By Theresa Zischkin
What has been referred to as the earliest known world history was produced for the early fourteenth-century Mongol court. The Jewish vizier was commissioned to assemble and conceptualize the text itself, while likely also overseeing the copying and illustrating process. The extant paintings prominently feature the life of Moses in a synthesis of stylistic sources, reflecting a unique cosmopolitan union of history and religion.
The ruling Ilkhanid dynasty (1256–1335) had commissioned this historical text in order to establish their legitimacy among the peoples of the world. Composed during the first decade of the century, the multiple volumes of this encyclopedic work incorporated the Ilkhanids’ Mongol and Turkish heritage up to the then present day as well as genealogies of Chinese, Frankish, Indian, and Persian peoples. By establishing a summary framework of the known world, they were trying to create a comprehensive history of humankind. Additionally, an emphasis on Islam as the chosen state religion served as a basis for the dynasty’s legacy. As such, stories of the prophets are assembled, with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus leading up to the Prophet Muhammad’s life and deeds.
The person tasked to compile this “Compendium of Chronicles,” or Jami` al-Tawarikh, was Rashid al-Din, vizier at the Mongol court, stylized as a well-read historian, and a converted Jew. He was born around 1247 in Hamadan (Iran) as the son of a Jewish apothecary but converted to Islam before working at the court. Contemporary Mongol sources were apparently not concerned with the Jewish community. In fact, Jews also worked at the court as part of the ruler’s entourage, yet their high positions likely resulted in growing resentment.
Rashid al-Din also held important positions under three Ilkhanid rulers from the 1280s onwards: under Abaqa Khan (r. 1265–1282), Ghazan Khan (r. 1295–1304), and Uljaytu (r. 1304–1316). Shortly before the turn of the century, he became chief minister, and later a vizier. However, officials jealous of his influential position soon started slandering him for his Jewish heritage, and they even wrote a note in Hebrew to wrongfully accuse him of attempting to assassinate the ruling sultan. While the clever vizier uncovered most of these schemes, a similar incident in 1318 proved to be his eventual downfall, but not before he had completed his wide-ranging enterprise.
Compendium of Chronicles
Rashid al-Din’s first task of simply assembling a record of the Mongols later turned into a commission of an encompassing history of Eurasian peoples. In this synthesis of religious and political history, he drew on oral and written sources from previous historians, while adding comments and peculiarly mixing different accounts. As a learned official and keen patron, he likely had access to, and owned, a large collection of books, which must have included Chinese and Byzantine manuscripts acquired via trade routes between China and Central Asia. The question remains: Where was the locus of this large undertaking?
With the vizier being a wealthy official, he founded multiple charitable quarters, among them the so-called Rab’-i Rashidi in Tabriz, which incorporated not only a university, a tomb, and a hospital, but probably also a book workshop (called kitabkhane, which still denotes a library in modern Farsi). Here, scribes would have copied the Qur’an and other religious texts, as well as his own historical compilation in both Arabic and Persian. One copy in each language was to be made each year, and these were to be distributed throughout the Mongol lands as part of a legitimization propaganda of the Ilkhanid rulers.
Today, only a few copies of this world chronicle survive. These are not only written texts but also illustrated accounts, for which the best artisans and artists were assembled. Due to the multicultural syncretism of the compiled text, the depicted subjects also prove to be inspired by styles of various cultural origins. Folios of two contemporaneous Arabic copies include in total 90 illustrations, seven of which illustrate the life of Moses in the sections of Jewish history and the stories of the prophets.
Moses’ life story, told in more than 200 lines of text, has almost as many illustrations as the Prophet Muhammad. However, these do not show his miraculous deeds but, rather, the following episodes: the finding of Moses; Moses communicating with God on Mount Sinai; Pharaoh and his army drowning in the Red Sea; Moses punishing Korah and his followers, fighting the giant Og, and dealing with the Golden Calf worshipers; and finally his death. The prominent painting cycle is likely connected with Rashid al-Din’s Jewish past and the sources he consulted, which included the Pentateuch, Rabbinical literature, and the tenth-century historian Al-Tabari’s famous work, as well as the accounts in the Qur’an, in variations of emphasis.
