Saturday, December 28

Ulaanbaatar Ger District




Zud (Mongolian: зуд) is a term for an extremely snowy winter that follows a summer drought. Livestock cannot find what little grass there remains under the snow and ice, and large numbers of animals die due to starvation and cold. The last major zud was in 2009-2010; the yurt-belt surrounding Ulaanbaatar swelled up in the year that followed, as pastoralist life finally collapsed for many in Mongolia, due to the hardship of the zud, the growing desertification of the steppe, the erosion in cashmere prices through oversupply, and the increasingly bright lights of a boomtown riding on commodity prices.

From a Feb 2010 news article:

When even Mongolians complain, you know it's cold ... 

Officials in Ulaanbaatar, the snowbound capital, have declared disaster status in more than half of Mongolia's 21 provinces, and more are set to follow across the vast, sparsely populated nation, roughly the size of Alaska.

After weeks of heavy snowfalls, fierce winds and temperatures as low as minus-58 degrees, 2.3 million livestock have perished and an additional 3 million may die by spring, according to the Mongolian government.

Mongolians use the term "dzud" for the combination of summer drought and severe winter that has hardened snow and ice into an impenetrable layer and makes it impossible for livestock to feed.

"The snow and cold are the worst I have ever seen," surpassing the last major dzud in 2000-2001, says Nyamaa Delegnyam, 48, foreign relations officer for the Khovd province in western Mongolia.

The human cost among Mongolia's population of 3 million remains difficult to quantify because of inaccessibility and limited communication. But infant mortality in the 12 hardest-hit provinces jumped by up to 60% in January compared with the previous five-year average ...

Another report later in the year says:

It took 14 days for Erdenebileg's family to drive what remained of their flock the 300 miles from southern Dundgovi province to a bleak hillside in Töv province, close to the city. Once, they enjoyed "a pretty decent life", selling cashmere and spare animals for cash to supplement the meat and milk from their 600-strong herd. Then came the winter.

"Every day we saw our animals dying in front of us. I was devastated," said the 32-year-old, her face etched deep by the wind and worry.

The 80 surviving animals graze close to the family's tent, overlooking a disused concrete factory and rubbish tip. Her husband has been lucky, finding a factory job through relatives. But the couple and their four children will barely scrape by on his 150,000 tögrögs (£75) a month. The government recently withdrew substantial child benefits.

"We hoped things might be easier closer to town, but it's not what I expected. It's much worse," said Erdenebileg. "Our future is uncertain, but we know there's no going back."

Most longer-term migrants are stuck in the crowded ger (yurt) settlements around the capital, where 46% live in poverty. Stray goats pick their way through the mud and children kick at corrugated steel fences separating each plot. Sanitation and services are poor. Many lack the documents to claim benefits – though a registration drive should help – and the skills to find work. Some scrabble over rubbish dumps for plastic or glass to sell to recyclers.


On our last drive into Ulaanbaatar from the Tuul, we take a detour through the ger district. It is raining and the roads are flooded; even in July, the cold of the drizzle pierces through one's clothes; in the distance rises the Gadantegchinlen Khiid, its colossal all-seeing Avalokitesvara watching over the city.


Friday, December 27

Zanabazar


Above: Zanabazar's White Tara.

At some point in the 1570s, word filtered back to Mongolia that Altan Khan had met with a new power called the Dalai Lama and that the Tümed Mongols of Inner Mongolia had subsequently converted to Buddhism. Avtai, then Khan of the Khalkha, decided that he must met this great character from Tibet, and then he would decide for himself what he thought of the Dalai Lama and his teachings. "If he is acceptable we shall recognize each other. If not we shall fight," declared Avtai. Thereupon the Khan of the Khalkha set off on horseback from of his homelands on the upper Tuul to the court of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

The meetings went well, and Avtai Khan came back, impressed, with Buddhist relics. Monasteries and stupas started appearing the Mongol heartland. In 1635, forty-eight years after Avtai Khan's death, his grandson Gombo Dorje, now the ruler of the Mongol Khanate in the East, was traveling by Yesön Zuul when he noticed a handsome lama sitting nearby the shrine built by his grandfather. When asked what he was doing there the lama replied, "I am honoring this place with sacrifices." Then the lama disappeared, and the sky was filled with rainbows. Shortly thereafter both Gombo Dorje and his wife Khandu Jamtso started having dreams filled with omens and portents. Subsequently, a little boy was born to the Khan. He was named Yeshe Dorje (Eshidorji.) This boy was destined to be called the Michelangelo of Asia for bringing to the entire region a renaissance in theology, religion, language, art, architecture, medicine and astronomy, even as the Manchu gained suzerainty over outer Mongolia.

Soon, little Yeshe Dorje was building small replicas of temples, fashioning statuettes of the Buddha, and sketching lamas. By tradition the son of a Khan was supposed to be surrounded by robust playmates from other noble families; but Yeshe Dorje chose to hang out in temples with monks. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for the lamasery, arranged for a monk named Jambaling to give the him his first vows. Accompanying this came a new name - Jnana-vajra - Knowledge-Thunderbolt in Sanskrit - a formulation soon vernacularized to Zanabazar.


Above: Zanabazar pictured in a tangkha.

It  apparently did not take long for stories of Gombo Dorje Khan's remarkable little boy to spread throughout Mongolia. The boy's extraordinary utterances and prodigy; his taking of his first monastic vows at age three; his skill in drawing, painting, and sculpting - all would have been deeply impressive to people and celebrated in a land where folk thought naught of riding a hundred miles to simply hear an interesting bit of news. By the time Zanabazar was four, not only the Buddhist lamas of Mongolia but also the ruling khans and khatuns had realized that he was destined to play a unique role in their country. In 1639, a great convention was held to anoint him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkha Mongolia, and to establish for him his very own monastery. It is said:

From as far away as Buir Nuur to the east and the shores of huge salt lakes in the Great Depression in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian taiga in the north and the depths of the Gobi Desert in the south, the khans and their entourages of the khanates of Khalkha Mongolia converged on the territory of the Zanabazar's father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els-a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalka Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis-"navel"-of the Mongol realm ... On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or "Yellow Sash Palace". Lama Bürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed him on a throne in the ger, signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar's own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations.

As the boy grew older, it became clear to his handlers that if Zanabazar wished to advance, he would have to continue his studies in Tibet, the source of Buddhism as practiced in Mongolia, and the home of the Dalai Lama, So it was decided that the boy Zanabazar, then 14, would travel to Tibet:

Zanabazar left Mongolia late in 1649 ... There were several caravan tracks to Tibet, but if he took the traditional Shar Zam (Yellow Road) to Tibet he would have veered slightly west from Shankh through what is now Bayankhongor Aimag. Perhaps he stopped at the oasis of Ekhin Gol, then as now one of the main watering holes in south Bayankhongor, before crossing the last ridges of the Gobi-Altai Range just west of 8,755 foot Segs Saikhan Bogd Uul and starting across the dreaded Black Gobi, the most difficult part-mainly because of the lack of water-of the whole journey. From Ekhin Gol to Anhsi, the first sizable Chinese town on the southern edge of the Gobi usually took about twenty days by camel. Then the party would have turned southeast, crossing the Tulai Nan Shan and Datong Shan mountains and skirting the northern shore of Khökh Nuur before arriving at Kumbum Monastery, located in a narrow valley seventeen miles southwest of the present-day city of Xining. Here the party took a lengthy break.

Around 1650, Zanabazar met Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. Lobsang Gyatso is credited with unifying Tibet after a protracted era of civil wars;  he established diplomatic relations with China, met with early European explorers, wrote 24 volumes' of scholarly and religious works, and was the first of Dalai Lamas to wield effective temporal power over all of Tibet. He is usually referred to simply as the Great Fifth. When Zanabazar appeared in Tibet, the Great Fifth was busy building the Potala palace (the name comes from the hill on Cape Comorin believed to be sacred to the Avalokitesvara) overlooking Lhasa. The two hit it off.

Anxious to cement an alliance with the Mongol nobility, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that Zanabazar was a reincarnation of the famous Buddhist teacher and historian Taranatha. Taranatha was considered the 15th reincarnation of a sentient being known as the Jebtsun Dampa. The first incarnation of the Jebtsun Dampa was Lodoi-shindu-namdak, who appeared in Magadha and was one of the Buddha's original 500 disciples. The second incarnation was Barbizobo, the head of Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna (probably in the first century AD). The next two were born in India, but other than their birthplace biographical information is lacking. The fifth Jebtsun Dampa, Ronsom-choi-san, was the first to appear in Tibet, during the lifetime of the famous Bengal-born sage Atisa (982-1054), who moved to Tibet and died at the Tara Temple 20 miles east of Lhasa. Zanabazar now became the 16th Jebtsun Dampa, a name and title which he would use for the rest of his life and pass on to his subsequent reincarnations. Thus was Zanabazar recognized as the latest in a long line of personages in the history of Buddhism, going back to the time of the Buddha himself.



Above: Zanabazar at his museum in Ulaanbaatar.

In return, Zanabazar converted to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama, and proceeded to encourage his Mongols to adopt Yellow Hat beliefs. He announced that he would now longer live in any monastery connected with the Sakya sect of Mongolia. He established a new Gelugpa monastery near the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers; this monastery became known as Örgöö, meaning palace or camp. Later, the word would be corrupted to Urga, the name used by foreigners for the capital of Mongolia before it was changed in 1924 by the Soviets to Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero.)

As part of Sakya-Gelugpa tussles, Zanabazar faced resurgent Oirats. The Oirat Khan Galdan decided to reunite the Mongol khanates, collaborating with Rus, the rising power on the north, and the Manchus, in the south. When Galdan Khan's army came to Ulaanbaatar, Zanabazar escaped to southern Mongolia. The Manchus were interested in defeating both Mongolian states; sensing opportunity, the Manchu army double-crossed Galdan Khan, and after the battle at Zuun Mod the Oirat were defeated. Zanabazar became a vassal of the Manchu, but allowed to retain Eastern Mongolia as the first Bogd Khan (from Bhaga = divine, plus Khan = king.)

Zanabazar has been called the Michelangelo of Asia. He brought an Indo-Tibetan style into bronze casting and painting in Mongolia. In a dream, he invented the Indic Soyombo (swayambhu - i.e. self-manifested or that which is created by its own accord) script in 1686, and this became the alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism. He instituted the Maitreya Ceremony in Mongolia - in which the Buddha Maitreya is raised and scriptures chanted in the hope of releasing souls of the deceased from suffering, as well as realizing a good harvest of crops with peace. Zanabazar personally directed the creation of tangkhas, sacred music, clothing design, astronomical measurements, and stupa construction. The monks of his school created many figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas well into the 20th century.


Below, the Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar.








Monday, December 23

Sakyamuni on the Steppe



My great city of Dadu (Beijing)! adorned with varied splendor; Shangdu (Xanadu), my delectable cool summer retreat! and those yellowing plains, the delight and refreshment of my divine ancestors! What evil have I committed to lose my empire thus!

This lament is the last recorded words of Toghon Temür, the 10th descendant of Kublai, and the last Yuan Emperor. Kublai had originally named his eldest son, Zhenjin (Chinese: 真金) as Crown Prince but he pre-deceased Kublai in 1285. Zhenjin's third son, with the intrigue of his mother Kökejin, succeeded to the throne and ruled as Temür Khan or Emperor Chengzong following Kublai's death. In the century after Kublai, the Yüan Dynasty, led by ever-more-Sinicized rulers of ever-diminishing capability, more and more corrupted by the indulgences of courtly life, started to teeter. In 1368, Toghon Temür fled his capital in the face of advancing Chinese rebels who would go on to establish the Ming Dynasty; the Mongols lost China, and were forced to retreat to their original homelands to the north of the Gobi. Toghon Temür died shortly after. The irony of Chingis Khan's descendant lamenting the loss of urban comfort will not be lost on the gentle reader.

Toghon Temür's son Prince Ayurshiridhara attempted to rally the Mongols around their old capital of Karakorum, dreaming of eventually recovering the empire his father had lost; but the army of the Ming pursued the Mongol into his homeland, and finally in 1388 dealt him a devastating blow in Dornod. In the disarray that followed, the descendants of Kublai could no longer claim hegemony over much of anything. Oirat tribes rose in the west and claimed overlordship of the Mongol.

The descendants of Chingis Khan were reduced to their traditional homelands around the Tuul. After the death of Manduul Khan in 1467 at the hands of his own advisor Eslem (spy and agent of Ming China), in a battle with his own grand-nephew Bolko. Bolko was in turn assassinated in 1470, and the throne was left vacant.  At this time, a minor Mongol Khatun, Mandukhai the Wise, brought out from hiding and adopted the seven year old orphan Batumunkh, son of the late Bayan Mongkhe Jonon, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. As Batumunkh was the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, Queen Mandukhai had him proclaimed Khan with name Dayan (and subsequently wed him.)

When Dayan Khan died in 1543, as was tradition the 'hearth' land around the Three Rivers Region around the Kherlen, Tuul and Onon rivers went to his youngest son Geresandza Ochigin. His group of Mongols eventually became the Khalkha. The title of Great Khan, however, went to Dayan's grandson Bodi, who built a base around Dolonuur in what is now Inner Mongolia in China. Bodi's third son Barsa-bolod and grandson Gün Biliktü occupied the Ordos Desert in the great loop of the Yellow River. Gün Biliktü's younger brother, Altan Khan, became leader of yet another group, the Tümed Mongols, who were centered around present-day Hohhot, the current capital of Inner Mongolia. Altan Khan played a decisive role in introducing, or, more properly, re-introducing, Buddhism to Mongolia.


[Above: Cover of the book on Buddhist Art from Mongolia edited by Carmen Meinart.]

Chingis Khan himself had met with some Tibetan Buddhists as early as 1205, a year before the founding of the Mongol Empire, and had been impressed by their doctrine. He had sent a message to the Sakya Lama So-Pan, stating, 'I have not finished the wars of my reign yet, but as soon as these are over, please come to Hor with your disciples and spread the Teachings of the Buddha.' And we have seen Kublai Khan open to the teachings of both Daoists and Buddhists in China. In 1566, while on an expedition (or raid) to Tibet,  Sechen Khongtaiji (Altan Khan's grand-nephew) met some monks who he brought back to the Khan's camp near Ulaanbaatar. It is not clear whether these monks came as prisoners or as teachers; in any case, they introduced Sechen Khongtaiji to the teachings of Buddha and finally managed to convert him to Vajrayana Buddhism. Sechen Khongtaiji then converted his uncle:

Defeat the Oirat . . . take into your hands the power of the State. The wise and learned say that divine teaching is important for this and for the next two lives that will follow. Would not it be a wonder if the Buddha . . . of the Land of Snows . . . comes here and a State Religion is created?

According to other accounts it was Altan Khan himself who had captured the Buddhist monks, who then introduced him to the doctrines of the Sakyamuni. Yet another account claims that while on a raid into the Uighur regions of Xinjiang Altan Khan captured two Uighur chiefs and three Uighur Buddhist monks; and so on.

When Sonam Gyatso, the lama presiding over prayers in Lhasa, received his first invitation from Altan Khan in 1571 to come to the Khan's ordu, he made excuses, fearing for his safety on such a long hazardous journey to the court of faraway unruly barbarians. Altan Khan, whose curiosity on Buddhism had been whetted by the monks he had captured, issued more and more invitations till finally his summons could no longer be ignored. One never knew with the Mongols - if the Khan's requests continued to be ignored it was plausible that a horde turn up at Lhasa and seize the lama anyway.

Sonam Gyatso left Lhasa for the Khan's court in late 1577. A formidable entourage followed him to Reting, the monastery 95 miles north of Lhasa (founded in 1057 by Dron Tönpa, chief disciple of the great Atisa Dipankara.) Here Sonam Gyatso's followers again begged him to abandon this fool's errand of a journey to the court of the Mongols; but he ordered the entourage to turn back at Reting, and prepared to continue on his own - when the Tibetan King Tashi Rabten ran up and taking hold of the lama's stirrup, cried out loudly:

May your lotus feet proceed safely, o Lama who are the glory of the Buddha's Teachings! May the whole word fill with the Holders of this teaching!

This re-invigorated the resolve of all; they pressed on and eventually reached an Yangtze River in flood. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Sonam Gyatso only had to point at it with his finger and the river became quiet, allowing him to cross. The same occurred at the Yellow River crossing.  At the Khan's ordu:

Altan Khan himself arrived, dressed in white clothes, which meant he had whitened the boundless realms of darkness. He was accompanied by the retinue of about 10,000 men, his wife and many attendants.

The Mongols expected religious figures to perform feats and Sonam Gyatso could not disappoint. Asked by the Altan Khan to demonstrate his power:

He reached his arm into an enormous boulder lying near the Khan and from it extracted a huge conch shell, the matrix of which circled in reverse. He placed the conch to his lips and blew a sharp note, whereupon the earth shook.

Sonam Gyatso then delivered his first discourse to the Mongols. He asked them to give up the practice of human and animal sacrifices ( Ögedei had had forty "moon-faced virgins" scarified in honor of Chingis Khan) and told them to destroy their shamanic idols including Khan Tengri.  Instead of blood sacrifices, he requested that Mongols offer up part of the deceased's possessions to temples and monasteries. He also implored the Mongols not to conduct bloody raids on their neighbors but instead try to live in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. Finally, he taught them the sutra on Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, the One who sees in all directions, and the accompanying mantra: Aum Manipadme Hum.

The Mongols were bowled over. Altan bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso the title of "Dalai Lama". Dalai is a Mongolian for "vast" or "oceanic"; it is also a direct Mongolian translation of the Tibetan word Gyatso. In return, Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan Khan as a reincarnation of Kublai Khan and therefore the legitimate wearer of the mantle of the Yüan Dynasty of China.




We are standing outside the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Mongolian: Гандантэгчинлэн хийд, Gandantegchinlen Khiid) in Ulaanbaatar. This Tibetan-origin name translates to the 'Great Island of Perfect Rejoicing'. It houses a colossal statue of Migjid Janraisig, aka Avalokitesvara.

In the 1930s, the Communist government under Khorloogiin Choibalsan (and Joseph Stalin), destroyed all but a few monasteries in Mongolia and killed more than 15,000 lamas. 'Zaya's great grandfather was one of them.

Gandantegchinlen Khiid escaped this destruction, was closed in 1938, and then reopened in 1944 to continue as the only functioning token Buddhist monastery, under a skeleton staff, as homage to a postcard-representation of Mongolian culture under communism. The statue of Avalokitesvara was, it is said, melted down to make bullets for Soviet troops WWII.  Only with the end of communism in Mongolia in 1990 were restrictions on worship were lifted; 'Zaya recalls people crying in streets that day. The 26-m-high statue was rebuilt in 1996 funded by donations by ordinary Mongolian people. 'Zaya's family gave all the copper they possessed - pots, pans, old coins.

People are solemnly tying scarves to the pole in the compound, praying. Aum Manipadme Hum. As I step out of the sanctum, I stumble against the doorstep. 'Zaya comes running - No! No! That's bad luck. Go back in and come out again, step carefully over the threshold without touching it with your feet.


Sunday, December 15

Araniko and Kublai



In 1224, Kublai, the 9-year-old younger son of Tolui and Sorgaqtani Beki, took part in his first hunt with his older brother Möngke on the steppes by the Ili river. The boys managed to bring down a rabbit and an antelope; their grandfather Chingis Khan, just back from annihilating Samarqand and Bukhara, was pleased; he smeared fat from the carcasses onto Kublai's middle finger in accordance with tradition.

Under Ögedei Khan  the Mongols established control over the Jin lands of Northern China in 1234. In 1236, Ögedei gave Hebei Province, attached with 80,000 households, to the family of Tolui, who had died in 1232. Kublai received an estate of his own, comprising 10,000 of these households. From childhood, Kublai had received strong Chinese influence - his wet nurse, who Kublai honored highly, was a Buddhist Tangut woman. Kublai's early life was spent in studying contemporary Chinese culture; he invited Haiyun, the leading Buddhist monk in North China, to his ordu in Mongolia, and when they met in 1242, asked him questions about Buddhism. Haiyun named Kublai's son, who was born in 1243, Zhenjin ('True Gold.') Haiyun also introduced Kublai to the former Daoist, and now Buddhist, monk Liu Bingzhong. Liu was a painter, calligrapher, poet and mathematician, and became Kublai's advisor when Haiyun returned to his temple in modern Beijing.

In 1251, Kublai's older brother Möngke became the great Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Kublai received viceroyalty over Northern China. He moved his ordu to Inner Mongolia. During his years as viceroy, Kublai managed his territory well, boosted the agricultural output of Henan and increased social welfare spendings after receiving Xi'an as appanage. These acts received acclaim from the local warlords and were essential to the building of his own power-base in China.

Attracted by the abilities of Tibetan monks as healers, in 1253 he made Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, of the Sakya order, a member of his entourage. Phagpa bestowed on Kublai and his wife, Chabi (Chabui), a Tantric Buddhist initiation. Kublai appointed the Uighur master Lian Xixian (1231–1280) as head of his pacification commission in 1254 to bring the Uighur and Tibetan peoples into alliance with the Mongols and the peoples of Northern China. Some officials jealous of Kublai's success said that he was getting above himself, and surely dreaming of having his own empire by competing with Karakorum. The Great Khan Möngke sent two tax inspectors, Alamdar (Ariq Böke's close friend and governor in North China) and Liu Taiping, to audit Kublai's officials in 1257. They found fault, listed 142 breaches of regulations, accused Chinese officials and executed some of them; Kublai's pacification commission was disbanded by the Great Khan. Kublai responded by sending a two-man embassy with his wives and then appealed in person to Möngke, who publicly forgave his younger brother and reconciled with him.

In 1258, Möngke put Kublai in command of the Eastern Army and summoned him to assist with an attack on Sichuan. Suffering from gout, Kublai was allowed to stay home, but he moved to assist Möngke anyway. Before Kublai arrived in 1259, word reached him that Möngke had died.

Kublai marched north to the Mongolian steppe. Before he reached Mongolia, he learned that Ariq Böke had held a kurultai at  Karakorum, which had named him Great Khan with the support of most of Genghis Khan's descendants. Kublai and the fourth brother, the Il-Khan Hülegü, opposed this development. Kublai's Chinese staff encouraged Kublai to ascend the throne in Xanadu (or Chinese Shangdu, Mongolian: Šandu, the capital of Kublai's viceroyalty in China, before he decided to move the seat of his dynasty to the Jin Dynasty capital of Zhōngdū (Chinese: 中都), which he renamed Dàdū, present-day Beijing.) Almost all of the senior princes in North China and Manchuria supported his candidacy, so upon returning to his own territories, Kublai summoned his own kurultai. Few members of the Mongol royal family supported Kublai's claims to the title, though the small number of attendees included representatives of all the Borjigin lines except that of Jöchi. This second kurultai proclaimed Kublai as Great Khan on April 15, 1260, despite Ariq Böke's earlier claim.



[Mughal miniature by Qesu Qalan - Kublai's Ascension.]

Civil war between the brothers ensued;  Kublai cut off supplies of food to Karakorum with the support of his cousin Kadan, son of Ögedei Khan. Karakorum quickly fell to Kublai's larger army. In the twelfth month of 1260, he appointed  Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, the fifth patriarch of Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, as his Imperial preceptor, and granted him a jade seal and the position of leader of Buddhism. By doing so, Kublai officially acknowledged Phagpa as his highest religious authority and was obligated to patronize the Sakya teaching. As an extra precaution to ensure the accumulation of merit, Kublai asked Phagpa to build a golden stupa for Suer chi wa (Tibetan: "Chos rje pa" or "the Lord of Dharma"), i.e. Sakya Pandita Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (1182–1251), the fourth patriarch of the sect; the building of the stupa was not only a tribute to the Sakya Pandita, but intended also as a project to win religious blessing in a critical year - Kublai expected the Sakya sect to provide religious sanction in his struggles against his brother.

Ariq Böke represented a traditionalist faction who believed that the Mongol Empire should remain centered in Mongolia; that the hordes should pillage neighboring lands and return to the steppe to resume their traditional nomadic ways. As far back as the reign of Ögedei, the more extreme exponents of the traditionalist view had favored the extermination of north China's peasants and the reversion of their fields into pasture for Mongol horses. Hülegü and Kublai, who had respectively embraced the high cultures of Persia and China, entertained the different view that the civilized life of the cities was ultimately preferable to the rustic ways of Chingis Khan and his clan, and that if the Mongol Empire truly aspired to longevity it must ultimately be ruled from the basis of superior knowledge rather than only superior force. As for those millions of peasants who the traditionalist faction had wanted to liquidate, the urbanists held they could be made to pay taxes, expropriation of which would result in lasting wealth for the Persianized or Sinicized Mongols.

Anyway, to build the golden stupa on behalf of Kublai, Phagpa drafted artisans from Nepal, who were closer to the source of Buddhist traditions. He intended to recruit one hundred artists, but Jaya Bhimdev Malla, the king of Nepal, was able to hand over only eighty. These artists bound for Tibet were ordered to choose a leader from among themselves. Perhaps due to the uncertainty of their future, nobody was courageous enough to take up the responsibility, except for a confident boy, the 17-year-old Arniko (Nepali: अरनिको.) When the king tried to discourage the lad because of his youth, he replied, "My body is indeed young, but my mind is not." Jaya Bhimdev Malla then made him the team leader of the eighty artisans, and the group traveled under him to Lhasa.


[Araniko statue, at the White Stupa temple in Beijing.]

Nepalese history does not have any contemporary record of Arniko and everything that is known of him comes from Chinese accounts. Modern Nepali scholars opine that Arniko could possibly be from Patan, a place famous for sculpture and fine arts. As such, he would have been from the Newa people and a Buddhist. It is known that Arniko lived in Kathmandu Valley during 1260. In the Chinese records the name of his grandfather is given as Mi-ti-rha (Mitra in Sanskrit) and grandmother as Kun-di-la-qi-mei (Kundalakshmi.) His father's name is given as La-ke-na (Laxman) while his mother's name was Shu-ma-ke-tai (Sumukti.) An anecdote from his epitaph in Beijing relates that when he was three years old, his parents in took the child to a temple to pay homage to the Buddha. Looking up at a stupa, he asked "who made its wooden stambha, its bhumis, its anda?"

In Tibet, Arniko impressed Phagpa at their first meeting in 1261. Phagpa immediately recognized his exceptional artistic skill and administrative ability, and entrusted him to supervise the construction. The stupa was built within the Main Hall of the Sakya Monastery. Arniko spent two years on this project; upon its completion, Phagpa was unwilling to let him leave when he asked for permission to return to Nepal.

In 1262, the Chagataid Khan Alghu, who had been appointed by Ariq Böke, switched his allegiance to Kublai and defeated a punitive expedition sent by Ariq Böke. The Il-Khan Hülegü also sided with Kublai and criticized Ariq Böke. Outnumbered, Ariq Böke surrendered to Kublai at Xanadu on August 21, 1264. The rulers of the western khanates now acknowledged Kublai's victory and rule in Mongolia, and the Yuan dynasty began to establish itself in China.

Arniko arrived in Xanadu by the end of 1262. The following account of the meeting between Arniko and Kublai Khan is recorded:

After he arrived, the Emperor looked at him at length before asking, "Are you afraid to come to the big country?" He answered, "The sage regards people in all directions as his sons. When a son comes to his father, what is there to fear?" "Why do you come?" He replied, "My family has been living in the west for generations. I took the imperial edict to build the stupa in Tibet for two years. I saw constant wars there, and wish Your Majesty could pacify there. I come for sentient beings." "What do you practice?" He said, "I take my mind as my teacher and know roughly painting, casting, and carving."

During his lifetime, Arniko completed three stupas, nine great Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Daoist temple, and countless images and objects used in and out of the Yuan court. It can be said that the art of Yuan China was single-handedly fashioned by this Nepali boy. Arniko executed a number of portraits of the imperial family; the portraits of Kublai Khan (at the top of this posting) and his wife Chabi (below), 'evacuated' to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, are believed to be his works.


Arniko re-married and settled in China. He was made the Duke of Liang. Apart from his Nepali wife, he had two Mongolian wives and seven Chinese wives. Together they had six sons and eight daughters. He lived in China until his death in March 1306 at the age of sixty two. Of his death it is recorded:

On the eighth of March of 1306, he looked at the people around himself and said, "If I am going, you should set up curtains in the hall and a couch, so that I can pass away in peaceful sleep." The next day, he took a bath and went to court. After returning, he appeared ill. Palace envoys and doctors visited, but he passed away in sleep on the eleventh. The emperor grieved over his death after hearing the news and halted the court session. He ordered palace officials to take care of the family, and reward the family twenty-five thousand taels of silver. The Emperor ordered the authorities concerned to make arrangements for the funeral. That night a star fell into the courtyard. The next day saw icicles on the trees. Seven days after, on the seventeenth of March, his remains were cremated according to Nepali custom. On the fifteenth of July, his ashes were buried in the stupa at Gangziyuan, Xiangshan, Wanping County.

From the stele to Arniko, Duke of Liang's memory in Beijing:

Having joined the Sangha,
He traveled to the East.
Enlightening was the teaching,
Like the shining sun.
His words to the Emperor
Were modest and excellent ...
To his superb skill
All lands pay tribute.
For every thing it is appropriate
To begin and continue,
So that it can last for thousands of years.
The artists in the past
Were by no means stupid.
But some had no chance,
Others were not appreciated.
Only the Duke of Liang
Twisted gold and cut jade.
The splendid temples he built,
Are towering and majestic.
Who says he was a guest?
He wore royal robes.
Returned to the laity,
He achieved fame and fortune.
His birth was glorious,
His death was grievous.
He began with care,
He ended with grace.
His sons continue his offices,
Good news never ends.


Today, the Araniko Highway connects Kathmandu with Kodari on the Nepal-Tibet border. Thence, at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge, it connects with the Tibetan National Highway 318 to Lhasa, and eventually goes to Beijing and Shanghai.

Below - a Tibetan Tsam dance by the Tumen Ekh ensemble in Ulaanbaatar.





Sunday, October 20

Hui Doloon Hudag



It is the 2222nd anniversary of the establishment of the Hunnu empire, and the annual Naadam games make much of the numerological occasion. Naadam is Mongolian word for "games"; these games represent the joy of the harvest, and are the traditional annual event of the prairie. The origin of this holiday is old, dating back at least to the times of Chingis Khan; though the selection of the July 11-13 window in which it is held is more recent - on these days in 1921 Mongolian pro-communist forces liberated the then Khuree or Urga (present day Ulaanbaatar) from occupying White Russians.

Traditionally, the games consist of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Unlike racing in Kentucky, Hong Kong or Dubai, which consists of short sprints of maximum 2 miles, the Mongolian horse-race is a cross-country event, with races 10–30 miles long. The length of each race is determined by the age of the horses; two-year-old horses race for ten miles,  seven-year-old ones for seventeen miles. The jockeys consist of boys 5 to 13; many are maimed, crippled or killed from falls during racing. The most popular event amongst Mongolians is the four-year-old stallions race, which runs for fifteen miles - it starts at the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and ends on the steppe in a place called Hui Doloon Hudag, which is, overnight, transformed into a city of yurts and SUVs at the finish line.

About a thousand horses are to participate and the owner of the horse that wins the four-year-olds race, we learn later, gets as grand prize a flat in Ulaanbaatar, ten different cars or SUVs as gifts from corporate houses, and countless other items of treasure from admirers. The top three horses are given gold, silver, and bronze medals, and the winning child-jockey is invested with the title of Tumany Ekh ("Leader of Ten Thousand.") The horse that finishes last in the Daaga, the two-year-old horses race,  is called the Bayan Khodood ("Full Tummy".) A song is sung to Bayan Khodood, wishing him luck to be the next year's winner.

Doloon in Mongolian means seven, and a hudag is a well; this spot on the steppe is near seven wells. [Interestingly, the Doloon Garig (долоон гариг) or Seven Luminaries (Planets) of Mongolian astronomical use have Indian names: Mercury is Буд or Bud (Budh), Venus is Сугар or Sugar (Sukr), Mars Ангараг or Angarag (Angarah), Jupiter Бархасбад or Barkhasbad (Brhaspat), Saturn Санчир or Sanchir (Sanischar). Uranus and Neptune, not known in antiquity, have more recent names: respectively Тэнгэрийн ван or Tengerin Ong (Prince of Heaven), and Далайн ван or Dalain Ong (Prince of Oceans.)]



We rise early to get to Hui Doloon Hudag. Soon, barely out of city center,  traffic comes to a standstill. About 200,000 cars are inching their way out, and it takes us two hours to cover 5 kms. In the middle, several police spotter cars with flashing lights race down the reverse-lanes escorting 20 identical Toyota Land-Cruisers laden with VIPs but still doing 100 kmph; in their wake, also escorted by militia, come a slower convoy of ambulances, press, a humvee carrying bottled water. Day-before-yesterday the Khan, yesterday the Commissar, today the Parliamentarian or Minister; some things never change.

At the first opportunity, our enterprising driver crawls down the side of the road into a ditch, manages to ford it to the steppe on the other side, and, disregarding the standstill traffic on the highway, we set off madly across the fields to try to catch the end of the race. The first 5 kms took two hours, the last 50 to Hui 7 Hudag take but thirty bone-rattling minutes. Once within sight of the yurt city where the finish line is, we hear a great sigh go up from the assembled crowd; "they see the horses! they see the horses!" screams 'Zaya. We jump off our transport and sprint pell-mell over the steppes, arriving breathless over the hills. It is a false alarm; it takes the four-year-olds another good hour to show up, during which I sprawl down on the hillside, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.


Friday, October 18

Razing Alamout



The Assassins are chiefly remembered today for their use of political murders for psychological effect. As a heretical offshoot (the Nizaris) of an unorthodox sect (the Ismailis), their agenda was primarily survival; and from their eagle's nest, the Alamout, they launched spectacular suicide attacks against personages who represented state-power used against them.  Hasan al-Sabbah, their founder and the Old Man of the fables' Mountain, sent young men supposedly drugged with hashish and filled with promises of paradise, against targets big and small; even the great Saladin lived in mortal fear of an Assassin (the Syrian Assassins were in loose alliance with the Frankish crusaders against Saladin for a while.)  The Assassins would carefully study the culture and self-images of their targets;  an operative would then be dispatched to infiltrate the inner circle of the intended victim, sometimes serving for years as a servant or familiar; at an opportune moment, the Assassin would stab his victim. 

