SAFAVIDS (1501-1722)


The Safavid Empire (1501-1722) was based in what is today Iran. It lasted from 1501 to 1722 and was strong enough to challenge the Ottomans in the west and the Mughals in the east. Persian culture was revived under the Safavids, fanatical Shiites who fought with Sunni Ottomans for over a century and influenced the culture of the Moguls in India. They established the great city of Isfahan, created an empire that covered much of the Middle East and Central Asia and cultivated a sense Iranian nationalism. At its height the Safavid empire (1502-1736) embraced the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan and parts of Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

According to the BBC: The Safavid Empire lasted from 1501-1722: 1) It covered all of Iran, and parts of Turkey and Georgia; 2) The Safavid Empire was a theocracy; 3) The state religion was Shi'a Islam; 4) All other religions, and forms of Islam were suppressed; 5) The Empire's economic strength came from its location on the trade routes; 6) The Empire made Iran a centre of art, architecture, poetry and philosophy; 7) The capital, Isfahan, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world; 8) The key figures in the Empire were and Isma'il I and Abbas I; 9) The Empire declined when it became complacent and corrupt. The Safavid Empire, although driven and inspired by strong religious faith, rapidly built the foundations of strong central secular government and administration. The Safavids benefited from their geographical position at the centre of the trade routes of the ancient world. They became rich on the growing trade between Europe and the Islamic civilisations of central Asia and India. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009]

Suzan Yalman of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: In the early sixteenth century, Iran was united under the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), the greatest dynasty to emerge from Iran in the Islamic period. The Safavids descended from a long line of Sufi shaikhs who maintained their headquarters at Ardabil, in northwestern Iran. In their rise to power, they were supported by Turkman tribesmen known as the Qizilbash, or red heads, on account of their distinctive red caps. By 1501, Ismacil Safavi and his Qizilbash warriors wrested control of Azerbaijan from the Aq Quyunlu, and in the same year Ismacil was crowned in Tabriz as the first Safavid shah (r. 1501–24). Upon his accession, Shici Islam became the official religion of the new Safavid state, which as yet consisted only of Azerbaijan. But within ten years, all of Iran was brought under Safavid dominion. However, throughout the sixteenth century, two powerful neighbors, the Shaibanids to the east and the Ottomans to the west (both orthodox Sunni states), threatened the Safavid empire. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Based on original work by Linda Komaroff, \^/]

Iran after the Mongols

Iran after the Mongols
Dynasty, Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Jalayirid: 736–835: 1336–1432
Muzaffarid: 713–795: 1314–1393
Injuid: 703–758: 1303–1357
Sarbadarid: 758–781: 1357–1379
Karts: 643–791: 1245–1389
Qara Quyunlu: 782–873: 1380–1468
Aq Quyunlu: 780–914: 1378–1508
[Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Qajar: 1193–1342: 1779–1924
Agha Muhammad: 1193–1212: 1779–97
Fath cAli Shah: 1212–50: 1797–1834
Muhammad: 1250–64: 1834–48
Nasir al-Din: 1264–1313: 1848–96

Muzaffar al-Din: 1313–24: 1896–1907
Muhammad cAli: 1324–27: 1907–9
Ahmad: 1327–42: 1909–24

Safavid Rulers

Safavid: 907–1145: 1501–1732
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Ismacil I: 907–30: 1501–24
Tahmasp I: 930–84: 1524–76
Ismacil II: 984–85: 1576–78
Muhammad Khudabanda: 985–96: 1578–88
cAbbas I: 996–1038: 1587–1629
Safi I: 1038–52: 1629–42
cAbbas II: 1052–77: 1642–66
Sulayman I (Safi II): 1077–1105: 1666–94
Husayn I: 1105–35: 1694–1722
Tahmasp II: 1135–45: 1722–32
cAbbas III: 1145–63: 1732–49
Sulayman II: 1163: 1749–50
Ismacil III: 1163–66: 1750–53
Husayn II: 1166–1200: 1753–86
Muhammad: 1200: 1786
Afsharid: 1148–1210: 1736–1795
Nadir Shah (Tahmasp Quli Khan): 1148–60: 1736–47
cAdil Shah (cAli Quli Khan): 1160–61: 1747–48
Ibrahim: 1161: 1748
Shah Rukh (in Khorasan): 1161–1210: 1748–95
Zand: 1163–1209: 1750–1794
Muhammad Karim Khan: 1163–93: 1750–79
Abu-l-Fath / Muhammad cAli (joint rulers): 1193: 1779
Sadiq (in Shiraz): 1193–95: 1779–81
cAli Murad (in Isfahan): 1193–99: 1779–85
Jacfar: 1199–1203: 1785–89
Lutf cAli: 1203–9: 1789–94
[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Origins of th Safavid Empire

