World History 1 250 - 16.1.2 The Middle East and North Africa in the Early Fourteenth Century

Although China served as the heart of the Mongol Empire, in the early fourteenth century, the Mongol presence also extended across the Middle East and central Asia. Political instability and shifting relationships with conquered peoples increasingly characterized the remaining khanates. For example, in the Il-Khanate, a division of the Mongol Empire that extended from the northern border of the Indian subcontinent to the eastern edge of Anatolia in modern Turkey, the nature of Mongol leadership had shifted from remote detachment to embedded assimilation by the early 1300s (Figure 16.5).

A map of the world is shown, land highlighted in white and water in blue. In the northwest, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus are labelled. In the west, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) the Gulf of Oman, and the Gulf of Aden are labelled. In the south, the Arabian Sea, the Laccadive Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Celebes Sea are labelled. In the east, the Pacific Ocean, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) are labelled. In the northeast, the Sea of Okhotsk is labelled. The north area of the land is labelled “Russia” and the southeast is labelled “China.” An area from the Pacific Ocean in the east, north to Russia, south to the South China Sea and east to north of the Bay of Bengal is highlighted blue and labelled “Khanate of the Great Khan.” West of that is a small area highlighted dark pink and labelled “Chagatai Khanate.” Northwest of that is an area highlighted green labelled “Khanate of the Golden Horde.” South of this is an orange area that extends south to the Arabian Sea and west to the Black Sea labelled Il-Khanate.
Figure 16.5 This map depicts the four khanates that made up the Mongol Empire in 1335: the Khanate of the Golden Horde, the Il-Khanate, the Chagatai Khanate, and the Khanate of the Great Khan, or Yuan dynasty. Although each was nominally under the control of the Great Khan of the Yuan, their rulers had relative independence and autonomy; in some cases, they rivaled each other for influence. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

When the Mongols occupied portions of the Middle East, their regional leader, Chinggis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, used the title il-khan (lesser khan); his realm, therefore, became known as the Il-Khanate. Founded in 1256, the Il-Khanate was primarily centered in Persia, and its rulers resurrected the ancient title of “Iran” for this core of their domain, where they sought to maintain Mongol nomadic ways and generally neglected the khanate’s economic welfare. Early on, Mongol leaders largely imposed their traditions and practices as the dominant culture, little appreciating the cultural traditions of their subjects. In addition to experiencing this cultural alienation, many peasants found the first decades of Il-Khanate rule financially disastrous as they lost their livestock and farmlands to Mongol nomads. However, after Mahmud Ghazan, the seventh ruler of the Il-Khanate, converted to Islam in 1295, the il-khans became increasingly embedded within the Muslim communities they governed.

Although Ghazan’s conversion may have been based solely on religious conviction, it also enabled him to appeal to the growing numbers of Mongols and members of the Persian elite who had become Muslims. Mongols living in the Il-Khanate had already begun intermarrying with their Muslim subjects, but this practice greatly increased as they gradually became less culturally distinct from them. This transformation marked a significant shift in the cultural identity of Mongols, who now increasingly became part of the sedentary societies they conquered and eventually abandoned their roles as military conquerors.

Eventually the transition from foreign interlopers to fully integrated members of the community shifted Il-Khanate priorities. Although the northern regions of the khanate had been badly damaged in the early years of Mongol invasions, Ghazan and his successors focused on rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure in the southern portions of their territory, including the Iranian provinces of Fars and Khuzistan. They channeled resources into rehabilitating the empire’s economy and cosmopolitan urban life through the construction of schools, mosques, and bazaars. These policies not only enabled Islamic culture and scholarship to flourish, but they also further cemented the cultural bond between Mongol rulers and their subjects in Persia.

Despite the success of early attempts to rehabilitate the empire’s economy, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the Il-Khanate began to succumb to struggles for supremacy after the il-khan Abu Sa‘id died in 1335. Clashes between Mongol, Arab, Persian, and Turkic factions ultimately split the former Il-Khanate into several successor states. Although fragments of the Mongol Empire, such as the Golden Horde, persisted in name until the sixteenth century, after the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, the Mongol Empire ceased to exist as a unified political entity.

