Visual History of the World
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
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
created a great and powerful empire with excellent administration,
connected by secure roads, 5 trade routes, and comfortable
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
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.
dynasty established the first political unity in the region under its
founder, 7 Saladin—one of Islam's most important statesmen and
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
2 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
Afghanistan and northern India.
In 1161, the Ghurids of central
Afghanistan forced them out of Ghazna and in 1186 out of northern India
1 Victory column of Ghazni,
built under Mahmud of Ghazna
5 Bab El Wastani, one of the city gates of Baghdad,
3 Kohi-Baba, mountain range in
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
(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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Furthermore, he drove the 8 Qara-Khitai Mongols back to the
Ala ad-Din was now ruler over an Islamic empire of a size until
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.
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
8 Turkish tribes killing Mongolians,
Indian miniature from the Mogul
10 Genghis Khan, wood engraving, 16th ń