ĀL TAMḠĀ “red seal,” Turkish term for the supreme seal of the Mongol Il-Khans of Iran. The term also meant “document with a red seal.” Before the Mongol conquest, e.g., in Saljuq and Ḵᵛārazmšāh administration, there occur the terms tawqīʿ (equivalent to ṭoḡrā “emblem” of the ruler) and mohr “seal” (in documents from subordinate officials; H. Horst, Die Staatsverwaltung der Grosselğūqen und Ḫorazmšāhs [1038-1231], Wiesbaden, 1964). After the Il-Khans gave the red seal significance in Iran, it was used by some later dynasties, e.g., the Jalayerids; it was also found in the territory of the Golden Horde, among the Timurids, and, according to Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, in India—i.e., throughout the western half of the Mongol realm (Doerfer, Elemente II, pp. 555-60, 563). The red seal undoubtedly derives from the chancellery practice of the Uighur Turks, from whom the Mongols took their script along with other cultural borrowings. The use of red or black seals derives ultimately from Chinese practice (see M. Weiers, “Mongolische Reisebegleitschreiben aus Čaγatai,” Zentralasiatische Studien 1, 1967, p. 32).

Turkish āl “warm red” (shading into orange or coral) contrasts with qïzïl “cold, dull red” (shading into violet). In modern usage āl denotes the Turkish flag, blood, and cheek; qïzïl means red gold, fire, scarlet fever, and red clover (I. Laude-Cirtautas, Der Gebrauch der Farbbezeichnungen im Türkischen, Wiesbaden, 1961, pp. 50-59). Arabic sources (Maḥmūd Kāšḡarī, 5th/11th cent., and Mamluk sources, 8th/14th cent.) confirm this contrast. The tamḡā “mark of ownership” originally identified the communal property of a kinship group or tribe. It occurred chiefly as a cattle brand but also on such objects as vases; it was also scratched on stones bearing inscriptions. It contrasted with the ṭoḡrā (Middle Turkish tuḡraḡ), an individual’s symbol (later often represented by a device of reign, valid for the respective ruler). After the Turks acquired a chancellery practice, tamḡā came to mean “the stamping of a document as the ruler’s property,” hence “originating from the ruler,” hence “seal.”

In the Mongol period āl tamḡās were square or at least four-sided (see Mostaert and Cleaves, “Documents,” plates). Ḡāzān (694-703/1295-1304) wanted to introduce round seals on the grounds that this shape is the most perfect (Rašīd-al-dīn, Geschichte Ġāzān-Ḫān’s, ed. K. Jahn, London, 1940, p. 96). This practice eventually was adopted. The oldest round seal, that of the Jalayerid Solṭān Ḥosayn, dates to 780/1378 (Herrmann, “Solṭān Ḥoseyn,” p. 153; idem, “Qara Yūsof,” p. 237). Subsequent Timurid seals were round (Herrmann, “Urkunden-Funde,” p. 259).

The oldest red seals were inscribed in Mongolian or Chinese. The text conveyed the ruler’s supreme power. The seal in Mongolian on Küyüg’s letter to Pope Innocent IV, dated 1246, reads: “(Relying) on the power of everlasting heaven. An edict of the sea monarch [i.e., ruler of all the lands surrounded by the Great Ocean] of the great Mongolian people. If it comes into the hands of subjugated or rebellious nations, let them honor and fear it” (Mostaert and Cleaves, “Documents,” pp. 485-95, pl. VIII; see also P. Pelliot, “Les mongols et la papauté,” Revue de l’Orient Chrétien 23, 1922-23, pp. 3-30). Three sealings inscribed in Chinese have been found, belonging to (1) Arḡūn and Abaqa (1267 or 1279, Tehran document II), (2) Ḡāzān (1302), (3) Olǰāytū (1305) and Abū Saʿīd (720/1320; for these see Mostaert and Cleaves, plates). Thus rulers had different seals but also used earlier seals.

Abū Saʿīd had seals with an Arabic inscription (725/1325); this practice was also followed by Šayḵ Oways (759/1358, 773/1372), Sultan Ḥosayn (780/1378), the Timurids, and the Golden Horde. Arabic inscriptions occur already on the seal impressions of the Mongol-period Persian documents from Ardabīl (under study by G. Herrmann).

