Safavid dynasty

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Safavid Dynasty of Persia
سلسلهٔ صفويان
Ṣafawīyān Irân
The Safavid Empire under Shah Abbas the Great
Capital Tabriz
Religion Twelver Shia Islama
Government Theocratic Monarchy
 •  1501–1524 Ismail I (first)
 •  1732–1736 Abbas III (last)
 •  1501–? Muhammad Zakariya Kujuji (first)
 •  1729–1736 Nader Qoli Beg (last)
Legislature Council of State
 •  Establishment of the Safaviyya by Safi-ad-din Ardabili 1301
 •  Established 1501
 •  Hotaki Invasion 1722
 •  Reconquest under Nader Shah 1726–29
 •  Disestablished March 1736
 •  Nader Shah crowned 1 October 1736
Area 2,850,000 km2 (1,100,000 sq mi)
Currency Tuman, Abbasi, Shahi.[14]
  • 1 Tuman = 50 Abbasi.
  • 1 Tuman = 50 French Livre.
  • 1 Tuman = £3 6s 8d.
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Timurid Empire
Ak Koyunlu
Afrasiab dynasty
Kia'i dynasty
Kingdom of Ormus
Hotaki dynasty
Afsharid dynasty
Ottoman Empire
Today part of
a State religion.[15]

The Safavid dynasty (/sɑːˈfɑːwd/ Persian: سلسلهٔ صفويان‎‎; Azerbaijani: Səfəvilər sülaləsi, صفويلر سولاله‌سى) was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Persia (modern Iran) after the fall of the Sasanian Empire - following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century A.D., and "is often considered the beginning of modern Persian history".[19] The Safavid shahs ruled over one of the so-called gunpowder empires,[20] and they ruled one of the greatest Persian empires after the Muslim conquest of Persia[21][22][23][24] and established the Twelver school of Shi'a Islam[25] as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history.

The Safavid dynasty had its origin in the Safaviyya Sufi order, which was established in the city of Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region. It was of mixed ancestry (Kurdish[26] and Azerbaijani,[27] which included intermarriages with Georgian,[28] Circassian,[29][30] and Pontic Greek[31] dignitaries). From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over parts of Greater Iran and reasserted the Iranian identity of the region,[32] thus becoming the first native dynasty since the Sasanian Empire to establish a unified Iranian state.[17]

The Safavids ruled from 1501 to 1722 (experiencing a brief restoration from 1729 to 1736) and, at their height, they controlled all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Armenia, most of Georgia, the North Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Despite their demise in 1736, the legacy that they left behind was the revival of Persia as an economic stronghold between East and West, the establishment of an efficient state and bureaucracy based upon "checks and balances", their architectural innovations and their patronage for fine arts. The Safavids have also left their mark down to the present era by spreading Shi'a Islam in Iran, as well as major parts of the Caucasus, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.


Genealogy—The ancestors of the Safavids and its multi-cultural identity

The Safavid Kings themselves claimed to be Seyyeds,[33] family descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, although many scholars have cast doubt on this claim.[34] There seems now to be a consensus among scholars that the Safavid family hailed from Persian Kurdistan,[25] and later moved to Azerbaijan, finally settling in the 11th century CE at Ardabil. Traditional pre-1501 Safavid manuscripts trace the lineage of the Safavids to the Kurdish dignitary, Firuz Shah Zarin-Kulah.[26][35]

According to some historians,[36][37] including Richard Frye, the Safavids were of Turkicized Iranian origin:[27]

The Turkish speakers of Azerbaijan are mainly descended from the earlier Iranian speakers, several pockets of whom still exist in the region. A massive migration of Oghuz Turks in the 11th and 12th centuries not only Turkified Azerbaijan but also Anatolia. The Azeri Turks are Shiʿites and were founders of the Safavid dynasty.

Other historians, such as Vladimir Minorsky[38] and Roger Savory, support this idea:[39]

From the evidence available at the present time, it is certain that the Safavid family was of indigineous Iranian stock, and not of Turkish ancestry as it is sometimes claimed. It is probable that the family originated in Persian Kurdistan, and later moved to Azerbaijan, where they adopted the Azari form of Turkish spoken there, and eventually settled in the small town of Ardabil sometimes during the eleventh century.

By the time of the establishment of the Safavid empire, the members of the family were native Turkish-speaking and Turkicized,[11][40] and some of the Shahs composed poems in their native Turkish language. Concurrently, the Shahs themselves also supported Persian literature, poetry and art projects including the grand Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp,[41][42] while members of the family and some Shahs composed Persian poetry as well.[43][44] The authority of the Safavids was religiously based, and their claim to legitimacy was founded on being direct male descendants of the Ali,[45] the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and regarded by Shi'ites as the first Imam.

Furthermore, the dynasty was from the very start thoroughly intermarried with both Pontic Greek as well as Georgian lines.[46] In addition, from the official establishment of the dynasty in 1501, the dynasty would continue to have many intermarriages with both Circassian as well as again Georgian dignitaries, especially with the advent of king Tahmasp I.[29][30]

Background—The Safavid Sufi Order

Safavid history begins with the establishment of the Safaviyya by its eponymous founder Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252–1334). In 700/1301, Safi al-Din assumed the leadership of the Zahediyeh, a significant Sufi order in Gilan, from his spiritual master and father-in-law Zahed Gilani. Due to the great spiritual charisma of Safi al-Din, the order was later known as the Safaviyya. The Safavid order soon gained great influence in the city of Ardabil and Hamdullah Mustaufi noted that most of the people of Ardabil were followers of Safi al-Din.

Extant religious poetry from him, written in the Old Azari language[47][48]—a now-extinct Northwestern Iranian language—and accompanied by a paraphrase in Persian which helps their understanding, has survived to this day and has linguistic importance.[47]

After Safī al-Dīn, the leadership of the Safaviyya passed onto Sadr al-Dīn Mūsā († 794/1391–92). The order at this time was transformed into a religious movement which conducted religious propaganda throughout Persia, Syria and Asia Minor, and most likely had maintained its Sunni Shafi’ite origin at that time. The leadership of the order passed on from Sadr ud-Dīn Mūsā to his son Khwādja Ali († 1429) and in turn to his son Ibrāhīm († 1429–47).

When Shaykh Junayd, the son of Ibrāhim, assumed the leadership of the Safaviyya in 1447, the history of the Safavid movement was radically changed. According to R.M. Savory, "'Sheikh Junayd was not content with spiritual authority and he sought material power'". At that time, the most powerful dynasty in Persia was that of the Kara Koyunlu, the "Black Sheep", whose ruler Jahan Shah ordered Junāyd to leave Ardabil or else he would bring destruction and ruin upon the city.[25] Junayd sought refuge with the rival of Kara Koyunlu Jahan Shah, the Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep Turkomans) Khan Uzun Hassan, and cemented his relationship by marrying Uzun Hassan's sister, Khadija Begum. Junayd was killed during an incursion into the territories of the Shirvanshah and was succeeded by his son Haydar Safavi.

Manikin of a safavid Qizilbash soldier, showing characteristic red cap (Sa'dabad Palace, Teheran).

Haydar married Martha 'Alamshah Begom,[31] Uzun Hassan's daughter, who gave birth to Ismail I, founder of the Safavid dynasty. Martha's mother Theodora—better known as Despina Khatun[49]—was a Pontic Greek princess, the daughter of the Grand Komnenos John IV of Trebizond. She had been married to Uzun Hassan[50] in exchange for protection of the Grand Komnenos from the Ottomans.

After Uzun Hassan's death, his son Ya'qub felt threatened by the growing Safavid religious influence. Ya'qub allied himself with the Shirvanshah and killed Haydar in 1488. By this time, the bulk of the Safaviyya were nomadic Oghuz Turkic-speaking clans from Asia Minor and Azerbaijan and were known as Qizilbash "Red Heads" because of their distinct red headgear. The Qizilbash were warriors, spiritual followers of Haydar, and a source of the Safavid military and political power.

After the death of Haydar, the Safaviyya gathered around his son Ali Mirza Safavi, who was also pursued and subsequently killed by Ya'qub. According to official Safavid history, before passing away, Ali had designated his young brother Ismail as the spiritual leader of the Safaviyya.[25]


Founding of the dynasty by Shāh Ismāil I (r. 1501–24)

Persia prior to Ismāil's rule

After the decline of the Timurid Empire (1370–1506), Persia was politically splintered, giving rise to a number of religious movements. The demise of Tamerlane's political authority created a space in which several religious communities, particularly Shi’i ones, could now come to the fore and gain prominence. Among these were a number of Sufi brotherhoods, the Hurufis, Nuqtawis and Musha‘sha‘. Of these various movements, the Safawid Qizilbash was the most politically resilient, and it was on account of its success that Shah Isma’il I gained political prominence in 1501 CE.[51] There were many local states prior to the Iranian state established by Ismāil.[52] The most important local rulers about 1500 were:

Ismāil was able to unite all these lands under the Iranian Empire he created.

Rise of Shāh Ismāil I

Shah Ismail I

The Safavid dynasty was founded about 1501 by Shāh Ismāil I.[53] Shah Ismail's background is disputed: the language he used is not identical with that of his "race" or "nationality" and he was bilingual from birth.[54] Some scholars argue that Ismāil was of mixed Azeri, Kurdish, and Pontic Greek descent,[27] although others argue that he was non-Azeri[54] and was a direct descendant of Kurdish mystic Sheikh Safi al-Din. As such, he was the last in the line of hereditary Grand Masters of the Safaviyeh order, prior to its ascent to a ruling dynasty. Ismāil was known as a brave and charismatic youth, zealous with regards to his Shi’a faith, and believed himself to be of divine descent—practically worshipped by his Qizilbāsh followers. In 1500, Ismāil invaded neighboring Shirvan to avenge the death of his father, Sheik Haydar, who had been murdered in 1488 by the ruling Shirvanshah, Farrukh Yassar. Afterwards, Ismail went on a conquest campaign, capturing Tabriz in July 1501, where he enthroned himself the Shāh of Azerbaijan,[55][56][57] proclaimed himself Shahanshah of Iran[58][59][60] and minted coins in his name, proclaiming Shi’ism the official religion of his domain.[25] The establishment of Shi’ism as the state religion led to various Sufi orders openly declaring their Shi’i position, and others, to promptly assume Shi’ism. Among these, the founder of one of the most successful Sufi orders, Ni’matullah (d. 1431) traced his descent from the Ismaili Imam Muhammad b. Ismail, as evidenced in a poem as well as another unpublished literary composition. Though Nimatullah was apparently Sunni, the Ni’matullahi order soon declared his order to be Shi’i after the rise of the Safavid dynasty.[61]

Ismail's battle with Uzbek warlord Muhammad Shaybani Khan in 1510, on a folio from the Kebir Musaver Silsilname. After the battle Ismail is said to have gilded the skull of Shaybani Khan for use as a wine goblet.

Although Ismail I initially gained mastery over Azerbaijan alone, the Safavids ultimately won the struggle for power in all of Persia which had been going on for nearly a century between various dynasties and political forces. A year after his victory in Tabriz, Ismāil claimed most of Persia as part of his territory,[25] and within 10 years established a complete control over all of it. Ismail followed the line of Iranian and Turkmen rulers prior to him by assumption of the title "Padishah-i-Iran", previously held by Uzun Hasan and many other Iranian kings.[62] The Ottoman sultans addressed him as the king of Persian lands and the heir to Jamshid and Kai Khosrow.[18] Having started with just the possession of Azerbaijan, Shirvan, southern Dagestan (with its important city of Derbent), and Armenia in 1501,[63] Erzincan and Erzurum fell into his power in 1502,[64] Hamadan in 1503, Shiraz and Kerman in 1504, Diyarbakir, Najaf, and Karbala in 1507, Van in 1508, Baghdad in 1509, and Herat, as well as other parts of Khorasan, in 1510. In 1503, the kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti were made his vassals as well.[65] By 1511, the Uzbeks in the north-east, led by their Khan Muhammad Shaybāni, were driven far to the north, across the Oxus River where they continued to attack the Safavids. Ismail's decisive victory over the Uzbeks, who had occupied most of Khorasan, ensured Iran's eastern borders, and the Uzbeks never since expanded beyond the Hindukush. Although the Uzbeks continued to make occasional raids to Khorasan, the Safavid empire was able to keep them at bay throughout its reign.

Start of clashes with the Ottomans

Artwork of the Battle of Chaldiran.

More problematic for the Safavids was the powerful neighboring Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, a Sunni dynasty, considered the active recruitment of Turkmen tribes of Anatolia for the Safavid cause as a major threat. To counter the rising Safavid power, in 1502, Sultan Bayezid II forcefully deported many Shi'as from Anatolia to other parts of the Ottoman realm. In 1511, there was a widespread pro-Shia and pro-Safavid uprising directed against the Ottoman Empire from within the empire.[66] Furthermore, by the early 1510s Ismail's expansionistic policies had pushed the Safavid borders in Asia Minor even more westwards. The Ottomans reacted soon, when a large-scale incursion into Eastern Anatolia by Safavid ghazis under Nūr-ʿAlī Ḵalīfa coincided with the accession of Sultan Selim I, Bayezid's son, in 1512 to the Ottoman throne, and was the casus belli which led to Selim's decision to invade neighbouring Safavid Iran two years later.[67] In 1514, Sultan Selim I marched through Anatolia and reached the plain of Chaldiran near the city of Khoy, and a decisive battle was fought there (Battle of Chaldiran). Most sources agree that the Ottoman army was at least double the size of that of Ismāil;[53] however, what gave the Ottomans the advantage was the artillery which the Safavid army lacked. According to R. M. Savory, "Salim's plan was to winter at Tabriz and complete the conquest of Persia the following spring. However, a mutiny among his officers who refused to spend the winter at Tabriz forced him to withdraw across territory laid waste by the Safavid forces, eight days later".[53] Although Ismāil was defeated and his capital was captured, the Safavid empire survived. The war between the two powers continued under Ismāil's son, Shāh Tahmāsp I, and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I, until Shāh Abbās retook the area lost to the Ottomans by 1602.

Shāh Ismāil's empire

The consequences of the defeat at Chaldiran were also psychological for Ismāil: the defeat destroyed Ismāil's belief in his invincibility, based on his claimed divine status.[25] His relationships with his Qizilbāsh followers were also fundamentally altered. The tribal rivalries between the Qizilbāsh, which temporarily ceased before the defeat at Chaldiran, resurfaced in intense form immediately after the death of Ismāil, and led to ten years of civil war (930-40/1524-33) until Shāh Tahmāsp regained control of the affairs of the state. For most of the last decade of Ismail's reign, the domestic affairs of the empire were overseen by the Tajik vizier Mirza Shah Husayn Isfahani until his assassination in 1523.[68] The Chaldiran battle furthermore holds even more historical significance as it marked the start of over 300 years of frequent and harsh warfare fuelled by geo-politics and ideological differences between the Ottomans and the Iranian Safavids (as well as successive Iranian states) mainly regarding territories in Eastern Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia.

