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The Safavids (Persian: صفویان) were a native Iranian<ref name="EoI">Roger M. Savory, Encyclopaedia of Islam, "Safawids", Online Edition, 2005</ref><ref>Roger M. Savory, "The consolidation of Safawid power in Persia", in Isl., 1965</ref><ref name="Meyers">Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Vol. XII, p. 873, original German edition, " Persien (Geschichte des neupersischen Reichs)", (LINK)</ref> dynasty from Iranian Azarbaijan that ruled from 1501 to 1736, and which established Shi'a Islam as Iran's official religion and united its provinces under a single Iranian sovereignty, thereby reigniting the Persian identity and acting as a bridge to modern Iran.
The Safavid dynasty had its origins in a long established Sufi order, called the Safaviyeh, which had flourished in Iranian Azarbaijan since the early 14th century. Its founder was the Persian<ref name="Meyers" />mystic Sheikh Safi al-Din (1252–1334), after whom it was named.
Sheikh Safī al-Dīn Abdul Fath Is'haq Ardabilī came from Ardabil, a city in today's Iranian Azerbaijan where his shrine still exists. His mother tongue was Old Tati (Āzarī), an extinct Iranian dialect of the north closely related to Persian. He was a disciple of the famed Sufi Grand Master Sheikh Zahed Gilani (1216–1301) of Lahijan. Spiritual heir to Sheikh Zahed, Safi Al-Din transformed the inherited Zahediyeh Sufi Order into the Safaviyeh Order. Originally Safaviyeh was a spiritual response to the upheavals and unrest in northwest Iran/eastern Anatolia in the decades following the Mongol invasion. In the fifteenth century, the Safaviyeh gradually gained political and military clout in the power vacuum precipitated by the decline of the Timurid dynasty. After becoming the Safaviyeh leader in 1447, Sheikh Junayd - a descendant of Sheikh Safi Al-Din - transformed it into a revolutionary Shi'ite movement with the goal of seizing power in Iran.
 Rise of the Safavid state
During the 15th century, the Ottomans expanded across Anatolia and centralized control by persecuting Shi'ism. They outlawed it at the turn of the century. In 1501, various disaffected militia from Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia collectively called the Kizilbash (Azeri for "red heads" due to their red headgear) united with the Ardabil Safaviyeh to capture Tabriz from the then ruling Sunni Turkmen alliance known as Ak Koyunlu (The White Sheep Emirate) under Alwand's leadership.
The Safiviyeh came to be led by a fifteen-year old, Ismail I. To establish political provenance, the Safavid rulers claimed to be descended from Imam Ali and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. To further legitimize his power, Ismail I also added claims of royal Sassanian heritage after becoming Shah.
With the capture of Tabriz, the Safavid dynasty began. In July 1501, Ismail I declared Tabriz his capital and himself Shah of Azerbaijan. Ismail I continued to expand his base in northwestern Iran. He was declared Shah of Iran in May 1502. Throughout the rest of the decade Ismail I fended off attacks from the Ottomans, stamped out the remnants of the Ak Koyunlu and continued to expand his territory — Hamadan in 1503, Shiraz and Kerman in 1504, Najaf and Karbala in 1507, Van in 1508, Baghdad in 1509, Khorasan and Herat in 1510. By 1511 the Uzbeks in the north-east were driven across the Oxus River where they captured Samarkand establishing the Shaibanid dynasty, and from which they would continue to attack the Safavids. During his reign, the official language at the royal court was Azeri.
In the meantime, the navy-less Safavids lost the island of Hormuz to the Portuguese in 1507.
In 1514, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded western Armenia causing the ill-prepared Safavid army to retreat. The Safavids were poorly armed while the Ottomans had muskets and artillery. The Ottomans pushed further and on August 23, 1514 managed to engage the Safavids in the Battle of Chaldiran west of Tabriz. The Safavids were defeated and, as the Ottoman force moved on Tabriz, engaged in scorched-earth combat. Tabriz was taken but the Ottoman army refused to follow the Safavids into the Persian highlands and by winter retreated from Tabriz. This warfare pattern repeated itself under Shah Tahmasp I and Sultan Suleiman I.
