Home » History


Often confused with Mongols, Tatars were a different ethnic group inhabiting the Steppes. They have an interesting history. Read on..

Kul Sharif Mosque, Kazan. Tatarstan, Russia (photo courtesy : Sneha Rao)


The Tatars were originally a poweful Turkic tribe. The word Tatar in Persian means ‘to pitch a tent’ hence reflective of their nomadic origin. The later European derivative of Tartar from Greek Tartaros (hell) was a distorted, non-flattering version of Tatar. The Tatars were not uncivilized and had a sophisticated administrative system which enabled them to rule their lands effectively.

Further, the Tatars can be broadly divided into Volga Tatars and Crimean Tatars. A majority of the Volga Tatars are Kazan Tatars and this blog is focussed on them. The Volga Tatars form about 53% of the population in Tatarstan, Russia.


After the death of Attila the Hun, the Hun empire disintegrated into smaller Turkic kingdoms. From here, the kingdom of Greater Bulgaria arose in the 7th century. Later, when this kingdom split into two, one part allied with the Khazar and Alan tribes. They moved to eastern part of the European plains. By the 8th century, this group moved to what is now Tatarstan. Later, in the 9th and 10th century, the Bulgar realm was formed.

In the 13th century, Genghis Khan re-united the region’s Turkic nomads into his army. The Tatar-Mongol Khanates that once ruled Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe are the ancestors of the Kazan Tatars. Under Batu Khan’s leadership, the invading Mongols reached Eastern Europe (Hungary and Germany in 1241). Around 14th century, the Golden Horde disintegrated into four khanates –  Kazan, Astrakhan, Sibir, and Crimea. Russians conquered the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir whilst the Crimean Khanate became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean Khanate was later annexed by Russians in 1783.

It was precisely in 1552 that Tsar Ivan IV conquered Kazan and defeated the Volga Tatars. The conquest of Kazan opened the way for the expansion of the Russian empire across Siberia to the Pacific. In 1708, the region was officially organized by the Russian Empire as the Kazan Province.

Islam and Ibn-Fadlan

Almış Iltabar was the first Muslim ruler of Volga Bulgaria. Initally, he was a vassal of Khazars and sent ambassadors to the Baghdad Caliph. He later became an ally of the Abbassid empire and adopted the Islamic name of Jafar ibn Abdullah.

Ibn Fadlan was an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and served in the court of the Abassid Caliph al-Muqtadir. He visited this region to educate the recent converts about Islamic law. His delegation covered 4000 kms using established trade routes. They passed through Bukhara and Gurgan, crossing regions inhabited by several Turkic tribes.

Even today, most of the Volga Tatars are Sunni Muslims although they continue to practice their Tatar traditions too. Sufism is popular with the Tatars due its emphasis on ascetics. Islam has enjoyed a resurgence among Tatars since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Inside Kul Sharif Mosque

Photo Courtesy : Sneha Rao


Today, Tatarstan is one of the most economically and industrially developed regions of Russia. The region’s main source of wealth is oil. Tourism is also an important activity, with the presence of three UNESCO world heritage sites in Tatarstan.






0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
A rock-strewn landscape gives way to a river running through a dry mountain valley
© Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Afghanistan is going through a tumultuous period in its history right now This beautiful land has been the centre of great culture and glorious cities like Herat, Balkh and the Greek city of Ai-Khanoum. Balkh was in fact called the “Mother of all Cities.” Given its geographical positioning, it has seen its share of conquerors from the West. From the Greek forces of Alexander, to the Arabs and the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer, earning it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires”.

About 600km to the east of the city of Mazar-e Sharif is the Wakhan Corridor. This 350km-long narrow strip of land in the region of Badakhshan, sits at the convergence of three of the world’s major mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs – known as the Pamir Knot. It also borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. This region is culturally and geographically distinct from rest of the country. It is a remote land of small scattered rural settlements. Untouched by tourism, this region is a land of breath-taking views and as close to nature as one can get.

Source : https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/corridor-power

The Wakhi people

For more than 2,500 years, the Wakhan Corridor has been the homeland of the Wakhi people, who belong to an ancient Iranian stock. While the majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, the Wakhi are Ismaili Shias whose head is Aga Khan known for the Aga Khan Foundation. Instead of mosques, they have Jamat Khanas (houses of prayer that also serve as community halls for conducting village business).

The Wakhis are also found in the Xinjiang province of China, southeast Tajikistan, and Pakistan where they predominate in northern Chitral, Ishkoman Valley and Gojal, Hunza. They speak the Wakhi language, which appears to be a distant dialect of Persian.

https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wakhan-corridor-afghanistan-forgotten-corner CBS/MALGORZATA SKOWRONSKA

They are a friendly, nature-loving community and very fond of music; the RubabDadangQufuzDuf and Surnai are used to strike melodious tunes. They also play the game of Buzkashi, a sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to mount a goat carcass in a goal. This is a popular Central Asian game. Indian readers would remember seeing it in the popular Hindi movie of the 90’s, ‘Khuda Gawah’ where Amitabh Bacchhan and Sri Devi played this game !

Integral Part of the Silk Road

For hundreds of years, the Wakhan Corridor was an important route for merchants travelling along the Silk Road, the trade route that emerged in the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC linking China with the Mediterranean. Those merchants carried Chinese silk, Persian silver, Roman gold and Afghan lapis lazuli, mined in the Badakhshan region. Travellers and pilgrims also followed in the merchants’ footsteps.

