Throughout its long history, Persia has had to come to terms with the fact that it is on everyone's invasion route: Whether the invader is heading west or east, he is likely to pass through Persia, even if he does not stop there for long. Without going back as far as the Indo-Europeans, we might begin with Alexander the Great, invading from the west and bringing to Persia and points well beyond a period of Hellenistic cultural influence. But certainly the most momentous of all the invasions was that of the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century A.D. As a result, Persia acquired a new religion and became part indeed, a formative part - of a new and great civilization, that of medieval Islam.
Persia was not, however, swallowed up. Unlike much of the rest of the Middle East, it in no way lost its unique identity. The Syrians, the Egyptians, and the Iraqis not only (eventually) became Muslims, but adopted the language of the Qur'an, Arabic. They became Arabs, in fact, in every meaningful way except that of their ultimate descent. Persia was the great exception. Islam certainly became the majority faith, reducing the official pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism, to numerical insignificance. And for some while the language of literature in Persia, as of law and theology, was Arabic. But Persian did not disappear. It continued to be spoken, and in due course it reemerged as a written language: now in an adapted form of the Arabic script, and with a large quantity of Arabic vocabulary, but still an obviously Indo-European language in its grammatical structure, a fact that has deceived many an English speaker, at least for a year or two, into thinking it an easy language to learn. So the Arab conquest did not destroy the sense of iraniyyat, of Persian-ness. The country of today is still, in ways that are intangible but nevertheless real enough, the country of Cyrus the Great.
This cultural resilience was to stand Persia in good stead in the centuries to come. From the eleventh century there was another major ethnic and political influx, that of the Turks. At some risk of oversimplification, one might say that not only in Persia but throughout the Middle East, the next nine centuries were a period during which the Turks supplied the rulers and the soldiers. Certainly there were no ethnically Persian rulers of the whole of Iran between 1040 and 1925, apart from a few decades during the eighteenth century when the Zand dynasty ruled most of the country.
The Persians took the Turks, almost effortlessly, in their stride. The Seljuk invasions were not especially destructive, and before long the Turkish sultans, already converted to Islam, were fully reliant on the administrative skills of the traditional (and apparently indestructible) Persian bureaucracy. In many ways the Seljuk period saw a flowering of Persian culture, especially in architecture and literature.
But the greatest test still lay ahead. In the thirteenth century the most successful military conquerors the world had yet seen, the Mongols added Persia to their empire. The principal successor to the Seljuks in the eastern Islamic world had been the Khwarazm-shah, who by 1215 ruled much of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and former Soviet Central Asia. This large empire had been put together in a very few years, and the seams were still showing. The Khwarazm-shah 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad needed above all a period of peace during which he could consolidate the territorial gains he had made in the fifteen years of his reign.
Unhappily for him and for his subjects, those fifteen years had coincided with the rise to power in east Asia of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who after unifying the steppe tribes and campaigning in north China, invaded and devastated the Khwarazm-shah's empire between 1219 and 1223. A confused period followed, during which much of northern Persia was ruled by Mongol viceroys. But when the Great Khan Mongke, Chinggis Khan's grandson, ascended the Mongol throne in 1251, he determined that not only should the whole of China be subjugated, by armies under the command of his brother Qubilai, but that another brother, Hulegu, should march westward to incorporate the whole of Persia, together with Iraq and other territories, into the Mongol Empire.
Hulegu's advance was halted in Syria in 1260, as much by Mongol internal disputes as by the armies of the Mamluks of Egypt, but from that time Persia, Iraq, and eastern Anatolia became a semi- independent Mongol kingdom, known to historians as the Ilkhanate, which survived until its still mysterious collapse in the late 1330s.
The Mongol conquest was the greatest shock Persia had had to endure since the coming of the Arabs. This was for at least two reasons. First, the Mongols were infidels. Islamic theory divided the world into two parts: the Dar al-lslam, the Abode of Islam, and the Dar al-harb, the Abode of War. In the former, Islam ruled, though all the inhabitants would not necessarily be Muslims: many might well be ahl al-kitab, people of the book - Jews and Christians whose religions were considered a true if incomplete and distorted divine revelation. In the latter, infidel rule prevailed, but only temporarily. Whatever brief truces might be necessary, war was the natural state of relations between Islam and the infidel. In due course it was to be expected that the Dar al-lslam would include the entire world. The problem was that the theory contained no provision for the process to go into reverse, for the Dar al-harb to expand at the expense of the Dar al-lslam. Yet this is what the Mongol conquest of so large a part of the central lands of Islam implied.
Second, there had never been anything of the scale and ferocity of the Mongol invasions. Persia became only a part, and by no means the most important, of a world empire of unequaled dimensions. And this was an empire founded upon what were until that time unparalleled effusions of blood. Persians knew of nothing in their historical experience to compare with the massacre and destruction inflicted on them by the Mongols during their initial conquest.
The period of the Mongol invasions was for Persia, then, a truly traumatic experience with which it was by no means easy for Persians to reconcile themselves. And there seem few grounds for arguing that it was not a wholly negative experience: Silver linings have to be searched for very hard if they are to be found in the Mongol cloud. But this is not to say that things did not eventually improve, that there was not a positive side to the Mongol era. One of the most remarkable results of the fact that most of Asia came, for a time, under the rule of a single family was an opening up of the continent, the establishment of direct contacts across it and as far as Europe. Europeans traveled across Mongol Asia as far as Mongolia and China: Ambassadors like John of Piano Carpini, missionaries like William of Rubruck, merchants like Marco Polo.
In Persia, too, there was a broadening of horizons. Chinese motifs found their way, most beneficially, into Persian art, especially miniature painting and ceramics. Some of the Persian historical writing of the Mongol era shows a breadth of interest and knowledge on the part of its authors that had not been shown by their predecessors and was not, regrettably, to be evident either in the work of their successors. Europe played a small part in this new world view, and some evidence does survive of how the Persians may have seen the Europeans, both in historical writing and in the account of Europe written by the one known Asian equivalent of Carpini, Rubruck, and Marco Polo: the Nestorian monk Rabban Sauma.
How could a Muslim hope to explain, to the satisfaction of himself and his coreligionists, the loss to the infidel of lands that had formed part of the Dar al-lslam since the earliest days of the Islamic expansion? What was he to say about the Mongols? The problem was, in a rather different form, to recur in the twentieth century, when Muslims found that they had fallen to an unacceptable extent under the cultural and political domination of the West. The solution found by some has been what is most misleadingly called Islamic Fundamentalism - a feeling that God has (apparently) abandoned His people because they have themselves abandoned true Islam: that what is necessary is the finding of authentically Islamic answers to the difficulties that beset the Muslim world.
Some Persian contemporaries of the Mongol invasions saw their predicament in terms of divine judgment on the sins of the Muslims. As an explanation of the catastrophe this had two advantages: it provided a satisfactory solution so far as Islam was concerned, and it went some way toward legitimizing the Mongols. Persian writers under Mongol rule inevitably had to exercise a degree of caution when writing about their conquerors and masters (and in some cases employers), who could hardly be represented, without qualification, as mere brutal mass murderers.
The major historian of the early Mongol period in Persia was Juwayni, who died in Ilkhanid service as governor of Baghdad and Iraq in 1283. His brother, until his fall from office and death in the following year, had for many years been chief minister of the Ilkhanate; and their ancestors had had a long tradition of government service to whoever happened to hold the reins of power in Persia. Juwayni completed his Ta'rikh-i Jahan Gusha, "The History of the World Conqueror" (Chinggis Khan) in 1260, and he covered the period up to the fall of the north Persian Assassin castles to Hulegu in 1256.