 Establishment of Shi'ism as the state religion
Even though Safavids were not the first Shia rulers in Iran, they played the most crucial role in making Shia Islam the official religion in the whole of Iran. There were large Shia communities in some cities like Qom and Sabzevar as early as 8th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries the Buwayhids who were of Zeydi a branch of Shi'ism ruled in Fars, Isfahan and Baghdad. As a result of Mongol conquest, and the relative religious tolerance of the Ilkhanids, Shia dynasties were re-established in Iran - Sarbedaran in Khorasan being the most important. ShahÖljeitü - the sultan of Ilkhanate converted to Twelver Shiism in 13th century, however the population of Iran stayed largely Sunni until Safavid period.
Following the conquest of Iran, Ismail I made conversion mandatory for the largely Sunni population. The Sunni Ulama were either killed or exiled. Ismail I, despite his heterodox Shia beliefs, which were not compatible with orthodox Shi'ism (Momen, 1985) brought in Shi'a religious leaders, granted them land and money in return for loyalty. Later during Safavid and especially Qajar period the role of Shia ulema increased and they were able to exercise a role, independent of or compatible with the government's. Despite Safavid's Sufi origins, most Sunni or Shia Sufi groups were prohibited bar Nimatullahi order. Iran became a feudal theocracy: there was no separation of religion and state; the Shah was held to be divinely ordained head of both. In the following centuries, this religious schism would both cement both Iran's internal cohesion and national feelings and provoke attacks by its Sunni neighbors.
Constant wars with the Ottomans made Shah Tahmasp I move the capital from Tabriz, into the interior city of Qazvin in 1548. Later, Shah Abbas I moved the capital even deeper into central Iranian city of Isfahan, building a new city next to the ancient Persian one. From this time the state began to take on a more Persian character. The Safavids ultimately succeeded in establishing a new Persian national monarchy.
 Shah Abbas
The greatest of the Safavid monarchs, Shah Abbas I (1587–1629) came to power in 1587 aged 16 following the forced abdication of his father, Shah Muhammad Khudābanda, having survived Qizilbashi court intrigues and murders. He recognized the ineffectualness of his army which was consistently being defeated by the Ottomans who had captured Georgia and Armenia and by Uzbeks who had captured Mashhad and Sistan in the east. First he sued for peace in 1590 with the Ottomans giving away territory in the north-west. Then two Englishmen, Robert Sherley and his brother Anthony, helped Abbas I to reorganize the Shah's soldiers into an officer-paid and well-trained standing army similar to a European model (which the Ottomans had already adopted). He wholeheartedly adopted the use of gunpowder (See Military history of Iran). The army divisions were: Ghulams غلام ('crown servants or slaves' usually conscripted from Armenian, Georgian and Circassian lands), Tofongchis تفگنچى (musketeers), and Topchis توپچى (artillery-men).
Abbas I first fought the Uzbeks, recapturing Herat and Mashhad in 1598. Then he turned against the Ottomans recapturing Baghdad, eastern Iraq and the Caucasian provinces by 1622. He also used his new force to dislodge the Portuguese from Bahrain (1602) and the English navy from Hormuz (1622), in the Persian Gulf (a vital link in Portuguese trade with India). He expanded commercial links with the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Thus Abbas I was able to break the dependence on the Qizilbash for military might and therefore was able to centralize control.
The Ottoman Turks and Safavids fought over the fertile plains of Iraq for more than 150 years. The capture of Baghdad by Ismail I in 1509 was only followed by its loss to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I in 1534. After subsequent campaigns, the Safavids recaptured Baghdad in 1623 yet lost it again to Murad IV in 1638. Henceforth a treaty, signed in Qasr-e Shirin, was established delineating a border between Iran and Turkey in 1639, a border which still stands in northwest Iran/southeast Turkey. The 150 year tug-of-war accentuated the Sunni and Shi'a rift in Iraq.
