The History of Persia Part IV Medieval Persia
is a sequel to "The
History of Persia Part I: Ancient Persia", which was published in Bits
of News on 02 March 2008, "The History of Persia
Part II: Classical Persia", which was published in Bits of News
on 11 March 2008, and "The
History of Persia Part III: Islam Comes to Persia", which was
published in Bits of News on 16 March 2008.
If there's one thing that history both ancient and very recent shows, it's
that succession issues can cause real problems. Last
week's episode highlighted some of the events surrounding the establishment
of Shiism shortly after Muhammad's death in 632 CE; this week, a major part of
the story surrounds the political ramifications of more leadership choices made
by the earliest Muslims. Some of those ramifications have proven long-lasting
indeed: many of those centers of pilgrimage and Shi'a holy sites that keep
getting blown up in Iraq trace their importance to the years immediately
following the assassination of Ali, the last of the four Rightly-Guided
They were called "Rightly-Guided" because they had all known Muhammad
himself, and were among his earliest and closest companions; as for the other
word 'Caliph' is the English form of the Arabic word 'Khalifa,' which is short
for Khalifatu Rasulil-lah. The latter expression means Successor to
the Messenger of God, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). The
title 'Khalifatu Rasulil-lah'. was first used for Abu Bakr, who was elected
head of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet.
of Southern California
Abu Bakr's caliphate (632-634 CE) was short but significant; it was he who
ensured that those tribes that renounced Islam following the Prophet's death
were brought back into the fold. Abu Bakr also began scuffling with the
Byzantines in places like Syria, and probed the Sassanid defenses along the
Euphrates. Just before he died, he issued a pretty sensible code of conduct for
the Muslim army to follow as it burst forth from Arabia:
not be deserters, nor be guilty of disobedience. Do not kill an old man, a
woman or a child. Do not injure date palms and do not cut down fruit trees. Do
not slaughter any sheep or cows or camels except for food. You will encounter
persons who spend their lives in monasteries. Leave them alone and do not
Umar, an early convert (there's a...well, a story behind this, but I'm going
to exercise historioranter's discretion and table any discussion of it to the
comments R.S.P.) whose influential status in pre-conversion Mecca was a
morale-booster for the community, became Abu Bakr's successor. This was
appropriate, in a sense, as it had been Umar's gesture of support for Abu Bakr
that had resulted in the vote going in favor of the latter; in another sense,
however, it resulted in "Corrupt Bargain"-type criticism from the
Shi'at Ali, who favored leadership based on relation to Muhammad (Ali was
married to Muhammad's daughter, Fatima). Umar's caliphate (634-644 CE) saw
enormous expansion of Muslim holdings, with his armies defeating Byzantines,
Sassanids, and locals from Afghanistan to the shores of
North Africa before he was assassinated by a "Magian" a
Zoroastrian. It is said that Umar thanked God before he died that his killer
had not been a Muslim.
third Rightly-Guided Caliph was Uthman, a scion of the Umaya clan, from the
same Quraish tribe as Muhammad, who had been of the Hashim clan.
Technically, the vote that put him into the office made Uthman the first
Umayyad caliph, but since he never named an heir, he isn't considered the
founder of the dynasty that followed his successor. The first six years
of his caliphate (644-656 CE) are notable for his compilation of the Qur'an,
but things started going poorly for him in the last half of his reign.
Various conspiracies arose against him, until finally, after being
besieged within his own house in Medina, rebels slipped over the back wall and
beat him to death while he was reading the Qur'an (the one in the pic may have
Uthman's blood upon it's pages).
Ali, the related-by-marriage early contender for the caliphate, now ascended to
the office of caliph, but his reign (656-651 CE) would be marred by civil war.
