Eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, 819-1005

The Samanids

The power of the Abbasids weakened from the middle of the 9th century, but a number of politically independent dynasties emerged in the eastern part of the realm that still recognized the caliph in Baghdad as their religious leader. A governor in the northern part of Afghanistan, Saman Khuda, founded the Samanid dynasty in 819. He came from a local noble family that traced its lineage back to pre-Islamic times, and the Samanids were consequently the first Persian dynasty to appear after the Arabs conquered the region in the 7th century. After taking Khorasan in around 900 from another local dynasty, the Saffarids (861-1003), the Samanids ruled over the largest Islamic realm in the east, with important commercial centers such as Nishapur, Samarkand, Herat, and the capital of Bukhara. These cities were major stations along the caravan route – the Silk Road – and flourishing commerce contributed to the prosperity of the Samanid Empire. Another source of income was trade with slaves, who were taken from among the Turkic peoples on the Central Asian steppes and were sold as soldiers to Islamic armies.

Coins found in Denmark and Sweden show that the Samanids’ trade routes reached all the way to northern Europe. Towards the middle of the 10th century, the Samanid Empire was weakened by attacks from the Turkic Qarakhanids and the Ghaznavids; the last Samanid ruler was killed in 1005.

Both Arab and Persian trends were found in art and culture under the Samanids. Arabic was the dominant language, the one used by scientific minds such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) to formulate their ideas. The Arabic was also used with great effect on the decorative art of the period. At the same time, there was growing interest in reviving Persian literature, and it was under the Samanids that Firdawsi began his splendid narrative of the Persian kings, the Shahnama.

Much of the period’s art is closely related to contemporary Abbasid art, but there are also elements from a completely different tradition: the heritage of the local pre-Islamic Sogdian culture. Unglazed bricks were used to create buildings with a strictly geometric structure and brickwork with fine, uniform patterns.