Jorge Kalil: Alike in Origin and Expression

The 16th century was a flourishing period for the European continent; Portuguese explorers had rounded the tip of Africa, Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Incan empire, and Europe was well into its cultural renaissance. Things were no different for the Muslim world to the East, which experienced the rise of three great empires that thrived up until European colonization in the late 18th century. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires came into existence and reinstated the period of Muslim expansion that was interrupted by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. Together these three empires covered a good portion of Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. While they were vastly different in their religious identity and politics, the three empires did share a few important characteristics, mainly their Turkic origins and their use of art as the primary form of expression.

Most astonishing about the three empires was their sudden appearance during the early 16th century and their origins in the Turkic Oghuz tribe in Central Asia. In 1453, Turkic warriors conquered Constantinople, ending eleven centuries of Byzantine rule, and paving the way for Muslim expansion into southern Europe under the Ottoman Empire (Brown, 2017). The Ottomans were the largest and longest lasting of the three empires, existing until 1922, and were comprised of both Muslims and Christians. To the East, in modern day Iran, a Turkic leader of a Shi’ite Sufi order, Ismai’il, conquered Tabriz, and founded the Safavid empire in 1501 (Streusand, 2011). This was the shortest lived of the three empires and the smallest in geographic size and population. However, they deserve recognition for resisting four Ottoman invasions under Shah Tahmasb. Unlike the Ottomans they used Shi’ism as the identity of the new dynasty. Finally, to the southeast, in 1526, Babur, a Turkic descendant of the Mongol conqueror Timur, defeated Muslim rulers of Delhi and essentially created the Mughal empire which was characterized by impressive syncretism between Islam and Hinduism as well as religious tolerance that contributed to the “turko-persian-hindu-mongolian” (Mahallati, 2017) elements of its culture. If one were to look at a snapshot in time from the 17th century it would be hard to believe that these three empires were rooted in the same Turkic tribe and in a strong Sufi tradition, but they were.

Perhaps even more outstanding was the three empires artistic output, which differed in style but served as the main form of expression for their peoples. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century ruptured the belief that God would support the expansion of Islam no matter what, shaking up the Muslim world to its core and disrupting the cycle of scientific innovation and geographic expansion that Muslims experienced during the 10th and 11th centuries.  The rise of the 3 great empires, however, ushered a new period of Muslim domination and cultural contributions that was this time tremendously productive in the arts- particularly literature and architecture- as opposed to the sciences (Mahallati, 2017). A good part of Muslim architecture that is still around today came from this period, as well as much of the well-known Sufi literature, including the great poet Rumi.

Given its geographic location and mixed religious identity, the Ottoman empire was greatly influenced by European art to the West. One amazing example is Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine church that was converted to a Mosque and is to this day one of the most revered buildings in Turkey (Streusand, 2011). This is quite similar to what was happening in the Mughal empire, which was converting Hindu temples into Mosques and creating new masterpieces that used aspects from both cultures. The Taj Mahal, for example, while not a converted Hindu temple turned mosque, is a great “architectural manifestation of Islam-Hindu interfaith dialogue” (Mahallati, 2017).

Meanwhile, Streusand points out that if the Safavids never matched the Ottoman and Mughal empires in wealth or population, they most definitely did in architectural grandeur. Their architecture displayed geometric symmetry and arabesque with a dominance of blue and turquoise. According to Professor Mahallati it was an interplay between justice and bounty. One amazing example of their grandeur is the Chahar Bargh garden, a great square and “broad, tree-lined avenue, (which) stretched four kilometers from the center of the city across Isfahan’s river to a royal country estate” (Streusand, 2011). It served as a parkway rather than an avenue of commerce and is to this day flanked by garden and palaces. The one in Isfahan, Iran was the first of its kind, although both the Ottomans and Mughals went on to produce similar gardens, most notably the one at the Taj Mahal.

The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires did have their differences. Their religious identities were widely different as were their relative levels of success. However, they had similarities in two of the most fundamental and defining aspects of their cultures. All three empires are rooted in the same Turkic Sufi tradition, which, though manifested slightly differently in each, dictated a political system that was alike in the three empires. Additionally, all three empires used art as their primary form of expression which led to amazing contributions to the art world that are still very important and relevant today.

References:

Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Westview press, 2011.

Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2017

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture notes. October 2017