More than Four Turtles: Global Renaissances in the Fifteenth Century (Part II)

The Registan (three madrasas) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Bram Hubbell.

In the final part of the Harkness discussion on Day 3, we talk about the second part of my essay “Reimaging the Renaissance,” which focuses on events in Central Asia in the fifteenth century.

Central Asia never seems to get the credit it deserves in world history classes. Besides the Mongols, we almost always seem to skip over the region. For example, I’ve talked to many teachers and students who are convinced that the Silk Roads were more about the Roman and Han Empires than the huge amount of territory in between them. (For a good discussion on viewing the Silk Roads from a Central Asian perspective, check out David Christian’s great article “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History”.) After traveling across Central Asia in April and May of 2016, I knew that I needed to develop some more lessons that focused on Central Asia. I remember sitting in front of the Registan in Samarkand and realizing that the first of these three incredible madrassas had been built at the same time the Renaissance was happening in Italy. It was over the next couple weeks that the outline of the essay at the end of this post took shape. I wanted something that would introduce this incredible Timurid Renaissance to students and present them with the ideal comparison to the Italian Renaissance.

In the essay, I provide a basic overview of Timur (the students have already learned a little about him during the previous two classes) and the empire he founded, Timurid architecture, the interest in astronomy and mathematics, Persian miniature painting, and Chaghatay literature. I also frame this cultural movement as occurring at the same moment as the Italian Renaissance. By looking at the Timurid Renaissance alongside the Italian Renaissance, we can begin to see how “these periods of rich intellectual and cultural development were not uniquely a European phenomenon. In both cases, these developments came about because of the interaction of peoples from different backgrounds. Timur’s empire linked together people from Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, with links to western China, while the Renaissance was the product of increased interaction of Italian peoples with Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean. In many ways, these two movements reflect the increasing global interconnectedness of the Early Modern era in world history.”

This part of the class is usually filled with students expressing surprise at having never heard about Timur or the Timurid Renaissance. After that initial surprise we move into a broader discussion of how we make sense of these three Renaissances (Strayer’s Italian Renaissance, my Mediterranean Renaissance, and the Timurid Renaissance). I love watching how students compare the different arguments and develop their own understanding of a more global Renaissance. The better students are also able to connect these readings to the ones from earlier in the week on Afroeurasian political and economic revivals, as well as earlier ideas from the course about competing visions of world history and how we can get beyond Eurocentric interpretations of world history.

I think back to those discussions about the Renaissance that began ten years ago on the AP World History listserv, and I finally feel comfortable with teaching about the Renaissance in world history courses.

“The Timurid Renaissance”

To problematize the older notion of the Renaissance as a uniquely European and modern event even further, we can look at Central Asia from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. During this period, the Turkic warlord Timur (1336–1405) conquered widely across Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia and established the Timurid Empire which oversaw an intense period of cultural flourishing. This Timurid “golden age” also happened simultaneously as the European Renaissance. Peter Golden, a Central Asian historian, argues “that the Timurids, with their emphasis on promoting culture and meritocracy, were like the Renaissance monarchies of Europe in which cultural displays became essential parts of governance.” 1

Timur had been born in 1336 near modern Shahrisbaz, Uzbekistan, which was part of the Chagati Khanate, one of the Mongol Khanates. During his early life, the Chagatai Khanate and the neighboring Middle Eastern Ilkhanate collapsed. Timur stepped into this void, secured a numbered significant military victories, and assembled a large empire between 1370 and 1405. His wide-ranging victories resulted in a diverse group of artisans and scholars becoming concentrated in his capital Samarkand. Some of these individuals were prisoners of war, while others came by choice. This diverse group, and subsequent arrivals, interacted with each other and contributed to important developments in arts, architecture, sciences, and language that would typify the Timurid Renaissance of the fifteenth century. 2

During Timur’s lifetime, he began an ambitious building program. He began with turning the town of his birth, Kesh, into a showpiece capital. He renamed the town Shahrisabz, “The Green City.” The main palace was the Akserai (“The White Palace”), which was a massive palace complex that could be seen from twenty-five miles away. He also built a massive mausoleum for Ahmad Yasawi in Turkestan and the large congregational mosque in Samarkand, known as the Bibi Khanum mosque. These buildings were not only noted for their large size, but also for their distinctive architectural style involving expansive arches and distinctive domes.3

