Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
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Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
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Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

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 3th—14th 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


The Early Abbasids

After removing the Umayyads, the Abbasids took over the caliphate and built up Baghdad as the world center of Islam. However, a rapid decline in power was already evident by the ninth century.


Al-Mansur (ruled 754-775) became the founder of the Abbasid Empire after the Abbasid caliphate had been made secure through the extermination by his brother Abu I-Abbas ("the Bloody One") of all Umayyads, with the exception of Prince Abd al-Rah-man. He led the Islamic world to a high point In 762, he established a new capital at Baghdad on the boundaries of the Arab and Persian worlds, which became a world center of Islamic culture, science, and art and a prosperous trading city in subsequent centuries. His son al-Mahdi established the dynastic and absolute rule of the caliphs, with Sunni Islam as the state religion. He suppressed internal rebellions but lost Spain, where an independent caliphate had been established at Cordoba in 756.

Al-Mahdi's son was the luxuryloving 1, 2 Harun ar-Rashid— known from the "Tales of the Arabian Nights"—during whose reign the empire reached its first high point.

The gap between the caliph and the people, however, was growing ever wider. The Bar-makid family of viziers, who administered the empire wisely, led the government until 803.

The power struggle among Harun's sons was won in 813 by al-Mamun. He elevated to state doctrine the rationalist teachings of the Mutazilites, who propagated the divine origin of the Koran. He also created an intellectual center with the founding of a comprehensive library in 830, the House of Science in Baghdad. He ordered the writings of the scholars and philosophers of ancient Greece to be translated, thus eventually making them available to the Western world. Al-Mamun began the practice, followed by his successors, of relying on Turkish mercenary troops, converts to Sunni Islam.

In 836 al-Mutasim moved his capital and the Turkish guards from Baghdad, which had been repeatedly shaken by unrest caused by tension between the population and the Turkish troops, to the newly founded 3, 4 Samarra.

The strict believer al-Mutawakkil limited the influence of philosophers and the Mutazilites during his reign from 847 to 861. Disputes over succession and frequently changing caliphs weakened central power under his successors. The capital was returned to Baghdad in 883, but de facto autonomous local rule developed after 800, and the decline of the empire continued to accelerate. These weaker caliphs, who increasingly came under the control of the Turkish troop commanders, became a power elite under the caliphs in the tenth century.

1 Harun ar-Rashid
2 The deputies of Harun ar-Rashids at an audience with Charlemagne
3 Stucco ornaments from Qasr al-Achiq ("the lovers' castle"), built in the late ninth century
4 Minaret of the Grand Mosque of Samarra, built in 859



Centers of Islamic Sciences

In Baghdad and other centers of Islamic sciences, the legacy of Greek antiquity was adopted and further developed, far outstripping progress in the West.

It was principally in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and optics that supreme achievements were made; philosophy also reached a new high point with the universal scholars al-Kindi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), both of whom had a significant impact on Renaissance scholarship in Europe.

For centuries, the textbooks of Islamic scholars comprised the scientific canon.

Avicenna (Arabic: Ibn Sina)



The End of the Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasids' loss of power in the ninth century favored the autonomy of local kingdoms and the Shiite counter-caliphate of the Fatimids. The caliphate ended with the Mongol invasion.


The local kingdoms that developed under the Abbasids mostly proved to be politically strong and made their courts into independent cultural centers.

The Aghlabids (800-909), who ruled in eastern Algeria, 6 Tunisia, and Tripolitania, were able to settle southern Italy and Sicily after 827 and plundered Rome in 846, while the 7 Tulunids (868-905) and Ikhshidids (935-969) ruled in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

The Tahirids (821-873) in northeastern Persia (Khorasan) and the Saffarids (861/67-903) in Afghanistan and parts of Transoxiana made themselves independent and were then supplanted by the Samanids, who resided in Samarkand. The Maghreb and Spain withdrew from the control of Baghdad.

6 Ribat, fortress in Sousse, Tunisia,
built in the late eighth century

7 The Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo,
inner courtyard with fountain, built 876

The Shiite Fatimids became Baghdad's greatest challenge when they advanced out of Tunisia, where they had made 5, 8 Kairouan their capital.