The Pamir region was renowned for its rubies and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal was the source of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.

The gemstone at the front of the Imperial State Crown

The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These carved artifacts undoubtedly came from material mined in northern Afghanistan.

King Tutankhamun funeral mask
King Tutankhamun’s two coffins were made of wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones, including the royal blue stone lapis lazuli, which you can clearly see here on the funeral mask.

This is also the land through which Marco Polo passed in 1273 and before him, the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang in the 7th century, who has described the Buddhist monasteries of this region. In the town of Ishkashim and Besh Gumbez, there are remains of a sixth-century caravanserai, an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. It was a strategic valley to the Bactrian Greeks, who built a castle-fortress overlooking it over two thousand years ago. The Yamchun fortress, set in a virtually inaccessible rocky slope, protected by two river canyons, with 40 towers and a citadel. The fortress is locally known as the “Castle of the Fire Worshippers”, no doubt referring to a Zoroastrian temple.


This is hardly surprising as Pre-Islamic Badakhshan was Zoroastrian, worshipping fire, the sun and spirits of ancestors and at the same time practicing a distinct Badakhshani version of Buddhism. The remains of 7th-8th century Buddhist man-made caves that could have also been a Zoroastrian site in the past are also found here.

Nazif Shahrani, in his book ‘The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and
War’ , maintains that until the collapse of Mughal Empire in India, Wakhan was one of the
main routes for traders and merchants between India, China and major cities like Bactria
and Bukhara in modern-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. It was only after the development of the sea routes in the 15th century that this route went into a decline.

More Recent Events

In the late 19th Century, the Wakhan Corridor played a key role in the so-called “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. The Wakhan’s current boundaries were formed in 1893 to create a buffer zone to prevent both parties’ territories from touching each other – in this case, the British Raj and the Tsarist Russian empire.

In recent times, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has potential to turn it into an important trade route once again. The tip of the Wakhan Corridor in the Little Pamirs will become a crossing point for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan marks the beginning. China’ presence in this region is part of its larger ambition to gain a foothold in this region as well as control over the regional economy and security through building military installations and funding infrastructure projects.

The people of Wakhan have mixed emotions about the road that Chinese are building here. They recognize the economic benefits and the access to more modern amenities yet fear that their unique Wakhi culture may get eroded. Time will tell what the future has in store for this region.













0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

If you want to know, what is a caravanserai and what was it used for, read on..

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting the East and the West. As early as 500 BC, the Persian Royal Road connected the city of Susa to Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey). The road network developed eventually to create complex trade routes covering large land masses.

When merchants, traders or anyone else who had a reason to travel covered large distances, they needed safe resting places for the night. In response to increasing traffic on the Silk Road, caravanserais or inns were built along Silk Road where travellers could recover from the day’s journey. The caravanserais would also keep the travellers safe from bandits or harsh weather conditions. These caravanserais belong to different era – some were built as early as 3rd century BC (remains of one in Palmyra, Syria were found) and some as recently as the 19th century.

Caravanserai : Origin of the Word

As per Wikipedia, Caravanserai is the Persian compound word variant combining kārvān “Caravan” with sarāy “palace”, “building with enclosed courts”. Here, “caravan” means a group of traders, pilgrims or other travellers, engaged in long-distance travel. Caravanserais were called by different names in different regions. In Turkey, they are called Khan from Middle Persian (xan, “house”). The Arabian term Funduq was used in Morocco and North Africa or Fonda in Spanish (fundquq is the origin of the term Fonda). Another Arabic term that was used in Egypt for such buildings is Wikala which roughly means “agency”.

Caravanserais were cultural melting pots

The caravanserais often resembled forts due to their protective high walls and secure gates. The ground floor had sections for storing goods and resting place for animals. There were unfurnished rooms for residents. Some of them had a prayer room and a bathhouse. Many caravanserais had markets for the traders where they could start selling their goods.

Many prominent cities in the Medieval era were fairly cosmopolitan and had diverse communities living together. The caravanserais must have become centers of cultural exchange where people from the East and the West met briefly and exchanged ideas , stories and discussed about different religions and philosophies. It was also an opportunity to taste cuisine of a different land and observe their etiquette.

10 Interesting Caravanserais

Sultan Han in Aksaray Turkey

Sultan Han Garden
File:Sultanhani - Portal außen 2 Muquarnas.jpg
Credits :Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This structure was built in 1229, during the reign of the Seljuk Sultan Kayqubad I (1220-1237), on the route connecting Konya to Aksaray and continuing into Persia. After it was partially destroyed by a fire, it was restored and extended in 1278. It is one of the largest and most well preserved caravanserai.

Khan Tuman, Damascus Syria

Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell (photographer) (1879-1974)

Khan Tuman is a village in Aleppo, North Syria. The caravanserai is by the name of the village. It was a large caravanserai built in the 12th century. It was built on the route to Mecca and Medina so that pilgrims could perform the annual Hajj. The route passed through Damascus onto what is now Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Given that this region was in the war zone for some time, it is difficult to say how much of it still remains.

Kurkcu Han, Istanbul, Turkey

File:Kurkcu han DSCF1362.jpg
Kürkçü Han‎ courtyard : Robert Prazeres

This caravanserai was founded by Mahmud Pasha, the grand vizier of Mehmet II. It was completed in 1467. From the time that it was built, it developed into a sprawling commercial complex which was the hub of international trade with shops, warehouses and lodgings for foreign merchant.

