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Their realm was the heart of civilization — until the apocalypse came. Meet the Persians: enlightened lords of Central Asia’s final golden age.
If I ask you to picture “Arabian culture,” what images come to mind?
Towering citadels, perhaps; adorned with domes and minarets. Flowing robes of many colors, and turbans and embroidered veils. Gardens of colorful flowers and birds, where courtesans sing poetry for sultans. Spices and the scent of sandalwood, and the tales of the Thousand and One Nights.
It might surprise you, then, to learn that none of this — not one bit of it — comes from Arabia at all.
When the armies of Muhammad rode eastward in the 620s CE, they brought none of these gifts with them.
In those days, Arabia’s battle-hardened zealots knew only the stern, fierce world of the desert — that trackless expanse of sand and sky, where warriors wrote love-poems to their swords, and sang of riding camel-back across the sun-parched wastes to raid for honor and glory.
To be sure, the city of Medina was a trade hub in those days (as Mecca itself may have been). The Prophet and his followers — many wealthy merchant families among them — would have tasted Indian saffron; heard Persian poetry; caught thin strains and melodies of the vast cultural symphony that thundered in Central Asia, far to the east.
Musical accompaniment for this story:
But for Muhammad’s armies, Persia was still an alien world — a mysterious realm whose mountains and forests might harbor all manner of fabulous beasts and enchanted treasures.
So it was only natural — the will of God, some might say — that Arabia’s fighters should ride for the East.
The armies of this new faith would be far from the first to yearn for Persia — nor the first to be captured by the very world they set out to conquer. For more than 2,800 years, the forests, mountains, lakes and plains of Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan had beguiled Babylonian kings, Greek emperors, and horde upon horde of horse-riders from the Eurasian steppe.
And the more Asia churned, the more marvelous this region’s culture grew. Each new wave of conquerors you’ve met in this series — from the Scythians and Sogdians to the Parthians and Sasanians — birthed and fostered new ideas from all across the continent: Greek architecture, Babylonian mathematics, Chinese painting, the art of steppe warfare.
From this rich soil, one of the most extraordinary cultural flowerings in all human history was about to emerge. But that flower’s birth would be a violent one.
Deep in the Elburz Mountains, the armies of Islam clashed with proud Persian families who had no intention of giving up their ancestral homes. These families’ roots reached back into the furthest mists of recorded history, and their one God was Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Fire.
Even when Islam finally made its way into those hidden enclaves, it was not the Islam of the Sunni Caliphate in Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, the new faith came with the Shi’a movement, whose leaders had fled the Caliphate’s persecution to seek sanctuary in the secluded hills and groves of Persia.
Whereas Christians in Europe would massacre one another over points of theology, warfare within Islam was always more openly realpolitik. The Shi’a believed (as they believe today) that Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib should have been the first caliph, and all who preceded him were usurpers.
Many theological differences hinge on that legal point; no doubt about that. But still, no one in 9th-century Persia was warring over whether or not Muhammad was God’s Prophet.
Indigenous populations of Jews and Christians had been incorporated under Islamic rule, and obediently paid the “non-Muslim tax” (jizya) to their rulers. The question now was, who was going to rule the eastern reaches of the House of Islam: the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad, or one of the Shi’a dynasties of Persia?
The first plan was a compromise. The Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-mu’minīn) appointed a governor who’d grown up in Persia, but had still spent enough time in Baghdad that he could be trusted to toe the party line.
That man was a general named Tahir ibn al-Husayn — and while he did indeed pay lip service to the Caliphate, he promptly set up his own Tahirid dynasty, and ruled Khorasan (eastern Iran and northwestern Afghanistan) as a semi-autonomous kingdom.
Even that fragile peace was soon to shatter. Less than 40 years later (in the 860s CE), a Persian bandit named Ya’qub ibn Layth al-Saffar assembled his own private army, seized control of the city of Sistan, and swept through Central Asia like a scythe.
He unseated the Tahirids from their citadels of Merv and Nishapur, declared an independent Saffarid state in Khorasan, and nearly managed to lay siege to Baghdad itself before his army was finally turned back.
All of a sudden, the once-invincible House of Islam was tearing itself in two.
And although the Saffarid state scarcely outlasted its founder, the wound it had inflicted was slow to heal. For the next two centuries, a fast-burning succession of Persian dynasties — the Sajids, the Samanids, the Buyids, and the Sallarids — waged relentless war across the fertile plains and valleys of Khorasan.
In some ways, this Iranian Intermezzo (821-1055) mirrors the violent birth pangs of the European Middle Ages, far to the west.
Some of these dynasties were Shi’a, while others sought to rebuild ties with the Sunni Caliphate. But from the 800s onward, Central Asian Islam was clearly striking out on its own unique path.
