Timeline: Samanid {819-999}

In the late first millennium AD, the Samanids (819-999/203-389 AH) reintroduced Persian language, culture, and literature to the eastern areas of the once Greater Iran. Named after their ancestor, Saman Khoda, for 180 years they ruled the western gateway to Central Asia controlling at their widest extent the territories of Khorasan (eastern Iran and Afghanistan, including Kabul), Rayy (south of modern-day Tehran), Transoxiania (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southwest Khazakstan), Tabaristan (southern coasts of the Caspian Sea), Gurgan (eastern coasts of the Caspian Sea), Sistan (southeastern Iran), and Isfahan (west-central Iran).


Saman Khuda may have been a local Iranian landowner (dehqan) from Saman, a village in the district of Balkh (Afghanistan). He converted to Islam under the Umayyad governor in Khorasan, Asad b. Abdallah Qasri (d. 735/120 AH), and took the governor’s name-calling himself Asad b. Saman Khuda. Under Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833/197-217 AH), Saman Khuda’s four sons, Nuh, Ahmad, Yayha, and Elyas, were appointed governors of Tocharistan (with its capital at Balkh) and Transoxiana. By 819/203 AH, Samanid control over these eastern provinces was assured, allowing the Abbasid court to focus their attention on events occurring in their western provinces. In 875/261 AH, Saman Khuda’s great-grandson Nasr was appointed governor of the territory of Transoxiana, with its capital at Samarqand, by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tamid (870-892/256-278 AH). It was his brother Ismail (849-907/234-294 AH), however, that defeated the rule of the Saffarids in Khorasan, and as governor of that province, with its capital at Bukhara, Ismail defended the territory from nomadic Turk incursions as well as from other would-be rulers such as the Khwarazmians.


Nasr died in 892/278 AH and Ismail became ruler of both provinces transferring the capital to Bukhara. He set out securing his sovereignty by capturing Taraz (Dzhambul in Kazakhstan), defeating the Afshins in the middle Jaxartes (Syr Darya) valley, the Zaydids in Tabaristan, and routing the remainder of the Saffarid forces in Balkh. The Abbasid caliph al-Mo’tazed (892-902/278-289 AH) officially appointed him governor of the eastern provinces, but Ismail paid lip service to the caliph never actually forwarding any tribute or tax money to Baghdad. Because of Ismail’s reforms of the tax system and others including redistribution of land, Ismail came to be known for his just and strong rule over the territories.


By the end of the tenth century, the power of the Samanids, under less than worthy rulers, waned as the power of the Turkic Karakhanids and Ghaznavids waxed. By 999/389 AH and the fall of Bukhara, Samanid rule came to an end, yet their legendary court survived in laudatory literary and historical sources.


The Samanids created a genealogy for themselves that connected their lineage to the Sasanian court of Khusro II (590-628 AD) and the legendary usurper Bahram (VI) Chobin (590-591 AD). Bahram Chobin was a member of the Miran family one of the seven feudal houses that could trace descent from Parthian clans; the House of Miran’s seat was in the city of Rayy. Thus the Samanids were considered the first Persian dynasty after the Muslim Arab conquest, and they set about restoring Farsi-Dari (New Persian) as the national language. As the caliphate in Baghdad declined over the next couple of centuries, Persian culture would see a renaissance in arts and letters. At the Samanid court, both New Persian and Arabic were spoken and used in communications, but Arabic as the language of Islam was used on any building or object that had an official and/or religious purpose.


Under the Samanids, the Qur’an was translated into New Persian and spread throughout their territories increasing conversions. Schools of religious scholars came to Bukhara, which purportedly had over 400 madrasas for the study of theology and the sciences. Renowned teachers such as Iman al-Haramayn Abu’l Mo’ali Juwayni would attract crowds of listeners up to 500 people in open-air classes, a type of free university available to all. Although Sunni (Hanafi) Islam was the practiced religion of the realm, most of the Samanid rulers were tolerant of Ja’fari (Twelver) Shi’ism allowing eminent scholars such as Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni of Rayy (d. ca. 940/328 AH), who wrote al-Kafi (The Sufficient [Book]), and Abu’l Nasr Muhammad b. Mas’ud al-Ayyashi al-Sulami al-Samarqandi (d. 932/319 AH), who wrote a commentary on the Qur’an (only part of which survives to this day), among others, to produce distinguished religious scholarship.


