Part One


Between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries, the Safavid Empire and its successor states strived to preserve in western Asia an imperial state with a distinct Shi‘i identity. Hostile encounters with Sunni powers on western and eastern frontiers, especially the militarily superior Ottoman Empire, contained the Shi‘i state within the boundaries of Iran proper and peripheral territories. As most of the population converted to Shi‘ism in a relatively short period of time, the messianic revolutionary movement of the sixteenth century gradually transformed into a shari‘a-based creed represented by a class of jurists. The Qezilbash Turkish tribal elite who came to power with the Safavids were gradually defanged and replaced with a class of white military slaves. Yet some volatile features of the tribal past persisted.

Despite inherent limits on the economy, the Safavid Empire thrived through trade and found new routes to export its commodities. As the center of the empire gravitated toward the center of the Iranian plateau, the Caucasian provinces, greater Khorasan, and the Persian Gulf were further incorporated into the empire. Commercial and diplomatic contacts with early modern Europe via maritime and overland routes improved, especially after the Portuguese monopoly in the Persian Gulf was brought to an end. Contacts with Europe remained precarious even though they were important for Iran’s silk trade. Safavid and post-Safavid Iran never fully overcame the Ottoman commercial block in order to gain secure access to the Mediterranean. Diplomatic contacts with Europe also made the Safavids aware of their geostrategic significance.

The complex set of factors that contributed to the waning of the Safavid Empire and its eventual collapse in the early eighteenth century plunged Iran into periods of nomadic unrest and foreign occupations. It took more than half a century before the problem of succession to the Safavid state was resolved through periodically reignited civil wars along the north-south and Persian-Turkic tribal divides. Economic decline and serious blows to urban life were inevitable outcomes. Nader Shah’s expansionist empire proved ephemeral. The Zands, too, only temporarily returned prosperity to southern Iran. The Qajar supremacy in the last decades of the eighteenth century endured in part because of favorable internal and international circumstances, but also because loyalty to Shi‘ism contributed to preservation of Iran’s socioreligious fabric and the Qajars’ reinvented sense of national unity.



In March 1501 Isma‘il, a fifteen-year-old descendant from the house of Safavi in the Iranian Azarbaijan, declared himself the “King of Kings” and the founder of a new Shi‘i state that came to be known as the Safavid dynasty. Shortly after his accession in Tabriz, the new shah, who entertained wild messianic claims, ordered that all mosques in his realm recite the Shi‘i version of the Islamic call to prayer (fig. 1.1). The additional phrase in this version, “I witness that ‘Ali is God’s friend” (wali-Allah), was meant to demonstrate the legitimate authority (welayat) of ‘Ali, the first Shi‘i Imam, and that of his progeny. This was the first time since the eleventh century that a Shi‘i call to prayer had been heard from the minarets of an Islamic state. A royal decree issued by Isma‘il also required his subjects to publicly curse the Rightly Guided Caliphs of the early Islamic era: “Whoever disobeys, he is to be beheaded.”1

Isma‘il’s anti-Sunni audacity was complemented not only by bold practices of the Turkmen warrior clans in his service but also by his patronage of Arab Shi‘i jurists who were invited to his kingdom, first from northern Syria and later from southern Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. The historian Hasan Rumlu, a near contemporary of Isma‘il’s, notes that at first, “even the basics of the Shi‘i law were not known; nor were the rules and rituals of the rightful Twelver Shi‘i sect.” Until then, to most people in Iran—save for pockets in Khorasan, Gilan, and central Iran—Shi‘ism often meant reverence for the House of the Prophet rather than a belief system presided over by Shi‘i jurists.


The rise of the Safavid state and assertion of Shi‘ism as religion of the realm at the outset of the sixteenth century (corresponding to the turn of the tenth Islamic century) was a turning point not only for Iran proper but also for the predominantly Sunni neighboring lands. Since its inception, Shi‘ism has been imbued with a cult of suffering and martyrdom. It also has prompted numerous messianic movements with crucial roles in the shaping of Islamic history. The Safavid movement and the brand of Twelver Shi‘ism it came to promote were the end result of one such messianic process. Twelver Shi‘ism upheld the belief that the direct line of succession of twelve Imams from the House of ‘Ali is the sole source of legitimate authority in Islam. The last of these Imams, according to Twelver Shi‘is, is the Mahdi, who is the Lord of the Time. He is currently in the state of “Occultation” but will return to earth at the End of Time. The Safavid Empire, moreover, came to represent the focal point of a wide geographical span of Shi‘i communities that stretched from tip of the Indian subcontinent to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean (map 1.1).

Figure 1.1. Isma‘il I declaring Shi‘ism as the religion of the realm in the Tabriz Friday Mosque in 1501. The inscription reads: “The king himself proceeded to the front of the pulpit, unsheathed the sword of the Lord of Time, may peace be upon him, and stood there like the shining sun.”

Anonymous, History of Shah Isma‘il. © The British Library Board, OR 3248, f. 74.

Since the middle of the fourteenth century, the Safavid movement had preserved an embattled enclave in Azarbaijan and eastern Anatolia, despite many military and ideological challenges. Once in power, however, the movement impressed on its subjects a new Shi‘i identity and nurtured an imperial state on which Iran’s political sovereignty would come to rest. Ruthless and unwavering though Isma‘il and his successors were, the Safavids brought (in a relatively short span of time) a degree of conformity to an otherwise disparate mosaic of local dynasties, ethnicities, and cultures that had divided Iran since Timur’s time a century earlier. The Safavids thus reconstituted the Guarded Domains of Iran. They patronized a refined Persian material culture and helped articulate a tradition of Islamic philosophy and theology. They established diplomatic and commercial ties with Europe and facilitated Iran’s earliest encounters with Western modernity.

Safavid Iran did not emerge in geographical or political isolation but was very much part of a process that transformed the world, regionally and globally, in early modern times, an age marked by new religious impulses, broadened geographical horizons, shifts in the accumulation of wealth, technological breakthroughs, and new thinking about humanity. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, the heartland of Islam, between the Nile and the Oxus (Amu Darya), witnessed the establishment of a new politico-religious system comprising four imperial powers: the Ottoman Empire encompassing Anatolia and the Balkans, and later the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa; the Safavid Empire from Azarbaijan and the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf and greater Khorasan; the Mughal Empire dominating the Indian subcontinent from Sindh and Punjab in the west to Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east, and Deccan in the south; and the Uzbek confederacy of Central Asia that dominated old centers of Islamic civilization such as Samarkand and Bukhara.

The Gunpowder Empires—as these conquering and quarreling powers were called, because of their increasing use of firearms for conquest and control—were indeed Persianate empires. They were organized around the ancient Perso-Islamic model of government and remained within the parameters of Persian language and culture, at least before the rise of Turkish vernacular in the Ottoman Empire and Urdu and Hindi in the Mughal world (map 1.2).

These imperial systems also shared among themselves, and with the Europe of their time, some rudiments of modernity. Territorially they were tied to relatively well-defined boundaries, they sponsored and often enforced a religious creed, their armies enjoyed great firepower, and their agrarian economies began to be affected by a new world system of long-distance trade, overseas and transoceanic contacts, and monetary trends. Changes within these empires were in line with revolutionary changes in the world at large. The seventy-year span between the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the Mughal conquest of northern India in 1526 coincided with at least four major global processes: the “voyages of discovery” and expansion of commercial maritime empires in both the Eastern and the Western Hemispheres and the colonization of the Americas; the shaping of European empire and nation-states with expansionist ambitions; and the high Renaissance in central and southern Europe, as well as the age of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Map 1.1. Shi‘i communities and messianic movements in Iran and neighboring lands, thirteenth to seventeenth centuries

The Muslim empires of this period, similar to the Chinese, Malay, and Japanese societies to the east, were in a transitional stage that combined old patterns of socioeconomic organization and the values of a time-honored culture with new modes of legitimacy and new means of technology. With some degree of historical latitude, the state-sponsored Shi‘ism that came about with the rise of the Safavids can be compared to the Reformation in northern and central Europe, and the Sunni reaction to it with the Counter-Reformation. The ensuing schism between the Sunnis and the Shi‘is recalls the Protestant-Catholic cleavage that hastened the shaping of the European nation-states (see map 1.2).

Map 1.2. Early modern empires, 1450–1650

The artistic and literary efflorescence that first came about especially in Herat but also in Samarkand and Tabriz was as significant for the Islamic world as the Italian and German Renaissance was for European culture. The military technology that began to change the shape of Muslim domains, from Bosnia to Bengal, was no less palpable than the impact of the same technology in Europe or Japan. Despite such parallels, however, the process of change in Muslim societies did not follow the European pattern and should not be studied as if it did. Though chronologically parallel and equally as revolutionary, and no doubt interconnected, the potential for change in these societies brought about different results. The Safavids’ hostile political and ideological relations with the Ottomans, in turn, made Iran’s access to the Mediterranean limited and haphazard. Both empires, Safavid and Ottoman, remained essentially introverted and unable to seriously engage with new trends that rapidly were changing Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Within Iran, the Safavids’ rise to power was the outcome of nearly three centuries of upheavals since the Mongol invasion of the early thirteenth century. More specifically, it was the result of a prolonged period of instability following the demise of the vast Timurid Empire in the second part of the fifteenth century. Despite a short-lived recovery and outburst of cultural brilliance, the Persianate world of the fifteenth century was weakened, at times devastated, and experienced more ethnic divisions than it had before. Politically, it had almost completely fragmented into quarreling principalities and unstable city-states.

Isma‘il’s rise to power was the culmination of more than two centuries of struggle within the house of Safavi, first for religious authority and then for political power in Azarbaijan and neighboring lands. The Safavid beginnings were rather tragic. Isma‘il’s grandfather, father, and older brother all met their death on the battlefield fighting crusade-like campaigns in the Caucasus against the Christian population whom they branded as “infidels.” These campaigns promised them booty, slaves, and territory. Their enemies saw these leaders of the Safavi Sufi order as nothing more than fanatics with dangerous political ambitions. To their seminomadic Turkmen devotees who gradually gathered around them from neighboring lands, these “Lords of Ardabil” were saints who had been martyred for a divine cause.

The Safavi house originally was among the landowning nobility of Kurdish origin, with affinity to the Ahl-e Haqq in Kurdistan (chart 1). In the twelfth century, the family settled in northeastern Azarbaijan, where Safi al-Din Ardabili (d. 1334), the patriarch of the Safavid house and Isma‘il’s ancestor dating back six generations, was a revered Sufi leader. He had founded the Safavi suborder, which was still Sunni, composed mystical poetry in the old Azari dialect, amassed great wealth, and enjoyed the respect of rulers and ministers of his time. He lived in an age when Sufi orders enjoyed great popularity because they offered a form of religion more personal and intimate than the shari‘a-oriented religion of the jurists and theologians. The Safavi order thrived not only because it attracted peasants and city dwellers around Ardabil and the western Caspian, but also because, under Shaykh Safi’s successors, Safavi missionaries in neighboring Anatolia (today’s eastern Turkey) and upper Mesopotamia (today’s northern Iraq) converted many Turkmen nomads to the order. As early as the mid-fourteenth century, the tomb of Safi al-Din Ardabili was a prominent site of Sufi veneration.