The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969, took control of Syria, and erected a Shiite counter-caliphate in the newly founded city of 9 Cairo.

Their founder Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi took advantage of Shiite expectations of salvation to hold his realm together.

5 Handwriting from the Koran in
script of the Kufi from the Grand
Mosque in Kairouan, tenth century

8 The Grand Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia,
first built in 672, enlarged and
rebuilt in the eighth century

9 Bab Zuweila, Fatimid city gate in Cairo, eleventh ń

His successors al-Muizz and al-Aziz made Cairo into a center of science and culture and, with 10 al-Azhar Mosque, founded a mission center for Shiism (today the leading Sunni school of Islamic theology).

The religious eccentricities of Caliph al-Hakim led to unrest and, in 1017-1021, to the founding of the religious community of the Druze, who worshiped him as a god. In 1036-37 the Fatimid Empire, which was also undergoing an economic decline, lost Syria and Palestine to the Seljuks. The Ayyubid sultan Saladin was able to dispose of the Fatimid caliphate in 1171 because of a religious and political schism that had developed in 1094. Out of this schism the sect of Assassins, notorious for their murderous attacks, also emerged.

In the meantime, since 932 the caliphs in Baghdad had become mere puppets of the Shiite military dynasty of the Buwayhid emirs, who reestablished the power of the caliphate and revived Persian culture. The most notable of the Buwayhids, Adud ad-Dawlah, emir of Baghdad from 977 to 983, subordinated the whole of Iraq to his power. Between 1056 and 1062, the last of the Buwayhid line in Baghdad and Kerman was removed by the Seljuks. The caliphs then became pawns of the Seljuks and the Khwarizm-shahs. They were able to once again restore their sovereignty to a great extent through an-Nasir and al-Mustansir, who built the Mustan-siriya Madrassa in Baghdad. The last caliph, al-Mutasim, refused to submit to the advancing Mongols as demanded and died with thousands of his subjects when they stormed Baghdad in 1258.

10 The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Muslim university since 998,
built 970-972


The Emirate/Caliphate of Cordoba

After the Islamic conquest, the Spanish Umayyads guided their empire into a political and cultural golden era. In 929, Abd al-Rahman III assumed the title of caliph.


Since the conquest of the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula (from 711) by Arab and Berber troops, the province of al-Andalus had been ruled by governors of the Umayyad caliphs.

Following their removal by the Abbasids, the only surviving Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, established an autonomous emirate in 4 Cordoba in 756.

4 View of Cordoba with the bridge over the Guadalquivir and the Grand Mosque with the later cathedral

Thereafter, al-Andalus experienced an economic heyday due to its excellent state administration, cleverly devised irrigation and cultivation techniques, and extensive trade relations with Africa and the Orient.

This was accompanied by an 3 artistic and intellectual blossoming.

Cordoba became an important religious site with its 1, 2 great mosque called La Mezquita; the enormous palace-city Medina az-Zahara was constructed just outside the city during Abd al-Rahman Ill's reign.

Abd al-Rahman I and his son Hisham I consolidated power and several times advanced into southern France. An Orientalization of the cities and refinement of court manners occurred during the reign of Abd al-Rahman II (822-852). The ruler and the nobility emerged as poets and patrons of the arts, and Cordoba was soon able to compete with Baghdad and Samarra as an Islamic center. The central government began to lose its authority under his successors. Local rulers such as the Hafsun family in Bobastro, who controlled large parts of Spain, restricted the power of the emir, as did the Christian kings whose strength was growing and pushed southward from their bases in northern Spain— Asturias, Leon, and Castile.

