A Mongol stereotype debunked

Genghis Khan, legendary warrior, led marauding Mongol armies whose conquests established a vast empire from the Adriatic to the Chinese coast. Exquisite fabrics, new art forms, and illustrated manuscripts do not readily come to mind. An exhibit currently on view, "The Legacy of Genghis Khan," may change that.

Within the vast political boundary of the Mongol Empire was a great deal of resettlement and trade. Despite a penchant for brutality, the Mongols also had an affinity for beauty. Artists incorporated symbolism into their work, such as Chinese peonies (representing prosperity) or dragons (might and bravery).

The warriors were nomadic, and many of these decoratives were for their tents or saddles, such as silk-brocade tent hangings and ornate gold-saddle hardware. The Oriental patterns were not only for decoration, but also helped the warriors assert their power by conveying an image of wisdom and strength.

Some of their most notable intellectual and artistic developments were included in a series of books created for wealthy patrons or commissioned for religious institutions. Chinese illustration techniques, derived from scroll painting, were brought to what is now Iran and northern Iraq in the early 1300s. Both nations already had a rich tradition in book arts, primarily calligraphy for sacred texts.

These books were included in a multivolume compendium of world history, offering tales of Iranian heroes or ancient kings. Some of the sources for these books were Chinese hand scrolls and Byzantine manuscripts. Complementing the history from the Mongol perspective were stories such as Noah and the Ark, which appears in both the Bible and the Koran. There is also the story of the birth of Muhammad, depicted - in one case - with a Christian-inspired Nativity scene.

These books were richly illustrated and colorful. Many of the figures are depicted in elaborate detail - and in the Mongol style of dress. As foreigners far from the their native steppes, Mongol rulers wanted to legitimize their power and show that they were aware of history. History is written by the winners, the saying goes - or rewritten, in the case of the books often commissioned by the Mongol rulers.

These manuscripts also depict architecture and customs - and even a picture of the game of chess being introduced in Iran - giving modern viewers a glimpse at the material culture and daily life of a time that has been much mythologized.

'The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia 1256-1353' is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until Feb. 16.

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