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Persian Dynasties

Iranian History - Persian Dynasties under the Abbasids

Persian Dynasties

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During the period from the 9 to the 11th century, a number of local dynasties grew in power and challenged Abbasid rule in Persia while remaining loyal to them in name.

The first of these were the Tahirids of Khorasan. Their originator was Tahir Ibn Husayn, a general who had fought under the caliph Al-Mamun, the son of Al-Rashid, and had been awarded governorship of Persia in 821. Though nominally subject to the Abbasid Caliphs, in reality the Tahirids ruled an independent kingdom and, over the next fifty years, extended their territory as far east as the borders of India.

The Tahirids were, in turn, overthrown by another home grown movement, this time centred around a commoner, a blacksmith turned influential warlord named Yaqub Ibn Layth.

During a decade of campaigning that ended in 871, Yaqub ejected the Abbasid governor of Shiraz and amassed further territory until, at the point of moving on Baghdad itself, he was granted the governorship of a large area of Persia by the Caliph.

Two years later in 873, he secured the surrender of the last of the Tahirid Emirs. The dynasty established by Yaqub and continued by his brother, Amr ibn Layth, is known as the Saffarids, as derived from the Persian word saffar which means blacksmith.

The Saffarid Empire was, however, short-lived, being curtailed in 900 by the misadventure of Amr ibn Layth eastwards to battle with the Samanids, a Central Asian dynasty with territories in modern day Uzbekistan. The defeated Saffarids were reduced to the status of vassal lords in Sistan while the Samanids under Ismail I (r. 892-907) added most of western and central Iran to their kingdom.

Sistan, eastern Iran.

The gates of Haozdar in Sistan, eastern Iran, 1909

The rule of the Samanids saw a renaissance in Persian culture, in part, down to conscious policy and partly as a result of favourable economic conditions facilitating cultural development. Scholars and artists of numerous nationalities, including non-Muslims and heretical Muslims were welcomed in the Samanid court and generously supported in their work.

In addition, the Persian language was reintroduced as a language of government and administration alongside Arabic and social mobility was facilitated by increasing religious tolerance and a relaxation of the caste system. In this enlightened, liberal environment, Bukhara became not only the cultural locus of Persian civilisation but one of the foremost centres of scholarship and the arts in the world.

These developments served to focus the drive towards the construction of a Persian cultural identity within the framework of Islam. It is interesting to note the many ancient Persian traditions and cultural forms that reappeared in Islamic guise during this period. The modern world also owes a debt to Samanid patronage of the sciences, particularly the fields of mathematics, physics and medicine in which such names as Al-Biruni, Al-Razi and particularly Ibn Sina (Avicenna) are held in great esteem.

Polish stamp showing Ibn Sina, Avicenna.

Polish stamp showing Ibn Sina aka Avicenna

Meanwhile, the Baghdad Caliphate was under attack from a new force in Western Iran led by the three sons of a fisherman by the name of Buyeh. Having conquered Shiraz, Kerman and Isfahan, they turned to Baghdad in 945 where the weakened Abbasids could do nothing to stop them.

From that time until the invasion of the Seljuk Turks in 1055, the dynasty of the Buyids were the de facto rulers of Western Iran and parts of Eastern Arabia with the Abbasid caliphs reduced to the status of figureheads. The Buyids revived many trappings of the Sassanid court including the title Shahanshah which means "king of kings".

Their Shiite leanings and antagonism towards Arabs made their relationship with the caliphate an uneasy one and it was during their rule that Shiism gained its distinctively sectarian character and divisions with Sunni Islam hardened.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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