It isn’t often we find a new primary source, with new material. The Akhbar-i Moghulan by Qutb al-Din Shirazi (1236-1311) is a collection of historical notes, discovered in a miscellany of papers and first published in Qum, Iran, 2009. George Lane has put out an annotated translation, available cheaply in ebook.
The work opens with a single episode chosen from the life of Chinggis Khan, at the muddy waters of Baljuna where Chinggis was in the trough of his fortunes. Legends and variant stories grew up around Baljuna, and the Akhbar-i Moghulan has one we have not heard before. The text runs:
Early accounts of Temujin record events in Wadi Baljuna, which is close to the lands of the Chinese. His followers had gone without food for a few days, when one amongst them succeeded in shooting down a desert sparrow. The bird was cooked and then it was presented to their leader. Temujin ordered that the bird be divided equally into seventy portions, and from that he took his own share that was no larger than any of the other portions. It was because of his willingness to share the tribulations of his men and because of his righteousness that people became his devotees and followers and were prepared to surrender their souls to him.
In his notes Lane says, ‘This episode recounting the magical feeding of the seventy is mentioned in no other source’. Lane has also written the entry for this work in the online Encyclopaedia Iranica, where he is more explicit on the ‘magical’ nature of the feeding:
The one anecdote concerning Čengiz Khan portrays the Great Khan in an almost biblical light, magically distributing the meager rations between his beleaguered faithful in the valley of Baljuna, dividing the meat of one desert sparrow among seventy and “from that sharing and righteousness the people became devotees and followers, and towards him they surrendered their souls”.
By ‘biblical’ he obviously means miracles where Jesus feeds a crowd with five loaves and two fishes, that multiply.
Until I came to Lane’s annotations, I took the division of the sparrow to be an exaggerated/impossible rendition of a concern for equal shares of food (and other stuff). In Against Walls I wrote:
Luxury clothes and clothes-stuffs were a major item of trade, the major, if not the one and only item coveted by nomads that they do not make. It is lightweight wealth, easy to circulate, and infinitely divisible. A strip, a shred of cloth, sumptuous and opulent, can be sewn onto one’s felts and furs – as a sheep can feed an army if you have an army to feed. And the cutting-up thereof, and the counting-out of mutton inches, has a quasi-religious care and solemnity seen otherwise in apportionment of spoils.
I have only the translation to base on, but I think it might be either: an impossible but not miraculous splitting of a sparrow, so that seventy people each get a shred, or a tribute act to Jesus with the loaves and fishes.
I do Jesus tribute in my portrait of Temujin. On the way to Baljuna, at the bottom of his fortunes, Temujin offers to give himself up to an obsessed enemy, and have his head cut off on terms that save his people. Bo’orchu answers him that the enemy wants to ruin Temujin’s image, not help him to a grand self-sacrifice: ‘He wants to expose the effigy for a scruffy rag of felt. He doesn’t want Yesus Christ’.
At Baljuna, on the theme of fairness with food, I tell a variant story of Central Asian traders who arrive with sheep for sale. In his destitute state Temujin can’t pay for the sheep, but he stakes his life to the wary traders that his starving followers won’t steal.
“I see you fear my troops. For that you have no cause. They are hungry, but we won’t rob traders.”
“No insult, Your Majesty. Hungry troops have stomach for strong action. Hungry troops we know.”
He was insulted, nevertheless. “Mine you do not. I’ll be your hostage. Water your sheep, and if a sheep of yours is butchered by my troops, you can truss and butcher me.”
They hovered between a smile and another curtsy. “That… is an extreme guarantee.”
“It is nothing, for my life is in my soldiers’ hands, quite aside from the matter of your sheep. Robbery I won’t have in my army, and these, as you can see, have proved fast to me in my misfortunes. The fettle they are in – their gruesome visage – is the badge of their integrity and not a sign that they are rogues.”
On this promise the traders stay, since they need the water at Baljuna too, and Temujin has time for a charm campaign. He refuses to join them in a sheep feast with his officers, but instead sends his several amputees from their recently lost battle to eat a sheep. In the end the traders are impressed enough to give the flock of sheep to Temujin, and expect payment when his fortunes rise. They tell him this decision through a story about their Prophet Muhammad.
