Medieval Studies Persianate Dynastic Period/Later Caliphate (c. 800–1000)
by
A.C.S. Peacock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0326

Introduction

The Persianate dynastic period of Islamic history refers to the ninth to tenth centuries in the lands stretching eastward from Iraq to Central Asia. By the ninth century, the power of the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258) was starting to wane, and in the eastern parts of the Islamic world was increasingly supplanted by dynasties that were either of or purported to be of Iranian origins. This transfer of power started with the civil war between the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmun (r. 813–833) and his brother al-Amin, in which al-Maʾmun’s victorious armies were led by a general of origins in the Iranian gentry, Tahir b. al-Husayn (d. 822). Tahir was rewarded with the governorship of the great province of Khurasan (approximately modern eastern Iran, Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan), a position which his successors, known as the Tahirids, succeeded in making both hereditary and effectively autonomous for the next fifty years. Further east, similar processes were at work; in 819, in Transoxiana (roughly modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the descendants of another member of the Iranian gentry class, Saman, were appointed to governorships as a reward for military service, marking the beginnings of the Samanid dynasty (819–999) that would dominate the region for nearly two hundred years and ultimately supplant the Tahirids in Khurasan. Slightly later, another ethnically Iranian dynasty of more humble origins, the Saffarids (861–1003), built up an empire that briefly threatened Abbasid control of Baghdad, but by the beginning of the eleventh century had again been reduced to the status of local rulers of their powerbase, Sistan. Other dynasties arose from the Caspian, a remote area where Islam had spread only rather late and in the form of Shiʿism rather than Sunnism. The Ziyarids briefly managed to seize control of much of Iran, while their military followers, the Buyids, managed to establish a more lasting state that seized Baghdad in 945, enduring until the takeover by the Seljuk Turks in 1055. The degree to which these dynasties actively promoted Persian language and culture varied greatly. Despite the devolution of power to these dynasties, the Abbasid caliphs remained in office. Even if largely shorn of effective power, they remained useful to legitimize upstart rulers through granting them titles that justified their rule as appointees of the caliph.

General Overviews

The most comprehensive monographic accounts of political history in English are Barthold 1928, which covers the period from the Arab conquests in the seventh century to the thirteenth century, and Spuler 2015, which stops in the mid-eleventh century. Detailed studies of political, cultural, religious, and economic history are provided in Frye 1975a, while a more readable narrative, aimed at a general audience is Frye 1975b, although like Barthold 1928 it is in many respects dated. Both works concentrate on Khurasan and Transoxiana. A more recent survey, although much less detailed, is Daniel 2010. No recent work offers a comprehensive synthesis, but selections of recent scholarship can be sampled through three edited collections that examine the period: Herzig and Stewart 2011 comprises essays that cover aspects of history, literature, art, and architecture of the ninth to tenth centuries in Iran and Central Asia; Peacock and Tor 2015 focuses on Khurasan and Central Asia in the period c. 900 to 1200; and Rante 2015 examines the archaeology and material culture of the region before the Mongols. Christensen 2015 surveys the environmental and economic history of the region in the longue durée. Bosworth 1973 remains an important study of the legitimatory aspects of politics in the period.

  • Barthold, W. Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. London: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1928.

    A translation of the great Russian Orientalist Barthold’s seminal work, originally published in 1900, based on his doctoral thesis. Nonetheless, this remains a detailed narrative of political history, solidly based on the primary sources, and an indispensable reference work.

  • Bosworth, C. E. “The Heritage of Rulership in Early Islamic Iran and the Search for Dynastic Connections with the Past.” Iran 11 (1973): 51–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/4300484

    An important study of the ways in which rulers of Persianate dynasties sought to legitimize themselves by connecting themselves to pre-Islamic Iranian traditions of kingship.

  • Christensen, Peter. The Decline of Iranshahr: Irrigation and Environment in the Middle East, 500 B.C.–A.D. 1500. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    Originally published in 1993, this work remains the standard survey of environmental and economic change, although its methodology has been criticized.

  • Daniel, Elton L. “The Islamic East.” In The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 1, The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries. Edited by Chase F. Robinson, 448–505. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    A survey of the period from the Arab invasions till the end of the tenth century in Iran and Central Asia.

  • Frye, R. N., ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 4, The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975a.

    The most detailed study of the period from the seventh to the early eleventh century in English, this remains a standard reference work, comprising twenty substantial essays.

  • Frye, R. N. The Golden Age of Persia: The Arabs in the East. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975b.

    Written by a leading specialist, this is a narrative history that also covers cultural and religious change in eastern Iran and Central Asia down to the eleventh century, aimed at a general audience.

  • Herzig, Edmund, and Sarah Stewart, eds. The Idea of Iran. Vol. 5, The Early Islamic Period. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

    A collection of papers on aspects of history, literature, and art in 9th–10th-century Iran and Central Asia.

  • Peacock, A., and D. Tor, eds. Medieval Central Asia and the Persianate World. London: I. B. Tauris/BIPS, 2015.

    An edited volume focusing on the history and culture of Persianate Central Asia, with a particular focus on the tenth to twelfth centuries.

  • Rante, R., ed. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015.

    A collection of articles, many of which are in French, highlighting recent archaeological work on eastern Iran and Central Asia in the early medieval period.

  • Spuler, Bertold. Iran in the Early Islamic Period: Politics, Culture, Administration and Public Life between the Arab and the Seljuk Conquests, 633–1055. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004282094

    Originally published in German in 1952, this work retains of value as the most comprehensive monographic analysis of political, cultural, administrative, and religious life, although it inevitably has been superseded in some respects.

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