Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Spread of Islam

622-CA. 1519


The Seljuk Empire

The Great Seljuks unified their domain under the "Sunni state," which was officially ruled by the caliph. After the disintegration of the Seljuks, only a small branch of the dynasty remained in Anatolia.


Islamized Turkish tribes took over power in the Middle East with the rise of the Great Seljuk sultanate. The Seljuks—named after the legendary tribal founder Seljuk—who at first settled in Transoxiana and followed a religion with shamanic practices, converted to Sunni Islam around 960 under the influence of the Persian Samanids. After their division into several tribal units, they pushed out of Nishapur and, following their victory over the Ghaznavids under the leadership of Tughril Beg, conquered western Iran (1042), advanced to Shiraz (1052), and then took control of Azerbaijan and Khuzestan in 1054. In 1055 Tughril Beg seized Baghdad, freed the caliph from the "protective rule" of the Shiite Buwayhids, and took his place as sultan. His nephew Alp Arslan, who assumed power in 1063, then created the Great Seljuk Empire, along with his exceptional vizier, the statesman and philosopher Nizam al-Mulk.

In 1071, he achieved an important victory over the Fatimids, taking Aleppo, over 1 Byzantium at Manzikert.

1 Battles between the Byzantines and the Seljuks
in the eleventh century, Byzantine book illustration

Following Alp Arslan's murder in 1072, Nizam remained the dominant figure under his son Malik Shah. In 1092, Nizam became the first prominent murder victim of an attack by the Assassins.

As they themselves possessed no religious authority, the Seljuks, now rulers of all the Arab East save the far South of the Arabian Peninsula, acted as 3 "rulers of the lands of East and West, renewers of Islam" (the title Tughril Beg took in 1062) on behalf of the caliph.

3 The mausoleum of Sultan Sandjar, probably
the reception hall in the palace of the Great Seljuk
in Merv, present-day Turkmenistan, twelfth century

They created a great and powerful empire with excellent administration, connected by secure roads, 5 trade routes, and comfortable 2 caravansaries from Central Asia across 6 Persia to Iraq.

5 Cobandede Bridge, part of the silk trade route built by the Seljuks, Anatolia, Turkey, 13th century

A network of notable madmssas—schools for general education and the teaching of Islam—and the integrated "Sunni state" served to train the future administrative elite efficiently.

2 Former caravansary in Baghdad, built in 1358

6 Tiled mosaic in the Mosque of Isfahan, Iran


4 The Ince Minare Medrese in Konya, Turkey

The Great Seljuk Empire disintegrated through struggles over the succession following Malik Shah, and in 1157 it was destroyed by the Khwarizm-shahs. However, a Seljuk branch had established its independence in Anatolia in 1078.

Its sultan Qilich Arslan II maneuvered between the Crusaders and the Byzantines and created a well-organized and militarily stable state with its capital at 4 Konya.

Ala ad-Din Kay-Qubad I was its most significant sultan, ruling from 1219 to 1237. The westward-moving Mongols increased their pressure after 1242, and the Seljuks suffered a defeat in 1279 against the Ilkhans, the successors of the Mongols in Persia. Masud II, the last sultan of the Anatolian Seljuks, died in 1308.


The Ayyubids and the Mamelukes

The time of the Crusades favored the rise of military dynasties in the Middle East. Sultan Saladin became the outstanding general on the side of Islam. He was followed by the Mameluke rulers.


The Seljuks were not able to bring the local dynasties in the Palestine-Syria-northern Iraq area under their control.

A Kurdish dynasty established the first political unity in the region under its founder, 7 Saladin—one of Islam's most important statesmen and conquerors.

7 Sultan Saladin

Saladin (Salah ad-Din) was initially a military leader for the Fatimids, but he removed them in 1171 and reinstituted Sunnism in their former area of dominion. In quick succession, he seized Tripoli (1172), Damascus (1174), 8 Aleppo (1183), and Mosul (1185-1186) from the 11 Crusaders and local rulers.

8  The Grand Mosque of Aleppo in
Syria, 1169 and rebuilt under the
Ayyubid Nur ad-Din

11 Crusaders' castle Montreal, Shobak, in Jordan, built in 1115

In 1187 he was able to take Jerusalem, which he proclaimed an open city for all religions.

