|A depiction of the court of Abbas I|
Safavid history is much older than the establishment of Safavid rule in 1501. There are two aspects of this which we will need to discuss: the Safaviyye and Twelver Shia Islam. The Safaviyye was a religious order founded under the Kurdish Shaikh Safi al-Din (1252-1334) in 1300 and it takes its name from him. The Safaviyye were part of a branch of Islam called Sufism - sometimes called 'Folk Islam' by figures including H.R. Roemer - which placed emphasis on mysticism as well as Islamic theology. Shaikh Safi in Roemer's words was a 'miracle worker and man of God combined with a sober, practical politician and cunning merchant.' From his base in Ardabil he became a popular figure becoming the focal point of a religious movement, he was friendly with secular rulers, he became a protector of the poor and the weak, and his convent became a refuge for the persecuted and oppressed. The Safaviyye was one of the reasons why the Mongols in Iran adopted Islam. After Shaikh Safi's death his son became the leader of the Safaviyye and leadership would pass from father to son for over a century. Thanks to them Ardabil became a holy pilgrimage site. This changed under Shaikh Junaid in the fifteenth century who transformed the Safaviyye from a religious Sufi order to a military one. Junaid started seizing land and creating political alliances - he married the sister of the Aq Quyunlu's ruler Uzun Hassan and his son would marry Hassan's daughter. This was important as the Aq Quyunlu were the most powerful Turkmen dynasty in the region. Junaid's son Haydar truly embraced the military side - Junaid had sent propaganda to Turkmen lands in the Ottoman Empire which attracted potential fighters to the Safaviyye order. Haydar organised them into an army called the Qizilbash, or Kizilbash, which meant 'Red heads' or 'Red turbans'. Originally this was an insult from the Ottomans but the Safaviyye embraced it. Under Haydar's son, Ismail, the Safavid Empire would emerge.
|Ismail, the son of Haydar and founder of the Safavid Empire|
Ismail and the founding of an Empire
We'll look at aspects of Ismail's rule in this point - we'll come to administration, religion etc. later on. Haydar, like Junaid, wanted to become the new regional power. The Ottomans were on the rise in the west, the Aq Quyunlu was being swallowed up slowly by the Ottomans, and the Timurid Empire in Iran was being torn apart by civil war. Haydar saw this as a chance to expand and when Uzun Hassan died in 1478 this gave Haydar the excuse to cut ties. His empire building was cut short when he died in 1488 fighting the Shirvans and Aq Quyunlu. The Qizilbash continued fighting the Aq Quyunlu and at the age of seven Haydar's young son Ismail went into hiding in Gilan on the Caspian where he was trained by Shia theologians. At the age of just 12 he came out of hiding, went to Ardabil to take leadership of the Qizilbash and began his way into forming the Safavids. Ismail was bold, charismatic and had legitimacy. The Qizilbash were loyal to any son of Haydar, although this did not stop them from using his brothers as pawns before their deaths, and Ismail himself had political and spiritual legitimacy. He was the grandson of the Aq Quyunlu leader Uzun Hassan whose wife was the daughter of the King of Trebizond. As a direct descendant of Safi al-Din he got spiritual legitimacy but according to one lineage Safi al-Din was a descendant of the first Twelve Imams and the fourth of the Rashidun (see here) Ali. Regardless if this was true Ismail claimed this legacy once stating: I am God's mystery. I am the leader of all these ghazi warriors. My mother is Fatima, my father is Ali; and I am the pir [leader] of the Twelve Imams. He also came out of hiding at the turn of a new century; something later Safavid historians claimed was being symbolically linked to the Mahdi and linked to the phrase 'God sends at the beginning of every century someone to renew the faith'. Ismail himself even claimed that he was a Mahdi.