Early Safavid power in Iran was based on the military power of the Qizilbāsh. Ismāil exploited the first element to seize power in Iran. But eschewing politics after his defeat in Chaldiran, he left the affairs of the government to the office of the wakīl (chief administrator, vakīl in Turkish). Ismāil's successors, and most manifestly Shāh Abbās I successfully diminished the Qizilbāsh's influence on the affairs of the state.

Shāh Tahmāsp (r. 1524–76)

Shah Tahmasp, fresco on the walls of the Chehel Sotoun Palace

Civil Strife during Tahmāsp's Early Reign

Shāh Tahmāsp, the young titular governor of Khorasan,[69] succeeded his father Ismāil in 1524, when he was ten years and three months old. The succession was evidently undisputed.[68] Tahmāsp was the ward of the powerful Qizilbash amir Ali Beg Rūmlū (titled "Div Soltān Rumlu") who saw himself as the de facto ruler of the state. Rūmlū and Kopek Sultān Ustajlu (who had been Ismail's last wakīl) established themselves as co-regents of the young shah.[68] The Qizilbāsh, which still suffered under the legacy of the battle of Chaldiran, was engulfed in internal rivalries. The first two years of Tahmāsp's reign was consumed with Div Sultān’s efforts to eliminate Ustajlu from power.[68] This court intrigue lead directly to tribal conflict. Beginning in 1526 periodic battles broke out, beginning in northwest Persia but soon involving all of Khorasan.[70] In the absence of a charismatic, messianic rallying figure like the young Ismail, the tribal leaders reclaimed their traditional prerogative and threatened to return to the time of local warlords. For nearly 10 years rival Qizilbāsh factions fought each other. Af first, Kopek Sultān's Ustajlu tribe suffered the heaviest, and he himself was killed in a battle.

Thus Div Soltān emerged victorious in the first palace struggle, bit he fell victim to Chuha Sultān of the Takkalu, who turned Tahmāsp against his first mentor. In 1527 Tahmāsp demonstrated his desire by shooting an arrow at Div Soltān before the assembled court. The Takkalu replaced the Rumlu as the dominant tribe. They in turn would be replaced by the Shamlu, whose amir, Husain Khan, became the chief adviser. This latest leader would only last until 1534, when he was deposed and executed.[71]

At the downfall of Husain Khan, Tahmāsp asserted his rule. Rather than rely on another Turkmen tribe, he appointed a Persian wakīl. From 1553 for forty years the shah was able to avoid being ensnared in tribal treacheries. But the decade of civil war had exposed the empire to foreign danger and Tahmāsp had to turn his attention to the repeated raids by the Uzbeks.[72]

Foreign Threats to the Empire

The Uzbeks, during the reign of Tahmāsp, attacked the eastern provinces of the kingdom five times and the Ottomans under Soleymān I invaded Persia four times.[73] Decentralized control over Uzbek forces was largely responsible for the inability of the Uzbeks to make territorial inroads into Khorasan.[74] Putting aside internal dissension, the Safavid nobles responded to a threat to Herat in 1528 by riding eastward with Tahmāsp (then 17) and soundly defeating the numerical superior forces of the Uzbeks at Jām.[75] The victory resulted at least in part from Safavid use of firearms, which they had been acquiring and drilling with since Chaldiran.[76]

Notwithstanding the success with firearms at Jām, Tahmāsp still lacked the confidence to engage their arch rivals the Ottomans, choosing instead to cede territory, often using scorched earth tactics in the process.[77] The Ottomans' goals in the 1534 and 1548-1549 campaigns during the 1532-1555 Ottoman-Safavid War was to install Tahmāsp's brothers (Sam Mirza and Alqas Mirza, respectively) as shah in order to make Persia a vassal state. Although in those campaigns (and in 1554) the Ottomans captured Tabriz, they lacked a communications line sufficient to occupy it for long.[78] Nevertheless, given the insecurity in Iraq and its northwest territory, Tahmāsp moved his court from Tabriz to Qazvin.

In the gravest crisis of Tahmāsp's reign Ottoman forces in 1553-54 captured Yerevan, Karabakh and Nakhjuwan and destroyed palaces, villas and gardens and threatened Ardabil. During these operations an agent of the Samlu (now supporting Sam Mizra's pretentions) attempt to poison the shah. Tahmāsp resolved to end hostilities and sent his ambassador to Soleymān's winter quarters in Erzurum in September 1554 to sue for peace.[79] Temporary terms were followed by the Peace of Amasya in June 1555, ending the war with the Ottomans for the next two decades. The treaty was the first formal diplomatic recognition of the Safavid Empire by the Ottomans.[80] Under the Peace, the Ottomans agreed to restore Yerevan, Karabakh and Nakhjuwan to the Safavids and in turn would retain Mesopotamia (Iraq) and eastern Anatolia. Soleymān agreed to permit Safavid Shi’a pilgrims to make pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina as well as tombs of imams in Iraq and Arabia on condition that the shah abolished the taburru, the cursing of the first three Rashidun caliphs.[81] It was a heavy price in terms of territory and prestige lost, but it allowed the empire to last, something that seemed improbable during the first years of Tahmāsp's reign.

Royal refugees: Bayezid and Humayun

Shah Tahmasp greets the exiled Humayun

Almost simultaneously with the emergence of the Safavid Empire, another Muslim polity was developing only now in South-Asia. The Mughal Empire, which would rule a largely Hindu population and adhere (for the most part) to a tolerant Sunni Islam, was recently founded by the Timurid heir Babur. Babur's son Humayun was ousted from his territories and threatened by his half-brother and rival, who had inherited the northern part of Babur's territories.[82] Having to flee from city to city, Humayun eventually sought refuge at the court of Tahmāsp. Tahmāsp received Humayun at his court in Qazvin in 1543 as the true emperor of the Mughal dynasty, despite the fact that Humayun had been living in exile for more than fifteen years.[82][83] After Humayun converted to Shia Islam (under extreme duress),[82] Tahmāsp offered him military assistance to regain his territories in return for Kandahar, which controlled the overland trade route between central Persia and the Ganges. In 1545 a combined Persian-Mughal force managed to seize Kandahar and occupy Kabul.[84] Humayun handed over Kandahar, but Tahmāsp was forced to retake it in 1558, when Humayun seized it on the death of the Safavid governor.

Humayun was not the only royal figure to seek refuge at Tahmasp's court. A dispute arose in the Ottoman Empire over who was to succeed the aged Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman's favourite wife, Hürrem Sultan, was eager for her son, Selim, to become the next sultan. But Selim was an alcoholic and Hürrem's other son, Bayezid, had shown far greater military ability. The two princes quarrelled and eventually Bayezid rebelled against his father. His letter of remorse never reached Suleiman and he was forced to flee abroad to avoid execution. In 1559 Bayezid arrived in Iran where Tahmasp gave him a warm welcome. Suleiman was eager to negotiate his son's return, but Tahmasp rejected his promises and threats until, in 1561 Suleiman compromised with him. In September of that year, Tahmasp and Bayezid were enjoying a banquet at Tabriz when Tahmasp suddenly pretended he had received news that the Ottoman prince was engaged in a plot against his life. An angry mob gathered and Tahmasp had Bayezid put into custody, alleging it was for his own safety. Tahmasp then handed the prince over to the Ottoman ambassador. Shortly afterwards, Bayezid was killed by agents sent by his own father.[85]

Legacy of Shah Tahmasp

When the young Shah Tahmāsp took the throne, Persia was in a dire state. But in spite of a weak economy, a civil war and foreign wars on two fronts, Tahmāsp managed to retain his crown and maintain the territorial integrity of the empire (although much reduced from Ismail's time). During the first 30 years of his long reign, he was able to suppress the internal divisions by exerting control over a strengthened central military force. In the war against the Uzbeks he showed that the Safavids had become a gunpowder empire. His tactics in dealing with the Ottoman threat eventually allowed for a treaty which preserved peace for twenty years.

In cultural matters, Tahmāsp presided the revival of the fine arts, which flourished under his patronage. Safavid culture is often admired for the large-scale city planning and architecture, achievements made during the reign of later shahs, but the arts of persian miniature, book-binding and calligraphy, in fact, never received as much attention as they did during his time.[86]

Tahmāsp also planted the seeds that would, unintentionally, produce change much later. During his reign he had realized while both looking to his own empire and that of the neighboring Ottomans, that there were dangerous rivalling factions and internal family rivalries that were a threat to the heads of state. Not taken care of accordingly, these were a serious threat to the ruler, or worse, could bring the fall of the former or could lead to unnecessary court intrigues. According to Encyclopedia Iranica, for Tahmāsp, the problem circled around the military tribal elite of the empire, the Qezelbāš, who believed that physical proximity to and control of a member of the immediate Safavid family guaranteed spiritual advantages, political fortune, and material advancement.[87] Despite that Tahmāsp could nullify and neglect some of his consternations regarding potential issues related to his family by having his close direct male relatives such as his brothers and sons routinely transferred around to various governorships in the empire, he understood and realized that any long-term solutions would mainly involve minimizing the political and military presence of the Qezelbāš as a whole. According to Encyclopedia Iranica, his father and founder of the Empire, Ismail I, had begun this process on a bureaucratic level as he appointed a number of prominent Persians in powerful bureaucratic positions, and one can see this continued in Tahmāsp’s lengthy and close relationship with the chief vizier, Qāżi Jahān of Qazvin, after 1535.[87] While Persians continued to fill their historical role as administrators and clerical elites under Tahmāsp, little had been done so far to minimize the military role of the Qezelbāš.[87] Therefore, in 1540, Shah Tahmāsp started the first of a series of invasions of the Caucasus region, both ment as a training and drilling for his soldiers, as well as mainly bringing back massive numbers of Christian Circassian and Georgian slaves, who would form the basis of a military slave system,[88] alike to the janissaries of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire,[89] as well as at the same time forming a new layer in Iranian society composed of ethnic Caucasians. At the fourth invasion in 1553, it was now clear that Tahmāsp followed a policy of annexation and resettlement as he gained control over Tbilisi (Tiflis) and the region of Kartli while physically transplanting more than 30,000 people to the central Iranian heartlands.[87] According to Encyclopedia Iranica, this would be the starting point for the corps of the ḡolāmān-e ḵāṣṣa-ye-e šarifa, or royal slaves, who would dominate the Safavid military for most of the empire's length. As non-Turcoman converts to Islam, these Circassian and Georgian ḡolāmāns (also written as ghulams) were completely unrestrained by clan loyalties and kinship obligations, which was an attractive feature for a ruler like Tahmāsp whose childhood and upbringing had been deeply affected by Qezelbāš tribal politics.[87] In turn, many of these transplanted women became wives and concubines of Tahmāsp, and the Safavid harem emerged as a competitive, and sometimes lethal, arena of ethnic politics as cliques of Turkmen, Circassian, and Georgian women and courtiers vied with each other for the shah’s attention.[87]

Although the first slave soldiers would not be organized until the reign of Abbas I, during Tahmāsp's time Caucasians would already become important members of the royal household, Harem and in the civil and military administration,[90][91] and by that becoming their way of eventually becoming an integral part of the society. One of Tahmāsp's sisters married a Circassian, who would use his court office to team up with Tahmāsp's daughter, Pari Khān Khānum to assert themselves in succession matters after Tahmāsp's death.

After the Peace of Amasya, Tasmāsp underwent what he called a "sincere repentance." Tasmāsp at the same time removed his son Ismail from his Qizilbash followers and imprisoned him at Qahqaha. Moreover, he began to strengthen Shia practice by such things as forbidding in the new capital of Qazvin poetry and music which did not esteem Ali and the Twelve Imams. He also reduced the taxes of districts that were traditionally Shia, regulated services in mosques and engaged Shia propagandists and spies. Extortion, intimidation and harassment were practiced against Sunnis.[92]

When Tahmāsp died in 984/1576, Persia was calm domestically, with secure borders and no imminent threat from either the Uzbeks or the Ottomans. What remained unchanged, however, was the constant threat of local disaffection with the weak central authority. That condition would not change (and in fact it would worsen) until Tahmāsp's grandson, Abbas I, assumed the throne.

Chaos under Tahmasp’s sons

On Tahmāsp’s death support for a successor coalesced around two of his nine sons; the support divided on ethnic lines—Ismail was supported by most of the Turkmen tribes as well as his sister Pari Khān Khānum, her Circassian uncle Shamkhal Sultan as well as the rest of the Circassians, while Haydar was mostly supported by the Georgians at court although he also had support from the Turkmen Ustajlu.[93] Ismail had been imprisoned at Qahqaha since 1556 by his father on charges of plotting a coup, but his selection was ensured when 30,000 Qizilbash supporters demonstrated outside the prison.[94] Shortly after the installation of Ismail II on August 22, 1576, Haydar was beheaded.

Ismail II (r. 1576–77)

Ismail’s 14-month reign was notable for two things: continual bloodletting of his relatives and others (including his own supporters) and his reversal on religion. He had all his relatives killed except for his older brother, Muhammad Khudabanda, who, being nearly blind, was not a real candidate for the throne, and Muhammad’s three sons, Hamza Mirza, Abbas Mirza and Abu Talib Mirza.[95] While the murderous actions of Ismail might be explained by political prudence (Ottoman sultans occasionally purged the bloodline to prevent succession rivals[96]), his actions against Shi’a suggest retaliation against his father, who saw himself as a pious practitioner. Ismail sought to reintroduce Sunni orthodoxy. But even here there may have been practical political considerations; namely, “concern about the excessively powerful position of Shi‘i dignitaries, which would have been undermined by a reintroduction of the Sunna.”[97] His conduct might also be explained by his drug use. In any event, he was ultimately killed (according to some accounts) by his Circassian half-sister, Pari Khān Khānum, who championed him over Haydar. She is said to have poisoned his opium.[98]

Mohammad Khodabanda (r. 1578–87)

On the death of Ismail II there were three candidates for succession: Shāh Shujā', the infant son of Ismail (only a few weeks old), Ismail's brother, Muhammad Khudabanda; and Muhammad’s son, Sultan Hamza Mirza, 11 years old at the time. Pari Khān Khānum, sister of Ismail and Muhammad, hoped to act as regent for any of the three (including her older brother, who was nearly blind). Muhammad was selected and received the crown on February 11, 1579.[99] Muhammad would rule for 10 years, and his sister at first dominated the court, but she fell in the first of many intrigues which continued even though the Uzbeks and Ottomans again used the opportunity to threaten Safavid territory.

