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The Safavids

Iranian History - The Safavids

The Safavids

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The roots of the Safavid dynasty can be traced back to the "Safaviyeh", a 14th century Sufi order founded in Ardebil by a Sunni dervish named Sheikh Safi al-Din (1252-1334).

The Safavieh converted to Shiism at the turn of the 15th century and grew in popularity and strength as the years passed, due both to their attraction as puritanical mystics and Persian nationalists.

Under the leadership of Sheikh Heydar, a distant descendant of Safi al-Din, the Safavieh became a powerful and warlike revolutionary movement with a considerable number of dedicated followers. It became their intention to rid Moslem lands from what they saw as Mongol contamination and to establish Shiite supremacy by military means.

Heydar died leading his dervish army into battle in 1488. His son, Ismail, was only 1 year old at the time and only 13 when he began his own war of conquest. In 1501, Ismail captured Tabriz from the Turkish tribe that had occupied it since the decline of the Timurids and, making it his capital, used it as a base to conquer Azerbaijan, Armenia and Khorasan.

By 1501, the Safavids had unified almost all of Iran under their rule and in 1502, Ismail was crowned Shah. This conquest marked the beginnings of the greatest Persian dynasty since the Arab conquest had ended the rule of the Sassanids some 800 years earlier.

Ismail declared Shiism the official religion of state, as it has remained to this day, but religious unity was not easily achieved in a young empire composed of such a variety of different tribes. Nor were the Safavids able to assert themselves abroad in the way that previous dynasties had.

With Transoxiana and Asia Minor now autonomous and Ottoman Turkey growing in power, Persian expansion was effectively checked. Furthermore, times had changed and the east-west trade routes that had been so important to rulers of Persia since Achaemenid times were in terminal decline due to the rise of maritime trade.

It was thus a sign of the times when deteriorating relations with Turkey led to war in 1514 and the dervish army of Shah Ismail was massacred by a Turkish force armed with muskets and artillery. The Turks cemented their victory by occupying Azerbaijan and the Safavid capital of Tabriz. As a result of the humiliation, Ismail turned to drink and died in 1524.

The Safavid empire recovered somewhat under Ismail's successors, Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-1576), Ismail II (r. 1576-1578) and Sultan Mohammad (r. 1578-1587), and the capital was moved from Tabriz to Qazvin in order to safeguard it from the Ottomans. However, it was not until the rule of Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629) that the empire reached its peak.

Abbas was, in many ways, an intelligent and tolerant king. He engaged the help of two British adventurers, the brothers Sir Anthony and Sir Robert Sherley, to build cannons with which he recaptured Tabriz from the Ottomans.

Shah Ismail I, Safavid king, Iran.

Shah Ismail I, Safavid king, Iran.

Map of the Safavid Empire in Persia.

Map of the Safavid Empire in Persia and adjacent territories in 1610.

He also enlisted the help of the British East India Company to expel the Portuguese from the important trading post of Hormuz. At the same time, he courted European merchants to boost carpet, textile and silk production.

He was keen to discuss religious ideology with non-Muslims and under his reign, Christians were allowed freedom of dress and the right to own land. However, he was also ruthless in his efforts to establish unity. It is said that he ordered a general massacre in the city of Gilan for its leanings towards the Turks and had his eldest son put to death and his younger two sons blinded for fear of plots against him.

The legacy left by "Abbas the Great" can be seen to this day in his capital, Isfahan. A safe distance from the Ottomans and well placed to receive traffic on the Silk Road, the city flourished under his rule.

Shah Tahmasp greets the exiled Humayun.

Shah Tahmasp greets the exiled Humayun.

Miniature painting of a polo game in the Safavid period.

Miniature painting of a polo game in the Safavid period.

In order to encourage trade, Abbas built a two kilometre bazaar with countless caravanserais leading from the old Seljuk town centre to a new town square which he named the Meidan-e Shah ("Square of the King"). Under Abbas, Isfahan enjoyed great prosperity and flourished as a centre of art and architecture, with a reputation as one of the greatest and most beautiful towns in the whole of Asia.

After the death of Abbas in 1629, both Isfahan and the Safavid state began to decline. His successors were ill-prepared to rule and regional rulers grew in power with cities such as Shiraz eclipsing the capital. Isfahan was invaded by Afghan rebels in 1722, bringing to an end its period of glory and also effectively signalling the end of the Safavid dynasty itself.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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