Cross-faith conferences: Mongols and Mughals

Lorenzetti_Ambrogio_martyrdom-of-the-franciscans-This post looks at Mongol China and Mughal India: the reigns of Khubilai Khan (1260-94) and Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605). These figures were conscious innovators in the old worlds of China and of India. Khubilai introduced a universal script, Akbar a universal religion; neither invention is thought to have outlived its sponsor, but even so, these remain great experiments in change. I want to focus on a tradition of cross-faith conferences staged at Mongol courts, transported into Khubilai’s China, and culminating in Akbar’s House of Worship: it seems to me that this might well be an inheritance, where Akbar built his house on foundations from his steppe ancestors.

Khubilai and Akbar have commonalities. They were the main establishers of post-nomad states in the great cultural worlds of China and of India. Akbar was more distanced from his Mongol background, but a few scholars have directed attention to Central Asian influences in the Mughal state.[1] Self-consciously, the two were unifiers: although Khubilai was frustrated in his claim to the world-kingship of the Mongols, he returned the north and south of China to unity, which Chinese dynasties had tried and failed to do since Tang; while Akbar united large areas of India that had not been one before. Religious pluralism was important to their politics, and this they had in common with other Inner Asians in custody of settled territory – not only the Qaraqorum Mongols before Khubilai, but the Qara Qitai before them, in Central Asia. Akbar introduced diversity into his government by employment of Rajputs and other Hindus; Khubilai staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian.

Iqtidar Alam Khan traces a general Mughal tolerance, as against the persecutory Islam seen in the Delhi Sultanate before them, back through Timurid traditions to the yasa (legal code) of Chinggis Khan, from whom Babur descended on his mother’s side. The thirteenth-century Persian historian Juvaini, employed by the government of Mongol Iran, gives in ideal terms Chinggis’ edict on the coexistence of religions.[2] Even after the Mongols took on world religions in Iran and China, their policy of religious pluralism was never altogether abandoned, although it became inconsistent – Mirza Haydar Dughlat relates bloody conversion tales among the Mughals’ cousins in Moghulistan, with a prince executing his unconverted entourage.[3]

The objective of religious pluralism in the Mongol world is often misunderstood. It had a history in Inner Asia, and was practiced similarly by the shamanist and Buddhist Qara Qitai in their poly-religious khanship just prior to the Mongols in Central Asia.[4] To see this policy as merely state pragmatism – or worse, a crudity of mind – is to neglect the indigenous religiosity. Of help here is a book on Mughal religiosity: A. Azfar Moin explains Akbar’s ‘participatory acts’ in a way that sheds light on the Mongols’ participation in the rituals and the gestures of religions they did not profess, as orthodox adherents understood profession.[5] Akbar’s sense of religion was ‘embodied’, ‘local’, centred on holy persons rather than on doctrine.[6] Shamanist peoples, Mongols and others, had a preference for Sufis, and this, along with the disruption of the Mongol invasions, aided a shift in religious weight and sentiment from the ulama to Sufis.[7] In Devin DeWeese’s study of the transition to Islam in the Golden Horde, the closeness, even the conflation, of shaman and Sufi, can be seen in depth.[8] Jesuits felt themselves led on by Akbar, and experienced disillusionment when they realised he wasn’t serious: this happens again and again at Mongol courts, and the Jesuit complaint is uncannily alike to the revolving feelings recorded by the missionary friar William of Rubruck, in the account I look at next.[9] Neither Akbar nor the potential converts Rubruck meets were cynical or exploitative, nor did they have simply state concerns in mind. Religious pluralism, as a policy, was certainly pragmatic for the Mongols, but it also made religious sense to them. Both these motives are evident in the religious debate at Grand Khan Mongke’s court in (or near – they were nomads) Qaraqorum.

This debate is a precursor to Khubilai’s debates, and is a cultural heritage behind Akbar’s House of Worship (‘Ibadat Khana). Our witness is Friar William of Rubruck, who gives us our closest view of a court-led interfaith discussion among the Mongols. Its purposes can be ascertained, in spite of Rubruck’s misconstructions. The debate was announced a few days after an incident of hostilities between Christians and Muslims in front of the khan’s brother Arigh Boke, who intervened to stop the exchange of insults. Arigh Boke had met the Christian group, of whom Rubruck was one, with a sign of the cross: here is a ‘participatory act’, that led to rumours he was Christian. Later, the quarrel became physical, with a monk answering Muslim taunts with his whip; Rubruck’s party was reprimanded by being told to make camp not beside the khan’s tent as hitherto, but with the other foreign envoys. Clearly, the debate, an opportunity to air conflicting views, with orders from the khan for no ‘provocative or insulting remarks’, no ‘commotion that might obstruct these proceedings,’ is a response to these unseemly incidents.

It is also clear that the other participants in the debate understood the khan’s purposes better than did Rubruck. First, a ‘tuin’ – probably a Buddhist – attempts to tell him that instead of there being one God, there are evidently gods for regions of the world just as these regions have their kings. This is to phrase another way what Mongke himself says to Rubruck in an audience the day after the debate: ‘God has given ways and religions to man as there are different fingers on one hand.’[10] Thus the khan draws his lesson to the visiting friar. Rubruck and his party have been the most volatile contenders at the debate; the opposition ceases to dispute him, but quietly hears him out. Rubruck believes he has reduced them to silence by his arguments, but it is more likely that they are acquainted with Mongke and behave in a manner that might meet with his approval. They do not clash. They allow Rubruck to air his views, and next day, Mongke expresses to Rubruck what he hoped to achieve: not a win by one religion or another, but coexistence. Mongke’s sentence has the feel of an old saying, although unattested (in this largely oral culture): it is a neat formulation of an Inner Asian religious outlook.

