Safavid Empire 1502 - 1736
By: Shapour Ghasemi

After the disastrous invasion of the Mongols, in the 1200s, migrated Turks and Mongolian tribes adopted Persian customs and even language. In the 1300s the Ilkhanids, a dynasty founded by the "Genghis Khan's" grandson, Holagu Khan, had been an influential factor in Persia. During these turbulent years of the 13th century, the Persians had submerged themselves deeper in Islamic devotion and Sufism.

Towards the end of the 14th century, Timur (Tamerlane) claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan's family. The disturbed conditions in Mongol Transoxania gave him, in the town of Kish, the chance to build up a kingdom in Central Asia. He entered Iran in 1380 and in 1393 reduced the Jalayirid's power and domination after taking their capital, Baghdad. In 1402 he captured the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid at Ankara; and conquered Syria then turned his attention to campaigns to the east of his quickly acquired and ill-cemented empire. He died in 1405 on an expedition to China. He showed interest in Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism; Timur may have hoped to find popular leaders whom he could use for his own purposes, but the ill-treated Iranians proved that they knew him perhaps better than he knew himself. His legacy was the reverse of stability to Iran; and the division of his ill-assimilated conquests among his sons ensured that an integrated Timurid Empire would never be achieved.

Shah Esmail killing Uzbek leader Mohammad Sheybani in a 1510 battle near Merv

The Timurid state came closest to being an integrated Iranian Empire under Timur's son Shahrokh Shah (1405-47), who endeavored to weld Azerbaijan, which demanded three military expeditions, and western Persia to Khorasan and eastern Persia to form a united Timurid state for a short and troubled period of time. He only succeeded in loosely controlling western and southern Iran from his beautiful capital at Herat. He made Herat the seat of a splendid culture, the atelier of great miniature painters of Herat school, Behzad notable among them, and the home of a revival of Persian poetry and philosophy. This revival was not unconnected with an effort to claim for an Iranian centre once more the leadership in the propagation of Sunni ideology; Herat used to send copies of Sunni canonical works on request to Egypt. The reaction in Shi'ism's ultimate victory under the Safavid shahs of Persia was, however, already in preparation.

In the mean time, the "Qara Qoyunlu" (Black Sheep) Turkman, used to dominate Western Iran. In Azerbaijan they had replaced their former masters, the Jalayirids. Timur had put these Qara Qoyunlu to run away, but in 1406 they regained their capital, Tabriz. On Shahrokh's death, Jahan Shah (reigned c. 1438-67) extended Qara Qoyunlu rule out of the northwest deeper into Iran. The Timurids relied on their old allies, the Qara Qoyunlus' rival Turkmans of the "Aq Qoyunlu" (White Sheep) clans, whose Jahan Shah was destroyed by the Uzun Hasan of Aq Qoyunlu by the end of 1467.

Uzun Hasan (1453-78) achieved a short-lived Iranian Empire, but under his son Yaqub (1478-90), the state was subjected to fiscal reforms associated with a government-sponsored effort to reapply hard purist principles of orthodox Islamic rules for revenue collection. Yaqub attempted to purge the state of taxes introduced under the Mongols and not sanctioned by the Muslim canon. His Sunni fanaticism was discredited by the inquiries made into his activities by the orthodox religious authorities.

The attempts to revive religious orthodoxy through revenue reform gave momentum to the spread of Safavid Shi'a propaganda. Economic decline, which resulted from the fiscal reforms of Yaqub, must have been another factor as well.

