THE HAN-LIN ACADEMY AND
THE PERSIAN ROYAL LIBRARY-ATELIER
This article is dedicated to Professor John Woods whose seminal work on the Āq-
quyūnlū Turkamans is a landmark in the studies of the Turco-Persian polities that
succeeded the Mongols in Iran, and encouraged many, including this author, to pursue
research in the Mongol and post-Mongol era.
Despite the devastation that the Mongols inflicted upon the lands that they conquered,
they unleashed a cultural renaissance that affected these lands for centuries to come.
Religious tolerance and the promotion of free trade certainly much contributed to this
cultural renaissance but, more importantly, it was the interaction between the two
extreme poles of the empire, namely China and Iran, that generated new art forms and
standards. While merchants from the Persian lands helped to reorient the production of
the Chinese kilns to the Persian markets,1 the courtly customs and activities of Peking,
much influenced those of the Īl-Khānids of Iran. A point in case is how a history project
of the Han-lin Academy in China sparked a similar activity in Tabriz, which ultimately
led to the institutionalization of illustrated-manuscript production as one of the most
important of Iranian princely activities.
This paper analyses the launching of illustrated-manuscript production in Iran, by
following its evolution from the writing of a history of the Mongols, to the "publication"
of a universal history, to the creation of the first grandly illustrated copy of the Iranian
national epic, the Shāh-nāmeh, and finally, to the establishment of the royal library-
atelier as an Iranian kingly institution.
MEDLEY 1975, p. 32; SOUDAVAR 1998, pp. 125-26.
MANUSCRIPT PRODUCTION IN THE PRE-MONGOL ERA
If one looks at the corpus of extant Persian literary manuscripts, one would immediately
see that the number of manuscripts from the pre-Mongol era is minute, but grows
exponentially with time in the post-Mongol era. This discrepancy in numbers cannot be
solely attributed to the looting and massive destruction of cities by the Mongols, for such
destruction should have been across the board, and would have affected all types of
manuscripts; yet, numerous copies of Qorāns and religious works have been preserved
from the pre-Mongol era, while for instance only one copy of the Shāh-nāmeh, has
survived from that period.2 Although not illustrated, it is a sumptuous manuscript with
several pages penned in gold and with elaborate headings.
Sumptuousness is a prime reason for manuscript survival. If illustrated and/or illuminated
literary manuscripts had been produced before the Mongol invasions, chances are that
many would have survived, especially in prosperous cities such as Shiraz that the
invaders mostly left unharmed.
The following anecdote from the "Abū Manśurī" preface of the Shāh-nāmeh reveals that
the production of an illustrated manuscript was an uncommon phenomenon in the early
Islamic era, and when sought, it was achieved with foreign help:
"and he (the Sāmānid Naśr b. Ahmad, r. 864-92) ordered the poet Rudakī
to translate the fables of Kalīleh and Dimneh into Persian verses. And the
Kalīleh and Dimneh became popular and was quoted by both the young
and the aged. And his (Amīr Naśr's) name was immortalized. And then
the Chinese added paintings to it, to make it more enjoyable to the
From the whole of Islamic lands, where illustration was often perceived as an attempt to
duplicate creation, and thereby usually avoided, some twenty one Arabic illustrated
See PIEMONTESE 1980, pp. 48 and 66.
GHAZVINI 1363, p. 33.
manuscripts survive from the pre-Mongol era versus only one in Persian.4 The latter, the
Varqa o Golshāh manuscript of the Topkapu Saray Library in Istanbul,5 bears further
testimony to the lack of trained artist for manuscript illustration in the Persian Lands.
Indeed, the empty spaces of many of its illustrations, such as fig. 1, are filled with a scroll
pattern that suggest the work of an artist trained for another medium—such as metal-
work or textile—where the filling of empty spaces with background design was perceived
as a necessity.
Perhaps in a culture where the oral tradition was strong, the demand for the written copy
was weak, or perhaps, the orthodoxy of the Persian courts, which surpassed that of the
Caliphate itself, prevented the production of illustrated manuscripts. Whatever the reason
was, a tradition of illustrated manuscript production did not exist at the Persian courts. On
the other hand, the vast array of colorful Persian poetry offered an exceptional potential
for the art of the books; a potential that was in need of the right catalyst to flourish on its
own. That catalyst was provided by the Mongols acting in effect as cultural brokers
between the Chinese and Persian courts.
