One of the basic problems of doing research on the Iranian Medieval Times is the paucity of detailed accounts of daily life. Regarding this fact that these accounts including itineraries, historical and literary books as well as religious and legal sources constitute the basis of social history, the paucity of reliable accounts will lead to fundamental difficulties in doing scholarly research.

However, based on these limited accounts some researchers have done scholarly studies about the medieval daily life in Iran. Daily Life in the Mongol Empire by George Lane is one of these scholarly studies that provide an overview of social life in the Mongol Empire including Iran and China.[1]  The content of book consists of following chapters:

The first Chapter: Historical Overview, Chinggis Khan, and Mongol Rule summarizes the processes the Chinggis and his successors went through to establish the largest contiguous land empire.  It briefly indicates to the Mongol invasions of China and Iran out of which the emergence of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) of greater China and the Il-Khanid dynasty (1256-1335) of greater Iran are enumerated as “the two greatest achievements of the house of Chinggis” (p. 10).

Steppe Life examines “the nature and structure of steppe society and the transformation that Eurasian tribal society underwent during the rule of the Mongols and Chinggis Khan. It will provide an overview of “the nature of the nomadic tribal society that Chinggis Khan was born into and its relationship with its sedentary neighbors to the earth” (pp. 13-14). It specifies that primarily political power of the Turco-Mongol nomadic tribes lay with the Khan or tribal chief. These tribes living in the vast area referred to as the Eurasian steppes developed a new world order on the basis of two factors of tribal nobility and shaman. These two chapters introduce the overall conditions of the Mongol’s society to persuade the readers to read the rest of the book.

The next ten chapters namely “Appearance”, “Dwellings”, “”The Army, “Health and Medicine”, “Drinking and the Mongols”, “Food, Religion and the Mongols”, “Law and Mongol Rule”, “Women and the Mongols, Folktales from Mongolia” deal with the daily life of Mongols in their vast empire. By taking a look at the titles of the chapters, the reader can perceive which subjects constitute the basic features of the social history in general and daily life particularly.

Focusing on the chapter “appearance”, this paper addresses the significance of detailed reports of every daily life in conducting a comprehensive study of social history. In this chapter, Lane addresses the remained elementary and complimentary accounts of the Mongol’s appearance including their faces bodies, clothes, luxuries, and fineries.

The first striking point about the remained accounts of the daily life of the Mongols is that most of the reports have been prepared by the Europe travelers and missionaries visiting the Mongol Empire. Moreover, these accounts are more measured in comparison with the accounts provided by the Iranians. These European travelers who were mostly missionaries and spies reported more exactly the daily life of the Mongols to help their kings and the popes have a better understanding of the Mongols.

Friar Carpini, an emissary for Pope Innocent IV, traveled to Mongol Empire in 1245-47 provided one of the most measured reports of the Mongol’s daily life: “His {Carpini} detailed descriptions of the Mongols report that men and women would often be dressed identically and that he had problems telling the sexes apart. They wore Tunics of buckrum, fine linen, or silk, split open on one side and fastened by cords with the material folded back double over the chest. Married women wore full-length tunics opened at the front”.[2]

Likewise, Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck, a papal emissary who to Qaraqorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire in 1245-1247 has also described the Mongol’s appearance very carefully: “William of Rubruck was a close observer of the Mongols and in his report to King Luis IX of France he described not only their habits but their dress as well”.[3] Furthermore, the appearance of Mongols has been described by the Armenian historian Kirakos of Ganjak (1201-1272), a cleric and captive of the Mongols.[4] In this regard, not only the number of accounts provided by the European travelers exceeds the Iranian, Armenian and Chinese reports, the Europeans are more richly informative.

Lane declares that the importance of dress in Mongol society has just been scholarly taken into considerations: “Cloth and clothing held great symbolic significance for the medieval Mongols even before the days of empire. The great number of Muslim weavers transported to China under the Yuan dynasty attest to the importance textiles and dress continued to occupy in Mongol society” (p.42). Even though the Mongols invaded the civilized territories particularly to seize more pastures and fertile lands, the “need for gold and precious stones, used in the manufacture of the Mongol’s ceremonial dress, was one of the driving forces behind the expansion of the Mongol empire into the settled lands” (p. 48). Living in the Mongol time, Marco Polo has discerned the Mongol’s great interest in having luxurious clothes and so he has described this obsession in his Travels.[5]

Despite all its drastic destructions in social structures, the establishment of the Mongol Empire developed the science of history and so historiography in Iran. In this time, many remarkable historical books were written in Persian. Jama’ al-Tavarikh by Rashid al-Din Fadlohhah (1247-1318), the outstanding vizier of the Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304) is one of these historical works reporting not only the political changes but also the daily life such as clothing which constitutes the basis of social history. Rashid al-Din refers to Chinggis Khan’s ambition for his wives and daughters.[6] Besides, the appearance of Mongols was described by some Persian poets such as poet Amir Khosrow (1253-1324) visiting the Mongol prisoners taken by the Muslim armies from Sind.[7]

Regarding this fact that many reports of the Mongols have been prepared by the European travelers, the number of accounts preserved from the Mongol era is much more in comparison with those of pre-Mongol time. The remained accounts, however, do not constitute all the written documents about the Medieval Times. There is no doubt that many documents and accounts have been vanished away because of numerous battles and invasions throughout time; particularly in the conditions that many libraries and archives were burnt because of political and religious motives.