Islamic Spain reached its political apogee under Abd al-Rahman III. He not only restored lost power, but after 920 also brought the whole of western Maghreb under his control and gave the empire a well-organized civil and military administration. In 929, he proclaimed himself caliph and thus created a third caliphate alongside those in Baghdad and Cairo. His erudite son, al-Hakam II, had one of the largest libraries of his time built and furthered philosophy, science, and the arts. General al-Mansur assumed the regency for Hisham II, who was underage at the time of his father's death. Al-Mansur restored the military power of the empire in more than 50 campaigns against the Christians and, in 997 conquered Fez, as well as the Christian pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. His son Abd al-Malik held onto power, but the caliphate sank into civil wars and the squabbles of semiautonomous rulers after 1009. The last caliph, Hisham III. died in 1031 and the caliphate splintered into autonomous taifas (Islamic city-states) that were later conquered by powers from the north.

3  Ivory box in the style of the
Umayyads, from Medina az-Zahra,
a palace city near Cordoba

1 View of the east facade of the Grand Mosque,
La Mezquita, in Cordoba, Spain, built 785- 990,
used as cathedral since 1236

2 Interior of La Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain


Islam in Spain and the Maghreb

The political weakness of the Arabs in Spain led to the rise of the Berber dynasties, which reached from Morocco into Spain. While Islam was being forced to retreat in Spain, the Berbers claimed the Maghreb.


Between 1013 and 1091, al-An-dalus broke up into 26 tiny factional states, taifas, that were ruled over by Arab or Berber dynasties. In the meantime, the Al-moravids, Berber border warriors, rose to power by about 1060, and in 1082 they advanced out of Marrakech into Algiers. Summoned to aid the local kings of Islamic Spain against the Christians of the north, the strictly religious Almoravids, who had started to build up an empire in Morocco, defeated the Christians but then took control of Spain themselves and eliminated the factional kingdoms between 1090 and 1094.

Beginning in 1124, opposition emerged in 5 Tinmal, Morocco, in the form of a strict ascetic mass movement, the Almohads, led by the preacher Ibn Tumart.

In 1147, their leader Abd al-Mumin did away with Almoravid rule in Marrakech and 6 Seville and by 1160 had absorbed into his empire almost the whole of Maghreb, including Algeria, Tunisia, and parts of Tripolitania.

The Almohads put an end to the religious tolerance previously practiced by Muslim rulers in Spain and restricted free philosophy in favor of orthodox beliefs. After initial military successes in Spain, in 1212 they suffered a crushing defeat by the Christians at Las Navas de Tolosa, and after 1224-1232 they were subjugated by former vassal princes in Spain.

5 The mosque of Tinmal, Morocco,
from the Almohad period,
built 1153-54

6 Torre del Oro, fortification
tower in Seville, Spain, built in 1220

Before long, the Christians reclaimed all of Spain except the 9 Nasrid emirate of Granada, which had been founded in 1232 with the 7 Alhambra palace as its center of power.

This last Moorish stronghold lasted until 1492, when the Catholic kings drove out the last ruler, Muhammad XI, and eliminated Muslim rule in Western Europe.

The Berber dynasty of the Merinids ended Almohad rule in Morocco in 1269 and stayed in power for 200 years until 1465, building up its residence 8 Fez with mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) and extending its power over Algeria.

The Hafsids, residing in Tunis, were in competition with the Merinids (1229/1236-1574) and ruled the former Almohad lands in Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and Tripolitania. They took the title of caliph after 1258. Under the Hafsids, Tunis became the center of Mediterranean trade in the Magreb.

9 The battle of Higueruela on July 1, 1431 between
John II of Castile and the Nasrids of Granada, Spain,
fresco 16th century

7 The Alhambra of Granada, residence of the Nasrids 1 231 -1492,
left, the famous Courtyard of the Lions in the center of the palace grounds

8 The Kairaouine Mosque in Fez, Morocco,
founded in the ninth century



Muhammad XI

Besieged by Christian forces, the Nasrids of Granada had been required to pay tribute to the kings of Castile since 1431. The last sultan, Abu Abdallah Muhammad, also known as Muhammad XI and in Spanish as Boabdil, "the little king," ruled from 1482 to 1492, except when temporarily expelled by his uncle in 1483-1487.

He hardly resisted the advance of the Catholic kings and left Granada to them on January 2,1492. This "farewell of the last Moor" was often artistically represented. He was exiled to Morocco and died in 1527.

Boabdil's dagger




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