Multani Caravanserai, Baku, Azerbaijan

multani caravansarie
Photo credit : https://citytoursbaku.com/caravanserais/

This 14th century caravanserai was named after Multan which is a city in Pakistan. It housed the merchants who came from India. The building is in a square shape with lots of balconies around the courtyard. This caravanserai is currently being restored.

Rabati Malik, Uzbekistan

Rabati Malik caravanserai in Malik, in the Navoiy province (Shutterstock)
Photo credit : https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/top-things-to-do-in-uzbekistan/

This caravanserai was built by the Karakhanid rule Shams-al-Mulk Nasr who ruled Samarkand from 1068 to 1080. It connected Samarkand to Bukhara. The caravanserai has a very unique architectural style. Unfortunately, an earthquake damaged large parts of it in 1968. It is still very much on the travel map of Uzbekistan.

Wikala of Sultan Qaytbay, Cairo, Egypt

File:Wikala Qaytbay at bab al-nasr gate.jpg
Photo Credit : Robert Prazeres

This is an urban caravanserai built in Cairo in 1481 by Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaitbay. Its location placed it near the main entrance of the city. The Sultan was known as a great patron of architecture and had build many monuments and buildings.

Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan

By WikiTofu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27795731

Located amongst the high mountain of Tien- Shan at an altitude of 3000 metres, this caravanserai is pretty unique for its remote location. Travellers could progress from hereon to Kashgar and shores of Lake Issyk Kul or Ferghana Valley. It must have been a source of immense relief for travellers passing through this difficult route. The architecture of the caravanserai is unique and various accounts say that it could have been a religious site initially.

Sa’d al-Saltaneh in Qazvin near Tehran Iran

Sa'd al-Saltaneh Caravanserai -
Photo Credit : https://iranwatching.com/en/place/582

Qazvin was a prominent centre of trade on the Silk Road and was once a capital of Iran during the Safavid era. This caravanserai was built in the 19th century by ruler of Qajar dynasty Naseredin Shah. Until the First World War, it was an important trading centre. It is the largest urban indoor caravanserai with about 400 rooms and shops.

Zein-o-din Caravanserai, Yazd province, Central Iran

The Zein-o-din Caravanserai in Iran's Yazd
Photo Credit : https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2018/08/28/1812270/the-zein-o-din-caravanserai-in-iran-s-yazd

This caravanserai is dated to the 16th century and is situated on the ancient Silk Road. It was built during the reign of Shah Abbas I. The caravanserai has two circular towers. The interiors have been refurbished and now operates as an inn.

Azimganj Serai, Delhi, India

Photo Credit : https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/this-mughal-serai-will-lead-to-citys-longest-eco-heritage-trail/articleshow/68446376.cms

This caravanserai was built in 16th century in Mughal Delhi around the same time as the Humayun Tomb. It was in a bad condition for many years till the Aga Khan Trust for Culture took over its renovation and is now part of a heritage trail.

There are numerous caravanserais standing even today as reminders of the past and I think one would need to write a book to cover them all. This was my attempt to provide readers with a glimpse of some of them.


0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

The river served as a major trade route in the 9th and 10th century and lost it importance by the 11th century

View of Volga from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (clicked by my dear friend, Sneha Rao)
1. Where is the Volga River?
2.People who traded on the Volga
3.Accounts from Arabic sources
4.City of Atil
5.Silver Coins as proof of contact with Islamic world

Where is the Volga River?

The Volga, which is Europe’s longest river, is a subject of poetry, art and literature in Russia. It has helped shape a sense of Russian identity through the years. The river has a symbolic meaning in Russian culture and is often referred to as Volga-Matushka (Mother Volga) in Russian literature. The river, in the words of the popular ‘Song of the Volga’ in the 1938 film Volga. Volga, was:

Mighty with water like the sea,
And just as our motherland – free.

Volga flows through Central Russia to Southern Russia and into the Caspian Sea. It has a length of 3,531 km, flowing through forests, forest-steppes and steppes. During the medieval era, the Volga, Europe’s longest river served as a major trade route and consequently, a centre for settlements.

Rivers such as Volga and other rivers of Eastern Europe served as trade routes as they flowed on flat terrain, unblocked by mountains. If the rivers became rough or gave out, the small canoes that were used could be carried on land.

People who traded on the Volga

During the Medieval era, the river served as a major trade route. Many Norse men sailed east into Eastern Europe and were called ‘Rus’ , which in Old Norse means ‘the men who row’. They traded the goods of the north such as fur, amber, iron and walrus tusks for goods they needed from other places. They also traded in slaves. By positioning themselves as middlemen, they profited greatly by selling to Byzantine and the Muslim empire. The Rus formed a trading confederation in the 900s. When the Rus ruler prince Vladimir converted to Byzantine Orthodoxy, the Christian world expanded to Eastern Europe and Russia.

When the Rus warband leaders had made enough money from fur and slave trade, they started to send money to their homeland in Scandinavia. Planned towns sprung up to support this trade like Hedeby (border of Denmark and Germany), Ribe (Denmak) and Birka (present day Sweden).

