Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Khüchüleg | Ili Basin | Kashgar

The Gür Khan, whatever his personal failings, had enjoyed during most of his reign the popular acclaim of many the people in his realm. Not until his army under Tayangu was defeated in the autumn of 1210 and many of his disheartened troops went on a looting spree did the Gür Khan’s subjects turn on him. Khüchüleg was cut from different cloth. Although he entertained pretensions of ruling the old Khara Khitai Empire he was basically a freebooter who was more interested in loot and plunder than the day-to-day administration of a functioning society. A nomad from the steppes of Mongolia, he was particularly insensitive to the needs of the sedentary peoples which he now at least nominally ruled. And not of all the local chieftains who were loyal to the Gür were ready to bow down to the Naiman marauder. 

Trouble started first at Almaliq, near the current-day city of Ili in the Valley Of The Ili River, the source of which is deep in the Tian Shan to the east. The Ili River was the easternmost of the rivers in the Seven Rivers Region, an area where, as on geographer points out, “sedentaries and nomads have met at various points in history—coexisting, overlapping, or competing—because it lends itself to both ways of life . . .” Thus it is of “special interest as the historical divide between the eastern and western halves of Inner Asia.” Separated by formidable mountains from the mountain-rimmed basins and depressions to the east, it was more oriented westward, towards the vast steppes and deserts that stretch off to the shores of Caspian Sea. Until 1211 much of the Seven River Region, including, the upper Ili Basin has been ruled by Arslan Khan, nominally a subject of the Gür Khan. 

After the defeat of Tayangu’s army, the Arslan Khan had held his finger to the wind and decided that it was time to align himself with Chingis Khan, who was already the suzerain of the Uighurs across the mountains to the east, and he went personally to the court of Chingis Khan to declare his loyalty. While he was gone an adventurer by the name of Ozar seized control of the upper Ili Basin and the steppes which slope down to the the western edge of the Zungarian Basin, including the Boro Steppe and the area around Lake Sayram. According to Juvaini, he: 
used to steal peoples’ horses from the herds and commit other criminal actions, such as highway robbery, etc. He was joined by all the ruffians of that region and so became very powerful. Then he used to enter villages, and if the people refused to yield to him obedience he would seize that place by war and violence.
Khüchüleg marched against Ozar Khan, as he now styled himself, several times but to the Naiman’s fury was unable to bring the highwayman to heel. Then Ozar Khan, like Arslan Khan, decided to declare his loyalty to Chingis. Khan. He also traveled to the Mongol court, where he was royally received. Chingis, eager to gain his services and cement his loyalty, offered him one of his granddaughters, the daughter of his oldest son Jochi, in marriage. But before Ozar left to go back to the Ili Basin Chingis had some advice for him. Ozar was an avid huntsmen, but Chingis warned him not to go on hunting parties lest he himself fall prey to other hunters. Chingis was so adamant on this subject that he gave Ozar a thousand sheep so he would not have to hunt game for food. Perhaps Chingis had a premonition about Ozar’s death. In any case, when Ozar returned to the Ili Basin he failed to heed Chingis’s advice. While out hunting he was ambushed by troops loyal to Khüchüleg and captured alive. He was taken in chains to Almaliq, where his captors apparently hoped to ransom him. Instead the residents of Almaliq closed the gates of the city and took up arms against Khüchüleg’s men. At this point rumors arrived that a Mongol army under the command of Chingis’s famous general Jebe was on the way to Almaliq. Khüchüleg’s men retreated south with their prisoner and since he was now worthless they slew him somewhere along the road. At least this is the story told by Juvaini. Other sources suggest that Arslan Khan, eager to recover his hereditary fiefdom, had Ozar Khan killed. 

Although Juvaini paints him as a highwayman and ruffian he adds that Ozar,“although rash and foolhardy, was a pious, God-fearing man and gazed with the glance of reverence upon ascetics.” One day a Sufi approached Ozar and announced:“‘I am on an embassy to thee from the Court of Power and Glory; and message is thus, that our treasures are become somewhat depleted. Now therefore let Ozar give aid by means of a loan and not hold it lawful to refuse.’” Ozar bowed to the Sufi and “while tears rained down from his eyes” offered him a balish of gold (about seventy-five dinars). Mission accomplished, the Sufi departed. 

Having lost the IIi Basin Khüchüleg turned his attention south to the Tarim Basin. Back in 1204 the people of Kashgar had revolted. In retaliation the Gür Khan had seized the son of one the local rulers as a hostage and kept him under house arrest in Balagasun. Khüchüleg now sent this princeling back to Kashgar in hopes that he would smooth the way for his own arrival. The local nobles, who loyalties in the meantime had wavered, had him killed at the city gates before he even set foot in town. Outraged, Khüchüleg descended on Kashgar. He made the local people quarter his troops and for three or four years running ravished the countryside at harvest time. “And oppression, and injustice, and depravity were made manifest; and the pagan idolators accomplished whatever was their will and in their power, and none was able to prevent them,”Juvaini laments. 

Religion quickly became an issue. Khüchüleg, who under the influence of his wife was now professing Buddhism, now declared that people of the western Tarim Basin must accept “the Christian or idolatrous creed [Buddhism],” according to Juvaini, or “don the garb of Khitayans.” The details of Khitan haberdashery are not known, so it is not clear exactly what this entailed. In any case, the locals, according to Juvaini were having none of it: “And since it was impossible to go over to another religion, by reason of hard necessity they clad themselves in the dress of Khitayans.” Khüchüleg also prohibited the call-to-prayer from the minarets of Kashgar and Khotan and closed all Islamic schools and colleges. In Khotan, the legendary Silk Road city famous for Carpets, luxurious Silk, and Jade, Khüchüleg called all the local imams out into the countryside and engaged them in debate about the merits of their respective religions. Not liking what he heard from an imam named Ala-al-Din Muhammad, he had the Muslim scholar crucified on the door of his own college. Juvaini:
Thus was the Moslem [sic] cause brought to a sorry pass, nay rather it was wiped out, and endless oppression and wickedness were extended over the slaves of Divinity, who set up prayers that were blessed with fulfilment . . .
The answer to their prayers soon arrived in the person of Jebe, one of Chingis Khan’s ablest generals.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kazakhstan | Possible Sarmatian Ruins

