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Department of History

The Middle East, the Mongols and the Silk Road to China

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2014/2015
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Full Year

This course will examine the Silk Road and the impact of Mongol incursions, rule, and dominance in western Asia during the 13th and 14th centuries and the emergence of successor states until the establishment in Iran of Safavid rule in 1501. The focus of the course will be on the Il-Khanate whose Mongol khans ruled from the steppe lands of Azerbaijan an empire encompassing what is today Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Syria, much of Turkey, and the southern Caucasus. From 1258 when Hülegü Khan established his capital in Maragheh, to 1335 when Abū Sacīd died heirless and was buried in his capital, Sultaniyeh, these Mongol descendants of Chinggis Khan enjoyed virtually unchallenged power over Persian speaking Western Asia. With the dissolution of the Huleguid dynasty, various Mongol and Turkoman clans and tribal confederations subsequently achieved ascendancy over the lands of Greater Iran until the triumph of the Kizilbash zealots and their young God-king, Ismācīl and his Safavid Order. This course will examine the nature of these tumultuous decades loosely tied together by the ever-present Silk Road before the establishment of Safavid power and will seek to determine the nature of these regimes and the source of their legitimacy as Mongol successor states. The ebb and flow of trade provided the economic, spiritual, and cultural impetus which fed the Toluid regimes and saw the Silk Road at its most vibrant.

The first term will be concerned primarily with the rule of the Il-Khans and their relationship with the rest of the Mongol Empire and with China in particular. The second term will initially examine the nature of Ilkhanid rule in Greater Iran and after the break will concentrate on the emergence of the various successor states such as the Jalayirids, the Muzaffarids, and the Sarbadars which briefly arose following the dissolution of the Ilkhanate before the arrival of Timür. The post-Timür Turkoman dynasties which divided the Iranian world between themselves before succumbing to the dynamic force of the Safavid Order which they had long been nurturing within their own borders and courts will form the final subject for examination.

Using primary source material, much of it now available in English translation, students will examine the rise and rule of the Toluid Mongols concentrating on western Asia and the House of Hulegu in the 13th and 14th century followed by the various small successor states to which the Mongols gave legitimacy. Though the focus will be on Iran and western Asia, the close relationship between the Il-Khanate the Yuan dynasty [1272-1370] of China will not be neglected. The Mongol period saw the Silk Road at its most flourishing and Iran undergoing a cultural renaissance. The Han-Lin academy of China joined forces with the Rab’-i-Rashīdī of Tabriz and the cultural and mercantile energy unleashed fed one of the most exciting periods of mediaeval Asian history and it is this which ensures the keen interest of students once they have embarked on this course.

This course offers students the chance to study an important period of history which is currently undergoing intensive re-examination and radical re-assessment. An extensive body of primary literary source material from Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Turkish, Chaghetaid, Chinese, Uyghur, Mongolian, Persian, Latin, and other languages is available and much of it is accessible through English translation. Art and archeology as well as less conventional literary sources such as poetry also offer the student of this period an opportunity to explore an enticing and absorbing subject from other angles.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to critically evaluate primary source material and to be able to assess the relative value of different source texts. The student should feel confident and comfortable comparing and contrasting the wide range of historical analyses which these mediaeval texts have engendered. An awareness of the current controversy surrounding the subject should be demonstrated and a personal view should at least be hazarded if not confidently argued. Upon completing this course the student should be able to demonstrate how historical texts assist with our understanding of the past but should also be aware of the limitations and parameters of the various texts and other source material which is available. Though much of the course involves working with mediaeval texts, the student should be able to utilise other primary source material including alternative literary texts such as poetry, to deepen their understanding of the era. The students should be able to demonstrate their appreciation of the mediaeval personalities behind the sources along with their motivation and personal agenda, and the impact such figures had on events then and on the legacy of the period as a whole. Students should be able to construct a dissertation or essays which reflect their grasp of the historical relevance of the period and an understanding of the dynamics of the principal actors and their relationship to the historians and sources upon which our knowledge is based.

  • To familiarise students with a current and unfurling controversy over the nature of Mongol rule. This is a debate to which all students will have ample scope to contribute their opinions and the fruit of their own research.
  • To develop a familiarity with a variety of primary source materials concerned with Ilkhanid Iran, and the Silk Road to Mongol China and encourage students to seek out such material in support of their arguments.
  • To develop critical skills in analysing and evaluating texts, art work, and ‘tales’ as sources of political and social history.
  • To present students with the view of the Mongols as ‘cultural brokers’, and of the imperial states of Iran and China united under a Pax Mongolica and united by the Silk Road.
  • To critically evaluate the new theories on the nature of the Mongol empire and to compare and contrast these views with more traditional interpretations.
  • To see the emergence of the Il-Khanate in Iran in the wider context of the divided Mongol Empire, the Islamic world, and an awakening Europe.

Method of assessment

One unseen written examinaton (50%) plus two essays (25% each).

Suggested reading

  • BAR HEBRAEUS, The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus, Gorgias Press, 2003
  • DMYTRYSHYN, Basil, Mediaeval Russia: a source book 900-1700, Portland State College, 1973
  • HETOUM, A Lytell Cronycle, Toronto, 1988
  • JUVAINI, ALA-AD-DIN ‘ATA-MALIK tr. John Andrew Boyle, The History of the World Conqueror, Manchester, 1997.
  • JUZJANI, Tabaqat-i Nasiri, ed. Habibi, , A., 2 vols, Kabul, 1963-4. , trans. H.G. RAVERTY, Tabaqat-i Nasiri, 2 vols, New Delhi, rpt.1995
  • KHWANDAMIR tr..Thackston, W.M., Habib’s-Siyar vol.3 The Reign of the Mongol and the Turk, Genghis Khan - Amir Temur, Harvard University, 1994.
  • KIRAKOS, tr. Robert Bedrosian, ‘Kirakos Ganjaks’i’s History of the Armenians’, Sources for the Armenian Tradition, New York, 1986. http://www.virtualscape.com/rbedrosian/
  • LEWIS, B., (ed & tr) Islam 2 vols, OUP, 1987
  • MUSTAWFĪ, HAMDULLAH, Zafarnameh, tr. L.J. Ward, PhD thesis, Manchester University, 1983
  • PLANO CARPINI, JOHN OF, The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call the Tartars, tr. & intro. Erik Hildinger, Boston, 1996
  • RASHID AL-DIN, Jami’ al-Tavarikh, 4 vols, Tehran, 1994. tr. Thackston, W.M, Compendium of Chronicles, Harvard University Press, 1999
  • RUBRUCK, WILLIAM OF, tr. P. Jackson and ed. P. Jackson with D.O. Morgan, The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck. His journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253-1255, London, 1990.
  • RŪMĪ, most works of poetry and prose are available in translation and Persian as are many other poets of the Ilkhanid period.
  • SIMON DE ST QUENTIN, Histoire des Tartares, ed. J. Richard, Paris, 1965.
  • SKELTON, R.A., MARSTON, T.E., and PAINTER, G.D. (eds and trs), The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, New Haven, 1965.
  • SPULER, B, History of the Mongols, New York 1988
  • VARDAN, ‘The Historical Compilation’ Dumbarton Oak Papers 43, 1989
  • VASSAF, Tahrir-i Tarikh-i Vassaf, ed. Ayati, , A., Tehran, 1968.