Safavid Empire

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The Safavid Iran or the Safavid Empire (Persian: شاهنشاهی صفوی, romanized: Šāhanšāhi-ye Safavi), was an early modern Iranian empire established by a dynasty of native Iranian,[1] probably Kurdish origin,[2] which was culturally Turkified.[3] The period of the Safavids, the dynasty that took control of Persia in the early 16th century, is often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history, just as the state they created is said to mark the genesis of the Iranian nation-state.[4]

  • Safavid Empire
  • The Expansive Realm of Iran[5]
  • ملک وسیع‌الفضای ایران
  • The State of Iran[6]
  • مملکت ایران
Flag of
Imperial Coat of Arms (1501–1722) of
Imperial Coat of Arms
Greatest borders during Abbas the Great
Greatest borders during Abbas the Great
CapitalTabriz (1501–1555)
Qazvin (1555–1598)
Isfahan (1598–1736)
Official languagesPersian[7]
Twelver Shia Islam (official)
• 1501–1524
Ismail I (first)
• 1732–1736
Abbas III (last)
• Establishment of the Safavid order by Safi-ad-din Ardabili
• Established
• Hotak invasion
• Reconquest under Nader Shah
• Disestablished
8 March 1722/1736
• Nader Shah crowned
8 March 1736
CurrencyTuman, Abbasi (incl. Abazi)
  • 1 Tuman = 50 Abbasi
  • 1 Tuman = 50 French livres
  • 1 Tuman = £3 6s 8d
Succeeded by
Afsharid dynasty

The Safavids ruled from 1501 to 1722 (experiencing a brief restoration from 1729 to 1736 and 1750 to 1773) and, at their height, they controlled all of what is now Iran, Republic of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Armenia, eastern Georgia, parts of the North Caucasus including Russia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

History[change | change source]

Ismail declares himself shah by entering Tabriz, painter Chingiz Mehbaliyev, in private collection.

Safavid conquest of Iran[change | change source]

Safavids were originally a family of Sufi Safavid order and of Kurdish origin,[2] they were culturally Turkified[3] and spoke Ajemi Turkic but were still Iranians. In the summer of 1500, Ismail (member of Safavid family), rallied about 7,000 Qizilbash troops at Erzincan, including members of the Ustajlu, Rumlu, Takkalu, Dhu'l-Qadar, Afshar, Qajar, and Varsaq.[8] Qizilbash forces passed over the Kura River in December 1500, and marched towards the Shirvanshah's state. They defeated the forces of the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yassar near Cabanı (present-day Shamakhi Rayon, Azerbaijan Republic)[9] or at Gulistan (present-day Gülüstan, Goranboy, Nagorno-Karabakh),[10][11] and subsequently went on to conquer Baku.[11]

The battle between Ismail I and Muhammad Shaybani

Thus, Shirvan and its dependencies (up to southern Dagestan in the north) were now Ismail's. The successful conquest had alarmed the ruler of the Aq Qoyunlu, Alvand, who subsequently proceeded north from Tabriz, and crossed the Aras River in order to challenge the Safavid forces, and both sides met at the battle of Sharur in which Ismail's army came out victorious despite being outnumbered by four to one.[11] He also made an alliance with the Kurds of Dersim,[12] even though he had bad relations with other Kurds. In July 1501, Ismail was enthroned as Shah of Iran choosing Tabriz as his capital. He appointed his former guardian and mentor Husayn Beg Shamlu as the vakil (vicegerent) of the empire and the commander-in-chief (amir al-umara) of the Qizilbash army.

