India, in the mid-sixteenth century. Just thirty-one years have passed since a fierce Timurid warlord, Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and possessor of a surprising literary gift, was unhoused from his native land, and swept down to establish, by force of arms, a new kingdom in Delhi. Just sixteen years have passed since that warlord’s less puissant son Humayun was deposed and fled into ignominious Persian exile, abandoning his infant son to be raised by an Afghan uncle. Just one year has elapsed since the fugitive’s victorious return and the reestablishment of his dynasty, and just one month since the returned monarch fell down a flight of steps and died in a moment of bathetic slapstick, leaving his thirteen-year-old son, the son who barely knew him, to ascend his father’s precarious throne. What follows this period of near-perpetual upheaval, almost impossibly, is a time of political stability, economic prosperity, religious tolerance, cultural openness, the rule of law, and an artistic renaissance: the half-century-long reign of one of the most remarkable rulers the world has ever known, Jalal al-Din Muhammad, known as “Akbar,” the Grand Mughal, called jahanpanah, the wonder of the world.
The second half of the sixteenth century was one of those exceptional periods, not unlike our own, when the whole world seemed to be changing rapidly, a “hinge moment” in history. The sixteenth century, perhaps unlike our own times, was also a hinge moment in the arts. Akbar’s reign coincided almost exactly with that of Queen Elizabeth I of England; he ascended to the throne a year and a bit before her and lived a couple of years longer. In Italy this was the time of the High Renaissance, of Michelangelo and Titian and the poetry of Ariosto. In Spain it was the time of Cervantes and the two parts of Don Quixote, and in Elizabethan England, of course, it was the age of Shakespeare. What else of world-changing note? Yes: sometime in the 1560s, the graphite pencil was invented, and was used, originally, for the marking of British sheep.
In the poetry of the Renaissance—in, for example, the great narrative verse-epic Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto and in its precursor, Orlando Innamorato by Ariosto’s fellow Ferraran Matteo Boiardo—the world of the East is sketchily known, at best, but fantasy happily makes up for ignorance. A prince can be described by Ariosto as the “ruler of India and Cathay,” and it is assumed by the poet that such nonsense will make enough sense to his readers to be plausible. Verisimilitude is unnecessary, and perhaps not even considered as an option, not even by Shakespeare. Othello, himself a Moor, a man of the East, speaks of meeting on his travels not only “Cannibals that each other eat,/The Anthropophagi,” but also “men whose heads/do grow beneath their shoulders.” Across Europe, until as late as the seventeenth century, the legend of Prester John, a mighty Christian king whose lost kingdom, home of the Fountain of Youth, existed somewhere amid the Muslims and pagans of the East, was so widely believed that it had almost ceased to be fictional; except of course that no such king ever existed.
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