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Genghis Khan in Soest

It is not often that you see the entrance to a military museum covered with hundreds of colourful cotton Buddhist prayer flags (see a previous blog, dated 16 August 2014). But that is what first greets the visitor to the latest exhibition of the National Military Museum (in Soest, the Netherlands). The prayer flags are not the only textiles in the exhibition “Genghis Khan: World Conqueror”. There are some 800 objects on view, most of them on loan from the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot, China.

The bulk of the objects relate to Genghis Khan (1162-1227) himself or to the Mongol Empire he created during 21 years of constant war. The objects include iron arrows from the Liao Dynasty (circa 907-1125 CE); quivers of birch bark or leather from the early 13th century; an 800-year old iron helmet; and a silver saddle and stirrups used today in ceremonial sacrifices to Genghis Khan. There are also beautifully preserved garments from China’s Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 CE), the period when Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, united and ruled over China.

The first Yuan garment is a pair of baggy silk trousers, excavated in 2010. These trousers would be worn by a wealthy Mongol man, under a long sleeved silk robe that would reach above his ankles. The Chinese had been spinning and weaving silk for over 2000 years by this time; in some parts of China bolts of silk had been used as currency. Wearing silk was a public statement of wealth and power that the Mongols eagerly adopted.

Also on display is a government official’s robe made of hemp and cotton, in what looked to me like damask. Kublai Khan had decreed that all official uniforms had to have the right side of the robe folded over the left. This was a reversal of tradition. Interestingly, this man’s robe had a left lapel. A subtle sign of resistance to Mongol authority? Or some lower level bureaucrat who could not afford a newer robe?

Another Yuan robe, also a man’s, is similar in shape but of much better quality. This robe is woven with gold thread (nasij) in a pattern of sphinxes with crowns on their heads. Nasij is a brocade. The word comes from the Persian for ‘gold thread’. This type of weaving was highly prized by the Mongols, who reportedly moved whole villages of weavers from Central and Western Asia to China, in order to teach Chinese weavers how to make this cloth of gold.

In another part of the exhibition there is another Yuan-period garment. This is a Barag Mongol tribe woman’s dress, a silk brocade robe with long sleeves and puffy shoulders. Two modern garments are also on display. One is a modern Sunit man’s robe and trousers, the other a modern Mongol wrestler’s outfit, with a leather harness, baggy trousers and high leather boots.

There are other interesting objects pertaining to dress. One is a shaman’s robe (Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911), a gown covered in long, broad, multi-coloured silk ribbons, some of which end in red tassels. The ribbons are thought to symbolize feathers, indicating that the shaman (who could be female or male) could turn into a bird and fly. Bells, arrows and animal bones are also sewn on the garment, as are differently sized bronze discs, used as mirrors. A mask is also worn with the dress during ceremonies.

One other object deserves mention. This is a gugu crown, worn by upper-class married Mongol women. This one, too, is from the Yuan period. It is a tall, cylindrical object, made from bamboo and covered in silk and jewelry. It’s bifurcated at the top. Given the bamboo frame, such high status objects are fragile and rarely found intact.

“Genghis Khan: World Conqueror” is open now until 27 August 2017.

Shelley Anderson, 26 March 2017

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