In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the creation of the Mongol Empire resulted in an unprecedented cross-regional movement of people, commodities and ideas. In Allsen’s words, “culture can be transmitted by a number of mechanisms – commodities, ideologies, literary works- as well as people.”[1] The fourth mechanism, different groups of people, who moved from their native lands to other Mongol conquered places, facilitated cultural contact. Specifically, craftsmen played an important role in the transmission of cultural products and ideas. Craftsmen brought the techniques and concepts from their hometown and absorbed local skills and ideas. The motifs and techniques transferred by these agents promoted the development of technology and arts in both West and East. Steppe society lacked siege engineers, weavers, and artisans, therefore the Mongols depended heavily on their settled subjects for those types of people. The Mongol rulers gave favor to craftsmen which allowed them to survive the assault of the Mongol army. When the Mongol force conquered a place, the Mongols usually left craftsmen alive. The Mongol rulers were adept in mobilizing human resources of the empire; Consequently, craftsmen were fully utilized and became the agents of transcultural interactions.The contributions of craftsmen to cultural diffusion were analyzed by many proficient scholars. In Islamic Chinoiserie, Professor Yuan Kadoi discussed the occurrence of Eastern motifs and themes in Iranian arts due to the westward transmission of Chinese artisans and their products. Additionally, in Warfare in Inner Asian History, Professor Thomas T. Allsen illustrated the circulation of military technology in the Mongol empire. Based on these scholars’works and other reliable primary sources, for example, Yuanshi, this section discusses how the three types of craftsmen, siege engineers, artisans, and constructors who rebuilt damaged cities, facilitated cultural contact in the Mongol Empire.



Siege Engineers

The Mongol strong cavalry was adept in fighting in the steppe areas but they had no experience of conducting a siege. However, this military strategy was necessary when the Mongols conquered cities. Therefore, the Mongol rulers depended heavily on their settled subjects and thus led to borrowing from their subjects’culture. The Mongols recruited foreigners who specialized in building siege engines, dams, and large crossbows. The need for siege units first arose when Chinghiz Khan moved across the steppe into northern China (1211–1234) and faced the walled cities of the Jin Empire.[2] Chinghiz Khan quickly learned and acknowledged the faults of the Mongol army and it was he who initiated the recruitment of foreign specialists. From this time forward, siege units were to be regularly recruited among the conquered states of northern China and were to serve the Mongol army until the late thirteenth century, which became a well-established policy among his successors. The recruitment of siege units among the northern Chinese continued during the reign of the great Khan Mongke, who conscripted blacksmiths, carpenters, and gunpowder makers.

In addition to recruiting Chinese engineers and carpenters, the Mongols borrowed siege technology from the eastern Mediterranean. During Qubilai’s reign, a counterweight siege machine, called “the Muslim pao”was employed. The Mongol army failed to conquer Xiangyang for many years because of the Song army’s stubborn defense. Then in 1271, Qubilai sent envoys to his nephew, the Ilkhan Abagha, asking for the dispatch of western catapult makers. Abagha then sent two Muslim engineers, Alaal-Din from Mayyafariqin and Ismail from Aleppo, who introduced counterweighted catapults (the Muslim pao) to China.[3] Alaal-Din and Ismail traveled east with their families to Dadu and received a great honor from Qubilai Khan. In 1273, Ismail assembled and operated the “Muslim pao”for the conquest of Xiangyang. The description of the catapult was given in Yuanshi, “The weight of its shot was 150 jin; upon firing a tremendous noise tore heaven and earth and anything it struck was devastated, its shot penetrating seven chi (2.5 meters) into the earth.”[4] Because of the powerful and effective catapult, the Song army soon surrendered to the Mongols. Due to his great contribution, Ismail was awarded 250 liang of silver and appointed as the general of the siege units.[5] The Description of the World described a similar story about the Mongol siege of Xiangyang. The Mongol army besieged the city for three years without being able to take it. According to Marco Polo, his father and uncle created the strong trebuchets which led to the Song army’s surrender.[6] Although this description contradicted with what Yuanshi reported, the eastward transmission of the trebuchets was confirmed. Nevertheless, this new western military technology was transferred to the Mongols and used in many campaigns later. Moreover, the transmission of “Muslim pao”had a promotion to the improvement of Chinese artillery.