QŪBILĀY QĀĀN AND THE HAN-LIN PROJECT
Under the tutelage of his mother, the able Sorqoqtani, Qūbilāy (r. 1260-94) had been
exposed at an early age to Chinese administrative ideas, and became convinced of the
need to employ Chinese scholars in his struggle for political ascendancy.6 Thus, as early
as 1242 he began summoning Chinese advisors to Qaraqorum among who was one Wang
O, an ex-Chin official who had miraculously survived the Mongol slaughter of the last
Chin stronghold of Ts’ai-chou. It is during this visit that Wang O first proposed the
compilation of the Chin history to Qūbilāy. His proposal was followed up by another
The twenty one manuscripts are composed of 2 Book of Antidotes (Kitāb-al-diryāq), 7 Arabic versions of
Dioscurides’ Di Materia Medica, 1 Kalīleh and Dimneh, 3 books on farriery and horses, 6 Maqāmāt al-
Ħarīrī, 1 Choicest Maxim’s of Ibn-e Fātiq, 1 Sulwān al-mutā.
Istanbul: Topkapu Saray Library, Ms. H841.
CHAN 1993, p. 303.
invitee to Qaraqorum, Liu P’ing Chung, who argued that ―a state may be vanquished but
its history remains‖ and that it was a time honored practice of Chinese dynasties to write
the history of the preceding ones. But at the court of Qaraqorum, priorities were different.
Mongol rulership was still planning the conquest of the world and had no time for
Priorities changed when Qūbilāy proclaimed himself the Supreme Khan (Qāān) of the
Mongols, and shifted the capital of the empire from Qaraqorum to Khānbāliq (literally
meaning City of the Khān, better known as Peking). In 1264, Wang O submitted another
petition for his history project, though slightly modified in comparison to the first one. In
order to gain Mongol support, he suggested to start first with the records of Changīz’
conquest and the Mongol dynastic history, followed by the history of the Liao and Chin
dynasties. And to gain the academicians support, he proposed to subordinate the National
History Office to the Han-Lin Academy. His petition was seconded by another Han-lin
academician, Shang T’ing, and this time Qūbilāy accepted the proposal. Its first phase got
quickly under way; but the second phase stalled for lack of consensus on the issue of
which dynasty the Mongols had actually succeeded: the Chin, the Liao, or the Sung—
who were still not vanquished. In typical bureaucratic fashion, it took some eighty years
to solve the latter problem by concluding the obvious: that the Mongol had actually
succeeded all three dynasties and that the histories of all of them had to be compiled.7
Meanwhile, in the succession rift that split the Mongols following the death of Mungkā
Qāān (r. 1251-60), Hūlāgū (r. 1256-65) who was in charge of pacifying the Iranian
territories, sided with his elder brother Qūbilāy. In reward for his allegiance to the new
Qāān, he received the Iranian lands as his fiefdom and was granted the title Īl-Khān,
literally meaning ―subservient khan,” i.e. subservient to the new Qāān in Khānbāligh.
CHAN 1981, p.75.
As the City of the Khān, and the seat of the empire, Khānbāligh became a pole of
attraction and a source of activities that the ―subservient‖ Īl-Khāns would naturally try to
emulate. Several factors facilitated the emulation of Mongol/Chinese fashions in the Īl-
Khānid domain. First, there were regular exchanges of ambassadorial missions,
accompanied or supplemented by trade caravans. Second, there were resident envoys
from Khānbālegh, such as Pūlād (Bolād) Ching-Sāng (d. 1312) who was the initiator of
the ill-fated attempt to implement the Chinese chao money-system in Iran. More
importantly, there were the wives of the Īl-Khāns who came from Khānbālegh, such as
Kūkājīn, the princess that Marco Polo brought back with him from China and that
Ghāzān (r. 1295-1304) took as chief-wife and placed at the Yūrt-e Buzurg (The Grand
Yurt) in replacement of his father and grandfather’s wife, Bulughān-khātūn-e Buzurg.8
These Mongol princesses from China were certainly instrumental in exposing Ghāzān to
the activities of the Yüan court.
The ascent of Ghāzān to the Īl-Khānid throne came in the wake of Qūbilāy’s death in
China, and at a time that the Īl-Khānid domain could no more be considered a vassal state
of the Yüans. But such was Ghāzān's allegiance to Mongol traditions that he would
accept the epithet of Pādshāh-e Islam (The Emperor of the Islamic Lands) devised by the
vizier Rashīd al-dīn, but would refuse the title qāān which he considered to be the
prerogative of the Great Khān in China.9 Yet, as Pādshāh-e Islam, he was also in need to
SOUDAVAR 1997, p. 119. At the age of three, Ghāzān was placed under the custody of Bulughān-
By the time of Uljāytū, an influenceable and indecisive person who underwent numerous changes of faith,
Rashīd al-dīn was able to further expand the īl-khān's titles to include the epithet qāān, and to
posthumously use it for Ghāzān and his father Arghūn, as well as the reigning monarch, Uljāytū; see for
instance RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Jāme` al-tavārīkh, ed. Karīmī, I:2, and RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Laţā'ef al-Ħaqā'iq,
ed. Tāher, pp. 36 and 243. Quoting a passage of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh and early coin issues of Ghāzān,
Allsen recently argued that the title Pādshāh-e Jahān (i.e. World Emperor) had been used for Ghāzān;
ALLSEN 2001, p. 32. Both interpretations I believe are incorrect. The passage quoted from the Jāme`al-
tavārīkh (RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Jāme` al-tavārīkh, ed. Karīmī, I:386) does not name the ruler, and since most
of this work was written after Ghāzān’s death in 1303 and presented to his brother in 1306, the passages
wishing long life for an unnamed ruler refer by default to the living one, i.e. most probably Uljāytū.
Moreover, stylistically the passage reflects the bombastic composition of a passage where Uljāytū is named
(ibid, I:2), rather than the short and concise formulation used specifically for Ghāzān elsewhere, and devoid
buttress his legitimacy in terms acceptable to his own constituency, and secure a
paramount position for the Īl-Khānids within the long string of dynasties that ruled over
the Persian Lands. This domain that the Hūlāgūids claimed—over the objections of the
Bātuids and the Chaghatāyids—as their fiefdom, was defined by the celebrated vizier and
astronomer of Hūlāgū, Naśīr al-dīn-
to the setting sun‖10 which in essence corresponded to the old concept of the Iranian
Lands or Iranshahr defined as the lands from the Oxus to the Nile.11
Previous Turkic invaders who had espoused the Islamic faith and had ruled over the
Persian Lands, had ultimately sought the sanction of the `Abbāsid Caliph to establish
their legitimacy. In the post Caliphate period however, legitimacy had to be
reformulated—or reinvented—in terms acceptable to both the Persian constituency and to
the Turco-Mongol ruling elite that was gradually getting Persianized.
The process of the historical legitimization of the Mongols in Iran can be divided into
three phases. In the first, following the model of the Han-lin history project, Ghāzān
ordered Rashīd al-dīn (d. 1319) to compile the history of the Mongols with an emphasis
on the Īl-Khānid branch of the dynasty. It was finished after the latter’s death and
presented in 1306 to his successor, Uljāytū (r. 1304-17). Rashīd was handsomely
rewarded for the first phase and then demanded permission from Uljāytū to embark on
the second phase of the project, i.e. the compilation of the history of all previous
dynasties ruling over the Persian Lands to which the Īl-Khānids would appear as natural
of the World Emperor title (see for instance ibid, I:214). As for the coins with the title of World Emperor
(at the top), one should note that said title is followed by the legend ―Al-solţān al- hāzān Mahmud.‖
In Islamic coinage as well as textual titulature however, ―Al-solţān‖ invariably marked the beginning of the
title string. Therefore what precedes it on these coins is a continuation of a past practice, where the title
World Emperor was placed at the very top and which referred to the Īl-khān’s overlord, the Qāān; see for
instance SOUDAVAR 1992, p. 32.
BOYLE 1977, p. 246.
Shahrestānihā i Erānshahr; A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic and History, ed.
Daryaee, pp. 4-5.
successors.12 In essence, the second phase was meant to emulate what the National
History Office of China was supposed to have: a complete series of official histories of
past dynasties. But whereas the Han-lin project had stalled on the question of whom the
Mongols were actually succeeding, Rashīd produced in less than six years, a
chronological history, from the dawn of creation to the eve of the Mongol invasions.
In the meantime, the Īl-Khānid project had acquired a life of its own and was expanded to
include the histories of neighboring countries and civilizations, and as such, was given
the name Jāme` al-tavārīkh or Universal History. Thereafter, the first phase History of
the Mongols that was initially referred to as Tārīkh-e mubārak-e Ghāzānī, was integrated
into the Jāme` al-tavārīkh as its first volume.
The Jāme` al-tavārīkh was certainly not the first history project of the Persian lands, but
came in the wake of a number of major works, some of which—such as the Tārīkh-e
—were fairly comprehensive, both geographically and chronologically. They were
all used for the compilation of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh, and much influenced its content and
structure. Several characteristics though, set apart the latter from previous Persian or
Islamic histories, and vouch for the Han-lin project as its prime source of inspiration:
1- The already mentioned volume sequence, that starts with the History of the
Mongols and then goes back to earlier periods.
2- Whereas all previous histories were compiled by one author, and mostly by his
own initiative, the Jāme` al-tavārīkh was produced as an imperial commission, by a
team of experts under the direction of Rashīd.
3- While historians traditionally wrote their account in a very ornate style to
impress their own peers, the Jāme` al-tavārīkh is written—at least in its first
A second phase may have already been foreseen during Ghāzān; JAHN 1967, p. 82.
volume—in a peculiar style that perhaps, similar to what the French call Franglais,
should be called ―Pergol;‖ for it combines a grammatically simple Persian with a
heavy dose of Mongol words, especially verbs. It probably reflected the type of
Persian that Ghāzān and the Mongol nobility spoke or understood.
4- Most importantly, whereas the previous works were all completed and sealed
as a finished work by their authors, the Jāme` al-tavārīkh remained open-ended; it
was institutionalized as a project that had to be updated whenever new information
would become available. Indeed, at the end of each chapter, a heading was
incorporated to reserve an entry for future information, and certain manuscripts thus
show added text under these headings, in a style much different than the main text of
the Jāme` al-tavārīkh.13
Furthermore, out of his personal funds, Rashīd created a vast complex named the Rab`-e
Rashīdī or Rashīdī quarters, that combined the traditional Islamic mosque-madrisa
institution with a Sasanian type hospital and medical complex, with a Han-lin type
academy that included a library and scriptorium for the production of the Jāme` al-
tavārīkh, and a residence for its staff. In so doing, he was in full control of his project,
from conception to production. And, similar to Changīz’ and Ogdāy’s trusted advisor,
Yeh-Lü Ch’u ts’ai who, in 1236, had established two institutes for the publication and
dissemination of books under official sponsorship,14 Rashīd had now at his disposal the
means to disseminate his works within the Īl-Khānid domain and beyond. Thus, in the
endowment document of the Rab`, Rashīd explicitly set aside funds for copying his
The heading of the last section of the Arghūn chapter reads for instance: "Section Three from the Story of
Arghūn, Pertaining to his Noble Traits and Behavior and his Words of Wisdom, and his Orders and Edicts
and the Story of the Events of his Time not Mentioned in the Previous Two Sections and Reported by
Different Individuals;" RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Jāme` al-tavārīkh, ed. Alīzādeh, III:229.
De RACHEWILTZ 1962, p. 205.
works. They were to be "sent to all cities of Islam, in Arabic to Arab cities and in Persian
to Persian cities, beginning with the most important cities."15
Since the time of the Achaemenid Darius (r. 521-485BC) who had his own version of his
ascent to the throne—or usurpation—carved on the rock-mountain of Bīsutūn, and copies
of it disseminated throughout his empire, new dynasties often tried to produce and send
out legitimizing propaganda. The copying and the distribution of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh
fits the same pattern. While this may have been Rashīd’s initial intention, he soon saw in
it an opportunity to glorify himself as well, and hence, bundled the Jāme` al-tavārīkh
with a number of his own writings in a compendium known as the Jāme` al-taśānīf-e
Rashīdī (The Rashīd i Compendium). It is thus that the copies sent to India were
registered in the Indian annals as the ―Jāme`-e Rashīdī sent by Solţān Muħammad
THE THIRD PHASE
The third phase was initiated during the copying process of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh, when
Rashīd (or perhaps one of the Rab’-e Rashīdī staff members) noticed similarities
between the History of the Mongols and the Iranian Book of Kings, the Shāh-nāmeh, and
a potential for blending the two in one, in order to enhance the acceptability of the
Mongols as a legitimate Iranian dynasty. A new project thus began leading to the
production of the first royal illustrated manuscript copy of the Shāh-nāmeh, in which
every illustration represented a Shāh-nāmeh episode as well as an event of Mongol
history. This special manuscript copy of the Shāh-nāmeh was eventually completed under
Abū-Sa`īd (r.1317-35) and was nicknamed Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh.17
RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Vaqfnāmeh-ye Rab`-e Rashīdī, eds. Afshār and Mīnovī, p. 239.
`ALLĀMI, Ā’īn-e Akbarī, ed. Blochmann, II:206. It is unfortunate that this passage has been misread and
misquoted by A. H. Morton, and used with other ill-reasoned arguments to allege once again that the
Rashīdī letters are forgeries, MORTON 1999, p. 169, n. 4, see SOUDAVAR (forthcoming).
The Abū-Sa`īd Shāh-nāmeh nicknamed Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh, is also referred to in scholarly literature as the
Demotte or the Great Mongol Shāh-nāmeh.
As argued elsewhere, one of the illustrations of the Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh alluded to the
possible start of this third phase project under Uljāytū and a second one alluded to the
interruption that occurred when Rashīd was beheaded in 1319.18 A more precise date for
the beginning of the project however, is suggested by a common illustration between the
Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh manuscript and a copy of the second volume of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh
datable to 1314, now preserved in Edinburgh (figs. 4, 5). The illustration depicts the
death of Rustam, the most celebrated hero of Iranian epics, who was lead by his
treacherous brother Shaghād into a pit lined with sharp blades (tīgh). He was mortally
wounded but as a last heroic act, Rustam let loose an arrow that pinned his brother to the
tree behind which he was hiding.
While elsewhere in the two manuscripts, Rustam is portrayed with his conventional tiger-
skin tunic (see for instance fig. 2),19 in the Death of Rustam illustrations he is wearing the
attire of a Chinese emperor. This odd feature of these two illustrations is a pointer to the
story of Qūbilāy Qāān and his younger brother, Arīgh Bukā. Arīgh Bukā had opposed
Qūbilāy’s election as Great Khān in China, and instead, had himself elected as Great
Khān in Mughulistān (Mongolia). War broke out between the two brothers and after
several years of struggle, Arīgh Bukā surrendered in 1264. According to Persian sources,
Qūbilāy castigated him for his treachery and, on the advice of his "Chinese counselors,"
ordered his rebellious brother to be incarcerated in a prison with walls made of cactus
spines, where he perished within a year or two.20
Both stories are about a brother killing a younger and treacherous brother; Qūbilāy is
portrayed here as Rustam causing the death of his brother. The blade-lined well is to
SOUDAVAR 1997, pp. 150-51, 157-58.
See also SOUDAVAR 1997, p. 113.
KHĀNDAMĪR, Ħabīb al-sīyar, ed. Dabīr-Sīyāqī, Tehran, 1353/1974, 4 vols., I:64. Rashīd al-dīn puts
Arīgh Bukā's death in the fall of 1265, Rashīd al-dīn, Jāme` al-tavārīkh (Karīmī), I:631-32.
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recall Arīgh Bukā's prison; its analogy with Rustam's death pit rests on a pun with the
word tīgh (blade) which also means spine in Persian.21
The Chinese attire of Rustam in contrast to the tiger-skin tunic that he wears elsewhere in
the Edinburgh manuscript, clearly points out that by 1314, the idea of a possible fusion
between Iranian and Mongol histories already existed. The scope of the Iranian dynasties
covered in volume two of the Jāme` al-tavārīkh, however, was minimal, and the popular
versified epic of Firdowsī, the Shāh-nāmeh, with its colorful and elaborate accounts of
past Iranian heroes provided a better medium for the transplant of Mongol history on
amd Allāh-e Mustawfī, a historian and literary figure with close ties to Rashīd and his
son Ghiyās al-dīn Muħammad, recounts that beginning in this year of 1314, and for the
following six years, he undertook ―completing and correcting‖ the text of the Shāh-
nāmeh, because most manuscripts that he had seen contained inaccuracies perpetuated by
scribal errors, and were some 10’000 verses short of the 60’000 that Firdawsī claimed to
have composed.22 One can guess that such an arduous undertaking was unlikely to have
originated without appropriate patronage and for the love of Firdawsī alone. While a
corrected text befitted a manuscript to be produced for the imperial library, the extra
effort to expand the text was not customary. If Mustawfī undertook to ―complete‖ regular
Shāh-nāmeh texts by adding some 10,000 verses, it was probably to increase the chances
Considering the important influence that Chinese painting had on the development of Persian painting, it
is interesting to note how visual puns also appear in Chinese designs and compositions. ―Most designs in
Chinese art contain layers of meaning waiting to be uncovered‖ and the highly educated elite of Chinese
society, especially in the post Yüan era, ―relished the game of testing their wit and erudition by discovering
hidden meanings in art;‖ CORT and STUART 1993, p. 33. For example, the word fu, for bat, was
pronounced similar to the words ―good fortune‖, and hong fu (red bat) similar to ―abundant good fortune‖;
depending on the color scheme, the bat, in plain or red, became a frequently used iconographical element in
Chinese designs; ibid., p. 57.
In the opening section of his afarnāmeh (Book of victories), a monumental work 75'000 verses long and
modeled after the Shāh-nāmeh, Mustawfī recounts that he had spent fifteen years to compile the
which was terminated in the year 735/1335, and prior to that, had worked for six years on the
text of the Shāh-nāmeh; MUSTAWFĪ, folio. 6.
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for matching the Iranian epic with Mongol history.23 Most likely, in addition to
completing and correcting the text, he spent some of those six years combing through the
Shāh-nāmeh to find stories that could be used to illustrate an episode of Mongol history.
Therefore, in both date and purpose, Mustawfī’s Shāh-nāmeh efforts seem to confirm that
the third phase project began circa 1314. The project subsequently stalled at the death of
Rashīd in 1319 but was revived a few years later under Abū-Sa`īd.24 It was perhaps never
completed and stopped after the death of Abū-Sa`īd. But in the meantime, the Īl-Khān
had appropriated for himself the scriptorium of Rashīd al-dīn and ordered the production
of several other illustrated manuscripts, thus laying the foundations of the royal library-
atelier, the kitāb-khāneh.
THE HAN-LIN ALBUMS
In a recent analysis of the portraits of Qūbilāy and his consort Chabi—included in the
famous Yüan imperial portraits album of the National Palace Museum in Taipei—that he
attributes to the Nepali monk Anige, Anning Jing argues that because of their small size
(approx. 60cm x 47cm) and somehow unfinished condition, they were only models for
larger works such as hanging-textiles for Buddhist temples.25 A close comparison of
other imperial portraits of the same album with our two illustrations of the Death of
Rustam clearly indicates that their illustrators had access to a copy of the same portraits.
Whether hung in the Rab`e- Rashīdī, similar to the Han-lin Academy where Qūbilāy had
ordered to hang the portraits of his predecessors,26 or left in an album format, the fact is
that we can see distinct details of the Taipei album portraits incorporated into the Rustam
scenes. Indeed, in the illustration of the Edinburgh manuscript, Rustam’s helmet that lies
Such is the case for instance for the verses related to Garshāsb’s reign, which nowadays are recognized
as non-original and which provided an extra opportunity for illustration; see entry and notes for Fig. 11 in
The actual production of the manuscript seems to have begun after the appointment of Khājeh Ghiyās al-
dīn to the vizierate in 1327.
JING 1994, p.75.
WEIDNER 1982, p. 56.
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on the ground is similar to Tëmur’s (Ch’eng tsung, r. 129-1307, fig.7), and his face and
very long moustache is similar to Ogdāy’s (fig. 6), while Rustam’s features from the Abū-
Sa`īd-nāmeh are duplicating those of Changīz (fig. 8). The portraits sent from China had
most probably Chinese or Uyghūr captions that identified each of them. But, to the
Persian painter who was unable to read them, these were probably simply known as
portraits of the qāān, a name that he naturally associated with the qāān par excellence,
i.e. Qūbilāy. Each painter therefore picked and chose one to his own liking, or his
CHINESE SOURCES FOR THE ABŪ-SA`ĪD-NĀMEH PROJECT
Amongst the Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh illustrations for which I could not find a connection with
events of Mongol history was Alexander Fights the Ħabash Monster (fig. 3).27 And for
good reason, for I was checking Persian sources while—as Christopher Atwood recently
pointed out to me—the Mongol counterpart of this illustration was to be found in Chinese
sources, or more precisely on the epitaph of Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai:
When Cinggiz was encamped at the Iron Gate Pass (Boz-qal`a Pass in
Uzbakistan), his bodyguard saw a green-colored beast with a deer’s body,
a horse’s tail, and a single horn. Addressing the bodyguard in human
speech, it said, "Your Lord should return home immediately." When
Cinggiz Qan questioned him on the incident Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai explained
that this prodigious animal, called the chuëh-tuan (long-horn), could travel
eighteen thousand li a day and speak all languages. Being a symbol of
hatred for bloodshed, it had been sent by heaven to warn the emperor
against further killing. On the same day, the inscription says, the emperor
issued the order to withdraw the army.28
Indeed, in the Shāh-nāmeh, as Alexander journeys form India to the land of Ħabash
(Ethiopia), he first hears the ―howling of a wolf‖ (āvāz-e gorg), then discovers that it
belongs to a huge beast with a horn (surū) on his head of indigo-blue color (nīlī). The
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 30.105.
