Introduction to Iranian History

Iran as a country has been home to one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, with agricultural settlements dating back to the 6th millennium BC. The Iranian peoples are, however, a historical ethnic-linguistic group, consisting of the speakers of Iranian languages, a major branch of the Indo-European language family. Their historical areas of settlement were on the Iranian plateau, certain areas of Central Asia such as Tajikestan, most of Afghanistan, parts of Iraq, Turkey, Amenia, Pakistan and scattered parts of the Caucasus Mountains – a region that is sometimes termed the Iranian cultural continent.

The term Iran is derived from the Old Persian adjective Aryana (“the land of the Aryans”) which is itself a cognate of the Sanskrit word Arya. The original meaning of the term is not clear. It has been said the most likely translation is “the noble people” – based on the famous “Noble Eightfold Path” of Buddhism (āryā ṣṭāṅga mārga) which in turn is divided into three main groups closely resembling the three pillars of  Zoroasterian belief in “Noble Thoughts, Noble Words, Noble Deeds”.

Although the term “Iran” has been used since ancient times to refer to both the country and its people, it was only in 1936 when it was adopted as the official name of the state. However, the academic usage of the term “Iranian People” or even the obviously restrictive term “Persian People” is distinct from the state of Iran. Many citizens of Iran are not necessarily Persian or Iranian people by virtue of not being either speakers of Iranian or Persian languages and may not have discernible ties to ancient Iranian tribes. Not to mention the fact that since the 1980s millions of Iranians have escaped the clerical autocracy in Iran and are now scattered all over the world.

In the following collection we have simply included all those dynasties, regardless of their ethnic origins, who have ruled parts or all of what is now called Iran. The collection should not be taken as the last word on anything but rather as a tool for finding your ways around the subject. We only hope the introductory texts that we have collected from existing sources and shortened  to give you a general understanding of the subject do not discourage you from further research.

Elam, 3200–1100 BC

Elam was an ancient civilization located in what is now southwest Iran. The name is a transcription from Biblical Hebrew. In the Old Elamite period (Middle Bronze Age), Elam consisted of kingdoms on the Iranian plateau, centered in Anshan, and from the mid-2nd millennium BC, it was centered in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands. Its culture played a crucial role in the development of later Persian dynasties, especially the Achaemenids.

At least three proto-Elamite states merged to form Elam: Anshan (modern Fars), Awan (probably modern Luristan), and Shimashki (modern Kerman). References to Awan are generally older than those to Anshan. Elamite sites are found well outside this area, spread out on the Iranian plateau; such as Warakshe, Sialk (now a suburb of the modern city of Kashan) and Jiroft (in Kerman Province). The state of Elam was formed from these lesser states as a response to invasion from Sumer during the Old Elamite period. Elamite strength was based on an ability to hold these various areas together under a coordinated government.

Knowledge of Elamite history remains largely fragmentary, reconstruction being based on mainly Mesopotamian sources. The history of Elam is conventionally divided into three periods, spanning more than two millennia. The period before the first Elamite period is known as the proto-Elamite period:

  • Proto-Elamite: 3200 – 2700 BC (Proto-Elamite script in Susa)
  • Old Elamite period: 2700 – 1500 BC (earliest documents until the Sukkalmah Dynasty)
  • Middle Elamite period: 1500 – 1100 BC (Anzanite dynasty until the Babylonian invasion of Susa)
  • Neo-Elamite period: 1100 – 540 BC (Assyrian and Median influence. 539 BC marks the beginning of the Achaemenid period.

The Elamites practised polytheism. Knowledge about their religion is scant, but in the later period, Elam worshipped a supreme triad consisting of Inshushinak (originally the civic protector god of Susa, eventually the leader of the triad and guarantor of the monarchy), Kiririsha (an earth/mother goddess in southern Elam), and Khumban (a sky god). Other deities include Pinikir (a mother goddess, and possibly originally chief deity, in northern Elam, later supplanted by or identified with Kiririsha) and Jabru (a god of the underworld[48]). There were also imported deities, such as Beltiya.

Elamite royalty in the final century preceding the Achaemenids was fragmented among different small kingdoms, the united Elamite nation having been destroyed and colonised by the Assyrians, but new polities emerged in the area after Assyrian power faded. Among the nations that benefited from the decline of the Assyrians were the Iranian tribes, whose presence around Lake Urmia to the north of Elam is attested from the 9th century BC in Assyrian texts. Sometime after that the region fell to Madius the Scythian (653 BC), and then Teispes, son of Achaemenes, conquered Elamite Anshan in the mid 7th century BC, forming a nucleus that would later expand into the Persian Empire. After the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC, the Medes played a major role in the destruction of the weakened Assyrian Empire in 612 BC.

Elamite is thought to be a language isolate, and completely unrelated to the neighbouring Semitic, Sumerian (also an isolate), and the later Indo-European Iranian languages that came to dominate the region. It was written in a cuneiform adapted from the Semitic Akkadian script of Assyria and Babylonia, although the very earliest documents were written in the quite different “Linear Elamite” script which some scholars believe had originally spread from further east to Susa. The Elamite language may have survived as late as the early Islamic period. Among other Islamic medieval historians, Ibn al-Nadim, for instance, wrote that “The Iranian languages are Fahlavi (Pahlavi), Dari (not to be confused with Dari Persian in modern Afghanistan), Khuzi, Persian and Suryani (Assyrian)”, and Ibn Moqaffa noted that Khuzi was the unofficial language of the royalty of Persia, “Khuz” being the corrupted name for Elam.

The Medes, 728–550 BC

The Medes were an ancient Iranian people who lived in Iran in an area known as Media and spoke a northwestern Iranian language referred to as the Median language. Their arrival in the region is associated with the first wave of Iranian tribes in the second millennium BCE. Historical references to their existence in Western Iran around lake Orumieh appear from 9th century BC.

The original source for their name and homeland is a directly transmitted Old Iranian geographical name which is attested as the Old Persian “Māda-” (singular masculine). The meaning of this word is not precisely known. However, linguist experts propose a relation with the proto-Indo European word “med(h)-“, meaning “central, suited in the middle”, by referring to the Old Indic “madhya-” and Old Iranian “maidiia-” which both carry the same meaning. The Latin medium, Greek méso and German mittel are similarly derived from it.

In the 7th century BC a unified Median state was formed which together with Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt became one of the four major powers of the ancient Near East. An alliance with the Babylonians helped the Medes to capture Nineveh in 612 BC which resulted in the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Medes were subsequently able to establish their Median kingdom (with Ecbatana as their royal centre) beyond their original homeland. The Median kingdom was overtaken in 550 BC by the Achaemenid dynasty.

The discoveries of Median sites in Iran happened only after the 1960s. The search has mostly focused in an area known as the “Median triangle,” defined roughly as the region bounded by Hamadān and Malāyer (in Hamadan Province) and Kangāvar (in Kermanshah Province). Three major sites from central western Iran in the Iron Age III period (i.e. 850–500 BC) are:

• Tepe Nush-i Jan (a primarily religious site of Median period),
• Godin Tepe (its period II: a fortified palace of a Median king or tribal chief),
• Babajan (probably the seat of a lesser tribal ruler of Media).

Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BC

The Achaemenid Empire was the successor state of the Median Empire, expanding to eventually rule over significant portions of the ancient world. At around 500 BC this empire stretched from the Indus Valley in the east, to Thrace and Macedon on the northeastern border of Greece and eventually controlling Egypt. It was unified by a complex network of roads and ruled by monarchs (shahs), to become one of the largest and greatest empires the world had yet seen. By the 5th century BC the Kings of Persia were either ruling over or had subordinated territories encompassing not just all of the Persian Plateau and all of the territories formerly held by the Assyrian Empire (Mesopotamia, the Levant, Cyprus and Egypt), but beyond this all of Anatolia and the Armenia, as well as the Southern Caucasus and parts of the North Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, all of Bulgaria, Paeonia, Thrace and Macedonia to the north and west, most of the Black Sea coastal regions, parts of Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea, the Oxus and Jaxartes to the north and north-east, the Hindu Kush and the western Indus basin (corresponding to modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) to the far east, parts of northern Arabia to the south, and parts of northern Libya to the south-west, and parts of Oman, China, and the UAE. In the 5th century BC, it is estimated that 50 million, or around 45% of the world population at that time lived in the Achaemenid Empire, which in terms of percentage of the world population would make it the largest empire in history.

The term Achaemenid is in fact the Latinized version of the Old Persian name Haxāmaniš (probably translating to “having a friendly mind”). Achaemenes was himself a minor 7th-century ruler of the Anshan (Ansham or Anšān) province located in southwestern Iran. It was not until the time of Cyrus the Great, a descendant of Achaemenes, that the Achaemenid Empire developed the prestige of an empire and set out to incorporate the existing empires of the ancient east.

The historical mark of the Achaemenid Empire went far beyond its territorial and military influences and included cultural, social, and religious influences as well. Many other countries adopted Achaemenid customs in their daily lives in a reciprocal cultural exchange. Cyrus founded the empire as a multi-state organisation, governed from four capital cities: Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ecbatana. The Achaemenids allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in the form of the satrapy system. A satrapy was an administrative unit, usually organized on a geographical basis. A ‘satrap’ (governor) was the governor who administered the region, a ‘general’ supervised military recruitment and ensured order, and a ‘state secretary’ kept the official records. The general and the state secretary reported directly to the satrap as well as the central government. At differing times in the empire, there were between 20 and 30 satrapies. Cyrus also created an organized army including the Immortals unit, consisting of 10,000 highly trained soldiers. Cyrus also formed an innovative postal system throughout the empire, based on several relay stations called Chapar Khaneh. The impact of Cyrus the Great’s Edict of Restoration is mentioned in Judeo-Christian texts and the empire was instrumental in spread of Persian cosmology as far east as China.

Religious toleration has been described as a “remarkable feature” of the Achaemenid Empire. The Old Testament reports that king Cyrus the Great released the Jews from their Babylonian captivity in 539–530 BC, and permitted them to return to their homeland. Cyrus assisted in the restoration of the sacred places of various cities. It was during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional Iranian pantheon but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will. Under the patronage of the Achaemenid kings, and by the 5th century BC as the de facto religion of the state, Zoroastrianism reached all corners of the empire.

Achaemenid architecture includes large cities, temples, palaces, and mausoleums such as the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The quintessential feature of Persian architecture was its eclectic nature with elements of Median, Assyrian, and Asiatic Greek all incorporated, yet maintaining a unique Persian identity seen in the finished products. Its influence pervades the regions ruled by the Achaemenids, from the Mediterranean shores to India, especially with its emphasis on monumental stone-cut design and gardens subdivided by water-courses. Achaemenid art includes frieze reliefs, metalwork such as the Oxus Treasure, decoration of palaces, glazed brick masonry, fine craftsmanship and gardening. Although the Persians took artists, with their styles and techniques, from all corners of their empire, they produced not simply a combination of styles, but a synthesis of a new unique Persian style.

The Acahemenids fell to the invading armies of Alexander III of Macedon. Alexander defeated the Persian armies at Granicus (334 BC), followed by Issus (333 BC), and lastly at Gaugamela (331 BC). Afterwards, he marched on Susa and Persepolis which surrendered in early 330 BC. Darius III was taken prisoner by Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman who then murdered Darius III and declared himself Darius’ successor. Alexander, put him on trial and ordered his execution. Alexander generally kept the original Achaemenid administrative structure, leading some scholars to dub him as “the last of the Achaemenids”. Upon Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his generals, the Diadochi, resulting in a number of smaller states. The largest of these, which held sway over the Iranian plateau, was Seleucid Empire, ruled by Alexander’s general Seleucus I Nicator. Native Iranian rule would be restored by the Parthians of northeastern Iran over the course of the 2nd century BC.

Selucid Empire, 330–150 BC

The Seleucid Empire was created out of the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great. It was centred in the Near East and regions of the Asian part of the earlier Achaemenid Persian Empire. Seleucus I Nicator founded it, following the division of the Macedonian Empire. He received Babylonia (321 BC) and from there expanded his dominions to include much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories. At the height of its power, the Empire included central Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and what is now Kuwait, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

The Seleucid Empire was a major centre of Hellenistic culture which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and where Macedonian political elite dominated. Seleucid expansion into Greece itself was however abruptly halted after decisive defeats at the hands of the Roman army. By 100 BC, the once formidable Seleucid Empire encompassed little more than Antioch and some Syrian cities. Much of the Persian part of the empire was retaken by the Parthians, yet despite the clear collapse of their power, and the decline of their kingdom around them, nobles continued to play kingmakers on a regular basis, with occasional intervention from Ptolemaic Egypt and other outside powers. The Seleucid kings thus continued to rule a rump state from Syria until their ultimate overthrow by the Roman general Pompey. They existed solely because no other nation wished to absorb them – seeing them as a useful buffer between their other neighbours.

Greco-Bactrian Empire, 250–125 BC

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, covering Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia from 250 to 125 BC. The Greco-Bactrians were known for their high level of Hellenistic sophistication, and kept regular contact with both the Mediterranean and neighbouring India. They were on friendly terms with India and exchanged ambassadors.

Diodotus, the satrap of Bactria (and probably the surrounding provinces) founded the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom when he seceded from the Seleucid Empire and became King Diodotus I of Bactria. The preserved ancient sources (see below) are somewhat contradictory, and the exact date of Bactrian independence has not been settled. Euthydemus, a Greek from Magnesia and possibly satrap of Sogdiana, overthrew the dynasty of Diodotus I around 230-220 BC and started his own dynasty. Euthydemus’s control extended to Sogdiana, going beyond the city of Alexandria Eschate.

The Greco-Bactrian cities, such as Ai-Khanoum in northeastern Afghanistan and Bactra (modern Balkh) where Hellenistic remains have been found, demonstrate a sophisticated Hellenistic urban culture. Greek and Chinese influences on each other belong to this period. Some technology exchanges also occurred. The Greco-Bactrians used an alloy technology in the production of their coins only known by the Chinese at the time.

Some of the Greco-Bactrian coins, and those of their successors the Indo-Greeks, are considered the finest examples of Greek numismatic art. The largest coins to be minted in the Hellenistic world was minted by Eucratides (reigned 171–145 BC), the largest silver coin by the Indo-Greek king Amyntas Nikator (reigned c. 95–90 BC). The portraits “show a degree of individuality never matched by the often bland depictions of their royal contemporaries further West” (Roger Ling, “Greece and the Hellenistic World”).

Most parts of their empire were eventually taken over by the Parthians.

Parthian Empire, 248 BC–224 AD

The Parthian Empire also known as the Arsacid Empire (Ashkāniān) was founded in the mid-3rd century BC by Arsaces I of Parthia, leader of the Parni tribe, when he conquered the Parthia region (roughly western Khorasan), then a satrapy (province) in rebellion against the Greek Seleucid Empire. Mithridates I of Parthia (171–138 BC) greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now Kurdistan, to eastern Iran. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Dynasty in China, quickly became a center of trade and commerce.

The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. For about the first half of its existence, the Arsacid court adopted elements of Greek culture, though it eventually saw a gradual revival of Iranian traditions. The Arsacid rulers were titled the ‘King of Kings’, as a claim to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire. The Parthian era thus witnessed an Iranian cultural revival in religion, the arts, and even clothing fashions.

The earliest enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the north. However, as Parthia expanded westward, they came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and eventually the late Roman Republic. Rome and Parthia competed with each other to establish the kings of Armenia as their subordinate clients. The Parthians soundly defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, and in 40–39 BC, Parthian forces captured the whole of the Levant except Tyre from the Romans. However, Mark Antony led a counterattack against Parthia under the leadership of his lieutenant Ventidius. Various Roman emperors or their appointed generals invaded Mesopotamia in the course of the ensuing Roman–Parthian Wars of the next few centuries. The Romans captured the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on multiple occasions during these conflicts, but were never able to hold on to them.

Frequent civil wars between Parthian contenders to the throne proved more dangerous to the Empire’s stability than foreign invasion, and Parthian power evaporated when Ardashir I, ruler of Istakhr in Persis, revolted against the Arsacids and killed their last ruler, Artabanus IV, in 224 AD. Ardashir established the Sasanian Empire, which ruled Iran and much of the Near East until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century AD.

