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  • Erik Green

The Powers and Risks of Cultural Exchange

The cultural plurality of the Mongol Empire has been lost beneath popularised images of its devastating military campaigns. Yet once territorial control had been achieved, in its wake was an empire built upon cultural plurality. This was an age that fostered enormous amounts of trade and cultural exchange along the Silk Road.

In Yuan China, the production site of Jingdezhen adopted the Islamic taste for high plates after Mongols facilitated travel between Persia and East Asia. Artists in Islamic lands began to adopt traditional Chinese decorative design, including motifs of plants, fruits, and mandarin ducks. The Compendium of Chronicles, a world history published for Mongol leaders in Tabriz by Persian statesmen Rashid al-Din, was the first known illustration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Extraordinarily al-Din’s scriptorium employed Christian devotional texts that Western travellers had brought to the Ilkhanid court and consequently produced a scene of the nativity to show the Prophet’s birth.

Behind this movement of goods and people along the Silk Road was a desire for cultural exchange and knowledge. This enhanced the Mongol Empire’s wealth and its own perception of power. It was, however, an eventual cause for its downfall. Analysis of this cultural exchange reveals both the potential and enormous risk of cultural plurality.

Why did the Mongols favour cultural exchange?

In the eyes of Mongol leaders, power was enhanced by combining different beliefs and cultures. This is best understood in analysing their interaction with the plethora of religious beliefs that they allowed to co-exist within their Empire. The Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck noted how Mongol courts held interfaith debates and competitive demonstrations of supernatural expertise over divination and healing. Rubruck scolded Christians for engaging with rulers that refused to follow one singular religion, complaining ‘they follow his court as flies do honey’. He wrote about a feast held for Mangu Chan where Christian priests arrived first and prayed for him, before being followed by ‘Saracen priests’ (Muslims) who did likewise.

Mongol leaders accommodated such plurality because of their immanentist worldview. The historian Alan Strathearn argues immanentist religious systems are mainly concerned with harnessing supernatural forces that can help in the immediacy. This encouraged the creation of an environment where numerous beliefs are available to be called upon. From this collection, the leader seeks as many different prayers and magical performances as possible for tasks such as war or healing. This contrasts with transcendentalist systems that seek ‘all-important truth claims held to be superior’ to rival religions. To Mongol leaders, the exchange of different beliefs enhanced rather than undermined their power. To maximise their chances of success required numerous beliefs, cultures, and ideas. This was as long as individuals did not challenge the overall political rule of Genghis Khan.

This pluralism facilitated cultural exchanges that fostered extraordinary interactions. This is best reflected in education along the Silk Road. At the Maragha observatory in

Iran, Mongol leaders allowed people from different backgrounds and cultures, to

help build their understanding of astronomy. This is all the more significant

when one considers the political importance Mongols afforded to reading the sky

in guiding earthly activities. No battle or feast would be held before consulting

the stars.

At Maragha, the Chinese Daoist scholar Fu Mengzhi (傅孟質) was appointed by Mongol leader Hulegu Khan to inform its director al-Ṭūsī of Chinese astronomical knowledge. Also present was Jewish astronomer Ibn al-Dāʿīal-Isrāʾīlī al-Irbīlī. The Mongols

fostered links between Maragha and astronomy learning taking place in Yuan

China. In 1271 the Muslim Directorate of Astronomy (回回司天臺 Huihui sitiantai) was

established there and aimed to attract astronomers from Central and West Asia,

the majority of whom were non-Chinese Persian-speaking Muslims. The plurality such education created was evident in the way the Mongols never adopted the Persian or Chinese astral traditions in totality and instead negotiated between the two.

This negotiation took the form of both co-existence and a merging of different astral traditions. The former is reflected in ‘The Ziji-Ilkhani’ (The Islamic Tables) book, which was compiled at Maragha Observatory and contains tables for converting the Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Jewish, Christian, and Persian calendars. Qiao Yang regards the Mongol’s calendrical syncretism as a practical tool for administering a multicultural population; but it also reflects their propensity to not favour one religion or culture over another, as well as their reluctance to create a Mongol culture of their own.