De RACHEWILTZ 1962, pp. 194-95.
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beast is attacked by Alexander’s companions, but it does not budge and kills many of
them. They finally slay him with arrows.29
The painting obviously does not illustrate the Shāh-nāmeh episode alone but tries to
accommodate both stories. The main link between the two stories is the encounter with a
single horned animal. Rather than presenting the animal as a gigantic wolf—as per
Firdawsī’s description—the artist has added wings, which is a feature that frequently
appears in later Persian paintings especially on border illuminations or on book-bindings,
where the chuëh-tuan is usually depicted in combat with another Chinese mythical beast,
the chi-lin.30 But whereas the chuëh-tuan’s horn is esthetically minimized in later
paintings, shape-wise, it conforms here to its Chinese meaning (i.e. long-horn), and color-
wise, to Firdawsī’s description since it’s painted in indigo-blue (that has much darkened
A second link is provided by the double meaning of the Persian word āvāz, which means
―voice and speech‖ but in conjunction with ―wolf‖ can also be understood as ―howling.‖
Thus, the beast is not attacked by the companions’ arrows but is depicted in a setting
where his attacker/interlocutor is Alexander, which reflects the idea that, ultimately,
Changīz was the person to whom the message of the chuëh-tuan was addressed.
Finally, in both stories, the incident arises after the protagonists have left India for a new
adventure. Indeed, the Jāme` al-tavārīkh recounts that, after his Indian campaigns,
―had planned to return home via Hindūstān. But he found the mountain
roads difficult, the weather foul, the water polluted, and when news
arrived that the Tanqūt had rebelled again, he turned back and went to
Since this illustration was cut, and pasted on a support page with a different text, the relevant couplets
from the closest dated manuscript (i.e. FIRDAWSĪ, Shāh-nāmeh, Tehran: Gulistān Palace Library, ms. no.
716, p. 457) were chosen as the Shāh-nāmeh description of the illustration.
See for instance, SOUDAVAR 1992, p. 333 (left bottom of left page and top right section of right page
of the double page illustration).
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Peshawar; and together with his sons, he returned by the road he had
Not only the chuëh-tuan incident is not reported in the Jāme` al-tavārīkh,32 but as a
matter fact, no Persian source ever mentions the name of Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai.33
De Rachewiltz suggests that in all likelihood, the incident was real and had occurred in
the Punjab circa 1222, and that the fantastic beast was probably non other than a
rhinoceros (which seems to have existed in the Punjab up to late fifteenth century).34
Interestingly, the title-heading of the illustration in Persian reads ―The combat of
Alexander with a rhinoceros (kargadan),‖ which not only gives credibility to de
Rachewiltz’ hypothesis, but also demonstrates that on the Persian side, the history writers
of the Rab` were aware of what had happened, and that is why this Chinese fairy tale was
never reported in the Jāme` al-tavārīkh.
With time, the Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh project gathered momentum, and the rostrum of sources
for finding matching episodes of Mongol history with the Shāh-nāmeh had to be
expanded. Eventually Chinese sources had to be considered as well. While in the case of
the Death of Rustam scenes, one could detect—through the Yüan portrait albums—a
connection to the Han-lin Academy, in the case of the Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai story, another
channel provided the connection, most probably, through the close ties that existed
between the Yüan fiscal administration with its Īl-Khānid counterpart. Indeed, the
Mongols heavily relied on Persian-speaking tax administrators, and had even introduced
a fifth administrative script called Istīfī,35 which certainly reflected the Sinicized form of
RASHĪD AL-DĪN, Jāme` al-tavārīkh, ed. Karīmī, I:378-79.
