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The Safavids

Summary and Keywords

The Safavids (1501–1722) controlled a land-based empire that comprised the modern-day nation of Iran, with extensions into Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. The family of the Safavids originated as Sufi mystical sheikhs based in the region of Azerbaijan but were later imperialized thanks to the dynastic founder, Shah Ismaʿil (r. 1501–1524). The transition from Sufi tariqa to imperial polity was not smooth, and Ismaʿil faced external threats from the Ottoman Empire to the west, as well as internal pressure from his popular base, the Qizilbash tribal Turks who revered their shah as both a Sufi sheikh as well as a manifestation of the millenarian figure Mahdi who was popularly understood as the Muslim agent of the Apocalypse. The success of the Safavids was partly based on their ability to distance their family from such decentralized, tribal elements and seek out those constituencies that could help with regard to establishing and building legitimacy: orthodox Twelver Shiʿite jurists and scholars as well as urban Persian administrators and bureaucrats. It was Ismaʿil and his successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), who proclaimed and enforced Twelver Shiʿism as the new state doctrine, thus contributing to a stark Sunni-Shiʿite division between themselves and their neighboring rival empires of the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. The apogee of the Safavid Empire took place during the reign of Shah ʿAbbas (r. 1589–1629) who, among other things, transformed Isfahan into a city of international stature with fantastic architectural patronage while at the same time enticing European merchants and traders to trade in textiles, silk, and other manufactured goods. Following the reign of Shah ʿAbbas, the Safavid Empire became less stable and more susceptible to outside elements, namely those Caucasian nobles and landed gentry who had been previously incorporated into the Safavid state as court officials, provincial governors, and ranking military officers. Concurrently, there was a rise in conservative orthodoxy among the Shiʿite religious scholars, and the previous era of open trade and strong international relations began to wane as Christians, Jews, and other minorities became increasingly targeted and persecuted. By the end of the 17th century, the Safavid court was politically isolated from the other provinces, so much so that the imperial capital was easily besieged and conquered in 1722 by an invading conglomerate of Afghan tribes.

Keywords: Shiʿism, Sufism, Iran, tribalism, Millenarianism, clerics, Qizilbash, state formation, centralization, slave corps

From Sufi Brotherhood to Millenarian Monarchy (15th Century)

“Greater Iran”—namely the regions of Iran, the Persian Gulf, the southern Caucasus, and western Afghanistan—was changed inexorably in the year 1501 with the establishment of a type of dynasty hitherto rarely encountered in the Islamic world. The founder was a Turcophone teenager named Ismaʿil who was in fact the sheikh, or leader, of a militarized Sufi brotherhood—the Safaviyya—which was based in Azerbaijan. The Safaviyya Order was first organized in the early 14th century by the saintly mystic Safi al-Din in the city of Ardabil as one of many mystical brotherhoods that proliferated in the Mongol landscape of eastern Anatolia and western Iran. However, unlike most brotherhoods (Arabic: tariqas), the Safavids borrowed from a rich and eclectic palette of local traditions and customs, and by the 15th century, this once normative Sufi Order was being labeled as “extreme” (Arabic: ghuluww) by orthodox opponents in the Ottoman and Black and White Sheep (Qoyunlu) Empires. Ismaʿil’s immediate ancestors, Junaid (grandfather) and Haidar (father), had steered the Safavid Order squarely in the direction of violent millenarianism and militarist politics so much so that the Safavid sheikhs were hailed by their followers—the Qizilbash (Turkish: “redheads”) which refers to their distinctive red headgear—as the harbingers of the Apocalypse who were also divinely sanctioned to punish the Sunni hypocrites who denied the imamates of Ali and his descendants. However, the Safavids were also acutely aware of their sociopolitical power; the Mongol Dynasty of the Jalayirids of the 14th century had endowed sizable properties to the Safavid family in and around the region of Ardabil, while Haidar had secured their potential dynastic prestige by arranging to marry Martha, the daughter of the Aq Qoyunlu ruler Uzun Hasan, who in turn was the granddaughter of the Greek Pontic princess Theodora, whose father had been the Grand Komnenos John VI of Trebizond.

Starting in roughly 1499, Ismaʿil (aged twelve) and his advisers announced his “emergence” (zuhur) from hiding, and in doing so borrowed liberally from the messianic language used by Shiʿites to hail the imminent arrival of the Mahdi. Various Turkic tribes based in Azerbaijan flocked to join the young zealot, and before long, Ismaʿil had marshaled a sizable army of Qizilbash who marched against local rulers and governors. The ruling empire of the region, the Aq Qoyunlu, were ill-equipped to deal with this new threat; in 1501, Ismaʿil marched unopposed into the Aq Qoyunlu capital and regional center of Tabriz. The timing of the Safavid “manifestation” was arguably fortunate; the once great Timurid Empire to the east had shrunk to comprise the region of Khurasan (eastern Iran, western Afghanistan), while the Ottoman Empire had spent much of the 15th century rebuilding after Timur’s devastating invasion of Anatolia and a crippling civil war among Ottoman princes between 1403 and 1413. With little in the way of serious opposition, Ismaʿil and his growing army were able to conquer all of the Iranian Plateau (Hamadan, Rayy, Qazvin, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Tabas) within nine years. This initial wave of conquest was hailed by his Qizilbash followers as divine proof of Ismaʿil’s election as not only the Mahdi but also (as he claimed mostly through poetry) the metempsychotic avatar of a panoply of prophetic, kingly, and heroic personalities: Alexander the Great, Darius, Moses, Jesus, Ali, etc.1

Shah Ismaʿil, 1501–1524: Exploring Modes of Legitimacy

Safavid rule, however, was facing a serious crisis in these early years. While the messianic rhetoric (evident in recited poetry, epic verse, diplomatic correspondence) had helped motivate the Qizilbash toward victory after victory, this millenarianism was having a deleterious effect on village and urban populations who suffered greatly under the decentralized, nomadic Qizilbash Turks. One compromise by Ismaʿil and his ruling coterie was the formal adoption of Twelver Shiʿism as the state religion. This was undoubtedly a calculated decision. On the one hand, popular slogans, jingoisms, and rhetorical appeals found in early Safavid texts were inspired by the Shiʿite tradition, and the Qizilbash Turks were enamored with the ethos of militancy and martyrdom symbolized by the father-and-son duo, Ali and Husain. On the other hand, Twelver Shiʿism was no antinomian, hodgepodge cultic religion; thanks to earlier major medieval Shiʿite thinkers like Shaikh al-Mufid and Sharif al-Murtaza, the idea of a “Shiʿite state” had been debated and rationalized in terms of political philosophy, jurisprudence, taxation, administration, and so on. Ismaʿil was supported early on in his efforts to “shiʿitize” his dynasty with the arrival of the Arab Syrian scholar Shaikh ʿAli al-Karaki in 1504. Al-Karaki penned a number of treatises (in Arabic) aimed toward standardizing Twelver Shiʿite rituals and practices in this new Shiʿite polity. As Rula Abisaab has noted, al-Karaki and his supporters shaped a “Shariʿa-centered discourse,” which was integral to the ongoing Safavid program of promoting itself as a rational Islamic kingdom to its Ottoman, Mamluk, and Uzbek neighbors.2 Within the Shiʿite legal tradition, al-Karaki promoted the Usuli School that championed innovation and independent reasoning (ijtihad); this created some discord among indigenous Shiʿite communities—namely, sayyid families (i.e., those who claim a genealogical connection with the Prophet Muhammad) in Iranian cities like Astarabad, Qazvin, and Mashhad—who broadly supported the Akhbari School and its emphasis on the use of hadiths (both prophetic and Imami) in legal judgments and a general rejection of independent reasoning. Al-Karaki also disapproved of the folkloric beliefs associated with the Qizilbash, and worked actively to ban the recitation of popular, heterodox texts like the Abū Muslim nāmah.3

