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Safavid (1491-1722)

The seventh-century Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran was followed by conquests by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and Tamerlane. Iran underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas. The Azerbaijani Safavid Dynasty took power in Persia. This dynasty fought off efforts by the Ottoman Turks during the 18th Century to establish control over Azerbaijan; the Safavids could not, however, halt Russian advances into the region. Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid / Safawid royal house of Persia, made himself master of Bagdad (c. 1502 or 1508).

The Safavids, who came to power in 1501, were leaders of a militant Sufi order. They traced their ancestry to Shaykh Safi ad Din (died circa 1334), the founder of their order, who claimed descent from Shia Islam's Seventh Imam, Musa al Kazim. From their home base in Ardabil, they recruited followers among the Turkoman tribesmen of Anatolia and forged them into an effective fighting force and an instrument for territorial expansion. Sometime in the mid-fifteenth century, the Safavids adopted Shia Islam, and their movement became highly millenarian in character. In 1501, under their leader Ismail, the Safavids seized power in Tabriz, which became their capital. Ismail was proclaimed shah of Iran.

The rise of the Safavids marks the reemergence in Iran of a powerful central authority within geographical boundaries attained by former Iranian empires. The Safavids declared Shia Islam the state religion and used proselytizing and force to convert the large majority of Muslims in Iran to the Shia sect. Under the early Safavids, Iran was a theocracy in which state and religion were closely intertwined. Ismail's followers venerated him not only as the murshid-kamil, the perfect guide, but also as an emanation of the Godhead. He combined in his person both temporal and spiritual authority. In the new state, he was represented in both these functions by the vakil, an official who acted as a kind of alter ego. The sadr headed the powerful religious organization; the vizier, the bureaucracy; and the amir alumara, the fighting forces. These fighting forces, the qizilbash, came primarily from the seven Turkic-speaking tribes that supported the Safavid bid for power.

The Safavids faced the problem of integrating their Turkic-speaking followers with the native Iranians, their fighting traditions with the Iranian bureaucracy, and their messianic ideology with the exigencies of administering a territorial state. The institutions of the early Safavid state and subsequent efforts at state reorganization reflect attempts, not always successful, to strike a balance among these various elements. The Safavids also faced external challenges from the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. The Uzbeks were an unstable element along Iran's northeastern frontier who raided into Khorasan, particularly when the central government was weak, and blocked the Safavid advance northward into Transoxiana. The Ottomans, who were Sunnis, were rivals for the religious allegiance of Muslims in eastern Anatolia and Iraq and pressed territorial claims in both these areas and in the Caucasus.

The Safavid Empire received a blow that was to prove fatal in 1524, when the Ottoman sultan Selim I defeated the Safavid forces at Chaldiran and occupied the Safavid capital, Tabriz. Although he was forced to withdraw because of the harsh winter and Iran's scorched earth policy, and although Safavid rulers continued to assert claims to spiritual leadership, the defeat shattered belief in the shah as a semidivine figure and weakened the hold of the shah over the qizilbash chiefs. In 1533 the Ottoman sultan Süleyman occupied Baghdad and then extended Ottoman rule to southern Iraq. Except for a brief period (1624-38) when Safavid rule was restored, Iraq remained firmly in Ottoman hands. The Ottomans also continued to challenge the Safavids for control of Azarbaijan and the Caucasus until the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin in 1639 established frontiers both in Iraq and in the Caucasus that remain virtually unchanged in the late twentieth century.

The Safavid state reached its apogee during the reign of Shah Abbas (1587-1629). The shah gained breathing space to confront and defeat the Uzbeks by signing a largely disadvantageous treaty with the Ottomans. He then fought successful campaigns against the Ottomans, reestablishing Iranian control over Iraq, Georgia, and parts of the Caucasus. He counterbalanced the power of the qizilbash by creating a body of troops composed of Georgian and Armenian slaves who were loyal to the person of the shah. He extended state and crown lands and the provinces directly administered by the state, at the expense of the qizilbash chiefs. He relocated tribes to weaken their power, strengthened the bureaucracy, and further centralized the administration.

Shah Abbas made a show of personal piety and supported religious institutions by building mosques and religious seminaries and by making generous endowments for religious purposes. His reign, however, witnessed the gradual separation of religious institutions from the state and an increasing movement toward a more independent religious hierarchy.

In addition to his political reorganization and his support of religious institutions, Shah Abbas also promoted commerce and the arts. The Portuguese had previously occupied Bahrain and the island of Hormoz off the Persian Gulf coast in their bid to dominate Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf trade, but in 1602 Shah Abbas expelled them from Bahrain, and in 1623 he used the British (who sought a share of Iran's lucrative silk trade) to expel the Portuguese from Hormoz. He significantly enhanced government revenues by establishing a state monopoly over the silk trade and encouraged internal and external trade by safeguarding the roads and welcoming British, Dutch, and other traders to Iran. With the encouragement of the shah, Iranian craftsmen excelled in producing fine silks, brocades, and other cloths, carpets, porcelain, and metalware. When Shah Abbas built a new capital at Esfahan, he adorned it with fine mosques, palaces, schools, bridges, and a bazaar. He patronized the arts, and the calligraphy, miniatures, painting, and agriculture of his period are particularly noteworthy.

