Dynasty uniting Persia, and ruling an extended Persia fra 1501 until 1736, altogether 235 years. The Safavids were also in charge of establishing Shi'i Islam as the dominating religion in Iran.
Court of Shah Abbas 1.
Emam Mosque of Esfahan, Iran.
Si-o-Seh bridge in Esfahan, Iran. Photo: Nick Taylor.
The now ruined old city of Bam, Iran.
Iranian woman painted glazed ceramic tile in Kubachi style. Museum Resa Abbassi, Teheran, Iran. Photo: dynamosquito.
Safavid soldier carrying flag.
The process of uniting Iran, which the Safavid rulers undertook, was a difficult task. Iran consisted of many peoples with independent traditions, laws, culture and language.
The first century of the Safavids was one of many defeats. It wasn't until Abbas became shah in 1588 that things changed. He reformed both the army and the administrative system. Through its new efficiency, the Safavid state became one of the strongest in the Middle East. The state, and its new capital from the early 17th century, Esfahan, was adorned with many monuments and mosques.
Trade and commerce was advanced. He allowed Europeans to participate in trade over Iranian territory. Non-Muslims were allowed entrance to the court, Christians were allowed to wear what clothes they wanted, own their own home and ride on horseback.
There were great advances in many cultural fields, like painting, textiles, carpet-making, metalware and production of porcelain.
In general, the Safavid period saw several advances in cultural fields, like philosophy. This was often initiated by the need to unite Shi'i theology with ancient philosophy like Aristotelian and neo-Platonic. Many theologians interpreted the Koran allegorically, but there were important schools that adhered to the older textual understanding.
From the late 17th century, the state disintegrated. This decline was a result of weak rulers, the interference of women of the harem in politics, rivalries between soldiers and officers, maladministration of state lands, excessive taxation and decline of trade. Iran also suffered much from the change of trade routes between Europe and Asia, from overland through the Middle East to the sea around Africa.
Role of religion
The state religion was Shi'i Islam, and the state engaged in many campaigns in order to advance the religion in areas non-Shi'i majorities. Methods involved proselytizing and fore. But other religions were tolerated, like Christianity which had many adherents in Iran at the time. The Christians were allowed to construct missions and churches.
The Safavid state was through long periods a theocracy, with the shah claiming legitimacy as ruler through his religious position. The idea of the shah as a infallible semi-divine figure which had dominated the early years of the Safavid state, was crushed in the battle at Chaldiran in 1514.
The shah was represented in the administration by a vakil. Under him was the sadr who headed the religious organization. The vizier headed the bureaucracy, while the emir alumara headed the military. The military consisted to a large degree of men of Turkish-speaking tribes, not the people of Iran.
Outside the capital, the administration was in the hands of Kizilbash (military) chiefs, who were responsible of collecting taxes and proving the army with soldiers. At times these Kizilbash chiefs used the vast distances and their increasing wealth to exercise more power than they were given by the shah. This was an important factor in politics in the 1580's, when the Kizilbash chiefs tried to secure a new shah that would secure their positions. It was really only under Abbas 1 that the shah was fully able to curb their power and centralize the administration all over the Safavid state. He replaced the Kizilbash with his own military force.
14th century: Shaykh Safi d-Din forms a Sufi order in Ardabil, Azerbaijan.
1399: The Safavid sect changes their Sunni orientation for a Shi'i.
15th century: Junayd Safavi loses a succession dispute in the order, and travels with his supporters to eastern Anatolia. They gained more members among Turkoman nomads, and through marriage Junayd Safavid was able to reach large areas in western and central Iran controlled by the Ay Qoyunly Turkoman Confederation.
1501 July: Junayd's grandson, Isma'il takes control over Tabriz with the help of local Turkomen tribes. He is crowned as shah, and declares Shi'ism state religion.
1502: Isma'il declares himself an infallible Shi'i imam, and descendant of the 7th Shi'i imam Musa al-Kazim.
1500's: Conquers Mosul and Baghdad. Here, too, Shi'ism is declared state religion.
1514 August: Isma'il loses to the Ottoman sultan Selim 1 at Chaldiran. This battle destroyed the claim of the shah that he was infallible and semi-divine figure.
1510's: The Safavids lose the region of Kurdistan.
1533: Baghdad is conquered by the Ottomans. Esfahan becomes temporary capital.
Middle 16th century: Iran becomes weaker due to bad leadership and attacks from neighbour peoples. Some territorial advances are however made in eastern direction.
1580's: Kizilbash chiefs have the heir to the crown murdered together with other important members of the royal family. But the chiefs soon started fighting against each other.
1588: Abbas 1 becomes shah, after having been hiding in the province of Khurasan, surviving the battle of power of the preceding years.
1590: Abbas 1 forges peace with the Ottoman Empire on unfavourable terms, and attacks the Uzbeks in the northeast instead, but without much success.
1599: Abbas 1 gets European aid in reforming the army. The army was reorganized, and divided into slaves, musketeers and artillerymen. They were supplied with European type arms and paid out of the royal treasury.
1602: Abbas 1 drives the Portuguese from the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
1603: Abbas 1 defeats the Ottomans, winning back all the territory they had gained from earlier Safavid shahs. Abbas 1 even captured Baghdad.
1623: With help from British officers and troops, drives Abbas 1 the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz, which controlled the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
Early 17th century: Esfahan becomes permanent capital.
1624: The Safavids take back control over Baghdad.
1638: Safavid control over Baghdad is again lost.
1629: Abbas 1 dies, and a period of slow decline starts.
1639: The Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin regulate the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid state. This border correspond in most fields to today's Iran's western border.
1722: Esfahan is captured by the Ghilzai Afghans ruling from Kandahar.
1729: Shah Tahmasp 2 wins back Esfahan.
1732: Tahmasp 2 is deposed by his own troops, under the leadership of Nader Qoli Beg (future Nader Shah).