Indeed if one attempts to find something identifiably ‘Mongol’, it is common instead to see the merging of several different cultures, as seen in the combining of Chinese and Islamic mathematical ideas by Mongol astronomer Yelu Chucai. As an advisor to Genghis Khan during his trip to Transoxiana around 1220, Yelu introduced a novelty to Chinese calendars directly adopted from Islamic thinking. Whereas previously Chinese astronomical tables had only been designed for a specific locality, many Islamic ones provide a small table to work out differences in planetary positions and magnitudes of solar and lunar eclipses for different longitudes. Sun Xiaochun from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, has argued Chucai did this under the influence of Islamic ideas that he grew to admire during his stay in Samarkand.

An Empire without an identity

Although this cultural plurality enhanced trade and conceptions of power, it eventually undermined the very empire itself, thus delivering a lesson about the dangers of cultural exchange. This was something learned in the city of Tabriz that represents the rise and fall of Mongol control over the Ilkhanate.

Around 1275 Macro Polo arrived in Tabriz and lauded the city as ‘the most splendid in the province’ where ‘cloth of gold and silk is woven in great quantity’. He celebrated its marketplace as including merchandise from ‘India and Baghdad, from Mosul and Hormuz’ with many Latin merchants also present. Tabriz was the trading capital of the Ilkhanate section of the Mongol Empire which included modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Polo was not alone in his praise for Tabriz. Rashid-al Din built more than a third of his property along its trading route that connected Transoxiana to the Mediterranean. The city symbolised the enormous power and opportunity available from cultural exchange.

Sixty years later however it came to portray its dangers. In the succession crisis following the death of Abu Said in 1335, leadership hopefuls no longer mounted bids to claim their Chinggisid legitimacy but rather mobilised their supporters to advance the factional aims of different noyans. Respect for past Mongol traditions had been eroded through a process of cultural exchange that had quickly led to acculturation. Difference gave way to assimilation, and as a result, very little was left of Mongol identity or history.

On arrival in Tabriz, Mongol leaders ruled above religious differences, placating their immanentist perspective but also ensuring control. Significantly, control was not secured through an acceptance amongst populations of the need for toleration, but rather by providing each sect with the belief that it was possible their Mongol leader could one day convert or perhaps already be a follower of their faith.

Peter Jackson identifies Christians boasting in the face of Muslims when they believed they were favoured by the Khan. All groups showed a keenness to overinterpret moments of religious favour. Juvaini assured his readers that Mongke would prefer Muslims because he had been tutored by Ilfitkhar al-Din Muhammad, and Rashid al-Din reveals the extent to which Muslims were enticed by performative displays of preference. Despite Arghun’s Buddhist reputation, his attendance at a Tabriz Islamic festival in October 1289 allowed Muslims to project Islamic credentials onto him.

Arghun ordered four pulpits to be erected for the festival and held prayer with great pomp, rewarding the preacher at its close. Whilst Arghun saw plurality and a feeding of immanentist conceptions of power, some Muslims believed he was increasingly preferring their faith over others. Thus although cultural plurality existed, it was not interpreted in the same way by Mongols, religious leaders, or local people. As a result, there was enormous pressure from below to assimilate towards Islam.

The Islamization of the Mongols took a decisive turn during Ghazan’s reign and involved the enveloping of Mongol ideas into Islamic culture. This was a product of grassroots pressure. Judith Pfeiffer identities how Ghazan was encouraged to support Shia Islam after being informed of its history from a group of local Muslims. Upon hearing about the killing of Sunni Alavi by a group of Muslims from the opposing sect, Ghazan asked to be instructed about the different confessions. He was ‘presented with a summary of Islamic history in which the story of the descendants of the prophet was equated with the history of Shi’ism’, and that in turn equated Shia descent from Muhammed with Ghazan’s descent from Genghis Khan.

