Is Genghis Khan’s characterization “as terrifying as genocide and as dreadful as the plague” (Time, Dec. 31, 1999) sufficient? His legacy entailed the destruction of social and cultural order, but paradoxically, his empire also forged a dynamic relationship between nomadic and sedentary societies. Genghis Khan’s successors fostered a climate of intense cultural activity in art and architecture, producing complex fusions of artistic traditions between the Middle East and China. These are the major concerns of the course, which focuses on the art and architecture produced from the thirteenth century on under Genghis Khan and his successors. Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde traversed Eurasia to create a world empire, their most enduring legacy stamped on the lands of Iran and Central Asia through their successors, the Ilkhanid and Timurid dynasties. This imperial order established a new relationship between nomadic and sedentary societies, an ongoing symbiosis of “steppe” and “sown.” To bolster their claim to rule, successive leaders exploited the knowledge of indigenous bureaucrats and craftsmen to execute their cultural program. Regional artistic traditions were manipulated and transformed into new hybrids that could demonstrate the ruler's power to the nomadic elite and to the multi-cultural urban populations under their control. These works reveal an evolving political structure and social order. The course examines how meanings are encoded through language, forms, and aesthetic features, how they are made legible, and how they may function as propaganda.
The environments from which the Mongols emerged and into which they journeyed are initially considered in terms of the heritage, culture, and ecology of the Mongols and the peoples of the lands they conquered. How did the Mongols remember their nomadic past as the balance of their lives shifted, when they became increasingly sedentarized? Which symbolic elements could be easily translated through the available forms of sedentary art and architecture? In subsequent lectures, key monuments of Ilkhanid and Timurid art and architecture will provide a framework for analyzing different facets of the process of cultural assimilation, the changing Mongol response—at first hostile and then receptive—to the sedentarized cultures that they encountered and then ruled.
Key readings are extracted from a wealth of recent literature in addition to primary sources available in English translation. No previous classes in Islamic art and architecture or in Middle Eastern history and culture are required.