Earlier I posted about the Old Silk Road City of Otrār,  located on the north bank of the middle stretches of the Syr Darya River (the Jaxartes of Classical Antiquity) near its confluence with the Arys River, about 105 miles northwest of the current-day city of Shymkent in Kazakhstan. Now it appears that archaeologists in Kazakhstan Have Unearthed An Ancient City near Shymkent:
The skulls of the people here are distinctly and artificially deformed; they are elongated, Seitkaliyev said. “These ‘distinctive markings’ are most famous with the Aztecs, but this was also a very common way for Sarmatian nobles to distinguish themselves from the commoners.” This evidence raises the possibility that the find could be a Sarmatian settlement. The Sarmatians were an Iron Age nomadic people of Caucasian appearance. In ancient times, the Sarmatians from Western Kazakhstan migrated in large numbers to Europe, but the majority of them went in an unknown direction,” Seitkaliyev said. “Our findings suggest that they settled in the territory of modern-day South Kazakhstan Oblast.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Khüchüleg | Gog and Magog

Khüchüleg, born the Son Of A Khan in Mongolia, had no intention of playing second fiddle to the Gür Khan. He quickly set about assembling an army that was loyal to him alone. According to Juvaini: 
. . . from all sides his tribesmen assembled around him. And he assaulted divers places and plundered them, striking one after another; and so he obtained a numerous army and his retinue and army was multiplied and reinforced. 
One reason so quickly gained adherents was that he allowed his men to loot and plunder at will; the Gür Khan had kept a tight reign on his own troops and paid them a salary in lieu of the right to indiscriminate plunder, a policy almost unheard of at the time. Not only the exiled tribesmen from the Mongolian Plateau were attracted to Khüchüleg’s free-booting ways; soon soldiers were deserting the Gür Khan’s own army and joining up the Naiman adventurer’s marauders. He was still fighting under the banner of the Khara Khitai, however, and in the autumn of 1209 the Gür Khan sent Khüchüleg east to deal with the rebellious Uighurs In Uighurstan, formerly clients of the Khara-Khitai who had thrown in their lot with Chingis Khan earlier that year. The sortie east no doubt provided plentifully opportunities for looting the countryside, but the Uighurs were not to be budged from Chingis’s camp. The Gür Khan, meanwhile, had ridden west to confront the Khwarezmshah. In 1210, personally leading an army of 30,000 men, he seized the Samarkand from the Sultan, but in line with his polices did not allow his men to plunder the city. Hearing that the Gür Khan was engaged in Transoxiania, Khüchüleg now showed his true colors. “ . . . Turning on the gür-khan, he ravaged and plundered his territory, now attacking and now retreating,” according to Juvaini. First he sacked the Khara Khitai imperial treasury at Özkend, on the Syr Darya River, then occupied the Khara Khitai capital of Balasagun. 

Hearing of this treachery, the Gür Khan abandoned Samarkand and rode back east to confront the now overtly rebellious Naiman adventurer. Sensing the disarray among the Khara-Khitai, the Khwarezmshah quickly sent an army eastward. In the early autumn 1210 this army collided with a Khara Khitai army led by Tayangu, the military commander of Taras (or Talas), a city on the Talas River in the Seven Rivers Region between the Syr Darya and Lake Balkash. Where this clash, which would proof to be the defining battle between the Khwarezmshah and the Gür Khan, took place is not exactly clear. At one point Juvaini says it occurred at “steppe of Ilamish”' (apparently in the lower Ferghana Valley); elsewhere he implies it took place near Taras. On the morning of battle the Khwarezmshah ordered his men to say their prayers, then according to Juvaini: 
. . . the whole army raised a shout and charged down upon those wretches [the Khara Khitai] . . . The greater part of that sect of sedition were destroyed beneath the sword, and Tayangu himself was wounded in the battle and had fallen on his face like the subjects of the Khara Khitai. A girl was standing over him and when someone tried to cut off his head she cried out: ‘It is Tayangu!’ and the man at once bound him and carried him off to the Sultan.
From this time on, Juvaini tells us, “dread of the Sultan was increased a thousandfold in the hearts of men.” 

One of the paid poets in the Khwarezmshah’s court composed a lengthy paean to his recent exploits in which he termed the Sultan “the Second Alexander,” referring of course to Alexander the Great. This epithet so pleased the Sultan that he had it added to his list of official titles. Tayangu, the Khara Khitai general who had recently been taken prisoner, fared less well. The Sultan had him beheaded and his body disposed of in a river. 

The Khwarezmshah’s forces moved on to the City Of Ötrar, in the Syr Darya basin, whose governor “refused to dislodge from his brain the arrogance of pride and vanity of riches” and had “turned aside from ‘the straight path’ by leaguing himself with the the Khitai,” according to Juvaini. The traders of Ötrar, pointing out to the governor that he had “ignominiously cast thyself and us into the jaws of a leviathan,” urged him to surrender the city to the Khwarezmshah, which he did. The Sultan give him and his family safe passage out of town on condition that he not return, then, as we have seen, appointed his mother’s nephew Inalchuq as governor and give him the title of Gāyer Khan. 

The Khwarezmshah’s armies proceed up the Ferghana Valley and soon took the city of Özkend.The Gür Khan was now trapped between the ever-advancing Khwarezmshah in the west and Khüchüleg in the east. Khüchüleg was by now in clandestine contact with the Khwarezmshah and the two soon hatched a plot defeat the Gür Khan and divide his empire among themselves. 

But the Khara Khitai emperor was not yet ready to throw in the towel. In 1211 he confronted his rebellious son-in-law near Balagasun and in the ensuing battle took many of his men prisoner and even managed to recover some of the imperial treasury which Khüchüleg had looted earlier. Khüchüleg escaped, fleeing eastward, and began gathering in his scattered troops and reorganizing his army. Meanwhile the citizens of Balagasun, by now fed up with the Gür Khan and hearing that the Khwarezmshah’s army was approaching, decided to take their chances with the Sultan, whose star it seemed was on the rise. They barricaded themselves within the city walls and for sixteen days held off the Khara Khitai. Finally, with the aid of war elephants they had earlier captured from the Khwarezmshah (who had apparently obtained them on one of his forays into India) they broke down the gates and entered the city. The Khara Khitai army, now an unruly mob no longer obeying the Gür Khan’s strictures against plundering, allegedly killed 47,000 townspeople and thoroughly looted the city. 

