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History, Safavid Rule

Iranian rulers, Iranian carpets, Karim Khan Zand, Safavid empire, Safavid dynasty

During the 15th century several competing families and tribes, mostly of Turkic origins, ruled over various parts of Iran. Notable among them were the Safavids, who headed a militant Sufi order founded in the northwest by Shaikh Safi of Ardabil in the early 14th century. His descendant, Ismail I, conquered first Tabriz and then the rest of Iran. In 1501 he proclaimed himself shah (king), a title commonly used by Iranian rulers in pre-Islamic times. This marked the beginning of the Safavid dynasty and was the first time since the 7th century that all of Iran was unified as an independent state. Ismail embraced Jafari Shia Islam, established it as the state religion, and began to convert the largely Sunni population to this Shia sect.

Ismail used the new religion to mobilize armies against the Ottomans—Sunni Muslims who controlled a vast empire to the west. Intermittent warfare between the Safavids and the Ottoman Empire continued for more than 150 years as successive rulers of each accused one another of heretical beliefs. Although this lengthy conflict helped shape Iran's identity as a Shia country, the real conflict between the Safavids and the Ottomans was over territory, especially the Zagros Mountains region and the fertile plains of present-day Iraq. In 1509 Ismail gained control of the Iraqi territory, but it fell into Ottoman hands when Ottoman ruler Suleyman I conquered Baghdad in 1534.

After several unsuccessful campaigns, the Safavids finally recaptured Baghdad in 1623 under Abbas I. (They held the city for 15 years before the Ottomans gained permanent control in 1638.) During his reign, Abbas moved the Safavid capital from Tabriz, which was dangerously close to the Ottoman border and had been occupied briefly by the Ottomans, to the centrally located city of Esfahan. He embellished Esfahan with many bridges, mosques, palaces, and schools. Most of these structures still stand, and they are among the best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Abbas also encouraged trade with Europe, especially England and The Netherlands, whose merchants bought Iranian carpets, silk, and textiles.

The Safavid empire gradually declined after the reign of Abbas II ended in 1666. To finance lavish personal lifestyles, later shahs imposed heavy taxes that discouraged investment and encouraged corruption among officials. Shah Sultan Hosain, who ruled from 1694 to 1722, tried to convert forcibly his Afghan subjects in eastern Iran from Sunni to Shia Islam. In response, an Afghan army under Mir Mahmud rebelled, marching across eastern Iran and capturing the Safavid capital of Esfahan. After a brief siege of the city, the Afghan army executed the shah in 1722, thus ending Safavid rule of Iran. The sudden dissolution of the empire plunged Iran into a 70-year period of relative turmoil, marked by internal civil strife and efforts by Ottoman and Russian forces to occupy border zones. Military leader Nadir Shah, based in Mashhad, succeeded in freeing Iran from foreign occupation in the 1730s and soon extended his rule eastward, but his empire collapsed upon his assassination in 1747. Karim Khan Zand, based in Shiraz, established a brief period of tranquility in the mid-1700s but was not able to extend his control over all of Iran.

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