Beyond the Book

Depictions of Royalty across Borders and Cultures

Portraiture has long served to legitimize political leaders and convey an image of their character as rulers. Each image in this selection (Figure 16.6) is associated with a ruler from a different region of the Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century: from left to right, Mahmud Ghazan of the Il-Khanate; Ayurbarwada, the fourth emperor of the Yuan dynasty in China; and Jani Beg, khan of the Golden Horde.

Although all three rulers were tied genealogically and politically to the Mongol Empire, they each adapted to the unique cultural contexts of their jurisdictions by recognizing and embracing the dominant religious and intellectual views of their subjects. This included having themselves depicted in a way that their indigenous subjects would see as befitting the power and status of their royalty. The differing character of their reigns and the distinctive relationship each developed with the traditions of their respective regions are reflected in the three images presented. Whereas Ghazan, who was born a Buddhist, converted to Islam shortly after ascending to the Il-Khanate throne, Ayurbarwada embraced the Confucian practices of his Chinese subjects. Jani Beg, by contrast, remained a Muslim, but he also granted concessions to the Christian Church toward the end of his reign when, according to tradition, his mother Taidula’s blindness was cured by a Christian bishop named Alexius. Look closely at the images, and consider the differing messages they might convey and the ways in which they reflect the unique circumstances of each region.

Three images are shown. (a) A faded and stained image shows three rows of script across the top on a faded white background. Below, a slanted ornately decorated roof of a building is seen with red, blue, yellow, black and white designs with a small yellow bird at the both ends. Inside, white drapes tied in a knot can be seen hanging from the ceiling in front of yellow walls with red and blue diamond shaped decorations. At the left forefront, two men in white turbans, gray robes, and white and brown beards are seen standing. One holds his hands straight out in front of him while the other holds his hands in front of his chest. In the right forefront, a highly decorated tent is seen in blue, gray, yellow, white, and red with gold doors opening out. At either side of the open gold doors, a person in a long red robe stands with a belt, and cap – one black and white and one red. In the doorway of the tent, a person in a brown robe with gold trim over a green shirt wearing a gold crown walks into the tent. Multiple colored objects are seen inside the tent. (b) An image of a man is shown on a pale greenish woven background. He wears a white domed hat with an orange and yellow object at the top. The underside of the hat is red and red cloth hangs from the back of the hat past his ears. He has an oval face, small almond shaped eyes, and a brown textured moustache and beard. Black hair is seen from under his hat and in long strands behind his head. He wears an orange robe folded over to the right and a decorative black and red beaded necklace at his neck. (c) In the left forefront, a faded and worn image shows a person laying on a curved, brown bed under a red blanket with an orange pillow and white sheets. They wear a white domed cap with yellow cloth hanging down the sides and a black robe. Behind them stands a person in a dark green robe with gold trimmed sleeves and a red cap with gray cloth hanging down from the sides. To the right of the person in the bed a figure stands in a white robe decorated with black crosses and red ones in orange circles. They wear a large round hat and have a brown beard. A small brown stick is seen in their right hand being held toward the person in the bed. To the right, seven people stand in white robes, one in blue and red, watching the scene on the bed. At the foot of the bed, a short person in a white robe with gold trim at the edges holds a brown bowl with black inside toward the person with the crosses on their robes. In the background a white tent can be seen with black designs on top and brown mountains.
Figure 16.6 This depiction (a) of Ghazan’s conversion from Buddhism to Islam shortly after ascending to the throne of the Il-Khanate appears in Rashid al-Din’s fourteenth-century masterpiece of world history, the Jāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh. (b) The silk painting of Ayurbarwada, the Yuan emperor Renzong, first appeared in a fourteenth-century album of Yuan imperial portraits. Renzong, who was strongly influenced by Confucian political culture, reinstated the civil service examination system in China after previous Mongol emperors had shunned the Confucian educational model. (c) The last image depicts Alexius, metropolitan bishop of Kyiv, curing the blindness of Taidula Khatan, the mother of Jani Beg, khan of the Golden Horde. (credit a: modification of work “Conversion of Ghazan to Islam” by Rachid Ad-Din, Claude Mutafian/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Renzong a.k.a. Ayurbarvada a.k.a. Buyantu Khan” by National Palace Museum in Taipei/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit c: modification of work “Metropolitan Alexis healing Queen Taidula from blindness” by Tretyakov Gallery/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • How do these depictions of the rulers differ?
  • Why might two of the images depict religious events? Drawing upon what you know about religion in China, explain why a Mongol ruler of that country might have chosen not to depict himself as affiliated with a particular religious tradition?

