History of Medieval Khurasan:


The following is an outline of several hundred years of Iranian history: as it is often complicated, it is worthwhile taking some time to see how it fits together. It is also possible that the political divisions of the province may shed some light on the nature of the pottery. Khurasan was a province that saw many uprisings and passings of dynasties throughout the first 600 years or so of Islamic rule, until the whole of this province was devastated by the Mongol invasions in the early C13th.

There seems to have been settlement on the site of Nishapur since far back in the pre-historic past, and according to Islamic historians there was a flourishing Sasanian city, built by Shapur I (c.240-270) or II (c.307-379) hence its name, which fell to the army of ‘Uthman in the first years of the Islamic conquests, under the command of ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Amir of Basra. He ruled in Nishapur until he was driven out by the uprising across Khurasan in 656-7; when Mu’awiya became the first Umayyad ruler in 661, he reinstated ‘Abdallah and commissioned him to conquer Khurasan, making the region a Muslim province for the first time . Nishapur was one of its capitals, alongside Merv, Herat and Balkh.

Another Persian rebellion was led by Abu Muslim in 748, who marched into Nishapur carrying the black banner of the emergent ‘Abbasid faction. Two years later the ‘Abbasids had established themselves as caliphs in Baghdad, and Abu Muslim was confirmed as governor of Khurasan, with his capital at Nishapur. He seems to have initiated a huge building programme which first stimulated the growth of the city. Nishapur increases in importance, and two ‘Abbasids were governors here before becoming caliphs. It was the governor of Khurasan (‘Ali ibn Isa) who presented to Harun al-Rashid the large gift of Chinese imperial porcelains (see Abbasid Ceramics Section), and this demonstrates the strategic importance of the province on trade routes. Chinese porcelain was found by the excavations of the Metropolitan Museum.

In the C9th Khurasan seems to have become virtually autonomous, and this trend was encouraged by the growth of dynasties which owed fealty to the caliph in Baghdad but ruled independently of him. The first of these were the Tahirids from 820 onwards, and their capital was at Nishapur. They in fact built a palace-city on the ‘Abbasid model, that was set apart from the main city, and was known as Shadyakh: the imperial court moved to Samarra in 836, so the Tahirid model would seem to precede the ‘Abbasid, which in turn came to be adopted by many of the Islamic states which owed fealty to Baghdad. Remains of the Tahirid palace were found by the Metropolitan’s excavations.

In 872, the Tahirids were replaced by the Saffarids who expanded their sphere of influence up into Khurasan, from Sistan in the south. They also made Nishapur their capital and rebuilt the Tahirid palace, only to be overrun early in the C10th by their powerful eastern neighbours, the Samanids (874-999). This dynasty had been placed in power in Transoxiana by the caliph al-Ma’mun, and ruled first from Samarqand and then moved to Bukhara. After defeating the Saffarids their "empire", with nominal sanction from the ‘Abbasids, extended from India to Iraq. Khurasan was thus an international entrepôt, with merchants coming not only from Iraq, India and Egypt, but also from Russia, and Vikings from Scandinavia to trade with the Bulghars and Khazars on the Caspian Sea.

Political instability within the Samanid, Bulghar and Khazar empires at the end of the C10th caused a decline in this international trade, and the Samanids had to yield their authority to their western neighbours, the Buyids, who were in the ascendant over the ‘Abbasid caliph. By this stage factions within the Samanid ruling class had led to the supremacy of the Ghaznavids: this Turkish dynasty started out as servants of the Samanids, and Mahmud of Ghazna (969-1030) had risen to command their army. He established himself as their successor, and was recognised by the Caliph al-Qadir in 999. The Ghaznavids were great patrons of architecture and the arts, and adorned their cities with palaces, pavilions and courts.

In 1037, the Ghaznavids seceded to the Saljuqs, another tribe of Turkish origin which migrated south into Khurasan: in 1038, they seized Nishapur, and Tughril Beg declared himself Sultan in Shadyakh. By 1055, the Saljuqs had captured Baghdad and controlled the caliphate. This period seems to see the absolute height of Nishapur’s prosperity. However, early in the C12th a series of natural disasters (earthquakes in 1115 and 1145) and pillaging hordes (the Ghuzz Turks in 1153) decimated the city, and the Saljuq governor resettled the population in the palace-city of Shadyakh. In 1180 the Khwarazm-Shah assassinated the Saljuq governor and established himself as ruler in Nishapur, from where he extended his domination over the old Samanid territories, to Samarqand and Bukhara.

This was the political situation until the devastation by the Mongols. Ten years after this invasion the city, by now much smaller and decreasing steadily in wealth and importance, seems to have suffered another earthquake and consequently another resettlement; the same happened in 1268, and again in 1406, after which time the city of Nishapur moved to its present site: the Great Mosque of the modern city was built in 1494.

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