By then the Khara Khitai Empire was in shreds. The Khwarezmshah was advancing from the west and somewhere in the east Khüchüleg was biding his time, waiting for the right moment to spring once again upon the Gür Khan. The time would soon come. In the autumn of 2011 the Gür Khan retired to the western end of the Tarim, near Kashgar, for a spot of hunting. Given the predicament he was in it seemed a peculiar way to spend his time, but maybe he needed to rest his shattering nerves by indulging in one of his favorite pastimes. Maybe he was enjoying himself so much that his guard was down. In any event, Khüchüleg and 8,000 men swooped down on the unsuspecting Gür Khan and captured him. He choose not to kill the emperor of the Khara Khitai. Instead, he assumed the Gür Khan’s titles and married one of his daughters to a Khitan princess in an attempt to link himself with the Khitan nobility. He tried to ingratiate himself further by adopting Khitan customs, clothes, and religion. 

According to Rashid al-Din, his Khitan wife Qunqu at this point managed to convert him from Christianity to Buddhism, the prominent religion among the nobility (Juvaini claims he married one of the Gür Khan’s wives that had caught his eye and implies that it was she who converted him to Buddhism). Clearly the upstart adventurer from the Mongolian Plateau wanted to be seen as the new Gür Khan, ruler of the Khara Khitai Empire. But the real Gür Khan finally died in 1213 and most commentators, including Juvaini, concluded that the Khara Khitai Empire died with him. 

The fall of the Khara Khitai, even though they not were Muslims themselves, was not viewed with universal favor by all Muslims in Inner Asia. After the huge defeat suffered by the Tayangu-led Khara Khitai army in 1210 there was much rejoicing among among some elements in the Khwarezmshah’s realm. According to Juvaini, “‘The order of ascetics offered thanks to God; the great men and notables feasted and revelled [sic] at the sound of timbal and flute; the common people rejoiced and made merry; the young men frolicked noisily in gardens; and old men engaged in talk one with another.’” But the more reflective graybeards had reservations. Some held the belief that the Khara Khitai had served as a useful wall or dam between themselves and the Mongols. They remembered that according to the Quran (Sura Al-Kahf, "The Cave", 18:83–9), a mysterious individual called Zul Qairain ("The Two-horned One") had journeyed to a distant northern land where he found a people who were suffering from the mischief of mysterious entities known as Gog and Magog. Zul Qairain then erected an iron wall to keep out Gog and Magog, but he warned that the wall would be removed as the Day of Judgement drew near. By the thirteenth century the Mongols had become identified with Gog and Magog. Juvaini goes on to tell of a Muslim scholar named Sayyid Murtaza who did not join in the general rejoicing after the Khwarezmshah had decisively defeated the Khara Khitai in 1210. When asked by Juvaini’s cousin, from whom Juvaini heard this story, why he sat brooding in a corner with a sad look on this face, the scholar replied: 
‘Beyond these [the Qara Khitai] are a people [Mongols] stubborn in their vengeance and fury and exceeding Gog and Magog. And the people of Khitai were in truth the wall of Zul Qairain between us and them. And it is unlikely, when that wall is gone, that there will be any peace within the realm or that any man will recline in comfort and enjoyment. Today I am mourning for Islam.’ 
For the moment Khüchüleg held the broken remnants of the Khara Khita Empire in his hands. But in far-off Mongolia Chingis Khan had never forgotten about the Naiman prince who had somehow slipped out of his grasp back in 1204. Khüchüleg’s days were numbered, and once he was gone nothing would stand between the Islamic Khwarezm Empire and the spawn of Gog and Magog.

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Mandshir Khiid | Telo Tulku Rinpoche

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the Shadjin Lama of Kalmykia and the President of the Buddhist Union of the Republic of Kalmykia (see Elista, capital of Kalmykia), is in town for a conference at the Open Society Forum (apparently only A-List people were invited to this conference and I could not get tickets to his talk; you would have thought it was a Lady Gaga concert) and to visit Narobanchin Khiid, the monastery of his former incarnation, the Diluv Khutagt. On Sunday we wandered out to Mandshir Khiid on the south side of Bogd Khan Mountain.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche at the entrance to Mandshir Khiid
 Andzha, Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s assistant
 Telo Tulku Rinpoche with two Mongolian pilgrims
Telo Tulku Rinpoche examined the ruins of Mandshir Khiid. Most of the temples were destroyed in the 1930s
Telo Tulku Rinpoche with more pilgrims from Chita, in Russia
 Telo Tulku Rinpoche and Batjargal, one of his Mongolian followers
Image of Milarepa (c. 1052—c. 1135 AD), thought to be one of the Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s earlier incarnations. A famous ascetic, Milarepa supposedly ate only nettles for long periods of his life. Curiously, there are nettle all over this hillside. 
Image of Milarepa. Also see The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.
It was the last week of June and wildflowers were in magnificent form. Batjargal says that in Mongolia this yellow lily grows only here at Mandshir Khiid. I certainly have not seen it anywhere else and I always have my eyes open for wildflowers.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s Russian friends, Andzha, and Batjargal at what is reportedly the largest pot in all of Mongolia. The monks at Mandshir used this pot to cook and make tea. 
Andzha, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, and Batjargal

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Khüchüleg and the Gür Khan

His father dead and the Naiman Army Defeated, Khüchüleg and a band of his most devoted followers fled south across the Altai Mountain into the Zungarian Depression in what now northern Xinjiang Province, China. As mentioned, Togtoga Beki and the Merkits had earlier aligned themselves with Naiman, but they too, like Jamukha, had apparently fled on the eve of the final battle. Chingis’s soldiers pursued them and in the autumn of 1204 the Merkit army was almost totally annihilated. Only Togtoga Beki, his sons, and a handful of his most devoted followers were able to escape the slaughter. His youngest son Khutukhan eventually would be tracked down by Jochi, Chingis’s oldest son, who as rumored may have been the biological son of a Merkit. Khutukhan was renowned for his skills as an archer, and supposedly for this reason Jochi begged Chingis to spare his life (whether Jochi harbored some sympathy for Merkits, since he was rumored to be half-Merkit himself, is unknown). Chingis was having none of it. He felt no sympathy whatsoever for the tribe that had kidnapped his wife: 
There is not tribe more wicked than the Merkit. How often have we fought them? They have caused us much vexation and sorrow. How can we spare his life? He will only instigate another rebellion. I have conquered these land for you, my sons. Of what use is he? There is no better place for an enemy of our nation than in the grave! 
Khüchüleg and Togtoga Beki and their followers eventually joined up with Khüchüleg’s uncle Buyirug, who had split with the main tribe of Naiman earlier and had not taken part on the battle at Tuleet Uul. Now, refugees from Mongolia, they nomadized in the upper valley of the Irtysh RIver, on the northern edge of the Zungarian Basin. But even here they were not safe from the long arm of Chingis. In 1208 (the date differs in some accounts) his army crossed the Altais into the valley of the Irtysh and flushed out the escapees from Mongolia. Togtoga Beki was killed, but Khüchüleg once again managed to slip out of the Mongol noose, as did Togtoga Beki’s remaining sons (in a act of peculiar familial devotion they reportedly cut off their father’s head and took it with them). 