By the fifteenth century the Safavid Sufis, who up to then were moderate Sunnis, had transformed significantly. The order adopted a form of Shi‘ism with messianic proclivities and increasingly became a crusading force with overt political ambitions. The shift was no doubt colored by the “heresies” indigenous to the region, but it also aimed to fill the yawning political vacuum in western Iran. Economically, the area under the Safavids’ fragile control in Azarbaijan was significant because it encompassed trade routes from the Caspian Sea to Tabriz, and further northwest to the trading centers of the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. To the political masters of the region, the regular passage of the caravan trade meant prosperity and power.

Chart 1. Genealogical chart of the Safavid dynasty

To the west of the rising Safavids, who were still a small Sufi enclave, other mighty powers were in control of the neighboring lands. The Ottoman Turks were expanding both west and east with a crusading zeal similar to that of the Safavids. Their exploits were not restricted to Christian lands in the Balkans; they extended also to the waning principalities of Anatolia. Further toward the east, the rapidly declining Timurid Empire, with Tabriz as its western capital, had already fallen to Turkmen dynasties, first the Shi‘i Qara Qoyonlu (Black Sheep, 1380–1468) and then the powerful Sunni Aq Qoyonlu (White Sheep, 1478–1501). Despite their nomadic origins, these Turkmen dynasties upheld a strong Persian tradition of kingship and court culture, as did most Anatolian principalities devoured by the Ottomans in the course of the fifteenth century.

The Aq Qoyonlu in particular transmitted much of these Persianate administrative and courtly features to the rising Safavids. To the southwest of the Aq Qoyonlu were the Burji Mamluks of Egypt and Syria (1382–1517). As the bastion of Sunni orthodoxy, the Mamluks were in control of the eastern Mediterranean coasts, but they were unwilling to penetrate deep into the Syrian interiors or farther north to confront Ottoman military might head-to-head—and probably incapable of doing so. The temporary political vacuum, lasting for more than half a century, was ideal for new empire builders in western Iran. A formidable contender was the founder of the above-mentioned Aq Qoyonlu dynasty, Hasan Beg, better known as Uzun Hasan (“Tall Hasan,” presumably because of his physique; r. 1453–1478). He managed to reconquer most of the western Timurid territories and, for a while, return tranquility to the land. He was a prototype, militarily and politically, for the forthcoming Safavid venture.

The advancing Ottomans were not the only concern of Uzun Hasan. As early as 1457, mindful of the rising influence of the Safavi order, he exiled the leadership from Ardabil and tried to restrain it both through coercion and through establishing marital unions. Isma‘il’s ancestry illustrates how such marital alliances bore fruits beyond Uzun Hasan’s intent. Isma‘il’s grandfather Shaykh Jonayd, who for years was a hostage in the Aq Qoyonlu court in Tabriz, was married to Uzun Hasan’s sister (see chart 1). Later, Shaykh Haydar, Jonayd’s son and Isma‘il’s father, married in 1472 Uzun Hasan’s daughter Halima, also known by her Christian name Martha. She was born to Uzun Hasan’s Greek Orthodox wife, a princess named Theodora Despina Khatun, the daughter of John IV, the penultimate ruler of the Greek house of Megas Komnenos of Trebizond (see chart 1). The Komnenos line was the last of the Byzantine successors (with a history that went back to 1204, when they had fled to the Black Sea port of Trebizond—today’s Trabzon—after the Latin Crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople). Marriage alliances with Uzun Hasan and with a number of Muslim dynasties, however, did not save Trebizond from the Ottoman advances. By 1461 Mohammad II (Mehmet the Conqueror) had conquered the kingdom, and the last of its rulers—a relative of Isma‘il—and his royal family were captured and sent off to Constantinople. Two years later the family was beheaded by order of the Ottoman sultan for their alleged secret communication with Uzun Hasan.

What made the Safavid order especially potent, as Uzun Hasan’s successors soon realized, was its combined mystical and military appeal to the Turkmen warriors of the region, who flocked to the Safavi lords of Ardabil once pressure from Ottoman expansion proved unbearable. Organized into a Turkmen confederacy, possibly as early as the 1480s, the Qezilbash (Turkish for “the red heads”), as their enemies first called them, were the backbone of the Safavid fighting force. Organized along tribal lines, both real and invented, their chief function was to launch raids into the interiors of the Caucasus, and most significantly, to Georgia (Gorjestan), to plunder and capture Christian slaves (map 1.3). The twelve-folded cap made of red fabric was a distinct marker of the Qezilbash. It was adopted by Isma‘il’s father and presumably symbolized devotion to Twelver Shi‘ism. In reality, more than anything else, the headgear symbolized devotion to the Safavi leaders, who by the middle of the fifteenth century had begun to refer to themselves with the royal title shah.

The beliefs and practices of the Qezilbash were far removed from mainstream Twelver Shi‘ism and much closer to the unorthodox beliefs of northwestern Iran and eastern Anatolia. Generally labeled as ghulat (religious exaggerators), reverence for ‘Ali, the first Shi‘i Imam, was at the core of the religion of Ahl-e Haqq prevalent among the Kurdish, Turkmen, Yazidi (originally known as Izadis) and other inhabitants of the region. The diffuse creed of the Qezilbash included non-Islamic folklore ranging from crypto-Zoroastrian beliefs to shamanistic practices, the latter a relic of a distant pagan Turkmen past in their Central Asian homeland. What was remarkable about these nonorthodox trends in the borderlands was a dormant form of messianism, one untouched by the strictures of urban Islam. Notions of divine inspiration and reincarnation were not uncommon, and the Perfect Guide (morshed-e kamel), as the Qezilbash called their Safavid master, was viewed not only as the reincarnation of ‘Ali but also as a manifestation of the divine in human form. The potentials for such deep loyalties were immense. As it turned out, the heretical “extremism” of the Safavi order, as its opponents saw it, would successfully channel an amorphous nomadic mass of followers into a powerful military force.

Map 1.3. Early Safavid expansion under Shah Isma‘il I, 1499–1524

The Qezilbash followers of Isma‘il, a mix of nomadic refugees who had lost their pasturelands, and their way of life, to the advancing Ottoman armies, had enigmatic origins. The name of the “tribes” of the Qezilbash confederacy derived from regions they considered to be their homeland. The Rumlu presumably came from Rum (or Anatolia, as Muslims identified the former Byzantine province). The Shamlu from Sham, or Syria; the Takkelu from the Takkeh in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean; the Ostajlu from Ostaj in the southern Caucasus. Others, such as the Qajar and the Afshar, were named after regions in Azarbaijan or after their presumed tribal ancestors. In the early sixteenth century, there were seven major “tribes” of the Qezilbash, all of whom shared a nomadic or seminomadic lifestyle, the Turkish language, a “messianic” faith, and hatred of the Ottomans. Each tribe was made up of numerous clans and subclans who better reflected the ethnic composition of the Qezilbash.

A charismatic and ambitious young man, Isma‘il epitomized the revolutionary process that propelled him into the dual position of a Persian shah and a Sufi master (pl. 1.1). In 1498, when he came out of hiding in the Caspian town of Lahijan to begin his long-awaited revolt, his chances did not seem better than those of his slain predecessors. Yet his capture of Erzenjan in eastern Anatolia, where his grandfather Uzun Hasan had been defeated by the Ottomans in 1473, and soon after his advances in Azarbaijan and the Caucasus against many local contenders, promised something different. Even though he was still in his teens, to his senior followers, who had hosted him while in Lahijan hiding, Isma‘il appeared to be a sacred leader who had come to avenge the martyrdom of his forefathers and deliver worldly blessings of land, flocks, and slaves to the Qezilbash.

There was more to Isma‘il’s claim to power than just his illustrious Sufi ancestry. As a grandson of Uzun Hasan he saw himself as a legitimate heir to his throne and with an agenda to reconquer what had been lost by Hasan’s successors. He must have also been aware of his royal Greek descent through his mother, Martha. His ill feelings toward the Ottomans were deepened not only by the memory of Uzun Hasan’s decisive defeat at the hand of Mohammad the Conqueror but also by the terrible fate of his maternal grand uncle and other relatives.

To a mix of Turkmen messianism and ancestral claims, Isma‘il added a third element of Twelver Shi‘ism. While still in hiding in Lahijan, an old Shi‘i stronghold in Gilan province, some local dignitaries instructed him in the rudiments of Twelver doctrine. As it turned out, Isma‘il himself was not particularly keen on practicing the Twelver (or Ja‘fari) law, but it was this brand of Shi‘ism that he came to promote with zeal throughout his reign. It could be argued that the sacred kingship he represented, a union between Persian kingship and messianic Shi‘ism, could be accomplished only by the promotion of Shi‘i shari‘a. It is no accident that despite the haphazard beginnings of Safavid rule, Isma‘il’s Twelver conviction, and its enforcement as the state creed by persuasion and by force, remained an unflinching commitment. Although at first glance it may seem that at the age of fifteen Isma‘il was no more than a puppet of the Qezilbash elite (and no doubt they did exert great influence on him), it was apparently his own commitment to Twelver Shi‘ism, against the advice of his Qezilbash chiefs, that persuaded him to convert the predominantly Sunni population of his expanding empire.


In the first decade after his accession, between 1501 and 1511, Isma‘il conquered nearly all of Uzun Hasan’s empire and more. In a series of brilliant campaigns marked by his personal valor and devotion of the Qezilbash irregular forces, he annexed close to seventeen semiautonomous and autonomous principalities, city-states, and local dynasties (see map 1.3). The conquered territory stretched from Diyarbakir in eastern Anatolia, a stronghold for the Qezilbash, to the Sharvanshah kingdom of the southern Caucasus, and from Azarbaijan and Kurdistan to the western Iranian provinces (known as Persian Iraq). Soon Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman, and Khuzestan in central and southern Iran—even as far south as the shores of the Persian Gulf—were annexed to the nascent empire.

At the outset of his reign, Isma‘il adopted distinct strategies to consolidate and to convert. He consciously aimed to create not only a Shi‘i state but also a Shi‘i society. In waging war against his many rivals both to the east and to the west, his method of conquest involved terror and coercion, perhaps more out of expediency than faith, and promotion of the Shi‘i shari‘a by appointing clerical representatives to the newly conquered territories. Praising ‘Ali, the First Imam, and his House and cursing the first three caliphs of early Islam from the pulpit of the mosques as well as in the streets, Safavid itinerant propagandists, known as the “denouncers,” demanded that their terrified audiences respond to their anti-Sunni curses by uttering the words “more upon them and no less.” The exercise of “denouncing” complemented by “affirming” loyalty to ‘Ali and his House was commonplace. The affirmation also included defaming some of the companions of the Prophet as well as slandering ‘Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite wife, for her opposition to ‘Ali.

Any public resistance met with grave retributions. In Tabriz, where there was initial resistance to the Safavids’ forced conversion, thousands of Sunnis, perhaps as many as twenty thousand, were massacred. If this was meant to be a horrifying example for Sunnis in other cities, it was effective, for with very few exceptions, the general public, mostly belonging to the Sunni Shafi‘i school, complied once their Sunni religious leadership was sufficiently intimidated or, more often, eliminated. In Isfahan and Shiraz, which both fell to the Safavids in 1503, Isma‘il executed a number of resisting Sunni dignitaries, judges, and preachers. In Baghdad, which was conquered by Isma‘il in 1508, the members of the local ruling dynasty and their supporting Sunni elite were executed, and the shrine of Abu Hanifa, the eighth-century Sunni jurist and founder of the Hanafi school of law, was desecrated and destroyed. On his way back through Huwiza, on the banks of Shatt al-Arab, Isma‘il defeated the house of Musha‘sha‘, a local dynasty with its own messianic claims and massacred the ruling elite.

