Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from October 2013

07 October 2013

Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean

Southeast Asia has long been connected by trade, religion and political links to the wider world across the Indian Ocean, and especially to the Middle East through the faith of Islam. However, little attention has been paid to the ties between Muslim Southeast Asia – encompassing the modern nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines – and the greatest Middle Eastern power, the Ottoman empire. 

The Indian Ocean world in the 16th century, from an Italian portolano.  British Library, Harley 3450, no.6
The Indian Ocean world in the 16th century, from an Italian portolano.  British Library, Harley 3450, no.6    noc

In 2009, the British Academy funded a three-year research project Islam, Trade and Politics Across the Indian Ocean, administered by the Association of South East Asian Studies in the UK (ASEASUK) and the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA).  The project set out to investigate all forms of interaction between these two regions, from political, religious, literary and commercial exchanges to mutual influences in material culture, and culminated in a conference, From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, held in 2012 in Banda Aceh in conjunction with the International Centre for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies (ICAIOS).  The results of the research project have also been presented in a photographic exhibition produced by the British Library, which has been shown in Durham, Leeds, Cambridge, Leicester and Exeter.  Today the exhibition opens in London at its final UK venue, in the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art at the British Museum.  Turkish and Indonesian versions of the exhibition have also been produced, and are currently on display in Istanbul and Aceh.

The Ottoman lands were known in Southeast Asia as Rum, after the Arabic term for the Roman empire.  The Raja of Rum occupies a fabled position in Malay, Acehnese and Javanese epics, and the ruling houses of Kedah, Johor, Perak and Jambi all traced their descent from Rum. In Turkey similarly exotic imaginings existed in parallel with concrete geographical knowledge, and well into the 18th century Ottoman artists continued to illustrate medieval texts describing mythical inhabitants of Southeast Asia. 

Winged tree-dwellers of Zabaj, referring probably to Sumatra or Java, from ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat by Qazvini, Persian text with Ottoman paintings, 1654/5.  British Library, Or.13935, f.76r (detail)
Winged tree-dwellers of Zabaj, referring probably to Sumatra or Java, from ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat by Qazvini, Persian text with Ottoman paintings, 1654/5.  British Library, Or.13935, f.76r (detail)
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The main periods of direct political contact between Southeast Asian states and the Ottoman empire took place in the 16th and 19th centuries, with a long hiatus in between.  But after the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517 and until the early 20th centuries, the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medinah, were under Ottoman control.  During this period, the main conduit for contact between the Ottomans and the Malay world was the annual Hajj pilgrimage.  Many Muslims from the Malay archipelago lived for long periods in Mecca, where they were known as the Jawi community. When they returned to Southeast Asia they brought back as souvenirs highly-prized Ottoman goods such as manuscripts, textiles and carpets.  Thus Ottoman motifs such as the tughra or royal monogram, and distinctive calligraphic styles such as zoomorphic and müsenna mirror writing, found their way into Southeast Asian art forms including batik textiles and woodcarvings.  The two-bladed sword of the Prophet called Dhu al-Faqar, so evident in Ottoman war flags and pilgrim banners, is also found on flags from Aceh, Siak, Riau and even Sulu in the southern Philippines.

Tughra of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r.1574-1595).  British Library Or.15504 

Tughra of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r.1574-1595).  British Library Or.15504   noc

Reproduced in the ten exhibition panels are documents from the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi) in Istanbul, including newly-discovered royal letters from Malay rulers to the Ottoman sultan, addressed as the khalifah and protector of Muslims worldwide.  Manuscripts, maps and drawings from the British Library and other institutions also testify to links between the lands of the Ottoman empire and early republican Turkey, and the Muslim peoples of Southeast Asia, from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor – the first Malay monarch to visit Turkey – and his Turkish wife, Sultana Khadijah.  Na Tien Piet, Shaer almarhoem beginda Sultan Abubakar di negri Johor (Singapore, 1896).  British Library 14626.a.6
Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor – the first Malay monarch to visit Turkey – and his Turkish wife, Sultana Khadijah.  Na Tien Piet, Shaer almarhoem beginda Sultan Abubakar di negri Johor (Singapore, 1896).  British Library 14626.a.6
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The Indonesian version of the exhibition on display in the Library of Universitas Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh, September 2013.  Photograph courtesy of ICAIOS.
The Indonesian version of the exhibition on display in the Library of Universitas Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh, September 2013.  Photograph courtesy of ICAIOS.