Mongke’s debate was held in 1254. Four years on, in 1258, he assigned his brother Khubilai to adjudicate between Buddhists and Taoists in north China, again for conflict resolution – this time serious disorders. It is frequently said that Khubilai was predisposed to the Buddhist side and did not judge objectively.[11] However, these unprecedented conflicts were caused by his grandfather Chinggis Khan, and he presumably felt a duty to undo the damage. Chinggis had evinced a personal respect for Qui Chuji, head of the Taoist Quanzhen sect, and from the distance of Central Asia granted him a general ‘superintendency’ of religions in north China.[12] As a result Taoism enjoyed a short-lived heyday; a contemporary said that a fifth of the population joined the sect in Mongol favour.[13] By the time of Khubilai’s interfaith court case, Taoists had severely encroached on Buddhist rights and property, and the situation in north China had devolved into violence against religious precincts and personnel.[14] Khubilai redressed the imbalance.

There were further Buddhist-Taoist hearings and debates, but Khubilai, when khan in China, did not pursue the idea of the wide interfaith conference, in spite of the several faiths in his officialdom. Khans in Iran held debates on a reduced scale, often, seemingly, to indulge the curiosity of the prince himself; there is no sense in Mongol Iran that cross-religious discussions were staged for the harmony of the realm – in fact scholars tend to talk of them as a sports-like entertainment.[15] Mongke’s debate had public ends and he himself did not attend, although well-informed by his ‘umpires’, three secretaries of different faiths. Participants had included Catholic and Nestorian Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, shamanists and quite possibly others that Rubruck cannot identify. Nothing like that range is seen until Akbar’s House of Worship, where there gathered ‘Sufi, philosopher, orator, jurist, Sunni, Shia, Brahman, Jati, Siura (Jains), Carbak (the Charvaka school), Nazarene, Jew, Sabi (Sabians – a Gnostic tradition), Zoroastrian, and others.’[16]

Still, Khubilai, frustrated in his claims to universal khanship, increasingly a khan of China, kept a diversity of ethnic make-up in his government. The one thing he did not accede to from Confucian-minded advisors was to reinstate the examinations for civil service entry: he was determined to draw on a wider range of talents than those shaped by study of the Confucian classics.[17] In the China he took over, even diplomats were not thought to need another language; hence his reliance on a ‘steppe intelligentsia’ with language facility, Uighurs, Khitan, Tanguts, Central Asians, employed as interpreters and translators.[18] Linguistic skills were critical for Khubilai; while Akbar attempted to amalgamate religions, Khubilai, instead, tried to introduce a universal script. As outsiders, they were innovators, across cultures. Chinese officials had been previously dismayed by Khubilai’s insistence on colloquial Chinese, for ease of access; there was much hostility towards the universal script, in spite of its effectiveness.[19] Here we see innovations, attempted changes, that were defeated by traditional ways. It is worthwhile to ponder for a moment what might have come had a universal script been successfully introduced for government affairs. Change consists of failed experiments too, not only in the official halls of China; abandoned innovations testify to new ideas. Khubilai’s bold stroke of a universal script in which to write every language was a possibility open to an outsider, a result of the meeting of cultures. It should not be lost to view because it failed. Recent discoveries have proved that the script – named Phagspa after its Tibetan creator – was far more widely and persistently used than has been assumed: this is a caution not to let the master narrative erase changes, as if they never took place.[20] Chinese official histories cannot be expected to pay attention to the Phagspa script. The compiler of the Yuan history (Yuan shi), indeed, was staunchly a Chinese classicist in an essay he wrote on art – no friend to Mongol-era deviation.[21]

For Akbar, the master narrative has been the intellectual tradition – doctrinal, legal; political philosophy and ethical tract – by light of which we write our histories of statecraft and government in Islam: this is the argument of A. Azfar Moin, who writes instead an ethnographic history with eyes on the acts and practices of kings, not the prescriptive literature.[22] Akbar’s religious experimentation then falls into place with Safavid Iran and Timurid Central Asia in an age when kings and messiahs fused. Religious curiosity on Akbar’s part, even his personal quest, cannot be cleanly separated from an ideal wish to resolve or harmonise ‘the confusion of religions and creeds.’[23] His House of Worship was on a grander scale than any conference held by a Mongol prince, but these are a possible transmission line. The House was interrupted by a rebellion, after which Akbar only resumed religious inquiry in his private quarters. By the accounts of both Abul Fazl and Bada’uni, discussion at the House of Worship caused acrimony, uproar, wrangles and hostilities;[24] Akbar’s subsequent Religion of God or Divine Religion (Din-i Ilahi) took a different approach towards universalism. He sought to unify religiosity in a discipleship to himself: this transcended, rather than amalgamated teachings.[25]

As an example of continuity with ways of religion on the steppe, there is the Jesuit ordeal at Akbar’s court. It was Akbar himself, Moin persuasively argues, who urged a display or spectacle of a fiery trial by ordeal between Jesuits and Muslim ascetics.[26] He need not have heard of the judicial ordeal in Europe, as was the Jesuit explanation, or if he did, he might well have recognised a consonance: in the Golden Horde, Sufis and shamans competed against one another in just such physical ordeals, wherein they were to conquer fire.[27] It was a language both sides understood. The Jesuits did not feel themselves such wonder-working saints and declined the contest, with difficulty.

Akbar, in the spirit of the age, transcended dogma in a saintly discipleship centred on his person – not an option open to Khubilai in China. Both Akbar and Khubilai were invaders, and brought potential for change, with themes of unity and universality, of diversity and pluralism, running through their governments. They faced different fates in the cultural worlds of China and of India, but we see the persistence of a shared heritage. The interfaith debate, used to specific purpose in Khubilai’s China, went into decline as Mongols entered the spheres of world religions; but Akbar, for a few years, made an institution of it.

Image  Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Martyrdom of the Franciscans (1342), from the Commons. This intriguing Italian painting deserves a post to itself. But in short, the scene is set at an unidentified Central Asian court under Mongol rule, and this time tolerance has broken down; the visiting friars are killed. Roxann Prazniak has explored this artist’s Mongol contacts; she points to the disbelief or dismay in the reactions of the court, who are presented as poly-ethnic. Lorenzetti is commenting on religious coexistence, both at home in Siena and in the Mongol world he knew. For more, see:

Prazniak, Roxann, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol
Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, vol. 21, iss. 2, 2010, pp.

