Twelver Shiism

Safavid dynasty

The Safavids (صفوی ) were an Iranian Shia dynasty of mixed Azeri and Kurdish origins, which ruled Persia from 1501/1502 to 1722. Safavids established the greatest Iranian empire since the Islamic conquest of Persia, and established the Ithnāˤashari school of Shi'a Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam.

The Safavid dynasty had its origin in the "Safawiyyah" which was established in the city of Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region of Iran. From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over all of Persia and reasserted the Iranian identity of the region, thus becoming the first native dynasty since the Sassanids to establish a unified Iranian state.

Despite their demise in 1722, the Safavids have left their mark down to present era by establishing and spreading Shi'a Islam in major parts of the Caucasus and West Asia, especially in Iran.

Background and Origin

Unlike many other dynasties founded by warlords and military chiefs, one of the unique aspects of the Safavids in the post-Islamic Iran was their origin in the Islamic Sufi order called the Safaviyeh. This uniqueness makes the Safavid dynasty comparable to the pre-Islamic Sassanid dynasty, which made Zoroastrianism into an official religion, and whose founders were from a priestly class. It should be noted that the Safaviyeh was not originally Shia but it was from the Shafii branch of Sunni Islam. The Safavid dynasty was Azerbaijani speaking but their father-line has been classified as Kurdish, Azerbaijani and Arabic by various scholars. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the Safavids were a mixture of ethnic Azerbaijani, Kurdish, and Greek lines. The Safavid Kings themselves claimed to be Seyyeds, family descendants of the prophet Muhammad, although many scholars have cast doubt on this claim. There seems now to be a consensus among scholars that the Safavid family hailed from Persian Kurdistan, and later moved to Azerbaijan, finally settling in the 5th/11th century at Ardabil. But even before their ascent to political power in the 15th century, the Safavids had become Turkic-speaking and used Azerbaijani Turkish as a medium of communication with their followers as well the official language of their court.

Azerbaijani Turkic father-line

According to Lawrence Davidson et al :
Even though most Turkish nomads and Persian peasants under the Safavid rule were Sunni, Ismail was determined to unite the country politically and religiously. Within a decade the Safavids, though Turkish by race, had taken control of all of Persia.

According to Richard Frye,

The Turkish speakers of Azerbaijan (q.v.) are mainly descended from the earlier Iranian speakers, several pockets of whom still exist in the region. A massive migration of Oghuz Turks in the 11th and 12th centuries not only Turkified Azerbaijan but also Anatolia. Azeri Turks were the founders of Safavid dynasty

Some other scholars have also claimed Azerbaijani origin.

Kurdish Father-line

The oldest extant book on the genealogy of the Safavid family and the only one that is pre-1501 is titled "Safwat as-Safa" and was written by Ibn Bazzaz, a disciple of Sheikh Sadr-al-Din Ardabili, the son of the Sheikh Safi ad-din Ardabili. According Ibn Bazzaz, the Sheikh was a descendant of a noble Kurdish man named Firuz Shah Zarin Kolah the Kurd of Sanjan. The male lineage of the Safavid family given by the oldest manuscript of the Safwat as-Safa is:"(Shaykh) Safi al-Din Abul-Fatah Ishaaq the son of Al-Shaykh Amin al-din Jebrail the son of al-Saaleh Qutb al-Din Abu Bakr the son of Salaah al-Din Rashid the son of Muhammad al-Hafiz al-Kalaam Allah the son of ‘avaad the son of Birooz al-Kurdi al-Sanjani (Piruz Shah Zarin Kolah the Kurd of Sanjan)". The Safavids, in order to further legitimize their power in the Shi'ite Muslim world, claimed descent from the prophet Muhammad and revised Ibn Bazzaz's work , obscuring the Kurdish origins of the Safavid family

There seems to exist a consensus among Safavid scholars that Safavids originated in Iranian Kurdistan and moved to Iranian Azerbaijan, settling in Ardabil in the 11th century. Accordingly, these scholars have considered the Safavids to be of Kurdish descent based on the origins of Sheykh Safi al-Din and that the Safavids were originally a Iranic speaking clan . Shaykh Safi al-Din was a Shafii Muslim, which is the sect that is followed by Sunni Kurds today.

