The Safavid Dynasty

The Safavid dynasty, arguably the most well-known Islamic dynasty of Iran, is often credited with a cultural and political revival of the country, essentially ushering in the pre-modern period of Iranian history and ending the middle (or mediaeval) period. Culturally, the Safavid state is most associated with shi’ism, the second largest branch of Islam, and its establishment as the official, or majority, religion of the Safavid domains. Politically, Safavids are often seen as “restorers” of Iranian unity and centrality, unifying the various territories belonging to the socio-political entity called Iran (or Iranshahr, Middle Persian Eranšahr, “the domain of the Iranians”) after several centuries of decentralized political systems. Both these images are, as any sort of generalization always is, only parts of the truth. While by the late Safavid period (early 18th century), their subjects were predominantly, although never entirely, adherents of the 12er branch of shi’ism, a fact whose continuity to today’s Iran has much to do with their status as defenders/restorers of the faith, there are many reasons to believe that the early Safavid state was actually quite heterodox, with a flexible attitude towards non-12er Shi’ites and even Sunni Muslims. Politically too, the Safavid characterization as “restorers” of Iranian centrality would suffer from the fact that apart from geographic similarities, the ideology lying behind the Safavid idea of centralization was quintessentially different from the pre-Islamic, Sasanian conceptualization of the same. This is, of course, to forgive the historical fact that both the Buyids and the Samanids had a claim to restoring the Sasanian dominance (the former in the person of Adud ul-Dawlah who minted the title of the Shahanshah, “king of kings” on his coins), and in the case of the Seljuks and the Il-Khans, the Sasanian territory of Iranshahr was essentially unified and centralized.

The Safavid claim to spiritual supremacy initiated from their descent from Shaikh Safi ul-Din Ardebili, a disciple of the famous Sufi leader Shaikh Zahed Guilani, who lived in Ardebil, northwestern Iran, around the beginning of the 14th century CE. Continuing Sheikh Zahed’s association with the Il-Khans and exerting much influence on the spiritual life of the Mongol dynasty, Sheikh Safi eventually became the leader of his own order, known as the Safavids. His descendents, henceforth also known as the Safavid dynasty, intermarried with the children of Shaikh Zahed, thus increasing their spiritual status, while involvement in the Turkmen tribal politics of eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan, and Caucasus also helped their elevation in the political sense. It was within the conflicts between these Turkmen tribes, which eventually initiated both the Ottoman Dynasty and the lesser known Qaraquyunlu and Aqquyunlu dynasties, that the Safavids forged themselves as the spiritual leaders of the clans that would come to oppose the Ottoman rise to power. Probably sometimes in the early 15th century, the Safavid Sufi leaders, grandchildren of Shaikh Safi and most likely Shaikh Khaje Ali, started moving away from the Suni branch of Islam towards a mystical version of Shi’ism.

Around 1450 AD, Shaikh Jonaid, a fifth generation descendent of Shaikh Safi, became quite involved in the political life of Ardebil and eastern Azarbaijan, so much that his political aspirations appear to have threatened that of his overlord, Jahanshah Qaraquyunlu, who was at the time in control of both Ardebil and Tabriz, the major cities of Azarbaijan. This resulted in his exile into eastern Anatolia, somewhere near Arzenjan, where Jonaid managed to recruit many Turkmen followers and establish the seeds of the Turkmen confederacy which would eventually come to be known as the Qizilbash (“Red Heads”). Later, Jonaid moved to Diyarbakir, the capital of the Aqquyunlu Dynasty, and married the Uzun Hasan’s sister, thus concluding a political alliance. Jonaid, expressing clear 12er Shi’ite tendencies by this time, was elevated to the position of the spiritual master of the emerging Turkmen confederacy and was seen as almost divine.

In 1460, Shaikh Haidar succeeded his father as the leader of the Safavid order. He was in fact more of a military and political leader than a spiritual one, although his status as the almost divine leader of the Safavid order was by now quite well established. Supported by the forces of his uncle Uzun Hasan, who had just managed to destroy the Qaraquyunlu power in Azarbaijan, Haidar successfully returned to his ancestral city of Ardebil and took residence at the Khanghah (Order house) of his Safavid ancestors, next to the tomb of Shaikh Safi ud-Din. His residence at Ardebil thus caused a mass movement of the Turkmen tribesmen from eastern Anatolia and northern Syria who now formed the strong army of Shaikh Haidar. Organizing them into a recognizable confederacy, Haidar ordered them to wear red turbans with 12 prongs (reminiscent of the imams of the 12er Shi’ism), from which they got the name Qizilbash (“the Red Heads”).