However, the transformation of this marginalized, yet militarized, eclectic Sufi brotherhood first based in the Turco-Kurdish hinterland into an impressive and cosmopolitan imperial project required much more than importing Arab theological and legal scholarship. To make any semblance of such a transformation, the Safavids needed also to step into the politico-cultural shoes of their predecessors—the Aq-Qoyunlus (based in western Iran) and the Timurids (based in eastern Iran). To do so, they adopted and promoted openly the long-established model of absolutist kingship, which endorsed Perso-Islamic notions of authority, courtly prestige, bureaucracy, land-tenuring, administration, as well as literary and cultural expression in poetry, calligraphy, arts of the book, architecture, and so on. Such ambitions required the active participation of Iranian administrative and mercantile elite in the Safavid state, and Shah Ismaʿil’s first decade of rule saw the patronage and protection of a wide array of Persian bureaucrats, merchants, and local notables from Iranian Plateau cities like Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Saveh, and Kashan. The composition and arrangement of Ismaʿil’s court and administration between 1501 and 1510 was such that the scholar John Woods saw the Safavid Dynasty as a “new dispensation” of the Aq Qoyunlu Empire, and there were a number of high-profile Aq Qoyunlu bureaucrats and notables—like the Kujajis of Tabriz, the Daylamis of Qazvin, and the Savajis of Saveh—who secured important positions in the fledgling Safavid Empire.4 Ranking Qizilbash chiefs were installed in key offices in the Safavid main court (divan-i a`la), which reflected Ismaʿil’s need for some sense of institutional continuity, namely the commander in chief (amir al-umara), seal-holder (muhrdar), and chief amir (amir-i divan) while Iranian bureaucrats were named in the key positions of administrative overseer (vazir), chief accountant (mustaufi), and religious superintendent (sadr). One key innovation, however, was the office of vakil (plenipotentiary) who was understood to be Shah Ismaʿil’s right-hand man and formal representative; in the early years of Safavid rule (1501–1508), this office was held by the Qizilbash amir Husain Beg Lala Shamlu, who had been the chief of a powerful tribe (Shamlus) and also held the position of commander in chief. The use of the term vakil was likely inspired by the Lesser Occultation (Arabic: al-ghaibat al-sughra) of the Twelfth Imam when prominent Shiʿite notables were successively named as “agents” (Arabic singular: wakil) who directed the wishes and directives of the Hidden Imam to his followers between 874 and 944.5

By 1508, it was clear that Qizilbash direction of administrative affairs was proving counterproductive, and Shah Ismaʿil appointed an Iranian named Yar Ahmad Khuzani (styled as the “second star,” Najm-i Sani) as his new vakil. This 1508 reshuffling, which also included the nomination of a new mustaufi (Shams al-Din Isfahani) and sadr (Sharaf al-Din ʿAli Shirazi, grandson of the great early-15th-century Timurid religio-legal scholar Jurjani), was highlighted by the historian Roger Savory as evidence of a significant shift in policy regarding the roles of Turks and Iranians.6 While this is indeed true, nonetheless there is better evidence of significant change with the influx of a number of Iranian notables, bureaucrats, poets, artists, and calligraphers from Timurid Khurasan after the invasion of the Uzbeks and their defeat and killing of Sultan- Husain Baiqara in 1507. Noteworthy boons to the Safavid administration were the Bitikchi family of Astarabad and the Sagharchis who had been based in Herat, while other high-profile émigré Timurid personalities included Badiʿ al-Zaman (eldest son of the slain Timurid king, Sultan-Husain Baiqara), Kamal al-Din Bihzad (famous Herati miniaturist), Ghiyas al-Din Khvandamir (chancellery official and historian), ʿAbd Allah Hatifi (poet and panegyrist), and countless other secretaries, calligraphers, and “men of the pen” (ahl al-qalam).7 The Safavid Dynasty built an extensive atelier around Bihzad and commissioned the production of a superlative copy of the Shāh nāmah—formally referenced as the Shāh nāmah-yi Shāh Ṭahmāsp—with 258 full-page illustrations of confounding detail and precision. The Shāh nāmah was written in the early 11th century by Abu al-Qasim Firdausi (d. 1020) and is considered to be a “national” epic, which both saved and promoted the New Persian language in west Asia; its popularity in the Safavid court underscored the family’s interest in “persianizing” their Turkic elite. Indeed, it could be argued that Shah Ismaʿil and his court actively worked to inherit the reputation of Sultan-Husain Baiqara as patron par excellence in the medieval Irano-Islamic world, and that there was a distinct sense of cultural continuity between 1470 and the first half of the 16th century. Prominent religious personalities associated with Sufi tariqas were also incorporated into the Safavid elite, such as the Naqshbandi sheikh Nur al-Din ʿAbd al-Wahhab and a number of Nurbakhshi notables including Shaikhzadah Lahiji (son of Shams al-Din Lahiji, the author of a well-known commentary on Shabistari’s Gulshan-i Rāz). Probably the most strategic was Ismaʿil’s decision to assimilate the Niʿmatullahi Order (based in Yazd) by appointing its sheikh ʿAbd al-Baqi as vakil in 1512. According to Reza Pourjavady, the city of Shiraz—once home to the teaching madrasa of Jalal al-Din Davvani—continued to host philosophical teaching and debates, thus allowing for its later growth under Shah ʿAbbas.8 It should be noted, however, that the Safavids were not above systematic persecution and the occasional pogrom; several thousand Sufis were executed in Kazirun in 1503–1504 with dozens of Sufi tombs and shrines despoiled during the initial Safavid campaign across the Iranian Plateau. Several prominent religious notables and thinkers fled Iran in the early 1500s to the neighboring Ottoman and Uzbek Empires, and intellectual refugees like Idris Bitlisi and Fazlullah Khunji Isfahani criticized the Shiʿite Safavid state quite vociferously.9 Other incidences of infamy—the alleged ritual of cannibalism by Qizilbash Turks and Ismaʿil’s immolation of the shrine of the Timurid poet Jami—have arguably been propagandized by Safavid detractors, however.10

Middle East historians have a penchant for looking to the 1514 victory of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I over Shah Ismaʿil at Chaldiran as a foundational geopolitical moment that resulted in the bifurcation of the region along confessional (i.e., Sunni-Shiʿite) lines. However, such a view assumes a somewhat simplistic idea of political allegiances and religious identity in Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1511, the Ottomans were forced to contend with a serious Anatolian rebellion by a Turkoman Safavid sympathizer Shahkulu Baba Tekkelu and an extended raid by a Qizilbash amir (Nur Ali Khalifa) against the cities of Tokat and Erzinjan; indeed, it was this crisis that precipitated the 1512 coup d’état by Selim over his father, Sultan Bayazid II. Selim began his militaristic reign in 1513 by policing eastern Anatolia, burning villages and terrorizing suspected pro-Safavid communities. Hearing reports of Selim’s eastern advance in April 1514, Shah Ismaʿil ordered his forces to muster and begin marching westward. The two armies met at Chaldiran (near Khuy) in northwestern Iran on August 23, but the Ottomans possessed a clear technological superiority with their use of cannons and arquebuses, and Shah Ismaʿil’s forces were seriously routed. As much as modern scholars enjoy heralding this particular battle, the implications of Ismaʿil’s defeat were likely not as significant as scholars have been led to believe. The Ottomans were seriously overextended in the Qarabagh region, and Selim was forced by his mutinous army to retreat back into Anatolia soon after his victory at Chaldiran. The Safavids did lose some key notables (Husain Beg Shamlu, ʿAbd al-Baqi Niʿmatullahi), but they regained control of Tabriz within a few short weeks. Indeed, Ismaʿil’s forces continued to bitterly resist Ottoman troops for the next two years in cities like Erzinjan, Diyarbakr, Qara Hamid, and Mardin before ultimately withdrawing and allowing permanent Ottoman control in eastern Anatolia. Chronicles like the Ḥabib al-siyar and others make specific reference to Ismaʿil’s excessive drinking and indulgence in hunting and parties after 1514, but all the while he was moving his royal camp around Azerbaijan and Iraq-i ʿajam; his administration and court continued to function: emissaries, envoys, and notables were received continuously while his bureaucrats and governors issued regular decrees and orders—in short, typical medieval Perso-Islamic kingly behavior. From the perspective of the available contemporary Safavid chronicles, there is absolutely no discussion of psychological shock or depression, as Roger Savory consistently argued in the 1960s and 1970s. This characterization of Ismaʿil from 1514 to 1524 seems to be based largely on Nasrullah Falsafi’s article “Jang-i Chāldirān” (1953), which describes how Ismaʿil went into mourning after his defeat—he cloaked himself in black and instructed his family and sayyids to do the same. The military standards of the army were dyed black, and the word al-qisas (“retribution”) was written in white across each of the flags. Indeed, the name of Ismaʿil’s second son—Alqas—was linked (at least in Falsafi’s opinion) with this term al-qisas. However, many of these characterizations by Falsafi in 1953 are based on later “popular” sources, such as the ʿĀlam-ārā-yi Shāh Ismāʿīl and the Jahān-gushā’ī-yi khāqān (previously known as the Ross Anonymous), which have since then been analyzed and re-contextualized as late-17th-century sources that tend to overly dramatize Ismaʿil’s life and significance. Such texts are literary reimaginations and nostalgic retellings of an heroic Safavid past, which indulge in language and rhetoric associated with both the epic Shāh nāmah as well as Shiʿite martyrological traditions.11

Shah Tahmasp, 1524–1576: Consolidation of the Safavid Empire

After the death of Ismaʿil in 1524, his ten-year-old son, Tahmasp, was installed on the Safavid throne. If there were ever a period in which Safavid dynastic fortunes were most at threat, it was not the decade of Ismaʿil’s alleged depression and mortification (1514–1524), but rather the decade of Tahmasp’s rule as a child and teenager (1524–1534). The ranking Qizilbash amirs of the day—associated with four prominent tribes, the Shamlu, the Takkalu, the Ustajlu, and the Rumlu—pushed and pulled against one another violently over control of the young shah and the direction of the Safavid state. Disaster was averted in 1528 after Tahmasp led his troops to a surprising victory over the Uzbeks at Jam, and three years later the shah ordered the wholesale massacre of the Takkalu tribe (called “the Takkalu Calamity” in sources) to reassume control of the feuding Qizilbash amirs. In 1535, Tahmasp consolidated the Safavid administration by naming Qazi-yi Jahan Qazvini as his vakil; he was a prominent Iranian bureaucrat and scholar who had been taught by the philosopher Jalal al-Din Davvani (d. 1502), but had been imprisoned intermittently by various Qizilbash chiefs after the accession of Tahmasp in 1524. While Tahmasp entrusted his administration (divan) to Qazi-yi Jahan, he also promoted openly the juridical power of al-Karaki and his family. In 1532, a royal decree was issued that gave al-Karaki two key titles, notably “the second bearer of truth” (al-muhaqqiq al-thani) and “interpreter of the age” (al-mujtahid al-zaman).12 These two promotions—of al-Karaki and of Qazi-yi Jahan—constituted an important phase in the ongoing Safavid program of dynastic refashioning; concerted efforts were being made to maintain the idea of a Perso-Islamic kingship that functioned in concert with moral and legal approval from the Twelver Shiʿite clerical elite.

It was likely with Qazi-yi Jahan’s influence that Tahmasp began developing a policy that aimed to create an alternate source for political and military resources in the Safavid state. Inspired by the Ottoman practice of devşirme, whereby thousands of young Balkan Christian boys were sent to Istanbul to be trained and educated as future elite Muslim soldiers and bureaucrats, the Safavids looked to the Christian regions of Georgia, Circassia, and Armenia for similar purposes. During the 1540s, a number of armed expeditions were sent into the Caucasus to bring back young captives who could be trained as personal servants and slaves of the Safavid shah and taught to serve both in the military and the administration. These “slaves” (ghulams) would eventually come to serve the bulk of the Safavid military during the reign of Shah ʿAbbas some fifty years later.13 By the time of the fourth Caucasus invasion (1553), it seemed clear that Tahmasp was intent on annexation and resettlement as he assumed control of Tblisi and the surrounding region of Kartli, while relocating more than thirty thousand people to central Iran.14 Many Circassian and Georgian women were installed in the royal harem, and as a result there was a significant Caucasian presence in court and harem politics from the 1560s onward.15

While Tahmasp was able to restore some level of internal control, he continued to face external pressures in the 1530s and 1540s: the Ottomans invaded, directly or by proxy, Azerbaijan and Iraq-i ʿajam in 1534, 1545, and 1548 while the Uzbek-Safavid fighting in Herat and Khurasan continued throughout the 1530s and resulted in great deprivation for its citizens.16 It was almost certainly these geopolitical pressures that convinced the shah to relocate his capital to the city of Qazvin after significant renovation and expansion. It should be noted, however, that this administrative move also allowed for greater inclusion and interaction with important neighboring regions, like Mazandaran, which boasted large numbers of indigenous Shiʿite scholars and sayyid networks, such as the famous Marʿashis.17 Some sense of hybridity was begun when the Twelver Shiʿite jurist al-Karaki married into a powerful family of Shiʿite scholars from Astarabad; moreover, Tahmasp arranged that his son Muhammad Mirza (the future Shah Khudabandah) marry the daughter (the future Mahd-i `Ulya) of the head of the Marʿashis based in Astarabad.18 In 1556, Tahmasp issued the second of his famous “public repentances” in which he had “decrees and orders” (ahkam va parvanijat) regarding new standards of public morality and piety; these included the quatrain: “Tahmasp the Just, ruler of the land of faith/Has pledged an oath for the repentance of [himself and] his subjects/The date of this imposed repentance is ‘Unrelapsing penitence’ [i.e. 1556] It is God’s will, may no one transgress this.”19 In the very same year, Mir Sayyid ʿAli (of Shushtari Marʿashi fame) was named as religious superintendent (sadr) of the state, and it is clear that this second repentance of Tahmasp’s was a result of his fraternization with these reinvigorated sayyid networks. Concurrent with these sociopolitical arrangements were a number of significant projects dedicated to building and refurbishing important religious shrines; the Astanah-yi Shahzadah Husain in Qazvin, the shrine of Fatimah Ma`sumah in Qumm, and the Astanah-yi Qudsi Razavi in Mashhad were three of the most important, but we know that renovations and expansions were done at the official family shrine in Ardabil.

Political conditions for Safavid Iran improved considerably in May of 1555 when Shah Tahmasp and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent signed the momentous Amasya Peace Treaty, which stabilized the Turco-Iranian borderlands. As a result, the remaining two decades of Tahmasp’s reign were relatively calm, and the endorsement and promotion of sayyid networks as officeholders and landholders continued throughout the 1550s and 1560s amidst the ongoing program of “Shiʿitization” in the Iranian Plateau. In 1559, Ottoman-Safavid relations experienced a diplomatic hiccup when Suleiman’s son Bayazid arrived in Azerbaijan as a royal political refugee after his attempt to militarily preempt his brother Selim’s claim as heir to the Ottoman throne. For two years, Tahmasp hosted Bayazid in Tabriz and Qazvin all the while exchanging correspondence with Suleiman who was adamant that the Safavid shah return his refugee son. Tahmasp’s reticence to do so was clearly rooted in his disapproval of the Ottoman policy of royal fratricide and his promise to provide safe haven to the renegade prince. However, when Suleiman threatened to cancel the Amasya Treaty, the shah acquiesced, and on September 25, 1561, Bayazid and his four sons were handed over to Ottoman emissaries who quietly garroted the princely family shortly after leaving Qazvin.20 This policy of Ottoman appeasement was clear five years later, when Suleiman died during the Turkish campaign against the Hungarian city of Szigetvár, and Selim II ascended the Ottoman throne in 1566. Arguably one of the most resplendent and epic ambassadorial missions ever known in the Safavid period was assembled by Tahmasp to congratulate Selim II on his accession (julus) and to express the shah’s condolences (taʿziyyat) about Suleiman’s death. The diplomatic letter itself was a composite project involving a number of munshis (stylists; epistolographers) and chancellery officials and allegedly took eight months to write and assemble.21 The ambassadorial retinue was also commissioned to deliver and present the monumental Shāh nāmah-yi Shāh Ṭahmāsp, which had been produced largely under the direction of the great Iranian artist Bihzad between 1522 and 1535; in addition to precious gems and lavish gifts, the Safavids also presented several large carpets of which one was almost certainly the elaborate “Krakow-Paris” carpet, which was later part of the Ottoman sultan’s retinue at Vienna in 1683 and seized by John Sobieski’s forces to be brought back to Poland.

Tahmasp’s later reign is heralded as a period of remarkable artistic production with respect to calligraphy, book production and binding, miniature painting, carpet design, woodworking, and so on; indeed, one could argue that scholars encounter an evolving sense of Safavid aesthetics as there are a number of treatises in the second half of the sixteenth century, including Qazi Ahmad al-Qummi’s work on calligraphers and artists, which profile the continuity and changes between the late Timurid and early Safavid periods.22 Moreover, there appears to have been a courtly decentralization of sorts whereby provincial centers also developed sophisticated chancelleries and ateliers. These included the court of Tahmasp’s brother Bahram in Hamadan (which produced a singular album [muraqqa`] of paintings),23 the atelier of Sultan Ibrahim in Mashhad (which produced a famous copy of Jami’s Haft Awrang),24 and the professional market ateliers of Shiraz, which commercialized the production and sale of Persian miniatures for markets in Iran and Ottoman Turkey.25

Shah Ismaʿil II (1576–1577) and Shah Khudabandah (1577–1589): Challenges and Continuity

With the death of Shah Tahmasp in 1576, Safavid Iran entered a phase of relative instability that was complicated by increased instances of court intrigue and machinations. Tahmasp’s preferred choice, the half-Georgian Haidar Mirza, was assassinated by rival Qizilbash elements who, in turn, arranged to have his half-brother Ismaʿil Mirza (and son of a Turkoman mother) released from prison and installed on the Safavid throne. Historiographically, Ismaʿil II (r. 1576–1577) has been characterized as a drug-addled sociopath who sought to restore Sunnism as the state doctrine. Ismaʿil did indeed arrange to have as many as eleven brothers and cousins murdered or blinded, much to the horror of many notables and courtiers of the day. However, the use of Safavid princes by ambitious Qizilbash amirs to overthrow ruling shahs was not unheard of, and indeed, Ismaʿil himself had been installed in Qahqaha prison because he had been implicated in a plot to overthrow his father twenty years earlier. The second issue of Sunni convictions is more complicated, but it appears that Ismaʿil felt threatened as an absolute sovereign by a particular constituency of Shiʿite clerics who were descendants or followers of the Usuli Shiʿite jurist ʿAbd al-ʿAli al-Karaki. It is more plausible that Ismaʿil II was intent, not on a broad reversal of Shiʿism for Sunnism but rather challenging the hegemonic clerical structure that had developed in the last twenty years of Tahmasp’s reign; this can be seen especially with his decree (hukm) regarding a new qanuni (“law”) and dastur al-ʿamal (“regulatory code”) that was to work in concert with his newly established divan-i ʿadl (“court of justice”) and together would have been designed as a direct challenge to the judicial power of the Usuli Shiʿite scholars.26 Also worth noting in this period is the revival of institutional bureaucratic power, most notably the appearance and rise of the future great vizier Mirza Salman Jaberi. Ismaʿil II died mysteriously in November 1577, and many suspected his half-sister, Pari Khan Khanum, of arranging to have him poisoned. Indeed, she was able to build up a significant power base in Shiraz, but she was later abruptly seized and murdered by Qizilbash notables who were loyal to the new shah and his wife, Shah Khudabandah and Mahd-i ʿUlya.

