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Mongol Rider with Administrator (detail)
China, Yuan dynasty



Saddle arches and fittings
Mongol empire
ca. 13th century



Comb and sheath
Golden Horde (Southern Russia)
14th-15th century



Cup with fish-shaped handles
Golden Horde (Southern Russia)
late 13th-14th century



Bucket
1332-33 A.D.



Star tile
Iran
second half of 13th century



Permanent structure at Genghis Khan's seasonal camp
Auragha, Mongolia
Mongol Luxe
by Fred Stern


It took many years, but by the first quarter of the 13th century AD, Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, riding out of the Altai Mountains on fleet horses, their archery skills honed razor-sharp, with clever battle plans, intricate encircling movements, and advances and retreats, had completed the conquest of vast areas. These were countries the Mongols had traded with, lands they had crisscrossed time and time again, land that ranged from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea.

The descendants of Genghis Khan (ca. 1167-1227) split this empire among them, forming four dynasties: the Yuan in China, the Changhadai in Central Asia, the Golden Horde in Russia and the Ilkhanite in what is today Iraq and Iran.

"The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353" at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 5, 2002-Feb. 16, 2003, concentrates on the art of the Ilkhanids in Iran. The exhibition presents more than 200 objects highlighting the textiles, stone- and metalwork, book arts, ceramics and jewelry of this important period.

Hulegu, one of Ghengis Khan's grandsons, reigned in Persia (now Iran and Iraq) for only a few years, from 1256 to 1265. He nevertheless launched the Ilkhanids on their principal artistic quests.

Although the Mongols were nomads spending many months away from a permanent residence, their love of luxury never subsided. Their tents became more sensuously decorated over time, with rich carpeting used as floor coverings as well as wall hangings. Hulegu's artists and artisans lavished their greatest care on horse fittings and saddles.

Women enjoyed relative freedom under the Ilkhanids, and certainly were showered with conspicuous ornamentation. They wore gold plaques and embroidered leather belts. They delighted in gold combs and fine woven textiles (which they made themselves). The reclining deer (djeiran), a symbol of the prowess of the Mongols, and other four-legged animals became popular motifs, and were represented in all matter of textiles. The griffin and the phoenix were integrated in designs with lotus and doves.

Luxury vessels were the contributions of Kashan potters. These include overglaze-painted (ladjvardina) plates and vases. The potters also made brilliantly hued tiles, which often went through two types of glazings, and were said to have left the outer walls of buildings "shimmering like gold." A selection of fritware -- partially fused glass mixed with white clay which attained the weight of Chinese porcelain -- provides one of the highlights of this exhibition.

The Ilkhanids prized illuminated books for both their educational and esthetic value, and the exhibition features several galleries of pages from the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, that illustrates the history of the Mongol world. Beautifully scripted and illuminated copies of the Koran were produced by these artists in a variety of styles.

The Ilkhanids believed in shamanism until the conversion of Ghazan (who ruled 1295 to 1304) to the Muslim religion, but this did not lead to the elimination of other religions.

When the last Ilkhanid ruler was replaced in 1353, Tamerlane appeared on the scene to make history of his own.

Cross-fertilization of ideas throughout the four Mongol realms became commonplace. When the silk route reopened in the early Ilkhanid years, Persian goods flowed freely to Western Asia, and the arts of Central Asia flowed back. Because of the many cultural exchanges taking place, especially between the two grandsons of Genghis Khan, Kubilah (a.k.a. Kubla) Khan of the new Mongol dynasty in China, and Hulegu in Iran, a look at this relationship and its diversity seems in order.

After the Mongol conquest of China, the Yuan dynasty established by Kubilah Khan (of Coleridge's Xanadu), was destined to remain in power for the next 100 years. Marco Polo was one of the visitors to the pleasure palaces of the Khan and sent a glowing report to Venice. He described "halls and rooms gilded and brilliant . . . images of birds and beasts a wondrous delight to behold."

In addition to being an excellent architect and a superb conceptualizer of architectural theories, Kubilah Khan devised an intricate network of navigational canals that reached deep into Turkestan, Persia and southern Russia, "the Land of the Golden Horde." He also instituted an extensive postal system. In order to rule effectively, the Yuans left day-to-day supervision in the hands of Chinese bureaucrats but made sure Mongols and other foreigners in their employ held the important supervisory positions. However, Chinese artists and scholars wanted no part of the invaders. Instead they retreated to the mountains, where they continued to paint, write poetry and play their musical instruments.

The Yuans became Buddhists and Confucians. Ultimately civil wars among the Mongol princes within the dynasty and corruption in the Yuan courts brought the Yuan rule to an end. The Chinese exiles came back and formed the formidable, art-minded Ming dynasty. And the rest is history.


FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.