Few rulers in Iranian history are as idealized in public memory as ‘Abbas I, and few epochs as cherished as his reign (1588–1629). He was seen, and with reason, as an empire builder who rose to the challenges of his time, shaping them as much as he was shaped by them. The legend of ‘Abbas the Great does not tell us the whole story, of course, but it reflects something of the historical reality. His was a success story that started with dim chances of surviving, let alone retrieving his lost kingdom, but he managed to overcome many domestic and foreign obstacles to build a centralized state of power and prosperity. Perhaps his most enduring legacy is that he helped birth a national community and culture that outlasted him and his dynasty.

The age of ‘Abbas endured not only in public buildings and public memory, coinage, and caravansaries but also in the spirit of urban tranquility, artistic and intellectual creativity, and commercial vigor that he patronized. To the Europeans who frequented his realm, the Grand Sophy of Shakespeare’s plays was a natural ally and a gracious host, interested in the affairs of their world (fig. 2.1). To modern historians, the contrasts of ‘Abbas’s complex personality—civil and considerate, yet crafty and cruel; curious and visionary, yet insecure and paranoid—present a formidable case study of Persian kingship.

A man of small but muscular stature with a dark complexion, ‘Abbas shaved off his beard entirely but kept droopy mustaches. Dressed in plain clothes in deliberate contrast to his opulent surroundings and the extravagant outfits of his attendants, it was as if he was implying to others his innate majestic qualities in the guise of ordinary man. He wore a self-styled cap, different from the Qezilbash crown of his ancestors. Always wearing his sword, and ready to use it to intimidate or to punish, he impressed many observers, and European visitors in particular, as an agile, almost restless warrior, but confident and well informed. The Roman nobleman Pietro Della Valle, who visited ‘Abbas in 1618, when the shah was forty-nine years old, describes him as “extremely shrewd, highly alert, and valiant.” Bilingual, he conversed in Persian and Azarbaijani Turkish often in a congenial tone.

Figure 2.1. Shah ‘Abbas I, by an anonymous Italian artist.

The Land of Kings, ed. R. Traverdi (Tehran, 1971), 48.

Though informal and often inclined toward leisure, wine, music, and nocturnal gatherings, he was unpredictable, and at times extremely violent and vindictive. Of ‘Abbas’s three sons, one was killed in secret at his instigation, and the other two were blinded and imprisoned for life on apparently unfounded suspicions of plotting against their father. ‘Abbas had little compunction about executing victims personally, at times in the presence of foreign envoys. He was also a model of a hands-on absolute ruler, distrustful of ministerial power and of his Qezilbash army chiefs. Impressing Della Valle with a panoramic knowledge of European imperial politics, complete with anti-Ottoman sentiment and disillusionment with European powers’ disunity, Protestant movements, and religious wars, he implicitly criticized Philip II’s military strategy and the reasons for Spanish domestic troubles. He went on to say:

An emperor must himself be a solider and personally lead troops into battlefield. . . . A ruler cannot leave the destiny of his country in the hands of his ministers and army chiefs. Such a king is bound for misfortune. People are often thinking of their own interest and have no other concern but to earn wealth and power so as to lead a comfortable and joyful life. They hence fail to fully discharge their duties. Rulers should thus be model for all.

Della Valle added that the shah believed a capable ruler either should destroy the enemy or bring it to submission or himself die on the battlefield.1


From the outset of his reign, ‘Abbas showed clear signs of independence. His model of rule was neither the crusading king-prophet of Isma‘il I nor the pious balancing of power of his grandfather Tahmasp. It was as though through the experience of his father’s reign and his own seven years as crown prince in Khorasan with a shaky future, he nurtured deep resentment toward the Qezilbash hegemony. To survive, he was convinced he had to break the back of the Turkmen aristocracy, a course that had been tried and failed by his predecessors. Avenging the murders of his mother and his slain brother Hamzeh Mirza, who earlier had unsuccessfully contested the hegemony of the Qezilbash, ‘Abbas orchestrated a masterful purge that soon eliminated a number of important Qezilbash chiefs on charges of treason and by fomenting internecine hostilities. By 1589 even his own regent and guardian Morshed Qoli Khan Ostajlu fell victim of the purge.

How was the power of the Qezilbash crushed with relative ease? The answer can be found as much in the erosion of Turkmen solidarity as in the dwindling fighting force they could muster after a ruinous civil war. The career of Morshed Qoli himself illustrates the rise and fall of a new kind of amir, different from the rustic Sufi crusaders of Isma‘il’s time. He was the grandson of a camel driver and son of an Ostajlu soldier. His father rose through the ranks under Tahmasp to become the commander in chief of Khorasan and guardian of the then infant ‘Abbas Mirza in Herat before being slain during the chaos of Isma‘il II’s reign. Despite his personal ambition and abundant energy, however, over the years Morshed’s fighting force dwindled. With numbers at times reaching as low as a thousand horsemen, the loyalty of the Qezilbash rank and file, which no longer was entirely based on kinship, shifted rapidly from one adventure to another. It was the erosion of this fighting power and the breakdown of clan loyalties that enabled the young ‘Abbas to arrange, and personally supervise, his own regent’s violent murder, as he had done with many other Qezilbash amirs.

‘Abbas shrewdly appealed to the Qezilbash rank and file by nurturing a new spirit of loyalty toward the person of the shah. What came to be known as shahisevan (love for the shah) rooted in early Safavid memory of allegiance to the person of the king, contrasted solidarity along the tribal ranks. ‘Abbas exploited this sense of solidarity not only to undermine the Qezilbash elite but also to uphold it as a principle, a political motto, and even an institution upon which he could rebuild the Safavid army and administration. The shahisevan made it possible to break tribal bonds, juxtapose the command structure of Qezilbash contingents, and create new detachments of different ethnic origins, including Tajik Persians, Arabs from southern Iran, and the Daylam of Gilan province, as well as Georgian, Armenian, and Circassian gholams. Greater reliance on the slave element, in particular, shifted the balance in favor of the shah. The Qezilbash did not disappear as an identity or as a privileged rank, but it was effectively stripped of its status as a cohesive tribal elite in control of a semiautonomous military force.

‘Abbas’s defense policy also involved a complex chess game of playing the Turkish tribes within non-Turkish regions off one another. To build a defense barrier against Uzbek incursions, for example, he resettled, similar to the style of the neighboring Ottomans, large divisions of the Qezilbash in northeastern frontiers. By the early seventeenth century as many as 4,500 Afshar families of the Orumiyeh region of Azarbaijan, some thirty thousand families of Belbas Kurds of Erzurum, as well as the Bayats and the Qajars from Iravan, Ganjeh, and Qarabagh (Karabakh) in the southern Caucasus were resettled in strategic locations in northern Khorasan and in Astarabad in the eastern corner of Mazandaran. Massive reallocations such as these helped secure eastern Iran. Yet they also transformed Iran’s nomadic patterns and put new strains on the limited pastoral resources. In due course such tensions generated tribal conflicts, well evident in the early eighteenth-century rise of the Afshar and later the Qajar dynasties.

The key to ‘Abbas’s shahisevan solidarity and the cornerstone of his centralizing policy was the effective use of firearms. Although the manufacture and use of cannon and handguns were commonplace from the time of Tahmasp, it was largely due to ‘Abbas’s initiative that the use of firearms became prevalent in the Safavid army, as instruments of both war against neighboring enemies and domestic security. As it turned out, this new military technology was the first step toward modernity. From around the 1590s until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, cannon became the most effective weapon in the Iranian arsenal, enabling the state, with few exceptions, to achieve eventual victory over domestic contenders and foreign onslaughts. It helped consolidate power in ‘Abbas’s hands, established a rapport with Europe, and augmented Safavid Iran’s image of itself as a victorious power.

Acquiring cannon technology did not prove particularly difficult, given that by the turn of the seventeenth century casting cannon was a relatively uncomplicated and inexpensive operation. Besides possessing an indigenous knowledge from even before Tahmasp’s time—especially of casting makeshift siege cannon—there were enough military engagements with the Ottomans and enough renegades from the enemy’s army to Iran to furnish the Safavids with their vital needs. Victories over the Ottomans, and later the Portuguese in the Persian Gulf, also provided the Safavids with cannon pieces as spoils of war. The arrival of European soldiers of fortune, moreover, rendered knowledge of modern warfare available to the Safavids. Yet, like Tahmasp before him, ‘Abbas was selective in adapting the Ottoman and Western methods of warfare and military organization. The Safavids neither could afford nor were willing to abandon their highly mobile light cavalry, which under capable command continued to prove its worth. Equipped with artillery and reinforced by musketeer corps, for a limited time in the first half of the seventeenth century the Safavid army reached an effective optimal balance between the traditional methods of warfare and the new military technology and tactics.

The artillery could pierce, if not shatter and raze to the ground, the seemingly impenetrable fortresses and strongholds that dotted the Iranian landscape and were even more numerous along the mountainous periphery of the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Luristan, Mazandaran, and eastern Khorasan. ‘Abbas aimed not to raze but to capture the semiautonomous strongholds and to subordinate their khans, who had long fallen outside of Safavid control. It took him at least a decade to impose a semblance of tranquility in the Iranian interior. At times he faced the opposition not only of the Qezilbash and other local khans but also of the local populace, city dwellers and peasants, who defied integration primarily because of the heavy taxation imposed on them to finance the state’s military campaigns. Repeated uprisings throughout the early 1590s in the cities and countryside of Mazandaran—‘Abbas’s own maternal homeland and a coveted province because of its natural resources—were but one example of challenges to the centralizing state. Despite regional resistance, however, the new imperial army imposed on the disparate and geographically scattered communities of Iran a new loyalty to the state as guarantor of security, and eventually national identity.

What also gave ‘Abbas’s career a flavor of the common trends in the empires of the early modern times were a clearer sense of military strategy and political priorities. Far from reacting haphazardly to grave threats to his throne, as he had done at the outset of his reign, he recognized his priorities, planned his action, and waited for the right opportunities. He realized the futility of engaging in a destructive war with the Ottomans when such odds as shattered frontier defenses, trouble at home, traitorous khans, and a demoralized army were clearly against him. In 1590, aware of the hazards of a two-front engagement, he acquiesced to a humiliating peace treaty with the Ottomans that ceded the western Iranian provinces in their entirety to his powerful nemeses. Moreover, the treaty compelled the Safavids to renounce their most inveterate expression of Shi‘i militancy, the cursing of the Sunni Caliphs.

The treaty, nonetheless, granted ‘Abbas much-needed respite to pacify the interior and, some years later, to start the process that would end Uzbek occupation of the east. By 1598, in a series of campaigns mostly under ‘Abbas’s own command, Safavid armies recouped their losses throughout Khorasan, including Herat, Mashhad, Balkh, Marv, and Astarabad (map 2.1). The capture of Herat, in particular, was a singular boost to the Safavids’ morale, for it restored the Safavid claim to Timurid heritage. Regaining Mashhad further enhanced the shah’s stature as protector of Shi‘i Islam. For the rest of the seventeenth century all major urban centers of Khorasan remained in Safavid hands, a success that nevertheless proved fragile.

The relative tranquility of Khorasan persuaded ‘Abbas to begin the second phase of his strategy to reconquer the Iranian empire, this time from the more formidable Ottoman occupiers. For this he fielded five hundred cannon and a corps of nearly twelve thousand artillerymen and twelve thousand musketeers, which included a mix of Iranians, Caucasian gholams, and a reformed shahisavan cavalry, now mostly identified by the general name qurchis (weapons bearers, or more accurately, “bearer of firearm”). Though numerically far smaller than the Ottoman forces, this was a force to be reckoned with. In a series of brilliant campaigns between 1603 and 1612, ‘Abbas routed his Ottoman enemy in Azarbaijan and the eastern Caucasus as much by his tact and creative use of limited resources as by his personal valor and high morale. In this he ranked among the most talented military commanders of early modern times.

Tabriz was recaptured in 1604, after nearly two decades of devastation, repeated changes of hands, and massacres of the local population. A 1612 treaty of Istanbul, moreover, returned to Iran all the territory it had lost since the 1555 Peace of Amasya (map 2.1). Later, the Ottomans’ repeated efforts to recoup their losses in western Iran brought even greater humiliation and more injury to their military reputation. In the following decade ‘Abbas used every opportunity to turn the Ottomans’ strategic errors in northern and central Mesopotamia into his own gain, with the aim of pushing into the heartland of the Safavid movement and beyond. By 1623, the recapture of Baghdad and the Shi‘i holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which had been lost to the Safavids in 1535, marked the pinnacle of ‘Abbas’s career and the reunification of his formerly fractured empire.

Map 2.1. Safavid Iran under Shah ‘Abbas I, 1588–1629


Coinciding with reconquest of Khorasan in 1598, ‘Abbas began to relocate the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, in the heart of the Iranian plateau and long the seat of power to the Buyid, and later the Saljuqid, empires of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The shift was significant not only for ethnic, strategic, and economic reasons, but also because ‘Abbas’s reconstruction of Isfahan as his capital gave material expression to the achievements of his reign (fig. 2.2). The master plan and monumental architecture of the new capital epitomized power and legitimacy as much as functionality, openness, and leisure—all in an atmosphere of candor and confidence. Isfahan, this quintessential Persian city, became even more representative of Safavid Iran under ‘Abbas and his successors. As much as they shaped the city, the city and its inhabitants also shaped them. European visitors of the period, who marveled at Isfahan’s greatness and the mastermind behind its revival, also recorded traits of greater Persian homogeneity among the Safavid political elite.

