A. Historical Introduction:


The period covered by this section starts in roughly the 1170s and continues through to the early C14th, a period of 150 years or so in which ceramic production seems to be dominated by the output of Kashan, a city in north-west Iran just south of Tehran and Qumm. (see map) This is a period of turbulent political events, dominated by first the Saljuqs (1025-1220s) and then the Mongols leading to rule by the Ilkhanid dynasty until c.1350. We have already seen how the Saljuqs took over from the Ghaznavids in Khurasan, where Nishapur was their capital city, (see A:\history.htm#Ghaznavids), however a more general look at the effect on Persia as a whole is interesting here, especially when we come to section 5 and see how the Kashani workshops flourished throughout this period, seemingly untouched by political events.

From 1025 onwards the Saljuqs, who came from the other side of the river Oxus from Khurasan, were moving into former Ghaznavid and Buyid territories as those dynasties were weakening their control over them. In 1055 they had taken Baghdad, in 1071 they took Jerusalem, Damascus in 1076: they also penetrated into the heart of Anatolia, by destroying a Byzantine army at Manzikert on Lake Van in 1071. These "Rum Saljuqs" later become cut off from the Saljuqs in the east and developing in isolation they give rise to the Ottomans. The Saljuqs were already Muslims, and strictly Sunni, and these incursions into the Mediterranean by such a powerful Islamic army sparked off the Crusades. Their religion also meant, however, that they had no difficulty assimilating their own culture with that of the lands they were now ruling, and they especially took to Persian cultural life, adopting Persian as their official language and even taking Persian heroic names for their own.

The Saljuq empire which now extended from the Oxus to the Mediterranean, and down into the Punjab, was firmly established by Alp Arslan (1063-72), and was consolidated by Malik-Shah (1072-92) wisely advised by his vizier Nizam al-Mulk (1018-92). There were internal struggles over the succession in 1092, when Malik-Shah and Nizam al-Milk (who was murdered by Isma’ili Assassins) both died and left a power vacuum; the main religious difficulties arose from the extreme Isma’ili sects led by Hassan-i Sabbah (The Old Man of the Mountain, d. 1124), however they retreated to remote fortified places like Alamut, north-west of Tehran, and later are replaced altogether by the more moderate Twelver Shi’is; Sufi mysticism is also on the rise in this period, and the two most famous medieval mystics lived under the Saljuqs: al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-73) (his epithet is "Rumi" as he lived among the Rum Saljuqs of Anatolia).

There were some secessions from the Saljuqs in the West where dynasties such as the Ayyubids (Egypt and Syria) and Artukids (Northern Syria) established themselves; however, this was a period of great stability and material prosperity for the people of the eastern Islamic lands, in which the arts and sciences flourished, until the very end of the C12th. Even then the political events probably had no great impact on the lives of ordinary people, as the Khwarazm-Shah, Muhammad II, succeeded peacefully to the Saljuq throne in 1194.

The greatest change occurred with the coming of the Mongols in the early C13th. This was another nomadic tribal people from north of the Oxus, who had coalesced into a pillaging horde under the sovereignty of Chingiz Khan, elected supreme lord of the Mongols c.1206. In 1215 he had wrested the government of China from the hands of the ruling dynasty of Jurchen, and was provoked in to turning his attentions westwards by the assassination of some of his spies by the Khwarazm-Shah, Muhammad II. However, Muhammad had no strength to match the Mongol invaders, especially as many of the Turks in his own army deserted to join Turks in the Mongol armies. Thus in 1220-1 Chingiz Khan rampaged over northern Persia, taking in Samarqand, Bukhara and some of the most important cities that ever flourished in the Islamic world.

