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HISTORY OF IRAN (PERSIA)
 
 


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The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and the Arab nomads are Muslim in the desert to the east of Palestine and Syria.
 








Muslim Persia: 637-751


Persia falls to the Arabs as a consequence of the battle of Kadisiya, close to the Euphrates, in 637. After their victory the Arabs sack the city of Ctesiphon (carefully sharing out the famous Spring Carpet). The last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III, is five at the time. He and his court escape to the east, but he is eventually assassinated, in 651, at Merv. His name remains, even today, in use in the chronology of the Parsees. They number their years from the start of his reign in 632.

Meanwhile the Arabs win another victory over Persian forces at Nahavand in 641. They capture Isfahan in 642 and Herat in 643. Persia becomes, for a century, part of the Umayyad caliphate.
 









The Abbasid caliphate: from750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in Damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.
 









Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in Spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.
 






Baghdad: 8th century

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.
 









The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the Thousand and One Nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other Rich gifts.
 






Zoroastrians and Parsees: from the 7th century

For three centuries after the Muslim conquest of Persia, Zoroastrianism remains of importance in the region. But gradually the majority of Persians convert to the religion of the new ruling caste, whether for reasons of conviction or convenience. A minority of Zoroastrians seek greater liberty elsewhere. They move to India, where they establish themselves in Gujarat as the Parsees (the Persian word for 'Persians').

A few Zoroastrians remain in Iran, to be found even today in the remote desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. They have been known to Muslims until recently as gabar, probably a version of the Arabic kafir ('infidel').
 








An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th c.

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North Africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.
 








Persian independence from Baghdad: 9th century

From about 866 the whole of eastern Persia, to Kabul in the north and Sind in the south, is gradually overrun by a Persian from a family of metal-workers; he is known as al-Saffar ('the coppersmith'), giving his short-lived dynasty the name of Saffarids. In 876 he is strong enough to march on Baghdad, though he is prevented from reaching it by the army of the caliph.

In 900 the Saffarids are defeated by another Persian dynasty, the Samanids. The new rulers are aristocrats, descended from a nobleman by the name of Saman Khudat. They preside over the first conscious revival of Persian culture since the Arab conquest.
 









The Samanids make their capital at Bukhara, bringing this city its first period of splendour. Their court becomes famous for its celebration of Persian (as opposed to Arab) history and traditions. The patronage of Saminid sultans launches the classic period of Persian literature, soon to find its highest national expression in the Shah-nama of Firdausi.

But the Samanids make the same mistake as the caliphs in Baghdad. They entrust provincial power to Turkish governors. In 999 the ruling family is driven from Bukhara by Turks, and in 1005 the last in the Samanid line is assassinated. Ironically the Shah-nama is not complete until 1010. Firdausi presents it not to a Samanid Persian but to Mahmud the Turk, ruler of Ghazni.
 






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