BEYOND THE LEGACY OF GENGHIS KHAN
  • Book Title:
 Beyond The Legacy Of Genghis Khan
  • Book Author:
Linda Komaroff
  • Total Pages
679
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INTRODUCTION – BEYOND THE LEGACY OF GENGHIS KHAN

An international symposium was held June 13–15, 2003, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in connection with the exhibition The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 12561353, co-organized by LACMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition was the first to examine the important artistic developments that occurred in the Iranian world as an effect of the Mongol conquests of western and eastern Asia.

As a preliminary investigation into a period of extraordinary creativity and momentous cultural achievements, The Legacy of Genghis Khan and its associated publication raised or left unanswered many questions, offering symposium participants ample opportunity to move beyond the confines of the exhibition and its catalogue—hence the title of this volume.

Although not every paper presented at the symposium could be included here, two of the session chairs contributed papers germane to the topic. Taken as a whole, this collection should provide a good overview of a still-evolving area of scholarship examined from multiple perspectives by means of  diverse disciplinary practices.

Through war and conquest, Genghis Khan and the Mongols created the largest land empire in history—stretching at its greatest extent from Hungary to Korea.

The types of cultural collisions resulting from the creation of this world empire particularly fascinate in today’s global age; most recently, the Mongol invasions have been viewed as an often disquieting parallel to contemporary events in the Middle East (also see David Morgan’s contribution to this volume).

The opening of The Legacy of Genghis Khan in Los Angeles in the spring of 2003 (figs. 1–2), for example, was covered by local media in close relation to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. One headline in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed: “Beauty from a troubled land. As war threatens Iraq’s treasures, LACMA prepares ‘Legacy of Genghis Khan’.”1 day the exhibition previewed to the press—April 9.2

Not all reactions to the exhibition and especially to its title were quite so preoccupied with contemporary events. Instead, for some members of greater Los Angeles’s very large Iranian diaspora com- munity, it was the thirteenth century all over again as some feelings ran fairly high against Genghis Khan and the Mongols.3

Though by no means pervasive, this mindset generally did not allow for the possibility that the Mongol conquerors’ promotion of pan-Asian trade, methods of governance, avid taste for luxury goods, and practice of relocating skilled personnel might have resulted in an unprecedented cross-fertilization of cultural ideas throughout Eurasia.

Nor was it considered that the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ might have had the effect of energizing Iranian art and infusing it with new meanings and forms that were subsequently spread throughout the Islamic world.

Nevertheless, this reaction was a good reminder of the very deep imprint that the Mongol invasions left on the lands they con- quered and in the collective memories of their inhabitants and their descendants.

The ultimate irony is that the Ilkhanids in Iran, as well as their Yüan cousins in China, became strong proponents of their adoptive cultural patrimony. In Iran, for instance, the Ilkhanids, under the guidance of their Iranian advisors, co-opted the trappings and sym- bolism of ancient Persian kingship by building a palace at Takht-i

Sulayman  (see  the  paper  by  Dietrich  Huff)  specifically  because  of the site’s ritual association with the coronation of the Sasanian king. The palace itself was even decorated with glazed tiles inscribed with verses  abridged  from  the  Iranian  national  epic,  the  Sh§hn§ma,  pos- sibly selected and subtly revised to suggest that they were addressed to  the  resident,  the  Ilkhanid  ruler.4 

 In  a  now-dispersed  illustrated manuscript  of  the  so-called  Great  Mongol  Sh§hn§ma (see  the  paper by  Eleanor  Sims)—probably  produced  for  the  last  Ilkhanid  ruler, Abå Sa‘Êd—Mongol legitimacy is underscored through the paintings, which depict the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran recast in the guise of Mongols.

For example, an illustration to the section on the founding  of  the  Sasanian  dynasty  culminating  in  Ardashir  taking captive  Ardavan  (the  last  Parthian  ruler)  clearly  depicts  Ardashir and  his  entourage  as  Mongol  horsemen,  who  are  distinguished  by the fabric and design of their clothes (about which more will be said below).5  

The painting recommends that the universal story lies not only  in  the  narrative  but  also  resonates  through  the  details.  In  the larger view, the picture is far richer and more complicated than sheer destruction,6  as this collection of papers ably demonstrates.

These papers offer a wide-ranging account of the Mongols in western and eastern Asia in the aftermath of Genghis Khan’s disruptive invasions of the early thirteenth century, focusin the production and acquisition of luxury textiles—especially so-called cloth of gold, or nasÊj, a form of portable or wearable wealth. Based on the evidence of the extant textiles, and in relation to other arts of the Ilkhanid period, I have elsewhere proposed that this medium was perhaps the primary carrier of East Asian (mainly Chinese) visual culture to the West.8  

Given the significant role of textiles in cultural transmission  and  interchange,  and  considering  that  this  important medium was not touched upon at the symposium, I will insert this subject here by very briefly considering a group of spectacular tent panels  in  the  Museum  of  Islamic  Art,  Doha,  and  a  single  panel in  the  David  Collection,  Copenhagen,  that  were  included  in  the exhibition (pl. 1a).9  The tent hangings, which will be the focus of a more extensive study, help to delineate one process by which visual language was altered by external cultural forces.10

The group of textiles is comprised of five full panels and a narrow, vertical strip of a sixth (in Doha) and a vertically divided half panel (in Copenhagen). Each of the five full panels is defined by narrow, vertical bands forming slender columns supporting a pair of ‘cloud point’ arches.

When placed side by side (pls. 1a–b), the panels sug- gest an arcade formed of engaged columns and shallow, arch-like niches of a type that came into common use in Iranian architecture by the eleventh century and continued into the Ilkhanid period and beyond.

The intended sequential arrangement of these wall-coverings is indicated by the fact that each panel has only two of the three sets of ‘columns’ necessary to support the arcade; each is completed by the next panel. Neither the original number of panels nor the size of the structure they once decorated can be conjectured, although it seems likely that were made for an impermanent edifice such as a tent.11 If so, the group of textiles would represent the earliest surviving tent interior.

g on the significant cultural, social, religious and political changes that followed in their wake. An important subtext of this volume (and a major theme of the exhibition and the related symposium) is the cultural transmission that occurred in concert with the establishment of a Mongol world empire. One of the main figures in this area of cross-cultural transasiatic research is Thomas Allsen; though he was unable to participate in the symposium, his publications, particularly his Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire, were a major source of inspiration and information for The Legacy of Genghis Khan exhibition and catalogue.7

As Allsen’s work indicates, the Mongols placed great emphasis on ……

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