Revival of Iranianhood and spread of Shi'ism[change | change source]

The reign of Ismail I is one of the most important in the history of Iran. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, before his accession in 1501, Iran, since its conquest by the Arabs eight-and-a-half centuries earlier, had not existed as a unified country under native Iranian rule, but had been controlled by a series of Arab caliphs, Turkic sultans, and Mongol khans.[8][13] Although many Iranian dynasties rose to power amidst this whole period, it was only under the Buyids that a vast part of Iran properly returned to Iranian rule (945–1055). Secondly, one of his first acts, the promulgation of the Eṯnā-ʿašarī rite of Shiʿism to be the official religion of the newly-created state, had profound consequences for the subsequent history of Iran.[8]

Shāh Ismāʻil's empire

After the Ismail I[change | change source]

In the reign of Tahmasb I, Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), sultan of the Ottoman Empire, may have considered a strong Safavid empire a threat to his ambitious plans in the west and northwest of his realm. During the first decade of Tahmasp's reign, however, he was preoccupied with fighting the Habsburgs and the unsuccessful attempt to seize Vienna.[14] In 1532, while the Ottomans were fighting in Hungary, Suleiman sent Olama Beg Takkalu with 50,000 troops under Fil Pasha to Iran. The Ottomans seized Tabriz and Kurdistan, and tried to obtain support from Gilan province.[15] Tahmasp drove the Ottomans out, but news of another Uzbek invasion prevented him from defeating them.[16] Suleiman sent his grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, to occupy Tabriz in July 1534 and joined him two months later.[14] Suleiman peacefully conquered Baghdad and Shia cities such as Najaf.[15] Whilst the Ottomans were on the march, Tahmasp was in Balkh, campaigning against the Uzbeks.[16] Tahmasp did not fight the exhausted Ottoman army but laid waste the entire region from Tabriz to the frontier; the Ottomans could not permanently occupy the captured lands, since they soon ran out of supplies.[17]

Tahmasp I in the mountains (detail), by Farrukh Beg

Ismail II reigned for one year[18] and was replaced by Mohammad Khodabanda. At the time of Mohammad Khodabanda, oreign powers took advantage of the factional discord in Iran court to seize territory for themselves. Uzbek bands attempted to invade north-east Iran before being repulsed by the governor of Mashhad. The most important event of Khodabanda's reign was the war with the Ottomans. In 1578, the Ottoman sultan Murad III began a war with Safavid Iran which was to last until 1590. In the first attack, the sultan's vizier Lala Mustafa Pasha invaded the Safavid territories comprising Georgia and Shirvan. Shirvan fell before the end of the summer of 1578, by which fact the Ottomans had now control of almost all territories west of the Caspian Sea coast, and it also opened the way for an attack on what is nowadays the core of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were subsequently attacked in 1579 by a large contingent of Crimean Tatars, led by Adil Giray Khan,[19] but he was captured in a remarkable counterattack led by Mirza Salman Jabiri and Hamza Mirza, and later executed in Qazvin, the Safavid capital at that time.

Reconquest[change | change source]

Shah 'Abbās King of the Persians.
Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, from his Atrium heroicum Caesarum pub. 1600–1602.

Against the Uzbeks

His successor, Abbas I, initiated a Reconquest, with the Uzbeks invading Khorasan first. By 1599, Abbas had conquered not only Herat and Mashhad, but had moved as far east as Balkh. This would be a short-lived victory and he would eventually have to settle on controlling only some of this conquest after the new ruler of the Khanate of Khiva, Baqi Muhammad Khan attempted to retake Balkh and Abbas found his troops were still no match for the Uzbeks. By 1603, the battle lines had stabilized, albeit with the loss of the majority of the Persian artillery. Abbas was able to hold onto most of Khorassan, including Herat, Sabzevar, Farah, and Nisa.[20]

Abbas' north-east frontier was now safe for the time being and he could turn his attention to the Ottomans in the west.[21] After defeating the Uzbeks, he moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan.

Against the Ottomans

Drawing of the capture of Tabriz and the parading before Shah Abbas I of the severed heads of Ottoman soldiers. Drawn by a European traveller, 1603.

