Iranian History/The Indigenous Dynasties: The Tahirids, the Samanids and the Saffarids

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The Tahirid dynasty was established by Tahir ibn Husayn who was the Abbasid Governor of Khorasan in the early years of the 9th century AD. He was a native of Herat in Afghanistan and fought with Al Mamun against Al Amin. In 822, he proclaimed himself the independent king of Khorasan. However, he died the same night and was succeeded by his son Talha ibn Tahir.

Talha consolidated the newly founded Tahirid kingdom. He waged a protracted battle against the Kharijites of Sistan. He was succeeded by his son Abdullah ibn Tahir who fought with the Samanids in the east and Tabaristan in the west. The most important event of Abdullah's reign was the rebellion of the Tabaristani prince Maziyar which was successfully put down by Abdullah with the support of the Caliph. Tabaristan was successfully incorporated into the Tahirid kingdom and Maziyar was captured and executed. Abdullah died in Nishapur in 844 or 845 and was succeeded by his son Tahir II. Tahir II's reign was marked by the successful rebellion in Sistan which made itself independent of Tahirid rule in . Tahir II ruled for about eighteen years. On his death in 862, he wished his younger son Muhammad b Tahir to succeed him. But as he was reluctant to occupy the throne, another son of Tahir II, Muhammad bin Tahir became the king.

Muhammad bin Tahir ruled from 862 to 873 and was the last king of the Tahirid dynasty. Muhammad was young and inexperienced and could not stop the kingdom from disintegrating in front his eyes. In 864, Tabaristan rose in rebellion under the Zaydids and proclaimed its independence. In 867, war broke out between Muhammad and the Saffarids. The Saffarid chief Yaqub bin Laith as Saffar took Herat and imprisoned the Tahirid governor. The Samanid prince Ibrahim bin Ilyas tried to rescue him but was defeated. In 873, Yakub bin Laith successfully besieged the Tahirid capital Nishapur and captured Muhammad. Though, Muhammad was freed by the arrival of the troops of the Caliphate in 876, the Tahirid capital Nishapur remained with the Saffarids and Muhammads spent the last few years as a refugee in Baghdad. With Muhammad bin Tahir, the Tahirid dynasty came to an end.


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The Saffarid dynasty was established by an adventurer from the province of Sistan in Eastern Iran. Like the Tahirid kingdom, the Saffarid kingdom was dominated by ethnic Iranians and ruled Eastern Iran till the 11th century AD.

Yakub ibn Laith

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The Saffarid dynasty was established by Yakub ibn Laith of Khorasan. According to popular reports, Yakub started his career as a bandit and rose to become a tribal chieftain. Being the son of a coppersmith, he, however, commenced his career as a coppersmith and hence earned the title "as-Saffar" or "coppersmith".

Yakub ibn Laith was the son of a pewterer of Sistan. He started life as an coppersmith but dissatisfied with his earnings, he took to banditry and rose to become chief of highway robbers. A local chieftain sought Yakub's help to establish an independent state of his own. bin Laith obliged but on the success of the campaign, he immediately overthrew his master and established himself as the chief of Sistan. His power and influence reached its zenith when the Caliph of Baghdad recognised him as the independent ruler of Sistan and enlisted his service in conquering non-Islamic territories. He also offered to crown him as Emperor.

However, Yakub refused and sent him a rebuttal.

Tell the Caliph that I am already indebted to my sword for the territories he so generously bestows upon me. If I live, that sword shall decide between us - if I die, he shall be freed from apprehensions.

Within a short time, he overthrew Abbasid rule in Khorasan. In 867, he established himself as an independent ruler with his capital at Zaranj in modern-day Afghanistan and began minting his own coins. He ruled for twelve years during which he brought the whole of Afghanistan, Eastern Iran and Baluchistan under his control. He defeated the Tahirids and drove them out of Khorasan. He then seized control of the Iranian provinces of Fars and Ahvaz. In 878, he even launched an unsuccessful invasion of Baghdad.

Yakub died in 879 and was succeeded by his brother Amir.

Amir ibn Laith

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Amir succeeded Yakub in 879 and commenced his reign by sending a letter of submission to the Abbasid Caliph Motaded. However, soon, his friendship began to wither away as the two powers had frequent territorial disputes. The Caliph invaded Sistan but was defeated. He instigated the Samanid chief Ismael to attack Sistan. Ismael successfully vanquished Sistan and captured Amir. He was taken to Baghdad and put to death in 901.

Abul Hasan Tahir

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When Amir was captured in 900-01, his son Abul Hasan Tahir was crowned king at Zaranj jointly With his brother Abu Yusuf Yaqub. The Turkish slave Sebuk-eri wielded paramount authority in the kingdom during the early years of the brothers' reign.

