The Legacy of the Safavids in Persia

About the history that shaped the cultural and political landscape of modern Iran

The Legacy of the Safavids in Persia

Modern-day Iran is a mass of tiled architectural gems and of immense artistry, textiles and culture.  But this is all thanks to its to the legacy of its predecessors, the Safavids, who created the foundation for the beautiful country even before it was named Iran.  For any mature traveller looking to take a walk through the vibrant mosques and markets, the influence of the Safavids will surround you.  This article will briefly outline the history of the Safavid Empire from its creation in 1501 with Shah Ismail I to its collapse in 1722 under Shah Saltan Hussein.


The legacy of the Safavid Empire, which lasted from 1501 to 1722, remains an integral part of modern Iran’s political history.  Its foundation created key links between the Persian royal bloodline and the religious hierarchy of the Imami Shia doctrines of Islam.  Contained within more or less the same borders of Iran today, the Safavid empire’s reach was secured through continual conflict with neighbouring Ottomans, Mughals, and Uzbeks, as well as through political and economic ties to royal families in Georgia, Armenia, and Circassia. Despite ongoing political strife over the leadership of the Empire, the rulers and people of Safavid established not one or two, but three highly effective capital cities replete with architecture, art, and sophisticated culture.

The grandeur of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan demonstrate the economic and cultural significance of the Safavid Empire

The Founding of the Safavid Empire

At the age of fourteen, Ismail I, led the establishment of Tabriz as a new base for expansion of the Safaviyye Sufi Order, a religious network combining a number of spiritual practices, into the new Safavid Empire.  The Order had been in development for nearly 300 years after invasions from the Mongol armies, continually increasing their following, wealth, education, and military capacity.  The Order was cemented into an Empire in 1501 after victory over the Aqquyunlu Turkmens, who waged attacks on the Order at the threat of its growing power.  Ismail I took the Aqquyunlu capital city of Tabriz and with it, the rule of western Persia.

As the first Shah, or king, of Iran, Ismail I set the path for the region’s idea of kingship; “the divine right to rule based on religious authority and a claimed direct relationship to the ancient Persian kings… a god-king” (Babaie 2010).  Thus, Shah Ismail I founded the idea of Persian rulers’ dual-legitimacy by having both religious morality as he was linked to the 7th Imam of Imami Shiism and also being of royal blood as he was the grandson of Sultan Uzun Hassan, royal leader of the Aqquyunlu dynasty, and a decedent of Christian king Calo Johannes.

Shah Ismail I

Though Shah Ismail I’s father, Sheikh Haydar, had his own appetite for kingship, without royal blood himself, he did not meet the dual requirements to be a Persian Shah.  Instead, he managed to associate himself with Sultan Hassan and married his daughter so that his children would be able to become rulers, as Ismail I did. Still, Haydar was a military leader as he first organised the army, called the Qizilbash, that was led into battle with the Aqquyunlu. The Qizilbash were primarily made up of former Turk Ottomans who realigned their loyalties with the Sufi followers and later became governors of Safavid territories in addition to being charged, for a time, with educating Safavid princes.

A Qizilbash soldier, identifiable by his red headress

Architecture dated to the beginnings of the Safavid headquarters in Tabriz is barely visible now since construction was limited at the time.  Despite the tradition of a new dynasty or king constructing a mosque in honour of their claim to power, Shah Ismail I preferred to divert resources to expanding and protecting his territory over renewing the facade of the overtaken capital.  Even so, he updated the existing shrine of Sheikh Safi in Ardabil to enlarge the convent and burial sites for Safavid ancestors.

Shrine of Sheikh Safi

What Shah Ismail I did well when it came to art was to encourage a wide variety of works including, among others, carpets, cutlery and dishware, and books and poetry.  He attempted, as a strong imperial leader should, to unify all of the people under his rule, conquered or not, through educating them on Persian art and literature and making use of their talents.  Most importantly, Shah Ismail I commissioned a revival of Firdausi’s Shahnama, a mixed fiction and non-fiction poem about conflict between Iranians and kings, which has almost become synonymous with a manual for Muslim behavioural ideals.

Shahnama of Shah Tahmasb, source: the MET

The next ruler of Safavid, Shah Tahmasb

The decline of Shah Ismail I’s rule began after his army was defeated at the battle of Chaldiran against the Ottoman.  Flushed with embarrassment at the loss of Tabriz, the Shah began pulling himself away from military rule and withdraw from the public eye.  He refocused his attention on changing administration of the territories and adjusting the imbalance of power between the Qizilbash governors and the nobility by reducing some of the rights of the Qizilbash.  Though these changes were considered minor reforms at the time, they eventually heightened the concerns during the civil war between the Qizilbash, for which Shah Ismail I’s death in 1524 was a catalyst.  As the heirs to the throne were all educated under different Qizilbash governors, each was put forward to rule despite their young ages, the eldest being 11 at the time, in order for the Qizilbash to advance their own statuses.  Civil war ensued and lasted a decade before Tahmasb Mirza, Shah Ismail I’s eldest son, ascended the throne.  The new Shah Tahmasb exacerbated these tensions by reappointing the nobility to the highest military and administrative positions and further centralising the power to the crown in the new capital of Qazvin.