Sheikh Jonayd's son Sheikh Heydar led a movement that had begun as a Sufi order under his ancestor Sheikh Safi od-Din Ardabili (of Ardabil 1252-1334). This order may be considered to have originally represented a puritanical, but not legalistically so, reaction against the corruption of Islam, the staining of Muslim lands, by the Mongol infidels. What began as a spiritual, unearthly reaction against irreligion and the betrayal of spiritual aspirations developed into a manifestation of the Shi'a quest for dominion over Islamic authority. By the 15th century, the Safavid movement could draw on both the mystical emotional force and the Shi'a appeal to the oppressed masses to gain a large number of dedicated adherents. Sheikh Heydar took his numerous followers to warfare by leading them on expeditions from Ardabil into the nearby Caucasus. He was killed on one of these campaigns in 1488. His son Esma'il, only one year old, was to avenge his death and lead his devoted army to a conquest of Iran whereby Iran gained a great dynasty, a Shi'a regime, and in most essentials its shape as a modern nation state. Yaqub did not kill Sheikh Heydar's sons, whose mother was Yaqub's sister, but instead sent them to exile in Fars province. The death of Yaqub in 1490 caused turmoil and paved the path for Esmail and his brothers to leave their exile and secretly take refuge in Lahijan, Gilan province, as its governor had sympathy toward Shi'a.

A militant Islamic Sufi order, the Safavids, appeared among Turkish speaking people west of the Caspian Sea, at Ardabil. The Safavid order survived the invasion of Timur in that part of Iran in the late 13th century. By 1500 the Safavids had adopted the Shi'a branch of Islam and were eager to advance Shi'ism by military means. Safavid males used to wear red headgear. They had great devotion for their leader as a religious leader and perfect guide as well as a military chieftain, and they viewed their leaders position as rightly passed from father to son according to the Shi'a tradition. In the year 1500, Esma'il the thirteen-year-old son of a killed Safavid leader, Sheikh Heydar, set out to conquer territories and avenge the death of his father. In January 1502, Esma'il defeated the army of Alvand Beig of Aq Qoyunlu, ruler of Azerbaijan, and seized Tabriz and made this city his capital. Safavids went on and conquered the rest of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Khorasan; They became the strongest force in Iran, and their leader, Esma'il, now fifteen, was declared Shah (King) on 11 March 1502.

In that era Iran had a variety of settled peoples; in addition to Persians it had Kurds, Arabs, Turkmans and Baluchis to name a few. Safavid power over various tribes was not strong enough to consolidate an absolute supremacy; tribal leaders remained those who had been tribal chieftains and considered their tribes to be independent. However, the Safavids laid claim to authority over all that had been Persia.

Turkish language was spoken at Shah Esma'il's court, but having adopted Persian as the official language and much of Persian culture the Safavids were mistakenly thought by outsiders to be Persian, but they were truly Iranian with a unifying spirit. To help organize the state the Safavids used Persian bureaucrats with a tradition in administration and tax collecting, and they tried to create a religious unity. Shah Esma'il described himself as a descendant, on his father's side, of the Prophet Mohammad and claimed to have royal Sassanian blood as well. Shi'ism became the state religion, Esma'il ignored the Sunni branch of Islam and tried to force people to become Shi'a, which was a difficult task with a variety of tribes and less than complete authority.

The newly established Iranian Empire lacked the resources that had been available to the Islamic Caliphs of Baghdad in former times through their dominion over Central Asia and the West in order to consolidate their power over the Islamic authority. Asia Minor and Transoxania were gone, and the rise of maritime trade in the West was unfavorable to a country whose wealth had depended greatly on its position on important east-west overland trade routes like the famous Silk Road. The rise of the Ottomans held back Iranian westward advances and contested with the Safavids' control over both the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. Shah Esma'il by 1506 had conquered Iraq-e Ajam (Arak), Esfahan, Fars, Kerman, Yazd, Kashan, Semnan, Astarabad (Gorgan) and in 1507 he added the Shi'a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to Iran.

In 1507 the Portuguese invaded the Persian Gulf and captured Hormuz Island. It became a naval base and trade outpost, which lasted more than a hundred years. Shah Esma'il, lacking a navy, reluctantly accepted this European presence. In the mean time the Safavids extended their rule by capturing Baghdad and Iraq in 1508. Later on, after defeating the Uzbeks and killing their leader, Mohammad Sheybani, nicknamed Sheibak Khan, in a battle near Merv on December 1510, Shah Esma'il absorbed the large province of Khorasan into his state as well as Merv, Herat and Kandahar. But the Uzbeks remained a formidable rival to the Safavid's domination of Northern Khorasan throughout the 16th century.

The Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II, in his message congratulated Shah Esma'il on his victories and advised him to stop destroying the graves and mosques of Sunni Muslims. Shah Esma'il was convinced of the righteousness of his cause and the evil of the Sunni branch of Islam; he ignored the request. With many Shi'a Muslims in Asia Minor under the authority of the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II was concerned about the power of the Safavids. The new sultan in Constantinople after 1512, Sultan Selim, warred against Shi'a Muslims under his rule, killing thousands and relocating others. Sultan Selim waged war also against the Safavids. On 23 August 1514, just west of Tabriz in the Chalderan plain, Shah Esma'il's army suffered a crushing defeat. Its cavalry and infantry were armed with spears, bows and swords, fighting against the Ottoman's superior numbers as well as field artillery and musketeers. Shah Esma'il and his followers firmly believed that Allah was on their side, but they were confused by their military setback, Tabriz, their capital was briefly occupied. This battle and defeat of Safavid Shah paved the path for the Ottoman conquest of Diyarbakr, Erzinjan, and other parts of eastern Anatolia as well as northern Iraq. Shah Esma'il himself found relief from psychological depression in wine, and died ten years later, at the age of thirty-seven.

Shah Esma'il's descendants Shah Tahmasp I (1524-1576), Shah Esma'il II (1576-1577) and Shah Mohammad (1577-1587), ruling in succession, recovered some of the original Safavid confidence and expanded in the opposite direction of the Ottomans, as far as Transoxiana. Safavid shahs tightened their controls over Iran; each district had its own Safavid leader, a "Qezelbash" chief, answerable to the shah. In time of war the Qezelbash chiefs were responsible for providing soldiers for the shah's army and collecting revenues to pay for war. The local Qezelbash chiefs grew wealthy in land and in collecting taxes. Shah Tahmasp I, the eldest son of Shah Esma'il, ascended the throne at the age of ten, and for the first ten years of his reign, real power was held by a number of leaders of competing Qezelbash factions, which caused much political instability. In 1533 Shah Tahmasp I asserted his authority. One of his legacies was the introduction of converted slaves into court and the military. They were drawn from thousands of Georgian, Circassian and Armenian prisoners captured in campaigns fought in the Caucasus in the 1540s and 1550s. Female slaves entered the royal harem, becoming mothers of princes and a force in court politics and dynastic quarrels. Some of the male slaves began to acquire positions of influence, under Shah Abbas I, reaching high offices that challenged the supremacy of the Qezelbash.

During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I, the Uzbeks launched as many as five major invasions of Khorasan with the intent of retaking the area. The Safavids were successful in driving back the Uzbek threat; and in 1545 they captured Kandahar from the Mughal Empire. The Safavid capital was moved to Qazvin in 1548, following the temporary capture of Tabriz by the Ottomans. Despite periodic wars between Iran and the Ottoman Empire, they maintained an extensive trade, especially in the highly prized Iranian silk. Large quantities of silk were shipped from Iran to commercial centres such as Aleppo and Bursa and from there re-exported to Marseilles, London, and Venice.

Shah Tahmasp I encouraged carpet weaving on the scale of a state industry. The exquisite miniatures illustrating the Iranian national epic known as the "Shahnama" (Epic of Kings) were painted at the request of Shah Tahmasp. This masterpiece is known as "Shahnameh of Tahmaspi" and was presented by the Safavid ruler to the Ottoman sultan Selim II in 1568.

In 1576 the Qezelbash faction interested in a prince whose mother was Turkman rather than Circassian or Georgian, brought Shah Esma'il II, son of Shah Tahmasp I, to power. Shah Esma'il II's reign was marked by brutality and a pro-Sunni policy. Consequently in November 1577, he was poisoned with the participation of his sister Pari Khan Khanom.

