Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Little More Context

Mongol Ruler and Consort Enthroned, detail
Last year, I blogged about a 13th century CE Central Asian find in the Astrakhan region of Russia consisting of enough textile pieces to reconstruct the complete costume of a Mongol woman. The find was described in detail in one of the 2011 issues of the Archaeological Textiles Newsletter (now the Archaeological Textiles Review).

Today, I found a website showing a color photograph of a Persian miniature that I believe gives context to this grave find. It's a copy of a Persian miniature depicting the Mongol court, entitled "Mongol Ruler and Consort Enthroned". I found it shown on several different sites and, piecing together the information I located, it's from Jami' al-Tawarikh, and it illustrated a work called the "Universal History" written by Rashid al-din; Il-Khanid period, Tabriz, Hazine 1653, folio 23a. It is mounted on an album containing illuminations of different sources. Here is a cropped version of the image, showing just the Mongol women.

The interesting thing about the miniature is it depicts a large number of women, and they are all dressed like the woman found in the Central Asian grave; red, cross-wrapped robes, and odd hats perched on their heads (though the hats are not black, but red). Perhaps this is what all of the khan's women wore, in period, regardless of rank (though the primary consort is shown in white). The miniature does not of course show all the layers each woman was wearing, but the woman from the grave find could have fit into the scene. I also found this image on the site of an SCA member, Richard Cullinan, who notes that this is one of the few period artworks showing female Mongol costume and shows a copy of the full image. Note that the women's costumes show brown around the neckline and sleeve edge--and the robe in the grave find was trimmed with brown silk and was worn over a brown underrobe.

Neither this miniature nor the grave find give a complete answer to what the women of the Mongol court might have worn in the 13th century. However, reconstructing the early history of costume involves assembling information from many sources. This miniature, whether or not it took liberties with costume depictions, is another puzzle piece that should be consulted to determine what the women of the Mongol court wore, and that element makes it doubly useful and interesting.

EDIT: (3/22/2013) After reading Lara's comments (see below), I found a translation of William of Rubruck's account of his observations of Mongol life during this period. That account may be found here. His account of Mongol women and their clothing rings true in light of the Asktrakhan grave and other sources. I'd just like to quote one passage in particular:
But on the day following her marriage, (a woman) shaves the front half of her head, and puts on a tunic as wide as a nun's gown, but everyway larger and longer, open before, and tied on the right side. For in this the Tartars differ from the Turks; the Turks tie their gowns on the left, the Tartars always on the right. Furthermore they have a head-dress, which they call bocca, made of bark, or such other light material as they can find, and it is big and as much as two hands can span around, and is a cubit and more high, and square like the capital of a column. This bocca they cover with costly silk stuff, and it is hollow inside, and on top of the capital, or the square on it, they put a tuft of quills or light canes also a cubit or more in length. And this tuft they ornament at the top with peacock feathers, and round the edge (of the top) with feathers from the mallard's tail, and also with precious stones. The wealthy ladies wear such an ornament on their heads, and fasten it down tightly with an amess [J: a fur hood], for which there is an opening in the top for that purpose, and inside they stuff their hair, gathering it together on the back of the tops of their heads in a kind of knot, and putting it in the bocca, which they afterwards tie down tightly under the chin. So it is that when several ladies are riding together, and one sees them from afar, they look like soldiers, helmets on head and lances erect. For this bocca looks like a helmet, and the tuft above it is like a lance. And all the women sit their horses astraddle like men. And they tie their gowns with a piece of blue silk stuff at the waist and they wrap another band at the breasts, and tie a piece of white stuff below the eyes which hangs down to the breast. And the women there are wonderfully [J: astonishingly] fat, and she who has the least nose is held the most beautiful.
The gown worn by the woman in the Astrakhan grave tied on the right side.


  1. Here is a portrait of Borte, Kublai Khan's wife, showing her wearing the red del (robe or kaftan) and the shoe hat (boghtag.

    I've always liked this version of the picture you posted. It's bigger and more complete.

    This is also nice. You can see a bit of the layering at the neck in these.

  2. Lara: Thanks for the links!

    I have been wondering about the red headwear though, since the grave find I referred to only had black. Maybe the red part shown in the artwork was only for ceremonial occasions?

  3. My study of Mongol dress was 10-12 years ago. I've forgotten quite a bit of what I once new and no longer have all my reference material. Steppes tribes in general love them some crazy hats. Check out the Scythian or Altai hats for comparison.

    I don't know if there is a significance attached to the color. Given that the boghtaqs of all the Khatuns of the Yuan dynasty are red, and the notion that the red ladies in the miniature are the wives of the khan, I would go with red being a status color rather than a ceremonial color.

    Here is another link that talks a bit about the hats:

    If you haven't read the account of Friar William of Rubrick among the mongols, I can recommend it. Its a fascinating and fairly quick read.

    1. Lara: Thanks for the extra links! I will definitely check them out.

      You may well be right about the color issue. Also, my recollection is that the head covering found in the grave that was written up in ATN was fairly low--perhaps it was an underlayer, and the big towering part was not buried with the woman, or did not survive.