"Jealousy among Rivals" attributed to Muhammadi. Miniature painting contained in a Persian volume entitled Busta by Sa'di in 1579, possibly under the patronage of Vizier Mirza Salman. E.M. Soudavar Trust, Houston, Texas.

Muhammad allowed others to direct the affairs of state, but none of them had either the prestige, skill or ruthlessness of either Tahmāsp or Ismail II to rein in the ethnic or palace factions, and each of his rulers met grim ends. Muhammad's younger sister, who had a hand in elevating and deposing Ismail II and thus had considerable influence among the Qizilbash, was the first. She did not last much longer than Muhammad's installation at Qazvin, where she was murdered.[100] She was done in by intrigues by the vizier Mirza Salman (who was a holdover from Ismail II's reign) and Muhammad's chief wife Khayr al-Nisa Begum, known as Mahd-i ‘Ulyā. There is some indication that Mirza Salman was the chief conspirator.[101] Pari Khān Khānum could master strong support among the Qizilbash, and her uncle, Shamkhal Sultan, was a prominent Circassian who held a high official position.[102] Mirza Salman left the capital before Pari Khān Khānum closed the gates and was able to meet Muhammad Khudabanda and his wife in Shiraz, to whom he offered his services.[103] He may have believed that he would rule once their enemy was disposed of, but Mahd-i ‘Ulyā proved the stronger of the two.

She was by no means content to exercise a more or less indirect influence on affairs of state: instead, she openly carried out all essential functions herself, including the appointment of the chief officers of the realm. In place of the usual royal audience, these high dignitaries had to assemble each morning at the entrance to the women’s apartments in order to receive the Begum’s orders. On these occasions the royal edicts were drawn up and sealed.[100]

The amirs demanded that she will be removed, and Mahd-i Ulya was strangled in the harem in July 1579 on the ground of an alleged affair with the brother of the Crimean khan, Adil Giray,[100] who was captured during the 1578-1590 Ottoman war and held captive in the capital, Qazvin.[104] None of the perpetrators were brought to justice, although the shah lectured the assembled amirs on how they departed from the old ways when the shah was master to his Sufi disciples. The shah used that occasion to proclaim the 11-year-old Sultan Hamza Mirza (Mahd-i ‘Ulyā's favorite) crown-prince.[105]

The palace intrigues reflected ethnic unrest which would soon erupt into open warfare. Persia's neighbors improved upon the opportunity to attack Persia. The Uzbeks struck in the Spring of 1578 but were repelled by Murtaza Quli Sultan, governor of Mashhad.[106] More seriously the Ottomans ended the Peace of Amasya and commenced a war with Persia that would last until 1590 by invading Iran's territories of Georgia and Shirvan. While the initial attacks were repelled, the Ottomans continued and grabbed considerable territory in Transcaucasia, Dagestan, Kurdistan and Luristan and in 993/1585 they even took Tabriz.[107]

In the midst of these foreign perils, rebellion broke out in Khorasan fomented by (or on behalf of) Muhammad's son, Abbas. Ali Quli Khan Shamlu, the lala of Abbas and Ismail II's man in Herat proclaimed Abbas shah there April 1581.[108] The following year the loyal Qizilbash forces (the Turkmen and Takkalu who controlled Qazvin), with vizier Mirza Salam and crown prince Sultan Hamza Mirza at their head to confront the rebelling Ustajlu-Shamlu coalition which had assumed control of Khorasan under the nominal rule of young Abbas.[109] The Ustajlu chief, Murshid Quli Khan, immediately acquiesced and received a royal pardon. Shumlu leader, Ali Quli Khan, however, holed himself inside Herat with Abbas. The vizier thought that the royal forces failed to prosecute the siege sufficiently and accused the forces of sedition. The loyal Qizibash recoiled at their treatment by Mirza Salam, who they resented for a number of reasons (not least of which was the fact that a Tajik was given military command over them), and demanded that he be turned over to them. The crown prince (the vizier's son-in-law) meekly turned him over, and the Qizilbash executed him and confiscated his property.[110] The siege of Herat thus ended in 1583 without Ali Quli Khan backing down and Khorasan was in a state of open rebellion.

In 1585 two events occurred that would combine to break the impasse among the Qizilbash. First, in the west, the Ottomans, seeing the disarray of the warriors, pressed deep into Safavid territory and occupied the old capital of Tabriz. Crown prince Hamza Mirza, now 21 years and director of Safavid affairs, led a force to confront the Ottomans, but in 1586 was murdered under mysterious circumstances. In the east Murshid Quli Khan, of the Ustajlu tribe, managed to snatch Abbas away from the Shamlus. Two years later in 1587, the massive invasion of Khorasan by the Uzbeks proved the occasion whereby Murshid Quli Khan would make a play for supremacy in Qazvin. When he reached the capital with Abbas a public demonstration in the boy's favor decided the issue, and Shah Muhammad voluntarily handed over the insignia of kingship to his son, who was crowned Abbas I on October 1, 1588. The moment was grave for the empire, with the Ottomans deep in Persian territory in the west and north and the Uzbeks in possession of half of Khorasan in the east.[111]

Shah Abbas (r. 1588–1629)

Shah ‘Abbās King of the Persians.
Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, Atrium heroicum Caesarum (1600–2).

The 16-year-old Abbas I was installed as nominal shah in 1588, but the real power was intended to remain in the hands of his "mentor," Murshid Quli Kan, who reorganized court offices and principal governorships among the Qizilbash[112] and took the title of wakīl for himself.[113] Abbas' own position seemed even more dependent on Qizilbash approval than even Muhammad Khodabanda's was. The dependence of Abbas on the Qizilbash (which provided the only military force) was further reinforced by the precarious situation of the empire, in the vice of Ottoman and Uzbek territorial plunder. Yet over the course of ten years Abbas was able, using cautiously-timed but nonetheless decisive steps, to affect a profound transformation of Safavid administration and military, throw back the foreign invaders, and preside over a flourishing of Persian art.

Restoration of central authority

Whether Abbas had fully formed his strategy at the onset, at least in retrospect his method of restoring the shah's authority involved three phases: (1) restoration of internal security and law and order; (2) recovery of the eastern territories from the Uzbek's; and (3) recovery of the western territories from the Ottomans.[114] Before he could begin to embark on the first stage, he needed relief from the most serious threat to the empire—the military pressure from the Ottomans. He did so by taking the humiliating step of coming to peace terms with the Ottomans by making, for now, permanent their territorial gains in Iraq and the territories in the north, including Azerbaijan, Qarabagh, Ganja, eastern Georgia (comprising the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti), Dagestan, and Kurdistan.[115][116] At the same time, he took steps to ensure that the Qizilbash did not mistake this apparent show of weakness as a signal for more tribal rivalry at the court. Although no one could have bristled more at the power grab of his "mentor" Murshid Quli Khan, he rounded up the leaders of a plot to assassinate the wakīl and had them executed. Then, having made the point that he would not encourage rivalries even purporting to favor his interests, he felt secure enough to have Murshid Quli Khan assassinated on his own orders in July 1589.[117] It was clear that the style of leadership would be entirely different than Muhammad Khodabanda's leadership.

Safavid Persian Empire, in 1598
Statue of Allahverdi Khan (surnamed Undiladze) in Isfahan. Being one if not the most notable ghulam of the Safavid era, he functioned as statesman and the commander of the armed forces from 1598 until his death in 1613.

Abbas was able to begin gradually transforming the empire from a tribal confederation to a modern imperial government by transferring provinces from mamalik (provincial) rule governed by a Qizilbash chief and the revenue of which mostly supported local Qizilbash administration and forces to khass (central) rule presided over by a court appointee and the revenue of which reverted to the court. Particularly important in this regard were the Gilan and Mazandaran provinces, which produced Persia's single most important export; silk. With the substantial new revenue, Abbas was able to build up a central, standing army, loyal only to him. This freed him of his dependence on Qizilbash warriors loyal to local tribal chiefs.[118]

Map of Safavid Persia, in 1610

What effectively fully severed Abbas's dependence on the Qizilbash, however, was how he constituted this new army. In order not to favor one Turkic tribe over another and to avoid inflaming the Turk-Persian enmity, he recruited his army from the "third force", a policy that had been implemented in its baby-steps since the reign of Tahmasp I—the Circassian, Georgian and to a lesser extent Armenian ghulāms (slaves) which (after conversion to Islam) were trained for the military or some branch of the civil or military administration. The standing army created by Abbas consisted of: (1) 10,000-15,000 cavalry ghulām regiments solely composed of ethnic Caucasians, armed with muskets in addition to the usual weapons (then the largest cavalry in the world[119]); (2) a corps of musketeers, tufangchiyān, mainly Iranians, originally foot soldiers but eventually mounted, and (3) a corps of artillerymen, tūpchiyān. Both corps of musketeers and artillerymen totaled 12,000 men. In addition the shah's personal bodyguard, made up exclusively of Caucasian ghulāms, was dramatically increased to 3,000.[120] This force of well-trained Caucasian ghulams under Abbas amounted to a total of near 40,000 soldiers paid for and beholden to the Shah.[121][122]

Abbas also greatly increased the number of cannons at his disposal, permitting him to field 500 in a single battle.[122] Ruthless discipline was enforced and looting was severely punished. Abbas was also able to draw on military advice from a number of European envoys, particularly from the English adventurers Sir Anthony Shirley and his brother Robert Shirley, who arrived in 1598 as envoys from the Earl of Essex on an unofficial mission to induce Persia into an anti-Ottoman alliance.[123] As mentioned by the Encyclopaedia Iranica, lastly, from 1600 onwards, the Safavid statesman Allāhverdī Khan, in conjunction with Robert Sherley, undertook further reorganizations of the army, which meant among other things further dramatically increasing the number of ghulams to 25,000.[124]

Abbas also moved the capital to Isfahan, deeper into central Iran. Abbas I built a new city next to the ancient Persian one. From this time the state began to take on a more Persian character. The Safavids ultimately succeeded in establishing a new Persian national monarchy.

Abbas I as shown on one of the paintings in the Chehel Sotoun pavilion.

Recovery of territory from the Uzbeks and the Ottomans

Abbas I first fought the Uzbeks, recapturing Herat and Mashhad in 1598. Then he turned against Persia's arch rival, the Ottomans, recapturing Baghdad, eastern Iraq and the Caucasian provinces by 1616, all through the 1603-1618, marking the first grand Safavid pitched victory over the Ottomans. He also used his new force to dislodge the Portuguese from Bahrain (1602) and, with English help, from Hormuz (1622), in the Persian Gulf (a vital link in Portuguese trade with India). He expanded commercial links with the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Thus Abbas was able to break the dependence on the Qizilbash for military might indefinitely and therefore was able to centralize control, for the first time since fully the foundation of the Safavid state.

The Ottoman Turks and Safavids fought over the fertile plains of Iraq for more than 150 years. The capture of Baghdad by Ismail I in 1509 was only followed by its loss to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I in 1534. After subsequent campaigns, the Safavids recaptured Baghdad in 1623 during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–39) yet lost it again to Murad IV in 1638 after Abbas had died. Henceforth a treaty, signed in Qasr-e Shirin known as the Treaty of Zuhab was established delineating a border between Iran and Turkey in 1639, a border which still stands in northwest Iran/southeast Turkey. The 150-year tug-of-war accentuated the Sunni and Shi'a rift in Iraq.

Quelling the Georgian uprising

Rostom (also known as Rustam Khan), viceroy of Kartli, eastern Georgia, from 1633-1658.

In 1614–16 during the Ottoman-Safavid War (1603-1618), Abbas suppressed a rebellion led by his formerly most loyal Georgian subjects Luarsab II and Teimuraz I (also known as Tahmuras Khan) in the Kingdom of Kakheti. Several years earlier, in 1613, Abbas had appointed these trusted Georgian gholams of his on the puppet thrones of Kartli and Kakheti, the Iranian Safavid ruled areas of Georgia. Later that year, when the shah summoned them to join him on a hunting expedition in Mazandaran, they didn't show up due to the fear they would be either imprisoned or killed.[125] Ultimately forming an alliance, the two sought refuge with the Ottoman forces in Ottoman ruled Imereti. This defection of two of the shah's most trusted subjects and gholams infuriated the shah, as reported by the Safavid court historian Iskander Beg Munshi.[125] The following spring in 1614, Abbas I appointed a grandson of Alexander II of Imereti to the throne of Kartli, Jesse of Kakheti also known as "Isā Khān".[125] Raised up at the court in Isfahan and a Muslim, he was fully loyal to the shah. Subsequently, the shah marched upon Grem, the capital of Imereti, and punished its peoples for harbouring his defected subjects. He returned to Kartli, and in two punitive campaigns he devastated Tblisi, killed 60–70,000 Kakheti Georgian peasants, and deported between 130,000-200,000 Georgian captives to mainland Iran.[126][127] After having fully secured the region, he executed the rebellious Luarsab II of Kartli and later had the Georgian queen Ketevan, who had been sent to the shah as negotiator, tortured to death when she refused to renounce Christianity, in an act of revenge for the recalcitrance of Teimuraz.[128][129] Kakheti lost two-thirds of its population in these years by Abbas' punitive campaign due to being either deported to Iran like the majority were, or to a lesser extent being slaughtered.[130] Teimuraz did return to eastern Georgia in 1615 and defeated there a Safavid force. However it was just a setback, as Abbas had already been making long-term plans for such a thing never to happen again, for he was (eventually successfully) making the eastern Georgian territories an integral part of the Safavid provinces; in 1619 he appointed the loyal Simon II (or Semayun Khan) on the symbolic throne of Kakheti, while placing a series of his own governors to rule of districts where rebellious inhabitants were mostly located.[125] Moreover, he planned to deport all nobles of Kartli.

After the events which ended in 1616, Iranian rule had been fully restored over eastern Georgia, but the Georgian territories would continue to produce resistance to Safavid enroachments from 1624 until Abbas' death.[131]

Suppressing the Kurdish rebellion

In 1609–10, a war broke out between Kurdish tribes and the Safavid Empire. After a long and bloody siege led by the Safavid grand vizier Hatem Beg, which lasted from November 1609 to the summer of 1610, the Kurdish stronghold of Dimdim was captured. Shah Abbas ordered a general massacre in Beradost and Mukriyan (Mahabad, reported by Eskandar Beg Monshi, Safavid Historian (1557–1642), in "Alam Ara Abbasi") and resettled the Turkic Afshar tribe in the region while deporting many Kurdish tribes to Khorasan.[132][133] Nowadays, there is a community of nearly 1.7 million people who are descendants of the tribes deported from Kurdistan to Khorasan (Northeastern Iran) by the Safavids.[134]

Contacts with Europe during Abbas's reign

The ambassador Husain Ali Beg led the first Persian embassy to Europe (1599–1602).

Abbas's tolerance towards Christians was part of his policy of establishing diplomatic links with European powers to try to enlist their help in the fight against their common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The idea of such an anti-Ottoman alliance was not a new one—over a century before, Uzun Hassan, then ruler of part of Iran, had asked the Venetians for military aid—but none of the Safavids had made diplomatic overtures to Europe. Shah Ismail I was the first of the Safavids that tried to establish once again an alliance against the common Ottoman enemy through the earlier stages of the Habsburg–Persian alliance, but this also proved to be largely unfruitful during his reign.[135] Abbas's attitude however was in marked contrast to that of his grandfather, Tahmasp I, who had expelled the English traveller Anthony Jenkinson from his court on hearing he was a Christian.[136] For his part, Abbas declared that he "preferred the dust from the shoe soles of the lowest Christian to the highest Ottoman personage."[137] Abbas would take active and all measures needed in order to get the alliances done.

Fresco in the Doge's Palace in Venice depicting Doge Marino Grimani receiving the Persian Ambassadors, 1599

In 1599, Abbas sent his first diplomatic mission to Europe. The group crossed the Caspian Sea and spent the winter in Moscow, before proceeding through Norway, Germany (where it was received by Emperor Rudolf II) to Rome where Pope Clement VIII gave the travellers a long audience. They finally arrived at the court of Philip III of Spain in 1602. Although the expedition never managed to return to Iran, being shipwrecked on the journey around Africa, it marked an important new step in contacts between Iran and Europe. The Europeans began to be fascinated by the Iranians and their culture—Shakespeare's 1601–2 Twelfth Night, for example, makes two references (at II.5 and III.4) to 'the Sophy', then the English term for the Shahs of Iran.[138][139] Henceforward, the number of diplomatic missions to and fro greatly increased.[140]

Abbas I as a new Caesar being honoured by the Trumpets of Fame, together with the 1609-1615 Persian embassy, in Allégorie de l'Occasion, by Frans II Francken, 1628.

The shah had set great store on an alliance with Spain, the chief opponent of the Ottomans in Europe. Abbas offered trading rights and the chance to preach Christianity in Iran in return for help against the Ottomans. But the stumbling block of Hormuz remained, a vassal kingdom which had fallen into Spanish Habsburgs' hands when the King of Spain inherited the throne of Portugal in 1580. The Spanish demanded Abbas break off relations with the English before they would consider relinquishing the town. Abbas was unable to comply. Eventually Abbas became frustrated with Spain, as he did with the Holy Roman Empire, which wanted him to make his over 400,000 Armenian subjects swear allegiance to the Pope but did not trouble to inform the shah when the Emperor Rudolf signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans. Contacts with the Pope, Poland and Moscow were no more fruitful.[141]

More came of Abbas's contacts with the English, although England had little interest in fighting against the Ottomans. The Sherley brothers arrived in 1598 and helped reorganize the Iranian army, which proved to be crucial in the Ottoman–Safavid War (1603–18), which resulted in Ottoman defeats in all stages of the war and the first clear pitched Safavid victory of their arch rivals. One of the Shirley brothers, Robert Shirley, would lead Abbas's second diplomatic mission to Europe from 1609-1615.[142] The English at sea, represented by the English East India Company, also began to take an interest in Iran and in 1622 four of its ships helped Abbas retake Hormuz from the Portuguese in the Capture of Ormuz (1622). It was the beginning of the East India Company's long-running interest in Iran.[143]

Succession and legacy of Abbas I

Due to his obsessive fear of assassination, Shah Abbas either put to death or blinded any member of his family who aroused his suspicion. One of his sons, his oldest son and the crown prince Mohammad Baqer Mirza, was executed following a court intrigue in which several Circassians were involved, while two others were blinded. Since two other sons had predeceased him, the result was a personal tragedy for Shah Abbas. When he died on 19 January 1629, he had no son capable of succeeding him.[144]

The beginning of the 17th century saw the power of the Qizilbash drastically diminish, the original militia that had helped Ismail I capture Tabriz and which had gained many administrative powers over the centuries. Power was fully shifting to the new class of Caucasian deportees and imports, many of the hundreds of thousands ethnic Georgians, Circassians, and Armenians. This new society layer would continue to play a vital role in Iranian history up to including the fall of the Qajar dynasty, some 300 years after Abbas' death.

At its zenith, during the long reign of Shah Abbas I the empire's reach comprised Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Bahrain, and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Decline of the Safavid state

Shah Abbas the II holding a banquet for foreign dignitaries. Detail from a ceiling fresco at the Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan.

In addition to fighting its perennial enemies, their arch rival the Ottomans and the Uzbeks as the 17th century progressed, Iran had to contend with the rise of new neighbors. Russian Muscovy in the previous century had deposed two western Asian khanates of the Golden Horde and expanded its influence into Europe, the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia. Astrakhan came under Russian rule, nearing the Safavid possessions in Dagestan. In the far eastern territories, the Mughals of India had expanded into Khorasan (now Afghanistan) at the expense of Iranian control, briefly taking Kandahar.

In 1659, the Kingdom of Kakheti rose up against the Safavid Iranian rule due to a change of policy that included the mass settling of Qizilbash Turkic tribes in the region in order to repopulate the province, after Shah Abbas' earlier mass deportations of between 130,000[145] - 200,000[146] Georgian subjects to Iran's mainland and massacre of another thousand in 1616 virtually left the province without any even remotely substantial amount of population. This Bakhtrioni Uprising was successfully defeated under personal direction of Shah Abbas II himself. However, strategically it remained inconclusive.[147] The Iranian authority was restored in Kakheti, but the Qizilbash Turkics were prevented from settling in Kakheti, which undermined the planned Iranian policies in the respective province.

More importantly, the Dutch East India company and later English/British used their superior means of maritime power to control trade routes in the western Indian ocean. As a result, Iran was cut off from overseas links to East Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and South Asia.[148] Overland trade grew notably however, as Iran was able to further develop its overland trade with North and Central Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century.[149] In the late seventeenth century, Iranian merchants established a permanent presence as far north as Narva on the Baltic sea, in what now is Estonia.[150]

The Dutch and English were still able to drain the Iranian government of much of its precious metal supplies. Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were therefore rendered ineffectual, and the Iranian government declined and finally collapsed when a serious military threat emerged on its eastern border in the early eighteenth century.[151] The end of the reign of Abbas II, 1666, thus marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty. Despite falling revenues and military threats, later shahs had lavish lifestyles. Sultan Husayn (1694–1722) in particular was known for his love of wine and disinterest in governance.[152]

Map of Persia, c. 1700 by Johann Baptist Homann (1644–1724)

The country was repeatedly raided on its frontiers—Kerman by Baloch tribes in 1698, Khorasan by the Hotakis in 1717, Dagestan and northern Shirvan by the Lezgins in 1721, constantly in Mesopotamia by Sunni peninsula Arabs. Sultan Hosein tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in Qandahar from Sunni to the Shi'a sect of Islam. In response, a Ghilzai Afghan chieftain named Mir Wais Hotak revolted and killed Gurgin Khan, the Safavid governor of the region, along with his army. In 1722, an Afghan army led by Mir Wais' son Mahmud advanced on the heart of the empire and defeated the government forces at the Battle of Gulnabad. He then besieged the capital of Isfahan, until Shah Sultan Husayn abdicated and acknowledged him as the new king of Persia.[153][full citation needed] At the same time, the Russians led by Peter the Great attacked and conquered swaths of Safavid Iran's North Caucasian, Transcaucasian, and northern mainland territories through the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723). The Safavids' arch rivals, the neighbouring Ottomans, invaded western and northwestern Safavid Iran and took swaths of territory there, including the city of Baghdad. Together with the Russians, they agreed to divide and keep the conquered Iranian territories for themselves as confirmed in the Treaty of Constantinople (1724).[154]

A map of Safavid Empire in 1720, showing different states of Persia.

The tribal Afghans rode roughshod over their conquered territory for seven years but were prevented from making further gains by Nader Shah, a former slave who had risen to military leadership within the Afshar tribe in Khorasan, a vassal state of the Safavids. Quickly making name as a military genius both feared and respected amongst its friends and enemies (including Persia's arch rival the Ottoman Empire, and Russia; both empires Nader would deal with soon afterwards), Nader Shah easily defeated the Ghilzai Hotaki forces in the 1729 Battle of Damghan. He had removed them from power and banished them out of Persia by 1729. In 1732 by the Treaty of Resht and in 1735 Treaty of Ganja, he negotiated an agreement with the government of Empress Anna Ioanovna for them to cede back the recently annexed Iranian territories, making most of the Caucasus fall back into Iranian hands, while establishing an Irano-Russian alliance against the common neighbouring Ottoman enemy.[155][156] In the Ottoman–Persian War (1730–35), he retook all territories lost by the Ottoman invasion of the 1720s, as well as beyond. With the Safavid state and its territories secured, in 1738 Nader conquered the Hotaki's last stronghold in Qandahar; in the same year, in need of fortune to aid his military careers against his Ottoman and Russian imperial rivals, he started his invasion of the wealthy but weak Mughal Empire accompanied by his Georgian subject Erekle II,[157] occupying Ghazni, Kabul, Lahore, and as far as Delhi, in India, when he completely humiliated and looted the military inferior Mughals. These cities were later inherited by his Abdali Afghan military commander, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Nadir had effective control under Shah Tahmasp II and then ruled as regent of the infant Abbas III until 1736 when he had himself crowned shah.

Part of the Safavid Persian Empire (on right), the Ottoman Empire, and West Asia in general. Emanuel Bowen, 1744–52.

Immediately after Nader Shah's assassination in 1747 and the disintegration of his short-lived empire, the Safavids were re-appointed as shahs of Iran in order to lend legitimacy to the nascent Zand dynasty. However the brief puppet regime of Ismail III ended in 1760 when Karim Khan felt strong enough to take nominal power of the country as well and officially end the Safavid dynasty.

Shia Islam as the state religion

Shah Suleiman I and his courtiers, Isfahan, 1670. Painter is Aliquli Jabbadar, and is kept at The St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies in Russia, ever since it was acquired by Tsar Nicholas II. Note the two Georgian figures with their names at the top left.

Even though the Safavids were not the first Shia rulers in Iran, they played a crucial role in making Shia Islam the official religion in the whole of Iran, as well as what is nowadays the Republic of Azerbaijan.[158] There were large Shia communities in some cities like Qom and Sabzevar as early as the 8th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries the Buwayhids, who were of the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia, ruled in Fars, Isfahan and Baghdad. As a result of the Mongol conquest and the relative religious tolerance of the Ilkhanids, Shia dynasties were re-established in Iran, Sarbedaran in Khorasan being the most important. The Ilkhanid ruler Öljaitü converted to Twelver Shiism in the 13th century.

Following his conquest of Iran and Azerbaijan, Ismail I made conversion mandatory for the largely Sunni population. The Sunni Ulema or clergy were either killed or exiled. Ismail I, brought in mainstream Ithnā'ashariyyah Shi'a religious leaders and granted them land and money in return for loyalty. Later, during the Safavid and especially Qajar period, the Shia Ulema's power increased and they were able to exercise a role, independent of or compatible with the government.

Iran became a feudal theocracy: the Shah was held to be the divinely ordained head of state and religion. In the following centuries, this religious stance cemented both Iran's internal cohesion and national feelings and provoked attacks by its Sunni neighbors, most notably its neighbouring rival, the Ottoman Empire.

Military and the role of Qizilbash

A Safavid helmet

The Qizilbash were a wide variety of Shi'ite (ghulāt) and mostly Turcoman militant groups who helped found the Safavid Empire. Their military power was essential during the reign of the Shahs Ismail and Tahmasp. The Qizilbash tribes were essential to the military of Iran until the rule of Shah Abbas I- their leaders were able to exercise enormous influence and participate in court intrigues (assassinating Shah Ismail II for example).

A major problem faced by Ismail I after the establishment of the Safavid state was how to bridge the gap between the two major ethnic groups in that state: the Qizilbash ("Redhead") Turcomans, the "men of sword" of classical Islamic society whose military prowess had brought him to power, and the Persian elements, the "men of the pen", who filled the ranks of the bureaucracy and the religious establishment in the Safavid state as they had done for centuries under previous rulers of Persia, be they Arabs, Mongols, or Turkmens. As Vladimir Minorsky put it, friction between these two groups was inevitable, because the Qizilbash "were no party to the national Persian tradition".

Between 1508 and 1524, the year of Ismail's death, the shah appointed five successive Persians to the office of vakil. When the second Persian vakil was placed in command of a Safavid army in Transoxiana, the Qizilbash, considering it a dishonor to be obliged to serve under him, deserted him on the battlefield with the result that he was slain. The fourth vakil was murdered by the Qizilbash, and the fifth was put to death by them.[53]

Reforms in the military

Persian Musketeer in time of Abbas I by Habib-Allah Mashadi after Falsafi (Berlin Museum of Islamic Art).