Figure 2.2. A seventeenth-century panorama of Isfahan demonstrating the centrality of Naqsh-e Jahan to the shaping of the Safavid capital.

John Ogilby, Asiathe First Part, Being an Accurate Description of Persia, and the Several Provinces Thereof (London, 1673).

That ‘Abbas opted for Isfahan as his capital even after recapturing Herat, Tabriz, and Baghdad—all three had earlier been recognized as seats of imperial power—reveals geopolitical common sense. The city’s pivotal location was recognized by Saljuq administrators, who apparently were the first to rhyme Isfahan with the epithet nasf-e jahan (nave of the universe). In 1079 Omar Khayyam (c. 1048–1141), the celebrated mathematician and astronomer of the Saljuq era and poet of the Rubaiyat, was among the astronomers who positioned Isfahan as the prime meridian, the nasf, of the reformed solar Jalali calendar, the most pronounced marker of Persian solar time-reckoning and Iran’s calendric memory. The emphasis in rhyme on the centrality of Isfahan should not be taken as mere glorification of the new capital, as metropolises often are labeled by their proud rulers and inhabitants. Even today the common phrase Isfahan, nesf-e Jahan (Isfahan is half the world) reflects how the misreading of the original epithet, nesf (half), for nasf (nave, center), resulted in boosting the greatness of the city.

Geographically, Isfahan was indeed the center of the Safavid Empire. Located equidistant from the former capitals, Tabriz and Herat, it offered an ideal communicative and administrative advantage. In the face of the Ottomans’ virtual trade blockade to the west, Isfahan’s proximity to the Persian Gulf also offered alluring alternative access to European markets. Isfahan also was centrally located on the trade route at the edge of the central Iranian desert that connected Qazvin and Kashan to Yazd and Kerman and beyond to Kandahar and northern India. Nearly two decades of war and destruction had reduced Tabriz’s enviable position as the hub of the Eurasian trade, a position that it would never regain, especially after the rise of Istanbul as the center of trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Not yet fully recovered from the ravages of Timurid armies in the late fourteenth century, Isfahan, in contrast, offered abundant natural and human resources. Water from the river Zayandehrud, meaning “birthing river,” for its riverbed springs (or Zendehrud, “the living river”), supplemented by a network of subterranean qanats on the slopes of central Zagrus range, irrigated the hinterlands of Isfahan. Without the bountiful and reliable food supplies harvested from the alluvial plains along the Zayandehrud, the only major river in the interiors of the Iranian plateau, it would have been impossible for any state to sustain a large urban population, secure a thriving trade and industry, and maintain a standing army and extensive divan. By the time ‘Abbas embarked on his new cosmopolitan project, his contemporary, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), had already abandoned his newly built capital in Fatehpur in 1586 because of the scarcity of water. The Ottoman capital, Istanbul, however, offered security, prosperity, and power because of its prime maritime location, which allowed for the importation of grain from, and easy access to, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean.

The people of Isfahan provided another incentive for transfer of the capital. Ever since the time of Isma‘il, Isfahanis had served in high offices, most notably Najm II, the capable vakil who was partially responsible for reassertion of the Persian (Tajik) element in the early Safavid administration. The gradual tilt toward the Iranian center, at the expense of the Azarbaijan-based Qezilbash, signified the triumph of the Persian divan. It was perhaps with the famed and well-chronicled resourcefulness and diligence of the people of the new capital that ‘Abbas found the greatest affinity. That they were also labeled shrewd and streetwise, even by native Isfahani authors, conveyed a sense of cosmopolitan confidence vital for the expansion of commerce. The potential for recruitment was not only in the expanding divan but also in the growing trade network and in the famed royal workshops. Isfahan incorporated into its growing economic network industrial centers in its vicinity such as Kashan, Yazd, and Kerman. Artistically, too, Isfahan soon absorbed the traditions of painting and calligraphy from Shiraz as well as Tabriz and Herat, displaying its own distinctive cultural characteristics.

Initially a garrison town—indicated in its original name, Sipahan (garrison, barracks)—Isfahan’s roots probably went back to a settlement of the Achaemenid period, which later gave rise to a sizable Jewish quarter. Among the oldest inscriptional evidence from the city, dating to the Parthian period, is a dedication tablet from a synagogue in the Jewish quarter. In pre-Safavid times the Jewish quarter, known as Jubareh (Jewish borough), which survives into the present with the same name, may have controlled a sizable volume of trade and financing, important for Isfahan’s economic well-being.

The imperial legacy of Isfahan persuaded ‘Abbas to bestow his stamp on the face of the city in the form of the new congregational (jame‘) mosque, a masterwork of Perso-Islamic architecture. In the age of great construction projects around the globe, from Hapsburg Spain to Ming China, the lure of monumentalizing political and military achievements was strong for ‘Abbas, especially when the timing was coincidental with the turn of the first Islamic millennium. The years 1591–1592 corresponded to the year 1000 of the Islamic Hijra calendar. It is tantalizing to think that ‘Abbas constructed the Isfahan monuments so as to commemorate his millennial stature. Suppressing the millenarian movement of the Noqtavis shortly before moving to his new capital made Abbas’s choice of a millennial capital even more plausible.

A century after the rise of Isma‘il to power in 1501, corresponding to the Islamic calendar year 906, such a commemoration was even more fitting, for ‘Abbas was able to recover once more the full length and breadth of his ancestor’s domain while capturing the spirit of his forefather’s messianic revolution in the splendor of his own royal monuments. Not without reason, the zodiac sign associated with Isfahan, Sagittarius (Arabic al-qaws; Persian kaman), also associated with victorious rule in Perso-Islamic astrological culture, adorned the portal of the Qaysariyeh bazaar (from Arabic Qaysar, from Latin Caesar) in the Naqsh-e Jahan royal square. As with the nomenclature in use in Cairo during the Fatimid era of the tenth and eleventh century, in Isfahan, too, power and glory were associated with the city’s investiture as a millennial metropolis.

Between 1598 and 1629, the end of his life, ‘Abbas added a new sector to the old city, and all available evidence suggests that its construction was guided by at least a rudimentary master plan he devised himself. The plan consisted of a complex of mosques and madrasas, a massive square, thoroughfares, bazaars, pavilions, and gardens. The buildings were meant to visually display royal grandeur as well as ‘Abbas’s utilitarian appetite for business and his taste for leisure. Perhaps most symbolic in this emerging urban space was the Maydan Naqsh-e Jahan, first developed in 1590 on the site of a Saljuq garden of the same name. It was a rectangle 512 meters long and 159 meters wide, an expansive multifunctional space, connected through a covered bazaar to the old section of the city and through a network of state buildings and royal gardens to the newly constructed recreational thoroughfare known as the Chahar-Bagh (four-part garden) (pl. 2.1).

The concept of the maydan (from the Middle Persian for “empty space in the middle”), as it applied to the Naqsh-e Jahan (naqsh, “model” or “pattern,” and jahan, “the world”), was reminiscent of the city’s dual functions as a garrison and a trade center but also of the symbolic representation of the state. The old Maydan in Isfahan was located in front of the original congregational mosque on the other end of the bazaar, which in its own right was a repository of Iran’s architectural history. Naqsh-e Jahan, while maintaining these old functions, displayed the royal touch on all sides. Most notable was its accessibility and openness, in contrast to virtually all other royal projects carried out elsewhere in the early modern world (perhaps with the notable exception of Venice’s Piazza St. Marco). The new Maydan was not modeled as a citadel (arg) with high walls and closed gates barring the public from mingling with the royals and their officials, as so many royal projects were, from the Spanish El Escorial to Istanbul’s Topkapi, to Delhi’s La’l Qal’a (The Red Fort) and Beijing’s Forbidden City, and later Versailles. Naqsh-e Jahan, on the contrary, housed around its perimeter public buildings together with royal pavilions, suggesting to observers a spirit of communal unity. It was as though it were intended to be the pattern for the emerging Safavid world.

This microcosm of the Safavid Guarded Domains was a deliberate mix of sacred and profane. The arched modular arcade around the Maydan consisting of rows of shops was interrupted at four points by monumental edifices. On the southern end was the magnificent royal mosque, symbolic of the enduring presence of Shi‘ism, and on the northern end was the picturesque gateway to the bazaar. These public spaces alternated with two royal structures: on the west the Royal State House (Dowlat-khaneh-e Mobarakeh, better known by its Turkish name, ‘Āli-qapi, or “the Sublime Threshold”) and on the east the royal chapel (better known as the Mosque of Shaykh Lotfallah [al-Maysi], after the scholar of Jabal ‘Amil in whose honor apparently the chapel was named). The space in the middle was an expansive ground used for a variety of purposes: the Persian game of polo (and other games), military parades, weekly trade fairs with tents and caravans, and festive gatherings with fireworks, nighttime illumination, musical bands, and entertainers. Not infrequently, ‘Abbas himself appeared on the veranda of the Royal State House to view a parade or to observe the Muharram mourning ceremonies, and he mingled freely with the Isfahani public in the Maydan a spirit of pageantry and camaraderie.

Having been advised by an Isfahani merchant-turned-state official on the Maydan project, the shah was mindful of ensuring a return on his invested capital. The first modern commercial development project reflected the empire’s new spirit of state mercantilism. Shops in the arcade were rented out at a discounted rate to encourage a different business pattern from that of the occupational clusters of the bazaar. A stone channel ran around the perimeter of the Maydan, serving as a divider between the central arena and a covered walkway around the square. The shaded passageway served the clientele with Persian and European luxury goods, which were becoming increasingly affordable for the prosperous classes, heralding a new age of affluence and consumption. Remarkably, the new Maydan was not divorced from the fabric of the old city; rather, it was a modern extension of it.

The royal congregational mosque—endowed by ‘Abbas and named after him: the Masjid Jame’ ‘Abbasi (or simply known as the Shah Mosque before it was renamed in 1980, in blatant violation of the Islamic requirement to preserve the name of the founder of any charitable endowment, as the Imam Khomeini Mosque)—was designed by the royal architect Badi’ al-Zaman Tuni, about whom we know nothing beyond his name. The mosque was built between 1611 and 1638 by a team of architects, engineers, masons, ceramic tile artists, and calligraphers under ‘Abbas’s close supervision (pl. 2.2). Masterfully integrated into the Maydan complex, the entrance portal was aligned with the Maydan’s axis, while the main courtyard, the fifty-two-meter turquoise-colored tile dome, and the rest of the building are turned forty-five degrees to face toward Mecca, a requirement for any mosque. The symbolism could hardly be missed by any observer—from any point in the Maydan, one could appreciate the harmony between the secular space, dominated by the state building and its commercial ventures, and the sacred ambiance of the mosque’s interiors. Accessed from the Maydan through a tilted corridor, the contrast between the sacred and profane is further nuanced by the dimmed light in the intermediate space. The harmony between the two spaces is nevertheless accentuated by the resemblance in the design of the polychrome ceramic portals that stand on opposite sides (pl. 2.3).

To complement the mosque, the royal chapel (of Shaykh Lotfallah) on the eastern flank of the Maydan, was a cherished example of Safavid architecture. The ambiance of this building, which lacked a courtyard and featured an off-center dome, was distinct from the traditional design of Persian mosques. It may have been originally planned to serve a function other than a mosque—possibly a madrasa or even a gathering place for the Sufis of the Safavi order, who still maintained a ceremonial position, albeit a much diminished one, at the Safavid court.

The Royal State House on the western side of the square is testament to the greater prominence of the Safavid state. First begun under ‘Abbas as a multistory atrium for the complex of royal palaces and gardens behind it, under ‘Abbas’s successors it evolved into a state house, with new music chambers and banquet halls. An exterior symbol of the state, perhaps comparable in function to the Ottoman Sublime Porte (Bab ‘Āli) or Divan ‘Amm in Mughal Delhi, the cubic structure and multiple stories of the state house represented a breakthrough in Safavid design and interior decoration. Moreover, perhaps for the first time in Persian architecture, its positioning on one side of the Maydan removed the seat of government from the seclusion of the citadel and placed it squarely in public view. As a state house it was placed in a separate building outside the court and more accessible to the public. Preceding Naqsh-e Jahan, the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco in Venice seems to be the only other government building of the time that shared a similar conceptual character and served a similar function.

The innovative design of the Royal State House was in harmony with the new Maydan complex. Not only could the shah’s subjects see him on public occasions on the balcony of the state house, but also the government could also be more easily accessed independent of the royal court and the overpowering presence of the monarch. The spatial differentiation between the state and the royal household, in effect between the private and the public functions of the shah, was a tantalizing overture to a modern political division of labor. Yet such a division of private and public in the state’s affairs never really materialized under the Safavids or their successors. While the lower floors of the seven-story building housed the headquarters of the two most important officers of the Safavid state: the vizier, as head of the divan, and the sadr, as head of the religious administration, the upper floors functioned as reception halls for entertaining royal guests.