Juwayni's "Islamic" explanation of the Mongol cataclysm was as a divine judgement on the sins of the Persian people. It is in his history that a celebrated story of Chinggis Khan's invasion is to be found. After his capture of Bukhara, Juwayni tells us, Chinggis mounted a (Muslim) pulpit and addressed the Bukharans in these words:
O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
That Juwayni's own views are accurately represented in this anecdote is made clear enough in many remarks of his own, especially in the introduction to his history. Here is a characteristic example: "For the admonishment and chastisement of every people a punishment bath been meted out fitting to their rebellion and in proportion to their infidelity, and as a warning to those endued with insight a calamity or castigation bath overtaken them in accordance with their sins and misdemeanours." So it is, then, that the Mongol conquest is rendered legitimate, since the Mongols are - even consciously, Juwayni will have us believe - the instruments of God's judgment. It followed, it may not be unreasonable to suggest, that in the eyes of Juwayni and those who thought like him, there was nothing discreditable about entering Mongol service. It also followed that the Mongols, for reasons of both theological theory and personal prudence, could not be directly criticized for their barbarity.
This did not mean, however, that Juwayni's attitude toward his Mongol masters was necessarily "nauseating" or "servile," as was suggested twenty years ago. E. G. Browne, writing much earlier, was nearer the mark when he suggested that Juwayni's circumstances "compelled him to speak with civility of the barbarians whom it was his misfortune to served What we get from this historian is not criticism of the Mongols, but a sober and detailed account of what he quite evidently regards as a series of disasters, horrors that he clearly views with revulsion. He says of some areas that "every town and village has been several times subjected to massacre and has suffered this confusion for years, so that even though there be generation and increase until the Resurrection the population will not attain to a tenth part of what it was before.'' Whatever this is, it is not flattery of the Mongols.
That Juwayni did in fact feel, or feel obliged to express, admiration for the Mongols is not, however, in doubt. He was, after all, a courtier, and a remarkably successful one. And he does appear to have believed that if he had to administer flattery, he might as well do the job properly and lay it on heavily. When he visited the court of the Great Khan Mongke, he writes, "I beheld the effects of that justice whereby all creation bath recovered and bloomed again; . . . wherein I fulfilled the commandment of the Lord -- 'Look to the effects of God's mercy, how He maketh the earth to live after its death' (Qur'an, xxx, 49) . . . The breezes of the north wind of his comprehensive equity perfumed the entire world and the sun of his royal favours illumined the whole of mankind. The blast of his shining sword cast fire into the harvest of the abject foe. . . " etc., etc. In fairness to Juwayni it should be pointed out that he was not only a government servant and a historian, but also a distinguished exponent of the art of Persian prose composition. The style of this passage, in Persian would have been much admired, and perhaps this consideration almost as much as the actual subject matter helps to determine what Juwayni says.
As we try to weigh up how the Persians of Juwayni's generation saw the Mongols, it is instructive to turn from him to a historian who, though a much older man, finished writing his history in the same year, 1260, that saw the completion of Juwayni's book. This is Juzjani, who was born in what is now Afghanistan, experienced the first Mongol invasion, and fled to the Delhi Sultanate, where he was to spend the rest of his life, in 1226. His Tabaqat-i Nasiri is a long general history, of which the most important part is perhaps the account of the former Ghurid rulers of Afghanistan, some of whose generals had founded the Delhi Sultanate. The work ends with a section on the Mongols, which is the only significant Persian account written outside the Mongol Empire and hence immune from accusations of pro-Mongol bias.
Not that Juzjani has ever been so accused. For him, Chinggis Khan is always mal'un, the Accursed. His account of the Mongol invasion includes every atrocity he can lay his hands on - though it is interesting, and encouraging, to observe that the general impression he gives is not so very different from Juwayni's. He tells us, for example, that when the Khwarazm-shah's ambassadors to Chinggis Khan reached Peking, they saw a large pile of bones outside the city walls. They were told that these were the remains of 60,000 young girls who had thrown themselves to their deaths rather than risk falling alive into Mongol hands.
