Islamic Art

From Beijing to Istanbul: Historian and Broadcaster Bettany Hughes’ Highlights

By Bettany Hughes

A s humans we do two things with great élan; we love to travel and we love loving beauty. Constitutionally we are nomads and collectors – moving from one place to another we seek out and acquire the unexpected and the exquisite. We could have stayed in Africa; the first boat need not have crossed the Atlantic Ridge – but the lure of internationalism has long been a genetic constant. And so as a species we walked and we traded and we talked – sharing new goods and new ideas as we made our journeys through new lands.

It is for this reason that we find a beautiful, Bronze Age Jadeite Axe, made in the Italian alps but nestled in the soft green of the Wiltshire countryside, or an Indian goddess statuette turning up in the ruins of Pompeii.

The drive to communicate pushed us along trade routes – the trade in ideas was as critical as the trade in things. One of the richest routes that witnessed this exchange and transport of some of the loveliest things the human mind could imagine and the hand make, ran in an arc from what is present day Beijing to Istanbul.

Sotheby’s has gathered together a selection of marvels that were inspired by, made by or commissioned for the women and men connected by these trading routes that spanned three continents for the Beijing to Istanbul online sale.

The objects in this auction are the product of many times and many minds. We might perhaps use their beauty to recall Wordsworth who reminded us of the richly variegated nature of the human experience, and that while humanity has many faces, we all of us share one, human heart.

Click ahead to see eleven of my favourites from the sale.


Professor Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. Her forthcoming book, Istanbul A Tale of Three Cities will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson on January 26th 2017 - pre-order here.

Bettany is a supporter of the work of the World Monuments Fund. See also

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