Showing posts with label Fabrics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fabrics. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mongolia | China | Xinjiang | Chingis Rides West | Uighurs

By the close of the year 1215 Temüjin, the Mongolian chieftain known to the world as Chingis Khan, was sitting pretty. Nine years earlier, in 1206, he had succeeded in defeating and bringing under his rule most if not all of the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, and in a Great Assembly of the tribes on the Onon River he had been confirmed as Chingis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongols. He then cast his gaze to the south, to the great sedentary civilizations of China which for over a thousand years had been the plundering grounds of the nomads to the north. As early as 1205 his forces had raided the borderlands of the kingdom of Xi Xia, centered around the modern-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces of China, and returned with huge hauls of camels and other livestock. In the autumn of 1207 an more ambitious raid raked in more plunder and even managed to capture the town of  of Wolohai, near current-day Tingyuan, in the Alashan region. Still not ready for a full-scale assault on Xi Xia, the raiders returned to their Mongolian homeland in the spring of 1208. 

Meanwhile, the people known as Uighurs, who occupied many of the oasis cities to the north and south of the Tian Shan Mountains in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China, were alerted to the rise of the Mongols and decided to make a strategic alliance with them. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the Extensive Ruins of Their Old Capital of Ordu Baliq (“Royal Camp Town”‚ also known as Kharabalgasun), can still be seen near the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag) had since the 1130s been under the thumb of the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China who had migrated westward and set up a powerful confedaration centered around current-day Uzbekistan and the western Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China. The Uighur ruler Barchuk, who held the the title of Idikut  (“Sacred Majesty”) may have sensed that the Mongols were the ascendent power in Inner Asia. If Chingis succeeded in defeating Xi Xia, immediately to the east of the Barchuk’s domains, he would no doubt soon turn his armies on the Uighurs themselves. By aligning himself with the Chingis early Barchuk may have thought could free himself from the Kara-Khitai  and at the same time avoid a devastating attack by the Mongols. He was of course gambling that the suzerainty of the Mongols would be less onerous than Khara-Khitai domination.

In the spring of 1209 Barchuk dispatched an embassy to the court Chingis with an offer to accept the suzerainty of the Mongols. “If you, Genghis Khan, show me favour, I will be your fifth son and will place all of my strength at your disposal.” Chingis agreed and even offered up one of his daughters, Altun, as a bride for the Idikut. Chingis stipulated, however, that Barchuk must come to the camp of the Mongols and make obeisance to him personally, adding that the Idikut should bring with him gifts of “gold and silver, small and large pearls, brocade, damask, and silks.” (Here, incidentally, was an early indication of the Mongol fascination with fine fabrics—brocade, damask, and, silks—which later motivated Chingis to turn his attention westward, to the Islamic realms of Transoxiania, one of the main sources of these rich materials.) Barchuk agreed to accept Mongol suzerainty in 1209, making the Uighurs the first sedentary people south of the Mongolian Plateau to come under Mongol rule, but just to be on the safe side he bided his time until 1211, awaiting the final outcome of the Mongol war against the Xi Xia, before finally appearing in person at the court of the Mongols on the Kherlen River in central Mongolia.

In any case, Chingis had by 1209 gained a valuable ally in Barchuk and the Uighurs. He could now invade Xi Xia without fear of an attack from his western flank and he could utilize the administrative and intellectual abilities of the much more cultured Uighurs. Plundering a sedentary culture was one thing, ruling it and successfully collecting taxes was another.  The Uighurs would provide much of the expertise needed to govern the lands which Chingis would conquer, and they would provide the hitherto illiterate Mongols with a writing system adapted from their own Uighur vertical script. This Uighuro-Mongol vertical script would remain in use in Mongolia until the adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 20th century, and since the early 1990s it has enjoyed a modest resurgence. 

Just as important as the Uighur’s intellectual acumen was the location of the land they occupied. With their summer capital of Qocho (also known as Gaochang, Qarakhoja, Houzhou, etc.) near current day Turpan, on the south side of the Tian Shan Mountains, and their winter capital of Beshbaliq, near current-day Jimsar, on the north, and controlling a host of other oasis cities strung out like beads on a necklace from Hami in the east to Kucha in the west,  the Uighurs sat directly astride the main trunks of the Silk Road between China and the great Islamic civilizations of Central Asia and the Mideast. 
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Buddhist Temple at Beshbaliq
The glacier-capped Tian Shan, one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, separating the Zungerian Basin in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Uighuristan at this time was still largely Buddhist but Islam was inexorably advancing eastward, led not only by conquest but by ostensibly peaceful Muslim traders on the Silk Road. By adding Uighuristan to his domains without a battle Chingis gained an invaluable window to the West through which he may have gotten a first tantalizing glimpse of the fabulously rich and cultured Islamic civilizations shimmering like mirages on the western horizon, a world totally unlike anything the rude nomads from the steppes of Mongolia had hitherto imagined possible. For more see Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion of Bukhara, Samarkand, and other Great Cities of the Silk Road, 1215-1221.