Yet even for the refugee Juzjani, things are not quite as simple as that. Like Juwayni, he has a theological explanation of the Mongol invasions. For him they are not a divine judgment but a Sign of the Times. Prophecy makes it clear, he says, that the end of the world will be heralded by the coming of the Mongols. So for him too, the Mongols were part of the divine plan. Further, and perhaps more surprisingly, they were not wholly evil: They had their good points. In particular they placed great emphasis on an austere code of sexual morality: Widows were fair game, but married women were not. Hence, "If any woman they took from Khurasan and Persia had a husband, no creature would form a relationship with her: and if an infidel set his eyes upon a woman who had a husband, he would [first] kill the husband of the woman, and then would form a relationship with her.''
It seems that the Mongols also had the habit, whatever the cost to themselves, of telling the truth. Juzjani tells us of two sentries who fell asleep while on duty. This, a capital offense, was reported by a single witness. The sentries neither denied their guilt nor complained when they were marched off to execution. Juzjani's Persian informant, who had observed this incident, expressed his amazement to the Mongol commander, who replied: "Why are you astonished? You Tajiks [Persians] do such things, and tell lies, since telling lies is you Tajiks' occupation. But a Mongol, were a thousand lives at stake, would choose being killed, but would not speak false; and it is on account of this that God Most High has sent a calamity like us upon you." -- a clear echo of Chinggis Khan's sermon at Bukhara, though the Mongol commander presumably did not, like a good Muslim, say "God Most High," but probably the Shamanist equivalent Mongke Tenggeri the Eternal Heaven. Is there perhaps a faint pre-echo here in Juzjani" perspective of that later European notion, the Noble Savage, which comes across so strongly in Gibbon's account of the Mongols?
So Juzjani is torn two ways. The Mongols had driven him from his home and they had devastated the lands of Islam and killed enormous numbers of Muslims. Chinggis Khan was "a killer. . ., sanguinary and bloodthirsty"; but he was also, there was no denying it, "possessed of great energy, discernment, genius and understanding . . . just, resolute.'' And the source of such qualities was clear: "Such was the energy, constancy and intrepidity which God Most High had implanted in the nature of Chingiz Khan and the Mongol army.''
Important though Juwayni and Juzjani are, there can be no doubt that the major Persian historian of the Mongol period is from a later generation: Rashid al-Din, joint chief minister of the Ilkhanate for twenty years, whose career (like those of all Ilkhanid chief ministers but one) ended on the scaffold, in his case in 1318, at the age of seventy. He was the author of, among other books, the Jami' al-tawarikh, the "Collection of Histories." This he was commissioned to write by his master, the Mongol Ilkhan Ghazan (r. 1295-1304). It is a history of the Mongol and Turkish tribes, of the Mongol conquests and of their empire up to the time of writing. Ghazan's conception seems to have been that it would serve as a permanent aide-memoire for the Mongols of Persia, who were perhaps in some danger of forgetting who they were and where they had come from. Ghazan's brother and successor Oljeitu (r. 130016) asked Rashld al-Din to add to his history accounts of the various peoples with whom the Mongols had come into contact - the Chinese, the Indians, the Jews, and so on. As this "world-history" section includes a history of the Franks, we shall return to it later in this chapter.
For Rashid al-Din, the shock of the Mongol conquests had worn off. The Mongol Empire and the Ilkhanate were long-established facts: He was writing some eighty years after Chinggis Khan's invasion. Not only that, but Ghazan had announced his conversion to Islam, and the rest of the Mongols of Persia had declared that they too had become Muslims (whatever they may have thought that that meant). There was therefore no need to justify a regime that was firmly ensconced and that had restored Persia to the Dar al-lslam. Indeed, the writing of Rashid al-Din's history at Ghazan's instigation might be taken to indicate that by the end of the thirteenth century it was a Mongol rather than a Persian identity that was in danger of disappearing (and in fact the Mongols do seem ultimately to have been fairly painlessly absorbed into the population of Persia).