Sheikh Safi al-Din

Safavid history begins with the establishment of the Safaviyeh Sufi Order by its eponymous founder Safī al-Dīn Abul Fath Is'haq Ardabilī (1252–1334). In 700/1301, Safi al-Din assumed the leadership of the Zahediyeh, a significant Sufi order in Gilan, from his spiritual master Sheikh Zahed Gilani who was also his father-in-law. Due to the great spiritual charisma of Sheikh Safi al-Din, the order was later known as the Safaviyeh. The Safavid order soon gained great influence in the city of Ardabil and Hamdullah Mustaufi remarks that most of the people of Ardabil are followers of Shaykh Safi al-Din.

Extant religious poetry from him, written in Old Tati - a now distinct Northwestern Iranian language - and accompanied by a paraphrase in Persian which helps their understanding, has survived to this day and has linguistic importance.

From Sheikh Safi al-Din to Ismail I

After Safī al-Dīn, the leadership of the Safaviyeh passed onto Sheikh Sadr ud-Dīn Mūsā († 794/1391-92). The order at this time was transformed into a religious movement which conducted religious propaganda throughout Persia, Syria and Asia Minor, and most likely had maintained its Sunni Shaf’ite origin at that time. The leadership of the order passed on from Sadr ud-Dīn Mūsā to his son Khwādja Ali († 1429) and in turn to his son Ibrāhīm († 1429-47).

When Sheikh Junāyd, the son of Ibrāhīm, assumed the leadership of Safaviyeh in 1447, the history of the Safavid movement was radically changed. According to R.M. Savory, "Sheikh Junayd was not content with spiritual authority and he sought material power". At that time, the most powerful dynasty in Persia was that of the Qara Qoyunlu, the "Black Sheeps", whose ruler Jahān Shāh ordered Junāyd to leave Ardabil or else he would bring destruction and ruin upon the city. Junāyd sought refuge with the rival of Qara Qoyunlu Jahan Shah, the Aq Qoyunlu Khan Uzun Hassan and cemented his relationship by marrying Khadija Begum, Uzun Hassan's sister. Junāyd was killed during an incursion into the territories of the Shīrvanshāhs and his son Sheikh Haydar assumed the leadership of the Safaviyeh. Sheikh Haydar married Martha, Uzun Hassan's daughter, who gave birth to Ismāil, the founder of the Safavid dynasty. Martha's mother, named Theodora - better known as Despina Khatun - was a Pontic Greek princess and the daughter of the Grand Komnenos John IV of Trebizond. She had been married to Uzun Hassan in exchange to protection of the Grand Komnenos from the Ottomans.

After Uzun Hassan's death, his son Yāqub felt threatened by the growing Safavid religious influence. Yāqub allied himself with the Shīrvanshāh and killed Shaykh Haydar in 1488. By this time, the bulk of the Safaviyeh followers were Turkish-speaking clans from Asia Minor and Azerbaijan, and were collectively known as Qizilbāsh ("Red Heads") because of their distinct red headgear. The Qizilbāsh were warriors, spiritual followers of Sheikh Haydar, and a source of the Safavid military and political power. After the death of Haydar, the spiritual followers of the Safaviyeh gathered around his son Ali, who was also pursued and subsequently killed by Yāqub. According to official Safavid history, before passing away, Ali had designated his young brother Ismāil as the spiritual leader of the Safavid Order.

Founding of the dynasty by Shāh Ismāil I

Political scene in Persia prior to Ismāil's rule

After the decline of the Timurid Empire (1370–1506), there were many local states prior to the Iranian state established by Ismāil. The most important local rulers about 1500 were:

Ismāil was able to unite all these lands under the Iranian Empire he created.

Shāh Ismāil I

The Safavid dynasty was founded about 1501 by Shāh Ismāil I. Shah Ismail's background is disputed: the language he used is not identical with that of his "race" or "nationality" and he was bilingual from birth. Some scholars argue that Ismāil was of mixed Turkic, Iranic, and Pontik Greek descent, although others speculate that he was non-Turkic and was a direct descendant of Sheikh Safi al-Din. As such, he was the last in the line of hereditary Grand Masters of the Safaviyeh oder, prior to its ascent to a ruling dynasty. Ismāil was known as a brave and charismatic youth, zealous with regards to his Shi’a faith, and believed himself to be of divine descent—practically worshipped by his Qizilbāsh followers. In 1500 Ismāil invaded neighboring Shirvan to avenge the death of his father, Sheik Haydar, who had been murdered in 1488 by the ruling Shirvanshah, Farrukh Yassar. Afterwards, Ismail went on a conquest campaign, capturing Tabriz in July 1501, where he enthroned himself the Shāh of Azerbaijan, and minted coins in his name, proclaiming Shi’ism the official religion of his domain.

Although Ismail I initially gained mastery over Azerbaijan alone, the Safavids ultimately won the struggle for power in Persia which had been going on for nearly a century between various dynasties and political forces. A year after his victory in Tabriz, Ismāil claimed most of Persia as part of his territory, and within 10 years established a complete control over all of it. Hamadan fell under his power in 1503, Shiraz and Kerman in 1504, Najaf and Karbala in 1507, Van in 1508, Baghdad in 1509, and Herat, as well as other parts of Khorasan, in 1510. By 1511, the Uzbeks in the north-east, led by their Khan Muhammad Shaybāni, were driven far to the north, across the Oxus River where they continued to attack the Safavids. Ismail's decisive victory over the Uzbeks, who had occupied most of Khorasan, ensured Iran’s eastern borders, and the Uzbeks never since expanded beyond the Hindukush. Although the Uzbeks continued to make occasional raids to Khorasan, the Safavid empire was able to keep them at bay throughout its reign.

Clashes with the Ottomans

More problematic for the Safavids was the powerful Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, a Sunni dynasty, considered the active recruitment of Turkmen tribes of Anatolia for the Safavid cause as a major threat. To counter the rising Safavid power, in 1502, Sultan Bayezid II forcefully deported many Shi'as from Anatolia to other parts of the Ottoman realm. In 1514, Bayezid's son, Sultan Selim I marched through Anatolia and reached the plain of Chaldiran near the city of Khoy, and a decisive war was fought there. Most sources agree that the Ottoman army was at least double the size of that of Ismāil, however, what gave the Ottomans the advantage was the artillery which the Safavid army lacked. According to R. M. Savory, "Salim's plan was to winter at Tabriz and complete the conquest of Persia the following spring. However, a mutiny among his officers who refused to spend the winter at Tabriz forced him to withdraw across territory laid waste by the Safavid forces, eight days later". Although Ismāil was defeated and his capital was captured, the Safavid empire survived. The war between the two powers continued under Ismāil's son, Shāh Tahmāsp I (q.v.), and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I, until Shāh Abbās (q.v.) retook the area lost to the Ottomans by 1602.

The consequences of the defeat at Chaldiran were also psychological for Ismāil: the defeat destroyed Ismāil's belief in his invincibility, based on his claimed divine status. His relationships with his Qizilbāsh followers were also fundamentally altered. The tribal rivalries between the Qizilbāsh, which temporarily ceased before the defeat at Chaldiran, resurfaced in intense form immediately after the death of Ismāil, and led to ten years of civil war (930-40/1524-33) until Shāh Tahmāsp regained control of the affairs of the state.

Early Safavid power in Iran was based on the military power of the Qizilbāsh. Ismāil exploited the first element to seize power in Iran. But eschewing politics after his defeat in Chaldiran, he left the affairs of the government to the office of the Wakīl (q.v.). Ismāil's successors, and most ostensibly Shāh Abbās I successfully diminished the Qizilbāsh's influence on the affairs of the state.

Ismāil's poetry

Ismāil is also known for his poetry using the pen-name Khatāī (Arabic خطائی: sinner). He is considered an important figure in the literary history of Azerbaijani and has left approximately 1400 verses in this language, which he chose to use for political reasons, as most of his followers at the time spoke Turkmen Turkish. Approximately 50 verses of his Persian poetry have also survived. According to Encyclopædia Iranica, "Ismail was a skillful poet who used prevalent themes and images in lyric and didactic-religious poetry with ease and some degree of originality". He was also deeply influenced by the Persian literary tradition of Iran, particularly by the "Shāhnāma" of Ferdowsi, which probably explains the fact that he named all of his sons after Shāhnāma-characters. Dickson and Welch suggest that Ismāil's "Shāhnāmaye Shāhī" was intended as a present to the young Tahmāsp. After defeating Muhammad Shaybāni's Uzbeks, Ismāil asked Hātefī, a famous poet from Jam (Khorasan), to write a Shāhnāma-like epic about his victories and his newly established dynasty. Although the epic was left unfinished, it was an example of mathnawis in the heroic style of the Shāhnāma written later on for the Safavid kings.