|A depiction of the Qizilbash|
|The Safavids under Ismail|
Administration and Governance
Throughout Safavid rule the Qizilbash remained important acting as the Safavid version of the Ottoman janissaries. When not fighting they often served as administrators and like with the janissaries they were not of the same cultural and ethnic group as the rest of the empire. Instead of being Iranian the Qizilbash were often Turkmens, Kurdish and later Caucasian; by the end of the dynasty Caucasians had replaced Turkmens as the main group which comprised the Qizilbash. The Qizilbash became both something which benefited the Safavids and something which hindered them. They often provided the backbone of the administration and also under Ismail the aristocracy but then they became too powerful. Qizilbash factionalism under Ismail's later reign and under Tahmasp threatened to tear apart the empire and often they warred against tribes for power and land. Tahmasp once wrote 'For years I was forced patiently to watch the bloodshed between the tribes and I tried to see what was the will of God in these events'. Occasionally when shahs tried to replace administrators with Persians the Qizilbash had them assassinated. To try and offset Qizilbash power starting under Ismail the royal family married Iranians and creating a slave army similar to the janissaries called the ghulam. The ghulam were taken from captured Georgians and Circassians. Although the Qizilbash did remain powerful and factionalism after a series of short reigns after the death of Tahmasp in 1570 (as well as foreign invasions) threatened to tear the empire apart. When Abbas I took the throne via a coup in 1588 through force he brought the Qizilbash into line - when one clan, the Nuqtavi, became too powerful and caused an issue where it was believed that they would seize the throne he did a mock coronation in 1594 before executing them by firing squad and personally beheading the order's leading poet.
|Pari Khan Khanum|
Religion was a key component of Safavid rule - so much so that the mujtahid (those capable to exercise Islamic law) managed to became a class in of themselves holding land and governmental posts. However, the religious leaders could not touch secular law. The Safavid shahs were very keen to spread Shia Islam, especially compared to the Ottomans and Mughals. The Safavids largely ruled over Muslims whereas the Ottomans ruled over Muslims, Jews, and Christians as the Mughals ruled over mainly Hindus. Early on the Safavids wanted to enforce Shia in their empire, Ismail himself invited clerical families from Jabal 'Amil in Lebanon to come form a ulema (religious body of scholars). The most influential, 'Ali al-Karaki al-'Amili, arrived in Najaf, Iraq in 1504. Ismail destroyed Sunni mosques, had people denounce the first three caliphs, had mosques adopt Shia aspects of worship, and encouraged Shia Muslims to come to Iran. To get into administration you had to go to a madras (religious college) and to get into one you had to be Shia. Quite often Shia Islam was equated with Sufism to allow the general masses to more easily convert as it was less of a change in doctrine for them. Ismail's great-grandson, Abbas I, loathed Sunni Muslims and enforced conversion. By his death in 1629 most had converted. Today the reason why Iran and Iraq are mostly Shia is due to the Safavids. There were pushback though from non-Shia against these conversions; one of the reasons why the Uzbeks continuously revolted was due to this. Nevertheless Shia became a way to legitimize yourself - those in the royal family who wanted to become legitimate often patronized Shia shrines.
Ethnicity, Tribe and Culture
One key aspects of Safavid rule was that they were the first Iranian group to rule a united Iran (sometimes called Persia) since the rise of Islam. They had either been ruled by Arabs, Turks, or Mongols until 1501. The empire - and today's Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - was incredibly diverse having Iranians, Arabs, Kurds, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and many other ethnicities lived within the empire. One key aspect to the constant troubles Safavid shahs had were the tribes. Ismail had taken over from decentralized empires which gave the tribes vast amounts of power and after the shahs relied on tribes for military means. The Safavids would continuously face issues with different groups trying to exert their own autonomy or independence during times of trouble. During the Qizilbash Civil Wars the Uzbeks tried to break off and at times were successful. Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, the ruling elite were Iranian and had large amounts of Caucasians and Circassians mixed in. We'll look at this later when we look at Safavid arts but the Safavids were heavy patrons of Persian identity. While it was common for other Muslim rulers to write in the style of their enemies - Selim I of the Ottomans wrote many poems in Persian - the Safavids were more reluctant to do so. Ismail wrote primarily in Persian and Azerbaijani as an example. However, ruling over a multi-ethnic empire they would often write in other languages. Persian was the primary language the Safavids focused on with it being spoke in court, schools, colleges and the administration.
Abbas I (r.1588-1629), sometimes called Abbas the Great, saw what has been described by Stephen Dale as the 'Safavid Renaissance'. Upon seizing the throne he managed to quell the Qizilbash and centralized rule under himself - something he managed to do thanks to a particularly violent streak in him. In 1598 he invited English brothers Robert and Anthony Sherley to his court in order to use ideas from Europe. These included implementing gunpowder into the army creating formations of musketeers and artillery and reducing the power of the Qizilbash emirs. Ghulam slave elites were put in place paid from the treasury instead of the old revenue assignments under the control of the tribal leaders. To pay for this more provinces were put into royal hands and he started marrying (or have his children married into) Georgian, Armenian and Circassian families. All of these reforms centralized his rule and started breaking the feudal power of both the Qizilbash and tribal leaders. In 1598 Abbas moved the capital from Tabriz to Isfahan which remained the Safavid capital until 1722 and became a center of culture and learning for a century. The centerpiece was the Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (The Image of the World Square) where a madras was built, a grand mosque named the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque, and the Maydan, a great square measuring 83,000 square meters (second in size only to Tiananmen Square). Each side of the Mayden had something special: the royal bazaar to the north, the Ali Qapu Palace to the west, the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque to the east, and the Royal Mosque to the south. The rest of the Maydan was filled with smaller bazaars, markets and spectacles. An English visitor, Thomas Herbert, in the 1620s said 'The Maydan is without doubt as spacious, pleasant and aromatic a market as any in the universe. It is a thousand paces from North to South, and from East to West above two hundred, resembling our Exchange, or the Palace-Royal in Paris, but six times larger'. Abbas also expanded the empire's land without the aid of the Qizilbash retaking eastern Iraq, Baghdad and the Caucasus from the Ottomans, and Bahrain and Hormuz from Portugal.
|An Italian painting of Abbas I|
Even before the reign of Abbas the Safavid Empire was known for the arts. Ismail himself wrote many poems and today we only have access to half of those he wrote in Persian. Carpets, textiles, metalworks, jeweled wine cups, lather and lacquer book-binding and illuminated manuscripts all became associated with Iran under the reigns of Ismail and Tahmasb. Ismail himself revived the Tabriz scriptorum and patronized those who were interested in Persian literature. For one, he had a new copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) commissioned for Tahmasb. A 70,000 couplet long poem by Firdausi (d.1010) it is the Persian version of The Canterbury Tales, Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Bhagavad Gita. Most importantly it is a story about how the pre-Islamic Iranian leaders fought their Turkic enemies who had usurped the Persian crown. This commission took until the 1530s to finish and featured 258 large-scale paintings of the poem's events. Even under the fragile rule of Tahmasp the arts flourished where even the Ottoman elite eagerly wanted Safavid arts. Tahmasp even personally sent art to the Ottoman sultan Selim II in order to keep the peace. Abbas oversaw the 'Safavid Renaissance' seeing an explosion of cosmopolitanism and arts. European and Indian merchants eagerly sought lucrative employment in Iranian markets. Porcelain similar to that of Ming China was being produced which managed to make its way to Amsterdam and Nagasaki. Carpet weaving became popular as well - there is a reason why we specifically say 'Persian rugs'.
