Did Iranians Have More Freedom Under Their Mongol Rulers?

The history of the Mongols in Iran has always been an enigma to me. This has been mainly due to the lack of interest in seriously studying and teaching that particular period of history to students when I lived in Iran. There were only slogans against them. During the Pahlavi era very little was taught about the Mongols who ruled in Persia for around eighty years or more. The Mongols were portrait as merely savages who had very little to offer. They came, slaughtered, raped, destroyed and left the country in ruins. I never heard anything positive said about the Mongols. At best they were God’s punishment upon a sinful people who had erred from God’s teachings. I hope other people from my generation had a different experience when the Mongols, Il-khanate (ایلخانان) in particular and their history in Iran was discussed.

Islamic Republic of Iran is worse in ignoring the Mongols period as are Muslims in general. If they could they would erase their history completely. The reason for that is because Mongols embarrass them in every possible way: militarily, religiously, politically and culturally.

A) Mongols defeated the Abbasids,  something the Muslim Iranians never succeeded in doing despite their previous  attempts.

B) Mongols allowed religious freedom to all the people they ruled over.

C) According to author, Francis Robinson, writing in Persian became more common under the Mongol reign.

D) During their very relative short reign over Iranian territories they left a great cultural legacy.

The reputation of the Mongols as savages is also common in the West. However, this has slowly changed for modern scholarship has shown their contribution to the world. Jack Weatherford the author of Gehghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World argues that it was the Mongols who paved the way to modernity: “Although he arose out of the ancient tribal past, Genghis Khan shaped the modern world of commerce, communication, and large secular states more than any other individual. He was the thoroughly modern man in his mobilized and professional warfare and in his commitment to global commerce and the rule of international secular law. What began as a war of extinction between the nomad and farmer ended as a Mongol amalgamation of cultures. His vision matured as he aged and as he experienced different ways of life. He worked to create something better for his people. The Mongol armies destroyed the uniqueness of the civilizations around them by shattering the protective walls that isolated one civilization from another and by knotting the cultures together.” I would like to highlight only some of their achievements during the years the Khans ruled over the Iranian  territories.

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Diplomatic Missions  

Iran came much closer to the West during the reign of Mongol emperors. Both superpowers had one common enemy; the Muslims, the Mamluks in particular who fought the Franks in Middle East and stopped the Mongol expansion into Egypt and Syria.

Arghun Khan (1258-1291) facilitated major diplomatic missions into Europe to convince the West to join forces against their common enemy the Mamluks. Mongols by destroying the Caliphate in Baghdad and shattering the aura of the Abbasids invincibility has shown the world that they are  a force to reckon with. Arghun was more keen than any of his predecessors to form alliance with the West. Argon wasn’t itching to go to war but he wanted to deal with the Mamluks. His rule was relatively peaceful comparing to that of  Europe where their kings fought not only in the Middle East in the Crusades but also each other. During the second envoy, Arghun’s emissary witnessed a naval battle between Charles II and James II of Aragon the king of Sicily, where 12,000 men were killed and Charles II was defeated.

Arghun’s envoys on all four separate occasions were cordially received both by the Roman Catholic Church and the European Kings but nothing much came out of them. Arghun’s foresight was correct, the Mamluks came to defeat both the Mongols and the Franks in some major battles and if they had formed military alliances the Mamluks most probably would have been defeated and history written differently. The Mongols unlike  the Catholic West and the Muslims did not discriminate agains other religions. Arghun was a Buddhist but like the other Khans tolerant of other religions. And as an astute diplomat on a few of his envoys to the West he sent highly educated Nestorian monks, perhaps to show the West that not only they were tolerant of Christians but they entrusted them with such important mission for the empire.  Also his cultured monks had the best chance of striking a deal with the West more than any one else.  The most famous of these diplomatic missions was  headed by Rabban Bar Sauma (1220-1294 A.D) A Chinese, Nestorian, Christian, monk who later wrote the account of his travels in Persian. According to some scholars Rabban’s observations of the West is compared to Marco Polo’s (1254-1324 A.D.) observation of the East. It is also referred to as “Reverse Marco Polo.”