Kushan Empire, 30–275

The Kushan Empire originally formed in the early 1st century AD under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria on either side of the middle course of the Oxus River or Amu Darya in what is now northern Afghanistan, and southern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The Kushan kings were a branch of the Yuezhi. Previously a nomadic people residing in the steppes northwest of China, they moved southwest and settled in northern Afghanistan. They had diplomatic contacts with Rome, Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire’s history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The empire declined from the 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid and Gupta Empires.

The Kushans adopted elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria. They adopted the Greek alphabet to suit their own language (kharoshti). The Kushan religious pantheon is extremely varied, as revealed by their coins and their seals, on which more than 30 different gods appear, belonging to the Hellenistic, the Iranian (including deities of Mithraism), and to a lesser extent the Indian world. The Kushans are believed to have later become predominantly Zoroastrian. However, during the earlier period, Buddhism grew much faster in the area. Kanishka I, fifth Kushan king, is renowned in Buddhist tradition for having convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. Some later kings also gravitated towards Saivism (a sect of Hinduism).

The Kushan empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sasanians invading from the west. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north, known as the Kidarites.

Sasanid Empire, 224–651

The Sasanid Empire, known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān, was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire. The Sasanid Empire was recognized as one of the two main powers in Western Asia and Europe, alongside the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire, for a period of more than 400 years. The Empire was founded by Ardashir I, and lasted until Yazdegerd III lost control of his empire in a series of invasions from the Arab Caliphate.

During its existence, the Sasanid Empire encompassed all of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, part of Turkey, certain coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf area, and areas of southwestern Pakistan, stretching into India.

Officially, the Empire was known as the Empire of Iranians (Middle Persian: ērānšahr, Parthian: aryānšahr); the term is first attested in the Great Inscription of Shapur I, where the king says “I am the ruler of Empire of Iranians” Due to the fact that the ruling dynasty was named after Sasan, the Empire is known as the Sasanian Empire in historical and academic sources. Historians have also referred to the Sasanian Empire as the Neo-Persian Empire, since it was the second Iranian empire that rose from Pars while the Achaemenid Empire was the first one.

The Sasanian Empire is considered to have been one of Iran’s most important, and influential historical periods and constituted the last great Iranian empire before the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Islamization of Iran. In many ways, the Sasanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian culture. The Sasanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sasanians throughout the Muslim world.

Surviving palaces illustrate the splendor in which the Sasanian monarchs lived. Examples include palaces at Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in the Asoristan province (present-day Iraq). Parthian architecture influenced Sasanian architectural practices characterized by the barrel-vaulted iwans. During the Sasanian period, these reached massive proportions, particularly at Ctesiphon. There, the arch of the great vaulted hall, attributed to the reign of Shapur I (241–272), has a span of more than 80 feet (24 m) and reaches a height of 118 feet (36 m). This magnificent structure fascinated architects in the centuries that followed and has been considered one of the most important examples of Persian architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall consisting, as at Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the problem of constructing a circular dome on a square building by employing squinches, or arches built across each corner of the square, thereby converting it into an octagon on which it is simple to place the dome. The dome chamber in the palace of Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch, suggesting that this architectural technique was probably invented in Persia.

Patriarchal Caliphate, 637–661

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, his Medinan companions debated which of them should succeed him in running the affairs of the Muslims while Muhammad’s household was busy with his burial. Umar and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah pledged their loyalty to Abu Bakr, with the Ansar and the Quraysh soon following suit. Abu Bakr thus became the first Khalīfaṫu Rasūli l-Lāh (“Successor of the Messenger of God”), or Caliph, and embarked on campaigns to propagate Islam. First he would have to subdue the Arabian tribes which had claimed that although they pledged allegiance to Muhammad and accepted Islam, they owed nothing to Abu Bakr. Several companions, most prominent among them being Ali ibn Abi Talib, initially refused to acknowledge his authority. Ali may have been reasonably expected to assume leadership, being both cousin and son-in-law to Muhammad. Ali also had support among the Ansar for his succession. Abu Bakr sent Umar to confront Ali to gain his allegiance, resulting in an altercation which involved violence. However, after six months the group “made peace” with Abu Bakr and Ali offered him his fealty.

Once the internal rebellions had been put down, Abu Bakr began a war of conquest. Whether or not he intended a full-out imperial conquest is hard to say; he did, however, set in motion a historical trajectory that in just a few short decades would lead to one of the largest empires in history. Abu Bakr began with Iraq, the richest province of the Sasanian Empire. He sent general Khalid ibn Walid to invade the Sassanian Empire in 633. He thereafter also sent four armies to invade the Roman province of Syria.

The conquest of Persia led to the end of the Sassanid Empire in 644, the fall of Sassanid dynasty in 651 and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. Arabs first entered Sassanid territory in 633 in what is now Iraq. The Arabs eventually lost their holdings to Persian counterattacks. The second invasion began in 636, when a key victory at the Battle of Qadisiyyah led to the permanent end of Sassanid control of west of Persia. The Zagros mountains then became a natural barrier and border between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Sassanid Empire. Caliph Umar ordered a full invasion of the Sassanid Persian empire in 642, which was completed with the complete conquest of the Sassanids by mid 644.

Persia, on the verge of the Arab invasion, was a society in decline and decay and in many areas the over-taxed population embraced the invading Islamic army. Once politically conquered, the Persians, however, began to resist the Arabs culturally and maintained Persian, as opposed to Arabic culture. Regardless, Islam was adopted by many, either for political or socio-cultural reasons, and gradually became the dominant religion.

The Rashidun Caliphate is characterized by two decades of rapid military expansion, followed by a five-year period of internal strife and civil war. Muawiyah, the governor of the Levant during Uthman’s reign came out of the civil war as the victor and established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661.

Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

The Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. It was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, whose name derives from Umayya ibn Abd Shams, the great-grandfather of the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya. Although the Umayyad family originally came from the city of Mecca, Damascus was the capital of their Caliphate.

At its greatest extent, it covered more than five million square miles (13,000,000 km2), making it one of the largest empires the world had yet seen, and the fifth largest contiguous empire ever to exist. The dynasty was eventually overthrown by a rebellion led by the Abbasids in 750. Survivors of the dynasty established themselves in Cordoba which, in the form of an Emirate and then a Caliphate, became a world centre of science, medicine, philosophy and invention, ushering in the period of the Golden Age of Islam.

The Hashimiyya movement (a sub-sect of the Kaysanites Shia), led by the Abbasid family, overthrew the Umayyad caliphate. The Abbasids were members of the Hashim clan, rivals of the Umayyads

Abbasid Caliphate, 750–1258

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third of the Islamic caliphates. It was founded in Harran in 750 but shifted its capital in 762 to Baghdad. It was ruled by a dynasty descended from Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name. The Abbasid movement of opposition to Umayyads started  in Persia during the reign of Umar II  with Muhammad ibn ‘Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, for the return of power to the family of Prophet Muhammad. During the reign of Marwan II, Abu Muslim, rising from Khorasan, successfully initiated an open revolt against Umayyad rule, which was carried out under the sign of the Black Standard. Close to 10,000 soldiers were under Abu Muslim’s command when the hostilities officially began in Merv in 747. 3 years later Abu al-‘Abbas as-Saffah, the fourth in descent from Abbas who finally defeated the Umayyads was subsequently proclaimed the new caliph. Marwan fled to Egypt, where he was subsequently assassinated. The Umayyad caliphs rule ended from all but the Al Andalus region.

The Abbasid caliphate was founded in Harran in 750 but shifted its capital in 762 to Baghdad. It flourished for two centuries, but slowly went into decline with the rise to power of the Turkick armies it had raised and created mainly to maintain control over the Persians and other non-Arabs (the Mamluks).

The Abbasid period was marked by reliance on Persian bureaucrats (notably the Barmakid family) for governing the territories as well as an increasing inclusion of non-Arab Muslims in the ummah (national community). Persianate customs were broadly adopted by the ruling elite, and they began patronage of artists and scholars. Baghdad became a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention in what became known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Within 150 years of gaining control of Persia, the caliphs were thus forced to cede power to local dynastic emirs who only nominally acknowledged their authority. They were forced to cede authority over Morocco to the Idrisids in 788, Ifriqiya and Southern Italy to the Aghlabids in 800, Khorasan and Transoxiana to the Samanids and Persia to the Saffarids in the 870s, and Egypt to the Isma’ili-Shia caliphate of the Fatimids in 969. The political power of the caliphs was further limited with the rise of the Iranian Buyids and the Seljuq Turks, who captured Baghdad in 945 and 1055. Although Abbasid leadership over the vast Islamic empire was gradually reduced to a ceremonial religious function in much of the Caliphate, the dynasty retained control over its Mesopotamian domain. The Abbasids’ period ended in 1258 with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan and the execution of Al-Musta’sim.

Tahirid dynasty, 821–873

The Tahirid dynasty was an Iranian dynasty that ruled from 820 to 872 over the northeastern part of Greater Iran, in the region of Khorasan (parts that are presently in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). The Tahirid capital was Merv and was then moved to Nishapur. The Tahirid dynasty is considered to be the first independent dynasty from the Abbasid caliphate established in Khorasan.

Although nominally subject to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, the Tahirid rulers were effectively independent. The arrangement was really a partnership between the Abbasids and the Tahirids.” The tax revenue from Khorasan that was sent to the caliphal treasury was perhaps larger than those collected previously. The dynasty was founded by Tahir ibn Husayn, a leading general in the service of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun. Tahir’s military victories were rewarded with the gift of lands in the east of Persia, which were subsequently extended by his successors as far as the borders of India.

The Tahirids were highly Arabized in culture and outlook, and eager to be accepted in the Caliphal. Tahirids were therefore not part of the renaissance of New Persian language and culture. The replacement of the Pahlavi script with the Arabic script in order to write the Persian language was in fact done by the Tahirids. The later Saffarids played a more important role in the renaissance of Persian literature.

Alavid dynasty, 864–928

The Alavids were a Shia emirate based in Mazandaran (Tabaristan) of Iran. They claimed to be the descendants of the second Shi’a Imam (Imam Hasan ibn Ali) and spread Shiite Islam in the region to the south of Caspian Sea. The later part of the Alavid rule was plagued by internal dissensions and power struggles. Their reign was ended when they were defeated by the Samanid dynasty in 928 AD. After their defeat some of the soldiers and generals of the Alavids joined the Samanid dynasty.

Mardavij the son of Ziar was one of the generals that joined the Samanids. He later founded the Ziyarid dynasty. Mardāvīj successfully defeated the Abbasid’s army firstly in Hamadan (in the midwest of Iran), and finally in Kashan and Isfahan (the central cities of the country).

On December 2, 931, Mardāvīj arrived in Isfahan, declared himself Amir of Iran and made Isfahan the capital of his Ziyarid kingdom. Ali, Hassan and Ahmad the sons of Buye (that were founders of the Buyid or Buwayhid dynasty) were also among generals of the Alavid dynasty who joined the Samanid army. Their capital was the city of Amol.

Saffarid dynasty, 861–1003

The Saffarid dynasty ruled in Sistan (861-1003), a historical region in southeastern Iran, southwestern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Their capital was Zaranj, located in present-day Afghanistan. The dynasty was founded by – and took its name from – Ya’qub bin Laith al-Saffar, a man of humble origins who rose from an obscure beginning as a coppersmith (ṣaffār) to become a warlord. He seized control of the Sistan region, conquering all of Afghanistan, modern-day eastern Iran, and parts of Pakistan.

Using their capital (Zaranj) as a base for an aggressive expansion eastwards and westwards, they overthrew the Tahirid dynasty and annexed Khorasan in 873. By the time of Ya’qub’s death, he had conquered Kabul Valley, Sindh, Tocharistan, Makran (Balochistan), Kerman, Fars, Khorasan, and nearly reached Baghdad but then suffered defeat. The Saffarid empire did not last long after Ya’qub’s death. His brother and successor Amr bin Laith was defeated in a battle against Ismail Samani in 900. Amr bin Laith was forced to surrender most of his territories to the new rulers. The Saffarids were subsequently confined to their heartland of Sistan, with their role reduced to that of vassals of the Samanids and their successors.

The Saffarids gave great importance to the Persian culture. Under their rule, the eastern Islamic world witnessed the emergence of prominent Persian poets such as Fayrouz Mashriqi, Abu Salik al-Jirjani, and Muhammad bin Wasif al-Sistani, who was a court poet. In the later 9th century, the Saffarids gave impetus to a renaissance of New Persian literature and culture. Following Ya’qub’s conquest of Herat, some poets chose to celebrate his victory in Arabic, whereupon Ya’qub requested his secretary, Muhammad bin Wasif al-Sistani, to compose those verses in Persian.

Samanid dynasty, 819–999

The Samanids were a Persian dynasty that reigned for 180 years, encompassing a territory which included Khorasan, Ray, Transoxiania, Tabaristan, Kerman, Gorgan, and west of these provinces up to Isfahan. The Samanid Empire was the first native Persian dynasty to arise after the Muslim Arab conquest. At the peak of their power, the Samanids controlled territory extending as far south as the Sulaiman Mountains, Ghazni and Kandahar.

The Samanids were descendants of Bahram Chobin, and thus descended from the House of Mihrān, one of the Seven Great Houses of Iran. It was named after its founder Saman Khuda, a Persian noble who belonged to a dehqan family. The Samanid state was founded by four brothers; Nuh, Ahmad, Yahya, and Ilyas —each of them ruled their own territory under Abbasid suzerainty. In 892, Ismail Samani (892–907) united the Samanid state under one ruler, thus effectively putting an end to the feudal system used by the Samanids. It was also under him that the Samanids became independent of Abbasid authority.

The Samanids promoted the arts, giving rise to the advancement of science and literature, and thus attracted scholars such as Rudaki, Ferdowsi, and Avicenna. While under Samanid control, Bukhara was a rival to Baghdad in its glory. The Samanids revived Persian language and culture more than the Buyids and the Saffarids, while continuing to patronize Arabic for sciences as well as religious studies. They considered themselves to be descendants of the Sasanian Empire.

Ziyarid dynasty, 928–1043

The Ziyarids were an Iranian dynasty that ruled in the Caspian sea provinces of Gorgan and Mazandaran from 928-1043 (also known as Tabarestan). The founder of the dynasty was Mardavij (from 927 to 935), who took advantage of a rebellion in the Samanid army of Iran to seize power in northern Iran. He soon expanded his domains and captured the cities of Hamadan and Isfahan.

Perhaps among the more interesting things from this era is that we know that Abu Rayhan Biruni, the great scientist of the Middle Ages, was supported by Qabus, the ruler of the Ziyarid state, in 1000 in his capital of Gorgan. In fact he dedicated his work to Qabus around 1000 and observed eclipses of the moon from there.

One of the most famous architectural works of Ziyarid dynasty is the Gonbad Kavous (Dome of Qabus”). The tomb is one of the earliest architectural monuments with a dated inscription surviving in post-Islamic Iran. The tomb, built of fired brick, is an enormous cylinder capped by a conical roof. The circular plan, broken by 10 flanges, is 17 m in diameter. The height from base to tip is 49 m. Legend has it, that the body of Qabus was enclosed in a glass coffin which was suspended by chains from the interior dome inside the tower.

Buyid dynasty, 934–1055

The Buyid dynastywere a Shī‘ah Persian dynasty that originated from Daylaman in Gilan. They founded a confederation that controlled most of modern-day Iran and Iraq in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Deylamites were an Iranian people inhabiting the mountainous regions of northern Iran on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Many of them were employed as soldiers from the time of the Sassanid Empire, and they are known for having long resisted the Arab conquest of Iran and its subsequent Islamization.

The founders of the Būyid confederation were Alī ibn Būyah and his two younger brothers, al-Hassan and Aḥmad. Originally a soldier in the service of the Ziyārīds of Ṭabaristān, Alī was able to recruit an army to defeat a Turkish general from Baghdad named Yāqūt in 934. Over the next nine years the three brothers gained control of the remainder of the Abbāsid Caliphate. While they accepted the titular authority of the caliph in Baghdad, the Būyid rulers assumed effective control of the state. In 945, Ahmad entered Iraq and made the Abbasid Caliph his vassal, at the same receiving the laqab Mu’izz ad-Dawla (“Fortifier of the State”), while ‘Ali was given the laqab Imād al-Dawla (“Support of the State”), and Hasan was given the laqab Rukn al-Dawla (“Pillar of the State”).

The Buyids established a confederation in Iraq and western Iran. This confederation formed three principalities – one in Fars, with Shiraz as its capital – the second one in Jibal, with Ray as its capital – and the last one in Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital. However, during their late period, more principalities formed in the Buyid confederation. Succession of power was hereditary, with fathers dividing their land among their sons. The title used by the Buyid rulers was amir, meaning “governor” or “prince”. Generally, one of the amirs would be recognized as having seniority over the others; this individual would use the title of amir al-umara, or senior amir. Some of the stronger amirs used the Sassanid title of Shahanshah. Furthermore, several other titles such as malik (“king”), and malik al-muluk (“king of kings”), were also used by the Buyids.

During the mid-11th century, the Buyid amirates gradually fell to the Ghaznavid and Seljuq Turks. In 1029, Majd al-Dawla, who was facing an uprising by his Dailami troops in Ray, requested assistance from Mahmud of Ghazna. When Sultan Mahmud arrived, he deposed Majd al-Dawla, replaced him with a Ghaznavid governor and ended the Buyid dynasty in Ray. In 1055, Tughrul conquered Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate, and ousted the last of the Buyid rulers. Like the Buyids, the Seljuqs kept the Abbasid caliphate as the titular ruler.

Ghaznavid Empire, 975–1187

The Ghaznavids were a Persianate Muslim dynasty of Turkic slave origin which existed from 975 to 1187 and ruled much of Persia, Transoxania, and the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Ghaznavid state was centered in Ghazni, a city in present Afghanistan. Due to the political and cultural influence of their predecessors – that of the Persian Samanid Empire – the originally Turkic Ghaznavids had become thoroughly Persianized. In terms of cultural championship and the support of Persian poets, they were far more Persian than the ethnically Iranian Buyids rivals, whose support of Arabic letters in preference to Persian is well known.

Persian literary culture enjoyed a renaissance under the Ghaznavids during the 11th century. The Ghaznavid court was so renowned for its support of Persian literature that the poet Farrukhi traveled from his home province to work for them. Manuchehri, also was active at that time and wrote numerous poems to the merits and advantages of drinking wine. Sultan Mahmud, modelling the Samanid Bukhara as a cultural center, made Ghazni into a center of learning, inviting Ferdowsi and al-Biruni. He even attempted to persuade Avicenna, but was refused. Mahmud preferred that his fame and glory be publicized in Persian and hundreds of poets assembled at his court. He brought whole libraries from Rey and Isfahan to Ghazni and even demanded that the Khwarizmshah court send its men of learning to Ghazni.

The dynasty was founded by Sebuktigin upon his succession to rule of territories centered around the city of Ghazni from his father-in-law, Alp Tigin, a break-away ex-general of the Samanid sultans. Sebuktigin’s son, Shah Mahmoud, expanded the empire in the region that stretched from the Oxus river to the Indus Valley and the Indian Ocean; and in the west it reached Rey and Hamadan. Under the reign of Mas’ud I it experienced major territorial losses. It lost its western territories to the Seljuqs resulting in a restriction of its holdings to what is now Afghanistan, as well as Balochistan and the Punjab. In 1151, Sultan Bahram Shah lost Ghazni to Ala’uddin Hussain of Ghor and the capital was moved to Lahore until its subsequent capture by the Ghurids in 1186.

Seljuk Empire, 1037–1194

The Seljuq Empire was a medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire, originating from the Qynyq branch of Oghuz Turks. The Seljuq Empire controlled a vast area stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. From their homelands near the Aral sea, the Seljuqs advanced first into Khorasan and then into mainland Persia before eventually conquering eastern Anatolia.

The Seljuq empire was founded by Tuğrul Beg in 1037 after the efforts by the founder of the Seljuq dynasty, Seljuq Beg, back in the first quarter of the eleventh century. Seljuq Beg gave his name both to the state and the dynasty. The Seljuqs united the fractured political scene of the Eastern Islamic world and played a key role in the first and second crusades. The Seljuq rule was modelled after the tribal organization common in Turkic and Mongol nomads and resembled a ‘family federation’ or ‘appanage state’. Under this organization, the leading member of the paramount family assigned family members portions of his domains as autonomous appanages.

Highly Persianized in culture and language, the Seljuqs also played an important role in the development of the Turko-Persian tradition, even exporting Persian culture to Anatolia. The Seljuqs founded universities and were also patrons of art and literature. Their reign is characterized by Persian astronomers such as Omar Khayyám, and the Persian philosopher al-Ghazali. Under the Seljuqs, New Persian became the language for historical recording, while the center of Arabic language culture shifted from Baghdad to Cairo.

The last ruler of Seljuqs , Togrul III was the Sultan of all Seljuq except for Anatolia. In 1194, his army was defeated by Takash, the Shah of Khwarezmid Empire, and the Seljuq Empire finally collapsed. As the dynasty declined in the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongols invaded Anatolia in the 1260s and divided it into small emirates called the Anatolian beyliks. Eventually one of these, the Ottoman, would rise to power and conquer the rest.

Ghurid dynasty, 1149–1212

The Ghurids were a medieval Muslim dynasty of Iranian origin that ruled during the 12th and 13th centuries in Khorasan. At its zenith, their empire, that was centered in Ghōr (now a province in Afghanistan), stretched over an area that included the whole of modern Afghanistan, the eastern parts of Iran and the northern section of the Indian subcontinent, as far as Delhi. The Ghurids were succeeded in Persia by the Khwārazm-Shāh dynasty and in North India by the Mamluk dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate.

The origins of the dynasty are obscure. According to legend, the Shansabānī family (founders of the dynasty) had ancestral lines to the Sassanian royal family who – led by Pirōz II – fled with some hundred thousand of followers from Western Iran to Khorasan, following the Arabic conquest of Persia. There is evidence of such a migration but the ancestral claims cannot be verified. The dynasty was most likely of Tajik origin. It should be noted that the actual name of the Ghurid family, Āl-e Šansab (Persianized: Šansabānī), is the Arabic pronunciation of the originally Middle Persian name Wišnasp. It has also been claimed, but not proven, that the inhabitants of Ghor were still Zoroastrians, isolated from all Arab-Islamic influence until the 11th century when they were eventually converted to Islam by the Samanid and Ghaznavids.

The Ghurids were great patrons of Persian culture and literature and lay the basis for a Persianized state in India. However, most of the literature produced during the Ghurid era has been lost. They also transferred Iranian architecture to India. Out of the Ghurid state grew the Delhi Sultanate which established the Persian language as the official court language of the region – a status it retained until the late Mughal era in the 19th century.

Khwarezmid dynasty, 1077–1231

The Khwarezmian dynasty was a Persianate Sunni Muslim dynasty of Turkic mamluk origin. They ruled Greater Iran in the High Middle Ages, in the period of about 1077 to 1231, first as vassals of the Seljuqs and later as independent rulers, up until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. The dynasty was founded by Anush Tigin Gharchai, a former slave of the Seljuq sultans, who was appointed the governor of Khwarezm. His son, Qutb ud-Dīn Muhammad I, became the first hereditary Shah of Khwarezm.

In 1218, Genghis Khan sent a trade mission to the state, but at the town of Otrar the governor, suspecting the Khan’s ambassadors to be spies, confiscated their goods and executed them. Genghis Khan demanded reparations, which the Shah refused to pay. Genghis retaliated with a force of 200,000 men, launching a multi-pronged invasion. In February 1220 the Mongolian army crossed the Syr Darya, beginning the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The Mongols stormed Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Khwarezmid capital Urgench. The Shah fled and died some weeks later on an island in the Caspian Sea.

Though the Mongols had destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire in 1220, many Khwarezmians survived by working as mercenaries in northern Iraq. Sultan Jalal ad-Din’s followers remained loyal to him even after his death in 1231, and raided the Seljuk lands of Jazira and Syria for the next several years, calling themselves the Khwarezmiyya. Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub, in Egypt, later hired their services against his uncle as-Salih Ismail. The Khwarezmiyya, heading south from Iraq towards Egypt, invaded Crusader-held Jerusalem along the way, on 11 July 1244. The city’s citadel, the Tower of David, surrendered on August 23, and the Christian population of the city was expelled. This triggered a call from Europe for the Seventh Crusade, but the Crusaders would never again be successful in retaking Jerusalem. After being conquered by the Khwarezmian forces, the city stayed under Muslim control until 1917, when it was taken from the Ottomans by the British. After taking Jerusalem, the Khwarezmian forces continued south, and on October 17 fought on the side of the Ayyubids at the Battle of La Forbie, as the Crusaders used to call Harbiyah, a village northeast of Gaza, destroying the remains of the Crusader army there, with some 1,200 knights killed. It was the largest battle involving the Crusaders since the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The remains of the Muslim Khwarezmians served in Egypt as Mamluk mercenaries until they were finally beaten by al-Mansur Ibrahim some years later. Khwarizmi war captives assimilated into the Mongols, forming the modern Mongolian clan Sartuul.

Ilkhanate, 1256–1353

The Ilkhanate was a Mongol khanate established in Persia in the 13th century, considered a part of the Mongol Empire. The Ilkhanate was based, originally, on Genghis Khan’s campaigns in the Khwarezmid Empire in 1219–1224, and founded by Genghis’s grandson, Hulagu, in what territories which today comprise most of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and some regions of western Pakistan. The Ilkhanate initially embraced many religions, but was particularly sympathetic to Buddhism and Christianity. Later Ilkhanate rulers, beginning with Ghazan in 1295, embraced Islam.

Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of both Möngke Khan and Kublai Khan. He was charged with subduing the Muslim kingdoms to the west “as far as the borders of Egypt.” Hulagu brought with him many Chinese scholars and astronomers and with the help of the famous Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi built an observatory in Maragheh using Chinese calculating tables. The Chinese science of astronomy was considered to be more advanced than the Islamic one.

The Ilkhanate started crumbling under the reign of Gaykhatu. The majority of Mongols had converted to Islam while the Mongol court remained Buddhist. Gaykhatu had to buy the support of his followers and as a result, ruined the realm’s finances. His vizir Sadr-ud-Din Zanjani tried to bolster the state finances by adopting paper money which ended horribly. Gaykhatu also alienated the Mongol old guard with his alleged sexual relation. Gaykhatu was overthrown in 1295 and replaced with his cousin Baydu. Baydu reigned for less than a year before he was overthrown by Gaykhatu’s son, Ghazan. Hulagu’s descendants ruled Persia for the next eighty years, tolerating multiple religions, including Shamanism, Buddhism, and Christianity, and ultimately adopting Islam as a state religion in 1295.

The courts of Western Europe made many attempts to form an alliance with the Mongols, primarily with the Ilkhanate, in the 13th and 14th centuries, starting from around the time of the Seventh Crusade United in their opposition to the Mamluks in Syria, the Ilkhanate and the Europeans were nevertheless unable to satisfactorily combine their forces against their common enemy. The Ilkhanate Mongols remained nomadic in their way of life until the end of the dynasty. Their nomadic routes covered central Iraq, northwest Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The Mongols administered Iraq, the Caucasus, and western and southern Iran directly with the exception of Georgia, the Artuqid sultan of Mardin, and Kufa and Luristan. The Qara’unas Mongols ruled Khorasan as an autonomous realm and did not pay taxes. Herat’s local Kart dynasty also remained autonomous. Anatolia was the richest province of the Ilkhanate, supplying a quarter of its revenue while Iraq and Diyarbakir together supplied about 35 percent of its revenue.

The Ilkhanate had an important historical impact in the Middle Eastern region. The establishment of the unified Mongol Empire had significantly eased trade and commerce across Asia. The Ilkhanate also helped to pave the way for the later Safavid dynastic state, and ultimately the modern country of Iran. Hulagu’s conquests had also opened Iran to Chinese influence from the east. This, combined with patronage from his successors, would develop Iran’s distinctive excellence in architecture. Under the Ilkhans, Iranian historians also moved from writing in Arabic to writing in their native Persian tongue. The rudiments of double-entry accounting were practiced in the Ilkhanate; merdiban was then adopted by the Ottoman Empire. These developments were independent from the accounting practices used in Europe.

Kartids dynasty, 1231–1389

The Kartid Dynasty was a Persian dynasty that ruled over a large part of Khorassan during the 13th and 14th centuries. Ruling from their capital at Herat (Afghanistan) and central Khorasan in the Bamyan-Valley, they were at first subordinates within the Ilkhanate, and upon the fragmentation of the Ilkhanate in 1335 they became de facto independent rulers up until the invasion of Timur in 1381.

The Karts trace their lineage to a Tajuddin Uthman Marghini, whose brother, ‘Izzuddin Umar Marghini, was the Vizier of Sultan Ghiyāṣ-ud-din Muhammad bin Sām (1202-3). The founder of the Kart dynasty was Malik Rukn-ud-din Abu Bakr, who was descended from the Shansabani family of Ghur. His son Shamsu’d-Din was given authority over Herat, Jam, Ghor, Khaysar, Firuz-Kuh, Gharjistan, Farah, Sistan, Kabul, Tirah, and Afghanistan (the Sulaiman Mountains) all the way to the Indus River by the Ilkhan ruler.

The karts did nor rule long. They became the victims of Timur’s first Persian campaign and the remaining karts were murdered by Miran Shah the son of Timur in 1396.

Muzaffarid dynasty, 1314–1393

The Muzaffarids were a Sunni family that came to power in Iran following the breakup of the Ilkhanate in the 14th century. The Muzaffarids originated as an Arab family that settled in Khorasan from the beginning of Caliphate rule. They stayed in Khorasan up until the Mongol invasion, at which point they fled to Yazd. Serving under the Il-Khans, they gained prominence when Sharaf al-Din Muzaffar was made governor of Maibud. His son, Mubariz ad-Din Muhammad, was brought up at the Il-Khan’s court. In around 1319 he overthrew the atabeg of Yazd and was subsequently recognized as governor of the city by the central Il-Khan government. In the wake of the loss of Il-Khan authority in central Iran, Mubariz ad-Din carried out his expansionary policy. In 1339 or 1340 he invaded the province of Kirman and seized it from its Mongol governor. The city of Bam was besieged and conquered a few years after this. They soon became the strongest power in central Iran, and Shiraz was made their capital.

Their last ruler Shah Shoja before dying in 1384, named his son Zain al-Abidin his successor and his third brother ‘Imad ad-Din Ahmad as governor of Kirman. On his deathbed, Shah Shoja wrote a letter to Timur, who was then campaigning in Azerbaijan, in which he gave his sons’ loyalty to the conqueror. When Zain Al-Abidin succeeded his father, he quickly ignored the declaration of loyalty. Timur, therefore, marched into the Muzaffarid lands.


Sarbadars state, 1337–1381

The Sarbadars (“head on gallows”) were a mixture of religious dervishes and secular rulers that came to rule (1337) over part of western Khorasan in the midst of the disintegration of the Mogul Ilkhanate in the mid-14th century. Centred in their capital of Sabzevar, they continued their reign until they submitted to Teymur in 1381, and were one of the few groups that managed to mostly avoid Teymur’s famous brutality.

Its rulers were Shi’ite, and followers of Sheykh Khalifa; a scholar from Mazandaran, who had arrived in Khurasan some years before the founding of the Sarbadar state and was subsequently murdered by Sunnis. His successor, Hasan Juri, established the former’s practices in the Sarbadar state. The followers of these practices were known as “Sabzavaris” after the city. As the Sarbadars conquered the neighbouring territory, they also acquired cities with significant Sunni populations.

The Sarbadars are unique among the major contenders in post-Ilkhanid Persia in that none of their leaders ruled as legitimate sovereigns. None of them had a legitimate claim to the Ilkhanid throne or was related to a Mongol or any other royal house, and none of them had previously held a high post within the Ilkhanate. While they on occasion recognized claimants to the Ilkhanid throne as their overlord, they did so purely as a matter of convenience, and in all other aspects, they had no ties to the Ilkhanate. This fact had a strong influence regarding the nature of the Sarbadar political state.The Sarbadars had a form of government which would, in modern times, probably be identified as an oligarchy or a republic. Unlike their neighbours, the Sarbadars had no dynastic lines; power usually went to the most ambitious.

The Sarbadar state came into existence around early 1337. At that time, much of Khurasan was under the control of the Ilkhanid claimant Togha Temur. They made peace with Togha Temur, promising to recognize him as sovereign and to pay taxes to him. The khan agreed, in the hope that it would put a stop to the Sarbadar raids on his supply trains. Following the death of Timur, the Sarbadars slowly fell out of prominence.

Chupanid dynasty, 1337–1357

The Chupanids were descendants of a Mongol family of the Suldus clan that came to prominence in 14th century Persia. At first serving under the Ilkhans, they took de facto control of the territory after the fall of the Ilkhanate. The Chupanids made Azerbaijan their stronghold, while the Jalayirids took control in Baghdad.

The early Chupanids were members of the Soldus tribe. Sorgan Sira, one of the first important Chupanids, served Genghis Khan during the latter’s rise to power. Later on, the Chupanids came to live under the authority of the Ilkhanate. A descendent of Sorgan Sira, Amir Tudahun, was killed in 1277 fighting against the Mamluks at the battle of Eblistan. He left a son, Malek, who in turn fathered Amir Chupan, the namesake of the Chupanids.

The Chobanid attempted to capture Baghdad from the Jalayirids in 1347 but failed miserably. The forces of the Golden Horde overran the Chobanid realm and captured Tabriz in 1357. Malek Asraf their ruler was executed, and his family brought north to the Golden Horde. Malek Asraf’s offspring was eventually killed off in Persia, bringing a definitive end to the Chobanids as a power.

Timurid Empire, 1370–1506

The Timurids were a Persianate, Central Asian Sunni Muslim dynasty of originally Turko-Mongol descent whose empire included the whole of Central Asia, Iran, modern Afghanistan, as well as large parts of contemporary Pakistan, North India, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus. It was founded by the militant conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th century.

In the 16th century, Timurid prince Babur, the ruler of Ferghana, invaded North India and founded the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of the North India until its decline in the early 18th century, and was formally dissolved by the British Raj after the Indian rebellion of 1857. Later princes of the dynasty predominantly used the title Mirza to show descent from the Amir.

The Timurids embraced Persian culture, converted to Islam, and resided in Turkestan and Khorasan. Thus, the Timurid era had a dual character, reflecting both its Turco-Mongol origins and the Persian literary, artistic, and courtly high culture of the dynasty. Persian was the primary language of administration and literary culture. Thus the language of the settled “diwan” was Persian, and its scribes had to be thoroughly adept in Persian culture, whatever their ethnic origin. Persian became the official state language of the Timurid Empire and served as the language of administration, history, belles lettres, and poetry. The Chaghatay language was the native and “home language” of the Timurid family.

Aq Qoyunlu, 1378–1508

The Ak Koyunlu or Aq Qoyunlu, also called the White Sheep Turkomans was an Oghuz Turkic tribal federation that ruled parts of present-day Eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, northern Iraq, and Iran from 1378 to 1508.

Ak Koyunlu Turkomans first acquired land in 1402, when Tamerlane granted them all of Diyarbakır, in present-day Turkey. For a long time, the Ak Koyunlu were unable to expand their territory, as the rival Kara Koyunlu kept them at bay. However, this changed with the rule of Uzun Hassan who defeated the Black Sheep Turkoman leader, Jahān Shāh, in 1467. Uzun Hasan was able to take Baghdad along with territories around the Persian Gulf. He expanded into Iran as far east as Khorasan. However, around this time, the Ottoman Empire sought to expand eastwards, a serious threat that forced the Aq Qoyunlu into an alliance with the Karamanids of central Anatolia.

Following Ya’qub’s death, who reigned from 1478 to 1490, civil war again erupted, the Aq Qoyunlus destroyed themselves from within, and they ceased to be a threat to their neighbours.

Qara Qoyunlu, 1407–1468

The Kara Koyunlu or Qara Qoyunlu, also called the Black Sheep Turkomans were a Shi’ite Oghuz Turkic tribal federation that ruled over the territory comprising the present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, north-western Iran, eastern Turkey and Iraq from about 1375 to 1468.

The Kara Koyunlu Turkomans at one point established their capital in Herat in eastern Persia, and were vassals of the Jalayirid dynasty in Baghdad and Tabriz from about 1375, when the leader of their leading tribe, ruled over Mosul. However, they rebelled against the Jalayirids, and secured their independence from the dynasty with the conquest of Tabriz by Qara Yusuf.

In 1400, Timur defeated the Kara Koyunlu, and Qara Yusuf fled to Egypt, seeking refuge with the Mamluk Sultanate. He gathered an army and by 1406 had taken back Tabriz. In 1410, the Kara Koyunlu captured Baghdad. The installation of a subsidiary Kara Koyunlu line there hastened the downfall of the Jalairids they had once served. Kara Koyunlu later broke up due to internal fighting among Qara Yusuf’s descendants after his death in 1420, and the increasing threat of the Armenian revolts.

Safavid Empire, 1501–1722

The Safavid dynasty was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Iran. They ruled one of the greatest Persian empires since the Muslim conquest of Persia and established the Twelver school of Shi’a Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history. The Safavids were the main architect of the current spread of shiism in the whole region.

The Safavids ruled from 1501 to 1722 and at their height, they controlled all of modern Iran, the current Republic of Azerbaijan and Republic of Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Safavid Iran, along with its neighbours, the Ottoman and Mughal empires, was one of the “gunpowder empires”,

The Safavid dynasty had its origin in the Safaviyya Sufi order, which was established in the city of Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region. It was of mixed ancestry (Kurdish and Azerbaijani, which included intermarriages with Georgians and Greeks). The bulk of the Safaviyya were nomadic Oghuz Turkic-speaking clans from Asia Minor and Azerbaijan and were known as Qizilbash (“Red Heads”) because of their distinct red headgear. The Qizilbash were warriors, spiritual followers and a source of the Safavid military and political power. From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over all of Greater Iran and in 1501 Shāh Ismāil I founded the Safavid dynasty.

Despite their demise in 1736, the legacy that they left behind was the revival of Iran as an economic stronghold between East and West, the establishment of an efficient centralised state with a professional bureaucracy based upon “checks and balances”. Their architectural innovations and their patronage of the arts has also left its lasting marks on Iran.


Hotaki dynasty, 1722–1729

The Hotakis were a Pashtun tribe and dynasty that ruled parts of the Persian Empire from 1722 to 1729, after defeating and replacing the Safavid dynasty. The dynasty was founded in 1709 by Mirwais Hotak, chief of the Ghilzai Pashtuns of Kandahar who successfully revolted against the Safavids rule in Kandahar. After his death in 1715, the monarchy passed on to his brother followed by his sons and nephew until the dynasty finally ended in 1738 when Nader Shah and his Afsharids defeated Hussain Hotaki at Kandahar. At its peak, the Hotak dynasty ruled briefly over an area which is now Afghanistan, Iran, western Pakistan, and some parts of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Kandahar province had been captured and ruled by the Shi’a Safavids during the early 18th century but the native Afghan tribes living in the area were Sunni Muslims. Immediately to the east began the Sunni Moghul Empire of India, that occasionally fought wars with the Safavids over the territory of Kandahar. In April of 1709, Mirwais along with his followers revolted against the Safavid rule in Kandahar City and defeated a Persian army that was dispatched from Isfahan. Mirwais died in 1715 and his son Mahmud’s Afghan forces crossed the deserts of Sistan and captured Kerman in 1720. After defeating the Persian army at the Battle of Gulnabad on March 8, 1722, he proceeded to and besieged Isfahan for 6 months, after which it fell. On October 23, 1722, Sultan Husayn abdicated and acknowledged Mahmud as the new Shah of Persia.

The Hotak dynasty was a troubled and violent one from the very start as internecine conflict made it difficult to establish permanent rule. The dynasty lived under great turmoil due to bloody succession feuds and after the massacre of thousands of civilians in Isfahan – including more than three thousand religious scholars, nobles, and members of the Safavid family – the Hotak dynasty was eventually removed from power in Persia.

