The Middle East: Medieval Persia

Figure 1.--Here is a beautifully and delicately detailed Persian painting of a king and his youthful servant stopping for a drink next to a tree in an idyllic landscape, with grass and wild flowers in the foreground, mountains in the background, and birds and clouds in the sky, all surrounded by an intricate boarder pattern in gold that is very similar to textiles. The illustratioin gives us a view of how the wealthy class and their servants dressed.

Persia emerged as an important cultural center in the ancient world. Formidable mountins created a natutral fortress which aided Persians to build a destinct cultural identity in relative security, although major conquests added to the cultural mix. Alexander was the first conqueror (4th century BC). In modern modern times the Arabs invaded as imposed Islam (7th century). Than the Turks (10th century), and the Mongols (13th to 15th centuries). Modern Persian history begins with overthrow of Mongol control. We do not yet have information on Persian history after the Mongols. We do have some Persian images with depictions of clothing. Unlike much of Islam, Persia apparently permitted human depictions.

Ancient Persia

Persia emerged as an important cultural center in the ancient world. Formidable mountins created a natutral fortress which aided Persians to build a destinct cultural identity in relative security, although major conquests added to the cultural mix. Persia is not one of the early cradles of civilization and Persian civilization did not develop in river valley. Persian civilization developed east of the Fertile Crescent on the Iranian plateau of central Asia. The Iranian plateau was not settled until about 1500 BC by Aryan tribes, especially the Medes. The name Persian comes from the Parsua, another Aryan tribe. The first great war chief was Hakhamanish or Achaemenes who founded the Achaemenid dynasty about 700 BC. The Achaemenids built a great capital city at Persepolis. They conquered a vast empire from Egypt to India. Conquered were allowed to keep their own religion, customs, and laws and were governed by natove princes. The Persians encouraged cultural diversity. They saw the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, concepts that profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian theology. Darius the Great after crushing a Ionian Greek revolt in Anatolia was defeated by the Greeks in the epic battle of Marathon in 490 BC, one of the decisive battles of history. Cyrus the Great was one of the great Persian kings. Alexander defeated Darius III in battles 334-331 BC, destroying the Persian Empire. Alexander hoped to unite the Greeks and Persians into one great empire. His early death undid these ambitious plans. Following a civilm war among his generals, Seleucus, gained control over the Persian part of his empire. At the same time Potolomy gained control of Egypt. Unlike Alexander's plans, Seleucus ruled Persia as a conquered land through Greek troops and satraps. The Parthians overthrew the Greeks, who were unable to generate Persian support, about 250 B.C. The Parthians came from the deserts of central Asia. Unlike the Greeks, they were impressed with Persian civilization and ruled Persian through native kings. The Parthian empire lasted more than four centuries and during that period there was no important Persian revolt. The Parthians were one of the few people who successfully resisted the Roman Empire, desimating a Roman army led by Anthony. This played a major role in the defeat of Anthony and Cldeopatra by Octavian. Gradually Christianity spread to Persia and the power of the Parthians wained. Artaxerxes, a descendant of Sassan, in 226 A.D., declared Persia independent of Parthia and began a military campaign aginst neignoring countries and the Parthians. The revived Persian Empire like the Parthians were able to challenge Rome at the height of its power. Alexander was the first conqueror (4th century BC).

Arab Conquest (7th century)

The Prophet Mohammed brought Islam to the Arab tribes. Abu Bekr was Mohammed's first successor. As head of the early Moslem community (632-34) he sought primarily to unify the Arabian people who still were still divided by tribal differences. It was Omar who acted as Calif or head of the Moslem community (634-44) that initiated the explosive expansion of the Arabs and Islam. Omar achieved the first great successes of Arab armies outside of the Arabian Peninsula. He struck north at the then expansive Eastern or Byzantine Empire ruled by the Emperor Heraclius. Omar's armies attacked Syria, seizing large areas, then Jerusalem and finally Damascus (638). Arab armies continued Omar's military campaigns. The crossed the Euphrates and attacked the Persian Sassanian Empire. Arab horsemen proved a devestatingly effective military force. Arab armies defeated much larger Sassanian armies. They entered Ctesiphon (637). This was followed by other victories. Their victory at Nahavand (642) opened the way to the Iranian plateau. The Aran conquest of Persia continued with the comquest of Afghanistan (651) and Transoxiana (674).


Abbasid Caliphate (750-949)

The highpoint of the unified Islamic state was the Abbasid Caliphate. The Abbasid Dynasty wwere Arab rulers who established their capital at Baghad, this was an ancient city located close to the old Sassanian capital. The Abbasid Caliphate was an era of impresive cultural, artistic and economic achievement. The most ilustrious capiphs were Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Mamun (813-833). Persian scholars and artists had important roles in the intellectual achievements of the Abbasid Caliphate. Persians alsp played important political roles, given important court posts. This reflects the fact that the Arabs while notable rulers were a largely primitive people. They turned to the much more cultured Persians in building the institutions needed to run an expansive enpire. As a result, pre-Islamuc Iranian customs and traditions adopted by the Arab-ruled Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad. The military power of the Caliphate began to decline by the later part of the 9th century. As a result, the Caliphate began to lose control over Persian where Turkish dynastices began to exert independemce (10th century). Caliphs appointed governors administer frontier provinces, but these governors gradually bedan to establish their own small kingdomes. Some of these new dynasties and kingdoms included: the Tahirids in Khurasan (820-73), the Samanids in Khurasan and Transoxiana (819-1005). The largest such kingdom was the Ghaznavids which conquerd Khurasan, Afghanistan and northern India (977-1186).

Buwayids (945-1055)

The Buwayids from Gilan took Baghdad (945). This allowed to seize political power from the Abbassid caliphs.