Illustration of a Hinged Counterweight Trebuchet from the Wujing Zongyao




During the Pax Mongolica, there were a great number of artisans traveling between Iran and China. As the agents of cultural exchange, they largely contributed to the transmission of motifs and styles between East and West. At that time, Iran flourished as the center of art and culture, as many Chinese artisans were sent to Iran, taking their crafts with them. The westward transmission of artisans and their products resulted in the emergence of chinoiserie, the appearance of Chinese elements in Iranian art. The Iranian artisans absorbed Chinese artistic ideas and combined them with Central Asian style to develop hybrid forms, which can be shown in different fields including miniatures, manuscript paintings, and textiles.[7] Seemingly, the most interesting aspect that the Iran artisans borrowed from the Mongol artisans was how the Chinese often represented nature in their paintings. The aspects of the application of moderate scheme of color and the use of rocks, water, and clouds that were fungus-like were highly borrowed from the Chinese painting arts.[8] Moreover, the use of lotuses and dragons in the Chinese motifs was passed on to the Persian artisans, who adapted it to their artworks.[9]

Strong Chinese influence was evident in the manuscripts paintings of Compendium of Chronicles. Under the commission of Ghazan and Uljaitu, Rashid al-Din developed a workshop of artists and scholars and compiled the history of the book entitled Compendium of Chronicles. As mentioned above, the use of rocks and water was the key Chinese landscape convention. These landscape elements were indicative of the involvement of artists who were of Chinese origin or were greatly influenced by Chinese artistic ideas. For example, the adaptation of Chinese rock conventions can be seen in the illustration of The Finding of Musa. “The contours of rocks are represented not by vague double outlines but by well-defined calligraphic ones.”[10] The painting incorporated different sizes and shapes of rocks in the foreground, which was a great improvement compared with the rocks unnaturally placed in the background in earlier Persian paintings. Moreover, water also illustrated a pattern of adaption of Chinese landscape conventions in The Finding of Musa. “The flow of water from the upper left to the lower right is expressively rendered, displaying an unmistakable dependence on Chinese models for the depiction of water”.[11] Therefore, there was a high degree of assimilation of Chinese elements into the manuscript paintings of Compendium of Chronicles.


Jami al-Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din: The Finding of Musa. Tabriz, 714/1314.


Craftsmen Who Repaired Damaged Cities

Besides moving craftsmen to produce specialty goods, the Mongols sent East Asian craftsmen to repair the damage done in the Iranian world. In the interests of economic exploitation, the Mongols transported these craftsmen across a great distance. The workmen were forced to be aid-workers to perform agriculture tasks in Transoxiana.[12] For example, Chingiz Khan and his Mongol armies conquered and destroyed Samarkand in 1220. The buildings in the city were all ruined with fragments of walls remaining. “The city of Samarkand had a population of more than a hundred thousand families, but after the occupation only the fourth part remained decline”.[13] Due to the large decrease in population, the locals were not able to rebuild the city by themselves. The Mongols then transported the craftsmen from East Asia to manage the fields and gardens there. When Changchun, a Chinese monk, visited Samarkand in 1221, he noticed the presence of Chinese, Khitan, and Tangut. He said, “Chinese workmen are living everywhere.”[14] Undoubtedly, the newcomers had some positive impacts, for example, had cultural interactions with the local people. Yelü Chucai, the influential Kitan statesman and administrator who traveled in Central Asia from 1219 to 1225, described Samarqand as a flourishing city with varied and productive agriculture.[15] As a result, the displacement of groups of craftsman from the East to the West in the aftermath of conquest not only repaired the damage but also facilitated cultural transmission.




