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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Rivalries with Greece
Parthians and Byzantines
Turks and Mongols
     Ismail I
     Abbas I
     Pampered heirs
     Decline of the Safavids
     Nadir Shah

To be completed

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Ismail I and the Safavids: 1501-1524

After four centuries of dominance by powerful intruders (Seljuk Turks, Mongols), Persia acquires in the 16th century a new dynasty from the heartland of the classical Persian empire.

Azerbaijan was the territory of the Medes, founders of Iran's first empire. Recently it has become the centre of a a Sufi sect, established by Sheikh Safi al-Din. His descendants, known from his name as the Safavids, govern the city of Ardabil as a small theocratic state. In the 15th century they develop a passionate commitment to the Shi'a version of Islam (the family claims descent from one of the twelve Shi'a imams - see The Shi'as). The characteristics of Iran in the late 20th century have their roots in Azerbaijan 500 years ago.


One of the sheikh's descendants, Ismail, drastically enlarges the family's power in the early 16th century. At the age of fourteen he leads the local tribes in the capture of Tabriz, where he is enthroned in 1501 as the shah of Azerbaijan. (Ismail is not alone in teenage achievements of this kind; four years previously Babur, also aged fourteen, briefly captures Samarkand.)

Ismail extends his control over much of Mesopotamia and Persia, using the Shi'a faith as a rallying cry. By the end of his reign Shi'ism, a minority sect within Islam, has become the faith of the majority of Persians. In this process conversion and compulsion often go together. But a newly defined nation is now able to identify its enemies as the Sunnis.


Sunnis are pressing against Persia from both west and east, but the more immediate threat is from the east. Uzbek tribes, under the leadership of Shaibani Khan, are moving southwest from Samarkand and Bukhara. By 1507 Shaibani has reached Herat, which he captures in that year.

Ismail confronts the Uzbeks at Merv in 1510 and wins a resounding victory. Shaibani is taken and killed (his skull, set in gold, becomes one of Ismail's favourite drinking cups). Another Sunni ruler to the east of Persia is Babur, now established in Kabul. But Babur has no aggressive intentions against Persia. Ismail contents himself with diplomatic efforts to convert him to the Shi'a faith.


The real Sunni threat now comes from the Ottoman Turks. Recent military successes have secured the western boundary of their empire, in the Balkans. Now they find they have a strong and aggressive neighbour in Persia, heretical in his religious beliefs and with his power base (Azerbaijan) and his capital (Tabriz) close to their own regions of Anatolia.

A clash is inevitable. It occurs at Çaldiran in 1514. Ismail is defeated; his tribesmen are no match for the highly trained janissaries, and unlike the Turks he has no artillery. But this encounter between Ottoman and Persian is only the beginning of a long struggle, in which Persian fortunes in the east are intimately linked to those of the Balkans in the west.


Abbas I: 1587-1629

When Shah Abbas begins his reign in 1587, at the age of sixteen, he is confronted by exactly the problem which his great-grandfather Ismail I faced eighty years previously. Ottoman Turks are pressing in from the northwest at the same time as Uzbeks from the northeast.

The young shah's solution is to make a disadvantageous treaty with the Turks, in 1590, surrendering valuable territory but leaving himself free to confront the Uzbeks. But first he undertakes a reorganization of the Persian army, replacing a feudal system of tribal levies with professional troops paid from the imperial treasury.


The military reforms benefit from Persia's experience against the better trained and better equipped Turks, and also - rather oddly - from the practical advice of an Englishman, Sir Robert Shirley, who arrives as a member of an English embassy in 1599 and stays in Persia for eight years.

The resulting army has three specialist regiments - cavalry, musketeers and artillerymen. Their successes enable Shah Abbas to extend the Persian empire as far as Kandahar in the east, while in the west recovering Mesopotamia and the regions ceded to the Turks in the treaty of 1590.


The proximity of the Turks has made Tabriz, the original base of the Safavid dynasty, dangerously insecure. In 1548 the capital has already been moved southeast to Kazvin by Tahmasp I, son of Ismail I.

Shah Abbas goes further in the same direction when he moves the capital in 1598 to Isfahan. Here he creates, during the remaining 30 years of his life, a splendid city of elegant domes. Isfahan comes to symbolize the Persian style in the same way as the Shi'a doctrine, introduced by Abbas's great-grandfather, becomes part of the nation's identity. This region has had 2500 years of richly varied history, but modern Iran is essentially a Safavid creation.


Isfahan: 17th century

Isfahan is already a city of ancient history and considerable wealth when Shah Abbas decides, in 1598, to turn it into a magnificent capital. It has a Masjid-i-Jami, or Friday Mosque, dating from the Seljuk period (11th-12th century), still surviving today and noted for its fine patterned brickwork. And it has a thriving school of craftsmen skilled in the making of polychrome ceramic tiles.

Shah Abbas favours in architecture what comes to seem almost the theme of his city - gently curving domes covered in a glorious array of Isfahan's coloured tiles.


The new centre of the city is a vast rectangular space, the Maidan-i-Shah (Royal Parade), designed for parades and polo. At its southern end there rises the most magnificent of Isfahan's swelling blue domes, on the Masjid-i-Shah (Royal Mosque). The tiles are shaped where necessary to fit the curve of the dome, as are those which clad the mosque's circular minarets. The dome is reflected in a great pool in the courtyard.

On the east of the Maidan-i-Shah is a smaller blue dome, on the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah - built by Shah Abbas in honour of his father-in-law and used as his private chapel. There are other glorious buildings in Isfahan, but these domes have become the trademark of Persian Islamic architecture.


Pampered heirs: 17th century

In both Turkey and Persia a major change is made in royal protocol during the first half of the 17th century. The development is the same in each place, and it has a profound effect on future sultans and shahs.

In Turkey it has been an official policy of state for each new sultan, on achieving power, to kill his brothers and nephews. Without a system of primogeniture, the crown goes to the strongest among the candidates within the ruling family. Once a winner has emerged, this drastic measure is a way of ensuring an untroubled reign. The sultan Mehmed III, winning power in 1595, murders his unusually large family of nineteen brothers.


In Persia this principle of violence is not enshrined in law, but in practice the result is similarly brutal. Shah Abbas, ruling in the early 17th century, blinds and imprisons his deposed father, his two brothers and one of his sons.

Shah Abbas in Persia and his contemporary, Ahmed I, in Turkey independently put in place a more merciful system. Abbas decrees that in future all royal princes will live in the harem, out of harm's way, until such time as the ruling shah dies. Ahmed's solution in Turkey is similar, but each prince here is to have a pavilion of his own in a walled garden (the merciful Ahmed was five, in 1595, when his father killed his nineteen uncles).


The result is the same in both empires. Less royal blood is shed but the standard of leadership declines. Sultans and shahs, previously on the battlefield from their teens, learning the harsh ways of the world, now emerge in a state of sheltered ignorance to take up the responsibilities of power. The politics of the harem impinge upon, and sometimes even replace in importance, the politics of the real world (see Harems and Eunuchs).

In Persia the Safavids retain the throne for a century after this change. In Turkey the royal line survives three times as long, to the end of the Ottoman empire. But the heyday of each dynasty has passed.


Decline of the Safavids: 1722-1736

The first major threat to the enfeebled Safavid dynasty comes in 1722 when Afghan rebels march west and capture Isfahan. This disaster is soon followed by the simultaneous invasion of Persia by Russia and Turkey. Each is determined to prevent the other gaining an advantage in this strategic region, but in 1724 they agree to divide the spoils. Both remain in possession of part of the Persian empire.

The shah is briefly saved from this unwelcome situation by Nadir Quli Beg, leader of a gang of tribal brigands. By birth a Turk, from the Meshed region, he brings 5000 men to the support of the shah in 1726.


The brigand proves a brilliant general. Transforming the Persian army, he leads a disciplined body of men to victory over the Afghan rebels holding Isfahan. He then drives the Turks out of the western regions of Persia. And by the mere threat of war he persuades the Russians to relinquish the territories they have seized.

But brigands acquiring this much power are not easily controlled. In 1736 Nadir Quli Beg deposes the last Safavid shah and takes the throne for himself, changing his name to Nadir Shah.


Nadir Shah: 1736-1747

Nadir Shah, in a reign of eleven years, devotes himself to conquest with the single-minded determination of Timur, the last great conqueror to sweep through these regions.

First, after a long siege in 1736, he recovers Kandahar - the stronghold of the Afghan chieftains who have until recently been in possession of Isfahan. With Afghanistan safely back under imperial control, Nadir Shah is next tempted further east (like Timur before him) into the fabulously wealthy empire of India. The Moghul dynasty, possessing probably a greater number of precious stones than any other ruling family in the world, is itself in a feeble state. A visit to Delhi is irresistible - as is Nadir Shah himself.


In December 1738 Nadir Shah crosses the Indus at Attock. Two months later he defeats the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammed Shah. In March he enters Delhi. The conqueror has iron control over his troops and at first the city is calm. It is broken when an argument between citizens and some Persian soldiers escalates into a riot in which 900 Persians are killed. Even now Nadir Shah forbids reprisals until he has inspected the scene. But when he rides through the city, stones are thrown at him. Someone fires a musket which kills an officer close to the shah.

In reprisal he orders a massacre. The killing lasts for a day. The number of the dead is more than 30,000.


Amazingly, when the Moghul emperor begs for mercy for his people, the Persian conqueror is able to grant it. The killing stops, for the collection of Delhi's valuables to begin.

Untold wealth travels west with the Persians. The booty includes the two most spectacular possessions of the Moghul emperors - the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Shah Jahan, and the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Nadir Shah is able to send a decree home from Delhi remitting all taxes in Persia for three years. In addition to the jewels and the gold, he takes with him 1000 elephants, 100 masons and 200 carpenters. The parallel with the visit of Timur, 341 years previously, is almost exact.


But Timur was at least creating a capital city at Samarkand. Nadir Shah has little interest in any activity other than conquest. He takes Bukhara in 1740 and continues to campaign (though with diminishing success and increasing ferocity) until his death in 1747, stabbed in his tent by an assassin.

Nadir Shah's achievement has been to reassemble by conquest the Persian empire. After his death it rapidly falls apart again. The eastern part now begins its separate existence as Afghanistan. The west enjoys a rare period of peace under a leader of the Zand tribe, Karim Khan, who rules from 1757 to 1794 with his capital at Shiraz. He is followed by the last of Persia's lengthy dynasties, the Qajars.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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