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
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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 Mongolian Empire and Its Successors



1  Genghis Khan, founder of the
Mongolian empire

The conquests of 1 Genghis Khan and his successors fundamentally changed the structures of Asia and Eastern Europe. The "Mongolian storm" that hit Baghdad in 1258 brought about the end of the old Islamic world. The destructive force of the mounted nomads resulted in the downfall of many cities and kingdoms. The Mongols' religious tolerance enabled them to assimilate into the dominant cultures of the territories they conquered, such as China and Persia. The huge empire founded by Tamerlane in the 14th century saw itself as heir to both the Mongolian and Islamic traditions but rapidly disintegrated after his death.

The Campaigns of Conquest of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan united most of the Mongolian tribes and undertook campaigns of conquest in every cardinal direction. With them came dreadful devastation.


Even before the rise of Genghis Khan, Central Asia had been dominated by Turkish and Mongolian 2 nomadic tribes since the migrations of late antiquity.

Their strength lay in their 3 swift and flexible fighting methods, which included attacks by mounted archers in small, mobile units.

2 Yurts-Mongolian tents-covered with felt,
Persian miniature, 14th century

3  Mounted Mongolian warlord,
painted ceramic tile

4 Genghis Khan's Mongol army storms
a fortress during the invasion of the
northern Chinese province of Tangut,
miniature painting, ca. 1590

6 Meeting of Genghis Khan's sons,
Persian book illustration, 14th ñ

Between 1133 and 1211, Mongolians of the Qara-Khitai tribal group ruled vast stretches of central Asia, but they were driven back to the east by the Khwarizm-shahs after 1200.

At the end of the 12th century, Temujin, who was descended from the ruling family of a small tribe in the northeast of present-day Mongolia, was able to unite several tribes and assemble a strong army. In 1206, he took the title Genghis Khan ("Universal Ruler") and began his carefully planned campaigns of conquest.

First he subjugated southern Siberia in 1207 and in 1211-1216 conquered 4 northern China.

He made an unsuccessful attempt to advance into central China, but the Uigurs submitted to him in 1209. A careless act by the Khwarizm-shahs presented the opportunity for a long-planned campaign in the west. Between 1219 and 1221 Genghis Khan overran Transoxiana and also wide stretches of the Khwarizm territories. In 1220, he founded his capital, Karakorum, in the north of Mongolia. He then captured northern Persia, Armenia, and Georgia and defeated the Russian princes in 1223.

Genghis Khan waged his campaigns with extreme cruelty and presided over widespread plundering and destruction. He did, however, lay the foundation for an empire supported by caravan trade, establishing a huge network of trading posts and communications points; he also kept the Silk Road free of banditry. The Mongolians also demonstrated a pragmatic tolerance of different religions. The subjugated empires were absorbed into a "friendship union" and required to pay tribute, from which considerable Mongolian state rserves were accumulated.

Genghis Khan 5 died in 1227, after which the empire was divided among his 6 four sons.

5 Genghis Khan's mausoleum, inner Mongolia


The Spread of Mongolian Rule

The empire may have been divided among the sons of Genghis Khan, but it was the third generation that proved its military power through the conquest of wide stretches of Asia and Eastern Europe.


Genghis Khan's son 7 Ogodei, who succeeded him as the "great khan," decided in a war council in 1236 to conquer Russia, Poland, and Hungary and from there to move into the rest of Europe.

His nephew Batu Khan subjugated most of Western Russia between 1236 and 1242. In 1240, he stormed Kiev and advanced almost to the Baltic Sea.

In 1240-1241, his troops devastated Poland and Hungary and annihilated an army of German and Polish knights at 8 Liegnitz, in Silesia, in early 1241.

Europe appeared to lie open to the Mongolians when, in December 1241, Ogodei died and Batu Khan turned his army back east to settle the succession. In 1251, Mangu Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan, became great khan in Karakorum and began the systematic construction of a great empire.

In the meantime, his cousin 9 Batu and his successors made themselves largely independent and founded the khanates of the Golden and Blue Hordes in Muscovy and Eastern Europe.