At the same time the Saffarids and Tahirids were battling it out in Persia, the kings of the Carolingian dynasty were welding the Frankish kingdoms into Europe’s first sizable state since the fall of the Roman Empire.
And as Charlemagne and his successors re-cast classical Greece and Rome in a Christian mold, the princes of the Iranian Intermezzo drew on the equally venerable traditions of their Achaemenid and Sasanian ancestors.
Iranian scholars adapted the Arabic script (abjad) to write the Persian language. Bards composed poetry in classical Persian style, spiced with new Arabic vocabulary.
Architects constructed Islamic schools (madrasas) and mosques far more ornate than any in Damascus. And from their minarets, the call to prayer was not shouted, as in Arabia — but sung, like an enchanting love song to the Lord.
In all these ways, Persia was re-forging Islam in its own image.
And just as medieval Europe’s rediscovery of Greco-Roman arts and sciences would at last give rise to the Renaissance, the many branches of Persia’s classical traditions were beginning to blossom with vibrant new fruit. Central Asia was reborn into a more glorious, illustrious age than any before it.
The oasis city of Bukhara, in what’s now Uzbekistan, lay at the heart of this Eastern Renaissance.
That city had already served as a Silk Road trading hub for more than 1,200 years, and had been a crown jewel of the Sasanian and Sogdian dynasties; a melting pot of Persian aristocrats, Indian mathematicians, Chinese merchants, Arabian scholars and Turkish mercenaries.
Under the Samanid dynasty, Bukhara rose to rival Baghdad itself as Islam’s cultural capital. For more than 200 years, from the 800s to the 1000s CE –
Bukhara was one of the most scientifically and artistically advanced cities on earth.
One traveler, the historian Abu Mansur Abdu l-Malik ath-Thaalibi, described that city as:
“The focus of splendor, the shrine of empire, the meeting-place of the most unique intellects of the age, the horizon of the literary stars of the world.”
Like the Medici in Renaissance Florence, Samanid amirs lavished mountains of gold on scholarship and art, turning the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand into paradises for creative work.
They commissioned towering mosques and luxuriant public gardens, and filled their universities with leading astronomers, historians, philosophers, physicians and mathematicians – including Al-Khwarizmi, the inventor of algebra (whose name is the root of the word “algorithm”), and the chemist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, who discovered and named alcohol (from the Arabic al-kuḥl).
But the Samanids’ most far-reaching decision of all was to reject Shi’a Islam, and align themselves with the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad. By joining with the western Caliphate, the Samanids opened up trade and travel routes stretching all the way from southern Spain and Morocco, through Egypt and Turkey, across Arabia, Jordan and Syria, all the way to Iran and Afghanistan.
While this united House of Islam was not an empire per se, it opened the floodgates on a cross-continental flow of ideas, goods and peoples.
For the first time in world history, an Islamic scholar born in Córdoba, Spain could safely travel to study philosophy in Cairo, spend time composing literature in Baghdad, make a pilgrimage to Mecca — and live out his old age in Bukhara, thousands of miles to the east.
What’s more, the well-traveled pilgrim could accomplish all this without (necessarily) having to learn any language other than Arabic, and without any worry that he might fail to be greeted by friendly communities of fellow-believers in each new city he visited.
The challenge of protecting all this cultural wealth fell to Islam’s latest converts: the Turks.
These horse-warriors from the steppe (who, remember, had also served as muscle for the Sogdian merchant princes you met in Part 4 of this series) took to their new religion with relish.
Turkic slave-soldiers (mamluks) could soon be found in cities and frontier posts from Egypt to Afghanistan, standing “row upon row,” just waiting for the word to leap upon enemies of the faith.
But of course, the Turks weren’t particularly thrilled about serving as slave-soldiers to Persian amirs.
In 962, a Turkic slave commander named Alp-Tegin decided he’d had enough of following Samanid orders. When the amir of Bukhara died, the royal family fell into chaos as they battled for succession of the throne – and Alp-Tegin seized his chance.
He gathered an army of Turkish slave-soldiers, crossed the Hindu Kush mountains, captured the city of Ghazna, in what’s now Afghanistan, and declared himself the founder and amir of the new Ghaznavid dynasty.
But just as Persia had captured the Greeks and Arabs, its culture captured the Turks, too. Although the Ghaznavid ruling family were ethnically Turkic, they patronized Persian art, literature and science, and built their capital of Ghazna into a metropolis of Persian culture. In fact, the Ghaznavid era took the Samanids’ achievements even further.
Ghaznavid Persia erupted into full-scale cultural Renaissance.
Throughout the 1000s CE (as William the Conqueror and his knights were invading Saxon England), Ghaznavid rulers commissioned poems, books, plays and treatises that are still read widely in Iran today – including the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), Persia’s national epic, which rivals the Odyssey and Arthurian legend in scale and imagination.