The āl tamḡā is not mentioned in the Great Khanate (China and Mongolia); yet it was used and bore Chinese characters (see, e.g., N. Poppe, The Mongolian Monuments in ḥP’ags-pa Script, 2nd ed., Wiesbaden, 1957, texts nos. 5 and 6). In the east, the term nišan “signature mark, cipher” (a borrowing of Persian nešān) seems equivalent to āl tamḡā. Prince Hindu was awarded a qas nišan “jade seal,” where an Iranian dignitary would have received a tamḡā (F. W. Cleaves, “The Sino-Mongolian Inscription of 1362 in Memory of Prince Hindu,” HJAS 12, 1949, pp. 1-133). Maḥmūd Kāšḡarī refers to the tamḡā as a “seal of the ruler and others” and, by implication, as a brand used by the twenty-two descendants of the legendary Oḡuz Khan; Rašīd-al-dīn employs tamḡā in the same context (Doerfer, Elemente II, pp. 554, 556). Other Persian sources use tamḡā to mean “seal” or a particular tax.

The evidence for usage in the Ulus Čaḡatay is difficult to interpret. Nišan is used, apparently with the same sense as tamḡā in Persian; e.g., Mongolian al nišantu, qara nišantu, and altan nišan correspond to āl tamḡā, qara tamḡā, and altūn tamḡā. Chancellery practice in east and west also was parallel; the phrase al nišatu bičig “document with a red nišan” is found in letters of appointment or documents bestowing property (cf. below); other documents refer to themselves as merely nišatu bičig.

The Golden Horde used the term āl tamḡā. The tarḵān decrees (exemptions from taxation; see Doerfer, Elemente II, pp. 460-74) contain such phrases as: “a decree with a red seal” (Toḵtamiš), “a decree with a red seal and golden cipher” (Saadet-Girey), and “a decree with a golden cipher and a red seal” (Ḥāǰǰī Girey). (See, e.g., W. Hinz, “Zwei Steuerbefreiungsurkunden,” Documenta Islamica Inedita, Berlin, 1952, pp. 211-20).

The Mongol rulers of the 7th-8th/13th-14th centuries used the red seal, and the term āl tamḡā is often attested; the earliest mention is apparently by Jovaynī for the year 617/1220, in Genghis Khan’s reign (ibid., II, p. 556). The red seal was kept in a secret compartment. Originally secretaries (bitikči) had access to it besides the ruler, but from the time of Ḡāzān on it was apparently reserved for the ruler (ibid., II, pp. 264-67, 556; Lech, Weltreich, p. 341). When the vizier or senior amirs such as Čoban used it, they did so in the ruler’s name, at least officially, as is shown by the Ardabīl records (see also Doerfer, Elemente II, pp. 556-60). The seal was impressed on documents by the aḷčī “users of the red seal” (see description of the procedure in Lech, Weltreich, p. 158, and nn. 150, 151; Mostaert and Cleaves, “Documents,” pp. 479-82). According to Rašīd-al-dīn, Ḡāzān ordained two kinds of red seal—the “great jasper seal” and a smaller one for lesser officials (“judges, imams, and shaikhs”). According to Herrmann the Ardabīl records show that Olǰāytū had several seals of different sizes.

The seal would be affixed to the join between two sheets, to show they belonged together, and probably also at the bottom of the page on the left or toward the center (in the Il-khan period Mongol script customarily was written right to left as on Küyüg’s letter). According to Lech, however, the ruler’s seal was placed bottom right (Weltreich, pp. 344-45; cf. Herrmann, “Erlass des Šeyḫ Oveys,” p. 34, n. 139). As a safeguard, the text of the sealed document specified that an āl tamḡā was used. The Mongolian Tehran fragment and a 720/1320 edict of Abū Saʿīd use the phrase āl tamḡatay jarliḡ “decree with a red seal” (P. Pelliot, “Les documents mongols du Musée de Téhéran,” Āthār-é Īrān 1, 1936, pp. 37-44; F. W. Cleaves, “The Mongolian Documents in the Musée de Téhéran,” HJAS 16, 1953, pp. 1-107). Cf. simply bičig “communication” in the travel permit of Abaqa (1267 or 1279) and in letters to foreign rulers from Arḡūn (1289), Ḡāzān (1302), and Olǰāytū (1305).