Shah Abbas realized that in order to retain absolute control over his empire without antagonizing the Qizilbash, he needed to create reforms that reduced the dependency that the shah had on their military support. Part of these reforms was the creation of the 3rd force within the aristocracy and all other functions within the empire, but even more important in undermining the authority of the Qizilbash was the introduction of the Royal Corps into the military. This military force would serve the shah only and eventually consisted of four separate branches:[159]

  • Shahsevans: these were 12,000 strong and built up from the small group of qurchis that Shah Abbas had inherited from his predecessor. The Shahsevans, or "Friends of the King", were Qizilbash tribesmen who had forsaken their tribal allegiance for allegiance to the shah alone.[160]
  • Ghulams: Tahmasp I had started introducing huge amounts of Georgian, Circassian and Armenian slaves and deportees from the Caucasus, of whom a sizeable amount would become part of the future ghulam system. Shah Abbas expanded this program significantly and fully implemented it, and eventually created a force of 15,000 ghulam cavalrymen and 3,000 ghulam royal bodyguards. With the advent of the brother's Shirley at Abbas' court and by the efforts of statesman Allahverdi Khan, from 1600 onwards, the ghulam fighting regiments were further dramatically expanded under Abbas reaching 25,000.[161] Under Abbas, this force amounted to a total of near 40,000 soldiers paid for and beholden to the Shah.[121][122][162] They would become the elite soldiers of the Safavid armies (like the Ottoman Jannisary).[89]
  • Musketers: realizing the advantages that the Ottomans had because of their firearms, Shah Abbas was at pains to equip both the qurchi and the ghulam soldiers with up-to-date weaponry. More importantly, for the first time in Iranian history, a substantial infantry corps of musketeers (tofang-chis), numbering 12 000, was created.
  • Artillery Corps: with the help of Westerners, he also formed an artillery corps of 12 000 men, although this was the weakest element in his army. According to Sir Thomas Herbert, who accompanied the British embassy to Persia in 1628, the Persians relied heavily on support from the Europeans in manufacturing cannons.[163] It wasn't until a century later, when Nader Shah became the Commander in Chief of the military that sufficient effort was put into modernizing the artillery corps and the Persians managed to excel and become self-sufficient in the manufacturing of firearms.

Despite the reforms, the Qizilbash would remain the strongest and most effective element within the military, accounting for more than half of its total strength.[163] But the creation of this large standing army, that, for the first time in Safavid history, was serving directly under the Shah, significantly reduced their influence, and perhaps any possibilities for the type of civil unrest that had caused havoc during the reign of the previous shahs.


A proper term for the Safavid society is what we today can call a meritocracy, meaning a society in which officials were appointed on the basis of worth and merit, and not on the basis of birth. It was certainly not an oligarchy, nor was it an aristocracy. Sons of nobles were considered for the succession of their fathers as a mark of respect, but they had to prove themselves worthy of the position. This system avoided an entrenched aristocracy or a cast society.[164] There even are numerous recorded accounts of laymen that rose to high official posts, as a result of their merits.[165]

Nevertheless, the Iranian society during the Safavids was that of a hierarchy, with the Shah at the apex of the hierarchical pyramid, the common people, merchants and peasants at the base, and the aristocrats in between. The term dowlat, which in modern Persian means "government", was then an abstract term meaning "bliss" or "felicity", and it began to be used as concrete sense of the Safavid state, reflecting the view that the people had of their ruler, as someone elevated above humanity.[166]

Also among the aristocracy, in the middle of the hierarchical pyramid, were the religious officials, who, mindful of the historic role of the religious classes as a buffer between the ruler and his subjects, usually did their best to shield the ordinary people from oppressive governments.[166]

The customs and culture of the people

Jean Chardin devoted a whole chapter in his book to describing the Persian character, which apparently fascinated him greatly. As he spent a large bulk of his life in Persia, he involved himself in, and took part in, their everyday rituals and habits, and eventually acquired intimate knowledge of their culture, customs and character. He admired their consideration towards foreigners, but he also stumbled upon characteristics that he found challenging. His descriptions of the public appearance, clothes and customs are corroborated by the miniatures, drawings and paintings from that time which have survived. As he describes them:[167]

Their imagination is animated, quick and fruitful. Their memory is free and prolific. They are very favorably drawn to the sciences, the liberal and mechanical arts. Their temperament is open and leans towards sensual pleasure and self-indulgence, which makes them pay little attention to economy or business.

He then goes on:[167]

They are very philosophical over the good and bad things in life and about expectations for the future. They are little tainted with avarice, desiring only to acquire in order to spend. They love to enjoy what is to hand and they refuse nothing which contributes to it, having no anxiety about the future which they leave to providence and fate.

But as he also experienced:[168]

...the Persians are dissembling, shamelessly deceitful and the greatest flatterers in the world, using great deception and insolence. They lack good faith in business dealings, in which they cheat so adeptly that one is always taken in. Hypocrisy is the usual disguise in which they proceed. They say their prayers and perform their rituals in the most devout manner. They hold the wisest and most pious conversation of which they are capable. And although they are naturally inclined to humanity, hospitality, mercy and other worldly goods, nevertheless, they do not cease feigning in order to give the semblance of being much better than they really are.


Anthony Shirley and Robert Shirley (pictured in 1622) helped modernize the Persian Army.

It is however no question, from reading Chardin's descriptions of their manners, that he considered them to be a well educated and well behaved people, who certainly knew the strict etiquettes of social intercourse. As he describes them,[169]

Unlike Europeans, they much disliked physical activity, and were not in favor of exercise for its own sake, preferring the leisure of repose and luxuries that life could offer. Travelling was valued only for the specific purpose of getting from one place to another, not interesting them self in seeing new places and experiencing different cultures. It was perhaps this sort of attitude towards the rest of the world that accounted for the ignorance of Persians regarding other countries of the world. The exercises that they took part in were for keeping the body supple and sturdy and to acquire skills in handling of arms. Archery took first place. Second place was held by fencing, where the wrist had to be firm but flexible and movements agile. Thirdly there was horsemanship. A very strenuous form of exercise which the Persians greatly enjoyed was hunting.[170]


A persian miniature depicting a polo-match

Since pre-Islamic times, the sport of wrestling had been an integral part of the Iranian identity, and the professional wrestlers, who performed in Zurkhanehs, were considered important members of the society. Each town had their own troop of wrestlers, called Pahlavans. Their sport also provided the masses with entertainment and spectacle. Chardin described one such event:[171]

As well as wrestling, what gathered the masses was fencing, tightrope dancers, puppet-players and acrobats, performing in large squares, such as the Royal square. A leisurely form of amusement was to be found in the cabarets, particularly in certain districts, like those near the mausoleum of Harun-e Velayat. People met there to drink liqueurs or coffee, to smoke tobacco or opium, and to chat or listen to poetry.[172]

Clothes and Appearances

Lady's clothing in the 1600s
Men's clothing in the 1600s

As noted before, a key aspect of the Persian character was its love of luxury, particularly on keeping up appearances. They would adorn their clothes, wearing stones and decorate the harness of their horses. Men wore many rings on their fingers, almost as many as their wives. They also placed jewels on their arms, such as on daggers and swords. Daggers were worn at the waist. In describing the lady's clothing, he noted that Persian dress revealed more of the figure than did the European, but that women appeared differently depending on whether they were at home in the presence of friends and family, or if they were in the public. In private they usually wore a veil that only covered the hair and the back, but upon leaving the home, they put on manteaus, large cloaks that concealed their whole bodies except their faces. They often dyed their feet and hands with henna. Their hairstyle was simple, the hair gathered back in tresses, often adorned at the ends with pearls and clusters of jewels. Women with slender waists were regarded as more attractive than those with larger figures. Women from the provinces and slaves pierced their left nostrils with rings, but well-born Persian women would not do this.[173]

The most precious accessory for men was the turban. Although they lasted a long time it was necessary to have changes for different occasions like weddings and the Nowruz, while men of status never wore the same turban two days running. Clothes that became soiled in any way were changed immediately.[174]

Turks and Tajiks

Although the Safavid rulers and citizens were of native stock and continuously reasserted their Iranian identity, the power structure of the Safavid state was mainly divided into two groups: the Turkic-speaking military/ruling elite—whose job was to maintain the territorial integrity and continuity of the Iranian empire through their leadership—and the Persian-speaking administrative/governing elite—whose job was to oversee the operation and development of the nation and its identity through their high positions. Thus came the term "Turk and Tajik", which was used by native Iranians for many generations to describe the Persianate, or Turko-Persian, nature of many dynasties which ruled over Greater Iran between the 12th and 20th centuries, in that these dynasties promoted and helped continue the dominant Persian linguistic and cultural identity of their states, although the dynasties themselves were of non-Persian (e.g. Turkic) linguistic origins. The relationship between the Turkic-speaking 'Turks' and Persian-speaking 'Tajiks' was symbiotic, yet some form of rivalry did exist between the two. As the former represented the "people of the sword" and the latter, "the people of the pen", high-level official posts would naturally be reserved for the Persians. Indeed, this had been the situation throughout Persian history, even before the Safavids, ever since the Arab conquest.[175] Shah Tahmasp introduced a change to this, when he, and the other Safavid rulers who succeeded him, sought to blur the formerly defined lines between the two linguistic groups, by taking the sons of Turkic-speaking officers into the royal household for their education in the Persian language. Consequently, they were slowly able to take on administrative jobs in areas which had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of the ethnic Persians.[176]

The third force: Caucasians

Daud Khan Undiladze, military commander, ghilman and the governor of Ganja and Karabakh from 1625 to 1630.

From 1540 and onwards, Shah Tahmasp initiated a gradual transformation of the Iranian society by slowly constructing a new branch and layer solely composed of ethnic Caucasians, which would be completed, significantly widened and fully implemented by Abbas the Great (Abbas I). According to Encyclopedia Iranica, for Tahmāsp, the background of this initiation and eventual composition that would be only finalized under Shah Abbas I, circled around the military tribal elite of the empire, the Qezelbāš, who believed that physical proximity to and control of a member of the immediate Safavid family guaranteed spiritual advantages, political fortune, and material advancement.[87] This was a huge impedance for the authority of the Shah, and furthermore, it undermined any developments without the agreeing or shared profit of the Qezelbāš. As Tahmāsp understood and realized that any long-term solutions would mainly involve minimizing the political and military presence of the Qezelbāš as a whole, it would require them to be replaced by a whole new layer in society, that would question and battle the authority of the Qezelbāš on every possible level, and minimize any of their influences. This layer would be solely composed of hundreds of thousands of deported, imported, and to a lesser extent voluntarily migrated ethnic Circassians, Georgians, and Armenians. This layer would become the "third force" in Iranian society.

The series of campaigns that Tahmāsp subsequently waged after realising this in the wider Caucasus between 1540 and 1554 were meant to uphold the morale and the fighting efficiency of the Qezelbāš military,[177] but they brought home large numbers (over 70,000)[178] of Christian Georgian, Circassian and Armenian slaves as its main objective, and would be the basis of this third force; the new (Caucasian) layer in society.[88] According to Encyclopedia Iranica, this would be as well the starting point for the corps of the ḡolāmān-e ḵāṣṣa-ye-e šarifa, or royal slaves, who would dominate the Safavid military for most of the empire's length, and would form a crucial part of the third force. As non-Turcoman converts to Islam, these Circassian and Georgian ḡolāmāns (also written as ghulams) were completely unrestrained by clan loyalties and kinship obligations, which was an attractive feature for a ruler like Tahmāsp whose childhood and upbringing had been deeply affected by Qezelbāš tribal politics.[87] Their formation, implementation, and usage was very much alike to the janissaries of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire.[89] In turn, many of these transplanted women became wives and concubines of Tahmāsp, and the Safavid harem emerged as a competitive, and sometimes lethal, arena of ethnic politics as cliques of Turkmen, Circassian, and Georgian women and courtiers vied with each other for the king's attention.[87] Although the first slave soldiers would not be organized until the reign of Abbas I, during Tahmāsp's time Caucasians would already become important members of the royal household, Harem and in the civil and military administration,[90][91] and by that becoming their way of eventually becoming an integral part of the society. His successor Ismail II brought another 30,000 Circassians and Georgians to Iran of which many joined the ghulam force.[179]

Following the full implementation of this policy by Abbas I, the women (only Circassian and Georgian) now very often came to occupy prominent positions in the harems of the Safavid elite, while the men who became part of the ghulam "class" as part of the powerful third force were given special training on completion of which they were either enrolled in one of the newly created ghilman regiments, or employed in the royal household.[180] The rest of the masses of deportees and importees, a significant portion numbering many hundreds of thousands, were settled in various regions of mainland Iran, and were given all kinds of roles as part of society, such as craftsmen, farmers, cattle breeders, traders, soldiers, generals, governors, woodcutters, etc., all also part of the newly established layer in Iranian society.[181]

Shah Abbas, who significantly enlargened and completed this program and under whom the creation of this new layer in society may be mentioned as fully "finalized", completed the ghulam system as well. As part of its completion, he as well greatly expanded the ghulam military corps from just a few hundred during Tahmāsp's era, to 15,000 highly trained cavalrymen,[182] as part of a whole army division of 40,000 Caucasian ghulams. He then went on to completely reduce the number of Qizilbash provincial governorships and systematically moved qizilbash governors to other districts, thus disrupting their ties with the local community, and reducing their power. Most were replaced by a ghulam, and within short time, Georgians, Circassians, and to a lesser extent Armenians had been appointed to many of the highest offices of state, and were employed within all other possible sections of society. By 1595, Allahverdi Khan, a Georgian, became one of the most powerful men in the Safavid state, when he was appointed the Governor-General of Fars, one of the richest provinces in Persia. And his power reached its peak in 1598, when he became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.[183] Thus, starting from the reign of Tahmāsp I but only fully implemented and completed by Shah Abbas, this new group solely composed of ethnic Caucasians eventually came to constitute a powerful "third force" within the state as a new layer in society, alongside the Persians and the Qizilbash Turks, and it only goes to prove the meritocratic society of the Safavids.

It is estimated that during Abbas' reign alone some 130,000-200,000 Georgians,[184][185] tens of thousands of Circassians, and around 300,000 Armenians[186] had been deported and imported from the Caucasus to mainland Iran, all obtaining functions and roles as part of the newly created layer in society, such as within the highest positions of the state, or as farmers, soldiers, craftspeople, as part of the Royal harem, the Court, and peasantry, amongst others.

