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The Safavid Empire & the Golden Age of Persia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Safavid Empire was responsible for one of Persia's golden ages in terms of power and culture. In this lesson, we'll explore this time period and see what legacies it left behind.

The Safavid Empire

Today we call it Iran. A few hundred years ago, people called it Persia, and it was a name they knew pretty well. Throughout various points in history, Persia was one of the economic, cultural, and political centers of the world. Its location between Europe and Asia made it an ideal center for trade, as well as the confluence of world philosophies, inventions, and customs.

So, Persia was a name that people had heard of. But never was this more true than during the Safavid dynasty, a series of rulers who turned Persia into one of the greatest empires of the world from 1502 to 1736. In fact, many scholars point to this time period as the origins of modern Iranian history. So, whether you call it Iran, Persia, or the Safavid Empire, it's got to be something you've heard of.

The Safavid Empire at its greatest extent.
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Rise of the Safavid Empire

Persia had been an area of geopolitical importance for a while, but this really became true when the Mongol Empire conquered nearly all of Asia in the 13th century and opened up trade with Europe. Suddenly, Persia was the center of the world's most lucrative international trade routes. So, it was no surprise that after the decline of the Mongols, other empires formed in Persia to try and take its place. Some succeeded from time to time, but overall Persia remained a region full of diverse cultures and small kingdoms that shared little in common.

At this same time, in 1502, a member of the Safavid family named Shah Ismail I defeated the armies of Azerbaijan and claimed the throne. Ismail I then announced the creation of a new Persian Empire that would be guided by the Shi'a sect of Islam. This brought other adherents of the faith to his side, and within a year Ismail I had amassed a major fighting force and conquered the majority of the diverse Persian kingdoms, unifying them under Safavid rule. Within ten years, Ismail I had fully conquered the Persian region, and the dynasty seemed assured.

Shah Ismail I
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Safavid Society

Although they were ethnically from the region of Azerbaijan, the Safavids inserted themselves into power as true Persian kings. Persian became the official language of the royal courts, although in practice practically everyone in the empire was multilingual. As the empire stretched, they came into conflict with other major powers, most notably the Ottoman Empire, who were adherents of Sunni Islam, a rival branch of the religion. The Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful in history, and the two powers fought several wars for control of territory around and through Persia.

The Safavids did have a strong military, and are one of the so-called gunpowder empires, the first military dynasties who were able to truly implement gunpowder weapons like cannons in warfare with success. The first major moment for the Safavids came around 1555, when the Ottoman rulers signed a peace treaty with the Safavids. It was the first time that the Safavid Empire had been formally, diplomatically recognized as a sovereign state by their rivals.

With a large, relatively secure empire in the center of major international trade routes, the Safavids were not only powerful, but very wealthy. With this wealth, they instituted a Persian golden age in terms of art, philosophy, medicine and other intellectual achievements. Architecture in particular flourished, and Safavid cities are noteworthy for their sophisticated layouts and designs. Calligraphy was another major art, and the combination of writing and painting into a single discipline helped generate a literate community devoted to the patronage of books. Even bookbinding became a major art of Persia.

Complex architecture, like this bathhouse ceiling, flourished under the Safavids.
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