[1] Books on this theme include Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia, London and New York, 2012. However, she treats strictly the Timurid legacy, without attention to any memory of the Chinggisid Mongols. Another is Richard C. Foltz, Mughal India and Central Asia, Oxford, 1999, which I have not been able to consult.
[2] Iqtidar Alam Khan ‘Akbar’s Personality Traits and World Outlook: A Critical Reappraisal’, Social Scientist, vol. 20, iss. 9/10, 1992, pp. 17-18; Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. J.A. Boyle, Manchester, 1958, p. 26.
[3] Dughlat, A History of the Khans of Mogulistan, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, London, 2012, p. 21.
[4] Michal Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitay in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 171-201.
[5] A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, New York, 2012, p. 151.
[6] Ibid., pp. 130-69.
[7] Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Philadelphia, 2010, p. 201.
[8] Devin DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition, Pennsylvania, 1994.
[9] For Jesuits, see Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 146-52; Rubruck, The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Mongke, trans. Peter Jackson, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1990; see p. 224 onwards.
[10] Ibid., p. 236. In order to bring out the sententious quality I alter the translation, that has been through Rubruck’s Latin too.
[11] For example, Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, Berkeley, 1988/2009, p. 41; George Lane, ‘Khubilai (Qubilai) Khan’, entry in Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, 3 vols, Great Barrington, MA, 2014, ii, pp. 827-8.
[12] F. W. Mote, Imperial China, Cambridge, MA and London, 1999, p. 500.
[13] Yao Tao-chung, ‘Buddhism and Taoism under the Chin’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, New York, 1995, p. 154.
[14] Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, p. 36.
[15] George Lane, ‘Chingiz Khan: Maker of the Islamic world’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 16, iss. 1, 2014, p. 143.
[16] Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, 3 vols, trans. H. Beveridge, Calcutta, 1897-1939, iii, chapter 95.
[17] Morris Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’ in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, eds. Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, Cambridge, 1994, p. 416, 418, 427.
[18] Ibid., p. 416; for Chinese diplomats, see the Introduction by the editors, p. 20; ‘steppe intelligentsia’ is from Igor de Rachewiltz, Hok-lam Chan, Hsaio Ch’i-ch’ing and Peter W. Geier, eds, In the Service of the Khan: Eminent Personalities of the Early Mongol-Yuan Period, Wiesbaden, 1993, pp. xiv-xv.
[19] Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’, pp. 466-7.
[20] Shane McCausland, The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, London, 2014, pp. 231-2.
[21] Ibid., pp. 238-9.
[22] Moin, The Millennial Sovereign.
[23] Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, iii, chapter 100.
[24] Ibid., iii, chapter 95; Bada’uni, Selections from Histories, 3 vols, trans. George S.A. Ranking, Sir Wolseley Haig and W.H. Lowe, Calcutta, 1884-1925, ii, chapter 69.
[25] Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 138-46.
[26] Ibid., pp. 148-9.
[27] DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde, pp. 167, 243-56.

Amgalant graphics

These gorgeous Mongolian graphics with Amgalant quotes are made by my sister Julie Bozza.

graphic - Our children

graphic - He only knows a single thing

graphic - Divine guidance

graphic - None of his sonsgraphic - The sun is a flower

This last is a line from a poem found in the Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin. Jamuqa, who knows a bit about battle poetry (joke), appreciated it in his last hours.

If you had only been with us at the
wedding-like battle, when red saffron blood was the perfume of heroes.

The sun was a flower, the evening, crescent
moons, the arrows were rain, and the swords were lightning flashes.

(translation by Bellamy and Steiner, Ibn Said al-Maghribi’s Book of the Banners of the Champions. In the Penguin, p. 301)


The sun is a flower: ‘Poppies in the sun’ by jiimms

None of his sons were perfect: ‘Mongolian little girl’ by Vadas Robert

Divine guidance: unknown photographer

He only knows: ‘Terelj skies’ by P Lechien

Our children: ‘Mongolian Youth’ by Erhart Christoph

English imitation

I like to muck about with translation of the Secret History. Inspired by Everett Fox’s raw translations from the Bible, that imitate what the original does no matter how strangely this comes across in English, I have tried to get more authentic with the Mongol.

I don’t read thirteenth-century Mongol; yet you can acquaint yourself thanks to the resources at Monumenta Altaica, who have the Cleaves English translation along with three transliterations of the original. With a transliteration in front of me and rival translations with notes on word use, I concoct.

Take a passage: Blue Jos describes Temujin, The Secret History of the Mongols, §254.
First, the version I have in my novel (Tribal Brawls, epigraph to the chapter ‘Jamuqa Back from the Dead’):

In his hazards he tied his head behind him with his bags,
For safety from spillage he kept his blood in his flask.
With his sleeve for his cushion,
With his coat-skirts for his couch,
The flesh between his teeth he ate for supper
And swallowed his spit to slake his thirst.
In his efforts for us the sweat of his brow ran to his feet,
The sweat of the soles of his feet ran to his brow.

Here’s the original Mongol. You can see the shape and the rhymes (hint: look for rhyme at the start of the line not the end). The first and last lines are prose – I leave them unitalicised; in between is verse:

Qan ecige tan-u qamuq ulus-i bayi-ul-urun
qara teriü-ben qanjuqala-ju
qara cisu-ban nambuqala-ju
qara nidü-ben hirmes ülü kin
ciki-ben dere-tür ülü talbin
qancu-ban derele-jü
qormay-ban debüs-cü
šilüsün-iyen unda la-ju
šigi-yen qonaqla-ju
manglay-in kölesün
ula-tur gür-tele
ula-yin kölesün
manglay-tur qar-tala
ölümle-n kicien yabu-quy caq-tur eke tan-u qamtu-bar joboldurun…

Here’s an attempt to imitate in English what it does. For instance, that qara, three times in a row, means black — used far beyond the literal, opposed to white to stand for unfortunate or non-noble, common. I left it out of my loose translation that had to be self-explanatory for the purposes of the novel. Now I’m interested in ever more authenticity…

The khan your father, in his work to found the whole ulus [people or state] –
black head being strapped to his saddle,
black blood being poured into his flask,
black eyes unblinking,
not lying his flat ear to a pillow, making do with his sleeve,
making do with his coat-skirts spread out,
satisfying thirst with his saliva,
eating his gums for meat –
he struggled –
until the sweat from his brow ran down to his soles,
until the sweat from the soles of his feet ran to his brow –

diligently he gave himself to the great work.

