The Legacy of Genghis Khan
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The Art of the Book
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Perhaps the most profound impact of the Mongol invasions on the arts of Iran was the new role of manuscript illustration, which became a significant and influential forum for courtly patronage. Beginning in the early fourteenth century, the main focus of Ilkhanid patronage was historical works and epic poems. Histories were written expressly for the dynasty, whose achievements they glorified, as in the Jami‘ al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles). Epics represent the continuation of an existing genre, exemplified by the Shahnama (Book of Kings), which tells of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes of Iran.

Early fourteenth-century versions of the Shahnama were copied and illustrated in Tabriz, the Ilkhanid capital, as well as Baghdad and Shiraz (in southern Iran). A specific style of painting is associated with each of these centers for manuscript production, yet all early fourteenth-century Shahnama illustrations share certain basic features. Although the text of the Shahnama is set in a mythic past, the figures in all of these paintings are almost invariably clothed in the style of the day, and their facial features and hairstyles are those of the Mongols. Likewise, representations of architecture, furnishings, arms and armor, and other accouterments always reflect contemporary life.

Yet these paintings were not intended as realistic or necessarily accurate depictions of court life; they are book illustrations first and foremost, meant to be understood within the context of the accompanying text. In fact, they portray an idealized world with fantastically colored landscapes and where kings, heroes, and courtly figures are depicted as idealized types reflecting the ethnicity of the ruling elite—thus recasting ancient Iranian kings as contemporary Mongol sovereigns.

This identification between contemporary rulers and ancient kings was both deliberate and significant. It is generally accepted that the Ilkhanids and their successors made use of the arts of the book to further their own political agendas, using manuscript illustration to justify and legitimize the ruling elite. In initiating a tradition of Persian illustrated manuscript production, the Ilkhanids also instituted a tradition of politically motivated patronage of this medium, which helped ensure its cultural and aesthetic importance for some three hundred years.

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2Death of Moses
Death of Moses
Birth of Muhammed detail
4   Astronomy Manuscript detail
5   Bahram Gur Hunting detail
6   Isander Killing Fur of Hind detail
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