As the circumstances of its composition make clear, the Jami' al- tavarikh was "official history." We will search it in vain, therefore, for a critical view of the Mongols. For Rashid al-Din, the rise of the Mongol Empire, of which he was the chronicler, was of momentous importance. "What event or occurrence," he asked rhetorically, "has been more notable than the beginning of the government of Chingiz Khan, that it should be considered a new era?'' His attitude to the empire reflected that of his Mongol masters: It and the world were coterminous - those countries that were not part of it had simply not yet submitted. Of Chinggis Khan he writes: "He gave the [whole] world one face; and the same feelings to all hearts. He purified the territories of the countries, in delivering them from the domination of perverse usurpers and the oppression of proud tyrants.'' Where there is criticism of the Mongols, it is self- (or rather Ghazan-) serving. Ghazan had instituted a series of major administrative reforms, designed to repair the ravages of the first seventy years of Mongol rule in Persia. Rashid al-Din's account of the nature of Mongol rule under Ghazan's (infidel) predecessors is an unflattering one, and it may well in large part be accurate. The consideration that has, however, to be borne in mind is that the greater the chaos before Ghazan, the greater Rashid al-Din's master's achievement in remedying the situation. Rashid al-Din the chief minister inevitably casts a long shadow over Rashid al-Din the historian.
For many years another important book has been attributed to Rashid al-Din: a volume of letters, published as Mukatabat-i Rashidi Here, as it happens, it is possible to see a much more directly critical view of the Mongols being expressed. We find in the letters such phrases as "the time of the tyrannical Turks [Mongols in this context] and the oppressive bitikchis [Mongol scribal officials].'' on another occasion one of Rashid al-Din's correspondents calls the Mongols "mere deceivers and accomplices of the Devil." But we would be unwise to make very much of this. The authenticity of the letters has long been disputed: It can be demonstrated, for example, that one of them shows knowledge of Tamerlane's Anatolian campaign of 1402- a century after the supposed time of writing.
So far as we can tell, then, if Rashid al-Din's writings represent his "true" opinions and if he was at all typical, Persians in the last decades of the Ilkhanate viewed the Mongols as legitimate rulers who could be fitted, if not entirely effortlessly, into the Muslim scheme of things. By the long survival of their regime and because of their con- version to Islam, they had become acceptable, even respectable. Their reputation rose even higher after the collapse of the Ilkhanate following the death of Oljeitu's son Abu Sand in 1336. Persia was plunged into political chaos, not to be resolved for decades - and then by Tamerlane, a cure possibly as bad as the disease. Historians began as early as the 1360s to describe the Mongol period as the Good Old Days, when Persia was under good government. Abu Sand in particular received an especially good press, perhaps because of what may well have been his very real qualities as a ruler, perhaps because the contrast with the absence of coherent government that followed his death made him seem in retrospect more impressive than he did at the time (compare views of the late Shah of Iran expressed in the late 1980s with those of around 1979!). "The time of his government," wrote Abu Bakr al-Qutbi al-Ahari, "was the best period of the domination of the Mongols." The Mongols had come into Persia like a lion; they went out rather more like a lamb.
For most of the Middle Ages, writers in the Islamic world did not rate western Europe very highly, if indeed they thought about that part of the world at all. For Islam, Europe was a remote and barbarous backwater. Civilization ended at the Pyrenees. Muslim geographers sometimes made an attempt to describe the area, but historians largely ignored it. The only historical account to survive from before the time of Rashid al-Din is a list of Frankish kings from Clovis to Louis IV, written in the mid-tenth century by Mas'udi.
Rashid al-Din's "History of the Franks" is then of rather consider- able historiographical interest. Yet even here there is a very significant contrast between his treatment of the Franks and what he has to say about the other peoples in his world history. For one thing, other areas - notably China and India - are incorporated into the text of his main history: the lands of the Franks, never. For another, he generally gives us details about the identity of his informants - a Buddhist monk in the case of the history of India, for example. He tells us nothing about his informants on the Franks. The History is divided into two parts: a description, geographical and political, of Europe, and an annalistic account of European history, arranged under the reigns of popes and emperors, and concluding with the Emperor Albert I and Pope Benedict XI, both alive at the time of writing. Where Rashid al- Din obtained the information in the first part is anyone's guess. The basic source of the annals has, however, been identified by Professor Karl Jahn, the editor and translator of the two editions of the History. That source appears to be the chronicle of Martin of Troppau, a Dominican bishop otherwise known as Martinus Polonus, who died in 1279 (hence his material had to be updated by Rashid al-Din), and whose chronicle was evidently very popular, still surviving in an unusually large number of manuscripts and having inspired (for reasons apparently unconnected to its less than remarkable quality) many continuations by other hands.