File:Varangian routes.png
Map of Norse trade routes in 7-9 century Europe (Volga route in Red) Source: Wikipedia

Accounts from Arabic sources

Arabic sources portray Rus people as mercenaries. Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim diplomat and traveller who visited Volga Bulgaria in 922 and described them as:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings

In early 900s, a Muslim observer names Ibn Rusta noted that the Rus “treat their slaves well and dress them beautifully, because for them they are an article of trade.” Many slaves came from Eastern Europe and the origin of the word “slave” is from “slav”. Ibn Khurradadhbhih marvelled at the high quality Rus swords which were essential to capture slaves and get Fur as tribute from Eastern Europe residents. The swords commanded a high price in the market.

City of Atil

It was located on the Volga delta on the North Western corner of Caspian Sea. Samosdelka is a fishing village in Southern Russia where archeologists claim that the remains of Atil have been found. It was a multicultural city inhabited by traders from different country as the city was a major trade centre in its days of glory. The Khazars controlled land between upper reaches of the Don (another river in Russia) and the lower reaches of the Volga. After the defeat of the Khazars in the second Arab-Khazar war it became the capital of Khazaria. The city is referred to as Khamlij in a 9th century Arab source.

In the late 9th century, Ibn Khurradadhbhih described the Rus buying goods from the Khazars in the market areas on the lower Volga and selling them on the markets of Caspian towns. The merchants brought furs, honey and slaves. Small groups of the Rus even went on camels as far as Baghdad to sell their goods.

After a period of peaceful co-existence, there was confict between the Rus and the Khazars which led to many raids. The main reason was that the Khazars collected duties on the goods traded on the Volga and hence it was in the interest of the Rus to gain control of that region.

Coins as archeological proof

The Rus used containers of pottery, glass, metal or birchbark to bury silver in the ground as deposit box and some of them were excavated by archeologists. The largest stockpile was found on Swedish island of Gotland, some 200 km south of Stockholm. In 1999, archeologists located 14,295 coins dating from 539 to 871. These collectively weighed about 67 kgs.

They often melted silver to make armbands. Once the silver was melted, it was possible to weight it using balance scales which they adopted from the Islamic world and have been excavated all over Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Looking at the hoard of coins, it was evident that the Muslim world was much more important than the Western Europe to Rus as most of the coins had legends in Arabic.

The Rus not just traded with the Islamic empire but other empires and people too, however, the Volga route was primarily used for trading with the Islamic world. Thus, the Volga along with other rivers of Russia and Eastern Europe played a major role in influencing the trade and the history of this region. It is another example of how Geography influences History.


  1. The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen, Simon and Schuster, 2020
  2. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/heres-why-russia-is-called-russia/
  3. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rus

0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
Courtyard of Mustansiriya Medical College
By Taisir Mahdi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62564761

By the 8th century, the Islamic empire covered an area larger than the Roman empire at its height. Unrest had been brewing up amongst the non-Arab population for some time now as they felt discriminated. It was also felt that the Umayyad Caliphate had increasingly become materialistic and had lost their way from the true path of Islam which is based on modesty and simplicity. Eventually, this discontent snowballed into a full rebellion in 750 AD and led to the formation of the Abassid Caliphate. In 762 AD, Baghdad was established as the capital of the Abassid Caliphate in modern day Iraq. The period from 8th century to 13th century is known as the Golden Age of Islam. Baghdad played a pivotal role in this Golden Age and became a great centre of learning and innovation.

Baghdad’s location between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided it ample water and could sustain a large population. In pre-Abassid era also, Baghdad was already an established centre of trade on the overland route and goods like ivory, soap, honey and diamonds were traded there. It was also an important manufacturing centre for silk. glass, tiles and paper.

Baghdad attracted many people primarily scholars who made it their home due to state patronage and the enabling environment. The writings of Arab historian and biographer, Yakut al-Hamawi, describe Baghdad in the tenth century:

“The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. The numerous suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas, and beautiful promenades, and plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, and finely built mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river. In the days of its prosperity the population of Baghdad and its suburbs amounted to over two [million]! The palace of the Caliph stood in the midst of a vast park several hours in circumference, which beside a menagerie and aviary comprised an enclosure for wild animals reserved for the chase. The palace grounds were laid out with gardens and adorned with exquisite taste with plants, flowers, and trees, reservoirs and fountains, surrounded by sculpted figures. On this side of the river stood the palaces of the great nobles. Immense streets, none less than forty cubits wide, traversed the city from one end to the other, dividing it into blocks or quarters, each under the control of an overseer or supervisor, who looked after the cleanliness, sanitation and the comfort of the inhabitants.”

Tenth-century historian Yakut al-Hamawi, from Lost History 60-61
The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls
The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls.
 (GifTagger / Public Domain )

Abbasid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma’mun, who followed him, established a House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad which was a dedicated space for scholarship. Ma’mun was not the only Caliph who was a patron of learning but he stood out as he himself was a highly learned scholar of Islam, Philosophy and Theology. The early Muslim theologians eventually trained in the art of dialectic debate and argument, of which Ma’mun was an expert too. He recruited famous scholars to come to the House of Wisdom who came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. He pursued learning with a messianic zeal and collected texts from all over the world in the House of Wisdom.

Eventually, strong state patronage and bringing together of the world’s finest minds under one roof led to many discoveries and inventions. A special emphasis was laid on translating Greek texts and texts from other regions, as well as contributing new insights in the different fields like philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and many other disciplines. It was during this era in the 11th and 12th century that the Madrasas as institutions of learning started taking shape. While primarily law was taught here, the subjects like theology, history and mathematics were taught as well.

