: nearly half of the invasion fleet left the battle area.  To make the matter worse, an epidemic spread among the soldiers, killing several thousands.

On August 1, another storm kicked up forcing most of the remaining ships to return to Masan leaving behind a token army of about 20,000 soldiers. The Japanese descended on the outnumbered invaders and killed all but about 10,000 Chinese soldiers. Of the 9,960 Koryo army and 15,029 sailors, 19,397 Koreans made it back home. The Mongol generals and army, fearing severe punishment by Kublai, went into hiding in Koryo.  The Chinese captives became slaves in Japan and few of them made it back to China.  It has been claimed that many of the Chinese defected and that some officers sabotaged the Mongol ships and canons.

Kublai wanted another invasion and asked Koryo to build more ships and stock up army provisions.  But a major rebellion delayed him and the plan was dropped when Kublai died.

Japanese history books claim that a Buddhist monk Il Yun saw the invasion fleet and began to chant. As he kept up his chant, winds became stronger and stronger, and soon, the waves began to dance wildly rocking the enemy ships.  Eventually the ships began to break up and sink.  Thus the myth of kamikaze was borne.  The Mongols slaughtered, as in other Mongol campaigns, tens of thousands of Japanese, including women and children.

Contrary to the claims made by Japanese historians, the Koryo-Mongol invaders lost no more than about 10-15% of the men and ships.  The Mongol and Koryo commanders knew of the oncoming storms and returned the armada to Koryo ports mostly intact.  The Japanese claims are inconsistent with Koryo and Mongol archives – and most importantly with archeological evidence: only few shipwrecks and other footprints of the failed invasions have been discovered. It is true that the ‘divine’ winds drove the invaders away but the winds did not wipe out the mighty armada.

Lee Wha Rang’s article is featured on Korea WebWeekly.


The Yuen Or Mongol Dynasty, 1280-1368

( Originally Published 1910 )

(10 Emperors)

Kublai Khan ,First Intercourse of

China with Europe, Marco Polo, TheGrand Canal

PARTS ofChina had been frequently overrun by foreign conquerors; but the Mongols were the first to extend their sway over the whole country. The subjugation ofChina was the work of Kublai, grandson of Genghis, who came to the throne in 1260, inheriting an empire more extensive than Alexander or Caesar had dreamed of. In 1264 the new khan fixed his court atPeking and proceeded to reduce the provinces to subjection. Exhausted and disunited as they were the task was not difficult, though it took fifteen years to complete. Ambition alone would have been sufficient motive for the conquest, but his hostility was provoked by perfidy, vspecially by the murder of envoys sent to announce his accession. Without good faith, ” says Confucius, “no nation can exist.”

By the absorption ofChina the dominions of Kublai were made richer, if not greater in extent. than those of his grandfather, while the splendour of his court quite eclipsed that of Genghis Khan.

Unknown to the ancient Romans,China was revealed to their medical successors by the Mongol conquest. In 1261 two Venetian merchants, Nicolo and Matteo Polo, made their way to Bokhara, whence, joining an embassy fromIndia, they proceeded to Kublai’s capital at Xanadu (or Shangtu) near the site ofPeking. They were the first white men the Grand Khan had ever seen, and he seems to have perceived at once that, if not of superior race, they were at least more advanced in civilisation than his own people; for, besides intrusting them with letters to the Pope, he gave them a commission to bring out a hundred Europeans to instruct the Mongols in the arts and sciences of the West.

In 1275 they returned toPeking without other Europeans, but accompanied by Marco Polo, the son of Nicolo. They were received with more honour than on their first visit, and the young man was appointed to several positions of trust in the service of the monarch. After a sojourn of seventeen years, the three Polos obtained permission to join the escort of a Mongol princess who was going to the court of Persia. InPersia they heard of the death of their illustrious patron, and, instead of returning toChina, turned their faces homeward, arriving atVenice in 1295.

Having been captured by the Genoese, Marco Polo while in prison dictated his wonderful story. At first it was looked on as a romance and caused its author to receive the sobriquet of ” Messer Millione”; but its general accuracy has been fully vindicated.