A mixture of brilliant tactics, negotiating, and chivalrous generosity characterized Saladin's political dealings, which won him respect even in the West.

As the ruler of a reunited Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, Saladin negotiated with the army of the Third Crusade, led by 10 Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) and persuaded the crusaders to end the weak siege of the city of Jerusalem in 1192.

10 Richard the Lion-Hearted in the
Battle of Arsuf against Saladin's troops

Saladin's brother al-Adil was able to reunite the empire that fractured upon Saladin's death in 1193, but al-Adil's successors had to use the help of Caucasian military slaves (Mamelukes) against the Crusaders.

In 1250-1260, the 9 Mamelukes removed the last of the Ayyubids and took power for themselves, ruling over Egypt and Syria until 1517 from their capital Cairo.

The Mameluke leader Sultan Baybars I, an outstanding military strategist, halted the westward movement of the Mongols in 1260 and restricted the rule of the Crusaders, who were driven out of their last bastions in Tripoli and Acre in 1289-1291 by his successors.

The Mamelukes developed Cairo into one of the most important hubs of Asian trade in the Mediterranean and under 12 Sultan Barkuk resisted the Mongolian conqueror Tamerlane.

They established their religious legitimacy through the Abbasid shadow caliphs, whom they controlled. Mameluke decline began after 1450, and in 1517 they were swept aside by the Ottomans under Selim I.

9 The tombs of Mameluke caliphs, in Cairo, laid out 1250-1517

12  Lamp from Sultan Barkuk's mosque,
14th century



The Conquest of Jerusalem

Saladin's victory over the Crusader army at Hattin on July 4, 1187, was a tactical masterpiece that paved the way for the retaking of Jerusalem on October 3.

Saladin proved his chivalry when he allowed the inhabitants of Jerusalem to choose the knight Balian of Ibelin as their commander for the defense— although the knight was actually Saladin's prisoner—as he did not want to win a victory over women and children.

After taking the city, he spared the Christians and allowed almost all of them to buy their freedom. He also granted freedom to hundreds without any ransom.

The 1187 battle of Hattin:
The crusaders' defeat against Saladin's army



The Islamic Regional Rulers of the East and Mahmud of Ghazna

Following the Samanids in the East, it was Mahmud of Ghazna and his successors who spread Islam through Central Asia and all the way to India.


The Islamic East went through a development that was generally independent of that of the West.

After the Arab armies had advanced as far as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Pakistan after 700, these dominions fell in 821 to the Tahirids, whose governors in Samarkand, Ferghana, and Herat were the Iranian 4 Samanids (from 819).

4 The Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara,
Uzbekistan, built from the ninth to the tenth century

Nasr I used the decline of the Tahirids in 873 to make himself independent as the Abbasid caliph's governor in Transoxiana. He developed Bukhara into his royal residence, and at the end of the tenth century it became a cultural center with Persian characteristics.

His brother Ismail conquered Afghanistan and a major part of Persia including 2 Khorasan by 903.

Khorasan ceramic plate, tenth ń

The empire then reached its greatest extent under Nasr II (914-943) stretching from Baghdad, Kerman, and the Persian Gulf to Turkistan and India. His successors lost Khorasan to the Ghaznavids in 994 and Transoxiana to the Qarakhanids in 999. The last Samanid ruler was murdered in 1005 while fleeing.

With this, the Turkish tribes had taken over power in the East. The Ghaznavids, who were originally Turkish mercenaries and generals of the Samanids, installed the dynasty founder Sebuktigin as governor of Ghazna in 977.

His son 1 Mahmud of Ghazna, who assumed power in 998, is one of the great conquerors of Islam.

By 999, he had conquered the Samanids in Khorasan and seized major areas of Persia and Punjab with his swift mounted armies.

In 1027, he had the caliph in 5 Baghdad award him the honorary title of "protector of the caliphate" and as a strict Sunni, fought the Shiite Buwayhids.

He was driven by religious faith and the quest for wealth. Between 1001 and 1024, Mahmud subjugated the north of India in 17 campaigns and made possible Islam's penetration into India. He dealt harshly with the "idolatrous" Hindus and destroyed their temples.

Mahmud's son Masud I focused on India and suffered a crushing defeat against the Seljuks in 1040 with the result that the sovereignty of the Ghaznavids became confined to 3 eastern Afghanistan and northern India.

