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The Safavid Empire: Creation, Rulers, Characteristics & Shi'ism

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Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Examine the Safavid Empire, centered around modern-day Iran in the 16th and 17th centuries. Explore Persia and the Safavids including the empire's creation, discover characteristics including Shi'ism and theocracy, and review the ruling shahs. Updated: 10/27/2021

Persia & the Safavids

Once known as Persia, the area encompassing and surrounding modern day Iran has seen many empires rise and fall. One of these empires is the Safavids. Today, we'll take a look at this ruling power that governed over Iran during the 16th and 17th centuries.

According to many historians, the Safavid empire marked the beginning of modern Persia. As an empire, the Safavids succeeded in placing the nomadic people groups of the region under their consolidated power. One of the main ways they did this was through religion.

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  • 0:01 Persia & the Safavids
  • 0:40 Shi'ism & Theocracy
  • 1:20 Ruling Shahs
  • 2:45 Lesson Summary
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Shi'ism & Theocracy

According to many sources, the Safavid Empire had its beginnings in Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam. However, as time went on, the empire moved closer to Shi'ism, a sect of Islam that believes all religious authority must come through the direct lineage of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.

Believing that all other religions were heresy, the Safavids used their strong military force to force their Islamic Shi'ism to surrounding areas. In other words, it was definitely not an empire known for its tolerance. On the contrary, many would call it a theocracy, or a government formed and ruled by religious beliefs and rulers. As a theocracy, the Safavid rulers used their religious authority as a means to reign with rather unquestioned supremacy.

Ruling Shahs

Speaking of rulers, Shah Ismail is traditionally considered the first ruler of the Safavid Empire. Maybe a bit like America's George Washington, it was Shah Ismail who freed the Persians from the Ottoman Empire of modern-day Turkey.

Moving further along in Persian history is Shah Abbas the Great. As his name implies, most scholars consider him to be the greatest emperor of the Safavids. Using the power of his theocracy, Shah Abbas strengthened the position of the emperor by limiting the power of the local nobles. In other words, he let everyone know he was the head honcho in charge.

Moving a bit away from politics, Shah Abbas the Great also enlarged the coffers of his empire. Being a bit of an opportunist, he opened up the doors of the empire to trade with Western powers, specifically the British.

As quite the well-rounded ruler, Shah Abbas' rule also saw a flourishing of arts and culture. During his reign, the empire witnessed the building of opulent structures, the publishing of literature, and a great appreciation of poetry.

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