The annalistic section, being no more than a version of Martin's material, is of little inherent interest. It is the survey of Europe preceding it that (though slapdash and superficial compared with Rashid al-Din's accounts of India or China) contains more that is worthy of attention. I have discussed some of these points elsewhere. They include a remarkably accurate Arabic-Persian terminology to express the precise nature of the offices of pope, emperor, and king of France, and the differences between them; a striking account of what is alleged to happen at an imperial coronation, which places the pope very much in the position of supreme ruler. and tit-bits of information such as that there are no snakes in Ireland, but 100,000 students in Paris.
One would never guess from reading this History that there were extensive contacts between Europe and Mongol Persia during Rashid al-Din's time. Yet there were. The Mongols were always very conscious of the importance and profitability of trade, and the capital of the Ilkhanate, Tabriz in north-west Persia, was a major entrepot. Merchants passed constantly from Europe to the east and back. There were longstanding Italian colinies in the city, and some Italians rose high in Mongol service, even acting as Ilkhanid ambassadors to the European powers. When the Ilkhan Oljieitu moved the capital southeast to Sultaniyya, the Papacy found it worthwhile to establish a Catholic archbishopric there. Merchants, then, and churchmen: It seems very probable that Rashid al-Din's principal European informant may have been one of Martin of Troppau's fellow-Dominicans who had brought a copy of Martin's chronicle with him to Persia and who provided Rashid al-Din with information for his survey of Europe. This would explain the pervasive papal bias of the information. There were, too, many diplomatic envoys passing to and fro. For decades after the first contacts were established around 1262, vigorous attempts were made to form an offensive alliance between the powers of western Europe and the Ilkhanate, the object being to defeat the Mamluks and retake the Holy Land. Probably mainly for logistical reasons, these attempts never came to very much, but the project was not easily given up, and there seems to have been complete sincerity on both sides about the alliance's desirability and practicalitv.
No one, then, who lived in Tabriz and moved in the more elevated social circles would have had the slightest difficulty in obtaining adequate, indeed copious and accurate information about Europe and its history, had he so wished. In addition, Rashid al-Din was chief minister of the Ilkhanate. He must have known about all the diplomatic manoeuvrings; indeed, he must surely have been directly involved in them. But there is no reference to any of this in any of his works. Professor J.A. Boyle once published a very short article, "Rashid al-Din and the Franks," in which he discussed what is to be found on the subject in Rashid al-Din's works other than the "History of the Franks." It had to be short because despite Boyle's painstaking sifting of the material there was so little there to be found.
We can only deduce, therefore, that Rashid al-Din deliberately chose not to bother himself unduly about Europe. This cannot be ascribed simply to Muslim prejudice regarding other religions, since no such prejudices deterred Rashid al-Din from providing much fuller accounts of non-Muslim societies like those of India, China, and the pre-lslamic Mongols. There is, however, an element of religious prejudice involved. For centuries, as we have seen, western Europe had been the Islamic world's poor relation, in terms both of civilization and (in Muslim eyes) of religion. Europe was regarded with a contempt and lack of interest that might perhaps during the Dark Ages, when the lights shone brightly in Cordoba, Damascus, and Baghdad, have been justified. This view had not been much revised by the early fourteenth century, though possibly by then, for the future good of the Islamic world, it ought to have been. Rashid al-Din was a remarkable man, and a remarkable historian, in many ways. The fact that he wrote a history of the Franks, however inadequate it may have been, is significant. But so far as his basic attitude toward the Franks was concerned, even Rashid al-Din was not able to rise above the prejudices and misconceptions of his contemporaries: prejudices and misconceptions which, it should be said, were paralleled on the European side, but which Europe was quicker to disabuse itself of, at least up to a point.
