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Safavid familylocked

  • Robert Hillenbrand
  •  and Basil Gray

Dynasty that ruled in Iran from 1501 to 1732.

I. Introduction.

  • Robert Hillenbrand

The dynasty took its name from its ancestor Shaykh Safi al-Din (d 1334), the much-venerated head of a sectarian Sufi order based at Ardabil in north-west Iran. The Safavids rose to power after almost 200 years in which, after the fall of the Ilkhanids and apart from the meteoric career of Timur, Iran had lacked cohesiveness and relatively fixed boundaries. This period was also one of religious ferment during which folk Islam, Sufism and extreme Shi‛ism flowered. The Safavids combined these three elements, turning the order at Ardabil into a revolutionary Shi‛ite movement originally dominated by Turkoman tribesmen (the qizilbash, ‘red-heads’) from eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan, and creating a successful political system that they quickly imposed on the country as a whole. The Safavids taught that their legitimacy depended on the teachers of religious law who exercised their personal judgement (Pers. ijtihād) in that domain until the ultimate return of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam. By making Shi‛ism the official religion, the Safavids forged an ideology that not only strengthened the State but also helped to create a new sense of national identity and thus enabled Iran to escape absorption into the empires of the neighbouring Ottoman and Mughal superpowers—although its frontiers were frequently contested. The Safavids made Iran (with the old Shi‛ite centres of Iraq) the spiritual bastion of the Shi‛a against the onslaughts of orthodox Sunni Islam and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness.

Yet for the indigenous population Twelver Shi‛ism (see Islam, §I) was at first alien. This was the age of the Islamic superpowers, all of whom shared the same Turco-Persian rather than Arab culture. Thus Islam, like Europe, emancipated itself from its medieval heritage by creating larger political groupings. The rulers of these superpowers were keenly competitive, alert to match claims (e.g. to the caliphate) with counter-claims. Their horizons were wide: Isma‛il (reg 1501–24), the first Safavid shah, bore the title Emperor of Iran (pādshāh-i Īrān) with its implicit notion of an Iranian state stretching from Afghanistan to the Euphrates, from the Oxus to the Persian Gulf. The long reign of Isma‛il’s son (1) Tahmasp helped establish the role of Iran vis-à-vis its neighbours, but it fell to Tahmasp’s grandson, (2) ‛Abbas I, to set the country on the road to greatness by creating an efficient standing army and a centralized administration, thereby laying the foundations of the modern Iranian state.

The Safavids continued the Ilkhanids’ attempts to foster closer diplomatic ties with European powers, as evidenced by the frequent exchange of embassies with the various courts of Europe to cement alliances against the Ottomans. Similarly, the Safavids were alert to the political and economic implications of the opening of the sea route from Europe to the Far East in 1496, which diverted Ottoman pressure away from Iran to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean: the Dutch, the English and the Portuguese were permitted to establish trading posts on the Persian Gulf, where Indian merchants also settled. For the Iranians this meant revenue from customs dues, while for the European powers such posts were essential if they were to control the increasingly lucrative East Indian trade. The inevitable clash of interests resulted in frequent hostilities, especially with the Portuguese. Attempts were also made to avoid Ottoman customs dues by relocating the silk and spice routes to the north across Russia. Much Safavid silk reached Europe, especially the Habsburg domains and Scandinavia (e.g. the Silk Room at Rosenberg Castle, Denmark), in this way. Indeed, some textiles and carpets were made specifically for the West and bear (not always accurately) the arms of royal and noble houses. Conversely, Europe exported muskets, mail shirts, clocks, Italian paintings, Chinese porcelains, Japanese screens and even plants, fruits and vegetables (such as the turnip) unknown in Iran, and ‛Abbas had several Europeans in his permanent service. The dramatic increase in commercial and diplomatic relations with the European powers was fostered by a tolerance rarely encountered in Iran and reflected in a multi-racial society. Colonies of Armenians, Georgians and Hindus were settled in villages or key towns, while Western religious orders, such as the Augustinians, Carmelites and Capuchins, founded convents in Isfahan and other major centres as part of a worldwide missionary campaign, which also embraced China, Japan and the Americas.

Madar-i Shah Madrasa, Isfahan, Iran, courtyard, 1706–14; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

The principal achievements of the Safavids were architectural (see Islamic art, §II, 7(ii)). Pride of place goes to the expansion of Isfahan (see Isfahan, §1) masterminded by ‛Abbas from 1598. This resulted in the famous maidan, perhaps the largest piazza in the world; the Chahar Bagh (Four Gardens) esplanade and royal quarter linking the maidan with the Zaindeh River; and the huge covered bazaar. The Shah Mosque, the mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah and the Madar-i Shah, an interdependent complex of madrasa (see fig.), caravanserai and bazaar built by Husayn I (reg 1694–1722), are the finest public buildings of the time. The royal palaces, such as the ‛Ali Qapu, Chihil Sutun and Hasht Bihisht, embowered in gardens and embellished with verandahs, frescoes and fanciful muqarnas vaults, expressed to perfection the luxurious lifestyle of the court (see fig.). The major shrines of Mashhad, Ardabil and Mahan (see fig.), too, were all transformed in this period. In secular architecture the network of caravanserais erected across the country by ‛Abbas deserves special note.

The fall of Herat in 1507 to the Shaybanids and the flight of the last Timurid ruler to Safavid protection meant that some of the Timurid library and craftsmen, including Bihzad, went to Tabriz (see Islamic art, §III, 4(vi)(a)). Early Safavid painting combined the traditions of Timurid Herat and Turkoman Tabriz to reach a peak of technical excellence and emotional expressiveness that for many is the finest hour of Persian painting. But the loss of royal patronage by c. 1550 meant that after the Shāhnāma (‘Book of kings’; dispersed, ex-Houghton priv. col.), made for Tahmasp, himself a painter, and justly termed ‘a portable art gallery’ because all the most illustrious painters of the time contributed to it, and the copy of Jami’s Haft awrang (‘Seven thrones’, 1556–65; Washington, DC, Freer, 46.12), the day of the luxury royal book was effectively over. There developed in its stead the custom of artists producing single leaves of painting or drawing for eventual incorporation with pages of calligraphy and ornament into an album. This sea-change brought artists out of the court and into the public market, a process that accelerated the break with traditional anonymity and the rise of the artist as a personality (see Sadiqi, Riza and Siyavush) and fostered a new searching realism and emphasis on genre scenes. While many painters continued to exercise their skills in paintings of idealized youths and maidens whose high gloss recalls the pin-up, others experimented with book covers and ‘lacquerwork’ (see Islamic art, §VIII, 10) or (under European influence) with full-length oil paintings (see Islamic art, §VIII, 11(i)).

In the field of carpets the Safavids turned a cottage industry into a national one (see Islamic art, §VI, 4(iii)(c)). ‛Abbas founded carpet factories at Isfahan and Kashan. The pair of Ardabil carpets (1539–40; London, V&A, and Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.), with their sublime evocation of Paradise, and the Hunt Carpet (1522–3 or 1542–3; Milan, Mus. Poldi Pezzoli), all signed, mark the apogee of the art. Similarly, textile factories were established by royal command all over the realm, from Shirvan to Mashhad and Kirman, each with orders to ‘weave in its own manner’ (see Islamic art, §VI, 2(iii)(c)). Here also much of the production was for export, and such notable painters as Riza were co-opted to provide designs. Velvets, brocades and block-printed cottons were made in huge quantities. Safavid potters, especially at Mashhad and Kirman, developed new types of Chinese-inspired blue-and-white wares, due perhaps to the influence of the 300 Chinese potters and their families settled in Iran by ‛Abbas. Other Safavid specialities included lustreware, celadon, polychrome tiles, the white pseudo-porcelain Gombroon wares and Kubachi pottery, with its engaging portrait busts in bright colours (see Islamic art, §V, 5(ii)(a)). Safavid metalwork continues the traditions of Timurid Khurasan, and its main centres in Khurasan and Azerbaijan specialized in wares with a pronounced Sufi and Shi‛ite character. Persian poetry—for example by Hafiz and Sa‛di—and sometimes even Armenian texts ousted Arabic inscriptions, while new shapes include lampstands and ewers of Chinese inspiration (see Islamic art, §IV, 4(iii)(b)). Safavid arms and armour were distinguished for damascened swords and helmets of watered steel (see Islamic art, §VIII, 1(ii)).


  • E. Galdieri and R. Orazi: Progretto di sistemazione del Maydan-i Šāh (Rome, 1969)
  • R. Orazi: Wooden Gratings in Safavid Architecture (Rome, 1976)
  • S. C. Welch: Persian Painting: Five Royal Safavid Manuscripts of the 16th Century (New York, 1976)
  • E. Galdieri: Esfahân: ‛Ali Qapu: An Architectural Survey (Rome, 1979)
  • Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576 (exh. cat. by S. C. Welch, London, BL; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; Cambridge, MA, Fogg; 1979–80)
  • R. Savory: Iran under the Safavids (Cambridge, 1980)
  • M. B. Dickson and S. C. Welch: The Houghton Shahnameh (Cambridge, MA, 1981)
  • P. Jackson, ed.: The Timurid and Safavid Periods (1986), vi of The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge and London, 1968–)
  • C. Bier, ed.: Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran, 16th–19th Centuries (Washington, DC, 1987)
  • J. Calmard, ed.: Etudes safavies (Paris and Tehran, 1993)
  • M. Farhad and M. S. Simpson: ‘Sources for the Study of Safavid Painting and Patronage, or Méfiez-vous de Qazi Ahmad’, Muqarnas, 10 (1993), pp. 286–91
  • W. Kleiss: ‘Safavid Palaces’, Ars Orientalis, 23 (1993), pp. 269–80
  • C. Melville, ed.: Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, Pembroke Persian Papers, 4 (London, 1996)
  • A. Soudavar: ‘The Early Safavids and their Cultural Interactions with Surrounding States’, Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics, ed. N. R. Keddie and R. Mathee (Seattle, 2002), pp. 89–120
  • Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501–1576 (exh. cat., ed. J. Thompson and S. R. Canby; New York, Asia Soc. Gals and Milan, Mus. Poldi Pezzoli Mus., 2002–3)
  • S. R. Canby, ed.: Safavid Art and Architecture (London, 2002)
  • Y. Crowe: Persia and China: Safavid Blue and White Ceramics in the Victoria & Albert Museum 1501–1738 ([Great Britain], 2002)
  • A. J. Newman, ed.: Society and Culture in the Early Modern Middle East: Studies on Iran in the Safavid Period (Leiden, 2003)
  • S. Babaie and others: Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran (London, 2004)
  • A. J. Newman: Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire (London, 2006)

II. Family members.

(1) Tahmasp [Tahmāsp] I

  • Basil Gray

(b 1514; reg 1524–76; d Qazvin, May 14, 1576).

Only ten years old when he came to the throne, Tahmasp was immediately put under the thumb of a Turkoman regent, and opposing Turkoman factions wrought havoc and civil war for nearly a decade until the Shah reasserted royal authority in 1533. During his 52-year reign, longer than any other Safavid, Tahmasp managed to stave off invasions from the Uzbeks to the east and Ottomans to the west. Between 1540 and 1553 he carried out four campaigns in the Caucasus, probably to train his troops and gain booty, and the large numbers of Circassian and Armenian prisoners he brought back radically changed Safavid society, upsetting the old balance between Iranians and Turks.

A bigot and a miser, Tahmasp was not a great patron of architecture. He commissioned a large domed octagon, perhaps as his own tomb for the shrine of Shaykh Safi at Ardabil. A magnificent pair of enormous matched carpets traditionally associated with the site (1539–40; London, V&A, and Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.) must have been royal commissions (see Islamic art, §VI, 4(iii)(c)). Of the royal palace, mosque, baths, bazaar and maidan that he built in his capital Qazvin, only a gatehouse and the small kiosk known as Chihil Sutun remain. Tahmasp himself reportedly painted murals there (destr.), as did Muzaffar ‛Ali, assisted by Sadiqi. These wall paintings reflect Tahmasp’s interest in the arts of the book, for he had studied painting in Herat under Bihzad from 1516 to 1522, then in Tabriz under Sultan-Muhammad, head of the library workshop there (see Islamic art, §III, 4(vi)(a)). While still a youth, the Shah copied a pocket-sized manuscript of ‛Arifi’s Gūy ū Chawgān (‘Ball and bandy’; 1524–5; St Petersburg, Saltykov-Shchdedrin Pub. Lib., Dorn 441) ornamented with fine illumination and 16 unsigned paintings. Other artists worked at Tabriz under his patronage: Muhammad al-Haravi signed another copy of ‛Arifi’s text in the same year (St Petersburg, Acad. Sci. Inst. Orient. Stud., D. 184), and an undated copy of Ahsān al-Kibār (‘History of the faithful imams’; St Petersburg, Rus. N. Lib., Dorn 312) contains a painting signed by Qasim ibn ‛Ali in 1525 and dedicated to the Shah.

At this time the Shah was mainly concerned with the largest of his manuscript commissions, one of the most sumptuous books ever produced in Iran, a magnificent copy of the Shāhnāma (‘Book of kings’; dispersed, ex-Houghton priv. col.). The manuscript lacks a colophon but opens with an illuminated dedication to Tahmasp, and a painting on fol. 60v is dated 1527. Its 759 folios were illustrated by 258 full-page miniatures by the leading artists of the day, of whom Welch and Dickson identified nine major painters and five assistants. Tahmasp’s next major commission was a copy of Nizami’s Khamsa (‘Five poems’; 1539–43; London, BL, Or. 2265) calligraphed by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri and adorned with paintings attributed to such artists as Mir Musavvir, Aqa Mirak, Sultan-Muhammad and Mir Sayyid ‛Ali. Tahmasp himself continued to paint, and his portrait of his brother Bahram Mirza (1517–49) is preserved in the album that the librarian Dust Muhammad prepared for the prince in 1544 (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H 2154). In 1556 Tahmasp moved his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin and soon thereafter his interest in painting waned, and his nephew Ibrahim Mirza at Mashhad became the leading patron of the arts of the book.


  • I. Stchoukine: Les Peintures des manuscrits Safavis de 1502 à 1587 (Paris, 1959)
  • S. C. Welch: A King’s Book of Kings (New York, 1972)
  • A. H. Morton: ‘The Ardabil Shrine in the Reign of Tahmasp I’, Iran, 12 (1974), pp. 31–64; 13 (1975), pp. 39–58
  • Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576 (exh. cat. by S. C. Welch, London, BL; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; Cambridge, MA, Fogg; 1979–80)
  • E. Echraghi: ‘Description contemporaine des peintures murales disparues des palais de Šāh Tahmāsp à Qazvin’, Art et société dans le monde iranien, ed. C. Adle (Paris, 1982), pp. 117–26
  • S. C. Welch and M. Dickson: The Houghton Shahnameh, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1983)
  • R. Hillenbrand: ‘The Iconography of the Shāh-Nāma-yi Shāhī’,Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, ed. C. Melville, Pembroke Papers, 4 (London, 1996), pp. 53–78
  • Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501–1576 (exh. cat., ed. J. Thompson and S. R. Canby; New York, Asia Soc. Gals. and Milan, Mus. Poldi Pezzoli Mus., 2002–3)
  • S. S. Blair: ‘The Ardabīl Carpets in Context’, Society and Culture in the Early Modern Middle East: Studies on Iran in the Safavid Period, ed. A. J. Newman (Leiden, 2003), pp. 125–43

(2) ‛Abbas [‛Abbās] I

  • Basil Gray

(b Jan 27, 1571; reg 1588–1629; d Mazandaran, Jan 19, 1629).

Grandson of (1) Tahmasp. On ascending the throne, ‛Abbas was immediately assailed by internal and external threats to his authority. To overcome resurgent Turkoman factionalism, he recruited the new third force that his grandfather Tahmasp had introduced—Circassian, Georgian and Armenian slaves (Pers. ghulām). To pay for the new standing army he reorganized the fiscal administration, converting state lands under Turkoman governors into crown provinces, the revenues of which were collected by the Shah’s bailiffs. Establishing internal security allowed him to turn to his outside enemies: in 1598 he moved against the Uzbeks, recapturing Herat and stabilizing the north-east frontier, and in 1602 he took on the Ottomans, expelling them from Iranian territory and concluding an advantageous peace treaty in 1618.

‛Abbas’s reign marks the cultural florescence of Iran under the Safavids. Much of his patronage involved his reorganization of state administration. He made the manufacture and sale of silk a state monopoly and established royal workshops for textiles and carpets in such cities as Kashan, Kirman, Isfahan, Mashhad, Astarabad and Tabriz (see Islamic art, §VI, 2(iii)(c)). To improve communication and trade, he had caravanserais and bridges built through his empire (see Islamic art, §II, 7(ii)). A mixture of political, economic, pious and personal motives probably engendered his restorations to major shrines at Mashhad, Ardabil, Qum, Mahan and Turbat-i Jam. The most lavish were his numerous additions to the shrine of Imam Riza at Mashhad, especially the 200 m esplanade that traversed the north end of the shrine through the Old Court and its associated iwans and chambers, such as the dome chamber of his general Allahvardi Khan. At Ardabil he had the hall for Koran reciters (Arab. dār al-huffāz) redecorated in 1627–8 and the Porcelain Room (Pers. chīnī khāna) prepared to receive his fine collection, which he deposited there between 1607 and 1611.

His greatest architectural project was the new capital at Isfahan in place of Qazuin, established in the spring of 1598 just before he launched his campaign against the Uzbeks. To the south of the old Saljuq maidan and Friday mosque and connected by a long bazaar, ‛Abbas ordered a new 8 ha maidan with the bazaar portal on the north. A small oratory, the mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah, was erected on the east, and a new Friday mosque, the Shah Mosque, was built on the south. On the west, the ‛Ali Qapu (‘Sublime Porte’) served as a royal viewing stand and gave access to a large palace and garden precinct, which stretched as far as the Chahar Bagh, a royal esplanade running 4 km north–south to the Allahvardi Bridge (1602) over the Zaindeh River to New Julfa, where ‛Abbas had settled his Armenian workers.

The art of book painting flourished under ‛Abbas’s patronage (see Islamic art, §III, 4(vi)(a)). Sadiqi served as head of the royal workshop in Qazvin, which continued to produce manuscripts in the grand imperial tradition, such as a copy of the Shāhnāma (‘Book of kings’; Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., Pers. MS. 277, of which only 12 large paintings survive. ‛Abbas had another copy of the Shāhnāma transcribed at Isfahan in 1614 (New York, Pub. Lib., Spencer col. MS. 2), but its 44 paintings are modern works in an archaizing style typical of the great Shāhnāma (Tehran, Gulistan Pal. Lib.) made for the Timurid prince Baysunghur at Herat in 1430. Four paintings by Habiballah, an illuminated frontispiece by Zayn al-‛Abidin and a tooled and gilded binding were added to the splendid 15th-century copy of Farid al-Din ‛Attar’s Mantiq al-Tayr (‘Conference of the birds’; New York, Met., 63.210), which the Shah endowed in 1609 to the shrine of Shaykh Safi at Ardabil. Nevertheless, the manuscript tradition was on the wane as single-page paintings and drawings became more popular. The Shah commissioned album paintings from Riza, who became the leading painter of the reign. His calligraphic style of drawing and numerous figure subjects, not only pretty youths and girls but also old dervishes (e.g. Washington, DC, Freer, 53.17), agreed with the Shah’s taste in popular culture.


  • Iskandar Munshī: (1629): Tārīkh-i ‛ālamārā-yi ‛Abbāsī [History of the world-conquering ‛Abbas], Eng. trans. by R. Savory as History of Shah ‛Abbas the Great (Boulder, 1978)
  • I. Stchoukine: Les Peintures des manuscrits de Shah ‛Abbas Ier à la fin des Safavis (Paris, 1964)
  • E. Galdieri: ‘Two Building Phases of the Time of Sāh ‛Abbas I in the Maydān-i Sāh of Isfahan: Preliminary Note’, East and West, n. s., 20 (1970), pp. 60–69
  • Shah ‛Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan (exh. cat. by A. Welch, New York, Asia Soc. Gals; Cambridge, MA, Fogg A. Mus.; 1973–4)
  • Iranian Studies, 7 (1974) [whole issue]
  • A. Welch: Artists for the Shah (New Haven, 1976)
  • R. D. McChesney: ‘Four Sources on Shah ‛Abbas’s Building of Isfahan’, Muqarnas, 5 (1988), pp. 103–34; and ‘Postscript’, Muqarnas, 8 (1991), pp. 137–8
  • B. Schmitz: Islamic Manuscripts in the New York Public Library (New York and Oxford, 1992), pp. 105–10
  • E. J. Grube and E. Sims: ‘The Representations of Shāh ‛Abbās I’, L’Arco Di Fango Che Rubò La Luce Alle Stelle: Studi in Onore Di Eugenio Galdieri Peril Suo Settantesimo Compleanno, ed. M. Bernardini and others (Lugano, 1995), pp. 177–208
  • K. Rizvi: ‘The Imperial Setting: Shah ‛Abbās at the Safavid Shrine of Shaykh Ṣafī in Ardabil’, Safavid Art and Architecture, ed. S. R. Canby (London, 2002), pp. 9–15
  • S. P. Blake: ‘Shah ‛Abbās and the Transfer of the Safavid Capital from Qazvin to Isfahan’, Society and Culture in the Early Modern Middle East: Studies on Iran in the Safavid Period, ed. A. J. Newman (Leiden, 2003), pp. 145–64
  • J. Golmohammadi: ‘The Cenotaph in Imāmzāda Ḥabīb b. Mūsā, Kashan: Does it Mark the Grave of Shāh ‛Abbās I?’, Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, ed. B. Brend and P. L. Baker (London, 2006), pp. 61–9
E. Yar Shater, ed.: Encyclopedia Iranica (London, 1986)
Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1954–)