Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.
The editors of Along the Silk Roads in Mongol Eurasia collect fifteen short biographies, each by different scholars, into three categories: “Generals”, “Merchants” and “Intellectuals”. Subjects range over the Mongol world in its vast geographical distances, chosen to exhibit the diversity of the era. Back in 1993 a classic of Mongol studies, In the Service of the Khan, similarly a collection of biographies, seized on the word “diverse” before it gained its current buzz.
The enlistment by the Mongols of so many people of such diverse backgrounds in one grand common enterprise apparently has no historical precedent, and should be counted as one of the main reasons for whatever success was achieved by the Mongols.
An appreciation of diversity has been to the profit of Mongol medieval history, which was waiting to be more widely discovered as a diversity success story.
The story of Yang Tingbi, diplomat and admiral on the sea’s silk roads, throws open questions around ethnicity. A Han Chinese from Shandong who only ever knew North China under the Yuan Mongol government, he was active in Mongol conquest of the South. Whether a landscape of loyalists and disputed loyalties troubled him, the sources do not tell us. Yang Tingbi went on to participate in the Mongols’ “extensive maritime voyages… into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.” Later in his career, he was dispatched against uprisings by Yao and She ethnic groups in South China.
Tingbi’s last recorded activity was commanding the native Li ethnic group in Hainan Island… [S]ome Li people entered the Yuan army as mercenaries and were later enlisted to the Mongols’ maritime campaigns. The subjugation of the Li population was never fully carried out…
In a continuity from previous dynasties, “pacification commissioners” like Yang Tingbi were still sent out to ethnic-based revolts.
Isa Kelemechi, or Jesus the Interpreter, is one of the westward-going equivalents of Marco Polo.
Isa’s travels across the Mongol-era Silk Roads… matched—if not exceeded—the itineraries of his better-known contemporaries.
From origins in Azerbaijan or Armenia, Isa settled in China and became a privy councilor in the Yuan government. Sent by the khan in China to Mongol Iran, “Isa next represented the entire empire as envoy to the Curia in Rome.”
Translator, civil servant, and Mongol diplomat, Isa’s meteoric rise and successful career are paradigmatic examples of how human talent was mobilised across Mongol Eurasia. Throughout Isa’s career, he was known for his linguistic talents and ability to negotiate diverse cultural spheres…
Padshah Khatun, in the footsteps of her mother Terken Qutlugh, was made governor of the province of Kirman in Iran by the Mongols. Here her life is traced not for her fascinating political history but as an “Intellectual”.
In comparison to sedentary societies, women in the Turkic-Mongol nomadic and seminomadic societies showed greater involvement in the political sphere, enjoyed a greater measure of financial autonomy, and generally had the freedom to choose their religious affiliations… Through their unique prominence in the empire’s socio-economic system, elite women had an active role in financially supporting and protecting cultural and religious agents.
Beyond the patronage expected of elite women in the Turkic-Mongol world, Padshah Khatun is seen as exceptional for her own known intellectual output: a commentary on the Quran, poems under the pseudonyms Lala Khatun and Hasan Shah. This latter, one source reports, had been the name under which Padshah lived disguised as a boy before the age of fifteen, in hopes to avoid a political marriage at the khan’s court.
Qutulun, a Mongol woman, will be a popular inclusion in the “Generals” section. Her entry looks as much at the reception of her story as at her life. Marco Polo popularised her as “the wrestler princess”, and in our age Jack Weatherford has found her a wide audience. Her chapter looks at how Weatherford, a “mega-celebrity” in Mongolia, has been “extremely influential” on contemporary reception of 13th-century history there. In Mongolia,
In 2013, two out of the five winning novels in a state competition for historical novels on Mongol queens were about Qutulun.
Other Mongolian-language novels with Qutulun as subject have been published since the translation of Weatherford’s Secret History of the Mongol Queens quickly followed its English version. May we soon see the first of these novels translated from Mongolian…
Almost absent in these biographies is the subjective that is the grammar of historical fiction. This is not necessarily so for 13th-century lives: psychological snippets exist in the sources; the Secret History of the Mongols displays an interest in personality, while Qutb al-Din Shirazi’s Akhbar-i Moghulan describes Hulegu’s depression. Once in particular I wished for an exploration of context, even when the sources gave us nothing on what the subject thought. Merchant Jamal al-Din al-Tibi was a young man in Baghdad in the decade of Hulegu’s capture of that city. The connection is not mentioned. From a humble family of potters, Jamal al-Din became a fabulously wealthy merchant along the Mongol Silk Roads, and died with a testimony to his charitable character. How did Baghdad’s famous sack affect him?
In another place, speculation is well-warranted. Baldwin of Hainaut
married the daughter of the Cuman king Saronius. This marriage might explain why, a dozen years later, Emperor Baldwin II chose Baldwin of Hainaut to lead an embassy to the Mongol court. Through his wife, Baldwin likely became familiar with the languages and traditions of the Steppe. Perhaps she even accompanied him. Doing so would have been an advantage, as the fourteenth-century Florentine merchant Francesco Pegolotti reports that a merchant travelling the Steppe will be more comfortable if he brings a woman fluent in the Cuman language.
This collection of biographies seeks to give a sense of the “scale, diversity and implications of the multifaceted mobility and cross-cultural exchange along the Mongol Silk Roads.” It is yet another entry in the exciting work being undertaken on the Mongols’ pluralist world.