Annual York-Noor Lecture Series looks at murder, ancient tombs and empires

How did the Middle East, Iran and India impress a young Venetian aristocrat in the 17th century and what do two Mughal tombs tell about the politics, personalities and aesthetics of the 16th century Mughal Empire? Those are just two of the questions Professor Anthony Welch will address during two separate lectures this month as part of the 2008-2009 Annual York-Noor Lecture Series, this year with a focus on "Arts of Islam and Muslim Societies."

Welch, a specialist on the history of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Victoria, will present “Murder, Mausolea and the Emperor Akbar: Two Early Mughal Tombs” on Sunday, Oct. 26, from 3 to 5pm at the Noor Cultural Centre, 123 Wynford Dr., near the Don Valley Parkway and Eglinton Avenue in Toronto.

Right: Stone and marble inlay in the facade of the Emperor Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra near Agra (1613)

On Monday, Oct. 27, Welch will discuss “17th Century India Seen Through Venetian Eyes: The Travels of Ambrosio Bembo”, from noon to 2:30pm in the Vanier Senior Common Room, 010 Vanier College (lower level), Keele campus.

In his first lecture, Welch will look at the tomb of Adham Khan and Maham Anaga, in the vicinity of Delhi’s Qutb Mosque, and that of Ataga Khan and JiJi Anaga, in the Sufi dargah of Nizamuddin. The two tombs represent two of the most informative and impressive works of early Mughal architecture, says Welch. “In style, inscriptions, and siting these two mausolea have much to tell us about the politics, personalities and aesthetics of the period.”

The tombs were built after the 20-year-old Mughal emperor Akbar single-handedly defeated a powerful cabal at his court in Agra in May 1562. It was during a time when the early Mughal court was plagued by clan warfare that threatened the stability of the state. “For those who died in the incident, Akbar built impressive tombs that are among the most informative and impressive works of early Mughal architecture,” says Welch.

In his second lecture, Welch will look at what 19-year-old Venetian aristocrat Ambrosio Bembo discovered through his travels about the politics, food, architecture, people and administration in the Middle East, Iran and India during the 17th century. The Travels and Journal of Ambrosio Bembo (University of California Press, 2007), published for the first time in English, is a major new account of the European encounter during the 1670s. “His comments on art, culture, politics and faith are accompanied by informative line drawings,” says Welch, editor of the book.

Bembo set out to visit his uncle Marco, the Venetian consul in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, in August 1671. “Bembo intended to stay only a few months. But the appeal of wider travel was too strong, and in January 1673, he departed for India in the company of two Franciscan monks,” says Welch. Travelling overland from Aleppo to Iraq, Bembo descended the Tigris on a raft to Baghdad and left from Basra for India.

“During his journey, Bembo stayed primarily in Portuguese Christian mission houses in Diu, Cambay, Surat, Chaul, Daman and Goa, and he gives precise descriptions of these great trading towns and their inhabitants,” says Welch. “Bembo also visited the new English enclave of Mumbai and was impressed with its rapidly growing wealth and power.” In February 1674, Bembo started back, this time through Iran, returning to Venice in April 1674.

Welch is the author of Shah ‘Abbas & the Arts of Isfahan (Asia Society), Artists for the Shah (Yale University Press), Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World (University of Texas Press) and Arts of the Islamic Book (Cornell University Press). He has also written several articles on the history of Islamic architecture in India.

The 2008-2009 Annual York-Noor Lecture Series is organized by Professor Ruba Kana’an, Visiting Noor Chair of Islamic Studies at York, Division of Humanities, in conjunction with the Noor Cultural Centre of Toronto. Kana’an is a specialist on Islamic art, the urban histories of pre-modern Muslim societies and the interface between art and law in Muslim contexts. She is currently co-editing the upcoming book Places of Worship and Devotion in Muslim Societies for Berghahn Press and is completing a volume titled Ten Masterpieces of Islamic Art for Saqi Books.

For more information about the upcoming lectures, visit the Division of Humanities events Web site.