In at least two mountain fortresses in Mazandaran province, which fell to the Qezilbash army in 1504, Isma‘il reportedly ordered the massacre of the entire population, perhaps in vengeance for their stiff resistance. In the same campaign, after the capture of the fortress of Usta in the central Alborz range, where Morad Beg Bayandori, the last of the Aq Qoyonlu princes and a blood relative of Isma‘il had taken refuge, the Safavid conqueror ordered his wild Qezilbash devotees to broil the prince alive and devour him. Upon defeating the local Persian dynasty of Shervan in the lower Caucasus, against whom Isma‘il’s father and grandfather both had fought and died, he massacred the ruling family and exhumed and burned the bodies of their ancestors, a practice he believed would deprive them of final redemption. The Shervanshahids, a local Persian dynasty whose rule dated to the middle of the ninth century, controlled a strategic crossroads in the southeastern Caucasus and prospered from the region’s silk trade (see map 1.3).

Isma‘il’s ferocity and the atrocities committed by his unruly Qezilbash hordes were followed soon after by a systematic and enduring program of Shi‘i indoctrination. For this, Isma‘il and his advisers found willing allies and ideological commissars among the Shi‘i jurists of Jabal ‘Amil in southern Lebanon. The Shi‘i scholars who long had been persecuted in their homeland by the Mamluk rulers, and later by the Ottomans, found in Isma‘il an ideal patron, and in Safavid Iran a refuge for a life of respect and privilege. The enduring symbiosis between the Safavids and the Arab jurists, who began to arrive by the dozens at the court of Isma‘il and his successors, was beneficial to both. Unlike the indigenous Shi‘i ulama of Iran, or those Sunni jurists and dignitaries who, under duress or to protect their privileges had converted to Shi‘ism, the Arab jurists were newcomers to the Iranian scene, had no knowledge of Persian, and the customs and traditions of their host country were alien to them. Thus, they could not easily build a network of local loyalties independent of the Safavid state.

The loyalty of the Jabal ‘Amil ulama to the Safavid state also served the Qezilbash chiefs, for they were adapted even less than the Arab jurists to their new Iranian environment. They could barely converse in Persian, if at all, and could scarcely trust or even tolerate the rising Iranian element in the Safavid court and administration, let alone the diverse Iranian public in the remote provinces to which they were assigned as military governors. The Tajiks (from the Persian tazi, “alien”), as the invading Qezilbash labeled the indigenous Persian population, posed a serious threat to both the Turkmen and the Arab elements, a competition that affected every aspect of government and society for at least a century.

Isma‘il’s method of conquest, moreover, allowed the Qezilbash to occupy a position of influence in the newly emerging Safavid state. In the patterns of Turkmen tribes, many settled in the newly conquered territories as a military force and a new landowning class. Yet even at the outset of his reign, the young shah was well aware of the need not only for a centralized state administration but also for a balancing of the major three ethnic groups in his service. He relied on the small Qezilbash clique known as the Sufis of Lahijan to hold a number of important high offices. He appointed a regent (vakil) to oversee the affairs of the state. Isma‘il himself had a noticeable aversion to administrative duties, even though he possessed innate political insights. The vakil also occupied a powerful military position as commander in chief of the Safavid army. That this powerful office should first be assigned to Isma‘il’s Qezilbash childhood tutor from the Lahijan circle was not surprising. Another Qezilbash was also assigned to the sensitive office of khalifat al-khulafa (caliph of the caliphs, or chief of the deputies) to oversee maintenance of “spiritual” ties with the shah, their emblematic Perfect Guide, through a network of agents in each Qezilbash division. The post combined ideological oversight at home as well acting as a kind of agent provocateur, especially in the Ottoman territories.

Yet the Qezilbash’s unfamiliarity with the state administration (divan) soon convinced Isma‘il of the need for a division of power. Parallel to the office of the vakil, he appointed Shams al-Din from Lahijan, his own Persian teacher, to the office of sadr (lit., “heart”), with full authority over the religious affairs of the state. The sadr was responsible for all clerical and judicial appointments, charitable endowments (awqaf), and most critically, the conversion of the general public to Twelver Shi‘ism. At the same time, Isma‘il appointed another former Persian guard of his as vazir(vizier) to head, among other tasks, accounting and collection of taxes.

In due course the power of the Qezilbash was further checked, and eventually subdued, as the shah tilted further toward a succession of Persian officials. In 1508 he appointed to the office of vakil Najm al-Din Rashti, a goldsmith from Rasht and an old companion of Isma‘il. He may have financed Isma‘il’s early rise to power. The ascendance of Najm gave the office of the vakil the kind of authority associated with that of the chief minister in the Persian model of government while the religious affairs remained under the sadr, another Persian official. Under Najm’s successor, a business-savvy Persian from Isfahan known as Najm II, the office of the vakil gained greater prominence. To the dislike of the Qezilbash chiefs, Najm II even led the Safavid forces in military campaigns.

The Turkmen-Tajik tension that flared up periodically during and after Isma‘il’s reign also involved the jurists from Jabal ‘Amil. But no matter how eagerly the Qezilbash chiefs and the Arab ulama resisted the indigenous Persian element’s rise to prominence, they could not evade the dictates of a transforming state. The paradigm shift from a messianic crusade to a bureaucratic state appeared inevitable. The shift did not happen overnight, yet Isma‘il managed to strike a fragile equilibrium among the restive Qezilbash and their Persian rivals. To be sure, Isma‘il felt deeply indebted to the Qezilbash and had to grant them booty and pastureland. He was obliged to assign provincial and district governorships to them as tenured fiefdoms (soyurghal). In these fiefdoms the tent-dwelling Turkmen warriors roamed at the expense of the settled rural and urban populations. Yet the early Safavid drive for territorial conquest and for conversion to Shi‘ism also entailed a vision for a Persian imperial state, no matter how haphazardly it would be attained.


In the first decade of its creation, Isma‘il’s nascent state replicated that of the Aq Qoyonlus. Yet his vision of a universal empire emulated Timur’s world-conquering ambitions of more than a century earlier. Despite Isma‘il’s initial hesitation to march on Herat, by 1510 new incentives made him embark on an eastern campaign. The death of Sultan Hosain Bayqara (r. 1470–1506), a celebrated patron of Persian art and culture, whose domain for three decades had remained an island of urbane refinement, exposed the region to new nomadic incursions from further north. By 1500 already a large Uzbek contingent under the leadership of Shayban (or Shaybani) Khan, a descendant of Changiz Khan and founder of the Uzbek seminomadic kingdom, captured Samarkand, the capital of the eastern Timurids. They ravaged much of the region and caused havoc over greater Khorasan as far south as Marv (Merv in today’s Turkmenistan) and Mashhad in northeastern Iran. The arrival of the Uzbeks, the latest wave of Turkic-Mongolian incursions into the interiors of Central Asia, posed a grave challenge to the security of the region. Shayban Khan, who saw himself as the legitimate heir to Changiz Khan, eventually managed to capture the prized city of Herat in 1507, putting an end to the last of the Timurid kingdoms.

If Isma‘il’s needed any further motive to wage a war against Shayban, the capture of the city of Mashhad by the Uzbeks, the looting of the shrine of the Eighth Shi‘i Imam of its riches, and declaring the Safavid ruler a dangerous heretic, provided the pretext. In 1510 when he embarked on a campaign against Shayban in Marv, the ground for a Sunni-Shi‘i showdown had already been laid. Whether it was an old ploy—luring the enemy into the interior before waging battle or the inferiority of Uzbek forces to those of the Qezilbash, the Uzbeks were routed and Shayban himself was trampled to death on the battlefield (see map 1.3). The defeat of the Uzbeks was an important turning point. The capture of both Marv and Herat set limits on the eastern expansion of Safavid Iran, frontiers that remained essentially in place until the mid-nineteenth century, despite many later Uzbek incursions. Isma‘il’s halfhearted sorties after Herat to conquer Samarkand and beyond, however, proved futile. In contrast to Samarkand and Bukhara, which remained Sunni strongholds, Herat fully incorporated into the Safavid Empire, in part because of its earlier Shi‘i-Sufi proclivities, and as the eastern capital of the empire, vastly contributed to the shaping of Safavid culture.

Isma‘il celebrated his victory with his typical cruelty. He turned the skull of Shayban Khan, his ideological adversary, into a gold-plated wine cup, witness to his long hours of heavy drinking. Shayban’s dismembered right arm was sent off to Prince Zahir al-Din Babur, the future founder of the Mughal Empire, who then was in control of Kabul. It was a symbolic reminder of Safavid reach. The reflective Timurid prince took heed and for a while collaborated with the Safavids against their common Uzbek enemy. He even pretended to be a Shi‘i client of Isma‘il. Later he headed south to the less formidable tranquility of northern Hindustan. The stuffed skin of Shayban Khan’s head also served as another carnal dispatch to the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II (r. 1481–1512). The heinous act, though not entirely outside the norms of the time, generated outrage in the Ottoman capital, reaffirming the perceptions of the Safavids as fierce heretics. The rest of Shayban’s body was ritualistically devoured by a cannibal clan of the Qezilbash as proof of their devotion to their Perfect Guide.

The Sunni dignitaries of Herat, Marv, and Balkh (who fell under Safavid rule soon after), did not fare any better at the hands of the Qezilbash army, which did not hesitate to massacre the defenseless or coerce them to Shi‘ism. The Persian (Tajik) officials were no less merciful. Isma‘il’s chief minister, Najm II, in 1513 after the fall of the Uzbek fortress of Qarshi (on the way to Bukhara), razed the fortress to the ground and reportedly massacred the entire Sunni population, including children, and their domestic animals. He felt consoled having retaliated for the massacres centuries earlier in his hometown Isfahan by Mongol and later by Timurid invaders.

The news of Isma‘il’s victory over the Uzbeks and consolidation in the east did not sit well with the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul or with the Mamluk sultan of Egypt and Syria. The Safavid movement had become a rallying point for the restive population of Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia whose territories were disputed among three powers. The triumphant prophet of Ardabil thus was a subject of reverence for many of the region’s Shi‘i Alawite population. Inspired by Safavid missionaries, the Turkmen communities of the Ottoman Empire, as far west as Konya (in today’s Turkey), were mobilized into a fervent messianic movement under Shah-Qoli Baba of the Takkelu tribe (on the northeastern Mediterranean coast). Seeking to replicate Isma‘il’s revolt, they rebelled against the Ottoman state and its provincial agents, perhaps in anticipation of a union with the Safavids. Shah-Qoli was killed in 1511, and the movement halted temporarily, yet even then, the Ottomans’ anxiety over losing much of their Asian possessions was not eased. Nor was their hatred for Isma‘il diminished, even though he disowned Shah Qoli and apologized to the Ottomans for the atrocities committed during the revolt.

Facing the possibility of a mass Turkmen exodus into the Safavid realm, the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II opted for conciliation, at least on the surface, and welcomed Isma‘il’s gestures to establish good neighborly relations. Bayazid, despite a serious revolt from his own son, Salim, who was critical of his father’s policy of Safavid appeasement, nevertheless recognized Isma‘il as the legitimate ruler of Iran and tried in vain to strike some sense into his fervent head. He even addressed Isma‘il in his correspondence as heir to the kingdom of Kaykhosrow—the legendary great king of the Shahnameh—and to Dara (Darius) of the ancient Persian Empire. He further advised Isma‘il to behave royally, preserve his precious and strategically vital kingdom with justice and equanimity, end forced conversions, and leave in peace with his neighbors.

The situation, however, changed dramatically in 1512. In stark contrast to his father, Salim I (r. 1512–1520), who already had sensed the Safavid danger when he was governor of the Ottoman Black Sea provinces, left no room for compromise. There were many good reasons why Salim, who forced his father to abdicate, was labeled “fierce” (Turkish yavuz, rendered in English as Salim the Grim). From the outset he was determined not only to crush the remnant of the Shi‘i resistance in Anatolia but also to teach a lesson to, and possibly even eliminate, the reckless heretic Isma‘il, who in his view was exporting his Shi‘i revolution to Ottoman lands. At the core of Salim’s rage was his fear of a Safavid offensive from the east, an old concern of the Ottomans who at the time were making new advances in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. A century earlier, in 1400, Timur’s routing of the Ottoman defenses in Bursa and his caging of the Ottoman sultan for public display, was a humiliating memory for a state that was founded on the idea of conquest. That the Ottoman Empire one day succumb to the Shi‘i propaganda in its heartland, and even within its own military, was an alarming possibility that was to be avoided at any cost.

Disdainfully labeling Isma‘il as the “Sufi kid” and the “Ardabil lad” and addressing him in official correspondence with obnoxious terms, Salim closed all negotiating channels with the Persian shah. While preparing for his anti-Safavid campaign, the first and one of the most crucial of his short but tumultuous reign, he once more wrote to Isma‘il. Shortly before reaching the Iranian frontier, Salim called Isma‘il “prince” and “the ruler of the Persian kingdom, the owner of the realm of oppression and tyranny, the master of sedition and commander of the rebels, the Darius of his time and the Zahhak of the age, equivalent of Cain.” He further accused Isma‘il as having

subjected the pure Mohammedan nation, may peace and greetings upon its founder, to his deceptive creed and debunked the foundation of the solemn faith [of Islam], hoisted the banners of tyranny by means of coercion . . . and encouraged his own wicked Shi‘i followers to rape the chaste women and freely shed the blood of the dignitaries, . . . destroyed mosques and built houses for idol worshiping . . . and called the luminous Qur’an a myth of the bygone times.

Referring to the fatwa of the Sunni ulama denouncing Isma‘il, the Ottoman sultan went on to say that “since the divine providence and the sacred destiny has placed in our mighty hands the prompt purging of that outright heresy, to abide by that crucial duty, we proceeded toward that land [Iran] . . . so that by the thundering might of our triumphant sward we remove the thorny scrub that has grown in the stream of the lofty shari‘a and eradicate and cast away the invasive weeds that has so rapidly spread.” He then warned the Safavid ruler to “remove the cotton of neglect from the ear of vigilance, place the shroud on his shoulder and be prepared since . . . by the [Qur’anic] command of ‘kill them whenever you encounter them’ we are coming to ruin your fortune and leave not [a single person] on that land.”

Isma‘il’s response to this furious declaration of war was dismissive, even cynical, and yet conciliatory. He sarcastically noted that he found his enemy’s hostile tone, “driven by courage and audacity,” entertaining yet he could not detect the source of hostility since relations with Salim’s late father, as Isma‘il claimed, was cordial. “The reason I have indeed spared your domain were twofold,” he explained. “First, that the majority of the people of that realm are devout followers of my splendid ancestors, may the forgiving God place mercy upon them. Second, my respect for that warrior house [i.e., the Ottomans] is old. We did not wish to impinge on that land a misfortune similar to the time of Timur; indeed, we still don’t wish it on you and hence are not offended by such words. Why should we? Animosity among the kings is an old practice.” He further intimated that all the “inappropriate words” in the letter should be treated as nothing but the withdrawal symptoms of the “opium-addict secretaries” whose daily doses were delayed. He even sent off along with his “friendly reply” to Salim a golden box of opium bearing the royal seal in order “to bring back soberness” to the royal secretaries, who may have included, as Isma‘il’s symbolic gift suggested, a number of Persian refugees to the Ottoman court. With an almost fatalistic tone, Isma‘il then admitted that though he was busy hunting around Isfahan, he had no choice but to start preparing for war (fig. 1.2). He ended with a well-known motto of Safavid propaganda reflective of his own illusive self-confidence: “For long we tested in this punishing world / Whoever opposed the house of ‘Ali, was deposed.”

Figure 1.2. A scene of Timur hunting in Hindustan is reminiscent of Isma‘il I’s frequent hunting expeditions, even on the eve of the Battle of Chaldiran.

Sharaf al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi, Zafar-nameh-e Taymuri, Golestan Palace Library, Tehran, Ms. No. 708, Tabriz, 935/1528. Attributed to Kamal al-Din Behzad.

Salim’s anti-Shi‘i campaign began at home. After first preparing a meticulous register of the Turkmens of Anatolia, he carried out a systematic massacre of these presumed Safavid sympathizers throughout the region. The Ottoman forces reportedly killed forty thousand of the local inhabitants. The act of terror also involved atrocities, rape, enslavement of Shi‘i women and children, and wholesale banishment of Shi‘i villages to other provinces. The Ottoman Sunni jurists considered the massacre legitimate, and even furnished the necessary license for an anti-Safavid campaign. The eternal reward for killing one Shi‘i, a fatwa by the mufti of Istanbul declared, was equal to killing seventy Christian infidels.

In the spring campaign of 1514, one of the largest Ottoman armies was assembled under Salim’s own gaze in Edirne, the old Ottoman capital on the European side. The Ottoman forces, the most advanced war machine of the time, consisted of 160,000 cavalry and infantry troops, of which 12,000 were the elite Janissary regiments (see map 1.3). The multiethnic Ottoman army brought with it two hundred cannon, one hundred field guns, and well-maintained land and sea logistical lines (via the Black Sea), including eight thousand camels and other beasts of burden. Ottoman military discipline, and Salim’s single-mindedness, drove the advancing army to cover more than nine hundred miles—the entire length of Anatolia—in four months, arriving in July 1514 near the plain of Chaldiran in northwestern Azarbaijan, fifty miles northwest of the city of Khoy, where the decisive battle for the future of the region was waged.

Salim, his grand vizier, and his commanders (those, at least, who survived his fits of rage and the many executions) encountered in Chaldiran a meager Safavid cavalry force of less than twenty thousand. The remarkable imbalance should be attributed more to Isma‘il’s inability to raise a larger force than to his mere miscalculation. The Ottoman campaign came at a time when the Safavids faced a renewed Uzbek incursion in Khorasan, a coordinated effort with the Ottomans, perhaps, to overwhelm the Safavids by forcing them to fight in two fronts. All along, Isma‘il was no doubt counting on Salim to change his mind, partly because of the difficult terrain and logistical obstacles on the way to the Iranian frontier, which indeed caused some discontent among the Janissaries. Moreover, in Isma‘il’s view there were no legitimate grounds for Ottoman belligerence. What was at stake, and what the Safavids’ fate depended on it, was predominance in the struggle between the two powers: the imperial Sunni establishment with a vast and disciplined army versus a Shi‘i revolutionary movement with a spirit of fatalistic nonchalance.

Isma‘il must have harbored mixed feelings about how to respond to the Ottoman advance. His scorched-earth tactics and refusal to give battle were well-tested methods of warfare designed to persuade the enemy to give up and return, a possibility surely enhanced by the inhospitable terrain of northwestern Iran. Yet by late August Isma‘il was almost forced to give battle in Chaldiran, for that was the last strategic line of defense before he would dangerously expose his capital, Tabriz, 120 miles to the east. His record of past victories might have made him overly confident about the superiority of the Qezilbash cavalry and its spirit of sacrifice on the battlefield, a fact that explains his lax preparation despite the glaring disparity in troop numbers. As a king-prophet defending the cause of ‘Ali and his sacred house, Isma‘il could not have doubted that divine providence would prevail.

The fatalist strain running through Isma‘il’s political life appeared strange even to his own Qezilbash lieutenants. Whether to overcome combat fright or out of sheer self-confidence, he and his Qezilbash chiefs spent the night before the battle drinking until dawn. On the morning of the fateful conflict, August 23, 1514, the drunkard Isma‘il began his day hunting quail on the adjacent plain while his vanguard forces suffered heavy blows from Turkish artillery. Even when he joined his loyal Qezilbash troops, his sorties were a mix of valor and vagary rather than studied moves with clear strategic objectives. It is conceivable even that the daring quality of his warfare, which in the past had brought him much success, would have saved Isma‘il this time, were it not for the potency of Ottoman firepower, which the Safavids lacked.

Even by 1514 the Safavids did not seem to have appreciated the decisive effectiveness of firepower, even though cannon had been employed in eastern Iran a quarter of a century earlier under the Timurids. Moreover, Isma‘il’s own maternal grandfather, Uzun Hasan, had been soundly defeated in 1473 by the Ottoman Sultan Mohammad II because he could not access the firearms that had been promised to him by his Venetian allies. The Safavid reluctance to use firearms may have been, as has been often noted, because they considered them unmanly and contrary to the chivalrous code of war (pl. 1.2). Isma‘il’s Qezilbash devotees, believing they were shielded by the blessing of their prophet, were apparently bothered even less by the thunder of the cannon, at least before they saw them in action. Even when they did see the Ottoman cumbersome muzzle-loading harquebuses, the standard weapon of the Janissaries, and the heavy field guns, with their short range and inaccurate targeting, they did not seem to have been impressed. In fact, the effectiveness of the Ottoman artillery, perhaps the most advanced in the early 1500s, was mostly in siege warfare rather than on the battlefield, which may have encouraged the Safavids to face the enemy on the open plain rather than from within a walled fortress.

At the outset the Safavid hope for victory did not seem wholly misplaced. Under Isma‘il’s command, the Safavid light cavalry, which was known for its agility and swift maneuvering, embarked on an offensive that almost destroyed the Ottoman left flank. The advances on the right were also impressive—until the Ottoman cannon finally found the chance to fire. By the end of the day, the dual effects of the cannon thunder and shelling, perhaps more the former than the latter, shattered the Safavid defenses. Isma‘il barely escaped captivity, but a number of Qezilbash chiefs and Safavid officials fell in the course of the battle or were captured. Also among the captives was Isma‘il’s influential wife, Tajlu Khanum, who shortly afterward escaped from the Ottoman camp and rejoined her husband. The ancient Persian practice of bringing women to the battlefield, however, cost Isma‘il dearly. A favorite woman of his harem, Behruzeh Khanum, was captured and taken to Istanbul. There she was later married off as war booty to Salim’s chief military judge. Despite Isma‘il’s repeated pleas to Salim for her release, Behruzeh remained a hostage even after the chief military judge lost his head by order of the sultan, presumably because he consummated the marriage, which was to have been only in name. For Isma‘il the loss of Behruzeh was a personal humiliation no less than the loss in the battle. Remarkably, a number of women fought on the Iranian side, and a few were among the casualties, a reflection, perhaps, of the revolutionary perspective of the early Safavids that allowed the women to fight alongside the men. A number of Ottoman officials were also killed. The total number of casualties on both sides probably was no more than five thousand, of which more than two-fifths were the Turks.

