Samarkand – The Rich, Fertile City (Part II : Islamic Era)

The birth of a new religion, Islam, in the 7th century paved the way for a transitional period in the mid-eighth century for South-West Central Asia. It began with the conquest of Transoxiana by Umayyad general Qutaiba ibn Muslim (705-15). There were many factors which led to the conquest of this region. After the death of Khunuk Vardan Khudah, ruler of Bukhara in 709 and death or murder of other key leaders of this region, there was no strong ruler who could challenge the Arabs. As mentioned earlier, the Sogdian cities were never united politically to put up resistance against the Arabs. The Arabs were, on the other hand, united now through religion. The actual suzerain of Sogdians, the Chinese empire under the Tang dynasty, could not support them as they were embroiled in a costly war with Tibet. The victory of Arab forces led by Ziyad bin Salih in the battle of Talas in July 751 further weakened the Chinese.

The Umayyad rulers did not have an easy time in this region. The non-Arab local muslims felt discriminated and this led to several uprisings against them. The Umayyads ran the Caliphate as a business enterprise, more concerned for profits than equal rights. Hence, they were deemed as excessively materialistic and operating against the basic tenets of Islam which was based on simplicity and modesty.

Abu Muslim Khorasani emerged as an influential voice in the anti-Umayyad propaganda. He gathered forces and drove the Umayyad governor Nasr ibn Sayyar out of Central Asia between 747 to 748. The first Caliph of the Abassid dynasty was Abu’l Abbas al-Safah, a great-great-grandson of Muhammad’s uncle al-Abbas. This dynasty ruled till 1258 till it was crushed by the Mongols.

The Shias who had supported Abu Muslim in the hope that a descendent of Ali (fourth Caliph of Islam and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad) would come to power were disappointed. Readers who are familiar with history of Islam would know that the main cause of rift between Sunnis and Shias was the position of the Caliph. Shias felt that the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad was Ali since the Prophet did not have any sons. Therefore, this conflict continued to represent a source of socio-political unrest in this region.

The first Caliph soon felt threatened by Abu Muslim’s influence. His successor Sunni al-Mansur had him murdered in 755. With his death, there arose several uprisings against the Abassid regime. One of the adversaries was Hashim ibn Hakim known as al-Muqanna, ‘the veiled one’. He claimed to be a prophet and the Mahdi of Islamic eschatology, the Messiah. Although he met with some success, he eventually committed suicide in 783.

The Barmakids (730-803) and Tahirids (821-73) owned allegiance to the Abassid regime but were almost independent dynasties. While the rulers, by and large, remained loyal to Caliphs, a love-hate relationship existed between these dynasties and the Caliphate. When the Caliph felt that the ruler was becoming too powerful, he had him removed or executed. At times, these rulers became influential enough to replace Caliphs. The Barmakids were popular as fair and just governors and were immensely wealthy. They were also patrons of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy. They perhaps had inter cultural communication in their blood, coming from the family of high priests of the famous Buddhist temple of Balkh, the ‘naubahar’. They were Buddhists who converted to Islam. According to Korean pilgrim monk Huichao, by the end of 720s most residents of Balkh were Buddhists despite the Arab occupation.

The Saffarid dynasty ruled for only 39 years from 861-900. When the Samanids ruled over Samarkand in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was a period of prosperity for the residents. They made Samarkand their capital in 819. Under them, large scale construction happened around the Afrasiab. City walls were built and a new citadel containing a palace for the Samanid ruler was built. During this period, the city spread beyond the Afrasiab which was used then primarily for administrative purposes. The housing and commercial centre moved to the area closer to today’s Samarkand. Samarkand became very famous for its ceramics between 8th and 12th century.

With the rise of two turkic dynasties, Karakhanids and Ghaznavids, who had recently converted to Islam, the Samanid empire suffered defeat. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030) conquered the whole of Khorasan. The Samanid empire was split- the North went to Karakhanids, south to the Ghaznavids and in the South West, the Ghaznavids and Seljuks struggled for power.

The Mongols united under Genghis Khan were emerging as a major force. After conquering Bukhara in 1220, it was the turn of Samarkand. The forces at Samarkand were no match for the battle hardened Mongols. The destruction was so extreme that no building from the pre- Mongol era was left standing. It was only by the end of the 13th century that a new city was built.

After the death of Genghis Khan, the area came under his son, Chagatai Khan who was unable to prevent revolts against the Mongols in the second half of the 14th century. After his death in 1363, a local tribal leader Timur-e-lang was able to take control of Transoxiana and founded the Timurid empire. He was born in the village of Kesh, 80 km south of Samarkand.

Timur-e-lang was able to conquer a large area from the edge of China across the steppes of Southern Russia. He conquered lands from Afghanistan to India, sacking Delhi and massacring its residents in 1398. As Delhi is home for me, I recall the popular saying that the city was destroyed and re-built seven times. One of them must have been at the hands of Timur-e-Lang. While he is respected in Central Asia, he is vilified in the countries where he committed atrocities. He was on his way to conquer China but died of an illness in the city of Otrar.

Timur-e-Lang’s architectural legacy is still visible in Samarkand. He build mausoleums for his family and many madrasas and mosques prominent among them is the Bibi-Khanym mosque. Within a century of his death, his dynasty came to an end. One of his descendants, Babur (1483-1530) was the last independent Timurid prince who was eventually driven out of Central Asia in the early 16th century by the Shai-banids (an Uzbek confederacy) who moved the capital to Bukhara. Babur established the Mughal empire in India in 1526.

In the turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries, Samarkand lost its former significance. In 1868, the city came under the official rule of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.

References:

  1. Samarkand-The history and legacy of one of Asia’s oldest cities- Charles River Editors
  2. The history of Central Asia-The age of Islam and the Mongols- Christoph Baumer
  3. A History of the Arab Peoples- Albert Hourani

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