With the strong Qizilbash support behind him, Haidar set out to make himself the political leader of the territories around Ardebil as well. Conquering several important towns, Haidar soon became a threat to both his cousin Yaqub Beg Aqquyunlu and the king of the region north of the river Aras, and thus bordering Azarbaijan, Farrukh-Seyar Shervanshah. In 1488, the join Aqquyunlu and Shervanshah forces managed to defeat and kill Haidar during his attack against Darband (Bab ol-Abvab) in the Caucasus. The elimination of Haidar was an initial hard blow to the Safavid fortunes, particularly since his three sons, including the new leader of the Safavids, Ali Mirza, were taken prisoner by Yaqub Beg and their contacts with the Qizilbash was made quite limited. The new Safavid leader was held as a hostage by Yaqub Beg and his successors, as his influence among the militant Qizilbash was viewed as a major threat against the Aqquyunlu support base among the Tukrmen nomads. In 1494, Ali Mirza was also killed by the orders of Rostam Beg Aqquyunlu, leaving the leadership of the Safavids to his energetic younger brother, Ismail Mirza.

Safavid noblemen, depicted by a European artist

Ismail’s rise to power was simultaneous with the Aqquyunlu decline. After the death of Yaqub Beg, the Aqquyunlu succession had fallen into inter-dynastic battles and was born by various descendants of Uzun Hassan, some of whom needed and asked for the Safavid support in winning their battles against their enemies. This allowed Ismail to act with more freedom among his Qizilbash troops and establish his power in eastern Azarbaijan. Soon, he was able to muster enough power to take over Tabriz, at the time the largest city in Azarbaijan (1501). This is the date traditionally ascribed as the date of the founding of the Safavid dynasty. After this point, Ismail set out on a decade of conquest, initially advancing into eastern Anatolia and taking over Van and Arzanjan, the original centers of his father’s power. Aided by the multitude of immigrating Shi’a Turkmens, exiled by the Ottoman Sultan Bayzit II, Ismail gained enough man power to foray into Iraq and capture Najaf and Karbala, the holy sites of Shi’ism, as well as Baghdad in 1509. On the same year, he also conquered or concluded treaties that put most of Kurdistan and the Jibal (central Iranian plateau) under his rule, in the process removing the last Aqquyunlu powers from that region as well.

It should be noted here that unlike what is often imagined of the rise of Safavid power, the full backing of the Safavids was not consisted of Shi’a Turkmen warriors. In fact, the administrative policies of Shah Ismail seem to indicate that he was quite open in recruiting people of various backgrounds and religious adherence into his court. In fact, in trying to keep a balance between his Turkish speaking Qizilbash followers and the Persian speaking (“Tajik”) administrative elite, he appears to have been quite open-minded in trusting high offices to the confirmed Sunni administrators. Established Persian speaking families from Isfahan and Tabriz formed the administrative backbone of the early Safavid power. This heterodoxy seems to have extended far and wide and is evident from the fact that the strictly shi’a centers in Lebanon and Iraq actually did not initially view the Safavid court as a welcoming place for establishing their orthodoxies.

In any case, in around 1509, Ismail was in charge of the western parts of the Iranian Plateau, having established his capital in Tabriz, and recognized by most, including his enemies the Ottomans, as Shah Ismail. 1510 then saw the beginning of his campaigns against the successors of Timur, particularly Soltan Hossein Bayqara, who ruled as the senior member of the Timurid line from Herat. Shah Ismail quickly managed to subdue Khorasan and in 1510, conquered Herat, a move that made him the inheritor of Timurid domains, as well as their problems. The most significant danger facing the Timurids at this time was the increasing Uzbek threat from Transoxiana, led by Mohammah Khan Sheybani, who claimed to be a descendent of Chingiz Khan. The Uzbeks had conquered most of the Timurid possession in Transoxiana and had established themselves in Bukhara and Tashkent, subsequently pushing down to the Hindukush and Northern Khorasan. In 1511, Shah Ismail met the Uzbek forces in several battles in Khorasan and Tokharistan and gained victories against them, confining the forces of Sheybani to beyond the Oxus and Atrak. These initial victories, although quite reassuring in the early Safavid state, did not mean a permanent solution to the Uzbek problem, which came to haunt the Safavids for another 100 years.