The chief effect of that narrative was to fire the imagination of another Italian and lead him by steering to the west to seek a short cut to the Eldorado.

How strange the occult connection of sublunary things! The Mongol Kublai must be invoked to account for the discovery ofAmerica! The same story kindled the fancy of Coleridge, in the following exquisite fragment, which he says came to him in a vision of the night:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man, Down to a sunless sea.”

Kubla Khan:

Still another Italian claims mention as having made some impression on the court of Kublai. This was Corvino, a missionary sent by the Pope; but of his church, his schools, and his convents, there were left no more traces than of his predecessors, the Nestorians.

The glory of Kublai was not of long duration. The hardy tribes of the north became enervated by the luxury and ease of their rich patrimony. `Capua capturedHannibal.” Nine of the founder’s descendants followed him, not one of whom displayed either vigour or statesmanship.

Their power ebbed more suddenly than it rose. Shun-ti, the last of the house, took refuge behind the Great Wall from the rising tide of Chinese patriotism; and after a tenure of ninety years, or of two centuries of fluctuating dominion, reckoning from the rise of Genghis Khan, the Yuen dynasty came to an untimely end.

The magnificent waterway, theGrand Canal, remains an imperishable monument of the Mongol sway. As an “alimentary canal” it was needed for the support of the armies that held the people in subjection; and the Mongols only completed a work which other dynasties had undertaken. A description of it from personal observation is given in Part I of this work (page 31). It remains to be said that the construction of the Canal, like that of the Great Wall, was a leading cause of the downfall of its builders. Forced labour and aggravated taxation gave birth to discontent; rebellion became rife, and the Mongols were too effeminate to take active measures for its suppression.



The Arts of the Mongols

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

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. See Also: ART, GENGHIS KHAN, ILKHANIDS, MONGOLIA AND MONGOLS, SILK ROADS, TRADE Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2003 images.

Mongolian Collection in the Library of Congress

The Mongolian Collection consists of approximately 3,000 monographs, 160 serial titles,  over 2,000 microfiche, and 408 volumes of rare books. Since 1992  the Library’s New Delhi Field Office, through a bibliographic representative in Ulaanbaatar, has been actively acquiring publications from Mongolia, in both classical Mongolian script and Cyrillic.

Included in the rare book collection are 80 traditional Mongolian books which were acquired in the early 20th c. The first of these to arrive were two manuscripts and one xylograph donated by William Woodville Rockhill, American scholar and diplomat, between 1893 and 1901. All three are Mongolian translations of famous Buddhist sutras (sudur), which Rockhill acquired during his travels in Mongolia at the turn of the century. Other early notable acquisitions include over seventy works acquired by Berthold Laufer in 1917,  containing his brief handwritten notes, and two xylographs acquired from the Krebs Collection of Linguistics. These 80 works have been analyzed and indexed in an article by David M. Farquhar, “A Description of the Mongolian Manuscripts and Xylographs in Washington, D.C.” Central Asiatic Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1955. Included are 27 canonical works, 19 works on Buddhist ritual  and prayer, 11 works on biography and history, 5 on medicine, 2 on language, and an episode of the Central Asian Gesar (Geser) epic. The collection contains many 18th c. xylographs of popular sutras such as the Ocean of Parables (Uliger-un dalai), the Sutra of the Golden Light (Altan gerel-tu) , the Collection of Sutras (Gzungdui), the Mongolian translation of the Diamond Sutra, as well as an elaborately illustrated manuscript of the Mongolian  translation of the Sutra of the Great Liberation.

The Mongolian rare collection also includes complete reprint editions of both the Mongolian Kanjur and Tanjur, the Buddhist canonical texts and their commentaries. The Mongolian Kanjur,  in 108 volumes, was published in New Delhi, 1973-1974 by Dr. Lokesh Chandra. The edition was reproduced from the Imperial Red block-print edition of 1720, which in turn had been prepared based on the rare handwritten Ligdan Khan Kanjur produced in the early 17th c.