He then fought against the Ottomans and aptured northern Iran even in 1623, Abbas decided to take back Mesopotamia, which had been lost by his grandfather Tahmasp through the Ottoman-Safavid War (1532–1555).[22] Profiting from the confusion surrounding the accession of the new Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, he pretended to be making a pilgrimage to the Shi'ite shrines of Kerbala and Najaf, but used his army to seize Baghdad.[23] However, Abbas was then distracted by a rebellion in Georgia in 1624 led by Giorgi Saakadze thus allowing an Ottoman force to besiege Baghdad, but the Shah came to its relief the next year and crushed the Turkish army decisively.[24] At the same time he remained engaged in the north, reconquering Azerbaijan and chasing the Ottomans out of Naḵjavān, Erevan, Lorestān and part of Kurdistan. In 1607 he took Širvān as well as parts of Georgia. In later years, ʿAbbās recaptured Kandahar, consolidated his access to the Persian Gulf coast by driving the Portuguese out of Hormuz, regained parts of Kurdistan, and seized important portions of Mesopotamia, including Baghdad.[4] In 1638, however, after Abbas' death, the Ottomans retook Baghdad, and the Iranian–Ottoman border was finalised to be roughly the same as the current Iran–Turkey and Iran–Iraq borders.

Fall[change | change source]

Safavids eventually succumbed to Russian, Afghan and Ottoman pressure and was replaced by Afsharids.

Safavid Shahs of Iran[change | change source]

Name Portrait Title Reign years
1 Ismail I Shah Ismail I.jpg Shahanshah 1501–1524
2 Tahmasp I Shah tahmasp.jpg Shah 1524–1576
3 Ismail II Shah Ismayil II.jpg Shah 1576–1577
4 Mohammad Khodabanda Shah Mohammad Khodabanda- Sahand Ace.jpg Shah,


5 Abbas I ShahAbbasPortraitFromItalianPainter.jpg Shah,
6 Safi Shah Safi I of Persia on Horseback Carrying a Mace- Sahand Ace.png Shah 1629–1642
7 Abbas II Shah Abbas II, 1663, Aga Khan trust of culture.PNG Shah 1642– 1666
7 Suleiman I Shah, Sultan 1666–1694
8 Soltan Hoseyn Sultan Husayn by Bruyn.jpg Shah, Sultan 1694–1722
9 Tahmasp II Persia, scià thamasp II, decuplo afshari d'oro, 1722-1732.JPG Shah 1722–1730
de jure shahs under Nader Khan the grand vizier
(9) Tahmasp II Persia, scià thamasp II, decuplo afshari d'oro, 1722-1732.JPG Shah 1722–1732
10 Abbas III Abbas III.jpg Shah,
Sultan bar Salatin
de jure shah under Karim Khan Zand the deputy of people
11 Ismail III Coin minted in the name of Ismail III in Mazandaran.jpg Shah 1750–1773

References[change | change source]

