By Jay Holmes
As an intelligence operative, I have a passion for history. If we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today and why. Currently, we are catching us up on the increasingly worrisome situation in Iran, which means taking a look at Iran’s past. Today, we focus on the fall of the Persian Empire in the face of the Islamic Arab Invasion and the dynasties that arose afterward.
photo by Gire 3pich2005 at Wikimedia, worldwide public domain
The Persian Empire unraveled. At the battle of Nahavand, an invading army of thirty thousand Arabs defeated a larger Persian army led by the General Mardan Shah. Mardan allows his army to pursue a band of a few thousand Arabs into mountain passes where well armed Arabs holding the surrounding high ground ambushed them. The Persians suffered about twenty thousand deaths and the remainder were wounded or routed.
The Arabs entered the high Persian plains and sacked several cities before the Persians could reorganize. The Emperor Yazdgerd III retreated to the city of Merv, and with help from the Huns and Turks, was able to hold off the Arab invasion for a few years. Yazdgerd traveled further east into Persia, but his own governors were in revolt. He was unable to organize a resistance against the Islamic invaders.
The Persian Emperor Yasdgerd III was assassinated in Merv by an unassuming and harmless looking local miller who was able to approach him without alerting his guards. His son, Pirooz II, did his best to save the Sassanid Empire from the Rashidun Caliphate, and then the Umayyad Caliphate, but he was unable to bring together enough Persian warlords. Pirooz II eventually fled to China where he died. This left the once great Persian Empire under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate.
Ali ibn Abi Talid, the son-in-law of Muhammad, was installed as the Caliph in Kufa near Basra and ruled the Umayyad Empire including much of Iran.
Ali was assassinated in the mosque in Kufa. Differing opinions over the holy status of Ali create the Islamic schism between what are now “Shia” and “Sunni” Muslims.
Hussein, son of Ali, was defeated by the Umayyad army in Karbala. This solidified the split between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
The Abbasid clan, descendants of Muhammad’s Uncle Abbas, decided they were the rightful heirs to Muhammad’s authority and they formed an army that defeated the Umayyad army. taking control of most of the Umayyad Caliphate. They moved the capitol to Baghdad.
The compassionate and learned 8th Imam Ali ar Ridha foretold his murder and instructed his servants on his burial. Fighting between Arabs and Persians broke out across the Caliphate.
Uyid warriors (Shias) marched into Baghdad and defeated the Caliph’s forces. They established a Shia capitol at Qom.
10th century A.D.
Persian culture flourished when Persia re-established strong east-west trade. A strong currency based on standard measures was again instated in the Empire.
In the Iranian city of Gonbad-e Qabus Amir, Shams Wushmgir had a 167 ft. (72 meter) tower built of baked brick. It is still reputed to be the tallest solid brick structure ever built. The ratio of the height to the diameter is Pi.
Fast and mobile warriors from what we now call Turkestan invaded Iran. They were fierce and merciless. They unwittingly repeated military events from Persia’s history by defeating the now more settled and sedentary Persians of the Caliphate.
In this sense, the history of Iran resembles that of the British Isles. Less civilized, more war like people took well-developed areas from more settled and civilized people. They, in turn, become more civilized and were then invaded by another wave of more barbaric people, and so the cycle continues.
Turkish Seljuk warriors invaded Persia in force and defeated a Persian army in battle near Merv. They decided to dismount long enough to stay and build a city. They set up a capitol in Isfahan.
Persian mathematician, philosopher, and poet Omar Khayyam was born. He was a great linguist, and he translated important works from around the world to Farsi. He also wrote his own important works on algebra and geometry. His poetry and philosophy had a long-lasting impact both inside and outside Iran.
The apparently romantically inclined Seljuk people had multiplied. They invaded Mesopotamia and set up a capitol in Baghdad. They, too, were starting to absorb the well-developed science and methods of government and commerce from Persia and Mesopotamia.
The great Seljuk leader Muhammad Ibn Malik Shah died. There was no succession in place, and the Seljuk Empire broke up into smaller kingdoms across Mesopotamia and Iran.
Genghis Khan, the fierce, fast-riding war lord, and his massive army descended from the northeast during their stroll from Mongolia. They liked taking anything they found. They didn’t like taking no for an answer. They conquered as they went with rapid successes and few delays.
The cities of Khorasan, Persia calculated that they outnumbered Genghis’ army four to one and refused to surrender. While it’s true they outnumbered the invaders, they were spread out in garrisons and were not as swift as the Mongols. Genghis was insulted by their failure to surrender so he captured the cities one by one and ordered everyone in them to be beheaded.
Genghis and his sons are not remembered fondly in the Islamic world.
The Mongols, led by Genghis’ grandson Hogul, conquered most of Iran, Mesopotamia, and Syria. They crushed the Caliphate of Baghdad and kill 800,000 people in the process. The area fell under the rule of the great Mongolian/Chinese Khanate. The population of Iran did not reach pre-Mongol levels again until the twentieth century.
Tamerlane, a descendant of Monguls, stylized himself in the fashion of Genghis Khan. He captured what remained of eastern Iran and set up another rule. He was no great rider of the plains, but his armies were great riders, and he was a good organizer and skilled political animal. He became a menace to all Islamic areas. He raided Islamic areas of India and Islamic communities further west.
The Timurid Islamic Dynasty was formed in Iran. Arts flourished anew. Once again, Persian miniature painting techniques were perfected.
The Turkic-speaking Qara Quyunlu dynasty moved its capital to Tabriz.
The Turkic speaking Aq Quyunlu dynasty took control of most of Persia.
Life turned grim again in Persia as it fell into a new dark age of ignorance and suffering. A Shia Islamic warlord and religious zealot of questionable religious qualifications by the name of Shah Ismail began a reconquest of Iran. He was an effective, if savage, warrior and he preached slaughter and torture of all that was not Shia.
Within eight years he conquered most of what is now modern day Iran. He made Shia Islam the state religion, and anything other than Shia was punishable by death. He installed loyal followers to control religious authority in Iran. He was not the last barbaric politician to employ religious-based hatred in order to control Iran.
Shah Abbas I ascended the throne of Iran. He was far less ignorant and ruthless than Shah Ismail. Iran began rebuilding a civilization and literacy, science, and arts flourished for a century. Architecture returned to great heights in Iran with the building of impressive arched bridges. Canals and irrigation were reformed. Engineering skills, literature, and art returned to the forefront of life in Iran. Abbas did not rock the religious boat. He reaffirmed Shia domination but installed his own selected “religious authorities.”
The magnificent Khaju Bridge of twenty four arches was built over the river Isfahan during the reign of Shah Abbas II.
In our next article, we will look at Iran’s external relations and the further development of a national identity.