Khudabandah brought considerable training and experience to the throne at the age of forty-five despite a debilitating ophthalmic condition. He had served as governor and cultural patron in both the important Iranian cities of Herat and Shiraz, and evidence suggests that, while in Shiraz from 1572 to 1578, he had been part of a coterie of philosophers and Gnostics who had been strongly influenced by the schools and madrasas of Jalal al-Din Davvani and the Dashtaki family (a prominent family of theologians and jurists in the Shiraz area). According to his uncle Sam Mirza, who had authored a valuable anthology of contemporary Safavid poets (Tuḥfah-yi Sāmī), Khudabandah himself was a talented poet who penned verses under the pseudonym (takhallus) of “Fahmi” while in Shiraz. Notably, he maintained a long-term relationship with the great savant and scholar Fath Allah Shirazi, who left Safavid Iran for Mughal India in the late 1570s. Shah Khudabandah relocated from Shiraz to Qazvin in February of 1578, and he brought with him a sizable coterie of Shirazi notables and intellectuals who subsequently found positions in the Safavid central court.

The Ottoman sultan Murad III used this period to launch an invasion of Georgia and Shirvan along with his allies, the Tatar khans of Crimea; while the Ottomans succeeded in capturing Tblisi and Shirvan, the Safavids did respond with a retaliatory force under the leadership of Hamza Mirza (Khudabandah’s heir-apparent) and Mirza Salman (Khudabandah’s vizier), which succeeded in capturing one of the Tatar chiefs, ʿAdil Giray Khan. By 1581, the Ottomans were pushed from the Caucasus, and the Safavids secured the region’s suzerainty by arranging for the marriage of Georgian princesses to their heir-apparent Hamza Mirza while installing Georgian princes in the court at Qazvin as hostages. However, Khudabandah had begun to lose his courtly allies early on in his reign—his own wife was strangled for allegedly having an affair with the aforementioned ʿAdil Giray Khan—and he seemed unable (or unwilling) to control the rank opportunism and brinkmanship of his Qizilbash military officers. His vizier, Mirza Salman, was slain in the Ravens’ Garden (Bagh-i Zaghan) in Herat in 1583, and three years later his own son Hamza Mirza was murdered while drinking with boon companions during a campaign in Azerbaijan against the Ottomans.27 Not long after, in October 1587, the Qizilbash leader Murshid Quli Khan Ustajlu used his ward, the young Safavid prince ʿAbbas, to launch a coup d’état and overthrow Khudabandah. When faced with this development, Khudabandah accepted the situation meekly and retired near Qazvin until his death in 1595. While most modern historians have little positive to say about this shah’s reign, it can be argued that many of the future luminaries and administrators of ʿAbbas’s court—e.g., Shaikh Baha’i, Sadiqi Beg Afshar, Hatim Beg Urdubadi—were trained and professionalized during this period, suggesting some degree of normalcy and stability.

Shah ʿAbbas (1587–1629): Expansion and Centralization

In 1587, Safavid Iran began a singular transformation—a “refashioning” to use one scholar’s recent characterization—under the leadership of Shah ʿAbbas.28 ʿAbbas assessed not only his particular position as a newly enthroned nineteen-year-old but also his entire realm, and quickly took steps to start building a state that was defined by absolutism and centralization. However, to do so required the systematic suppression of the Qizilbash Turks and a dismantling of their tribal structure and its predilection for decentralized political conditions. ʿAbbas began by removing many of the Safavid old guard among the military amirs as well as the administrators; moreover, he spent the better part of two years touring his domain to suppress rebellions by local Qizilbash elites in cities like Yazd, Kerman, and Isfahan. On the broader geopolitical stage, ʿAbbas decided to stabilize his western frontier by agreeing to a peace treaty with the Ottomans (Peace of Istanbul, 1590), which in turn allowed him to spend the next eight years consolidating his forces and resources so as to push the Uzbeks out of Khurasan and reconquer the cities of Herat, Mashhad, and Nishapur by 1598.

In the meanwhile, however, ʿAbbas was still concerned about the solidity of his authority among his notables and subject population at large. Safavid ruling elite at the turn of the century could be characterized as a decentralized conglomerate consisting of Qizilbash Turks, Iranian notables, Caucasian courtiers, and Arab scholars and jurists, all of whom subscribed to an evolving ideology of Twelver Shiʿism mixed with traditional notions of Perso-Islamic kingship. However, recent scholarship (Melvin-Koushki, Moin, Sheffield) has also been exploring the degree to which the religio-political climates of medieval, post-Mongol states like the Safavids were influenced by intellectual, occultic sciences such as geomancy, lettrism (a mystic Muslim version of Kabbalism), and astrology.29 These trends, already in play in Safavid Iran during the reign of Shah Tahmasp, appear to have intensified in the early years of Shah ʿAbbas’s reign, which coincided with arguably the greatest millennial event ever realized in Islamic civilization: the year 1592 and its heralding of one thousand hijrah-calendric years since the “emigration” of the Muslim community to Medina. While there were numerous individuals who wrote and prognosticated about the millennium, it would be the Nuqtavis who best represented these shifts and changes on a broader socioreligious level. Based on the earlier teachings of Mahmud Pasikhani (d. 1427), which was an approximate continuation of the lettrist-based tradition of Hurufism, the Nuqtavi mystical community believed in a grander cosmological cycle, of which Islam is but one iteration, and that the millennium would see the manifestation of a new Nuqtavi spiritual master who would combine sacred and temporal authority to inaugurate a new Persian dispensation of rule which would supplant the current Arab one. Not surprisingly, Shah ʿAbbas was not disposed toward fair treatment of the Nuqtavis, especially since their ranks were increasingly filled by Qizilbash Turks who now felt alienated by the hierocratic and orthodox Shiʿite landscape around them.30 By pretending to be a convert, ʿAbbas confirmed the secrets of the Nuqtavis from their leader Ustad Yusufi Tarkishduz, but he was mindful of a prediction by the court astrologer Jalal al-Din Munajjim that the Safavid sovereign lord was destined to die during the inauspicious planetary alignment of Mars and Saturn. ʿAbbas ceremonially abdicated in favor of Ustad Yusufi, and for three days the Nuqtavi leader was garbed and feted accordingly to play the role of the new Safavid shah before Abbas ordered his gruesome public execution and a violent crackdown on all of his followers.