In 900-01, Abul Hasan Tahir attacked Fars along with Sebuk-eri in order to recover the losses they had suffered during the reign of their predecessor. The province was successfully taken and ceded to Sebuk-eri who began to rule as if like a quasi-independent monarch. Soon, rebellions broke out in the provinces of the Saffarid kingdom by people discontent at the lavish lifestyle led by the brothers.

In 908, the Saffarid prince, Al Laith bin Ali invaded Zaranj and besieged the city. The brothers requested the help of Sebuk-eri who responded at once on receipt of their demand for help. However, the reinforcements were not as effective as expected and Zaranj fell. The brothers fled to Fars and sought protection with Sebuk-eri. But the brothers soon dissented with Sebuk-eri who captured them and handed them over to the Caliph of Baghdad.

Civil war and fall

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On taking over Zaranj, Al Laith crowned himself king and ruled from 909 to 910. In February 910, Al Laith invaded Fars and defeated Sebuk-eri. But soon afterwards, Al Laith was captured through intrigue and sent to Baghdad as prisoner. Al Laith was succeeded by Muhammad bin Laith who launched an unsuccessful invasion of the Samanids of the north. The Saffarid capital Zaranj was invaded and captured by the Samanids in 911 forcing Muhammad to seek refuge in the town of Bust. However, Bust, too, was soon besieged by the Samanids. Muhammad tried to drive out the Samanids and was successful for sometime. But as he entered the city, he was ambushed. The Saffarid army tried to escape and were pursued by the Samanid army. Muhammad was captured and imprisoned. Sistan was briefly conquered by the Samanids.

Abu Jafar bin Muhammad

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A few months after Samanid occupation a rebellion broke out against the tyrannical rule of the Samanid governor. Samanid rule was overthrown and Abu Hafs Amir, nephew of Tahir I was crowned king on May 2, 912. This rebellion was successful due to the support of Muhammad bin Hormuz a former Samanid soldier and the Ayyarun. However, the Samanids soon organised a counter-attack on Sistan and retook Zaranj. Amir surrendered and was exiled to Samarkand. Sistan remained in Samanid hands till 923, when Abu Jafar Ahmad bin Muhammad who was of Saffarid lineage proclaimed himself king of Sistan. He overthrew the Samanid governor of Sistan Abdullah bin Ahmad who was highly unpopular due to his stringent taxes. Abdullah was captured in October 923. Following his capture, Abdullah's son Aziz fought against Abu Jafar till 925 when he was finally vanquished and forced to flee.

Abu Jafar bin Muhammad consolidated the Saffarid kingdom and wiped out remnants of Samanid rule in Sistan. He ushered in a period of peace and stability. He expanded the Saffarid kingdom by conquering Kirman and other lands held by the Abbasid Caliphate. He had to wage a lifelong battle to bring peace and stability in Bust. But once the enemies were vanquished, there was perpetual peace and prosperity. Poets such as Rudaki and scholars such as Abu Sulayman Muhammad al-Sijistani and Nasafi flourished in Abu Jafar's reign.

Khalaf ibn Abu Jafar

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In the 950s, while Abu Jafar was busy fighting in Bust, a pretender tried to capture the throne in Zaranj. Abu Jafar hurried to Zaranj to meet the pretender and died fighting the rebels in 963. Upon hearing the news of his death, his son Abu Ahmad Khalaf rushed to Zaranj and drove away the rebels. Not long afterward, there was a rebellion by the Ayyarun which was put down by Khalaf. After his success against the Ayyarun, Khalaf made a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way home, he stopped at Baghdad in 965. AT Baghdad, Khalaf had an audience with the Abbasid Caliph who recognised him as the independent ruler of Sistan who bestowed a robe of honour upon him. He returned to Zaranj and vanquished all rival claimants to the throne by 970.

In 971, Zaranj was besieged by Husayn bin Abul Husayn Tahir, a Saffarid claimant whom Khalaf had killed. Khalaf was initially successful in driving him out. But Husayn returned with reinforcements from the Samanids and took the city. Khalaf was forced to surrender and shift his capital out of Zaranj. However, as soon as the Samanid forces left, Khalaf once again besieged Zaranj forcing Husayn to request the assistance of the Sabuktigin, the king of Ghazni. But as Sabuktigin arrived, Khalaf coerced the king to support him instead. Driven to dire straits, Husayn was left no option but to surrender. An agreement was eventually reached on December 25, 983. Husayn died soon afterwards.

Like his father before him, Khalaf promoted fine arts and scholarship. All through this time, Khalaf maintained a precarious friendship with the Ghaznavids. Khalaf took Bust by force when Sabuktigin was busy fighting the Hindu Shahis but returned the conquered lands soon afterwards. When a civil war broke out between Sabuktigin's sons, Ismail and Mahmud in 997, Khalaf saw his chance and captured Kohistan and Baghdis from the Ghaznavids. However, soon after the civil war came to an end, the new Ghaznavid king, Mahmud attacked Sistan and defeated Khalaf forcing him to surrender all his conquests. Khalaf broke the peace a few months later when his son Tahir invaded Kirman. He also rebelled against Khalaf. Tahir was captured and imprisoned. He died in 1002.

By late 1002, Khalaf's unpopularity and tyrannical rule had reached such proportions that the inhabitants of Zaranj invited Mahmud Ghaznavi to liberate them. Ghaznavi successfully besieged Zaranj and captured Khalaf. Khalaf was sent to Farighunid Guzgan and then, Gardiz, where he died in 1009. With Khalaf's death, the Saffarid dynasty came to an end.

The Samanids

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The Samanid dynasty traces its ancestry to one Saman Khuda, a Zoroastrian convert to Islam who hailed from the village of Saman in Balkh, Afghanistan. At an early age, he moved to the town of Merv, the seat of the Abbasid Governor of Khorasan, converted to Islam and held an influential position in the court. Very little is known about Saman Khuda or about his past. While some sources claim that he was a descendant of the Sassanian general Bahram Chobin and therefore a member of the Mehran clan which held a position of influence in the Sassanid court others claim that he was a nobleman native to Balkh. However, it is well known that he lived in the first half of the 8th century AD.

The Samanids rose into prominence when Saman's grandson Yahya was given authority over the town of Shash in Khorasan in the year 819. Following the death of his brother Nuh ibn Asad, the ruler of Samarkand, Yahya was also given authority over Samarkand by the Abbasid Governor of Khorasan. However, despite wielding considerable authority of his own, Yahya still acted as a feudatory of the Abbasid Governor of Khorasan. Yahya died in 855 and was succeeded by his son Nasr I who conquered the town of Bukhara in Central Asia. Nasr I ruled jointly with his brother Ismail who became the sole-ruler of Khorasan and Transoxiana on his brother's death in 892. During Ismail's reign, the Samanids wielded a great amount of power in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Ismail expanded Samanid authority in the east taking Talas, the capital of the Qalugh Turks in 893 and put an end to the Ustrushana dynasty. He expanded the Samanid frontiers far into Central Asia, the homeland of the Turkish tribes.

In 898, a major conflict erupted between the Samanids and the Saffarids on the exercise of sovereignty over Transoxiana. The Saffarids under Amir invaded Samanid territory but were defeated on the banks of the Syr Darya in 900 and Amir was himself captured. Ismail handed Amir over to the Caliph of Baghdad who in turn rewarded him with the provinces of Tabaristan, Ray and Isfahan. Ismail affirmed his authority over Isfahan by sending a large army to drive out the . Ismail was succeeded by his son Ahmad II who secured territorial rights over Sistan from the Caliph of Baghdad. Ahmad II then dismissed the Saffarid monarch and appointed his own loyalists on the throne. However, Sistan was soon gripped by a revolt and Ahmad II was killed in 914 while attempting to suppress the rebellion. Ahmad II was succeeded by his son Nasr II who assumed the throne at the age of eight. The administration of the state was under a regency council headed by the minister Abu ’Abd-Allah al-Jaihani until Nasr II attained adulthood.The early years of Nasr II's reign was plagued by rebellions by members of the royal family who wished to take advantage of sovereign's minority and capture the throne for himself. However, their attempts were thwarted by the loyal minister Jaihani. Vast parts of Samanid territory were lost due to this handicap. Sistan was reclaimed by the Abbasids while Ray and Tabaristan were conquered by Al-Utrush. Nasr II, however, managed to occupy Gurgan and re-establish his authority over Ray.

During the reign of Nasr II, the Samanid capital Bukhara emerged as a major cultural centre. Nasr II's ministers were patrons of art and learning. Bukhara became an important meeting place for geographers, scientists and astronomers. Nasr II abdicated in 943 in favour of his son Nuh I, who put down a revolt in Khwarezm in 943 and another by Abu Ali Chaghani, the Samanid vassal of Chaghaniyan in 945. However, the most serious of the revolts was the one by Ibrahim ibn Simjur who besieged the capital Bukhara in 947 forcing Nuh I to seek asylum in Samarkand. However, Ibrahim's rebellion failed as he was soon driven out of Bukhara.