During 1956-58, Professor Raghu Vira obtained a microfilm copy of the extremely rare Urga Tanjur, kept in Ulaanbaatar. This edition had been compiled and translated into Mongolian under the direction of Lcang-skya Rol-pa’i rdo-rje in the mid-18th c. A 226 volume set of photocopy enlargements taken from this film was given to the Library by Dr. Lokesh Chandra, and is kept in the rare book cage, along with the 8 volume catalog to the set, published in 1982.
Catalog records for more recent materials can be found in the Library’s  online catalog using the LC/ALA  romanization tables for Mongolian in vertical script and in  Cyrillic Script. Many titles, including newspapers, are microfilmed or  microfiched in the New Delhi Office before being sent to the Asian Division.  Handlists for uncataloged materials are available in the division’s reading  room.


Mongolian Rare Books in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

The Bodleian has only a handful of Mongolian manuscripts. They include part of a primer of Mongolian conversation, dated 1787; a copy of a Buddhist canonical composition, comprising the Sanskrit text together with Tibetan and Mongolian versions; and letters and a volume of letters and papers in Mongolian, Bengali and Tibetan. The Library’s earliest examples of Mongolian printing are a number of blockprints from the eighteenth century produced in Peking. They contain Buddhist Sutras, among them the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. Of the Library’s two editions of the Heart Sutra, one was printed c. 1712. A small number of prints from the nineteenth century contain trilingual texts – Chinese, with Manchu and Mongolian translations. The Backhouse Collection contains several Mongolian translations of Manchu texts. The Library also has a small collection of blockprints from Peking of Mongolian translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts, with or without the original Tibetan. The spread of missionary activity in Central Asia during the nineteenth century led to the translation and publication of various parts of the Bible in Mongolian and the Library has editions published in St Petersburg (1819, 1827 etc.), London (1846) and Peking (1872). It also holds many of the early grammars, dictionaries and studies published on the language and literature of the Mongols, which appeared in England, France, Germany, Russia and elsewhere.


Mongol Illustrated Manuscripts

The Jami al ‘Tawarikh and the Shahnama

The arts of greater Iran (comprised of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Iraq, the Caucasus and Central Asia) used to be very decorative before the Mongol invasion of much of Eurasia (13th century). After Mongol rule in the area, arts patronage largely focused on illustrated epics. This is a brief backgrounder with a link to an illustrated classic.

The Mongol invasion of greater Iran in the thirteenth century brought many changes to the arts traditions there. Before Mongol rule, Greater Iran was ruled by various Turkic dynasts for almost two centuries. These Turkish rulers adopted local practices and ruling customs in order to curry favor with their Iranian subjects, and took on the role of art patron with particular gusto. Under Turkish art patronage, the Persian decorative arts flourished. Ceramic craftsmen abounded, and luxury textiles and vessels became increasingly lavish and refined.

The arrival of the Mongols brought a shift away from patronage of the decorative arts to that of calligraphy and the illustrated manuscript. The lion’s share of Ilkhanid (Persian Mongol) art patronage went to the creation of illuminated historical works and epic poems. These commissioned historical works glorified the dynasty’s achievements and ideological preferences. The most famous of these historical works is the Jami ‘al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles.)

The Compendium was a groundbreaking work in its ambitious scope and multicultural sensibility. Commissioned by Ilkhanid rulers Ghazan and Oljeitu in the fourteenth century, the Compendium can be seen as an encomium to both Mongol history and Mongol commitment to Iran’s local pre-Mongol cultural heritage. Rashid al-Din–the Ilkhanid vizier who set the creation of the Compendium into motion and wrote at least part of it–was influenced by the Ilkhanid capital of Tabriz itself, a bustling and modern urban hub where European and East Asian culture and politics converged. The Compendium consists of four volumes covering an astonishing breadth of information including, a history of Ghazan Khan (volume 1), a universal history (volume 2) probably some four hundred folios in length, a survey of the genealogies of the Arabs, Jews, Mongols, Franks and Chinese (volume 3), and a geographical compendium (volume 4).