Emergence of a clerical aristocracy

An important feature of the Safavid society was the alliance that emerged between the ulama (the religious class) and the merchant community. The latter included merchants trading in the bazaars, the trade and artisan guilds (asnāf) and members of the quasi-religious organizations run by dervishes (futuvva). Because of the relative insecurity of property ownership in Persia, many private landowners secured their lands by donating them to the clergy as so called vaqf. They would thus retain the official ownership and secure their land from being confiscated by royal commissioners or local governors, as long as a percentage of the revenues from the land went to the ulama. Increasingly, members of the religious class, particularly the mujtahids and the seyyeds, gained full ownership of these lands, and, according to contemporary historian Iskandar Munshi, Persia started to witness the emergence of a new and significant group of landowners.[187]

Akhbaris versus Usulis

The Akhbari movement "crystalized" as a "separate movement" with the writings of Muhammad Amin al-Astarabadi (died 1627 AD). It rejected the use of reasoning in deriving verdicts and believed that only the Quran, hadith, (prophetic sayings and recorded opinions of the Imams) and consensus should be used as sources to derive verdicts (fatāwā). Unlike Usulis, Akhbari did and do not follow marjas who practice ijtihad.[188]

It achieved its greatest influence in the late Safavid and early post-Safavid era, when it dominated Twelver Shia Islam.[189] However, shortly thereafter Muhammad Baqir Behbahani (died 1792), along with other Usuli mujtahids, crushed the Akhbari movement.[190] It remains only a small minority in the Shia Muslim world. One result of the resolution of this conflict was the rise in importance of the concept of ijtihad and the position of the mujtahid (as opposed to other ulama) in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was from this time that the division of the Shia world into mujtahid (those who could follow their own independent judgment) and muqallid (those who had to follow the rulings of a mujtahid) took place. According to author Moojan Momen, "up to the middle of the 19th century there were very few mujtahids (three or four) anywhere at any one time," but "several hundred existed by the end of the 19th century."[191]

Allamah Majlisi

Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, commonly referenced to using the title Allamah, was a highly influential scholar during the 17th century (Safavid era). Majlisi's works emphasized his desire to purge Twelver Shi'ism of the influences of mysticism and philosophy, and to propagate an ideal of strict adherence to the Islamic law (sharia).[192] Majlisi promoted specifically Shia rituals such as mourning for Hussein ibn Ali and visitation (ziyarat) of the tombs of the Imams and Imamzadas, stressing "the concept of the Imams as mediators and intercessors for man with God."[193]

State and government

The Safavid state was one of checks and balance, both within the government and on a local level. At the apex of this system was the Shah, with total power over the state, legitimized by his bloodline as a seyyed, or descendant of Muhammad. So absolute was his power, that the French merchant, and later ambassador to Persia, Jean Chardin thought the Safavid Shahs ruled their land with an iron fist and often in a despotic manner.[194] To ensure transparency and avoid decisions being made that circumvented the Shah, a complex system of bureaucracy and departmental procedures had been put in place that prevented fraud. Every office had a deputy or superintendent, whose job was to keep records of all actions of the state officials and report directly to the Shah. The Shah himself exercised his own measures for keeping his ministers under control by fostering an atmosphere of rivalry and competitive surveillance. And since the Safavid society was meritocratic, and successions seldom were made on the basis of heritage, this meant that government offices constantly felt the pressure of being under surveillance and had to make sure they governed in the best interest of their leader, and not merely their own.

The Government

Rostom (Rustam Khan), viceroy of Kartli from 1633-1658.

There probably did not exist any parliament, as we know them today. But the Portuguese ambassador to the Safavids, De Gouvea, still mentions the Council of State[195] in his records, which perhaps was a term for governmental gatherings of the time.

The highest level in the government was that of the Prime Minister, or Grand Vizier (Etemad-e Dowlat), who was always chosen from among doctors of law. He enjoyed tremendous power and control over national affairs as he was the immediate deputy of the Shah. No act of the Shah was valid without the counter seal of the Prime Minister. But even he stood accountable to a deputy (vak’anevis), who kept records of his decision-makings and notified the Shah. Second to the Prime Minister post were the General of the Revenues (mostoufi-ye mamalek), or finance minister,[196] and the Divanbegi, Minister of Justice. The latter was the final appeal in civil and criminal cases, and his office stood next to the main entrance to the Ali Qapu palace. In earlier times, the Shah had been closely involved in judicial proceedings, but this part of the royal duty was neglected by Shah Safi and the later kings.[197]

Next in authority were the generals: the General of the Royal Troops (the Shahsevans), General of the Musketeers, General of the Ghulams and The Master of Artillery. A separate official, the Commander-in-Chief, was appointed to be the head of these officials.[197]

The Royal Court

Frontpage on Jean Chardin's book on his journeys to Persia, published in 1739.

As for the royal household, the highest post was that of the Nazir, Court Minister. He was perhaps the closest advisor to the Shah, and, as such, functioned as his eyes and ears within the Court. His primary job was to appoint and supervise all the officials of the household and to be their contact with the Shah. But his responsibilities also included that of being the treasurer of the Shah's properties. This meant that even the Prime Minister, who held the highest office in the state, had to work in association with the Nazir when it came to managing those transactions that directly related to the Shah.[197]

The second most senior appointment was the Grand Steward (Ichik Agasi bashi), who would always accompany the Shah and was easily recognizable because of the great baton that he carried with him. He was responsible for introducing all guests, receiving petitions presented to the Shah and reading them if required. Next in line were the Master of the Royal Stables (Mirakor bashi) and the Master of the Hunt (Mirshekar bashi). The Shah had stables in all the principal towns, and Shah Abbas was said to have about 30,000 horses in studs around the country.[198] In addition to these, there were separate officials appointed for the caretaking of royal banquets and for entertainment.

Chardin specifically noticed the rank of doctors and astrologers and the respect that the Shahs had for them. The Shah had a dozen of each in his service and would usually be accompanied by three doctors and three astrologers, who were authorized to sit by his side on various occasions.[197] The Chief Physician (Hakim-bashi) was a highly considered member of the Royal court,[199] and the most revered astrologer of the court was given the title Munajjim-bashi (Chief Astrologer).[200]

During the first century of the dynasty, the primary court language remained Azeri,[196] although this increasingly changed after the capital was moved to Isfahan.[7]

Local governments

View of Tbilisi by French traveler Jean Chardin, 1671.

On a local level, the government was divided into public land and royal possessions. The public land was under the rule of local governors, or Khans. Since the earliest days of the Safavid dynasty, the Qizilbash generals had been appointed to most of these posts. They ruled their provinces like petty shahs and spent all their revenues on their own province, only presenting the Shah with the balance. In return, they had to keep ready a standing army at all times and provide the Shah with military assistance upon his request. It was also requested from them that they appoint a lawyer (vakil) to the Court who would inform them on matters pertaining to the provincial affairs.[201] Shah Abbas I intended to decrease the power of the Qizilbash by bringing some of these provinces into his direct control, creating so called Crown Provinces (Khassa). But it was Shah Safi, under influence by his Prime Minister, Saru Taqi, that initiated the program of trying to increase the royal revenues by buying land from the governors and putting in place local commissioners.[201] In time, this proved to become a burden to the people that were under the direct rule of the Shah, as these commissioners, unlike the former governors, had little knowledge about the local communities that they controlled and were primarily interested in increasing the income of the Shah. And, while it was in the governors’ own interest to increase the productivity and prosperity of their provinces, the commissioners received their income directly from the royal treasury and, as such, did not care so much about investing in agriculture and local industries. Thus, the majority of the people suffered from rapacity and corruption carried out in the name of the Shah.[201]

Democratic institutions in a totalitarian society

In 16th and 17th century Iran, there existed a considerable number of local democratic institutions. Examples of such were the trade and artisan guilds, which had started to appear in Persia from the 1500s. Also, there were the quazi-religious fraternities called futuvva, which were run by local dervishes. Another official selected by the consensus of the local community was the kadkhoda, who functioned as a common law administrator.[202] The local sheriff (kalantar), who was not elected by the people but directly appointed by the Shah, and whose function was to protect the people against injustices on the part of the local governors, supervised the kadkhoda.[203]

Legal system

The Karkan, a tool used for punishment of state criminals

In Safavid Persia there was little distinction between theology and jurisprudence, or between divine justice and human justice, and it all went under Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The legal system was built up of two branches: civil law, which had its roots in sharia, received wisdom, and urf, meaning traditional experience and very similar to the Western form of common law. While the imams and judges of law applied civil law in their practice, urf was primarily exercised by the local commissioners, who inspected the villages on behalf of the Shah, and by the Minister of Justice (Divanbegi). The latter were all secular functionaries working on behalf of the Shah.[204]

The highest level in the legal system was the Minister of Justice, and the law officers were divided into senior appointments, such as the magistrate (darughah), inspector (visir), and recorder (vak’anevis). The lesser officials were the qazi, corresponding a civil lieutenant, who ranked under the local governors and functioned as judges in the provinces.

According to Chardin:[205]

There were no particular place assigned for the administration of justice. Each magistrate executes justice in his own house in a large room opening on to a courtyard or a garden which is raised two or three feet above the ground. The Judge is seated at one end of the room having a writer and a man of law by his side.

Chardin also noted that bringing cases into court in Persia was easier than in the West. The judge (qazi) was informed of relevant points involved and would decide whether or not to take up the case. Having agreed to do so, a sergeant would investigate and summon the defendant, who was then obliged to pay the fee of the sergeant. The two parties with their witnesses pleaded their respective cases, usually without any counsel, and the judge would pass his judgment after the first or second hearing.[205]

Criminal justice was entirely separate from civil law and was judged upon common law administered through the Minister of Justice, local governors and the Court minister (the Nazir). Despite being based on urf, it relied upon certain sets of legal principles. Murder was punishable by death, and the penalty for bodily injuries was invariably the bastinado. Robbers had their right wrists amputated the first time, and sentenced to death on any subsequent occasion. State criminals were subjected to the karkan, a triangular wooden collar placed around the neck. On extraordinary occasions when the Shah took justice into his own hand, he would dress himself up in red for the importance of the event, according to ancient tradition.[204]


What fueled the growth of Safavid economy was Iran's position between the burgeoning civilizations of Europe to its west and India and Islamic Central Asia to its east and north. The Silk Road which led through northern Iran was revived in the 16th century. Abbas I also supported direct trade with Europe, particularly England and The Netherlands which sought Persian carpet, silk and textiles. Other exports were horses, goat hair, pearls and an inedible bitter almond hadam-talka used as a spice in India. The main imports were spice, textiles (woolens from Europe, cottons from Gujarat), metals, coffee, and sugar.

A 19th-century drawing of Isfahan


According to the historian Roger Savory, the twin bases of the domestic economy were pastoralism and agriculture. And, just as the higher levels of the social hierarchy was divided between the Turkish "men of the sword" and the Persian "men of the pen"; so were the lower level divided between the Turcoman tribes, who were cattle breeders and lived apart from the surrounding population, and the Persians, who were peasants and settled agriculturalists.[206]

The Safavid economy was to a large extent based on agriculture and taxation of agricultural products. According to the French jeweller Jean Chardin, the variety in agricultural products in Persia was unrivaled in Europe and consisted of fruits and vegetables never even heard of in Europe. Chardin was present at some feasts in Isfahan were there were more than fifty different kinds of fruit. He thought that there was nothing like it in France or Italy:[207]

Despite this, he was disappointed when travelling the country and witnessing the abundance of land that was not irrigated, or the fertile plains that were not cultivated, something he thought was in stark contrast to Europe. He blamed this on misgovernment, the sparse population of the country, and lack of appreciation of agriculture amongst the Persians.[208]

In the period prior to Shah Abbas I, most of the land was assigned to officials (civil, military and religious). From the time of Shah Abbas onwards, more land was brought under the direct control of the shah. And since agriculture accounted to the[by whom?] by far largest share of tax revenue, he took measures to expand it. What remained unchanged, was the "crop-sharing agreement" between whom ever was the landlord, and the peasant. This agreement concisted of five elements: land, water, plough-animals, seed and labour. Each element constituted 20 percent of the crop production, and if, for instance, the peasant provided the labour force and the animals, he would be entitled to 40 percent of the earnings.[209][210] According to contemporary historians, though, the landlord always had the worst of the bargain with the peasant in the crop-sharing agreements. In general, the peasants lived in comfort, and they were well paid and wore good clothes, although it was also noted that they were subject to forced labour and lived under heavy demands.[211]

Travel and Caravanserais

The Mothers Inn caravanserai in Isfahan, that was built during the reign of Shah Abbas II, was a luxury resort meant for the wealthiest merchants and selected guests of the shah. Today it is a luxury hotel and goes under the name of Hotel Abassi.

Horses were the most important of all the domestic animals, and the best were brought in from Arabia and Central-Asia. They were costly because of the widespread trade in them, including to Turkey and India. The next most important mount, when traveling through Persia, was the mule. Also, the camel was a good investment for the merchant, as they cost nearly nothing to feed, carried a lot weight and could travel almost anywhere.[212]

Under the governance of the strong shahs, especially during the first half of the 17th century, traveling through Persia was easy because of good roads and the caravanserais, that were strategically placed along the route. Thévenot and Tavernier commented that the Persian caravanserais were better built and cleaner than their Turkish counterparts.[213] According to Chardin, they were also more abundant than in the Mughal or Ottoman Empires, where they were less frequent but larger.[214] Caravanserais were designed especially to benefit poorer travelers, as they could stay there for as long as they wished, without payment for lodging. During the reign of Shah Abbas I, as he tried to upgrade the Silk route to improve the commercial prosperity of the Empire, an abundance of caravanserais, bridges, bazaars and roads were built, and this strategy was followed by wealthy merchants who also profited from the increase in trade. To uphold the standard, another source of revenue was needed, and road toll, that were collected by guards (rah-dars), were stationed along the trading routes. They in turn provided for the safety of the travelers, and both Thevenot and Tavernier stressed the safety of traveling in 17th century Persia, and the courtesy and refinement of the policing guards.[215] The Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle was impressed by an encounter with one of these road guards:[216]

Foreign trade and the Silk Route

The Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan was where the Shah would meet foreign dignitaries and embassies. It is famous for the frescoes that cover its walls.

The Portuguese Empire and the discovery of the trading route around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 not only hit a death blow to Venice as a trading nation, but it also hurt the trade that was going on along the Silk Route and especially the Persian Gulf. They correctly identified the three key points to control all seaborne trade between Asia and Europe: The Gulf of Aden, The Persian Gulf and the Straits of Malacca by cutting off and controlling these strategic locations with high taxation.[217] In 1602, Shah Abbas I drove the Portuguese out of Bahrain, but he needed naval assistance from the newly arrived British East India Company to finally expel them from the Strait of Hormuz and regain control of this trading route.[218] He convinced the British to assist him by allowing them to open factories in Shiraz, Isfahan and Jask.[219][220] With the later end of the Portuguese Empire, the British, Dutch and French in particular gained easier access to Persian seaborne trade, although they, unlike the Portuguese, did not arrive as colonisers, but as merchant adventurers. The terms of trade were not imposed on the Safavid shahs, but rather negotiated.