His descendants continued Timur’s architectural legacy. The famed Registan in Samarkand is a large public square. Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, and ruler of Samarkand, built the Ulugh Beg madrasa, which became the premier center of learning in the fifteenth century Muslim world. Around the entrance, visitors were greeted by the Hadith “To strive for knowledge is the duty of every Muslim.” Later rulers of Samarkand added additional madrasas to the Registan, and the square served as important center of learning in Central Asia for centuries. Also in Samarkand, Timurid’s descendants and followers built the Shah-i-Zinda, a large complex of mausoleums. Although these mausoleums were smaller than the madrasas and palaces more frequently associated with Timurid architecture, the style is similar in the use of of arches and domes. It was this distinctive combination of architectural features, concern with the geometrization of design, and brilliant colors that came to define Timurid architecture, which continued to dominate Muslim architecture across much of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East for centuries.4

Throughout the fifteenth century, Timurid Central Asia also became famous as a center of learning, especially in mathematics and astronomy. While there were many small madrasas and observatories built, none were more famous than Ulugh Beg’s observatory just outside the city of Samarkand. The massive three story complex was crowned with a brass sextant with a radius of more than 100 feet. Astronomers at the observatory set out to record the exact location of all the major stars. Their findings were recorded in the Zij, a collection of astronomical tables. The observatory and the star catalog reflected a similar concern with precise observation and recorded data in Europe among scientists and astronomers at the same time. The work of the astronomers at the Ulugh Beg observatory would be shared across the Muslim world. Subsequent observatories in South Asia and the Middle East also copied the design of the Ulugh Beg observatory.5

In addition to these advances in architecture and astronomy, the Timurids also contributed to a flourishing of a distinctive style of miniature painting and the development of a new literary language. Beginning in the thirteenth century in Persia, miniature painting in manuscripts became more common. During the Timurid era, the numerous scientific, historical, and literary texts being produced in Central Asia led to a proliferation of a distinctive style of illuminations that was then spread back to Persia and to India. The development of Chaghatay as a language also reflected the rich culture of the Timurids. Chaghatay was a local Turkic language, and poets such as Navai wrote in that language. Chaghatay quickly displaced Persian as the literary language of Central Asia.6

The combination of important developments in architecture, learning, astronomy, painting, and poetry during the Timurid period of the late fourteenth to early sixteenth century – the same time frame as the Renaissance in Italy – suggest that these periods of rich intellectual and cultural development were not uniquely a European phenomenon. In both cases, these developments came about because of the interaction of peoples from different backgrounds. Timur’s empire linked together people from Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, with links to western China, while the Renaissance was the product of increased interaction of Italian peoples with Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean. In many ways, these two movements reflect the increasing global interconnectedness of the Early Modern era in world history.

  1. Peter B. Golden, Central Asia in World History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 97.  ↩
  2. Frederick S. Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 481.  ↩
  3. Starr, 482–484.  ↩
  4. Stephen F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 188–189.  ↩
  5. Starr, 496–498.  ↩
  6. Starr, 500–502.  ↩


More than Four Turtles: Global Renaissances in the Fifteenth Century (Part I)

After spending two days setting up the big picture of the revival of Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century, we dive into the Renaissance, or Renaissances, on the third day. I use two different readings with the students and set up the class in a sort of a modified Harkness style discussions. With each reading, the students discuss what the author’s argument is, what evidence he uses to support the argument, and what is significant about the argument.

The first reading is a basic overview of the Renaissance from Strayer’s Ways of the World. The reading briefly covers the political revival of Europe in the fifteenth century before focusing on the Renaissance as a cultural revival. Strayer also juxtaposes these political and cultural revivals to similar political and cultural revivals in China in the fifteenth century, although my students don’t read that section. While briefly acknowledging some “Islamic” influence in the text, Strayer mostly presents the Renaissance as a European phenomenon that “celebrated and reclaimed a classical Greco-Roman tradition that earlier had been lost or obscured.” He frames the Renaissance as an artistic and literary that began to challenge a previous Christian view of the world. In the conclusion to the section, Strayer argues “Renaissance culture reflected the urban bustle and commercial preoccupations of Italian cities. Its secular elements challenged the otherworldliness of Christian culture, and its individualism signaled the dawning of a more capitalist economy of private entrepreneurs. A new Europe was in the making.” For Strayer, the Renaissance marks the beginning of a modernity defined in terms of secularism and capitalism. In many ways, Strayer’s interpretation of the Renaissance is an older, Eurocentric one with just a minimal nod to the idea that there may have been non-European influences and that a similar cultural movement was taking place in China. (Given how many different editions there are of Ways of the World, I haven’t included any page numbers with these quotes.)