Persians had long felt mistreated by their Arabic Sunni conquerors, and the Arab-Persian divide quickly manifested itself in the form of the Sunni-Shi'a split. Muhammad's descendants through Fatima who settled in Egypt formed another faction, the Ismaili Shi'a, who eventually gave rise to another fragment called the Nizaris. The Fatimid Caliph of Cairo Mustansirbillah had declared his son Nizar as heir and Imam. A coup by an army officer deposed this 'infalliable' Imam and exceuted him. The Cairo Ismailis came around to accepting the replacement; the  Persian Ismailis under Hasan al-Sabah did not, remaining loyal to the line of Nizar. They came to be known in the West as the Assassin cult. The terms hashishiyya or hashishin (from the Arabic: حشاشين‎ or hashshāshīn), as coined by Muslim sources, are used metaphorically in an abusive sense ("irreligious outcasts", "low-class rabble", etc.) Any literal interpretation of these terms in referring to the Nizaris as hashish-intoxicated fidayeen suicide-squads is rooted in the fantasies of medieval Westerners and their ignorance of Islam.

In the 10th and 11th centuries,  newly-converted Turks, the Sunni Seljuks, took control of Persia. The Nizari Shi'a could not defeat Turks or Arabs; but from a series of mountaintop fortresses in Persia and Syria, however, they could wage asymmetric war and assassinate key Seljuk, Kurdish, Frankish or Arab leaders, or indeed anyone who tried to extend political control into Nizari areas. Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier to the Seljuk court (and Hassan Sabah's classmate with Omar Khayyam, see here), was killed in October of 1092 by an Assassin disguised as a Sufi mystic. (Rumi's master Sham-e-Tabrizi is said to have been a descendant of a Nizari lord of Alamout.) The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad  Mustarshid fell to Assassin daggers in 1131.  In 1192, Conrad of Montferrat was murdered by men disguised as monks; henceforward the Crusaders, already demoralized by the loss of Jerusalem to the Khwarezmiyya, became fearful of a stab in the dark by their turncoat former allies, who were said to be masters of disguise and devils in cunning. In 1213, the Sherif of Mecca was targeted, but his lookalike cousin ended up getting killed in a case of mistaken identity.  Hasan's successors, however, overreached in sending a covert mission against Möngke Khan.

By 1237, the Mongols had conquered much of Persia, except for the strongholds of the Assassins. Since the fall of Khwarezm, the Mongols were focusing on Eastern Europe and Khorasan, and ruled lightly in western Iran. However, Genghis Khan's grandson Möngke grew determined to extract tribute from Baghdad. Fearful of this renewed interest in his region, the Assassin leader Muhammad III sent a team to kill the khagan. The suicide-squad arrived to pretend to offer submission to the Möngke, planning to stab him as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Mongke's guards suspected something was amiss from the chain-mail the emissaries wore under their robes, and turned the Assassins away; but the damage had been done. Möngke was alarmed, and determined to end the threat of these sinister cultists who had extended their menace even to his court in Mongolia, once and for all. As a detour from the sack of Baghdad, he directed Hülegü to contain the Assassin threat.

Muhammad's eldest son and successor, Khur Shah, had had a falling out with his father. Muhammad used to torment the boy, keeping him shut up in the womens' quarters of Alamout (from which the boy would escape to drink wine.) Khur Shah conspired with Nizami nobles to foment a coup. One day Muhammad went out to the sheep folds in the valley with his favorite catamite, Hasan-i-Mazanderani. This handsome youth had fled from the Mongols to Alamout, and Muhammad had developed a passion for him, giving Hasan-i-Mazanderani his own mistress for wife but continuing to openly sleep with both. Muhammad never returned from his night out in the valley; his decapitated body was found in the morning. Juvaini suggests it was Hasan (on Khur Shah's instigation) killed Muhammad. Soon afterwards, Khur Shah's men decapitated Hasan.

Hülegü Khan reached Nizari territory in Qohistan in 1256. By autumn, the Mongols were in the valley below the castle of Maymun Diz where Khur Shah was holed up. Khur Shah first sent his brother Shahenshah to offer submission. Hülegü asked Khur shah to dismantle Alamout and come himself in submission. While the Nizaris prevaricated, Hülegü bombarded Maymun Diz with mangonels and naphtha; the next day Khur Shah came down in surrender. With their leader captive, after a few days the garrison at Alamout surrendered; Juvaini was with the Mongols as they moved in to destroy the stronghold, and managed to save a portion of Hasan Sabbah's famous library, including astrolabes and Qurans. The Nizari texts he burnt; a blot on all his erudition to this day. Juvaini writes that within the rock bastions of Alamout were hollow tanks to store all sorts of provender needed to withstand long sieges; a Mongol waded into such a pool of honey and so deep was it that he nearly drowned.

After the fall of Alamout, Khur Shah's utility to the Mongols was low. He is said to have fallen in love with a Mongol girl and allowed to marry her. When he professed a love for witnessing camel-fights, he was given a hundred particularly vicious male camels to be able to enjoy the spectacle. In time he asked to be sent to the court of the khagan; Möngke denied his request for audience, receiving his formal surrender by proxy; and then ordered him killed on his journey back, saying that Khur Shah was not worth providing with the relay-horses his journey back to Alamout would take.

After the fall of Alamout, Nizari clans continued to live secretly in Azerbaijan. In the 14th century, they sent missionaries to India, where newly converted Ismailis came to be known as Khoja Mussulmans (from the Arabic khwaja, or lord.) Ismailism had been adapted for India; for the Khojas, all prophets and Imams are the same, and they retain many Hindu traditions, including a variation of the Vaishnavite belief in the Dashavatara. Khojas believe Ali was Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu.

In the 19th century, the Ismaili imam Hasan Ali received the honorific of Aga Khan from the Shah, but had to flee to India after a subsequent falling out. After some bitter power struggles, the British adjudicated the Aga Khan's claim to the Imamate and Sir Joseph Arnold of Bombay High Court ruled that the Khojas were undoubtedly the descendants of the Assassins and that the Aga Khan was the descendant of the Lord of Alamout; so he is regarded by the Khojas to this day.

For more information on the Assassins, see Anthony Campbell's essay (and account of his 1966 trek to the ruins of Alamout) here. Below, an Iranian Press-TV documentary on Alamout.


Monday, October 7

The Sack of Baghdad




Between January 29 and February 20, 1258,  Ilkhanate Mongol forces and allied troops under the command of Hülegü Khan, brother of the khagan Möngke Khan, captured and sacked Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Chingis Khan and his successor, Ögedei Khan, ordered their general Chormaqan to attack Baghdad. In 1236, Chormaqan led a division of the Mongol army to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Further raids on the caliphate became annual occurrences, and some raids reached Baghdad itself. They were sometimes repelled, with Abbasid forces defeating the invaders in 1238 and 1245, and sometimes bought off -  by 1241 the Caliph had adopted the practice of sending annual tribute to the court of the khagan. Envoys from the Caliphate were present at the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan in 1246. Güyük insisted that the Caliph Al-Musta'sim fully submit to Mongol rule and come personally to Karakorum. The Caliph's refusal, and subsequent resistance offered by the Abbasids to increased attempts by the Mongols to extend their power, were the main reasons for the sack.

Möngke had instructed Hülegü to attack Baghdad if the Caliph Al-Musta'sim refused Mongol demands for his continued submission to the khagan and the payment of tribute in the form of military support for Mongol forces in Iran. The Mongol intent had been to further extend their rule into Mesopotamia, but not to directly overthrow the Caliphate - rather, turn the institution of the Caliphate into their local satrapy; this was not to be.

In preparation for his invasion, the Mongols raised a large expeditionary force, conscripting two out of every ten military-age males in the entirety of the Mongol Empire, assembling what may have been the most numerous Mongol army to have existed: by one estimate, 150,000 strong. Generals of the army included the Oirat administrator Arghun Agha, Baiju, Buqa-Temur, Guo Kan, and Ketbuqa, as well as Hülegü's brother Sunitai, and various assorted warlords. Juvayni writes the force was supplemented by Christian forces, including the King of Armenia and his army;  a Frankish contingent from the Principality of Antioch; a Georgian force, seeking revenge on the Muslim Abbasids for the sacking of their capital, Tiflis, decades earlier, by the Khwarezm-shahs; 1,000 Chinese artillery experts; as well as Persian and Turkic auxiliaries. Writes Rashīd al-Dīn:

An emissary was sent to the Caliph bearing threats and promises, saying ... 

