World History 2 59 - 4.3.3 Safavid Government and Culture

During the Safavid period, Iran was ethnically quite diverse. Safi al-Din is believed to have come from a family of Kurds who spoke Azeri. As the Safavid order developed, its members intermarried with other Turkic groups such as the Turcomen, Lar, and Bakhtiyari, and with Georgian, Armenian, and Pontic Greek Christians within their lands and bordering territories. Through his mother, Shah Ismail I was descended from the Komnenos dynasty that once ruled the Byzantine Empire. He used Persian as the language of government and composed poetry in Azeri, contributing to its development as a literary language. The Qizilbash were largely Turcoman, another Turkic group with its own language. Various groups of Persian-speaking peoples lived in the Iranian plateau and were usually described as “Tajik.”

The Safavid shahs were wary of groups that sought to exert too much power over them and the government. One of the reasons the Qizilbash were eventually replaced as palace administrators, bureaucrats, and military elites is that they had occasionally used their collective power to render some of the weaker shahs mere figureheads. However, beneath the shah and the powerful elites, the Safavid hierarchy was unique for its time in being largely based on merit; worth and talent, not status or birth, were the keys to upward mobility. Even those in hereditary positions had to prove themselves capable or be replaced. This system brought the brightest and most talented into government service while preventing the development of an entrenched and unchecked aristocracy.

Shi‘ism’s rise created a new religious hierarchy in Iran. Given the sect’s government sponsorship, the Shia ulama were often able to act as intermediaries between the people and the government. They formed an early alliance with merchants, for instance, establishing and administering vaqfs to protect the merchants’ property and assets. Through this alliance many members of the ulama became landowners themselves, creating a religious aristocracy that gave them a level of political independence. When the Safavid state weakened in its later years, the ulama were able to step in and use their newly acquired wealth to benefit their communities. This strengthening of direct ties between the ulama and the people, and the separation of the religious establishment from the state, is believed to be one of the reasons Shi‘ism long outlasted the Safavid era.

The stability of the Safavid system allowed art and culture to flourish; the Safavid era is considered one of the high points of Perso-Islamic culture. Two distinct schools of painting developed: the Turkmen school in western Iran and the Timurid school based in Herat (in today’s Afghanistan). Shah Tahmasp supported both schools at a royal painting workshop where artistic masters were invited to work with luxury materials such as gold leaf and ground lapis lazuli (Figure 4.25).

A painting of a bearded man kneeling on a richly decorated rug in a garden is shown. He is wearing a brown short sleeved long coat embossed with gold flowers over a green long-sleeved shirt with gold flowers. He wears a white turban on his head with a red projection at the top and a silvery feather in the back. His belt holds a short sword in a sheath and objects dangling from elaborate flowery decorations. In the background a tree, flowers, rock and grass can be seen.
Figure 4.25 This detail of a sixteenth-century miniature by the Persian artist Farrukh Beg shows Shah Tahmasp, who was a great patron of the arts. The patterns on Tahmasp’s robe have been embellished with gold. (credit: “Shah Tahmasp in the mountains” by Freer Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

One of the most famous achievements of Tahmasp’s workshop was an illustrated version of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran written by the poet Ferdowsi in the tenth century. Safavid miniature painting remains one of the most prized examples of visual art. Iranian ceramics became highly valued for export because of their remarkable similarity in style and quality to treasured Chinese porcelain, with even more intricately painted decorations. Some Safavid ceramic artists went so far as to place a fake Chinese workshop stamp on the back of their products to increase their value.

Beyond the Book

The Art of the Book

The most distinctive and prized artworks of the Safavid era were illuminated manuscripts of well-known texts decorated with miniature paintings. In these paintings, artists used mineral-based dyes, which produced brilliant and long-lasting colors (Figure 4.26). Wealthy patrons commissioned artists—like those in the studio of Shah Tahmasp—to paint these miniatures either to illustrate books or to be kept as a separate piece of art in an album of similar works.

