Hayley Segall: Art as Power and Identity in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires

During the 16th century, Islamic Empires expanded and flourished throughout Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. The three most prominent Islamic Empires (the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, and the Mughal Empire) ranged in their territorial vastness and length of reign. The Ottoman Empire is viewed as the largest and longest lasting Muslim Empire as it maintained power from 1300-1922 and covered entire portions of the Middle East and Europe[1]. The Safavid Empire was the smallest and shortest living empire lasting only in the Iranian plateau from 1501-1722[2]. That being said, the Safavid Empire deserves its title as a successful Muslim Empire due to its ability to resist Ottoman and Uzbek incursions throughout its existence[3]. Finally, the Mughal Empire covered an extensive territory covering large parts of modern day India and Pakistan from 1526-1857[4].  The Empire became most well-known for its vast territory and religious tolerance and syncretic structure under Akbar Shah[5]. Despite their differences, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires shared important characteristics reflecting similar cultural values. All three empires enjoyed and elevated the production of art as a symbol of identity and power and as a reflection of the diverse populations and cultural conversations occurring within their territories.

Art under each empire varied in its style and expression, yet most reflected strong Islamic influence as it interacted with its surroundings. In the Ottoman Empire, European architecture and styles meshed with traditional Islamic artistic frames to create impressive buildings and designs. Perhaps most well-known is the reconstruction of the Santa Sophia, or Hagia Sophia built as a Greek-Orthodox Church in 537 c.e.[6] . After the Ottoman Empire absorbed Constantinople, the church was completely redesigned to emulate Islamic images and beliefs to create one of the grandest mosques to exist. Images and murals of idolatry were replaced by traditional Muslim designs and symbols[7]. The adaptation of the historical space reflects a common pattern of Muslim adaptation of spaces. Within the Mughal Empire, Hindu Temples were often converted into Mosques and back again into Hindu Temples; the battle over spiritual spaces and the designs of such spaces is an issue that remains pertinent today, especially in South Asia[8].  Countless other great mosque complexes were built by the Ottomans themselves: Fatih Jami, Sulyamaniyyah, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Selimiyyah in Edirne[9]. The ability of Ottoman art to exist so prominently in its infrastructure and institutions reflects its longstanding presence and power in the global sphere.

Despite its noticeably shorter lifespan and smaller territorial reach, the Safavid Empire was perhaps the most artistically rich Muslim Empire during the 16th century. The empire was known for its freedom of art and non-minimalistic style, as opposed to the 10th and 11th centuries in which freedom of knowledge and academia superseded artistic expression[10]. Much of the artistic flourishing is a direct reflection of the Shahs leading and sculpting the empire. Shah Tahmasb was the first ruler of the empire that defeated the Ottoman armies four separate times. Yet, the Shah did not come from a militaristic background; rather, Shah Tahmasb was a painter and ascetic whose patronage of the artistic world carried down through the ruling generations[11].  His grandson and the greatest Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas (1588-1629), was known for his affinity towards the creation and celebration of fine art; he was known for having held candle so that his favorite calligrapher could complete his work[12].  Professor Mahallati often points to the artistic elevation of calligraphy within the Muslim world, thus implying that art is a means of communication or language, a pattern that is evidenced through the designs of mosques and paintings throughout all three empires and into the modern day[13]. Further, the elevation of Islamic art through the personal values of the Safavid leaders suggests a distinctive type of rule and identity building deriving from an artistic, spiritual connection.

The Mughal Empire produced a mixture of the manifestations of art discussed in the Ottoman and Safavid Empire. As discussed earlier, art and possession over spiritual sites produced conflict as over 2000 mosques converted into and back from Hindu temples, thus requiring constant reconstruction of artistic designs[14]. Like the Ottoman Empire, the Mughals produced grand architectural structures. The most famous, and an undisputed wonder of the world, is the Taj Mahal, which was constructed in 1630 as a memorial to Arjoman Banu, the wife of a Shah who died in the birth of their fourteenth child[15]. As discussed in class, this serves as an artistic demonstration a love story; further, the Taj Mahal serves as an interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue in which the design and function appeals to both the Hindu and Muslim identities of the region. Additionally, the prevalence of women as not only as inspiration but also as constructors of art and literature in Mughal society exhibits the status and strength of women in the region and Muslim societies.  The inclusion of women in the artistic world carried into women serving as rulers and political influencers within the Empire, a societal acceptance that has persisted into modern day India and Pakistan. In addition to the artistic manifestations of architecture, the Mughal Empire excelled in its ability to create portraits, Indian miniatures, as well as intricate jewelry; the Mughal style was reflective of Indian artistic romanticism[16]. The richness of Mughal art resonates with the Safavid non-minimalistic approach.

Artistic expression and design within the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires reflects newly adjusted values, as opposed to the academically-focused cultures of the 10th and 11th centuries. Each empire carried its own unique style as reflective of their differing populations and histories. The Ottoman Empire interacted directly with “millets”, or minority and non-Sunni communities, ranging from Greek Orthodox to Jewish to Armenian[17]. The Safavids maintained relationships with the Lebanese and French and despite its strong Muslim identity, attempted to import Christians to its capital[18]. The Mughal Empire infused Muslim and Hindu influences in a way that is still prevalent and highly debated into modern day. Each manifestation of art is conversation between Islam/Islamic culture and its surrounding faiths and backgrounds.

 

 

[1] Mahallati, Jafar. The Ottoman Empire. Lecture. 23 October 2017.

[2] Stuesand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Boulder; Westview Press; 2011). Pg 135-37.

[3] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.

[4] Stuesand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Boulder; Westview Press; 2011). Pg 201.

[5] Mahallati, Jafar. The Mughal Empire. Lecture 27 October 2017.

[6] Mahallati, Jafar. The Ottoman Empire. Lecture. 23 October 2017.

[7] Mahallati, Jafar. The Ottoman Empire. Lecture. 23 October 2017.

[8] Mahallati, Jafar. The Mughal Empire. Lecture 27 October 2017

[9] Stuesand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Boulder; Westview Press; 2011). Pg 117.

[10] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.

[11] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.

[12] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.

[13] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.

[14] Mahallati, Jafar. The Mughal Empire. Lecture 27 October 2017

[15] Mahallati, Jafar. The Mughal Empire. Lecture 27 October 2017

[16] Mahallati, Jafar. The Mughal Empire. Lecture 27 October 2017

[17] Stuesand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Boulder; Westview Press; 2011). Pg 31.

[18] Mahallati, Jafar. Safavid Empire. Lecture. 25 October 2017.