However, the paucity of accounts is just one the critical problems of doing research on the Medieval Times. Among the remained accounts rarely do we perceive the detailed information of the social conditions of the circumstances taking place. It shows that the Iranian medieval scholars were not professionally taught how to make accounts of the circumstances they were eye witnessing or the places they were visiting. Moreover, these scholars did not report many circumstances because they did not consider these events critical enough to be recorded.

We should take into consideration that on the basis of the Iranian oral system of conveying accounts, many events were orally reported. In other words, the Iranian did rarely write their accounts and so they relied on their memories in recording the events. Moreover, certainly a medieval scholar had different viewpoints about the significance of events and the method of reporting it. But based on the remained accounts it appears that the medieval European scholars were more professionally aware of the significance of their accounts.

Considering this basic problem, now this question arises in our mind that whether the Iranians researchers have learnt enough to make detailed informative accounts of the main circumstances of their life or the places they are visiting; especially today that having accounts of everyday life such as eating, dwelling, and dressing has been recognized as the crucial part of social history. It is true that the technological instruments have facilitated the process of recording the accounts, but these digital accounts including photos, films and maps are required to be supplied by detailed written accounts of those critical parts of daily life that cannot be recorded by technological facilities but they are significant enough to be reported in a detailed written account as a part of social history.   

Maryam Kamali

Daily Life in the Mongol Empire

[1] . George Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2006.

[2] . Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, p. 44; “Travels of Friar Odoric,” in Henry Yule, Cathy and the Way Thither, Millwood, N.Y.; Kraus Reprint, 1967, pp. 228-29.

[3] . Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, pp. 40-42; William of Rubruck, The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55, trans. From the Latin and ed. with an introductory notice, by William Woodville Rockhill, London: Hakluyt Society, 1990, ch. 6.

[4] . Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, p. 33; Grigor of Akanc, History of the Nation of Archers, trans. R. Blake and R. Frye, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 295.

[5] . Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, pp. 48-50; Marco Polo, Complete Yule-Cordier Edition of Marco Polo’s Travels by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, The Project Gutenburg EBook of the Travels of Marco Polo, vols. 1 and 2.

[6] . Rashid al-Din, Jama’ al-Tavarikh, ed. Mohammad Roshan and Mostafah Musavi, Tehran: Nashr Alborz, 1994, 587-588.

[7] . Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, p. 35; Kulliyat-i-e Amir Khosrow, Tehran, 1996, p. 532.

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Dr. Taghi Azad Armaki is the professor of sociology at Tehran University. His MA dissertation defended at Tehran University is based on theoretical sociology. Considering an interdisciplinary approach, he addresses the theory of Ibn Khaldun in his Ph.D dissertation at the University of Maryland. “The History of Social Thought in Islam, from the beginning to the Present”,”Social Changes of Iran”, and “The Social Thought of Muslim Scholars, from Khwaja Nizam to Motahhari”, besides numerous other books, articles and interviews indicate to his persistent attempts to base his sociological studies on the science of history. To learn more about Dr. Azad you can visit here


Prof. Azad, it’s a great pleasure for me to have an interview with you regarding social history, historical sociology, and their roles in having more profound findings in the Iranian medieval history. Let’s start with this question that how we can define the science of social history to have common parts with sociology and history? In other words, what definition do you suggest about social history which would be understandable in both sciences of sociology and history?

We can say in simple words that social history is social history. History is about social affairs. When social life becomes important, it will change into history. Social affairs never happen suddenly or with any good reason so they never vanish away. They happen and change through time. Hence, we need a kind of science which addresses the beginning of social issues and historical processes and transformations that these social issues have gone through during the time. This science is social history.

On the other hand, sociology explores social issues with respect to historical circumstances. Sociology rides on social history on his way. In the absence of social history, sociology has no field of research. Sociology as it’s led by western sociologists relies on social history to provide scientific explanation and interpretation. Max Weber, for example, bases his hypotheses on detailed studies of Europe and Asian histories; while the Iranian sociologists refer to vague assumptions and fantasies for lack of knowledge or for political reasons.

To find out the relations between history and social history, we ought to have a specified definition of history. If we define history just as social history, then we neglect a large portion of historical works.

Political history, Cultural history, the history of nations and ethnics are various branches of history. Therefore, it is better that we consider social history not equal to the whole science of history but as its critical branch.

Human and social sciences in Iran can illustrate the lives of Iranians as long as they are led particularly by social history, cultural history, social history, and political history. Without having these branches of science as their background, human and social sciences are forced to refer to social statistics which results in positivism and quantity-oriented studies.

