The Founding of the Safavid Empire
The Safavid Empire was established in an Iran that had been long fragmented. The Middle Ages had seen a series of invasions of Iran by Turks, Mongols, and others. In 1402, Iran had come under the power of the notoriously ruthless Timur (Tamerlane), a descendant of Genghis Khan. Timur divided eastern Iran between his sons, leading to continued conflict, while western Iran was dominated by the “Black Sheep” Turkmen.
From 1453 to 1478, Iran was re-united under the rule of Uzun Ḥasan. This would prove to be short-lived as his son, Yaʿqūb, alienated the rich and powerful by using Sunni doctrine to undo taxes that had been implemented under Mongol rule.
Yaʿqūb’s mistakes set the scene for the emergence of Shi’ite Islam in Iran. A form of Shi’ite Sufism had been spreading in Iran thanks to the influence of Sheikh Haydar. Haydar was the descendant of Ṣafī al-Dīn, a mystic who established the Safavid Sufi Order. Sufism refers to a spiritual, inwardly-looking tendency within Islam. Sufi mystics are generally organised into brotherhoods or orders, each with its own rites, leadership, and spiritual genealogy. Though Ṣafī al-Dīn had been a Sunni, at some point the Safavid order became associated with Shi’ism. By Haydar’s time, the Safavid order had a broad base of support, and Haydar could marshal his followers into warfare against Christian enclaves in the Caucasus mountains.
While Haydar died on his Caucasian expedition, his son Ismail continued his legacy. While Haydar was not of royal blood he had married the daughter of Uzun Ḥasan, meaning that Ismail was royal, and therefore could make a claim for Shah. Ismail was helped by the support of the Qizilbash, Turkmen tribes converted to the emotionally powerful Shi’ite-Sufi mysticism. At the age of fourteen, using the army built up by Haydar, Ismail took Tabriz from the White Sheep and declared himself Shah. Over the subsequent ten years, Ismail conquered Iran in its entirety, establishing the Safavid dynasty. While the majority of the population was Sunni, Ismail imposed Shi’ism on the populace. In order to cement his authority, he claimed (falsely) to be a descendant of the Shi’ite imams, as well as using his royal lineage.
While it was traditional for a new dynasty or king to construct 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. As a result, there is very little architecture remaining from the early Safavid dynasty, even around their home territory of Tabriz. One exception to this was his expansion of the existing shrine of Sheikh Safi in Ardabil to enlarge the convent and burial sites of his Safavid ancestors.
However, Ismail was keenly interested in other forms of art. He encouraged a wide variety of art forms, including carpets, cutlery and dishware, and books and poetry. He attempted to unify all of the people under his rule by 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 since become synonymous with a manual for Muslim behavioural ideals.