As the Il-Khanate regime began its steady decline in the fourteenth century, one of its chief rivals, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, rose to a position of greater influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Founded by formerly enslaved soldiers of Turkish origin who first emerged as elite fighters in the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mamluk Sultanate eventually became the foremost center of Muslim scholarship and learning in the fourteenth century (Figure 16.7). The Mamluks’ reputation for military prowess gained them the respect of Muslims throughout North Africa and the Middle East, especially after they repelled the Mongol army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Syria in 1260, stopping Mongol southwestern expansion. The Mamluks, under their military commander Baybars, then gained control of Egypt and Syria. In the process, they not only managed to protect their empire from subsequent Mongol attacks, but they also made significant contributions to the Islamization of Africa.

An image of a drawing on a dirty beige background is seen in a vertical rectangle shape. At the bottom, a gray elephant with a long tail stands with beige colored bracelets on all feet. A bell is around their neck on a red string, white tusks are seen coming out of their mouth and their trunk is curved back toward them. A small black round object sits on the animal’s head with yellow round tassels. A dark skinned bare-chested man is seated on the elephant’s neck wearing a white waist cloth and a red robe tied around his shoulders. He holds a brown stick in his left hand that rests atop the object on the elephant’s head and in his right hand he holds an axe in the air. On the elephant’s back a gold trimmed red decorative carpet sits with large blue and red tassels. A tall, vertical rectangular gold, green, and red ornately decorated tower sits on the carpet. From the bottom, a faded person in a blue cloth on their head and white and green robes sits on a gold chair holding a stick in their hands. Above the person, two large, dark pink snake-like serpents with black curly horns are wound around each other and two blue clock hands with yellow and red claw like objects at the end. One serpent hangs its open mouthed head down toward a gold pot that sits behind the person riding the elephant’s neck below. Its tongue and teeth are bared. The other serpent winds up the tower toward a person at the front top of the tower. The person wears a blue striped turban and red gold trimmed shirt holding a yellow box in front of him. Below him, the blue head of a scaly animal sits with a yellow curved beak. Atop the tower, a white dome shows with a brown round object sitting on top and a bird on top of that. The bird is multi colored and looking to the left. A brown slat protrudes from the left of the dome and rests on the head of the man with the blue striped turban. Various Roman numerals and symbols are drawn throughout the image and pale and faded script can be seen in multiple rows behind the image.
Figure 16.7 This page from a 1315 treatise on mechanical devices by Syrian author al-Jazari depicts the high sophistication of Islamic scientific scholarship and mechanical knowledge at the height of the Mamluk Empire. The image depicts a fantastical elephant clock that was to generate a chain reaction every half hour in which the bird at the top would whistle, the man would drop a ball into the dragon’s mouth, and the driver would prod the elephant with a goad. (credit: ““The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari” by Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

During the period between 1260 and 1341, Cairo, the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate, became a prominent center of Muslim intellectual culture and architecture, drawing many merchants and scholars fleeing Mongol attacks in their Persian and Iraqi homelands. The age of Mamluk prosperity and prominence eventually came to an end with the death of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad in 1341, which initiated a period of instability worsened by the onslaught of the bubonic plague in the late 1340s. While the Mamluks remained in power until their defeat by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, a period of marked decline had begun.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax