The Samanid Dynasty and the restoration of Persian culture in Iran and Central Asia

Statue of Ismail Samani in  Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan
Statue of Ismail Samani in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan

The conquest of the Persian-speaking peoples of the Sassanian Dynasty by the Arab forces and their integration into the Islamic Caliphate was a huge blow to Persian culture and language in Central Asia. As the people of the area slowly began adopting Islam, the religion of their rulers, all things Persian began to become Arabized.

One of the things that prevented the Iranians, the Tajiks and many of the peoples of Central Asia from becoming completely Arabized like those of Syria, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa and other areas conquered by the Arab and Islamic armies was the promotion of Persian culture under the Samanids. The Samanids were a dynasty of Persian kings that ruled parts of eastern Iran, Khorasan, Ferghana, Samarkand and other parts of Central Asia including modern-day Tajikistan.

History of the Samanid Empire

The founder of this new line of kings or shahs was Saman Khuda who was born in the village of Dehqan in what is now the province of Balkh in Afghanistan. Saman was originally a Zoroastrian from the noble family of Mihran. It is said that he converted to Islam after being impressed by piety of the Caliph’s governor of Khorasan, Asad ibn ‘Abd-Allah al-Qasri. It is said that he even named his son Asad in honor of the governor. In later years, four of Saman Khuda’s grandsons through Asad were appointed by the Caliph al-Mamun as governors of the areas of Samarkand, Ferghana, Shash and Ustrushana, and Herat. 1

Samanid domains (819 - 999)
Samanid domains (819 – 999)

Though by the early 900s the power of the Samanid family had been growing, their rule was not formally recognized by the Caliph in Baghdad, Al-Mu’tadid. The Caliph requested Ismail Samani to fight the Saffarid ruler Amr-i Laith in Khorasan, a man that he had branded as an enemy of the state. Ismail accepted and prepared an army to square off against the Saffarids. Their two armies fought in Balkh in present-day Afghanistan in the year 900. Ismail, who only had 20,000 horsemen, was outnumbered by Amr-i Laith’s 70,000 strong cavalry. 2 During the battle though Amr was captured and some of his men mutinied, leading the Samanids to a decisive victory.

After this, Ismail followed the Caliph’s second request to march into Tabaristan and defeat the Zaydids and their ruler Muhammad ibn Zayd. This Ismail also was able to accomplish, making him the new ruler of the realm under the Caliph in Baghdad.

Though a time of prosperity and relative peace, Samanid rule began to wane in the later half of the 10th century. Alp Tigin, the Samanid commander of the army in Khorasan, captured the city of Ghazna and declared himself the ruler there, though he nominally payed allegiance to the Samanid king in Bukhara. 3 His descendants however did not pay such lip service to the Samanid throne and eventually declared their independence and established the Ghaznavid Dynasty. The most famous and arguably most powerful of these descendants was Mahmud of Ghazni. This along with fighting another group known as the Karakhanids weakened the Samanid state. Finally in 992 the Karakhanids under Harun Bughra Khan captured Bukhara. Harun died shortly afterward and the Samanids were able to take the city back soon after only to lose it again in 999 to Harun’s nephew, Nasr. The Karakhanids and Ghaznavids then split up the Samanid territories amongst themselves, thus effectively ending Samanid rule in Central Asia, Khorasan and eastern Iran.

The Legacy of the Samanids

The Samanids are significant in the history of the region because they were the first Persian dynasty to rule after the Arab conquest and also because they reversed the tide of Arabization in the lands east of Mesopotamia. Governing from the city of Bukhara, the 100 or so years of Samanid rule was a time of great prosperity, both from the caravan routes that linked China and the East with the Muslim lands of the west as well as from the Central Asian slave trade. With their wealth, the Samanids promoted the arts and houses of learning. Two of Persia’s greatest poets were from this time including Rudaki and Ferdowsi. The Samanids also advanced better agricultural and irrigation systems throughout their realm. In addition, many of the world’s most famous scientist of the time, from Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Biruni, al-Khorezmi, al-Razi (Razes) and other were patronized by the Samanid court. 4

Today, the Samanids are considered to the be original founders of what became the Tajik state. A statue of the great Samanid king Ismail Samani stands in the center of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe across from the Parliament building and the currency of the country, the somoni, is named after the dynasty. 5

The somoni, the currency of Tajikistan named after the Samanids
The somoni, the currency of Tajikistan named after the Samanids

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