1252 Jan 1
, Kurdistān

The Safavid order, also called the Safaviyya, was a tariqa (Sufi order) founded by the Kurdish mystic Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252–1334). It held a prominent place in the society and politics of northwestern Iran in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but today it is best known for having given rise to the Safavid dynasty. While initially founded under the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam, later adoptions of Shi'i concepts such as the notion of the Imamate by the children and grandchildren of Safi-ad-din Ardabili resulted in the order ultimately becoming associated with Twelverism.

Ismail declares himself shah by entering Tabriz, painter Chingiz Mehbaliyev, in private collection.

Reign of Ismail I

1501 Dec 22 - 1524 May 23
, Persia

Ismail I, also known as Shah Ismail, was the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Iran, ruling as its King of Kings (shahanshah) from 1501 to 1524. His reign is often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history, as well as one of the gunpowder empires.

The rule of Ismail I is one of the most vital in the history of Iran. Before his accession in 1501, Iran, since its conquest by the Arabs eight-and-a-half centuries earlier, had not existed as a unified country under native Iranian rule, but had been controlled by a series of Arab caliphs, Turkic sultans, and Mongol khans. Although many Iranian dynasties rose to power amidst this whole period, it was only under the Buyids that a vast part of Iran properly returned to Iranian rule (945–1055).

The dynasty founded by Ismail I would rule for over two centuries, being one of the greatest Iranian empires and at its height being amongst the most powerful empires of its time, ruling all of present-day Iran, Azerbaijan Republic, Armenia, most of Georgia, the North Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of modern-day Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It also reasserted the Iranian identity in large parts of Greater Iran. The legacy of the Safavid Empire was also the revival of Iran as an economic stronghold between East and West, the establishment of an efficient state and bureaucracy based upon "checks and balances", its architectural innovations, and patronage for fine arts.

One of his first actions was the proclamation of the Twelver denomination of Shia Islam as the official religion of his newly-founded Persian Empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam, which had major consequences for the ensuing history of Iran. He caused sectarian tensions in the Middle East when he destroyed the tombs of the Abbasid caliphs, the Sunni Imam Abu Hanifa an-Nu'man, and the Sufi Muslim ascetic Abdul Qadir Gilani in 1508. Furthermore, this drastic act also gave him a political benefit of separating the growing Safavid Empire from its Sunni neighbors—the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Uzbek Confederation to the east. However, it brought into the Iranian body politic the implied inevitability of consequent conflict between the Shah, the design of a "secular" state, and the religious leaders, who saw all secular states as unlawful and whose absolute ambition was a theocratic state.

Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire

Start of struggles with the Ottomans

1511 Jan 1
, Antakya/Hatay

The Ottomans, a Sunni dynasty, considered the active recruitment of Turkmen tribes of Anatolia for the Safavid cause as a major threat. To counter the rising Safavid power, in 1502, Sultan Bayezid II forcefully deported many Shiʻite Muslims from Anatolia to other parts of the Ottoman realm. In 1511, the Şahkulu rebellion was a widespread pro-Shia and pro-Safavid uprising directed against the Ottoman Empire from within the empire. Furthermore, by the early 1510s Ismail's expansionistic policies had pushed the Safavid borders in Asia Minor even more westwards. The Ottomans soon reacted with a large-scale incursion into Eastern Anatolia by Safavid ghazis under Nūr-ʿAlī Ḵalīfa. This action coincided with the accession to the Ottoman throne in 1512 of Sultan Selim I, Bayezid II's son, and it was the casus belli leading to Selim's decision to invade neighbouring Safavid Iran two years later.

In 1514, Sultan Selim I marched through Anatolia and reached the plain of Chaldiran near the city of Khoy, where a decisive battle was fought. Most sources agree that the Ottoman army was at least double the size of that of Ismāʻil; furthermore, the Ottomans had the advantage of artillery, which the Safavid army lacked. Although Ismāʻil was defeated and his capital was captured, the Safavid empire survived. The war between the two powers continued under Ismāʻil's son, Emperor Tahmasp I, and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, until Shah Abbās retook the area lost to the Ottomans by 1602.

