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.