Rashid al-Din is, then, a singularly untypical Persian historian but typical enough in his attitude toward the Franks. To find a more appreciative view we have to look at the travel narrative of Rabban Sauma. Whether this can legitimately be called a Persian view is open to discussion: The narrative was originally written in Persian, and in Persia. But its author was a Turk who had come from north China, and the only version we have of his narrative is a translation into Syriac. Still, if we had the original (and it may yet turn up) we might contend that it is as much Persian as the novels of Joseph Conrad are English literature.
The Mongol period saw a last efflorescence of the Nestorian church in Asia. Indeed, it has been argued in a recently translated book (though not in my opinion very convincingly) that the role of the Nestorians was absolutely crucial in the rise of the Mongol Empire. Whatever the truth of that, there can be no denying that Nestorianism was influential among many of the Mongol and Turkish tribes, and that some Nestorians, especially women, achieved positions of very considerable influence in the Mongol political world. In addition, the Mongols were, at least until the end of the thirteenth century, highly tolerant in matters of religion: a feature that is frequently adduced in their favour by their apologists. It is indeed the case that anyone who managed to avoid being massacred during the Mongol invasions was unlikely subsequently to be persecuted for his religious beliefs. The Nestorian church, always a strongly missionary organization, was able to take advantage of this situation and for a time to spread more or less unhindered across the Asian continent.
It was in these circumstances that the Nestorian monk Rabban Sauma and his disciple Mark decided to travel from China on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They never reached their goal, for Jerusalem, apart from two brief moments, remained obstinately outside the boundaries of the Mongol Empire. Instead, Mark was elected to the supreme office in the Nestorian church, that of Catholicus, in which post he had the misfortune to survive long enough to have to cope with the persecutions that followed the conversion of the Persian Mongols to Islam. Rabban Sauma, too, was given high office, and in 1287 he was sent to Europe by the Ilkhan Arghun as Mongol ambassador (it was a Mongol custom to despatch envoys whom they thought might be acceptable to the recipients - in this case a Christian envoy was sent to Christian monarchs).
Rabban Sauma, to judge from his narrative, was completely awed by what he found in Europe. This was essentially a religious wonderment. He seems to have been quite unaware that, strictly speaking, he was in Catholic eyes a heretic, and he was happy to acknowledge the pope as head of the church, and Europe as the headquarters of Christendom. In particular, he was overwhelmed by the wealth of religious relics to be found; he even persuaded a grudging Pope Nicholas IV to give him some to take back to Persia. Sauma visited Constantinople, Naples, Rome, Genoa, Paris, and Gascony, and talked with kings, emperors, and cardinals wherever he went. But what can we deduce from all this? There is some vivid observation, fascinating because of its uniqueness. But it is doubtful that any wider conclusion can be drawn. Sauma represented the Ilkhan diplomatically, but so far as his pro-European attitudes were concerned, if he represented anyone it was only a minority group, the Christians, in a vast Islamic sea: a group that had less than a decade of official favor left to it when Sauma returned to Persia. It might be possible to speculate that we have in Sauma's account of Europe a flavor of what might have happened had the Mongols been converted to Christianity, as at one time seemed possible. As Sir Richard Southern has commented, this "was a noble prospect, and one which, if only a fraction of it had come true, would radically have altered the history of the world.''
It did not happen, of course. Rabban Sauma is very far from being a typical Persian of the Mongol period. Rashid al-Din is nearer to being one, though he showed an untypical degree of interest in Europe even when he wrote his somewhat throwaway "History of the Franks." If the attitudes of those Persians in the Mongol Empire whose writings have come down to us are characteristic, the peoples of Asia were not, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the way to being mentally prepared to deal with the expansion of Europe. Yet perhaps a caveat should be entered here. As we have seen, northwest Persia in the Ilkhanid period was very familiar to European, and especially Italian, merchants and churchmen. For the most part they have left us no record of their travels. But this does not necessarily mean that Persians who came into contact with them did not learn a good deal about Europe, or that what such travelers told people when they returned to Italy had no effect on contemporary European notions of the world. "Ordinary" knowledge on both sides may conceivably have been rather more extensive than the surviving written evidence would lead us to suppose.