However, they lost territory in battles against the Russian grand dukes in the 14th century, and in 1502 the states were destroyed. Mangu Khan, whose cultured court was characterized by religious tolerance, respectfully received a papal legation headed by Willem van Ruysbroeck in 1253.

7 Great khan Ogodei

8 Battle of Liegnitz, April 9, 1241

9 Batu Khan on his throne,
Persian book illustration, 14th century

He charged his younger brother 10 Kublai Khan, who in 1260 inherited the title of great khan, with new conquests to the East and South; Kublai Khan then invaded 12 China and founded the Yuan dynasty, which survived until 1368.

Htilegu Khan conquered Persia and led the Mongolian sacking of Baghdad that ended the caliphate and the old Islamic order in 1258. After disposing of the small principalities in the Middle East, he was finally halted by the Egyptian Mamelukes. Htilegu Khan founded the Il-khan dynasty, which ruled over Iran, Iraq, Syria, East Anatolia, and the Caucasus from the royal palace in Tabriz.

The dynasty converted to 11 Islam during the reign of Khan Ghazan in 1300.

In 1335, the Mongolian Empire disintegrated into a series of minor principalities. Though it only existed for 150 years, the Mongolian empire affected peoples and states across the known world, from China to Eastern Europe.

10 Great khan Kublai Khan

12 Occupation of fortresses strung along
the Yangtse River in 1275 during
Kublai Khan's invasion of China,
from an Indian miniature, ca. 1590

11 Niche in the Friday mosque
in Yazd, Iran, built in 1325-34



Baghdad before the Mongolian Attack on February 10, 1258:

"Together with them [two high officials and the army leader of Baghdad], the Baghdad army decided to withdraw, and much of the population hoped in this way to be saved.

However, they were divided up between the thousand-, hundred-, and ten-man units of the Mongolian army and were killed. Those who remained in the city dispersed and hid themselves beneath the Earth and underneath the baths."

Rashid ad-Din's Book of The Tribes

The conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols led by Hiilegu in 1 258, Persian miniature



The Empire of Tamerlane

After 1370, the conqueror Tamerlane united Islamic and Mongolian traditions in his vast Asian empire. He brought scholars and artists to his capital, Samarkand, making it a center of culture.


In the 14th century, an aggressive expanding empire, combining Mongolian and Islamic characteristics once again emerged in Central Asia. The Jagatai khanate, the descendants of the second son of Genghis Khan, ruled in Central Asia, but its dominion had split into various tribal groupings during the 14th century. In the context of this political turmoil, a Turkic prince known as Tamerlane was able emerge as a powerful leader.

Tamerlane seized power in Samarkand in 1366, and in April 1370 united the majority of the khanates of 5 Transoxiana under his leadership.

1 Tamerlane, artist's reconstruction
based on contemporary descriptions

5 Hiob's well in Bukhara, one of the most important cities in Transoxiana
(present-day Uzbekistan) built in the 14th century

In 1370 he occupied the Mongolian vassal Khwarizm, and in 1379 plundered the rebellious Konya Urgench. By 1381 he had conquered most of Afghanistan. He either integrated local rulers into his "union of friendship" or climinated them.

Tamerlane captured 2 Isfahan in 1387 and seized Shiraz from the Muzaffarids in 1393.

By 1391 he had made a fugitive of his most dangerous rival, Tokhtamysh, the khan of the Golden Horde, who had carved out an empire in western Russia and the Caucasus; The conquest yielded enormous treasures that were hauled back to his royal residence in Samarkand. In 1393, Tamerlane occupied Iraq and the of Baghdad, crushing the local warlords ruling there. In 1394, he besieged Damascus, and then plundered it in 1401.

In July 1402, Tamerlane annihilated the 3 Ottomans in Anatolia and took Sultan Bayezid I, who had refused the offer of an alliance, prisoner.

The restless general, who ruled his world empire 4 from his saddle, had already waged a military campaign against India in 1398-1399, in the course of which he occupied Lahore and Delhi and had 100,000 Indian prisoners executed.

