Turkish Rulers in Iran
The Ghaznavid dynasty was founded by Saboktekin, a governor of Ghazna (modern Ghazni, in Afghanistan) under the Samanids. As the Samanid dynasty weakened, Saboktekin strengthened his position and expanded his domains as far as the Indian border. His son Mahmud continued the expansionist policy, and during his reign, Ghaznavid’s power breached its peak. Having conquered most of the Buyid possessions, Mahmud created an empire that stretched from the Oxus River to the Indian Ocean. A devout Muslim, Mahmud converted the pagan Ghaznavid dynasty into an Islamic one and was the ﬁrst to carry the banner of Islam into the heart of India. Mahmud’s conquest of India also furthered the exchange of trade and ideas between the Indian subcontinent and the Muslim world.
Although the Ghaznavids were proud of their Turkic descent, Mahmud encouraged the use of Persian, and many great Persians found in him a generous patron. Among these were the noted Islamic geographer and scientist Biruni, and the historian Abolfazl Beihaghi, author of The Beihaghi History, the ﬁrst major prose work in modern Persian. Mahmud’s son, Masud I, was unable to preserve the power of the Ghaznavid Empire. Challenged by the Seljuk Turks, he lost all his territories in Iran and Central Asia but retained possession of eastern Afghanistan, where the Ghaznavids continued to rule until 1186.
The Seljuks were a clan of the nomad Turks, who lived north of the Oxus River and continually pressed the Ghaznavids in northeastern Iran until ﬁnally driven out. United under Tughril Beg, the Seljuks rapidly expanded their realm. They eventually founded an empire that included Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and most of Iran. In 1055, the caliph in Baghdad granted Tughril Beg the title of King of the East. Under Tughril Beg’s successor, Alp-Arslan, the Seljuk army defeated the Byzantines and opened Asia Minor to the entry of the Turkic tribes. The next ruler, Malik Shah, is considered the most remarkable of the Seljuk monarchs. During his rule, Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientiﬁc renaissance, owing in large part to his brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.
The Seljuks were great architectural patrons and constructed numerous buildings, notable for their decorative masonry, elaborately ornamented portals, and the use of Kuﬁc Script as an architectural decorative device. The Seljuks also attained high stature in the decorative arts, especially metalwork, wood carving, and pottery. Because the Seljuks had no strong literary heritage of their own, they adopted the cultural language of their Persian instructors. Literary Persian thus spread throughout the whole of Iran, and Arabic was reduced from the status of ofﬁcial language to the language of science and religious scholarship. On Nizam al-Mulk’s initiative, numerous schools were built in all the major towns. An observatory was established for Omar Khayyam, who succeeded in deﬁning the new Jalali calendar.
Abu Hamid Ghazali, one of the greatest of the Islamic theologians, together with other eminent scholars was encouraged at the Seljuk court. The Seljuks were Sunnites and displayed much zeal in their efforts to restore Muslim unity under the Sunnite caliphate. Their efforts, however, were impeded by the growing power of the Ismailites, who ultimately murdered Malik Shah and Nizam al-Molk. After Malik Shah’s death, his country was divided among his sons, whose internecine strife ﬁnally undermined the Seljuk Empire.
The supposed duty of the princes’ proxies, called Ata- Balkans, was to help them govern the provinces. However, the Atabakan often acquired power for themselves and organized petty dynasties. One of the most famous Atabak dynasties was the Salghurids of Pars. The last Seljuk, king, Toghrol III, died in a battle with the new dynasty of Khwarazm- Shah, and by 1200 Seljuk power was at an end everywhere except in Anatolia. The Khwarazm- Shah traced their origin from Anushtekin, a Turk who had been a keeper of MalIk Shah’s kitchen utensils and had been rewarded with the governorship of Khwarazm on the Oxus River. There he established the dynasty which gradually gained control over most of Seljuk’s former principalities.
Most Iranian petty rulers were obliged to pay heavy tributes to the new rulers. These tributes, however, protected their realms from outright invasion. Despite its vast dimensions, which at its heyday stretched from the borders of India to Anatolia, the Khwarazm- Shah Empire was very unstable. Inside the state, its rulers could quell neither the unceasing civil wars nor the strife for power between provincial leaders, while their enemies in Central Asia threatened them from the outside. The last king of the dynasty, Jalal al-Din, tried to unite the country in the face of Mongol invasion but failed to enlist the support of the Iranian regions. The Khwarazm- Shah Empire fell prey to the Mongol hordes.