Skip to main content
Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

This program has been canceled. Ticket holders will be notified about credit and/or refund options.

Islamic Art and Architecture: Empires, Spirituality, and Luxury Trade

2-Session Course

Friday, May 1, 2020 – 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 2, 2020 – 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Code: 1M2082

Young Prince, mid-16th cent.; by Muhammad Haravi; Afghanistan (Freer Gallery of Art)

Islamic art is a term that covers many things, from mosques and religious works to the palaces and luxury arts of the world’s predominantly Islamic cultural regions in the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the great early modern empires of Asia.

In a two-part program, art historian Lawrence Butler highlights examples of historic Islamic art and architecture from the 7th century through the early-modern period that embody its defining spirituality, luxury, and princely themes. The illustrated talks also feature masterpieces of Islamic art found in Washington-area museum collections.


Since the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, artists and patrons developed appropriate principles of Islamic spiritual art and design. Explore the basic precepts of Islam, texts from the Qur’an, calligraphy, and the arts of the book, geometric and floral ornamentation, and the principles of mosque design.


9:30–10:45 a.m.  The Early Islamic Caliphates

Islam was first established along the trade routes of Arabia, and quickly expanded into the lands of the Byzantine and Persian empires. The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) centered in Damascus and the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) with its capital of Baghdad created vast new palaces, mosques, and cities in these ancient lands. Their technologically advanced luxury arts included silks, ceramics, and metalwork traded worldwide and are well-represented in American museum collections.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Medieval Mediterranean

The luxury arts of Islam had a profound impact on the cultures of medieval Christian Europe long before the Crusades. Explore the great palaces and market cities of western Islam in Egypt, Spain, and Morocco, and the luxury goods they produced. Encounters between Christians and Muslims inspired architecture still found in Spain, Sicily, Venice, and the Holy Land. Metalwork in the Freer Gallery illustrates the spread of princely imagery, a legacy of the Crusades. The Textile Museum has rare Spanish silks and Egyptian carpets that were eagerly sought by medieval Christian princes.

12:15–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30 to 2:45 p.m.  Silk Roads: Iran, Central Asia, and the Mongols

Medieval Iran was the center of a vast trade network linking the Islamic world with Tang and Song China via the overland Asian Silk Roads and the seaborne Indian Ocean trade routes. The Mongol empires of the 13th and 14th centuries further stimulated travel and trade, as the careers of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo demonstrate. Butler explores some of the great bazaar cities of Central Asia, from Isfahan to Samarkand.

3–4:15 p.m.  The Gunpowder Empires: Safavids, Mughals, and the Ottomans

The early modern empires of Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, and Mughal India were military and cultural rivals, rich from trade and open to new artistic ideas from China and Europe. State patronage produced some of the Islamic world’s best-known artistic achievements: the palaces and mosques of Istanbul, the carpets and illustrated Shahnameh manuscripts of Persia, and India’s Taj Mahal. These magnificent decorative arts are represented in the collections of the Freer and Sackler, Walters, and Textile Museum collections. Their legacies still inform the arts and artists of the Islamic world today.

Butler is an associate professor of art history emeritus at George Mason University.

World Art History Certificate core course: Earn 1 credit*

*Enrolled participants in the World Art History Certificate Program receive 1 core course credit. Not yet enrolled? Learn about the program, its benefits, and how to register here.

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)