By the middle of the ninth century, Baghdad had become the centre of the civilised world, attracting the very best of Arab and Persian philosophers and scientists for several centuries to come. The House of Wisdom grew rapidly with Greek, Persian and Indian texts and their Arabic translations. This process was aided by the mass manufacturing of paper. In Baghdad, particular neighbourhoods were allocated to paper manufacturing and in Bazaar paper merchants and sellers owned distinct sectors being called Paper Market or Suq al-Warraqin. There is a theory that Chinese prisoners captured during the Battle of Talas introduced paper making to Samarkand and from there to the rest of the Islamic world. According to Jonathan Bloom – a scholar of Islamic and Asian Art with a focus on paper and printing claims that there is archeological evidence that paper was already known and used in Samarkand decades before 751 AD.

The most prolific translator of Baghdad was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who was a Nestorian Christian and mastered four languages – Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian. Hunayn ibn Ishaq became arguably the chief translator of the era, and laid the foundations of Islamic Medicine. In his lifetime, ibn Ishaq translated 116 works, including Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and the Old Testament, into Syriac and Arabic. Ibn Ishaq also produced 36 of his own books, 21 of which covered the field of medicine. It is the medical work of the physician Galen that is his most important legacy, for not only did it open up the Islamic world to this great treasure, in many cases it is only via these Arabic translations that much of Galen’s work reaches us today.

The eye according to Hunain ibn Ishaq. From a manuscript dated circa 1200.

Another famous personality was mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsa al-Khwārizmi. His name suggests that he was originally from a province of Uzbekistan. He worked in the House of Wisdom as a mathematician, geographer and astronomer. Together with Kindi, who was another great mathematician and Philosopher, he was instrumental in introducing the Arabs to the Hindu decimal numerals that we use today. But his greatest legacy is his extraordinary book on algebra Kitab al-Jebr (The Book of Completion) in which he lays out for the first time the rules and steps of solving algebraic equations. The word algebra is derived from the title of his book. In addition to his work in mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi made important contributions to astronomy, also largely based on methods from India, and he developed the first quadrant (an instrument used to determine time by observations of the Sun or stars), the second most widely used astronomical instrument during the Middle Ages after the astrolabe.

A page from al-Khwārizmī’s 


Two other great scholars of this era are Ibn Sīna (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-98), both of whom are more familiar in the west by their Latinised names: Avicenna and Averroës. The former is best known as a physician and is by far the most famous scholar in Islam. His Canon of Medicine was required reading in Renaissance Europe right up to the 17th century. Meanwhile Ibn Rushd, who was born in Cordobá, is thought of as the last of the great Muslim philosophers.

There were many notable scholars who may have not lived in Baghdad but were prominent scholars of the Islamic Golden Age. There was the Iraqi genius Ibn al-Haytham, the greatest physicist. He was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflects from an object and then passes to one’s eyes. He was also the first to demonstrate that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes. There was Ibn Khaldūn, the acknowledged father of social science and economic theory. Who can forget Al-Biruni who was an Iranian Scholar and Polymath.  A gifted linguist, he was conversant in Khwarezmian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. In 1017 he travelled to the Indian subcontinent and wrote a treatise on Indian culture entitled Tārīkh al-Hind (History of India), after exploring Hinduism as practiced in India. His writings known to be written with impartial objectivity won him the title al-Ustadh (“The Master”).

It is impossible to cover all the accomplishments and the notable personalities of this era in one article. The siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan destroyed the city and most of its population died at their hands. Thus, came the end of this glorious era.


  1. theguardian.com/books/2010/sep/26/baghdad-centre-of-scientific-world
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-bayt-al-hikmah/article17103267.ece1
  3. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/round-city-baghdad-0011898

1 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
Buddha Carving, Taxila
A Buddha carving in Taxila
(source: https://www.zameen.com/blog/exploring-taxila-history-archaeological-value-tourism.html)

Imagine the academic repute of the city where Panini, the great Indian Sanskrit Grammarian and Chanakya, the Prime Minister of the founder of the Maurya Empire were said to have taught ! Taxila lies 30 km North West of Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It was one of the most prominent cities on the Silk Road which connected China to the Western world and flourished between 1st-5th Century AD.

The city was initially discovered by Alexander Cunningham. The excavation was then undertaken by John Marshall, who was the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India at the time. He was also the person who discovered the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh. Under his command, the excavations took about twenty years, from 1913 to 1934. In 1980, Taxila was declared as UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city has found mention in many a text indicating its importance and fame – In Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila; in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila; the Chinese called it Chu-ch’a-shi-lo. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great centre of learning. Gandhara is also mentioned as a province, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian (Persian) king Darius I in the 5th century BC. Taxila, as the capital of Gandhara, was evidently under Achaemenian rule for more than a century. 

The Gandhara Region was an ancient kingdom which found mention in the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and many Vedic scriptures. They are recorded in the Avestan language of Zoroastrianism under the name Vaēkərəta. If you are familiar with the epic Mahabharata, you would remember that Shakuni was Gandharnaresh or King of Gandhara. While the geographical boundaries of the Gandhara Region may have shifted during the course of history, Taxila remained a prominent city which is over 3000 years old.

Rulers of Taxila

Due to its geographic location which was very strategic, it has changed hands many times. Its fate was determined by the invading rulers and armies from the West.

Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE and Ambhi (Omphis), the ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city and placed his resources at Alexander’s disposal. After Alexander’s death, Taxila was absorbed into the Mauryan empire founded by Chandragupta, under whom it became a provincial capital. After three generations of Mauryan rule, the city was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria. It remained under the Indo-Greeks until the early 1st century BC. They were followed by the Shakas, or Scythians, from Central Asia, and by the Parthians, whose rule lasted until the latter half of the 1st century AD.

Taxila was taken from the Parthians by the Kushans under Kujula Kadphises. The great Kushan ruler Kanishka founded Sirsukh, the third city on the site. (The second, Sirkap, dates from the Indo-Greek period.) In the 4th century AD, the Sassanian king Shapur II (309–379) seems to have conquered Taxila, as evidenced by the numerous Sassanian copper coins found there. There is little information about the Sassanian occupation. Eventually, it was sacked by Huns and never recovered from this blow.

File:Dharmarajika stupa,Taxila.jpg
The Dharmarajika Stupa
Sasha Isachenko, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Corinthian columns – a quintessential Grecian style of architecture – stand tall at the stupa.
Corinthian columns at Sirkap, a typical Grecian style of Architecture
Photo Credit : https://www.dawn.com/news/1246805
File:Taxila single dye coin.jpg
Taxile single dye coin with Goddess Lakshmi and arched-hill symbol (185-160 BC), most probably minted by Demetrius I after his invasion of Gandhara
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Famous Visitors

The Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian visited the city at about the beginning of the 5th century AD and he found a flourishing centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. He has said ‘Seven days journey from this to the east brought the travellers to the kingdom of Taxila, which means ‘the severed head ‘ in the language of China. Here, when Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he gave away his head to a man [a reference to a jataka tale], and from this circumstance the kingdom got its name.’ Another Chinese monk Xuanzang who can be credited with spreading Buddhism to China and the eastern world, visited the site in the 7th century AD and found the city ruined and desolate (after the sacking by Huns).

King Asoka was Viceroy here in the 3rd Century BC. Alexander garrisoned the city with Macedonians. Arrian, Strabo and Plutarch wrote of its beauty and its wealth. It is said that St Thomas turned up to preach the gospel here as well during the reign of Gondhophares I around 43-44 AD.

The many cities of Taxila and the Gandhara School of Art

Taxila was uniquely placed where the East and West co-existed and eventually gave birth to a new style of art. Experts have pointed out that the sculptures excavated here are quite unique with Hellenistic themes combined with Eastern motifs. This style is referred to as the Gandhara School of Art.

Ruins at Taxila clearly indicate that it participated in the formation of Harappan civilization (3100- 2500 BC). Most of the Buddhist stupas and monasteries date from the 1st to 5th century AD although the Dharmarajika Stupa was founded by Asoka in the 3rd century BC.

The ruins of Taxila consist of many different parts of the city buildings and Buddhist stupas
which are located in a large area. The main ruins of Taxila are divided into three major cities, each
belonging to a distinct time period. The oldest of these is Bhir Mound, which dates from the sixth
century BC. The second city of Taxila is located at Sirkap and was built by Greco-Bactrian kings in
the second century BC. The many private houses, stupas, and temples were laid out on the Hellenistic grid system and show the strong Western classical influence on local architecture. The third and last city of Taxila is at Sirsukh and relates to the Kushan kings.

The city is famous for its ruins and remnants of the Buddhist era, however, Jain and Hindu temples and relics have also been found here. Even a Zoroastrian Fire temple has been found near Taxila.

University of Taxila

Taxila was not a ‘University’ in the modern sense as teachers did not have membership of an institution. However, teachers taught students in smaller groups, something like a ‘gurukul’ and each of these being an institution by themselves. Taxila had privileged alumni and it attracted students and teachers from across Asia. The heir-apparent of kingdoms were usually educated along with monks at Taxila, as mentioned in the Jatakas.

The students here were taught the Vedas and the 18 shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery and hunting. In addition, there were also law school, medical school and a school of military science.

To conclude, I would like to share a small piece of information. Mortime Wheeler was appointed as an external consultant to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1944, to evaluate deficiencies in the working of ASI. He set up a field training school at Taxila to train junior archaeologists. Taxila was chosen keeping in mind the richness of the ruins. It seems that even centuries later, Taxila and learning went hand in hand.


1. https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/faxian.html

2. http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20141010-following-the-silk-road-to-the-end-of-china

3. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/cover-story/taxila/

4. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/the-class-of-taxila-how-mortimer-wheeler-mn-deshpande-set-up-first-archaeology-school/536896/

5. Charles Allen, Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor, Hachette UK, 2012

0 comment
1 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
The Christian queen Sorghaghtani with her husband, ToluiRashid al-Din, early 14th century.

The role of women in history and shaping civilizations is often neglected or sidelined. That’s what may have led Virginia Woolf to say ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’. While many of us may be aware of the conquests of Genghis Khan and the story of how one of the largest contiguous empire was built, it is less likely that we know the role of the women in this empire building.

As compared to their contemporaries in other parts of the world, the women in Mongolia had more rights and enjoyed a higher social status. Jack Weatherford in his book ‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens – How the daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his empire’ has talked at length about it. Mongolian society was patrilineal. Men had to pay a bride price for marriage. They could marry more than once however all children had legal status. They lived in tough climactic conditions. The women were multi faceted – they were archers, horse riders and also took care of the house. As nomads, setting up and dismantling the yurt tents was an important part of their lives. The women were responsible for this important task. When the men were away fighting wars, the women stepped in to take care of local issues. Many of the senior wives and mothers were advisors to the emperor and influenced key decisions. They had right to property, right to decide who they wanted to marry and right to divorce which was not common in those times.

