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History of Iran
Elamite Empire
Median Empire
Achaemenid dynasty
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Ghaznavid Empire
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Safavid dynasty
Afsharid dynasty
Zand dynasty
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Iranian Revolution
Islamic Republic of Iran

The Safavids were a long-lasting Turkic-speaking Iranian dynasty that ruled from 1501 to 1736, established Shi'a Islam as Iran's official religion and united its provinces under a single Iranian sovereignty, thereby reigniting a pre-Islamic Persian identity and acting as a bridge to modern Iran.



The Safavid dynasty had its origins in a long established Sufi order which had flourished in Azerbaijan since the early 14th century. Its founder was Sheikh Safi Al-Din (1252-1334), after whom it is named.

Sheikh Safi, or Safi-Al-Din Abul Fath Is'haq Ardabili, came from Ardebil, a city in Iranian Azerbaijan where his shrine still exists. He was a disciple of the famed Sufi grand master Sheikh Zahed Gilani (1216 - 1301) of Lahijan. Spiritual heir to Sheikh Zahed, Safi Al-Din transformed the inherited Zahediyeh Sufi Order into the Safaviyeh Order. Originally Safaviyeh was a spiritual response to the upheavals and unrest in northwest Iran/eastern Anatolia in the decades following the Mongol invasion. In the fifteenth century, the Safaviyeh gradually gained political and military clout in the power vacuum precipitated by the decline of the Timurid dynasty. After becoming the Safaviyeh leader in 1447, Junayd transformed it into a revolutionary Shi'ite movement with the goal of seizing power in Iran.

Rise of the Safavid State

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Ālee-Qāpu palace, was the celebrated seat of The Safavid capital in Isfahan, Iran.

During the fifteenth century, the Ottomans expanded across Anatolia and centralized control by prosecuting Shi'ism. They outlawed it at the turn of the century. In 1501, various disaffected Turkish militia from Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia collectively called Qizilbash (Turkic for "Red Heads" due to their red headgear) united with the Ardebil Safaviyeh to capture Tabriz from the then ruling Sunni Turkic alliance known as Ak Koyunlu (the White Sheep Emirate) under Alwand's leadership.

The Safiviyeh was headed by a fifteen-year old, Ismail I. He was Junayd's grandson and a descendant, on his father's side of Sheikh Safi Al-Din, and, on his mother's side, the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the founder of the Ak Koyunlu. To establish political provenance, the Turkic-speaking Safavid rulers claimed to be descended from Imam Ali and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. To further legitimize his power, Ismail I also added claims of royal Sassanian heritage after becoming shah.

With the capture of Tabriz, the Safavid dynasty began. In May 1501, Ismail I declared Tabriz his capital and himself shah of Azerbaijan. Ismail I continued to expand his base in northwestern Iran. He was declared shah of Iran in 1502. Throughout the rest of the decade Ismail I fended off attacks from the Ottomans, stamped out the remnants of the Ak Koyunlu and continued to expand his territory - Hamadan in 1503, Shiraz and Kerman in 1504, Najaf and Karbala in 1507, Van in 1508, Baghdad in 1509, Khorasan and Herat in 1510. By 1511 the Uzbeks in the north-east were driven across the Oxus River where they captured Samarkand establishing the Shaibanid dynasty, and from which they would continue to attack the Safavids. During his reign, the official language at the royal court was Azeri, the Turkic language spoken in Azerbaijan.

In the meantime, the navy-less Safavids lost the island of Hormuz to the Portugese in 1507.

In 1514, the Ottoman sultan Selim I invaded western Armenia causing the under-prepared Safavid army to retreat. The Safavids were armed with swords and bows while the Ottomans had muskets and artillery. The Ottomans pushed further and on August 23, 1514 managed to engage the Safavids in the Battle of Chaldiran west of Tabriz. The Safavids were defeated and as the Ottoman force moved on Tabriz participated in a scorthed-earth policy. Tabriz was taken but the Ottoman army refused to follow the Safavids into the Persian highlands and by winter retreated from Tabriz. This pattern repeated under Shah Tahmasb I and Sultan Suleiman I.

Ismail I embraced Shi'a Islam, which he made mandatory for the whole nation upon penalty of death. Ismail forced conversion of the local population (which was predominantly Sunni at the time) to Shi'ism. The Sunni ulama, the religious authority, were either killed or exiled. Ismail brought in Shi'a religious leaders, granted them land and money in return for loyalty - in effect making them a religious aristocracy and an extension of the government. Despite Safavid's origins, even unofficial Sufi groups were prohibited. This was the first time since the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171 that this sect had attained such high levels of power in the Islamic world. In the following centuries, this religious schism would both cement both Iran's internal cohesion and nationalistic separateness and provoke attacks by its Sunni neighbors.

Iran became a feudal theocracy: there was no separation of religion and state; the shah was held to be divinely ordained head of both. The Qizilbashi chiefs were assigned the position of wakil, offices in charge of the provincial administrative. Initially, the Safavids had only indirect control over the provinces, however throughout the sixteenth century the Qizilbash solidified their dominion over the provinces and vied with the shah for power. The Qizilbashi tribes were essential to the military of Iran and during weak shahs, the wakils were able to elbow more influence and participate in court intrigues (assassinating Shah Ismail II for example).

Constant wars with the Ottomans made Shah Tahmasp I move the capital from Tabriz, which was chronically being captured by the Ottoman troops, into the interior city of Qazvin in 1548. Later, Shah Abbas I moved the capital even deeper into central Iranian city of Isfahan, building 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.