In 1609-1610, a war broke out between Kurdish tribes and the Safavid Empire. After a long and bloody siege led by the Safavid grand vizier Hatem Beg, which lasted from November 1609 to the summer of 1610, the Kurdish stronghold of Dimdim was captured. Shah Abbas ordered a general massacre in Beradost and Mukriyan(Mahabad) (Reported by Eskandar Beg Monshi, Safavid Historian (1557-1642) in the Book "Alam Ara Abbasi") and resettled the Turkish Afshar tribe in the region while deporting many Kurdish tribes to Khorasan. (see 1 and ISBN 0-89158-296-7). Also see " O. Dzh. Dzhalilov, Kurdski geroicheski epos Zlatoruki Khan" (The Kurdish heroic epic Gold-hand Khan), Moscow, 1967. Nowadays There is a community of nearly 1.7 million people who are descendants of the tribes deported from Kurdistan to Khurasan (Northeastern Iran) by the Safavids. For a map of these areas see this map.
Due to his obsessive fear of assassination, Shah Abbas either put to death or blinded any member of his family who aroused his suspicion. In this way one of his sons was executed and two blinded. Since two other sons had predeceased him, the result was personal tragedy for Shah Abbas. When he died on 19 January 1629, he had no son capable of succeeding him. ( see Encyclopaedia Iranica at  under "Abbas I the Great", page 75). The beginning of the 17th century saw the power of the Qizilbash decline, the original militia that had helped Ismail I capture Tabriz and which had gained many administrative powers over the centuries. Power was shifting to a new class of merchants, many of them ethnic Armenians, Georgians and Indians.
 Conflict between Turcomans and Persians during the Safavid period
A major problem faced by Ismail I after the establishment of the Safavid state was how to bridge the gap between the two major ethnic groups in that state: the Qizilbash Turkmens, the "men of the sword" of classical Islamic society whose military prowess had brought him to power, and the Persian elements, the "men of the pen," who filled the ranks of the bureaucracy and the religious establishment in the Safavid state as they had done for centuries under previous rulers of Persia, be they Arabs, Turkic, Mongols, or Turkmens. As Vladimir Minorsky put it, friction between these two groups was inevitable, because the Qizilbash "were no party to the national Persian tradition". Between 1508 and 1524, the year of Ismail's death, the shah appointed five successive Persians to the office of vakil. When the second Persian "vakil" was placed in command of a Safavid army in Transoxiana, the Qizilbash, considering it a dishonor to be obliged to serve under him, deserted him on the battlefield with the result that he was slain. The fourth vakil was murdered by the Qizilbash, and the fifth was put to death by them.(see Encyclopedia Iranica)
The Qizilbashi tribes were essential to the military of Iran until the rule of Shah Abbas I- their leaders were able to exercise enormous influence and participate in court intrigues (assassinating Shah Ismail II for example).
What fueled the growth of Safavid economy was Iran's position between the burgeoning civilizations of Europe to its west and India and Islamic Central Asia to its east and north. The Silk Road which led through northern Iran to India revived in the 16th century. Abbas I also supported direct trade with Europe, particularly England and The Netherlands which sought Persian carpet, silk and textiles. Other exports were horses, goat hair, pearls and an inedible bitter almond hadam-talka used as a specie in India. The main imports were specie, textiles (woolens from Europe, cottons from Gujarat), spices, metals, coffee, and sugar.
Culture flourished under Safavid patronage. Shah Ismail I himself wrote most of his poems in Azerbaijani, as well as in Persian and Arabic, while Shah Tahmasp was a painter. Shah Abbas II was known as a poet, writing Turkic verse with the pen name of Tani.<ref name="Iranica">E. Yarshater, "Language of Azerbaijan, vii., Persian language of Azerbaijan", Encyclopaedia Iranica, v, pp. 238-245, Online Edition, (LINK)</ref> Shah Abbas I recognized the commercial benefit of promoting the arts - artisan products provided much of Iran's foreign trade.
In this period, handicrafts such as tilemaking, pottery and textiles developed and great advances were made in miniature painting, bookbinding, decoration and calligraphy. In the sixteenth century, carpet weaving evolved from a nomadic and peasant craft to a well-executed industry with specialization of design and manufacturing. Tabriz was the center of this industry. The carpets of Ardebil were commissioned to commemorate the Safavid dynasty. The elegantly baroque yet famously misnamed 'Polonaise' carpets were made in Iran during the seventeenth century.