A highly detailed painting of a mountain with flowers, animals, trees, and large purple leaves is shown. Three people in the middle of the mountain are sitting on colorful rugs in long gowns and robes with gold decorated hats around a fire. They hold small objects in their hands. Around the fire there are bowls, vases, and plates of food. Behind the mountain on the top left people in robes and hats hold animals and large pots. On the right, three people are shown at the edge of the painting in colorful clothing. Toward the bottom middle two people sit on either side of the fire in richly decorated clothing. At the bottom of the painting animals are shown along a river and one man is standing petting a goat. Script writing appears at the top right and bottom of the painting.
Figure 4.26 This Persian miniature produced in the studio of Shah Tahmasp depicts the Feast of Sada, a mythical event that celebrates the discovery of fire. (credit: “‘The Feast of Sada,’ Folio 22v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp” by Ferdowsi/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 /Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The art of these miniature paintings relies on a style called “nonrepresentational.” Instead of depicting a scene naturalistically, it uses forced or even impossible perspectives to show action on multiple tiers, revealing activity behind doors or walls that some of the subjects in the painting cannot see. The subjects, even if they sponsored the work, are generally idealized rather than actual persons. Representation of the human form has been forbidden in Islamic art at times; in Persian illuminated manuscripts, the artists’ response was to use the image to bring a specific person to the viewer’s mind without representing them accurately.

Miniatures were an important form of Persian art long before Islam appeared; Persian artists were prized at the court of the Abbasids, and artistic styles derived from their work, such as the nonfigurative elements used in the borders of miniatures, were later used to decorate manuscripts of the Quran.

Despite the strong rivalry between the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, all three empires produced paintings of this type (Figure 4.27). While strongly influenced by Persian miniatures, Mughal miniatures tended to represent a more realistic depiction of animals and humans.

A colorful image shows groups of people and animals on a countryside. At the top two hills are shown, one with a steeple and trees showing, while the middle one shows a man in blue shorts and a cloth flowing from his arms running away from another man. A house sits at the top of the hill. The right top of the image shows a gold castle behind a large tree filled with birds. The middle of the picture shows three erect animals in pants and cloth robes with gold crowns on their heads speaking with two people in yellow robes sitting under the large tree. The bottom of the image shows more animals in clothes, bushes, a stream, monkeys, geese, swans, fish and deer around the water. Script text appears near the top and bottom of the image.
Figure 4.27 This miniature created in the Mughal Empire in 1594 shows a scene from the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama, seated beneath the tree beside his brother Laksmana, addresses Hanuman, the monkey king. (credit: modification of work “Miniature from the Ramayana, India, Mughal, 1594” by Richard Mortel/The David Collection, Copenhagen/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Safavid miniatures are highly prized today; some of the best examples have sold for millions of dollars at auction.

  • What are the common features of the Safavid and Mughal paintings? How are their styles similar?
  • What might account for the differences in style between the Safavid and Mughal paintings?

As Tahmasp’s royal studio was to painting, Abbas’s capital at Isfahan was to architecture. While Naqsh-e Jahan Square provided a focus, the city also featured a broad tree-lined avenue called the Chahar Bagh, stretching over four kilometers from the square to a royal country estate (Figure 4.28). This street was flanked by palaces and public gardens that featured fruit trees and fountains with running water. The city was designed as a treat for the senses, employing artistic motifs in tilework and calligraphy, broad sweeping arches and domes that mimicked the sky, the sounds of running water and wind blowing through leaves, and the scents of flowering shrubs and trees carried on the breeze. Later Safavid shahs continued to expand Isfahan, adding buildings, avenues, and bridges and commissioning structures in other cities based on the style cultivated in the capital. Many of these are now symbols of Iranian nationhood.

A photograph of a bridge with arched sections at the bottom and top is shown at night. Lights reflect from inside the top portion and the entire bridge reflects in the water below.
Figure 4.28 The Si-o-Se-Pol (“thirty-three arches”) Bridge in Isfahan, built between 1599 and 1602, carries the broad avenue called Chahar Bagh across the Zayanderud River. (credit: “Si-o-se Pol (‘33 Bridges’ or ‘the Bridge of 33 Arches’), also called the ‘Allah-Verdi Khan Bridge’” by Reza Haji-pour/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

As in the Ottoman Empire, wealthy Safavid women raised their public stature by becoming patrons of the arts and endowing public buildings. Royal and elite women often funded the construction or maintenance of caravansaries, demonstrating the value of trade to both the state and individual wealth. Safavid art and artistic production reflected Iran’s location at the center of global trade routes, incorporating elements and styles from countries with which Iran conducted trade. The production of silk was one of the most important industries in Iran. Persian carpets of silk and wool were in high demand in Europe and other parts of the Islamic world. The Ardabil carpet, still one of the largest Persian carpets in existence, was made during the Safavid period. It is 34-1/2 by 17-1/2 feet and is on view at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Link to Learning

View images of the famous Ardabil carpet at the Victoria and Albert Museum website to see it in detail and also get a sense of its enormous size.

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