Iraq, Eastern Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt, c. 1100-1250

The Late Abbasids, Atabegs, and Ayyubids

In the course of the 12th century, the western part of the Seljuk Empire was spit into smaller, independent units. In Iraq, the Abbasid caliphs al-Muqtafi and al-Nasir were able to regain the dynasty’s former political power for a short period before Baghdad was overrun by the Mongols in 1258.

A number of smaller, fairly short-lived, independent dynasties emerged in Jazira – the fertile area in the north between the Tigris and the Euphrates – and in Syria: the Zangids, Artuqids, and Luluids. Some of their founders were atabegs, governors who had served as the guardians of young Seljuk princes and ruled on their behalf. The competition among these local princes in cities such as Damascus, Diyarbakir, and Mosul was culturally very fruitful. They were political opponents, but also waged “holy war” against the Christian principalities that had been founded along the Mediterranean during the Crusades.

A decisive new regional power emerged with the Ayyubids. Salah al-Din (Saladin) was of Kurdish origin and a Sunni Muslim. As a general for the Zangids, he took part in the conquest of Egypt and put an end to Fatamid Shia Muslim dominance in 1171. From his base in Egypt, he soon established an Ayyubid sultanate, after which he quickly took control of Zangid holdings in Syria as well as Yemen. Salah al-Din was to become best known in the West for recapturing Jerusalem for the Muslims in 1187, after 80 years of Christian dominance. The Christians were driven back to fortresses and towns along the Syrian and Palestinian coast. During the succeeding Ayyubid sultans, a more conciliatory policy was pursued toward the Christian powers that promoted commerce and brought economic prosperity. The Ayyubids based their military might on the use of Turkic slave soldiers, who revolted in 1250 and founded the Mamluk state.

The art of the region, and especially of the Artuqids, displays a range of motifs that is unique in an Islamic context, among other things clearly inspired by Christian and Antique iconography. During this period, Mosul developed into a center for metalworking, where local masters produced inlaid work of unprecedented quality and richness of detail. Toward the middle of the 13th century, their skills spread to Syria and Egypt as many craftsmen fled the Mongol conquest. A number of ceramics centers emerged in northern Syria, such as Raqqa, where pieces were created in fritware that often displayed masterfully painted ornament in underglaze or lustre decoration.