The Il-Khanids and the Golden Horde
The Mongols were a nomad people, and their colossal conquests started under Genghis Khan (c. 1167-1227), who invaded China in 1213, marking the beginning of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. The Mongol cavalry then moved westward and by 1223 had already conquered Central Asia, Afghanistan, and northern Iran. A few years later, Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü Khan penetrated even farther west into Iraq, where Baghdad was destroyed and the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mustasim, was murdered in 1258. The seemingly invincible Mongols’ advance was only stopped when they met the Mamluks in the battle of Ayn Jalut, in Palestine, in 1260. Hülegü now ruled over the part of the Mongol empire that was centered on western Iran and extended across Iraq, into Anatolia, and up to the Aral Sea. He took the title “Il Khan,” or subordinate khan, the subject of the Great Khan in Mongolia.
The Mongol armies’ enormous devastation was followed by a culturally rich period under the Il-Khanids. As a whole, the new rulers largely adopted their subjects’ cultural traditions. The Il-Khanids, who converted to Islam beginning in 1295, had their newly built palaces, mosques, and sepulchral monuments covered with tiles that were more colorful than those favored by the Seljuks. Gold and silver were used lavishly for weaving into textiles and for metal inlays. In addition to traditional motifs, new ones such as lotuses, chrysanthemums, phoenixes, and dragons reflect the Mongols’ contact with China.
When the Il-Khanid Abu Said died childless in 1335, the realm began to disintegrate. The area covered by Iran and Iraq was gradually split into a number of minor realms with local ruling families, such as the Muzaffarids, Injuids, and Jalayirids. These fairly short-lived dynasties underwent violent internal and external power struggles, but many of their princes also became important patrons of the arts and culture.
The area east of the Il-Khanid realm was ruled by the Mongolian Chagatay dynasty, while other Mongol cavalries had already invaded Russia and Siberia, and penetrated far into the Balkans under Genghis Khan. These conquered territories were stabilized into a single khanate, or empire, under the clan that became known as the Golden Horde. The Mongols soon relinquished their nomad existence and founded large cities, such as their capital of Saray on the Volga River. The leaders of the Golden Horde were Muslims from 1313, while their subjects were Russian Orthodox Christians. The works of art from the Golden Horde, whose khanate gradually disintegrated in the course of the 15th century, testify in form and choice of motif to the Mongols’ eastern origins.