Power dressing

Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire
September 18, 1998

The Golden Horde gallops across the fields of many cultural historians, ravaging, pillaging and vanishing rapidly into the distance, leaving obfuscating dust trails across the historical landscape. This book is a much-needed focus on those moving targets, the Mongols themselves, rather than on the Chinese or Iranians or any other well-studied associated groups, taking as its specific theme their eponymous cloth-of-gold.

Thomas Allsen's book will perhaps counteract some received ideas: cultural historians of the Middle East have largely been occupied with tracing the influence of the Mongols on the art that was executed by their subject peoples.

The book makes it clear that in many respects it was the other way round: the Mongol emperors were deeply impressed by the products, politics and values of the countries that they ruled. There was a deliberate policy of sparing artists and craftsmen from the massacres that marked out the Mongol invasions. Those skilled in such matters as textile production were transported, in some cases to China, to serve the Mongol court. Conversely, Chinese workers were dispatched westwards, in some cases as far as Siberia. Their products, of course, eventually reached an even wider world.

To the Mongols, gold was a colour and not just a commodity and the discussion is expanded to other colour significations such as those found in Persian poetry. Allsen's investigations extend to other rich cloths and delve into the precise origins of such terms as scarlet, purple and camlet, which tend all too often in art history to get disposed of with some exotic generalisations. He covers, too, the use and significance of ostensibly humbler materials, such as the felt with which the Mongol yurts were created. There is much useful material on clothing as a denotation of rank; indeed, one's involuntary giggle at some of these manifestations, for example, the elite political police known as the Brocade Uniform Guard, only demonstrates how far we stand from a society where elaborate textiles were a serious indication of power.

The book is especially valuable for historians of Islamic art, since until recently textiles have been marginalised as a subject for academic work. Allsen's study is therefore a very important addition for the Islamicist, as well as more obviously for Chinese and Mongolian studies. It will also be of interest to the historian of the West seeking to trace imports, both physical and cultural, back to their sources.

Muslim and Mongol societies, in Allsen's discussion, were compatible in their use of textiles for political and cultural purposes, though the parallels should perhaps not be drawn too tightly: the Mongol reluctance to wash the body, an extreme extension of water conservation which cherished bodily effluvia, must have co-existed uncomfortably with a religion which places a high value on scrupulous personal cleanliness.

Indeed, the ways in which the ritual and religious scruples of Chinese and Islamic religious communities were in conflict with gorgeous displays of elaborate clothing are also perhaps too little discussed.

Nor does the book consider the absorbing problem of why such a dynamic people as the Mongols should adopt such a static aesthetic as that of the seated ruler clad in robes that must scarcely have allowed him to arise unaided. And the discussion of what their tents and garments looked like is taken largely from literary sources.

Textile technology, also, is surely more important to cultural history than the avowedly scanty treatment in this book suggests: a major way of assessing the structure of a society is by the extent and levels of its production skills, as has been done for Islamic carpets, for example.

There is no discussion here of the kind of loom that might have been needed for weaving gold thread and the portability of such an apparatus, nor of the relative difficulties and compatibility of other materials.

In short, one has the impression that this is only part of a book. But it is a brilliant part, scholarly and readable, and one that will fill a gap on the shelves of many historians of Central Asia and the Middle East.

Jane Jakeman is an Oxford librarian with a doctorate in Islamic art history.

Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire

Author - Thomas T. Allsen
ISBN - 0 521 58301
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £ 30.00
Pages - 137

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