The integrated world the Mongols created facilitated the movement of people. Moving across various cultural zones of Eurasia, craftsmen played a substantial role in the transmission of products and ideas. As the agents of cultural diffusion, craftsmen transferred their techniques and concepts to foreign places which promoted the development of technology and arts. Different groups of craftsmen, for example siege engineers, artisans and constructors who rebuilt the city, moved from their homelands to other Mongol conquered places. The Mongols recruited a great number of siege engineers from their subjects, which promoted the circulation of military technology in the Mongol empire. Additionally, the westward transmission of artisans and their crafts resulted in the occurrence of Far Eastern motifs and themes in Iranian art. Moreover, constructors, who were compelled to leave their homelands and take part in the large-scale urban renewal projects after the war, had cultural interactions with the local people and made the city diversified. Connecting the east to the west, the Mongol empire started globalization that promoted cultural interactions between different ethnic groups. In particular, the transfer of a great number of craftsmen facilitated the wave of globalization. As the Mongols were adept in mobilizing resources of the empire, craftsmen, who were fully utilized, helped cultural crossings and the building of the empire.


[1]Allsen, Culture and Conquest, p.59

[2]Raphel, Mongol Siege Warfare, p.356

[3]Yuanshi, liezhuan, chapter 90

[4]Allsen, Military Technology, p.271

[5]Yuanshi, liezhuan, chapter 90

[6]Rustichello, The Description, p128. This is one of the sections of The Description that has provoked the most controversy. As mentioned above, the Yuanshi (the official chronicle of the Mongol Yuan dynasty) reported that the siege engines were made by the two Muslim engineers sent by the Ilkhan Abaqa.

[7]For further discussion, see Kadoi, Islamic Chinoiserie.

[8]Jackson, Pax Mongolia And A Transcontinental Traffic, p.235

[9]Sheikh, Chinese influence in Persian Manuscript illustrations, pp.857-859

[10]Kadoi, Islamic Chinoiserie, p.164

[11]Kadoi, Islamic Chinoiserie, p.169

[12]Jackson, Pax Mongolia And A Transcontinental Traffic, p.225

[13]Li Chih-chang, The Travel of an Alchemist, tr. A. Waley (London, 1963), pp.72-73.

[14]Li Chih-chang, The Travel of an Alchemist, tr. A. Waley (London, 1963), pp.72-73

[15]YelüChucai, “Xi you lu”, tr. De Rachewiltz, pp.21-22


Primary Sources:

Jami’ al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles by Rashid al-Din). Edinburgh University Library Special Collections.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. AMS, 1976.

Song, Lian. Yuanshi. Zhonghua Shuju, 1976.

Yelü, Chucai, and da Xiang. Xi You Lu. Beijing: Zhong hua shu ju, 2000.

Secondary Sources:

Allsen, Thomas T. ” The Circulation of Military Technology in the Mongolian Empire”. Warfare in Inner Asian History (500-1800). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

Allsen, Thomas T.. Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Jackson, Peter. “Pax Mongolica and a Transcontinental Traffic.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, 210-41. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Kadoi, Yuka. Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran. Edinburgh University Press, 2018. JSTOR,

Liang, Jieming. Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity, an Illustrated History. Singapore, Republic of Singapore: Leong Kit Meng, 2006.

马建春.”蒙·元时期“回回炮”的东传及作用.” 西北民族研究 .02(1996):. doi:10.16486/j.cnki.62-1035/d.1996.02.009.

Raphael, Kate. “Mongol Siege Warfare on the Banks of the Euphrates and the Question of Gunpowder (1260–1312).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 19. 3 (June 2009): 355–70.

Sheikh, Samina Zia. “Chinese Influence in Persian Manuscript Illustrations.” International journal of multidisciplinary and current research 5 (2017): n. pag