Mongol Carpets and Ilkhanid Dynasty Rugs and Carpets Guide
Mongol Ilkhanate Carpets and the Development of Persian Carpet Design
The Ilkhanate Empire once ruled a vast territory throughout China, current Mongolia, and what would later be Iran. The Empire was founded in the 13th century by the Mongol House of Hulagu. It also encompassed the territory that is present-day Azerbaijan and Turkey. Carpets from this Empire developed a style that would eventually represent a confluence of Chinese and Islamic art. Ilkhanate art contains the roots of what would later become an iconic Persian art form.
Rise of the Ilkhanate
The Ilkhanate rose to power in the 13th century. It was founded by the grandson of the notorious Ghenghis Khan. In 1259, the Mongol Empire split, and the Khanate became its own entity. This fledgling Khanate would eventually spread its influence into modern Georgia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan and western Afghanistan.
One of the most significant events of note occurred when a contingent of merchants, dispatched by Genghis Khan, was executed by the Persian ruler, Muhammad II of Khwarazm. You may be wondering what this has to do with the history of carpet design, but bear with me for just a moment.
This caused the Mongols too launch a brutal attack and overrun the Empire. They occupied major population centers and cities throughout the Persian Empire. They often destroyed everything in their wake, including the arts. By 1335, the Ilkhanate began to disintegrate from competition from rival successor states and the arrival of the Black Death. It would eventually break apart into areas generally occupied by the Persian Empire, tribes of the Caucasus mountains, western Turkey, and China.
Arts Under the Ilkhanate
The Mongol invasion of the Islamic world began in 1221 with the conquest of a portion of eastern Iran. By 1258, Mongol forces had subjugated all of what would later become Persia. Typically, when the Mongols invaded, they devastated every part of life, including artistic production. A Mongol invasion typically meant a time of darkness for the creative arts.
However, the conversion of Il-Khan Muhmmad Ghazan to Islam in 1295 was the event responsible for establishing a new cultural policy and a new religion. Under his rule, the arts began to flourish once again. Only they represented a fusion of traditional Zoroastrian Persian and Islamic styles. This expanded the artistic vocabulary and resulted in the introduction of many styles and motifs that would later become standard Persian designs.
These styles infiltrated all types of mediums including jewelry, metalwork, pottery, textiles and manuscript illumination. Baghdad was once a center of Islamic art, and under the rule of this Khanate would come so once again. Chinese motifs were introduced into the established Islamic repertoire of the city.
One of the key elements that was introduced was the Chinese depiction of pictorial space and the use of “white” space. In addition, one began to see the introduction of motifs such as the lotus, peonies, cloud bands, the phoenix and the iconic dragons. When you see these in modern rugs, they are a reflection of the fusion of Islamic and Chinese art that occurred under the Ilkhanate of the 13th century.
What We Know About Ilkhanate Carpets
Unfortunately, not many examples of carpet artifacts exist from the Ilkhanate. However, we do have some examples of pre-Islamic Iranian art by way of architecture and tombs. Therefore, we know about the trends that dominated this artistic time. When the power of the Ikhanate disintegrated, the local dynasties that would later expand to become the Ottoman Empire and Persia emulated the style and artistic trends that were set by their predecessors.
The Mongol period of Persia was as diverse in religious matters as it was in cultural and artistic ones. The Mongols were a shamanistic society, but they embraced other religions for several different reasons. One of these was for political and social control. Therefore, the Mongols were often tolerant of other faiths including Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. They were also tolerant of the artistic styles that developed through these influences as well.
As far as actual artifacts are concerned, almost nothing is left of Ilkhanid religious art and architecture before the conversion of the Khanate to Islam. This was intentional. After the conversion of Khan Ghazan, there was a systematic and aggressive program of decoration and construction in the style of a traditional Islamic mosque.
There were still some remnants of Sufi art, as both Islam at the Mongolian Empire were relatively tolerant of the local religions and artistic styles that existed before their rule. There are also some surviving examples of Christian art from the period as well. However, for the most part, the arts and buildings were retrofitted using Islamic-influenced designs.
Hunting for Clues in Today’s Ilkhanate Carpets
Existing pieces of carpets and textiles from the Ilkhanate are exceptionally rare. Occasionally, one will appear at an auction house, such as Christie’s. From the rare glimpses that we do get one begins to see the development of Persian floral motifs and birds.
However, in many surviving examples, they are often rendered in large scale and simple forms, as compared to what they would become in the later Safavid Dynasty. They have a formalized field and border system, often with multiple guard borders. However, the guard borders are rather simple and may only consist of a solid color, a simple triangular form, or a series of rondels.
Occasionally, you see the beginnings of cartouche designs that are similar to those found in Mongolian textiles, but they are simply rendered, as compared to what they would become in the next several decades. One can see recognizable floral designs, such as irises and birds in the field of the carpets. The colors used consist of a relatively simple palette of blues, reds, yellows, ivories and browns.
The use of color begins to resemble something similar to later Persian carpets, with a red background in the field, and contrasting colors in the borders. The use of contrast is similar to those that would later be found in Persian carpets of the Safavids. A particular note is that you tend to see more animals represented in this carpet group than in Islamic art from other parts of the world. There is also a predominant use of Chinese motifs, such as the dragons.
Currently, the carpets that spring from modern-day Mongolia show Chinese and nomadic influences, but that was not always the case. The rugs of the Mongolian people found their way into Europe and elsewhere in Asia, as the Mongols were astute and active traders throughout the region. It has a long history of producing carpets that are unique and their style, material, colors, and character. You often see Chinese stylized motifs and simple designs. They are often not as complicated as Persian designs, and each motif stands out on its own, even when the carpet is an all-over design.
Mongolian carpets tend to be browns and earth colors, more so than the bright, vivid reds and blues found throughout Persian carpets. As a group, these carpets are more simplistic, and you will often see things such as Chinese knots, dragons, and phoenixes throughout this group of carpets. Sometimes the field is decorated sparsely, and other times it consists merely of a border and solid-color field. The fusion of Islamic and Chinese motifs would eventually develop into a style that would become recognizably Persian.
Nazmiyal has a collection of Persian carpets from the Safavid Dynasty. These remarkable pieces still show the influence of their early Ilkhanate influences. Many of the designs are similar, and it is fun to look for examples of Ilkhanate design among this exquisite collection.