Persia, which had enjoyed so many periods of cultural fertility, was now entering another epoch of political vitality and artistic creation. When Shah Ismail I founded the Safavid dynasty (1502–1736) Persia was a chaos of kinglets: Iraq, Yazd, Samnan, Firuzkuh, Diyarbekir, Kashan, Khurasan, Qandahar, Balkh, Kirman, and Azerbaijan were independent states. In a succession of ruthless campaigns Ismail of Azerbaijan conquered most of these principalities, captured Herat and Baghdad, and made Tabriz again the capital of a powerful kingdom. The people welcomed this native dynasty, gloried in the unity and power it gave their country, and expressed their spirit in a new outburst of Persian art.

Ismail’s rise to royalty is an incredible tale. He was three years old when his father died (1490), thirteen when he set out to win himself a throne, still thirteen when he had himself crowned Shah of Persia. Contemporaries described him as “brave like a young gamecock” and “lively as a faun,” stout, broad-shouldered, with furious mustaches and flaming red hair; he wielded a mighty sword with his left hand, and with the bow he was another Odysseus, shooting down seven apples in a row of ten.2 We are told that he was “amiable as a girl,” but he killed his own mother (or stepmother), ordered the execution of 300 courtesans at Tabriz, and massacred thousands of enemies.3 He was so popular that “the name of God is forgotten” in Persia, said an Italian traveler, “and only that of Ismail is remembered.” 4

Religion and audacity were the secrets of his success. Religion in Persia was Shi’a—i.e., “the party” of Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed. The Shi’a recognized no rightful caliphs but Ali and his twelve lineal descendants—“imams” or holy kings; and since religion and government were not distinct in Islam, each such descendant had, in this doctrine, a divine right to rule both church and state. As Christians believed that Christ would return to establish His kingdom on earth, so the Shi’ites believed that the twelfth imam—Muhammad ibn-Hasan—had never died, but would someday reappear and set up his blessed rule over the earth. And as Protestants condemned Catholics for accepting tradition, along with the Bible, as a guide to right belief, so the Shi’ites denounced the Sunnites—the orthodox Mohammedan majority—who found the sunna or “path” of righteousness not only in the Koran but also in the practice of Mohammed as handed down in the traditions of his companions and followers. And as Protestants gave up praying to the saints and closed the monasteries, so the Shi’ites discountenanced the Sufi mystics and closed the cloisters of the dervishes, which, like the monasteries of Europe in their prime, had been centers of hospitality and charity. As Protestants called their faith the “true religion,” so the Shi’ites took the name al-Ma-minum, “true believers.”5 No faithful Shi’ite would eat with a Sunnite; and if a Christian’s shadow passed over a Shi’ite’s meal, the food was to be discarded as unclean.6

Ismail claimed descent from the seventh imam, Safi-al-Din (“Purity of the Faith”), from whom the new dynasty was named. By proclaiming Shi’a as the national and official religion of Iran, and as the sacred standard under which he fought, Ismail united his people in pious devotion against the Sunnite Moslems who hemmed Persia in—the Uzbeks and Afghans on the east, the Arabs, Turks, and Egyptians on the west. His strategy succeeded; despite his cruelties he was worshiped as a saint, and his subjects so trusted in his divine power to protect them that some refused to wear armor in battle.7

Having won this fervent support, Ismail felt strong enough to challenge his neighbors. The Uzbeks who ruled Transoxiana had spread their power into Khurasan; Ismail took Herat from them, and drove them out of Persia. Secure in the east, he turned west against the Ottomans. Each faith now persecuted the other with holy intensity. Sultan Selim, we are unreliably told, had 40,000 Shi’ites in his dominions killed or imprisoned before going forth to war (1514), and Shah Ismail hanged some of the Sunnites who formed a majority in Tabriz, and compelled the rest to utter daily a prayer cursing the first three caliphs as usurpers of Ali’s rights. Nevertheless, in battle at Chaldiran, the Persians found Shi’a helpless before the artillery and Janissaries of Selim the Grim; the Sultan took Tabriz, and subdued all northern Mesopotamia (1516). But his army mutinied, he retreated, and Ismail returned to his capital with all the glory that shrouds a martial king. Letters declined during his hectic reign, but art prospered under his patronage; he protected the painter Bihzad, and rated him as worth half of Persia.8 After twenty-four years of rule Ismail died at thirty-eight, leaving the throne to his ten-year-old son (1524).

Shah Tamasp I was a faithless coward, a melancholy sybarite, an incompetent king, a harsh judge, a patron and practitioner of art, a pious Shi’ite, and the idol of his people. Perhaps he had some secret virtues which he hid from history. The continuing emphasis on religion disturbed as well asstrengthened the government, for it sanctioned a dozen wars, and kept the Islam of the Near and Middle East divided from 1508 to 1638. Christendom benefited, for Suleiman interrupted his assaults upon the West by campaigns against Persia; “only the Persian stands between us and ruin,” wrote Ferdinand’s ambassador in Constantinople.9 In 1533 the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha led a Turkish army into Azerbaijan, took fortress after fortress by bribing Persian generals, and finally captured Tabriz and Baghdad without striking a blow (1534). Fourteen years later, during an armistice with Ferdinand, Suleiman led another army against “the rascally Red-heads” (the Turkish name for the Persians), took thirty-one towns, and then resumed his attacks upon Christendom. Between 1525 and 1545 Charles repeatedly negotiated with Persia, presumably to co-ordinate Christian and Persian resistance to Suleiman. The West rejoiced when Persia assumed the offensive and captured Erzerum; but in 1554 Suleiman returned, devastated great stretches of Persia, and forced Tamasp to a peace in which Baghdad and Lower Mesopotamia fell permanently under Turkish rule.

More interesting than these dismal conflicts were the venturesome journeys that Anthony Jenkinson made into Transoxiana and Persia in search of an overland trade route to India and “Cathay.” In this matter Ivan the Terrible proved amiable; he welcomed Jenkinson in Moscow, sent him as his ambassador to the Uzbek rulers at Bokhara, and agreed to let English goods enter Russia duty free and pass down the Volga and across the Caspian. After surviving a violent storm on that sea, Jenkinson continued into Persia and reached Qasvin (1561). There he delivered to Tamasp letters of salutation from a distant queen who seemed to the Persians a minor ruler over a barbarous people. They were inclined to sign a trade agreement, but when Jenkinson confessed himself a Christian they bade him depart; “we have no need of friendship with infidels,” they told him; and as he left the Shah a servant spread purifying sand to cover the Christian footprints that had polluted the Shi’a court.10

The death of Tamasp (1576) concluded the longest but one of all Mohammedan reigns, and one of the most disastrous. It was not distinguished by any literature lovingly cherished in Persian memory, unless we include the fascinating memoirs of the expatriated Babur. But Safavid art, though its zenith would come later, already in these two reigns began to pour forth works of that grandeur, brilliance, and refinement which for twenty-two centuries have marked the products of Persia. In Isfahan the mausoleum of Harun-i-Vilaya displayed all the finesse of classic Persian design, and the best color and cutting of mosaic faïence; and a complex half-dome crowned the portal of the great Friday Mosque. Another Masjid-i-Jami rose in this age at Shiraz, but time has swallowed it.

In many instances the delicate work of the illuminators and calligraphers has outlasted the architectural monuments, and has justified the care that made the book, in Islam, almost an idol of loving reverence. The Arabs, proud of everything, were forgivably enamored of their alphabet, which lent itself to lines of sinuous grace. The Persians above all made that script an art in adorning the mihrabs and portals of their mosques, the metal of their weapons, the clay of their pottery, the texture of their rugs, and in transmitting their Scriptures and their poets in manuscripts that many generations would cherish as delights to eye and soul. The Nastaliq or sloping script, which had flourished under the Timurids at Tabriz, Herat, and Samarkand, returned to Tabriz under the Safavids, and went with them to Isfahan. As the mosque brought together a dozen arts, so the book employed poet, calligrapher, miniaturist, and binder into a collaboration quite as dedicated and devout.

