Image and Power

Aima Khosa in conversation with Sophie Makariou about art and imperial power in three early-modern Islamicate dynasties: the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mughals.

Image and Power
Sophie Makariou is President of the Guimet Museum. She directed the Department of Islamic Arts at the Louvre from 2009 to 2013

Aima Khosa: What kinds of aesthetic sensibilities were shared by the early-modern Islamicate empires (the so-called ‘Gunpowder Empires’), given that they shared certain political and dynastic parallels? Do you see any common themes and motifs between the art of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires?

Sophie Makariou: There were a lot of common themes and I should add that the Timurids of Central Asia were an essential element in making this possible. As you know, they were the ancestors of the Mughals and they were a source for the three empires that you mentioned – and really, the root of everything that we are talking about here. Remember, in this period, many artists travelled between one empire and another, and sometimes between all three. For example, take the case of some artists working in Anatolia at the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. This is the end of the 14th century and after the Battle of Ankara (1402), they were moved quite violently by a victorious Timur to his capital city in modern-day Uzbekistan. He wanted to bring expertise and craftsmanship to his capital. So, many trained artists came to Samarkand from the Ottoman world and the Iranian world. In the case of Iran, I hesitate from naming any particular dynasty here, because the story of Iran before the rise of the Safavids is complicated – but its art was, in part, bred from the art of Samarkand, which was, at the time, like a melting pot. It was certainly an artistic melting pot. But the Timurid Empire did not last long. So when it collapsed and its territory became much smaller, a lot of artists had no sponsorship and no patrons – and so they moved in other directions. Where could they go?

In the very beginning of the 16th century, you were seeing the rise of the Safavids (1501).The Ottomans were powerful rulers already and the Mughals were not yet on the stage.

A large, miniature-style portrait of Mughal emperor Jahangir

“In fact, imagery is quite precisely the language of power in the Mughal Empire”

In the case of the Safavid court. I will not mention any one city because the capital was moving – you had Tabriz, then there was Qazvin and later on, Isfahan. But essentially, these trained artists from Samarkand went to Iran.

There was a lot of transfer further westward from Tabriz, when it was captured by the Ottomans for various periods of time, and especially after the Ottoman victory at Chaldiran (1514). And so, a lot of artists working in Tabriz proceeded to work for the Ottomans. It is a bit like a play – all these elements were moving all the time. And this is why you see so many connections.

Let’s speak, for example, about the illuminated manuscripts and architectural techniques which you find in Central Asia. You see them in Iran and in the Ottoman Empire and then later, in the Indian world. In the Mughal realm, it is especially fascinating – because theirs is a very sophisticated and exceptional technique. The potters were moving. The artists who specialised in ink, drawing and painting were moving from one naqqash-khaneh to another. The same goes for the carpets and textiles.

Inside the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran

AK: Do you also see a sense of cosmopolitanism in all this travelling art?

SM: Yes, of course. In Ottoman art, you find that some names of artists and their nationality were recorded. Where it says Rum, it means that the artist is originating from the western part of the Ottoman Empire. Or they were categorised as being from Ajam, meaning that they came from the eastern side – let’s say they were Iranians. It was especially true after the mid-16th century Ottoman conquest of Baghdad. As frontiers were moving, the artists were changing from one patron to another. And they were also seeking their own fortunes.

What is really quintessential for the growth and development of Mughal art is the fact that Humayun went to exile in Persia (1530-1555), to the Safavid court, which was in Qazvin at the time. He then moved back to India, bringing back with him great Iranian painters and it was an incredible mix between local traditions and international trends of the time.

In the case of Humayun, the cultural shift at the Mughal court is also quite significant. Before his exile, Chagatai [a Turkic language spoken by Babur] was very relevant in the Mughal court. I think his exile was fundamental in the Persianisation of their language – a cultural game changer.

Tomb of Emir Timur in Samarkand - the city to which he brought artists and craftsmen from all over the world, by force or otherwise

AK: How did society at that time view artists? Likewise, how did the artists view society? And how different is it from the modern perceptions of artists and their role in society –were they simply craftsmen with a certain aesthetic ability?

SM: I think the answers to that are very diverse, and they vary according to the period we are talking about. The Mughals were much more diligent in recording the names of their painters. In the Ottoman and Safavid empires, we do find many names of artists but names of painters are far fewer than those found in Mughal records.