"Previously we have given you advice, but now we say you should avoid our wrath and vengeance. Do not try to overreach yourself or accomplish the impossible, for you will only succeed in harming yourself. The past is over. Destroy your ramparts, fill in your moats, turn the kingdom over to your son, and come to us. If you do not wish to come, send all three, the Vizier, Sulaymanshah, and the Dawatdar, that they may convey our message word for word. If our command is obeyed, it will not be necessary for us to wreak vengeance, and you may retain your lands, army, and subjects. If you do not heed our advice and dispute with us, line up your soldiers and get ready for the field of battle, for we have our loins girded for battle with you and are standing at the ready. When I lead my troops in wrath against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth,

I will bring you down from the turning celestial sphere
I shall pull you up like a lion
I shall not leave one person alive in your realm
And I shall put your city and country to the torch.

If you desire to have mercy on your ancient family's heads, heed my advice. If you do not, let us see what God's will is."

When the emissaries arrived in Baghdad and delivered this message, the Caliph send back Sarafuddin ibn al-Jawzi, an eloquent man, and Badruddin Muhammad Dizbaki Nakhjiwani in the company of the emissaries. In reply the Caliph said:

"Young man! you have just come of age and have expectations of living forever. You have seen your ten-days pass prosperously and auspiciously in dominating the whole world. You think your command is absolute. Since you are not going to get anything from me, why do you seek? You come with strategy, troops and lasso, but how are you going to capture a star? Does the prince not know that from the East to the West, from King to Beggar, from Old to Young, all who are God-fearing and God-worshipping are servants of this court and soldiers in my army? When I motion for all those who are dispersed to come together, I will deal first with Iran and then turn my attention to Turan, and I will put everyone in his proper place. Of course, the face of the Earth will be full of tumult, but I do not seek vengeance or to harm anyone. I do not desire that the tongues of my subjects should either congratulate or curse me because of the movement of armies, especially since I am one of heart and one tongue with the Qa'an and Hülegü. If, like me, you were to sow seeds of friendship, do you think you would have to deal with my moats and ramparts and those of my servants? Adopt the path of friendship and go back to Khurasan. If you are intent on war and battle,

Tarry not, hasten away, and abide not. If
you have a moment's thought of war,
I have thousands and thousands of cavalry
and infantry worthy of the battlefield
and when they wreak vengeance 
they can stir up dust from the water of the sea."

Giving them a message like this, he sent the emissaries off with a few gifts and presents.



Envoys went to the city, and the next day the vizier, the divan chief, and a group of well-known citizens came out, but they were sent back. Fierce battle was fought for six days and nights. Hülegü Khan ordered six decrees written, saying, "The lives of qadis, scholars, sheikhs, Alids and Nestorean priests, and persons who do not combat us are safe from us." The proclamations were fastened to arrows and shot into the city from six sides. Since there was no stone in the Baghdad vicinity, they brought rocks from Jalula and Jebel Khamrin, and date palms were cut down and hurled instead of stones. 

On Friday the 25th of Muharram the Ajami tower was destroyed. On Monday the 27th the Mongol soldiers proceeded overwhelmingly against the ramparts opposite the Ajami tower in the direction the padishah was. They emptied the tops of the walls of people, but they still had not gone on the wall in the direction of the Souq Sultan, where Balagha and Tutar [kinsmen of Berke Khan from the Golden Horde] were. Hülegü Khan chastised them. Their liege men went up, and by evening they had secured the whole of the tops of the eastern walls. 

When bridges were being made, Hülegü had ordered bridges to be built above and below Baghdad, boats made ready, catapults installed, and guards stationed. Buqa Temur and a tuman of soldiers were patrolling the routes to Madayin and Basra to prevent anyone from escaping by boat.

When the battle of Baghdad became intense, and the people were being pressed, the Dawatdar got in a boat to escape down river. When he passed the village of al-Uqab, Buqa Temur let loose a barrage of catapult stones, arrows and vials of naphtha. Three boats were taken, and the people were killed. The Dawatdar turned back in rout. 

When the Caliph was apprised of the situation he despaired totally of his rule of Baghdad. Seeing no escape route, he said, "I will surrender." He sent Fakhruddin Damghani and ibn Durnus out with a few gifts, thinking that if he sent too much it would indicate how afraid he was and the foe would be further emboldened. Hülegü Khan paid no attention to the embassy, and they returned in failure. 



(Marco Polo reports that upon finding the Caliph's great stores of treasure, which could have been spent on the defense of his realm, Hülegü Khan locked him in his treasure room without food or water, telling him "eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it." A medieval depiction of this incident is shown above, from the Le Livre des Merveilles of the 15th century.)

On Friday the 9th of Safar, Hülegü Khan went into the city to see the Caliph's palace. He settled into the Octagon Palace and gave a banquet for the commanders. Summoning the Caliph, he said, "You are the host, and we are the guests. Bring whatever you have that is suitable for us." The Caliph, thinking he was speaking seriously, trembled in fear. He was so frenzied that he couldn't tell the keys to the treasuries one from another and had to have several locks broken. He brought two thousand suits of clothing, ten thousand dinars, precious items, jewel-encrusted vessels, and several gems. Hülegü Khan paid no attention to these and gave it all away to the commanders present.

"The possessions you have on the face of the earth are apparent," he said to the Caliph. "Tell my servants what and where your buried treasures are." The Caliph there was a pool full of gold in the middle of the palace. They dug it up, and it was full of gold, all in hundred-mithcal ingots.

An order was given for the Caliph's harem to be counted. There were seven hundred women and concubines and a thousand servants. When the Caliph was apprised of the count of the harem, he begged and pleaded, saying, "Let me have the women of the harem, upon whom neither sun nor the moon has ever shone."

"Of these seven hundred, choose a hundred", he was told, "and leave the rest." The Caliph then selected a hundred women from amongst his favorites and close relatives, and took them away.


That night Hülegü Khan went to the ordu. The next morning, he ordered Su'unchuq to go into the city, confiscate the Caliph's possessions, and send them out. The items that had been accumulated over six hundred years were all stacked in mountainous piles around the kiriyas. Most of the holy places like the Caliph's mosque, the Musa-Jawad shrine, and the tombs in Rusafa were burned.

The last Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta'sim Abu-Ahmad Abdullah bin al-Mustansir-Billah (Arabic: المستعصم بالله أبو أحمد عبد الله بن المستنصر بالله‎) was killed by Hülegü Khan soon afterwards. The Mongols did not want to shed royal blood, so they wrapped him screaming into a rug and trampled him to a pulp with their horses. Most of his sons were massacred; one surviving son was sent as a prisoner to Mongolia, where Mongolian historians report he married and fathered children, but played no role in Islam thereafter.

'Abdallah ibn Faḍlallah Sharaf al-Din Shīrāzī  'Wassaf' (flourished 1299-1323) was a court panegyrist of the Ilkhanate and tax administrator in Fars during the reigns of Ghazan Mahmud and Oljaitü. His history the Tajziyat al-amṣār wa-tazjiyat al-a'ṣār -  the Allocation of Cities and the Propulsion of Epochs - was conceived as a continuation of Juvaini. Wassaf estimates that the loss of life in the days after the sack ran into several hundred thousand. Writes Wassaf:

"They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a plaything...as the population died at the hands of the invaders."

Iraq in 1258 had an extensive agriculture supported by Mesopotamian canal networks thousands of years old. The Mongols filled in the irrigation canals and left Iraq too depopulated to restore them. Baghdad had been the most brilliant intellectual center of the world, from whose destruction Islamic intellectual civilization never recovered. After the sack of Baghdad, Islam turned inward, suspicious of reason and of new interpretations; with the scholars gone the mullahs remained. The Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was utterly destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.


Saturday, September 28

Battle of Mohi




Matthew Paris (Matthæus Parisiensis, Matthew the Parisian, c. 1200 – 1259) was a Benedictine monk, English chronicler, artist in illuminated manuscripts and cartographer, based at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire in the UK. In 1239, he sounded a curious sort of alarm in his chronicles: there had been a glut in the supply of herrings at Yarmouth since the traditional buyers from the Eastern Baltic had failed to sail from their home ports in fear of the 'Tatars'.

While the sons of Tolui (Chingis Khan's youngest son) were consolidating in Khorasan and eyeing China, the sons of Jochi (the oldest son of Chingis' first wife Börte) under Batu were expanding Mongol rule to the west; the Golden Horde was being established to consolidate the Jochid ulus. In his wars against the Cumans, Rus, Bulgars, Magyars and Poles, Batu was aided by his grandfather's old noyan Subutai, now too fat to be able to ride a horse, but nonetheless carried to battle in an ox-cart.

Pushed west by the Mongols, 40,000 Cuman refugees sought asylum under Hungarian rule. King Béla IV of Hungary and Croatia saw an opportunity to curry favor with the Church, and granted the Cumans protection in return for the Cuman chieftain Köten accepting token Christianity over his tribe's Tengriism. The Mongols considered the Cumans as their slaves and saw this as a casus belli. The Hungarians were also accused of committing grave infringement against the yasa by capturing Mongol emissaries. Batu wrote King Béla an ultimatum:

I, the Qa'an, the representative of the Heavenly King, to whom he has given power over the Earth, to raise up those who submit to me and cast down those who resist - I wonder why, you, O king of Hungary, when I have now sent envoys to you on thirty occasions, you have sent none of them back to me; nor do you send me in return your own envoys or letter. I am aware you are a wealthy and powerful monarch, that you have under you many soldiers, and that you have sole rule over a great kingdom. Hence it is difficult for you to submit to me of your own volition; and yet it would be better for you, and healthier, were you to submit willingly. I have learnt, moreover, that you keep the Cumans, my slaves, under your protection, and so I order you do not keep them with you any longer and do not have me as an enemy on their account. For it is easier for them to escape than for you, since they are without houses and move about in tents, and so may perhaps be able to escape. But as for you, who dwell in houses and have fortresses and cities - how will you escape my grasp?




The Tatar threat of 1241 reached a Hungary that was in turmoil. Traditionally, the base of royal power had been in the vast estates of crown property. Béla's father Andrew II,  a second-son trying to usurp the throne from the lineage of the first-son, started to create his own power-base by gifting crown lands to his own partisans. Whole counties were donated; Andrew II said, "the best measure of royal generosity is measureless." The treasury was emptied out. After Béla IV inherited his father's throne, he began to clawback or confiscate Andrew’s donations; executed or expelled his advisors; denied the lords' right to personal hearings; and even had the chairs of the council chamber taken away in order to force everyone to stand in his presence. These actions caused great disaffection amongst his father's old retainers.

The newly arrived Cumans gave the king a better position (including increased prestige in the Church for converting them), but the nomadic Cumans seemed unable to live together with the settled Hungarians. There were riots; the Kuman chief, who had personally been granted protection by King Béla, was lynched. Betrayed, the Cumans started to leave Hungary to the south, pillaging on the way. In the meantime came rumors of 'Tatars' on the Eastern gates of the kingdom.

By now many nobles so hated the king that they declined to mobilize. Hardly anyone believed the Mongol attack was dangerous; it was considered a usual minor foray, one like that of the Cumans, that could be bought off. 

The 'Tatar' vanguard reached Pest on March 15th and began to pillage. Béla forbade his men to attack them as he felt he did not fully understand what was going on, and that the Hungarian army was still unprepared. Frederick Babenberg, the Duke of Austria and Styria, also arrived to help and immediately got the better of a minor raiding party. King Béla was thought to be a coward; after his heroic act, Duke Frederick believed the job was done and returned home. 

Finally, Béla decided to offer a battle with the 'Tatars', but they began a feigned retreat. This affirmed the opinion of the lords that the 'Tatars' were mere brigands and the king’s behavior was not caution but cowardice. The retreating Mongols reached the flooded river Sajó. 

The Hungarians still did not know that the main Mongol army had mobilized from farther east, and, covering an unheard-of 100 miles a day, had reached wooded terrain of the other side of Sajó. In the meanwhile, a second army under Baidar, Orda Khan and Kadan had just attacked Poland as a diversion to occupy any northern European forces which might come to Hungary's aid. In the Battle of Legnica (Liegnitz), again using feigned retreats to draw out their enemy, just 8,000 Mongols defeated 20,000 Polish two days before the Battle of Mohi. 




The Hungarians had no idea of the great deal of planning that underlay Subutai's strategy of finishing off the European armies in several parallel surprise blitzkrieg attacks, before they could realize what they were up against and join forces. At Mohi, a Ruthenian slave of the Tatars escaped to the Hungarians and warned them some Tatars were planning a night attack through the bridge across Sajó. The Hungarians still did not believe this would be much of anything, but the troops of prince Kálmán (the younger brother of king Béla) along with archbishop Ugrin Csák, a Master of the Knights Templar, left the camp to defend the unguarded bridge. They reached the bridge at midnight.  It is unlikely that the Mongols wanted to attack that very night (horse archers would have reason to avoid night battles), but they had probably wanted to cross the river in order to be able to attack the Hungarian camp the next day at dawn. When Kálmán and Ugrin arrived at Sajó bridge, they found some Tatars in the middle of crossing the river. The Hungarians successfully forced a melee and achieved a great victory at the bridge. When it was over the Hungarians left some soldiers to guard the bridge and returned to camp, unaware of the main Mongol army that was still out there. When they returned to the camp at 2 am, they celebrated the victory and went off to sleep.

The unexpected arrival of tipped-off Hungarians and their victory at Sajó bridge forced Subutai to modify his plans. Sejban was sent north to a ford to cross the river by stealth and attack the rear of the bridge-guarders. At 4 am this set of out-flankers began the crossing. Meanwhile, Subutai went south to build an emergency bridge. He was able to begin crossing at 9 am via this route. At dawn, Batu, with the help of seven stone throwing siege-engines, attacked the Hungarian guards on the main bridge. Due to the sudden arrival of Sejbán behind their backs, the Hungarians abandoned the bridge and retreated to their camp. The main Tatar forces under Batu then finished crossing the river at around 8 am.

When the fleeting Hungarians arrived at the camp, they awakened the others. Kálmán and Ugrin the Templar master again hurried out of camp to deal with the attackers. This time they realized that this was no minor raid but a calamity; thousand upon thousand of the Mongol forces were pouring across the river. A hard struggle ensued. Batu lost 30 of his bodyguards, only his personal action and bravery withheld the desperate Hungarian charges. At that moment, Subutai, who had been delayed by the emergency bridge-building, arrived and attacked the Hungarians’ back with flaming gunpowder arrows. 

Routed, the Hungarians tried to escape via a gap left open on purpose by the Mongols. (Fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily by driving burning naphtha arrows into their backs.) Archbishop Ugrin was killed along with the flower of Templary. Prince Kálmán and King Béla managed to escape, the wounds of Kálmán were serious. The Hungarians lost 10,000 men and were unable to field another army to contain the Tatars. 



In the aftermath of the invasion, Hungary lay in ruin. The Mongols discovered the royal seal on the body of Béla's chancellor, and used it to issue bogus decrees - that the villagers should stay home and pay tribute. The fortresses of the Hungarians were not yet stone, most were 'mud-pies'. Nearly half of the inhabited places were destroyed by the Mongols. A quarter of the population was lost.

On Christmas Day 1241 the Danube froze. The Mongols came across to the Austrian and Croatian sides. Béla, hunted down through Zagreb by the Mongols, found refuge in a small island off the Dalmatian coast. No help reached him from his neighbors; in fact when he had tried to flee to Austria, Duke Frederick Babenberg had lured him to a castle under guise of welcome, and extorted back an unpaid loan, for which the hapless Béla had been obliged to pawn three Hungarian counties; Frederick's men had then harassed these counties to the point of rebellion. If the Mongols had pressed on West, it is not clear they would have faced any greater organized resistance from Germanic princes than what Béla's Hungarians had presented them.

Meanwhile, in Dec 1241 Ögedei Khan died, perhaps poisoned by his sister Altatun. (Rashīd al-Dīn tells us she was later killed by Güyüg.) News of this came to Batu in the spring of 1242. Historians no longer feel strongly that the Mongol invasion of Europe was halted by Batu immediately leaving to attend succession confabulations in Mongolia and to try revert the succession from Güyüg to himself; though it is quite clear that at the peak of their drive into Europe the Mongols suddenly stopped, upped and left. It is also thought likely that the Mongols had exhausted the pasturage available in Hungary and retreated to the steppes for sake of grass for their horses.

Batu retired through Bosnia and Serbia. He sacked Kotor in Montenegro and Drisht in Albania; on his way back to Kazakhstan, he left behind, in the elegant words of Thomas of Spalato (Archdeacon of Split in Croatia) "nobody to piss against a wall."

(Below, we fly over the Kazakh steppe of Batu's Golden Horde.)


Wednesday, September 25

Rashid al-Dīn Hamadāni



Hamadān (Persian: همدان, in ancient Persian variously Haŋgmatana, Ecbatana) is believed to be among the oldest Iranian cities and considered one of the oldest in the world, one that existed in north-west Iran for centuries before it enters records as being occupied by the Assyrians c. 1100 BCE. One of Hamadān's many illustrious sons is Rashīd al-Dīn Fadl-allāh Tabīb Hamadānī (1247–1318) (Persian: رشیدالدین فضل‌الله طبیب  همدانی‎), a Jewish-origin Persian physician, polymath, historian and general Renaissance Man centuries before the Renaissance.