Concurrently, ʿAbbas took concrete steps to buttress and support orthodox Twelver Shiʿite scholars, theologians, and administrators. Two years before his 1592 misadventure with the Nuqtavis, ʿAbbas came across Hatim Beg Urdubadi while suppressing the rebellion of Biktash Khan in Yazd. Hatim Beg boasted serious scholarly Shiʿite pedigree as a scion of the family of the famous Shiʿite scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Moreover, his father had served as kalantar of Urdubad while a kinsman named Khvajah ʿAtiq ʿAli had been the munshi responsible for tracing the heraldic tughra (seal) on Shah Ismaʿil’s documents and decrees.31 Within one year, Urdubadi was promoted twice within the central administration before he was named as the vazir-i divan-i ʿala (chief vizier) and granted the lofty title of “Iʿtimad al-daulat” (“Pillar of the State”). Urdubadi bears mentioning since he very likely played an advising role in ʿAbbas’s overarching program of centralization and the creation of a standing Safavid military. It began in 1593, when he was instructed to conduct an intense audit of the traditional land-tenuring system (tiyul) that benefited the tribal Qizilbash amirs. Two years later, Urdubadi was dispatched to Gilan—recently conquered and annexed by Shah ʿAbbas—to overhaul the rich province’s system of tax assessment and remittance. It was on the basis of this administrative reform—according to the historian Iskander Beg Munshi—that a “regulatory ledger” (nuskhah-yi tashkhis) was designed to record the total revenue and expenditure for the entire Safavid state, an administrative practice that would continue well into the 17th century. Concurrent with these bureaucratic reforms, ʿAbbas had begun visiting Isfahan regularly in the early 1590s as part of his larger program of relocating the Safavid capital from Qazvin.32

The urban renewal of Isfahan and its elevation as the new capital in the year 1598 heralded Shah ʿAbbas’s new centralizing policies in the most direct way possible: it was located in the approximate center of the Iranian Plateau, with access to traditional north-south caravan routes to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, as well as trade routes through the Zagros Mountains to the west and around the Dasht-i Kavir (Great Salt Desert) to the east.33 Moreover, its geographic centrality allowed the shah to maintain his peripatetic schedule of visiting provincial centers to publicly manifest his sovereignty.34 The showpiece feature of the new capital was the grand square, the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan (“The Image of the World Plaza”), which was connected—via the Qaysariya bazaar—with what had been the old maidan, or plaza, and Seljuk center of Isfahan to the north. The square’s hosting of hundreds of shops, stalls, caravansaries, and bathhouses was part and parcel of the shah’s new centralizing of commerce and manufacturing: relocating the empire’s prominent jewelers, textile experts, craftsmen, artisans, and manufacturers to Isfahan.

The timing of this urban policy (1600–1603) was fortuitous: in 1601, the first English East India Company (E.I.C.) circumvented the Cape of Good Hope and began defying the Portuguese stranglehold on Indian Ocean maritime commercial traffic. With increased numbers of European merchants visiting Isfahan, the shah declared a royal monopoly on silk trade and Iranian and Armenian merchants begin being dispatched to various European cities with sizable consignments of silk on behalf of ʿAbbas.35 Part of the ongoing centralization policy was Shah ʿAbbas’s somewhat appalling program of relocating indigenous Armenian trading networks to Isfahan: starting in 1603, tens of thousands of families were forced to march more than one thousand kilometers from Julfa to the Safavid capital. A new neighborhood (New Julfa) was designed for the expatriate Armenians, and ʿAbbas sponsored the construction of the Armenian cathedral of Vank. Thus, the Armenian mercantile community provided a ready-made system of networks across not only Europe but also the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. This uptick in commercial activity was also reflected in the diplomatic arena, and numerous ambassadorial missions were exchanged between Safavid Iran and various European powers, including Venice, the papacy, France, and England. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II’s fantastical proposal of a joint Iranian-European campaign against the Ottoman Empire was never realized, but ʿAbbas did manage to manipulate the English East India Company’s keen interest in Persian trade and organized a military alliance whereby E.I.C. ships ferried Persian troops in a successful assault on the Portuguese-controlled island-fortress of Hormuz in 1622.

Militarily, these profound changes and realignment of Safavid society and institutions allowed Shah ʿAbbas to lessen his reliance on the Qizilbash tribes and begin building a significant standing army that would be trained, financed, and to some extent maintained in the environs of the Safavid capital. Many of these troops were Caucasian ghulams whose families had been brought to Iran in recent decades, although there certainly would have also been Iranian and Turkoman soldiers. The existing royal guard (qurchis) that consisted principally of Qizilbash soldiers was strengthened significantly under the leadership of a qurchi bashi (head of the imperial guard), but the ghulam corps—which was dominated by cavalry and was under the direction of the qullar aqasi—was also enlarged.36 Also worth noting is the rise of a number of senior government and military officers of Caucasian and Kurdish heritage, such as Ganj ʿAli Khan (governor of Kerman and Qandahar) and Allah Verdi Khan (ranking general of Safavid forces). To finance the enormous expense of maintaining such a central army, state lands (mamalik)—which had hitherto been used to pay Qizilbash amirs and their troops through the traditional tiyul system—were converted into royal property (khassa). This dramatic shift in land-tenuring was manifold in its effect: Qizilbash were deprived of their means of sustenance, significant territory was now assessed and maintained by the central administration, and accrued taxes from this new royal property allowed dramatic reforms like the one for the military. ʿAbbas’s enlargements and upgrading of the corps of the arquebusiers (tufangchiyan) and the cannoneers (tupchiyan) were indicative of this new financial power; however, as M. Haneda has suggested, units of musketeers and arquebusiers could be organized on the basis of their region of origin (e.g., tufangchiyan-i Mazandaran), while the same principle appears to have been applied to the cannoneers (e.g., tupchiyan-i Fars).37 It was this reconstituted military that allowed Shah ʿAbbas to abruptly wage war on the Ottoman Empire in 1603 and, over a period of roughly fifteen years, to succeed in reconquering the lands that had been earlier ceded to the Ottomans with the 1590 Peace of Istanbul: western Azerbaijan, Qarabagh, Shirvan, and Daghestan. Some seven years later, ʿAbbas invaded Iraq and took control of Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala; the Ottomans spent the remainder of ʿAbbas’s reign trying to reconquer this region but were unsuccessful until 1639.

It was a combination of Shah ʿAbbas’s deep piety with a sense of grandeur and monumentalism that saw elaborate architectural projects in not only Isfahan but also other cities like Mashhad, Ardabil, and Qumm. Appended to the Naqsh-i Jahan square was an elaborate and layered palace complex, which fronted onto the square with a five-story audience hall and balcony known as the Ali-Qapu gate. It was here that ambassadors and important envoys were received, while ʿAbbas was known to sit here and attend the occasional spectacle in the square, such as archery contests, horse racing, and executions of criminals and heretics. Directly opposite the Ali-Qapu gate is the Lutfullah Mosque, designed by the Safavid polymath Shaikh Baha’i and considered to be one of the architectural and aesthetic wonders of 17th-century Safavid Iran. As Rula Abisaab notes, this mosque only later became associated with the jurist Shaikh Lutfullah after he became embroiled in a local dispute with guildsmen and artisans; in particular, they were upset that the new mosque was intended as a replacement congregational mosque for the Masjid-i Jami` in the old Seljuk quarter of the city.38 Any doubt about space and public piety in Isfahan was settled after the shah ordered the construction of the awesome Masjid-i Shah in the southerly corner of the Naqsh-i jahan.

Also worth noting are the efforts of Shah ʿAbbas to repair and expand the shrine of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad. After its reconquest in 1598, Mashhad was quickly prioritized as a Safavid imperial space when the shah performed a public pilgrimage on foot to the city from his new capital.39 Thereafter, religious endowments (waqfs) were arranged to finance not only the refurbishing and expansion of the shrine itself but also the maintenance of a large number of administrative staff, sweepers, gatekeepers, and attendants.40 Not only were there higher numbers of pilgrims in the 17th century, but wealthy Safavid clerics and notables, such as Allah Verdi Khan and Hatim Beg Urdubadi, began purchasing plots of land near the shrine to build their own small mausoleums.41 In other aesthetic fields, such as miniature painting and calligraphy, there were prominent artists associated with the Safavid court; Reza ʿAbbasi is the most famous painter in this period and representative of the “Isfahani school of painting,” while his contemporaries ʿAli Reza ʿAbbasi and Mir ʿImad were hailed as the best calligraphers of the age and commissioned by the shah to carve calligraphic inscriptions on important public buildings, like the Lutfullah Mosque and the Masjid-i Shah.42 With respect to prose and poetry, it appears that there was less support and promotion from the Safavid court. Colin Mitchell has argued that the epistolographic genre (insha)—normally known for its literary creativity and adept use of rhetorical devices—became routinized and simplified under the direction of Abbas’s principal minister, I`timad al-daulat.43 While ʿAbbas was fond of certain genres of poetry (lyrical epics like the Shāh nāmah as well as qasidahs, i.e., panegyrics), by and large he frowned upon frivolity and satire, and more than a few poets either found themselves imprisoned or fleeing to Mughal India for greener pastures.

