Unit 2: The Great Muslim Empires
Registan Square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan
While this square is in "fixed-up" condition, having been renovated by the Uzbek government in recent years, it may well have looked like this in the years of Timur-i leng, also known in the West as Tamerlane, the famous Turkic/Mongol ruler in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. This square was built in the 15th and 17th centuries, and includes a mosque (directly in front of you) and two universities (one on either side) as well as the large square in the center.
Under the dome above is a tomb of Timur's wife and sons. His own tomb is behind this and down the hill.. Obviously the Gur-e Amir has not been renovated and is showing its age. Timur died in 1405.
This module is a bit longer and more complicated than any of the others because its topics relate directly to your final long report on The Making of the Modern Middle East. So you will want to pay special attention to it, and then remember to come back to it when you begin writing your final essay.
Although this unit concerns "The Three Great Muslim Empires" - which were the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughul - it is important to know something about what tied them together besides being Muslim and contemporaries of each other. The rulers of all three considered themselves to be political and cultural, and in one case, biological, heirs of Timur-i leng and his Timurid Empire. So, while Timur and his empire existed in an era before the temporal beginning of this course, it's difficult to understand these empires without some knowledge of Timur. A brief examination of Timur will be followed by segments of this module concerning the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughuls - concentrating on their political organization and its connections to the architecture of government.
Timur and the Timurid Empire - and connections to the later "Great Muslim Empires"
Timur-i leng (Tamerlane)
This bust of Timur is likely an accurate representation, produced by the
Soviet artist and scientist, Mikhail Gerasimov, on the basis of an examination of Timur's remains in the 1940s.
Timur-i leng had the reputation in his own day, and after, as being extraordinarily brutal. While a patron of the arts, architects, artists, writers and poets, he also did not tolerate insubordination, and especially resistance to the process of his empire-building. Timur put together a very powerful army, with thousands of horses and horsemen. Horses were at the time very rare and expensive everywhere else in Eurasia. Timur was able to crush all opposition in Central Asia, Iran and the Arab world, and even the Ottoman empire (about which you will be reading in this unit).
He was buried in a large tomb in his capital, Samarqand (which today is in Uzbekistan), a view of which is seen below:
Comparing this image with that on this module's home page, you will notice that the ribbed dome in the background left in this image is the one in the center of that on the home page. So this tomb is "behind the other and down hill a bit." Timur was buried in an ebony casket (wooden, as required in both Islam and Judaism) which was set inside a huge jade sarcophagus. Around the sarcophagus was and is a long inscription in the Arabic alphabet, but written in a Turkish language, which threatens dire consequences on anyone foolish enough to open it and "mess with Timur's remains."
In the 1930s, Soviet archeologists and historians decided that they would open the sarcaphagus anyway because they were curious to examine Timur's remains. They hoped to find perhaps physical reasons for his brutal personality, such as a childhood injury to his head. And since his name, "leng" means in old Turkic "lame" they thought that his remains would show a reason for the lameness.
The archeologists removed the heavy jade lid of the sarcophagus and after examining the remains, did come to the conclusion that Timur's skull showed evidence of damage as a boy, and one leg was shorter than the other. But was this knowledge worth the cost? Just three days after the lid was removed, on June 24, 1941, the German Nazi army crossed the Soviet frontier from Poland, and thus began a war which produced more than 25,000,000 Soviet deaths.
Timur's empire was large and left important influences everywhere it governed. We will see in the subsequent three "Great Islamic Empires" that Timur's legacy was profound. Below, see a map of his empire at the time of his death. It incorporated not only Timur's capital of Samarqand and its neighbor Bukhara, but Baghdad, a great Arab city, and Isfahan, in Iran. It went as far east as the Indus River valley, in India.
Timur's palace and government were often in "movable" format - that is, tents which could be taken from place to place. This meant that his government would go with him! An ambassador from the Spanish monarchy visited Timur at one of these "tent capitals" and left a long account of what he saw. Click on Clavijo to see a small section of his report.