The Ghaznavids bankrolled hundreds of scholars – including Al-Biruni, a polymath credited as one of the inventors of the scientific method. And just like princes of the European Renaissance, Ghaznavid amirs were fascinated by experiments in astrology, alchemy and esoteric philosophy.
The Iranian Renaissance produced two poets still ranked among the world’s all-time greats, in any language.
Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) could well be described as Persia’s answer to Leonardo da Vinci.
Khayyam conceived new geometric solutions for cubic equations, developed a solar calendar so accurate that it was used in Iran until 1911, and composed the now-famous collection of poetry now known as the Rubaiyat.
Or at least, this collection is attributed to him; its actual provenance is fiercely contested to this day. In any case, the Rubaiyat is a masterpiece of esoteric Sufi imagery:
“Awake! for morning in the bowl of night Has flung the Stone that puts the stars to flight: And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The sultan’s turret in a noose of light.”
— Omar Khayyam
With the poet Rumi (1207-1273), on the other hand, we find ourselves on firmer biographical ground.
Rumi was born in 1207, in the city of Balkh, in what’s now Afghanistan. In those days, the area was ruled by the Khwarezmids, another dynasty of former Turkic slave-soldiers, who’d broken loose from the Ghaznavids and carved out their own state in the 1000s.
Rumi’s childhood was fated to be a tragic one.
Just as the thriving Silk-Road empires of the Sogdian era could never have predicted the coming of Islam, nobody in the Islamic Golden Age expected the Mongols.
Like the Scythians and Huns before them, these horse-archers erupted from the mysterious black hole of the Eurasian steppe, decimating every army they met.
By the early 1200s, it looked as if the Mongols might be willing to consolidate their gains in Tibet and western China, and settle down to trade with the rest of the civilized world.
It was precisely that intention, it seems, that inspired Genghis Khan himself to send a trade caravan to Khorasan, with a message of peace for the Khwarezmid shah. But to the shah’s ears, the Khan’s tone came off as a bit too flippant:
“I am master of the lands of the rising sun while you rule those of the setting sun. Let us conclude a firm treaty of friendship and peace.”
— Genghis Khan
The shah, who believed himself to be God’s literal representative on Earth, resented the implication that the Mongols intended to remain free of the House of Islam.
And perhaps he genuinely had no idea about the diplomatic incident at the town of Otrar, where the local governor (a man named Inalchuq) captured and imprisoned the Mongol messengers.
In any case, Genghis Khan was willing to let that incident slide. He sent a second caravan west to Khorasan, this time asking for an explanation of the unfortunate event.
At that meeting, the shah himself ordered the ambassadors’ hair shaved off (a grave insult for a Mongol warrior), beheaded one of them, and sent the others back to Genghis with no other reply.
What else could a Khan do, but deliver battle?
Genghis Khan began by deploying his highly trained network of professional spies, who soon brought back intriguing intelligence: the Kingdom of Khwarezm was far from unified. Many of the local Persians (the poet Rumi’s family included) despised the dynasty’s ruling Turkic family, and yearned to be freed from their yoke.
And so, in the year 1219, Genghis Khan crossed the Tian Shan mountains with 300,000 horse-archers, and laid siege to the citadels of Persia.
Mongol siege engineers, fresh off a campaign against the exquisitely fortified cities of Imperial China, shattered the mud-brick walls of Samarkand and Bukhara.
As a dedicated Mongol strike force pursued the shah himself into the wilderness of northwestern Iran, the Khan’s armies smashed the Persian cities’ aqueducts, burned their libraries, raped their women, slaughtered their men, and sent thousands of refugees fleeing westward.
Among those refugees were the poet Rumi and his family.
Many of them fled to the great metropolis of Baghdad — which the Mongols crushed in 1258; catapulting full-sized trees into its mosques, beheading world-famous artists and scientists, and destroying the entire contents of the House of Wisdom; the greatest library in the world at that time, which contained more books than Alexandria, including works by Archimedes, Euclid and Ptolemy that are now lost to us forever.
Rumi and his family, for their part, had the foresight to flee all the way to the city of Konya, in what’s now Turkey. Along the way, they stopped off in the Persian city of Nishapur, where eighteen-year-old Rumi formed a friendship that would transform his entire worldview.
The famous poet Attar, a devoutly mystical Sufi, taught Rumi to contemplate a more esoteric vision of the relationship between God and the Self.
As Rumi and his fellow refugees watched their entire world burn around them, the poet looked inward, finding consolation in the transcendent. He penned hundreds of elegant verses, of which these lines are only a small taste:
“Why should I seek? I am the same as He. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself!”
At the climax of Persia’s golden age, its poets and philosophers had reached an apex that would not be equaled in the West for centuries.
And yet, when we compare the Iranian Renaissance with its European counterpart, one clear difference shines out: unlike in Europe, Central Asia’s Renaissance did not give rise to a Scientific Enlightenment, an Age of Exploration, or an Industrial Revolution.