The consequences of the defeat at Chaldiran were also psychological for Ismāʻil: the defeat destroyed Ismāʻil's belief in his invincibility, based on his claimed divine status. His relationships with his Qizilbash followers were also fundamentally altered. The tribal rivalries among the Qizilbash, which temporarily ceased before the defeat at Chaldiran, resurfaced in intense form immediately after the death of Ismāʻil, and led to ten years of civil war (1524–1533) until Shāh Tahmāsp regained control of the affairs of the state. The Chaldiran battle also holds historical significance as the start of over 300 years of frequent and harsh warfare fueled by geo-politics and ideological differences between the Ottomans and the Iranian Safavids (as well as successive Iranian states) mainly regarding territories in Eastern Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia.

16th century Ottoman (left) and 17th century Safavid (right) miniatures depicting the battle. | ©Muin Musavvir

Battle of Chaldiran

1514 Aug 23
, Azerbaijan

The Battle of Chaldiran ended with a decisive victory for the Ottoman Empire over the Safavid Empire. As a result, the Ottomans annexed Eastern Anatolia and northern Iraq from Safavid Iran. It marked the first Ottoman expansion into Eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia), and the halt of the Safavid expansion to the west. The Chaldiran battle was just the beginning of 41 years of destructive war, which only ended in 1555 with the Treaty of Amasya. Though Mesopotamia and Eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia) were eventually reconquered by the Safavids under the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (r. 1588–1629), they would be permanently lost to the Ottomans by the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab.

At Chaldiran, the Ottomans had a larger, better equipped army numbering 60,000 to 100,000 as well as many heavy artillery pieces, while the Safavid army numbered some 40,000 to 80,000 and did not have artillery at its disposal. Ismail I, the leader of the Safavids, was wounded and almost captured during the battle. His wives were captured by the Ottoman leader Selim I, with at least one married off to one of Selim's statesmen. Ismail retired to his palace and withdrew from government administration after this defeat and never again participated in a military campaign. After their victory, Ottoman forces marched deeper into Persia, briefly occupying the Safavid capital, Tabriz, and thoroughly looting the Persian imperial treasury.

The battle is one of major historical importance because it not only negated the idea that the Murshid of the Shia-Qizilbash was infallible, but also led Kurdish chiefs to assert their authority and switch their allegiance from the Safavids to the Ottomans.

Tahmasp I | ©Farrukh Beg

Reign of Tahmasp I

1524 May 23 - 1576 May 25
, Persia

Tahmasp I was the second Shah of Safavid Iran from 1524 to 1576. He was the eldest son of Ismail I and his principal consort, Tajlu Khanum. Ascending the throne after the death of his father on 23 May 1524, the first years of Tahmasp's reign were marked by civil wars between the Qizilbash leaders until 1532, when he asserted his authority and began an absolute monarchy. He soon faced a longstanding war with the Ottoman Empire, which was divided into three phases. The Ottomans, under Suleiman the Magnificent, tried to put their favoured candidates on the Safavid throne. The war ended with the Peace of Amasya in 1555, with the Ottomans gaining sovereignty over Baghdad, much of Kurdistan and western Georgia. Tahmasp also had conflicts with the Uzbeks of Bukhara over Khorasan, with them repeatedly raiding Herat. He led an army in 1528 (when he was fourteen), and defeated the Uzbeks in the Battle of Jam; he used artillery, unknown to the other side.

Tahmasp was a patron of the arts, building a royal house of arts for painters, calligraphers and poets, and was an accomplished painter himself. Later in his reign he came to despise poets, shunning many and exiling them to India and the Mughal court. Tahmasp is known for his religious piety and fervent zealotry for the Sh'ia branch of Islam. He bestowed many privileges on the clergy and allowed them to participate in legal and administrative matters. In 1544 he demanded that the fugitive Mughal emperor Humayun convert to Shi'ism in return for military assistance to reclaim his throne in India. Nevertheless, Tahmasp still negotiated alliances with the Christian powers of the Republic of Venice and the Habsburg monarchy.

Tahmasp's reign of nearly fifty-two years was the longest of any member of the Safavid dynasty. Although contemporary Western accounts were critical, modern historians describe him as a courageous and able commander who maintained and expanded his father's empire. His reign saw a shift in the Safavid ideological policy; he ended the worshipping of his father as the Messiah by the Turkoman Qizilbash tribes and instead established a public image of a pious and orthodox Sh'ia king. He started a long process followed by his successors to end the Qizilbash influence on Safavid politics, replacing them with the newly-introduced 'third force' containing Islamised Georgians and Armenians.

Safavid army

Uzbek threat

1528 Jan 1
, Herat

The Uzbeks, during the reign of Tahmāsp, attacked the eastern provinces of the kingdom five times, and the Ottomans under Suleymān I invaded Iran four times. Decentralized control over Uzbek forces was largely responsible for the inability of the Uzbeks to make territorial inroads into Khorasan. Putting aside internal dissension, the Safavid nobles responded to a threat to Herat in 1528 by riding eastward with Tahmāsp (then 17) and soundly defeating the numerically superior forces of the Uzbeks at Jām. The victory resulted at least in part from Safavid use of firearms, which they had been acquiring and drilling with since Chaldiran.

First Ottoman–Safavid War

First Ottoman–Safavid War

1532 Jan 1 - 1555 Jan
, Mesopotamia

The Ottoman–Safavid War of 1532–1555 was one of the many military conflicts fought between the two arch rivals, the Ottoman Empire led by Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Safavid Empire led by Tahmasp I.

The war was triggered by territorial disputes between the two empires, especially when the Bey of Bitlis decided to put himself under Persian protection. Also, Tahmasp had the governor of Baghdad, a sympathiser of Suleiman, assassinated. On the diplomatic front, Safavids had been engaged in discussions with the Habsburgs for the formation of a Habsburg–Persian alliance that would attack the Ottoman Empire on two fronts.

Humayun, detail of miniature of the Baburnama

Safavid-Mughal relations

1543 Jan 1
, Kandahar

Almost simultaneously with the emergence of the Safavid Empire, the Mughal Empire, founded by the Timurid heir Babur, was developing in South-Asia. The Mughals adhered (for the most part) to a tolerant Sunni Islam while ruling a largely Hindu population. After the death of Babur, his son Humayun was ousted from his territories and threatened by his half-brother and rival, who had inherited the northern part of Babur's territories. Having to flee from city to city, Humayun eventually sought refuge at the court of Tahmāsp in Qazvin in 1543. Tahmāsp received Humayun as the true emperor of the Mughal dynasty, despite the fact that Humayun had been living in exile for more than fifteen years.

After Humayun converted to Shiʻi Islam (under extreme duress), Tahmāsp offered him military assistance to regain his territories in return for Kandahar, which controlled the overland trade route between central Iran and the Ganges. In 1545 a combined Iranian–Mughal force managed to seize Kandahar and occupy Kabul. Humayun handed over Kandahar, but Tahmāsp was forced to retake it in 1558, after Humayun seized it on the death of the Safavid governor.

Mughal painting of Mohammad Khodabanda, by or after Bishandas. Dated 1605–1627

Reign of Mohammad Khodabanda

1578 Feb 11 - 1587 Oct
, Persia

Mohammad Khodabanda was the fourth Safavid shah of Iran from 1578 until his overthrow in 1587 by his son Abbas I. Khodabanda had succeeded his brother, Ismail II. Khodabanda was the son of Shah Tahmasp I by a Turcoman mother, Sultanum Begum Mawsillu, and grandson of Ismail I, founder of the Safavid Dynasty.

After the death of his father in 1576, Khodabanda was passed over in favour of his younger brother Ismail II. Khodabanda had an eye affliction that rendered him nearly blind, and so in accordance with Persian Royal culture could not contend for the throne. However, following Ismail II's short and bloody reign Khodabanda emerged as the only heir, and so with the backing of the Qizilbash tribes became Shah in 1578.

Khodabanda's reign was marked by a continued weakness of the crown and tribal infighting as part of the second civil war of the Safavid era. Khodabanda has been described as "a man of refined tastes but weak character". As a result, Khodabanda's reign was characterised by factionalism, with major tribes aligning themselves with Khodabanda's sons and future heirs. This internal chaos allowed foreign powers, especially the rivalling and neighboring Ottoman Empire, to make territorial gains, including the conquest of the old capital of Tabriz in 1585. Khodabanda was finally overthrown in a coup in favour of his son Shah Abbas I.

Shah Abbas I and his court.

Reign of Abbas the Great

1588 Oct 1 - 1629 Jan 19
, Persia

Abbas I, commonly known as Abbas the Great, was the 5th Safavid Shah (king) of Iran, and is generally considered one of the greatest rulers of Iranian history and the Safavid dynasty. He was the third son of Shah Mohammad Khodabanda.

Although Abbas would preside over the apex of Safavid Iran's military, political and economic power, he came to the throne during a troubled time for the country. Under the ineffective rule of his father, the country was riven with discord between the different factions of the Qizilbash army, who killed Abbas' mother and elder brother. Meanwhile, Iran's enemies, the Ottoman Empire (its archrival) and the Uzbeks, exploited this political chaos to seize territory for themselves. In 1588, one of the Qizilbash leaders, Murshid Qoli Khan, overthrew Shah Mohammed in a coup and placed the 16-year-old Abbas on the throne. However, Abbas soon seized power for himself.

Under his leadership, Iran developed the ghilman system where thousands of Circassian, Georgian, and Armenian slave-soldiers joined the civil administration and the military. With the help of these newly created layers in Iranian society (initiated by his predecessors but significantly expanded during his rule), Abbas managed to eclipse the power of the Qizilbash in the civil administration, the royal house, and the military. These actions, as well as his reforms of the Iranian army, enabled him to fight the Ottomans and Uzbeks and reconquer Iran's lost provinces, including Kakheti whose people he subjected to widescale massacres and deportations. By the end of the 1603–1618 Ottoman War, Abbas had regained possession over Transcaucasia and Dagestan, as well as swaths of Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia. He also took back land from the Portuguese and the Mughals and expanded Iranian rule and influence in the North Caucasus, beyond the traditional territories of Dagestan.

Abbas was a great builder and moved his kingdom's capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, making the city the pinnacle of Safavid architecture.

Robert Shirley modernized the Persian army leading to the Persian victory in the Ottoman–Safavid War (1603–1618), and led a second Persian embassy to Europe.

Persian embassy to Europe

1599 Jan 1 - 1602
, England

Abbas's tolerance towards Christians was part of his policy of establishing diplomatic links with European powers to try to enlist their help in the fight against their common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. In 1599, Abbas sent his first diplomatic mission to Europe. The group crossed the Caspian Sea and spent the winter in Moscow before proceeding through Norway and Germany (where it was received by Emperor Rudolf II) to Rome, where Pope Clement VIII gave the travellers a long audience. They finally arrived at the court of Philip III of Spain in 1602. Although the expedition never managed to return to Iran, being shipwrecked on the journey around Africa, it marked an important new step in contacts between Iran and Europe.

More came of Abbas's contacts with the English, although England had little interest in fighting against the Ottomans. The Shirley brothers arrived in 1598 and helped reorganize the Iranian army, which proved to be crucial in the Ottoman–Safavid War (1603–18), which resulted in Ottoman defeats in all stages of the war and the first clear pitched Safavid victory of their archrivals. One of the Shirley brothers, Robert Shirley, would lead Abbas's second diplomatic mission to Europe from 1609–1615. The English at sea, represented by the English East India Company, also began to take an interest in Iran, and in 1622 four of its ships helped Abbas retake Hormuz from the Portuguese in the Capture of Ormuz (1622). This was the beginning of the East India Company's long-running interest in Iran.

The interior of the Yerevan Castle

Second Ottoman–Safavid War

1603 Sep 23 - 1618 Sep 26
, Caucasus

The Ottoman–Safavid War of 1603–1618 consisted of two wars between Safavid Persia under Abbas I of Persia and the Ottoman Empire under Sultans Mehmed III, Ahmed I, and Mustafa I. The first war began in 1603 and ended with a Safavid victory in 1612, when Persia regained and reestablished its suzerainty over the Caucasus and Western Iran, which had been lost at the Treaty of Constantinople in 1590. The second war began in 1615 and ended in 1618 with minor territorial adjustments.

Abbas I's Kakhetian and Kartlian campaigns

Abbas I's Kakhetian and Kartlian campaigns

1614 Jan 1 - 1617
, Kartli

Abbas I's Kakhetian and Kartlian campaigns refers to the four campaigns Safavid king Abbas I led between 1614 and 1617, in his East Georgian vassal kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1603–18). The campaigns were initiated as a response to the shown disobedience and subsequently staged rebellion by Abbas' formerly most loyal Georgian ghulams, namely Luarsab II of Kartli and Teimuraz I of Kahketi (Tahmuras Khan). After the complete devastation of Tbilisi, the quelling of the uprising, the massacre of up to 100,000 Georgians, and the deportation of between 130,000 and 200,000 more to mainland Iran, Kakheti, and Kartli were temporarily brought back under the Iranian sway.