While none of the three empires followed Timur's lead with tents and movable capitals, and all came to be centered in big cities with large urban populations, all kept in mind their "roots" with Timur, his ancestor Ghengis Khan, and their Central Asian states. The rulers of all three liked the gardens and garden architecture which had been so important to Timur and to those who lived in the barren and arid regions of Central Asia. Gardens had to be carefully designed with their environment in mind, and all had to be fitted out with complicated irrigation systems. (This was not unlike the kind of care that people living in Arizona, Southern California, and Nevada, today must take with their gardens and vegetation.)
Suleyman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire
Suleyman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire
Suleyman the Magnificent
idealized portrait, in the famous
book produced in the Ottoman palace workshop,
the Suleymanname, (the book of Solomon/Suleyman) in
the 1540s, when he was at the "prime of life."
Suleyman the Magnificent, in a portrait more likely realistic,
from the last years of his life, possibly 1560, by the court
The Ottoman Empire was one of the longest lived empires the world has experienced, and covered a vast amount of territory. Today, more than 25 nations which are in the United Nations were at one time within the Ottoman Empire. And it was governed by a dynasty (family) with unbroken connections over 36 generations. The time of its founding is not known exactly, but is estimated to be about 1299 c.e. We do know the year of its collapse, though, as a result of its defeat in the First World War. The "Sultanate", the form of government of the empire, was abolished in 1923, and it was replaced by a republican form of government in Turkey. We will spend some time on its last years, and will focus on the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The change-over from Sultanate to Republic should be an ingredient in your final project, "The Making of the Modern Middle East".
On the map, below, you can examine the Ottoman Empire at its peak of power, during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificant, in the middle of the 16th century. (Suleyman was born four years before Columbus' first voyage.)
What do you notice about this map and the empire it portrays? (In this course, you will be asked periodically to learn from "historical maps" - which provide in visual form much important information about the past - if they are designed well.) On this map, you will notice, first, that different colors represent different times - when a particular area was conquered and absorbed by the empire. In order to know this, and to make best use of this map, you need to look carefully at the "key" in the lower left corner of the map. So we see that it began in almost the center of this map, near "Istanbul", though at the time, that city was called Constantinople. On this map, the last areas to be added to the empire, in darkest green, were conquered between 1566 and 1683: part of Arabia, Tunisia, lands along the Persian Gulf, and islands in the Mediterranean Sea, Crete and Cyprus.
Important segments of the empire are in Europe, in what is today Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Albania, all of the lands of the former Jugoslavia, sections of Poland and Ukraine. In the east, it included also all of Iraq, parts of Iran, and the rest of the Arab world. And of course, its "heartland" was Turkey in Asia Minor/Anatolia. There is an interesting web site on the Ottomans in the Balkans. When on that site, think about these questions:
- Why was Constantinople so important?
- Why was it so easy to defend?
- What did Constantinople mean to the Ottomans?
- In what ways did the city change when it became Istanbul?
- How were the Ottomans eventually able to capture the city?
This was a huge territory to govern - imagine in an age without electronic communication, and in which "news" and "information" travelled by foot or on horseback, or in sailing ships. The Ottomans, particularly under the rule of Suleyman, governed centrally from Istanbul, and within that very large city for the time, from Topkapi Palace.
An interesting web site on Suleyman gives you important information about him. You may be interested that this web site is hosted by a Jewish organization. The Ottoman government was very hospitable to Jews, and when the Christian monarchy of Spain in the latter part of the 15th century decided to "cleanse" Spain of all non-Christians, including large Jewish and Muslim communities, the Ottoman government invited the Spanish (Sephardic) Jews to immigrate to the Ottoman Empire. Thousands did so. As you read through that site, consider these questions:
- What titles is Suleyman known by? and Why?
- What is the "kanun"?
- What role did Suleyman play in European politics?
- Why is this Muslim leader so respected in the west?
An aerial photo of Topkapi Palace shows the main section where the government officials operated, and the Sultans and their families lived. During some reigns, more than 5,000 people lived in the palace. Meals were served on the world's largest collection of Ming China - brought by caravan from China across the famous "Silk Road" in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Suleyman was known as "The Magnificent" in Europe and is often called by that name in histories ever since. The authors of our textbook do so also. Note on pg. 757 the selection from the letters of the Hapbsburg Emperor's ambassador to Suleyman, Ghislain de Busbecq, for a good description of the sultan. Certainly Europeans would view such a ruler as "Magnificent." Others concentrated on the size and strength of his armies - he personally led the army on 13 major campaigns during his 46-year reign, both west towards and into Europe, and east towards and into the Iranian Safavid empire. If you look at the map in the textbook on pg. 755, you will see how these two Islamic empires bordered each other.
But it is interesting that the Ottomans did not call Suleyman "the Magnficent" but rather "Kanuni" which means the "Lawful" or "Law giver". This "nickname" originated from the understanding that Suleyman's government was very well staffed and supplied - and its systems of organization and operation were clear. It was known that his government seemed to have almost unlimited resources and from the perspectives of both east and west, the Ottomans were viewed as the "Superpower" of the day. This did not necessarily make it popular. As we know from modern times "superpowers" are more often than not disliked by the rest of the world.
One important aspect of Suleyman's reign - from 1520 until 1566 (it's useful for you to figure out what was happening in other parts of the world at this time - for example, with the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas!) - was the great effort he, and the rest of his family, including his wife and his daughter, and then some of his highest officials, made to build the city of Istanbul. Many very large mosques and other types of buildings were constructed during Suleyman's reign in Istanbul, and paid for by the royal family. Click on Suleyman's Istanbul for information on these buildings, and with it, on the other members of his family.
In addition to all of the architecture and military conquests, Suleyman and the Ottomans are also known for their contributions to Islamic culture specifically and world culture in general. Later in this module you can read more about Ottoman culture, in the section on book making and painting.
Shah Abbas and the Safavid Empire
Shah Abbas and the Safavid Empire
Although the Ottoman Empire was the longest lived of the three, beginning about 1290 and lasting until 1918, the Safavid Empire in Iran had perhaps the most important cultural and religious influence of all of the three. As you read in the textbook (recheck pp. 756-759), the Safavids also originally used the Turkish language, though they would within a hundred years adopt the language of the people they ruled, Persian.
Although this painting is not of the highest quality that the Safavids produced, it is ostensibly a portrait of Shah Abbas the Great and is located on a wall of one of his palace structures in his capital of Isfahan. Abbas inherited the Safavid state much as it would exist until its conquest by Afghan invaders in the 18th century. So, unlike Suleyman of the Ottomans, who devoted a lot of his energy and long reign to military campaigns and conquest, Abbas was much more interested in firming the base of this empire and concentrated on economic development and the establishment of Isfahan as his wealthy capital.
You can see on the map that Isfahan is pretty much in the center of his empire - which included large sections of what is today's Afghanistan. You also notice that this map is in French - and there will be more such maps on this syllabus, as the French historians are very skillful in creating such maps. The French call Isfahan "Ispahan". The long border with Afghanistan is likely one of the reasons that the Safavids in the end were overthrown by invaders from Afghanistan - people not speaking Persian who were tired of being ruled and exploited by a government far away. Abbas also ruled some of what is considered by some but not all to be a part of Iraq. Iranians today think the boundary between their two countries is not an historic one, but one imposed by the British after the First World War. We will of course come back to this issue at the time of the final report for this class. You can also see that Isfahan is on about the same latitude as is Baghdad just to its west. And even a cursory reading of international news demonstrates the important connection between Afghanistan and Iran today - which the new American administration would like to exploit if it can figure out how to communicate effectively with Iran's government!
Abbas' state was largely Shi'ite Muslim in contrast to the Sunni Islam of the two other great Islamic empires of the time; and it was situated between the two. At one time, the Ottomans even thought of capturing some of the land to the north of the Caspian Sea - and making land contact with the Mughal Empire in the East - so that the two Sunni states could crush between them the Shi'ite state of Abbas. We find some of that same conflict existing even today!
Isfahan is today, as it was then, a beautiful city, though at present it has the misfortune of being the location of one of Iran's major nuclear research centers, making it a potential military target should a war between Iran and others erupt. I hope that the city would survive however. Click on Abbas' Isfahan for information about what Abbas did to that city, to make it an important economic center in West Asia.
After examining that page, you might want to consider making a comparison between Isfahan and Istanbul in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Click on Revue de Teheran for access to the current issue of an important cultural magazine published in Iran. This is in French for those who can read French! There are interesting articles on history and art.
Akbar the Great and the Mughal Empire
Akbar the Great and the Mughul Empire
Although the Mughul Empire was the furthest east and furthest away from what we normally consider the Middle East, it was a very important Islamic empire in the late 16th to the middle of the 19th centuries. Remember that the Ottomans conquered non-Muslim lands and peoples for the most part - though they did also conquer the Arab lands which were certainly Muslim. And remember that the Safavids conquered entirely Muslim territories and established a new political system which required conversion from Sunni to Shi'ite Islam. The Mughuls established their empire in lands that had been under Muslim rule for more than 500 years. The great majority of the population that they ruled, however, was Hindu.
The greatest of their rulers was Akbar the Great though one of his successors, Shah Jahan, did construct one of the greatest buildings ever built in the world, the Taj Mahal! Be sure to read carefully pp. 759-762, and then throughout the rest of the chapter, as our authors present the Mughals in a very clear way.
Akbar the Great pursued a domestic religious policy of inclusion - for Muslims, Christians and Hindus. This was completely different from what his European contemporaries were doing in dealing with religious diversity - Henry VIII in England, Philip II of Spain, and several French catholic monarchs - all tried to enforce religious conformity at home - whether Protestant in England, or Catholic in France and Spain - and all did their best to make life difficult for non Christians in their realms. Akbar realized that he belonged to a minority religious community in the land he ruled - and came to the conclusion that it would be easier to govern if he treated the religious majority well - the Hindu population. There was also a small but powerful Christian minority that he included as well.
In his great palace in Delhi - the Red Fort - Akbar made it convenient for Hindus, Muslims and Christians to worship in their own houses of worship. He went so far as to take a wife from each of the main religious communities. Akbar, like his contemporary in Isfahan, Shah Abbas, was very interested in economic development and realized that trade with the outside world, China as well as Europe and the rest of the Islamic world, was essential to this economic prosperity. Of course India of Akbar was far larger and richer than the Iran of Abbas, and Akbar and his successors to the Mughal throne had enough resources to fund the building of many magnificent palaces, mosques, and especially tombs along with books and painting. In this regard, Akbar was more on the level of Suleyman in the Ottoman Empire so far as resources were concerned.
One very good offsite place to read a good short summary of the Mughal achievement - giving a somewhat different approach than the authors of our textbook, is at The Mughals. As you go over that site, consider the following questions:
- What made Akbar such a unique ruler? What were his personal views on religion?
- What difficulties did he have to overcome?
- What religion did Akbar create? How long did it last?
- What was Fatehpur Sikri?
Among other things, Fatehpur Sikri was an experiment which failed. Akbar, inheriting his family's Central Asian attitudes towards what the good life is, came to believe quickly that living in a big, busy, crowded, and dirty city was not to his liking, however magnificant his palace was in Agra's Red Fort (this was similar to but different from the Red Fort in Delhi). So he decided to build a new capital, quickly, out in the countryside, about 20 miles west of Agra. It did take five years to build, between 1569 and 1574. He picked this location because it was the burial place of a great Muslim "saint" who was supposedly responsible for the Mughals' ability to conquer India. Akbar called his palace city the site of victory, or Fatehpur Sikri. Once it was built, he moved his entire government there, much against the wishes of his officials - for it turned out that the bureaucrats and officials in the government preferred city to rural life. It would not be long before Akbar and those who lived in the new palace city discovered that the place did not have enough water to sustain so many people living in such luxury, demanding pools, baths, and gardens. And so, after a number of years of deprivation, the entire entourage returned to Agra and its Red Fort, abandoning Fatehpur Sikri and making it a "ghost palace." One of the unusual features of this palace is that its style is almost completely "Hindu" with virtually no "Islamic" characteristics. You can see that it bears little resemblance either to the palace in Istanbul of the Ottomans nor in Isfahan of the Safavids.
Today, the palace remains, empty, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is a beautiful place to visit, and to imagine what it must have been like to be inhabited by Akbar and his household and officials. You can click on Fatehpur Sikri to access UNESCO's explanation of the site and the need to preserve it.
One view of Fatehpur Sikri today - two buildings here
of about 15 total buildings. UNESCO does fund the
upkeep of the complex, and it is a popular tourist
attraction - I was there in November of 2006 and took these pictures.
Inside one of the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri, this red
sandstone column holds up a place for Akbar to stand
while he observes religious debates below. Akbar often
invited theologians from the major religious communities to
debate in public, important issues which appeared to divide them. Akbar loved to take part in these debates when he could.
As you look at the two photos from Akbar's Agra Red Fort, you can make a judgment about whether Akbar was right to want to be in the country or in the city. In my opinion, both look quite comfortable and neither seems to be in the midst of a crowded urban environment or in the open countryside! Yet he found Agra too "busy" and crowded and thus moved to Fatehpur Sikri. The Agra Fort was built between 1565 and 1573.
One of the exterior walls of Agra's Red Fort, at least today,
appears not to be in the midst of the busy city that does in
fact surround it. You an see why it was called the Red Fort,
made of sandstone inlaid with thin strips of white marble.
The white marble entrance pavilion to the throne room inside
Agra's Red Fort. The white marble is of the very hard type that
was used to build the Taj Mahal, and which is found in India only in the
vicinity of Agra. One does not see this building material anywhere
else in India.
The main palace home of all of the rest of the Mughal emperors, from Shah Jahan to the very last one who was overthrown by the British in 1857, was the Red Fort in Delhi. Unfortunately much of its interior, its beautiful pavilions and gardens, was destroyed by the British during the great "mutiny" in 1857, which we will look at in one of the later units, but you can get a sense of its grandeur from the exterior photo below. It was built between 1638 and 1648 by Shah Jahan and was called Shahjahanabad, or the "city of Shah Jahan." It has eight sides and its wall is 1.5 miles long and varies in height from 60 ft on the river side to 110 ft towards the city, and is the wall seen in the photo below.
The Mughals are today especially known for their investment in huge and beautiful funerary monuments - much more so than the Ottomans. Emperor Babur's was the smallest and least overwhelming. Humayun's was very large and set a new standard.
Babur's tomb, recently reconstructed, located about 15 miles east of Kabul, Afghanistan. It is quite "simple" in contrast to the other Mughal tombs. The tomb enclosure, above, was built around his simple grave between 1607 and 1639. But Babur had wanted "a modest grave open to the sky" and this wish was fulfilled when his body was moved from Agra to one of his favorite gardens outside of Kabul.
Mausoleum of Humayun, located in Delhi, India. Built between 1562 and 1572, this was the first example of a very large Mughal building and would become a model for many others to be built later. The sky in this picture appears grey - but it is smog, alas. The architects of this building were imported from Safavid Iran and although the two states were competitors and occasionally enemies, both the Ottomans and the Mughals viewed the Iranians as cultural superiors.
Emperor Akbar began the design and actual construction of his tomb while alive in 1604, though it was completed ten years later under the patronage of Shah Jahangir. Below on the left see Akbar's tomb from the front, and on the right a detail of the entrance. This tomb was intended to be the most magnificant of all Mughal tombs, just what Akbar the Great "deserved."