Descent from Genghis Khan and the corresponding faith in his law codes (known as the Yasa) had previously encouraged Mongols to remain above the cultures of those they invaded. Their legitimacy and power resided in descent from Genghis Khan, and their preference for plurality was determined in the Yasa. This makes the enveloping of such ideas into Islamic culture even more remarkable. Their very conception of power that had once encouraged plurality was now being immersed within a culture primarily of one faith. Toleration and cultural coexistence thereafter became abandoned in Tabriz.

This enveloping of Mongol ideas within Islamic culture soon became a process of outright assimilation. Such was exemplified by Ghazan’s public mausoleum built in the city’s Sham quarter upon his death. It was encircled by twelve buildings, many of Islamic preference, including a mosque, religious schools for the followers of Shaf’i and Hanafi, as well as a residence for the descendants of Prophet Muhammed. Ghazan’s death symbolised the replacement of cultural plurality with the ascendancy of Islamic ideas and culture. His successor Öljeitü converted to Islam and found himself so emersed within Islamic factionalism that in 1310 he changed his sect to Shi’a Islam.

Whereas previously power was found in greater plurality, by the 1330s it was sought by favouring Islamic culture alone. After Abu Said’s death, power was gained by immersing oneself within factional Islamic debates. Historian Charles Melville identifies claimants to the throne as ‘pretenders plucked from obscurity used by noyans to further their own ambitions’. The ensuing failure to agree on one candidate shows a diminution of respect for the whole notion of Chinggisid legitimacy and instead how power in Tabriz relied upon Islamic factionalism, something rooted solely within Tabriz’s Islamic culture.

‘A Shared Culture of Things’.

The Mongols ruled over Tabriz lacking any clear identity or culture because they equated power with cultural pluralism. Historian Sheila Blair argues the Mongol Empire created a ‘shared culture of things’ from which populations could ‘assign various different meanings’ yet lacked any singular identity.

This however obscures a more important lesson for trade along the Silk Road. Cultural exchange increased the power and wealth of the Mongol Empire. Its decades built on cultural plurality were its most successful. Yet soon plurality turned to assimilation, and with no tangible Mongol identity, eventually Mongol culture was replaced.

What followed was a changed conception of power, with the Princes of Moscow presenting themselves in the fifteenth century as guardians of true religion. This abruptly altered maritime routes and hindered trade along the Silk Road. Thus in the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire is a tale of the powers and risks of cultural exchange. The question for regimes along the Silk Road today is whether cultural plurality and the advantages gained from that can be prevented from eventually turning into assimilation. If not then a very different sort of Silk Road will be built.


Atri Hatef Naiemi, ‘The Mongol City of Ghazaniyya: Destruction, Spatial Reconstruction, and Preservation of the Urban Heritage’, 2019

Melville Charles, The Chinese-Uighur Animal Calendar in Persian Historiography of the Mongol Period, Journal of Persian Studies, Vol. 32, 1994, pp. 83-98

Melville Charles, The Fall of Amir Chupan and the Decline of the Ilkhanate, 1327-37: A decade of Discord in Mongol Iran, Indiana University, 1999

Moradi Amin, ‘Recognising the Architectural Form of “Ghazan’s Tomb” in “Abvab-Albar” collection of “Ghazaniyeh” and its Role in Iranian Urbanization Development’, The Scientific Journal of NAZAR Research Centre (Nrc) for Art, Architecture & Urbanism, Vol 13 No. 42, 2016, pp. 33-44

Polo, Marco, ‘The description of the world’, trans by Moule, A.C and Pelliot, Paul, New York: AMS Press, 1976

Strathern Alan, Earthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Vesel Ziva, ‘Islamic and Chinese Astronomy under the Mongols: a Little-Known Case of Transmission’ in Yvonne Dold-Samplonius, Joseph W Dauben, Menso Folkerts & Benno van Dalen, eds., From China to Paris. 2000 Years Transmission of Mathematical Ideas, 2000, pp. 327-356

William de.Rubruck, The Journal of William of Rubruck: Account of the Mongols, trans by William Woodville Rockhill, Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

Yang Qiao, ‘Like Stars in the Sky: Networks of Astronomers in Mongol Eurasia’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 62, 2019, pp. 388-427

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