In 1161, the Ghurids of central Afghanistan forced them out of Ghazna and in 1186 out of northern India as well.

1 Victory column of Ghazni,
built under Mahmud of Ghazna

5 Bab El Wastani, one of the city gates of Baghdad,
late eleventh century

3 Kohi-Baba, mountain range in
eastern Afghanistan


Shah-nameh ("king's book")
of Firdawsi

The Court of Mahmad of Ghazna

The court of Mahmud of Ghazna was a center of Islamic intellectual life. Poets and scientists were generously supported.
He also took them with him on his campaigns so that they could conduct their studies there.

Among the most notable scientists surrounding Mahmud was the universal scholar al-Biruni, who described the areas of life in his In the Garden of Science, and Firdawsi, who was commissioned by Mahmud to write his Persian book of kings Shah-nameh.

Firdawsi, when he was still an unknown poet meets the court poets of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (980), cover picture of the Shah-nameh ("king's book") of Firdawsi

Shah-nameh ("king's book")
of Firdawsi




(934-1020) was a Persian poet of the first rank in the long history of the Persian civilization. He wrote one of the greatest national epics in world literature.

Firdausi was born in the province of Tus, some 12 miles northeast of present-day Meshed. Firdausi was the pen name of the poet. His personal name and that of his father, according to al-Bundari, was Mansur ben Hasan. Firdausi's family was of old Iranian gentry stock and thus rich enough to be independent. He studied philosophy, astronomy, poetry, and astrology. He was happily married to an educated musician. They had a son, who died at the age of 37, and a daughter, who survived him.

Firdausi grew up in a world that had been controlled by the Islamic religion and the Arabs for about 300 years. This culture was foreign to the natural heritage of the Iranian peoples. It was thus with the writing of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Firdausi that Persian literary influence began to grow in a nonpolitical way in the Arab world.

Firdausi began to write his masterpiece, the Shahnameh, at about the age of 40. His main motive in undertaking this great task was to revive the glory of ancient Iran. A youthful contemporary of Firdausi, the gifted but ill-fated Dakiki, originally conceived the idea of narrating the story of Iran's history in heroic verse, but he was assassinated. Thus Firdausi took up the task. His main sources were his own imagination and the Khvatainamak (Book of Sovereigns), a prose epic in the ancient language Pahlavi, compiled from earlier chronicles about A.D. 640 under the last Sassanian kings in Iran.

"Book of Kings"

The Shahnameh is an epic of nearly 60,000 couplets. It chronicles the story of Iran for a period reckoned traditionally as more than 4 millennia. The work is divided into several parts covering four dynasties, the Pishdadian, the Kayanian, the Ashkanian, and the Sassanian. The descriptions of the first two are drawn from mythology; the third is only partly historical; and the fourth is the most factual.

The narrative begins with a description of primitive rulers followed by the golden age of King Jamshid, presumably 3000 B.C. Then follows the thousand years of foreign rule under cruel tyrants such as Zahak, who typifies the sway of Semitic invaders. Gradually Iran frees itself, only to be subjected to new wars with the country of Turan.

The romantic episodes of the loves of Zal and Rudabah serve as a prelude to the birth of their son Rustam, the supreme hero of the epic, whose martial exploits and tragic fate - slaying his unknown son Sohrab in a battle between Iran and Turan - dominate the earlier portion.

With the end of the Kayanian dynasty come the epoch of the Achaemenian kings and then Alexander the Great. Finally, after scantily covering the 500 years of Parthian rule, Firdausi praises the rise of Sassanian rule from A.D. 226 to 650. Thus the poem, despite its length, keeps ever in view the unifying purpose to exalt the fallen glory of Iran.

Rejection and Travels

Firdausi was 40 when he began the poem and 71 when he finished it. His growing fame at this time led him to the court of Mahmud of Ghazni, in what is now Afghanistan. Firdausi traveled there to present his works. On reading the biographers one is led to believe that his main dissatisfaction was the inadequacy of his reward. But the underpinnings of disagreement went further.

In the first place, Firdausi was a Shiite and Mahmud a Sunnite - representing the opposite poles of Islam. Furthermore, Firdausi had praised a vizier hostile to Mahmud. Finally, Firdausi was offended by Mahmud's lack of interest in poetry. In fact, Mahmud was to pay Firdausi a gold dirhem for each couplet but reneged and gave him 60,000 silver dirhems instead, which Firdausi rejected. In rage, Firdausi broke with the ruler and had to flee for his life.

