The Ghaznavids

The ancient city of Gazna (modern Ghazni) served as an epicenter for one of the most important empires of the Middle Ages—the Ghaznavids. Holding a strategic position along a major trade route between Khurasan and India, the city was once a thriving Buddhist center in the 7th century. Its citizens put forward fierce resistance to invading Arab armies carrying the new religion of Islam in 683 before eventually being destroyed by Yaqub Saffari in the late 9th century. In the 10th century Turkic mamluks, or "slave soldiers", and their allies rebelled against the ruling Samanid dynastic rulers, taking Ghazna as their central stronghold and later capital. Military campaigns in the region by Mahmud ibn Sabuktagin—known later as Mahmud the Great—further solidified power and firmly established the Ghaznavid Empire that, at its height, stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges Delta.

Fast Facts
The Ghaznavids were great patrons of the arts and sciences as well as architecture financed from the collected wealth of their military campaigns. The royal court in Ghazni hosted such dynamic and talented personages as the poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi, the Khwarazmian universal scientist al-Biruni, the Sufi mystic Abu'l Majd Majdud bin Adam (Sana'i al Ghaznavi), and countless other historians, artists, mathematicians, and engineers. Contemporary visitors and residents of the capital city during its height speak of ornate buildings, great libraries, sumptuous court ceremonies, and the wealth of Ghazni's citizens (Dupree 1971: 131, See Further Reading). Unfortunately today there are few surviving examples of Ghaznavid architecture and monumental artistic form with the only standing examples at Ghazni being the "Towers of Victory."

Built by Sultan Mas'ud III (1099-1114) and Sultan Bahram Shah (1118-1152), the towers stand 600 meters apart on an open plain east of Ghazni, near the excavated palace of Mas'ud III. The flanged towers are built of fired mud brick faced with elaborate terracotta decoration, which form geometric and designs and inscriptions in cursive and interlocking Kufic. These inscriptions include the names and titles of the rulers, and portions of the so-called "Victory Sura" (XLVIII) from the Quran (Pinder-Wilson 2001, See Further Reading). The towers extend 20 meters above the ground and at one time were even higher; the upper portions of the towers were lost in an earthquake in the early twentieth century. The 12th century towers at Ghazni served as architectural models and inspiration for later monuments such as the Ghurid minaret in Jam, Afghanistan and the Qutb Minar in Delhi, India.

Fast Facts
The Ghaznavid Empire crumbled under ongoing conflicts with the Shansabani chiefs of Ghor, near Herat, ultimately concluding with the razing of Ghazna in 1149 by Ala-ud-Din (the "World Burner") and subsequent death of Bahram Shah. A succession of kingdoms—from Ghorids to Khwarazm—included Ghazna in their sphere of influence until its final sack in 1221 by the invading Mongol armies led by Genghis Khan's son, Ogedei Khan.

Ghazni Timeline

Travelers' Tales

Many travelers' accounts attest to the destruction wrought by the Mongols, earthquakes, and subsequent neglect to Ghazni's once glorious monuments and architecture. As early as the 14th century, the most famous of Arab explorers, Ibn Battuta from Tangiers, noted during his visit to Ghazna in 1333 that "the greater part of the town is in ruins and nothing but a fraction of it remains, though it was once a large city" (Battuta 2005: 180, See Further Reading). Five hundred years later the 18th century traveler George Forster similarly remarked:

Quote by Forster

Further Reading

Other visitors were less dramatic, focusing instead on detailed descriptions of the standing monuments, particularly their inscriptions. Robert Byron noted their condition in the early twentieth century:

Quote by Byron