The only allusion to divinations comes from the unsympathetic account of Juzjānī who describes
Changiz as possessing the faculty to read oracle-bones tossed into fire, and that in contemplating a return
through India, he was dissuaded by the negative augury of the bones; JŪZJĀNĪ, -e Nāśirī, p. 375.
This has led many historians to question the importance of the role that Chinese historians have assigned
to Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai in the service of the Mongols; De RACHEWILTZ 1962, pp. 189-90.
De RACHEWILTZ 1962, pp. 195.
SHIJIAN 1986, pp. 83-97. The other four languages were the Chinese, Persian, Uyghūr and Phags p’a;
the Īstīfī was also used on paizis, weights, etc.; idem.
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the Persian/Arabic word istīfā’ (tax collection).36 Since Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai had been a
fierce opponent of Persian tax-collectors in China, the unicorn anecdote was perhaps one
that the latter mockingly circulated amongst themselves, and one which eventually
reverberated back to Rashīd who was also in charge of tax collection on the opposite side
of the Mongol Empire. Thus, one way or another, events in China continued to exert their
influence on the Iranian projects.
THE ROYAL CURRICULUM
While each of the three phases of the historical legitimization process of the Mongols in
Iran actually led to the production of manuscripts, the most interesting outcome of the
process as a whole was the shift in perspective of Īl-Khānid patronage: from a Ghāzān
who initiated the project but imposed the primitive and unconventional ―Pergol‖ style of
writing, to Uljāytū who gave free rein to Rashīd, to Abū-Sa`īd whose literary talent and
knowledge of Persian literature and culture made him an active participant in the Abū-
Sa`īd-nāmeh project.37 More importantly, Abū-Sa`īd’s interest in literature and
manuscript production set a standard for the education of all future Turco-Mongol rulers
to come. It was called the farhang-e shāhāneh or royal curriculum, that required the
prince to not only be educated in Persian classics but in the fine arts, and in the use of
fine arts for the embellishments of Persian literary manuscripts.
Persian history had produced up to then a fair share of learned princes with literary skills.
But the addition of fine arts, i.e. calligraphy and painting, to the royal curriculum
probably came as yet another influence from China. Some two centuries earlier, the
artist-emperor Hui-tzung (r. 1101-25) of the Sungs, had set a standard for Chinese princes
to be educated in painting and calligraphy. That standard would inevitably affect the
The Istīfī probably used the sīyāq numerals and made use of other writings techniques of the mustawfīs
(tax-collectors) such as those that translated numbers into words and vice versa, see for instance Rāvandī,
Rāħat al-śudūr va rivāyat al-surūr, p. 438.
SOUDAVAR 1997, p. 176.
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upbringing of both Yüan and Īl-Khānid princes who then developed an interest in the
marriage of calligraphy and painting, which lead to the production of illustrated
manuscripts. Thus, when the Jāme` al-tavārīkh was being copied in the reign of Uljāytū,
Būyāntū (Jeng-tsung, r. 1311-20) ordered a thousand copies of an illustrated manuscript
on mulberry production in China,38 and when the Abū-Sa`īd-nāmeh was being produced
under Abū-Sai`id, Tugh-Temür (Wen-tsung, r. 1328, 1329-32) was collecting fine
manuscripts, calligraphy and paintings through his Pavilion of the Star of Literature, a
complex institution where Chinese texts were also translated into Mongolian, and
Confucian culture was taught to Mongol princes.39
In China, the Mongols were finally vanquished and evicted as barbarians. In Iran, the
demise of the Mongols came as a result of the extinction of the Īl-Khānid race, but the
prestige of the Mongols remained high and following dynasties derived their legitimacy
from claiming descent or association with the house of Changīz, and emulating the
activities of the Īl-Khānids, especially Abū-Sa`īd. The prestige of Turco-Mongol rulers of
the Persian lands was thereafter measured by their farhang-e shāhāneh and the activity of
their library-ateliers. Each prince tried to outdo his predecessors by producing more
lavish manuscripts and expanding the range of titles to be copied and embellished; hence
the enormous growth of manuscript production in the post-Mongol era.
Abolala Soudavar, Houston – TX
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