The text of the Compendium is accompanied by roughly 540 paintings depicting landscapes, people, historical battle scenes and enthronements, and scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Prophet Muhammad. The religious paintings occur most frequently, and with fresher vision and greater originality, than the other types of paintings in the Compendium.

The Shahnama, or Book of Kings, was the most prominent illustrated text of the Mongol period. Firdausi’s epic sixty thousand couplet-long poem draws on Iran’s history and mythology for its astonishingly vivid repertoire of figures and fables. The Shahnama delves into the histories of Iran’s cultural heroes, villains, leaders and kings–both fictional and historical–over a breathtaking span of several centuries. Calligraphers and artists lavished Firdausi’s text with embellishment and accompanying images. The masterpiece of Ilkhanid painting is considered to be the fourteenth century Great Mongol Shahnama, which was the largest and most technically sophisticated manuscript of the Ilkhanid school at large. Within this one text, “one can trace the sequence from paintings that are simple illustrations to ones that are commentaries, then metaphors, and finally independent works of art operating confidently on several levels of meaning. More and more content–descriptive, emotional, historical, symbolic–is gradually pumped into these paintings, and only an absolutely assured command of pictorial language enables the greatest of these painters to control the forces that they unleash.” [2]

The Shahnama continued to be illustrated for centuries after the Mongol conquest. Shah Ismail first encountered local Turkmen illustrations from the Shahnama as a young boy, while staying at the court of Karkiya Mirza Ali in Gilan from 1494-1499. The tales of epic battle, warrior-heroes, enchanted princesses and kings would have doubtlessly impressed and captivated the young boy’s mind. It is not surprising, then, that Ismail commissioned the creation of a royal Shahnama to commemorate the birth of his own son, Prince Tahmasp, around 1515. Furthermore, as the first self-appointed Shah of the Safavid dynasty (which he had himself expanded to include most of Iran), Ismail adopted Persian models of government and bureaucracy. Ismail must have hoped that giving importance to the Shahnama would legitimize his claim of inheriting the Persian monarchy.

The royal Shahnama commissioned by Ismail yielded four paintings, the most famous being “Sleeping Rustam” (on view at Asia Society.) For unknown reasons, this manuscript project was then abandoned. Prince Tahmasp would commission his own royal Shahnama, which would become the masterpiece of its day. A collaborative effort, “some fifteen painters, at least two calligraphers, two or more illuminators, gold sprinklers, binders, margin makers, paper burnishers and a team of assistants would have combined their skills to produce the most lavish manuscript seen in Iran for a century.” [3]

Tahmasp’s royal Shahnama is the culmination of the talents of several master artists. Sultan Muhammad, probably the first director of the Shahnama project, used a rich palette of color and emotion in his paintings. His early illustrations of Shahnama scenes are hectic: color-saturated architecture and textiles coexist with people, angels, whirlwinds, earth spirits, animals and clouds, all frozen in a moment of dramatic activity. Mir Musavvir, the second director, had a much different approach to illustration. Linear, analytic and almost mathematical in its precision, Musavvir conjured a meticulous and composed world. Aqa Mirak, a later contributor, would achieve balance in his complex compositions by eschewing symmetry and finding balance instead through the interrelationships of the vivid, sharp lines of his figures, architecture and landscape elements. These different styles do not produce dissonance but aptly animate the Shahnama text, itself a vivid and varied tale of many tales.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Tahmasp’s royal Shahnama is that its artists depicted the characters and events in contemporary Safavid garb and settings. As such, these paintings can be studied by anyone interested in gaining an intimate window into Safavid court life and architecture, portrayed as the Safavids themselves would have preferred.

Notes 1 Welch, Anthony. Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World. University of Texas Press, 1979.

2 Kamarovv, L. and Carboni, S. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2002. p 146.

3 Thompson, J. and Canby, Sheila R. Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501-1576. Skira Editore S.P.A., Italy 2003, p. 84.

Author: Zainah Mahmood.