One odd thing about Strayer is the complete lack of any Renaissance art in this section of the textbook. He spends most of the three pages mentioning many of the famous Renaissance artists and repeating how the movement was an artistic movement. If you get the edition with sources, there is a selection of paintings at the end of the chapter. At the same time, it just seems surprising that there are no paintings or photos of the sculpture in a three page reading about the Renaissance as an artistic movement. My students usually pick up on this absence.

After discussing Strayer’s interpretation of the Renaissance, we turn to an essay that I wrote: “Reimagining the Renaissance.” About half the essay is the same as my previous post “Globalizing the Renaissance,” but I have tweaked things a little for use with students. I will include the full text of the first half of my essay at the end of this post. Using scholarship from Jerry Brotton and a number of paintings and photographs, I present an interpretation of the Renaissance that frames it not as a uniquely European phenomenon, but “as more of a Mediterranean phenomenon in which Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and Turks interacted and influenced each other’s cultures. This cultural exchange was an example of the even global process of increasing economic and cultural integration across Afroeurasia and around the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” In this way, the Renaissance can be seen as a cultural manifestation of the political and economic revival of Afroeurasia and the Afroeurasian world-system of the fifteenth century that I discussed in the previous post.

One of the things that students usually appreciate about this part of the essay is the way all the paintings and architecture being discussed are included in the essay. They can zoom in on different parts of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors and see for themselves the way in which the Asian influences on the Renaissance are “hiding in plain sight” as one of my students recently put it.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the contemporary Timurid Renaissance.

“Decentering the Renaissance”

Since the 1860 publication of Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, historians have debated the importance of the Renaissance in understanding the origins of the modern world. For Burckhardt, the period was one defined not just by beautiful art, but also by a spirit of individualism. He argued this individualism came to define European culture and marked the advent of modernity. Despite over a 150 years of subsequent historians questioning the merits of Burckhardt’s arguments and offering a wide range of alternative interpretations about the Renaissance, this period is still seen by many people around the world as a unique period in world history. The Wikipedia page for the Renaissance describes it as “a period in Europe, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history.”

This glorification of the Renaissance highlights the pervasiveness of Eurocentric interpretations in history. The very idea of modernity is seen in singular terms and defined according to the alleged European value of individualism. Even if we put aside this tendency to project European individualism as a marker of global modernity, historians frequently still glorify the art of this period as unique, special, and somehow capturing the essence of Europe. In her Worldy Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, historian Lisa Jardine argued that Renaissance art marked a “golden age” of art:

The term ‘Renaissance’ prompts a litany of names of famous artists; it also evokes a particular kind of timeless achievement. This golden era bathed in perpetual Mediterranean sunlight was, we know, a period of rebirth (sublime, classical culture born again), a return to the glories of the age of political and cultural supremacy of Greece and Rome, after the diversionary interlude of the (local and parochial) middle ages. We tie in such a Renaissance with the recovery of the ancient languages, and our accounts of its reflowering inevitably centre on standards of achievement established early in the period at the symbolic geographical centre of classical art and learning, Italy. Hence we conventionally represent it as a ‘golden age restored,’ an age in which the characteristic mood was a kind of lofty self-confidence, spiritual arrogance, and an associated antique ideal of Aryan virtue or manliness. The paintings which we come determined to admire here are indisputably ‘Renaissance.’1

As world historians, we want to be careful about this tendency to highlight the supposed uniqueness of events in world history or to rely on simplistic explanations. Instead of viewing the Renaissance as somehow a uniquely European moment, we should attempt to view the Renaissance from a global perspective. The Renaissance highlighted how the emerging regional and global connections contributed to a flourishing of cultural exchanges and developments. In the words of historian Jerry Brotton, let us “situate the Renaissance within the wider international world” of the fifteenth century and understand how “trade, finance, commodities, patronage, imperial conflict, and the exchange with different culture were all key elements of the Renaissance.”2 In short, let us understand the Renaissance as part of a broader global, or at least Afroeurasian, phenomenon with parallels to developments taking place in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In 1533, the German Hans Holbein, while living in England, painted this portrait of two French diplomats at the English court. The painting is on display in the National Gallery in London and is frequently described as a quintessentially Renaissance painting. Brotton argues that:

The Ambassadors portrays two elegantly dressed men, surrounded by the paraphernalia of sixteenth century life. Holbein’s lovingly detailed, precise depiction of the world of these Renaissance men, who stare back at the viewer with a confident, but also questioning self-awareness, is an image that has arguably not been seen before in painting. Medieval art looks much more alien, as it lacks this powerfully self-conscious creation of individuality. Even if it is difficult to grasp the motivation for the range of emotions expressed in paintings like Holbein’s, it is still possible to identify with these emotions as recognizably ‘modern’. In other words, when we look at paintings like The Ambassadors, we are seeing the emergence of modern identity and individuality.3

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.