From the heavily ornate upper floors with hedonistic wall paintings by the seventeenth-century master painter, Reza ‘Abbasi, to the elaborate plasterwork, ‘Āli Qapi royal structure seemed to combine the administrative and leisurely faces of the Safavid state. Yet despite its administrative and leisurely functions, the Royal State House could not remain entirely free of religious symbolism. Reportedly, after his 1632 conquest of Baghdad, ‘Abbas brought from Najaf one of the gates to ‘Ali’s shrine and installed it in the entrance portal of government house as a sign of his devotion to the first Shi‘i Imam. The shah himself, despite his well-known propensity toward revelry, also had to underscore his humility toward Shi‘i foundations of the Safavid state. One of the self-effacing epithets ‘Abbas assumed for himself was “the dog of Ali’s threshold” (kalb-e astan-e ‘Ali), which denoted not only devotion to ‘Ali but also to the Safavid state’s guarding of the legitimate Shi‘i state, a concept rivaling perhaps the Ottomans’ assumption of custodianship of the sacred shrines of Mecca and Medina.

Beyond the Royal State House were extensive royal gardens, stretching all the way to another of ‘Abbas’s urban innovations, the avenue of Chahar-Bagh. The idea of chahar-bagh, had long been expressed in gardens, as well as in Persian paintings and carpet designs in Iran, in Central Asia, and in Mughal India. The transposition of the celestial ideal in the Chahar-Bagh of Isfahan no doubt reflected the leisurely dimension of the new age of ‘Abbas and the material affluence of the Safavid elite, the mercantile classes, and other associated groups. The two-mile-long, 196-foot-wide khiaban (a Persian garden pathway with a watercourse, which later evolved into the modern notion of a boulevard) ran the length of the city from north to south in a newly developed sector close to the river, with parallel lines of plane, cypress, and poplar trees and water channels running across it (fig. 2.3). Crossing Zayandehrud via the picturesque bridge of Allah-Verdi Khan (later the Si-o-seh Pol), another edifice of the Safavid era, the upper Chahar-Bagh merged into vast royal parks and gardens in the southern end, which were open to the public.

The Chahar-Bagh quarter as a whole represented a pleasure garden on a large, orderly scale. The shaded and well-irrigated promenade was open to the public, an inviting refuge for strolling. The avenue of Chahar-Bagh crossed the river perpendicularly, crossing Isfahan and its immediate hinterland. Within each plot of land that was developed into a symmetrical garden, delicate pavilions were constructed at the cross section, or “eye,” of the garden. Having no residential function, the pavilions in the late Safavid era were built for pure visual and sensual pleasure amid the controlled natural environment, recalling the pavilions (ghorafat) of Paradise as they were depicted in the Perso-Shi‘i eschatological narratives. Under the rule of ‘Abbas’s successors, the pleasure aspect of the Chahar-Bagh was further emphasized, for instance, in the extant pavilion of Hasht Behesht built at the end of the seventeenth century. The name and design of the building alluded to the pleasures of the eighth and final level of Paradise, and especially to the sensual license available to the saved.

Figure 2.3. An early eighteenth-century view of Isfahan’s new Chahar-Bagh.

Cornelius Le Bruyn, Travels into Muscovy, Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1737), 2:79.

In constructing Chahar-Bagh and the surrounding gardens and parks, ‘Abbas and his successor may have been influenced by seventeenth-century European urban planning. The print illustrations of Italy’s renaissance gardens and villas, for example, were available in Isfahan through European travelers. The Chahar-Bagh project never neglected the shah’s entrepreneurial instincts. ‘Abbas acquired vineyards and orchards in the vicinity and developed them into spacious plots to be sold to the nobility and members of the elite. Remarkably, however, the endeavor did not result only in a residential quarter for the affluent, but rather a horticultural delight for pleasure and for the education of the senses. As much as ‘Abbas and his successors were experimenting with new modes of commerce and economic development, so were they tasting the pleasures of wine and companionship (pl. 2.4).


Financing a well-equipped army and monumental building projects required new monetary and human resources incompatible with the capacity of an agrarian economy. Relying largely on trickling land revenues from fiefdoms under the control of the Qezilbash and the provincial nobility, ‘Abbas’s predecessors had compensated for the gaping shortfall through limited revenue from overland trade and other urban sources. Whether the cause of the shortfall was insubordinate fief holders or ailments inherent to fiscal management, the state had to look for alternative resources. Revenue through booty was of diminishing returns, upon which the Safavids could never rely as heavily as did the Ottomans during their expansion. Long before ‘Abbas’s time there was simply little left for the Safavids to conquer. Losing the eastern half of Anatolia and later the western Caucasus to the Ottomans was a further blow to the state revenue.

‘Abbas resorted to a range of new economic policies aimed not only to reverse the semiautonomous power of the periphery in favor of the center but also to generate new sources of wealth. His search for new markets, labor, and monopolies complemented his strategies for better communication and for long-distance trade. His economic interventionist policies and deliberate mix of business and government heralded a political economy in tune with the European state mercantilism of his age. Perhaps not as systematic as the English or Dutch, but surely as determined, by around 1600, when ‘Abbas seriously embarked on building the new capital, he had already laid the foundation for a new economy.

The cornerstone of his economic reform policy was to shift the landholding pattern from hereditary fiefdoms to state-controlled renewable land tenures (tuyul) assigned as estates to the members of the Persian and gholam elite. Still bestowed as remuneration for their services in place of a cash salary, the recipients of these estates were periodically reassigned to various posts and locations, making their estates’ tax revenue more readily collectible. The vast expansion of the crown lands (khassa), moreover, including the entire silk-producing provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran, which were either conquered by ‘Abbas or were estates expropriated from insubordinate Qezilbash chiefs, increased the revenue of the crown, which was administered independent of the divan. Unlike the prevailing Ottoman timar and the Mughal suba landholding practices, whereby the central government received services instead of revenue, the shift to a more centralized landholding regime endowed ‘Abbas with additional income—from both crown and divan—as well as with exchangeable commodities. This in turn allowed for a commercial venture with a profit margin that no other source—neither land nor taxation—could generate.

Silk was the most plausible, perhaps the only, cash commodity at ‘Abbas’s disposal in order to compensate for the paucity of other nonagrarian source of wealth. Originally introduced to Iran from China, for more than a millennium silk (abrisham, from Old Persian upa-raishma, or “the superior thread”) was produced in commercial quantities in Iran and was processed, woven, and exported in raw form or as fine fabrics to Europe through ports along the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. References in the Sasanian sources of late Antiquity to Perso-Byzantine rivalry over the silk trade, and in Persian poetry and historiography of the early Islamic Middle Ages, confirm the importance of silk as a commodity, as well as its cultural place in the Persian imagination.

By the late sixteenth century, when European consumption was on the rise, disruption of the so-called Silk Road trade lowered the importation of silk overland from China through Central Asia, an ancient trade route that two centuries earlier had attracted Genoese merchants, famously pioneered by Marco Polo and his party, to Iranian silk-producing centers and probably to China. Cultivation of Persian silk, inferior in quality to Chinese silk, nevertheless was given a boost after the Safavid conquest of the Caucasus, especially the silk-producing region of Nakhijevan and Shervan. Both the Iranians and the Ottomans coveted the two regions even before the inception of the Safavid state.

The organization and expansion of the Safavid silk trade, however, had to circumvent a serious barrier. Conscious of Persian competition, for most of the fifteenth century the Ottoman authorities, like their Byzantine predecessors in Sasanian times, imposed strict restrictions on the import of Persian silk to Ottoman silk markets and silk-weaving centers such as Bursa, as well as on its export through their Mediterranean and Black Sea ports. The ongoing religious and political hostilities between the two empires turned such restrictions to a virtual blockade, especially after ‘Abbas’s counteroffensive against the Turkish occupation of western Iran. Access to the silkworm-breeding centers of the Caucasus and control of the overland routes was a source of recurring anti-Safavid belligerence and a powerful incentive for repeated Ottoman eastern campaigns.

As resourceful and creative as ‘Abbas was in governing, he simply updated, so to speak, the same callous treatment of the people of the Caucasus as had been done by his predecessors and by his Ottoman neighbors. Congruent with the mercantilist ethics of the early modern empires, he too gave his exploitation of the region’s resources a face-saving appearance, one that served his own political and commercial purposes. After more than a century of the Caucasian territories changing hands and scorched-earth warfare conducted by both Turks and Persians, the once thriving silk-breeding centers of the Caucasus greatly suffered and the trade hubs of the Julfa, Tiflis, and Shamakhi were on the verge of collapse. Yet after a series of campaigns leading up to 1604, once ‘Abbas had firmly reasserted Safavid control over the eastern Caucasus, his treatment of the Armenian and Georgian communities began to shift from crusading zeal to entrepreneurial circumspection. To him the Armenian communities of the Caucasus, and particularly Julfa (in the present-day autonomous republic of Nakhchivan in the Azerbaijan Republic), a major Armenian center of silk production and commerce even with Europe, served a valuable end. As part of his effort to develop his new capital, and as an overall endeavor to strengthen the center against the periphery, he embarked on a policy of forced migration.

In 1605, retreating from an Ottoman counteroffensive in Kars, as part of the scorched-earth military strategy, the Safavid army razed the city of Julfa to the ground. ‘Abbas issued a decree forcing the entire population of the city, some fifteen thousand Armenian families (probably as many as one hundred thousand individuals), out of their homeland and distributing them throughout Azarbaijan, Gilan, and other silk-producing northern provinces. A select population, as many as three thousand families, resettled in the capital, Isfahan, where most were housed in a then-recently-created Armenian quarter, known as New Julfa, on the south bank of Zayandehrud. By a royal decree the new quarter was assigned exclusively to the Armenians, and they were offered funding and materials to develop their new home and build numerous churches and mansions. Some Armenian refugees perished along the way from disease and exhaustion, even though after their arrival they were generally treated well by the Safavid authorities. To the Ottomans, mass exodus (boyok surgon) was a familiar practice—rooted in the Mongolian and Timurid culture of treating humans as movable herds—and was often aimed to pacify some newly conquered territory. With an eye on that Ottoman practice, Shah ‘Abbas no doubt viewed mass exodus as a canny solution to a century of Perso-Ottoman rivalry over the Caucasus and an effective way to quell repeated anti-Safavid Georgian and Armenian revolts.

The greater incentive, and a novel motive for ‘Abbas, was to transplant to his capital Armenian expertise in organizing and operating the Persian silk trade, a move no doubt inspired by the existence of an extensive Armenian trade network and relative immunity of the Armenian and Jewish merchants in crossing the Perso-Ottoman borders, despite hostilities with rival neighbors. With the growth of New Julfa and the thriving economy of the Armenian community, an important piece of ‘Abbas’s designs for expanding the silk trade fell into place. By 1615 he was ready to declare silk production and export to be a monopoly of the crown, though earlier he had already commissioned first Jewish, then Armenian, merchants as his agents and offered them royal protection and privileges. The Armenian network, extending throughout the Ottoman Empire and European Mediterranean, was a major asset for the shah’s enterprise, functioning almost as an equivalent to the emerging European trading companies, the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, and for a while successfully competing with them. The nurturing of an Armenian mercantile network was ‘Abbas’s answer to the Ottoman blockade of what would potentially be his most profitable commodity.

Despite an increasingly lucrative European silk market, however, Persian raw silk could not be exported conveniently through Levantine ports, primarily because of the high tariffs on it imposed by the Ottomans and other obstacles to overland trade. By the end of the sixteenth century, Persian silk was one of the most important items exported through Aleppo—then the busiest eastern Mediterranean entrepôt. The search for an alternative route had already preoccupied ‘Abbas and his administration, primarily because the shah’s low profit margins stood in glaring contrast to the high proceeds that the Persian silk trade generated for the Armenian and Jewish intermediaries and for the Ottoman treasury. If the advantage of employing Armenian merchants was to access the European markets directly in hopes of realizing higher profits, the overland silk route through the Mediterranean did not fully serve that purpose.

To further develop silk production, the shah also experimented with mass migration of the Armenians and Georgians of the Shamakhi and Tiflis regions to the Caspian province of Gilan, Iran’s largest silkworm-breeding region. The goal of this venture was to benefit from the new immigrants’ expertise in silkworm breeding in a province where high mortality from malaria resulted in chronic labor shortages. In central Iran, in several villages near Isfahan, ‘Abbas also resettled Caucasian Christians to combat population deficiencies, especially where a larger agricultural labor force was needed to boost the new economy.

As an extension of the older pattern set up under Tahmasp, the Georgians and Armenians under ‘Abbas and his successors not only settled in New Julfa or in Isfahan itself, or in the countryside; they came to occupy vital posts in the Safavid army and administration. Converting to Islam, Armenian and Georgians gholams, whether captured or purchased, served in high posts. Most influential among them was Allah-Verdi Khan (“gift of God”), a remarkable Armenian slave-soldier and convert to Islam who rose through the ranks during Abbas’s many campaigns to become a commander of the Safavid army and then governor-general of greater Fars that included the coasts and ports of the Persian Gulf. The Christian element in the age of ‘Abbas, as merchants, artisans, soldiers, and administrators, had a far greater impact on the state and society proportionate to their population. Under ‘Abbas, Armenians rose in status through the army and trade and were the chief beneficiaries of royal favor, far surpassing indigenous Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities. They were viewed as a window to the outside world and a key medium for enticing and sustaining Europe’s diplomatic and commercial interests toward Iran.

