When the western Turks faded in the late 7th century, an altogether new and formidable kind of power was waiting to fill the void – the army of Islam. Exploding out of Arabia just a few years after the Prophet Mohammed’s (SAV) death, the Muslim armies rolled through Persia in 642 to set up a military base at Merv (modern Turkmenistan) but met stiff resistance from the Turks of Transoxiana.
The Arabs brought Islam and a written alphabet to Central Asia in the 8th century but in the end found the region too big and restless to govern. Arab invasion was the first from the west for a millennium and brought an end to diversity of religions in the region with followers of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism in one place and time.
To the Arabs, conquerors of the Sassanids, this territory was Mawarannahr, the Land Beyond the River (Oxus/Amu Darya), and they determined to cross it with the Prophet Mohammed's bold new creed. Eastern expeditions began in 649, but full annexation awaited the energetic campaigns of Qutaiba ibn-Muslim, governor of Khorasan, the eastern province of Persia. Between 706 and 713, he took Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorezm and Tashkent. On campaign in Ferghana in 715, Qutaiba's rebellion against the new Ummayad caliph in Damascus, a personal enemy, brought assassination by his own troops. His death and the weakened state of the caliphate ensured a stormy century of Sogdian and Turkic revolt against the new religion and its overlords.
China, meanwhile, had revived under the Tang dynasty and expanded into Central Asia, murdering the khan of the Tashkent Turks as it flexed its imperial muscles. It was perhaps the most costly incident of skulduggery in Chinese history. The enraged Turks were joined by the opportunistic Arabs and Tibetans; in 751 they squeezed the Chinese forces into the Talas Valley (in present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and sent them flying back across the Tian Shan, marking the limits of the Chinese empire for good. The Chinese lost more than just a fight at the Battle of Talas in 751. The defeat marked the end of Chinese expansion west and secured the future of Islam as the region’s foremost religion. But to add insult to injury, some of the Chinese rounded up after the battle were no ordinary prisoners: they were experts at the crafts of papermaking and silkmaking. Soon China’s bestkept secrets were giving Arab silkmakers in Persia a commercial advantage all over Europe. It was the first mortal blow to the Silk Road. The spread of papermaking to Baghdad and then Europe sparked a technological revolution; the impact of this on the development of civilisation cannot be underestimated.
Though Uzbekistan's culture did continue to be influenced by its Persian past, the Arab conquest made its presence felt too. Islam replaced Zoroastrianism and other faiths; Arabic became the primary language for government, literature and commerce. The relationship was not one-way, however, as the Abbasid Caliphate, which would rule the Arab world for five centuries, defeated the ruling Umayyads in part due to central Asian support.
The new Abbasid caliphate ruled from Khorasan, but authority lay in the hands of increasingly independent governors. In the ninth century, the Iranian Saman aristocracy rose to prominence. Ismail ibn-Ahmad, ruler of Bukhara from 875, purged Tahirid and Saffirid influence to unite Central Asia under the Samamd dynasty. There followed a century of remarkable political, cultural and economic growth. Sunni Islam was firmly established as Bukhara attracted the greatest scholars and poets of the age. Samanid Central Asia produced some of history’s most important scientists, as well as great writers like court poet Rudaki. Bukharan native and court physician Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Latinised as Avicenna; 980–1037) was the greatest medic in the medieval world and laid the foundations of modern medicine, while Al-Biruni (973–1046), from Khorezm, was the world’s foremost astronomer of his age, estimating the distance to the moon to within 20km. Confused schoolchildren around the world can thank mathematician Al-Khorezmi (Latinised as Algorismi; 787–850) for the introduction of algebra (Al-Jebr was the title of one of his mathematical works), as well as the algorithm, the mathematical process behind addition and multiplication.
The 8th and 9th centuries were a golden age for Uzbekistan. Bukhara grew to become one of the wealthiest and most important centres in the Islamic world, a fitting rival to Baghdad, Cordoba and Cairo. The city's elite patronised some of the greatest artists and intellectuals of the day, the scientist and medic Abu ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West) and the Persian poet Rudaki among them. The Samanids and Buyids grew increasingly powerful, and Ismail ibn Ahmad, ruler of Bukhara, united the independent provinces under his Samanid Empire.
Such prosperity could hardly escape the attentions of Turkic nomads. In 999, the Karakhanids overran Transoxiana, while the Ghaznavids took Khorasan and Khorezm. However, these were Muslim Turkic dynasties, recently converted, and they sought to maintain urban civilization. By the mid-11th century, another Turkic tribe, the Seljuks, had reduced them to vassals. They continued west to conquer Byzantine Anatolia, forcing Baghdad to acknowledge the power of their Grand Sultan of Islam, based in their capital Merv (Turkmenistan). But in 1141 the illustrious Seljuk Sultan Sanjar met defeat near Samarkand by the next challenge from the steppe.
As the Mongol Karakhitai won control of a huge swathe of territory from western China to the Aral Sea, news of their victories over the Muslims reached Europe as the legend of Prester John, a king of the Orient rushing to save Christendom. Growing Volga trade gave Khorezm the strength to overthrow these pagans in the name of Islam in the early 13th century. The arrogant Khorezmshah Mohammed saw himself as a second Alexander when he marched from Urgench to liberate Samarkand in 1212, thereby removing the Karakhitai barrier between the Muslim world and the most notorious nomads of all time.