The rise of regional kingdoms such as the Uighurs, who control the Tarim Basin from ca. 850 to 1050, and the Xixia, who rule in the northwest from ca. 1032 to 1227, reflect the dissolution of the powerful Tang Chinese empire in the early part of the tenth century. Both actively sponsor the creation of Buddhist monuments and images. In the western part of Central Asia, Islamic rulers from the Ghaznavid and later the Seljuq dynasties, both of Turkic origin, dominate the first half of the period.
Excavations, notably of palaces, reveal that the architecture and arts flourished under these patron-princes. The Iranian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), is composed at the beginning of the eleventh century. In the early thirteenth century, Mongol armies from North Asia gain control of Islamic territories, and by 1271 China, too, has succumbed to Mongol rule, with the capital city relocated at Beijing. A century later, Islamic power is restored in Central and West Asia under Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane (r. 1370–1405), who initiates one of the most brilliant periods of Islamic art.
The Ghaznavids, a dynasty of Turkic origin from the steppes of Central Asia, rule in modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although ethnic Turks, the Ghaznavids speak Persian and, through their patronage, help establish modern Persian as a cultural language. The most important ruler of the dynasty is Mahmud (r. 998–1030), whose illustrious reign as a prince-patron of Persio-Islamic culture becomes a model for later Islamic powers, many of which are also led by Turkic or Mongol elite military castes. The Ghaznavid capital, Ghazni, serves as a meeting ground between Islamic and Indian cultures.
Much of what is known about Ghaznavid art stems from literary or archaeological sources. Excavations of palaces, such as Lashkari Bazaar (eleventh century, southwestern Afghanistan), reveal a variety of architectural ornament, including carved marble, stucco, wall paintings, and glazed tiles. Finely crafted high-tin bronze vessels are particularly noteworthy among portable objects. The works of this period express the artistic wealth of the Ghaznavids and the significance of Ghazni as a profoundly Islamic cultural center where different aesthetic traditions from the region come together.
The Shahnama (Book of Kings), the Iranian national epic, is completed by the poet Firdausi (935–1020) and dedicated to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud.
The Xixia or Western Xia, a people of Tangut origins who control northwest China, play a major role in international trade.
The Seljuqs, a Turkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origin, become the new rulers of the eastern Islamic lands following their defeat of the powerful Ghaznavids at the Battle of Dandanakan (1040). Though their empire—which soon encompasses most of West Asia—is relatively short-lived, the Seljuq cultural efflorescence continues well beyond the sultanate’s political influence. The creativity in the arts and architecture during the Seljuq period has a notable impact on later artistic developments. Among surviving Seljuq architectural works in Central Asia, the celebrated mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (r. ca. 1096–1157) in Merv (present-day Turkmenistan) is particularly noteworthy.
Among architectural developments in Islamic Central Asia, caravanserais such as the Ribat-i Malik (1068–80) on the route between Samarqand and Bukhara, indicate the significance of trade at this time. Towers often referred to as minarets gain prominence, although their exact purpose remains unclear. These works, including notable examples in Bukhara (Kalyan minaret), Ghazni (minaret of Masud), and Jam (minaret of Ghiyath al-Din), are constructed of brick and display a tremendous variety of decoration.
Temujin is enthroned as Genghis (“great”) Khan of the Mongols. In 1215, he captures Beijing, and in 1233, the Jin capital at Kaifeng surrenders to the Mongols.
Following conflict with the Khwarazmshah dynasty, the Mongols sweep through and take control of Islamic Central Asia. Mongol conquests initially devastate the region, affecting the balance of artistic production. However, in a short period of time, control of most of Asia by the Mongols—the so-called Pax Mongolica—creates an environment of tremendous cultural exchange; East and Central Asian influences are seen in Islamic art.
Khubilai Khan ascends to the Mongol throne and in 1264 moves the capital from Karakorum to Beijing. In 1271, he chooses the Chinese name Yuan (“original” or “prime”) for his dynasty, and by 1279 all of China has fallen under Mongol rule.
Timur (Tamerlane, r. 1370–1405), a Barlas Turk married to a Mongolian princess, establishes rule in Central Asia and expands westward, gaining control over most of West Asia (parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia) as well as parts of southern Russia and India. Bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital at Samarqand, Timur initiates one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. Architectural works built during his lifetime include the monumental Aq Saray palace (Shahr-i Sabz, ca. 1379–96), shrine of Ahmad Yasavi (Turkestan City, ca. 1397), mosque of Bibi Khanum (Samarqand, ca. 1398–1405), and Gur-i Amir (Samarqand, ca. 1400–1404). Though Timur’s vast empire is relatively short-lived, his descendants continue to rule over Transoxiana as leading patrons of Islamic art.
“Central and North Asia, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=nc (October 2001)