Racism: In a history book near you

from Bayan-Ulgii
















Racism is a theme in my twitter-news lately. In Australia we have footballer Adam Goodes who has been too Indigenous for certain sectors of the crowd – whereby unacknowledged racism is being talked about. In America… I don’t often America-watch, but I have to say, the Charleston church killings have left more of a permanent impression on me than any event in my lifetime within the US (aside from capital punishment, which I do watch). Now Twitter tells me a bloke at the head of the UK government is in trouble for describing unwanted people as a ‘swarm’, and thus dehumanising them.

People as swarms? That’s very familiar to me, on my home ground of Mongols.

You probably know there is a history of animalistic language used of steppe people by settled. Chinese names for steppe identities often punned on animal and insect imagery, or else were simply insult-names (if you don’t know, you can ask my Tchingis, but he’s sensitive on the matter: Tribal Brawls, chapter 2/2). As for the right today not to be spoken of as animals, steppe people are way behind.

Exhibit A:
“The ensuing chaos led masses of Turks to swarm into Syria…” [706-7]
“The Turkic khaganate became the breeding-ground for other powerful Turkic tribal confederations.” [696]
– D. A. Korobeinikov, ‘Raiders and neighbours: The Turks (1040-1304)’ in The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500–1492, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Exhibit B:
definition of ‘breeding ground’ in The Cambridge English Dictionary:
1. A place where animals breed and produce their babies.
Example: These animals always return to the same breeding ground.
2. A place where something develops easily, especially something unpleasant.
Example: Poor housing conditions are breeding grounds for crime.

I don’t know whether cloistered steppe historians upset themselves over this kind of language. I do.

‘Horde’ itself is overused. At least it is commonly explained these days that the original orda or ordo meant a chiefly camp, a court camp. Does that excuse our permutations of it? But I am more concerned by ‘swarm’ and ‘breeding grounds’, both of which I see around the traps.

In my last post I urged the watching of films from China and Mongolia. What I didn’t work out a way to say is, in these you’ll see Mongols, simply, assumed to be human beings, and there the difference lies. That’s crudely put but it is my perception. It seemed too crude to say.

You know that thing when you don’t call people racist, even though you know they are? It’s too confronting, it’s impolite. At the moment, in Australia, we’re over that attitude. Racism is racism. It hurts people. Call it.

I’ve complained about prejudice in history books before in this blog, but I haven’t called it racism. It is. Steppe nomads can be talked about as not-quite-human. It’s not on.

I think other historical peoples have been stood up for, already, better than my Mongols have. People feel free to talk about Mongols in way they wouldn’t of most other historical peoples. With the amount I read on Mongols, I honestly believe this to be true. In the worst of it, there’s no thought that they are still an existing people; no thought that our coverage – popular and academic, fiction and non-fiction – is still Eurocentric, and unfair. I’m on the verge of slapping on that label Orientalist. Because most of our coverage is.

In a biography of Genghis published last month, Frank McLynn (more at home with biographies of Europeans) reaches the verdict that the Mongols were ‘parasites’. I won’t talk here of what I think he has left out of this assessment; here I just want to ask, as I want to ask in a hundred similar cases, whether he or those who read him would be comfortable to apply this word to other peoples? A European people? An African people? A Native American people? I have to suspect (in this and a hundred other cases) that no, they wouldn’t be comfortable.

Historical discourse doesn’t matter? It does to me, who am invested in Mongols. It does to Mongolians today who call themselves proud Mongols. Besides, it matters, whenever and wherever, that you acknowledge human beings’ human status – that you are not racist.

Further reading:

Kevin Stuart, Mongols in Western/American Consciousness, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
Timothy May, ‘Mongol Image’ in The Mongol Conquests in World History, London, Reaktion Books, 2012, pp. 102-6.
Christopher I. Beckwith, ‘Epilogue: The Barbarians’ in Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 320-62.

Watch Mongolian — watch Chinese

It isn’t always easy, to catch up with films made in Mongolia or China or Kazakhstan, on the subject of Mongols. A few of them struggle into international distribution. Let’s support them.

They are different. In this quick post I won’t try to list or express how, why and where they are different, but from the bottom up, in a dozen ways, every second on screen, on a fundamental level, they are different.

Got that? You’ll see when you see them.

They struggle for popularity, too, because they don’t have Hollywood conventions of violence and action. They have to be retitled for international, to make them sound like the violent action we require, but that strategy can lead to reviewer disappointment. Still, if you enjoy more thought than gore in your films, you’re better off with Mongolian or Chinese made.

So maybe try what’s available in historicals, and encourage distribution.

An End to Killing 
China, 2012. Directed by Wang Ping.
North American title: Kingdom of Conquerors

An End to Killing - title on posterKoConqs

Genghis: The Legend of the Ten
Mongolia, 2012. Directed by D. Jolbayar and U. Shagdarsuren.

Legend of the Ten - better








Queen Ahno

Mongolia, 2014. Directed by Shuudertsetseg Baatarsuren
International title: Warrior Princess

Warrior Princess

Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe
Kazakhstan, 2012. Directed by Aqan Sataev. 