Material evidence for the tolerant Safavid policy toward the Armenian community is evident not only in New Julfa’s public buildings—markets, bathhouses, and bridges—but also in the residences of the affluent Armenian mercantile community. Numerous churches were built throughout the seventeenth century, some of which are among the best examples of Persian religious architecture. By the 1660s, New Julfa had twenty-four Armenian churches as well as several missionary houses and chapels. The best known, Holy Savior Cathedral—popularly known today as the Vank Cathedral—was financed by an affluent Armenian merchant and completed in 1664 (fig. 2.4). Displaying an excellent adaptation of Armenian tradition to the Persian architectural style, the domed structure and the elaborate arched nave replicated the architecture of Persian mosques. What made the cathedral distinct, however, were the interiors, adorned with frescoes executed by a number of local Armenian painters and showing the life of Jesus, the apostles, and the saints of the Armenian Church. The magnificent central panel, which depicts a striking scene of the Resurrection, not only evokes Byzantine and Venetian themes but also the Safavid Shi‘i engagement with the themes of Return and the Hereafter (pl. 2.5). Such a conjunction was no coincidence since the Armenians were important partners in the Safavid enterprise of broadening the Persian commercial and cultural horizons.


Owing either to his political savvy or to his business instincts, ‘Abbas came to recognize the power of the new Europe early in his reign, and to value its strategic, commercial, and technological potential. In contrast to his predecessors, and indeed to many of his contemporaries, he could see the advantage of interacting with the West and selectively adopting what it had to offer. If anything, he was a bit “Westoxicated” (gharbzadeh), to borrow the fashionable twentieth-century label anachronistically. Yet he was confident enough in his own cultural identity not to be carried away entirely with Europe’s marvels and its artful representatives. That his gaze was directed toward Europe at a time when European commercial imperialism was on the rise, though not yet dominant, was not a sheer coincidence.

Figure 2.4. The Vank Cathedral in New Julfa.

Eugène Flandin, Voyage en Perse de mm. Eugène Flandin, peintre, et Pascal Coste, architecte: Perse moderne (Paris, 1851–1854). Planches, par Eugène Flandin, vol. 8, fol. 55, pl. 52, Église de Djoulfa. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Europe’s presence was already tangible to the Persians as early as 1507, when a small Portuguese fleet under the command of the adventurous admiral Afonso de Albuquerque raided the strategic island of Hormuz at the head of the Persian Gulf and subordinated the local ruler, a tributary to Iran. The local population repelled him. Late in 1515, Albuquerque, now at the head of a much larger fleet, recaptured Hormuz. This time, he established the Portuguese as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, which would last for more than a century (fig. 2.5). The island of Bahrain, another Safavid tributary at the opposite end of the Persian Gulf, fell to the Portuguese in 1521. However, attempts to capture the port of Basra, then a fragile Safavid possession, failed. The loss of Hormuz to the Portuguese was Iran’s first experience of European imperial expansion.

Figure 2.5. Island of Hormuz in 1572 under Portuguese control.

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (Cologne, 1572), 1:54.

For more than a century, passage through the Cape of Good Hope and Portuguese control of strongholds throughout the waterways of the Eastern Hemisphere created a web of commercial monopolies, and trade from the Persian Gulf with India, southern China, East Africa, and the western Mediterranean was only one component of this network. The Portuguese monopoly on the lucrative export of Persian silk through the south imposed an almost total control of the customs tariffs and maritime access to and from the Persian Gulf up to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. This was an important competition for Venetians’ control of the silk trade of the eastern Mediterranean and their access to the European markets.

Portuguese relations with the Safavid state, however, remained ambivalent at best and brazenly intrusive at worst. Earlier, at the outset of the fifteenth century, Isma‘il I, who lacked a navy, could neither evict them nor make them pay the tribute he received from the rulers of Hormuz. After long negotiations, therefore, he was persuaded to enter an anti-Ottoman pact with the Portuguese, which in the aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 he could hardly afford to implement. Facing the Ottoman blockade in the Mediterranean, the monopoly of the Portuguese was a further impediment to the growth of the Safavids’ independent silk export. Reorientation toward the Persian Gulf heralded Iran’s reliance on this southern artery to access the markets of Western Europe. Massive injections of New World gold and silver into the markets of Asia and Africa had given Spain, which from 1580 to 1640 was in union with Portugal, enormous purchasing power and political acumen that could not have gone unnoticed even in remote and hard-to-access Safavid Iran.

The difficulties Iran faced getting access to the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf were complicated by other geopolitical concerns. From the perspective of the Spanish Hapsburgs, Iran was a natural ally against Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and in central Europe, where the Austrian Hapsburgs were under constant Turkish pressure. ‘Abbas, who came to realize the advantages of a European alliance early in his reign, wished to complement the anti-Ottoman pact with a viable commercial bond. Yet major problems hindered his liberation from geographical isolation and his ability to nurture relations with European powers beyond the strictly formal. The Turkish barrier made a steady line of communication through the Mediterranean next to impossible since Ottoman provincial governors often arrested and imprisoned emissaries passing through Ottoman territories. Even a simple exchange of correspondence over the land route took months, if not years. Alternative routes through the Cape of Good Hope, or via the Caspian Sea through Russia and the Baltics, proved logistically as hazardous and subject to the whims of either the Portuguese or the Russian Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Yet as early as 1521, the Grand Duchy and Safavid Iran established diplomatic relations. Growth of the Kazan trade in the Caspian through Astrakhan, Baku, and Darband (Derbent); fear of Ottoman expansion in the Caucasus; and the recurring problem of Cossack pirates raiding Caspian shores brought Russian emissaries to ‘Abbas’s court.

‘Abbas’s growing fame in Europe as an anti-Turkish champion brought to Iran, especially from the 1590s, a string of soldiers of fortune, missionaries, and merchants with various intents and degrees of sincerity. The poor quality of the missions and the uncharted domain of diplomacy further exacerbated difficult communication. Safavid Iran unavoidably found itself in the midst of intricate European politics, which were divided by sectarian strife, commercial and maritime rivalries, and wars of succession. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Spain, under Philip II, was at the height of its colonial expansion and interventionist phase. Philip’s anti-Protestant zeal, not unlike the Ottoman anti-Shi‘i policies, sharpened Europe’s sectarian discord. The Ottoman-Hapsburg race for supremacy in the Mediterranean, which reached a climax during the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, also echoed in Safavid Iran and came to influence the nature of its relations with the outside world. Despite a cultural divide and geographical distance, by the late sixteenth century Iran’s geopolitical destiny was curiously tied up with Europe’s. Safavid rulers’ correspondence with European courts often rhetorically questioned the futility of the religious schism that divided Christian Europe while the Turkish threat was at hand. It was as though the reality of the Sunni-Shi‘i conflict, of which they were the main party, did not sober them enough to the complexity of European sectarian and imperial rivalries.

In 1598, ten years after the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English, when the English Sherley (also spelled Shirley) brothers, Anthony and Robert, and their company of about twenty Englishmen arrived in the Safavid court offering their services, they still wished to present ‘Abbas with the illusion of a unified European front against the Ottomans (see map 2.1). Previously in the service of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex (partaker in the exploits of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh), on whose behalf they hoped to develop commercial ties with Safavid Iran, the Sherleys were typical English highborn adventurers in search of fame and fortune. Their claim to have introduced artillery to Safavid Iran and modernized its army can be safely dismissed. In reality, during nearly three decades of dealings with the Safavid monarch, they provided him with much information about Europe and European powers, as well as the possibilities of trade and political alliances, even though much of what they said was likely to have been colored by their proclivities for fame and fortune.

This is particularly true about Anthony Sherley, the older of the two, who in 1599, along with the Persian emissary Hosain ‘Ali Beg Bayat, a courtier of Qezilbash origin, was sent on a goodwill mission to the European courts to promote trade and to coordinate a counteroffensive against the Ottomans, a mission that ended most grotesquely. Quarreling with the Persian emissary in Prague, and later in Rome, where they were to deliver the shah’s message of friendship to Pope Clement VII, Anthony parted with the bales of silk entrusted to him by the shah to be sold in Europe, apparently to cover travel expenses. He pocketed the proceeds before skipping on to another of his adventures, this time in Italy. He may also have made available to a Turkish agent the contents of the shah’s confidential correspondence. The Persian mission nevertheless proceeded, reaching Spain in 1601, but nothing concrete emerged there, as Spain was then rapidly losing ground to Dutch and British commercial contenders in the east.

More embarrassing for the Persian mission, however, was the conversion to Catholicism of a number of Persians in Hosain ‘Ali Beg’s retinue, of whom Uruch Beg Bayat is the best known. Although other lower-ranking members of the mission had already defected to Catholicism in Rome, it was Uruch Beg’s conversion that received attention. Under Philip III’s auspices, he was baptized in the Castilian capital, Valladolid, as Don Juan of Persia. His conversion may have been inspired by the splendor of the Spanish court, or perhaps the glitter of the unveiled women, or even the persuasion of the overzealous Jesuits. Don Juan survived to coauthor and publish in 1604 a remarkable account in the Catalan language of the history of Iran, his own life, and the mission that brought him to Spain, perhaps the earliest such chronicle by a living Persian in any European language. Only a year later, however, he was killed in a brawl in Valladolid. His murder was possibly related to the hostilities, prompted by the Spanish Inquisition, that eventually led to the 1609 expulsion of the last of the Moriscos, the former Muslims and crypto-Muslims, from Spanish soil.

The failure of this mission did not discourage ‘Abbas from dispatching or receiving other European missions, nor was it the end of the Sherley brothers. Anxious to press further in his objective—trade through the Persian Gulf—and to build on shared anti-Ottoman sentiments, in 1605 ‘Abbas sent Mahdi-Qoli Beg to the European courts, where he was received by the Polish monarch Sigismund III and later by Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire (fig. 2.6). Later, in 1608, the shah dispatched to the Spanish court yet another mission, this time headed by Robert Sherley. The Hispano-Portuguese influence then waning, the mission was aimed at a new European maritime contender.

Already ‘Abbas’s recapture of the island of Bahrain from the Portuguese in 1602, and shortly thereafter the port of Gambrun, which overlooked the Strait of Hormuz, had dimmed his chances of any collaboration with the Iberian power. Instead, the shah was persuaded to turn to the English as an alternative trading and strategic partner. Robert Sherley, dressed as a Qezilbash and bearing the title of khan, which he had earned for his many years of military service to the shah, was something of a sensation when he reached London in 1611—perhaps the first Persianized exotica to hit fashion-conscious Europe of the time. Although he returned empty-handed, due to resistance by the pro-Ottoman English Levantine Company’s lobby, for a while the Persian dress style, perhaps inspired by Sherley, became fashionable in the Stuart court.

Figure 2.6. The Safavid envoy Mahdi-Qoli Beg, dispatched in 1605 by Shah ‘Abbas I to the court of the Hapsburg emperor, Rudolph II (r. 1576–1612), in Vienna.

Engraving by the Dutch artist Aegidius Sadeler. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, no. 49.95.2202. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

‘Abbas’s diplomacy worked to the extent that it not only opened Iran to European commerce and curiosity but also forged stronger bonds with Mughal India and eventually with the Shaybanid Uzbeks of Central Asia. The primary motives invariably were trade but also security and cultural exchanges, especially with the Mughal court. Despite occasional friction over the control of Kandahar province, which eventually fell to Safavid Iran in the late seventeenth century, Mughal rulers generally felt a strong cultural affinity for Iran. Such cultural integration is evident in a number of allegorical Mughal paintings, which often display ‘Abbas, albeit unrealistically, as a junior partner to the Mughal emperor (pl. 2.6).

Moreover, numerous missions from Spain, England, Venice, the Netherlands, and Poland, as well as from Prague, Muscovy, Rome, and later German principalities arrived in Isfahan—though few achieved results as concrete as the English, and shortly thereafter, the Dutch, trading companies (see map 2.1). Although somewhat independent of the English crown, the East India Company conducted business, even at its inception, not entirely unmindful of the English strategic interests. Its first ship reached the Iranian port of Jask on the Gulf of Oman in 1616, only sixteen years after the company’s investiture. By the time it arrived in Jask—a port that had long been serving Indo-Persian and East African trade through Muscat (Masqat)—the English company had already won important concessionary privileges from the Safavid court. ‘Abbas allowed the Honorable Company, as it was known, to establish a trading factory but did not grant it the right to build strongholds, being well aware of the strategic importance of Portuguese coastal fortresses throughout the hemisphere. He also lifted tariffs on English imports and exports as an incentive to compete against the Portuguese monopoly.

The growth of English trade facilitated Iran’s access to European markets, although it did not dislodge the Portuguese altogether. Evident in Safavid correspondence of the time is displeasure with the Portuguese maltreatment of Persian merchants, especially after the expulsion of the Portuguese from Gambrun in 1614, renamed Bandar Abbas in honor of its liberator. Anti-Portuguese sentiments were backed by Shi‘i polemics and fueled by the anti-Jesuit propaganda of the English Reformation. By 1622, the shah felt confident enough to let the powerful governor-general of Fars province, Allah-Verdi Khan, pressure the East India Company into collaborating in a raid against the Portuguese to recapture Hormuz island, a longtime strategic ambition of the Safavid rulers (see map 2.1). To compensate for the lack of a naval force, a chronic Iranian weakness in guarding its southern shores, the Persian troops were transported on board English ships to the island, where they successfully drove away the demoralized garrison. Portuguese attempts to regain it failed. The loss of Hormuz, a prosperous stronghold, was a serious blow to the Portuguese presence and the beginning of a long and protracted disintegration of their trading empire. Although they persisted up to 1649 in Muscat, on the opposite coast, their trading privileges were lost to the benefit of the English and soon after the Dutch.

That the East India Company was a crucial partner in capturing Hormuz, however, did not result in an automatic export monopoly for the English. Sensing the rise of the Dutch seafaring empire as powerful competition for the English, ‘Abbas and his lieutenants welcomed the market forces and the diplomacy they engendered. Consolidated in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC, for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) proved financially stronger and commercially more astute than its English counterpart. To his credit, ‘Abbas tried to strike a balance between the English and the Dutch; between southern and northern trade, including the Mediterranean route; and between domestic merchants, mostly the Armenians of New Julfa, and the European trading companies.

However, the Safavid reassertion in the Persian Gulf and the return of Gambrun and Hormuz to Iran did not result in the creation of a Safavid naval force or even a merchant fleet. Adhering to a long Persian tradition of land-bound trade, the Safavids invariably preferred to leave high-seas adventures to the seafaring Europeans. Even the mighty Ottoman naval power in the Mediterranean, and in the early part of the sixteenth century in the Indian Ocean, did not ease Persian navigational anxiety. Having been a land power, the Safavids, similar to the Mughals of Hindustan, had difficulty adopting the sea culture of their southern and northern peripheries. After the Portuguese departure, from the 1640s and for more than half a century, the Dutch held a near monopoly on the export of silk, driving English and Armenian competitors out of the market. By the end of the century, the domestic silk exporters, the backbone of the emerging mercantile community, no longer benefited from royal protection. Furthermore, the Armenian community of New Julfa and elsewhere did not feel as secure as they did during the time of ‘Abbas I, even though they had expanded their international trading network throughout Bengal and Southeast Asia, and to Venice and as far west as England.

The Jews of Iran, especially of Isfahan, fared worse. Although they seem to have played no significant part in the organization of the government silk trade, in their roles as domestic bankers or as exporters of silk from Kashan to the Persian Gulf, they may have been perceived as competition for the state monopoly. It is possible that the eclipse of the Portuguese trade played a part in the further waning of Jews in the Safavid commercial operation, especially in the south. Ironically, the Portuguese, who had expelled the Jews from their lands, relied on the Jewish diaspora, some seemingly of Iberian stock, to conduct their trade in Iranian silk-weaving centers such as Kashan. It is perhaps not sheer coincidence that from the early decades of the seventeenth century, Jews were subjects of discrimination—and later persecution—by the Safavid state, perhaps influenced by the contemporary European, and especially Catholic, anti-Semitism.

The 1622 capture of Hormuz followed a year later by the conquest of the Shi‘i holy cities of Iraq and in 1624 by the capture of Baghdad. Remarkably, this highlight of ‘Abbas’s political career, compensated for the absence of a Persian naval expansion, was an excellent option for the Safavid shah at a time when Ottomans were engaged at their western frontiers. Yet Iran’s commercial orientation toward the south continued. Trade through Bandar Abbas and other southern ports was essential for incorporating the Persian Gulf littoral into the Safavid Empire, in much the same way that exporting silk produced in Gilan province through the northern route integrated the Caspian provinces into Safavid Iran and opened trade with Caspian ports of Baku and Astrakhan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see map 2.1).

Toward the end of ‘Abbas’s reign, references to the Guarded Domains of Iran were used with greater frequency in the Safavid annals as an alternative for the Sublime Safavid State (Dowlat-e ‘Alliyeh-e Safavieh). Expelling the Portuguese, repelling the Uzbeks, and retaking the Safavid provinces from the Ottomans engendered in Safavid Iran a spirit of confidence and security. Military success was backed by economic prosperity, at least for a period after ‘Abbas’s reign. Nearly all European accounts of seventeenth-century Iran confirm a new age of affluence that was facilitated by a more extensive network of domestic and overseas communication, a growing urban population, a nuanced concept of leisure, and a maturing Shi‘i intellectual identity.

The appeal of an anti-Ottoman alliance with the Europeans swiftly paled once the Safavids achieved tranquility with their western neighbor. A decade after the death of Shah ‘Abbas in 1629, and sixteen years after the Safavids’ capture of Iraq, renewed hostilities with the rejuvenated Ottoman Empire under Morad IV (r. 1623–1640) led to the 1639 peace treaty of Zohab (see map 2.1). Under the terms of the treaty, the Safavids relinquished control of all of Iraq, most notably, the Shi‘i holy cities, to the Ottomans, recognized Turkish sovereignty over the western Caucasus, and gave the Ottomans a foothold in the Bay of Basra, at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf. In exchange the Ottomans recognized Iranian sovereignty over the eastern Caucasus, consisting of Nakhijevan, Armenia, Qarabagh, the two central and eastern Georgian principalities of Kartli and Kakheti, as well as the whole of Azarbaijan, the western Iranian provinces, and Bahrain. The peace proved enduring, at least for another century, until the end of the Safavid period.


Even before the shift in Perso-European interests, from the anti-Ottoman alliance to commercial competition, Persia had become a space to be experienced by Europeans and non-Europeans through adventure, imagination, and nostalgia. Yet it was only occasionally understood on its own terms. The age of printing generated a new European readership as well as a new popular scholarship, curious to know the world through travel accounts and geographical literature. What Persia offered to the Italian, French, English, Spanish, and German writers and readers—along with the unique marvels of India, China, and Japan, and the might of the Ottoman Empire—was not simply the pomp and circumstance of the Safavid court, its wealth and its trade. Europeans traced the material evidence of Persia’s ancient past and its place in the biblical and Greco-Roman experience. Persian literary and historical texts were translated and appreciated, and Persian culture, institutions, and lifestyle observed and sometimes imitated. Some of the earliest Orientalist representations of the East were shaped by images of the Safavid court, culture, and society.

After the removal of the Portuguese from Hormuz, one of the first travelers who returned to Europe through India, in 1623, aboard an English ship, was the Roman nobleman Pietro Della Valle. A talented observer, in a series of long dispatches, he chronicled his six-year stay in Iran, his personal encounters with Shah ‘Abbas, and his experiences with the Persian people. Della Valle’s letters, published in the following decades and later abridged and translated, provided a wealth of information about Safavid Iran through the eye of an often sympathetic, though occasionally smug, observer—an account interwoven with his own life story of passion and panache. He was a valuable source of information to the shah, and he briefed him about European kings and nobility, alliances and rivalries, social mores and lifestyle. ‘Abbas probably relied on sources such as Della Valle to define and readjust his course, although it is hard to see as a whole any specific evidence of European inspiration.

Shortly after ‘Abbas’s time, a German scholar and Persian interpreter, Adam Olearius, was sent on a mission by Frederick III, Duke of Holstein, to establish commercial relations with Safavid Iran. Olearius arrived in Isfahan in 1637 via the northern route, through Moscovy. The account of his travels to Russia and Persia, first published in 1647, is one of several detailed seventeenth-century narratives that helped introduce Safavid Iran to European audiences beyond the rampant stereotypes of the exotic Orient. His description of Isfahan included useful data on urban life, the court of Shah Safi, ‘Abbas’s successor, the Armenians and their quarter, the tea- and coffeehouses, gardens, buildings and architecture, and everyday lives of ordinary people. Beyond Isfahan he also made realistic observations of other towns and villages in the Safavid domain. As a man of letters, Olearius’s 1654 translation into German of Sa‘di’s Golestan was among the earliest Persian classics to appear in a European language.

A quarter of a century after Olearius, when the French Huguenot merchant of precious stones and luxury goods John Chardin first visited Iran in 1666, the Iranian knowledge of Europe and Europeans was somewhat more accurate. His multivolume account in French, the best known in European languages about seventeenth-century Iran, was first published in London in 1686 and revised several times. Chardin presented the changing Safavid society of the post-‘Abbas era as multiethnic and urbane, with an elite culture of serenity and pleasure and languishing socioreligious institutions. Far more than any other account in the vast and diverse travel literature on Safavid Iran, Chardin’s was widely read both in his own time and in later years. Almost encyclopedic in approach, he observed, collected, and commented on a variety of topics, from land and ecology to government, religion, literature, history, and everyday life. In due course the representation that he formulated was influential in the eighteenth-century European imagination of Persia.

Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes relied in part on both Olearius and Chardin and the format of their journals to portray an imaginary Persian observer of French society. In doing so, he wraps his critique of French despotism in a Persian cloak and transposed Louis XIV with an unnamed Persian shah. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Gibbon, among others, read Chardin intentionally and located his Iran in their philosophical and historical discourses, often with grudging respect. Later travelers to Iran, especially in the nineteenth century, dabbled in Chardin’s themes and ruminated on his cultural biases often with a stronger sense of cultural superiority. Despite his many factual errors, Chardin was an observer with a degree of understanding of the culture and society he was fascinated with. His knowledge of Safavid domains brought him the reputation of being the prototypical Iran expert who advised, at different times in his career, the English and the Dutch East India Companies.

Whether through travelers or through other means, Shah ‘Abbas’s European commercial enterprise and political alliances brought mixed results. His hope for an anti-Ottoman pact with Europe never really paid off, for reasons beyond his technological and diplomatic control. Toward the end of ‘Abbas’s reign, both the Safavids and the Ottomans were realistic enough to appreciate the cautious entente that had emerged between the two powers. Yet contacts with Europe made Iranians realize that they were not alone facing the Ottoman threat. ‘Abbas was astute enough to realize that the only way the Ottoman geographical barrier could be successfully crossed was through European diplomacy and trade. To the Iranians, moreover, European visitors offered the earliest encounters with a dynamic and complex Europe, prototypes of the farangi “Other” who were curious, resourceful, and shrewd. A corollary to the new European trade, European travelers revealed before the Persian eye a face of modernity that was about to engage, and later threaten, their world.


None of the emissaries of the Safavid era, with the exception of Don Juan of Persia, left behind accounts of his visits to the European courts. The era of ‘Abbas I and his immediate successors remained largely insular despite a remarkable florescence in speculative thought and artistic creativity. If there was an awareness of Europe, even among the intellectual elite, so far as we know, it was confined to trade and merchandise, to kingdoms and armies, to a few Jesuit missionaries and Christian monks, and to soldiers of fortune. There were also farangi-style caps, matchlocks, and other European or Europeanized paraphernalia in Persian paintings, textiles, and architecture of the period. European-style scenery also appeared in late Safavid paintings. It is hard to believe that in cosmopolitan Isfahan of the time some debate and exchange of information about intellectual and scientific issues would not have taken place among the numerous European visitors, members of trade missions, and missionaries, and the members of the divan or scholars who frequented the Safavid court. ‘Abbas’s curiosity about everything European, including the Europeans themselves, must have been contagious.

Yet precious little was ever written about Europe by Safavid authors beyond passing geographical references, mostly based on classical Islamic texts rather than on fresh learning and observation. There is little internal evidence in the works of the philosophers and theologians of the period, even the literati and the historians, to suggest a tangible intellectual interplay. Early modern European thinkers and their scientific discoveries remained unknown to the Safavids even as late as early nineteenth century. Despite being produced with renewed vigor, works of Safavid astronomy, mathematics, and sciences ignored crucial questions of modern science, and Iranians seem to be unaware of the European discourses in method and human individuality. If the Safavids were aware, it did not surface in their body of common knowledge. Europeans, despite their notable presence, were infidels so far as the formal scholarship was concerned; their customs and accomplishments could be neither the subject of Muslim curiosity nor imitated. Fear of being branded as heretical, for following the ways of the infidels, dissuaded the curious from traveling abroad or learning European languages; those who did remained anonymous or left no record for posterity. Even imagining Europe seems to have been a perilous venture, since no book of marvel of any significance has yet surfaced from this period. By the seventeenth century the discovery of the New World was known, but to the few who heard about it from the Portuguese and the English, including ‘Abbas himself. To them it was no more than a exotic land, rich in gold and silver but also full of “savages,” as Native Americans were portrayed in European woodcuts and other representations. Only very late in the eighteenth century a more accurate picture of the Americas began to emerge in the Indo-Persian works of geography produced in early colonial India.

China had largely disappeared from the Safavid horizon, despite the long history of cultural and commercial exchange. Except for precious commodities such as porcelain and spices coming through the Indian Ocean route (and Persian porcelain going to China along the same route), there was little direct contact between the two civilizations on the ancient overland Silk Road. The Chinese-style figures that Persian artists portrayed in their paintings were about the only memory still alive of that rich past. A certain Sayyed ‘Ali Akbar Khata’i, an emissary from Bukhara who traveled to northern China and left behind a fascinating account in Persian titled Khatay-nameh (The Book of Cathay), was as foreign to the Chinese as they were to him. Perhaps himself a Persian renegade, in 1516 he dedicated his book to the Ottoman Sultan Salim I. It was soon translated to Ottoman Turkish. His description of the Chinese court ceremonies, cities, everyday life, medicine, judicial system, and prisons—he was detained for about a month because a member of his retinue was engaged in a brawl with a group of Tibetans—were presumably all new to his audiences, since his account is devoid of any reference to an earlier body of literature about China.

Eighteenth-century translations in Persian of the life of the famous Jesuit in sixteenth-century China, Matteo Ricci, done by an Iranian exile in the Mughal Empire, remained unknown to the Safavid reader. Likewise, Japan resonated in the mind of the Safavids as nothing more than the distant and exotic islands of Waqwaq, of the classical Islamic books of marvels. Southeast Asia, however, was better known to the Persians, thanks to communities of Indo-Persian merchants who had settled in Indonesia, Burma, and Siam since the fifteenth century. They brought with them to these lands their own brand of eclectic Islam and trade practices.

The secretary to a Safavid embassy to the court of the King Narai (r. 1656–1688) of Siam (or Thailand) in 1685 left behind a fascinating account of the government and the people of that country. Safineh-ye Solaymani (The Ship of Solomon), named after the Safavid ruler Shah Solayman (1666–1694), sheds light on the Persian and Japanese merchants, advisers, and mercenaries to the king of Siam, who defied the influence of the native mandarins and European commercial and political rivals. Along the way to Siam, the author Mohammad Ibrahim ibn Mohammad Rabi’, who served as secretary of the mission, offered valuable accounts of the English in India and their customs and manners.

Even more than it had in medieval Islamic times, Hindustan loomed large in the Iranian mind as the quintessential exotic place. It was also a profitable trade route, especially since the ships of the English and French East India Companies began to frequent the Persian Gulf with greater regularity. India became more accessible and a place of refuge for those in search of fame and fortune, or an escape from religious and political persecution. Yet before the latter part of the eighteenth century, Persian systematic descriptions of Hindustan were rare.

The scant interest among Shi‘i scholars toward the outside world was also obfuscated because of Christian-Muslim controversies. Predictably, among Shi‘i scholars there was little interest in nonbelievers and their societies and cultures, and polemical literature of the period conveyed little but doctrinal debates. Likewise, Christian polemics produced by Europeans generally were uninterested in Safavid society and culture. Heeding the shah’s request, Zayn al-‘Abidin ‘Alawi, for instance, a learned jurist descended from a Jabal ‘Amil family, wrote a number of Persian refutations in response to Portuguese Jesuit missionaries based in Goa on the western coast of India. ‘Alawi’s apologias were largely based on classical accounts, although they showed some awareness of the current schisms within Christendom, despite the Jesuits’ facade of unanimity. His best-known book, written in 1622, shortly before the Safavids’ joint operation with the English East India Company against the Portuguese, conveyed ‘Abbas’s political agenda. Commissioning ‘Alawi to write a refutation was no less transparent than Portuguese support for their missionaries. His wish was no doubt aligned with the duty of the ulama “to preserve the seed of Islam” from disbelief; hence, it appeared only logical to any mainstream scholar of the time to refute and reject Jesuits and their European patrons.

The advantage of the Portuguese Jesuits over their Shi‘i respondents of course was more technological than theological. Their Christian literature was the first to be printed in Persian and distributed in India and Iran, while the Muslim responses inscribed in manuscripts never left the royal or elite libraries. The Jesuit print literature in Persian, to which ‘Alawi’s apologias were directed, was originally produced for Mughal India but also was distributed in Iran, possibly through a network of Catholic missionaries active mostly among the Armenians of Isfahan. In addition to the Jesuits, throughout the seventeenth century, Carmelites, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Capuchins built and maintained monasteries and churches in Isfahan, with the approval of the Safavid government. Relying on ‘Abbas’s pro-Christian affinities, missionaries nevertheless were no more than benign tokens of European presence. They were unable to convert the Muslim public to their message of faith, let alone spread the secular message of early modern Europe.

One of the earliest books to appear in print in Persian, the Dastan-e Masih, Historia Christi Persice, was a bilingual Persian-Latin account of the life of Jesus, compiled by the well-known Jesuit missionary Hieronymo Xavier (fig. 2.7). Xavier offered a single narrative of Christ’s story palatable to Muslim readers who were unaccustomed to the notion of four Gospels, in contrast to their own single Qur’an scripture. Despite Xavier’s earnest effort, the Persian prose of Dastan-e Masih proved somewhat coarse and unreadable, even though he apparently had benefited from the help of Persian-speaking converts in India. As with much missionary literature, this early specimen was not successful in Iran in winning over new converts from among the Muslims. It is not unlikely, however, that it attracted learned readers, for it was offering an alternative narrative of Jesus to that of the familiar Qur’anic and Muslim apocryphal literature. Although Persian readers were familiar with much earlier translations of the Gospels, the printed rendering had a very different effect.

The print revolution gave Europe enormous leverage over non-Western cultures in making available to the literate European public a wide range of material. Such popularization of knowledge and the subsequent breakdown of the elite’s monopoly over texts and learning did not happen in the Middle East before the late eighteenth century. The predominant medium for public knowledge remained in manuscript form and more so in oral form. Knowledge was transmitted through elite channels, and incentives for literacy were limited to a madrasa education and bureaucracy of the divan. Although a small Armenian printing house with Armenian typeface did exist in New Julfa at the time, the idea of printing seems not to have impressed Iranians for a long time.

Figure 2.7. Title page of Hieronymo Xavier, Dastan-e Masih (Batavia, 1639).

Courtesy of the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

Disinterest in the printed word, however, was less of a setback with regard to theological disputes. As Imami Shi‘i dogma solidified, channels for relaying the state’s religious ideology to the public came under greater control of clerical establishment. The state-sponsored propagandists who urged people in the street to recite their rhymed cursing of the early Caliphs now were supplemented in the mosque by melodic readers of the tragedies of Karbala and by preachers who instructed them to implement Shi‘i devotional rituals and abide by the teachings of the jurists. Popular associations of the Sufis in their convents as well as the gatherings of the wandering qalandars were banned. Likewise the reading of the Shahnameh in coffeehouses and in the zurkhanehs (houses of strength) was discouraged and generally disapproved by the jurists.


Practicing Sufi orders were especially the target of persecution, for jurists and the state viewed them as undesirable, if not a dangerous hotbed of nonconformity, and even heresy. Closure of the Safavid frontiers and the hostility of their Sunni neighbors, moreover, restricted the movement of the dervishes who were in the habit of traveling far and wide across the Islamic world. They were an important alternative source of information for ordinary people in towns and villages. The qalandars, as they were generally known, were itinerant dervishes who wore rags and animal skins; they were tattooed, had piercings and burn marks, exhibited nonconformist behavior, often smoked hashish, and maintained a lax lifestyle. Loosely organized, their convents (known as langar), stretching throughout the Persianate world and beyond, from Bukhara to Kashmir to Baghdad and the Balkans, were home to unconventionalities: sexual, social, political, and at times messianic. Their lifestyle and utterances, which adhered to popularized monism and ideas of reincarnation and transmigration, often in the form of recited poetry, as well as their tales of remote lands and strange people that they narrated to their street audiences, were frowned upon by the ulama, who saw dervishes as competition for preaching in the mosques.

As the Safavid establishment turned against the Sufis, the thrust of the anti-dogmatic policy was first borne by the Noqtavis at the turn of the Islamic millennium (AH 1000, or 1591–1592 CE). The revived Noqtavi (lit. “pointist”) movement upheld the memory of Mahmud of Pasikhan (in Gilan province), a Persian prophet who had lived two centuries earlier. His cabalistic creed with a mystic-materialistic bent and an apocalyptic message found new appeal in the Safavid era in reaction to both the Qezilbash hegemony and greater jurist indoctrination of the Safavid public. In its origins, Noqtavism was the most cerebral and systematic manifestation of the greater qalandari movement of the late Islamic Middle Ages. The Safavid sources that disparagingly labeled them as “heretics” indeed had a point. For Noqtavis, earth was the most vital of the four elements and was considered the origin of man, whom they identified as the prophet Adam. Humankind’s progression in time from one point to the next, they believed, went through successive millennial cycles that had been initiated by the chain of Abrahamic prophets.

The religion of Islam initiated by Mohammad, the prophet of the Arabs, the Noqtavis upheld, was to be abrogated at the end of the Islamic millennium and a new Persian cycle (dowr-e ‘Ajam) would commence, as foretold by Mahmud of Pasikhan. The Noqtavis’ conscious attempt to break away from the dominant religion of the time was a rare phenomenon in Islamic history. The Persian cycle of material progression in the Noqtavis’ belief system promised earthly humans freedom from the heavens through a quasi-rationalist cosmology. The point theory, after which the movement was named, viewed the universe as a text consisting of letters, with each letter consisting of points. In its progression through time, the primal point was considered the motivating force behind stages of human perfection. This sense of historical progression stood in contrast to the veneration of the past in normative Islam, especially the prophetic past, so widely celebrated in the study of the theology of the Safavid period and by “traditionalist” scholars whose prime focus was the study of hadith (the reports on the words and the deeds of the Prophet of Islam and the Shi‘i Imams).

The alternative convents of the Noqtavis in the Safavid period, so far as the sources inform us, were more about music, wine, appreciation of nature, good food, and intellectual discourse than formalities of the shari‘a. A love of Persian literature was combined with aversion toward jurists and what they stood for. These convents were apparently attractive to the general public but also frequented by the urban elite, and later they may have been associated with tea- and coffeehouses as they became prevalent in Isfahan and elsewhere. In his nocturnal outings around Qazvin in disguise, ‘Abbas for a while attended the convent of the Noqtavi leader, Darvish Khosraw, who informed the shah about Noqtavi beliefs and educated him in the art of good living, while no doubt warning him about the impending upheaval at the turn of the Islamic millennium.

We may assume that it was the growing popularity of the Noqtavis, and their anti-jurist and even anti-state ideas, which turned the shah against them. The Noqtavis were persecuted under Tahmasp, but it was ‘Abbas’s millennial anxieties that persuaded him to eradicate the agnostic heretics. Following his astrologer’s advice, and under the pretext of avoiding the ominous celestial conjunction in March 1592, corresponding to year 1000 of the Hijra calendar, he temporarily abdicated, placing a Noqtavi dervish on the throne in his stead. This no doubt was a symbolic move, perhaps mimicking a Nowruz ritual of carnival king (mir-e nowruzi), which in effect aimed to bring about the Noqtavi promise of a new era. In a few days, however, once the supposed ominous millennial conjunction was over, the shah promptly ordered the execution of the deceived dervish king. In a concerted move, he subsequently went about destroying the Noqtavi rural and urban network and killing the movement’s intellectual and community leaders, on charges of heresy and treason. They had been accused of preparing for a revolutionary overthrow of the Safavid state, and even of collaborating with foreign powers. Their correspondence with Abol-Fazl ‘Allami (d. 1602), the celebrated minister to Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the Mughal ruler of India, reportedly proved the existence of a network and such a plot.

Even if these charges were fabricated to counter the Noqtavis’ popularity, by adding an anti-state twist to their proven anticlericalism, there was reality in ‘Allami’s affinity with the Noqtavis and other Iranian nonconformists. In the following decades Noqtavi sympathizers took refuge in the Mughal Empire, part of an exodus of Sufis, writers, poets, and artists who left behind the suffocating dogmatic world of the late Safavid era for the prosperity and tolerance of the Mughal court. We can detect the Noqtavis’ influence in particular on ‘Allami’s doctrine of Universal Conciliation (solh-e koll), perhaps among the greatest intellectual achievements of the Mughal era, and the foundation of Akbar’s royal cult, known as the Divine Creed (din-e elahi). Contrary to the Ottoman and Safavid sponsorship of the Sunni and Shi‘i creeds, Universal Conciliation envisioned the state as the promoter and guarantor of religious diversity. The Mughal millennial king eventually stopped enforcing all predominant symbols of Islam, such as the call to prayer and observation of the fast in Ramadan, in favor of his millennial Divan Creed. The collapse of the Noqtavi movement in Iran, by contrast, signaled the Safavids’ favoring of the Shi‘i orthodox establishment at the expense of any alternative. The Noqtavi thought thus could have only indirectly influenced the Safavid environment. It is not inconceivable to think that philosophy of the School of Isfahan, and even ‘Abbas’s patronage of it, or his new perception of urban spaces, with an element of leisure incorporated into it, were inspired by the Noqtavi thought.

Beyond Noqtavis, throughout the seventeenth century other non-shari‘a trends, such as the Sufi orders, were systematically banned, forced underground, or driven into exile. Even the Safavi order, the wellspring of the ruling dynasty, was allowed to dry out in all but name, long after the Qezilbash Sufis had bartered their messianic zeal for lucrative state offices. Those who remained associated with the declining order, we are told, served in menial jobs in the Safavid court as the Safavids moved closer to the “correct” Twelver Shi‘ism of the jurists. The latter had helped legitimize the state as a sacred institution and proved essential to countering domestic dissent and external influences. The more the Ottoman and Uzbek states turned to Sunni orthodoxy, the more the Safavids became dogmatic Shi‘is, and so closing the geopolitical horizons of Iranian territory and society.