The art of illumination continued to flourish at Bokhara, Herat, Shiraz, and Tabriz. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a lordly manuscript of Firdausi’s Shah-nama signed by Arraji Muhammad al-Qawam of Shiraz (1552); the Cleveland Museum has another illuminated by Mushid-al-Kiatib (1538); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has one of the finest examples of Tabriz illumination and calligraphy in the title page from a copy (1525) of Nizami’s Khamsu. The center of Mohammedan illumination moved to Tabriz when Bihzad chose it for his residence (c. 1510). During the campaign of Chaldiran Shah Ismail hid Bihzad and the calligrapher Mahmud Nishapuri in a cave as his most precious possessions.11 Bihzad’s pupil Aqa Mirak painted at Tabriz one of the master miniatures of this period, the Khosru and Shirin Enthroned (1539), now in the British Museum. Mirak in turn taught the art to Sultan (Prince) Muhammad Nur. Born of a rich family, Muhammad ignored the fact that he had the means to be worthless; he became the “pearl without price” at the court of Shah Tamasp, for he surpassed all his contemporaries in calligraphy and illumination, and in designing book covers and rugs. Between 1539 and 1543 he copied and illustrated the Khamsu of Nizami; a magnificent page in the British Museum shows King Khosru, mounted on a pink horse, peering through foliage of green, brown, and gold at Shirin bathing, half naked, in a silver pool. Even more brilliant in color is a painting of the Prophet riding through the skies on his winged horse Buraq to visit heaven and hell. The figures are grace incarnate, but deliberately and religiously without individualized features; the artist was interested in decoration rather than representation, and valued beauty, which, subjective, is sometimes attainable, more than truth, which, objective, always escapes. In these miniatures Persian illumination reached the apex of its elegance.

The same loving care and delicate designs went into textiles and rugs. No textiles survive from these reigns, but the miniatures picture them. In rugs the Safavi designers and artisans were supreme. The carpet seemed an essential of civilization in Islam. The Moslem sat and ate not on chairs but on a floor or ground covered with a rug. A special “prayer rug,” usually bearing religious symbols and a Koranic text, received his prostrations in his devotions. Rugs were favored as gifts to friends or kings or mosques; so Shah Tamasp sent twenty large and many small carpets of silk and gold to Selim II on the latter’s accession as Ottoman Sultan (1566). Some dominating feature of design classified the rugs as of the garden, floral, hunting, vase, diaper, or medallion type; but around these basic forms were meandering arabesques, Chinese cloud configurations, symbols conveying secret meanings to the initiate, animals lending the pattern life, plants and flowers giving it a kind of linear fragrance and joyful tone; and through the complex whole an artistic logic ran, a contrapuntal harmony of lines more intricate than Palestrina’s madrigals, more graceful than Godiva’s hair.

Some famous Persian rugs survive from this first half of the sixteenth century. One is a medallion rug with 30,000,000 knots in wool on a silk warp (380 to the square inch); it lay for centuries in a mosque at Ardabil, and is now divided between the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the County Museum in Los Angeles. In a cartouche at one end is a verse from Hafiz, and beneath this the proud words: “The work of the slave .... Maqsud of Kashan, in the year 946” after the hegira—i.e., A.D. 1539.12 Also in the Los Angeles Museum is the immense “Coronation Carpet” used at the crowning of Edward VII in 1901. The Poldi-Pezzoli Museum at Milan, before the second World War shattered the building, counted among its greatest treasures a hunting rug by Ghiyath ad-Din Jami of Yazd, the Bihzad of rug design. The “Duke of Anhalt Rug,” in the Duveen Collection, won international renown for its golden yellow ground and seductive arabesques in crimson, rose, and turquoise blue. The rug and the book are among the unchallengeable titles of Safavid Persia to a high place in the remembrance of mankind.

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