Home>; News & Events>; News/Events

News & Events

Youth Salon (5) – Islamic Art and Architecture at the Intersection of Civilizations: From World History to the University Square in Samarkand


The 5th lecture of the Youth Salon series of the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS), was held on November 23, 2023. Xie Yue, a PhD candidate from the Department of History of Art and Architecture of Harvard University, shared her thoughts on “Islamic Art and Architecture at the Intersection of Civilizations: From World History to the University Square of Samarkand.” The salon was moderated by Prof. Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS, with the participation of Prof. Wang Yujie, deputy dean of the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China; Jia Yan, associate professor of the School of Arts, PKU; Liu Chen, assistant professor of the School of Arts, PKU; and Fan Jingjing and Zhang Jiamei, associate professors of the School of Foreign Languages, PKU. 

Xie Yue first gave an outline of the concept and lineage of Islamic art history. She pointed out that Islamic art does not only refer to religious art, but is a general term for art in the Islamic world. Islamic art is mainly divided into two categories: architectural art and book art, in addition to fabrics, porcelain, gold and silverware, ivory, glass and so on. A major feature of Islamic art is the emphasis on craftsmanship and decorativeness, and the restrictions on portrait expression. Its decoration is mainly based on flowers, calligraphy, geometric shapes and other abstract patterns.

The history of Islamic architectural art can be roughly divided into two phases, 650-1250 and 1250-1800, marked by the Mongol conquest of the Abbasid dynasty. Early Islamic architectural art was mainly concentrated in the Islamic Middle Kingdom (today’s Syria and Iraq) and was strongly influenced by the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid styles. Famous works include the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Great Mosque of Samarra. With the flourishing of the Fatimid Dynasty and the Mamluk Dynasty, Islamic architectural art in Egypt also flourished.

After the Mongol invasion, Islamic architectural art became more regionalized and localized. The Palace of the Alhambra is the representative of western Andalusia, while the architectural complex of Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire, is the masterpiece of the east. The architectural style of the Timurid Empire directly influenced the architectural styles of the Safavid Dynasty, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire thereafter.

Xie Yue then briefly summarized the history of the development of the discipline of Islamic art studies in the West. From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the first generation of European art historians of Islamic art mostly had archaeological, collecting, or military backgrounds. The second generation of art historians, led by Oleg Grabar, shifted from archaeological reports to a problem-oriented approach, and published many general historical works and aesthetic reflections. The third and fourth generations of art historians shifted from being experts in early Islamic art to specialists in late imperial art, with a more refined field of study, a greater need to master the language, and a more diverse range of research methods. Today’s art historians continue to broaden the temporal and spatial boundaries of their research and seek to introduce digital humanities approaches to the study of Islamic art.

Xie Yue shared her doctoral research on Registan Square in Samarkand, focusing on the function of three Madrassas built in the 16th and 17th centuries. She argued that the establishment of the three madrassas was based on instrumental considerations of the political and economic situation rather than purely on the need to disseminate knowledge, reflecting the need for legitimacy of the rulers of the Khanate of Bukhara, the checks and balances between the secular power and the local Sufi clans, as well as the ups and downs of Samarkand’s status as a trade hub in Central Asia. At the same time, although the three madrassas show great stylistic inheritance from the Timurid period, there are also many breakthroughs and innovations, such as the emergence of various types of animals and mythical beasts in the design.

Attendees had a discussion on Islamic art, mainly focusing on the interweaving of political history and art history, the relative independence of artistic styles, and the influence of international relations in Central Asia on the architectural style and function of the Khanate of Bukhara.