Myn Bala

Chaucer goes to the Golden Horde

Diego-homem-black-sea-map-1559Chaucer set his Squire’s Tale at ‘Sarray, in the land of Tartarye’ – that is, Saray, city of the Golden Horde Mongols, Jochi’s ulus, above the Black and Caspian Seas. What did Chaucer know or care about a Tartar khan at Saray and his court?

The Squire’s Tale, as a romance, has been despised in the past; people have said it’s unfinished either because Chaucer had too much discrimination to go on or because the other Canterbury pilgrims stopped the squire’s drivel. You can read it yourself and judge. If you like medieval romances (adventure tales, with fantastic happenings, errant knights and wandering plots), there’s nothing wrong with it. It is unfinished, to the point that it’s only just begun. Flying_Horse,_East_Han_Dynasty.Bronze._Gansu_Provincial_MuseumWe are left with the khan’s daughter, gifted with a ‘quaint ring’ that lets her understand the talk of birds, having listened to the confession of a she-falcon, intent on self-harm, who has been seduced and left for a rival; the rest of the court are still asleep, after a grand feast whereat was given to the khan a flying horse of brass, that transports you anywhere when you tweak its ears. Nobody knows what happened next.

It used to be dismissed as a mishmash of wild marvels ‘for those who like that sort of thing’. Who knew that the Squire’s Tale had historical value? Carmel Jordan told the world in 1987 when she consulted archaeological work written in Russian, and saw that the Golden Horde was as spectacular as Chaucer describes (you can take a little trip with Ibn Battuta, to visit the khan in his gold-tiled tent in 1332-3). Castiglione Horse_Chaoni'erThe setting, at least, wasn’t wild imagination; and furthermore, she suggests that every marvel had its real-life kick-off: the bronze horse, for instance, might have been put into Chaucer’s head by gift steeds that caused a stir at Mongol courts for their unusual size and general foreign glamour. The khans had a fascination with contrivances, too, that might inspire Chaucer’s magical ornamentation: the ingenious silver tree that dispensed drinks at Karakorum had its counterpart in Saray.

Chaucer, unfortunately, never set foot in Saray himself or indeed the Golden Horde. How did he come to be informed? In the latter 13th and the 14th centuries, near the end of which the Squire’s Tale was written, the khans of Saray and the Italian merchant republics operated in a symbiosis, for an unprecedented age of trade. Genoese, above Venetians, won the major part of the Black Sea trade, and moved with confidence in the Mongol world. Genoa also outstripped other Italian cities in trade relations with England. Chaucer took part in a delegation to Genoa for trade discussions in 1372-3; subsequently he was employed in Customs for the port of London. It is agreed he had ample opportunity, in diplomatic and commercial circles, to hear from Genoese their tales of Saray.
Braun_Genova_UBHD View of Genoa in 1572Recently Michael Murrin has written a great book on Trade and Romance: how romance, first turned by Marco Polo’s travels, changed from a ‘Celtic fantastic’ to a ‘marvelous real’ – set in Asia, and driven not by the interests of aristocratic fighting men, although these remain the heroes of romance, but by the adventurous activities of merchants. He posits a dual audience for such romances as the Squire’s Tale, both upper class and those who live by commerce. It is the case that fighting men didn’t visit Saray: merchants did (not that these merchants weren’t up for a fight). Merchants went further, and saw things undreamt of by knights. The popular romances followed in their steps – but doing this, they lost status, and were trivialised, too, in the scholarship.

Caravane_Marco_Polo Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan

I’m fascinated by Chaucer’s trip of the imagination to Saray, and later adventures too of European romancers in the Mongol world. More to come.

Main works consulted:

Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by Samuel Willcocks, Leiden, Brill, 2012.
Carmel Jordan, ‘Soviet Archeology and the Setting of the Squire’s Tale’, The Chaucer Review, volume 22, issue 2, 1987, pp. 128-9.
Michael Murrin, Trade and Romance, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Images from Wiki Commons:

Black Sea map 1559; flying horse (hoof on a swallow), East Han Dynasty, bronze; Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), court painter for the Qing, one of his Four Afghan Steeds; view of Genoa 1572; caravan of Marco Polo, from the Catalan Atlas 1375, attr. to Cresques Abraham.

Marco Polo: the women

Chabi with a sword at Mei Lin(thoughts on John Fusco’s Marco Polo, post 1)

This interview with Marco Polo actors Joan Chen and Zhu Zhu asks how they present the women — whom the interviewer finds ‘the most fascinating people we meet’ in the show, with surprising lives for the thirteenth century. As usual, people aren’t so acquainted with the Mongol thirteenth century when they say this; though as he goes on to say, truly, women remain underwritten in the history books.

Song empressI too thought the women were a strength, and interestingly treated. Late Song was notable for strong empresses, and our empress dowager is one of those, as she and Khubilai try to negotiate a peace against the war parties at each court. Khubilai’s empress Chabi (Joan Chen) had a strong political involvement, and that is also done justice to. The personal interactions of Khubilai and Chabi were a highlight, and the makers take the opportunity to explore their marriage situation, this well-loved wife alongside Khubilai’s total self-indulgence in concubines. Then the concubines: two whores, as they are frequently called and self-called, friends, at the Song court. These two, who live on sexuality, are heroic in their victimization; it’s them and the empress we see in Song, active against the chancellor. I thought their exploitation well-explored. Jing_FeiI can’t forget the scene when the Song chancellor paints on her rosebud lips and turns her into a doll-face, with tragic eyes. Having her wide mouth suddenly made toy-size by the brush, was telling. Then, when the chancellor breaks the child’s feet – footbinding – that was equal-horrific with the scene of atrocity in war. The sexualization of women is not just on-screen for your enjoyment, but is explored.