Considering this fact that sociologists explore the holistic causes of social circumstances, how can they coordinate their works with the historian’s which are based on details?

Sociologists can figure out social phenomena as long as they have enough statistical documents and reliable evidences. In case we have more detailed information, we will have deeper general understandings. Historians provide documents for sociologists to work on. Without having these documents, we cannot do much research; we can just draw plans and discuss the buildings. A building can be built when there are a land, a plan, materials and also the will to construct a building. To analyze social issues we require different factors to help the research process.   

 I don’t believe that the only duty of historians is to provide documents of past events. Of course, it is one of their duties but is important enough to connect sociologists with those facts constituting the foundations of historical sociology.

Historical sociology addresses the conditions of society historically. For example, when a sociologist faces the question that “What is the history of religion and religiosity and what transformations have they gone through?” he requires historical details about religious affairs and rituals. Without this information, he is not able to answer these kinds of questions. Most of the sociologists writing about the conditions of religiosity in Iran have no exact information and so they propose general unfounded hypotheses. They just repeat the assumptions and hypotheses proposed in other countries which are not in accordance with the Iranian world. If we argue more in this regard, we will recognize the impact of history and historical information narrated by historians on our understanding of Iran. Rarely do we know about the history of the Iranian families, we just say that the tribal system was the prevailing system and so nuclear family is just a modern phenomenon for Iranian society; while, we have evidences of nuclear families in Iran history. Here we can recognize the role of history, historians and historical data in true understanding of Iran. So my hypothesis is that it is history that provides a sociologist with reliable statistical documents and evidences to construct the foundations of his studies. In next steps, history and historians will have more significant roles in developing sociology which I don’t address them for the time being.

What do you expect from the science of history as a sociologist?

I expect this science to have its definite role in the arena of human sciences. The arena of history is more than political circumstances or detailed significant points. History encompasses political, social, economical and cultural issues. We mustn’t limit ourselves to narrating lives and proceedings of main agents, governments and circumstances. There are many critical events which didn’t seem to be important in the past but now they are remarkable. The importance of an incident or information depends on its conditions. We need to know which affairs are important. We can discuss circumstances which we have enough knowledge about. If historians refer to some limited dimensions of social affairs, then we can’t have through analysis and evaluation of what’s going on around us. In short, past is important through its documents and evidences; otherwise, we can recognize its gap and so the absence of its role.

How do you recognize the relationship between the circumstances of the medieval era and the conditions of contemporary Iran? Would you mind giving an example?  

We can apply the science of history in different ways. The first one is to learn very much from the lessons of history. The second is to analyze the present situations. The third is to understand past governing rules influencing our present behavior. The third perspective, understanding the rules and policies governing the behavior and lifestyle of the modern era is to determine our policy.

Medieval time has its remarkable role in all viewpoints mentioned above. First of all, medieval means the era between ancient and modern time. This era has an undeniable role in our present conditions, since then Iran had more failures in battles. The Mongol invasion of Iran influenced social, cultural and economic structures, political relations and our viewpoints about political friends and enemies. The Mongol invasion faced us with unprecedented conditions.    

You have paid attention to the Iranian medieval time in some of your works. Can you explain a little in this regard?

Iran went under fundamental changes in medieval time. The Iranian Muslim thinkers had certain characteristics particularly Ibn Khaldun and Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi. Besides considering the transition period, they proposed new arguments. Ibn Khaldun proposed the theory of social science and Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi suggested his theory about the institution of the family. These two scholars followed their thoughts regarding their time and place. Ibn Khaldun referred to the birth and death of civilizations, thus he proposed a new science. The Iranian medieval time is socially and culturally significant; it influenced the history of the Islamic world and even other countries.

How can we apply a social theory in medieval time?

We can apply social theory in medieval time as long as we regard social life in the arena of history. When we consider the contemporary conditions in continuance with the circumstances of the medieval era we will acquire macro theories about what’s going on in the society. Proposing macro theories about the Iranian Islamic society is dependent on having a true understanding about the Iranian medieval history.

You mentioned that nowadays you are going to do more research on social history. What concerns do you have in this regard?

We have to move from sociology to social history to figure out the social and cultural revolutions. Rarely do the Iranian social thinkers have a reliable understanding of past days of Iran and people’s affairs in family, religion, politics, daily life and economics. Regarding social life I have one fundamental question, “How can we evaluate social evolutions when we don’t have enough knowledge about our pasts?” or “How can we propose a general theory about the Iranian society when we don’t know the details of its past and present. Unfortunately, some scholars propose social and cultural theories which are not founded in historical details. Instead of relying on social history of Iran, they refer to western thinkers and society. To overcome this impasse, I believe that we must rely on our social history. Social history is a multidisciplinary field of study concerning with sociology, history, economics, culture and geography. In short, all scholars of social sciences are required to develop social history.     

Thank you so much for your plausible responses. Maryam Kamali


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