“Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art” by Roxann Prazniak

Mongol commander of a thousand troops (right), in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Martyrdom of the Franciscans, 1330. Mongol commander of a thousand troops (right), in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Martyrdom of the Franciscans, 1330.

Humanism, secularism, pluralism: these were the spirit of the age in the exchange system known as the Mongol Empire. So Roxann Prazniak finds in Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art. Prazniak’s starting place is art history, but her study of artistic exchange opens out into a wide view of the intellectual and cultural world under Mongol globalization in the 13th century.

The book’s eight chapters look at eight localities—not all Mongol-governed, but Cairo, Siena, and Constantinople were sufficiently connected to the Mongol world to join its conversations. Other places visited are Tabriz, Alchi in Ladakh, Turfan, Dadu and Quanzhou. Over this wide geography the Mongols offered an unprecedented opportunity for exchange.

Readers might associate pluralism with the Mongols because of their well-known religious policy. The other two themes—secularism, humanism—are only brought to light in a book like this which looks which looks at specific locations and then lifts its search to the expanded horizons of the Mongol world to see ideas in transmission, a traffic in motifs.

Portraits, for example, tell of a new interest in the human and the realistic, from a Uyghur family portrait in the old arts crossroad of Turfan, to the innovative portraits of Kublai and Chabi done by a Nepali artist, to to a vogue for portraiture in the book illustrations that flourished in Tabriz. With the “opening of the Mongol cultural emporia” innovations were quick to catch on across vast distances. Prazniak sees a general turn towards emotion in painting, “a heightened intimacy” in subject along with new ways to paint it.

 

Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art, Roxann Prazniak (University of Hawai'i Press, March 2019)
Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art, Roxann Prazniak (University of Hawai’i Press, March 2019)

Mongol religious policy is often called “tolerance”, but Prazniak’s “pluralism” better describes a situation where Christian Mongol queens funded Muslim schools and khans participated in the ritual gestures of several religions. With a government commitment to religious pluralism, ideas were far more free to seed in different ground. The Ilkhan Ghazan built a suburb outside Tabriz named Ghazaniyya, where

 

Birds were fed by scattering grain and millet on the rooftops with the curse of God or other appropriate punishment for anyone who took advantage of the situation and tried to catch the birds for their own profit. Tribal values of leadership and wealth distribution combined here with the Muslim legal institution of the waqf and Buddhist notions of inter-species relationship.

 

A slide towards secularization was the accompaniment to religious pluralism.

 

Ilkhanid use of the Islamic waqf system to sponsor a largely secular undertaking made the observatory at Maragha the first one to make use of revenue from this source.

 

Prazniak presents a highly intentional conscription of art into the Mongol project. Mongols’ spend on art was lavish: commissions, sponsorship, patronage. A third to a half of state revenue could go on temples with temple art.

 

The Mongols set out to conquer the world and rewrite its history in images… When the Mongols made their bid for global empire, they knew exactly what the intellectual and artistic requirements were… Image making became an arrow in their ideological quiver.

 

This does not mean she reduces art to propaganda. It has been a recent trend to collapse a lot of historical human output into that word “propaganda”, but Prazniak’s treatment of art as a “political accessory” has nothing reductive about it.

 

Perhaps the most invigorating aspect of Sudden Appearances is its exploration of a new historical awareness, widely evidenced through the Mongol world. Old histories became obsolete in the shock of the Mongol conquests followed by Mongol government over an unprecedented area, without orthodoxy or cultural assimilation as a requirement. Mongols themselves conceived a need to write a different history.

 

The Mongol reach included a conscious effort to integrate diverse traditions into a universal history and to stress effective governance over religious orthodoxy.

 

Most prominently, Rashid al-Din in Tabriz compiled the first “world history”.

 

The scholarship of Rashid al-Din’s workshops drew on previous Chinese, Arabic and Persian language literary traditions, but also departed significantly from each to produce a new vision of human historical development.

 

But not only in this government-sponsored world history is the new awareness seen. Those conquered by the Mongols too and integrated into a wider world had to tell “a new story” about history, above the local, above single religions, necessarily secular. “[A] large-scale rethinking about human agency and history itself” took place. “This was the defining project of the thirteenth century set in motion by the Mongol conquests.”

 

The Mongol conquests brought a sharp rupture between past and future. Rashid al-Din was not alone in his contemplation of the meaning of it all. Spiritual Franciscans, Chinese literati artists, and Nepalese Buddhist devotees… were on a similar mission to visualise history anew with reference to the phenomena of Mongol conquests. These conquests made possible each group’s engagement with an extended and complex cultural geography.

 

Often Prazniak gives us the perspective of the agents of exchange. Maria of the Mongols, daughter of a Byzantine emperor, sent to marry an Il-khan, “traveled and sojourned among the Mongols with resolve, fortitude and goodwill”, and achieved much in the way of cultural encounter and communication. The Yuan princess Sengge Ragi, great-granddaughter of Kublai Khan and “prominent art connoisseur”, commissioned pieces with an eye to new styles that said new things.

Elsewhere Prazniak focusses on artists. Siyah Kalem, “Black Pencil”, an enigma who might have been a single artist or a school, Prazniak places among the Uyghurs where there is rich context for the energy of his humanised demons and animals. The painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena entered artistic and intellectual conversations conversations that reached him through Italian trade connections with Tabriz. His subjects of good governance and religious freedom reference the Mongol world in order to make arguments for Europeans.

Twenty years ago a “cultural turn” in Mongol history, that paid attention to the Mongols as agents of cultural, material and intellectual exchange, revolutionized how we see the Mongols and their empire. With Prazniak’s book, I think, we have the real florescence of this inclusion of cultural history. Political-military history books still come out whose idea of the cultural turn is to add a paragraph about art. In Sudden Appearances, art history, which has been at the vanguard of Mongol research for a while now, displays its potential, and it is astonishing.


Bryn Hammond is a writer living in Australia. She has out the fiction titles Against Walls and Imaginary Kings (Amgalant series on the Mongols) and the non-fiction Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.