Chabi and the Blue Princess (Zhu Zhu) grew up with a Mongol lifestyle, and now live in a semi-Chinese environment; at unexpected moments such women can whip out a bow and remind you they still are Mongols. Qutulun – you know her; the wrestler – is everything you want (‘I love that girl,’ says Khubilai when she swaggers in in war gear), including a freedom of sexuality that isn’t unhistorical. The second season is nicely set up for more of her, with her father and Khubilai now in conflict. Khutulun









On popular history

This post was kicked off by a grumpy preface from Morris Rossabi to his 20th anniversary edition of Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Wherein he almost regrets writing so positively about Khubilai, since his work has been fuel for the popularizers. He doesn’t name names, but Jack Weatherford is the target of this ire: “One popularization, based on a doubtful and distorted use of scholarly studies, even reached the best-seller lists…”

I’m tired of Weatherford getting stick from historians. Let me blog. You’d think from this Weatherford was a mad popularist with no original research or intellectual standing of his own: in fact he was a cultural anthropologist (here’s his staff page – Mr Weatherford now enjoys a retirement in Mongolia), and if historians were less grumpy, they might notice that his cultural anthropology, and his application of it to the primary sources, has things to teach them.

As you know if you’re on this blog, my Mongol researches have stretched back fifteen years, fifteen conflicted years in the historiography, over which we have witnessed not only the advent of Weatherford, one-man-band for Genghis, ruffling historians’ feathers, but ‘The Rise of Cultural History’. That’s the title of a recent contribution by none other than David Morgan [in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change].

Can not a cultural anthropologist and a discovery of cultural history live in peace? Find common ground? (yes, they can: that’s at the end of this post).

I said ‘none other than David Morgan’, because in my household, that’s me and the stuffed bears, his name has the sort of notoriety (excuse my outspokenness; he won’t read this blog) that Weatherford’s name has among your traditional historians. What did David Morgan ever do to me, and my stuffed bears? Believe me, my bears have been a comfort, from angst induced by the good Mr Morgan, before he discovered cultural history. It’s been told to me that historians get angry at mention of Jack Weatherford. Understood. But what about my anger at the Morgan book? Can I be angry too? I’d keep my despair between me and my bears, except – even though the good Mr Morgan now writes about how Mongol historiography has changed, his 1986 book is still disseminated as a standard work. In a book I read two days ago, with new ideas on the Central Asian background of Mughal India, Lisa Balabanlilar was content to use the Morgan as her main information on Chingis. So I am in a position like Rossabi’s: Weatherford bothers him in that Weatherford is everywhere. I meet the David Morgan everywhere, and other than Morgan’s own wish to be superseded, his stated discomfort with its continuance, I don’t see the book criticised. For me, every page – I exaggerate; every three pages – said, loud and clear, ‘I am written from a European perspective; I don’t try to look through Mongol eyes, or understand why a Mongol does what he does, in terms of his own culture.’ The pages scream that at me.

Does nobody else hear them?

His book has been my Exhibit A for why we need culture study: this is the type of history we have in its sheer and utter absence. I don’t see that hostility towards a cultural anthropologist – who, I grant you, has written for a general audience – helps toward the integration of culture study into a historiography that used to be happy to work without cultural knowledge.

The ‘rise of cultural history’ (art history; material and technological transmission) is a fantastic thing; but if you are still afraid of anthropology, you haven’t gone far enough. Can we not acknowledge the good Mr Weatherford for his injection of anthropology into Mongol historical studies?

What I suspect is that historians acquaint themselves with Weatherford due to his NY Times bestseller feats, but don’t otherwise keep a close eye on the popular output. They have no real idea of what he had to combat. From my observation post, Rossabi’s fear, expressed in his preface, that Weatherford has infiltrated the public mind until everybody is now given to ‘hagiography’ of Genghis, isn’t necessary, and he can rest assured Saint Genghis remains rare. You can find him in my novel, but Jesus, I wish I saw more of him elsewhere. [1]

Popular history doesn’t always keep up with ‘the rise of cultural history’. Exhibit: a review of John Man’s latest, where he is quoted thus on the legacy of empires: “[T]he Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say… The Mongols didn’t.” To be plain-spoken, I was upset that a magazine called the Asian Review of Books didn’t rebut this statement. Well, I rebut it. It’s where we used to go wrong: to expect, from a nomad people, those achievements that have defined our idea of civilization (you notice the etymology of that word). Hence we missed most of what the Mongols did. To judge the Mongol ‘empire’ against the Roman and the British empires, is to ask to fail to see what they meant to do, and what they achieved. I’ll say, to be fair to popular history, that this is no different to the Morgan book.

One of the grooviest things I’ve seen happen lately is histories that truly do bridge the scholarly and the popular, and that give the latest news on Mongols. I’d name a couple in this category: Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History, and a book that Morris Rossabi is involved in: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The Timothy May comes out of the rise of world history, which again, has a different perspective on the Mongols, one that appreciates their cross-cultural activities and even ‘what they did for the world’ – which, let me iterate, isn’t what an agrarian civilization might have done but is entirely different. May also looks at ‘Mongol image’ which I wish the scholarly set did more of (instead of just investigating that Weatherford book). The other, kept in publication by the Smithsonian, is a joint effort that includes Mongolian scholarship. I suspect – I may be over-suspicious (Weatherford gets no cred for winning Mongolian awards) – we have had a bit of an attitude that Mongolians are only going to write apologetics on Mongol history – that ‘we know your history better than you do’, which is nothing if not rude. This one is a get-together of well-known scholars, who yet are going to ‘respect the feelings of Mongolian people about their past.’ It can be done.

[1] ‘in my novel’: I’d better add, a tragic saint involved in slaughterous wars. What else do you expect from a novelist?

A chance to write about my craft

VoicesI am excited to announce I have taken up an invitation from Simon J. Cook to write an essay we have titled Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, for publication at Rounded Globe.

I hope to make a case study on writing historical fiction from a source. I hope to introduce you to the intimacies of that source.

