Early Medieval Period
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Early Medieval Period: History

 

The early medieval period was marked by another wave of invasions, but this time from within the Islamic world. New rulers, of varying ethnic backgrounds, established short-lived regional dynasties, in contrast to the preceding period, in which Arab leadership predominated and the Islamic world was united under the centralized authority of the caliph. This was a time of political change, shifting religious trends, and a great flowering of the arts.

With the deterioration of Abbasid authority, autonomous dynasties soon established themselves in the western territories. In the early tenth century the Shicite Fatimid dynasty came to power in North Africa and soon expanded its authority to Sicily and parts of Egypt. The Fatimid armies completed their conquest of Egypt in 969, and in that year Cairo was founded as the new capital, becoming an important cultural center that was to rival Baghdad. From Egypt the Fatimids extended their domain to Syria. Egypt and Syria enjoyed enormous economic prosperity under the Fatimids, through their control of the lucrative trade between India and the Mediterranean. Furthermore, this was a period of remarkable tolerance, in which members of the Christian and Jewish communities flourished alongside their Muslim counterparts.

Fatimid power effectively ended in 1169, when, in an attempt to rid themselves of the Crusaders, who were then besieging Cairo, the Fatimid rulers asked a Syrian dynasty to come to their aid. Not only did the Syrians succeed in driving the Crusaders from Egypt, but one of their officers overthrew the Fatimid caliphate, establishing the Ayyubid dynasty.

In deposing the Shicite Fatimid caliph, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Salah al-Din (Saladin), who was of Kurdish descent, also restored Sunni, or orthodox, Islam to Egypt. He expanded his empire to include Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and, famously, he managed to defeat the Crusader states in 1187. Following Salah al-Din’s death, the empire was little more than a confederation of semiautonomous principalities, each ruled by one of the Ayyubid princes. This empire nonetheless enjoyed a period of relative peace and affluence.

Elsewhere in the west, Spain had been independently governed from the mid-eighth century by a branch of the Umayyad dynasty, under whose rule Islamic Spain witnessed a golden age. With the fall of this dynasty in 1031, Spain was divided into several minor principalities. Weakened by division, the Muslims were unable to deflect the threat of the Christian reconquest. In 1086 a confederation of Berber clans known as the Almoravids, who had risen to power in Morocco under the banner of Islamic revival and renewal, crossed over into Spain, gaining control of the Muslim south while keeping the Christians in the north at bay. About the mid-twelfth century the Almoravids were supplanted in Morocco and, shortly thereafter, in Spain by another Berber dynasty, the Almohads, who were soon forced from Spain by the inexorable Christian advance.

On the borders of the eastern Islamic world, the large-scale migration of Turkish nomads from the Central Asian steppe shifted the balance of power, and a series of Turkish dynasts soon replaced Persians as rulers of the eastern Iranian world. The first Turkish dynasty, the Ghaznavids, came to power in what is now Afghanistan. The boundaries of the Ghaznavid empire eventually extended from Khurasan in the north to the Indian Subcontinent in the south. Despite their Turkish origins, the Ghaznavids spoke Persian, and their patronage helped further the development of modern Persian as a cultural language. The great Iranian national epic, the Shahnama, was completed by the poet Firdawsi at their court in Ghazni in 1010 and was dedicated to their ruler. Soon after, the Ghaznavids forfeited their Iranian provinces to another Turkish dynasty, the Saljuqs.

In the eleventh century the Saljuqs briefly ruled over a vast empire that included all of Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and most of Anatolia, or Turkey. By the end of the century, however, this empire had disintegrated into smaller kingdoms ruled by different branches of the Saljuq house. The so-called Great Saljuqs, the main branch of the dynasty, governed Iran. Like the Ghaznavids, these ethnic Turks embraced Persian culture and adopted the Persian language.

Turkish rule in Asia Minor was initiated under the Saljuqs following their victory over the Byzantine army in eastern Anatolia in 1071. This important event paved the way for the gradual introduction of Islam and Turkish culture into Anatolia. The Saljuq sultanate of Rum (that is, Byzantium) endured until the beginning of the fourteenth century, although from the mid-thirteenth century the Saljuqs served merely as governors under the Mongols.

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Image in top banner:
Candlestick, Iran,13th century; brass, engraved and inlaid with silver; height: 6 3/8 in. (16.19 cm); The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky, M.73.5.123


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Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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