Scholarship in areas of the sciences from mathematics to pharmacology to geography to astronomy brought students to the Samanid court. Supported by such Abbasid institutions as the Bayt al-Hakim (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad and the patronage of Samanid wazirs such as Abu’l Fazl al-Bal’ami (d. 940/328 AH) and Abu Abdullah Jayhani (d. 941/329 AH), a learned geographer, scholars traveled throughout the Islamic world gathering knowledge, translating and expanding upon ancient Greek, Latin, Indian and Sasanian texts, and producing works for the Samanids that are the foundation of modern scientific knowledge. Such scientists as Al-Razi (Razes, 841-926/226-313 AH), born in Rayy, became a foremost physician who wrote over 200 books on topics such as disease-related to pollution. Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna, 980?-1037/295?-428 AH), whose father was a local Samanid governor, moved to Bukhara and received an outstanding education, leading him to become a world-renown physician, philosopher, and mathematician. His “Canon” (Al Qanun fi al-Tibb) is an encyclopedia of medicine surveyed from ancient to Muslim texts, and it remains the foundation of modern medicine. His Kitab al-Shifa is a monumental philosophical and scientific encyclopedia. Of the 450 works he wrote, 240 have survived. Another major world scholar, who corresponded with Avicenna, was Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni (973-1048/335-439 AH) born and educated in Samanid Khorasan. He wrote over 100 books on subjects that range from mechanics, geography, astronomy, optics, geology, to a history of India which provides much of what we know today about that ancient land.


Works of literature in Arabic and Persian abound under the Samanids. In fact, Ahmad ibn Mohammad al-Tha’alibi (d. ca. 1035/426 AH) lists over 120 authors who were celebrated as writing in either Arabic or New Persian, or both. Of these, authors such as Abu’l Fat-h al-Busti (d. 1009/399 AH) wrote diwans in Arabic and Persian and translated, into Arabic, poems from Persian authors, for example, Abu Mansur Ibn Ahmad Daqiqi (d. 978/367 AH), known as Daqiqi (or Dakiki). The greatest of the New Persian poets was Abu Abd Allah Rudaki (d. 940), often considered the “father” of Persian poetry, the first major poet to write in New Persian: “Tumultuous Oxus, full of joy and mirth, Greeting us, leaps warmly to our girth. O Bukhara! Thou art the Sky, brilliant Moon is He, O mighty Sky, embrace Thy Moon with glee. Thou art the Mead, stately Cypress He, Receive Thee anon, Thy beloved Cypress tree.”[1] Accredited with inventing the ruba’i form of poetry, a quatrain in which lines 1, 2, and 4 rhyme, Rudaki was said to have written 100,000 bayts (verses); only 1,000 exist today. His patron was the prominent Samanid court wazir Bal’ami, a scholar in his own right, who commissioned the poet to translate the Kalila wa Dimna[2] into Persian from the Arabic translation of Ibn Muqaffa’.


Daqiqi considered Rudaki as his master and at the court of Amir Nuh II b. Mansur (977-997/366-386 AH) composed a dastan (heroic poem) of 1,000 couplets on the heroic exploits of the Persian legendary king Gushtasp (Vishtaspa from the Gathas, the oldest texts of Zoroastrianism). Stories and legends about the ancient Persian rulers from Achaemenids to Sasanians flourished in Khorasan and Transoxiana partly due to the Sogdians who had celebrated these traditions in works of art and literature. In 957/345 AH, several pieces of these legends were compiled by the Samanid commander Abu Mansur Muhammad ‘Abd al-Raqqaq into what would become an early form of the Shahnama (Book of Kings). Abu Shakur al-Balkhi (d. ca. 960/348 AH) was a student and friend of Rudaki and another earlier composer of a Shahnama. These would set the stage for the creation of the greatest national Iranian epic, the Shahnama by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi of Tus (d. 1020/410 AH), the first version of which he is said to have completed in 994/383 AH (although the final version was done around 1010/400 AH and dedicated to the new Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud of Ghazna, 998-1030/388-420 AH). In some 50,000 couplets of verse, this epic tells the history of Iran from the beginning of time to the end of the Sasanian dynasty. Partly myth and legend, from folklore and oral traditions, partly historical fact, the epic deals with the forces of good and evil, combat between various rulers and their heroes, fantastic creatures such as dragons and demons, and stories of love found and lost: “Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam, though it be a tale replete with tears.”[3]


Some of the earliest existing images from these stories can be found on pottery from Nishapur and Samarqand, two of the leading centers of pottery production. Figures such as equestrian falconers and banqueting celebrants recall images on Sasanian metalwork and Sogdian wall paintings, although the practice of frescoes in carved and painted stucco was popular throughout Khorasan and Transoxiana, and certainly seem to have developed from the rich tradition of Buddhist and Sasanian murals. Geometric and vegetal patterns, calligraphy, animals, and figures decorate simple earthenware objects as well as carved and painted stucco walls. Some of the most interesting objects are the large white-slipcovered earthenware plates that bear elegant Arabic inscriptions around the rim, with such pithy sayings as “Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace.”[4] Another interesting type of ware is sgraffito ware, earthenware covered with white slip, incised, and decorated with dripping polychrome glazes under a transparent glaze.[5] The dripping glaze technique (or splashed ware) was inspired by Chinese Tang dynasty sancai (three-colored ware) that was extremely popular along the Silk Road, and reflects Samanid cities, such as Nishapur and Samarqand, as centers of trade connecting east and west.