The greatest of the Safavid monarchs, Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) came to power in 1587 after surviving Qizilbashi court intrigues and murders. He recognized the ineffectualness of his army which was consistently being defeated by the Ottomans who had captured Georgia and Armenia and by Uzbeks who had captured Mashhad and Sistan in the east. First he sued for peace in 1590 with the Ottomans giving away territory in the north-west. Then an English general, Robert Sherley, helped Abbas I to reorganized the Shah's soldiers into an officer-paid and well-trained standing army similar to a European model (and to what the Ottomans had already adopted). He wholeheartedly adopted the use of gunpowder. The army divisions were: ghulams ('crown servants or slaves' usually conscripted from Armenian, Georgian and Circassian lands), tofongchis (musketeers), and topchis (artillerymen).

Abbas I first fought the Uzbeks, recapturing Herat and Mashhad in 1598. Then he turned against the Ottomans recapturing Baghdad, eastern Iraq and the Caucasian provinces by 1622. He also used his new force to dislodge the Portuguese from Bahrain (1602) and, with English navy, 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 I was able to break the dependence on the Qizilbash for military might and centralize control.

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 yet lost it again to Murad IV in 1638. Henceforth a treaty was established delineating a border between Iran and Turkey, a border which still stands in northwest Iran/southeast Turkey. The more than century of tug-of-war accentuated the Sunni and Shi'a rift in Iraq.

The start of the seventeenth century saw the decline of the power of the Qizilbash, the original Turkish militia who had helped Ismail I capture Tabriz and who over the century had insinuated themselves as entitled bureaucrats in the administration. Power was shifting to a new class of merchants, many of them ethnic Armenians, Georgians and Indians.

At its zenith, during the long reign of Shah Abbas I the empire's reach comprised the present day Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of present Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
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Map of the Safavid Empire

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 to India revived in the 16th century. Abbas I also supported direct trade with Europe, particularly England and The Netherlands which sought Iranian carpets, silk and textiles. Other exports were horses, goat hair, pearls and an inedible bitter almond hadam-talka used as specie in India. The main imports were specie, textiles (woolens from Europe, cottons from Gujarat), spices, metals, coffee and sugar.

Culture flourished under Safavid patronage. Shah Ismail I himself wrote poems in the Turkic idiom, as well as in Persian and Arabic and Shah Tahmasp was a painter. Shah Abbas recognized the commercial benefit of promoting the arts - artisan products provided much of Iran's foreign trade.

In this period, handicrafts such as tilemaking, pottery and textiles developed and great advances were made in miniature painting, bookbinding, decoration and calligraphy. In the sixteenth 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 Ardebil were commissioned to commemorate the Safavid dynasty. The elegantly baroque yet famously misnamed 'Polonaise' carpets were made in Iran during the seventeenth century.

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 Zaman to study in Rome). The epic Shahnamah (The Shah's Book of Shahs), a stellar example of manuscript illumination and calligraphy, was made during Shah Tahmasp's reign. Another manuscript is the Khamsa by Nezami 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 Imami Mosque,Masjid-e Imami, the Lutfullah Mosque and the Royal Palace.

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.

One of the most renown Muslim philosophers, Mulla Sadra lived during Shah Abbas I's reign and a wrote the Asfar, a meditation on what he called 'metaphilosophy' which brought to a synthesis the philosophical mysticism of Sufism, the theology of Shi'ism, and the Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophies of Avicenna and al-Suhrawardi. Iskander Beg Monshi’s History of Shah Abbas the Great written a few years after its subject's death, achieved a nuanced depth of history and character .

Decline of the Safavid State

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As opposed to rival Ottoman architecture, which focuses on scale and grandeur, Safavid architecture targets refineness in subtlety. View of Chehel-sotoon Palace, Isfahan, Iran.

In addition to fighting its perennial enemies, the Ottomans and Uzbeks, as the 17th century progressed Iran had to contend with the rise of two more neighbors. Russian Muscovy in the previous century had deposed two western Asian khanates of the Golden Horde and expanded its influence into the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia. In the east, the Mughal dynasty of India had expanded into Afghanistan at the expense of Iranian control, taking Kandahar and Herat.

Furthermore by the 17th century, trade routes between East and West had shifted away from Iran, causing a loss of commerce and trade. And Shah Abbas's conversion to a ghulam-based military, though expedient in the short term, had, over the course of a century, weakened the country's strength by requiring heavy taxation and control over the provinces.

Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were ineffectual. The end of his reign, 1666, marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty. Despite falling revenues and military threats, later shahs had lavish lifestyles. Suleiman I is said to have spent eight years straight in his harem; Shah Soltan Hosein drank without end. The shahs imposed heavy taxes that discouraged investment and encouraged corruption among officials.

The country was repeatedly raided on its frontiers - Kerman by Baluchi tribesmen in 1698, Khorasan by Afghans in 1717, constantly in Mesopotamia by peninsula Arabs. Shah Soltan Hosein tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in eastern Iran from Sunni to Shi'a Islam. In response, in 1722 an Afghan army under Mir Mahmud rebelled, marched across eastern Iran, besieged, and sacked Isfahan proclaiming Mir Mahmud shah of Persia.

The Afghans rode roughshod over their conquered territory for a dozen years but were prevented from making further gains by Nadir Shah Afshar, a former slave who had risen to military leadership within the Afshar Turkoman tribe in Khorasan, a vassal state of the Safavids. He wrestled back control over Iran from the Afghans, and proceeded to go on an ambitious military spree, conquering as far as east as Delhi but not fortifying his Persian base and exhausting his army's strength. He 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.

Immediately after Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747, 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 take nominal power of the country as well and officially end the Safavid dynasty.

Safavid Shahs of Iran

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Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid State. Medieval European rendering

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