Mongolian Yurt
Photo by Nick Bondarev on pexels.com

In a recent archeological excavation in North Mongolia, the remains of two women warriors, dated between AD 147 to 552, have been discovered. The remains indicate that the women practiced archery and horse riding.

Genghis Khan was raised by his mother, Hoelun as his father was murdered when he was very young. The family had to undergo a lot of hardships but were ably led by his mother. Genghis Khan’s first wife Borte was kidnapped by a rival tribe and spend many months in captivity. She was eventually rescued by her husband. She gave birth to her first son, Jochi soon after and thus, he was most probably not Genghis Khan’s biological son. However, Genghis Khan treated Jochi well and let him remain with the family.

He married his daughters to the kings of the allied nations and the king’s other wives were dismissed. The son-in-law would fight Mongol wars while the kingdom was in effect ruled by the daughters. The communication to the daughters was clear – they had to rule. This was a key part of the strategy to expand Mongol empire.

Later, it was the daughters in law who played a crucial role in the Mongol empire. One of the most renowned Mongolian empress was Sorghaghtani Beki, who was the niece of the powerful Keraite (one of the dominant Mongol tribes) leader and a Nestorian Christian. She was married to Tolui, Genghis’s youngest son. She ensured that all four of her sons – Mongke Khan. Hulagu Khan. Ariq Boke and Kublai Khan inherited the legacy of Genghis Khan. She recognized the value of literacy and ensured that each of her son learned a language of the different regions that were part of the empire. She continued the Mongolian legacy of tolerance and respect for all religions. When her husband Tolui died at the age of 41, Genghis Khan’s third son Ogodei proposed marriage but she declined as she wanted to focus on her role as a mother to her four sons. It was common for widows to marry in the family.

After Ogodei Khan’s death in 1241, his wife Toregene Khatun ruled till 1246 as regent. She managed to get her eldest son elected as the ruler but was outmaneuvered by Sorghaghtani who managed to install her son, Mongke Khan as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.

Yet again in the the 15th century, when the empire was in danger of collapsing. a daughter in law kept the empire consolidated. Queen Mandukhai was from a family of aristocrats and was married at the age of 16 to Manduul Khan who ruled the Mongol empire between 1473 – 79. When Manduul Khan died. she adopted the 7 year old orphan Batumunkh, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and had him proclaimed as Dayan Khan. When Dayan Khan was 19, she married him and retained control over the Mongols. It is said that she even fought in a war when she was pregnant with twins. She survived that war and so did her twin children. There is a Mongolian movie, Queen Mandukhai the wise, on her life.

There are many such stories of women in Mongolian history. The story of Khutulun who was daughter of Kaidu, a cousin of Kublai Khan is also a well known one. She was a noblewoman, wrestler and accompanied her father on military expeditions. She had proclaimed that she would only marry the man who could defeat her in wrestling. There is also the story of Il-Alti who was the ruler of the Uighurs. It is hard to say how many more such stories existed but historical accounts are scant.

Jack Weatherford is convinced that had it not been for the wisdom of the Mongolian women, the empire would have crumbled much faster than it did. Their role certainly needs to be celebrated and recognized.


  1. Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens
  2. Cartwright, M. (2019, October 30). Women in the Mongol EmpireAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/1466/
  3. https://www.livescience.com/mongolia-warrior-women-mulan.html
0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

According to Ibn Arabshah, Ibn Khaldun, the illustrious scholar and Timur, the founder of the Timurid empire met in 1401 AD at Damascus. There are different versions of this meeting but that they met has been established as a fact through different historical accounts. The most reliable account of this meeting is from Ibn Khaldun himself. When they met, Ibn Khaldun explained some of the theories of his book Muqaddimah. There is an anecdote which says that Timur enquired from Ibn Khaldun about the fate of political dynasties. Khaldun’s opinion was that the glory of a political dynasty usually started fading from the fourth generation, unless diligent efforts were made by those concerned to prevent it. It definitely proved correct in the case of Mongols.

Who was Ibn Khaldun? We know a lot about him from his autobiography. In fact, Ibn Khaldun’s description of his own life is one of the most detailed in Medieval Muslim literature. He was born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis and died in 1406. His ancestors belonged to an ancient Arab tribe and migrated to Spain in the early decades of the 8th century. There are some accounts that doubt his Arab lineage and claim that it was to ‘get ahead’ in society. By the time of Ibn Khaldun, the days of Arab predominance in Spain and North Africa were long over and hence, this account can be viewed with scepticism as there was no influence to be gained through claims of an Arab ancestry. Ibn Khaldun belonged to an upper class, aristocratic family who had significant political and intellectual influence in Seville. He had the benefit of having access to the finest education from an early age. Unfortunately, at the age of 17, he lost both his parents to the Black Death, an epidemic that hit Tunis in 1348-49.

He strived for a political career which required aligning and re-aligning with regimes of that time. Since this was a time of political upheaval and regimes were short-lived, he had to do this quite often. His career took him from the chancellery of the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin to Fez, where over a period of time, he got a ministerial position. He also spent some time in Granada but realised that the environment was not ideal for him and the ruler adopted a cold attitude towards him.