In my early years with Amgalant, I turned for companionship to T.H. White, in communion with his Malory: talking to Malory, inserting Malory passages in his novel, living with the original writer and his work. I was living with my original, likewise. Besides, there is no book dearer to me than The Once and Future King — through which I discovered the Source. Straight after the Once and Future, while I was still quite young, I went to Malory – taught to do so by T.H. – and not in a bastardised modernisation, whose mother was a hamster, but the OUP, with original spellings, where knights garnysshe themselves for battle (often with a sprig of oregano). If there’s been a more important event in my life, I don’t know what it is. When I came to write historical fiction, to be so devoted to my source, I owe to the imprisoned knight and his modern counterpart who prayed for him.

My mission, which I have chosen to accept, has been assigned me in the book description:

Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe
by Bryn Hammond

Bryn Hammond has written some astonishingly good historical novels. Her ‘Amgalant’ series brings to life the twelfth-century Steppe as no scholarly history could hope to do. Yet Hammond has immersed herself in her sources; her books are born of painstaking research and breathe a discipline of imagination rarely encountered in historical fiction.

In this scholarly meditation, a digression from her usual writing, Hammond reflects upon the relationship of her own craft to that of the academic historian. Focusing her discussion around The Secret History, the primary Mongolian source for the history of Genghis Khan, composed in the thirteenth century, Hammond asks what it means to discern different voices in what is essentially a communal history constructed from an oral account. What does the novelist as creative writer bring to this text? What might she hear that eludes the careful ears of the academic historian?

eta: Dec 15, 2015

In the meantime, have a look at Rounded Globe, its aims and offerings. Simon J. Cook left employment in an institution (I mean a university, not a madhouse) to pursue independent scholarship. With my commitment to independent publishing – in essence, to be free from anti-creative pressures – I am in sympathy with this; as I am with his idea of accessible scholarship. Out now is Simon’s book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, with other titles due through the year.

Two Sacrificial Deaths

Dish_with_Paired_Fish,_first_half_of_14th_century,_Ilkhanid_period,_Iran_-_Sackler_Museum_-_DSC02511There’s a reason for the fish. Read on.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed; some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives; some sleeping kill’d…

… and some have sacrificed their lives for loved ones, in a bargain with the gods. As usual, it’s a pity Shakespeare didn’t have the histories of Mongol kings to hand, instead of those dull English chronicles. Today we have extracts on two kings or princes who went ‘in the place’ of a sick family member: did the one draw inspiration from the other?

First, Tolui. In the Cleaves translation of the Secret History, that you can read online. I quote the whole of section 272. Apologies for length, but summaries can’t give you the flavour. I have simplified Cleaves’ textual interventions and indicated verse by italics.

In the year of the hare [1231] Ogodei Qahan set forth against the Kitad people and sent Jebe as vanguard. And so, overcoming the soldiers of the Kitad and having slain them till they stood like rotten trees, passing Chabchiyal, making them to assault their towns and cities in every quarter, making the soldiers to march, Ogodei Qahan pitched at Sira Degtur. There Ogodei Qahan was attained of sickness. When, losing mouth and tongue, he was in distress, when one caused to divine by diverse sorcerers and by diviners, they said, “The lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters of the Kitad people, now when their people and folk are spoiled and now when their cities and towns are destroyed, rage violently against the Qahan.” When they divined by bowels, saying, “We shall give in his stead people and folk, gold and silver, cattle and food,” the sickness not abating, the lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters raged more violently. When they divined by bowels, saying, “Could somebody from the persons of the imperial family serve in his stead?,” the Qahan, opening his eyes, requesting water, drinking it, when, being asked by him, saying, “What hath befallen?,” when the sorcerers reported unto him, saying, “The lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters of the Kitad people, now when their land and waters are destroyed and now when their people and folk are spoiled, rage violently against thee. When we divine by bowels, saying, ‘We shall give in his stead whatsoever other thing they may request,’ they rage more violently. When we say, ‘Would somebody from the persons of the imperial family serve in his stead?,’ the sickness abateth. Now the decree shall decide how we shall do,” when Ogodei made a decree, as he said, “Who is there from the princes in my presence?,” Prince Tolui was in his presence. When Tolui spake, saying, “Our fortunate father Chinggis Qahan, while there were elder brethren above and younger brethren below, choosing thee, elder brother the Qahan, even as one chooseth a gelding, and feeling thee, even as one feeleth a wether, pointing out his great throne unto thy person and laying the many peoples upon thee as a burden, gave them unto thee. As for me, I was told, ‘Being in the presence of the elder brother the Qahan go, Making to remember him which shall have forgotten, Making to awake him which shall be fallen asleep, Now if I lose thee, mine elder brother the Qahan, Of whom shall I make to remember him which shall have forgotten? Of whom shall I make to awaken him which shall be fallen asleep? Verily, if mine elder brother the Qahan become not right, The many Mongghol people would be orphans; The Kitad people would rejoice. I shall serve in the stead of mine elder brother the Qahan. I have cleft The back of the tulu fish. I have cut in twain The back of the kileme fish. I have conquered The visible. I have pricked The outside. Fair of face, Long of back am I. Sorcerers, incant and conjure!,” when the sorcerers conjured, Prince Tolui drank the water of conjuration. When, sitting but a moment, he spake, having said, “I am become drunk. While I rouse myself from my drunkenness, let the elder brother the Qahan decide how he may care for his younger brethren, orphans and young, and his younger sister in law, Berude, a widow, until they attain unto intelligence. I have spoken my words whatsoever I had to speak. I am become drunk,” he went out and departed. Such was the manner in which he became not right.

‘Not right,’ as you gather, means not alive.

Thanks for reading that. But now I have to give you, also, the story from Rashid al-Din, the Jami al-Tawarikh, because I think it’s gloriously told. The religious terms have since become Islamic, so that ‘lords and sovereigns of the land and water,’ that is the spirits of place, are changed in Tolui’s speech to the one God. This is from the J.A. Boyle translation: The Successors of Genghis Khan, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp. 38-9.