From the 16th to the 20th centuries, Iraq was caught between two powerful empires, the Ottomans, who ruled from Istanbul, and the Safavids, whose empire was in Iran. Not only was Iraq between two large political power centers, it was also on the front line of a religious divide. The Ottoman Turks were Sunni Muslims, but the Safavids declared Shia Islam to be their official religion in 1501, and several key Shia holy sites are located in Iraq. When the Safavids occupied Baghdad in 1509,Iraq came under their control, and the Sunni Muslims in the population were persecuted by the Iranian shah. That persecution and the support the shah gave to uprisings against the Ottoman empire in Shia areas of eastern Turkey pushed the sultan to respond.

The hosts of the Ottoman Caliphate stopped at the gates of Vienna, though those fortifications almost collapsed before them. But these armies were forced to return and withdraw to the rear because the army of the Safavid Caliphate had occupied Baghdad, demolished its mosques, killed its people, and captured its women and wealth. The Ottoman Caliphate armies returned to defend the sanctuaries and people of Islam. Fierce fighting raged for about two centuries. The Ottoman army regained control of Iraq in 1514.

After that time, control of the country remained with the Ottomans, but the Safavids at times had influence in parts of the region. During periods of stronger Safavid influence, many Shia Muslims migrated to the region, and they became a majority of the Iraqi population. Each side mobilized support based on religious allegiance. Thus, in the same period when Suleiman reformed the legal system and developed Ottoman traditions of administrative practice, Iraq experienced an increasing internal religious division.

The Safavids reconquered Baghdad in 1623 under Shah Abbas, but were expelled again by the forces of Sultan Murad IV. In 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin formally declared the region to be a part of the Ottoman Empire, in theory ending over a hundred years of conflict and establishing a lasting boundary with the Safavids.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was fought over by the Mughal Empire and the Safavid Dynasty of Persia (now Iran), with the Safavids mostly controlling Herat and western Afghanistan, and the Mughals controlling Kabul and the east. A monarchy ruled by ethnic Pashtuns was founded in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, who was a senior officer in the army of Nadir Shah, ruler of Persia, when Nadir Shah was assassinated and Persian control over Afghanistan weakened.

By the fall of the Safawid dynasty Persia lost her race of national monarchs, considered not only in respect of origin and birthplace but in essence and in spirit. Isma'il, Tahmasp and 'Abbas, whatever their faults and failings, were Persian and peculiar to Persians. Regarded in a sober spirit, the reign of the great 'Abbas is rendered mythical by crime. But something liberal in the philosophy of their progenitors threw an attractiveness over the earlier Safawid kings which was wanting in those who came after them. The fact is that, two centuries after Shah Ismail's accession to the throne, the Safawid race of kings was effete; and it became necessary to make room for a more vigorous if not a more lasting rule. Nadir was the strong man for the hour and occasion. He bad been designated a "robber chief "; but his antecedents, like those of many others who have filled the position, have redeeming points of melodramatic interest.

Although there was a recovery with the reign of Shah Abbas II (1642-66), in general the Safavid Empire declined after the death of Shah Abbas. The decline resulted from weak rulers, interference by the women of the harem in politics, the reemergence of qizilbash rivalries, maladministration of state lands, excessive taxation, the decline of trade, and the weakening of Safavid military organization. (Both the qizilbash tribal military organization and the standing army composed of slave soliders were deteriorating.) The last two rulers, Shah Sulayman (1669-94) and Shah Sultan Hosain (1694-1722), were voluptuaries. Once again the eastern frontiers began to be breached, and in 1722 a small body of Afghan tribesmen won a series of easy victories before entering and taking the capital itself, ending Safavid rule.

Afghan supremacy was brief. Tahmasp Quli, a chief of the Afshar tribe, soon expelled the Afghans in the name of a surviving member of the Safavid family. Then, in 1736, he assumed power in his own name as Nader Shah. He went on to drive the Ottomans from Georgia and Armenia and the Russians from the Iranian coast on the Caspian Sea and restored Iranian sovereignty over Afghanistan. He also took his army on several campaigns into India and in 1739 sacked Delhi, bringing back fabulous treasures. Although Nader Shah achieved political unity, his military campaigns and extortionate taxation proved a terrible drain on a country already ravaged and depopulated by war and disorder, and in 1747 he was murdered by chiefs of his own Afshar tribe.

The conqueror Nadir Shah and his successors were followed by the Zand dynasty, founded by Karim Kahn, and later the Qajar (1795-1925) and the Pahlavi dynasties (1925-1979). A period of anarchy and a struggle for supremacy among Afshar, Qajar, Afghan, and Zand tribal chieftains followed Nader Shah's death. Finally Karim Khan Zand (1750-79) was able to defeat his rivals and to unify the country, except for Khorasan, under a loose form of central control. He refused to assume the title of shah, however, and ruled as vakil al ruaya, or deputy of the subjects. He is remembered for his mild and beneficent rule.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:40 ZULU