LOS ANGELES, CALIF. – The saga of Genghis Khan and the Mongols has long appealed to the Western imagination. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, first-hand traveler accounts, such as those of Marco Polo, helped create a place in the popular consciousness for the Mongols that continues to this day.
While the Mongols achieved their empire through war and conquest, extends well beyond the front line. For more than a century his descendants ruled an often loosely united Mongol Confederacy in which the promotion of pan-Asian trade, an avid taste for luxury goods and the practice of relocating artists combined to produce an unprecedented cross-fertilization of artistic ideas throughout Eurasia.
To retell this story, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, has organized “: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353,” the first exhibition to explore artistic and cultural achievements that occurred in the Iranian world in the aftermath of the Mongol invasions. The exhibition, on view April 13-July 27, focuses on the Ilkhanid dynasty founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu.
This dynasty ruled in an area encompassing Iran, Iraq, western Afghanistan, southern Russia and eastern Turkey and maintained a relationship with China’s Yuan dynasty, established by another grandson, Khubilai Khan. It was a period of brilliant cultural flowering, as the Mongol masters sought to govern their disparate empire and in the process sponsored the creation of a bold new visual language.
Textiles were among the luxury goods especially coveted by the Mongols. “Cloth of gold” — silk woven with gold-wrapped thread — was used by the Mongols for clothing and even tents. The Persian historian Juvayni, writing in the mid-Thirteenth Century, illustrated the Mongols’ rise to power by noting that before Genghis Khan, they wore clothing made “from the skin of dogs and mice.”
Because of their portability, textiles played a crucial role in the transmission of artistic ideas from east to west Asia. The hybrid style that developed under Mongol rule is represented by a splendid textile, woven in gold on a silk foundation, whose decoration includes rows of back-to-back griffins and medallions enclosing similarly paired lions.
“” will reflect both the temporary and permanent settings of Ilkhanid courtly life. As nomads, the Mongols migrated seasonally, a practice continued by their Ilkhanid descendants even after they built palatial residences. Enormous tents were used for ceremonial occasions and could hold as many as 2,000 men. Museum visitors will be able to stand within a reconstruction of the interior of a fabulous tent comprised of actual late Thirteenth Century textiles.
These spectacular tent panels, woven of silk and gold, are so remarkable in their structure, materials and design that they must have been made for a royal patron.
The permanent courtly setting will be represented by gilt and lustered tiles that once decorated the sole excavated palace of the Ilkhanid period. The tiles will be shown in a special gallery that reflects the octagonal form of some of the actual rooms of a palace at the site known today as Takht-I Sulaiman (Throne of Solomon). Some of the tiles are decorated with dragons and phoenixes — mythic beasts that were motifs imported from China and associated with royalty. Other tiles bear heroic figures and quotations from the Iranian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings).
The Mongols recognized that the establishment of stable forms of government would be to their advantage and built upon existing institutions and systems or developed new ones. For example, to facilitate communication, they established a postal-courier network that allowed for the swift transmission of royal orders from one end of the empire to the other (Marco Polo wrote that messengers could travel 200-300 miles a day along this network.)
To suggest the complexities involved in administering the vast Mongol empire, the exhibition includes gifts of tribute from one ruler to another, an official document, paper money and gold coinage and passports. One beautifully crafted cast-iron and silver-inlaid metal passport, that allowed its owner to travel in safety, bears an inscription that reads in part: “By the strength of eternal heaven, an edict of the Emperor. He who has no respect shall be guilty.”
The Mongols were practitioners of shamanism but as they transformed from nomadic warriors into leaders of a great empire, they came into close contact with other systems of belief. While their brethren in China converted to Buddhism, the Ilkhanids made Islam their official state religion in 1295.
In a special gallery devoted to art in the service of Islam, the exhibition visitor will see sumptuously illuminated manuscripts of the Koran, furnishings that include a remarkable carved wood Rahla or Koran stand and architectural decorations, notably a large and splendid glazed tile mihrab, or prayer niche.
Perhaps the most profound impact of the Mongol invasion on the arts of Iran was in the new role of manuscript illustration, which became a significant and influential forum for courtly patronage. Beginning in the early Fourteenth Century, the main focus of Ilkhanid patronage was historical works and epic poems.
Histories were written expressly to glorify the achievements of the dynasty, as in the Jami’ al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) — the first world history encompassing not only the Mongols but the ancient Iranian and Arabian kings, the prophet Muhammad and the caliphs, the Chinese, the Indians and the Jews. Epics represent the continuation of an existing genre, exemplified by the Shahnama (Book of Kings), which tells of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran. Large sections of both manuscripts will be reunited specifically for this exhibition and displayed as single or double folios.
Early Fourteenth Century versions of the Shahnama were copied and illustrated in Tabriz, the Ilkhanid capital, as well as Baghdad and Shiraz, in southern Iran, recasting ancient Iranian kings as contemporary Mongol sovereigns.
Politically, the invasion of western Asia brought to a decisive end the long period of Arabo-centric dominance, underscored in 1258 by the Mongols’ termination of the Abbasid caliphate, which had ruled from Baghdad for more than 500 years. Culturally, the Mongol invasions and the so-called Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace) helped infuse and energize Iranian art with novel forms, meanings and motifs that were further disseminated throughout the Islamic world.
An illustrated catalog, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, will accompany the exhibition. It will be available at LACMA’s museum store and at www.lacma.org.