Third Ottoman–Safavid War

Third Ottoman–Safavid War

1623 Jan 1 - 1629
, Mesopotamia

The Ottoman–Safavid War of 1623–1639 was the last of a series of conflicts fought between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Empire, then the two major powers of Western Asia, over control of Mesopotamia. After initial Persian success in recapturing Baghdad and most of modern Iraq, having lost it for 90 years, the war became a stalemate as the Persians were unable to press further into the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottomans themselves were distracted by wars in Europe and weakened by internal turmoil. Eventually, the Ottomans were able to recover Baghdad, taking heavy losses in the final siege, and the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab ended the war in an Ottoman victory. Roughly speaking, the treaty restored the borders of 1555, with the Safavids keeping Dagestan, eastern Georgia, Eastern Armenia, and the present-day Azerbaijan Republic, while western Georgia and Western Armenia decisively came under Ottoman rule. The eastern part of Samtskhe (Meskheti) was irrevocably lost to the Ottomans as well as Mesopotamia. Although parts of Mesopotamia were briefly retaken by the Iranians later on in history, notably during the reigns of Nader Shah (1736–1747) and Karim Khan Zand (1751–1779), it remained thenceforth in Ottoman hands until the aftermath of World War I.

Shah Safi I of Persia on Horseback Carrying a Mace | ©Anonymous

Reign of Shah Safi

1629 Jan 28 - 1642 May 12
, Persia

Safi was crowned on 28 January 1629 at the age of eighteen. He ruthlessly eliminated anyone he regarded as a threat to his power, executing almost all the Safavid royal princes as well as leading courtiers and generals. He paid little attention to the business of government and had no cultural or intellectual interests (he had never learned to read or write properly), preferring to spend his time drinking wine or indulging in his addiction to opium.

The dominant political figure of Safi's reign was Saru Taqi, appointed grand vizier in 1634. Saru Taqi was incorruptible and highly efficient at raising revenues for the state, but he could also be autocratic and arrogant.

Iran's foreign enemies took the opportunity to exploit Safi's perceived weakness. Despite firm initial Safavid successes and humiliating defeats in the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–1639) by Safi's grandfather and predecessor Shah Abbas the Great, the Ottomans, having had their economy and military stabilized and reorganized under Sultan Murad IV made incursions in the west in one year following Safi's ascension to the throne. In 1634 they briefly occupied Yerevan and Tabriz and in 1638 they finally succeeded in recapturing Baghdad Reconquest of Baghdad (1638) and other parts of Mesopotamia (Iraq) which, despite being taken again several times later on in history by the Persians and most notably by Nader Shah, it would all remain in their hands until the aftermath of World War I. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Zuhab which ensued in 1639 put an end to all further wars between the Safavids and the Ottomans. Apart from the Ottoman wars, Iran was troubled by the Uzbeks and Turkmens in the east and briefly lost Kandahar in their easternmost territories to the Mughals in 1638, due to what seems as an act of revenge by their own governor over the region, Ali Mardan Khan, after being dismissed from office.

A painting of Abbas II while negotiating with the Mughal ambassador.

Reign of Abbas II

1642 May 15 - 1666 Oct 26
, Persia

Abbas II was the seventh Shah of Safavid Iran, ruling from from 1642 to 1666. As the eldest son of Safi and his Circassian wife, Anna Khanum, he inherited the throne when he was nine, and had to rely on a regency led by Saru Taqi, the erstwhile grand vizier of his father, to govern in his place. During the regency, Abbas received formal kingly education that until then, he had been denied. In 1645, at the age of fifteen, he was able to remove Saru Taqi from power, and after purging the bureaucracy ranks, asserted his authority over his court and began his absolute rule.

Abbas II's reign was marked by peacefulness and progression. He intentionally avoided a war with the Ottoman Empire, and his relations with the Uzbeks in the east were friendly. He enhanced his reputation as a military commander by leading his army during the war with the Mughal Empire, and successfully recovering the city of Kandahar. On his behest, Rostom Khan, the King of Kartli and the Safavid vassal, invaded the Kingdom of Kakheti in 1648 and sent the rebellious monarch Teimuraz I into exile; in 1651, Teimuraz tried to reclaim his lost crown with the support of the Russia Tsardom, but the Russians were defeated by Abbas' army in a short conflict fought between 1651 and 1653; the war's major event was the destruction of the Russian fortress in the Iranian side of the Terek river. Abbas also suppressed a rebellion led by Georgians between 1659 and 1660, in which he acknowledged Vakhtang V as the king of Kartli, but had the rebel leaders executed.

