In the West, the name Genghis Khan evokes the image of the Mongols' ruthless conquest of much of the known world in the 13th century. But a visit to an exhibition opening this month at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art shows the fearsome leader left behind more than a legacy of mayhem and destruction.
Located high on a mountainside in Azerbajan is the sole excavated palace of the Mongol period in Iran and a sight now known as Takht-i-Sulaiman, or the Throne of Soloman.
Decorative ceramic tiles from the late 12 century excavated from Takht-i-Sulaiman are believed to have lined the walls of the Mongol royal palace. The exhibition features these tiles along with other secular and religious art works from the Ilkhanid Dynasty, a part of the Mongol Empire in Greater Iran that was conquered by one of Genghis Khan's grandsons. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons founded the largest contiguous empire in the world, uniting Chinese, Islamic, Iranian, Central Asian and nomadic cultures under one rule.
While the meeting of East and West Asian culture had an impact on Islamic art for centuries to come, Associate Curator Stefano Carboni says the exhibit focuses on the period of 1256 to 1353. "We wanted to start from the very beginning and show how there is a legacy that was left by this visionary leader who probably didn't see exactly what would happen two generations after him, but certainly he is the beginning of it all," said Stefano Carboni.
It was two generations after Genghis Khan that his grandson Hulegu and the Ilkhanids, or Lesser Khans, brought Mongol influence to Iranian culture. A painting at the beginning of the exhibit depicts the Mongol conquest of Greater Iran, but as co-curator Linda Komaroff says, this is the only piece in the show that details the grizzliness often linked to Genghis Khan's name. "Probably the most timely painting, and I don't really mean this facetiously, is the painting that you see here," said Linda Komaroff. "It's part of a double-page composition which is probably to be entitled "The Conquest of Baghdad." One of the most important events that occurs as a result of the Mongol invasions is the conquest of Baghdad in 1258 which had been the capital of the Islamic world for 500 years."
Ms. Komaroff points out that the painting is an example of the illustrated manuscripts on view. She says the art of the book reached unparalleled levels in both quantity and quality during the Ilkhanid Dynasty.
Stefano Carboni says the rich cross-cultural exchange that took place in Asia under the Mongols is well illustrated in a stone cenotaph, or grave marker, from China. "This cenotaph is an important object as a symbol because you can recognize a purely Yuan, a purely Chinese, decoration all over the surface of the cenotaph but when you look at the front - I don't know how many of you can read Arabic - but there is an Arabic inscription that gives the Shahada, or profession of faith of the Muslim faith," he said.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition contains more than 200 works from a number of museums and collections, including textiles, illustrated paintings, ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, and stone carvings.