However, ʿAbbas can be credited with his support and promotion of theologians and philosophers in his court and elsewhere in Safavid Iran. This may have been on account of the earlier Nuqtavi “crisis” and the shah’s disavowal of any populist or antinomian religious program. The heyday of philosophy associated with the Dashtakis and other thinkers in Shiraz during the 1540s and 1550s came to a close—albeit temporarily—until the growth of Isfahan under Shah ʿAbbas. Baha’ al-Din al-ʿAmili (popularly known as Shaikh Baha’i) was brought to Iran as a young boy by his father, Shaikh Husain ʿAbd al-Samad, who had served as the Shaikh al-Islam for Qazvin and Herat during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. As an adult, Shaikh Baha’i was named as the Shaikh al-Islam for Isfahan, and it was he who created a courtly atmosphere to attract other philosophers like Mir Damad, as well as future students (Mulla Sadra and Muhsin al-Faiz) who would in turn cement what Henri Corbin and Seyyed Hosein Nasr later labeled as the “Isfahan School of Philosophy” (maktab-i falsafi-yi Isfahan).44 A true polymath, Shaikh Baha’i penned close to one hundred manuscripts (in both Arabic and Persian) on a wide array of topics: hadiths, tafsir, astronomy, fiqh, as well as occult and literary sciences. More focused philosophical discussions arose with thinkers like Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra in the 1620s and 1630s. Mir Damad effectively combined the roles of jurist and philosopher, producing works that defended the notion of rationalism while also upholding the authority of the faqih in matters of legal interpretation. He was also known for his subtle critique of Ibn Sina, whose work he sought to also integrate with the Illuminationist philosophy of al-Suhravardi (d. 1191). Mulla Sadra is considered to be the philosophical giant of the Safavid period, and his work Four Journeys (al-Asfār al-arbaʿa) effectively harmonizes metaphysical aspects of Avicennian thought dealing with existence and reality with core Ibn-Arabian ideas regarding wahdat al-wujud (Unity of Being).45

While Shah ʿAbbas is hailed often as the greatest of the Safavid rulers, it could be argued that it was he who sowed the seeds of his own empire’s slow decline and eventual collapse. Like many contemporaries, ʿAbbas was concerned with internal revolts within his own family, and so he was the first Safavid shah to discontinue the practice of installing young male princes (sons, nephews, younger brothers) as provincial governors in the care of an older Qizilbash tutor (atabeg, lala); rather, princes were kept within the confines of the central court’s harem. This practice of centering power in the harem (qafas) denied the Qizilbash access to the royal Safavid family and eliminated the possibility of revolt, but it also created generations of future rulers who were ill-equipped to govern. More profound, however, was his program of centralization. While, indeed, he created an overarching bureaucratic and military system that could be controlled and maintained from the imperial center, in relocating so many ateliers and workshops to Isfahan, he seriously diminished the social and economic livelihood of provincial centers in Khurasan, Azerbaijan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and elsewhere. By placing so many governorships in the hands of Caucasian ghulams from Circassia, Georgia, and Armenia, ʿAbbas set the stage for future tension between Iranian subject populations and these “foreign” notables; moreover, in the absence of strong centralized rule, such peripherals were provided the opportunity of controlling the ebb and flow of court nominations and installations like those at the beginning of the 18th century.

Shah Safi (1629–1642), Shah ʿAbbas II (1642–1666), Shah Suleiman (1666–1694), Shah Sultan Husain (1694–1712): Attenuation and Isolation

The Safavid dynasty underwent intermittent periods of relative success and decline over the next century before collapsing as a result of a combination of factors: courtly corruption and avarice, disloyalty among the ranking amirs, external pressure and invasion, and heightened xenophobia and religious bigotry. Shah Safi, ʿAbbas’s grandson, assumed the Safavid throne in 1629 at the age of eighteen, but he had spent much of his life within the confines of the harem and lacked his grandfather’s sense of judgment and ability to play groups off one another. This was certainly manifested in his decision to have the governor Imam Quli Khan (son of Allah Verdi Khan) and his entire family massacred after seeds of suspicion had been planted by rival courtiers. Other ghulam groups benefited from this, most notably the two brothers Rustam Khan and ʿAli Quli Khan, who would go on to dominate the court and the military until well into the 1650s. Internal intrigue was compounded by a number of diplomatic and military defeats, most notably the Ottoman recapture of Baghdad in 1639, while Mardan ʿAli Khan (son of Ganj ʿAli Khan) offered the city of Qandahar to the Mughals in 1638 after hearing that courtiers in Isfahan had turned the shah against him. Shah Safi was an excessive drinker, and it was likely this lifestyle that caused his death at the age of thirty-two.

His first son and successor, Shah ʿAbbas II, ascended to the throne at the age of ten, and this royal minority was dominated by his mother (Anna Khanum), the vizier Mirza Saru Taqi, and the chief of the imperial guard (qurchi bashi) by the name of Jani Khan.46 The minority lasted until only 1645, when ʿAbbas II arranged to have both Mirza Saru Taqi and Jani Khan eliminated, and from this point forward, the shah was considerably more active and forthright in terms of domestic and foreign policy than his father. On this point, it was during the reign of ʿAbbas II that the Dutch East India Company—the V.O.C. (Verenigde Oostindische Compagne)—developed its closest commercial contacts with Iran.47 While ʿAbbas II’s relations with the Ottomans were relatively peaceful, the Safavid shah did mount a number of campaigns against the Caucasus and, in 1648–1649, successfully besieged and conquered Qandahar.

One of the chief problems facing the Safavids in the mid-17th century was the domino effect of the Price Revolution in Eurasia, whereby the massive imports of gold and silver from the New World were creating massive price inflation and economic instability; Safavid viziers like Khalifah Sultan (fl. 1645–1654) and Muhammad Beg (fl. 1654–1661) tried to actively stem the “specie drain”—associated with trade caravans and European expeditions who trafficked from the Ottoman Empire to Mughal India—but to little avail. This, in turn, increased the ongoing transformation of “state” lands to private royal lands (khassa), which were initially prosperous for the state treasuries but limited the ability of notables and provincial landholders to maintain military troops to defend Safavid territories. Also problematic was the rise of brass-bound Shiʿite theologians and judges who felt threatened by Shah ʿAbbas’s fondness of and association with Sufi dervishes; in turn, there is a marked increase in treatises condemning Sufism, as well as growing suspicion toward both Christian and Jewish communities living in Iran.

All of these trends, developing and intensifying since the 1630s, came to a dramatic conclusion during the reigns of Shah Suleiman and Shah Sultan Husain. Shah Suleiman was initially enthroned in 1666 as Shah Safi II, but his first year and a half of rule was marked by excessive recreation, very poor health, famine, and a devastating earthquake; courtiers and advisers insisted that a second enthronement take place, and for this reason he was crowned again in 1668 with the new name of Suleiman. Contemporary observers, as well as many later historians, were fairly unanimous in their characterization of this shah as a pleasure-seeking denizen of the harem who did little in the way of military campaigns or grandiose public initiatives. However, Rudi Matthee has provided a more nuanced analysis, pointing out that the shah did take steps to curb overspending in the court while also sending expeditions against Turkoman tribes in the northeast who were threatening public order in areas around Astarabad and Simnan.48 There is little doubt that this was a shah who avoided direct governance and was content to leave major decisions and policies in the hands of ministers and courtiers, most notably his vizier, Shaikh ʿAli Khan. He became increasingly erratic and self-isolating in later years, which in turn promoted factionalism among the courtiers and amirs. Many European observers record that the shah suffered from various medical ailments, including gout, which was only compounded by alcoholism. Suleiman I died in 1694, leaving behind an empire that was openly suffering from complacency and corruption.

Shah Sultan Husain’s subsequent reign (1694–1722) is marked by excess in a number of arenas. First, the size of the harem (and the budget required to sustain it) grew exponentially at the close of the 17th century, while staggering amounts of money were allocated for various royal public activities—hunts, processions, pilgrimages—which were ostentatious affairs involving hundreds of courtiers and hangers-on. Like his predecessor, Sultan Husain was not an “activist” shah who initiated significant reforms or launched major military campaigns; he took two trips of note during his roughly twenty years of rule: a one-year pilgrimage to Mashhad in 1708–1709 and an extended tour of Kashan-Qazvin-Tehran between 1717 and 1721, which paled in comparison to the peripatetic courts of the 16th-century Safavid shahs and Shah ʿAbbas.49 One development was the significant rise in power of the clerical elite, most notably Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, the Shaikh al-Islam and author of the largest collection of Imami hadiths (traditions) in the Persian language, the Bihār al-anvār. His ascent as the most senior Shiʿite scholar was signaled when he was asked to gird Sultan Husain with a sword during the shah’s enthronement ceremony (akin to the papal unction of Holy Roman Emperors in Europe). Moreover, his numerous treatises in Persian and Arabic on various subjects, many of which consisted of targeted critiques against Sufis, Christians, and Jews, contributed to the homogenizing of Iran as a “Shiʿite” land.

The final years of Shah Sultan Husain’s reign were indeed dark. By the early 1700s, the borders of Safavid Iran were beset by raids and excursions from various tribal groups; in more serious cases, rival empires like those of the Ottomans and Russians were invading and annexing extensive territory. In 1707, twenty thousand Turkoman tribesmen despoiled much of the area near Astarabad and Damghan, while one year later Lezghi tribesmen plundered the region of Daghestan. But this was only the beginning, and in 1716, Afghan tribes organized a major invasion of Khurasan, defeated the much weaker Safavid army, and besieged the city of Mashhad; meanwhile Uzbeks were also conducting large-scale raids against Safavid frontier towns and settlements.50 All the while, Isfahan was suffering crucial shortages of bread, which led to food riots and civic unrest. By 1720, the Safavid state was financially ruined and militarily stagnated, and thus completely unable to withstand two major Afghan invasions by Mahmud Ghilzai: the first resulted in the conquest of Kerman while the second in 1722 brought the Afghans to the gates of Isfahan and the beginning of a lengthy siege.51 The Safavid court had no centralized resources to respond to this tribal incursion, while other provinces were unwilling or otherwise unable to provide any military support or relief. In October, Shah Sultan Husain ceremonially surrendered the city to the Afghans, effectively ending the Safavid Dynasty as an autonomous empire; Shah Sultan Husain’s son, Tahmasp II, was installed as a puppet by Nadir Shah Afshar until 1732 when Nadir Shah formally terminated the Safavids and established his own empire.

The Safavid Empire has been highlighted in modern scholarship on account of its success as a “Persian” dynasty, which not only shaped the approximate borders of the current state of Iran but also encouraged the spread of Twelver Shiʿism and adoration of the Twelve Imams among its population. This latter feature has been especially celebrated since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, despite the fact that the Safavids were also Sufi-inspired monarchs who were not above fraternizing with mystical brotherhoods like the Niʿmatullahis and the Nurbakhshis. Juxtaposed with the internecine politics that plagued Iran and Central Asia in the post-Mongol period (14–15th centuries), Safavid rule was relatively stable, and its sense of sovereignty and policy played a crucial role in the future ability of Iran to self-define as a “nation-state.”

Primary Sources

Compared to those working in the fields of Ottoman and Mughal studies, Safavid historians face considerable obstacles in their search for documentary and historical sources. While there are a number of well-known court chronicles, the lamentable loss of administrative decrees, bureaucratic manuals, and a range of wide archival materials amidst the Afghan sacking of the Safavid capital of Isfahan in 1722 is hard to overlook while provincial and regional libraries likewise suffered depredations during the 18th and 19th centuries. For the 16th-century reigns of Shah Ismaʿil and Shah Tahmasp, detailed chronicles have been edited and translated into English such as Khvandamir’s Habib al-siyar (the fourth volume is dedicated to the Safavids, translated by Wheeler Thackston) and Hasan Beg Rumlu’s Ahsan al-tavarikh (translated by C. Seddon). Other sources for this particular period have been edited, but remain in their original Persian, such as Budaq Khan Qazvini’s Javahir al-akhbar, Amir Sadr al-Din Haravi’s Futuhat-i shahi, ʿAbdi Beg Shirazi’s Takmilat al-akhbar, Afushtah-yi Natanzi’s Nuqavat al-asar, the Tarikh-i Shah Ismaʿil va Shah Tahmasp (by Khvandamir’s son, Mahmud b. Khvandamir), the Tarikh-i jahan-ara by Ghaffari Qazvini, the Tarikh-i ilchi-yi Nizamshah by the Deccani ambassador Khurshah b. Qubad Husaini, the Lubb al-tavarikh by Yahya Qazvini, the inimitable and very detailed two-volume Khulasat al-tavarikh by Qazi Ahmad al-Qummi, and lastly the Sharaf nama by the Kurdish notable and scholar Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi. Regarding material written by the Safavid shahs themselves, the best material is the collection of poetry (divan) by Shah Ismaʿil and the autobiography of Shah Tahmasp, the Tazkirat-i Tahmasp.

For decades, the study of the reign of Shah ʿAbbas has been dominated by the use of the Tarikh-i ʿalam-ara-yi ʿAbbasi by Iskander Beg Munshi (an edited version by Iraj Afshar, and a translation in English by Roger Savory) and the lesser-known histories by ʿAbbas’s court astrologer Munajjim Yazdi, the Tarikh-i ʿAbbasi and the Rawzat al-Safaviyya by Mirza Hasan Junabadi. However, most recently, the third volume of the Afzal al-tavarikh (covering this particular reign) was discovered in manuscript form by Charles Melville and was edited and published in 2017. Later Safavid sources include the Khuld-i barin by Muhammad Yusuf Valih Isfahani, the Khulasat al-siyar by Muhammad Maʿsum Isfahani, Mirza Muhammad Tahir Vahid Qazvini’s Tarikh-i jahan-ara-yi ʿabbasi, and the Qissa-yi khaqani by Vali Quli b. Da’ud Shamlu. Two anonymous histories—the ʿAlam-ara-yi Shah Ismaʿil and the ʿAlam-ara-yi Shah Tahmasp—had previously been considered to have been written in the 16th century, but scholars now concur that they were indeed produced in the late 17th century.

The study of 17th-century Safavid Iran is helped in part by the influx of Europeans to Isfahan and a corresponding increase in the publication of travelogues, maps, court descriptions, and socioeconomic “gazetteers” of sorts. Important European sources worth mentioning include Michele Membré’s travelogue, which was translated by Sandy Morton as Michele Membré: Mission to the Lord Sophy of Persia (1539–1542); Pietro della Valle, I viaggi di Pietro della Valle; Adam Olearius, Vemehtre newe Beschreibung der Muscowtischen und Persischen Reyse sodurch gelegenheit einer Holsteinischen Gesandschaft an den Russischen Zaar und König in Persien geschehen; Raphael du Mans, Estat de la Perse en 1660; and the exhaustive ten-volume account of Safavid Iran during the 1660s and 1670s by Jean Chardin, the Voyages du chevalier Chardin, en Perse, et autres lieux de l’Orient. The account of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Les six voyages de J.B. Taverniers . . . en Turquie, en Perse, et aux Indes, deserves mention as well.

The growth of art and calligraphy in the mid- to late-16th century is reflected well in Ahmad Beg Qummi’s matchless prosopography, the Gulistan-i hunar, which was translated and published by Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise.52 Likewise, there are two major anthologies of poets from the Safavid period: the Tuhfah-yi Sami, produced by the mid-16th-century Safavid prince Sam Mirza (first published in Tehran in 1936, but with later editions in 1973 and 2005), and the Tazkira-yi Nasrabadi from the 17th century. For documentary studies and paleography, Lajos Fekete’s Einführung in die persische Paläographie contains a good number of decrees and letters in facsimile and edited form; only two texts—the Tazkirat al-muluk by Rafi` al-Din Ibrahim Shirazi and the Dastur al-muluk by Muhammad Rafi` Ansari—discuss the Safavid state with regards to structure, ministries, offices, and salaries, but both of these date from the 1720s when the Safavid state was on the edge of collapse.53 Recently, a web initiative—was launched by the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Marburg; it contains a rich number of digitized documentary sources from the Safavid period.


(1.) A number of major secondary works have shaped the historiography of Safavid historical studies over the years. Notable titles include Nasrullah Falsafi’s five-volume biography of Shah ʿAbbas, Zindagani-yi Shah ʿAbbas (Tehran: 1966–1974); Roger Savory’s Iran Under the Safavids (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980); various chapters in vol. 6 of the Cambridge History of Iran, ed. Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Masashi Haneda, Le chah et les qizilbash: Le système militaire safavide (Berlin: Schwarz Verlag, 1987); Jean Aubin, “L’avènement des Safavides reconsidéré,” Moyen Orient et océan Indien 5 (1988): 1–130; Hans Robert Roemer, Persien auf dem Weg in die Neuzeit: Iranische Geschichte von 1350–1750 (Beirut: Ergon, 1989); Rasul Ja`fariyan, Din va siyasat dar daurah-yi Safavi (Tehran: Ansariyan, 1991); Jean Calmard, ed., Etudes safavides (Paris and Tehran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1993); and Rudi Matthee, The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600–1730 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Manuchihr Parsadust has published a number of biographies: Shāh Ismāʿīl-avval (Tehran: Itishar-i Sahami, 1996); Shah Tahmasp-i avval (Tehran: Intishar-i Sahami, 1998); and Shāh Ismāʿīl-i duvvum va Shāh Muḥammad (Tehran: Intishar-i Sahami, 2002). More recently, there has been a surge in Safavid publications including: Sholeh Quinn, Historical Writing During the Reign of Shah ʿAbbas: Ideology, Imitation, and Legitimacy in Safavid Chronicles (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000); Sussan Babaie et al., eds., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004); Rula Abisaab, Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire, 1501–1736 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004); Andrew Newman, Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Colin Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran: Power, Religion, and Rhetoric (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009); Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Rudi Matthee, Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012); and Sholeh Quinn, Shah Abbas: The King Who Refashioned Iran (London: Oneworld, 2015).

(2.) Rula Abisaab, “Karaki,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2010).

(3.) Kathryn Babayan, “The Safavid Synthesis: From Qizilbash Islam to Imamite Shi’ism,” Iranian Studies 27, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 135–161.

(4.) John Woods, The Aqquyunlu: Clan, Confederation, and Empire (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999) and Jean Aubin, “Etudes safavides. I. Shah Ismaʿil et les notables de l’Iraq persan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 2, no. 1 (Spring 1959): 37–81.