Battle of Chaldiran

Qazvin became the new site of the Safavid capital following several struggles to maintain power over Tabriz, due to its being so close to the border with the Ottoman empire.  Unlike Tabriz, Qazvin underwent extensive urban planning to distinguish the city as an important Safavid location and for its architecture and culture to mirror the significance of the significance to the empire.  Shah Tahmasb constructed a royal neighbourhood and aristocratic houses.  However, while architecture and manuscripts increased under Shah, other arts diminished slightly  as Shah Tahmasb “renounced worldly pleasures,” (Babaie 2010) of which dance, music, and paintings were included.

Qazvin Architecture

The legacy of his urban vision continued until his death in 1576 and is still visible today in the royal precinct.

Shah Abbas I’s time

The years following Shah Tahmasb’s death in 1576 saw constant turmoil in the form of political elite and royal family members competing for succession to Safavid rule.  Upon a brief adoption of the Shah title, Ismail II ordered most of the rest of the heirs to the throne be killed so his control could not be challenged, but he too was ousted and killed just over one year into his kingship. The reign of the Empire then fell to Mohammad Khodabande, despite visual impairment, which initially prohibited his eligibility for the throne and spared him from the blood-lust of his half-brother Ismail II.

With eyes turned to one another for the kingship of the Empire, less attention was given to the invading neighbours, namely the Ottomans, who constantly sought the opportunity to overtake the border between their kingdoms.  They managed to reclaim Tabriz while the royal conflict took place. After securing the throne, Shah Mohammad Khodabande shifted his attention back to the external threats, only to have his son Abbas I move in for the throne.  Then, much like Shah Ismail II, Shah Abbas I had all of his male relatives executed or blinded to exclude them from eligibility to the kingship.

Inside Shah Abbas I’s court

Once again, the capital was moved to better align with the new Shah’s administrative and cultural vision. Isfahan was dubbed the capital of the Safavid Empire in 1598, and Abbas I was the first Shah to commission a congressional mosque, the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque (completed 1619), as well as other prominent buildings to highlight his time as king, including Ali Qapu Palace (1615), and the Royal Mosque (1638), all of which enclose the Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan square in the centre of the city.  The Shah brought in more wealth to the royal domain by retaking ownership of the lands that the Qizilbash had been overseeing since the foundation of the Safavid Empire, and by also increasing trade relationships with Europe, especially England, with new trade routes through Norway, the Volga river and the Caspian Sea, which successfully avoided contested borders with the Ottomans and Portuguese (in Hormuz).  After reforming the political structure so that he held absolute power, Shah Abbas I was revered for his ability to lift the Safavids from the chaos that arose following his grandfather’s death, creating peace with the Ottomans and increasing prosperity through trade.

Naqsh-e Jahan or Imam Square

Cultural ties

The Safavid empire was very closely linked to the Mughal Empire in India.  The Mughal Empire was vastly wealthy and demonstrated immense artistry in the textiles, paintings and other commodities for trade.  A number of the artists in their employ were migrants from the Safavid Empire and kept great exchanges between the two.

Persian Textiles Ready for Trade

Although the Safavids had a seemingly unified society under Shah Abbas I, the Empire became increasingly fragmented following his death in 1629.  His successors all followed the same political structure of absolute power that Shah Abbas I did, but more expansive networks of relationships somewhat reduced their responsibilities and thus their control.  His successors did not manage to keep the Empire protected from invading armies and Isfahan was lost to Afghan soldiers in 1722.  Without a strong leader with military capability and gumption, Isfahan was never reclaimed and this in effect brought an end to the Safavid empire.

A Legacy Never Lost

The Safavids’ history is bound to modern day Iran, through its architecture and art, political institutions and ideology.  This great Asian empire represented an evolving governance that reacted to the characteristics, whether weaknesses or strengths, of both its rivals and its allies so that it could best maintain control of its land and people.  For example, the once essential responsibility of the Qizilbach to manage the territories were retracted following concerns over loyalties and instability of a decentralised system. Strong ties to the Shi’i religion were at the heart of all political decisions and ruling, which still remains deeply embedded in modern Iran.  The beautiful tiles and textiles at local bazaars and mosques owe their origins to Safavid Shahs.

To learn more about Iran you may wish to read these articles Odyssey Traveller has also published;

  1. Peresopolis 
  2. 30 places not to miss when visiting Iran
  3. History & Monuments of Ancient Iran
  4. Ten books on Iran 


Babaie, S. (2010).”Persia: The Safavids 1501-1722″ in J. Masselos ed. The Great Empires of Asia. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.


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