Timeline: Ghaznavid {977-1186}

The Samanids had controlled their eastern territories through the use of Turkic “slave” (gholam) forces, fierce fighters who were familiar with the tactics of other Turkic groups such as the Qarakhanids. As the power of the Samanids declined and the invasions of the Turkic invaders from Inner Asia increased, the Samanids came to rely on their Turkic generals to withstand these attacks. These Turkic “slave” commanders had taken over the control of Ghazna (in Afghanistan) and had become nominal vassals of the Samanids; they called themselves Ghaznavids (977-1186/366-582 AH ). So highly were these “slave” generals thought of that Sebuktegin of Ghazna (977-997/366-87 AH ) was given the title of “most noble commander.”[1] Upon Sebuktegin’s death, his two sons Mahmud and Ismail fought over the control of Ghazna with Mahmud the winner, and within a year, he had established control over all the former Samanid lands south of the Oxus River (including Khurasan and Afghanistan). With his legitimacy certified by the Abbasid al-Qadir (991-1031/381-422 AH) with such honorific titles as Yamin al-Dawla (Right Hand of the State)[2], Mahmud (998-1030/ 388-421AH), careful to keep the caliph informed of his conquests and to await orders “before proceeding any further in his ‘cleansing’ of Khurasan,”[3] built up a huge military and turned his attention to the plains of India. Having conquered as far southeast as the state of Gujerat (the peninsula of Kathiawar) in 1024/415 AH, sending back immense treasure, he left his conquered lands as tributaries and turned his attention to the west, conquering Rayy, Hamadan and Isfahan (1027-1029/418-20 AH ) from the Buyids. Not since the peak of Abbasid extension had the Islamic world seen such an empire.


Mahmud’s son Mas’ud I (1030-1041/421-432 AH) continued his father’s conquests, attacking Delhi (1037/428 AH), conquering the province of Kerman (1033 /424/ AH), but losing it next year to the Buyids, and by 1034/ 425 AH his inability and over-taxation of the people to support his military led to the loss of Khwarazm. By 1036-1037/427-428 AH he had lost the cities of Merv, Rayy, and Nishapur to the Turkic Oghuz (Turkmen), led by the Seljuq Turks, who had also been mercenaries for the Samanids as well as the Qarakhanids. Mas’ud realized that he could no longer defend his former western territories so his moved his capital and court to Lahore, but was assassinated by his troops on the way.


Mahmud’s successors did their best to hold on to the grand empire. His grandson Ibrahim (1059-1099 /451-492 AH) found it better to make peace with the Seljuqs through treaties and marriage alliances. With relatively minor difficulties, Ibrahim’s forty-year reign brought stability and prosperity to the empire. Lore remained the capital of the eastern part of the Ghaznavid empire with Ghazna the western capital. All of this was lost by the increasing presence of the Seljuqs and an internal power struggle within the Ghaznavid court (1115-1117/508-511 AH). Under Bramsh[4] (1117-1157 /511-552 AH) for the first time since the overthrow of the Samanids, the Ghaznavids were now tributes of another power, the Seljuqs. By 1150-1151/545 AH with the increasing power of the Afghani Ghurids, the city of Ghazna was sacked and Bahramshah fled to India, only returning when the Seljuqs pushed back the Ghurids. By the reign of Bahramshah’s grandson Khusro Malek (1160-1186/555-82 AH), the capital was shifted to Lore by order of the Seljuqs. By 1186/582 AH, the last Ghaznavid ruler found himself besieged in his capital by the Ghurids, forced to surrender, and then executed.


The Ghaznavids ruled for almost 210 years. At the empire’s height, the city of Ghazna became one of the foremost capitals of the Islamic world. Growing from a small town along the east-west trade routes, using the treasures of the Indian conquests, Ghazna came to be known for its gardens, palaces, great mosques, and an educated and celebrated court filled with scholars and artists. Although the Ghaznavids were Turks, they spoke New Persian, celebrated festivals such as No-Ruz (Persian New Year) and Mihragan (the first day of fall), and promoted literature and philosophy in Farsi/Dari. Yet there was an Indian presence as well because of the Ghaznavid conquests. Numerous Indian craftsmen were brought to Ghazna and used particularly as stone and woodcarvers.


As with the Samanids, the Ghaznavids were Sunni (Hanafi) but active communities of Shafi’i, Ash’ariyya, Imami (Jafari or Twelver) Shi’a, Ismaili Shi’a, and Sufis also existed; at times, however, the latter three were harshly treated.[5] Madrasas for the study of Hanafi and Shafi’i were established in Nishapur under Mahmud’s brother Nasr, and other madrasas were set up in cities such as Merv and Sarakhs. Scholars such as Abu Hamid Mohammad al-Ghazali (Algazel, 1058-1111/449-555 AH), a great jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic who left a deep influence on medieval, Western Judaism and Christianity created a balance between religion and reason in works such as Ihya al-‘Ulum al-Islamia, (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) and Tuhafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Works of history by scholars such as Abu Sa’id ‘Abd al-Hayy Gardizi (ca. 1059/556 AH), who wrote Zayn al-Akhbar (Ornament of Histories, on the ancient kings of Iran before the Arab invasion, the Abbasid caliphs, various rulers of the eastern provinces, the end of the Samanids and the origins of the Ghaznavids), and Abu Nasr Mohammad al’Utbi who wrote al-Ta’rikh al-Yamini (The History of the Yamin, ca. 1020/411AH, referring to Yamin al-Dawla, a history of Sebuktegin and Mahmud’s reigns). These works are more than a recording of historical events but a picture of the organization and administrative personnel of the Ghaznavid empire. A Persian history by Zayd b. ‘Ali Bayhaqi, called Ibn Funduq (d. 1170/461 AH), Tarikh-i Bayhaq (The History of Bayhaq) includes both contemporary events that surround the town of Bayhaq (near Nishapur) and an early history of Sayyid families (descended from the Shi’a imams) in the town.


Umar Khayyam (1048-1131/439-575 AH) from Nishapur was a major mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet, whose Rubaiyyat (Quatrains) overshadows his other achievements in science because of Edward FitzGerald’s nineteenth-century English translation: "With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead, And there of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed: And the first Morning of Creation wrote What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read."[6] Abu’l Fath’h al-Khazini from Merv completed his influential work Kitab Mizan al-Hikma (Book of the Balance of Wisdom) in 1121/515 AH on the science of weighing and taking measurements. mad b. ‘Umar b. ‘Ali, known as Nizami ‘Arudi Samarqandi (d. 1157/552 AH), a native of Samarkand, was a scientist, poet, philosopher and physician. His Majmu al-Nawadir (Collection of Strange and Curious Things) contains remarks on the structure and function of living organisms, and accounts of medicine and even the outputs of mines.


From Balkh came the great philosopher, traveller, and poet Nasir-i Khusro (1004-1072-73?/ 394-465? AH) whose works written in Persian, especially the Safar-nama and the Diwan of poems, provide details of his growing up at the Ghaznavid court, his travels through Iran to Syria and Palestine, and his conversion to Isma’ili Shi’a in Egypt. A work in Arabic that describes the linguistic distribution of Turkish tribes was compiled by Mahmud al-Kashghari, written between 1072-1074/463-465 AH, Diwan Lughat Al-Turk (Compendium of the Turkic Dialects). This work even included for the first time a map of the Turkish tribes and their languages with Kashghar in the center.


Of course, the most known literary work is the Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Ferdousi (d. 1020/ 411 AH) begun under the Samanids but completed and submitted to Mahmud of Ghazna. Legend has it that Mahmud was unimpressed and gave him three times less, and in silver, what he had originally promised. Ferdousi was so insulted that he distributed the coins to a bath attendant, a refreshment seller and the slave who carried the coins before he returned to his home in Tus, Khorasan. Mahmud later realized, or was informed, that he had insulted a great poet whose work had taken twenty years of the poet’s life. So he sent “camel loads of indigo to the value of 20,000 dinars” to Tus, but the great poet had died before they reached him.[7]


At the same time Mahmud was known for his patronage of poets and literature also supported by local princes and governors throughout the Ghaznavid territory. In Lore, later Ghaznavid poets prospered: Abu’l Faraj Runi (1039-1108/430-501 AH), whose surviving diwan comprises 2,000 bayts dedicated to the Ghaznavid sultans and other nobles at court written in an uncluttered lyrical style, and Mas’ud-i Sa’d-i Salman (1046-1121/437-514 AH), the first major Indo-Persian poet whose divan and other writings, in Persian, Arabic and Hindi, describe Ghaznavid expansion and political victories. Accused of attempting to join the rival Seljuq court, he was sent to prison for ten years, eventually pardoned by Mas’ud III, arrested again with another seven years in prison, pardoned once more, and given the position of royal librarian and court poet in Ghazna.[8]


