Nishapur, One of the greatest Medieval cities on the Silk Road

Nishapur, located in North East Iran today, was one of the greatest cities of Eastern Khurasan. The other significant cities were Herat, Balkh and Merv. The first two are located in present day Afghanistan and the third in Turkmenistan. Nishapur was strategically located on the Silk Road and connected Asia Minor and Mesopotamia to India and China. In the thirteenth century Yaqut, in his famous geographical dictionary, called Nishapur “the Gateway to the East”.

Brief History

Nishapur was situated in a fertile plain and blessed with a pleasant weather, provided  the ideal environment for a settlement and has been a populous centre since pre-historic times. To the north are high mountains, of which the highest peak is Mount Binalud. The mountain water is carried in streams and underground aqueducts. Although there are references to human settlements since pre-historic times, the names of the towns are not known. Nishapur was found by Shapur I (241-272) or Shapur II (309-79) in the Sassanian period. The town is named after them. In the Sassanian and early Islamic period, the city was also named as Abarshahr. The archeological excavations have not yielded sufficient traces of its Sassanian origin. As is the case with many ancient and medieval cities, it is possible that the actual location of the older cities might be several kilometres away from today’s Nishapur.

According to Arab historians Tabari and Baladhuri, the Sassanian city fell to the Third Caliph Othman (644-56). In fact, the uprising against the Umayyad Caliphate started in Khurasan by a Persian named Abu Muslim, who entered Nishapur as a conqueror in 748. By 750, the Umayyad Caliphate ended and the era of Abassid Caliphate started. The seat of power shifted from Syria to Iraq. This is one of the most prominent events of the history of Arabs.

In the 9th Century, Khurasan became an autonomous region under Tahir ibn al-Husain, with the capital city as Merv. This dynasty was known as the Tahirids. The second in line, Abdallah chose Nishapur as its capital stating that the weather and people were more agreeable. Approximately 5 kilometres from the city of Nishapur, Abdallah established his Palace and quarters names Shadyakh. Under the Tahirids, the later Safarids and Samanids, Nishapur entered a Golden era of prosperity. Although the Samanids had their capital at Bukhara, Nishapur was an important city.  Under the Samanids, Nishapur became an international trading centre. From Ghaznavids, the power passed to Seljuqs under whom Nishapur became part of a large empire.

Nishapur was possibly located in a high seismic zone as its history is full of reference to earthquakes and in one account, it is said that the city was destroyed and re-built eighteen times. Despite all this, there was a time when Nishapur rivalled Baghdad and Cairo as a cultural, intellectual and trading centre.

In 1221, the army of Genghis Khan destroyed the city and killed all its inhabitants. His favourite son in law was killed in Nishapur and to avenge his death, Genghis’s son Tolui destroyed the city. After this event, the city could never recover its past glory. It is said that the famous poet Farid-ud-din Attar perished in this mayhem.

Trade

Nishapur was an important centre for Ceramic pottery, Metal-work, Carpet-weaving, Wooden work and Glass work. It was famed for its Turquoise, which was mined locally. The city had a grand bazar which enabled the trade which in turn was key to the city’s prosperity.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Excavations at Nishapur:
  • Fragments of a Plate with Engraved Designs
    Fragmentary Plate with Engraved Designs40.170.131
  • Stone oil lamp
    Stone Oil Lamp38.40.116
  • Fragments of a Plate with Engraved Designs
    Fragmentary Plate with Engraved Designs40.170.131
  • Painted dado panel
    Painted Dado Panels40.170.176
  • Animal-spouted pitcher
    Animal-Spouted Pitcher38.40.247
  • Fragment of a cornice panel
    Fragment of a Cornice Panel40.170.441
  • Bowl with Arabic Inscription, He who multiplies his words, multiplies his worthlessness
    Bowl with Arabic Inscription, “He who multiplies his words, multiplies his worthlessness”40.170.25
  • Bowl with green, yellow, and brown splashed decoration
    Bowl with Green, Yellow, and Brown Splashed Decoration38.40.137
  • Two Bowls with Figures and a Footed Plate with Birds
    Two Bowls with Figures and a Footed Plate with Birds38.40.290
  • Physicians Cupping Glass or Alembic
    Physician’s Cupping Glass or Alembic40.170.132
  • Bowl with Arabic Inscription, Blessing, prosperity, well-being, happiness
    Bowl with Arabic Inscription, “Blessing, Prosperity, Well-being, Happiness”40.170.15
  • Ewer with inscriptions and hunting scenes
    Ewer with Inscriptions and Hunting Scenes38.40.240
  • Strand of beads
    Strand of Beads48.101.70

Famous people

Nishapur was also a centre of learning and culture. Amongst the many philosophers, Mathematicians, Poets and historians of this region, Omar Khayyam and Attar are the most well known.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), the famous mathematician, astronomer and poet was born here. He is best known in the Western world for his poem ‘Rubaiyat’. It is not very well known that during his life he became popular as a Mathematician and his work contributed to the development of non-Euclidean Geometry and Algebra. His work has been credited with transmitting Arab Mathematics to Europe.

Farid-ud-Din Attar (1145-1221) was a Sufi Mystic poet who had an immense and lasting influence on Persian poetry. The ‘Conference of the Birds’ is his best known work.

Cubic equation and intersection of conic sections” the first page of two-chaptered manuscript kept in Tehran University.
Nishapur chess set
Chess set, 12th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stonepaste; molded and glazed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1971

To conclude, there are two interesting anecdotes. As an Indian, it is interesting to know that the Nawabs of Awadh state in 18th and 19th century India were Persians from Nishapur.  When Mughal King Humayun was defeated by Sher Shah Suri, he fled to Iran. His wife was a Shi’a muslim from the Safavid nobility. The Safavids supported Humayun in reclaiming Mughal India. A large part of the Persian cavalry was stationed in Awadh and the mix of Persian and local Awadhi language gave birth to Urdu- a new language.

While Chess or ‘Shatranj’ was popular in Persia, as Firdausi says, Chess arrived from ‘Hind’ (India). Surprisingly, no early chess pieces have been unearthed in India. The earliest and finest chess pieces were excavated in Nishapur in 1930s and 1940s by the Metropolitan Museum expedition. The highlight of the Metropolitan Museum collection is a complete chess set (only missing one pawn) excavated in Nishapur dated to the the 12th century. Perhaps, this is symbolic of Nishapur’s high culture and refinement. Omar Khayyam, in his poem, made Chess a metaphor for how destiny shapes our lives.

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”

Sources:

  • Pictures from Metropolitan Museum Website (met museum.org)
  • Shah Mat ! (Checkmate!) by Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art (met museum,org)- April 4, 2012
  • Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and Their Decoration By Charles Kyrle Wilkinson (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – Google Books

2 comments

  1. I’ve read the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and actually own a copy of the book. Often quote from it.

    … “the mix of Persian and local Awadhi language gave birth to Urdu…” – I did not know that.

    Many thanks,
    Eric

    Like

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