The Finding of Moses
The first painting depicts the finding of Moses by three women in the garden of the pharaoh’s court, as explained by the surrounding text. Two of them are bathing in the Nile, their hair falling down in the long, black strands of Mongol convention. A slightly smaller, fully clothed and veiled figure – either a servant or Moses’ sister Maryam – tends to the submerged woman’s hair, while the woman to the left holds up a jug. Next to them is a tree ripe with fruit, their garments suspended from a point above the frame. In the foreground, sparse tufts of grass and rock formations denote the landscape setting. The two ladies look towards the torrential waves coming down diagonally from the top left corner, almost resembling a cascading waterfall. These dangerously fast waves carry a thin oblong casket, into which baby Moses has been placed.
This popular scene is already represented at Dura Europos and in numerous Byzantine manuscripts. Yet here the dramatic visual narration and the ladies’ Mongol physiognomy distinctly shape an updated, interpretive representation. The narrow, rectangular format and placement within the text is distantly relatable to Byzantine manuscripts, while the rocky landscape and frothing waves reflect strong inspirations from the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279).
The Death of Moses
The last illustration shows Moses lying on a mountain formation – likely meant to represent Mount Nebo, where he died – that appears to have parted to form a bed. To the left side, five Israelites are located in a different sphere, behind the rocky outcrop. A lot of emphasis is put on their fingers and various hand gestures; one man is even pointing at Moses.
Moses’ hands are clasped and his knees slightly bent, the long, greyish beard a reference to old age. His expression appears tragically sad, on the verge of death, yet he is supposedly dying in a state of tranquillity, as stated by the text. A similar depiction of Moses reclining on a rock is located on a fourth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, where he simply appears to be sleeping. Here, the drama of his transitional state is heightened by his expression, the strange rock formation, and the surrounding vegetation.
A typical aspect of early Persian landscape painting is its emotive nature of mirroring the action, capturing emotions: two trees are framing the body of Moses, yet the one on the right is standing upright like the men on the other side of the composition, and the left one is bent over Moses, mimicking his pose with its bent, angular branches. In this contemplative painting, Moses becomes one with nature in death, the folds of his garment slightly emulating the rocks that seem to wrap around him. This interpretation is quite different from Jewish eschatological traditions, such as ascending to Heaven.
An interesting divergence is notable here between Jewish and Islamic textual sources, further highlighted by Moses’ visual emphasis, reflecting Byzantine, Chinese, and Mongol pictorial conventions. What kind of importance did the figure of Moses have for the compiler with Jewish heritage? A specific exemplary portrayal was developed here, and it has been argued that Moses may have served as a model for Rashid al-Din and all subsequent prophets. However, Moses is clearly inferior to Muhammad in Islamic exegetical literature.
Moreover, it is unclear how involved Rashid al-Din was in the process of illustrating the text, although it is feasible to assume that he played a large role in the overall conception of the manuscripts. In allowing this particular prophet, who was also a central figure in Muslim faith, to take up such a great amount of space, an underlying agenda is revealed: under the ruling dynasty’s patronage, different religions and the nations of the world are reconciled and reunited, expressing a clear superiority of Islam as well as the aim to legitimize Ilkhanid right to rule.
Theresa Zischkin is a postgraduate student of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Vienna. She is studying medieval Italian and Persianate manuscripts as well as late antique Jordanian cityscapes on mosaics, always trying to uncover the smallest details.
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This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine. Click here to learn more about the magazine.
Top Image: Moses conversing with God on Mount Sinai, wearing a toga-style garb and a turban, at the center of a mountainous landscape. In the foreground, the loosely sketched bodies of the seventy elders are scattered on the ground, perhaps struck down by the glory of God. His hands are raised towards the sky in a typical Byzantine gesture of communicating with God. The thick Chinese-style clouds denote God’s divine presence. Rashid al-Din, “Moses on Mount Sinai,” Jami` al-Tawarikh, Tabriz, 1306/1314–15, EUL Arab MS. 20, fol. 8r. © Edinburgh University Library