Mohammad Shah, the only surviving brother of Shah Esma'il II, proved to be a weak leader. His wife Mahd-e Olya initially dominated him; but after her assassination in 1579 the Qezelbash took control. Meanwhile the Ottomans took advantage of Iran's political turmoil to launch a major invasion of the country. Consequently extensive territories were lost to the Ottomans, including most of Azerbaijan, with Tabriz, and Georgia.

With their self-esteem and power derived from their increased wealth, some local Qezelbash chiefs wished to have more freedom from the shah's authority. They tried to convince Mohammad Shah that he should select a successor agreeable to them. Some of these chiefs tried to reduce the chances of another choice by executing the heir apparent, his mother and some other possible heirs within the royal family. As often happens, politics by murder was less than efficient. The younger brother of the murdered heir apparent was secretly sent away to Khorasan, and Qezelbash chiefs loyal to the royal family fought and defeated Qezelbash chiefs who were not, and full power was returned to the old dynasty of shahs.

Abbas I (1587-1629), who succeeded Mohammad Shah, learnt from his family's experience with the local Qezelbash chiefs, and he broke their power and confiscated their wealth. He extended state-owned lands and lands owned by the shah. Provinces were now to be administered by the state replacing the Qezelbash chiefs. He strengthened his government's bureaucracy and managed to relocate tribes in order to weaken their power. The Sufi bands, Qezelbash, which had been formed into artificial tribal units mainly for military purposes during the dynasty's formative period, as a source of recruitment, were replaced by a standing strong army of his own. He recruited soldiers from Persian villages and from among Christians, Georgians, Circassians, Armenians and others, equipped them with artillery and muskets. The Christians were proud to serve the shah and to call themselves "Ghulams" (slaves) of the shah although slaves they were not. To finance the new army, Shah Abbas converted large pieces of land traditionally granted to tribal chiefs as assignments into crown lands that he taxed directly. This new military force was trained on European lines with the advice of Robert Sherley. Sherley was an English adventurer expert in artillery tactics who, accompanied by a party of cannon founders, reached Qazvin with his brother Anthony Sherley in 1598. In a short time Shah Abbas created a formidable army, consisting of cavalry, infantry and artillery.

Shah Abbas was open to ideas and was mentally active as well. He was curious and in ways more tolerant than his predecessors. Previously, "infidels" (foreigners and non-Muslim subjects) had been denied entry to the shah's court. He welcomed foreigners and his non-Muslims subjects to his court, and enjoyed discussing with foreigners the complexities of religious ideology. He took an unusual step among Islamic rulers by allowing Christians to wear what they wanted and allowing them to own their own home and land.

Shah Abbas defeated the Uzbeks in April 1598 and recovered Herat and territories in Khorasan, including Mashhad, lost several years earlier. He strongly consolidated Safavid power in Khorasan. He rebuilt and developed the shrine of Ali ar-Reza (Imam Reza) at Mashhad, the eighth Shi'a Imam, as a pilgrim, which was damaged by the Uzbeks. The shrine became a major centre for Shi'a pilgrimage, and a rival to Shi'a holy places in Mesopotamia, like Najaf and Karbala, where visiting pilgrims took currency and attention out of Safavid into Ottoman territory.

The Safavids had earlier moved their capital from the vulnerable Tabriz to Qazvin. Since the Uzbek threat from east of the Caspian had been overcome, Shah Abbas could move to his newly built capital at Esfahan in 1598, more centrally placed than Qazvin for control over the whole country and for communication with the trade outlets of the Persian Gulf.

Ali Qapou Palace in Shah Square, Esfahan

Under Shah Abbas I, Iran prospered; he also transplanted a colony of industrious and commercially astute Armenians from Jolfa in Azerbaijan to a new Jolfa next to Esfahan. He patronized the arts, and he built palaces, mosques and schools, Esfahan becoming the cultural and intellectual capital of Iran. Shah Abbas encouraged international trade and the production of silks, carpets, ceramics and metal ware for sale to Europeans. Shah Abbas also founded a carpet factory in Esfahan. Royal patronage and the influence of court designers assured that Persian carpets reached their zenith in elegance during the Safavid period. He advanced trade by building and safeguarding roads. He welcomed tradesmen from Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere to Iran. His governmental monopoly over the silk trade enhanced state revenues. Merchants of the English East India Company established trading houses in Shiraz and Esfahan. After Shah Abbas ousted the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf in 1622, Bandar Abbas (Port of Abbas) became the centre of the East India Company's trade. But Later the Dutch East India Company received trade capitulations from Shah Abbas. The Dutch soon gained supremacy in the European trade with Iran, outdistancing British competitors. They established a spice-trading centre at Bandar Abbas. In 1623-24 Shah Abbas I launched an offensive against the Ottomans and established control over Kurdish territories, Baghdad and the Shi'a Holy Cities of Najaf and Karbala.

During his reign, Shah Abbas I paid considerable attention to the welfare institutions in Esfahan and other cities like establishing hospitals. Medical practice was still depended on medieval guides for the treatment of most illnesses. The standard reference work remained the Canon of Ebn Sina (Avicenna) (d. 1037), but new clinical works were written during the Safavid period as well. In the 17th century, a unique work, The Treasury of Surgery, was written by an army surgeon known as Hakim Mohammad and was dedicated to Shah Safi I. It included a detailed list of the instruments available to surgeons, including a special device for the removal of bullets; outlined various forms of anesthesia; and advocated surgery for cancerous tumors.

The bureaucracy, too, was carefully reorganized, bold reforms in the military, administrative, and fiscal structures helped to centralize state authority to a degree not achieved by Shah Abbas I predecessors. But the seeds of the sovereignty's weakness lay in the royal house itself, which lacked an established system of inheritance by primogeniture. One of Shah Abbas I innovations, however, weakened the Safavid state in the long run; fear of revolts by his sons led him to abandon the traditional practice of employing the princes to govern provinces. Instead, he instituted the practice of confinement of infant princes in the palace gardens away from the direct reach of conspiracies and the world at large. A reigning shah's nearest and most acute objects of suspicion were his own sons. Among them, brother plotted against brother over who should succeed on their father's death; and conspirator, ambitious for influence in a subsequent reign, supported one prince against another. The new practice, followed also by his successors, resulted in ill-educated, indecisive shahs of lower competence, easily dominated by powerful religious dignitaries to whom the Safavids had accorded considerable influence in an attempt to make Shi'ism the state religion

After Shah Abbas I death in 1629, his son Shah Safi I, who ruled from 1629 to 1642, is known for his cruelty, sat on the throne. He was the first of the Safavid shahs to be raised in the palace gardens. Shah Safi I put to death potential rivals to the throne as well as some of his male and female relatives on his accession. He executed most of the generals, officers and councilors he had inherited from his father's reign. The dominant influence of Mirza Taqi, known as Saru Taqi, the Grand Vezir (chancellor) at the Safavid court allowed the government to be run smoothly despite the shah's lack of interest in affairs of state.

On 17 may 1639, peace treaty with the Ottomans, which established the Ottoman-Safavid frontier and put an end to more than a hundred years of sporadic conflict. The treaty forced Shah Safi I to accept the final loss of Baghdad in Mesopotamia, recaptured by the Ottomans in 1638, and instead gave Yerevan in the southern Caucasus to Iran.

Era of Shah Abbas II, who ruled from 1642 to 1667, was the last fully competent period of rule by a Safavid shah. Shah Abbas II took an active role in government matters. Under his rule Iran revived, and some of Persia's glory in the eyes of the outside world returned. He increased the central authority of the state by increasing crown lands and often intervened in provincial affairs on the side of the peasants, but with peace on the frontiers the army declined in size and quality. He stuck to the notion that the Safavid ruler was sacred and perfect, and disputed openly with members of the Shi'a religious establishment who had begun to articulate the idea that in the absence of the hidden Imam Zaman (twelfth Shi'a Imam), true temporal authority rightly belonged to the mojtahid (similar to the position to be known as ayatollah), who merited emulation by the faithful. Safavid Shi'ism had not improved monarchy as an institution, but instead recognized the state as a theocracy. The olama, religious leaders rebuked the shahs, questioned the religious legitimacy of their power and claimed that the mojtahids has a superior claim to rule.

After Abbas II died in 1667, decline set in again when Shah Soleyman (Safi II), who ruled from 1667 to 1694, took power. He was renamed, superstitiously, to Soleyman because the first year and half of his reign was so disastrous. Shah Soleyman was not a competent ruler, and shortly after his accession food prices soared and famine and disease spread throughout the country. Although pressing problems faced him, he increasingly retreated into the harem and left his grand vezir to cope with affairs of state.

Shah Sultan Hossein, who ruled from 1694 to 1722, have been described as the most incompetent shah of Safavids. He was similar to some others who had inherited power by accident of birth. Indifferent to affairs of state, Shah Sultan Hossein effectively brought Safavid Empire to its sudden and unexpected end. He was of a religious temperament and especially influenced by the Shi'a religious establishment. At their insistence, he issued decrees forbidding the consumption of alcohol and banning Sufism in Esfahan. In 1694 Shah Sultan Hossein appointed Mohammad Baqir Majlesi, the most influential member of Shi'a religious establishment, to the new office of "Mulla Bashi" (Head Mulla). Majlesi wrote "Bihar al-Anwar" (The Seas of Light), an encyclopedic work dedicated to the preservation of the prophet Mohammad's words and deeds. He devoted himself to the propagation of a legalistic form of Shi'ism and to the eradication of Sufism and Sunni Islam in Iran. Under his guidance specifically Shi'a popular rituals, such as mourning for the martyred third Shi'a Imam Hossein (d. 680), Ashora, were encouraged, as were pilgrimages to the tombs of holy Shi'a personages. Majlesi's policies also included the persecution of non-Muslims in Iran, including Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians. Unchecked by the Safavid regime, Majlesi and the Shi'a clergy emerged with increased strength and independence from the ruling government in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Safavid Empire had also declined militarily, leaving it more vulnerable to invasion, which came out of the east. In 1722 Afghan invaders under Mahmoud, a former Safavid vassal in Afghanistan, captured Esfahan and murdered Shah Sultan Hossein. The Afghan invasion was disastrous for Iran, which consequently in 1723 the Ottomans took advantage of the disintegration of the Safavid realm and invaded from the west, ravaging western Persia as far as Hamadan, while the Russians seized territories around the Caspian Sea. In June 1724 the two powers agreed on a peaceful partitioning of Iran's northwestern provinces.

Nader Khan (Nader Qoli), an able general from the Turkman tribe of Afshar, from northern Khorasan, assembled an army and began the reconsolidation of the country under his control. He effectively became ruler of Iran, although he acknowledged the Sultan Hossein's son, Tahmasp II, who had escaped the Afghans, as Safavid shah until 1732, then Tahmasp's infant son Abbas III until 1736, at which time he declared himself shah. Nader expelled the Afghans by 1730 and cleared the country of them; regained control over the northwestern provinces of Iran from the hands of Ottomans in 1730; and had the lands occupied by the Russians restored in 1735.

Safavid Kings:
(Iranian Army reconstructions, 1971)

  1. Safavid Government Institutions; by: Willem Floor; Mazda Publishers 2001.
  2. The Timurid and Safavid Periods Vol 6, The Cambridge History of Iran; Cambridge University Press 1986.
  3. Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire; by: Rula Abisaab; I.B. Tauris Publishers 2003.
  4. The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver 1600-1730 (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization); by: Rudolph P. Matthee; Cambridge University Press 1999.
  5. Safavid Medical Practice: Practice of Medicine, Surgery and Gynaecology in Persia Between 1500 and 1750; by: Cyril Elgood; Luzac Publishers 1971.
  6. Iran Under the Safavids; by: Roger Savory; Cambridge University Press 1980.
  7. History of Iran's foreign affairs: from Safavids to the end of WWII; by: Abdulreza Houshang Mahdavi; Tehran, Amir Kabir Publishers 1996.


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