The Silk Routes

In the long term, however, the seaborne trade route was of less significance to the Persians than was the traditional Silk Route. Lack of investment in ship building and the navy provided the Europeans with the opportunity to monopolize this trading route. The land-borne trade would thus continue to provide the bulk of revenues to the Persian state. Much of the cash revenue came not so much from what could be sold abroad, as from the custom charges and transit dues levied on goods passing through the country.[221] Shah Abbas was determined to greatly expand this trade, but faced the problem of having to deal with the Ottomans, who controlled the two most vital routes: the route across Arabia to the Mediterranean ports, and the route through Anatolia and Istanbul. A third route was therefore devised which circumvented Ottoman territory. By travelling across the Caspian sea to the north, they would reach Russia. And with the assistance of the Muscovy Company they could cross over to Moscow, reaching Europe via Poland. This trading route proved to be of vital importance, especially during times of war with the Ottomans.[222]

By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch had become dominant in the trade that went via the Persian Gulf, having won most trade agreements, and managed to strike deals before the British or French were able to. They particularly established monopoly of the spice trade between the East Indies and Iran.[223]

The Armenian merchants and the trade of silk

The Vank Cathedral. The Armenians moved into the Jolfa district of Isfahan and were free to build their prayer houses, eventually becoming an integral part of the society.

The one valuable item, sought for in Europe, which Iran possessed and which could bring in silver in sufficient quantities was silk, which was produced in the northern provinces, along the Caspian coastline. The trade of this product was done by Turks and Persians to begin with, but during the 17th century the Christian Armenians became increasingly vital in the trade of this merchandise, as middlemen.[224]

Whereas domestic trade was largely in the hands of Persian and Jewish merchants, by the late 17th century, almost all foreign trade was controlled by the Armenians.[225] They were even hired by wealthy Persian merchants to travel to Europe when they wanted to create commercial bases there, and the Armenians eventually established themselves in cities like Bursa, Aleppo, Venice, Livorno, Marseilles and Amsterdam.[224] Realizing this, Shah Abbas resettled large numbers of Armenians from the Caucasus to his capital city and provided them with loans.[224] And as the shah realized the importance of doing trade with the Europeans, he assured that the Safavid society was one with religious tolerance. The Christian Armenians thus became a commercial elite in the Safavid society and managed to survive in the tough atmosphere of business being fought over by the British, Dutch, French, Indians and Persians, by always having large capital readily available and by managing to strike harder bargains ensuring cheaper prices than what, for instance, their British rivals ever were able to.[226]


Naqshe Jahan square in Isfahan is the epitome of 16th-century Iranian architecture.

Culture within the Safavid family

The Safavid family was a literate family from its early origin. There are extant Tati and Persian poetry from Shaykh Safi ad-din Ardabili as well as extant Persian poetry from Shaykh Sadr ad-din. Most of the extant poetry of Shah Ismail I is in Azerbaijani pen-name of Khatai.[54] Sam Mirza, the son of Shah Esmail as well as some later authors assert that Ismail composed poems both in Turkish and Persian but only a few specimens of his Persian verse have survived.[53] A collection of his poems in Azeri were published as a Divan. Shah Tahmasp who has composed poetry in Persian was also a painter, while Shah Abbas II was known as a poet, writing Azerbaijani verses.[227] Sam Mirza, the son of Ismail I was himself a poet and composed his poetry in Persian. He also compiled an anthology of contemporary poetry.[228]

Culture within the empire

Shah Abbas I recognized the commercial benefit of promoting the arts—artisan products provided much of Iran's foreign trade. In this period, handicrafts such as tile making, pottery and textiles developed and great advances were made in miniature painting, bookbinding, decoration and calligraphy. In the 16th century, carpet weaving evolved from a nomadic and peasant craft to a well-executed industry with specialization of design and manufacturing. Tabriz was the center of this industry. The carpets of Ardabil were commissioned to commemorate the Safavid dynasty. The elegantly baroque yet famously 'Polonaise' carpets were made in Iran during the 17th century.

19th-century painting of the Chahar Bagh School in Isfahan

Using traditional forms and materials, Reza Abbasi (1565–1635) introduced new subjects to Persian painting—semi-nude women, youth, lovers. His painting and calligraphic style influenced Iranian artists for much of the Safavid period, which came to be known as the Isfahan school. Increased contact with distant cultures in the 17th century, especially Europe, provided a boost of inspiration to Iranian artists who adopted modeling, foreshortening, spatial recession, and the medium of oil painting (Shah Abbas II sent Muhammad Zaman to study in Rome). The epic Shahnameh ("Book of Kings"), a stellar example of manuscript illumination and calligraphy, was made during Shah Tahmasp's reign. (This book was written by Ferdousi in 1000 AD for Sultan Mahmood Ghaznawi) Another manuscript is the Khamsa by Nizami executed 1539-43 by Aqa Mirak and his school in Isfahan.

Isfahan bears the most prominent samples of the Safavid architecture, all constructed in the years after Shah Abbas I permanently moved the capital there in 1598: the Imperial Mosque, Masjid-e Shah, completed in 1630, the Imam Mosque (Masjid-e Imami) the Lutfallah Mosque and the Royal Palace.

The battle between Shah Ismail and Muhammad Shaybani, the khan of the Uzbeks.

According to William Cleveland and Martin Bunton,[229] the establishment of Isfahan as the Great capital of Persia and the material splendor of the city attracted intellecutal's from all corners of the world, which contributed to the cities rich cultural life. The impressive achievements of its 400,000 residents prompted the inhabitants to coin their famous boast, "Isfahan is half the world".

Poetry stagnated under the Safavids; the great medieval ghazal form languished in over-the-top lyricism. Poetry lacked the royal patronage of other arts and was hemmed in by religious prescriptions.

The arguably most renowned historian from this time was Iskandar Beg Munshi. His History of Shah Abbas the Great written a few years after its subject's death, achieved a nuanced depth of history and character.

The Isfahan School—Islamic philosophy revived

Islamic philosophy[230] flourished in the Safavid era in what scholars commonly refer to the School of Isfahan. Mir Damad is considered the founder of this school. Among luminaries of this school of philosophy, the names of Iranian philosophers such as Mir Damad, Mir Fendereski, Shaykh Bahai and Mohsen Fayz Kashani standout. The school reached its apogee with that of the Iranian philosopher Mulla Sadra who is arguably the most significant Islamic philosopher after Avicenna. Mulla Sadra has become the dominant philosopher of the Islamic East, and his approach to the nature of philosophy has been exceptionally influential up to this day.[231] He wrote the Al-Hikma al-muta‘aliya fi-l-asfar al-‘aqliyya al-arba‘a ("The Transcendent Philosophy of the Four Journeys of the Intellect"),[232] a meditation on what he called 'meta philosophy' which brought to a synthesis the philosophical mysticism of Sufism, the theology of Shi'a Islam, and the Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophies of Avicenna and Suhrawardi.

According to the Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye:[233]

They were the continuers of the classical tradition of Islamic thought, which after Averroes died in the Arab west. The Persians schools of thought were the true heirs of the great Islamic thinkers of the golden age of Islam, whereas in the Ottoman empire there was an intellectual stagnation, as far as the traditions of Islamic philosophy were concerned.


A Latin copy of The Canon of Medicine, dated 1484, located at the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, USA.

The status of physicians during the Safavids stood as high as ever. Whereas neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans accorded high social status to their doctors, Iranians had from ancient times honored their physicians, who were often appointed counselors of the Shahs. This would not change with the Arab conquest of Iran, and it was primarily the Persians that took upon them the works of philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, music and alchemy.[234]

By the sixteenth century, Islamic science, which to a large extent meant Persian science, was resting on its laurels. The works of al-Razi (865-92) (known to the West as Razes) were still used in European universities as standard textbooks of alchemy, pharmacology and pediatrics. The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna (c. 980–1037) was still regarded as one of the primary textbooks in medicine throughout most of the civilized world.[235] As such, the status of medicine in the Safavid period did not change much, and relied as much on these works as ever before. Physiology was still based on the four humours of ancient and mediaeval medicine, and bleeding and purging were still the principal forms of therapy by surgeons, something even Thevenot experienced during his visit to Persia.[199]

The only field within medicine where some progress were made was pharmacology, with the compilement of the "Tibb-e Shifa’i" in 1556. This book was translated into French in 1681 by Angulus de Saint, under the name "Pharmacopoea Persica".[236]


Painting by the French architect, Pascal Coste, visiting Persia in 1841 (from Monuments modernes de la Perse). In the Safavid era the Persian architecture flourished again and saw many new monuments, such as the Masjid-e Shah, part of Naghsh-i Jahan Square which is the biggest historic plaza in the world.
Safavid Star from ceiling of Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran.

A new age in Iranian architecture began with the rise of the Safavid dynasty. Economically robust and politically stable, this period saw a flourishing growth of theological sciences. Traditional architecture evolved in its patterns and methods leaving its impact on the architecture of the following periods.

Indeed, one of the greatest legacies of the Safavids is the architecture. In 1598, when Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian empire from the north-western city of Qazvin to the central city of Isfahan, he initiated what would become one of the greatest programmes in Persian history; the complete remaking of the city. By choosing the central city of Isfahan, fertilized by the Zāyande roud ("The life-giving river"), lying as an oasis of intense cultivation in the midst of a vast area of arid landscape, he both distanced his capital from any future assaults by the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, and at the same time gained more control over the Persian Gulf, which had recently become an important trading route for the Dutch and British East India Companies.[237]

The 16th-century Chehel Sotun pavilion in Qazvin, Iran. It is the last remains of the palace of the second Safavid king, Shah Tahmasp; it was heavily restored by the Qajars in the 19th century.

The Chief architect of this colossal task of urban planning was Shaykh Bahai (Baha' ad-Din al-`Amili), who focused the programme on two key features of Shah Abbas's master plan: the Chahar Bagh avenue, flanked at either side by all the prominent institutions of the city, such as the residences of all foreign dignitaries. And the Naqsh-e Jahan Square ("Examplar of the World").[238] Prior to the Shah's ascent to power, Persia had a decentralized power-structure, in which different institutions battled for power, including both the military (the Qizilbash) and governors of the different provinces making up the empire. Shah Abbas wanted to undermine this political structure, and the recreation of Isfahan, as a Grand capital of Persia, was an important step in centralizing the power.[239] The ingenuity of the square, or Maidān, was that, by building it, Shah Abbas would gather the three main components of power in Persia in his own backyard; the power of the clergy, represented by the Masjed-e Shah, the power of the merchants, represented by the Imperial Bazaar, and of course, the power of the Shah himself, residing in the Ali Qapu Palace.

Distinctive monuments like the Sheikh Lotfallah (1618), Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradise Palace) (1469) and the Chahar Bagh School(1714) appeared in Isfahan and other cities. This extensive development of architecture was rooted in Persian culture and took form in the design of schools, baths, houses, caravanserai and other urban spaces such as bazaars and squares. It continued until the end of the Qajar reign.[240]

The languages of the court, military, administration and culture

The Safavids by the time of their rise were Azerbaijani-speaking although they also used Persian as a second language. The language chiefly used by the Safavid court and military establishment was Azerbaijani.[9][12] But the official[3] language of the empire as well as the administrative language, language of correspondence, literature and historiography was Persian.[9] The inscriptions on Safavid currency were also in Persian.[241]

Scene from Attar's The Conference of the Birds, by Habibulla Meshedi (1600).

Safavids also used Persian as a cultural and administrative language throughout the empire and were bilingual in Persian.[54] According to Arnold J. Toynbee,[242]

In the heyday of the Mughal, Safawi, and Ottoman regimes New Persian was being patronized as the language of litterae humaniores by the ruling element over the whole of this huge realm, while it was also being employed as the official language of administration in those two-thirds of its realm that lay within the Safawi and the Mughal frontiers

According to John R. Perry,[243]

In the 16th century, the Turcophone Safavid family of Ardabil in Azerbaijan, probably of Turkicized Iranian, origin, conquered Iran and established Turkic, the language of the court and the military, as a high-status vernacular and a widespread contact language, influencing spoken Persian, while written Persian, the language of high literature and civil administration, remained virtually unaffected in status and content.

According to Zabiollah Safa,[12]

In day-to-day affairs, the language chiefly used at the Safavid court and by the great military and political officers, as well as the religious dignitaries, was Turkish, not Persian; and the last class of persons wrote their religious works mainly in Arabic. Those who wrote in Persian were either lacking in proper tuition in this tongue, or wrote outside Iran and hence at a distance from centers where Persian was the accepted vernacular, endued with that vitality and susceptibility to skill in its use which a language can have only in places where it truly belongs.

According to É. Á. Csató et al.,[37]

A specific Turkic language was attested in Safavid Persia during the 16th and 17th centuries, a language that Europeans often called Persian Turkish ("Turc Agemi", "lingua turcica agemica"), which was a favourite language at the court and in the army because of the Turkic origins of the Safavid dynasty. The original name was just turki, and so a convenient name might be Turki-yi Acemi. This variety of Persian Turkish must have been also spoken in the Caucasian and Transcaucasian regions, which during the 16th century belonged to both the Ottomans and the Safavids, and were not fully integrated into the Safavid empire until 1606. Though that language might generally be identified as Middle Azerbaijanian, it is not yet possible to define exactly the limits of this language, both in linguistic and territorial respects. It was certainly not homogenous—maybe it was an Azerbaijanian-Ottoman mixed language, as Beltadze (1967:161) states for a translation of the gospels in Georgian script from the 18th century.

According to Rula Jurdi Abisaab,[244]

Although the Arabic language was still the medium for religious scholastic expression, it was precisely under the Safavids that hadith complications and doctrinal works of all sorts were being translated to Persian. The 'Amili (Lebanese scholars of Shi'i faith) operating through the Court-based religious posts, were forced to master the Persian language; their students translated their instructions into Persian. Persianization went hand in hand with the popularization of 'mainstream' Shi'i belief.

According to Cornelis Versteegh,[245]

The Safavid dynasty under Shah Ismail (961/1501) adopted Persian and the Shi'ite form of Islam as the national language and religion.


It was the Safavids who made Iran the spiritual bastion of Shi’ism, and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness of Iranianhood, acting as a bridge to modern Iran. The founder of the dynasty, Shah Isma'il, adopted the title of "Persian Emperor" Pādišah-ī Īrān, with its implicit notion of an Iranian state stretching from Khorasan as far as Euphrates, and from the Oxus to the southern Territories of the Persian Gulf.[246] According to Professor Roger Savory:[247][248]

In a number of ways the Safavids affected the development of the modern Iranian state: first, they ensured the continuance of various ancient and traditional Persian institutions, and transmitted these in a strengthened, or more 'national', form; second, by imposing Ithna 'Ashari Shi'a Islam on Iran as the official religion of the Safavid state, they enhanced the power of mujtahids. The Safavids thus set in train a struggle for power between the turban and the crown that is to say, between the proponents of secular government and the proponents of a theocratic government; third, they laid the foundation of alliance between the religious classes ('Ulama') and the bazaar which played an important role both in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1906, and again in the Islamic Revolution of 1979; fourth the policies introduced by Shah Abbas I conduced to a more centralized administrative system.