On the third day they came to him and Hasan said, “King, there is a story of our Prophet. He had marched on Mecca and was encamped outside. To judge how dangerous he was the Quraysh sent Urwa to him, who said, ‘Muhammad, you march to war against your own clan – the bluest blood of the Arabs – with slaves and scraps from this-and-that tribe. I warn you, the Quraysh have their milch camels out in leopard skins and swear you won’t enter Mecca. And this motley crew you call Muslims? I see them desert you tomorrow.’ Abu Bakr, who sat beside the Prophet, cried enraged, ‘Suck your moon idol’s nipples. We desert him?’ Urwa watched the Prophet among his companions, watched their treatment of him. When he washed they ran for the water he had used; if he spat they ran to that; if a hair shed from his head they pounced on it. After his observations he returned into Mecca and told the Quraysh, ‘On the one hand these Muslims of his amount to fifteen hundred and are only armed with swords. On the other hand, I have been to see Chosroes in Persia, and I have been to see Caesar in New Rome, but never have I seen a king treated by his subjects the way Muhammad’s companions treat him. The people I saw with him won’t drop off from him, no matter what. Come to your own conclusions.’”
Of course, they mean to say they have seen a similar spirit among those with Temujin while he’s down and out. The traders enter his service, ‘surrender their souls’ to him in Shirazi’s words. They are his first Muslims. He already has Christians, for steppe Christianity was a thing, and so the Jesus (‘Yesus’ on the steppe) references are allowed. Through these Muslims I have Temujin do a Prophet Muhammad tribute act as well.
Lane illustrates Shirazi’s Baljuna tale with two Dashi Namdakov sculptures of Chinggis Khan as visionary with closed eyes, Chinggis in his spiritual aspect (here’s a video of one of these sculptures introduced at Marble Arch, London). He thinks Dashi’s ‘Divine Chinggis’ conveys the ‘biblical style’ of the anecdote in the text. In other words, we need to think of his charisma, and accept from the sources that virtues of unselfishness and humility were a part of it. Another source quote that always struck me as Jesus-y is (as paraphrased in Imaginary Kings) ‘he’d give you the shirt off his back, or step down from his horse and hand that to you and go on foot’. Conscious that I had to create a figure who earned such devotion—earned in the reader’s mind as well as from his followers—I early on turned to religious imagery, and invoked Jesus both explicitly and indirectly.
You notice Muhammad doesn’t speak in that story of him; he sits there in the centre stage but in the background of the action. It’s all about his followers. Last week I read Naomi Standen on ‘followership’ in Inner Asian politics, ‘followership as practiced voluntarily and from positions of political strength’, that is, people’s preference to follow, even when qualified to lead. Instead of a ‘shoving match’ where everyone wants to climb to the top of the heap—a narrative she thinks laid over the sources by the Western political tradition—Standen suggests we imagine a more cooperative ‘dance’. Followers have agency; in premodern conditions on the steppe, followings confer leadership upon a person of their choice. Standen writes of the 7th-10th centuries, and sees traces of these Inner Asian attitudes around leadership ‘at least’ until the 13th century and the age of Chinggis Khan. I feel I have extended them into my Tchingis’ story. Followers make Tchingis, and this seemed to me evident in the Secret History’s tales about his rise. Certainly my young Temujin fits the ‘reluctant leader’ trope. Standen points out that leadership may not be sought by all potential contenders but seen as a ‘responsibility’ that individuals feel they are better off without. I have Temujin’s father describe the khanship to his son in exactly those terms: a heavy responsibility that nobody wants. But there’s more to it than the negative: it’s not only avoidance of leadership, it’s that followership is valued, is valourised. Scholars have observed that the Secret History’s heroes are his followers, not him. As I have him say, ‘Temujin is me; Tchingis is us’. In writing, I thought that religious movements were an analogue I can use to understand this group feeling around an inspirational figure.
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