Persia’s most brilliant intellectual flowering was cut off at the stem.
Mongol armies not only burned libraries and slaughtered scholars, but shattered aqueducts and filled in wells, devastating the delicate ecology of a region that had been painstakingly cultivated for thousands of years.
As Bukhara, Samarkand, Ghazni and Baghdad were smashed to rubble, their flourishing gardens, orchards and crop-fields were reduced to barren desert — almost overnight.
And this is why, if you were to visit Iraq or Afghanistan today, you would step on the parched soil of a world almost unrecognizable to its 13th-century inhabitants. Where grass and palm-groves once sprawled, only hard clay remains. Where rivers and canals once ran, dirt tracks run through sand.
The Middle East and Central Asia have never been so desolate, in all recorded history — not since the primordial farmers of Sumer and Elam first dug water-channels from the clay.
Yet for all the devastation the Mongols wreaked, they didn’t quite manage to bring about the end of the world.
In some ways, they actually advanced Asia’s cultural and technological development, linking the Middle East directly with China for the first time in world history; introducing European astronomy to China, the printing press to Turkey (and thereby to Europe), and safety and stability to the entire continent — for a while, at least.
But after less than 200 years of Pax Mongolica, Genghis Khan’s horseback empire was fragmenting, torn between rival factions that each claimed vast swathes of Asia as their own.
One branch of the family took over China and became the Yuan dynasty. Another branch settled in Russia as the Golden Horde, while the Chagatai Khanate settled in Uzbekistan, and the Il-Khanid branch took over the Middle East, basing itself in the conquered city of Baghdad.
And for the next 600 years — right up until the modern era — Asia and the Middle East would remain fragmented along (roughly) the lines the Mongols drew.
As the Ottoman sultans rose in Turkey, and the Russian Empire swept eastward across northern Asia, the territories of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan would drift further and further apart in language, culture, government and political alignment — and deeper into poverty.
While all of Central Asia remains (primarily) Islamic, and the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are still inhabited today, the days when a scholar could travel freely from Egypt to Persia are long-gone — and may never return within our lifetimes.
And although some Central Asian countries (most notably Iran) have caught up with the industrialized West in many areas, we’ll never know what might have happened, had the Mongols never come.
Central Asia is a world interrupted.
Just as the coming of Islam disrupted the Silk-Road golden age of the Sogdians, the scourge of the Mongols permanently transformed Central Asia — in ecology, population, economics, and almost every other area of life.
Would 15th-century Persians have invented steam engines and microscopes, had it not been for the Mongols? Maybe not. But at the very least, their land would have remained fertile, capable of supporting large populations of skilled specialists.
Their scholars would certainly have kept creating great works of poetry, music, astronomy, medicine and mathematics, drawing on vast libraries of carefully indexed information.
Who can say what they might have discovered, had things gone differently?
This brings us back to the theme that’s run through this whole series.
Gazing at the arid ruins of Bukhara and Samarkand, or the abandoned hillside palaces of Panjikent, or the vast wildernesses of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, one might be forgiven for wondering whether any cities raised in such desolate places could ever have been more than mere temporary flukes; experiments in urban living that inevitably collapsed, scattering their inhabitants back across the wastes, to return to nomadic life.
But in fact, it is today’s Central Asia that is the real historical anomaly!
For more than 3,500 years — from the 2300s BCE all the way to the 1200s CE — these mountains, valleys and plains nourished towering forests, lush orchards and fertile grain-fields, feeding the primordial citadels of the BMAC culture, the trading states of the Scythians, the bustling entrepôts of the Sogdians, and the great university cities of the Persian Renaissance.
Only in the last 600 years has this region become barren desert. It attracts outsiders now for different reasons — not for trade and scholarly debate, but for the rivers of petroleum that flow beneath its mountains.
And ever since the Mongols shattered the House of Islam, its states have been reduced to geopolitical pawns. Today, Asia’s fallen giants are bartered and plundered at the whims of new kingdoms, based not in Asia’s heart — as was the case throughout most of history — but around its fringes, and across far-off seas.
If the idea of Uzbekistan as the center of the world strikes us as bizarre today, this is only because our society is itself a strange prodigy; an unexpected cultural flowering from Western Europe, of all places, which has engulfed the world over the last few centuries — little more than the lifespan of a single Persian dynasty.
I hope, with all my heart, that our civilization’s golden age will endure for centuries to come. But it’s sobering to remember that in 13th-century Bukhara and Samarkand —
Scholars must have felt just the same — in the last moments before the apocalypse.
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P.S. — If you enjoyed the photos of modern-day Bukhara and Samarkand throughout this article, I highly recommend checking outEran ud Turan — a talented group of historical reenactors dedicated to bringing the ancient Silk Road back to life.