The rise of urban piety did not entirely decimate the Safavids’ potential for speculative thought. Although similar to the Ottoman post-conquest world, the shift in the Safavid state’s ideology allowed conservative jurists to articulate an ethos of pious legalism through law, ritual, and sacred myth. The Safavid age also nurtured a new generation of thinkers akin to mystical and philosophical thought, even at times engaging in proto-modern themes that otherwise were entertained only by antinomian trends outside the confines of normative Islam.

The founders of the emerging Safavid schools of theology and philosophy were often men of religious learning. In exchange for state patronage, they generated a politically mute and harmless hybrid of philosophy, theology, and mysticism beneficial to the state’s homogenizing agenda. The School of Isfahan, as it came to be known in modern times, offered an innocuous alternative to such trends as Noqtavism indigenous to the Iranian environment. This school of thought’s affinity to the Safavid court, and the clerical background of those who were engaged in it, made the new theosophical interest, at least in the early stages, a safe enterprise. Yet philosophical discourse, even when disguised as theosophy, still could not escape the jurists’ condemnations; they were labeled “undesirable” and even “heretical.”

The so-called School of Isfahan was heir to a speculative tradition that though by and large had been abandoned in the rest of the Islamic world, it had survived, and even thrived, in Iran, Whether in the form of the Peripatetic philosophy of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), with strong Neoplatonic overtones, or more often the Illumination School (Eshraqi) of Shehab al-Din Sohravardi (d. 1191), Iranians since the early Islamic era had continued to engage in philosophical discourse. Shi‘ism also utilized the rationalistic premises of the Mu’tazilite movement of the early Islamic era to buttress its alternative theology. A tamed scholastic philosophical tradition was thus preserved in the Shi‘i curriculum, first among the Isma‘ili thinkers, with emphasis on rationalized religious thought (kherad), and later through works of a towering scholar of the thirteenth century, Nasir al-Din Tusi. In the same vein, the School of Isfahan never stopped reconciling a rarefied version of Islamic dogma with a crippled rendition of rational thought, a tedious project, as it turned out, and one of grand scale. Yet such an undertaking could not entirely abandon such inherent themes in the Iranian milieu as, for example, Mohammad ibn Zarkariya al-Razi’s adherence to the ancient Iranian idea of eternal time (dahr) and Sohravardi’s return to a largely imaginary reconstruction of Zoroastrian wisdom. Residues of Persian agnosticism did survive.

On the surface, Safavid Iran seemed the least favorable climate for the growth of such speculative thought. Even redefining philosophy (falsafah) in the guise of hekmat (gnostic wisdom) did not alleviate the pressure on teachers of theosophy and their small circle of students who displayed every sign of religious conformity so as to avoid charges of heresy. Yet the growth of speculative thought in the seventeenth century can be viewed as part of a greater assimilation process within Shi‘ism. The complexities of urban Persian high culture attracted Arab jurists and Turkish Qezilbash toward such activities as poetry, history, philosophy, and scientific experimentation, while hardly ever inspiring them to learn something about the world beyond their Shi‘i domain, except perhaps a cursory interest in Indian thought. One of the most successful figures of the period molded into this Persian cast is the celebrated Baha’ al-Din ‘Amili (1547–1621), also known by his nom de plume Shaykh Baha’i. A theologian, jurist, mathematician, grammarian, poet, and moralist, his universalistic pursuits might be compared for example to Erasmus of Rotterdam, his near contemporary (fig. 2.8).

An émigré from a family of jurists from Jabal ‘Amil, the young Baha’ al-Din first learned Persian at the age of ten when he was a novice in a Shiraz madrasa. He perfected it to such a degree that he was able to compose prose and poetry in his acquired language. He rose to prominence at a relatively young age and briefly became the shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan, the highest judicial post in the land, in part because of his proper lineage and powerful connections, but also because of his sound scholarship and refined Persian. As an urban designer, Baha’i was credited with devising a master plan for the new city of Isfahan. He reportedly also engineered Zayadehrud’s irrigation network for the city and its environs, as well as his own ingenious design for increasing that river’s water flow by diverting water from the Bakhtiyari highlands in Kuhrang, in the Zagros mountain range, more than hundred miles northwest of Isfahan. His interest in mathematics, physics, and alchemy generated a number of living legends about him and about the buildings associated with his name.

Figure 2.8. Baha’ al-Din ‘Amili (Shaykh Baha’i) smoking a water pipe.

By Mohammad ‘Ali Bayg Naqqash-bashi in 1744–1745 (based on a contemporary drawing). Courtesy of Malek National Museum and Library, Tehran, no. 1393/02/00025.

In greater part, however, Shaykh Baha’i succeeded because he symbolized a compassionate side of Shi‘ism, supportive of the jurists but also popular among the laypeople. His Jame’-e ‘Abbasi (The ‘Abbasian Compendium), a manual of the Shi‘i jurisprudence in Persian, contained essential Shi‘i devotional, contractual, and penal laws and rituals. Commissioned by the shah, as the title suggests, this was the closest Safavid Iran would come to codifying the shari‘a with a well-organized, “user-friendly” format and easy style (later to be completed by a student of Shaykh Baha’i). Its vast popularity up to the twentieth century may be explained by its success in rescuing Shi‘i law from the tedious elaborations and digressions in jurists’ texts and turning it into a usable manual for ordinary people. This and other state-sponsored summaries of Shi‘i traditions and devotional acts served to deepen the roots of the state creed in a population still uncertain about its Shi‘i loyalty.

Also important for the shaping of a formal creed, Shaykh Baha’i contributed to Shi‘i madrasa education through works of law, hadith, and Arabic grammar, as well as his promotion of mathematics and Ptolemaic astronomy. It is difficult to detect much originality in his scholarly output, but he and the ethnically diverse students under him translated, commented on, and popularized Shi‘i works of earlier times. At least three of Shaykh Baha’i’s own works on the hadith, Arabic syntax, and mathematics remained part of the Shi‘i scholastic curriculum up to the twentieth century. His Persian didactic and lyrical poetry, by contrast, promoted individualistic mystical experience. The so-called ‘erfani approach to religion employed Sufi terminology and discourse while also portraying Sufis as deceptive and heretical, presumably because of their emphasis on mystical ecstasy through music and dance. In a didactic fable, Mush va Gorbeh (Mouse and Cat, after ‘Obaid Zakani’s fourteenth-century satire), Shaykh Baha’i lampoons the Sufis, characterized as the shrewd mouse, and sharply attacks their alleged hypocrisy and superstition. The Sufi’s opponent, however, is a jurist characterized as a wise and charitable cat who is enlightened by the true path of shari‘a. He is often addressed in the story with the royal epithet shahryar (“minor king,” or “princely ruler”). At the end of a long and dreary dialogue, with many cautionary tales about Sufi trickery, the impatient cat devours the mouse, reflecting the unabashed wish, no doubt, of the jurists to see the Sufis eradicated and for the faqihs to acquire their majestic peak.

It is hard not to see why the greatest representative of the School of Isfahan, Sadr al-Din Shirazi, better known as Mulla Sadra (1572–1641), invested so much intellectual energy to make his “theosophy” appear theologically correct. His eclectic philosophy was informed by a remarkably wide range of sources: the Peripatetic and Neoplatonic philosophies, the intuitive philosophy of Sohravardi, and the theoretical mysticism of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Yet his synthesis bore the stigma of centuries of arduous adjustments to the demands of Islamic piety, a feature that Mulla Sadra managed to stamp on the future course of philosophical inquiry in Iran and the Persianate world. With its remarkable breadth and complexity, his philosophy could survive the onslaught of the jurists and remain part of the Shi‘i madrasa curriculum only if it was wrapped in this pious clothing. Its original and revolutionary potential, however, was lost to the conventionality and conservatism of his students and commentators.

Born to an affluent family of notables from Shiraz, he was not of ethnic Arab descent, as were his teachers, Shaykh Baha’i and Mir Mohammad Baqer Astarabadi, better known as Mir-e Damad (or Mir Damad, d. 1632). He studied theology with the former and philosophy with the latter, but after a while he broke away from the Isfahan circle and settled in Kahak, a village twenty miles south of Qom (which later in the seventeenth century would become the seat of the Nizari Isma‘ili Imam). He led a life of solitude and meditation for many years in this village, where his visionary experiences, as he later retold, helped him see the inadequacy of the scholastic reasoning that plagued Islamic philosophy. The existential path that he explored to complement his Avicennian approach to philosophy, however, did not prevent Mulla Sadra from reexamining at length in his numerous works the familiar gamut of arcane philosophical topics: being versus quiddity, substance versus contingence, and preexistence versus accidental.

Reinventing the philosophical wheel, unexciting though it was, seemed necessary in order for Mulla Sadra to lay a “theologically-correct” grounding for his more original contributions. He returned to Shiraz in 1612 from his retreat with the confidence of a philosopher-prophet whose potentially revolutionary thought would never have been tolerated in the ulama-dominated climate of Isfahan. In his hometown he pondered, taught, and wrote relatively unharassed under the protection of the powerful governor of Fars, the aforementioned Allah-Verdi Khan, the Armenian convert from the gholam origin. The magnificent madrasa built by Allah-Verdi (today known as Madrasa-e Khan), evidently in honor of Mulla Sadra, showed his enthusiasm for speculative thought.

Mulla Sadra’s theory of movement of the substance (haraka jawhariyya, often translated as “transubstantiation”), arguably his most significant philosophical contribution, was a novel departure. His theory of substantial movement in part modified the influential Sufi monistic theory of the “unity of being” (wahdat-e wujod). The belief in the essential origin of all beings, celestial and terrestrial, and their ultimate union, had long been opposed by conservative jurists and theologians. Mulla Sadra further advanced the idea of “unity of being” by arguing that in the substance of all things created, of which humanity holds the highest rank, there is an innate cosmic dynamism without which all things cease to exist. This elemental movement transforms the quality of all things at all times from one state to another, without their substance ever changing. As the created being separates itself from its divine origin, in its downward journey toward matter it acquires material contingents, making the world as we see and experience it. The same intrinsic dynamism in an upward movement then transforms the substance of material things until ultimately they reach their original celestial state.

Different from similar circular models articulated by Mulla Sadra’s predecessors, here progression in time was considered emblematic of the substance of things, rather than a primal initiative of divine origin. In other words, all beings—including humanity—carry the seeds of progression in their journey to perfection. The movement of the human substance, from its original spiritual state to its full realization in this world and then its reverting back to its origin, completes a full circle. Such a journey in Mulla Sadra’s view corresponds to the Islamic doctrine of the beginning and the end in the Qur’an and the hadith. In its radical rendition, however, agency was assigned to the very movement of essence in time rather than to the divine initiator; a proto-modern system, perhaps, that aimed to disengage from the divine and focus on the profane.

Mulla Sadra’s theory of movement acquired an eschatological dimension as it attempted to answer the dilemma of corporeal resurrection in Islam—that is, that the dead shall rise on the Day of Judgment in their corporal frame. Here we see a reflection, perhaps, of the millennial hopes and anxieties of his time. As a philosopher, who viewed himself as the “guardian” (wali) in the center of the universe he posited, Mulla Sadra seemed to view “transcendental wisdom,” as he called his philosophy, as a visionary complement to prophetic revelation. In Shi‘ism this was during the “absence” (or Occultation) of the Imam of the Age (the Mahdi). The eschatological dimension gave Mulla Sadra’s philosophy a sense of temporal urgency, even when safely wrapped in the garb of a theological debate and adorned with Qur’anic verses and Shi‘i traditions. The apocalyptic vision of the End, of the rising of the corporeal essence, a chief preoccupation of Mulla Sadra, anticipated a new era for humanity as it began its upward trajectory toward Perfect Intelligence. This stage is the final of the four “journeys” (asfar), which he experienced by his own intuition and articulated in a systematic philosophical system in his magnum opus, known as Asfar al-Arba’a, completed in 1628. Here the resemblance to the Noqtavi doctrine of mankind as the primal point of progression in time may not be a mere coincidence; nor are Mulla Sadra’s four stages in the existential journey toward perfection unlike the four-sided “essential square” in the Noqtavi theory of Mahmud Pasikhani.

Mulla Sadra’s eschatological vision, a lifetime preoccupation, which in the first place had caused his excommunication (takfir) by the jurists and his subsequent departure from Isfahan, should be viewed as a potential breakthrough from the shari‘a-dominated view of his contemporaries. The theory of essential movement, it may be argued, had the potential to transform and innovate Safavid thought. As was his European near contemporary Baruch Spinoza, who lived a generation later and shared remarkable similarities with Mulla Sadra, especially in holding “substance” as a continuity of God in nature, the Persian philosopher experienced much harassment. Like the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, whom Mulla Sadra preceded by more than a century, the idea of the development of the spirit through time aimed to make human agency the center of the historical unfolding of the absolute.

Yet Mulla Sadra almost never explicitly distanced himself from the cyclical notion of descent and ascent of the soul. His essentially Platonic notion of transcendental wisdom, though evolving with time, still remained loyal to the concept of welayat, the sacred agency entrusted by God in humankind. He contemplated the human intellect, both rational and intuitive, in the context of welayat, a complex Sufi-Shi‘i notion pertaining to guardianship, governance, or authority, and one with legal, mystical, and political connotations.