Khüchüleg and his ever-dwindled band hightailed it south across the Zungarian Basin to the Uighur Northern Capital of Beshbaliq. 
Ruins of ancient city of Beshbaliq, surrounded by cultivated fields. The Buddhist Temple, which was not within the city itself, is the small white square far left, center. (See Enlargement)
 Ruins of Beshbaliq
Ruins of Beshbaliq
Ruins of Beshbaliq 
Buddhist Temple near ruins of Beshbaliq
 Modern-day descendant of the Uighurs who once lived at Beshbaliq (Listen to Uighur Music)
He was unwelcome among the Uighurs, who by that time may have already been aligned with Chingis Khan, and continued on across the daunting Tian Shan to the Silk Road city of Kucha, at the foot of the mountains on the northern side of the Tarim Basin. Apparently the welcome here was no warmer, since according to Juvaini he then “wandered in the mountains without food or sustenance, while those of his tribe that had accompanied him were scattered far and wide.” This was clearly the low ebb in Khüchüleg’s life. Yet he was nothing if not resourceful, and he would soon catapult from being a destitute wanderer in the Tian Shan to the nominal ruler of an Inner Asian empire who would vie with the Khwarezmshah himself for power. 

Obviously at loose ends, Khüchüleg’s and his few remaining followers fell in with the Gür Khan, ruler of the Khara Khitai Empire which then controlled much of Inner Asia between the Khwarezmshah’s own domains and the Uighuristan to the east. The Khara-Khitai were shards of the old Liao, or Khitan, Dynasty, which had come into power in 916 and ruled northern China until 1125 when they were unseated by the Jurchen, who founded the Jin Dynasty. Originally they were a nomadic people from the mixed forest and steppe east of the Khingan Moutains, in what is now the province of Inner Mongolia in China. At its height the Khitan Dynasty controlled, in addition to northern China, much of modern-day Mongolia, where the ruins of their formidable fortresses can still be seen. 
 Ruins of Khitan Fortress in current-day Arkhangai Aimag, Mongolia

 Ruins of Khitan Fortress

 Ruins of Khitan Fortress
 Ruins of Khitan Fortress 
 Buddhist Stupa near the ruins of Khitan Fortress. This must rank as one of the oldest existing Buddhist monuments in Mongolia. 
After their defeat by the Jurchens, the charismatic leader of the Khitans, Yelü Dashi, fled west with segments of the Khitan nobility and at least 100,000 followers. By 1234 he had established a capital at Balasagun, near Tolmak in modern-day central Kyrgyzstan, and by 1137 had overran the fertile Fergana Valley in western Kyrgyzstan. 
 Minaret at Balasagun, near Tokmak in modern-day central Kyrgyzstan
Pottery recovered from the ruins of Balasagun
On September 9, 1141, the defeated the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Qatwan, thus gaining control of much of Transoxiana, the Land Between the Two Rivers. From this point on the Khara-Khitai could legitimately be called an empire. By the start of the thirteen-century, however, the Khwarezmshah and his Khwarezm Empire had already seized portions of Transoxiana, and the Sultan was locked in a fierce conflict with Gür Khan on the western edge of the latter’s empire. In the east, tribes who had once submitted to him were now gravitating toward the Chingis Khan and his Mongols, who were clearly on the ascendancy. 

It was at this point in time, when the Gür Khan was fighting for the survival of his empire, that Khüchüleg providentially arrived in Balasagun. It is not clear if Khüchüleg had been captured the Khara Khitai patrols while wandering around in the Tian Shan or if he had turned up the Khara Khitai capital of Balasagun of his own volition. In any case, he soon finagled a meeting with the Gür Khan. It will be remembered that the Naiman had once accepted the suzerainty of the Khara-Khitai, and Khüchüleg may have played on this connection. Now the ever-resourceful Naiman made a bold proposal which conveniently addressed the Gür Khan’s own needs at the moment. Scattered throughout Inner Asia, Khüchüleg pointed out, from the domains of the Uighurs north of the Tian Shan around Beshbaliq to the Seven Rivers region south of Lake Balkash, the broken shards of the tribes who had escaped from the domination of Chingis Khan on the Mongolian Plateau were now roaming leaderless. Khüchüleg, the son of a former khan in Mongolia and thus still a man of some standing among the peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, now offered to rally these diverse tribesmen, exiles in foreign and unfriendly lands, under his own command and then place them in the service of the Gür Khan. According to Juvaini: 
If I receive permission, I will collect them altogether, and with the help of these people will assist and support the gür-khan. I shall not deviate from the path he prescribes and . . . I shall not twist my neck from the fulfillment of whatever he commands. 
The Khara Khitai leader readily acceded to this scheme and was apparently overjoyed with this seemingly powerful ally he had gained, showering him with robes of honor and other gifts and awarding him with a new title of Khan. And if we are to believe Rashid al-Din, the Gür Khan’s daughter Qunqu was smitten with Khüchüleg almost at first sight, and three days after the initial meeting they were married. In the thrall of his initial enthusiasm the Gür Khan was unaware that he let a viper into his nest and that Khüchüleg’s promises meant nothing. As Juvaini ruefully notes, “By such deceitful blandishments he cast the gür-khan into the well of vainglory” . . . Continued.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Tatatunga | Mongolian Script

The Final Battle With The Naiman did have one unexpected consequence. Found wandering around the field of battle was a well-dressed man who appeared to be armed only with wooden pens. He also had in his possession the official seals of Tayang Khan. Taken before Chingis himself, he explained that he had been the Naiman ruler’s personal scribe and seal bearer. His name was Tatatunga and he was a Uighur originally from Uighuristan. He had been hired by the Naiman as a scribe and court intellectual. He apparently spoke the Naiman language, whatever that might have been, and presumably he knew at least some Mongolian. Chingis was always quick to utilize the talents of those caught up in his dragnets. Soon realizing how Tatatunga’s particular skills might be used, he set him the task of developing a script for the Mongol language, which up until then did not have a writing system . . . Continued.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mongolia | Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum

Rain had been falling on and off most of the night. When I arose at 4:30 there was a brief lull, but by the time I had finished my orisons at 5:30 a steady pounding of precipitation could be heard on the hard ground outside my hovel. Bogd Khan Mountain to the south was lost in banks of fog. About mid-morning the rain began to taper off. By noon it was a slow drizzle and the fog had broken into streamers which twisted and curled over the ridges of Bogd Khan Mountain. Usually on rainy afternoons like this I like to Drink Shan Ling Xi Ooolong Tea and daydream about Kuchean Dancing Girls

Today I had to meet a friend of mine at the Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum. I had not been there for several years, in fact not since the ceremonial gateway to the main temple complex had undergone a major facelift. There were several tourist buses outside in the parking lot and the lady at the door tried to make me buy a ticket, but I explained that I had some important business to discuss with my friend, who works for the museum as an historical consultant, and she let me in for free. I was early and my friend was a bit late, so I spent an enjoyable half-hour wandering around the grounds in the slight drizzle. 
 The Eighth Bogd Gegeen’s Winter Palace, now a museum
The recently restored front gate to the temple complex
Doors of the Front Gate
Detail of door panel 
 Detail of door panel 
 Dragons and Deer on the roof
Deer and the Wheel of Dharma
 One of the Guardian in the entrance way to the temples
Main Temple
My friend finally came and we retired to the office of the museum’s director, O. Mendsaikhan, located in the back of the temple complex, behind the main Laviran Temple. We were sitting there when Batsaikhan, the author of The Bodgo Jebtsundamba Khutukutu: The Last King of Mongolia, came strolling in, accompanied by a woman and a young man. Batsaikhan is a professional historian I have met on various occasions and we all chatted for a bit. Then he said, “Oh, I would like you to meet someone. This woman’s name is Shurentsetseg. She is the granddaughter of the Eighth Bogd Gegeen, and this young man is her son.” I must admit I was taken back. The Eighth Bogd Gegeen had official consorts I knew but I had never before heard that he had children. Upon further questioning it turned out she was the daughter of one the Bogd Gegeen’s adopted children. Apparently he had adopted three children. Thus he was not her biological grandfather, but her grandfather by law nevertheless. In any case, Batsaikhan was here at the museum to prepare a documentary about Shurentsetseg which is going to be shown on Mongolian TV.
Shurentsetseg (Coral Flower), daughter of the 8th Bogd Gegeen’s adopted child.
Shurentsetseg’s grandfather, the 8th Bogd Gegeen

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Khüchüleg and the Naiman

While Events Played Out In Otrār yet other drama were unfolding high up in the hidden recesses of the Pamir Mountains on the southern edge of Inner Asia. Situated at the convergence of five other great mountains ranges—the Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram—the range is often referred to as the Pamir Knot, the nexus which ties all the other ranges together. 
The Pamir Knot from south of Kashgar. This is right where the Kun Lun and the Pamir ranges come together. 
Although much of the range consists high, grassy plateaus, it also lays claim to some of the world’s highest summits, including 24,590-foot Ismoili Somoni Peak, 23,310-foot Evgenia Korjenevskaya Peak, and 23,406-foot Peak Lenin. Some geographers also include 24,757-foot Muztagh-Ata in the Pamirs, although most consider it part of the Kun Luns. 
24,757-foot Muztagh-Ata 
Indeed, the exact boundaries of the range are unclear, but much of it would appear to be in current-day Tajikistan, and smaller portions in China (Xinjiang Province), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. An ancient southern extension of the Silk Road ran from Kashgar, at the western end of the Tarim Basin, over the Pamirs to India (now Pakistan). The modern Karakoram Highway, one of the highest roads in the world, now follows much the same route. Here, on what Tajiks call Bom-i-Dunyo, the Roof of the World, a confrontation that began in far-off north-central Mongolia fourteen years earlier finally reached its denouement. The main players in this drama were Jebe, one of Chingis Khan’s most famous generals, and a Naiman chieftain by the name of Khüchüleg. 

The Naiman was one of the most powerful tribes in Mongolia in the latter half of the twelfth century when Chingis Khan and his own tribe were on the ascendency, and they would prove to be one of his most formidable opponents. Their territories extended from the valley of the Orkhon River in central Mongolia south and west to the Altais and included much of central and and western modern-day Mongolia. Their name naiman means “eight” in Mongolian, perhaps indicating the number of sub-tribes or clans which made up the tribe as a whole. Whether they were a Turkic or a Mongolic people is uncertain. Up until 1175 they were vassals of the Khara Khitai off to the west, but later recognized the suzerainty of the Jin Emperor, who awarded their leader with the title of Tayang (taiwang = Great King) Khan. They aspired to some level of cultural and no doubt considered themselves superior to the Mongols of Chingis Khan. In a famous passage in the Secret History, the Tayang Khan’s wife, Gürbesü, (she had started out as his stepmother but after the death of her husband married her stepson) spoke of the Mongols thus: 
They stink and their clothes are filthy. They live at a great distance from us. Let them stay where they are. But perhaps we can bring their neat daughters-in-law and girls here. We will make them wash their hands and feet. Then they can milk our cows and sheep.
These were words which she would live to regret. 

At least some among the Naiman practiced Nestorian Christianity. This branch of the Christian faith, deemed heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, gravitated eastward to escape persecution and eventually become known as the Church of the East. Although little remembered now, it was once widespread throughout Inner and East Asia and exerted considerable influence. Following the great trade routes east Nestorian Christianity reaching Xian, the main eastern terminus of Silk Road, no later than the 780s (see the Nestorian Stele in Xian). It eventually seeped northward across the Gobi Desert and onto the Mongolian Plateau, where it found adherents among the Keraits, whose leader Tooril was Chingis’s early patron, and their bitter enemies the Naiman. Khüchüleg, son the Tayang Khan, would himself profess to Christianity, although there was little if anything in his tumultuously violent life to indicate that he ever practiced any of its tenets. 

The events leading up to the showdown between the Naiman and Chingis Khan are beyond the scope of this narrative. Suffice it to say that by 1204 the long festering conflict had come to a head. Jamukha, the chieftain of the Jadirat and Chingis’s bosum buddy from his younger days (according to the Secret History they had “swore their brotherhood and love for one another” and at night “slept under the same quilt.”) and now his bitter enemy threw in his lot with the Naiman, as did Togtoga Beki of the Merkits. Chingis held a special animus for the Merkits, since they had once kidnapped his wife Börte, and when Chingis finally managed to retrieve her she was pregnant. It was widely rumored that Chingis’s oldest son Jochi had been actually been sired by a Merkit. Thus there was bad blood between Chingis and Merkits. 