From the middle years of his reign onwards, Abbas was occupied with a financial decline that plagued the realm until the end of the Safavid dynasty. In order to increase revenues, in 1654 Abbas appointed Mohammad Beg, a distinguished economist. However, he was unable to overcome the economic decline. Mohammad Beg's efforts often damaged the treasury. He took bribes from the Dutch East India Company and assigned his family members into various position. In 1661, Mohammad Beg was replaced by Mirza Mohammad Karaki, a weak and inactive administrator. He was excluded from the shah business in the inner palace, to the point when he was ignorant to the existence of Sam Mirza, the future Suleiman and the next Safavid shah of Iran.

The Surrender of Kandahar, a miniature painting from the Padshahnama depicting Persians surrendering keys to the city to Kilij Khan in 1638

Mughal–Safavid War

1649 Jan 1 - 1653
, Afghanistan

The Mughal–Safavid War of 1649–1653 was fought between the Mughal and Safavid empires in the territory of modern Afghanistan. While the Mughals were at war with the Janid Uzbeks, the Safavid army captured the fortress city of Kandahar and other strategic cities that controlled the region. The Mughals attempted to regain the city, but their efforts were proven unsuccessful.

Teimuraz I and his wife Khorashan. A sketch from the album of the contemporaneous Roman Catholic missionary Cristoforo Castelli.

Bakhtrioni uprising

1659 Sep 1
, Kakheti

The Bakhtrioni uprising was a general revolt in the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kakheti against the political domination of Safavid Persia, in 1659. It is named after the main battle, which took place at the fortress of Bakhtrioni.

Shah Abbas the II holding a banquet for foreign dignitaries. Detail from a ceiling fresco at the Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan.

Decline of the Safavid Empire

1666 Jan 1
, Persia

In addition to fighting its perennial enemies, their archrival the Ottomans and the Uzbeks as the 17th century progressed, Iran had to contend with the rise of new neighbors. Russian Muscovy in the previous century had deposed two western Asian khanates of the Golden Horde and expanded its influence into Europe, the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia. Astrakhan came under Russian rule, nearing the Safavid possessions in Dagestan. In the far eastern territories, the Mughals of India had expanded into Khorasan (now Afghanistan) at the expense of Iranian control, briefly taking Kandahar.

More importantly, the Dutch East India Company and later the English/British used their superior means of maritime power to control trade routes in the western Indian Ocean. As a result, Iran was cut off from overseas links to East Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and South Asia. Overland trade grew notably however, as Iran was able to further develop its overland trade with North and Central Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century. In the late seventeenth century, Iranian merchants established a permanent presence as far north as Narva on the Baltic sea, in what now is Estonia.

The Dutch and English were still able to drain the Iranian government of much of its precious metal supplies. Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were therefore rendered ineffectual, and the Iranian government declined and finally collapsed when a serious military threat emerged on its eastern border in the early eighteenth century. The end of the reign of Abbas II, 1666, thus marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty. Despite falling revenues and military threats, later shahs had lavish lifestyles. Soltan Hoseyn (1694–1722) in particular was known for his love of wine and disinterest in governance.

Stepan Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea by Vasily Surikov, 1906. The Russian rebel, Stenka Razin, led numerous raids on the Northern provinces of Iran during 1667

Reign of Suleiman I

1666 Nov 1 - 1694 Jul 29
, Persia

Suleiman I was the eighth and the penultimate Shah of Safavid Iran from 1666 to 1694. He was the eldest son of Abbas II and his concubine, Nakihat Khanum. Born as Sam Mirza, Suleiman spent his childhood in the harem among women and eunuchs and his existence was hidden from the public. When Abbas II died in 1666, his grand vizier, Mirza Mohammad Karaki, did not know that the shah had a son.

After his second coronation, Suleiman retreated into the harem to enjoy the pleasures of flesh and excessive drinking. He was indifferent to the state affairs, and often would not in the public for months. As a result for his idleness, Suleiman's reign was devoid of spectacular events in the form of major wars and rebellions. For this reason, the Western contemporary historians regard Suleiman's reign as "remarkable for nothing" while the Safavid court chronicles refrained from recording his tenure. Suleiman's reign saw the decline of the Safavid army, to the point when the soldiers became undisciplined and made no effort to serve as it was required of them. At the same time with the declining army, the eastern borders of the realm was under the constant raids from the Uzbeks and the Kalmyks who had settled in Astrabad also had begun their own plundering.

Often seen as a failure in kingship, Suleiman's reign was the starting point of Safavid decline: weakened military power, falling agricultural output and the corrupt bureaucracy, all were a forewarning of the troubling rule of his successor, Soltan Hoseyn, whose reign saw the end of the Safavid dynasty. Suleiman was the first Safavid Shah that did not patrol his kingdom and never led an army, thus giving away the government affairs to the influential court eunuchs, harem women and the Shi‘i high clergy.

Shah Sultan Husayn | ©Cornelis de Bruijn

Reign of Soltan Hoseyn

1694 Aug 6 - 1722 Nov 21
, Persia

Soltan Hoseyn was the Safavid shah of Iran from 1694 to 1722. He was the son and successor of Shah Solayman (r. 1666–1694).

Born and raised in the royal harem, Soltan Hoseyn ascended the throne with limited life experience and more or less no expertise in the affairs of the country. He was installed on the throne through the efforts of powerful great-aunt, Maryam Begum, as well as the court eunuchs, who wanted to increase their authority by taking advantage of a weak and impressionable ruler. Throughout his reign, Soltan Hoseyn became known for his extreme devotion, which had blended in with his superstition, impressionable personality, excessive pursuit of pleasure, debauchery, and wastefulness, all of which have been considered by both contemporary and later writers as elements that played a part in the decline of the country.

The last decade of Soltan Hoseyn's reign was marked by urban dissension, tribal uprisings, and encroachment by the country's neighbours. The biggest threat came from the east, where the Afghans had rebelled under the leadership of the warlord Mirwais Hotak. The latters son and successor, Mahmud Hotak made an incursion into the country's centre, eventually reaching the capital Isfahan in 1722, which was put under siege. A famine soon emerged in the city, which forced Soltan Hoseyn to surrender on 21 October 1722. He relinquished his regalia to Mahmud Hotak, who subsequently had him imprisoned, and became the new ruler of the city. In November, Soltan Hoseyn's third son and heir apparent, declared himself as Tahmasp II in the city of Qazvin.

Fleet of Peter the Great | ©Eugene Lanceray

Russo-Persian War

1722 Jun 18 - 1723 Sep 12
, Caspian Sea

The Russo-Persian War of 1722–1723, known in Russian historiography as the Persian campaign of Peter the Great, was a war between the Russian Empire and Safavid Iran, triggered by the tsar's attempt to expand Russian influence in the Caspian and Caucasus regions and to prevent its rival, the Ottoman Empire, from territorial gains in the region at the expense of declining Safavid Iran.

The Russian victory ratified for Safavid Iran's cession of their territories in the North Caucasus, South Caucasus and contemporary northern Iran to Russia, comprising the cities of Derbent (southern Dagestan) and Baku and their nearby surrounding lands, as well as the provinces of Gilan, Shirvan, Mazandaran and Astarabad conform the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1723).

The territories remained in Russian hands for nine and twelve years, when respectively according to the Treaty of Resht of 1732 and the Treaty of Ganja of 1735 during the reign of Anna Ioannovna, they were returned to Iran.

Reign of Tahmasp II

Reign of Tahmasp II

1729 Jan 1 - 1732
, Persia

Tahmasp II was one of the last Safavid rulers of Persia (Iran). Tahmasp was the son of Soltan Hoseyn, the Shah of Iran at the time. When Soltan Hoseyn was forced to abdicate by the Afghans in 1722, Prince Tahmasp wished to claim the throne. From the besieged Safavid capital, Isfahan, he fled to Tabriz where he established a government. He gained the support of the Sunni Muslims of the Caucasus (even that of the previously rebellious Lezgins), as well as several Qizilbash tribes (including the Afshars, under the control of Iran's future ruler, Nader Shah).

