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Historical background


The Islamic territories were divided into three great empires: Safavid, Ottoman, and Mughal. All the key political and artistic centers, where artists were commissioned by the court, lay in the eastern part of the Islamic sphere of influence. From Constantinople to Delhi, the Islamic world was dominated by a common cultural language – Persian.

Mehmed the Conqueror represented a period of historical and artistic transition. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman empire reached its greatest territorial expansion and the heights of glory under the sovereigns Selim I and his son Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1521-1566). The Ottomans defeated the Mamluks in 1517 and annexed Syria and Egypt. They then conquered North Africa as far as Morocco, which alone in the region remained an independent kingdom. Under Suleyman, the Ottoman empire began to extend into eastern Europe with the conquest of the kingdom of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs in 1526. The Ottomans and their Shi’ite neighbors the Safavids fought bitterly over Iraq and Caucasia.

Politically, the Safavids, who were Turkish in origin, often found themselves caught between the Ottomans in the West and the Mughals in India. However, in artistic terms, they were Islam’s greatest glory. ‘Ajami (Iranian) artists dominated the imperial workshops in the Ottoman palace. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, Iranian artists were sent to the Grand Mughal’s palace to set up workshops. From 1598, Shâh Abbâs the Great (1588-1629) launched a vast urban planning program in Isfahan which was much admired by European travelers.

In India, the deposed ruler of a minor kingdom in Afghanistan sowed the seeds of what was to be the greatest of all Islamic empires – the Mughal empire. In 1526, the battle of Panipat opened the gates to the Indian subcontinent, already converted to Islam in part since at least the eleventh century. The Great Mughals, Akbar (1555-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), Shah Jahan (1627-1658) and Aurangzeb (1658-1707), gradually extended Mughal power until they held all India in their grasp.
Although the majority of the hundred million inhabitants in the late eighteenth century did not convert, Indian culture was nonetheless heavily influenced by Islam. Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan all commissioned great masterpieces of book art and of architecture, including the Taj Mahal, built during the reign of Shah Jahan.


The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, witnessed a decline in all parts of the Islamic world. The Ottomans lost ground in Europe after the collapse of the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Safavids crumbled under the repeated assaults of an Afghan usurper, while the Mughal empire, which had reached its greatest territorial expansion, began to collapse following the death of Aurangzeb.
The late eighteenth century saw the beginning of a new age, marked by attempts at reform, particularly by the Ottoman rulers, and by European expansion and voyages of scientific discovery, such as Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798.