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Department of History

H246 Cities of Paradise and Empire

Course Code:
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year

Pathway: Islamic World; Third World; Near and Middle East. 

In the early modern period of Islamicate history, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, three new world empires emerged, the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. These polities dramatically altered the landscape of the Islamicate world, having far-reaching consequences that remained into the twentieth century. The rise of each of these new empires centered on newly invigorated ideologies of sacred kingship, and novel institutions of administration and control.  Not coincidentally, these changes corresponded with major transformations in the form and function of cities, and these were in fact integral to the political and religious developments at imperial courts. Changes in the ways that rulers conceived of cities, constructed them, inhabited them, and administered them forced urban spaces into the very heart of rulers’ new programs of imperial order; cities became the locus of competition for authority between political rivals and became the main stage upon which rulers performed their power in ways that they hadn’t done before.

Because the histories of empires and of cities in the Islamic early modern period are tightly interlinked, this course proceeds from the assumption that these phenomena should be studied in tandem and therefore offers students the opportunity to study the relationship between them. Although the course centers on the great cities that emerged with the rise and flowering of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, a fundamental learning objective is to trace the various ways in which the concepts of “city” and, in particular, “Islamic city,” have been theorized by Muslim thinkers over time. Consequently, students will examine the ways in which real cities have corresponded with, deviated from, and transformed these ideals, especially as these were constructed as part of imperial programs. Moreover, students will also consider the ways in which modern scholars have framed the academic study of the Islamic city, paying special attention to the ways in which their assumptions have shaped our understanding of the history of these cities. In coordination with these conceptual problems, the most pressing task will be to understand the particular ways in which the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals each retooled the notions of the Islamic city that were already in circulation, and transformed existent cities in light of a contentious discourse surrounding the sacred authority of the Islamic ruler vis-à-vis religious scholars and sufi saints.

As we proceed, our weekly readings will swing between key topics in the history of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires and urban spaces on the one hand, and on the other hand, general theoretical works on the Islamic city, paired with case studies on particular Islamic cities.  Accordingly, a good portion of the readings in the first half of the course deals with studies on earlier periods, along with occasional works on more modern Islamic cities for comparison. While the overarching goal of the course will be to trace how Islamic cities and empires changed over time, the class will be especially concerned with understanding the particularly dynamic relationship between cities and empires that emerged during the early modern period.


Exam (40%) , 2 x Coursework (50%) and Class Exercise (10%)

Suggested reading

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Abu-Lughod, Janet L. “The Sociology of the City—European Antecedents” from Chapter 1 and “The Origin and Development of Cities,” in Changing Cities: Urban Sociology, 6-16 and 19- 51.
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Babaie, Sussan. Isfahan and its palaces: statecraft, Shi'ism and the architecture of conviviality in early modern Iran. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. (Selections)
Babayan, “Sufis, Darvishes and Mullahs: The Controversy over the Spiritual and Temporal Dominion in Seventeenth Century Safavid Iran” in Safavid Persia: Safavid Persia: the history and politics of an Islamic society. New York: I.B. Tauris, 1996, 117-137.
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