Late Medieval Period
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Late Medieval Period: History

 

The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, culminating in the subjugation of Baghdad in 1258 and the demise of the Abbasid caliphate, had an enormous impact on large areas of the Islamic world, which now experienced its greatest threat. These conquests were carried out under the command of Hülagü, a grandson of Genghis Khan, who assumed the title Il-Khan, meaning "lesser Khan," a subordinate of the Great (Mongol) Khan in China. The name Il-Khan (or Ilkhanid) is also used to describe the branch of the Mongol dynasty that ruled over Iraq, the Caucasus, parts of Asia Minor, and all of Iran, as far east as Central Asia. 

From their capital at Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, the Ilkhanids maintained contact with such disparate cultures as China and Christian Europe, thereby invigorating the Iranian world with new mercantile alliances and fresh artistic influences. Following the death of the last Ilkhanid ruler in 1335, their empire crumbled and was replaced by a number of local dynasties.

By the end of the fourteenth century the minor principalities that had come to power in Iran were overcome by a new wave of Central Asiatic warriors under the command of Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane). Of Turko-Mongol descent, Timur embarked upon his conquests around 1370, becoming master of his home province of Transoxiana and establishing Samarqand as his capital. Before his death in 1405, as he prepared to invade China, Timur subjugated all of Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. His other conquests included southern Russia and the Indian Subcontinent; to the west, the Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara.

Under Timur’s less militarily adept successors, the Timurid territories in Iraq were slowly absorbed by two successive Turkman federations of the Qara Quyunlu (Black Sheep) and Aq Quyunlu (White Sheep) tribes. By the end of the fifteenth century only the provinces of Khurasan and Transoxiana remained, and in the last years of the dynasty these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family. Members of this dynasty were vigorous sponsors of Persian art and culture whose patronage culminated in the late fifteenth century with the brilliant Timurid court at Herat (in modern Afganistan), in Khurasan. Although the dynasty came to an end in 1507, one member of the Timurid house survived and went on to found the Mughal dynasty in India.

Turning to the west, the Mamluk dynasty supplanted Ayyubid rule in Egypt and Syria. Under the later Ayyubids the army had been transformed into a corps whose highest offices were reserved for Turkish-speaking former military slaves, known as mamluks. By the death of the last Ayyubid ruler, his mamluks had become sufficiently powerful to raise one of their own members to the throne. In 1250 the first such mamluk was proclaimed sultan, inaugurating the period of Mamluk rule and the greatest Islamic dynasty of the late medieval period.

The Mamluks were, first and foremost, soldiers who constructed a powerful military machine formidable enough to halt the advance of the Mongols and to expel the last Crusaders, who had long occupied the Syrian coast. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mamluks is their creation of a new, self-perpetuating ruling class composed of former military slaves, which excluded members of the indigenous population and often prevented even their own heirs from succeeding to their position and property. In part as a means of allowing their offspring to benefit from their wealth, the Mamluks built and lavishly endowed innumerable religious foundations, which were controlled by their descendants. Cairo, their capital, became an enormously rich city and a center of intellectual and artistic activity. Even today it is marked by the tall domes, lofty stone façades, and balconied minarets that characterize Mamluk architecture.

In Spain a coalition of Christian kings had forced the Berber Almohads to retreat to North Africa. All remaining Muslim lands in the south fell to the Christians, with the exception of the province of Granada, which came under the control of the Nasrids, the last Islamic dynasty in Spain. In order to preserve his kingdom, the Nasrid ruler became a vassal of the Christian king in Castile, thereby staving off the dual threat from the Christians in the north and from the Muslims in North Africa, who sought to regain Spain for Islam. Despite its ultimately untenable political situation, the kingdom of Granada survived as a great cultural center in the Muslim West for more than two and a half centuries. In 1492 Granada fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella, who had united Spain under their rule, bringing to an end not only the Nasrid dynasty but more than seven hundred years of an Islamic presence on the Iberian Peninsula as well.

During this period the long reign of the Saljuqs of Rum in Anatolia was coming to an end; they survived until the turn of the fourteenth century, but under Mongol suzerainty. In the fourteenth century Anatolia was apportioned into several principalities under the rule of different Turkish dynasties. Foremost among these were the Ottomans, who established themselves in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor.

Throughout the fifteenth century the Ottomans gradually consolidated their hold over Anatolia, but their crowning military achievement came in 1453, with the conquest of Constantinople and the final destruction of the Byzantine empire. The golden age of the Ottomans is considered in the section on the Late Islamic period.

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Image in top banner:
Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk dynasty, c. 1350; free-blown and tooled glass; 13 5/8 x 11 1/4 in. (34.50 x 28.58 cm); William Randolph Hearst Collection, 50.28.4


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