After this long period of success, Ismail returned to his capital in Tabriz, secure in the knowledge that he has the control of all of Iran and many parts of Anatolia and Iraq/Mesopotamia. He concentrated most of his time in organizing his administration in Tabriz, creating a balance between the Turkish and Persian speaking parts of his court, and organizing the Qizilbash into a reliable military force. A large part of this was done through Ismail’s concentration on establishing his spiritual control over the Qizilbash and the rest of the adherents of the Safavid order. His successes and victories had initiated the loyalty of many other Sufi orders, including the followers of Shah Nematollah Vali, the powerful Sufi master of Kerman, members of whose order now converted to Shi’ism en masse. At the same time, Ismail continued to exert much influence over the Safavid Sufis by spreading millenarian thinking and forwarding his own status as the spiritual leader (Morshed-e Kamel) of the Sufis. He also hired many artists, including the former retainers of the Timurid court in Herat such as the painter Behzad, and built new ateliers for them in Tabriz, having them create beautiful artwork which at the same time strengthened the Safavid claim to leadership and rule.

However, the biggest blow to Ismail’s confidence and his rule over the Qizilbash came in 1514. Threatened by Bayzit II’s energetic son, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I undertook a series of campaigns to disposes Ismail of eastern Anatolia and Iraq. Hugely successful, Selim managed to conquer Arzanjan, one of the centers of Safavid power, and subjugated Baghdad, Najad, and soon enough, even Basra. In August of 1514, Selim met Ismail and his Qizilbash troops at the plain of Chaldiran, in northern Azarbaijan, where the better equipped Ottoman troops, using modern instrument of warfare such as handheld guns, crushed the Safavid Qizilbash forces. Selim conquered Khoy and even got to Tabriz, setting Ismail to flight, the latter taking refuge in Ardabil, his hometown. Ismail was only saved by the refusal of Selim’s generals to winter in Tabriz, and by impending threat from eastern Europe threatening Selim’s capital in Constantinople.

The defeat at Chaldiran was an incredible blow to Ismail’s personal charisma and to his state organization. Highlighting the problems of military organization and the insufficiency of Ismail’s personal rule, the defeat caused major chasms in the Qizilbash confederacy which threatened the very existence of the Safavid state. However, Ismail seems to have been most affected by it himself, essentially withdrawing from the public and concentrating on his spiritual leadership, domestic life, and his Turkish and Persian poetry, written under the pseudonym of Khata’yee (Khotanese). Around him, the various clans of the Qizilbash started an internal battle to replace each other in positions of power, mostly concentrated on decreasing the influence of the two leading clans of Ostajlu and Shamlou. The Qizilbash battles marking the last decade of Ismail’s rule was to mark the politics of the Safavid state for the next century, until Shah Abbas I managed to create a new military and administrative system that effectively ended the old Safavid state.

The “Gunpowder” Empires

Shah Tahmasb I, the ten year old son of Ismail, succeeded his father in 1524, himself being ruled over by a new leader of the Qizilbash, Amir Ali Rumlu, the leader of the relatively minor Qizilbash clan of Rumlu. The early years of Tahmasb’s reign, due to the young age of the king, was a period of rivalry between the Qizilbash clans and the subsequent rise of the Rumlu, Takkalu, Zulqadr, and a return of the power to the Ostajlu and the Shamlou, as well as the Afshar. Despite these conflicts, Tahmasb showed an initial prowess as a leader by winning the battle of Jam against the Uzbeks when he was just 14, and soon enough proved himself a worthy ruler. Realizing the vulnerable position of Tabriz, too close to the new borders with the Ottomans and prone to conquests, some of which had been witnessed during the campaigns of Sultan Sulaiman I by Tahmasb himself, the new Safavid ruler moved his capital to the city of Qazvin, some 300 kilometers to the southeast of Tabriz and strategically well defended by high mountains.

Tahmasb’s rue was marked by efforts at stabilizing the Safavid power. Shah Ismail’s withdrawal from politics had left the Safavid state in an unstable state, suffering from Qizilbash infighting, rising ambitions of the Persian speaking elite, and the gradual popularity of Shi’ism which was met with unequal reception among the sunni population. Shah Tahmasb thus tried to bring order to the country, organizing the Qizilbash, balancing the power among his courtiers, regulating taxes and normalizing the finances (including a reform in the purity of the coinage) and battling social ills. Among these was his harsh, relatively unsuccessful ban on alcoholic drinks and smoking, put into place in 1536 and lasting throughout his rule. The order was of course not enough to carry out the wishes of the Shah, and many taxes on the production of the alcoholic drinks had to be put into place to enforce the ruling.

Of course, Shah Tahmasb’s preoccupation with administration did not mean he was immune to foreign wars. The many incursions of the Ottomans under Sulaiman I meant that a solution had to be found for the Ottoman threat. For the Safavids, this was not anything but a treaty of peace, drawn in 1555 in Amasya, which ended wars with the Ottomans for the duration of Tahmasb’s reign. This was of course at the end of his earlier campaigns in the east, in support of a new ally, the Emperor Homayoun of the Mughal Dynasty of India. Hamayoun, the son and successor of the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Mohammad Babour, was ousted from his throne in 1543 following a coup, and the conquest of his capital in Delhi, by a rebel Afghan leader called Sher Shah Suri. Aided by Afghan and Uzbek troops, Sher Shah crowned himself king and forced Hamayoun out of India and into Iran, where he was received as an honored guest by Shah Tahmasb in Qazvin. A combined Safavid/Mughal force then set out on a campaign to defeat Sher Shah Suri and managed to defeat the Afghan/Uzbek forces in Kabul and Qandahar in 1544, and restore Homayoun to the Delhi crown. This initiated a deep, if sometimes covetous, friendship between the Shi’a Safavid and Sunni Mughal courts that lasted for all of the Safavid period and was strengthened further during the rule of Homayoun’s son Akbar and Tahmasb’s grandson, Shah Abbas I.

Shah Abbas and the court

Of course, the relatively peaceful environment and efficient administration of Tahmasb was not completely immune to intrigues and infighting. The Qizilbash rivalries continued, although with less serious challenges to the Safavid crown, throughout most of Tahmasb’s rule. A most serious challenge, always never proven, was presented in 1556 by Tahmasb’s son, Ismail Mirza, who was accused by Tahmasb’s second cousin, Masoum Beg, a powerful courtier and sometimes vizier, of plotting to overthrow Tahmasb with the help of the Qizilbash. Tahmasb quickly nipped the conspiracy by imprisoning Ismail Mirza in the notorious Qayqaheh Castle, where he remained until Tahmasb’s death in 1576. This created major factions within Shah Tahmasb’s own household, which spread into the court and all of the Safavid politics. Much loved by his sister influential Parikhan Khanom, Ismail Mirza became the center of a loyal faction who wanted to guarantee his succession to his father’s throne. On the other hand, a second faction supported the succession of an elder, and nearly blind, brother of Ismail Mirza, Mohammad Khodabandeh, whose faction was led by his wife Khayr ol-Nisa. Yet another faction was in favor of Haidar Ali Mirza, Tahmasb’s son from a Georgian mother of the Shalikashvili family.

With the aging king, having ruled 52 years (the second longest in Iranian history after Shapur II of the Sasanian dynasty), slowly entrusting more of his duties to his ministers, these factions started work on putting their own candidates on the throne. The faction of Parikhan Khanom, by this time the most powerful force in the court, had the favor of the Ostajlu and Takkalu khans with it as well, and thus was confident in their success as putting Ismail on the throne. This indeed happened in 1576, when shortly before his father’s death, Ismail Mirza was allowed to leave Qahqaheh and return to the court in Qazvin. Following Tahmasb’s death, Ismail was confirmed as Ismail II, preceding his elder brothe r Mohammad Khodabandeh.

Ismail II ruled for less than two years, initiating his ascent to the throne with a wide-sweeping campaign of vengeance against his enemies and paranoid elimination of his brothers and rivals. Murder and blinding of royal princes and execution of powerful nobles were the significant features of Ismail’s reign. His murder of his brother Soleyman Mirza, a favorite of Parikhan Khanom, turned the latter against him. Feeling fed-up by Ismail’s unstable mental state, the Qizilbash leaders recruited the help of Parikhan Khanom in poisoning Ismail in 1478.

The Qizilbash thus gained the position of kingmakers in the Safavid state. Following Ismail’s death, they elevated the nearly blind Mohammad Khodabandeh to the throne, crowning him as Mohammad I. Parikhan Khanom, attempting to dominate his meek brother, was herself assassinated by the Qizilbash. The power now fell into the hands of Khayr ol-Nesa, Mohammad’s wife, who started to ruthlessly eliminate the enemies of her husband, as well as his other wives and children, in order to make her own son Hamza Mirza, the next king. The Qizilbash were quickly tired of this and had the queen strangled in 1579. This indeed achieved what she had meant, although in less than satisfactory circumstances, since Hamza Mirza was indeed put in the actual charge of his father’s court. He was, however, himself executed by the Qizilbash in 1586, leaving the future of the crown unknown and in the hands of the Qizilbash.

A year later, when a renewed Uzbek attack had diverted the attention of the Qizilbash to the safeguarding of the northeastern frontier, the leader of the Ostajlu clan, Murshed Quli Khan, ran a coup against the king, deposing him without any protests, and elevating his younger son, Abbas, to the throne. Abbas was indeed Murshed Quli Khan’s protégé, a young prince with an unknown and much neglected childhood, who was largely ignored by his mother Khayr ol-Nesa in favor of his elder brother, Hamza Mirza. He was, however, set to prove to be the most important Safavid Shah. Mohammad I Khodabandeh died shortly afterwards in his place of exile, the historic castle of Alamut, a few kilometers from Qazvin.

Shah Abbas (1587-1629) was only 16 when he ascended the throne. However, apart from the first year or so of his reign, where his mentor and vizier Morshed Quli Khan Ostajlu dominated the state, he ruled as a strong and independent ruler from the very start. He realized the shortcomings of his court and administration, as well as the larger Safavid government, and set out to remedy all of those, and to create a true infrastructure for the whole of his domain. This was done in a series of military campaigns, army reshuffles and restructuring, administrative reforms, economic expansions, and involvement in international politics.

On Shah Abbas’ ascent to the throne, eastern Safavid territories were run over by the Uzbeks who had completely occupied Khorasan and had advanced as far south as Sistan. In the west, the Ottoman threat had reached Tabriz again, while the constant struggle of the Safavids with the Ottomans over Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, was weakening the Safavids. So, in 1590, Shah Abbas concluded a peace treaty with the Ottomans, allowing him to finish his campaigns against the Uzbeks. By 1598, Uzbek’s were clearly defeated, their leader Abdulmomen Khan killed, and the important cities of Mashahd and Herat recovered for the Safavid crown.

In the meantime, Shah Abbas had realized the threat of the Qizilbash and their ambitions as kingmakers, as well as their constant struggle for ascendance. So, his initial efforts were to limit the power of the Qizilbash by undermining their military positions and their territorial control. For the former, Shah Abbas followed the Ottoman reforms in the military, creating a standing, paid army which was to replace the Qizilbash tribal soldiers. The members of this new army, much like the Ottoman Janissaries, were drawn from the captured Georgian, Armenian, and Circassian soldier-slaves who were then converted to Islam and made to pay homage only to the person of the Shah. This opened the military as a major avenue of social and political progress to the non-Persian or Turkish elements of the Safavid state, including many Georgian nobles (from Erakli I to Taimuraz and Kaikhosro) who converted to Islam and became high military leaders of the Safavids and governors of states and cities. In this way, the dominance of the Qizilbash was undermined greatly, basing the Safavid power on a more professional fighting force, equipped with modern weapons (hence the status of the Safavids as a gun-powder empire) who were devoid of tribal affiliations and pledged allegiance only to the person of the Shah. Additionally, the Qizilbash tribes were forced to move from their original homelands and be settled in various places around Iran (e.g. the Afshar in Khorasan) and thus be deprived of their local influence.

Administratively, Shah Abbas again put much of his trust into his Persian speaking advisers, a policy that dated back from the time of Shah Ismail I, but also recruited many Georgians and Armenians. Among these was Allahverdi Khan (Undiladze), a Georgian nobleman who along with his sons Imam Quli Khan and Daud Khan, dominated the politics of the Shah Abbas’ period. Shah Abbas also moved his capital, in 1598, from Qazvin to Isfahan, a city he built to be the center of a glorious and prosperous empire. He constructed many palaces in the city, organizing its streets and many bazaars, as well as its beautiful gardens. Safavid nobles were encouraged to build public buildings in the city and donate them to the people, making the city even more glorious. However, the most important features of the city were its many caravanserais, a combination accommodation/trading depot which served to attract merchants from all over the world. Similar caravanserais were built alongside the many new roads that were constructed all around the Safavid state, connecting their borders with the Ottomans to the Indus Valley region and the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Coast, Transoxiana, and Caucasus.

For encouraging this trade, Shah Abbas expanded his relations with the British and Dutch East India Company and successfully used the naval power of the former to oust the traditional European merchants of the Persian Gulf, the Portuguese, from the scene and removing their less than desirable trading practices. This allowed a number of English and Dutch, as well as Spanish, German, and Swedish, missions into the Safavid state. The case of the Shirley Brothers is quite famous, allegedly even assisting the king with the military organization remarked above, although there are reasons to believe that the story is a fabrication. However, many Europeans indeed visited the Safavid court, were awed by its opulence and glamour, and took the news of its grandeur, wealth, and power back to Europe. They also took some letters of alliance to the European kings, encouraging join efforts against the Ottomans, although these were not successful, as they mostly did not reach their addressees in a timely manner. It was also during the time of Shah Abbas that the Safavids for the first time sent an Iranian Ambassador to a European court.

However, for further encouraging the trade, Shah Abbas followed a policy that marked many aspects of his administration. This was the policy of population movement. While earlier on, the forced movement of the Qizailbash around, or the forced migration of many Kurdish tribes to Khorasan, was implemented guarantee peace and decrease local influences, a new policy of migration was initiated for the Armenian to achieve precisely the opposite. Realizing the potential of a well-connected, internationally mobile and relatively flexible (due to their religious standing) population, Shah Abbas accommodated the Armenians in Isfahan by building churches and providing a whole neighborhood for their residence. In this way, many Armenians were moved from the Armenian provinces of Vaspurakan and Ani to Isfahan, creating a network of trade between the north and center of the country. Soon, members of these Armenian family networks expanded their operations overland to India and Transoxiana, while the contact with the Europeans brought them as far east as China and the Indian Ocean. Similar circumstances took the Armenian traders based in Isfahan to Africa and even to Europe, expanding the network of trade that eventually benefitted the Safavid court in Isfahan.

Again, as part of his policies to limit the power of the Qizilbash, Shah Abbas moved to establish a more Orthodox version of Shi’ism against the Qizilbash heterodoxy, thus forming a better organized, and thus controllable, religious hierarchy. This was done by extending invitations to many Shi’ite scholars who lived and worked around Mount Lebanon, particularly from the Amil region. These, including the famous Bahauddin ‘Ameli (known as Shaikh Baha’yee in Iran) brought centuries of shi’ite theology, along with other forms of scholarship, to the Safavid court, initiating a fruitful period of learning and scholarship, aided by the incoming European knowledge and the existing local scholarship, inherited from the Timurid renaissance.

It was also from the Timurids that the Safavids had inherited their art. When Shah Ismail I moved Timurid artists of the court of Hossein Bayqara to Tabriz, he initiated an Safavid art movement, exemplified by miniature paintings, book decorations, and new forms of geometric design. Similarly, the Timurid architecture in Herat and Mashhad were copied in Qazvin and were given a fresh new, Safavid form. The pinnacle of this architecture was seen in Isfahan, in the building of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Chahar Baq Gardens, the many Safavid Palaces, and the magnificent mosques. Miniature, decorations, and calligraphy were also perfected by masters such as Reza Abbasi, making the Safavid court a center of high art, architecture, and learning. Isfahan of Shah Abbas was one of the greatest cities in the world, the center of a prosperous, strong, and internationally powerful empire.

The seeds of decline, however, were also planted during this period. Part of this was the inevitable falling of the Safavid domains into sideways, as the shift of international economy and trade from the trans-Eurasian roots to the Indian Ocean was to indeed bypass the Safavids. Having no infrastructure for an industrial economy, and very limited access to global sea-routes, the Safavids domains did not benefit from the new wealth initiating in the Americas, mostly in form of silver mined in South America, nor could they compete in the by now European dominated international shipping and trade. The limited access to precious metals also confined the Safavid economy in the monetary sense, not allowing them to enter the new international trading order, and thus again leaving them outside the international currency dealings as well. This was indeed the beginning of the popularity of European coinage, including the ever pervasive Spanish real, in the Persian Gulf region, whose prominence and higher quality spelled a disadvantage in exchange rate for the lesser quality Safavid coins.

Internally, the growing suspicions of Shah Abbas, a combination of a lifetime of personal rule, and possibly the result of an inherited predisposal to paranoia, weakened the internal peace of the Safavid court. The politically brilliant Shah had, sadly, lost two of his sons, while others he had himself blinded or murdered on suspicions of rebellion and treachery. This meant that in 1629, when Shah Abbas died, his crown was left to his weak grandson, Shah Safi I.

Shah Safi ruled from 1629, when he was 18 years old, to 1642, when he died of complications of drinking and opium abuse. A cruel and ineffectual king, he killed whichever of his family members that his grandfather had missed, removing any possibility of rebellion against himself. He had the foresight, however, to appoint a highly efficient vizier, Saru Taqi, who dominated the Iranian politics for all of his reign and much of his son’s rule. Saru Taqi’s reforms were concentrated on limiting administrative corruption, particularly the abuse of the taxation system by the powerful local lords, and efforts to stay active in the Indian Ocean trade, as well as the trade moving across the Hindukush into India. Both of these were slowly threatened by the efforts of the various European East India companies who were diverting the Indian trade to Europe and depriving the Safavids of both the goods and lucrative duties that could be places on the trade. Militarily, the reign of Safi was marked by the loss of Baghdad in 1638 to the Ottomans and the drawing of a definitive border between the Ottoman and the Safavid domains, which lies at the basis of the modern borders between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

Safi was followed on the throne by his son, Mohammad Mirza, who was crowned Abbas II in 1642. Ruling until 1666, Abbas II did much to restore the glories of his grandfather’s period, despite the limitations put on the possibilities of improvement by the international circumstances mentioned above. He, in any case, allowed Saru Taqi to run widespread reforms and curb corruption, although the able vizier was soon assassinated by the nobles who were fearful of his reforms. Abbas II then continued the reforms with a succession of other viziers, including Khalifa, who never reached the level of Saru Taqi. Learning, art, and culture were encouraged, and more learned scholars were invited into the Safavid court, further establishing a shi’ite orthodoxy which by this time was becoming exceedingly political and was exemplified more by strict theologians and religious leaders such as Mohammad Baqer Majlesi than philosophers such as Mulla Sadra who frequented the court of Shah Abbas I. Abbas II also managed to gain some military conquests, capturing Qandahar from the Mughals of India and thus ending their designs for the reconquest, or dominance, of their original, Central Asian homeland.

Upon Abbas II’s untimely death in 1666, his son was crowned as Safi II. Young and inexperienced, Safi II was kept inside his courts while military rulers and local nobility were carving out spheres of influence and territories for themselves. Uzbeks were starting to attack Khorasan again, while the Kalmyks were also threatening the extreme northeastern frontier, thus causing local unrest in Tokharistan, Kabul, and Qandahar. Ottomans too were again on the move, although their defeat at Vienna in 1683 went unnoticed in the increasingly inwards looking Safavid territories. In the meantime, a year after his coronation, the misfortunes of the reign of Safi II were seen as the result of a badly managed coronation, and so in 1667, he was re-crowned, this time with the magnanimous title of Suleiman (Solomon) I. The title change obviously did little to make the sickly king more interested in the affairs of the state, and his biggest contribution remained the one made to his harem, creating many princes and princesses who were subsequently the basis of claims to the throne by various real or pretending Safavid claimants.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, with Safavid buildings

In 1694, Soleiman I passed away and the throne was inherited by his son, Shah Soltan Hossein. As weak and as ineffectual as his father, Hossein enjoyed a relatively peaceful life in his opulent capital of Isfahan. Corruption, however, was rampant around the country and local nobility was openly exploiting the resources, with leaders of former Qizilbash clans, newer Georgian warlords, and new tribal leaders of the border regions all having designs towards independence. Socially, the situation was made worse by the insistence of the increasingly fundamentalist shi’ite clergy on establishing shi’ism as the only acceptable form of Islam, and indeed religion, in the Safavid domains. Sunnis were ostracized and oppressed, while the Christian population of the Armenians, Georgians, and Circassians, the military backbone of the Safavid army and the merchant class, were being forced to convert. An initial attempt to convert these caused certain disturbances in the Caucasus, where Lezgians allied themselves with the Sunni Kurds, backed by the Ottomans, and massacred the local Shi’a population. The Safavid attempt to curb this was limited by the troubles brewing in the eastern front.

Feeling neglected against the threat from the Central Asian steppe, by the Uzbek and the Kalmyk, the Pashtun tribe of Ghilzai claimed independence in 1709 under their ruler Mirwais. By 1717, Mahmoud, Mirwais’ son, was in charge of eastern Iran and had made himself the leader of the Afghan Pashtun tribes. A Safavid attempt to suppress the growing Afghan threat was badly defeated, and in 1622, the Afghan army had reached and laid siege to Isfahan. In October 1722, Soltan Hossein, his army once destroyed by Mahmoud outside Isfahan, had to throw the gates of the city open and himself crown the Afghan leader as Shah Mahmoud Hotaki. Soltan Hossein survived a massacre that Mahmoud initiated, killing all of Soltan Hossein’s children except the two youngest ones, one of them being Prince Tahmasb Mirza.

When Mahmoud died in 1727, his cousin Ashraf replaced him on the throne. He was quickly challenged by the Ottomans who claimed to want to restore Shah Soltan Hossein to the throne. Fearful of the actions of the deposed king, Ashraf had the head of Shah Soltan Hossein severed and sent to the Ottoman general, challenging him to a battle. The battle of Kermanshah went successfully for Ashraf, but the growing threat of the Afghans caused a united protest and action both from the Russians, with their growing interest in the Caucasus, and the Ottomans. Ashraf was at the same time threatened by the unhappy Safavid nobility who were now rallying around Tahmasb Mirza, the son of Shah Soltan Hossein. In 1729, an upstart general from the Afshar clan (former Qizilbash clan later exiled to Khorasan by Shah Abbas I) named Nader, titled Tahmasb Qoli (slave of [Prince] Tahmasb) defeated Ashraf near Damghan. The Afghan leader, thus put to flight by the Afshar leader was captured and murdered by the Baluchi tribesmen on his way back to his base in Qandahar, thus putting an end to the short, if successful and amazing, rule of the Hotaki Afghan dynasty.

Nader Khan then elevated Prince Tahmasb to the throne, henceforth known as Tahmasb II. The young prince had previously gained the acceptance of the Ottomans and the Russians when he had escaped Isfahan and formed a provisional government in Tabriz. There, he was supported by several tribal leaders, including Fathali Khan Qajar, Ali Morad Khan Bakhtiari, and the aforementioned Nader Khan Afshar. Slowly conquering the northern parts of the country from the Afghans of Ashraf, Tahmasb was crowned in 1729 and returned to Isfahan following the defeat and departure of Ashraf.

The king was, however, nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the powerful Qajar Khan and his Afshar rival, Nader “Tahmasb Qoli” Khan. The rivalry between the Khans eventually led to the defeat of Fathali Khan Qajar by the Nader Khan Afshar. The latter, in 1732, removed Tahmasb II from the throne because of the Shah’s support for the Qajar Khan and on charges of the neglect of the government and the state and endangering the country to another invasion. The latter charges probably hold to be true, as in the fashion of his father and grandfather, Tahmasb was fonder of opium, drinks, and sexual partners of both sexes than any manner of ruling. Tahmasb’s son, Abbas III was then elevated to the throne as a puppet king, only to be removed in 1736 when Nader Khan, in a manner reminiscent of the act of Pepin the Short one thousand years earlier, declared himself king, as Nader Shah Afshar and the founder of the dynasty, and sent Abbas III to prison with his father in Sabzevar. Three years later, fearing rebellions after the false rumours of his father’s death in India, Nader Shah’s son, the viceroy Reza Qoli Mirza Afshar, had Tahmasb II, Abbas III, and his brother Ismail Mirza, killed in the prison. This was indeed the end of the direct Safavid descent. However, a few other Safavid claimants, including a female-line descendant of Soleiman I and another female-line descendant of Shah Soltan Hossein were raised to the throne by various warlords in the subsequent years, all to be treated as puppets or illegitimate rulers and never holding any power.

Further Reading

Abisaab, Rula Jurdi. Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire. Vol. 1. IB Tauris, 2004.

Amoretti, B. S. “Religion in the Timurid and Safavid periods.” The Cambridge History of Iran 6 (1986): 610-655.

Babaie, Sussan. Safavid palaces at Isfahan: continuity and change (1590-1666). New York University, 1993.

Babayan, Kathryn, Sussan Babaie, Ina McCabe, and Massumeh Farhad.Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: IB Tauris, 2004.

Floor, Wm.. The Afghan Occupation of Safavid Persia, 1721-1729. Leuven, 1998.

Minorsky, Vladimir. Tadhkirat Al-Muluk: A Manual of Safavid Administration (circa 1137/1725). 1943.

Newman, Andrew J. Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. London: IB Tauris, 2006.

Roemer, Hans Robert. “The Safavid Period.” The Cambridge History of Iran 6 (1986): 189-350.

Savory, Roger M. “The Safavid administrative system.” Cambridge History of Iran 6 (1986): 351-72.

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