Visual History of the World




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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Spread of Islam

622-CA. 1519


Immediately after Muhammad's death, his successors, the caliphs, began to organize a rapidly spreading empire. By the early eighth century, Muslim armies had subjugated an area that stretched from Spain in the west to Pakistan in the east. However, driven by religious schisms resulting from debate concerning the legitimate successors of Muhammad, Islamic rule began splitting into regional autonomous dynasties after 800. Politically, early Islam had been dominated chiefly by Arabs and Persians, but after the tenth century, the Islamized Turkish peoples and, from the twelfth and 13th centuries, the Berber tribes in the west and the Mongols in the east proved to be the principal forces.


Muhammad and the "Rightly Guided Caliphs"

Muhammad had already instituted the political organization of Islam, and under his first successors, the "rightly guided caliphs," its first triumphant campaign of expansion was initiated.


The Prophet Muhammad not only formulated the teachings of Islam but also acted as the political leader of a community.

Following the Hegira, his migration to Medina in 622, Muhammad organized the 2 battles and defense of the Muslim community (umma), drove out the Jewish tribes, and in 630 conquered 1 Mecca almost without violence, where he declared the Kaaba to be Islam's main shrine.

Muhammad died on June 8, 632, in 3 Medina without having designated a successor; therefore four "rightly guided caliphs" were chosen, one after the other, from among his most intimate circle.

The first two were the Prophet's fathers-in-law, the last two his sons-in-law.

2 The battle of Badr in 624: Victory
of the Muslims over the people of
Mecca, miniature, ca. 1594-95

1 The Grand Mosque of Mecca with the
Kaaba, the main shrine of the Muslims

3 Depiction of the main mosque of
Medina showing the grave of Muhammad,
ceramic tile

Abu Bakr, the first Muslim leader after the Prophet's death, held the community together based on the strength of his authority.

Under him, parts of Yemen were brought under Islamic rule. It was his successor Umar I ibn al-Khattab, however, who would become the actual creator of the Islamic Empire. In 637 Umar consolidated the internal organization of the empire through military garrisons, land redistribution, pensions, and a poll tax levied on non-Muslims. His generals in 635-637 conquered all of Syria and Palestine, including Damascus and Jerusalem, as well as the Sassanian Persian Empire. They then subjugated Egypt in 639-641 and Iraq in 640-644.

His successor, Uthman, dedicated himself primarily to domestic affairs, and in 653 had the 5 Koran compiled in its present form.

In 647, Muslim armies began pushing west out of Tripolitania (present-day Libya) and by 682 all of the North Africa was under Islamic rule.

The fourth caliph, 6 Ali, was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet and is considered by Shiite Muslims to be the true successor (imam) of the Prophet.

He was a just and brave leader, but politically procrastinating and overly cautious. The first divisions of the Islamic community occurred under his rule, and he eventually lost the struggle against the Umayyads. The rule of these "rightly guided caliphs" is considered in the Sunni tradition to represent the "golden age" of a just and God-pleasing leadership of the Islamic community.

4 Muhammad and Abu Bakr hide from
their persecutors in a cave,
Turkish miniature, 17th century

5 Handwritten script from the Koran,
probably from the eighth century

6 Muhammad with his daughter Fatima, his cousin
and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and his grand-children
al-Hassan and Hussein, miniature, 18th


The Caliphate of the Umayyads

In 661, the Umayyads established a hereditary caliphate and from out of Damascus initiated the rapid spread of Islam to the east and west. In 750, they were deposed by the Abbasids.


The rule of the Umayyad dynasty began in 657, when Caliph Ali lost a battle at Siffin against the rebel Syrian governor Muawiya. After Ali's murder in 661, Muawiya, who already controlled a major part of the Muslim territory by 658, established the caliphate of his family.

He made Damascus, where the magnificent 7 Grand Mosque was built, his capital.

8 Desert palaces in Syria and Jordan served as recuperative retreats as well as for agricultural purposes.

In 674-678 Islamic troops advanced far into Byzantine territory and besieged Constantinople for the first time. Under Yazid I, the family of the Prophet's grandson al-Husayn was killed near Karbala in 680 an event that initiated the Shiite movement. Abd al-Malik began stabilizing the Umayyad Empire's political structures in 685.

7 The Grand Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus,
Syria, built in the eighth century

8 Qasr al-Hair ash-Sharki, desert palace in Syria,
built starting in 729 under the Caliph Hisham

He wanted to make Jerusalem the new political and cultural focus of his reign, and had the flawless 9 Dome of the Rock constructed in 691-692.

9 Mosque of Omar, or Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, built 688-691

The second wave of Islamic expansion began under al-Walidl. In 711, Islamic Arabs and Berbers under General Tariq crossed from Africa to Gibraltar and into Spain, destroyed the Visigoth Empire of Toledo, and within a short time conquered the whole Iberian Peninsula as far as Asturias.

Soon they were advancing into southern France, but they were turned back at Tours and Poitiers in 732 by the 11 Franks led by Charles Martel.

11 Battle at Tours and Poitiers in 732

10 Silver coins minted by the Umayyads

Between 694 and 711, Arab troops also advanced out of southern Persia into present-day Pakistan and conquered Afghanistan, Bukhara, and Samarkand in 704, as well as the Indus Valley to Multan. In 724, Transoxiana and Tashkent also fell to the Islamic forces.

Troops of al-Walid's successors besieged Constantinople again in 717-718 and regularly plundered Byzantine Asia Minor.

Caliph Hisham proved himself to be a capable administrative expert by regaining control of the unrest among the Berbers and new Muslims through the just distribution of 10 monies and the financing of public buildings and municipal water supplies. He also promoted culture, the arts, and education.

The bloody elimination of the Umayyad caliphate in 749-750 by the Abbasids, who were related to the Prophet's family, was facilitated by revolts under Hisham's successors and struggles for the throne in the ruling house.



The Tragedy of Karbala

After the abdication of his older brother al-Hassan, al-Husayn, the younger son of Ali, was recognized by the Shiites as the third imam and rightful ruler. In 680, the citizens of al-Kufa persuaded him to rise up against the Umayyads' rule.

During a march through the desert, Husayn and 72 family members were surrounded by Caliph Yazid's troops, starved, and annihilated. The tragedy of Karbala on Muharram 10, 680, (October 10 according to the Western calendar) is commemorated by the Shiites in the Ashura festival with plays and flagellant processions.

 Preperations for the battle of Karbala,
Turkish miniature




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