|An image from the Shahnama|
Iran has always had contacts with the wider world - after all it is one of the key points of the Silk Road which continued under the Safavids. By the time the Safavids rose to power Europeans started exploring the world and the Mughals were on the verge of taking power in northern India. Unlike the Ottomans in the west the Safavid-Mughal rivalry was far less intense with it centering on the key trading city of Kandahar in modern Afghanistan. When the Mughals were briefly ousted they sought refuge in Safavid Iran under Tahmasb. Specifically under Abbas trade was vibrant with India. Meanwhile, Europeans were also coming onto the scene. As early as 1507 Portugal had established themselves on the island of Hormuz but the Safavids always resented their presence. Later when the English and Dutch arrived the Safavids were willing to make contact inviting them to court. At this stage Iran and the West were equal in power so the Europeans were more respectful compared to what they would be just a century later. Safavid merchants were eager to get access to European goods and actively engaged with the English and Dutch East Indian Companies. They liked the English so much that when England took Hormuz from Portugal Abbas allowed them to keep it. By the nineteenth century this Iranian-European relationship would become vastly different.
The big question is why did the Safavids collapse not even a century after the strength of Abbas' rule? Originally historians put the collapse down to a steady decline after the death of Abbas II in 1666 and although this is true it needs nuance. After the death of Abbas his heirs continued the centralization and art projects still continued to flourish. Even the loss of Baghdad and Iraq again to the Ottomans in 1638 did not fully cause a collapse - Gene Garthwaithe has even argued that this strengthened the Persian element of the empire by removing most of the Arab population. After Abbas II his son Suleiman ruled for almost thirty years overseeing a period of peace, stability, and even opening ties with Denmark. Under Suleiman (and to an extent Abbas) the seeds of collapse were sown. Both had invested heavily to stop factionalism at court and the harem and had given more power to the ulama. When Suleiman died in 1694 his son Husayn heavily promoted Twelver Shiism giving lots of influence to the cleric Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. Although this produced classical pieces of art, like the Madrasa of Chahar Bagh, he ended up alienating huge sections of society. Sufis were expelled from Isfahan, Sunnis were pressured to convert (something not pushed since Abbas I's early reign) and non-Muslims (largely Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) were also forced to convert. The Christian Armenians had special economic roles which became threatened by these reforms. Soon enough uprisings took place where a Ghazali tribal leader, who had already once been captured, in 1709 took Kandahar. Soon enough other uprisings happened, including a Kurdish uprising, which became worse through attacks from Russia and Oman. In 1721 Afghan forces laid siege to Isfahan for seven months causing widespread famine and fuel shortages until the shah surrendered. Four years later they were massacred to ensure that they could no longer be restored. The Safavids were briefly restored by a general and former slave Nader Quli Beg who has been called one of the greatest Iranian generals. He initially ruled through the last shahs before deposing Abbas III and declaring himself Nader Shah. His dynasty did not last and in 1779 was deposed by a Qizilbash tribe under Agha Muhammad Khan who would form the Qajar dynasty which would last until 1924.
Despite being for more short lived compared to the Ottomans the Safavids played a key role in particularly Iranian history. Their reforms, especially under Abbas I, transformed the region from a tribal and feudal economy to that one that can be described as an 'early modern' economy. The explosion of art helped create a clearly defined Persian identity which went on to shape how Iran perceived itself in the future. The adoption of Shia Islam has greatly influenced the region as well - to this day Iran and Iraq have majority Shia populations. Even the large Armenian and Cicassian minorities in both countries are thanks to he Safavid Empire. Safavid rule helped define Iran's borders, its people, and its language. It was the last time Iran played such a huge role in the world and being so strong until the present day. It is no surprise that when the Islamic Republic was formed that they left Safavid names in towns and cities while they changed the names of places which were named after the Qajars and Pahlavis. The Safavids left a long lasting legacy on Iran.
Thank you for reading. The next World History post will be about the final one of the Gunpowder Empires: the Mughals. The sources I have used are as follows:
-Stephen F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
-Sussan Babaie, 'Persia: The Safavids, 1501-1722', in Jim Masselos, The Great Empires of Asia, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010)
-Gene R. Garthwaite, The Persians, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
-Charles Melville, (ed.), Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009)
-Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
-Rudi Matthee, Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan, (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2012)