Whereas the occupation by the Saljuqs had been relatively peaceful, entailing a change of ruler who was of the same religious group as his subjects, the Mongols have become legendary for their acts of devastation. As we have seen in the Nishapur section, this great city was destroyed and left to decline by the Mongols; another city to suffer was Baghdad, which fell in 1258 and was plundered for several days. The incumbent caliph (al-Musta’sim since 1242) was executed, thus bringing an abrupt end to the ‘Abbasids who had ruled as religious leaders of Islam since 750, five centuries before, though their political power had been almost nil since the C10th. Thereafter Baghdad sank rapidly to the level of a provincial town, never to recover its former splendour.

Chingiz Khan died in 1227, but his successors continued his policies towards China and the West, taking in Russia in 1236-41 and Saljuq Anatolia in 1243; on 1 January 1256, Hülegü Khan crossed the Oxus at the head of 129,000 soldiers and occupied the plateau of northern Persian without resistance. The Mongols were not Muslims, and were only nominally Buddhist, but their policies of religious intolerance were only mollified by the patronage of Hülegü’s wife towards Nestorians, and of the scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274), the ruler’s advisor and astronomer, towards Shi’is; the Sunnis who had flourished under the Saljuqs now found themselves persecuted.

However, Hülegü went back to Central Asia at end of 1259 to elect a new Great Khan on the death of his brother, and the Mamluks in Egypt took this opportunity to hit back. Theirs was the only army capable of meeting the Mongols on equal terms, since both armies were essentially composed of Turks and Caucasians, and used the same fighting methods. In September 1260, the Mongols were defeated for the first time, at ‘Ayn Jalut, north of Jerusalem, and thereafter they withdrew from Syria. Mamluk Egypt thus became the new centre of refuge for Muslims, especially Sunnis, escaping religious persecution.

Hülegü died in 1265, and was succeeded in Persia by the Il-Khans (= "viceroys") though struggles for power lasted until 1295, when Ghazan (aged 24) came to power, and under the guidance of his physician Rashid al-Din, he converted to Sunni Islam in an effort to bring peace. This was signal for other Mongols to do likewise. Ghazan also tried to initiate reforms to encourage internal stability but he did not live long enough (he died in 1304), and it was left to his brother Öljaytü, also guided by Rashid al-Din, to stabilise conditions. This ruler sparked off a period of intense building work, erecting a new capital city at Sultaniyya, west of Qazvin; he became Shi’i in 1310, acknowledging the growing importance in this area of this religious movement. However, Öljaytü also died soon, in 1316, to be succeeded by his 12 year old son (Abu Sa’id). This paved the way for decline: Rashid al-Din was executed in 1318; the internal stability of the Ilkhanids was shattered by palace intrigues, popular revolts, tribal feuds, and ethnic antagonism between the Persians on the one hand, and Turks and Mongols on the other; several states seceded from the Mongols; Abu Sa’id died in 1335, and there followed 18 years of civil war, until the last of Ilkhanids just disappeared – the sources don’t even tell us what happened to him.

While this was a period of turbulent political struggles, the Mongol invasions and devastations were possibly the only thing to have impacted directly on the lives of ordinary men and women of the Central Islamic lands. This period as a whole is remarkable for the technical developments that occur in ceramics, as we shall see in the next section, and also for the flourishing of the arts, sciences, philosophy and religious thinking. It is also a period when the Islamic world is linked directly with China through the rule of the Mongols which extends over both civilisations: this bond is manifested in the arts through the gradual change from an abstract or stylised arabesque form of vegetal decoration, to a more naturalistic representation, and especially through the introduction into Islamic art of distinctively Chinese forms such as the lotus flower, and figural motifs such as dragons and winged phoenixes. This continues with added vigour during the rule of the Timurids, and has a profound influence on Ottoman art, especially in the beautiful ceramics of Iznik. These developments will be called to attention where relevant in the ensuing chapters.

[Please note that a really easy-to-read book that will introduce you painlessly yet accurately to the history of this region in this period is Samarqand by Amin Ma’alouf. The first half is really the only relevant bit, as the second half deals with C19th Persia. It is essentially a historical novel on the life of Omar Khayyam, author of the famous Rubaiyat, but incorporates interesting chapters on Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan-i Sabbah, leader of the Assassins.]

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