The tomb is not in Agra itself but in Sikandra, in the countryside and in another favorite Mughal garden. While the water courses in the centers of the walkways no longer carry water (though M.I.T. in Boston is planning to work on restoring the water flows), they were meant to represent the rivers of Paradise. The fine marble work on the entranceways is similar to that on the more famous Taj Mahal.
The last tomb/mausoleum that we include in this module is the most famous one, the Taj Mahal. An Englishman who saw it in the early 1800s remarked when he returned to England that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who have not seen the Taj Mahal and those who have!. This is a bit like the attitude of natives of Isfahan who say that Isfahan is half the world.
It was built by Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife Arjumand Banu Begam, who is sometimes known as Mumtaz Mahal, and who died in 1631. It stands at one side of a huge garden which Shah Jahan intended to represent Paradise, the place of repose for his beloved wife. It was built over a 16 year period, between 1632 and 1648. From a distance, as below left, the detail of the marble work, with its inlaid calligraphy and the carved sections with vegetal motifs cannot be seen - it looks entirely white. Up close, though, as below right, you can see the Persian calligraphy around the window frame and the carved segments everywhere else.
Now that you have examined, however briefly, the sorts of places in which the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals lived - at least their royalty if not the common people! - you can come to some decision about their differences and similarities. And keep all of this in mind when you begin to work on your final paper - these are the "historical memories" that Middle Easterners retained as they lived under European colonial rule.
Painting and Book Making in the Three Great Islamic Empires - Politics and Art
Painting and Bookmaking in the Three Great Islamic Empires
Ottoman book making and painting, funded by the sultans, began pretty much with the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent. However, we know of one very famous portrait painted of an Ottoman sultan before Suleyman, the portrait of Mehmet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople. Mehmet II was an admirer of European culture and especially painting, and hired one of Italy's best known Renaissance painters, Gentille Bellini, to come to his palace and paint his portrait, and while there, to offer painting classes to members of Mehmet's court. The portrait he completed is currently in Topkapi Palace collection, though there is also a copy of the painting in London.
You can see that this portrait is in profile, unusual for portrayals in Islamic art, but common in Roman times. Mehmet did claim to be the new Roman Emperor, having captured Constantinople which had been the Roman capital since the middle of the 4th century C.E.
In a recent novel, Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, wrote about painting and its political and cultural importance in the Ottoman Empire in the years after Suleyman the Magnificent: My Name is Red, which is a wonderful read if you have the time and can find a copy in paperback.
It was during the time of Suleyman that Ottoman bookmaking and painting became almost as important a cultural phenomenon as was the construction of huge buildings in the capital city. Suleyman's father, Selim I, had defeated the first Safavid Shah, Ismail, and had taken his capital of Tabriz and held it for a short time. As was the custom of the day, Selim felt entitled to some Safavid booty to take back with him and the booty he chose was artists and bookmakers, not gold and silver! From Tabriz Selim brought back more than 150 such artists to Istanbul and created a large and well funded bookmaking and painting workshop just next to his palace. It would be this workshop that would be the subject of Pamuk's novel, and it was this workshop which produced the most important Ottoman books and paintings.
One of the first really important such books produced for the Ottoman sultans was the Suleyman nama, or Book of Suleyman. It tells the history of his reign, of course emphasizing all of his achievements and ignoring any possible failures. This is, we know, typical of "official" histories and biographies of poitical figures and political developments. On the left, below, Sultan Suleyman in his Topkapi Palace discusses military policy with his admiral, Barbaros, who was a brilliant naval strategist and whom Suleyman found in his North African provinces. Barbaros had been a "privateer", one who attacked European shipping in the region around Algeria and Tunisia. On the right is an illustration of the section in the book which covers an Ottoman naval assault on Nice, a southern French sea port. If you look closely at the ships, you will see that the Ottomans used a combination of galleys (with human power) and sailing vessels with the famous Arab triangular sails. These permitted the ships to sail "into the wind" as any of you who sail in sloops today well know! European ships still used mainly the four-sided sails which gave much power with the wind, but almost no capability to tack into the wind.