Once we get beyond the depiction of the two individuals themselves, we notice the wide variety of items in the painting. The geometric pattern on the floor reflects the enthusiasm for geometric design in much of the architecture of the Arab world. The silk and velvet clothing worn by the two men would have been produced in Asia and come to Europe through trade links across the Mediterranean. The items on the table include two printed books, a lute, a globe, flutes, quadrants, sundials, and other navigational tools. These items symbolize the basic subjects of Humanism, the popular course of study during the Renaissance. While these items highlight another aspect of the Renaissance nature of this painting, many of these items also reflect earlier European cultural borrowings from Asia. The lute is a musical instrument based on the Arab oud. Printing presses with moveable type originally developed in China and showed up in Europe during the fifteenth century. The navigational technology mostly originated around the Indian Ocean and were spread into the Mediterranean by Arab and Jewish traders. These quintessentially Renaissance items reflect the economic and cultural links between the European and Muslim worlds. These connections not only helped cause the Renaissance, but they also influenced how wealthy and educated Europeans chose to present themselves as wealthy and educated.

In Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–1507), the painting shows Saint Mark, the founder of the Christian Church in Alexandria in the middle of the first century and the patron saint of Venice, on the left in a pulpit, and he is preaching to the people of Alexandria. The men behind Mark are a group of Venetian noblemen. In front of him are a group of women dressed in white and wearing white veils across their faces. Around the women are men of various backgrounds talking to each other. Some of these men are Europeans, while others are Egyptian Mamluks, North African “Moors,” Ottomans, Persians, Ethiopians, and Tartars. It is possible to identify these different ethnicities by the use of standard European iconographic practices involving headgear, clothing, and skin color. In the background is the city of Alexandria. We can see the basilica, which mixes features of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Church of San Marco in Venice. There are Egyptian style buildings, with wooden grilles and rugs hanging from the windows. In the background are a number of minarets, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, and camels and giraffes.

Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria.


Despite Saint Mark having preached in the first century, the Bellinis placed him in a late fifteenth century context. This practice was common to many Renaissance era paintings. The Bellinis chose to present an ancient historical setting in terms that would have been easier for the average fifteenth century Italian to understand. It was also the economic links between Italians and the Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean that contributed to the origins of the Renaissance. This painting does not just link the late fifteenth century Venetians back to their first century patron saint, it also depicts those same fifteenth century Venetian traders surrounded by fifteenth century Muslim peoples with whom the Venetians regularly traded and in one of the main commercial centers of the eastern Mediterranean. The wealth derived from trade with the Muslim world was not just a cause of the Renaissance; the Bellini’s painting reflects how the Renaissance was an ongoing process of adoption and adaptation of ideas and materials from the Muslim world by Europeans (or at least Italians).

Although The Ambassadors and Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria highlight the extent to which the Muslim world influenced Europeans, we can also begin to see how the Renaissance was an ongoing, two-way exchange between Europeans and Middle Easterners. During the two centuries, the fifteenth and sixteenth, associated with the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire was also expanding. At the same time the Ottomans were fighting the Venetians and the Habsburgs, there was also significant cultural exchange between Ottomans and Europeans. In 1453, the Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. He restored the church of Hagia Sophia and transformed it into a mosque. He also hired Italian architects to assist in the construction of Topkapi Saray, a new imperial palace. Jerry Brotton makes clear how Topkapi came to symbolize the Renaissance:

The new international architectural idiom, drawing on classical, Islamic, and contemporary Italian styles, aimed to produce what one Ottoman commentator called ‘a palace that would outshine all and be more marvelous than all preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness’. This international Renaissance style would also be recognizable to both Muslims and Christians alike, as confirmed by the Venetian ambassador, who praised the Topkapi as ‘the most beautiful, the most convenient, and most miraculous [palace] in the world’. Like so many Renaissance buildings and artifacts, the Topkapi was both an original creative act and a highly political object. The two impulses were inseparable – a defining feature of the Renaissance.4

Costanzo da Moysis’ Seated Scribe is from the late fifteenth century. (There is still some debate about the painter. Some art historians argue that Gentile Bellini painted it.) The man’s headdress or the Persian inscription in the upper right corner suggest that the artist was Muslim or at least spent time in the Muslim world. Both Costanzo and Bellini were actually fifteenth century Italian painters who had spent time at the Ottoman court. The painting’s design and detail reflect Chinese, Persian, and Ottoman artistic styles that were frequently found in miniature paintings that were common at this time in the Muslim world.

The final painting is Bihzâd’s Portrait of a Painter in Turkish Costume, also from the late fifteenth century. The visual similarities between this painting and Seated Scribe should be obvious. But while Seated Scribe was painted by an Italian painter trying to paint in a “Muslim” style, Bihzâd’s Portrait of a Painter in Turkish Costume was painted by a famous fifteenth century Persian painter who had also spent time at the Ottoman court after Constanzo. The obvious similarities between these two paintings suggest how European culture was also influencing the Muslim world in the fifteenth century. The aesthetic innovations of the Muslim world influenced Europeans, and the aesthetic innovations of Europe influenced Turks and Persians.

These four paintings and Topkapi Saray raise fundamental questions about the supposedly European nature of the Renaissance. Instead of thinking about this period as uniquely European, we can instead see the Renaissance as more of a Mediterranean phenomenon in which Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and Turks interacted and influenced each other’s cultures. This cultural exchange was an example of the even global process of increasing economic and cultural integration across Afroeurasia and around the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

  1. Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 4.  ↩
  2. Jerry, Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 19.  ↩
  3. Brotton, 1.  ↩
  4. Brotton, 29.  ↩


Don’t Call It a Comeback: Afroeurasian Revivals in the Fifteenth Century

Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years
I’m rocking my peers
Puttin’ suckers in fear
Makin’ the tears rain down like a monsoon
Listen to the bass go boom
Explosions, overpowerin’
Over the competition I’m towerin’
Wrecking shop when I drop these lyrics
That’ll make you call the cops
Don’t you dare stare, you better move
Don’t ever compare
Me to the rest that’ll all get sliced and diced
Competition’s payin’ the price

– LL Cool J “Mamma Said Knock You Out”

I thought I was just being witty with the title, and then I realized that the first verse of LL Cool J’s classic was the perfect set up for thinking about Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century with his mention of the monsoon. It may be a stretch, but we need to find ways to make this world history stuff interesting for fifteen year olds (or forty something teachers thinking they’re still hip).

Many years ago I got frustrated with AP World History teachers on the old listserv complaining about the Renaissance not being included in the AP World History curriculum. In response I developed a lesson based on Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors painting which explored the non-European elements in the painting (I’ll be talking about this painting more in the next post.) I then expanded on this lesson in an earlier post on Globalizing the Renaissance. I’ve realized that while this topic is important, it helps to understand the context in which I usually teach it. Given that many teachers will begin the new AP World History courses around 1400, it seems like talking about the my framing of the fifteenth century is a good starting post for thinking about how we decolonize world history.

I teach in 70 minute blocks that meet two or three times per week. I cover the fifteenth century over three days. The students have already spent time reviewing what they’ve learned about Afroeurasia in their previous world history course, being introduced to the concept of the thirteenth century world system, the Mongols, the Black Death, and the onset of the Little Ice Age. In short they understand the thirteenth century as a sort of high point of Afroeurasian integration and the fourteenth century as one of disruption to many existing patterns of exchange. We also keep referring back to this updated map of the thirteenth century world system that appears in Strayer’s Way of the World.

For the first two days of our discussion we rely heavily on Carter and Warren’s Forging the Modern World and Marks’ The Origins of the Modern World (the two main books in my class) as well as excerpt about Portuguese Prince Henry’s motives from Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. We talk about the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the voyages of Zheng He, the role and function of the Indian Ocean, the Delhi Sultanate, Timur’s Empire, the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, West Africa, East Africa, slavery in Afroeurasia, and Europe’s revival. I know it seems like a lot, but these two books treat these topics concisely and do a great job of placing all these issues in the framework of a revival of states and trade in Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century. I also make use of this map from Philippe Beaujard’s “The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems before the Sixteenth Century”.
As we work our way through these different regions of Afroeurasia, students keep comparing the two world system maps to see what is changing and what is staying the same.

By the end of the two days, students hopefully have come to understand how many different parts of Afroeurasia were rebounding politically and economically after the multiple disruptions of the fourteenth century. Students also are able to see how Portugal’s maritime expansion into the Atlantic Ocean was part of a larger European desire to gain access to the many products produced and grown in other parts of Afroeurasia. Instead of framing Europe’s fifteenth century revival and Portugal’s project of maritime expansion as something new or unique (as too often happens in history courses that take 1450 or 1500 as a starting point), the narrative is flipped into one in which Afroeurasia revolves around the Indian Ocean and Europeans are on the periphery.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the Renaissance and where it fits in the fifteenth century.