Afsharid dynasty, 1736–1750

The Afsharids were of Turkmen origin from Khorasan who ruled Persia in the 18th century. The dynasty was founded in 1736 by the military commander Nader Shah who decisively defeated the Hotaks in 1729 and then deposed his main ally in that fight, the last member of the Safavid dynasty and few years later proclaimed himself King of Iran. During Nader’s reign, Iran reached its greatest extent since the Sassanid Empire. Under Nader Shah, Persia regained lost territories from the Ottomans, Afgans, and Russians. Military campaigns into India also brought back treasures such as the famous Peacock Throne and Koh-i-Nor diamond.

Nader initiated a new religious policy aimed at reconciling Shia with Sunni Islam. The Safavid dynasty had relied heavily on the support of Shi’ites, but many soldiers in Nader’s army were Sunnis. Nader also wanted to set himself up as a rival of the Ottoman sultan for supremacy within the Muslim world, which would have been impossible had he remained an orthodox Shi’ite.

In 1738, Nader Shah conquered Kandahar, the last outpost of the Hotaki dynasty and established Naderabad, Kandahar. His thoughts now turned to the Mughal Empire based in Delhi. Nader asked for the Afghan rebels to be handed over, but the Mughal emperor refused. Nader used this as a pretext to cross the border and invade the militarily weak but still extremely wealthy far eastern empire. He captured Ghazni, Kabul, Peshawar, Sindh and Lahore. By 1739 he had defeated the Mughal army, captured Mohammad Shah and entered Delhi. When the The Persian troops left Delhi Nader ceded back to Muhammad Shah all territories to the east of the Indus that he had overrun. Nader’s soldiers also took with them thousands of elephants, horses and camels, loaded with the booty they had collected. The plunder seized from India was so valuable that Nader stopped taxation in Iran for a period of three years following his return.

With the wealth he gained, Nader started to build a Persian navy. With lumber from Mazandaran, he built ships in Bushehr. He also purchased thirty ships in India. He recaptured the island of Bahrain from the Arabs. In 1743, he conquered Oman and its main capital Muscat. In 1743, Nader started another war against the Ottoman Empire. Despite having a huge army at his disposal, in this campaign Nader showed little of his former military brilliance. It ended in 1746 with the signing of a peace treaty, in which the Ottomans agreed to let Nader occupy Najaf.

After Nader’s death in 1747 the rule of the Afsharid did not last long and by 1760 they were thoroughly defeated by the Qajars.

Zand Dynasty, 1750–1794

The Zand dynasty ruled southern and central Iran in the 18th century. The dynasty was founded by Karim Khan, chief of the Zand tribe which was from Northern Luristan. He became one of Nader Shah’s generals. Nader Shah moved the Zand tribe from their home in lakestan to the eastern steppes of Khorasan. After Nader’s death, the Zand tribe, under the guidance of Karim Khan, went back to their original land. Karim Khan and his soldiers defected from the army and in 1760, founded his own dynasty. Karim Khan declared Shiraz his capital. He gained control of central and southern parts of Iran. He refused to accept the title of the king and instead named himself “The Advocate of the People” (Vakilol Ro’aya).

Karim Khan’s monuments in Shiraz include the famous Arg of Karim Khan, Vakil Bazaar, and several mosques and gardens. He is also responsible for building of a palace in the town of Tehran, the future capital of the Qajar dynasty. Karim Khan’s death in 1779 left his territory vulnerable to threats from his enemies. Soon enough, the country was under attack from all sides. The biggest enemies of the Zands, the Qajar chiefs, led by Agha Mohammad Khan, eventually defeated Lotf Ali Khan, a grand-nephew of Karim Khan putting an effective end to the Zand Dynasty.

The Zand era was an era of relative peace and economic growth for the country. Many territories that were once captured by the Ottomans in the late Safavid era were retaken, and Iran was once again a coherent and prosperous country. Iranian painting reached its height at the end of the 17th century, and a special school of painting took shape during the Zand era in the 17th and 18th centuries. The art of this era is remarkable and, despite the short length of the dynasty, a distinct Zand art had the time to emerge. Many Qajar artistic traits were copied from the Zand examples.

In foreign policy, Karim Khan attempted to revive the Safavid era trade by allowing the British to establish a trading post in the port of Bushehr. This opened the hands of the British East India company in Iran and increased their influence in the country. The taxation system was reorganized in a way that taxes were levied fairly. The judicial system was considered to be fair and generally humane. Capital punishment was rarely implemented.

Qajar Dynasty, 1794–1925

The Qajar family took control of Iran in 1794, deposing Lotf Ali Khan Zand and re-asserted Persian sovereignty over parts of the Caucasus. In 1796 Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar was formally crowned as shah. He established his capital at Tehran, a village near the ruins of the ancient city of Rayy. A year later he was assassinated and was succeeded by his nephew, Fath Ali Shah Qajar. Overall, the Qajar period is one of major retrograde steps for Iran. It is in this crucial stage in the development of the world economy that Iran failed to modernise its economy and state and undertake the necessary reforms.

The Qajar rulers were decendents of Turkmen peoples. Qajars first settled during the Mogul period in the vicinity of Armenia and were among the seven Qizilbash tribes that supported the Safavids. The Safavids left Arran (the greater Azerbaijan) to local Turkic speaking khans. Qajars were one such tribe governing parts of southern Arran. The Qajar armies were composed of Turkoman bodyguards and Georgian slave soldiers.

During the Qajar period Iran lost some of its territory in Afghanistan (to the British), North Azerbaijan (to Russia) and Kurdistan (to the Ottomans). The Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 which limited the absolute power of the Shah and established an elected parliament was defeated with the help of the Russian Kossack army supporting Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar. The Qajar dynasty was eventually overthrown by a British backed coup in 1921 which led t the establishment of Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925.

Pahlavi Dynasty, 1925–1979

In February 1921, Reza Khan, an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade (which came under British command after the Russian Revolution of 1917), used his troops to support a British backed coup against Ahmad Shah Qajar. In 1923, Ahmad Shah was forced into exile in Europe and in October 1925 Reza Khan induced the Majles to depose the Ghajar dynasty and proclaim him as the new Shah. He ruled for the next 16 years with absolute power. Reza Shah had ambitious plans for modernizing Iran. These plans included developing large-scale industries, implementing major infrastructure projects, building a cross-country railroad system, establishing a national public education system, reforming the judiciary, and improving health care. He believed only a strong, centralized dictatorship managed by loyal personnel could carry out his plans.

Following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain and the USSR saw the newly-opened Trans-Iranian Railway as an attractive route to transport supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. In August 1941, under the pretext of alleged Reza Shah’s support for Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran, arrested the Shah and sent him into exile in South Africa. Following the collapse of Reza Shah’s regime the occupying powers allowed his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to accede to the throne.

In the context of regional turmoil and the Cold War, Mohammad Reza Shah established himself as an indispensable ally of the USA. Domestically, he advocated reform policies, culminating in the 1963 program known as the White Revolution, which included land reform, extension of voting rights to women, and the elimination of illiteracy, whilst banning all freedom of expression and establishing a single-party rule. His autocratic regime became more and more unpopular and his government collapsed following widespread uprisings in 1978 and 1979. He left the country in January 1979.

The Islamic Republic, 1979-

In February 1979, following a poular uprising which led to the collapse of the Bakhtiar government (appointed by the Shah before he left the country), a new government headed by Mehdi Bazargan came to power with the backing of the army, security services and a clandestine committee set up by Ayattollah Khomeini representing a coallition of shiite hierarchy and the bazar. The new government organised a referendum seeking poular approval of the as yet undefined “Islamic Republic”! Having obtained its “majority” it then disfranchised the population by electing an assembly of “Islamic experts” to write up a constitution for the Islamic Republic, which despite claiming to be a republic is in effect a theocracy giving absolute power to an unelected cleric appointed by clerics. Currently all the basic democratic rights are denied to the Iranian population.

Millions of Iranians have been forced into exile and Iranian art and culture has been pushed back centuries. Corruption and nepotism in government is endemic and the supporters of the regime have turned Iran into a merchants haven where most internal production is sacrificed for the benfit of the merchants and hoarders. The current levels of poverty and unemployment in Iran has not been seen for a hundred years.