Tusi’s Ambition is Realised  

Baghdad was no longer the centre for cultural, religious activities.  It no longer had the monopoly over scholarship. Arabic no longer was the main language to write in although people could write in Arabic if they chose to.   Tusi’s genius was recognised by Hulagu and he was given everything that he needed to set up an astronomical centre in Maragheh. It was at this observatory where the first intercontinental astronomical conference was held. Prominent astronomers and scientists in the Mongol empire were invited to take part in solving  astronomical problems and advancing its scientific progress. Maragheh for the first time was put on the international map. Later Tusi also put forward a basic theory of evolution of species, which is 600 years before Charles Darwin. Scientific advances no longer got bogged down in the sticky mud of religious orthodoxy for the Mongols had very little time for it.

Ghazan The Great Patron of Arts and Sciences   

It would be hard to name  a king more cultured than Ghazan in the entire history of Islamic Persia. Ghazan was also the first Mongol leader who converted to Islam. Brittanica Encyclopaedia gives a good description of him:

“Ghāzān’s accomplishments were in no way restricted to his activities on the battlefield. A man of great intellectual curiosity, he was conversant with such diverse topics as natural history, medicine, astronomy, and chemistry and was also an adept in several handicrafts. “No one surpassed him,” says the Byzantine historian Pachymeres, “in making saddles, bridles, spurs, greaves and helmets; he could hammer, stitch and polish, and in such occupations employed the hours of his leisure from war.” Besides his native Mongolian, he is said to have had a knowledge of the Arabic, Persian Hindi, Kashmiri, Tibetan, Chinese, and Frankish (i.e., probably French) languages.”

Under Ghazan patronage an extraordinary undertaking took place which was again like the observatory in Maragheh the first of its kind. Rashīd al-Dīn Tabīb a Persian physician and statement from a Jewish family was commissioned to write the Jami al-Tawarikh now considered the most important single source for the history of the Ilkhanid period and the Mongolian Empire. It was a lavish work with illustrations and calligraphy decorating its many hundreds of pages. In order for this work to be completed properly Rashid al-Din had to set up an education/research centre. So Rashidi Foundation was established in Tabriz  another unprecedented undertaking. The institution employed 300 staff, it had a massive library, classrooms, hospital, medical faculty, khaneghah, summer and winter mosques with 30,000 accommodation centres attracting international students to come, study and  learn under proper supervision with many great resources available to them. After Ghazan death his successor Oljeitu asked Rashid al-Din to keep going with the project by including the history of the world. That’s why the work is called by some scholars as “the first world history.” Later copies of Shahnameh also benefited from its illustrations models. The work also includes the largest surviving body of early Persian miniature painting.  Some copies of this great work still exist in a few institutions and private hands in Persian, Arabic and Mongolian.

World’s First Religious Inter-Dialogue   

Mongols were predominately Shamanists, Tengriists, Buddhists with a few Nestorian Christians clans  among them. Later in their vast empire they converted to the religion of the local population if they chose to, whether for political or personal reason.  But they never allowed one religious group to force its way into dominance.

Mongke Khan took advantage of Friar William of Rubruck visit and organised a debate between the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists and their shaman priests. According to Stephen Batchelor the author of  The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture it was the world’s first inter- dialogue between those faiths. The debate was witnessed by many and according to Rubruck despite some scoring more theological points than others no one put their hand up saying they want to convert.  The debate proved that theologians can enter into a civilised dialogue without waging war on each other and labelling each other “infidels”.

Il-khanate (ایلخانان) ruled over much of Iran before  disintegrating. They made huge improvements to the flow of  trade and communication in Asia, especially with China opening the door for commercial and cultural exchanges. Although some of their rulers became Muslims they never made any military alliances with the other Muslims outside of their kingdom. David Morgan the author of the classic and enduring book The Mongols has written, It has been recently suggested that the period of Mongol rule may have played an important part in creating a sense of “Iran” that endured to modern times.” 

This theory is not far fetched considering the way Mongols looked at themselves and the world.

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