Rashīd al-Dīn Hamadānī wrote an enormous medieval history - the Jami' al-Tawarikh - this title usually translated to Compendium of Chronicles. Written in Persian, this monumental work is considered 'a landmark in intercultural historiography' and is also a key document on the Ilkhanid Mongols of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Rashid al-Dīn's encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of cultures - from Mongolia to China to the Steppes of Central Eurasia to Persia, to the Arab lands, India, Sri Lanka and Europe - as well as his personal involvement in matters of State as an Ilkhanid vizier, provide direct access to information on the late Mongol era of the grandsons of Chingis Khan. He traces how the Mongols embraced trade after conquest, and how this resulted in the Pax Mongolica -- an atmosphere of religious tolerance, cultural exchange and intellectual ferment, resulting in the transmission of a host of ideas from East to West.

Rashid al-Dīn's grandfather had been a courtier to the founding Il-khan Hülegü, and his father had been an apothecary in that court as well. Trained as a doctor, Rashid al-Dīn converted to Islam around the age of thirty (his masters would soon start to convert, too) and started in the imperial service under Hülegü's son (i.e. Chingis Khan's great-grandson) Abaqa. He rose to rapidly through government, to become the Grand Vizier of the Ilkhanid court at Soltaniyeh near Qazvin. Rashid al-Dīn instituted economic reforms designed to benefit the native population, rather than their Mongol overlords; he fostered the interests of peasants and of civil society. Traveling through the by-now-extensive Mongol domains, his eyes surveyed agriculture, art, custom.  After Abaqa's reign, he maintained power at the court,  serving as prime-minister and physician under the subsequent Il-khanid emperors Mahmud Ghazan and his brother Öljeitü (aka Muhammad Khodabandeh), before he fell to court intrigues under Abu Sa'id, whose ministers had him executed at the age of seventy on charges of having secretly poisoned the Il-khan Öljeitü (1304-1316.)




The encyclopedic history of Rashid al-Dīn, the Jami' al-Tawarikh (in Mongolian Судрын чуулган, Sudar-yn Chuulgan) was commissioned by Mahmud Ghazan; initially conceived as a history of the Mongols, it gradually expanded to include the entire history since the time of Adam to Rashid al-Dīn's time. The work was executed at the elaborate scriptorium endowed by Rashid al-Dīn himself from his estate, called the Rab'-e Rashidi, and located at Qazvin, where a large team of calligraphers and illustrators were employed to produce lavishly illustrated copies of his manuscript year after year (and, ideally, in the endower's mind, generation after generation.) Rashid al-Dīn imported a printing process from China to enable the books to be copied while preserving attribution and accuracy. The work at the time of completion ( c. 1307) was of monumental size; several sections have not survived or even discovered. Portions of the Jami' al-Tawarikh survive in various lavishly illustrated manuscripts, many believed to have been produced during his lifetime and perhaps under his direct supervision at the Rab'-i-Rashidi workshop.

The work represented such symbolic importance for the Il-khans that Rashid al-Dīn was reportedly given a million-gold-dinar purse at its completion. It was also decreed that an annual copy be made in each of Persian and Arabic and disseminated across Mongol lands.

After Rashid al-Din's execution in 1318, the Rab'-i-Rashidi precinct was destroyed, but luckily the in-process copy that was being created at the time survived, probably somewhere in the city of Tabriz, possibly in the library of Rashid's son Ghiyath al-Din. Later, Rashid's son became a vizier in his own right, and eventually restored the scriptorium precinct of his father. Several of the subsequent compositions of the Jami' al-Tawarikh were used as models for the later illustrated version of the Shahnama (also known as the Demotte Shahnama), which in turn was of seminal influence on the art of illuminated post-Ilkhanid manuscripts, including those at the courts of the Mughals and the Rajputs, such as the Jahangirnama.

By the 15th century, the Arabic copy of the Jami' al-Tawarikh was in Timurid Herat. It then passed to the court of the Mughals in India, where it came to be in the possession of Akbar (1556–1605). Subsequently, there is record of it passing through the hands of one Mughal emperor after another for two centuries. It was divided into two parts in the mid-1700s, though both sections remained in India until the 19th century, when they were taken by British employees of the East India Company. One section (now in the Edinburgh library) was acquired by Colonel John Baillie from the library of the Indian prince Farzada Kuli per the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.  The other section was acquired by John Staples Harriot of the East India Company sometime prior to 1813. At some point during the next two decades, this second portion was brought to England and entered the collection of Major General Thomas Gordon, who then bequeathed it to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1841. In 1948, it was loaned to the British Museum, and in 1980 the second portion was auctioned-off at Sotheby's, where it was purchased by the Rashidiyyah Foundation of Geneva  (ex Royal Asiatic Society) for £850,000, then the highest price ever paid for a medieval manuscript. Nasser David Khalili acquired it in 1990. Above, a folio from my copy of this portion, showing the Buddha (!) offering a piece of fruit to the Devil incarnate (see here for a discussion of Jami' al-Tawarikh and Buddhism.) Below, Ravana lies defeated at the end of Rama's battle for Lanka; Rashid al-Dīn's ambit is indeed large.




Compared to Juvaini, Rashid al-Dīn's tone is measured; his style matter-of-fact; only occasionally does he lapse to verse or allegory. There is a refreshing absence of sycophancy or flattery, even in the sections on the Il-khans themselves. (Ghazan is praised briefly for bringing Islam to the Mongols, thereby revealing and accomplishing Allah’s purpose in the destruction wrought by Chingis Khan.) Rashid al-Dīn is frank about the shortcomings of early Mongol rule in Persia, though he is seldom overly judgmental, usually offering little by way of personal opinion - his is not the moralizing tone that is a conspicuous aspect of Juvaini. For example, in his verdict on the reign of Ahmad Takudār, the seventh son of Hülegü and third Il-Khan of Iran, Rashid al-Dīn characterizes Takudār simply as a ruler unable to deliver justice, using his personal experience from the time when he was in the service of the Juvainis to substantiate the observation.

While he knew the Il-khans from personal experience, Rashid al-Dīn's trusted source on the affairs of the Great Khans in Mongolia was one Bolad ('steel', the word survives in Hindi today as faulad) Chingsang (Mongolian:Болад чинсан, Болад ага, Болд, Persian: Pulad chinksank, Chinese: 孛羅丞相; pinyin: Bóluó chéngxiàng, "Chancellor Bolad", d. 1313),  a Mongol minister of the Yuan Dynasty (his father had been a steward attached to the residence of Chingis Khan's wife Börte), who later served in the Il-khanate as the representative of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, as well as grand cultural adviser.  Bolad provided valuable information to the Jami' al-Tawarikh on how the main wing of the Mongols worked, even as the Il-khans drifted away from the mores of the steppes and of China; Mongolists consider him as a cultural bridge between East and West. Below, illustrations on attire from China in the Jami' al-Tawarikh.




To recall, Hülegü himself had been born to Tolui, Chingis Khan's youngest son, by Sorgaqtani Beki, the influential Kerait princess. Sorgaqtani, though a tribal outsider, successfully navigated Mongol politics arranging for all of her sons to become Mongol leaders in their generation. She had been Nestorian Christian by faith; Hülegü was friendly to Christianity, his favorite wife, Dokuz Khatun, was Christian, as was his closest friend and general, Ket-buqa. It is recorded however that Hülegü himself had become Buddhist, at least towards the end of his life and all the mayhem (echoes of Asoka?) to his wife's distress.

Hülegü's brother Möngke had been installed as the Fourth Great Khan c. 1251, succeeding Güyük son of Ögedei Khan. In 1255, Möngke entrusted Hülegü with leading a massive Mongol army to conquer or destroy the remaining Muslim states in southwestern Asia. Hülegü's campaign sought the consolidation of various conquests made since Chingis Khan's time in Iran and Khorasan; the submission of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the submission or destruction of the Ayyubid states in Syria, and, hopefully, the submission or destruction of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt. Chanelling Chingis, Möngke ordered Hülegü to treat kindly those who submitted, and utterly destroy those who did not.

Hülegü marched out with perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled (perhaps his brother was managing a contender out of Mongolia with all his followers; 20-30% of Mongol forces went with Hülegü, essentially to found a new empire spanning Persia, Iraq and Syria.) Here is Rashid al-Dīn on the consolidation of Mongol power in Iran and Khorasan:

He [Hülegü] sent Sadruddin to supervise the handling over of all the strongholds and fortifications his fathers and forefathers had acquired over time in Quhistan, Rodbar, and Qutmis, and which were filled to the brim with vessels and treasures. The number came to a hundred. The castellans were made to come out, and all the fortresses were razed except for Gird Koh and Lammasar. His [i.e. the local Khwarshah Ruknuddin's] kinsmen and adherents held Lammasar for a year. After that, pestilence broke out and many died. Those who were left came out and joined the others. They held Gird Koh for nearly twenty years, but in the end, during Abaqa Khan's reign, they came out and were killed, and it too was taken over.