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The Safavid dynasty reigned from the late fifteenth to the eighteenth century .The Safavids

witnessed wide ranging developments in politics ,warfare, science ,philosophy ,religion ,art and

architecture .Thus they were able to produce the long lasting and most glorious of Iran’s Islamic

period eras . This paper is all set to discuss the decline and fall of the Safavid Iran due to the

unrelieved political stagnation and moral degeneration .The society they ruled was an uneasy

balance between conflicting powers – a terrible physical environment, the tribal groups and a

small and weak economic base, endemic political factionalism against a strong ideology

integrating faith and territory ,an inclusive political system and above everything the galvanizing

effect of a forceful Shah able and willing to transcend particular interests thus the Safavid

Empire was thoroughly weakened over the course of the seventeenth century.





The Safavid dynasty originated in the Sufi order founded by Saif al din (650-735/1252-1334) a

member of an important landed family near Ardebil ,during chaotic period that witnessed the

rapid spread of these mystical lineages in both Iran and Anatolia1. Shiaism was the faith and

charter .The Turks, with the Uzbeks on the eastern front, would be constant enemies of the

Safavid soldiers, the Qizilbash or red heads. The Safavids wore red turbans with twelve folds

commemorating the twelve Shiite Imams.

In 907/1501 Shah Ismail I, was proclaimed ruler after defeating the Turkish army. The most

important decision of the Shah was to declare that the official religion of the state would be -

Shiaism. He conducted a vigorous campaign to convert the predominantly Sunni population to

Shiaism .The then Shah Ismail's Son, Shah Tahmasp, was an ascetic, and Tahmasp's grandson.

Shah Abbas the great (997-1039/1588-1629), coming to the throne when he was seventeen,

brought Saffavid fortunes to their peak (golden age). By 1015/1606, he had decisively defeated

the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. By the eighteenth century the Shia Ulama were beginning to

challenge the theory of the divine right of kings, the concept that the Shah was the Imam

incarnate, the Shadow of God, and Zilallah, on earth. Mullah Ahmed Ardabili confronted Shah

Abbas with the thesis that he did not rule by divine right but as a trust on behalf of the Imam.

Soon the Ulama were vigorously arguing that the Imam must be a genuine mujtahid, a man of

learning and impeccable character. The ulama were bidding to take control of the Shia state

which the Safavid had created. Where the rulers emphasized Persian language and custom

especially drawing on the Pahlavis - Firdausi's Shah Nama was a rich source- The ulama spoke

of a universal Islam. A major development during the Safavid reign was the end of the mutual

toleration between Sunnis and Shias that existed from the time of the Mongols. The

Stephen Fredric Dale “The Muslim Empire of the Ottomans,,Safavids and Mughals .“(Cambridge University Press ,2010

developments in Saffavid Persia would reverberate in society and politics up to the present times.

Persia-Iran-became the largest, most powerful Shia state in the world, the source and inspiration

of Shia dogma, the Champion of its destiny. The Saffavid period thus determined, as it

accurately reflected, the shape of things to be in what is now Iran. It has been said, that Shah

Abbas built a beautiful mausoleum over the tomb of the eight Imam Ali al-Rida in Mashhad and

made a vow to walk from Isfahan on a pilgrimage at the completion of the edifice. He fulfilled

his vow, and pilgrimage to Mashhad became about as important as the Pilgrimages to Mecca and

to the tomb of Husayn at Karbala. When Shah Abbas died in 1039/1629, there was no worthy

successor left, for he had killed them all.

The Safavid period in Iran, conventionally dated solely with reference to two, entirely political

events – the 1501 taking of the ancient capital of Tabriz by tribal forces led by the first shah

Ismā’īl I (d. 1524) and the capture of the then capital of Esfahan to Afghan forces in 1722 – is of

special import as the Safavid period linked the medieval and modern periods of both the history

of Iran and that of the region as a whole.2


The early days of the Safavid empire was basically a very fragile and delicate balance

struck between the imperial center and the cavalry aristocracy - the Qizilbash. This was a balance

that the Safavids sustained, for a while at least, by an overtly energetic and aggressive wielding

of the political process, i.e., a regular circulation of tuyuls (assignments), a firm control over the

number and rank of the cavalry elite and a measured apportionment of the economic surplus

among the various tribal aristocracies. This carefully crafted equation between the imperial

Andrew J.Newman,”Great Men <,.Decline, and Empire:Safavid Studies and a Way Forward ? “ ( Islamic and Middle
Eastern Studies,University Of Edinburg,2015)p.45

center and the Qizilbash, however, was irretrievably breached during the period of Shah Abbas's

reign (1587- 1629); ironically, at the very height of Safavid rule. Shah Abbas was at war against

his own Qizilbash or tribal military organization. Also he transferred groups of Qizilbash of a

particular tribe to an entirely new district held in assignment by another tribe. The centerpiece of

the strategy, however, was the creation and consolidation of a standing army that would

purportedly outflank the traditional combination of provincial militias (Mulaziman) and