(5.) Etan Kohlberg, “From Imāmiyya to Ithnā-ʿashariyya,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 39 (1976): 521–534.

(6.) Savory, Iran Under the Safavids, 32–35.

(7.) Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran, 48–50.

(8.) Reza Pourjavady, Philosophy in Early Safavid Iran: Najm al-Din Mahmud al-Nayrizi and His Writings (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2011).

(9.) Christopher Markiewicz, The Crisis of Rule in Late Medieval Islam: A Study of Idris Bidlisi (861–926/1457–1520) and Kingship at the Turn of the Sixteenth Century (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2015).

(10.) Shahzad Bashir, “Shah Ismail and the Qizilbash: Cannibalism in the Religious History of Early Safavid Iran,” History of Religions 45, no. 3 (February 2006): 234–256.

(11.) Barry Wood, “The Battle of Chālderān: Official History and Popular Memory,” Iranian Studies 50, no. 1 (January 2017): 79–105; and A. H. Morton, “The Date and Attribution of the Ross Anonymous: Notes on a Persian History of Shah Ismaʿil I,” in Pembroke Papers, vol. 1, ed. Charles Melville (Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, 1990), 179–212. Sholeh Quinn also writes on the intricacies of historiography, see Historical Writing During the Reign of Shah ʿAbbas.

(12.) Said Arjomand, “Two Decrees of Shah Tahmasp Concerning Statecraft and the Authority of Shaykh ʿAli al-Karaki,” in Authority and Political Culture in Shiʿism, ed. Said Amir Arjomand (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 80–97.

(13.) See Sussan Babaie et al., eds., Slaves of the Shah.

(14.) Colin P. Mitchell, “Tahmasp I,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2009).

(15.) Some of the best work on how this policy affected the Safavid court can be found with Maria Szuppe, “La participation des femmes de la famille royale à l’exercice du pouvoir en Iran safavid au XVIe siècle,” pts. 1 and 2, Studia Iranica 23 (1994): 211–258; 24 (1995): 61–122.

(16.) Martin Dickson’s work on this topic is—as of yet—unsurpassed; see his Shah Tahmasp and the Uzbeks: The Duel for Khurasan with Ubayd Khan, 930–946/1524–40, (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1958); see also Maria Szuppe, “Les résidences princières de Hérat: Questions de continuité fonctionnelle entre les époques timouride et safavide, première moitié du XVIe siècle,” in Etudes safavides, ed. Jean Calmard (Paris and Tehran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1993), 267–286.

(17.) Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran, 104–110.

(18.) Jean Calmard, “Marʿashis,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. 6 (Brill), 510–518; and Sultan Husain Mirza, Zabūr-i āl-i Dāvūd: Sharḥ-i irṭibāt-i sādāt-i Marʿashī bā salāṭīn-i Ṣafaviyya (Tehran: Miras Maktub, 2000).

(19.) Mitchell, “Tahmasp I”; and Qazi Ahmad al-Qummi, Khulāṣat al-tavārīkh, vol. 1, ed. I. Ishraqi (Tehran: Danishgah-i Tehran, 1980), 386.

(20.) Colin P. Mitchell, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?: Negotiating Corporate Sovereignty and Divine Absolutism in Sixteenth-Century Turco-Iranian Politics,” in New Perspectives on Safavid Iran: Empire and Society, ed. Colin P. Mitchell (London: Routledge, 2011), 51.

(21.) Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran, 128.

(22.) Anthony Welch, “Art in Iran ix: Safavid to Qajar Periods,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 1986).

(23.) David Roxburgh, Prefacing the Image: The Writing of Art History in Sixteenth-Century Iran (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2000), 55.

(24.) Marianna Shreve Simpson, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza’s Haft Awrang: A Princely Manuscript from Sixteenth-Century Iran (New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 1997).

(25.) Lâle Uluç, Turkman Governors, Shiraz Artisans, and Ottoman Collectors: Sixteenth-Century Shiraz Manuscripts (Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası, 2006).

(26.) Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran, 151–152.

(27.) Parsadust, Shāh Ismāʿīl-i duvvum va Shāh Muḥammad, 179.

(28.) Quinn, Shah Abbas: The King Who Refashioned Iran. In addition to Quinn’s excellent biography, there have been others in recent years, including David Blow’s Shah Abbas: The Ruthless King Who Became an Iranian Legend (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

(29.) Matthew Melvin-Koushki, “Astrology, Lettrism, Geomancy: The Occult-Scientific Methods of Post-Mongol Islamicate Imperialism,” Medieval History Journal 19, no. 1 (April 2016): 147; Moin, The Millennial Sovereign; and Dan Sheffield, “The Language of Paradise in Safavid Iran: Speech and Cosmology in the Thought of Āẕar Kayvān and His Followers,” in There’s No Tapping around Philology, ed. Alireza Korangy and Daniel Sheffield (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014), 161–183.

(30.) Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 103–104.

(31.) Colin Mitchell, “Reconsidering State and Constituency in Seventeenth-Century Safavid Iran: The Wax and Wane of the Munshi,” in Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World, ed. Paul M. Dover (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 213.

(32.) A recent issue of Muqarnas (vol. 33, no. 1 [2016]) included a number of articles on Safavid Isfahan, including Charles Melville, “New Light on Shah ʿAbbas and the Construction of Isfahan,” 155–176.

(33.) The best study of Isfahan in the Safavid period is Susan Babaie’s Isfahan and Its Palaces: Statecraft, Shiʿism, and the Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

(34.) Charles Melville, “From Qars to Qandahar: The Itineraries of Shah ‘Abbas I (995–1038/1587–1629),” in Etudes Safavides. ed. J. Calmard (Tehran and Paris: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1993), 195–224.

(35.) On the general subject of trade in the Safavid period, Rudi Matthee’s The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran has yet to be surpassed.

(36.) See Haneda, Le châh et les Qizilbâš: Le système militaire safavide.

(37.) Masashi Haneda, “Army iii. Safavid Period,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 1986); and Colin Mitchell, “Shah ʿAbbas, the English East India Company, and the Cannoneers of Fars,” Itinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction 24, no. 2 (July 2000): 104–125.

(38.) Abisaab, Converting Persia, 83–84.

(39.) Charles Melville, “Shah ʿAbbas and the Pilgrimage to Mashhad,” in Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, ed. Charles Melville (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996), 191–229.

(40.) Elaleh Mahbub and A. F. Hasanabadi, “Introducing the Safavid Documents of the Directorate of Documents and Publications of the Central Library of the Holy Shrine at Mashhad (Iran),” Iranian Studies 42, no. 2 (April 2009): 311–327. For an overview of waqfs, see Christopher Werner, Waqfs en Iran: Aspects culturels, religieux, et sociaux (Paris: Peeters, 2015). For a very recent overview of the listed endowments in Mashhad, see Christoph Werner and Tomoko Morikawa, eds., Vestiges of the Razavi Shrine: Āthār al-Raẓavīya: A Catalogue of Endowments and Deeds to the Shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad (Tokyo: Toyo Bunko, 2017). There’s also a very interesting recent article in Iran (Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies) about Tahmasp’s political and financial patronage of the shrine at Mashhad (not the one in the next note).

(41.) May Farhat, “Shiʿi Piety and Dynastic Legitimacy: Mashhad Under the Early Safavids,” Iranian Studies 47, no. 2 (2014): 201–216.

(42.) Massumeh Farhad, “Isfahan xi: School of Painting and Calligraphy,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2007).

(43.) Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran, 182–185.

(44.) Sajjad H. Rizvi, “Isfahan School of Philosophy,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2007).

(45.) There is an increasingly rich secondary literature on Mulla Sadra. Fazlur Rahman’s work, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra Shirazi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1976) dominated for many years, but Sajjad Rizvi has expanded the field significantly with numerous studies, including Mulla Sadra and Metaphysics: Modulation of Being (London: Routledge, 2009) and Mulla Sadra Shirazi: His Life and Works and the Sources for Safavid Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). In 2013, Sayeh Meisami published Mulla Sadra in the Makers of the Muslim World Series from Oneworld publishers while Mohammad Rustom published The Triumph of Mercy: Philosophy and Scripture in Mulla Sadra (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

(46.) Rudi Matthee, “ʿAbbas II,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2014).

(47.) Matthee, The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran, 147–174.

(48.) Rudi Matthee, “Solaymān I,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2015).

(49.) Rudi Matthee, “Solṭān Ḥosayn,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University, 2015).

(50.) Matthee, “Solṭān Ḥosayn.”

(51.) On these final days, see Matthee, Persia in Crisis, 197–242, as well as Laurence Lockhart’s older The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958).

(52.) Ahmad Beg Qummi, Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise, trans. Vladimir Minorsky (Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art, 1959).

(53.) Lajos Fekete, Einführung in die persische Paläographie: 101 persische Dokumente, ed. György Hazai (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977).