Using traditional forms and materials, Reza Abbasi (1565–1635) introduced new subjects to Persian painting — semi-nude women, youth, lovers. His painting and calligraphic style influenced Iranian artists for much of the Safavid period, which came to be known as the Isfahan school. Increased contact with distant cultures in the 17th century, especially Europe, provided a boost of inspiration to Iranian artists who adopted modeling, foreshortening, spatial recession, and the medium of oil painting (Shah Abbas II sent Zaman to study in Rome). The epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings), a stellar example of manuscript illumination and calligraphy, was made during Shah Tahmasp's reign. Another manuscript is the Khamsa by Nezami executed 1539-43 by Aqa Mirak and his school in Isfahan.
Isfahan bears the most prominent samples of the Safavid architecture, all constructed in the years after Shah Abbas I permanently moved the capital there in 1598: the Imperial Mosque, Masjid-e Shah, completed in 1630, the Imami Mosque,Masjid-e Imami, the Lutfullah Mosque and the Royal Palace.
Poetry stagnated under the Safavids; the great medieval ghazal form languished in over-the-top lyricism. Poetry lacked the royal patronage of other arts and was hemmed in by religious prescriptions.
One of the most renowned Muslim philosophers, Mulla Sadra, lived during Shah Abbas I's reign and wrote the Asfar, a meditation on what he called 'metaphilosophy' which brought to a synthesis the philosophical mysticism of Sufism, the theology of Shi'ism, and the Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophies of Avicenna and Suhrawardi. Iskander Beg Monshi’s History of Shah Abbas the Great written a few years after its subject's death, achieved a nuanced depth of history and character.
 Decline of the Safavid state
In addition to fighting its perennial enemies, the Ottomans and Uzbeks, as the 17th century progressed Iran had to contend with the rise of two more neighbors. Russian Muscovy in the previous century had deposed two western Asian khanates of the Golden Horde and expanded its influence into the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia. In the east, the Mughal dynasty of India had expanded into Afghanistan at the expense of Iranian control, taking Kandahar.
Furthermore by the 17th century, trade routes between East and West had shifted away from Iran, causing a loss of commerce and trade. Moreover, Shah Abbas's conversion to a ghulam-based military, though expedient in the short term, had, over the course of a century, weakened the country's strength by requiring heavy taxation and control over the provinces.
Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were ineffectual. The end of his reign, 1666, marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty. Despite falling revenues and military threats, later shahs had lavish lifestyles. Suleiman I is said to have spent eight years straight in his harem; Shah Soltan Hosein drank without end. The shahs imposed heavy taxes that discouraged investment and encouraged corruption among officials.
The country was repeatedly raided on its frontiers — Kerman by Baluchi tribesmen in 1698, Khorasan by Afghans in 1717, constantly in Mesopotamia by peninsula Arabs. Shah Soltan Hosein tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in eastern Iran from Sunni to Shi'a Islam. In response, a Ghilzai Pashtun chieftain named Mir Wais Khan began a rebellion against the Georgian governor, Gurgin Khan, of Kandahar and defeated a Safavid army. Later, in 1722 an Afghan army led by Mir Wais' son Mahmud marched across eastern Iran, besieged, and sacked Isfahan and proclaimed Mahmud 'Shah' of Persia (see the Hotaki dynasty).
The Afghans rode roughshod over their conquered territory for a dozen years but were prevented from making further gains by Nadir Shah, a former slave who had risen to military leadership within the Afshar tribe in Khorasan, a vassal state of the Safavids. Nadir Shah defeated the Afghans in the Battle of Damghan, 1729. He had driven out the Afghans, who were still occupying Persia, by 1730. In 1738, Nadir Shah reconquered Eastern Persia, starting with Qandahar; in the same year he occupied Ghazni, Kabul, and Lahore, later conquering as far as east as Delhi, but not fortifying his Persian base and exhausting his army's strength. He had effective control under Shah Tahmasp II and then ruled as regent of the infant Abbas III until 1736 when he had himself crowned shah.