Ismāil's greatest legacy established an enduring empire which lasted over 200 years. Even after the fall of Safavids in 1722, their cultural and political influence endured through the era of Afsharid, Zand, Qajar, and Pahlavi dynasties into the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, where Shi’a Islam is still the official religion as it was during the Safavids.

Shāh Tahmāsp

Shāh Tahmāsp, the young governor of Herat, succeeded his father Ismāil in 1524, when he was ten years and three months old. He was the ward of the powerful Qizilbash amir Ali Beg Rūmlū (titled "Div Soltān") who saw himself as the de facto ruler of the state. For around ten years, rival Qizilbāsh factions fought amongst themselves for the control of the empire until Shāh Tahmāsp came of age and reasserted his authority. He reigned for 52 years, the longest reign in Safavid history. The Uzbeks, during the reign of Tahmāsp, attacked the eastern provinces of the kingdom five times and the Ottomans under Soleymān I invaded Persia four times. Persia lost territory in Iraq, and Tahmāsp was forced to move his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin. Tahmasp made the Peace of Amasya with the Ottomans in 1555, ending the war during his life..

After the death of Tahmāsp in 984/1576, the struggle for a dominant position in the state was complicated by rival groups and factions. Dominant political factions vied for power and support three different candidates. The mentally unstable Ismāil, the son of Tahmāsp and the purblind Muhammad Khudābanda were some of the candidates but did not get the support of all the Qizilbāsh chiefs. The Turkmen Ustājlū tribe, one of the most powerful tribes among the Qizilbāsh, threw its support behind Haydar, who was of a Georgian mother, but the majority of the Qizilbāsh chiefs saw this as a threat to their own, Turkmen-dominated power. Instead, they first placed Ismāil II. on the throne (1576–1577) and after him Muhammad Shāh Khudābanda (1578–1588).

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 usually conscripted from Georgians and Circassians , Tofangchis تفگنچى (musketeers), and Topchis (Tupchis) توپچى (artillery-men).

Abbas moved the capital to Isfahan, deeper into central Iran. Abbas I built 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.

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 Turkic Afshar tribe in the region while deporting many Kurdish tribes to Khorasan. 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.

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.. 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.

At its zenith, during the long reign of Shah Abbas I the empire's reach comprised Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan Republic, Georgia, and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

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 Qandahar.

Furthermore by the 17th century, trade routes between the East and West had shifted away from Iran, causing a loss of commerce and trade. Moreover, Shah Abbas had a conversion to a ghulam-based military, though expedient in the short term.

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. Shah Soltan Hosain (1694–1722) in particular was known for his love of wine and disinterest in governance. The country was repeatedly raided on its frontiers — Kerman by Baloch tribesmen in 1698, Khorasan by Afghans in 1717, constantly in Mesopotamia by peninsula Arabs. Shah Sultan Hosein tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in eastern Iran from Sunni to the Shi'a sect of Islam. In response, a Ghilzai Pashtun chieftain named Mir Wais Khan began a rebellion against the Georgian governor, Gurgin Khan, of Kandahar and defeated the Safavid army. Later, in 1722 an Afghan army led by Mir Wais' son Mahmud marched across eastern Iran, besieged, and sacked Isfahan. Mahmud proclaimed himself 'Shah' of Persia.

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.

Shia Islam as the state religion

Even though Safavids were not the first Shia rulers in Iran, they played a 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 the 8th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries the Buwayhids, who were of the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia, ruled in Fars, Isfahan and Baghdad. As a result of the Mongol conquest and the relative religious tolerance of the Ilkhanids, Shia dynasties were re-established in Iran, Sarbedaran in Khorasan being the most important. The Ilkhanid ruler Öljaitü converted to Twelver Shiism in the 13th century.

Following his conquest of Iran, Ismail I made conversion mandatory for the largely Sunni population. The Sunni Ulema or clergy were either killed or exiled. Ismail I, despite his heterodox Shia beliefs (Momen, 1985), brought in Shi'a religious leaders and granted them land and money in return for loyalty. Later, during the Safavid and especially Qajar period, the Shia Ulema's power increased and they were able to exercise a role, independent of or compatible with the government. Despite the Safavid's Sufi origins, most Sufi groups were prohibited, except the Nimatullahi order.

Iran became a feudal theocracy: the Shah was held to be the divinely ordained head of state and religion. In the following centuries, this religious stance cemented both Iran's internal cohesion and national feelings and provoked attacks by its Sunni neighbors.

Turcoman-Persian conflict

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 (Turkish:red headed) Turkmens, the \"men of 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, 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 .

