The Samanids

The Samanids were descendants of an eponymous founder, Samand Khudah, who might have originated from Balkh (Bactra) in Tokharistan. He is reputed to have been converted to Islam by Asad ibn Abdallah al-Qasri, the governor of Khorasan (723-727) and have thus named his son Asad after the Muslim ruler. Asad in turn had four sons, named Nouh, Ahmad, Yahya and Ilyas who were each appointed as the governors of various cities in Transoxiana and Khorasan by the caliph al-Ma’umun in the ninth century. Among these, Ahmad was the governor of Ferghana in Transoxiana who had two sons, Nasr and Ismail. The former, known conventionally as Nasr I, inherited his father and his uncle Yahya’s position in Samarqand in 865 and ruled as the first independent ruler of the Samanid dynasty from that city. His younger brother, Amir Ismail I, gained the rule of the less important city of Bokhara, to the west of Samarqand, and ruled under the suzerainty of his elder brother.

Amir Ismail I, the founder of the Samanid Empire, was an energetic ruler and a devout Muslim. Ruling Bokhara as an agent of his brother Nasr, and considering himself under the ultimate authority of the Caliph in Baghdad, Ismail started expanding the Samanid influence among the local powers of eastern Transoxiana and Khorasan. He established his suzerainty over the local rulers of Ustrushana, Qubadian, and Chaghanian and in this way, gained access to the rich natural resources, particularly silver mines, of the Pamir region. Alongside other Samanids, Ismail also supported the missionary activities of the Persian and Arab Muslims, particularly among the Turkic speaking tribes in eastern and northern borders of Transoxiana. Indeed in 893, Ismail managed to take over and destroy the Qarluq Turks and their capital in Talas, and made major inroads among the Turkic tribes. This was the initial phase for the entry of the Turkic military slaves, recruited into the Samanid armies and forming political factions, often at odds with the local Sogdian mercenaries, and thus affecting the politics of the Samanid state throughout its existence.

Around 890, the quick successes of Ismail alarmed his brother Nasr who was considered the more senior ruler of the dynasty. What initially started as a campaign to subdue the ambitions of the younger brother eventually was defused due to Ismail’s submission to Nasr on the road between Samarqand and Bokhara. Despite this, Ismail’s position as the strong ruler, and that of the city of Bokhara, was virtually established. This de facto situation became actual fact with Nasr’s death in 895 and the elevation of Ismail to the high kingship. Taking over the control of all of Transoxiana after this point and bordering the Saffarid and Tahirid interest in Khorasan, Ismail quickly came to the notice of the Abbasid court in Baghdad.

With the initiation of the caliph, Ismail rushed to meet the second Saffarid king, Amr ibn Laith, in battle, which took place in Balkh around 900. Decisively defeating the Saffarid king, Ismail established himself as the ruler of Khorasan and Tabaristan, even as far as Isfahan, and captured and sent Amr to the Caliph al-Mu’tadid in Baghdad. He next moved against his major rivals in Tabaristan, the Ziydid imams who controlled the Caspian lowlands, and eliminated their rule in Tabaristan for over a decade, subjugating the local Tabari dynasties to himself as well. The rest of Ismail’s rule was spent in strengthening his holdings in Khorasan and Transoxiana and in countering the growing threat of the Turkic tribes who were pressing against his north and eastern borders.

Upon Ismail’s death of natural causes in 907 AD, his son Ahmad became the prince, and the Abbasid appointed governor, in Khorasan, Tokharistan, and Transoxiana, as well as Tabaristan. Ahmad appears to have had quite absolutist personal ruling style and to have been a rather orthodox Muslim, oppressing members of the other sects of Islam, as well as the unconverted Turks. Among his early actions was an order to turn the language of the Divan (the administrative bureaucracy) of Bokhara to Arabic. Previously working in Persian, the administrative language of Bokhara had become the de facto administrative language of the whole of the Samanid Empire. However, under Ahmad, the system was made to follow that of the Caliphate and thus function in Arabic, creating much discontent among the local administrative elite.

Mausoleum of Amir Ismail

Ahmad’s closeness to the Baghdad court earned him an early appointment to the governorship of Sistan, issued by the revivalist Abbasid caliph, al-Muqtadir. Using force to remove the vestiges of Saffarid power in Sistan, Ahmad invaded Zarang and Bust, the two major towns of that region and imposed high taxes as a way of punishing the local population. Soon enough, a rebellion was raised to establish a puppet Saffarid prince on the throne, although it was crushed by Ahmad’s forces under Simjour, his Turkish commander-in-chief. Simjur thus became the governor of the Samanid territories south of the river Atrak. Soon enough, he himself rose in rebellion against the Samanid prince, and it might have been by his instigation that Ahmad was killed in 914, after only seven years of rule, by his Turkish slaves while sleeping in a tent. He was then given the title Amir-e Shahid (“the Martyred Prince”) and was succeeded by his eight year old son, Nasr.

The period of Nasr II (914-943) contained both the golden age and the decline of the Samanids. His early rule was marred by discontent among his subjects and rebellions around his empire, while the middle period of his rule formed one of the most fruitful periods of Iranian culture and Persian cultural production in Iranian history. At the height of his power, Nasr was the master of a large empire stretching from the borders of Turkistan to central Iranian Plateau and from the Hindukush to Khwarazm, with Samanid economic and political influence spreading as far away as the Pontic steppe, forming major threats against the caliphate in Baghdad. Towards the end of his reign, however, financial collapse, internal political disputes, and competition among military leaders spelled the beginning of the decline of the Samanids.

The early years of Nasr’s rule was marked by rebellions of the local powers on the peripheries of the empire. In Chaghanian, ancient local rulers of that region were exerting their influence among the neighboring regions and opting for independence. In Tabaristan, both Alavi political-religious leaders like Naser al-Utrush and Dailamite warlords like Mardavij the Ziyarid were claiming independence. In Sistan, the territory of the old enemies of the Samanids, the Abbasid Caliphate was re-establishing direct rule and challenging the Samanid position as the agents of the Caliphal power in the eastern lands. All these was dealt with by a combination of local, Persian speaking administration of the Samanids, represented by the person of the vizier al-Jaihani, and the Turkish dominated mercenary military, whose command was in the hands of several competing personages representing long standing military families.

The first major challenge to Nasr’s rule came from his granduncle and his cousins who took over the rule of the various cities around Khorasan. Using a combination of military force and diplomacy, al-Jaihani managed to diffuse this threat and establish Nasr’s rule. Alavi imams of Tabaristan, and the Deilamite warlords were similarly defeated and made to pay tribute, although in case of Mardavij ibn Ziyar, their conquests such as the city of Rey were granted to them against the payment of a tribute. Military campaigns further established the rule of the Samanids in Tokharistan and the rest of the Hindukush region, with various Turkic military leaders, including a certain Alep Tegin, forming local power bases which eventually came to threaten the Samanid rule. In Transoxiana itself, Nasr and his courtiers managed to firmly establish the Samanid rule in Badakhshan and the rest of the eastern parts of Transoxiana, bringing them to the possession of the rich silver mines of this region.

The inflow of silver meant an increase in the coin production of mints such as Samarqand and Bokhara, giving Samanids an unprecedented source of income. Diverting caravan trade through their lands and over the Caspian Sea to the Pontic Steppe and Eastern Europe, the Samanids installed themselves as the masters of the east-west trade. Samanid coins became the most reliable currency among the Bulgar, Khazar, Byzantine and Arab traders who were active in the Pontic Steppe, as well as the Norse raiders who were attracted by the incredible wealth generated in the region. In this way, much of the traditional land-trade passing through the Iranian Plateau and going over to Mesopotamia and Syria, and eventually the Mediterranean, was diverted to a northerly route, depriving not only the Samanid competitions in central Iran, but also the Abbasid Caliphate of a lucrative source of income.

This new wealth helped Nasr not to only establish his political power, but to also build his capital of Bokhara, as well as other cities such as Samarqand, Neishapur, and Khojand as jewels of a new age of Iranian architecture. The new Samanid vizier, Bal’ami, was himself a man of letters and author of geographic treatise, and he turned the court of Nasr into a center of patronage for scholars and literary figures of the time. The famous poet Rudaki composed his famous poems, the most significant of them in praise of Nasr and Bokhara itself, in this court. Geographers, historians, and many theologians were active in the court of Nasr, who had reversed his father’s orders regarding the status of Persian and had allowed even the translation of Tabari’s famous exegeses of Quran into Persian.

However, numismatic evidence show us that starting in the middle of Nasr’s reign, around 935, the coin production that had initiated the Samanid golden age was slowed down, with less high quality silver coins minted in Samarqand and more re-strikes from Bokhara or Nishapur, and a slowing flow of coins to the Pontic region. Whether this could have been the result of the depletion of the Badakhshan mines is not as of yet known, but it did coincide with the start of a new set of rebellions in the Samanid lands. Some of Nasr’s brothers rose on rebellion and chose Yahya as a new Amir in Samarqand. Although the rebellion was quashed by Bal’ami’s diplomacy and a series of military campaigns, the first cracks had already appeared in the Samanid state structure. With al-Jaihani again on the helm of Samanid administration, Turkic commanders started to once again claim power in the Samanid court. Soon, in 943, a conspiracy was formed to depose and kill Nasr because of his support for the Ismaili shi’ites in his territory. It was discovered and diffused by Nuh, Nasr’s eldest son, who then convinced his father to abdicate. Nasr died shortly afterwards before reaching the age 40.

Nuh I ruled for about 10 years (943/44-954) and his rule was marked by the competition between the various factions in the Samanid court that was to mark the rest of the Samanid history. While rulers of the peripheral regions, such as the increasingly rich state of Khwarazm, were slowly forming their own courts, in competition with the Samanid one, Turkic commanders such as the members of the Simjurid clan, were claiming more power in the Samanid armies. At the same time, each of these factions were trying to incise Samanid infighting by supporting various claimants to the throne. In the competition between Nuh and the increasingly powerful ruler of Khorasan, Abu-Ali Chaghani, of the powerful ruling family of Chaghanian, the basis of the Samanid claim to legitimacy was shaken. While Nuh was able to affirm his position with the help of the Simjurid commander Ibrahim, the Chaghani nobleman supported the claims of an uncle of Ahmad, another Ibrahim, to the throne and managed to even capture Bokhara and force Nuh to abandon his capital. The recovery of Bokhara, although decisive, was only a temporary success. Abu-Ali Chaghani continued to work against Nuh’s interest by joining his other enemies, or vassals such as Vushmgir ibn Ziyar, to undermine the Samanid authority.

The Samanid realm

Nuh’s passing in 954 worsened the situation in the Samanid domains. His son, Abdulmalik I, benefited from the guidance of Muhammad al-Bal’ami, the son of his grandfather’s vizier, but the increasing power of the Turkish commanders would barely allow for any major actions to be taken to remedy the declining situation of the administration. The Simjurids were by this time in serious competition with Alep Tegin, the military commander in Khorasan, who was securing himself a base in Ghaznin in the Hindukush. At the same time, the threat of Abu-Ali Chaghani, now supported by the caliphate in Baghdad, was continuing, and the internal fights among the Samanid princes was making the situation even more complicated. The early death of Abdulmalik in 961 created another conflict among the various factions each of whom had a different candidate for succeeding the Amir.

A son of Nuh, Mansur I, finally managed to establish himself on the throne with the help of a Turkish commander named Fa’eq. By this time, however, the Samanid treasury was almost completely empty, with no new sources of silver and very little income from taxation due to widespread corruption. Additionally a new threat, that of the Buyids, was presented to the Samanids. Although the Buyid great prince, Panah-Khosrow Ezad ol-Dowleh initially paid tribute to Mansur I, he soon stopped the payments. Same was true for the various Samanid vassal governors of Sistan, descendants of the Saffarids, who were seeing their local power spreading due to the weakness of the Samanid court. Despite its successes in the area of scholarship and patronage of many scholars, increasing its prestige as a center of learning and culture, the relatively long reign of Mansur (961-976) was still a period of decline, instability, and discontent, marking the last few decades of Samanid power and nominal rule in Khorasan and Transoxiana.