The Turks (10th-13th centuries)

The Turks had a role during the Caliphate. Abbassid Caliphs conscripted them to serve as their personal guard. From this central position in the Caliphate, Tirkish commanders began to exercise power, often acquiring positions of influence. One of these commanders seized power (976) and founded the Ghaznavid dynasty (977-1186). The Ghaznavids were unable to resist another Turkish people originating in central Asia--the Seljuks. The Seljuks were a nomadic people named after Seljuk, a tribal leader who converted to Islam. Toghrul Beg became Sultan (1038) and defeated defeated the Ghaznavids. He sacked Isfahan (1051) and conquered Baghdad from the Buwayids (1055). He was named protector of the caliph and strongly promoted Sunni Islam. While the Seljuks were a Turkish people, they permitted a revival of Persian culture. They also promoted scientific inquiry. The power of the Seljuks gradually declined in the 12th century, especially the later part of the century. Power devolved from the central authority to provincial govenors who attempted to establish their own dynasties. One of the most important provinces was Khorassan which was was governed by the princes of Khwarezm (1153). They established a kingdom extending in the east from the frontiers of China to those of Afghanistan in the west. Khwarezmi armies reached the Zagros Mountains (1217). The Khwarezm conquered large areas, but were not successful in establishing a powerful unifed state at a time when China was driving the Mongol peoples west. .

The Mongols (13th to 15th centuries)

The Mongols were a people from central Asia who under pressure from the Chiese were forced west. United By Gengis they became a powerful military force. The Mongol conquest brought death and destruction to Persia. There were terrible massacres. Genghis Khan attacked Khwarezm and captured Transoxiana (1219). Next Samarkand fell (1220) and Khorassan (1221). Genghis's forces penetrated as far west as Azerbaijan. A second invasion was kled by Hulagu (1217-65), Genghis Khan's grandson (1256). Hulagu completed the conquest of what remained of Persia. He then took Baghdad and executed the caliph. Thius meant the end of the Abbasid Caliphate. Hulagu's successors took the title of il-Khan. They established their capital at Tabriz. When Sultan Abu Said died (1335), the Persia sector of the Mongol was divided. Loval rulers were abkle to exert their independence. The Sardebarians, a Persian Shi'ite dynasty, ererted control in the northwestern part of Khorassan (1337-1381). The Mozzafferids (1340-1392) exerted control in southern Persia from Fars to Kerman. These efforts to establish independence lasted only a few decaded. Tamerlane launched a third Mongol invasion leadfing a Turko-Mongol nomadic army. He conquuered eastern Persia (1380). He subjected Azerbaijan, Iraq and Fars a few years later. Persian artists are known for their minatures. The Persian tradition of miniatures originated in the Mongol era (13th century). This was a result of the pax Mongolica. Contacts over the Silk Road were expanded with China. Chinese arts influenced Oersian artists. Chinese painters worked at the Ilkhan courts in Persia. Scholars generally believe that Chinese artists came to Persia rather than Persian artistys going to China. There are records of Mongol khans bringingh Chinese arists in Persia. Unfortunately, none of the paintings, except minastures, from the Mongol era have survived.

Timurid Dynasty (1387-1506)

Tamerlane completed the conquest of Persia (1387). This began the rule of the Timurids or Timurid dynasty. There was terrible death and distruction. At Isfahan alone thee Mongols killed over 70,000 people, making mounds of severed heads. The Timurids were thus a foreign, non-Persian Sunni Muslim dynasty. At high point, the Timurids controlled all of Central Asia, Iran and modern Afghanistan, as well as large parts of Mesopotamia and the Caucasus. Tamarlane located his capital at Samarkand. He commissioned artists, calligraphers, writers, philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians, from all parts of his empire. He drew these artyisans and scholars especially from Shiraz and Isfahan. Tamerlane thus brought culture and civilization to Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat, Balkh and Mashad. The Timurid prince Zahir ud-Din Babur, the ruler of Ferghana, invaded India and founded the Mughal Empire (16th century). Shah Rukh (1405-1447) and Oleg Begh promoted art and culture throughout Persia. The tradition of miniature painting and book illumintion reached its heighth at Shiraz and Herat. The Mongol invasion devestated Persian cities and the major culture of Persian culture. This had the impact of opening Persia to cultural influences from Central Asia and China. One of the results was a rare pictoral insight into the Muslim world. Koranic criticim of pictorl depections has meant that painting has not been an important art form in the Muslim world. Thus from the 7th century until the invention of photography, we have relatively few pictoral depictiond from the Muslim world. One of the few exceptions are the minatures and book illustrations from the Timurid Dynasty.


We have been able to find very little information on education in medieval Persia. Aran armies conquered Persial ending the Sasanian Empire (651). Arab Islamization led to the eventual decline of the Zoroastrianism.. Court schools continued to be important for the nobility. Here there are some indications that girls might be educated (figure 1). We believe, however, that the number of auch schools were very limited. Other than these schools, education fell into the hands of the mullahs teaching in schools atached to mosques. Literacy rates continued at very low levels. The education ptovidd by the imans in the mosques focused largely on Koranic studies. Thus the Persians like the Arabs did not participate in the revival of learning and the development of science that occurred in the West, especially with the Renaissance (14th century). This basic system continud virtually unchanged for centuries.

Modern Persia

Modern Persian history begins with overthrow of Mongol control and the onset of the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1737) We do not yet have information on Persian history after the Mongols. We do have some Persian images with depictions of clothing. Unlike much of Islam, Persia apparently permitted human depictions.


Navigate the Children in Histoy Website:
[Return to the Main Iranian history page]
[Return to the Main Middle Eastern page]
[Return to the Main medieval page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 2:14 AM 10/27/2004
Last updated: 3:28 PM 6/8/2015