After 10 years of wandering in poverty he found refuge in Tabaristan southeast of the Caspian Sea. To his new princely benefactor he dedicated the long poem "Jusuf and Zulaikha," the love story of Potiphar's wife for Joseph, a masterpiece of romantic verse that he took from the Old Testament by way of the Koran. Firdausi spent his last years in Tus in relative quietude.

An Evaluation

In both the major extant works of Firdausi is seen a poet of extraordinary ability. He combined harmoniously what he drew from historical sources with his personal inspiration. As for his style, whether in the fantastic elements demanded by the epic or in the gracefulness of his descriptions of everyday life, he excels at describing and explaining facts or sentiments in a clear, concise manner. His style is firm but eloquent, never giving into baseless extremes.

His poetry very seldom contained Arabic words, except in his descriptions of Alexander the Great, which came largely from Arabic sources. Just as Dante did with Italian, Chaucer with English, or the Gutenberg Bible with the Latin Vulgate, he was in his day a popularizer of the vernacular. Arabic was the holy Islamic language of Allah in the Koran just as Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church. It was the Shahnameh of Firdausi that recongealed the Persian language into a coherent force that soon was to be the court language for most of the Islamic world.



Central Asia and the Khwarizm-Shahs

Following the Seljuks and Qarakhanids, the northern Iranian Khwarizm-shahs erected the greatest empire of the old Islamic world. Due to their rapid expansion, they provoked the westward movement of the Mongols.


The Qarakhanids were a Turkic people belonging to the 6 Uighurs who originated in the Asian steppes.

6 Uighur yurt at the Tian Chi in China

They made themselves independent after 840 under a dual khanate in the west and east and converted to Islam in the tenth century. In 992, the Qarakhanids conquered Bukhara and by 999 had appropriated the Transoxianan dominions of the Samanids.

They made 7, 9 Bukhara their royal residence, and after 1042 Samarkand, too. At first they were able to resist the Ghaznavids and Seljuks, but were finally forced to recognize the sovereignty of these and indeed later became their vassals.

7 The Kalan Minaret in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, built in the early twelfth century by the Qarakhanids
9 Cupola bazaar in Bukhara, with the Kalan minaret left in the background

Under the rule of the Khwarizm-shahs after 1180, they were removed from the west khanate in 1210-1211 and from the east khanate in 1212.

The greatest Islamic empire before the western migration of the Mongols emerged under the Khwarizm-shahs (Khor-ezmi) who settled in Central Asia. Under the rule of the Ghaznavids beginning in 1017, they were conquered by the Seljuks in 1047 and installed as governors in Khwarizm. Konja Urgench remained their capital until 1212, when the last shah moved his government to the capital of Bukhara. In the first half of the twelfth century under Qutb ad-Din Muhammad and Ala ad-Din Atsiz, the Khwarizm-shahs were able to make themselves independent to a great extent and began in 1135 to push the Seljuks in Iran further back. Kilic, Arslan II dislodged the rule of the Great Seljuks over the East in 1157 and assumed their title of protector of the caliph in Baghdad (officially in 1192). Ala ad-Din Tekish conquered Iran with the seizure of Khorasan (1187) and Raj (1192). The Khwarizm-shahs now ruled over a huge empire spanning Turkistan, Iran, and parts of Iraq.

Ala ad-Din Muhammad expanded the empire once again by driving the Ghurids out of Afghanistan in 1206, and in 1210-1212 he overthrew the rival Qarakhanids in Transoxiana. Both territories were absorbed into the empire.

Furthermore, he drove the 8 Qara-Khitai Mongols back to the east.

Ala ad-Din was now ruler over an Islamic empire of a size until then unknown.

But in overestimating himself, he provoked the invasion of Mongolian army under 10 Genghis Khan in 1218 by refusing to make amends for the arrest of Mongolian merchants by one of his governors.

Ala ad-Din died trying to escape; his son Djalal ad-Din was murdered after an adventurous life as a fugitive in 1231. The empire then fell to the Mongols.

8 Turkish tribes killing Mongolians,
Indian miniature from the Mogul period

10 Genghis Khan, wood engraving, 16th ń



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy