SAMANIDS (867-1495)

SAMANIDS (867-1495)

The Samanids (also known as the Saffarids, (867-1495) were the first Islamic Persian rulers. They were Sunni Muslims loyal the caliph in Baghdad and admirers of Persian Shiite culture. They set up a local dynasty within the Abbasid Empire and presided over a period of creative and artistic energy. Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks embrace the Samanids as their own.

Starting in the 10th century ethnic groups who were converted to Islam by the Arabs began to reassert themselves. The Samanids ruled from A.D. 819 to 992 and were based in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan. They retook their homeland and captured Baghdad in 945. Their empire didn't last long. It waned in the early 10th century due to internal divisions.

The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to India, with the heart of their empire in eastern and southern Iran and southern Central Asia. The Abbasids ruled western Iran and other dynasties ruled other parts of the country. In 962 a Turkish slave governor of the Samanids, Alptigin, conquered Ghazna (in present-day Afghanistan) and established a dynasty, the Ghaznavids, that lasted to 1186.*

J.J. Saunders wrote in “A History of Medieval Islam”: “Despite their brief rule of little more than a hundred years, the Samanids had much to their credit. Of Persian origin, they set up a strong centralized government in Khurasan and Transoxiana, with its capital at Bukhara; they encouraged trade and manufactures; they patronized learning, and they sponsored the spread of Islam by peaceful conversion among the barbarians to the north and east of their realm. [Source: J.J. Saunders, “A History of Medieval Islam,” (London: Routledge, 1965), chap. 9. "IX The Turkish Irruption"]

Samanids ( 204–395: 819–1005
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Ahmad I ibn Asad ibn Saman: 204–50: 819–64
Nasr I ibn Ahmad: 250–79: 864–92
Ismacil I ibn Ahmad: 279–95: 892–907
Ahmad II ibn Ismacil: 295–301: 907–14
al-Amir al-Sacid Nasr II: 301–31: 914–43
al-Amir al-Hamid Nuh I: 331–43: 943–54
al-Amir al-Mu'ayyad cAbd al-Malik I: 343–50: 954–61
al-Amir al-Sadid Mansur I: 350–65: 961–76
al-Amir al-Rida Nuh II: 365–87: 976–97
Mansur II: 387–89: 997–99
cAbd al-Malik II: 389–90: 999–1000
Ismacil II al-Muntasir: 390–95: 1000–1005
[Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Saffarid: 253–ca. 900: 867–ca. 1495
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Yacqub ibn Layth al-Saffar: 253–65: 867–79
cAmr ibn Layth: 265–88: 879–901
Tahir ibn Muhammad ibn cAmr: 288–96: 901–8
Layth ibn cAli: 296–98: 908–10

Muhammad ibn cAli: 298: 910
Buyid—Iraq: 334–447: 945–1055
Mucizz al-Dawla Ahmad: 334–56: 945–67
cIzz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar: 356–67: 967–78
cAdud al-Dawla Fana-Khusraw: 367–72: 978–82
Samsam al-Dawla Marzuban: 372–76: 983–87
Sharaf al-Dawla Shirzil: 376–79: 987–89
Baha' al-Dawla Firuz: 379–403: 989–1012
Sultan al-Dawla: 403–12: 1012–21
Musharrif al-Dawla: 412–16: 1021–25
Jalal al-Dawla Shirzil: 416–35: 1025–44
cImad al-Din al-Marzuban: 435–40: 1044–48
al-Malik al-Rahim Khusraw-Firuz: 440–47: 1048–55
[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Largest cities in the world in the year 1000 (estimated population): 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Nishapur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000).

Samanid History

The Samanid dynasty (A.D. 819–999) was an Iranian dynasty that arose in what is now eastern Iran and Uzbekistan. It was renowned for the impulse that it gave to Iranian national sentiment and learning. The Saminids set up a local dynasty within the Muslim Abbasid Empire. Modern Tajiks look upon the Samanid dynasty as a kind of golden age.