By the late seventeenth century the promising intellectual momentum seems to have come to its end. Most evident in this respect was the late Safavid scholars’ engagement with the study of hadith (traditions) and akhabr (reports) related from the Prophet and the Shi‘i Imams, a pedantic preoccupation that clearly contrasted with the speculative thinking of earlier generations. These “traditions,” so far as their validity was concerned, enjoyed a degree of sanction second only to the word of the Qur’an. Yet the methodology used among Shi‘i scholars to authenticate such reports remained fairly lax. This was especially true among scholars known as Akhbaris, who relied on all traditions as well as copious reports transmitted through a single reporter. In the formative centuries of Shi‘ism, this collection of hadith resulted in a huge increase in suspect or fabricated reports being admitted to the hadith corpus, often contrary to the rudiments of authenticating of the hadith.

The range of contradictory and anachronistic reports in the Safavid hadith collections were therefore so wide and so obvious that one cannot but conclude that the growth of Akhbarism as a school was an effort to streamline this corpus. At least initially, Akhbarism functioned as a liberating strategy to sanction social habits and cultural norms, as had been done for many centuries, and to sanctify mystical and esoteric traits present in Iranian Islam. Yet this double-edged sword of reliance on the hadith also could have worked against philosophy, theoretical Sufism, and other nonconformist trends. No better example in this regard can be found than that of Mulla Mohammad Baqer Majlesi (1627–1698), perhaps the most influential religious scholar of Shi‘ism before the twentieth century (fig. 2.9). His career as shaykh al-Islam and holder of the office mollabashi(chief royal cleric), presiding for more than a decade over all religious affairs of the late Safavid Empire, and his prolific scholarly and popular writings, left its mark on the Shi‘i landscape. His conservative brand of scholastic Shi‘ism further weakened the remnants of freethinking in the Iranian milieu and contributed to the spirit of social intolerance of the late Safavid era.

Figure 2.9. Mulla Mohammad Baqer Majlesi in Persian attire.

Opaque watercolor on paper by unknown artist. © Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.16a.

Born to a family of scholars of Arab and Persian descent, Majlesi’s father was a student of Mulla Sadra and a noted scholar and mystic. Mohammad Baqer, who had studied philosophy earlier in life, however, focused on the study of hadith. His lifetime preoccupation resulted in an encyclopedic collection in Arabic of Shi‘i hadith in twenty-six volumes titled Bihar al-Anwar (Oceans of Luminescence). Applying a new arrangement by subject, and presiding over a team of assistants for three decades, he collected and classified Shi‘i traditions and commented on them. The topics ranged from creation to manifestation of the Twelfth Imam, eschatology, ethics, and devotional acts. Though himself closer to the Akhbaris, his endeavor laid the foundation for the late eighteenth-century revival of the doctrine of ejtehad.

Majlesi’s equally influential Persian works, popular renderings of the Bihar volumes on subjects such as devotional acts, ethics, and Shi‘i sacred history, were instrumental in Iran’s becoming a truly Shi‘i nation. By writing about the Prophet and the Imams in an easily accessible Persian style, Majlesi, like Shaykh Baha’i before him, offered ordinary people an appealing narrative, rich in emotions, hope, and suffering. Not only the literate public—perhaps no more than 5 percent of the population—could read his works; more effectively, his narratives, such as Jala’ al-‘Uyun(Sparkler of the Eyes, 1697), on the suffering of the Shi‘i Imams, recited from the pulpit of the mosques and commemorated through mourning processions during the holy month of Muharram. The manual Zad al-Ma’ad (Provisions for the Day of Return), a set of detailed instructions on Shi‘i prayers, fasting, and other devotional acts, was commissioned in 1695 by the last of the Safavids, the pious Shah Soltan Hosain (r. 1694–1722). It soon became one of the most widely read Persian religious texts of all time, with at least thirty-two editions printed between 1828 and 1958.

Majlesi’s equally popular Hilyat al-Muttaqin (The Cloak for the Pious), which elevates Shi‘ism to a new ritualistic plane, contains invocations and thaumaturgic instructions for every human activity: clothing, eating, drinking, bathing and personal hygiene, scatology, sexual intercourse, child rearing, education, marital affairs, parental relations, animal husbandry, buying and selling, and commerce. Fetishistic beliefs and the white magic described in this remarkable collection were sanctified on every occasion by sayings of the Shi‘i Imams. Even more than mirroring popular practices of the late Safavid society, this book may be seen as an attempt of the ulama to restrain, if not entirely deny, human agency by means of ritualizing individuality at every turn.

The Safavid state was the willing partner in promoting Majlesi’s traditionalist doctrine. By the time of Shah Solayman, Majlesi and a network of his protégés exercised great influence in the Safavid administration and on its policies. He himself was pampered as royalty, with tremendous wealth and luxury extending, it was said, to many wives and slave concubines. Repeatedly denouncing the scholarship of his time for deviating toward philosophy at the expense of hadith, he persuaded the Safavid rulers not only to forgo the earlier patronage of philosophy and mysticism but also to suppress signs of religious and social diversity.

Among his many acts of reproof and refutation, Majlesi (following his father’s lead) was responsible for active persecution of the Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Hindu communities in Isfahan and elsewhere, as well as for increasing intolerance toward remnants of Sunni communities, especially along the Iranian periphery. His anti-Jewish treatise Sawa’iq al-Yahud (Lightning Bolts on the Jews), which called for the imposition of numerous discriminatory measures against Jews, might be seen as natural outcome of sporadic anti-Jewish persecution since the time of ‘Abbas I. His call to destroy the image of a Hindu god in a temple in Isfahan belonging to the Indian commercial community, however, was a result of his studied intolerance toward non-Muslims. His anti-Sunni policies, moreover, had some effect on the rise of anti-Shi‘i sentiments in the Iranian periphery, as in Kandahar, and on the Safavids’ eventual downfall a quarter of a century after Majlesi’s death.

The cultural orientation of the Safavid ulama, from Karaki, the leading sixteenth-century jurist from Jabal ‘Amil, to Majlesi, had hardly changed even after two centuries of Persianization. The sum total of the anti-intellectual drive, behind a facade of madrasa learning, can be summarized as obsession with the hadith, legal conservatism, ritualization of Shi‘ism, rejecting diversity, and popularizing of a tearful myth of suffering of the Imams. Their hostility toward Persian literary and artistic pursuits, and condescending attitude even toward their lay constituency, was typical of their sociocultural orientation. The Iranian public reserved great ambivalence for the ulama, a sort of love-hate relationship, revering them for their hard-to-understand learning and for their sanctified posture, and despising them for their haughtiness, hypocrisy, and greed—all of which is highlighted vividly in Persian literature.

Yet the ulama’s inherent conservatism enjoyed the blessing of the Safavid rulers, from Tahmasp to Soltan Hosain, who consistently lavished them with praises and pensions. Vast endowments (awqaf) that the Safavids devoted to religious learning, especially under ‘Abbas I, made the ulama enormously rich but also further subservient to the wishes of the state. There were occasional quarrels, for instance, about wine drinking and the patronage of such practices prohibited in Islam as music and painting, or about the deviant sexual habits of the royal family, but these were not serious enough to cause a refit between the religious establishment and its royal benefactor.

A handful of jurists, Karaki included, did claim to be the “deputy of the Imam” (na’eb-e imam) and viewed themselves as those who had invested political power in the Safavid ruler. The motives for the Safavids to abide by such pretentions may be traced in part to the religious zeal of rulers such as Tahmasp and Soltan Hosain. Their propensity for hyper-religiosity, served as an incentive for greater acceptance of the ulama and their claim to authority. More so it can be traced to the state’s effort to preserve the jurist class as essentially separate from the rest of the society. The more the jurists were alienated from the public, including their inability to converse in proper Persian, the better the ulama could serve the Safavids’ wishes. The collaboration proved enduring, following an ancient pattern of interdependence of the “good government” and the “good religion.”

The ulama were bound to target the competing “bad religion” of the agnostics, the qalandars, the Sufi orders, the recluse mystics, the philosophers, the Sunnis, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and, soon after, heathen Europeans. Any nonconformity was sinful, and therefore dangerous, particularly if it lapsed into neglect of devotional acts and fetishized practices. Ritual cleansing of the body, obsession with pollutants, and intricate rules of prayer and fasting, which in the jurists’ view defined adherence to correct faith, controlled the public. The ulama thus served the state as moral police, defining learning, disciplining leisure, promoting uniformity, and sharpening the divide between the “saved” Shi‘i and the “damned” Other.

Very late in the seventeenth century there were converts who also helped reaffirm the Majlesi brand of conservatism. Padre António de Jesus, the Portuguese head of the Augustinian monastery in Isfahan who converted to Shi‘ism in 1697 and adopted ‘Ali Qoli Jadid al-Islam as his new name, is a case in point. Among his many Persian-language anti-Christian polemics, his Sayf al-Mu’minin wa Qital al-Mushrikin (The Sword of Believers and Slaying of the Polytheists) is a violent attack not only on Christians, Jews, and Sunnis but also on philosophers, Sufis, and antinomians. This all-embracing refutation, rare though it was, epitomized obstacles to cross-cultural exchanges with a secularizing Europe. His appointment as the royal dragoman in the court of Shah Soltan Hosain further confirmed the state’s patronage of a prevailing xenophobic tendency.

Until the time of Majlesi, weapons of social control, even when fortified with the sanctity of the hadith, were not fully in place. Leisure and artistic inspirations remained strong, at least strong enough to prompt jurists’ lengthy and repeated condemnations of music and dancing, either for pleasure or at Sufi gatherings; wine drinking (which so frequently was portrayed in paintings of the period); women’s venturing outside the harem; breaking of the recognized boundaries of sexuality; and above all, public disregard for norms of prescribed religion. Diffuse forms of nonconformity in public persisted, and even thrived, despite the ascendancy of the pious. The tea- and coffeehouses, despite repeated denunciations by the jurists and physical onslaughts by seminarians, continued to be gathering places for poets and artists, and loci of artistic expression. Recitation of the Shahnameh by masterful storytellers (naqqals) continued to drive many believers away from mosques and from tragic tales of Shi‘i suffering to their performances in public places and in coffeehouses. There they could listen to stories of Rostam’s exploits in his Seven Trials, his fight with the White Demon on Mount Damavand, or Nezami’s romance of the Sasanian King Khosrow and Princess Shirin, the fair Christian ruler of Armenia.

On a different level, the jurists’ attack on philosophy and on organized and theoretical Sufism proved more effective. Philosophy, the most vulnerable of all, was banished to small and inconsequential circles at the margins of the madrasa. Even at its best, the energies of the School of Isfahan and Mulla Sadra’s theosophy were never translated into a spirit of independent inquiry or any tangible investigation of human individuality so central to the modern self. Instead, the emphasis on the traditions of the Imams, mostly invented by the likes of Majlesi into a nostalgic fantasy of pristine Islam, helped sapping whatever originality could have transpired from the new philosophical interest. The terse language and cryptic content of the philosophy of the School of Isfahan, a legacy of centuries of deliberate ambiguity designed to avoid orthodox criticism, naturally diminished its grasp by all but the closest adept. Later practitioners of Mulla Sadra’s philosophy abandoned the most original and innovative in his discourse and clung to the most conventional and pious facets.

Heretics like Mir Sharif Amoli, a Noqtavi thinker of some originality, however, left the persecution of Safavid Iran behind for the relative security of Mughal India. This was the closest intellectual safe haven for many Iranian freethinkers. Mir Sharif thrived for a while in Akbar’s court and was an important source of inspiration for aforementioned Abol-Fazl ‘Allami. Yet, like many of his Persian counterparts, Mir Sharif eventually ended up in a Sufi convent, leading the life of a mystic, uninterested in the affairs of the world. It was as if the only alternative to the madrasa’s scholasticism was a mystic’s convent (khaneqah), or as Hafez would have recommended, a “tavern” (maykhaneh) for the skeptics disillusioned with organized Sufism. Yet both responses, as well as the shari‘a-oriented philosophy of the late Safavid era, were unlikely candidates for the advent of any indigenous form of modernity.

Seventeenth-century Iran witnessed territorial consolidation, expansion of economy and communication, and the emergence of an impressive material culture. The state nurtured a class of jurists that advanced the cause of Shi‘ism and, to a lesser extent, patronized speculative thought. The Safavid imperial model and its theory of legitimacy proved to endure long after the Safavids’ demise. Most of these features were shared with contemporary Mughal India, Qing China, the Ottoman Empire, and Habsburg Spain. Yet despite impressive achievements, in many respects the seventeenth century remained for Iran an age of unfulfilled potential. Neither Shah ‘Abbas nor his successors were able to overcome the institutional limitations in the Safavid system. Weakening of the Qezilbash and its replacement with a gholam class did not end tribal conflicts, which soon flared up spectacularly. The silk monopoly proved viable, but efforts to create an indigenous trading network competitive with the European trading companies was transient. The Safavids never developed a maritime empire and showed no interest in creating a naval power. Their overland territorial expansion paid off in the southern Caucasus and Persian Gulf, and less so in Iraq, but revenue from these sources was not a long-term remedy for the state’s shortfall. Centralization of the agrarian regime raised revenue but over the long term actually weakened Safavid defenses.

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