Turcoman tribal cavalry. The new army comprised three basic divisions:

a) The Tufangchi (musketeers), drawn in the main from the Persian peasantry, who were initially

organized as infantry but were later also mounted.

b) The Qullar (the royal slave corps) comprised the palace cavalry though armed with muskets

instead of the lance that typified the Qizilbash.

c) the Tupchiyan (artillery corps), who numbered about 12,000. These new units were termed

Ghulam and were expected to be exclusively loyal to the imperial house. Abbas, furthermore,

halved the number of Qizilbash cavalry serving under him; from a previous high of 60-80

thousand they were reduced to a fighting force of barely 30,000 tribal horsemen3.

Shah Abbas adopted a policy of "land conversion" 3/4 transferring Mamalik or

provincial territories previously administered by Qizilbash chiefs to Khassa or crown lands ¾

which became the cornerstone to his revenue-raising efforts.

Masashi Haneda has, however, insightfully observed that the Ghulam regiments

were not merely a counterweight to the Qizilbash but, more significantly, comprised an attempt

Rohan D Souza “Crisis Before The Fall :Some Speculations on the decline of ottomans,safavids and mughals”
(Social Scientist,Vol.30 ,NO.9/10,SEPT-OCT;2002)pp.3-30

to create a modern army. That is, beyond the political calculation of neutralizing the Turcoman

cavalry, Shah Abbas had plans to adopt firepower, possibly to confront the Ottoman threat on its

western flanks. Undoubtedly, several ideological, geographical and tactical factors, before and

after the reforms of Shah Abbas, continued to hinder the rapid adoption of firepower

technologies such as:

a) The unavailability of basic components such as charcoal, saltpeter etc for the manufacture of

cannon and artillery.

b) the Safavid's army's persistent preference for rapid attacks, ambushes and "scorched earth"


C) lack of a proper river network, which made the transport of heavy artillery difficult and


In 1639, by signing the Treaty in Zehab near kasr-i-shirin with the Ottomans, the Safavids

secured for themselves what Lawrence Lockhart terms the "long years of peace” 4.Thus the

northern and eastern borders were somewhat safe although issues were there. This brought to a

decisive closure in Safavid Persia the era of large and regular military campaigns that had been a

prominent and integral feature of Abbas's reign .The end of war, however, heralded the demise of

empire. The period following the peace of Zehab and the consequent inelasticity of the Safavid

frontier resulted in the irremediable warping of the fragile equation between the imperial center

and the Qizilbash.

Rohan D Souza “Crisis Before The Fall :Some Speculations on the decline of ottomans,safavids and mughals”
(Social Scientist,Vol.30 ,NO.9/10,SEPT-OCT;2002)pp.3-30

The Safavids were, in fact, soon hurled into a variant of the stranded centralization dilemma,

i.e., the entire polity was twisted by the imperial administration's attempts to hack away at the

social and political roots of the classical period with a blunt instrument - the Ghulam regiments.

The Safavid rulers, throughout the seventeenth century, therefore, sought to intensify the policy

of land conversion (weakening the Qizilbash) and raise cash by resorting to tax farming and the

sale of offices (to strengthen the ghulam forces). The lack of an effective grip over the political

process and the inability to sustain a firearm based standing army, however, proved to be fatal to

the Safavids and an Afghan led "tribal resurgence" in the early decades of the eighteenth century

overwhelmed them. Nadir Shah's dismissal of the Safavid house in 1736 was essentially an

attempt to restore the OSM's social and political order. This possibly explains Nadir's (1729-

1747) extreme militarism, which included an extensive campaign in northern India in 1739 that

was ostensibly aimed at plunder but was perhaps more significantly an attempt to resuscitate the

political process through the oxygen of medieval warfare5. Nadir's revivalism, on the other hand,

was not a complete relapse into the technical and tactical deportment of classical cavalry



The Empire suffered intertwined political, economic and ideological crisis, partly external in

origin but primarily endogenous to Iranian political economy of the time. Changes in the

underlying political economy of the Iran prompted the state to take political and military

measures that further undermined its legitimacy and capacity to rule6.