The four grandsons of the Samanid dynasty’s founder, Saman-Khoda, had been rewarded with provinces for their faithful service to the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun: 1) Nuh obtained Samarkand; 2) Ahmad, Fergana; 3) Yahya, Shash (Tashkent); and 4) Elyas, Herat. Ahmad’s son Nasr became governor of Transoxania in 875, but it was his brother and successor, Ismail I (892–907), who overthrew the Saffarids in Khorasan (900) and the Zaydites of Tabaristan, thus establishing the semiautonomous rule over Transoxania and Khorasan, with Bukhara as his capital. [Source: Encyclopedia Britanica ~]

Under the loosely centralized feudal government of the Samanids, Transoxania and Khorasan prospered, with a notable expansion of industry and commerce, attested by the use of Samanid silver coins as currency throughout northern Asia. The main cities of Samarkand and Bukhara became cultural centres. Persian literature flourished in the works of the poets Rudaki and Ferdowsi, philosophy and history were encouraged, and the foundations of Iranian Islamic culture were laid. ~

From the mid-10th century, Samanid power was gradually undermined, economically by the interruption of the northern trade and politically by a struggle with a confederation of disaffected nobles. Weakened, the Samanids became vulnerable to pressure from the rising Turkish powers in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Nuh II (976–997), to retain at least nominal control, confirmed Sebüktigin, a former Turkish slave, as semi-independent ruler of Ghazna (modern Ghazni, Afg.) and appointed his son Mahmud governor of Khorasan. But the Turkish Qarakhanids (Qarakhanid Dynasty), who then occupied the greater part of Transoxania, allied with Mahmud and deposed the Samanid Mansur II, taking possession of Khorasan. Bukhara fell in 999, and the last Samanid, Ismail II, after a five-year struggle against the Ghaznavid Mahmud and the Qarakhanids, was assassinated in 1005.

Samanid Rule and Trade

In some aspects the time of Ismail's successors was more important that his own. For instance the time of Nasr ibn Ahmad (914 - 943 CE) is described by many authors as the golden age of the Samanid rule, because of flowering of literature and culture. The main role in this process was played by the Samanid vazirs, the primer ministers, who themselves were the scholars of their time. Here we should mention the names of two important primer ministers Abu Abdellah Jayhani, and Abul Fazl Mohammad Balami. They gathered many intelligent people in their court and made Bukhara the cultural centre of Iranian civilisation. [Source: Cyrus Shahmiri, Iran Chamber Society \^/]

In the 12th century, Persian art began showing influences from China and Persian language, culture and political ideas were influenced by Turks and Mongols. According to R. Frye the well-known process of Iranian renaissance began in Central Asia rather then in Iran, and he sees the reason for that in the difference of the social groups in these two parts of Muslim world. The mercantile, trade society of Central Asia was much more suitable for the development of an egalitarian Islamic society than a hierarchical caste society of Iran. Therefore the Samanids, who were the real rulers of Transoxian could be seen as a pioneers of Iranian renaissance. Indeed the changes, which took place under that process, occupied every sphere of life: cultural, linguistic, social, art, economy, politics, and scientific. \^/

The changes, which came with the emerge of the Samanids in the agriculture, commerce, architecture, city building, coinage, textiles, and metalwork, were due in many respects to the stability and safety political situation of the country. The merchants had good opportunities to enter into commercial relations not only with their nearest neighbours, but also with the far countries as well, like the Khazars of Volga, through whom an active traffic developed, with the Vikings of Scandinavia. Due to them the textiles and metalwork of Samanids were exchanged for the furs and amber of the Baltic lands. \^/

The Samanid amirs had control over the most important silver producing veins of Central Asia in Badakhshan and Farghana, which made possible the development of the coinage system. The Samanids coinage, due to its vast quantity, was popular not only in the Islamic world, but also outside it in Russia, Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, and even in British Isles. \^/

Samanid Culture

The Tajiks regard the peak of their cultural development as occurring during the period of Samanids rule (A.D. 874-999), especially under Ismail Samani. Under his rule science, literature, astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences and philosophy prospered. Ismail Samanid valued education and created favorable conditions for cultural boom. His rule is considered the Golden Age of Tajik civilization. The court of Ismail Samani included some of the best scientists, writers, philosophers, poets, astronomers, painters and alchemists of that time. Names associated with the Samanid period include Ibn-Sino, Abu-Raikhan-Berunii, Al-Khorezmii, Imom Termezii, Farabi, Rudakii, Firdausi, Saadi and Omar Khayyam. In 1999 the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid Dynasty was marked with a big celebration. [Source:]

The most important contribution of the Samanid age to Islamic art is the pottery produced at Nishapur and Samarkand. The Samanids developed a technique known as slip painting: mixing semifluid clay (slip) with their colours to prevent the designs from running when fired with the thin fluid glazes used at that time. Bowls and simple plates were the most common forms made by Samanid potters. The potters employed stylized Sasanian motifs such as horsemen, birds, lions, and bulls' heads, as well as Arabic calligraphic design. Polychrome pieces usually had a buff or red body with designs of several colours, bright yellows, greens, black, purples, and reds being the most common. Many pottery pieces were produced at Nishapur, however, with only a single line on a white background. The art of bronze casting and other forms of metalwork also flourished at Nishapur throughout the Samanid period. [Source: Encyclopedia Britanica ~]

Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan was a major Samanid cultural center. When the Arabs arrived in A.D. 709 it was already a bustling Silk Road trading center. They managed to convert most of the local population to Islam but were replaced after a few decades by the Samanids, Sunni Muslims loyal the caliph in Baghdad and admirers of Persian Shiite culture. Under the Samanids Bukhara became a great city of trade and leaning in the 9th and 10th centuries. Described as a "Pillar of Islam” and a place where light “radiates upward to illuminate heaven," it was home to 240 mosques and 113 madrasahs (Islamic schools) and produced great scholars and intellectuals such as the mathematician Beruni, the poets Firdausi and Rudaki, and the physician Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna).

The celebrated scientist-physician-philosopher Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna), who died in Hamadan in 1037, and the Persian mystic-scientist-poet Omar Khayyam (died 1123) were born in Iran when it was part of the Samanid empire. They had a great impact on Abbasid culture.

Omar Khayyan made important contributions to astronomy and mathematics and wrote the “Rubaiyat”. The Persian physician Rhazes was the first man to recommended filling cavities, he used a glue-like pate made from ammonium, iron and mastic (a yellowish resin from a plant in the almond family).

Although few Samanid buildings have survived, a mausoleum of Ismail the Samanid (d. 907), still standing in Bukhara, shows the originality of the architecture of the era. The perfectly symmetrical mausoleum is constructed entirely of brick; brick is also used to form decorative patterns in relief, based on the position and direction of each architectural unit. Other monumnets from the Samanid era include the mausoleum of Arabato in Tim and the mosque Nuh Gunbad in Balkh, and so on. Along with Bukhara many other cities in the Samanid Empire began to develop such as Samarqand, Balkh, Usturusha, Panjacant, Shash, Marv, Nishapour, Herat. The cities in many respects were the signs of new Persian civilisation represented by the name of Islam, because mostly the development of literature, language, art, architecture, trade, took place in the cities. \^/ ~


Marika Sardar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Nishapur is a city in northeastern Iran that was founded around the third century A.D., grew to prominence in the eighth century, and was ruined by invasions and earthquakes in the thirteenth century. After that time, a much smaller settlement was established just north of the ancient town, and the once bustling metropolis lay underground. [Source: Marika Sardar, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

In the medieval period, Nishapur flourished as a regional capital and was home to many religious scholars. It was also known as an economic center—Nishapur was located on the trade route known as the Silk Road, which ran from China to the Mediterranean Sea, crossing Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey along the way. In addition, Nishapur was a source of turquoise and a center for growing cotton, producing cotton textiles as well as several types of fabric incorporating silk, called 'attabi, saqlatuni, and mulham. One of the most unusual products of Nishapur, however, was its edible earth, which was believed to have curative properties. At its peak between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Nishapur had a population of approximately 100,000 to 200,000 people, and development covering an area of approximately six and a half square miles. \^/