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 spice in India. The main imports were spice, textiles (woolens from Europe, cottons from Gujarat), metals, coffee, and sugar.

The languages of the Court, Military, Administrative and Culture

The Safavids by the time of their rise were Azerbaijani-speaking although they also used Persian as a second language. The language chiefly used by the Safavid court and military establishment was Azerbaijani. But the administration language as well as the language of respondence (Insha'), of belles-lettres (adab) and of history (tarikh) was Persian. The inscriptions on Safavid currency were also in Persian.

Safavids also used Persian as a cultural and administrative language throughout the empire and were bilingual in Persian. According to Arnold J. Toynbee

in the heyday of the Mughal, Safawi, and Ottoman regimes New Persian was being patronized as the language of litterae humaniores by the ruling element over the whole of this huge realm, while it was also being employed as the official language of administration in those two-thirds of its realm that lay within the Safawi and the Mughal frontiers

According to John R. Perry

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.

According to the Cambridge History of Iran

In day-to-day affairs, the language chiefly used at the Safavid court and by the great military and political officers, as well as the religious dignitaries, was Turkish, not Persian; and the last class of persons wrote their religious works mainly in Arabic. Those who wrote in Persian were either lacking in proper tuition in this tongue, or wrote outside Iran and hence at a distance from centers where Persian was the accepted vernacular, endued with that vitality and susceptibility to skill in its use which a language can have only in places where it truly belongs.

According to É. Á. Csató et al.

A specific Turkic language was attested in Safavid Persia during the 16th and 17th centuries, a language that Europeans often called Persian Turkish ("Turc Agemi", "lingua turcica agemica"), which was a favourite language at the court and in the army because of the Turkic origins of the Safavid dynasty. The original name was just turki, and so a convenient name might be Turki-yi Acemi. This variety of Persian Turkish must have been also spoken in the Caucasian and Transcaucasian regions, which during the 16th century belonged to both the Ottomans and the Safavids, and were not fully integrated into the Safavid empire until 1606. Though that language might generally be identified as Middle Azerbaijanian, it's not yet possible to define exactly the limits of this language, both in linguistic and territorial respects. It was certainly not homogenous - maybe it was an Azerbaijanian-Ottoman mixed language, as Beltadze(1967:161) states for a translation of the gospels in Georgian script from the 18th century.

According to Ruda Jurdi Abisaab

Although the Arabic language was still the medium for religious scholastic expression, it was precisely under the Safavids that hadith complications and doctrinal works of all sorts were being translated to Persian. The 'Amilis (Lebanese scholars of Shi'i faith) operating through the Court-based religious posts, were forced to mater the Persian language; their students translated their instructions into Persian. Persianization went hand in hand with the popularization of 'mainstream' Shi'i belief.

According to Cornelis Henricus Maria Versteegh

The Safavid dynasty under Shah Ismail (961/1501) adopted Persian and the Shi'ite form of Islam as the national language and religion.


See also: Safavid art

Culture within the Safavid family

The Safavid family was a literate family from its early origin. There are extant Tati and Persian poetry from Shaykh Safi ad-din Ardabili as well as extant Persian poetry from Shaykh Sadr ad-din. Most of the extant poetry of Shah Ismail I is in Azerbaijani pen-name of Khatai. Sam Mirza, the son of Shah Esmail as well as some later authors assert that Ismail composed poems both in Turkish and Persian but only a few specimens of his Persian verse have survived. A collection of his poems in Azeri were published as a Divan. Shah Tahmasp who has composed poetry in Persian was also a painter, while Shah Abbas II was known as a poet, writing Azerbaijani verses with the pen name of Tani.. Sam Mirza, the son of Ismail I was himself a poet and composed his poetry in Persian. He also compiled an anthology of contemporary poetry. .

Culture in the empire

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 tile making, 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 Ardabil were commissioned to commemorate the Safavid dynasty. The elegantly baroque yet famously '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. (This book was written by Ferdousi in the 1000AD for Sultan Mahmood Ghaznawi) 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.