The Mongols were highly outnumbered by the Naiman and their allies, but while camped on the Saar Steppe Chingis had each of his men build five campgrounds at some distance to each other. Naiman watchmen from the top of Azgart Khairkhan Mountain, overlooking the Saar Steppe, said to each other, “Did we say the Mongols are few? . . . Daily they appear to grew in numbers. There are now more fires than stars.” Hearing this, Tayang Khan concluded that he was facing an immense army. A weak and indecisive man totally in the sway of his domineering ex-stepmother-now-wife Gürbesü, Tayang Khan quickly lost all heart for confronting the Mongols directly. Instead he proposed a retreat south to the Altai Mountains where the Naiman army could then turn on the Mongols and engage them after they had exhausted themselves in the chase. He presented this as the tried and true tactic of the “feigned retreat”, but his own son Khüchüleg and other army commanders interpreted it as cowardice. Upon hearing of his father’s plans Khüchüleg exclaimed: 
Old Woman Tayang again! He must have lost his courage to utter such words . . . Tayang, who has never dared venture further afield that a pregnant woman would go to urinate, nor even a calf to graze.
A Naiman military commander chimed in: “Had we expected that you were such a coward, we would have done better to send for Mother Gürbesü and, although she is only a woman, given her command of the army . . . You are stupid, Tayang. It is all over, you have failed.” 
The Saar Steppe, with Azgart Khairkhan Mountain in the distance
The summit of Azgart Khairkhan Mountain
Overruled and held in contempt by his son and army commanders, Tayang Khan had no choice but to stand and confront the Mongols. “A dying life, a suffering body—they are common to all men. Given it is so, let us fight,” he fatalistically concluded. The ever-vacillating Jamukha, perhaps still in his heart enamored of Chingis, the companion of his youth, deserted the Tayang Khan at the last moment, compounding the Naiman ruler’s predicament. The by-then thoroughly demoralized Naiman sought the high ground of a mountain know as Tuleet Uul in current-day Arkhangai Aimag, where they were quickly surrounded by the Mongol army. They tried a nighttime breakout, but according to the Secret History:
They rolled down from the summit, piling on top of another. Their bones were smashed and fell to pieces, like rotten logs; thus they died. 
Tuleet Uul, where the Naiman rolled down like rotten logs

The Naiman were thoroughly routed. Tayang was caught and executed without further ado. His wife Gürbesü was taken prisoner and brought before Chingis. “Did you not say that we Mongols have a bad smell? So why have you come now?” he chided her. He then made her one of his wives. History is silent about what they said to each other on their wedding night. His son Khüchüleg and a band of his close followers did manage to break out of the Mongol cordon and escape. It would be another fourteen years before the Chingis’s general Jebi would finally track him down in the high Pamirs.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Summer Solstice

As most of you know, the Summer Solstice is rapidly approaching. Here in Mongolia it occurs on Wednesday, June 22 at 1:17 in the morning. The sun will rise at 4:53 and set at 8:55, making for a day of  16 hours, 2 minutes, and 3 seconds. 

The Solstice is of course a big day for Pagans and we can expect a replay of the usual Lalapolooza at Stonehenge. The ancient Romans too made a big deal of the Solstice and the Roman Emperor Hadrian even lined up the buildings of his villa in accordance with the Solstice:
Hadrian's villa 30 kilometres east of Rome was a place where the Roman Emperor could relax in marble baths and forget about the burdens of power. But he could never completely lose track of time, says Marina De Franceschini, an Italian archaeologist who believes that some of the villa's buildings are aligned so as to produce sunlight effects for the seasons. For centuries, scholars have thought that the more than 30 buildings at Hadrian's palatial country estate were oriented more or less randomly. But De Franceschini says that during the summer solstice, blades of light pierce two of the villa's buildings. In one, the Roccabruna, light from the summer solstice enters through a wedge-shaped slot above the door and illuminates a niche on the opposite side of the interior (see image). And in a temple of the Accademia building, De Franceschini has found that sunlight passes through a series of doors during both the winter and summer solstices.
I must thank the Mesopotamian, who it appears will be celebrating the Solstice, for pointing this out (also see the Mesopotamian’s Take on the recent Syrian Gay Girl blogger fiasco).

This year I will not be celebrating the Solstice, as I often do, at the Summit of Bogd Khan Mountain. I may venture up to the top of Zaisan Tolgoi. I will not be engaging in any Bacchanalias, however. Zaisan Tolgoi is not the Rambles in Central Park and Ulaanbaatar is not Manhattan or Richmond, Virgina. Instead, I will limit myself to Orisons suitable for the somber times in which we live. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Afghanistan | Kabul Perspective

I have never been in Afghanistan and know little about what is going there. In an effort to fill in this lacuna I do read Kabul Perspective by Abbas Daiyar. Mr. Daiyar spends a lot of time in Mongolia and I happen to know him. He is currently in Afghanistan where he was born and grew up and where his family still lives. From the quality of his writing you might assume he is a well-seasoned, gray-bearded journalist. Actually, he is in his already well-seasoned early twenties and beardless.  He also writes for CNNWorld and numerous other outlets. If you want a view of what is going on in Afghanistan from someone who actually lives there he is an excellent source. He also has a Mongolian-Themed Blog.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Catastrophe at Otrār

The governor of Otrār was a man named Inalchuq, the nephew of the Khwarezmshah’s mother, Turkān-Khātün. Perhaps because of his close relations with the Shah’s family he had been granted the lofty title of Gāyer Khan. Although accounts maintain that all 450 of the traders sponsored by the Mongols were Muslims, a Hindu merchant from India had also managed to attach himself to the caravan. This man had met Inalchuq previously, before he had become the Gāyer Khan and the governor of Otrār, and apparently he had not been impressed. Now this Indian merchant, who was in Juvaini’s words, “rendered proud by reason of the power and might of his own Khan [Chingis]”, addressed his old acquaintance in a condescending manner, calling him by his common name of Inalchuq instead of by his title. The proud governor was infuriated by the Indian’s haughty, patronizing behaviour, and Juvaini insinuates that he used this incident as a pretext to put the entire trade mission under house arrest and confiscate their merchandize. Other sources say nothing about the Indian merchant and say simply that Gāyer Khan coveted their merchandize and soon concocted an excuse to seize it. He decided that the merchants were in fact spies and then fired off a letter to the Khwarezmshah in which he accused them of engaging in espionage . . . Continued.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Emissaries and Trade Caravans

Having already received an Embassy from the Khwarezmshah and met with Traders from the Khwarezm Empire, Chingis decided to respond in kind by sending his own emissaries to the Sultan’s realm. He took a two-pronged approach. A diplomatic mission would make contact with the Khwarezmshah himself in hopes of establishing the peaceful relations necessary for further trade, and an officially sanctioned trading mission would demonstrate to the Khwarezmshah and his subjects just how how lucrative trading with Mongols could be. The three merchants who had just visited Chingis would accompany the Mongol-sponsored caravan of traders back to Khwarezm and presumably act as intermediaries. According to one account, the embassy was dispatched before the trading mission left for Khwarezm. Another maintains that the embassy left at the same time as the trading mission but then at some point en route hurried on ahead for a meeting with the Khwarezmshah himself. 