Nuh II was the last Samanid king to have actually ruled his domains. Assisted by an able vizier, al-Utbi, the new Amir was able to initially establish his control over the core-territories of the Samanids in Transoxiana. The increasing competition among the Turkish military leaders over the control of Khorasan, however, was slowly taking that important province out of the hands of the Samanids. The increasing threat of the Buyids was, fortunately, diffused by the death of Ezad od-Dowleh and the infighting that followed in that dynasty.

All of these, however, was paled against the invasion of Transoxiana by a new force, that of the Qarakhanids, under the leadership of Harun Bughra Khan, who had moved from their eastern Turkistan homeland and were conquering Transoxiana. Loss of the Zarafshan Valley deprived the Samanids of their last silver resources, delving even deeper into economic depression and financial collapse. The competition among the various Turkish commanders made the Samanids dependent on their power and reduced them into playing diplomacy between their military leaders. The powerful vizier al-Utbi was eventually assassinated by these commanders, leaving the field open for Alep Tegin from one side, the Turkish commander Tash from another, and the old supported of Mansur’s brother, Fa’eq, from yet another side, fighting over the power in Khorasan and Transoxiana. The Simjurids in Khorasan were at the same time against all these factions and slowly carving their own almost autonomous domains in the province. Same was true for the ancient ruling family of Khwarazm who was no claiming autonomy from the Samanids and forming a competing court which boasted the presence of scholars such as Al-Birouni.

The increasing Qarakhanid power eventually proved to be the most decisive force in the region. Turkish commanders found themselves taking side with the Samanid overlords or changing their allegiance to the Qarakhanids, although the latter situation did not last long. On the other hand, the successors of Alep Tegin in Ghazna, Sebuk Tegin and his son Mahmoud, were becoming virtually independent and increasing their power over Khorasan, threatening even that of the Simjurids.

When Nuh II died in 997, leaving the throne to his son Mansur II, whose short reign was marred by increasing fights among the commanders and the growing threat of the Qarakhanids. The new Qarakhanid ruler, Nasr Khan, captured Fa’eq, the Turkish commander, and ordered him to attack Bokhara, which the latter did, setting the Samanid ruler to flight. Fa’eq then went to Khorasan, along with another commander Begtuzun, in order to remove the power of the Ghaznavid Amir, Mahmoud, allowing Mansur II to return to Bokhara and continue his rule. Being only partially successful, Fa’eq and Begtuzun then removed the Amir from the throne and blinded him in order to stop him from asking for help from Mahmoud.

Abdulmalik II, a brother of Mansur II, was installed on the Samanid throne in 999 by Fa’eq and Begtuzun. The struggle between the generals and Mahmoud of Ghazni was aided by the Simjurid amir of Kohestan. Mahmoud of Ghazni, deeming his Samanid competitors as too strong, then asked for the help of the Qarakhanid amir Nasr, who launched an invasion of Transoxiana, capturing Samarqand and Bukhara in 999, while Mahmoud invaded and captured Herat and Balkh, putting an effective end to the Samanid rule. Mansur II was captured and later murdered, while a younger brother, Ismail (II) Montasser, continued to press Samanid claims, and gain occasional successes, until 1005. His death decisively put an end to any Samanid claims to the throne and allowed for the new Ghaznavid power, as well as the nascent Seljuk one, to rise and control Transoxiana and Khorasan.

Further Reading

Dani, Ahmad Hasan, and Vadim Mikhaĭlovich Masson, eds. History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The age of achievement: AD 750 to the end of the eighteenth century: part 1: The historical social and economic setting; part 2: The achievements. Unesco, 1992.

Frye, R. N. “The Samanids,” in R. N. Frye, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 4. Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Naymark, Aleksandr. “The Size of Samanid Bukhara: A Note on Settlement Patterns in Early Islamic Mawarannahr.” Bukhara: the Myth and the Architecture and Urban Fabric. Cambridge MA: AKPIA (1999).

Noonan, Thomas S. “Volga Bulgharia’s Tenth-Century Trade with Samanid Central Asia.” Archivum (2001).

Paul, Jürgen. The State and the Military: the Samanid Case. Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1994.

Treadwell, W. L. “The political history of the Samanid state.” PhD diss., University of Oxford, 1991.

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