Safavid Empire (1501 – 1736)

A Middle Eastern empire that spanned much of Iran and beyond.

Who were the Safavids?

The Safavid Empire started life as a quiet, spiritual movement, but eventually became a powerful gunpowder empire, centered around the modern region of Iran.


In the early decades of Safavid power, they were known for their fanatical followers, brutal warfare, and violent executions of anyone who refused to convert to the Shi’a faith. They shared a border with the powerful Ottomans, and clashed on a number of occasions.

But in later years, the Safavids stabilized into a culture defined by magnificent architecture, beautiful carpets, and devout, well-educated people. The modern country of Iran owes its existence to the Safavids. They established a state whose legacy endures today.

The origins of the Safavids

The Safavids were originally a small, peaceful brotherhood, which devoted itself to monk-like spiritualism. They were based in the region now known as Iran, near the coast of the Caspian Sea.

This changed in the 1400s, when the movement got involved with the Qizilbash. These militant tribes lived in the modern countries of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The tribes had never seen eye to eye before, but found themselves uniting behind the religious messages of the Safavids.

In 1501, Shah Ismail came to power at the head of the Safavid movement. He was a warrior priest, who claimed to be the mahdi – a messianic figure who was prophesized to rid the world of evil, and spread the Islam faith.

Messianic expansion

Shah Ismail used his messianic aura to lead the Qizilbash tribes on a religious conquest. His warriors were renowned for their ferocity and loyalty, and would enter the battlefield without armor, believing that Ismail’s spiritual powers would protect them from harm.

This faith was rewarded when they took control of Tabriz in 1501 – a major local city. Ismail declared it a new Safavid capital, and named himself Shah of Iran.

It was around this time that he also began writing his divan – a collection of divinely-inspired poetry. This work continued to build on his image as a messianic figure: “Adam has put on new clothes. God is come.”

Religious conversions

The Safavids followed a branch of Islam known as Shi’ism, which differed from the Sunni branch of Islam practiced by the nearby Ottoman Empire.

Following the conquest of Tabriz, the Safavids claimed a number of other local cities. On each occasion, they brutally forced the local population to convert to their version of the faith.

If people refused to convert, they would usually be executed. In 1503, 5000 people were killed in the city of Isfahan. Later that year, 4000 people were killed at Fars. Meanwhile, the Shah’s Qizilbash warriors remained as devoted as ever; each victory enhanced their leader’s messianic reputation.

The Battle of Chaldiran

By 1514, the religious fervor of Shah Ismail and the Qizilbash had brought them to the edge of the Ottoman Empire. The two forces clashed at the Battle of Chaldiran – and it did not go well for the Safavids.

The Qizilbash warriors were no match for the powerful Ottoman army, which was equipped with advanced gunpowder weaponry – this was more than fifty years after they had used these weapons to siege Constantinople. The Safavids were forced into a chaotic retreat. Shah Ismail himself was injured, and almost captured, in the process.

His aura of messianic invincibility had been shattered by the Ottomans’ modern weapons. After the Battle of Chaldiran, Ismail lost confidence, and reportedly became a recluse. He may have even turned to alcohol; he died ten years later, at the early age of 36.

A modernized army

After the death of Shah Ismail, the Safavid state was rocked by a decade of civil war, before his son, Tahmasp, managed to assert his authority.

He worked on adopting gunpowder weaponry, to make sure that his army would not be defeated as easily as his father had been at the Battle of Chaldiran. In the 1550s, the Safavids were attacked by the Ottomans, and Tahmasp’s army fared a lot better, managing to hold them at bay. Modern historians now refer to the Safavids as a ‘gunpowder empire’, because they embraced the technology so effectively.

Tahmasp’s successors continued what he started, gradually strengthening the Safavid state. Another important figure was Shah Abbas, who ascended to the throne in 1588, and rapidly expanded Safavid territory. He even managed to claim some territory from the neighboring Ottomans.

Architecture and silk

Shah Abbas – and the Safavids in general – were not only concerned with warfare. He also oversaw the construction of grand palaces, mosques, gardens and bazaars that can still be seen in Iran today.

The city of Isfahan received the most attention, after becoming a new Safavid capital. The city was renowned for its magnificent architecture, especially Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and the stunning blue mosaic walls of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.

Abbas was also economically astute. He built a number of carpet factories, and began to monopolize the trade of silk to Europe, bringing significant wealth to the Safavid state. They became known as a well-dressed and well-educated people, as they distanced themselves from the wild band of Qizilbash warriors which had driven their initial ascent.

The decline of the Safavids

The Safavid Empire began to decline in the late 17th century, mainly due to a series of weak leaders, who failed to live up to the standards set by Shah Ismail, Tahmasp and Abbas. Shah Husayn was a prime example. He neglected his duties, preferring instead to indulge in wine and women.

Without a central figure to hold it together, the Safavid Empire began to fall apart. In 1722, the city of Isfahan fell to an invading Afghan force. Many of these Afghans, including their leader, had Qizilbash origins, and shared the military prowess of their predecessors.

The Safavids clung on for a short while longer, but in 1736, the Safavid Dynasty – a line which stretched back more than two-hundred years to Shah Ismail – was officially dethroned, and replaced by an Afghan king.

The legacy of the Safavids

The legacy of the Safavids can still be felt in modern Iran, as they set a precedent for the nation’s future identity as a bastion of Shi’ism and Islamic culture.

More than 99% of modern Iranians are Muslim, and 90% are Shi’a Muslim – the branch of the faith first brought to the region by the Safavids. This is in contrast to places like Turkey, whose population is 80% Sunni Muslim, following on from the Sunni leadership of the Ottomans.

The concept of Iran, as a unified nation, can also be traced to the Safavids. What was once a collection of disparate tribes was brought together as a single culture with a shared territory. The borders established by the Safavid Empire roughly align with the borders of the modern country.

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