The leaders of the diplomatic embassy were three Muslim traders who were themselves from the domains of the Khwarezmshah: Mahmud, from somewhere in Khwarezm; Ali Khwajah from the city of Bukhara, and Yusuf Kanka from the city of Otrār. It is significant that these three men were nominal subjects of the Khwarezmshah but had now engaged themselves as agents of Chingis Khan. That Muslim traders like themselves would work for Chingis demonstrates the ever-widening gap between the ambitions of the Khwarezmshah and the interests of mercantile class of his own empire. As Silk Road traders they might well have considered their services available to the highest bidder, and it would seem that they were not hesitant about throwing their lot in with Chingis Khan, the rising power of the East. For Chingis’s part, he was no doubt eager to use their knowledge of trade networks, their language skills, and their familiarity with the social conventions of Inner Asian Muslims for his own purposes. The fact that they were Muslims obviously did not bother him at all. Since at least the time of the Baljuna Covenant he had dealt with Muslim traders and apparently interacted well with them (except of course for those who tried to cheat him). 

The three emissaries reached the court of the Khwarezmshah sometime in the spring of 1218. Some sources suggest that his court was in Bukhara at the time. The embassy, which did not involve itself in actual trading, did bring numerous gifts from Chingis Khan to the Khwarezmshah. These included a gold nugget “as large as a camel’s hump” which was so heavy it had to be carried in its own cart; ingots of various precious metals, walrus ivory from the northern shores of Asia which had somehow fallen into the hands of the Mongols; musk; and fine fabrics, including a material known as targhu, made from the wool of white camels, each length of which was worth fifty or more dinars

The Khwarezmshah deigned to accept the gifts and granted the three ambassadors a public audience where they relayed the messages sent by Chingis Khan. The Khwarazm Shah, they pointed out, must already know about the great victories of Chingis Khan in the East, including the subjugation of Northern China. The Mongol chieftain now controlled the eastern end of the Silk Road and the riches of the northern Chinese provinces. Likewise, Chingis Khan was fully aware that the Khwarezmshah’s many victories had made him the master of as vast swath of territory from the edge of the Iranian Plateau to the Tian Shan, an area which straddled the great trade routes connecting the Occident and Orient. Chingis was therefore proposing a peace treaty between the two powers and a normalization of trade relations which would allow trade and commerce to flourish between the two powers. Such a relationship, they pointed out, would be equally advantageous to both sides. The merchants added that if Khwarezmshah agreed to this proposal Chingis Khan would consider him “‘on a level with the dearest of his sons’” These men were merchants, not professional diplomats, and thus may not have fully realized how the Khwarezmshah would interpret this remark and what import it would have. 

The next day the Khwarezmshah called in Malmud of Khwarezm for a private interview. The Shah pointed out first that Malmud was a native of Khwarezm and thus nominally one of the his subjects. He then demanded to know the unvarnished truth about the conquests of Chingis Khan. Was it really true that he had conquered all of northern China? Malmud allowed that Chingis had taken the Central Capital of the Jin and subjugated large portions of China bordering on Mongolia. The Khwarezmshah countered with what was really bothering him. Even if he had conquered North China, the Khwarezmshah thundered, this gave Chingis Khan—who was after all an infidel whose true religious convictions were hazy at best—absolutely no right to call him, the mighty Khwarezmshah, the ruler of a great Islamic empire, his son. In the Khwarezmshah’s eyes “son” was synonymous with  “vassal” and the use of the word implied that Chingis Khan considered himself the Shah’s superior. Such an assumption was an outrage and the Shah was infuriated 

Frightened by the Khwarezmshah’s anger over this issue, the merchant quickly backtracked. While it was true Chingis Khan had conquered much of northern China his armies were vastly outnumbered by those of the Shah and he in no way way posed a threat to Khwarazm Empire and its mighty Sultan. Mollified by this flattery the Khwarezmshah finally agreed in principle to a peace treaty between the two powers. But he was not done with the merchant. Malmud must now agree to work as the Khwarezmshah’s spy in the court of Chingis Khan. Fearful for his life, Malmud quickly agreed to act a double agent and was given a precious jewel as advance payment of services to be rendered, thus sealing the deal. 

Armed with a document signed by the Khwarezmshah which apparently proposed a peace treaty but made no mention of trade relations, the merchant-emissaries started back to the court of Chingis Khan. Meanwhile the trade mission which Chingis had authorized was still on its way to Khwarezm. As mentioned, the embassy and the trade mission may have left together and the three emissaries had hurried on ahead of the slower-moving trade caravan. In any case, the caravan continued on to Otrār, one of the first major entrepôts in the Khwarezmshah’s empire. The members of the mission may not have been aware of the outcome of the diplomatic mission. If they were, they might well have assumed that the peace treaty proposal also sanctioned trade, or at least their safe conduct. This would lead to a fatal misunderstanding. The Khwarezmshah had no interest in either peace or trade. 

Chingis himself believed that trade in itself promoted peace, and that the trade mission would contribute to a mutually beneficial relationship between the Mongols and the Khwarezmshah. In a personal message for the Sultan which he sent with the traders he affirmed these beliefs: 
Merchants from your country have come among us, and we have sent them back in a manner that you shall hear. And we have likewise dispatched to your country in their company a group of merchants in order that they may acquire the wondrous wares of those regions; and that henceforth the abscess of evil thoughts may be lanced by the improvement of relations and agreement between us, and the pus of sedition and rebellion removed. 
The trade mission was a sizable undertaking. As an indication of how much importance Chingis placed on it, he ordered his sons and his top army commanders to each provide two or three men from their retinues to make up the party and to provide each of them with a balish of gold or silver as capital for trading ventures. A total of about 450 men were thus selected, all of them Muslims, since Muslims were much more experienced in the Silk Road trade than the Mongols and it was thought they would be better able to deal with their co-religionists in Khwarezm. From this it would appear that Chingis’s sons and army commanders already had sizable contingents of Muslims in their ranks, some of them from Islamic areas which Chingis had already conquered and others from Khwarezm who had already thrown in their lot with the Mongols. Along with the 450 merchants, who were presumable riding camels, the caravan had 500 pack camels laden with trade goods, including gold, silver, Chinese silk, targhu, as mentioned a fabric made from the wool of white camels; and various furs, including sable and beaver. Throw in camel men, cooks, and the usual assortment of hangers-on (religious pilgrims had a way of attaching themselves leech-like to such caravans) and we are probably looking at a string of a thousand or more camels.

The trade caravan was led by four men: Omar Khwajah Utrari (his name implies that he was from Otrār); Hammāl Marāghi; Fakhr al-Din Dizaki Bukhari (apparently from Bukhara); and Amin al-Din Harawi. At least two of these men were apparently from Khwarezm itself, demonstrating yet again that the Khwarezm mercantile class favored trade with the Mongols and vice-versa. As the Russian Orientalist Barthold points out, “the interests of [Chingis Khan] fully coincided with those of the Muslim capitalists.” He adds, however, that “There was not the same harmony between Muhammad’s [the Khwarezmshah] and the interests of the merchants of his kingdom.” This became painfully apparent when the caravan finally reached Otrār.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Fine Fabrics

In the account of the Three Merchants from Khwarezm it is perhaps significant that only fabrics were mentioned. The Mongols were in need of much else from sedentary societies, including metals for weapons, tools, and utensils, pottery, and grains, but these utilitarian items were seldom discussed. The foremost among trade items, or at least those which attracted the most interest, were silks, satins, damasks, brocades, and other fine textiles. There is no doubt that Mongols loved luxurious fabrics. As shown by the incident in which Chingis showed the three Khwarezm merchants a warehouse stuffed with expensive textiles, the Mongol upper-crust was by 1215 already well-supplied with these expensive trade items. Clothes made from luxurious fabrics were status symbols, and on ceremonial occasions Mongol leaders liked to drape themselves in gold brocades that “would gladden the heart of a Liberace,” as historian of textiles within the Mongol Empire Thomas Allsen puts it. 

The Mongols’ love of such luxuries may have been a reaction to their extremely humble beginnings. At one time, according to Juvaini, the possession of iron rather than wooden stirrups signified a rich and important man among the Mongols, and they were much be likely to be dressed in dog and mice furs and hides than in silks and satins. 

Early on the fact that someone was dressed in clothes made with fine fabrics marked them as someone special. When the Mongols finally defeated the tribe known as the Tatars (c. 1195) the Secret History notes that they captured a small boy who was adorned with gold earrings and dressed in a robe of gold-stitched satin or damask lined with sable fur. Presented to Chingis himself as a prize-of-war, Chingis in turn gifted him to his mother, who on the basis of his clothing and jewelry concluded, “He must be the son of a noble man. The man’s family probably had good origins.” She adopted him as her own son and gave him the name of Shigikhutug. This is the same Shigikhutug who, as we have seen, gained Chingis’s favor by turning down gifts from the Vice-regent of Zhongdu and informing on his two colleagues. (Some have suggested that Shigikhutug was the author, or at least one of the authors, of the Secret History; this assertion has its detractors.) 

As implied by this incident, the Mongols, who themselves had no tradition of weaving, were deeply impressed by luxurious fabrics, and as their status on the Mongolian Plateau rose such materials very quickly became synonymous with wealth and prestige. According to the Persian historian Rashid al-Din, Chingis himself, while camping with his retinue in the Altai Mountains, once observed: 
As my quiver bearers are black like a thick forest and my wives, spouses and daughters glitter and sparkle like a red hot fire, my desire and intention for all is such: to delight their mouths with the sweetness of the sugar of benevolence, to adorn them front to back , top to bottom, with garments of gold brocade, to sit them on fluid mounts, to give them pure and delicious water to drink, to provide verdant pastures for their needs . . .
On another occasion, peering into the future, he sounded a more somber note: 
After us, our posterity will wear garments of sewn gold, partake of fatty and sweet delicacies, sit well-formed horses, and embrace beauteous wives. [But] they will not say, “[all] these things our fathers and elder brothers collected, and they will forget us in this great day
As historian of gold brocade Thomas Allsen points out, most of the commodities Chingis cherished—fatty delicacies, well-formed horses, beauteous wives, etc.—could be found in the steppe. Only luxury fabrics like gold brocade needed to be imported. They were the epitome of luxury goods. “In many ways,” intones Allsen, “gold brocade came to symbolize the glorious future of the Mongolian people and perhaps became the bench mark to measure their success in the quest for empire.” 

Gold brocade was used not only for clothing. It was also used extensively to line the interiors of gers. These were not of course the humble abodes of herdsmen but rather the huge pavilions favored by the rulers. According to Juvaini, Chingis’s son Ögödei had one such seasonal structure erected for his use near the Mongol capital of Kharkhorum (in current-day Övörkhangai Aimag): “And . . . in the summer he would go into the mountains, where there would be erected for him a Khitayan pavilion, whose walls were made of latticed wood, and its ceiling was gold-embroidered cloth, and it was covered all over with white felt; this place is called Shira-Ordu.” Rashid al-Din and the Christian monks and missionaries John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni da Pian del Carpineca [1180–1252]) and Benedict the Pole also described this structure at Shira-Ordu. John of Plano Carpini noted that the “roof above and the sides on the interior were of brocade.” 

Ögödei it would appear favored fabrics from the Islamic world. In one notorious incident he was being entertained by some Chinese actors who had the gall to ridicule Islam in their act. The greatly perturbed Ögödei promptly halted the performance and ordered that fabrics from both China and the Muslim countries be brought in from a warehouse for comparison. The “gold brocades [nasif-na] and garments from Khorasan and Iraq were found to be much superior to those from China,” much to the chagrin of the Chinese actors. 

These incidences involving Ögödei occurred long after 1215, indeed after Chingis’s death in 1227, but they underscore the importance fine fabrics would assume in the Mongol Empire and help to explain why back in 1215 Chingis was so keen on established trade relations with the Islamic Khwarezm Empire to the west, the source of so many of these luxurious textiles.