2 Conquest of the city of Isfahan
by Tamerlane, 1387

3 After defeating Ottoman armies
in Anatolia, Tamerlane takes the
Sultan Bayezid I prisoner, holding
him in a golden cage,
lithograph, 18th ñ

4 Tamerlane on horseback, atop a mound of skulls

Tamerlane tended to treat cities and rulers relatively mildly if they surrendered to him, but showed no mercy to those who resisted. The fate of those who rebelled was even worse, as with the cities of Isfahan and Baghdad when they revolted in 1387 and 1401; Tamerlane had 10,000 inhabitants killed and their heads piled up in pyramids outside the city walls.

Aside from his conquests Tamerlane, who ruled over one of the largest empires in history, also gathered around him scholars, poets, and court painters. Many of these came from from the occupied territories, carried off to Samarkand where they made the capital the "center of the world" and the "threshold of Paradise," building magnificent mosques and madrassas. Tamerlane was a strict Sunni, but also sought to preserve the pre-lslamic Mongolian nomad traditions. In the autumn of 1404, he set off to the north with an enormous army to conquer China, but died in Utrar on February 19,1405.


The Rule of the Timurids

The empire that Tamerlane founded was divided up among his successors, but these new kingdoms continued to influence Central Asia well into the 16th century.


Tamerlane's heirs, the Timurids, divided the empire among themselves as dictated by Mongolian tradition after Tamerlane's chosen successor—his grandson Pir Muhammad, governor of Kandahar—was murdered in 1407. In the course of time, Tamerlane's youngest son, Shah Rokh, who had reigned in Herat since 1405, established himself as the most important of the heirs and head of the clan. He gained control of Transoxiana and Persia, and most of the rulers of the Uzbeks and the Golden Horde submitted. Iraq, however, was lost to local dynasties. Shah Rokh, a notable patron of the arts and sciences, was one of the more peaceful and cultivated Timurids.

His son,7 Ulugh Beg, who had been an autonomous khan in Samarkand since 1409, was one of the most significant scholars of his time.

In 1428-1429, he had an observatory with telescopical instruments constructed, from which he made the most exact calculations of the stars possible in the period. The capital, Samarkand, which had been founded by his grandfather Tamerlane, continued to shine under his reign.

The rulers were also buried 8, 9 here in a magnificent necropolis.

7 Ulugh Beg Madrasa in Samarkand, built between 1417-20,
painting by W. W. Werestschagin, ca. 1870

9 The necropolis, Shah-i Zinda, outside Samarkand,
painting by W. W. Werestschagin, ca. 1870

8 Ceramic tombstone from a mausoleum
in Shah-i Zinda, Samarkand

In 1447, he waged war against his own son Abd al-Latif over the succession to the empire of Shah Rokh. The conflict ended with the murder of Ulugh Beg in 1449 and Abd al-Latif a year later.

Abu Said, a great-grandson of Tamerlane, emerged victorious from the ensuing turmoil to rule over Transoxiana. In 1469, he was taken captive and executed by Turkic tribesmen of the Aq-Qoyunlu, the "White Sheep Turks," who advanced out of Persia. His son, Sultan Ahmad, held on to the Samarkand area, but was constantly under pressure from the Uzbek Shaibanids. Ahmad's nephew was Babur, the first great Mogul of India.

The last Timurid still ruled from Herat over a part of 10 Afghanistan, but died in 1506 during a campaign against the Shaibanids, after they attacked the city.

The last rulers descended from Tamerlane are remembered more for their 6 patronage of the arts than for their conquests.

10 The Blue Mosque in Mazar i-Sharif, Afghanistan,
built ca. 1480

6 Timuridian miniature painting
from Herat, Afghanistan, ca. 1488



The Gur-e Amir Mausoleum

Tamerlane and his successors were buried in the magnificent mausoleum Gur-e Ami, in Samarkand. In 1941, Russian scientists under the direction of anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov investigated the remains, and Gerasimov reconstructed the facial characteristics of Tamerlane and his sons, Miranshah and Shah Rokh.

An examination of Tamerlane's skeleton showed deformities on the right elbow and the right hip; the right kneecap had also grown together with the thigh. He was practically a hemiplegic.

The ruins of the Gur-e Amir mausoleum,
painting by W. W. Werestschagin, ca. 1870




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