Ibn Khaldun found himself in a a time of confused and short lived dynasties. What made him different from his contemporaries was that even though he was part of this mayhem, he was able to observe all this as a social scientist and thus was able to write a book like the Muqaddimah. He lived in the Western Algerian town of Qalat ibn Salama for a period of three years, where devoid of any public duties, he worked on his book. In 1378, he returned to Tunis to complete his book as he lacked some texts in Qalat ibn Salama. During the later part of his life, he had tired of politics and of continuously shifting loyalties.

In 1382, he travelled to the port of Alexandria and later moved to Cairo. He never returned to Tunis. Under the Mamluks, Egypt was enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. He must have hoped to live in peace at Cairo. He was invited to Al Azhar for a lecture on Maliki jurisprudence and the Muqaddimah. He was an eloquent speaker and prominent scholars of Egypt were in attendance. He was introduced to the Mamluk Sultan al Sahib Burquq. He enjoyed the Sultan’s patronage and after two years in 1384, was appointed the Chief justice of the Maliki school, one of the highest posts in the state. He suffered personal tragedy when a ship carrying his wife and children sunk off the coast of Alexandria. After this , he wished to renounce public life and resigned in 1384. He performed Hajj in 1387. After this, he spent his time in academic pursuits till his death.

His contribution in other fields like Sociology, Philosophy and Economics are also noteworthy. The concept of Asabiyya or social bonding is his thought. Some of his original thoughts on the economy were, the importance of consumption in keeping the economy alive, labour theory of value and that prices depended on supply and demand. The Laffer Curve of taxation named after the economist, Arthur Laffer was inspired by Ibn Khaldun’s work who had said “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.” In addition to this, he was a master of the religious sciences, jurisprudence and theology.

He was one of the finest scholars of his time. It is heartening to note that there is increased recognition for him in recent years. Fun Fact : In 2011, Ibn Khaldun’s birthday was recognised by a Google Doodle.


  1. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/ibn-khaldun-the-man-who-invented-modern-history
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/06/01/trump-is-giving-arthur-laffer-presidential-medal-freedom-economists-arent-laughing/
  3. https://fee.org/articles/the-laffer-curve-was-discovered-by-medieval-islamic-philosopher/
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ibn-Khaldun/The-Muqaddimah-Ibn-Khalduns-philosophy-of-history
  5. The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun , Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton Classics)
0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
By Unknown author – Scanned from “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas : Chinese art from the Silk Route” (London: British Museum Press, 1990) page 160 plate 132., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11252136

The kingdom of Khotan which had its origins in the 3rd and 2nd century BC existed in the region which is today in Western China. Khotan was on the Southern Silk Route but it was not just a city of passage as it had its own economy based on silk, paper and Jade. It was a centre for Buddhist learning and art as well as a strong political centre.

It is said that the population of Khotan was an amalgamation of three sources- Nomadic Saka horsemen, Indian and Chinese immigrants and traders. Such a diverse population gave birth to many innovations. In the fifth century, the Indian Gupta script called Late Brahmi script was used to write the Middle Iranian language of the Saka. There were bilingual Sino-Kharoshthi bronze and copper coins whose weights also matched those of the Kushan coins.

The Indian and Chinese origins of Khotan are also reflected in the Tibetan Annals of Li Yu which was composed in the mid eighth century. According to a legend, Vaishravana, the Buddhist guardian of the deity of the North impregnated the wife of Emperor Ashoka. Ashoka abandoned the child and Vaishravana took him to China and had him adopted as Emperor’s son. After some years, the prince quarrelled with the sons of the Chinese emperor and set off west with a small army. At the same time, a disgruntled minister left Ashoka’s India for a new homeland. When the two met, war threatened but Vaishravana was able to establish peace between them and the two communities founded Khotan. Hence, Vaishravana is honoured as the patron of the city. According to this legend, the date of foundation of Khotan would be around 134 BC.

There are many artworks and monastery ruins excavated in the region. One of the most impressive is the monastery stupa of Rawak. Karadong has Hinayana period wall paintings in the two storey temple featuring only standing and seated Buddhas. The faces at Karadong are distinctively Indian/Central Asian, dated to the first half of the Fourth Century. Dandan Oilak was a city of temples and monasteries and was a part of the Khotan empire. One of the paintings (which you can see at the top of the blog) talks about the legend of how Sericulture came to Khotan. The Chinese kept the art of Sericulture guarded. When a Chinese princess was getting married to a Khotan prince, he wrote to her that she would need to wear coarse clothes in Khotan as there was no silk available. The Princess smuggled Silkmoth eggs and Mulberry leaves out of China in her headdress. Thus, Khotan learned the secret art of making Silk.

The paintings excavated at Dandan Oilak are similar in style to the ones at Panjikent (ancient town of Sogdiana). There is a painting of a three headed figure who at the first look represents the Hindu God Shiva but in context of Khotan could be Maheshvara (tutelary deity under Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism) or the Sogdian God Weshparkar. Either of these is possible as there was a sizeable Sogdian community in Khotan. The Sogdian Zoroastrians merged the visual representation of their deities with Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism- cultures with whom they were in close contact through trade.

Panel discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in December 1900 from Dandan Oilak

Khotan faced pressure from the Tibetans who conquered it around 798 AD. In 851 Khotan regained its independence and in 920 allied itself by marriage with the Chinese ruling family of Dunhuang. Khotan finally fell to Yusuf Kadr Khan in 1006.


  1. The History of Central Asia – The Age of the Silk Roads, Christoph Baumer
  2. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/travel-atlases-maps-l18401/lot.196.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Khotan
0 comment
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
Newer Posts