World History 2 57 - 4.3.1 The Rise of the Safavid Empire

The Safavids began not as a political dynasty, but as the hereditary leaders of a Sufi order based in the city of Ardabil, located in today’s northwestern Iran. The order in Ardabil was founded in the thirteenth century by the Sufi master Zahed Gilani, and little is known about its beliefs and practices in its earliest stages. We do know that Zahed appointed his son-in-law and disciple Safi al-Din Ardabili to succeed him, which angered his family and some of his followers.

Safi al-Din renamed the order after himself—Safaviyya—and made a number of reforms that reshaped it from a local order to a religious movement that sought followers from around Iran and neighboring countries. While Safi al-Din’s origins are lost to history, it is generally believed that he came from a family of Azeri-speaking Kurds, although even this is uncertain. (Azeri is a Turkic language.) The Safavid family later claimed that Safi al-Din was descended from the Prophet through Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. This genealogy was most likely invented by court historians during the sixteenth-century reign of Shah Ismail I. However, several scholars went one step further and extended the family’s history back to the biblical Adam.

Initially, like most of Iran’s population, the Safavids were primarily Sunni Muslims. Like that of many Sufi orders, their ideology incorporated elements of both Sunni and Shia doctrines to proclaim a universal message and attract followers from both sects. However, Safi al-Din’s great-grandson Junayd made several changes to the order’s doctrine, adopting specifically Shia ideas. Junayd believed the Safavids should use their popular religious mandate to seek military and political power for themselves, and he found Shia doctrine more appropriate for his vision.

Junayd’s son Haydar created a solid political and military framework by establishing a Safavid military order known as the Qizilbash, after their distinctive red hats (qizil means “red” in Azeri). Haydar declared a religious war against the Christian residents of the Caucasus, but in order to reach them, he had to pass through the territory of the Shirvanshahs, who were allied with his enemies. Although at first he was able to negotiate safe passage for his army, the Shirvanshahs, already uneasy about Haydar’s growing power, used his eventual attack on one of their cities as an excuse to declare war on the Safavids. Haydar was killed in battle in 1488. His son Ali Mirza took his place, but within a few years his capital at Ardabil was conquered by his enemies. Ali Mirza was also killed, and his infant brother Ismail was sent into exile.

After being sheltered by allies, the twelve-year-old Ismail emerged from exile in 1499 claiming to be the Mahdi or messiah and began rallying the Qizilbash troops who had fought for his father and brother. They embarked on a military campaign, winning victory after victory until, in July 1501, Ismail entered the Shirvanshah capital of Tabriz and declared himself shah, or emperor, of all Iran (Figure 4.20). At the time, he governed only Azerbaijan and part of the Caucasus. By 1511, however, Ismail’s troops had driven the Uzbek people across the Oxus River, establishing the eastern borders of modern Iran. The Safavids also staged incursions into eastern Anatolia; these triggered a conflict with the Ottoman Empire that continued for the length of the Safavids’ reign. Not only had Ismail’s forces occupied the empire’s border cities, but he had begun recruiting for his army among the ethnic Turkish tribes of eastern Anatolia and encouraging the Shia Muslims in Ottoman lands to revolt against their Sunni rulers.

A painting of a profile of a man on a black background is shown. He has red hair and beard, and wears a woven white round hat. He wears a brown coat over a white shirt with red trim. The words “ISMAEL REX” and “SOPHY PER” appears at the top of the painting.
Figure 4.20 The Safavid Empire was as ethnically diverse as the Ottoman Empire. In this portrait of Shah Ismail by an Italian painter of the sixteenth century, for example, the shah’s reddish hair, possibly an inheritance from his Greek grandmother, is clearly visible. (credit: “Portrait of Shah Ismail I of Persia” by Uffizi Gallery/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In response, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II deported the Shi‘ites of his empire from Anatolia to other regions where they would be unable to heed the Safavid call. As the Safavids continued to push westward into Ottoman territory, Bayezid’s son Selim I responded by invading Iranian Azerbaijan, laying waste to Tabriz in 1514 and attempting to destroy the Qizilbash. The loss of his capital Tabriz to the enemy—and to a Sunni Muslim at that—was a huge blow to Shah Ismail’s standing among his own armies, made worse by the fact that he had declared himself invincible based on his fictionalized semidivine ancestry.

After Ismail’s death in 1524, ten years of internal strife followed as rival Qizilbash factions fought for dominance and the right to be regent to Ismail’s ten-year-old heir Tahmasp. Tahmasp went on to become the longest-reigning Safavid shah. Disappointed by his experience navigating the rivalries within the Qizilbash, he began using enslaved Christians from Circassia and Georgia in the palace administration and civil services instead of members of the Qizilbash. Tahmasp faced several challenges at home and abroad, however. Although he successfully repelled an attempt by the Uzbeks to invade northeastern Iran, they remained a threat to the east, and war with the Ottomans flared up soon afterward when Suleiman’s armies invaded Iran in the mid-1530s. Tahmasp’s desire to fend off the Turkish threat led him to ally himself with a rising European power, the Habsburg Empire.

The Habsburg emperor Charles V, concerned by the Ottomans’ progression toward Vienna, approached first Ismail and then Tahmasp about an alliance. By agreement, the Safavids would attack the Ottomans whenever the Ottomans attacked the Habsburgs to divide the Ottoman army between two fronts of battle and thereby weaken it. In 1536, the Ottomans formalized their own alliance with the king of France, an enemy of the Habsburgs, who sent a military adviser to counsel Sultan Suleiman about his war with Iran in 1547.

Two decades of warfare severely strained the Iranian economy, however, and Tahmasp sought peace with the Ottomans. Under the Peace of Amasya, concluded in 1555, Armenia and Georgia were divided between the two empires; the Ottomans gained control over Iraq and access to the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s control over Azerbaijan was guaranteed. Tahmasp also moved his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin, closer to the Caspian Sea and at less risk of capture or siege by Ottoman forces. The two states finally laid down arms and declared a peace that lasted more than thirty years.

It did not last forever, however. The borders of Iran were secure at the end of Tahmasp’s reign, but his son and grandson were ineffective leaders who failed to keep the Qizilbash rivalries from once again destabilizing the country, which led to yet more incursions by Ottoman and Uzbek forces. Tahmasp’s grandson Abbas I, generally considered the strongest Safavid shah as well as one of the greatest rulers in Iranian history, found himself compelled to take up arms once again (Figure 4.21). During his reign, the Safavid state reached the height of its military, political, and economic power. Abbas I reformed the military and civil service and built a showpiece capital city, Isfahan, which remains one of the masterworks of Persian Islamic art and architecture.

A painting of a kneeling man on a lavishly decorated rug is shown. He wears a striped woven turban with a white feather in the front. His long robe has flowers all over and a red shirt shows by his collar. He has a long moustache and an ornate belt around his waist. His left hand rests on the handle of a sword and his right hand holds a dish. A cloth in the bottom left of the painting holds vases and bowls while the arms and legs of two people can be seen in the right edges of the painting. The wall behind him displays two gold vases on a ledge.
Figure 4.21 This detail from a series of seventeenth-century paintings decorating the walls of the Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan, Iran, depicts Shah Abbas I, who ruled over Iran at the height of the Safavid dynasty’s power. (credit: “Abbas I of Persia” by Unknown/“TRAJAN 117”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

By the time the seventeen-year-old Abbas was crowned shah in 1588, Iran was in chaos. After waging war against the Uzbeks, Abbas realized that fighting the Ottomans with the country in upheaval would be nearly impossible. As a result, he signed a peace treaty in 1590 that gave nearly half his territory, including the former capital of Tabriz, to the Ottomans. Abbas then returned to the issue his grandfather had taken up: taming the Qizilbash, whose disputes had plunged Iran into civil conflict that twice nearly brought the country to ruin. His grandfather had acquired over thirty thousand enslaved people employed as civil servants and palace administrators; turning to the Caucasus region again, Abbas decided to also create an enslaved soldier corps like the Ottoman Janissaries.

With his new army behind him, Abbas undertook to gain back the territories lost to the Uzbeks and Ottomans. The Safavid armies quickly reconquered Khorasan from the Uzbeks and moved on to Azerbaijan. The Ottomans sued for peace in 1612, relinquishing the Caucasus to the Iranians. An attempt to recapture the territory in 1618 resulted in a devastating loss for the Ottomans.

Despite near-constant war, during this time Iran reached new cultural and economic heights. In 1598, Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in the central Iranian plateau, far from the constantly shifting borders with the Ottomans and Uzbeks and closer to the Persian Gulf and the newly arrived traders of the British and Dutch East India Companies. The city was built as a showpiece, with administrative buildings and public markets opening on the enormous Naqsh-e Jahan (“Exemplar of the world”) Square (Figure 4.22).

A photograph of two long building in a “L” shape is shown. Starting on the left, a long building is shown with a large arched opening and thin towers on either side. The building has many windows on two floors and runs the length of the photograph. The right side of the building shows domes and towers rising form the second floor. Along the right side of the photograph another long building is shown with two floors, windows on both levels and awnings coming off of the windows on the lower floor. In front of both buildings are trees, grass, sidewalks, light poles, shrubs, people, and roads.
Figure 4.22 The Shah Mosque, built by Abbas I, is located on the south side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square in the center of Isfahan. The square, a UNESCO World Heritage site, still serves as a gathering place today. (credit: “Naqsh-e Jahan Square” by Bijan Tehrani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The city center was unique. All levels of society could mix there, from members of the royal court whose pavilion overlooked the square, to the Shi‘ite clergy whose mosque was at the square’s southern end, to foreign dignitaries, members of the military, merchants, and commoners. A soup kitchen distributed free food to the needy, and occasionally the square was cleared for polo games, public ceremonies, and festivals. To populate his new capital, Abbas ordered several different populations to settle in it, including Armenians, Jewish people, Circassians, and other Caucasian peoples, many of whom had been displaced during his war against the Ottomans in their homelands. The cathedral Abbas ordered built for the Armenian Christians still serves that community in Isfahan today.

After Abbas’s death, the Safavid state met another internal threat, this time from the Georgian kingdom of Kakheti. After Abbas had ordered the mass deportation of Georgians to central Iran, he sent Oghuz Turks (Turcomen) to settle the area; the local population that remained refused to allow them to do so, however, and staged a military rebellion. Although the Safavids were eventually able to reestablish authority, they never achieved their earlier level of control.

Iran also continued to face threats from outside. In the early eighteenth century under the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, Russia began to encroach on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and to compete for influence in the Caucasus. The armies of Peter the Great took the Caucasus in the Russo-Persian war of 1722–1723, while the Ottomans reoccupied northwestern Iran. The entry of European ships to the Indian Ocean trade cut off much of Iran’s direct access to Africa and South Asia. Over the course of the 1730s, Nader Afshar, one of the Safavid vassals, established himself as a strong military ruler. He was able to reverse many of Iran’s territorial losses to the Russians and Ottomans; however, he had no interest in sharing power. In 1736, Nader deposed the infant Abbas III and crowned himself shah, bringing the Safavid Empire to an end and establishing the short-lived Afsharid dynasty.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax