When you picture a queen in your mind, what do you see? A woman wearing a gold crown covered in jewels and an ermine robe? These would have been familiar symbols of power to the Mongols, for whom gold, jewels, and ermine were all important attributes of imperial might. The Mongols, a nomadic group who conquered most of Eurasia in the thirteenth century, carefully balanced their own symbols of power with ones that would have been recognizable to the populations over which they ruled.
Portrait of Chabi, attributed to the Nepalese artist Anige, is a memorial portrait of the favorite wife of the Yuan Emperor and Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Khubilai Khan. Established in 1271 by Khubilai Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan, the Yuan dynasty was, at least in name, the seat of the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century. In Portrait of Chabi Chabi gazes calmly out at the viewer and wears the signature headdress of Mongol married women, the boqta, with a red silk robe with gold brocaded borders. Her bright red boqta is decorated with large pearls, which extend all the way up the column of the hat and cover her chinstrap, mingling with Chabi’s enormous pearl and ruby earrings. As arguably the most powerful woman in Eurasia during her lifetime, Chabi is presented in queenly splendor, and her jewels and clothing reflect the court culture of the Mongols, which would have been identifiable across most of Asia, from the imperial capital of Dadu (present-day Beijing, China) to Tabriz (in present-day East Azerbaijan Province, Iran), and beyond.
Portrait of Chabi is a glimpse into the crucial role played by court dress in the consolidation of Mongol rule across Eurasia. Textiles and dress were essential to the display of political power, wealth, and identity among the ruling elite of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After its formation under Chinggis Khan, in 1206, the Mongol Empire quickly expanded, and at its peak spanned most of the Asian continent. As the Mongols established their territories, textiles and dress played a central role in the development and articulation of a courtly visual vocabulary that transmitted clear messages about the ruling Mongols to diverse populations.
By the second half of the thirteenth century, Mongol court dress was recognizable across Asia and even to a certain extent into the Mediterranean. It was a dress of power, and comparisons between Portrait of Chabi, and court scenes in Ilkhanid manuscript paintings, Yuan tomb murals, and excavated materials from tombs, hoards, and treasuries (such as an example shown below from the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou) show a standard repertoire of clothing types. For women, this was the tall boqta crown and a wide court robe. Manuscript paintings were commissioned by the Ilkhanid court to illustrate texts such as the Shahnama (The Persian Epic of Kings) which inserted the Mongols, by dressing the main characters in the stories as Mongol kings and nobles, into pre-established historical and cultural narratives to legitimize their power. Tomb murals, on the other hand, were part of a long standing northern Chinese custom of commissioning painted tombs for the deceased. The paintings in these tombs are an important source for material culture (such as depictions of furniture, paintings, and ceramics), dress, and regional customs (such as depictions of tea preparation, dumpling making, and musical performances) that give us a glimpse into life from hundreds of years in the past.
The boqta, called gǔgǔ guān (罟罟冠) in Chinese, was made of a birch bark interior, covered in cloth, and could be adorned with precious materials such as stones, pearls, beads, and feathers, as we see in the Portrait of Chabi. It was commented on at length by visitors to the Mongol courts and was an essential feature of Mongol women’s court dress.
In paintings from the Yuan and Ilkhanate, the robe and boqta are almost exclusively depicted in red, while the excavated material, mostly from the area of the Yuan dynasty (present-day China and Mongolia), preserves gold-woven variations of the robe and boqta. The gold-woven versions of this clothing correspond to the most favored Mongol court material, called nasīj, an Arabic word. Nasīj is transliterated as nashishi (納失失 nà shī shī) in Chinese texts of the period, and it is generally believed to be gold-woven lampas. The discrepancy between the painted versions of this dress (in red) and the preserved textiles (in gold) might be explained by the fact that nasīj was the most valued textile used by the Mongol court at the time. Red silk court robes may have been more widespread, but the value of the nasīj version of court dress made it a valuable article to bury elites in their tombs—which are the source of many of the excavated textiles from this period.
The boqta was remarked upon by all the visitors to the Mongol courts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries who left travel accounts. These descriptions of the boqta are quite similar to one another. The impressive height of the boqta was striking to these visitors as were the materials used to adorn it. The Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck, who visited various Mongol courts and hordes between 1253 and 1255 confirms that boqta were often highly ornamented with precious stones and feathers, as in the Portrait of Chabi. We also know, thanks to other accounts that the boqta could be made of felt or silk even though only silk remains have been unearthed. Li Zhichang of the Song dynasty, a disciple of Daoist Master Chang Chun, recorded his visit to the court of Chinggis Khan in 1221, noted that married women wear the boqta and it was usually covered in black felt, although wealthier women covered their boqta with silk. In other words, black felt was probably the more common material used in covering the boqta but in terms of court dress, it seems that either red silk or nasīj was used, based on artistic representations and written descriptions of court ceremonies.
Certainly, boqtas deserve a closer look. While Chabi’s boqta in Portrait of Chabi is adorned with pearls, we know from archaeological evidence that they might be decorated with other stones as well. For example, a boqta ornament uncovered in 2001 from a tomb in Inner Mongolia is made of gold filigree and inlaid with carnelian. In the History of the Yuan Dynasty (1370), boqta are not described. However, men’s court dress is detailed, with particular attention paid to something called the jisun or zhama suit, gifted to the khan’s officials by the khan and named for the banquet at which these suits were worn. Men’s and women’s court dress was made of the same materials, so descriptions of men’s robes can be applied to women’s dress. Jisun banqueting suits are described in detail, including a list of the precious stones and pearls sometimes used to adorn them. The names used for pearls and precious red stones used on these suits of clothing are transliterated from the Persian (dana for pearls and yaqut for red or hyacinth stone).
The pearls and perhaps the carnelian, or other reddish stones used to adorn courtly boqta, probably came from the same sources in South and West Asia as those used on men’s court banqueting robes. The precious adornments of both the boqta and men’s formal court robes were not only used for their beauty and to show the status and wealth of the wearer, but also because they showed the reach of the Mongol empire. The pearls used by the Mongol court in China almost certainly came from the Persian Gulf, or perhaps the Coromandel coast (in the southeastern region of India).
Pearls were imported by Persian-speaking traders, and so were probably called by their Persian name in the Chinese context. The carnelian likely came from the present-Bengal region. The term used to describe precious red stones, yaqut, may have also referred to various red-hued stones originating outside of East Asia during the Yuan period and carnelian may have been sometimes referred to by this name at the time. As with the pearls, the term yaqut may have been used because of the Persian-speaking traders who brought it into the Mongol empire. The use of these stones in courtly robes and in the boqta was a way of physically demonstrating both the wealth and the extent of the Mongol empire through both conquest and established trading routes.
Although the most embellished versions of the boqta have been unearthed in China and Mongolia, these distinctive caps were found elsewhere in the empire as well. We know from paintings of the Ilkhanate that they were worn in courtly contexts in the western part of the Mongol empire. But remains of boqta have also been excavated in present-day Russia, the territory of the Mongol-ruled Golden Horde, both in Siberia in the north and in the lower Volga region in the south. In other words, we know that the boqta was worn across the Mongol Empire, and as such was a recognizable symbol of both Mongol women and the Mongol empire as a whole.
It is remarkable that the Mongols, a group from the steppe, were able to consolidate and conquer so much of Asia so swiftly. Equally noteworthy is the vast area over which symbols of Mongol power were recognized, over a relatively short period of time. Within two generations Mongol court dress was established as the dress of power in many areas of Asia, and Mongol-style dress would continue to impact courts even after the dissolution of the empire.
Although the Yuan dynasty fell in 1368, the impact of Mongol court dress continued to be felt in China and across Asia, especially in men’s dress. For example, Mongol court dress is referenced in the court dress of the later Ming dynasty in China, especially in the form of rank badges (often referred to as “Mandarin squares”). During the Yuan dynasty, central badges, usually decorated with animal or floral motifs, decorated the robes of officials but were not necessarily tied to rank. In the Ming and Qing dynasties these central badges were attached to the front and back of robes to denote the rank (1 through 9) of court officials.
We also find Mongol court dress imitated by the Central Asian Timurid court in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as witnessed in manuscript paintings. In the sixteenth century, the Mughals, who ruled in South Asia, also took inspiration from the Mongols when establishing their court dress and aesthetic sensibilities.
Read more about art under the Mongols in China
Thomas T. Allsen, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Anne F. Broadbridge, Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Bruno De Nicola, Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206–1335 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
Eiren L. Shea, Mongol Court Dress, Identity Formation, and Global Exchange (London and New York: Routledge, 2020).
Anne E. Wardwell and James C. Y. Watt, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998).