Immediately after Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747, the Safavids were re-appointed as shahs of Iran in order to lend legitimacy to the nascent Zand dynasty. However the brief puppet regime of Ismail III ended in 1760 when Karim Khan felt strong enough take nominal power of the country as well and officially end the Safavid dynasty.
 Ethnic and linguistic controversy
The Safavid dynasty was of mixed origin. The princes had Turcoman, Persian, Kurdish, and even Armenian, Indian, Afghan, or Georgian mothers. They were bi- or multilingual, with Azeri Turkic and Persian being the linguae francae of the dynasty<ref>M. Mazzaoui, "The Origins of the Safavids: Shi'ism, Sufism, and the Gulat", Wiesbaden, Germany: F. Steiner, 1972.</ref>. The official state langauge of Persia during the Safavid era was Persian.
The paternal line of the dynasty's heritage was Persian<ref name="Meyers" /><ref>Browne, "A Literary History of Persia", Vol. 4, p. 14</ref><ref>A.S. Sumbatzadä, Sh.A. Taghiyeva, O.S. Malikov, "Janubi Azarbayjan Tarikhinin Ocherki" (1828-1917), Baku, 1985, p. 208</ref>, starting with the Persian mystic Sheikh Safi al-Din Is'hāq Ardabeli who himself claimed descent from Firūz Shāh Zarrīnkollā, a local ruler in Persian Kurdistan.
It seems that the Safavid family left its homeland and moved to Azarbaijan (modern northwestern Iran) in the 12th century. There, the Safavids influenced the local Turcoman tribes, and they themselvs were influenced by Turcomans to an extent, that the originally Iranian-speaking Safavids became Turkic in language<ref name="Iranica" />. In fact, from Sheikh Junayd to Sheikh Ismail I. - the founder of the Safavid Empire - all ruling Sheikhs of the Safavids had Turcoman mothers<ref>Roger M. Savory, "Safawids - iii, The establishment of the Safawid state", Encyclopaedia of Islam, Online Edition</ref>. In addition to that, the Safavids' power base included largely Turkic-speaking warrior tribes from Azarbaijan and Anatolia, collectivley known as Kizilbash, who at certain periods were the de facto rulers of the empire. This gives a convincing explanation to why the Turkic Azerbaijani language became so important in a land with an overwhelming Persian-speaking majority.
 Safavid Shahs of Iran
- Ismail I 1501–1524
- Tahmasp I 1524–1576
- Ismail II 1576–1578
- Mohammed Khodabanda 1578–1587
- Abbas I 1587–1629
- Safi 1629–1642
- Abbas II 1642–1666
- Suleiman I 1666–1694
- Sultan Hoseyn I 1694–1722
- Tahmasp II 1722–1732
- Abbas III 1732–1736
- Suleiman II 1749–1750
- Ismail III 1750–1760
 References & Notes
- Persian Historiography and Geography: Bertold Spuler on Major Works Produced in Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India and Early Ottoman Turkey, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Singapore: Pustaka Nasional, 2003, ISBN 9971-77-488-7.
- Mirza Rafi‘a's Dastur al-Muluk: A Manual of Later Safavid Administration. Annotated English Translation, Comments on the Offices and Services, and Facsimile of the Unique Persian Manuscript, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC, 2002, ISBN 983-9379-26-7.
- From Isfahan to Ayutthaya: Contacts between Iran and Siam in the 17th Century, M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Singapore, Pustaka Nasional, 2005, ISBN 9971-77-491-7.
- Adam Olearius, "The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors", Translated by John Davies (1662), (excerpts)
 External links
- Encyclopedia Iranica
- History of the Safavids from Iran Chamber
- List of Persian Shahs
- BBC History of Religion
- Iranian Culture and history Site
- Artistic and cultural history of the Safavids from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- History of Safavid Art
- A Study of the Migration of Shi'i Works from Arab Regions to Iran at the Early Safavid Era.
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