  1.  • Savory, R. M (1970). "Safavid Persia". In P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, Bernard Lewis (ed.). The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press. p. 394. ISBN 978-0-521-29135-4. What does seem certain is that the Safavids were of native Iranian stock, and spoke Āzarī, the form of Turkish used in Āzarbāyjān.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
     • Minorsky, V (2009). "Adgharbaydjan (Azarbaydjan)". In Bearman, P; Bianquis, Th; Bosworth, CE; van Donzel, E; Henrichs, WP (eds.). Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd ed.). NL: Brill. After 907/1502, Adharbayjan became the chief bulwark and rallying ground of the Safawids, themselves natives of Ardabil and originally speaking the local Iranian dialect.
  2. 2.0 2.1  • Amoretti, Biancamaria Scarcia; Matthee, Rudi (2009). "Ṣafavid Dynasty". In Esposito, John L. (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford University Press. "Of Kurdish ancestry, the Ṣafavids started as a Sunnī mystical order (...)"
     • Matthee, Rudi (2005). The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900. Princeton Universty Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-3260-6. p. 18. "The Safavids, as Iranians of Kurdish ancestry and of nontribal background (...)"
     • Matthee, Rudi (2008). "SAFAVID DYNASTY". Encyclopædia Iranica. "As Persians of Kurdish ancestry and of a non-tribal background, the Safavids did not fit this pattern, though the state they set up with the assistance of Turkmen tribal forces of eastern Anatolia closely resembled this division in its makeup."
     • Savory, Roger (2008). "EBN BAZZĀZ". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. VIII. Fasc. 1. p. 8. "This official version contains textual changes designed to obscure the Kurdish origins of the Safavid family and to vindicate their claim to descent from the Imams."
     • Algar, Hamid (2006). "IRAN ix. RELIGIONS IN IRAN (2) Islam in Iran (2.3) Shiʿism in Iran Since the Safavids". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. XIII. Fasc. 5, pp. 456–474. "The Safavids originated as a hereditary lineage of Sufi shaikhs centered on Ardabil, Shafeʿite in school and probably Kurdish in origin."
  3. 3.0 3.1  • Perry, John R. (2006). "Turkic-Iranian contacts". Encyclopædia Iranica. "In the 16th century, the Turcophone Safavid family of Ardabil in Azerbaijan, probably of Turkicized Iranian (perhaps Kurdish), origin, conquered Iran and established Turkic, the language of the court and the military, as a high-status vernacular and a widespread contact language, influencing spoken Persian, while written Persian, the language of high literature and civil administration, remained virtually unaffected in status and content."
     • Yarshater, Ehsan (2004). "IRAN ii. IRANIAN HISTORY (2) Islamic period (page 4)". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. XIII, Fasc. 3, pp. 234–238: "The origins of the Safavids are clouded in obscurity. They may have been of Kurdish origin (see R. Savory, Iran Under the Safavids, 1980, p. 2; R. Matthee, “Safavid Dynasty” at, but for all practical purposes they were Turkish-speaking and Turkified."
  4. 4.0 4.1 Matthee 2008.
  5. Matthee 2009, p. 241.
  6. Savory 2007, p. 206.
  7. Roemer 1986, p. 331.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Savory 1998, p. 628–636.
  9. Roemer 1986, p. 211.
  10. Roy 2014, p. 44.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sicker 2000, p. 187.
  12. Dersimi 1952, p. 74.
  13. Savory 1980, p. 3.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Roemer 1986, p. 241.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Newman 2008, p. 28.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Mitchell 2009.
  17. Savory & Bosworth 2012.
  18. Ghereghlou 2016.
  19. Sicker 2001, pp. 2–3.
  20. Roemer 1986, p. 267.
  21. Savory 1980, p. 84.
  22. Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 157–158.
  23. Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 158.
  24. Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 158–159.

Sources[change | change source]

  • Matthee, Rudi (2008). "SAFAVID DYNASTY". Encyclopædia Iranica.
  • Sicker, Martin (2000). The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0275968922.
  • Savory, Roger (1998). "ESMĀʿĪL I ṢAFAWĪ". In Yarshater, Ehsan (ed.). Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. VIII, Fasc. 6. pp. 628–636. ISBN 978-1568590585.
  • Matthee, Rudi (1 September 2009). "Was Safavid Iran an Empire". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. 53 (1): 241. doi:10.1163/002249910X12573963244449. S2CID 55237025.
  • Newman, Andrew J. (2008). Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. New York: I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9780857716613.
  • Bomati, Yves; Nahavandi, Houchang (1998). Shah Abbas, Empereur de Perse: 1587–1629 [Shah Abbas, Emperor of Persia: 1587–1629] (in French). Paris, France: Perrin. ISBN 2-2620-1131-1. LCCN 99161812.
  • Roy, Kaushik (2014). Military Transition in Early Modern Asia, 1400–1750: Cavalry, Guns, Government and Ships. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1780938004.
  • Roger Savory (2 January 2007). "The Safavid state and polity". Iranian Studies. 7 (1–2): 206. doi:10.1080/00210867408701463.
  • Savory, Roger M.; Bosworth, C.E. (2012). "Ṭahmāsp". In Fleet, Kate; Krämer, Gudrun; Matringe, Denis; Nawas, John; Stewart, Devin (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Brill. ISSN 1873-9830.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  • Savory, Roger (1980). Iran under the Safavids. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22483-7.
  • Ghereghlou, Kioumars (2016). "Esmāʿil II". Encyclopædia Iranica.
  • Dersimi, Nuri (1952). Kürdistan Tarihinde Dersim (in Turkish). Aleppo: Ani Matbaası. ISBN 975-6876-44-1.
  • Roemer, H. R (1986). "The Safavid Period". In Fisher, William Bayne; Avery, P.; Hambly, G.R.G.; Melville, C. (ed.). The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20094-6.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  • Mitchell, Colin P (2009). "Tahmāsp I". In Yarshater, Ehsan (ed.). Encyclopædia Iranica.