This book, and all of the others produced in the palace workshops, was done individually - that is, only one copy was produced. Each illustration was a full-page painting and all of the text was written by master calligraphers. Thus, this book was not meant for a wider public - as only one person could read it at a time.
Books in Europe, before the advent of the printing press at the time of Mehmed II, in the mid-fifteenth century, were also done individually and "by hand" - thus the term "manuscript" - written by hand. In the Islamic world, printing did not appear until much later - in the mid-18th century. There were many reasons for this. First, and most important probably, was the role that the calligraphers played - printing would put them all out of work! So they lobbied long and hard against the introduction of technological advances. (I remember the time when auto makers were beginning to introduce robots in the work place - and labor unions lobbied long and hard against them.) Second, and the public reason given for prohibiting the printing of Arabic script was that this script had sacred meaning - the language and script of the Qur'an.
It is important to note that this Ottoman book, and many others, concerned contemporary Ottoman politics, foreign affairs, and the lives of the current sultan and his household. The Safavids, below, were more interested in portraying the glories of the supposed Iranian past - and they did have their famous book, the Shah nama, or Book of Kings, written by the Iranian poet Ferdawsi in the 10th century C.E.
One other specialty, in the cultural sphere, of the Ottomans was their interest in and support of science. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultan appointed Taqi al-Din Mohammed ibn Ma'ruf, who had written a number of books on astronomy, as chief-astronomer and funded the building of a large observatory. It consisted of two buildings high on a hill overlooking the capital city from which the viewers had unobstructed views of the night sky. Taqi al-Din designed and had built a number of complicated instruments which could measure the position and speed of the planets. Click on Taqi al Din to access an interesting web site which allows for comparison between this Ottoman astronomer and his Danish counterpart, Tycho Brahe, one of whose instruments is displayed on the first page of Unit 1's module in this course.
Finally, the Ottomans perfected the art of beautifully painted ceramics, using some of the techniques that they learned from China. The Sultans loved Ming chinaware which they imported in huge quantities, by caravan across the long Silk Road directly from China. Today, the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul contains the world's largest collection of Ming chinaware outside of China - the "dinnerware" for the thousands of diners served daily in the palace. Ottoman ceramicists worked primarily in the small town of Iznik (which was originally, in early Byzantine times, known as Nicaea, where one of the early Christian church councils was held). Below are two examples of this work, from the time of Suleyman, now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The Safavid Iranians excelled in the writing of poetry, the making of books with illustrations, and the production of spectacular carpets. Perhaps the finest example of bookmaking in the Islamic world of that time was the great illustrated Shah nama produced for the Safavid Shah Tahmasp in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It was an illustrated edition of Iran's greatest literary work, the Shahnama of the poet Ferdausi, written in the 10th century c.e. It required more than 5 years, dozens of craftsmen, calligraphers and painters to produce and was long considered one of the "wonders of the world." Unfortunately, an American businessman was able to buy this great book in the 1950s and in time decided to cut it up so that he could sell each painting individually. Some of the paintings brought more than $1 million each! As a result, it is no longer a single work of art, but one in pieces. Below, one of the paintings of this book, which illustrates one of the
stories from Firdawsi's epic. This page is one of the several which now belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A second form of artistic production for which the Safavids were famous, and one that they actually used to further their economic development, was the manufacture of hand woven wool carpets. Shah Abbas vigorously encouraged this activity, and as we mentioned in the section in this module on the Safavids, developed close relationships with the Armenian community near Isfahan to market these carpets in Europe. We know that Armenian communities all over the world continue, even today, to specialize in the marketing of "oriental" carpets, often from Iran. The greatest of all of these carpets is known as the Ardabil carpet which one can see today in London at the Victoria and Albert museum. Below are two illustrations of this carpet: on the left, a detail of its pattern and on the right, a group of museum specialists figuring out how to display this carpet for museum visitors. It is so huge, that it can't easily be flat on the ground for viewing, and to hang it on a wall is risky for its great weight could cause it rip loose from its hangers. But they did design a good and safe way to show it. Its dimensions are 553.5 cm wide and 1051.5 cm long!
Both Babur and Akbar, Mughal emperors, had accounts of their lives written by court historians. Babur’s was “The Book of Babur” or Baburnama and Akbar’s was “The Book of Akbar” or Akbarnama. These were similar in form to “The Book of Suleyman” or Suleymannama produced in the Ottoman palace. Suleyman’s book also was written by an official court historian. As we saw in the section on Ottoman arts, at least one huge copy of Suleyman’s book was produced with paintings.
The Akbarnama also was produced in at least one copy with paintings. Of course we have to remember that these books were all hand made – from the paper and covers to the writing and the illustrations. The great books cost fortunes to make and only the greatest rulers had the resources to fund them. It is interesting that at this time, in all three of these empires, book making was considered an essential element of rulership. Books offered ways to present themselves, their ideas and ideology, and importance to themselves and only their closest followers. We say this because few people would ever see the great books, there being only one copy of each! You might compare this practice with the current one of using television "sound bites" viewed by millions!
Above is a folio from the Akbarnama showing Akbar returning to his palace at Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar is in yellow in the upper right riding on his imperial elephant. His army commanders are returning with him and the servants in the palace are welcoming their arrival.
Here the Emperor Akbar, in white, is riding an elephant which has become "deranged." It demonstrates Akbar's great courage and skill.
His Akbarnama was written between 1590 and 1596 – taking six years to make! At least 49 different painters took part in making its illustrations. The book remained in the library of the Mughal emperors until the great “Mutiny” of 1857, after which the British gained complete control of India. Major-General John Clarke, who was Commissioner of one of the Mughal provinces after British control was established, gained “ownership” of the book somehow and his widow sold it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1896 where it now resides.
Akbar also funded the production of a great illustrated copy of the Hamza nama, which is based on the character of Amir Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who became the hero of popular legends and stories. In the Hamza nama, he was portrayed as a brave warrior who travelled all over the world to spread Islam, in the process of which he ran into giants, demons and other strange beings which made for wonderfully creative illustrations. Below are three views from Akbar's copy of this book, currently owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the left is one of the great "demons" that Hamza overcame.
Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan, the patron of the Taj Mahal built to house the remains of his beloved wife, was also interested in book making and painting. Akbar’s son and Shah Jahan’s father, Jahangir, had a history of his life and reign written too, the Jahangir nama, which Shah Jahan had produced in a grand copy with many paintings. Below is one of these paintings, in the collection of the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which shows Jahangir holding a globe. Almost all of the Mughal emperors who had their portraits painted preferred to have a side view. The explanation is twofold: everyone else is so far beneath the emperor in status that it was improper for their eyes to meet; and secondly, it was discovered that the great Roman emperors had used only profiles on Roman coinage for much the same reason. People "holding" an image of an emperor should not be able "to look into his eyes"! Recall the position that the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II took in his portrait, in the section on Ottoman arts, above.
Now that you have gotten a very brief "taste" of the cultural production supported by the Sultans and Shahs and Emperors of the Islamic empires, you may want to consider the role of "art" in the political ideology of the time, and how the governments used art to further their political goals.
As a reminder, as you finish this unit, please remember that the long writing assignment for HST 150, is on "The Making of the Modern Middle East." Some of the information you will need for that assignment will be found in this unit, so try to remember what you've learned here! Bernard Lewis, who has written many important books on the history of the Middle East, and whose recent book has been a "best seller", titled What Went Wrong?, has said that the major problem for the Middle East today is that it has "too much history"! Everyone living there, in whatever country, knows a great deal of history, and believes that the past does truly control the present. Since almost all of the Middle Eastern countries were at one time or another part of one of these three empires, their histories remain very important in that part of the world.