Citation for Ṣafavid Dynasty

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Amoretti, Biancamaria Scarcia and Rudi Matthee. "Ṣafavid Dynasty." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Amoretti, Biancamaria Scarcia and Rudi Matthee. "Ṣafavid Dynasty." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).

Ṣafavid Dynasty

The Ṣafavid dynasty ruled Iran from 1501 until 1722 CE, when a small band of invading Afghan tribesmen captured its capital, Isfahan. The intervening period forms a bridge between Iran as a premodern society and the emergence of a country with global connections and the attributes of the modern nation-state. The Ṣafavids continued many Mongol and Timurid patterns and practices—ranging from coinage to administrative institutions—and they consciously built their legitimacy on the hallowed legacy of Tamerlane (d. 1405). The state they presided over combined Islamic traditions of governance, ancient Persian notions of kingship, and Central Asian, Turko-Mongolian principles of legitimacy and power. In the first, the ruler governed the religious community as God's trustee; the second was built around the notion of an absolutist monarch ruling his people as a shepherd over his flock; while in the third power and charisma resided not in the individual ruler but rather in the entire clan, which included mothers, daughters, and aunts as much as sons and uncles. In this, as in other areas, Ṣafavid Iran has much in common with its neighbors, Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire, with whom it interacted through warfare, diplomacy, trade relations, and cultural exchange. But the Ṣafavids also made many original contributions, some of them lasting. They unified Iran under a single political control, transforming a mostly tribal nomadic order into a semi-sedentary society deriving its revenue from agriculture and trade. The Ṣafavid period included the beginning of frequent and sustained diplomatic and commercial interactions between Iran and Europe. Most importantly, the Ṣafavids introduced a concept of patrimonial kingship, combining territorial authority with religious legitimacy that, with modifications, would endure until the twentieth century. The political system that emerged under them had overlapping political and religious boundaries and a core language, Persian. This explains why, long after the Ṣafavids had ceased to rule, Iranian rulers invoked their name for legitimacy.

Origins and Early History.

Of Kurdish ancestry, the Ṣafavids started as a Sunnī mystical order centered in Ardabīl, Azerbaijan, the hometown and burial place of the order's founder, Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (1252–1334). Led by noteworthy rulers like al-Junayd and Ḥaydar, they survived the turmoil attending the demise of Mongol rule in Iran, the rise and fall of Tamerlane's ephemeral empire, and the emergence of two successor dynasties, the Aq-Qoyunlu and the Qara-Qoyunlu. Over time, they gravitated toward a popular brand of Twelver Shiism in a process that remains poorly understood. Their religious beliefs remained syncretic, an intricate mixture of Christian, pre-Islamic Turkish, and Muslim cults and beliefs, centering on a messianic devotion to Imam ʿAlī and his family and a shah who was venerated as an incarnation of god. Instrumental in the evolution of the Ṣafavids were the Qizilbash, semi-nomadic Turkmen tribal groups who had migrated eastward from Syria and Antolia. Initially operating as frontier troops in raids against Christians in the Caucasus and Anatolia, the Qizilbash became the military elite of the fledgling Ṣafavid state. Their relationship with the shah was the mystical one of the Ṣūfī master and his disciples. Fiercely loyal to their leader and convinced of their own invincibility, they often threw themselves into battle without armor. They also engaged in pagan cannibalism and wild drinking parties. Ṣafavid shahs rewarded their leaders’ loyalty with appointments as governors of newly conquered provinces.

The dynasty's political rule began with Ismāʿīl, the first of the Ṣafavid shahs, who, having emerged from his hiding place in the Caspian region in 1499, defeated his main rivals and set out to wrest western Iran from the Aq-Qoyunlu. Barely fifteen years of age, Ismāʿīl in 1501 proclaimed himself shah in Tabrīz. He also declared Shiism the official faith of the realm, thus solidifying his own status as divinely appointed and endowing his new state with a strong ideological basis while giving Iran overlapping political and religious boundaries that would last until modern times. In the next decade Ismāʿīl set out to subdue large parts of Iran, most notably Khorāsān and Iraq.

Ismāʿīl encountered his most formidable enemy in the Sunnī Ottomans, who felt threatened by the establishment of a militant Shīʿī state on their border and by its propaganda among their own Turkmen. Mutual vilification and pro-Ṣafavid rebellions in Anatolia led to war, which culminated in a Ṣafavid defeat at the battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The most dramatic outcome of this defeat was the doubt it cast on the invincibility and thus the divine aura of the Ṣafavid ruler, which led to the dynasty's search for different ideological moorings under Shah Ismāʿīl's successors.

Shah T.ahmāsp I.

Shah Ismāʿīl died in 1524, exhausted from heavy drinking, and was succeeded by his ten-year-old son Ṭahmāsp. Given the new ruler's young age, the diminished religious aura of Ṣafavid leadership, and deep divisions among the Qizilbash, it is not surprising that Ṭahmāsp's early reign unleashed a tribal civil war. Only in the 1530s did the shah emerge victorious from this struggle, determined to curtail the power of the unruly Qizilbash. More and more, ethnic Persians and Tajiks, were appointed to the key positions that were traditionally reserved for Turks. The origins of the gholams, “slave soldiers” imported from the Caucasus and introduced as a countervailing force against the overbearing Qizilbash, also go back to this period. The men were trained as administrators, while the women were employed in the royal harem, where they would come to wield great influence.

Shah Ṭahmāsp extended his authority and influence over various areas that under his father had been buffer regions or vassal states, but was less successful against the Ottomans. Provoked by the militantly anti-Sunnī Ṣafavids, they invaded Iran three times between 1534 and 1554, taking Iraq and forcing the Iranians to move their capital from Tabrīz to Qazvīn.

The pious Ṭahmāsp made great efforts to standardize Shīʿī practice around a scriptural, urban-based version of the faith. To disseminate the Shīʿī creed, to shore up his own legitimacy, and to build a religious cadre without ties to any domestic tribal and ethnic faction, the shah invited scholars from Arab lands, most notably Jabal ʿĀmil in Lebanon, to migrate to Iran in return for landed property and high positions. Those who heeded the call became the nucleus of a scholarly class in the service of the state. The leading jurist of his time, Shaykh ʿAlī al-Karaki al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1534), was the most prominent of those.

ShahʿAbbās I.

ShahṬahmāsp's reign was followed by that of two interim rulers, Ismāʿīl II, known for his erratic, cruel behavior as much as for his Sunnī leanings, and the purblind, feeble Shah Khudābanda. The resulting weakness led to renewed Qizilbash revolts and the Ottoman annexation of Iran's northwestern territories. A turning point came with the rule of ShāhʿAbbās I (r. 1587–1629). Universally seen as the greatest Ṣafavid ruler, he oversaw a crucial phase in the evolution of Ṣafavid Iran from a steppe formation to a (quasi-) bureaucratic state. Shah ʿAbbās was above all an outstanding strategist, keen to regain the territories that had been lost to enemy forces or internal sedition. Lacking the resources to fight on two fronts at once, he initially concluded a disadvantageous peace with the Ottomans in order to take on the Uzbegs and regain Khorāsān. He also took Qandahār, established control over the Caspian provinces, and extended Ṣafavid authority to the Persian Gulf, eventually ousting the Portuguese from Hormuz. He reestablished Ṣafavid control over Iraq in the same period.

Securing Iran's borders was intimately linked to the shah's main objective—maximizing personal control and centralizing power. To this end, Shah ʿAbbās embarked on a series of internal reforms designed to break the power of the Qizilbash. He did so by raising the profile of the gholams, to the point that they became the mainstay of the bureaucracy and the military. He also continued to remove a great deal of state land, given out in fiefs, toyuls and soyurghals, from tribal control, converting it into crown (khassa) domain administered directly by a vizier appointed by the shah. Revenue from crown land flowed into the royal treasury, but the frequent rotation of viziers invited fiscal exploitation which, over time, diminished productivity.

In the 1590s the shah transferred his capital from Qazvīn to the more centrally located city of Isfahan. Blending issues of political legitimacy and commercial energy and income, he had a commercial and administrative center built around a magnificent central square, which has endured until the present day. Shah ʿAbbās also reestablished road security and had a great many caravanserais constructed throughout his realm. To take advantage of the commercial and artisanal skills of his Armenian subjects, he resettled a large number of them from the town of Jolfa, in the area bordering the Ottoman Empire, to a suburb of his new capital, which was named New Jolfa.

Mixing commercial with strategic concerns, Shah ʿAbbās opened his country to the wider world in unprecedented ways. His diplomatic overtures to the West, which involved Armenian merchants and European missionaries, were mostly aimed at finding allies in his anti-Ottoman struggle. He allowed Christian missionaries to settle and operate in his realm. He similarly welcomed various Western trading nations, most notably the English and Dutch East India Companies, which, during his reign, made their appearance in Iran with the intent of capturing a share of the country's silk trade.

The Period after Shah ʿAbbās I.

Conventional wisdom portrays Shah ʿAbbās’ death in 1629 as the beginning of Ṣafavid decline. There is no question that, even though the country appeared relatively stable for the next few decades, its resource base grew weaker and that the quality of its leadership deteriorated as well. This is in part attributable to the inherently fragile economic base of Iran—an arid, mostly tribal country with a small population and limited indigenous precious metal sources. It is also related to some of Shah ʿAbbās’ policies—such as his conversion of state to crown land and his practice of locking up the heir-to-be in the harem, which produced inexperienced rulers. The army, already underfunded, grew weaker from the point in 1638 that the Ṣafavids bowed to Ottoman military supremacy and concluded a definitive peace with Istanbul, giving up on Iraq. The peace dividend was offset by diminished military alertness and thus growing vulnerability to outside attack.

Shah ʿAbbās’ immediate successors, Shah Safī (r. 1629–1642) and ʿAbbās II (1642–1666), continued to be roving warriors, keen to quell tribal revolts and resist external aggression. This changed with Sulayman (r. 1666–94) and Sultan Ḥusayn (r. 1694–1722). Both reigned as stationary monarchs who, aside from occasional hunting parties and pilgrimage journeys, preferred to live within the confines of the palace, invisible to all but the most intimate of courtiers. Disconnected and hardly interested in administrative affairs, they relied on their grand viziers for the daily running of the state. Although viziers like Muḥammad Beg (1654–65) and Shaykh ʿAlī Khān (1669–1689) were competent administrators, they could never substitute for the shah, the ultimate source of power, and they thus were unable to reverse the growing incidence of mismanagement and corruption. Under these weak rulers, factionalism, endemic to the system, spun out of control and paralyzed decision-making. The growing domination of the court by eunuchs and harem women only exacerbated this process. The last third of the seventeenth century saw myriad signs of economic retrenchment, most strikingly reflected in a fall in agricultural output and growing numbers of bankruptcies among merchants. The influx of precious metals from Ottoman lands decreased and led to the closing of numerous mints and a deteriorating currency. It is not true that the Ṣafavids failed to respond to these problems. The authorities—though not necessarily the shah—were well aware of the lamentable state of their realm, but efforts to remedy the situation were often half-hearted and negated by systemic rivalry and corruption.

Strains in the relationship between religion and state came to the fore in this period as well. The Ṣafavids never resolved the tension between a religious hierarchy that was in theory beholden only to the Hidden Imam and a state built around ancient Iranian notions of divine kingship. Under Shah ʿAbbās II some high-ranking ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) openly called for direct clerical governance by declaring the rule of the shah illegitimate. The advocates of religious literalism and intolerance grew in influence as well. This expressed itself in a series of clerically inspired campaigns targeting brothels and wine taverns, manifestations of popular Sufism, with its connotations of antinomian behavior, and increasing activity on the part of religious minorities.

By the time Sultan Ḥusayn ascended the throne in 1694, the Ṣafavid polity, once driven by millenarian energy, had lost its ideological direction. Exceedingly pious and impressionable, Sultan Ḥusayn lacked the requisite fortitude to inspire both loyalty and fear. He failed to maintain a balance between reward and punishment and allowed the personal interests of his courtiers and administrators to coalesce into a force preying on the productive population. The last Ṣafavid shah also fell under the spell of the religious forces, and more particularly of Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī, the shaykh al-islām of Isfahan. The attendant religious and fiscal policy alienated many groups, among them the country's large Sunnī population, which was concentrated near the exposed borders. Armenians, a group with a disproportionately large role in the economy, reacted to the increasing fiscal burden by leaving the country in growing numbers.

Even as the peace with the Ottomans endured, outside threats multiplied at the turn of the eighteenth century. Lezgi tribesmen intensified their incursions into Ṣafavid territory from Daghestan. Omani Arabs raided Persian Gulf ports and in 1717 took Bahrain. As revolts broke out in Kurdistan and Lorestān, Baluchī marauders threatened Kermān and rebellious Abdālī Afghans captured Mashhad and Herat. The outward domestic stability began to unravel as well. Road security lapsed, with local governors aiding and abetting highway brigands, and caravans suffering attack close to the gates of the capital. The reaction from Isfahan typifies the prevailing disarray at the court. As the treasury lacked the funds to equip an army capable of meeting the mounting challenges, the shah built pleasure gardens, the cost of which was extorted from peasants and merchants. Under pressure from his great-aunt Maryam Begum, Sultan Ḥusayn in 1718 organized a military campaign, but problems with the recruitment and payment of soldiers doomed the effort, and even the decision to have the gold from Shīʿī shrines minted into coins failed to yield the requisite funds.

The decisive blow came from the east and had its origins in the brutal repression of the population of Qandahār by the local Georgian governor, fueling rebellion by the Ghilzai Afghans. In 1721 their leader, Mahmūd, took Kermān, where he was welcomed by the hard-pressed Zoroastrian population. Moving on to Isfahan, the Afghans were even encouraged by members of the Qizilbash embittered about the Georgians and the high positions they had concentrated in their hands. After defeating a hastily assembled Ṣafavid (Georgian) army near Isfahan, the Afghans took the suburbs and, unable to breach the city walls, next resorted to a blockade. After a six-month siege, starvation brought the city down, and Sultan Ḥusayn in October 1722 submitted to Mahmūd, conferring on him the title of shah. As the Ṣafavid regime crumbled, both the Ottomans and the Russians took advantage of Iran's weakened state to invade the north and northwest.

See also IRAN.


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