The kingdoms, principalities, and republics of Europe and even the much younger United States have a long record of contact with the Islamic world. Although the John Carter Brown Library's collections focus on the colonial period in the Western Hemisphere (1492-ca. 1825), the library possesses a surprising array of materials that illuminate early contact of various kinds between the West and the Islamic lands and peoples, from North Africa and Ottoman Turkey to South Asia. This exhibition, including a few loaned works, will focus on some of those contacts, from war and piracy to travel and intellectual exchange.
The Ottoman empire, based in Constantinople, was European in its own right— at its height it reached nearly to Vienna. But historians have paid far less attention to this part of the story, which fits awkwardly into traditional narratives of American history. As this exhibition reveals, the peoples of Islam were never as far removed from early America as we are inclined to assume. From North Africa to South Asia, through encounters both fleeting and enduring, they were present throughout a remarkable chapter of global expansion. Nor was America entirely removed from them—for the rise of new empires in the West fundamentally altered the balance of power in a Europe that was never entirely “western.”