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Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires >
The Safavid Empire

The Safavid empire was strongly shaped by the political and religious institutions and the cultural accomplishments of the previous era. The Turkish and Mongol migrations had profoundly changed the character of northern Iran. A large Turkish population had settled in eastern Iran, in the region of the Oxus River, and in northwestern Iran and eastern Anatolia. Turkish peoples constituted about 25 percent of the total population, and the Turkish presence radically changed both the economy and the society. Large districts were converted from agriculture to pasturage, and a new political system was introduced. Turkish territories were parceled out among tribal chieftains, who gathered their families, clients, bands of individual freebooters, and others into a single political unity. These units, commonly called tribes or uymaq, used their power to bring lesser chieftains into line and to subdue and govern local towns and villages. They became the de facto government in much of northern Iran.

In reaction, religious leaders emerged to shelter the local populations. Sufi preachers promised to invoke occult and mysterious powers that would protect their followers. Other leaders taught the doctrine of the qutb (saintly pillar of the world) who would protect oppressed peoples. Still others taught that a savior would come to redeem the good people from the traumatic upheavals of the time. In these turbulent regions a number of Sufi-led religio-political opposition movements emerged to contest the power of Turkish and Mongol chieftains. One of these Sufi leaders was the Persian mystic Shaykh Safi al-Din (1252–1334), based in Ardabil in northwestern Iran, who founded the Safavid Sufi brotherhood, provided schools and residences, and cultivated a hierarchy of students, disciples, lieutenants, and missionaries. The heads of the brotherhood brought uprooted individuals and small-lineage chieftains into the order, and they occasionally married into local tribal princely families. The Safavid followers, whatever their political origins, considered themselves devotees (murshids). By the fifteenth century they had come to believe that the head of the order was their Sufi master, their shah or king, the reincarnation of Ali, and the hidden imam whom they awaited as God's messiah. In the turbulent fifteenth century, after the breakup of the Timurid empire, the Safavids turned to more militant political activities, attacking Christian populations in Georgia and eastern Anatolia in the name of jihad (religiously sanctioned warfare against non-Muslims). Bound together by religious belief, the Safavids waged war against other Turkish principalities and conquered Iran in a rapid set of victories between 1500 and 1510. Out of the conflict of Turkish tribal and religious movements came the first stable empire to rule Iran since the Abbasid dynasty.

This stability, however, was not based on a direct continuation of the movement's own religious culture and organization. Rather, in the very first Safavid postconquest reign, Shah Ismail (r. 1500–1524) began to replace his Sufi enthusiasts with the apparatus of a centralized state. For more than a century, from the reign of Shah Ismail through the reign of Shah Abbas I (r. 1588–1629), the successive leaders of the dynasty built up loyal slave cadres apart from their tribal and religious supporters and tried to establish a centralized bureaucratic apparatus to make possible direct taxation and administration of the area.

The leaders also attempted to develop a cultural policy that would support the legitimacy of the new regime, not just as a Sufi religious movement but as the reconstruction of the historic Iranian monarchy. The shahs became the patrons of those imperial arts that for centuries had been understood to be the hallmark of kings. Shah Ismail transferred the Timurid school of painting from Herat to the Safavid capital of Tabriz. Safavid rulers endowed workshops to produce illustrated manuscripts and a royal library to house them. Their patronage led to the production of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), which contains paintings of battles, hunting scenes, and royal ceremonies that are adorned with exquisite animal images, real and mythical, and depictions of gardens. There are some 250 paintings in all; this work is one of the masterpieces of Iranian and Islamic art. It is a celebration of the glory of Iranian monarchy and of the Safavids as the heirs of that tradition. In the seventeenth century, however, a more mature regime preferred realistic depictions of daily life, paintings that bore emotional expression and secular scenes of beauty and love. The first period expressed the need for political legitimation, while the second era expressed the taste of aristocratic soldiers, officials, and courtiers for the good life. Safavid rulers also maintained workshops that produced famous carpets, silk cloth and hangings, and metalworks and ceramics to adorn the imperial court, mosques, and shrines as a reminder of the glory of the monarchy.

The Safavid Empire

Fearing the proximity of the Ottoman frontier, in the late sixteenth century the Safavids moved their capital from northwestern Iran to Isfahan in the center of the country. The Safavids extended the city with a new royal square surrounded by two stories of shops that symbolized the key role of trade in the centralized state.

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Perhaps the supreme artistic creation of the Safavid regime and the ultimate symbol of the restoration of Iranian monarchy was the city of Isfahan. Built as a great new capital, Isfahan was the geographic base for administrative centralization. It was also the locus of a vibrant urban economy whose products and revenues were essential to imperial finances. Isfahan's bazaars concentrated the production and marketing of goods, competing with the resources of tribal chieftains; they were an essential river of tax revenues to support the central state and the basis of Iranian international trade. Built with unparalleled grandeur and beauty, Isfahan embodied Safavid legitimacy. The new city was built around a single great central square, the Maydan-i Shah, which measured more than 500 by 1600 feet and served as a market, polo grounds, and carnival arena. The square was surrounded by two-storied rows of shops and by great archways on each of the cardinal sides. Monumental buildings adorned the square. The Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah rose on the east side (constructed from 1603 to 1615); the royal mosque stood to the south (constructed from 1611 to 1629). On the west stood the Ali Qapu or the royal palace, the Sublime Port of the Safavids. To the north a monumental arch marked the entrance to the mile-long covered bazaar of Isfahan, itself a glorious achievement of Middle Eastern urban design, with its innumerable shops, caravanserais, baths, mosques, and schools. From the central square the Chahar Bagh Avenue, bordered by gardens and the residences of courtiers and foreign ambassadors, ran two and a half miles to the summer palaces of the shahs.

The Safavid Empire

Safavid rulers maintained state workshops that produced fine carpets made of silk and metallic threads. Many of the finest carpets were made for export to Europe. This example, which retains its vivid colors, is one of a pair once owned by the Doria family in Italy.

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