Ghazan Khan (r. 1295–1304) commissioned his vizier Rashid al-Din to write a history of the Mongols. During the reign of Uljaitu (1304–17), this text was expanded into the Jami‘ al-tavarikh, or Compendium of Chronicles. The text initially comprised three volumes. The first, written for Ghazan, was an account of the Mongol rulers beginning with Genghis Khan. The second volume covered Uljaitu’s life up to the time of writing (1310) as well as the history of the Eurasian peoples. The third, a geography, has not survived. The text was written in Persian and translated into Arabic and perhaps also into Mongolian and Chagatai Turkish in the atelier at the Rab‘-i Rashidi (Rashid’s quarter) in the capital Tabriz. It was stipulated that two copies of the work, in Arabic and Persian, be transcribed every year and distributed in the kingdom.
Today only two early-fourteenth-century Persian copies of the Compendium and part of one Arabic copy survive. The fragments of the Arabic copy are dispersed between the Edinburgh University Library (151 folios) and the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London (59 folios). These 210 pages comprise about the second half of the second volume, narrating the history of the ancient Iranian and Arabian rulers, the prophet Muhammad and the caliphs, the Jews, the rulers of Iran and Asia Minor, the Franks (i.e., the Europeans), the Indians, and the Chinese. Interspersed are 110 illustrations and 80 small portraits of Chinese emperors and their attendants.
The paintings are typically narrow and horizontal in format. They draw upon a wide range of sources, including pre-Mongol Persian and Arabic texts, Chinese handscrolls and woodblock illustrations, and Byzantine religious and historical manuscripts. The artists, under pressure to produce at least two copies of this voluminous text each year, would have relied heavily on standard compositions; however, they transformed existing models to create new compositions that would be influential in the development of Ilkhanid painting. In nearly all these paintings, non-Mongols are recast with characteristic Mongol features and costumes, thereby in a sense uniting all of world history with that of the Mongols.
The editor of the text, Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), was learned not only in history but also in theology, philosophy, and science. He was the son of a Jewish apothecary from Hamadan in western Iran and converted to Islam around the age of thirty. Rashid al-Din enjoyed a long career in the Ilkhanid court, starting as physician to Abaqa (r. 1265–82) and rising to become associate vizier and, later, a powerful vizier under Geikhatu, Gaykhatu, and Uljaitu. Rashid al-Din met his end as a result of court intrigue: he was executed in July 1318, accused of having poisoned Uljaitu. Fortunately, parts of his great work survived the subsequent plunder of his estate.