Samanid silver was of the highest quality continuing the tradition of stamping fine coins as the Sasanians had done. The silver-producing mines of Central Asia in Badakhshan and Farghana contributed to the vast quantity of silver objects and coinage that were popular outside the Islamic world even in Russia and Britain. Just as the Sasanians had done, the Samanids exported metalwork and textiles in exchange for furs and amber from Scandinavia and the Baltic lands.


Samarqand, Bukhara, Merv, and Nishapur were known as centers of fine cloth production. Brocades, silks, silk threads, gold and silver threads, and stamped or appliqued cotton produced exquisite objects for court use and for export. Shops in Merv and Bukhara produced textiles from saddlecloths to carpets, many of which were exported to Egypt and Byzantium. An example of a fine tenth-century silk cloth is in the Louvre. It is known as the “Shroud of St. Josse”[6] and includes an inscription citing Khorasan as its origin; it depicts pairs of confronted elephants with winged long-necked creatures between their legs. On the side panel is a row of Bactrian camels and the bottom panel contains an inscription naming a “prince” who may have been the Samanid commander Bukhtegin (Bakhtakin, d. 961/349 AH).


Few Samanid structures survive, but those that do hint at a highly developed and energetically experimental desire to work out various forms of architecture and ornamentation. Towns were rectangular in shape and walled with as many as seven gates (Bukhara) locating the main roads. Unbaked brick and pisé (rammed earth) construction were replaced in the tenth century by baked brick which allowed for more monumental architecture; vaulted ceilings, high walls, and domed structures demonstrated connections to Parthian and Sasanian designs. Decorative brickwork, carved terracotta, and stucco were used as means of ornamenting interiors and exteriors. Palaces of rulers, such as the Samanid palace in Samarkand, were decorated with large geometric and vegetal ornamentation in carved and painted stucco. Caravanserais, mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, hammams (bathhouses) littered Samanid cities. By 861/246 AH the Abbasids had broken the previous tradition of not allowing the construction of dynastic tombs and the Samanids were the first dynasty to incorporate them. The familiar structure of the Sasanian fire temple (chahar-taq) was used to produce a square domed baked brick structure with arched doorways on each side. The only one that still exists is the Mausoleum of the Samanids, containing three burials but only identifying Nasr ibn Ahmad ibn Ismail (d. 943/331 AH). It is a simple slightly tapered structure with an exquisite decorative brickwork facade. Each brick is set in a particular manner to create visual interest and demonstrate the play of light and shadow. The hemispherical dome in the interior sits on simple squinches that set the design of domed constructions in Iran and Central Asia.


The Samanids created a cosmopolitan Muslim world in Iran and Central Asia that supported developments in the sciences, built prosperous cities supported by extensive trade between east and west, founded scholarly libraries and universities and left a legacy that established a renaissance in Persian literature and the arts.


Johanna Domela Movassat, Ph.D.



[1] Abu Abd Allah Rudaki, “The Muliyan Brook I Recall,” translated by Iraj Bashiri (2004), http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Poets/Rudaki.html.

OR you can use what’s on his monument in Dushanbe: “No ordinary teacher will ever reach, He whom the passage of Time failed to teach.”

[2] A collection of fables that originated in India and were translated into Arabic in the mid-eighth century.

[3] Abu’l Qasim Firdausi, Shahnama, translated by Helen Zimmern (2004), http://iranchamber.com/literature/shahnameh/08rostam_sohrab.php

[4] See “Bowl with Arabic Inscription” from the Metropolitan Museum of New York at http://metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/451802.

[5] See “Bowl with Green, Yellow and Brown Splashed Decoration” from the Metropolitan Museum at http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/449348.

[6] It was found at the Abbey of St. Josse (dismantled in the eighteenth century) in Caen, Normandy, having been brought back to France by Étienne de Blois in the First Crusade. See “The Shroud of St. Josse” at the Louvre Museum, Paris, http://www.louvre.fr/en/mediaimages/saint-josse-shroud.


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