Because Tolui Khan had been separated from him for some time and he had heard that an enemy had overpowered him when far from the main army, Qa’an [Ogodei] had been in great distress of mind. When the good news arrived of his victory and safe return, he was exceedingly pleased and happy. And when Tolui Khan himself arrived he showed him much honour and praised him greatly. And so unexpected a victory having been gained, he left Toqolqu Cherbi with some other emirs to deal with Altan Khan and subjugate all the countries of Khitai, whilst they themselves auspiciously returned, in triumph. Tolui asked permission to go on in advance: he died suddenly on the way. It is related that several days before, Qa’an had been sick, and at his last breath. Tolui Khan went up to his pillow. The qams [shamans], as is their custom, had pronounced their incantations and washed his sickness in water in a wooden cup. Because of his great love for his brother, Tolui snatched up that cup and cried out with great insistence: “O Eternal God, Thou art aware and knowest that if this is because of sins, I have committed more, for in all the lands I have rendered many people lifeless and enslaved their wives and children and made them weep. And if it is because of his handsomeness and accomplishments, I am handsomer and more accomplished. Forgive him and call me to Thee in his stead.” Having uttered these words with great insistence he drank down the water in which they had washed the sickness. Ogetei recovered and Tolui took his leave and departed. A few days later he was taken ill and died. This story is well known, and Tolui Khan’s wife, Sorqoqtani Beki, used always to say: “He who was my delight and desire went into the head of Ogetei Qa’an and sacrificed himself for him.”

The story survives nicely, with differences of culture; in this Persian-language history from the Ilkhanlig, Tolui doesn’t talk in terms of metaphorical fish, but here you have, at least, his own people’s later understanding of what he meant by the fish. Tolui has been the most slaughterous member of the Chinggis family, the one with an enthusiasm for war; it is right, as he seems to say himself (with the fish), that the local spirits vent their anger upon him. It’s instructive to see this consciousness Tolui has, of damage done, turned into a religious language of sin. His boast (it’s me you want) comes across a bit differently, too; it’s true he’s the better soldier, and he’s taken in a victory moment. Tolui is also known for his love for Ogodei, in particular – they were said to be closer than brothers usually are, more resembling andas. How did Ogodei, when recovered, react to this sacrifice of life on his behalf? Rashid tells us, later in the tale [p.199]:

Previously, when Ogetei Qa’an had gone to war against Khitai and the inevitable disaster had overtaken Tolui Khan, Qa’an was always bemoaning the pain of separation from him, and when he was drunk he used to weep a great deal and say, “I am exceedingly sad because of separation from my brother and for that reason I choose to be drunk, in the hope of quenching the flame a little for awhile.” And because of the great concern that he had for his [Tolui’s] children he commanded that the affairs of the ulus and the control of the army should be entrusted to the counsel of his [Tolui’s] chief wife, Sorqoqtani Beki, who was the most intelligent woman in the world, and that the princes and the army should be under her command.

In other words, he neglected his duties and left government in the hands of Tolui’s widow – who, we heard above, guilt-trips him about her husband’s death. Poor Oggers, whose excuse for drinking is never listened to; but then Tolui gets it worse, dismissed, in that modern way we have, as died from drink – as the cynical said at the time. However, a descendant of the family may have taken their story to heart. Babur, a Chaghatay Turko-Mongol (it’s the British who called them Mughals), who traced his line to Jenghiz, certainly knew this story of Tolui’s sacrifice of life. Did it inspire him? Did he imitate it? Here is what Babur is said to have written about his own demise, ahead of that event. He believes he’s on the way out because he has exchanged his life for his son’s. You can read this full ‘fragment’ of his autobiography ­online. First, the fond and proud father:

[Humāyūn] reached Agra, the imperial residence. I was engaged in talking of him to his mother, just as he arrived. His presence made our hearts expand like rosebuds, and our eyes shine like flaming torches. It was my daily custom to maintain an open table, but on this occasion I held a feast in his honour, and treated him in a most distinguished manner. We stayed together for some time living on terms of the closest intimacy. The truth is that his conversation had an inexpressible charm, and that he realized completely the type of the ‘perfect man’.

Shortly, these events:

Humāyūn took leave of me to proceed to Sambhal, which was the place assigned for his residence, and where he stayed for six months. It is probable that the climate and water of the place did not suit him, for fever attacked him, and continued for such a long time that I ended by making up my mind to speak to him about it. I gave orders to have him conveyed by boat to Delhi and thence to Agra so that capable doctors might see him and prescribe a proper treatment for him. He was accordingly made to travel by water for several days. In spite of all the remedies that were administered to him, he got no better. Then Mīr Abul Kāsim, who was a person of the highest esteem, represented to me that the only remedy that could be applied in the case of such maladies was to make a sacri­fice to God of something of great value in order to obtain from Him the restoration of the patient’s health. Thereupon, having reflected that nothing in the world was dearer to me than Humāyūn except my own life, I determined to offer myself in the hope that God would accept my sacrifice. Khwāja Khalīfah and other close friends of mine said to me, ‘Humāyūn will recover his health, so how can you speak so unwisely? It will suffice if you offer to God the most precious thing you possess of worldly goods. Offer as alms that diamond which came into your possession after Ibrahīm’s defeat, and which you presented to Humāyūn.’ ‘But’, I replied, ‘there is no treasure which can be com­pared to my son. It would be better for me to offer myself as his ransom, for he is in a very critical condition, and the situation demands that I should come to the aid of his weakness at the expense of my own strength.’ I immedi­ately entered the room where he was and went thrice round him, starting from his head, and saying: ‘I take upon myself all that you suffer.’ At the same instant I felt myself heavy and depressed, while he became cheery and well. He got up in complete health, while I became weak and afflicted with malaise. I summoned to my bed­side the grandees of the Empire and the most influential nobles, and placing their hands in that of Humāyūn as a mark of investiture, I solemnly proclaimed him as my successor and the heir to my crown, and placed him on the throne.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Act 3, Scene 2, line 156. Great speech.

Image: dish with fish, from the Ilkhanlig. On the Commons. Possibly Tolui drank Ogodei’s washings out of one and had fish on his mind.