The capture of Tabriz shortly thereafter completed the humiliation and brought Safavid power to the verge of collapse. The prospect of a Janissary mutiny, however, saved the Safavid capital. Salim was obliged to abandon his original plan to winter in Tabriz, and contrary to earlier Ottoman practice, he departed a week after his arrival in late summer of 1514 without leaving behind a single Ottoman contingent. He nevertheless stayed long enough to allow the city to be looted and then rounded up and took to Istanbul a considerable number of artists, artisans, and merchants from Tabriz and elsewhere in the Safavid domains including more than twelve painters, book illuminators, and calligraphers. They later established in Istanbul a Persian community of artists who would have a lasting influence on Ottoman fine arts.

The consequences of the Battle of Chaldiran were far reaching. The most immediate were a serious downturn in Safavid revolutionary zeal and, along with it, a melancholic bend in Isma‘il’s personality. The defeat was a severe blow to both the myth of his invincibility and the Qezilbash’s steadfast adherence to their sacred leader. It is from this point that the charismatic Safavid leadership gradually transformed into a traditional Persian kingship, a process that took several generations of Safavids to be completed. Moreover, the shock of defeat and the extinguishing of the apocalyptic faith laid firmer grounds for the shari‘a-orientated creed promoted by the Safavid state and its contingent of jurists. A lurking doubt about the validity of his own mission must have convinced Isma‘il to never again take charge personally of any campaign or, later on, to seriously contemplate a counteroffensive against the Ottomans—even though for a while he did make “vengeance” his rallying cry. He even named his young son, born after Chaldiran, Alqas (from the Arabic qas, “to retaliate”).

The Ottomans continued to consolidate in central and eastern Anatolia. At the obvious expense of the Safavids, they captured the key fortress of Kumakh in central Anatolia in 1514. Isma‘il preferred not to risk another confrontation. It is quite possible that the Ottoman sultan, despite his hasty departure from Tabriz, intended to revisit Iran and put an end to the Safavid heresy, perhaps with the ambition to at least partition Iran. In his correspondence with the Uzbek chief and the other archenemy of Isma‘il, ‘Obaydollah Khan, who was the successor to the slain Shayban Khan, Salim had even proposed Isfahan, at the heart of the Safavid domain, as the rendezvous point for a coordinated pincer movement by the two Sunni armies. Although such an offensive never materialized, the dual Sunni threat on opposite flanks of Iran proper remained in place throughout the Safavid and post-Safavid periods. The exposure of the Guarded Domains of Iran to repeated aggressions on both sides and the stretching limited military resources did not subside before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Ottoman consolidation in Anatolia not only cost the Safavids direct loss of territory but also removed their hopes for unhindered access to the Black Sea through an Anatolian enclave. For at least four centuries the Safavids, and their successors, faced an Ottoman barrier that deprived them of direct political and commercial access to the Mediterranean world.

Equally significant, the victory in Chaldiran stopped the expansion of the Shi‘i messianic revolution. Although Alawite communities in Anatolia periodically revolted against the Ottomans during the Jelali revolts of the mid to late sixteenth century, for all intents and purposes the war of 1514 eliminated any potential replication of a Safavid-like revolution there. The Shi‘i state was in effect confined to Iran while the Ottoman patronage of Sunni Islam further expanded throughout the Arab Middle East and beyond. Significantly, however, under Salim, and later under his son Suleiman—whose reign marked the zenith of Ottoman expansion—the Ottomans never succeeded in subordinating their Safavid neighbor. Despite punitive actions, long-term commercial blockages, sectarian belligerence, numerous invasions, and long periods of occupation of the western Iranian provinces, both the Safavids and their brand of Shi‘ism persisted. In part this was because of obstacles in maintaining secure logistical lines through Anatolia to Iran, to establish effective control over hostile terrain. The Ottoman troops, especially the Janissaries and the Ikinji light cavalry, moreover, harbored Bektashi Sufi-Shi‘i sympathies. Their reluctance to fight inside Iran became evident in a serious mutiny during the siege of Tabriz and later. For the most part, however, it was the religio-political synergy of the Safavids that helped them to resist Ottoman expansion and, in due course, that fashioned Iran into a territorial empire with a distinct identity.

Within the three years after Chaldiran, Salim secured eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia but also successfully shifted the direction of Turkish conquest toward the Mamluk lands. Such an enterprise proved easier to achieve and more materially beneficial. No phenomenon similar to the Safavids barred him from taking Damascus, or even Cairo. By 1517 he had conquered the entire Mamluk territory in the Levantine Mediterranean as well as Egypt and coastal North Africa. Isma‘il had little choice but to tread a cautious, even conciliatory, path toward his powerful neighbor who had come to dominate an empire that was far larger than his, as well as materially more prosperous and militarily more advanced.

The Battle of Chaldiran revealed the utter superiority of Ottoman firearms and the organization of a well-equipped slave army over the traditional means and tactics of warfare waged by a tribal army such as the Qezilbash. Although the Safavids were quick to adopt artillery after Chaldiran and use it effectively against the Uzbeks in the east, it took them close to a century before they were able to match the Ottomans’ capabilities and later defeat them at their own game. The age of the Gunpowder Empires came to Iran with an experience of defeat even though its memory predictably toned down in the Safavid official narrative.


By the time of his death in 1524, Isma‘il was a man of gentler and wiser disposition, but also a heavier drinker with a melancholic mood. In his last years there was a relative relaxing of his forced conversion policy and fewer devastating campaigns. Staying in the confines of his harem or on his hunting grounds, which he traversed throughout his realm with obsessive regularity, he preferred even more than previously to leave affairs of the state to his vakil, his sadr, and his Qezilbash chiefs. A poet, a compulsive hunter, and an adventurous lover of women and men, he died a premature death at the age of thirty-seven after a bout of severe depression. A curious mix of unbridled prowess, violent tantrum, princely affection, and a streak of genius, Isma‘il seemed an unlikely candidate to build an empire. Yet he proved an ideal leader for a messianic enterprise that brought together, within his nascent state, a cacophony of erratic Turkmen chiefs, shrewd Persian administrators, and Arab jurists. Although he was heir to several generations of radicalized Sufism and failed political projects, he harnessed the warlike energies of his Turkmen devotees and diverted them remarkably into a state structure with a lasting future. In this respect, his initiative to adopt Twelver Shi‘ism as a state creed with legal and institutional capabilities was a conscious policy upon which he intended to build a state and a community of believers. Without him, the Qezilbash—whose enemies called them the “red-headed heretics”—would have remained just that.

Isma‘il’s poetic utterances no doubt helped his devotees to believe in his sanctity. A book of Turkish poetry, by the curious pen name Khata’i (presumably someone from “Cathay,” today’s China), was most likely composed by Isma‘il for his Turkmen followers as inspirational literature. Colored by pungent anti-Sunni symbols and prophetic claims common to the cult of venerating ‘Ali, the book opens a window into Isma‘il’s mystical world. One poem reads:

My name is Shah Isma‘il, I am God’s mystery,

I am the leader of all the warriors [ghazis].

My mother Fatima, my father ‘Ali,

I am the superior (heir?) to the Twelve Imams.

I have avenged my father’s blood from Yazid,

Be sure! I am of the Haydari essence.

I am the living Khezr [Arabic Khidr; Islamic name for Prophet Elijah] and

Jesus, son of Mary,

I am Alexander of my contemporaries.

You, Yazid, the polytheist and the accursed, Look!

I am free from your hypocritical qibla [direction of the Islamic prayer].

Prophethood [nobowat] is for me and I am the secret of welayat [sacred guardianship].

I follow the path of Mohammad, the Chosen One.

I have conquered the world at the point of my sward,

I am like [the lieutenant] Qanbar to ‘Ali, the Elect.

My sire is Safi, my father Haydar,

To the audacious, I am in the true [devotee of] Ja‘far.

I am a Hosainid and I curse Yazid,

I am Khata’i and to that king [i.e., Hosain] I am a servant.2

The claim to welayat, the sacred succession from the Prophet Mohammad, more specifically on behalf of ‘Ali, and following him Hosain and Ja‘far Sadeq (the Sixth Shi‘i Imam and the founder of the Ja‘fari creed) clearly illustrated Isma‘il’s messianic incarnational beliefs, which also extend to the return of Elijah and Jesus. With pride in his lineage, of both the house of the Prophet and the house of Safi (i.e., Safi al-Din Ardabili), he intends not only to avenge the blood of his father, Haydar, but also to wage war against Yazid (the caliph whose armies killed Imam Hosain in the Battle of Karbala in 680) and the Umayyad dynasty. The “polytheists” and the “accursed” who pray to the “hypocritical” qibla thus can be taken as an allusion to his Sunni enemies at home and to the neighboring Sunni powers whom he conquered.

Yet Isma‘il’s vision of the state was neither purely messianic nor juristic; it was primarily based on the Persian model of kingship. The paradigms of royal power were best reflected in his domestic policy and his self-image as a shah. In the tradition of the Timurid rulers of Iran and the Turkmen dynasties before him, he was an avid connoisseur of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) and other Persian poetic narratives, which helped him portray himself as the heir to the Persian tradition of kingship. He patronized the production of great, illustrated copies of these works, especially after the conquest of Herat. He summoned great painters to his Tabriz court, among them Kamal al-Din Behzad (1450–1535), arguably the greatest sixteenth-century representative of the Persian school of miniature painting (fig. 1.2). Fascinated by Persian national legends, Isma‘il named three of his four sons after legendary heroes of the Shahnameh: his oldest, Tahmasp, after the last of the Pishdadid kings; his third son, Sam, a cultivated prince, after the champion of Manuchehr’s court and the patriarch of the house of Rostam; and his last son, Bahram, after the Sasanian Vaharm IV, whose romances and hunting exploits, as narrated by the twelfth-century Persian poet Nezami, accorded with Isma‘il’s leisurely temperament.

And Isma‘il had good incentive to envision himself as a Shahnameh king: perhaps a Kaykhosrow, the prototype of the great Persian king who vanquished the Turanid king Afrasiyab, the greatest enemy of Iranzamin. Afrasiyab’s kingdom, Turan, was routinely associated in the Iranian landscape with the Turks, and more specifically with the Uzbek kingdom of Central Asia. It was not without reason that Isma‘il’s victory over the Uzbek Shayban Khan was celebrated in the Safavid chronicles as a victory over the legendary Turanids. Yet the pervasive power of the Shahnameh over royal memory was not limited to Isma‘il and the Safavids. Ironically, both Sultan Salim and Shayban Khan, and later Zahir al-Din Babur Padeshah and his Mughal descendants, viewed their own power in the mytho-historical context of the Persian legends. As it has often been noted, while Isma‘il was composing poetry in Turkish, his nemesis Salim I, was composing Persian poetry in the style of the Shahnameh. Later Ottoman sultans were avid collectors of illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh and other classical works of Persian literature. The kingship paradigm to which they all subscribed, from the Ottoman Empire to South Asia and Central Asia, offered a common Persianate political culture despite widening of sectarian divide.

Toward the end of his life Isma‘il became more engrossed in book illustration and even worked as an apprentice in the royal workshop. He reportedly collaborated in the production of the celebrated copy of what came to be known as the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, one of the greatest examples of Safavid pictorial art. Perhaps filling in the background of a scene depicting one of Kaykhosraw’s exploits, one cannot help but wonder whether Isma‘il was thinking about the Kayanid king’s unhappy end when he renounced his throne and disappeared into the mountains. The Shah Tahmasp manuscript itself witnessed a curious fate. Perhaps preempting another invasion, in 1568 Tahmasp presented it along with numerous other gifts to Sultan Salim II on the occasion of his accession to the Ottoman throne. After nearly four centuries of safe keeping in the Topkapi royal library, the manuscript mysteriously travelled from Istanbul the to the shady world of European art dealers. When it eventually came to the possession of Arthur Houghton, an American patron of art and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he with the assistance of a renowned Harvard art historian dismembered the manuscript during the 1960s and 1970s and sold off its illustrations in various auctions. Metropolitan Museum, too, received a fair share.


The empire that Isma‘il left to his son and successor, the ten-year-old Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576; see chart 1), had to cope with frequent clashes among the Qezilbash military elite and with Sunni threat on both frontiers. Tahmasp’s long reign also proved crucial for consolidation of Shi‘ism in Iran. To Tahmasp’s credit, the longest-reigning monarch of Islamic Iran was able to harness the colliding forces he had inherited from his father. The Safavid revolutionary zeal was partially channeled into institutions of the state, even though the disruptive ethnic divisions, especially between the Qezilbash and the Tajiks, were never fully resolved. Yet neither internecine quarrels nor external threats nor Tahmasp’s own character flaws disrupted economic recuperation, cultural efflorescence, and the relative social calm that would turn Safavid Iran into an empire on par with its Ottoman and Mughal neighbors.

Tahmasp’s era is remembered as an age of clerical consolidation, when Shi‘i jurists, Arab emigrants, and indigenous Iranians gained prominence in government and in society at large. Their rise as an interest group was due more to the contingencies of Tahmasp’s early reign than to a concerted effort by the jurists’ themselves. The feud between two Qezilbash factions, the Ostajlu-Shamlu in one camp and the Takkelu-Turkamān in the other, each seeking the regency of the minor Tahmasp, prompted the young shah to engage in an elaborate balancing act that involved the Shi‘i jurists. As he grew more independent, the messianic religion of the Qezilbash was played down while the status of the ulama, as trustees of legal Twelver Shi‘ism, was augmented. Gradually the incipient Shi‘i society of the sixteenth century began to adopt religious rituals and practices that would remain characteristic of Shi‘ism for centuries to come. Intricacies of prayer and fasting, ablution, awareness of ritual pollutants and methods of cleanliness, and the assignment of shari‘a-validated gender roles are all examples of how Shi‘ism defined the private realm. Friday congregational prayers, the creation of charitable endowments, and the promotion of Moharram mourning rituals were among the public aspects.

The career of the prominent jurist ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-‘Āli al-Karaki (d. 1534) illustrates the ulama-state bond and the gradual grasp of the jurists over Safavid society. Karaki was a jurist from Jabal ‘Amil who had studied in Damascus and Cairo before moving to Najaf, the Shi‘i center of learning in southern Iraq. He first came to Iran at Isma‘il’s behest just after the defeat of the Uzbeks in 1510 to promote “correct” Shi‘ism directly from the mouth of its Arab advocate. As Safavid Iran became more shari‘a oriented—hence offering greater prestige and affluence to the Shi‘i jurists—Karaki returned a second time to become the most prominent religious authority during Tahmasp’s era. Through a network of patronage, which included both his Arab and Persian students, as well as beneficiaries of endowments and religious dues, Karaki enhanced the jurists’ monopoly as teachers and practitioners of Shi‘i law. With a sanctified social standing previously unparalleled, a growing mosque following, and many colleagues with conservative proclivities, a new clerical network began to emerge around the jurists that rivaled, and in due course superseded, the Persian class of landed notables who held sway over the Safavids’ religious administration.

With near-autonomous judicial authority, and a self-assigned right to control sources of religious income, the jurists were a force to reckon with. Karaki’s acquisition of such titles as “seal of the mojtaheds” and “deputy to the Imam” (na’ib al-imam), revealed the assent of the high clergy. His legal opinions (fatwas) were to be emulated not only by his followers but also by the shah. In a decree issued in July 1533, the young Tahmasp addressed Karaki by his titles and bestowed on him governance over religious affairs of the land, as well as vast estates in Iran and Iraq as charitable endowments:

We ordained that all the esteemed descendants of the House of the Prophet [sadat], the respected noblemen and notables, the chiefs [of the Qezilbash], the ministers, and all other senior members of the lofty state to consider him [i.e., Karaki] as their guide and leader [pishwa] and in all instances demonstrate their obedience and submission to him. Whatever he commands is to be enforced and whatever prohibits, to be banned. Whoever he wishes to appoint or dismiss from among the officers of the shari‘a in the Guarded Domains [of Iran] and among the military [judges] of the victorious army, he can do so without any further approval. And whomever that noble authority dismisses, cannot be reappointed without his approval.3

In reality, paying homage to Karaki meant granting him the authority to appoint leaders of congregational prayers (imam-e jom‘eh) throughout the Safavid Empire. Congregational Friday prayer in the absence of the Imam of the Age (an honorific for the Mahdi in Shi‘ism) was a novel practice in contrast to a prohibition by most Shi‘i jurists in the past. The act not only implicitly confirmed the Safavid state as a legitimate Shi‘i power but also affirmed the jurists’ collective authority as deputies of the Mahdi. Equally important, the royal decree endorsed the practice of emulation (taqlid), whereby Shi‘i followers would abide in all aspects of the shari‘a by the rulings of a mojtahed of their choice. Unique to Twelver Shi‘ism, taqlid became an institution of lasting sway in Iranian history. In exchange, the state earned the legitimacy to collect land taxes in the absence of the Imam of the Age, which up to then was considered legally unattainable. Karaki’s free hand in affairs involving shari‘a allowed for the demonization of the Sunnis and promoted open cursing of the early Islamic “Rightly Guided Caliphs” while diminishing all forms of nonconformity, at least in the public space. Moreover, autonomy from the office of sadr, implicit in the above decree, in effect foreshadowed the jurists’ desire for a semi-independent status in relation to the Safavid state.

Clerical consolidation, however, did not ease internal rivalries, especially ethnic ones, or petty envy among the jurists. All through his career Karaki encountered hostile criticism from other jurists, both Arab and Persian, as well as Safavid officials, for his monopolistic ambitions. He was attacked for his haughtiness and faulty scholarship, including plagiarism. Indeed, much of his work, and works of most jurists of his time, involved tedious commentaries and glosses on works of earlier jurists, on subjects ranging from intricate details of devotional acts to bodily pollutants and ritual acts of cleansing. The only trait of authenticity was in denouncing whatever was different or innovative, or what appeared “heretical”—what Karaki and his colleagues readily labeled as “devious” and “contrary to the glorious shari‘a.” This included Sufi orders (even the Safavi order), both open Sunnis and crypto-Sunnis, followers of various nonorthodox creeds, and freethinkers. It was not without reason that he composed a treatise on the veracity of Resurrection (ma’ad), an Islamic doctrine that had long troubled many critical minds and raised doubts, particularly in its strict interpretation as a bodily revival of the dead at the Day of Judgment. Other treatises openly and egregiously denounced the Sunni narrative of early Caliphs and other Islamic personalities. Denouncing the Sunni “other” helped reinforcing doctrinal conformity as much as it encouraged a state-sponsored spirit of intolerance. Yet unlike the European Inquisition, Safavid Iran never institutionalized systematic intrusion in the life of individuals.

The urge for greater legitimacy in the face of charges of heresy by Sunni neighbors also persuaded the Safavids to refashion their own ancestry. Although Isma‘il, and perhaps his farther, Haydar, did claim to be of the House of ‘Ali (āl-e ‘Ali), it was from the time of Tahmasp that a thorough holy genealogy traced the ruling house back to ‘Ali ibn Musa al-Rida, the Eighth Shi‘i Imam, whose shrine in Mashhad was the most venerated site in Safavid Iran. Accredited by contemporary sources (and up to the twentieth century), the association with ‘Ali and the House of the Prophet elevated the status of the Safavid dynasty, attaching to it an aura of sanctity evident in many architectural edifices of the period, in public decrees, and in works of scholarship patronized by the Safavid shahs. Ties to the Sufi origins of the dynasty nevertheless remained strong, and symbolic dedication to the shrine of the patriarch of the house reaffirmed the loyalties of the followers of the Safavi order to the person of the shah (pl. 1.3).

Tahmasp himself became an obsessive observer of Shi‘i purity laws. Whether out of a desire to serve as a role model for his subjects, or more likely because of a compulsive disorder, in contrast to his father’s excessive drinking, Tahmasp in his youth repented and abstained from drinking for the rest of his life. Karaki even wrote, at Tahmasp’s request, a tract on the legal implications of obsessive behavior (waswas). One could surmise that the royal’s behavior was not entirely unrelated to a surge in works produced on the intricacies of ritual purity, a favorite subject of Shi‘i jurists. It stands to reason that the purity-impurity dichotomy, which Shi‘i Islam liberally transposes into xenophobic distancing from nonbelievers, was also exacerbated by the threat of Sunni enemies on the Iranian frontiers. Tahmasp’s short autobiography, a window onto his moral world, reveals deep religious convictions, often in the forms of holy dreams—dreams that served as a guiding light connecting his personal life with a crusading mission in defense of Shi‘ism.


Tahmasp was a contemporary of the greatest, and perhaps the most belligerent Ottoman sultan, Suleiman I, known as the “lawgiver” (qanuni), and to Europeans as Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566). Son of Salim I, Suleiman’s reign is synonymous with the peak of Ottoman military power and its flourishing material culture. For Suleiman’s neighbors, however—whether the Iranians, Armenians, or Georgians in the east, or the Hungarians, Serbs, Poles, Austrians, or a host of other nations in the west, all of whom sustained the brunt of Turkish expansionism and devastating Ottoman campaigns—there was nothing magnificent or lawful about him. In the Iranian case the sustained threat of Ottoman offensives was evident in three rounds of massive campaigns undertaken in 1534–1535, 1548–1549, and 1554–1555. The campaigns were stifled largely because of the same logistical problems that earlier had hindered Salim. They were launched under the pretext of securing the eastern Ottoman frontiers and presumably aimed to sever Safavid influence over Ottoman subjects in eastern Anatolia. A low-intensity anti-Ottoman Jelali revolt among Alawite Shi‘is was endemic to the region but was largely independent of the Safavids, and certainly did not require an extensive military operation into the interior of Iran.

