Iran and Central Asia, c. 1500-1850

The Safavids and Their Successors

The Safavids were descended from a family of Turkmen Sufi sheikhs from Ardabil, in Azerbaijan. The sheikhs evolved a strong Shia Muslim religious practice and new political ambitions in the course of the 15th century. Under Shah Ismail I (1501-1524), they succeeded in taking over the remnants of Turkmen and Timurid holdings in Iran. Ismail’s belief in his God-given invincibility was not shattered until the Safavids suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Ottomans – who used modern artillery and firearms – in the battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Safavids’ capital of Tabriz was plundered and because of the continuing threat from the Ottomans, the capital was moved to Qazvin under Shah Tahmasp and finally to Isfahan under Shah Abbas I (1587-1629).

The Safavid Empire reached a political and cultural culmination under Shah Abbas I. The Ottomans were repulsed and economic links with Mughal India were supplemented with new contacts to European powers. These contacts contributed decisively to the realm’s prosperity far into the 18th century and brought with them fruitful cultural influences from both east and west. An entire city quarter was built up in Isfahan around a monumental plaza with great buildings covered with tiles, and the city evolved into an international commercial center. The court actively supported the arts and built workshops to produce rugs and silk textiles of unprecedented quality. The Safavids were also great bibliophiles, and miniature painting flourished, due increasingly to demand from the well-to-do middle class. Ceramics were mass manufactured in forms and with decorations that were influenced by Chinese porcelain.

In the course of the 18th century, Iran experienced growing pressure from the expanding European powers, including Russia, and the influence of European culture also became increasingly dominant. For a short period, the Afsharids (1736-1796) and the Zand dynasty (1751-1794) ruled in a fragmented Iran on behalf of the politically impotent Safavid shahs. The Qajars (1779-1925) were the ones who united the realm again under a single family, which ruled from the new capital of Tehran.

Timurid territories in Central Asia were never conquered by the Safavids. Descendants of the Mongols, the Uzbeks, had settled there and founded a number of Sunni Muslim khanates (empires) beginning in around 1500. Although the Uzbek khanates often made alliances with the Ottomans against Shiite Iran, art in Bukhara and Samarkand in the 17th and 18th century was highly influenced by that of the Safavids.