The Mongol period sources also refer to a green-blue seal (kōk tamḡā), black seal (qara tamḡā), and golden seal (altūn tamḡā). The most important contrast was between the red and the golden. The golden seal was used almost exclusively for financial or fiscal edicts. The red seal was used for documents with broader administrative import, for instance, appointments (e.g., of a provincial governor), but also for personal transactions, perhaps as a special favor. Rašīd-al-dīn, in recounting Ḡāzān’s reform in the use of the seals (ed. A. K. Arends, Baku, 1957, III, p. 501), names the yašm (apparently red carnelian) seals before the altūn seals. The red seals, he says, were reserved for the most important affairs of state. When an overlap occurred between functions of the red and the golden seal, the red was used (Herrmann, “Erlass des . . . Šeyḫ Oveys,” p. 43). Letters of appointment naming a stipend received the red seal. And Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšānī complained about Rašīd-al-dīn, “with whose red seal and deeds of assignment everybody’s possessions are confiscated” (Doerfer, Elemente II, p. 558). The red seal’s epithet (mobārak) is apparently more elevated than that of the golden (homāyūn; Jovaynī, I, p. 211; Rašīd-al-dīn, Geschichte Ġāzān-Ḫān’s, p. 223).

The Timurids continued much of Mongol tradition, but they used the āl tamḡā only on solemn occasions (Herrmann, “Urkunden-Funde,” p. 259). Probably only the ruler employed it; it is mentioned for the year 839/1436 in connection with Šāhroḵ (Doerfer, Elemente II, p. 560). Timurid sources chiefly show a transition to the practice which would be used by the Turkmans and the early Safavids: The ruler’s documents bore only the ṭawqīʿ seal (L. Fekete, “Einführung in die persische Paläographie,” 101 persische Dokumente, ed. G. Hazai, Budapest, 1977, pp. 64, 74; for the Turkmans and later see p. 196 and H. Busse, Untersuchungen zum islamischen Kanzleiwesen an Hand türkmenischer und safawidischer Urkunden, Cairo, 1957, nos. 1-4). A 1017/1609 document of ʿAbbās I bears the term mohr for “seal,” which occurs regularly thereafter (ibid., p. 185). 


F. W. Cleaves, “Chancellery Practice of the Mongols in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” HJAS 14, 1951, pp. 493-526.

G. Doerfer, Türkische und mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen, 4 vols., Wiesbaden; 1963-75; see especially II, pp. 94-95, 115, 264-67, 517, 532, 554-65, 718, 933.

Idem, “Mongolica aus Ardebil,” Zentralasiatische Studien 9, 1975, pp. 187-264.

G. Herrmann, “Urkunde-Funde in Āẕarbāyğān,” AMI 4, 1971, pp. 249-62, pl. 46-51.

Idem, “Ein Erlass des Ğalāyeriden Solṭān Ḥoseyn aus dem Jahr 780/1378,” Göttinger Orientforschungen, I.3.I, ed. G. Wiessner, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 135-63.

Idem, “Ein persisch-mongolischer Erlass des Ğalāyeriden Šeyḫ Oveys,” Central Asiatic Journal 19, 1975, pp. 1-54.

Idem, “Ein persisch-mongolischer Erlass dem Jahre 725/1325,” ZDMG 125, 1975, pp. 317-35.

Idem, “Ein Erlass von Qara Yūsof zugunsten des Ordens von Ardebīl,” AMI 9, 1976, pp. 225-42, pl. 49-52.

W. Hinz, “Die persische Geheimkanzlei im Mittelalter,” Westöstliche Abhandlungen (Rudolf-Tschudi-Festschrift), Wiesbaden, 1954, pp. 342-55.

K. Lech, Das Mongolische Weltreich. Al-ʿUmarī’s Darstellung der mongolischen Reiche in seinem Werk Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, Wiesbaden, 1968, pp. 341-45.

L. Ligeti, “Deux tablettes de T’ai-tsong des Ts’ing,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica 8, 1958, pp. 213-14.

Idem, Monuments préclassiques. l. XIIIe et XIVe siècles. Indices verborum linguae Mongolicae monumentis traditorum II, Budapest, 1972, pp. 302-49.

A. Mostaert and F. M. Cleaves, “Trois documents mongols des archives secrètes vaticanes,” HJAS 15, 1952, pp. 430-45.

Idem, Les lettres de 1289 et 1305 des ilkhan Aṛγun et Ölǰeitü à Philippe le Bel, Cambridge, Mass., 1962, pp. 17-54, pl. I-VI.

(G. Doerfer)

Originally Published: December 15, 1984

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 766-768

Cite this entry:

G. Doerfer, “Al Tamga,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/7, pp. 766-768; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/al-tamga-red-seal (accessed on 14 May 2014).