We have, for example, from the early Safavid Empire, the famous Shah Quli, the naqqash, who specialised in the art of ornaments. He was essential in sharing decorative trends after the decisive Battle of Chaldiran (1514) between the Ottomans and Safavids. His name is recorded in the Ottoman archives. We know many artists such as him who were well-paid. That means that they were recognised and occupied a good position in society. We can also mention the famous Behzad, an artist working for the Timurids and who finished his life highly recognised and praised as an artist and the royal librarian of the Safavids.

'Rustam Pursues the Div Akvan Disguised as an Onager' - from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, painted by Muzaffar Ali, Tabriz, 1530, currently at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

“The Mughals were much more diligent in recording the names of their painters”

But when you move to the Mughal world, it is fascinating because you find a lot more signatures and a lot more attributions: which means that historians or the librarians at the court of the Mughal padishah used to record the names of the painters. So these attributions would say “The face was painted by fulan [so and so], the landscape was painted by fulan and so on.” So you had all the details recorded there.

In addition, the artists were appreciated by the emperors themselves. It is interesting that you may not find the names of architects but you will find a lot of names of painters. It is, in fact, quite incredible. You can clearly see that painters had a strong link with the ruler – who was also highly appreciative of their work.

AK: How much of this fondness for great art came from the desire of Mughal rulers to project themselves and their Empire to the world?

SM: I think the Mughals were the rulers of the cosmos in a way. They were ruling their Empire as if it was the entire world. So, they were really universal rulers in that sense, hence the name for example of Shah Jahan, “King of the World”.

A young researcher in Paris, Corinne Lefevre, concentrates on a topic which I find very interesting: the descriptions of the world offered in Babur’s memoirs. They were full of descriptions of flora and fauna. In her view, it is no less than the very inventory of the vastness of his realm. After Babur, in Akbar’s time and during Jahangir’s and Shah Jahan’s rule, you will find not descriptions but real “portraits” of flowers and animals from all the areas under Mughal rule. You also find precise portraits of the great servants of the Mughal padishah. You see, the Mughals were attempting to capture the image of the world. And this created an image of the Mughal Empire across the globe. Painters thus attempted to capture the universal project of the Mughal Empire.

Saz-style depiction by Shah Quli, circa 1540-50 - 'Dragon amid foliage'

AK: So there is a direct link between the image and the sovereign?

SM: Yes. Frankly, with the Mughals, this link is everything. They used the image to project power – I would not use the word ‘propaganda’ because it is not the right term here. I would prefer to call it an “image of power”. In fact, imagery is quite precisely the language of power in the Mughal Empire: I am totally sure of that.

AK: Can we say, then, that the aesthetic sensibility here is more about a reflection of power than about self-expression?

SM: Yes.

But then, I think there was personal taste at play as well – it was certainly true with Akbar and for Jahangir. They were highly knowledgeable about painting. Shah Jahan, especially, was very interested in a strong expression of power.

AK: Is there any particular painting from the Mughal era that especially stood out for you? If so, could you describe it and explain why it was striking for you?

SM: I will tell you a small story and I will speak about a piece of art that is not in the public domain. It was part of a private collection and offered at auction. And it was one of the greatest shocks in my life as an art historian.

I guess it was around 2000. I saw a big portrait – and when I say big, I mean a huge portrait – of Jahangir, which was painted on cotton. It was, basically, a gigantic miniature: a portrait of Jahangir, enthroned, in profile, with a halo over his head. It was two meters high. All the jewels were made with the impasto technique, which has an Italian origin. We tried to buy the piece for the Louvre. I will never forget the moment when I first saw it. It was quite extraordinary!

Universal rulers and patrons of art - Emir Timur (centre) shown with his Mughal descenants Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir

AK: How much was it worth?

SM: It was not that much. It was something like 2 million pounds. I don’t remember now for what amount it was sold. It was such a great piece, an amazing portrait. It reminded me that there is a whole continent with a history of art that we do not know.

AK: You deal with all three: the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mughals – and you seem to be suggesting that the sheer scale of the artistic output of the Mughal Empire seems to be so much greater, perhaps, than the other two. Is that so, in your view?

SM: Well, I think they were, quite simply, greater! [laughs] I’m fond of all three but there is something special about the Mughals…

Aima Khosa works as an editor for Vanguard Books and tweets at @aimamk