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The Samanids

by Huw Thomas

The Samanid dynasty were a line of Persian kings, spanning the ninth to the tenth centuries. The Tajik nation is considered to have emerged in this period, and President Rahmon has picked up the Samanids as a national motif. A huge statue of Ismoil, the most famous Samanid king, stands in Dushanbe opposite the parliament. The highest peak in the Pamirs is also called after Ismoil, and even the Tajik currency is called somoni.

The Samanids are special because they invigorated the Persian world after a century of Arab domination. Their founder, Saman Khuda, was a local man - from Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan. The dynasty was the first in Central Asia to create a strong, professional army rather than press-ganging local farmers at time of war. They governed competently from their seat at Bukhara, and their 100-year rule was a time of relative peace and commercial expansion. Trade in all sorts of goods flourished, with huge caravans travelling to and fro across the Muslim world and beyond. The slave trade in particular became immensely lucrative, with Turkic captives taken off the steppes and sold as soldiers. The Samanid rulers controlled the business tightly, licensing slave dealers and collecting taxes on all sales.

With this new wealth came rapid urban growth. Villages became large merchant towns. Suburbs grew. Agriculture expanded to support the population, with new and better irrigation systems of pumps and canals.

During this prosperous time, the great houses of learning in Central Asia flourished, enriched by the exchange of ideas, books and scholars of the Arab world. With Europe in the dark ages, al-Biruni of Khorezm calculated longitude and latitude, recorded solar and lunar eclipses and mapped much of his world. He visited India and wrote a detailed study of his findings. He spoke Aramaic, Greek and Sanskrit and well as his native Persian and Arabic, the language of all educated people in the Muslim world. Avicenna (Ibn Sina)'s medical encyclopaedia became the standard textbook for European doctors for the next 500 years.

To Tajiks, and other Persian speakers, the most important figure of this time was Abduqasim Firdausi, the founder of Persian literature. Firdausi wrote the vast epic poem Sbahnameh, that tells the tale of the heroic struggles between Iran and Turan (the lands north of the Amu). Many of the most common Tajik names (Rustam, Suhrab and many others) come from these legends.

Under the Samanids, the great towns of Central Asia were Persian (one reason Tajikistan still claims Samarkand and Bukhara as its own), but at the end of the 10th century a succession of Turkic invaders followed up their battlefield successes with cultural conquest. Despite contrasting cultures, the two peoples cohabited peacefully, unified by religion. The Persian-speaking Tajiks adopted Turkic culture and the numerically superior Turks absorbed the Tajik people. Both weathered conquests by the Mongols and, later, Timur (Tamerlane), though most of the territory of modern Tajikistan remained on the fringes of the Timurid empire.

From the 15th century onwards, the Tajiks were subjects of the emirate of Bukhara, who received 50% of Badakhshan’s ruby production as a tax.

In the mid-18th century the Afghans moved up to engulf all lands south of the Amu-Darya (Oxus River), along with their resident Tajik population, and later seized parts of Badakhshan (including temporarily the Rushan and Shughnan regions). The Amu-Darya still delineates much of the Afghan–Tajik border today.