This is speculation, but one indication of possible contact at other than historiographical and diplomatic levels may be mentioned. The finest architectural memorial left by the Mongols in Persia is the mausoleum of the Ilkhan Oljeitu at his capital, Sultaniyya. Its most remarkable structural feature is its double-skinned dome; and it has been suggested that knowledge of this may have had an influence on the design of Brunelleschi's dome for Florence Cathedral, in many respects similar in construction, built around a century later. Direct evidence of a connection is of course wholly lacking, but it is perhaps not entirely inconceivable that Italians at the Ilkhanid capital might have taken home detailed knowledge of how the city's finest building had been designed.
We shall probably never know with any degree of certainty, and it may after all be that Persian historians' lack of interest in Europe was not untypical of their compatriots. Perhaps they found that the Mongols were quite enough to have to cope with, and if that is so, who are we, whose ancestors through no virtue of their own escaped incorporation in the Mongol Empire, to blame them?
What does all this tell us, in more general terms, about Persians' perceptions of themselves and of others? Did they, at this or at other times, see themselves as Persians (or, as they would have said, irani, Iranians), and if so, as opposed to what? What is certain is that there was no concept of national identity in the sense popularized by nineteenth-century Europeans, and that has ever since exercised so maleficent a worldwide influence. Nor was the notion of ethnic identity, which has torn apart what used to be Yugoslavia, something of which medieval Persians would have felt much understanding. But as I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, there is a Persian identity, based on cultural and linguistic continuity, that has in some sense survived for 2,500 years. Until very recently, many Persians, even if - perhaps especially if - illiterate, could recite from memory vast tracts of the great Persian epic poem, the Shah-nama of Firdawsi, which was written in the Islamic period but whose subject matter is the legendary and pre-Islamic Persian past and its heroes. The twentieth-century Pahlavi shahs, Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza, made much of this heritage, choosing to emphasize the Persian monarchical tradition and the glories of the Achaemenian and Sasanian empires, and deliberately downplaying the Islamic element. The ultimate fate of the Pahlavi regime should perhaps make us wonder, however, if this can really be the whole story.
It has indeed been suggested that if a Persian, say, a century ago, had been asked what he was, how he identified himself, he would probably have said that he was a Muslim. All very well, and likely to be true, but in what way, then, would he have differentiated himself from a fellow-Muslim in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, or India? - assuming, that is (a rather large assumption) that the question had occurred to him. From the sixteenth century the Persians had been distinguished from their immediate neighbors, especially from the Ottoman Turks and their subjects, by the fact that the official religion of Persia was Shari Islam, as opposed to the Sunnism which was and remains the form of Islam professed by the great majority of Muslims. Western historians, in my view somewhat anachronistically, have often argued that the first Safavid shah, Isma'il I (r. 1501-24) imposed Twelver Shi'ism on the Persian people in order to differentiate Persia from its hostile neighbors, the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, and to provide his subjects with a distinctive sense of identity. An improbably twentieth century motivation; but whether intended or not, that was in fact the ultimate effect.
I conclude, then, that the Persian sense of identity was based on specifically "Persian" cultural elements, but was also very heavily influenced by Islam and the Islamic world-view. It has recently been suggested that the period of Mongol rule may have played an important part in creating a sense of "Iran" that endured to modern times: But we need to remember that in Hashed al-Din's history, the Mongol ruler who converted to Islam, Ghazan, is always Padishah-i Islam, the King of Islam, not of Iran. Hence the Mongols were acceptable once they became Muslims; the Europeans, who remained infidels, were not. I suspect that, as the Ayatollah Khomeini perceived, most Persians were usually Muslims first and Iranians second, and that this was the principal factor that determined their attitude toward other peoples.