In reality, what motivated Suleiman to undertake these arduous campaigns of conquest and to move his war machine, larger and more terrifying than that of his father, was territory. Plunder and slavery, including the capture of both Shi‘is of Iran and Christians of the Caucasus, also served as incentives. The disloyalty of the Qezilbash chiefs of Azarbaijan and other western provinces also rendered opportunities for the Ottomans at times of commotion and revolt. The quarreling Qezilbash, whose privileges were threatened by Tahmasp’s balancing act—setting one division against the other—were increasingly restive, even treasonous. The Safavids’ oppressive enforcement of Shi‘ism also opened new doors to Ottoman conquest. In 1535, the population of Baghdad, and the whole of the Sunni Mesopotamia, who were resentful of Shi‘i hegemony, welcomed the Ottomans.

The loss of Mesopotamia made the Safavids’ western defenses vulnerable, enabling the Ottomans to consolidate in eastern Anatolia and to occupy for decades Safavid provinces in the eastern Caucasus, Azarbaijan, Hamadan and Kermanshah, Khuzestan, and the Persian Gulf coasts. Yet the Ottoman culture of conquest could not always effectively produce durable gains in the east as it did in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The Safavids employed the same scorched-earth tactics that earlier had persuaded Salim’s forces to withdraw. Like his father, Suleiman could not hold on to Tabriz for long and was forced to evacuate at the end of the campaign season, resorting to the more fertile, and less hazardous, valleys of the western Caucasus.

The lure of the Caucasus for the Ottomans and Safavids, who fought long and hard for it, was not only its fertile land and green pastures, where their armies could recuperate. For both empires, the Caucasus and the land farther to the north, into the interiors of southern Russia, was a desirable source of white slaves. Under the pretext of “crusade” (ghaza), rural Christians of Armenia and Georgians, as well as the “pagan” Circassians, Chechens, Leks, Lezgins, and a host of other tribal peoples from the mountains of the northern Caucasus were prey for Turkish and Persian armies.

On the Iranian side the more organized, and more destructive, campaigns under Tahmasp—four of them between 1540 and 1554—seem to have been modeled on the Ottoman method of conquest and with the idea of creating a system similar to the slave recruitment practice known as devshirmeh in the Balkans and other western Ottoman possessions whereby young Christian boys were systematically rounded up as a form of tribute for service in the Ottoman army and administration. For the Safavids the white slaves captured in raids across the Caucasus were valuable for replenishing their diminishing and disloyal old guards from among the Qezilbash. Female slaves from the Caucasus, too, were sought after for both the Safavid and the Ottoman royal harems. A majority of Tahmasp’s wives were recognized as “Georgians,” a general term for all Caucasian slaves from north of Tiflis (now Tbilisi). Female slaves also populated the harems of the princes and the military elites. During the latter part of Tahmasp’s reign, in a single raid to the Georgian interior in 1553, no fewer than thirty thousand Christians were captured and brought back to Safavid territory.

Either through raids or as part of the annual tribute imposed on the newly subdued Caucasian vassals, the population of slave origins significantly increased. The Safavids forced their captives to convert, though not as systematically as the Ottomans did. They were also zealous in destroying the Caucasian symbols of cultural and religious identity, including churches and shrines. In 1551 during the Safavid raid of southern Georgia aimed at the mountain fortress of Vardzia (known as Dezbad in the Safavid sources), west of the Kura River, Tahmasp, “the refuge of Islam,” waged a horrific crusade against the Georgian “cursed infidels.” The victorious Safavid army gutted the great twelfth-century Georgian cave monastery inside the fortress and massacred the local population who had taken refuge there. Not a “single breathing soul,” declared the chronicler Rumlu, “from among those infidels could escape unharmed” from the vengeance of the troops:

Their wives, households, properties, and belongings were all transferred by the law of the shari‘a from the killed to the killer. The fair-faced Georgians, those fairly-like creatures, each a rarity like a beauty-spot on the face of the time, . . . took refuge in high mountains, in deep caves and in neighboring fortresses . . . but the courageous army of Islam moved in to rout them out with their well-watered swords and their artillery defenses, hence dispatching a few thousand of them to the bottom of hell. . . . Like a swarming army of bees in front of a beehive, the troops went on plundering and expropriating the treasures of the caves, and group after group the terrified fairy-faced slaves [gholams] . . . came out in thirst and in fear of their lives.4

The impact of the imported slaves, the gholams (Arabic, presumably from ghol, “collar,”), on the royal household, the army, and entire Safavid system was immediate and, over the long term, immense. A shift in the concept of gholam, connoting a young male lover of slave origin, to a white or black slave in military, administrative, or court service happened centuries earlier. By Safavid times, although the sexual undertones remained in place, the functionality of the gholams took higher priority from the middle of the sixteenth century as the number of Christian captives, carried off in the Caucasus raids, substantially increased. Through the harem and the military, the gholam element amounted to a third force, a counterbalance to the Qezilbash and the administrators of the divan. Similar to the Ottoman Janissaries, the introduction of the gholam recruits injected fresh blood into the Safavid army, with more loyalty to the person of the shah. It can even be argued that the gholam element made it possible for the Safavids to recapture their lost western provinces.

The impact of Ottoman offensives and unreliability of the Safavid tribal army had already persuaded Tahmasp to reduce his reliance on the Qezilbash and, in 1548, to transfer his capital from the militarily insecure Tabriz to Qazvin, three hundred miles east into the Iranian interior. Although Tabriz maintained its commercial and cultural prominence at least for another half century, the decision to move to the Persian-speaking interior and away from the original Qezilbash base in Azarbaijan was a turning point in the further “Persianization” of the Safavid Empire. Even more important for the political and diplomatic history of Iran was concluding the peace treaty of Amasya in 1555, the first Safavid-Ottoman diplomatic settlement of their territorial disputes.

The Peace of Amasya (located in today’s north-central Turkey) demarcated for the first time the boundaries of the rival empires. While Iraq and almost the whole of Anatolia went to the Ottomans, the treaty restored to Iranian sovereignty Azarbaijan and the rest of the western Iranian provinces from Kurdistan to Kermanshah, Hamadan, Luristan, and Khuzestan, as well as the eastern Caucasus. Although both sides, especially the Ottomans, breached the terms of this treaty repeatedly, it remained in place more or less up to the twentieth century, essentially defining Iran’s western frontier. Despite the loss of territory, the treaty was a victory not only because the Safavid defenses endured and Persian armies occasionally even prevailed over the powerful Ottomans—to the point of facilitating peace negotiations—but also because it marked Tahmasp’s victory over his unruly chiefs. By the 1550s the quarreling Qezilbash were subdued, the Uzbek offensive in the east had been repelled, and by 1550 the revolt of Tahmasp’s brother, Alqas, who ironically had defected to the Ottoman side and furnished Suleiman with a pretext to attack Iran, was crushed.


In the latter part of Tahmasp’s reign it seemed that the Safavid state had managed to stabilize despite a sea of Sunni hostility and internal strife. Cities thrived, domestic trade flourished, and the integration of the provinces into a united empire was partially accomplished, at least in the interior. Safavid society recovered from the devastating campaigns of earlier decades, and the worst of the Qezilbash’s violence appeared to have come to an end. Even a life of leisure, civility, thinking, and creativity seem to have withstood the stern gaze of Shi‘i jurists.

The latter decades of the sixteenth century proved among the most exiting episodes in the history of Persian painting and art of book production. Royal workshops in Safavid Iran produced some of the most exquisite illustrated manuscripts of classical texts. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, stories of Nezami’s Khamseh, and Sa‘di’s Golestan were among the most favored. Elite women, who commissioned numerous manuscript copies, particularly favored Nezami. In the neighboring Ottoman and Mughal courts, too, a number of Persian artists residing there by choice or by force produced book illustrations and trained Turkish and Mughal artists, who in due course developed indigenous schools of painting.

Relations with Mughal India, already expanding through trade with Kandahar and the Deccan, were complemented by new cultural exchanges. The fifteen-year refuge of emperor Homayun (r. 1531–1540 and 1555–1556) in the court of Tahmasp in Qazvin—after the Afghan warrior, Sher Shah Suri, overran the Mughal domains—expedited a remarkable era of cultural dialogue between the neighboring empires. Homayun resisted conversion to Shi‘ism, but he nurtured a taste for Persian art and culture. When in 1555 Homayun returned to Delhi, he included in his retinue a large number of Persian master painters, craftsmen, and scholars who exerted great influence over Mughal and post-Mughal fine arts and literature. Although Tahmasp remained lukewarm toward the European emissaries who occasionally visited his court, he was keen to welcome friendly relations with his Mughal neighbor, no doubt to balance both the Ottoman and the Uzbek threats (pl. 1.4). In contrast to the Safavids, the Mughal tolerant religious policies, a legacy of Akbar’s era, moreover, encouraged an exodus of Persian artists, poets, and religious dissidents to Mughal India that continued well into the eighteenth century.

Despite a fleeting interval of calm and prosperity, the final years of Tahmasp, and the decade following his death (1578–1588), witnessed an unparalleled period of disarray that soon swirled into political chaos. By 1588 the crises were so critical that the very survival of the Safavid state was in doubt. The empire that had been pieced together with Isma‘il’s unremitting energy and held together with Tahmasp’s perseverance for more than half a century, was about to disintegrate into fiefdoms of quarreling warlords, many of whom were Qezilbash chiefs of the second and third generations. At the center of this chaotic interlude was the unresolved problem of succession. Yet succession triggered a range of conflicts within the power structure, the most acute of which was quarreling over land among the Qezilbash chiefs and their subsequent ambition to control the Safavid throne. Persian political culture at least informally abided by the rule of primogenitor—the succession of the senior son as heir to the throne. This was the tradition that had brought Tahmasp himself to power. Yet there was the distinct absence of an institutional framework to allow for an orderly succession—and even less so, consensus to implement it. The Qezilbash, to the extent that they were an integrated force, were hardly capable of arriving at a consensus over Tahmasp’s successor, given the deep wounds that over the decades had spread through their ranks, some perpetrated by Tahmasp himself.

The uneasy equilibrium achieved during Tahmasp’s reign, based on a network of patron-client clans (Turkish uymag), began to crumble. While some of the Qezilbash members were descendants of the older elite, in reality the clans no longer were structured solely along bloodlines. They were more like party factions set up to protect the privileges of their members, to acquire more economic resources, and to monopolize political power. As old group loyalties weakened and the Qezilbash became accustomed to their privileges, their original confederacy showed serious cracks. By the end of the sixteenth century they were no longer a reliable military force. Their vast land assignments in the provinces, generous government pensions, share of war booty, and high status as a class of military nobility made them more prone to factionalism and thirsty for power—a drive satiable only through the elaborate, often foolish, conspiracies that have littered so many pages of Safavid chronicles.

The shah’s many sons who were potentially eligible for the throne were desirable targets of Qezilbash ambitions. As the early career of the young ‘Abbas I, the ultimate successor to the throne, demonstrates, the Safavid princes were no more than puppets whose only other refuge from their manipulative Qezilbash guardians was their mothers and other female members of the royal household. Although from the early days of the Safavid rule royal women played a distinctive, even decisive, role in the political process, it was in the post-Tahmasp transition era that their presence became more tangible. Though seldom acknowledged, and often in an unfavorable misogynistic light, their agency clearly contested the male-conscious ethos of the Safavid polity.

The implicit matriarchy of the Safavid elite, as in the Ottoman and Mughal courts, became more overt from the late sixteenth century. Known in Ottoman history as the “sultanate of the women,” the coincidence of women’s influence was probably because all three empires experienced a similar, if not identical, pattern of political transition. Wives of the Safavid rulers were either of Christian slave origin or were party to a marriage of convenience, such as a political union with a subordinate or affiliate power. With the polygamy of the harem, ethnic rivalries were as rampant as clan feuds among the Qezilbash, and mother-son bonds went a long way toward compensating for the lack of affection from the ruling father and the lack of prospects for succession. The rise of powerful royal women, especially in the period of instability, was thus indicative of the breakdown of a dysfunctional male polity, which in effect facilitated women’s assertion of authority.

Upon Tahmasp’s death in 1578 these strains converged in a minirevolution that stretched beyond the court. Tahmasp’s oldest son, Mohammad, who was visually impaired, was passed over in favor of his promising brother, Isma‘il Mirza, then in long-term captivity by the order of his father Tahmasp in a remote fortress in Azarbaijan. Isma‘il Mirza’s succession was made possible thanks to the political exuberance of Isma‘il Mirza’s half sister, Pari-khan Khanum, a politically astute princess from a Circassian mother (who had been a confidante to Tahmasp). The three-way alliance forged among Pari-khan Khanum with some Qezilbash chiefs and the Circassian gholams successfully removed her half brother Haydar Mirza from the succession contest and quashed his Qezilbash and Georgian support.

Ascending the throne in Qazvin as Isma‘il II (r. 1576–1578; see chart 1), the new shah, an eccentric opium addict with a temper, had his own agenda. His lethal mix of grudges and paranoia, the product of twenty years’ incarceration on charges of “immorality,” soon shook the empire. Brushing aside Pari-khan, the new shah ordered a mass execution of nearly all the eligible princes of royal blood, including his own brothers, as well as the opposing chiefs of the Qezilbash, and the Sufi guards at his court. Though brutal, the carnage was meant to consolidate Isma‘il’s power, an anxious retraction, no doubt, of his father’s delicate balancing act.

Moreover, Isma‘il II entertained revisionist views critical of the religious policies of his father. What made his short and bloody reign remarkable was a desire to abandon the Safavids’ extreme anti-Sunni propaganda and practice of insulting the early Caliphs, and to put an end to forced conversions and other forms of Sunni persecution. He was daring enough to order the removal of anti-Sunni mottos from the walls of mosques and public places. He appointed to government offices prominent Persian officials with well-known Sunni sympathies, in open defiance of the Arab jurists and their growing followings. Such measures were bound to cause uproar not only within the Qezilbash and among the jurists but also at large in a society exposed to decades of anti-Sunni propaganda.

Isma‘il II’s life soon came to a sudden end, for reasons not entirely unrelated to his radical revisionism. He was found unconscious in his private quarters together with his lover, a young man of humble origins, after a night of nocturnal wandering through the taverns in the capital. Presumably he died of an opium overdose, though his Qezilbash opponents, fearful of their own lives, may have had a hand in his death. The possibility of intrigue aside, the episode tested Iranian society’s conversion to Shi‘ism and the state’s declared commitment to uphold its anti-Sunni stance. Cursing of the Caliphs and other forms of Sunni “othering” were destined to remain the lifeblood of the Safavid ideology. It is possible to imagine that were it not for his mysterious death, Isma‘il II and his supporters would have been able to overcome the rabid ideologues and allow for a more inclusive society with lesser harassment of nonconformists, fewer clashes with Sunni neighbors, and perhaps even a decoupling of the state from Shi‘ism as its official creed.

Isma‘il II’s death plunged the Safavid state, and the empire, into a decadelong court intrigue and an ensuing contest for succession, resolved only through a protracted civil war. Lacking any other choice, a council of the Qezilbash chiefs, who temporarily reached a semblance of unanimity after Isma‘il II’s death, brought to the throne Tahmasp’s senior son, Sultan Mohammad (r. 1578–1588), with the throne name Khodabandeh, “God’s slave.” He proved a mere nominal ruler over a Qezilbash oligarchy. Real power behind the throne emanated from inside the harem, where Khayr al-Nesa, Sultan Mohammad’s wife, soon emerged as a serious rival to Pari-khan, who had lost prominence after the death of her brother Isma‘il II. Better known as Mahd ‘Olya (lit., “the sublime cradle”), Khayr al-Nesa, daughter of a powerful semiautonomous governor of Gilan province, was mother of the then-infant crown prince, the future Shah ‘Abbas I.

As Sultan Mohammad’s effective regent, Mahd ‘Olya quickly arranged for the murder of Pari-khan Khanum and removed her Circassian faction from the court. Yet she could not easily overcome the Qezilbash’s desire to hold collective but decentralized sway over her husband. Even hefty payoffs for many years of outstanding salaries could not guarantee their loyalty. On the contrary, a fresh Ottoman invasion of the Safavid Caucasian provinces, furnished the Qezilbash with an excuse to scold Mahd ‘Olya for her reluctance to annul the 1555 peace treaty and go to war with the Ottomans. Unwilling to put up with her, in 1579 a group of Qezilbash chiefs broke into the royal harem en masse, pulled Mahd ‘Olya from her husband’s arms, and cut her to pieces. The trumped-up charge against her was having an illicit affair with a Tartar prince of the Crimean Giray dynasty who was then residing as a refugee in the Qazvin court.

The internal bickering offered the Ottomans a fresh opportunity to march deeper into he Safavid territory. A passage in ‘Alamara-e ‘Abbasi, an official Safavid chronicle of the early seventeenth century by Iskandar Beg Monshi, himself a Qezilbash, depicts the complexity of the ongoing power struggle:

As the shah [Sultan Mohammad] began to give out from the royal treasury with exceeding generosity . . . everyday chest after chest of golden coins was brought in from the treasury and given to the army officers in abundance. . . . Because of hardheaded and self-serving conduct of the Qezilbash their affairs turned into conflict and animosity and duality permeated within military ranks. As the news of contention and lack of discipline among the Qezilbash spread, and as terrible faults began to appear in the state, the enemies among the rulers of the time, who were awaiting such a day, welcomed the opportunity and nursed new ambitions toward the land of Iran from the east and from the west.5

Between 1578 and 1590 while the Safavid Empire was at its weakest, the Ottoman Sultan Morad III (r. 1574–1595), in clear breach of the 1555 peace treaty of Amasya, conducted at least four devastating campaigns to capture Azarbaijan and the Caucasus. The 1584 Ottoman campaign, reportedly consisting of three hundred thousand troops and six hundred guns, attacked under the empty pretexts of relieving the Christian Caucasus from Iranian oppression and avenging the murder of Isma‘il II. In the course of several engagements, the Qezilbash defenses crumbled, and the Ottoman forces once more occupied all of the western Safavid provinces, from Georgia and Armenia to western Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Luristan, and Khuzestan. After bloody battles in 1585, Tabriz fell, and this time the Ottomans were there to stay. They retaliated indiscriminately against the resistant population, destroyed some of the city’s most important wards, built new fortifications, and for the first time sold the captive Shi‘i men, women, and children to slavery or to indenture in the Ottoman European provinces.

Devastating raids by the Uzbeks into the Safavid Khorasan soon followed. The periodic occupations of Balkh, Marv, and even Mashhad exposed the Safavids’ strategic weaknesses in the face of a two-front offensive and led to the enslavement of the local Shi‘i population, who was carried away and sold in slave markets of Central Asia. The fatwas of the Sunni muftis in Istanbul and Bukhara legitimized enslaving the Safavid subjects on the grounds of their heretic Shi‘i beliefs. The Safavids retaliated by capturing “Turkmen slaves” (asir-e Torkaman).


In the midst of civil strife and foreign invasion, the governor of Herat, a Qezilbash chief by the name of ‘Ali Qoli Khan Shamlu, had other ideas in mind. As early as 1581 he declared the ten-year old ‘Abbas Mirza, the prince in his custody, the nominal Safavid shah of Khorasan (see chart 1). The rift between eastern and western Qezilbash persuaded ‘Ali Qoli to unify Khorasan and carve out a power base for himself independent from Qazvin and the western Qezilbash. ‘Abbas Mirza, the third son of Sultan Mohammad and his slain wife, Mahd ‘Olya, had miraculously escaped execution during the 1578 carnage of Isma‘il II. It was clear that ‘Ali Qoli and his ally, Morshed Qoli Khan, an ambitious and capable chief of the Ostajlu Qezilbash, were uncertain of the fate of the government in Qazvin. Fearing occupation of the capital by the invading Ottomans, they sought in the young ‘Abbas Mirza a candidate to form a new Qezilbash confederacy in the east.

By 1587 the Qezilbash were so divided that even a meager Ostajlu force of two thousand horsemen under the command of Morshed Qoli was able to march successfully on Qazvin. Ironically, the Ostajlu chief and the prince in his charge, ‘Abbas Mirza, opted for Qazvin only because they were pushed out of Khorasan by recurring Uzbek raids. Backed by the people of Qazvin, utterly disgusted with ten years of civil war, the young ‘Abbas Mirza and his regent were welcomed to the city. By October 1587, Sultan Mohammad had finally abdicated, and shortly afterward his eighteen-year-old son was enthroned as Shah ‘Abbas. Wearing his jewel-encrusted royal crown, the new shah was already entertaining in secret the destruction of the Qezilbash and all they represented. His intent was not much different from Isma‘il II’s a decade earlier—and his chances of success did not seem to be any better.

Less than a century after its inception, the prospects for the Safavid state seemed ambivalent at best. What Isma‘il I and Tahmasp had tried to achieve had been undermined by domestic factionalism and foreign invasion. By 1588 the two most important Safavid cities, Tabriz and Herat, were under occupation, as were vast provinces of the empire’s flanks. The Qezilbash had divided the remaining provinces into shaky fiefdoms, and the impoverished population had suffered civil war, oppression, and enslavement. The Safavid central state had sunk to its lowest ebb through machination and incompetence.

Yet there were resilient features that in the face of many calamities distinguished the Safavid enterprise from its ephemeral Turkmen predecessors and even from its powerful neighboring empires. Despite its many failings, Safavid Iran was able to forge a sense of socioreligious conformity bound by territorial constraints. As in few other early modern states—Spain and England, for example—conversion to a state-sponsored creed, in this case Shi‘ism, served as the social and moral mortar necessary to hold together the building blocks of a soon rejuvenated empire. Whether by force or by persuasion, the Shi‘i creed prevailed and endured. Early Safavid Iran remained vulnerable to the superior firepower of its Ottoman neighbor but less vulnerable to the Ottomans’ growing sense of Sunni identity. Although repeated Ottoman invasions and Uzbek sorties were meant to extinguish Isma‘il’s messianic project, perhaps no other factor contributed more to the very survival of Shi‘i Iran and to its gradual conversion to normative Twelver Shi‘ism.

Forging a new communal identity within the natural confines of Iran perhaps could not have been achieved without such tumultuous experiences. The Safavids did not initiate an Iranian sense of nationhood, nor did they define Iran as a political entity. The former would emerge, in the modern sense of the term, only centuries later. The latter had been a geopolitical reality for many centuries. What the Safavid state did was help anticipate one and solidify the other. The early Safavid experience demonstrated that southern Mesopotamia, eastern Anatolia, and southern parts of Central Asia could no longer be easily incorporated into Iran proper despite common Persianate cultural, religious, and ethnic ties. Isma‘il’s world-conquering project was bound to stop at the threshold of Iran’s natural frontiers.

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