In June 1722, Peter the Great, the then tsar of the neighbouring Russian Empire, declared war on Safavid Iran in an attempt to expand Russian influence in the Caspian and Caucasus regions and to prevent its rival, Ottoman Empire, from territorial gains in the region at the expense of declining Safavid Iran. The Russian victory ratified for Safavid Irans' cession of their territories in the Northern, Southern Caucasus and contemporary mainland Northern Iran, comprising the cities of Derbent (southern Dagestan) and Baku and their nearby surrounding lands, as well as the provinces of Gilan, Shirvan, Mazandaran, and Astrabad to Russia per the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1723).

By 1729, Tahmasp had control of most of the country. Quickly after his foolhardy Ottoman campaign of 1731, he was deposed by the future Nader Shah in 1732 in favor of his son, Abbas III; both were murdered at Sabzevar in 1740 by Nader Shah's eldest son Reza-qoli Mirza.

Nader Shah | ©Alireza Akhbari

Rise of Nader Shah

1729 Jan 1
, Persia

The tribal Afghans rode roughshod over their conquered territory for seven years but were prevented from making further gains by Nader Shah, a former slave who had risen to military leadership within the Afshar tribe in Khorasan, a vassal state of the Safavids. Quickly making a name as a military genius both feared and respected amongst the empire's friends and enemies (including Iran's archrival the Ottoman Empire, and Russia; both empires Nader would deal with soon afterwards), Nader Shah easily defeated the Afghan Hotaki forces in the 1729 Battle of Damghan. He had removed them from power and banished them from Iran by 1729. In 1732 by the Treaty of Resht and in 1735 Treaty of Ganja, he negotiated an agreement with the government of Empress Anna Ioanovna that resulted in the return of the recently annexed Iranian territories, making most of the Caucasus fall back into Iranian hands, while establishing an Irano-Russian alliance against the common neighbouring Ottoman enemy.

In the Ottoman–Iranian War (1730–35), he retook all territories lost by the Ottoman invasion of the 1720s, as well as beyond. With the Safavid state and its territories secured, in 1738 Nader conquered the Hotaki's last stronghold in Kandahar; in the same year, in need of fortune to aid his military careers against his Ottoman and Russian imperial rivals, he started his invasion of the wealthy but weak Mughal Empire accompanied by his Georgian subject Erekle II, occupying Ghazni, Kabul, Lahore, and as far as Delhi, in India, when he completely humiliated and looted the militarily inferior Mughals. These cities were later inherited by his Abdali Afghan military commander, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who would go on to found the Durrani Empire in 1747. Nadir had effective control under Shah Tahmasp II and then ruled as regent of the infant Abbas III until 1736 when he had himself crowned shah.

Fourth Ottoman–Persian War

Fourth Ottoman–Persian War

1730 Jan 1 - 1732
, Caucasus

The Ottoman–Persian War was a conflict between the forces of the Safavid Empire and those of the Ottoman Empire from 1730 to 1735. After Ottoman support had failed to keep the Ghilzai Afghan invaders on the Persian throne, the Ottoman possessions in western Persia, which were granted to them by the Hotaki dynasty, came under risk of re-incorporation into the newly resurgent Persian Empire. The talented Safavid general, Nader, gave the Ottomans an ultimatum to withdraw, which the Ottomans chose to ignore. A series of campaigns followed, with each side gaining the upper hand in a succession of tumultuous events that spanned half a decade. Finally, the Persian victory at Yeghevard made the Ottomans sue for peace and recognize Persian territorial integrity and Persian hegemony over the Caucasus.

End of Safavid Empire

End of Safavid Empire

1760 Jan 1
, Persia

Immediately after Nader Shah's assassination in 1747 and the disintegration of his short-lived empire, the Safavids were re-appointed as shahs of Iran in order to lend legitimacy to the nascent Zand dynasty. However, the brief puppet regime of Ismail III ended in 1760 when Karim Khan felt strong enough to take nominal power of the country as well and officially end the Safavid dynasty.


References for Safavid Persia.

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  • Christoph Marcinkowski (tr., ed.),Mirza Rafi‘a's Dastur al-Muluk: A Manual of Later Safavid Administration. Annotated English Translation, Comments on the Offices and Services, and Facsimile of the Unique Persian Manuscript, Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC, 2002, ISBN 983-9379-26-7.
  • Christoph Marcinkowski (tr.),Persian Historiography and Geography: Bertold Spuler on Major Works Produced in Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India and Early Ottoman Turkey, Singapore: Pustaka Nasional, 2003, ISBN 9971-77-488-7.
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