According to Professor. William Cleveland:

In 1598 Shah Abbas designated Isfahan , a city located in the center of Iran , as the new imperial capital. Isfahan was already an established city and had once been the Seljuk capital. However, Abbas transformed the city, lav­ishing huge sums on the construction of a carefully planned urban center laid out along broad thoroughfares and embellished with richly decorated mosques, a royal palace, luxurious private residences, and a large bazaar, all maintained in a lush garden setting. The material splendor of Isfahan court pled with Abbas's generous patronage attracted artists and scholars, whose presence contributed to the city's rich intellectual and cultural life. As activ­ities from carpet weaving to miniature painting, from the writing of Persian poetry to the compilation of works on Shica jurisprudence were encouraged, Isfahan became the catalyst for an explosion of Persian culture that spread to other Safavid cities and continued after the death of Abbas. Isfahan was also a thriving commercial center whose merchants, prospering under the stable, centralized government established by Abbas, became consumers and pa-irons themselves. At the time of Abbas's death, the Safavid capital had a population estimated at 400,000; the large size of the city and the impres­sive achievements of its residents prompted the inhabitants to coin their fa­mous boast, " Isfahan is half the world.

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.

The Safavid era gave way to a flowering of philosophy in Iran with such figures Mulla Sadra of Shiraz, Shaikh Bahai and Mir Damad. According to Professor Richard Nelson Frye: They were the continuers of the classical tradition of Islamic thought, which after Averroes died in the Arab west. The Persians schools of thought were the true heirs of the great Islamic thinkers of the golden age of Islam, whereas in the Ottoman empire there was an intellectual stagnation, as far as the traditions of Islamic philosophy were concerned. 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 'meta philosophy' 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.


A new age in Iranian architecture began with the rise of the Safavid dynasty. Economically robust and politically stable, this period saw a flourishing growth of theological sciences. Traditional architecture evolved in its patterns and methods leaving its impact on the architecture of the following periods.

The appearance of new patterns base on geometrical networks in the development of cities gave order to open urban spaces, and took into account the conservation of natural elements(water and plants) within cities. The establishment of distinctive public spaces is one of the most important urban features of the Safavid period, as manifested for example in Naghsh-e Jahan Square, Chahar Bagh and the royal gardens of Isfahan.

Distinctive monuments like the Sheikh Lotfallah (1603), Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradise Palace)(1699) and the Chahar Bagh School(1714) appeared in Isfahan and other cities. This extensive development of architecture was rooted in Persian culture and took form in the design of schools, baths, houses, caravanserai and other urban spaces such as bazaars and squares. It continued until the end of the Qajar reign.

Role of Qizilbash in Military

The Qizilbash (قزلباش - Qizelbāš) were a wide variety of extremist Shi'ite (ghulāt) and mostly Turcoman militant groups who helped found the Safavid Empire. Their military power was essential during the reign of the Shahs Ismail and Tahmasp.

However, faced with rebellious Qizilbash (who were supposed to be the "Imperial Guards"), Abbas I was forced to reorganize the army and minimized their influence, using a standing army from the ranks of Armenian and Georgian ghulams ("slaves"). The new army would be loyal to the king personally and not to clan-chiefs anymore. Furthermore, in order to balance the power between the new army and the powerful Turcoman tribes, Abbas united a number of allied Turcoman tribes on the north-western frontier of the empire and gave the new, large and powerful tribe the name "Shahsavan" ("Friends of the King").


It was the Safavids who made Iran the spiritual bastion of Shi’ism against the onslaughts of orthodox Sunni Islam, and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness of Iranianhood, acting as a bridge to modern Iran. The founder of the dynasty, Shah Isma'il, adopted the title of "Persian Emperor" Pādišah-ī Īrān, with its implicit notion of an Iranian state stretching from Khorasan as far as Euphrates, and from the Oxus to the southern Territories of the Persian Gulf. According to Professor Roger Savory:
In Number of ways the Safavids affected the development of the modern Iranian state: first, they ensured the continuance of various ancient and traditional Persian institutions, and transmitted these in a strengthened, or more 'national', form; second, by imposing Ithna 'Ashari Shi'ism on Iran as the official religion of the Safavid state, they enhanced the power of mujtahids. The Safavids thus set in train a struggle for power between the urban and the crown that is to say, between the proponents of secular government and the proponents of a theoretic government; third, they laid the foundation of alliance between the religious classes ('Ulama') and the bazaar which played an important role both in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1906, and again in the Islamic Revolution of 1979; fourth the policies introduced by Shah Abbas I conduced to a more centralized administrative system.

Safavid Shahs of Iran

References & Notes


  • M.I. Marcinkowski (tr.),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.
  • M.I. Marcinkowski (tr., ed.),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.
  • M.I. Marcinkowski,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)

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