By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the factors that contributed to the rise of the Safavid Empire
- Discuss the similarities and differences between Twelver Islam and Sunni Islam
- Describe the political structure of the Safavid Empire
To the east of the lands of the Ottomans, another Islamic empire emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Based in Iran, the Safavid Empire at its height ruled over much of what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Georgia, and Iraq, as well as parts of several neighboring countries including Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (Figure 4.19). Like the Ottomans and Mughals, the Safavids developed a powerful military, ran a strong and well-organized central state, and fostered a climate in which artistic and intellectual culture flourished. The Safavids also introduced Shi‘ism as the state religion at a time when Iran’s population was mostly Sunni, and in doing so they fostered the deep divisions between Shi‘ism and Sunnism that continue to characterize relations between Iran and other Islamic nations today.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Establishing Shi‘ism as the State Religion
The Safavids declared Shia Islam the state religion of Iran in the early 1500s, and it remains so to this day, encompassing about 10 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. The Shia movement originated with a dispute over Muhammad’s successor after his death in 632. One faction, which became known as the Sunnis, supported the candidacy of Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, Muhammad’s father-in-law. The other faction wished the leadership to remain within Muhammad’s biological family and backed Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom they believed the Prophet had chosen as his successor. This group became known as the Shia.
The Shia believe Ali, who finally succeeded Uthman to become the leader of the Muslim community in 656, was the first legitimate imam, the title they give their spiritual leader rather than “caliph.” They view the line of Muhammad that descends through Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, as the only source of definitive religious guidance. About 95 percent of Shia also believe Ali was the first of twelve infallible leaders chosen by God, so this sect is often called the Twelvers. Twelvers hold that the twelfth and final imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into “mystical hiding” in the ninth century and will return, along with Jesus, to defeat evil on earth and herald the Day of Judgment. The remaining 5 percent of Shia are Zaydis or Seveners, a sect established by Zayd, the great-grandson of Ali, who disagree with Twelvers over the identity of the seventh imam.
Sunnis respect Ali and all the Twelve Imams, but they do not believe the Twelve alone were divinely chosen to lead the Muslim community. In their view of Islam, any pious man who followed the example of Muhammad could lead the Muslim community.
Shi‘ism was not officially tolerated by the Sunni caliphs of the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires because of its perceived challenge to their rule. For this reason, most Shia movements developed far outside the control of these caliphates, in places like Morocco, Yemen, Iran, and central Asia. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, the Sunni caliphate became a weak figurehead position that held only symbolic authority. During the period of Mongol rule over Iran and the Caucasus, the distinction between Shia and Sunni became less important than it had been. When Ismail crowned himself Shah in 1501, most of Iran’s population was Sunni. When he declared Twelver Shi‘ism to be the state religion of Iran, he hoped to unify his Iranian subjects by having them adopt a form of Islam that gave them a unique identity and distinguished them from their military and political enemies the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, who were both Sunni.
Historians generally agree that the Safavids’ efforts to convert Muslims in their empire to Shi‘ism utilized coercion and force. Shah Ismail, who saw himself as infallible and semidivine, believed his strong religious convictions had won him the Iranian throne, and he used his political and military authority to impose his religious ideology on the country (Figure 4.23). He ordered all Iran’s Sunni Muslims to become Shi‘ites. Sunni clerics and theologians were given the choice of conversion or exile. Sunnis who resisted conversion but remained in Iran faced death. To spread the new beliefs and win converts, Ismail brought Shia scholars to Iran from Lebanon and Syria. He used state funds to construct schools where Shia beliefs were taught and to build shrines to Ali and members of his family. Ismail also invited foreign Shi‘ites living in places where they were persecuted by the Sunni majority to move to Iran, promising them land and protection.
The conversion efforts of the Safavids have left long legacies in the Islamic world. Though the majority of Muslims in Azerbaijan and Iran considered themselves Shia by the time the Safavid era ended in 1736, Nader Shah attempted to restore Sunnism as the dominant sect. But there was little public enthusiasm, and after his death most who had claimed to adopt Sunnism during his reign quietly reverted to Shi‘ism. At the same time, however, the Safavids’ conversion policy brought tensions between Sunni and Shia to a level not seen since Muhammad’s death. The hostility between the sects that continues today is usually traced to the Safavid era and the dynasty’s military rivalry with the Ottomans, especially after the sultan acquired the Sunni title of caliph in 1517.
The Safavids were generally more tolerant of non-Muslim subjects than they were of the Sunni. Nevertheless, Safavid rulers were aggressive toward the Armenians, Georgians, and other Christians in the Caucasus region, whom they considered potentially rebellious. They sought to control these populations by enslaving or deporting their members, and nobles were often requested to convert to Shi‘ism. Christians elsewhere in the Safavid realm, however, were given considerable freedom to build churches and honor their own customs and beliefs. Abbas I was particularly lenient toward the Armenian Christian population of Isfahan, due to their participation in the lucrative manufacture and export of silk. Spain and the Vatican sent several embassies to Iran hoping to enlist it as an ally against the Ottomans. The pope also hoped Abbas would allow the construction of a cathedral in his new capital city of Isfahan, but on their arrival his emissaries found three Roman Catholic churches already there (Figure 4.24).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.