THE SAFAVIDS, 1501-1722
The Safavids, who came to power in 1501, were leaders of a militant
Sufi order. They traced their ancestry to Shaykh Safi ad Din (died
circa 1334), the founder of their order, who claimed descent from
Shia Islam's Seventh Imam, Musa al Kazim. From their home base
in Ardabil, they recruited followers among the Turkoman tribesmen
of Anatolia and forged them into an effective fighting force and
an instrument for territorial expansion. Sometime in the mid-fifteenth
century, the Safavids adopted Shia Islam, and their movement became
highly millenarian in character. In 1501, under their leader Ismail,
the Safavids seized power in Tabriz, which became their capital.
Ismail was proclaimed shah of Iran. The rise of the Safavids marks
the reemergence in Iran of a powerful central authority within
geographical boundaries attained by former Iranian empires. The
Safavids declared Shia Islam the state religion and used proselytizing
and force to convert the large majority of Muslims in Iran to
the Shia sect. Under the early Safavids, Iran was a theocracy
in which state and religion were closely intertwined. Ismail's
followers venerated him not only as the murshid-kamil,
the perfect guide, but also as an emanation of the Godhead. He
combined in his person both temporal and spiritual authority.
In the new state, he was represented in both these functions by
the vakil, an official who acted as a kind of alter ego.
The sadr headed the powerful religious organization;
the vizier, the bureaucracy; and the amir alumara, the
fighting forces. These fighting forces, the qizilbash,
came primarily from the seven Turkic-speaking tribes that supported
the Safavid bid for power.
The Safavids faced the problem of integrating their Turkic-speaking
followers with the native Iranians, their fighting traditions
with the Iranian bureaucracy, and their messianic ideology with
the exigencies of administering a territorial state. The institutions
of the early Safavid state and subsequent efforts at state reorganization
reflect attempts, not always successful, to strike a balance among
these various elements. The Safavids also faced external challenges
from the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. The Uzbeks were an unstable
element along Iran's northeastern frontier who raided into Khorasan,
particularly when the central government was weak, and blocked
the Safavid advance northward into Transoxiana. The Ottomans,
who were Sunnis, were rivals for the religious allegiance of Muslims
in eastern Anatolia and Iraq and pressed territorial claims in
both these areas and in the Caucasus.
The Safavid Empire received a blow that was to prove fatal in
1524, when the Ottoman sultan Selim I defeated the Safavid forces
at Chaldiran and occupied the Safavid capital, Tabriz. Although
he was forced to withdraw because of the harsh winter and Iran's
scorched earth policy, and although Safavid rulers continued to
assert claims to spiritual leadership, the defeat shattered belief
in the shah as a semidivine figure and weakened the hold of the
shah over the qizilbash chiefs. In 1533 the Ottoman sultan
Süleyman occupied Baghdad and then extended Ottoman rule to southern
Iraq. Except for a brief period (1624-38) when Safavid rule was
restored, Iraq remained firmly in Ottoman hands. The Ottomans
also continued to challenge the Safavids for control of Azarbaijan
and the Caucasus until the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin in 1639 established
frontiers both in Iraq and in the Caucasus that remain virtually
unchanged in the late twentieth century.
The Safavid state reached its apogee during the reign of Shah
Abbas (1587-1629). The shah gained breathing space to confront
and defeat the Uzbeks by signing a largely disadvantageous treaty
with the Ottomans. He then fought successful campaigns against
the Ottomans, reestablishing Iranian control over Iraq, Georgia,
and parts of the Caucasus. He counterbalanced the power of the
qizilbash by creating a body of troops composed of Georgian
and Armenian slaves who were loyal to the person of the shah.
He extended state and crown lands and the provinces directly administered
by the state, at the expense of the qizilbash chiefs.
He relocated tribes to weaken their power, strengthened the bureaucracy,
and further centralized the administration.
Shah Abbas made a show of personal piety and supported religious
institutions by building mosques and religious seminaries and
by making generous endowments for religious purposes. His reign,
however, witnessed the gradual separation of religious institutions
from the state and an increasing movement toward a more independent
In addition to his political reorganization and his support of
religious institutions, Shah Abbas also promoted commerce and
the arts. The Portuguese had previously occupied Bahrain and the
island of Hormoz off the Persian Gulf coast in their bid to dominate
Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf trade, but in 1602 Shah Abbas expelled
them from Bahrain, and in 1623 he used the British (who sought
a share of Iran's lucrative silk trade) to expel the Portuguese
from Hormoz. He significantly enhanced government revenues by
establishing a state monopoly over the silk trade and encouraged
internal and external trade by safeguarding the roads and welcoming
British, Dutch, and other traders to Iran. With the encouragement
of the shah, Iranian craftsmen excelled in producing fine silks,
brocades, and other cloths, carpets, porcelain, and metalware.
When Shah Abbas built a new capital at Esfahan, he adorned it
with fine mosques, palaces, schools, bridges, and a bazaar. He
patronized the arts, and the calligraphy, miniatures, painting,
and agriculture of his period are particularly noteworthy.
Although there was a recovery with the reign of Shah Abbas II
(1642- 66), in general the Safavid Empire declined after the death
of Shah Abbas. The decline resulted from weak rulers, interference
by the women of the harem in politics, the reemergence of qizilbash
rivalries, maladministration of state lands, excessive taxation,
the decline of trade, and the weakening of Safavid military organization.
(Both the qizilbash tribal military organization and
the standing army composed of slave soliders were deteriorating.)
The last two rulers, Shah Sulayman (1669-94) and Shah Sultan Hosain
(1694-1722), were voluptuaries. Once again the eastern frontiers
began to be breached, and in 1722 a small body of Afghan tribesmen
won a series of easy victories before entering and taking the
capital itself, ending Safavid rule.
Afghan supremacy was brief. Tahmasp Quli, a chief of the Afshar
tribe, soon expelled the Afghans in the name of a surviving member
of the Safavid family. Then, in 1736, he assumed power in his
own name as Nader Shah. He went on to drive the Ottomans from
Georgia and Armenia and the Russians from the Iranian coast on
the Caspian Sea and restored Iranian sovereignty over Afghanistan.
He also took his army on several campaigns into India and in 1739
sacked Delhi, bringing back fabulous treasures. Although Nader
Shah achieved political unity, his military campaigns and extortionate
taxation proved a terrible drain on a country already ravaged
and depopulated by war and disorder, and in 1747 he was murdered
by chiefs of his own Afshar tribe.
A period of anarchy and a struggle for supremacy among Afshar,
Qajar, Afghan, and Zand tribal chieftains followed Nader Shah's
death. Finally Karim Khan Zand (1750-79) was able to defeat his
rivals and to unify the country, except for Khorasan, under a
loose form of central control. He refused to assume the title
of shah, however, and ruled as vakil al ruaya, or deputy
of the subjects. He is remembered for his mild and beneficent
Data as of December 1987