His supporters had been among the most vocal of the anti-Uthmanists, but
there were strident calls even from Aisha, widow of Muhammad for Ali to do
nothing before bringing the killers of Uthman to justice. Supporting
Aisha was Muawiya, the Umayyad governor of Syria, whose refusal to step down
precipitated a war between his supporters and those of Ali. The caliph
was unable to secure the critical victory he needed to bring Muawiya to heel
the Battle of Islam at Siffin is one of the
more intriguing/historically critical and was forced to acknowledge that he
had lost control of Syria.
In the end, however, it wasn't Muawiya that did in Ali; it was the Kharjites.
This group, once Ali loyalists, had sprung up in opposition to their
leader's negotiations with the Umayyads, eventually declaring that the
caliphate had ended with the death of Umar and that no one not Ali, not
Muawiya, not Amr bin al-Aas, the ruler of Egypt was worthy of guiding the
community so they sent assassins after all three. Those assigned to
kill al-Aas and Muawiya failed in their missions; the guy sent after Ali caught
up with his quarry in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq, and with a poisoned sword, brought
an end to the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs.
Weird Historical Sidenote: Considering that Muhammad is the most
common boy's name on the planet, and the preponderance of contemporary Arab
names that are derived from the people of this period, it's interesting to look
at some of the names by which one of the Rightly-Guide Caliphs was known:
Abu Bakr ('The Owner of Camels')
was not his real name. He acquired this name later in life because of his great
interest in raising camels. His real name was Abdul Ka'aba ('Slave of Ka'aba'),
which Muhammad (peace be on him) later changed to Abdullah ('Slave of God').
The Prophet also gave him the title of 'Siddiq' - 'The Testifier to the Truth.'
When they seized control of the Islamic Caliphate in 750
CE, the Abassids - a family descended from
Muhammad's paternal uncle, Abbas quickly found that it behooved them to adopt
many of the administrative and economic structures of the Umayyad Dynasty
structures which themselves were of Persian and had been incorporated into the
caliphate since shortly after the Islamic conquest of Iran they had usurped.
The end of the Umayyads marked the end of the Arab-only club that Muslim
leadership had become; prestige and power were now proportional to one's
proximity to the Caliph's ear, not beholden to tribal and family relations.
Abbasid rule, in a sense, leveled the playing field for non-Arab Muslims
within the vast caliphate, and the powerful ethnic minority Persians were the
prime motivators and beneficiaries of this liberalization. A great
example of this was their army much of the Abbasid force (in the early days,
at least) was comprised of men from Khorasan (northeastern Iran) and were led
by Abu Muslim, a Persian.
Under al-Mansur (754-775 CE), the capitol of the caliphate was moved from the
ancient, dusty fortress of Damascus to the brand-spanking new cosmopolitan
crossroads of Baghdad, only a few miles away from the ancient
Parthian/Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon. The Persian Barmakid
family was placed in charge of the administration of the caliphate, and by the
reign of al-Mansur's Sassanid-obsessed son al-Mahdi (775-785 CE), the caliph's
court had adopted the appearance and etiquette of pre-Islamic Persian royalty.
There is a solid argument to be made that the golden age of the Abbasids
generally agreed to have been during the reign of Harun
al-Rashid (786-809 CE) and the early part of that of his son,
al-Mamun (813-847 CE) was largely due to a combination of distinctly non-Arab
sources: Persian intellect and Chinese technology. Indeed, it was the
panicked retreat of a Tang Dynasty army that allowed the thinkers of the
Abbasid dynasty to write down all their philosophical grokkings.
wavy-line flashback sequence...doo doo doo doo do...doo doo doo doo do...
You're at a place called Talas, in Kazakhstan. Imagine a windswept
plateau, about as far from the ocean as any place on Earth, bisected by a cold
mountain stream. Now populate the stark landscape with 150,000 Muslim
troops, mostly cavalry, and about twice that many Tang Chinese, mostly
infantry. The year is 751 CE, the stakes are religious and cultural
dominance of Central Asia, and China loses, badly. Their camp is captured
by the rampaging Abbasids, and among the treasures the Muslims loot is a device
that once its secrets are revealed by enslaved POWs, of course will allow
for the broad dissemination of knowledge that will occur during both the
Abbasid golden age and the European Renaissance. The Muslims have
captured a paper-maker.
...wavy-line return to normalcy...
Once it became possible to write something down without
having to kill and skin an animal, culture-enhancers like universities and
general literacy became feasible. Baghdad's House of Wisdom, established around 800 CE
about the same time Charlemagne was being lionized in Europe for opening a
handful of schools and working to standardize the Western European alphabet
was a repository for the most advanced of the world's thinking. In fields
as diverse as astronomy (and you were thinking the Chinese invented the
astrolabe!), mathematics ("hey, man, what did you get on your al-jabr
test?"), and architecture (it's no coincidence that Spanish colonial
buildings in the Americas have a distinctly Moorish look to them), thinkers
from across the caliphate propelled by an undercurrent of ethnically Persian
influence made huge advances.
Jumble of Difficult-to-Spell Dynasties
The Persians were still Sunni at this point (don't worry: we're getting
there!), with the majority of the Shi'a sect living in southern Iraq.
Most of the conflicts between the Shiites and the Sunnis were occurring
there, though later on I'll mention a couple of important events in Shi'a
history that do transpire in Iran.
The Shi'a distractions, along with the founding of rival dynasties as in
Spain, where the Umayyads tried to resurrect themselves, and Egypt, where the
descendents of Fatima, Muhammad's daughter, set up a Shiite shop competed for
influence with the caliphate and diverted attention away from the peripheral
provinces in the east and north of Persia. They forgot that if there's
one thing the long history of the Persians has shown, it's that the people of
those particular regions will declare independence at the first sign of
inattention or weakness on the part of their would-be overlords. Here's a
listing of the various empires and rebellious provinces that emerged as the
Abbasids declined and eventually fell:
dynasty (821-873) the first Persian Muslim dynasty arose in Khorasan,
including parts of Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and
Turkmenistan; capital at Nishapur. Founded when a leading Abbasid
general took his winnings and declared independence.
dynasty (861-1003) arose south of the Tahirids, annexed Khorasan after
defeating the them in battle in 873 CE; capital at Zaranj (present-day
Afghanistan). Conquered their way from northern India to the
doorstep of Baghdad, but didn't long survive the passing of their founder
they became a vassal state of the Samanids in 900.
dynasty (875-999) considered the founders of the Tajik nation and
claiming descent from one of the Great Houses of Iran, they controlled
much of Central Asia in their heyday; capitals at Bukhara, Samarkand, and
Herat. Profoundly Sunni, the Samanids repressed Shi'a Islam (except
for "Twelvers"), and left a cultural legacy of evangelism that
had major impact on the conversion of the Turkic tribes and thus, on all
of western history.
dynasty (928-1043) centered in the area north of Teheran and south of
the Caspian Sea; captured the cities of Hamadan and Isfahan.
Promoted science through patronage of astronomer al-Biruni, built
oddly-shaped tombs with the glass coffin of leader Qabus suspended in the
middle of the tower.
dynasty (934-1055) powerful Shi'as based on the south shore of the
Caspian, organized a confederation out of the crumbling Abbasid state;
capital depends on which of the federated states one is talking about, but
Fars, Jibal, and Iraq always exerted powerful influence. Royalty was
known as "Grand Vizier" in Baghdad, but called themselves "
Shβhanshβh," the ancient Persian term for "king of kings."
Empire (963-1187) a Persianized Turkic group (orginially part of the
Slave-Guard of the Samanids) that came to rule Khorasan, Afghanistan, and
Northern India. More about them in History for Kossacks: Medieval Afghanistan.
empire (1037-1187) only the first in a string of Turkic-speaking groups
descended from Central Asian nomads that became Persianized Sunnis before
moving on to conquer everything from the gates of Byzantium to the Punjab.
They reduced the caliphate to the size it was when the Crusaders arrived (that is to say,
Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Syria).
Although the Shiite Buwayhid dynasty (which was ethnically Turkic enough
to term its leader "sultan," a title which stuck) gained great
power over most of the eastern Abbasid empire even setting up a 90-year
dynasty in Iraq after their capture of Baghdad in 945 CE and the
Ghaznavids would give us the brilliance of Omar
Khayyam, it was the Seljuks who really reshuffled the deck.
They came, these descendents of a Turkic-speaking guy named Seljuk, down
from Central Asia in the 10th and 11th centuries. They settled in
northern Iran, north of the Oxus River in Transoxiana, in cities they had
quietly-but-permanently taken from the Sassanids centuries before.
They slowly converted to Sunni Islam, but then, smelling blood in
the Abbasid-dominated Euphrates, they moved in for the kill in the first
half of the 11th century.
It's All About the Outsourcing
It wasn't only external pressures that doomed the Abbasids; they did plenty to
screw themselves. The story goes back to the first Abbasid caliph, who
had appealed to Shiites to support his claim to legitimacy on the basis of his
being descended from Muhammad's uncle. Conveniently forgetting that the
followers of Ali had come through for him when it counted, the ever-pragmatic
Abbasids made Sunnism the state religion of the caliphate, then bungled several
opportunities to bury the scimitar with the Shi'a. Just to make sure
they'd cut off all of their noses to spite their own faces, al-Rashid turned on
the loyal, empire-administering Barmakid family, disgraced them, and removed
them from power.
But it was the outsourcing that truly did them in.
As early as the 9th century, the Abbasids were bringing a private slave
army of Turks called Mamluks to Baghdad, and to their later capitol at
Samara (200 km north of Baghdad, on the east bank of the Tigris). And
while the Mamluks did indeed serve as an effective stabilizing force against
the Byzantines and the various Shi'a and Persian uprisings, history has also
shown us that an over-reliance on mercenaries, foreigners, and slaves in an
army can be as dangerous to the country which raises that army as to the enemy
against whom it is raised. It was no exception for the Abbasids; by 940
CE, de facto control of the caliphate had been passed to the Mamluks, who went
on to invade and conquer Egypt. They remained influential well into the
Ottoman and Napoleonic periods, hundreds of years later.
And of course, sometimes when you're running an empire you find yourself in
need of a group of discreet, violent badasses to do your dirty work for you.
For the sultans, that group was a gang of thugs called the Ismailis, who
operated out of a castle at Alamot, between Rasht and Teheran. They
smoked hashish and killed people for money, working for Crusader and Muslim
alike, for more than 150 years, and the odd intersection of their profession
and their vice has resulted in an even odder bastardization of language: from
"hashishiyya" ("people of the hash") is derived our word
"assassin." And from a strategic perspective, it just can't be
a good idea to have a nest of those guys occupying high ground in the middle of
The Abbasids thought they had a deal with the Seljuks when they agreed to give
one of the Seljuk warlords the right to call himself "King of the East and
the West," but this particular Turkic group, operating out of their
capitol at Isfahan (and later Merv), eventually bit the hand that fed it, too.
The Seljuks decided to carve off their share of the dying Abbasid empire
before the Byzantines, Mamluks, and the heretical (in their eyes, at least)
Fatamid Dynasty in Egypt claimed all the best parts for themselves. By
1055 CE, the Seljuks were in control of Baghdad.
Perish the Turkic Raiders
Under the leadership of the Seljuk kings Alp Arslan (1059-1072 CE) and his son,
Malik Shah (1072-1092), Iranian dominance once again spread from China to Byzantium.
Their two Persian viziers Nizam al-Mulk and Taj ul-Mulk handled the
administration and the politics, leaving the Turks free to kick the Byzantines
around on the field of battle. This happened decisively at a place called
Manzikert, north of Lake Van in modern Turkey, in 1071 CE (or five years after
the Normans took England). Manzikert is such a decisive battle, and with
such a cool, treacherous back-story, that I'm going to exercise historian's
prerogative and table the details for a future diary.
Malik Shah died in 1092 CE, and an all-too familiar struggle for secession
ensued. The Seljuks thus found themselves in disarray a few years later,
when an armies of Crusaders began emerging from Byzantine lands and burning
their way across Seljuk territory on their way to Jerusalem. Though many
of these first Crusaders were mobs of unarmed peasants who were slaughtered to
a man, the Christian attacks weakened the regional Seljuk warlords, and
in the end, sealed the fate of those who ruled in Turkey and northern Iraq.
Despite the Kurds producing such great leaders as Nur al-Din and Saladin
who were forced by circumstances to focus their attentions westward the
Crusades, internal conflicts, and the ole' rebellious-provinces thing all served
to disrupt Seljuk efforts to reconsolidate, and by the second half of the 12th
century CE, all that remained of the Seljuk empire was the Sultanate of Rum, a
precarious kingdom carved out of formerly Byzantine holdings in Anatolia.
An army of horsemen this way comes
Hulagu's army attacks Baghdad.
By 1153 CE, the Princes of Kwarezm, rulers of Khorassan,
had struggled their way to domination of Iran from the eastern slopes of the
Zagros to the borders of China and Afghanistan. They proved to have had
too little time to consolidate their defenses, however, before an outrageously
destructive army of horsemen, unforeseen and completely unbidden, stormed
across their eastern frontier in 1219 CE.
The Mongols took Transoxiana with the capture and sack of Samarkand (one of the
oldest currently-inhabited cities on Earth, by the way) in 1220 CE, and
extended their reach as far as Azerbaijan by 1221 CE. The remainder of
Persia was conquered by Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulagu, who subdued the
fractured kingdoms already under strain from the refugee problems that always
preceded the Mongols on his way to Baghdad. There, Hulagu ground the
remains of the Abbasid caliphate beneath the heel of his riding boot: 800,000
Muslim inhabitants of Baghdad Arab and Persian alike were slaughtered, vast
areas of the city were ravaged, and irreparable damage was done to the canals
and irrigation systems. Halted by later engagements with the Egyptian
Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut, the Mongols settled
down to administer and brutally wring every last drachma of treasure from
the entirety of Persia and Mesopotamia, not to mention China, Korea, and
Tamerlane: A Guy Would Could Scare Even Dick Cheney
Hulagu became an Ilk-khan ("subordinate khan") upon the succession of
his brother Kublai to their father's throne. The Ilkhans ruled Persia for
the next 80 years, and though the first few encouraged Tibetan Buddhism and
Nestorian Christianity, by 1300 CE or so, the Ilkhan Ghazan converted to Islam
and state religion once again became the order of the day. Those who had
been earlier encouraged were now persecuted; the resurgence of
fire-and-swordpoint Islam and the at-least-partly-ethnic backlash against it
was so powerful that with the death of the 9th Ilkhan, Abu Said, in 1335, the
ilkhanate fell into disunion and quickly disintegrated.
One of the small kingdoms that emerged in this period gave rise to one of the
most feared names in all of the Middle East's bloody history: Timur the Lame,
or Tamerlane. He was neither Sunni nor
Shi'a, but of a Sunni form of Sufism (there aren't many of those) called
Naqshbandiyyah, but in the end, he didn't really give a rat's rosy red ass
about the religion or even the administration of the lands and peoples he
conquered. His exploits are many, his deeds severe:
- he once
marched an army of 100,000 men deep into Russia he captured Moscow in
a front ten miles wide in order to trap and destroy the Golden Horde
brought under his control lands as far west as the Hellespont and Smyrna
(modern Izmir, Turkey), east to the Ganges, and north to the borders of
Transoxianan capitol of Samarkand (in modern Uzbekistan) became the most
influential and architecturally beautiful city in Central Asia
jury's still out on whether he permitted his troops to plunder and rape
the city of Delhi or simply lost control of his rampaging horde.
Either way, the city was plundered and raped.
- when he
captured Baghdad in 1401 CE, he slaughtered 20,000 inhabitants by issuing
a command for each of his soldiers to return with two severed heads.
- his name is still used in some parts of central Asia
as a boogeyman to frighten disobedient children into behaving and he
died 600 years ago.
Such empires usually do not long survive the megalomaniacs who build them,
and the empire of Tamerlane was no exception. Though it existed in
some form or another until 1506 CE, the power of the Timurids declined
rapidly after the death of their founder in 1405 CE, just as he was about
to march against Ming China.
One last weirdness about Tamerlane: It is said that a curse was carved
upon the entrance to his tomb, warning that whoever disturbed the final
resting place of the mighty conqueror would have war visited upon his
country. Makes one hope that the exhumation of Timur's remains by a
Russian scientist on June 19, 1941, didn't have anything to do with the
fact that Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet
Union, three days later.
- Sufi Safavids Seek Shi'a Society
Timurids and the remnants of the Mongol Empire eroded away, feelings of violent
self-determination were once again arising in Persia. "Black Sheep"
and "White Sheep" Turkoman dynasties struggled for control of Tabriz
(the White Sheep won), seemingly unaware of the growing strength of a powerful
force to their north and west, in Azerbaijan: the Safavids, who were descended
from a founder of one of the Shiite branches of Sufism.
The Safavids were a Persian family, but after the conversion of Junayd, the
head of the Safavid Sufi order in 1477 CE, to militant Shi'aism, much of their
support came from Turkomans, Syrians, Anatolians, Armenians, and the Shiite
tribes of Upper Mesopotamia. Under the leadership of Shah
Ismail I (r. 1501-1524 CE), the Safavids imposed their brand of Shi'a Islam
from Baghdad to Herat. They were aided in this by the support of their military
elite, whose elaborate red headdress earned them the nickname
I won't try to draw the distinctions that evolved between Shi'a and Sunni Islam
in this diary; let's save that enormous can of worms for another time. For now,
I'll just quote the Library of
Congress on the subject vis-ΰ-vis the Safavids:
distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes
the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader
(as opposed to the Sunni idea of the Caliph). The Imam must also be a spiritual
leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner
mysteries of the Quran and the shariat. The Twelver Shias further
believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless, free from
error, and had been chosen by God through Muhammad.
The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth
of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere
Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and
Hussein (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams until the
Twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return
to earth on judgment day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of
Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to
live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the
declaration of faith in Islam.
In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shias
of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his
eleven descendants. None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever
ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that
they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was
believed to have been wrongfully usurped.
The story of the 8th Imam, Reza, is associated with Iran and is part of the
larger tale of Safavid Shiaism, though the story itself comes from the time of
al-Mamun and the early Abbasid Caliphate. Al-Mamun invited Reza to travel up
from Medina to the court at Merv, and Reza's sister Fatima began making her way
to Arabia, so as to accompany Reza on his journey. She took ill while en route,
and died at Qom, Iran, which later became an important theological center built
around her shrine. As for the 8th Imam,
took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On
this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside
or die in what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad,
grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center
in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad,
associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.
Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that
Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had him poisoned.
Mamun's suspected treachery against Reza and his family tended to reinforce a
feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were
I guess the point of all this is: Shiites and Sunnis have deep-seated, and
perhaps irreconcilable, differences between them. Within the context of greater
Islam, they are as different as the Catholics and Protestants of Northern
Ireland, and like the differences between those two groups, the depth of
historical animosity is difficult for outsiders (like, admittedly, me) to
grasp. When Ismail I declared himself Shah and raised Shi'a theology to a power
it had not held since the demise of the Fatamids, he was choosing for Iran a
course that would ensure sometimes-violent disagreement with Sunni neighbors
for centuries to come.