The Metropolitan Museum of Art extensively excavated the ancient area of Nishapur in the 1930s and 40s.Two areas provided particularly rich finds. The first site to be excavated, called Sabz Pushan ("green mound" in Persian), had been a thriving residential neighborhood occupied between the ninth and twelfth centuries, with houses of three to four rooms connected by small alleys. Of the large area this neighborhood once occupied, approximately fifteen houses were eventually excavated. One of these houses had particularly well-preserved decoration, with carved stucco panels covering the lower part of the wall, the dado, in several rooms (Sabz Pushan Room). The panels were originally painted in bright yellows, reds, and blues, with equally colorful murals on the plaster walls above, but once the panels were exposed to the air, the colors that the excavators first saw quickly disappeared. \^/

At a part of the site the locals called Tepe Madrasa, the excavators had expected to find one of Nishapur's famed institutions of learning, or madrasa. Instead, they uncovered a large residential area with a mosque that had been developed and rebuilt in several phases between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Inside one of the residences, perhaps the palace of the city's ninth-century governors, they found a room with an extraordinary set of wall paintings whose iconography appears unique to the site (40.170.176). These objects were significant in providing information on several different artistic traditions. In terms of ceramics, they brought to light several types whose decoration was unique to this part of Iran. These were typically decorated with strong-colored slips, made of diluted clay, in bold patterns (38.40.137; 38.40.290; 40.170.15; 40.170.25; 38.40.247). The distinctive ceramics produced in Nishapur were traded around the region, and have been found at Herat, Merv, and Samarqand.

The evidence from the excavations also revealed much about the development of architectural decoration in northeastern Iran. Walls in residences and public buildings throughout Nishapur were decorated in many different ways, from frescoes to carved and painted stucco, terracotta panels to glazed ceramic tiles. The range of imagery was also wide, including geometric and vegetal patterns, calligraphy, figures, and animals. The refined tradition of wall painting shows links with the earlier history of the region, such as Buddhist paintings in Central Asia and Sasanian paintings in Iran, as well as with contemporary painting of Iraq. Carved stucco decoration, perennially important in Iranian architecture, was represented in examples found throughout the site. The exteriors of large public buildings were clad in baked bricks set in decorative patterns, large terracotta panels carved with multilayered ornament, or glazed tiles, often in shades of bright blue.

In addition, Nishapur was an important center for the manufacture of glass, metal, and stone vessels as well as textiles. None of the latter were found in the excavations, no doubt due to their highly perishable nature. However, beautifully decorated spindle whorls were excavated by the hundreds. Smaller items such as toys, game pieces, musical instruments, and beads throw light on everyday activities in Nishapur and give us a better understanding of daily life for its citizens .

Books: Kröger, Jens. Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995. Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973. Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and Their Decoration. New York: Metropolitan Museum

Tajiks and Samanids

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “Official Tajik histories trace the completion of the Tajik’s ‘ethnogenesis’ and the beginning of their ‘statehood’ to the era of the Samanid Empire (ninth–tenth centuries). Contemporary Tajik scholars claim that ‘the formation of the Tajik nation was completed during the rule of the Samanids’. Ghafurov, an influential historian who was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan from 1946 to 1956 and thereafter the director of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, writes of the Tajiks as a clearly defined group from the Samanid era.[Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“It would not be correct to call the Samanid Empire [819-999] the first Tajik state. Rather, it was the last time the bulk of Iranian lands were under the domain of an Iranian ruler. Within the Samanid administration there was a discernible ethno-religious division: an Iranian chancery, staffed with recent converts, coexisted with the predominantly Arab ulama, while the core of the army consisted of Turkic slaves or mercenaries. Eventually, the attack of the Qarakhanid Turks ended its reign in 999, and dominance in Central Asia passed on to Turkic rulers.

“Language and religion are considered the most basic traits of an ethnie’s shared culture. Under the Samanids, ordinary people continued to speak local dialects (Soghdian, Khorezmian, and so on), while Dari was primarily the language of official documents and court life, only beginning to spread en masse in Bukhara, Samarkand and Ferghana. Literary modern Persian remained uniform in Western Iran and Central Asia until the fifteenth or even sixteenth century. Similarly, behavioural patterns, legal procedures and educational systems based on shari’a stayed almost identical in both regions. Under the Samanids, the bulk of Turkic tribes beyond the Syr-Darya converted to Islam; it was a severe blow to the image of the Turk as a perennial enemy of the Iranian. The Sunni–Shi’a dichotomy was yet to become a watershed among different ethnic communities.

“Anthony Smith argues that ‘a strong sense of belonging and an active solidarity, which in time of stress and danger can override class, factional or religious divisions within the community’, are the decisive factors for a durable ethnic community. This was not the case amongst Iranians in Mavarannahr before, during and after Samanid rule. Internal divisions in principalities, valley communities or other territorial subunits were more potent sources of identity than affiliation to an ethnie. Khuttal, Chaganian, Isfijab, Khorezm and princedoms of Badakhshan nominally acknowledged the supremacy of the Samanids, yet in practice they ‘were ruled by local dynasties according to their old traditions’. Four distinct regions had formed by the twelfth century on the present-day territory of Tajikistan that were characterised by political and cultural autonomy: 1) Northern Tokharistan and Khuttal (that is, southern Tajikistan); 2) the Zarafshon Valley; 3) the basin of Upper and Middle Syr-Darya, including Ustrushana, Khujand and Western Ferghana; and 4) the Pamirs. With some variations, these specific geographic-cultural areas have survived until today. Prior to the Mongol invasion, their populations never acted in unison to repel aggressors; moreover, cases of mass resistance to aggression were almost unheard of in Mavarannahr.

“In summary, it is impossible to single out a distinct Tajik ethnie in the tenth century. Central Asian Iranians remained an integral part of a wide Iranian ethnic community that came into being in the Achaemenid era, and from which they drew their name, history, inspiration and shared culture. The Samanid period, however, can be regarded as a landmark in the process of the ethnogenesis of the Tajiks. It produced an encoded fund of myths, memories, values and symbols—the core of the future ethnie in Tajikistan. Eventually, the Samanids themselves moved into the realm of the legendary tradition of contemporary Tajiks. As the future showed, the centuries-long absence of economic unity and a common polity did not lead to the dissolution of the Tajiks. The sense of shared origins and cultural markers allowed them to survive in the ocean of Turkic tribes, and later gave them a chance to reconstruct (or forge) their history, pedigree and ethnicity.

Fall of the Samanids

J.J. Saunders wrote in “A History of Medieval Islam”: “Notwithstanding the prosperity of their kingdom, the Samanids failed to keep the loyalty of their subjects. Their heavily bureaucratized despotism was expensive to maintain, and the burden of taxation alienated the dihkans, on whose support the regime depended. One of their rulers, Nasr al-Sa'id, who reigned from 914 to 943, favoured the Isma'ilis and corresponded with the Fatimid Caliph Ka'im, thereby forfeiting the sympathy of the orthodox. Following the example of the Abbasids, they surrounded themselves with Turkish guards, whose fidelity was far from assured. [Source: J.J. Saunders, “A History of Medieval Islam,” (London: Routledge, 1965), chap. 9. "IX The Turkish Irruption" \=]

In 962 one of their Turkish officers, Alp-tagin ('hero prince'), seized the town and fortress of Ghazna, in what is now Afghanistan, a wealthy co mercial centre whose inhabitants had grown rich on the Indian trade and set up a semi-independent principality. He died in the following year, and after an interval another Turkish general, Sabuk-tagin, won control of Ghazna in 977 and founded a dynasty which gained immortal lustre from his son Mahmud.

The Samanid kingdom fell into anarchy; the Kara-Khanids, a Turkish people of unknown antecedents (they may have been the tribe converted to Islam in 960), crossed the Jaxartes and captured Bukhara in 999, while Mahmud of Ghazna, who had succeeded his father Sabuktagin two years earlier, annexed the large and flourishing province of Khurasan. Thus Persian rule disappeared along the eastern marches of Islam, and Turkish princes reigned in Khurasan and Transoxiana. Barbarians though they might be, they found a certain favour with their subjects: they stood for order, they allowed Persian officials to run the government, they protected trade, they were orthodox Sunnite Muslims, and they professed themselves ardent champions of the faith against heretics and unbelievers. \=\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.