The Mongol Empire between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History

By Hodous, Florence | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Mongol Empire between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History


Hodous, Florence, International Journal of Turkish Studies


Turkic World DENISE AIGLE, The Mongol Empire between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History (Leiden: : E.J. Brill 2015) Pp. 394. $ 149.00 cloth.

This book brings to an English-speaking audience the remarkable scholarship of Professor Denise Aigle on the Mongol Empire as well as perceptions of the empire in both East and West Eurasia. Articles which have previously appeared in French (and two also in English) are reworked here into a book with clear thematic threads and structural unity. With perceptive insight on topics ranging from religion and law to diplomacy and ideology, and focusing mostly on the western part of the empire, the author introduces us to the multi-faceted and quite complex Mongol world which, with its cultural and ethnic diversity and many (mis)understandings, in no small measure resembles the increasingly interconnected world of today.

The main thematic thread is that of cross-cultural contact or, more precisely, the "translation" of concepts from one culture to another. Indeed, research on this theme has come to the fore especially since the seminal 2001 book by Thomas Allsen, Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia, which described how the Mongols acted as 'filters' and active agents in mediating cross-cultural contact. Professor Aigle takes these themes even further, stretching our imagination as we see how the Mongols were perceived in completely opposite ways at different time periods and by different people. For example, although today we know about the Muslim convert Ghazan Khan's continuing attachment to shamanism, at the time his attempt to position himself as the leader of the Muslim umma was both serious and credible to some. In fact, a number of soldiers of the Mamluk sultanate thought that they should not fight against Ghazan, a fellow Muslim, and it was to dispel ideas such as these that Ibn Taimiyya wrote his anti-Mongol fatwas.

The first two chapters show how the Mongols were integrated into the Muslim worldview and the European worldview, respectively, by way of supposedly historical accounts, stories, epics, poetry, and "myth"-those "fabulous tales [often considered to be] devoid of historical value" (p. 36) which actually reveal to us how a society interprets the past in the light of present realities. Integrating the Mongols into a foreign worldview meant, first of all, assigning to them an origin and genealogy; thus, in the Muslim world, when not described as accursed, Chinggis Khan was variously claimed to be descended from Japhet the son of Noah, or even Qantura (Keturah), the wife of Abraham, likening him to a friend of God and "monotheizing" him. In the Latin West, when not being compared with the Vandals and Goths, Chinggis went from a powerful king who defeated Prester John, to a positive figure, even empowered by God, a new Moses, leading his people across a sea to the West. What both Muslim and Christian accounts have in common are references to the Mongols as the peoples of Gog and Magog.

The third and fourth chapters deal with the works of the Syriac polymath Bar Hebraeus and the genre of taqwim literature. Aigle discusses the differences between Bar Hebraeus' Syriac and Arabic chronicles, arguing that the latter conforms to Arabic historiographical conventions, while the former represents a "collective memory" containing much unique information, such as that deriving from oral accounts circulating among the Eastern Christians. Meanwhile taqwim was a genre of literature combining text and tables, the tables containing not necessarily mathematical data but also "social" data such as the qualities and failings of rulers. Such works became more common to present genealogical or cultural information in the Mongol and Timurid eras. While the origin of this trend, which is found mostly in Persian and Turkish-language works, is still obscure, it could be related to similar tabular summaries in the Syriac chronicles, transmitted through Eastern Christians. …

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