The empire presided over by the Safavids was not a revival of the Achaemenids or the Sasanians, and it more resembled the Ilkhanate and Timurid empires than the Islamic caliphate. Nor was it a direct precursor to the modern Iranian state. According to Donald Struesand, "[a]lthough the Safavid unification of the eastern and western halves of the Iranian plateau and imposition of Twelver Shii Islam on the region created a recognizable precursor of modern Iran, the Safavid polity itself was neither distinctively Iranian nor national."[249] Rudolph Matthee concluded that "[t]hough not a nation-state, Safavid Iran contained the elements that would later spawn one by generating many enduring bureaucratic features and by initiating a polity of overlapping religious and territorial boundaries."[250]

Safavid Shahs of Iran

Safavid dynasty timeline

See also

References and notes

  1. Ingvild Flaskerud (26 November 2010). Visualizing Belief and Piety in Iranian Shiism. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 182–183. ISBN 978-1-4411-4907-7. Retrieved 24 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. ...the Order of the Lion and the Sun, a device which, since the 17 century at least, appeared on the national flag of the Safavids the lion representing 'Ali and the sun the glory of the Shi'i faith, Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovskiĭ, J. M. Rogers, Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, Courtauld Institute of Art, Heaven on earth: Art from Islamic Lands : Works from the State Hermitage Museum and the Khalili Collection, Prestel, 2004, p. 178.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Roemer, H. R. (1986). "The Safavid Period". The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 189–350. ISBN 0-521-20094-6, p. 331: "Depressing though the condition in the country may have been at the time of the fall of Safavids, they cannot be allowed to overshadow the achievements of the dynasty, which was in many respects to prove essential factors in the development of Persia in modern times. These include the maintenance of Persian as the official language and of the present-day boundaries of the country, adherence to the Twelever Shi'i, the monarchical system, the planning and architectural features of the urban centers, the centralised administration of the state, the alliance of the Shi'i Ulama with the merchant bazaars, and the symbiosis of the Persian-speaking population with important non-Persian, especially Turkish speaking minorities".
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Rudi Matthee, "Safavids" in Encyclopædia Iranica, accessed on April 4, 2010. "The Persian focus is also reflected in the fact that theological works also began to be composed in the Persian language and in that Persian verses replaced Arabic on the coins." "The political system that emerged under them had overlapping political and religious boundaries and a core language, Persian, which served as the literary tongue, and even began to replace Arabic as the vehicle for theological discourse".
  5. Ronald W Ferrier, The Arts of Persia. Yale University Press. 1989, p. 9.
  6. 6.0 6.1 John R Perry, "Turkic-Iranian contacts", Encyclopædia Iranica, January 24, 2006: "...written Persian, the language of high literature and civil administration, remained virtually unaffected in status and content"
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Cyril Glassé (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, revised ed., 2003, ISBN 0-7591-0190-6, p. 392: "Shah Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan. His reigned marked the peak of Safavid dynasty's achievement in art, diplomacy, and commerce. It was probably around this time that the court, which originally spoke a Turkic language, began to use Persian"
  8. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, V, pp. 514-15. excerpt: "in the heyday of the Mughal, Safawi, and Ottoman regimes New Persian was being patronized as the language of literae humaniores by the ruling element over the whole of this huge realm, while it was also being employed as the official language of administration in those two-thirds of its realm that lay within the Safawi and the Mughal frontiers"
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Mazzaoui, Michel B; Canfield, Robert (2002). "Islamic Culture and Literature in Iran and Central Asia in the early modern period". Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press. pp. 86–7. ISBN 978-0-521-52291-5. Safavid power with its distinctive Persian-Shi'i culture, however, remained a middle ground between its two mighty Turkish neighbors. The Safavid state, which lasted at least until 1722, was essentially a "Turkish" dynasty, with Azeri Turkish (Azerbaijan being the family's home base) as the language of the rulers and the court as well as the Qizilbash military establishment. Shah Ismail wrote poetry in Turkish. The administration nevertheless was Persian, and the Persian language was the vehicle of diplomatic correspondence (insha'), of belles-lettres (adab), and of history (tarikh).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ruda Jurdi Abisaab. "Iran and Pre-Independence Lebanon" in Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi, Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, IB Tauris 2006, p. 76: "Although the Arabic language was still the medium for religious scholastic expression, it was precisely under the Safavids that hadith complications and doctrinal works of all sorts were being translated to Persian. The 'Amili (Lebanese scholars of Shi'i faith) operating through the Court-based religious posts, were forced to master the Persian language; their students translated their instructions into Persian. Persianization went hand in hand with the popularization of 'mainstream' Shi'i belief."
  11. 11.0 11.1 Savory, Roger (2007). Iran Under the Safavids. Cambridge University Press. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-521-04251-2. qizilbash normally spoke Azari brand of Turkish at court, as did the Safavid shahs themselves; lack of familiarity with the Persian language may have contributed to the decline from the pure classical standards of former times<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Zabiollah Safa (1986), "Persian Literature in the Safavid Period", The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-20094-6, pp. 948–65. P. 950: "In day-to-day affairs, the language chiefly used at the Safavid court and by the great military and political officers, as well as the religious dignitaries, was Turkish, not Persian; and the last class of persons wrote their religious works mainly in Arabic. Those who wrote in Persian were either lacking in proper tuition in this tongue, or wrote outside Iran and hence at a distance from centers where Persian was the accepted vernacular, endued with that vitality and susceptibility to skill in its use which a language can have only in places where it truly belongs."
  13. Price, Massoume (2005). Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook. ABC-CLIO. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-57607-993-5. The Shah was a native Turkic speaker and wrote poetry in the Azerbaijani language.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Ferrier, RW, A Journey to Persia: Jean Chardin's Portrait of a Seventeenth-century Empire, p. ix.
  15. The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Ed. Cyril Glassé, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 449.
  16. "Safavid Persia". Books. Google. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 Alireza Shapur Shahbazi (2005), "The History of the Idea of Iran", in Vesta Curtis ed., Birth of the Persian Empire, IB Tauris, London, p. 108: "Similarly the collapse of Sassanian Eranshahr in AD 650 did not end Iranians' national idea. The name "Iran" disappeared from official records of the Saffarids, Samanids, Buyids, Saljuqs and their successor. But one unofficially used the name Iran, Eranshahr, and similar national designations, particularly Mamalek-e Iran or "Iranian lands", which exactly translated the old Avestan term Ariyanam Daihunam. On the other hand, when the Safavids (not Reza Shah, as is popularly assumed) revived a national state officially known as Iran, bureaucratic usage in the Ottoman empire and even Iran itself could still refer to it by other descriptive and traditional appellations".
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Iranian identity iii. Medieval Islamic period" in Encyclopedia Iranica: "The Safavid kings called themselves, among other appellations, the "heart of the shrine of ʿAli" (kalb-e āstān-e ʿAli), while assuming the title of Šāhanšāh (the king of kings) of Persia/Iran". Quote 2: "Even Ottoman sultans, when addressing the Āq Quyunlu and Safavid kings, used such titles as the "king of Iranian lands" or the "sultan of the lands of Iran" or "the king of kings of Iran, the lord of the Persians" or the "holders of the glory of Jamšid and the vision of Faridun and the wisdom of Dārā." They addressed Shah Esmaʿil as: "the king of Persian lands and the heir to Jamšid and Kay-ḵosrow" (Navāʾi, pp. 578, 700–2, 707). During Shah ʿAbbās's reign the transformation is complete and Shiʿite Iran comes to face the two adjacent Sunni powers: the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Kingdom of Uzbeks to the east."
  19. "SAFAVID DYNASTY". Encyclopædia Iranica.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Streusand, Douglas E., Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Boulder, Col : Westview Press, 2011) ("Streusand"), p. 135.
  21. Helen Chapin Metz. Iran, a Country study. 1989. University of Michigan, p. 313.
  22. Emory C. Bogle. Islam: Origin and Belief. University of Texas Press. 1989, p. 145.
  23. Stanford Jay Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge University Press. 1977, p. 77.
  24. Andrew J. Newman, Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire, IB Tauris (March 30, 2006).
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 25.6 RM Savory, Safavids, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed.
  26. 26.0 26.1 RM Savory. Ebn Bazzaz. Encyclopædia Iranica
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 "Peoples of Iran" Encyclopædia Iranica. RN Frye.
  28. Aptin Khanbaghi (2006) The Fire, the Star and the Cross: Minority Religions in Medieval and Early. London & New York. IB Tauris. ISBN 1-84511-056-0, pp. 130-1
  29. 29.0 29.1 Yarshater 2001, p. 493.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Khanbaghi 2006, p. 130.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Anthony Bryer. "Greeks and Türkmens: The Pontic Exception", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 29 (1975), Appendix II "Genealogy of the Muslim Marriages of the Princesses of Trebizond"
  32. Why is there such confusion about the origins of this important dynasty, which reasserted Iranian identity and established an independent Iranian state after eight and a half centuries of rule by foreign dynasties? RM Savory, Iran under the Safavids (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980), p. 3.
  33. In the pre-Safavid written work Safvat as-Safa (oldest manuscripts from 1485 and 1491), the origin of the Safavids is tracted to Piruz Shah Zarin Kolah who is called a Kurd from Sanjan, while in the post-Safavid manuscripts, this portion has been excised and Piruz Shah Zarin Kollah is made a descendant of the Imams. R Savory, "Ebn Bazzaz" in Encyclopædia Iranica). In the Silsilat an-nasab-i Safawiya (composed during the reign of Shah Suleiman, 1667–94), by Hussayn ibn Abdal Zahedi, the ancestry of the Safavid was purported to be tracing back to Hijaz and the first Shi'i Imam as follows: Shaykh Safi al-din Abul Fatah Eshaq ibn (son of) Shaykh Amin al-Din Jabrail ibn Qutb al-din ibn Salih ibn Muhammad al-Hafez ibn Awad ibn Firuz Shah Zarin Kulah ibn Majd ibn Sharafshah ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Seyyed Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Seyyed Ja'afar ibn Seyyed Muhammad ibn Seyyed Isma'il ibn Seyyed Muhammad ibn Seyyed Ahmad 'Arabi ibn Seyyed Qasim ibn Seyyed Abul Qasim Hamzah ibn Musa al-Kazim ibn Ja'far As-Sadiq ibn Muhammad al-Baqir ibn Imam Zayn ul-'Abedin ibn Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Taleb Alayha as-Salam. There are differences between this and the oldest manuscript of Safwat as-Safa. Seyyeds have been added from Piruz Shah Zarin Kulah up to the first Shi'i Imam and the nisba "Al-Kurdi" has been excised. The title/name "Abu Bakr" (also the name of the first Caliph and highly regarded by Sunnis) is deleted from Qutb ad-Din's name. ُSource: Husayn ibn Abdāl Zāhedī, 17th cent. Silsilat al-nasab-i Safavīyah, nasabnāmah-'i pādishāhān bā ʻuzmat-i Safavī, ta'līf-i Shaykh Husayn pisar-i Shaykh Abdāl Pīrzādah Zāhedī dar 'ahd-i Shāh-i Sulaymnān-i Safavī. Berlīn, Chāpkhānah-'i Īrānshahr, 1343 (1924), 116 pp. Original Persian: شیخ صفی الدین ابو الفتح اسحق ابن شیخ امین الدین جبرائیل بن قطب الدین ابن صالح ابن محمد الحافظ ابن عوض ابن فیروزشاه زرین کلاه ابن محمد ابن شرفشاه ابن محمد ابن حسن ابن سید محمد ابن ابراهیم ابن سید جعفر بن سید محمد ابن سید اسمعیل بن سید محمد بن سید احمد اعرابی بن سید قاسم بن سید ابو القاسم حمزه بن موسی الکاظم ابن جعفر الصادق ابن محمد الباقر ابن امام زین العابدین بن حسین ابن علی ابن ابی طالب علیه السلام.
  34. R.M. Savory, "Safavid Persia" in: Ann Katherine Swynford Lambton, Peter Malcolm Holt, Bernard Lewis, The Cambridge History of Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1977. p. 394: "They (Safavids after the establishment of the Safavid state) fabricated evidence to prove that the Safavids were Sayyids."
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  42. Ira Marvin Lapidus, A history of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 2nd edition. pg 445: To bolster the prestige of the state, the Safavid dynasty sponsored an Iran-Islamic style of culture concentrating on court poetry, painting, and monumental architecture that symbolized not only the Islamic credentials of the state but also the glory of the ancient Persian traditions."
  43. Colin P. Mitchell, "Ṭahmāsp I" in Encyclopædia Iranica. "Shah Ṭahmāsp's own brother, Sām Mirzā, wrote the Taḏkera-yetoḥfa-ye sāmi, in which he mentioned 700 poets during the reigns of the first two Safavid rulers. Sām Mirzā himself was an ardent poet, writing 8,000 verses and a Šāh-nāma dedicated to his brother, Ṭahmāsp (see Sām Mirzā, ed. Homāyun-Farroḵ, 1969)."
  44. See: Willem Floor, Hasan Javadi(2009), The Heavenly Rose-Garden: A History of Shirvan & Daghestan by Abbas Qoli Aqa Bakikhanov, Mage Publishers, 2009. (see Sections on Safavids quoting poems of Shah Tahmasp I)
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  248. Mujtahid: A mujtahid in Arabic means a person who qualified to engange in ijtihad, or interpretation of religious texts. Ithna 'ashari is the number twelve in Arabic, signifying Twelver Imami Shi'i Islam. Ulama: Arabic for religious scholars.
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Further reading

  • M.I. Marcinkowski (tr.),Persian Historiography and Geography: Bertold Spuler on Major Works Produced in Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India and Early Ottoman Turkey, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Singapore: Pustaka Nasional, 2003, ISBN 9971-77-488-7.
  • M.I. Marcinkowski (tr., ed.),Mirza Rafi‘a's Dastur al-Muluk: A Manual of Later Safavid Administration. Annotated English Translation, Comments on the Offices and Services, and Facsimile of the Unique Persian Manuscript, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC, 2002, ISBN 983-9379-26-7.
  • M.I. Marcinkowski,From Isfahan to Ayutthaya: Contacts between Iran and Siam in the 17th Century, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Singapore, Pustaka Nasional, 2005, ISBN 9971-77-491-7.
  • "The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors", Adam Olearius, translated by John Davies (1662),

External links