More architectural monuments built under the Ghaznavids exist than those under the Samanids. Ghaznavid cities, now in ruins, show that they once contained numerous palaces, mosques, madrasas, bathhouses, gardens, and villas for the nobles at the court. These buildings were decorated with carved and painted stucco, geometric and vegetal ornamentation, sculptures and wall paintings, such as those found at Lashkar-i Bazar, Bust, Afghanistan. Tall minarets exist in the remains of Ghazna, one by Mas’ud III and the other by Bahramshah, which were probably associated with mosques that have disappeared. The palace of Mas’ud III in Ghazna was ornamented with frescoes, marble flooring, carved marble screens, paintings, stucco and terracotta motifs. The great mosque built by order of Mahmud was covered with carved and gilded marble.[9] Square domed tombs of brick survive at Bukhara, Merv, Sarakhs, and Mar Sharif in Afghanistan, and for the first time also hint at the introduction of the use of tiles, although tiles may have been used in the palaces in Ghazna as well.


A lovely textile fragment made of mulham, a mixture of cotton and silk, includes a repeating design motif of printed pearl bordered-squares with printed and painted lions alternating with squares of undyed fabric. The attribution of this cloth to the Ghaznavid period is based on the similarity of the design to glazed ceramic tiles found in Ghazna.[10] Multi-colored textiles are depicted on mural fragments from Lashkar-i Bazar: bright red, green, dark blue with embroidery designs on the long belted tunics worn by images of guards, servants, and nobles.


Elaborate calligraphic scripts including what is described as Eastern Kufic because of its tall and angular letters were common for inscriptions on buildings and objects. Gold armlets, necklaces, earrings, pins, were exceptional for their filigree and granulation.[11] High tin bronze objects, preferred because of their similarity to silver, such as bowls, trays, and pitchers, were produced by hammering, chasing, punching and engraving.[12] Earthenware that was incised, engraved, and slipcovered with drippy glazes (splash ware) continued under the Ghaznavids and competed with the introduction of luster glazes, shards of which were found in Ghazna.


Because of the rivalry between the Ghaznavids, Ghurids, and the Seljuks, it is often difficult to assign specific works of art from the later years to the Ghaznavids. What little we do have, however, demonstrates the technical abilities, the sophisticated taste, and the finest materials used to produce works of art and architecture that speak to the glories of the Ghaznavids.


Johanna Domela Movassat, Ph.D.




[1] C. E. Bosworth, “Ghaznavids,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2012), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ghaznavids.  Bosworth cites S. Flury, “Le décor épigraphique des monuments de Ghazna,” Syria 6 (1925), 62-63, who records Sebuktegin’s tomb inscription as al-hejeb al-ajall.

[2] Bosworth, “Ghaznavids.”

[3] Eric J. Hanne, Putting the Caliph in His Place: Power, Authority, and the Late Abbasid Caliphate (Danvers, Massachusetts: Rosemont Publishing, 2007), 68.

[4] The last three Ghaznavid rulers were named for great Sasanian kings:  B/ramshah (Bahram + shah/king) from Bahram Chobin the supposed ancestor of the Samanids, Khusroshah (Khusro + shah/king) from Khusro I and II, two of the greatest Sasanian monarchs, and Khusro Malek (malek = king). 

[5] For a brief discussion of these communities under the Ghaznavids and Ghurids, see Anthony Welch, Hussein Keshani, and Alexandra Bain, “Epigraphs, Scripture, and Architecture in the Delhi Sultanate,” Muqarnas 19 (2002), 12-13.  Bosworth, “Ghaznavids,” says that Mahmud regular promoted himself as an “enforcer of orthodoxy” against such groups as the Ismailis and Shi’ites.  See also C.E. Bosworth, “Legal and Political Sciences in the Eastern Iranian World and Central Asia,” in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, edited by I. Iskender-Mochigi and Jana Gough (Paris: Unesco, 2000), 135-136.

[6] Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen, "Umar Khayyam," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/umar-khayyam/.

[7] See Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, “Ferdowsi, ‘Abu’l-Qasem, i. Life,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2012), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ferdowsi-i.

[8] See Sunil Sharma, “Mas’ud-e Sa’d-e Salman,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2008),  http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/masud-sad-salman.

[9] See Martina Rugiadi, “The Ghaznavid Marble Architectural Decoration: An Overview,” Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2009), http://web.mit.edu/akpia/www/articlerugiadi.pdf.

[10] See "Textile" possibly Ghaznavid, probably from Iran, from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/31.106.64.

[11] See “Armlet” from the Ghaznvid period dated to the eleventh century from Gurgan, Iran, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.  The museum site suggests that the twisted decoration is borrowed from Greek bracelets and that the coins that were used as the base of the decorative bosses is a Byzantine style, http:// http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/masud-sad-salman.

[12] See “Bowl,” Ghaznavid, Afghanistan, from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.57.

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