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What kept Eurasian empires together?

How do you integrate minorities into a society, and what kind of influence does this have on the collective identity? These questions may seem modern, but they have been relevant for a long time. The new Eurasian Empires research group studies how integration and formation of identity took place in the Eurasian dynasties of 1300 to 1800.

A different perspective

On this map by Ptolemy, Asia, not Europe, is the centre of the world
On this map by Ptolemy, Asia, not Europe, is the centre of the world

The Eurasian Empires research group is a new collaboration between Leiden University, the UvA and Radboud University. ‘We want to study Asia in the context of Europe,’ says Jos Gommans, Professor of Colonial and Global History in Leiden and one of the project leaders. ‘But not from a Eurocentric perspective. Instead we want to take a much less biased approach. Historians always ask themselves: why did Asia not have an industrial revolution? In other words: what went wrong? Our perspective is very different.’

Soft power

In the early modern era, in large parts of Europe and Asia there were enormous empires which combined complex identities. The research group aims to answer the question of how these large units were kept together. ‘We assume that this would not have been possible only with military or economic means,’ says Gommans. ‘There was also something like soft power.’ Six PhD candidates and two postdocs, all regional specialists, will therefore be examining the ways in which the courts of these empires attempted to legitimate power and ensure social cohesion.

Tradition of power

A good example is the research of Willem Flinterman, who works on the project as a PhD candidate. He focuses on the Mamluk Sultanate, a dynasty of Turkish slave soldiers, who ruled a large part of the Middle East from Cairo between 1250 and 1517. ‘They had no tradition of power, but nevertheless managed to stay in power for almost three centuries,’ says Flinterman. ‘How did they pull that off?’


Dome and minaret of the Madrasa-Khanqah of Barquq, first Sultan of the Mamluk Burji dynasty in Cairo.
Dome and minaret of the Madrasa-Khanqah of Barquq, first Sultan of the Mamluk Burji dynasty in Cairo.

The Arabist and historian assumes that these sultans used a kind of propaganda through architecture and historiography. As it happened, both disciplines really took off at the time. ‘A small elite was treated to biographies containing the great deeds of the sultans. The sultans presented themselves to the people as convincing rulers by means of buildings and construction projects that looked like those of the previous regime, but bigger and more beautiful,’ says Flinterman.

Different backgrounds

Original sources provide the starting point for all the researchers, who have different cultural backgrounds and speak a variety of languages. ‘Comparative historiography tends to mostly focus on secondary literature. Regional specialists, on the other hand, often miss the broader context,’ says Gommans. ‘We try to bridge this gap. Specialists focus on one area but we hold on to the idea that there is such a thing as an integrated world history. Which is why the researchers work so intensely together. It is the only way to see what makes a particular region so unique.’

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