Nuh I later pardoned Abu Ali and appointed him governor of Khorasan. However, he removed Abu Ali from his post on receiving complaints from Ziyarids who were close allies of the Samanids that Abu Ali hd concluded friendly terms with Buyids who were staunch enemies of the Ziyarids. Abu Ali sought refuge in Ray, the principal town of the Buyids and conspired with the Buyids to recover Khorasan. However, Nuh I died before he could give a suitable reply and was succeeded by his son Abd Al Malik. Abd Al Malik, however, did not have the necessity of dealing with Abu Ali as he died shortly after Abd Al Malik had assumed the throne.

Abd Al Malik ruled for seven years. During his reign, the kingdom was plagued by invasions from the Turks who firmly cemented their dominance in Khorasan. On Abd Al Malik's death in 961, the Turkish chief Alptigin tried to put his son on the throne but was thwarted by Faiq who made Al Malik's brother Abu Salih Mansur the king of the Samanids. Alptigin fled to Ghazni where he established the Ghaznavid kingdom.

Abu Salih Mansur or Mansur I ruled from 961 to 976. He was a feeble ruler who witnessed the rapid decline of the kingdom during his lifetime. The Buyids and Ziyarids defied the authority of the Samanid ruler, the faithful Buyids now refusing to pay him tribute. The Samanid influence in Sistan, too, disappeared completely with the Saffarid rulers refusing to pay tribute. Mansur I died in 976 and was succeeded by his son Nuh II. Nuh II was still a minor when he ascended the throne and soon after his accession,the Karakhanids captured the upper Zarafshan valley where most of the kingdom's copper mines were located.

An army was sent to fight the Karakhanids but was defeated. Similarly, Nuh II also failed to subdue the Buyids who inflicted a crushing defeat on Samanid attempts to established their dominance. COurt intrigues resulted in the fall in favour of Nuh II's grand vizier, Abul Husain Abdullah ibn Ahmad Utbi who was subsequently assassinated. Soon after Utbi's death, an uprising broke out in the capital Bukhara. Nuh Ii was able to maintain order with the help of the general Tash but Samanid authority rapidly fell apart due to mutual jealousies. At the end of 991, Turkish principalities adjoining the eastern frontiers of the Samanid Empire, instigated by the Karakhanids, launched a full scaled invasion of the kingdom. A big Turkish force under Bughra Khan conquered Samarkand and marched on Bukhara in the spring of 992. Anticipating a defeat, Nuh fled to the west. However, Bughra Khan fell ill and died shortly after his arrival at Bukhara. Nuh II collected a mighty force and recovered Bukhara after defeating the Turks. Following the departure of the Turks, a civil war broke out. Nuh II's enemies at court conspired to overthrow him. Nuh II, on his part, requested the assistance of Sabuktigin and his son Mahmud of Ghazni. Sabuktigin arrived at the head of a mighty force and defeated the conspirators. Nuh II rewarded them with territories and titles for their help. He appointed Mahmud the governor of Khorasan.

In 995, the conspirators drow away Mahmud from Nishapur. However, with aid of Sabuktigin, Mahmud was restored and the rebels were defeated and captured. With this victory, the Ghaznavids consolidated their hold over Khorasan and all the lands south of the Syr Darya while the Karakhanids held most of the land in the north-east. Nuh II died in 997. By the time of his death, the Samanid Empire had diminished to the region in and around Bukhara. Mansur II was young when he ascended the throne and soon after his accession, had to face a rebellion. Mansur II was, however, successful in crushing this mutiny. In 998, Mansur II tried to recover Khorasan from the Ghaznavids and allied with the Samanid general Bektuzun. However, Bektuzun distrusted Mansur II whom he blinded and replaced with his younger brother Abd Al Malik II in 999.

Abd Al Malik II was the last monarch of the Samanid dynasty. Soon after his accession, the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud invaded and conquered the rest of Khorasan to avenge the overthrow and blinding of Mansur II. But when Bektuzun and Simjuri, the ruler of Kohistan stepped into the fray, Mahmud withdrew and proposed terms of peace. But shortly afterwards, Abd Al Malik II and his allies violated the truce by attacking the rear of the Ghaznavid army. Mahmud, at once, resumed the war and inflicted a crushing defeat on the allies at Merv. With this victory, Mahmud became the supreme overlord of all lands to the south of Syr Darya. At this juncture, the Karakhanids broke into revolt. Mahmud grabbed this opportunity to besiege Bukhara which was successfully conquered. Abd Al Malik II was captured and taken prisoner. With the fall of Bukhara, the Samanid dynasty came to an end and its territories became part of the Ghaznavid Empire.