Further reading

For a list of publications on Ottoman links with Southeast Asia, see:
http://www.ottomansoutheastasia.org/bibliography.php

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia
Co-Director, Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean
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Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

01 October 2013

Persian Ambassadors gather at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich

400 years ago, Shah ʻAbbas of Persia (r.1587-1629) began sending ambassadors to Europe to negotiate the trade in Persian silk with the West. To symbolise the purpose of these journeys, they came to Europe dressed in the finest silk garments of their time.

Modern style ambassadors' travel! Naqd ʻAli Beg is unloaded at the Rietberg Museum ©Jennifer Howes
Modern style ambassadors' travel! Naqd ʻAli Beg is unloaded at the Rietberg Museum
©Jennifer Howes

The ornate costume of one particular envoy was carefully documented in a full length portrait by Richard Greenbury. The portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg was commissioned by the English East India Company in 1626, and is today part of the British Library’s historic India Office Collections. Naqd ʻAli Beg’s silk garments reflected his aim to secure the Persian silk trade with the East India Company in London. The portrait shows him wearing a magnificent iridescent gown, which contrasts with his turban and cummerbund. Over top of the gown he wears a golden robe, intricately woven with human figures.

The portrait is a spectacular record of how these Persian trade envoys dressed, but it also shows a doomed man. Naqd ʻAli Beg’s trade embassy ended in disaster at the Stuart Court of King James I. He was confronted by a rival ambassador, and a fight broke out between the two men. Both men were told to leave London, and during the journey back to Persia in 1627, Naqd ʻAli Beg committed suicide (see my recent post 'Stitched up with silk').

The Shah of Persia continued to send exotically dressed envoys to Europe, often with chaotic results. According to Axel Langer, the curator of ‘The Fascination of Persia’ at the Rietberg Museum, ‘quarrelling and misunderstandings within the delegations, their strange habits and customs, to say nothing of the Persian ambassadors’ various amorous entanglements, provided a steady stream of gossip. But the foreigners were also an inspiration for artists.’

The portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg is installed at the Rietberg Museum. It is on display alongside other material on Persian trade ambassadors to the West ©Jennifer Howes
The portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg is installed at the Rietberg Museum. It is on display alongside other material on Persian trade ambassadors to the West
©Jennifer Howes

For the first time ever, the British Library’s portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg has left London, to be exhibited alongside other pictures of Persian trade envoys who journeyed to the West in the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘The Fascination of Persia’ is being held at the Rietberg Museum, until 12 January 2014. The exhibition looks at the relationship between Persia and the West right up to the current day. Funding for the conservation of the portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg was donated by the Friends of the British Library. The exhibition also includes a painting (Bahram Gur kills the dragon) by the Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman dated 1675/76 from the Library's copy of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsa  (see our recent post 'Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman').


Further reading

Canby, Sheila. Shah ‘Abbas. The Remaking of Iran. London: British Museum Press, 2009.
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.
Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley, “The Nizāmī manuscript of Shāh Tahmāsp: a reconstructed history.” In J.-C. Bürgel and C. van Ruymbeke (eds.), A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: artistic and humanistic aspects of Nizāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsa (Leiden 2011), pp. 195-210.

Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley, “The Nizāmī manuscript of Shāh Tahmāsp: a reconstructed history.” In J.-C. Bürgel and C. van Ruymbeke (eds.), A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: artistic and humanistic aspects of Nizāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsa (Leiden 2011), pp. 195-210. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/07/some-paintings-by-the-17th-century-safavid-artist-muhammad-zaman.html#sthash.imoteYRu.dpuf
Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley, “The Nizāmī manuscript of Shāh Tahmāsp: a reconstructed history.” In J.-C. Bürgel and C. van Ruymbeke (eds.), A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: artistic and humanistic aspects of Nizāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsa (Leiden 2011), pp. 195-210. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/07/some-paintings-by-the-17th-century-safavid-artist-muhammad-zaman.html#sthash.imoteYRu.dpuf

 


Jennifer Howes, Visual Arts Curator

 ccownwork

Follow us on twitter @BLAsia_Africa 


Jennifer Howes, Visual Arts Curator
 ccownwork

Follow us on twitter @BLAsia_Africa 

- See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/06/stitched-up-with-silk-naqd-%CA%BBali-begs-journey-to-london-in-1626.html#sthash.3f1BNvvy.dpuf