The Safavids claimed descent from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and the inspiration of Shiite Islam. They broke from the Sunni Muslims and made Shiite Islam the state religion. The Safavids are named after Sheikh Safi-eddin Arbebili, a widely revered 14th century Sufi philosopher. Like their rivals, the Ottomans and Moghuls, the Safavids established an absolute monarchy that maintained power with a sophisticated bureaucracy influenced by the Mongol military state and a legal system based on Muslim law. One of their great challenges was to reconcile Islamic egalitarianism with the autocratic rule. This was achieved initially through brutality and violence and later through appeasement.

Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-1524), the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, was a descendant of Sheikh Safi-eddin He was regarded as a great poet, statements and leader. Writing under the name Khatai, he composed works as a members of hf his own circle of court poets. He maintained relations with Hungary and Germany, and entered into negotiations regarding a military alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Karl V.

According to the BBC: “The Empire was founded by the Safavids, a Sufi order that goes back to Safi al-Din (1252-1334). Safi al-Din converted to Shi'ism and was a Persian nationalist. The Safavid brotherhood was originally a religious group. Over the following centuries the brotherhood became stronger, by attracting local warlords and by political marriages. It became a military group as well as a religious one in the 15th century. Many were attracted by the brotherhood's allegiance to Ali, and to the 'hidden Imam'. In the 15th century the brotherhood became more militarily aggressive, and waged a jihad (Islamic holy war) against parts of what are now modern Turkey and Georgia." |::|

Rise of the Safavids

The Safavids, who came to power in 1501, were leaders of a militant Sufi order. They originated in what is now Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani region of northwest Iran. The began as a Sufi order that converted to Twelver Shiite Islam and emerged as a major power by taking control of northwest Iran and raiding Christian areas in Georgia and the Caucasus. Many of the warriors in the Safavid armies were Turks.

According to the BBC: “The Safavid Empire dates from the rule of Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-1524). In 1501, the Safavid Shahs declared independence when the Ottomans outlawed Shi'a Islam in their territory. The Safavid Empire was strengthened by important Shi'a soldiers from the Ottoman army who had fled from persecution. When the Safavids came to power, Shah Ismail was proclaimed ruler at the age of 14 or 15, and by 1510 Ismail had conquered the whole of Iran." |::|

The Safavids traced their ancestry to Shaykh Safi ad Din (died circa 1334), the founder of their order, who claimed descent from Shiite Islam's Seventh Imam, Musa al Kazim. From their home base in Ardabil, they recruited followers among the Turkoman tribesmen of Anatolia and forged them into an effective fighting force and an instrument for territorial expansion. Sometime in the mid-fifteenth century, the Safavids adopted Shiite Islam, and their movement became highly millenarian in character.

In 1500, 16-year-old Ismail became the leader of the Safavids after his father was murdered by regional military commanders. His first order of business was to avenge his father’s death. In 1501, he conquered Tabriz, which became the Safavid capital. Ismail was proclaimed shah of Iran. Within a decade he had captured all of Iran.

The rise of the Safavids marked the reemergence in Iran of a powerful central authority within geographical boundaries attained by former Iranian empires. The Safavids declared Shiite Islam the state religion and used proselytizing and force to convert the large majority of Muslims in Iran to the Shiite sect.

Religion in the Safavid Empire

According to the BBC: “The early Safavid empire was effectively a theocracy. Religious and political power were completely intertwined, and encapsulated in the person of the Shah. The people of the Empire soon embraced the new faith with enthusiasm, celebrating Shi'ite festivals with great piety. The most significant of these was Ashura, when Shia Muslims mark the death of Husayn. Ali was also venerated. Because Shi'ism was now a state religion, with major educational establishments devoted to it, its philosophy and theology developed greatly during the Safavid Empire. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

According to the BBC: “One of Shah Ismail's most important decisions was to declare that the state religion would be the form of Islam called Shi'ism, that at the time was completely foreign to Iranian culture. The Safavids launched a vigorous campaign to convert what was then a predominantly Sunni population by persuasion and by force. The Sunni ulama (a religious council of wise men) either left or were killed. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“To promote Shi'ism the Safavids brought in scholars from Shi'ite countries to form a new religious elite. They appointed an official (the Sadr) to co-ordinate this elite - and ensure that it did what the Shah wanted. The religious leaders effectively became a tool of the government. The Safavids also spent money to promote religion, making grants to shrines and religious schools. And most craftily of all, they used grants of land and money to create a new class of wealthy religious aristocrats who owed everything to the state. |::|

“In specifically religious terms the Safavids not only persecuted Sunni Muslims, but Shi'ites with different views, and all other religions. Alien shrines were vandalised, and Sufi mystic groups forbidden. This was surprising, since the Safavids owed their origins to a Sufi order and to a form of Shi'ism that they now banned. They also reduced the importance of the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), replacing it with pilgrimage to Shi'ite shrines. |::|

Safavids and Shiite Islam

Ismail declared Twelver Shitte Islam to be the state religion and based his legitimacy on dubious claim to be a descendant of the Shiite imams. This was a major development in Islam. Before that time most Shiites had been Arabs and the previous Shiite dynasties had been made been ruled by Arabs. Although few Iranians were Shiites when the Safavids took power, most of them were Shiites by the 17th century and remain so to this day.

Under the early Safavids, Iran was a theocracy in which state and religion were closely intertwined. Ismail's followers venerated him not only as the murshid-kamil, the perfect guide, but also as an emanation of the Godhead. He combined in his person both temporal and spiritual authority. In the new state, he was represented in both these functions by the vakil, an official who acted as a kind of alter ego. The sadr headed the powerful religious organization; the vizier, the bureaucracy; and the amir alumara, the fighting forces. These fighting forces, the qizilbash, came primarily from the seven Turkic-speaking tribes that supported the Safavid bid for power. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The creation of a Shiite state caused great tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and led to not only intolerance, repression, persecution directed at Sunnis but to an ethnic cleansing campaign. Sunnis were executed and deported, administrators were forced to a vow condemning the first three Sunni caliphs. Before that time Shiites and Sunnis had gotten along reasonably well and Twelver Shiite Islam was regarded as fringe, mystical sect.

Twelver Shiite Islam went through great changes. It had been previously practiced quietly in homes and emphasized mystical experiences. Under the Safavids, the sect became more doctrinal and institutionalized and less tolerant of dissent and mysticism. Individual soul searching and discovery and Sufi acts of devotion were replaced with mass rituals in which throngs of men collectively beat themselves and moaned and cried and denounced Sunnis and mystics.

Safavid Challenges and Rivals

The Safavids faced the problem of integrating their Turkic-speaking followers with the native Iranians, their fighting traditions with the Iranian bureaucracy, and their messianic ideology with the exigencies of administering a territorial state. The institutions of the early Safavid state and subsequent efforts at state reorganization reflect attempts, not always successful, to strike a balance among these various elements.

The Safavids also faced external challenges from the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. The Uzbeks were an unstable element along Iran's northeastern frontier who raided into Khorasan, particularly when the central government was weak, and blocked the Safavid advance northward into Transoxiana. The Ottomans, who were Sunnis, were rivals for the religious allegiance of Muslims in eastern Anatolia and Iraq and pressed territorial claims in both these areas and in the Caucasus. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The Moghuls of India greatly admired the Persians. Urdu, a blend of Hindi and Persian, was the language of the Mogul court. The once invincible Mogul army was dealt a series of embarrassing defeat under Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658). Persia took Qandahar and thwarted three attempts by the Moguls to win it back.

Safavid Art and Culture

According to the BBC: “Under Safavid rule eastern Persia became a great cultural centre. During this period, painting, metalwork, textiles and carpets reached new heights of perfection. For art to succeed at this scale, patronage had to come from the top. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“This was not entirely for love of beauty. Much of the early art was devoted to celebrating the glories of the earlier Iranian kingdom, and thus, by implication, making legitimate the Safavids as that kingdom's current heirs. |::|

“The Safavids were often artists themselves. Shah Ismail was a poet and Shah Tahmasp a painter. Their patronage, which included opening royal workshops for artists, created a favourable climate for the development of art. |::|

Shah Abbas

The Safavid state reached its apogee during the reign of Shah Abbas (ruled 1587-1629). The shah gained breathing space to confront and defeat the Uzbeks by signing a largely disadvantageous treaty with the Ottomans. He then fought successful campaigns against the Ottomans, reestablishing Iranian control over Iraq, Georgia, and parts of the Caucasus. He counterbalanced the power of the qizilbash by creating a body of troops composed of Georgian and Armenian slaves who were loyal to the person of the shah. He extended state and crown lands and the provinces directly administered by the state, at the expense of the qizilbash chiefs. He relocated tribes to weaken their power, strengthened the bureaucracy, and further centralized the administration. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Shah Abbas

Madeleine Bunting wrote in The Guardian, “If you want to understand modern Iran, arguably the best place to start is with the reign of Abbas I....Abbas had an unprepossessing start: at 16, he inherited a kingdom riven by war, which had been invaded by the Ottomans in the west and the Uzbeks in the east, and was threatened by expanding European powers such as Portugal along the Gulf coast. Much like Elizabeth I in England, he faced the challenges of a fractured nation and multiple foreign enemies, and pursued comparable strategies: both rulers were pivotal in the forging of a new sense of identity. Isfahan was the showcase for Abbas's vision of his nation and the role it was to play in the world. [Source: Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, January 31, 2009 /=/]

“Central to Abbas's nation-building was his definition of Iran as Shia. It may have been his grandfather who first declared Shia Islam as the country's official religion, but it was Abbas who is credited with forging the link between nation and faith that has proved such an enduring resource for subsequent regimes in Iran (as Protestantism played a pivotal role in the shaping of national identity in Elizabethan England). Shia Islam provided a clear boundary with the Sunni Ottoman empire to the west - Abbas's greatest enemy - where there was no natural boundary of rivers or mountain or ethnic divide. /=/

“The Shah's patronage of the Shia shrines was part of a strategy of unification; he donated gifts and money for construction to Ardabil in western Iran, Isfahan and Qom in central Iran, and Mashad in the far east. The British Museum has organised its exhibition around these four major shrines, focusing on their architecture and artefacts. /=/

“Abbas once walked barefoot from Isfahan to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad, a distance of several hundred kilometres. It was a powerful way to enhance the prestige of the shrine as a place of Shia pilgrimage, a pressing priority because the Ottomans controlled the most important Shia pilgrimage sites at Najaf and Kerbala in what is now Iraq. Abbas needed to consolidate his nation by building up the shrines of his own lands.” /=/

Shah Abbas's Achievements

Suzan Yalman of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “His reign was recognized as a period of military and political reform as well as of cultural florescence. It was in large measure due to Abbas' reforms that the Safavid forces were able finally to defeat the Ottoman army in the early seventeenth century. The reorganization of the state and the ultimate elimination of the powerful Qizilbash, a group that continued to threaten the authority of the throne, brought stability to the empire.]

Shah Abbas I kicked extremist out of the government, united the country, created the magnificent capital at Isfahan, defeated the Ottomans in important battles, and presided over the Safavid Empire during its Golden Age. He made a show of personal piety and supported religious institutions by building mosques and religious seminaries and by making generous endowments for religious purposes. His reign, however, witnessed the gradual separation of religious institutions from the state and an increasing movement toward a more independent religious hierarchy.*

Shah Abbas I challenged the great Moghul Emperor Jahangir for the title of the most powerful king in the world. He liked to disguise himself as a commoner and hang out in the main square of Isfahan and find out what was on people’s mind. He pushed out the Ottomans, who control much of Persia, unified the country and made Isfahan into a dazzling jewel of art and architecture.

In addition to his political reorganization and his support of religious institutions, Shah Abbas also promoted commerce and the arts. The Portuguese had previously occupied Bahrain and the island of Hormoz off the Persian Gulf coast in their bid to dominate Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf trade, but in 1602 Shah Abbas expelled them from Bahrain, and in 1623 he used the British (who sought a share of Iran's lucrative silk trade) to expel the Portuguese from Hormoz. He significantly enhanced government revenues by establishing a state monopoly over the silk trade and encouraged internal and external trade by safeguarding the roads and welcoming British, Dutch, and other traders to Iran. With the encouragement of the shah, Iranian craftsmen excelled in producing fine silks, brocades, and other cloths, carpets, porcelain, and metalware. When Shah Abbas built a new capital at Esfahan, he adorned it with fine mosques, palaces, schools, bridges, and a bazaar. He patronized the arts, and the calligraphy, miniatures, painting, and agriculture of his period are particularly noteworthy.*

Shah Abbas and Art

Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian: “Not many individuals create a new style in art - and those who do tend to be artists or architects, not rulers. Yet Shah Abbas, who came to power in Iran in the late 16th century, stimulated an aesthetic renaissance of the highest order. His building projects, religious gifts and encouragement of a new cultural elite resulted in one of the supreme eras in the history of Islamic art - which means this exhibition contains some of the most beautiful things you could ever wish to see. [Source: Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, February 14, 2009 ~~]

“Islam has always rejoiced in an art of pattern and geometry, but there are many ways of being orderly. What Persian artists added to tradition in the reign of Shah Abbas was a taste for the specific, for the portrayal of nature, not in tension with the abstract legacy but enriching it. The new ruler let a thousand flowers bloom. The characteristic decorative idiom of his exquisite court abounds in minutely lifelike petals and complex looping foliage. It has something in common with the "grotesques" of European 16th-century art. Indeed, Elizabethan Britain was aware of this ruler's might, and Shakespeare mentions him in Twelfth Night. Yet beside the fabulous carpets woven in silver-trimmed thread that are this show's treasures, two English portraits of travellers to the Shah's court look prosaic. ~~

“For poetry, contemplate Habib Allah's painting from a manuscript of the Persian literary classic The Conference of the Birds. As a hoopoe makes a speech to its fellow birds, the artist creates a scene of such delicacy you can almost smell the roses and jasmine. Here is an art of the fantastic, to make the mind fly. At the centre of the exhibition, below the dome of the old Reading Room, rise images of the architecture of Isfahan, the new capital that was the supreme achievement of Shah Abbas. "I want to live there," wrote the French critic Roland Barthes of a photograph of the Alhambra in Granada. After visiting this exhibition you may well find yourself wanting to live in the Isfahan depicted in a 17th-century print, with its market stalls and conjurers among the mosques.” ~~

Madeleine Bunting wrote in The Guardian, “Abbas donated his collection of more than 1,000 Chinese porcelains to the shrine at Ardabil, and a wooden display case was specially built to show them to the pilgrims. He recognised how his gifts and their display could be used as propaganda, demonstrating at the same time his piety and his wealth. It is the donations to the shrines that have inspired the choice of many of the pieces in the British Museum show. [Source: Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, January 31, 2009 /=/]


According to the BBC: “The artistic achievements and the prosperity of the Safavid period are best represented by Isfahan, the capital of Shah Abbas. Isfahan had parks, libraries and mosques that amazed Europeans, who had not seen anything like this at home. The Persians called it Nisf-e-Jahan, 'half the world', meaning that to see it was to see half the world. “Isfahan became one of the world's most elegant cities. In its heyday it was also one of the largest with a population of one million; 163 mosques, 48 religious schools, 1801 shops and 263 public baths. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Madeleine Bunting wrote in The Guardian, “Stand on the roof terrace of the Ali Qapu palace overlooking the central square of Isfahan, Iran's most beautiful city, and you begin to grasp the significance of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), arguably the country's most brilliant ruler. Before you lies the masterpiece of urban planning that integrated the political, economic, religious and social elements out of which he built a nation. Here is an architecture which perfectly expresses the political economy of its ruler and enabled him to claim that his country was at the centre of the world. [Source: Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, January 31, 2009 /=/]

“The square, Naqsh-i Jahan, is one of the biggest urban spaces in the world; at 500 by 160 metres, its scale is surpassed only by Tiananmen in Beijing. Opposite the palace are the exquisite minaret and dome of the Shah's private mosque, the blue tiles gleaming in the late afternoon sun. As the muezzin sounds, Isfahani families begin to lay out rugs among the fountains and garden of the square. The moon is rising and it catches the imposing public mosque - the Masjid-i Shah - which dominates another side of the square. The fourth side is taken up by the entrance to the bazaar, still one of the biggest in Iran. /=/

“It was on the Ali Qapu terrace that the Shah entertained ambassadors from China, India and Europe with military parades and mock battles. This was the stage he used to impress the world; his visitors, we are told, came away stunned at the sophistication and opulence of this meeting point between east and west.

“In the Shah's palace of Ali Qapu, the wall paintings in his reception rooms illustrate a significant chapter in the history of globalisation. In one room, there is a small painting of a woman with a child, clearly a copy of an Italian image of the Virgin; on the opposite wall, there is a Chinese painting. These pictures indicate Iran's capacity to absorb influences, and demonstrate a cosmopolitan sophistication. Iran had become the crux of a new and rapidly growing world economy as links were forged trading china, textiles and ideas across Asia and Europe. Abbas took into his service the English brothers Robert and Anthony Sherley as part of his attempts to build alliances with Europe against their common enemy, the Ottomans. He played European rivals off against each other to secure his interests, allying himself with the English East India Company to expel the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. /=/

“The bazaar at Isfahan has changed little since it was built by Abbas. The narrow lanes are bordered with stalls laden with the carpets, painted miniatures, textiles and the nougat sweets, pistachios and spices for which Isfahan is famous. This was the commerce that the Shah did much to encourage. He had a particularly keen interest in trade with Europe, then awash with silver from the Americas, which he needed if he was to acquire the modern weaponry to defeat the Ottomans. He set aside one neighbourhood for the Armenian silk traders he had forced to relocate from the border with Turkey, aware that they brought with them lucrative relationships that reached to Venice and beyond. So keen was he to accommodate the Armenians that he even allowed them to build their own Christian cathedral. In stark contrast to the disciplined aesthetic of the mosques, the cathedral's walls are rich with gory martyrdoms and saints. /=/

“It was the need to nurture new relationships, and a new urban conviviality, that led to the creation of the huge Naqsh-i Jahan square at the heart of Isfahan. Religious, political and economic power framed the civic space in which people could meet and mingle. A similar impulse led to the building of Covent Garden in London in the same period. /=/

“There are very few contemporary images of the Shah because of the Islamic injunction against images of the human form. Instead he conveyed his authority through an aesthetic that became characteristic of his reign: loose, flamboyant, arabesque patterns can be traced from textiles and carpets to tiles and manuscripts. In the two major mosques of Isfahan that Abbas built, every surface is covered with tiles featuring calligraphy, flowers and twisting tendrils, creating a haze of blue and white with yellow. The light pours through apertures between arches offering deep shade; the cool air circulates around the corridors. At the centre point of the great dome of the Masjid-i Shah, a whisper can be heard from every corner - such is the exact calculation of the acoustics required. Abbas understood the role of the visual arts as a tool of power; he understood how Iran could exert lasting influence from Istanbul to Delhi with an "empire of the mind", as the historian Michael Axworthy has described it. /=/

Safavids and Ottomans

The Safavids resisted Ottoman Turkey conquest and fought with Sunni Ottomans from the 16th century to the early 18th century. The Ottomans hated the Safavids. They were regarded as infidels and the Ottomans launched campaigns of jihad against them. Many were murdered in Ottoman territory. Mesopotamia was a battle ground between Ottomans and Persians.

The Safavids made peace when they thought it expedient. When Suleyman the Magnificent conquered Baghdad 34 camels were needed to carry gifts from the Persian shah to the Ottoman court. The gifts included a jewel box adorned with a pear-size ruby, 20 silk carpets, a tent topped with gold and valuable manuscripts and illuminated Korans.

The Safavid Empire received a blow that was to prove fatal in 1524, when the Ottoman sultan Selim I defeated the Safavid forces at Chaldiran and occupied the Safavid capital, Tabriz. The Safavids attacked the Sunni Ottoman Empire but were crushed. Under Selim I there was a mass slaughter of dissident Muslims in the Ottoman Empire before the battle. Although Selim was forced to withdraw because of the harsh winter and Iran's scorched earth policy, and although Safavid rulers continued to assert claims to spiritual leadership, the defeat shattered belief in the shah as a semidivine figure and weakened the hold of the shah over the qizilbash chiefs.

In 1533 the Ottoman sultan Süleyman occupied Baghdad and then extended Ottoman rule to southern Iraq. In 1624, Baghdad was retaken by the Safavids under Shah Abbas but retaken by the Ottomans in 1638. Except for a brief period (1624-38) when Safavid rule was restored, Iraq remained firmly in Ottoman hands. The Ottomans also continued to challenge the Safavids for control of Azarbaijan and the Caucasus until the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin in 1639 established frontiers both in Iraq and in the Caucasus that remain virtually unchanged in the late twentieth century.*

Decline and Fall of the Safavids

Although there was a recovery with the reign of Shah Abbas II (1642- 66), in general the Safavid Empire declined after the death of Shah Abbas. The decline resulted from decreasing agricultural productivity, reduced trade, and inept administration. weak rulers, interference by the women of the harem in politics, the reemergence of qizilbash rivalries, maladministration of state lands, excessive taxation, the decline of trade, and the weakening of Safavid military organization. (Both the qizilbash tribal military organization and the standing army composed of slave soliders were deteriorating.) The last two rulers, Shah Sulayman (1669-94) and Shah Sultan Hosain (1694-1722), were voluptuaries. Once again the eastern frontiers began to be breached, and in 1722 a small body of Afghan tribesmen won a series of easy victories before entering and taking the capital itself, ending Safavid rule. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The Safavid dynasty collapsed in 1722 when Isfahan was conquered without much of a fight by Afghan tribesmen with the Turks and Russians picking up the pieces. A Safavid prince escaped and returned to power under Nadir Khan. After the Safavid Empire fell, Persia was ruled by three different dynasties in 55 years, including Afghans from 1736 to 1747.

Afghan supremacy was brief. Tahmasp Quli, a chief of the Afshar tribe, soon expelled the Afghans in the name of a surviving member of the Safavid family. Then, in 1736, he assumed power in his own name as Nader Shah. He went on to drive the Ottomans from Georgia and Armenia and the Russians from the Iranian coast on the Caspian Sea and restored Iranian sovereignty over Afghanistan. He also took his army on several campaigns into India and in 1739 sacked Delhi, bringing back fabulous treasures. Although Nader Shah achieved political unity, his military campaigns and extortionate taxation proved a terrible drain on a country already ravaged and depopulated by war and disorder, and in 1747 he was murdered by chiefs of his own Afshar tribe.*

According to the BBC: “The Safavid Empire was held together in the early years by conquering new territory, and then by the need to defend it from the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. But in the seventeenth century the Ottoman threat to the Safavids declined. The first result of this was that the military forces became less effective. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“With their major enemy keeping quiet, the Safavid Shahs became complacent, and then corrupt and decadent. Power passed to the Shi'a ulama (a religious council of wise men) which eventually deposed the Shahs and proclaimed the world's first Islamic Republic in the eighteenth century. The ulama developed a theory that only a Mujtahid - one deeply learned in the Sharia (Qur'anic law) and one who has had a blameless life, could rule. |::|

“In 1726 an Afghan group destroyed the ruling dynasty. After the conquest a division of powers was agreed between the new Afghan Shahs and the Shi'a ulama. The Afghan Shahs controlled the state and foreign policy, and could levy taxes and make secular laws. The ulama retained control of religious practice; and enforced the Sharia (Qur'anic Law) in personal and family matters. The problems of this division of spiritual and political authority is something that Iran is still working out today. |::|

A period of anarchy and a struggle for supremacy among Afshar, Qajar, Afghan, and Zand tribal chieftains followed Nader Shah's death. Finally Karim Khan Zand (1750-79) was able to defeat his rivals and to unify the country, except for Khorasan, under a loose form of central control. He refused to assume the title of shah, however, and ruled as vakil al ruaya, or deputy of the subjects. He is remembered for his mild and beneficent rule.*

Iran after the Safavid Empire

According to the BBC: “However by this period the Empire was disintegrating, and for the next two centuries it lay in decay. Bandit chiefs and feudal lords plundered it at will, further weakening the Empire, and people yearned for strong central rule and stability. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“The rise of the Pahlavis (1925 -79) saw the reaffirmation of a strong central authority in Iran and the re-emergence of the dynastic principle. The discovery of oil early in the twentieth century and the interest of it to the British and then the Americans determined the style and role of the second Pahlavi Shah. The wealth from oil enabled him to head an opulent and corrupt court. |::|

“The ulama continued to tolerate the non-religious Shahs right up until the 1970s but they finally overthrew the monarchy in 1979. This led to power being exercised through the highest officials of the ulama, the Ayatollahs. Ayatollah Khomeini's challenge to the Shah's Royal authority confirmed a deep religious tradition in Iranian society and history. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.