Rohan D Souza “Crisis Before The Fall :Some Speculations on the decline of ottomans,safavids and mughals”
(Social Scientist,Vol.30 ,NO.9/10,SEPT-OCT;2002)pp.3-30
John Fornan “The Long Fall Of The Safavid Dynasty:Moving beyond the standard views”(Cambridge University Press,1992)

At the end of the 17th century, Iran fell into economic frustration, first, and then, naturally,

political deterioration also came along. Social tensions, heavy taxation policies had mainly

driven those developments. As a result, the agriculture, handicraft and trading activities saw

slowdown and the urban life went out of order, in general. The economic difficulties of the

Safavid Iran deepened after, at the end of the 17th century, western European countries set full

control over the navigation lines from Europe to India around the islands of Africa. As a result,

the ground caravan tracks across Iran lost their previous value and importance. This tendency

badly affected Iran’s transit trade and the welfare of Iranian cities. Even the ruling period of

Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) demonstrates preconditions of Iran’s descent. In that period, the

Dutch conquered the island of Keshmi in the Persian Gulf. All these tendencies took deeper roots

under the ruling of Shah Sultan Husayan (1694-1722), who turned out a weak ruler. A part of

historians asserts that the Safavid State collapsed because of his weakness and incapability. First

of all, we will make focus on assessments provided by that period’s authors regarding the

existing developments: Artemi Volinski, the resident Minister and Governor of Astrakhan, the

Russian Empire Ambassador to Iran, writes about Shah Sultan Husayan: “You will hardly meet

another similar fool among not only monarchs, but even ordinary people.. In the early years of

his ruling, he was demonstrating justice, honesty and humanism, but the time showed what we

should expect from the Monarch, who grew up in the circle of women and who understands this

life very little. He used to spend the whole day in the Harem and relied on his Ministers in

everything. He was idler and haughty, while the country was managed by his Ministers, who

disguised each other and, because of weakness of Husayn, they were strengthening their own

power”. According to references by Mohammad Kazem, Shah Sulayman, the father of Shah

Sultan Husayn, complains about idleness and laxity of his own son. Kazem writes that when

Shah Sulayman was at the point of death, He summoned Viziers and representatives of his inner

circle and instructed them to enthrone Abas instead of Husayn for sake of the country welfare.

However, nobles of the Sulayman’s Court, who were following their own private

interests, backed Sultan Husayn to ascend to the throne, because they realized brave and severe

Abbas Mirza (as characterized by Kazem) would not let them dissolve the state power.

It should be noted that impoverished peasantry had to abandon their living places,

because tax burden on the population doubled and tripled in the second half of the XVII century.

The royal edict issued by Shah Sultan Husayn in 1710 restored the instruction of affixing

peasants to the land. Rayats, who would abandon the residential places, would be sought for 12

years to return them back to the abandoned residential place. After expiration of this period,

searching was to be ceased and the fled Rayats were registered in the tax registry due to the new

residential place.

The agriculture sector slowdown resulted in reduction of inflows to the Shah treasury

and revenues of distinct Nobles decreased. Naturally, Nobles were discontent with the Shah’s

governance. The Shah preferred to increase revenues from external trades. To shrink the

influence of the Dutch merchants (Dutch East-India Company subdued Iran’s monopoly on trade

with European countries) He concluded two trade agreements with France (1708 and 1715) to

give higher preferences and privileges to the French merchants as compared to Dutch ones.

French traders were exempted from customs taxes and they used to enjoy special privileges from

the Shah court.

Impoverishment of villages weakened the internal trade. Economic ties with distinct

districts narrowed. Shah Sultan Husayn, who was under the influence of Shiite Clergy, was

persecuting Sunnites that were a majority in Kurdistan, Afghanistan, eastern South Caucasus. He

used to also persecute followers of Dervish-Sufism and radical Shiite Sects.

References by Esai Hasan Jalaliants prove how population was enumerated for

imposing new taxes on: Several persons were chosen in each village – head of the village, clergy

and honorable persons and they were forced separately to testify about village residents, their

economy and taxable facilities. These testimonies were compared to each other and suspects of

providing inaccurate information were brutally punished.

Historians have highlighted very important issues about reasons of the Safavid

Dynasty decadency. In practice, their considerations match contemporary historians

(chroniclers), of the last Safavids. They provide correct estimation of that period and at the same

time, make very interesting accents.

At the beginning of the 18th century, people revolts broke out at province districts of

the Savafid Country. The rebellious regions were most demonstrating the disguise against the

Safavid Dynasty. Kurds, Turkmans, Armenians, Georgians, who were suffering evident

persecution from the Safavid Rulers, launched insurgency. Semi nomadic tribe of Afghan-

Ghilzai also started rebel (the District of Kandahar). This rebel was very dangerous for the

Safavid Country. The rebel was led by Mir Veis, the Kalantar of the city, head of the tribe of


The general picture around this issue in historiography is the following: economic

factors, internal confrontation, heavy tax policy, corruption and flourishing Harem lifestyle, as

well as alcohol addiction and immoral conduct by nobles, wasting treasury resources to satisfy

immoral desires resulted in decadency of the Safavid dynasty. One reason was generating

another vicious action.

John Foran highlights a decline in demand for Iranian silk as a result of increased demand

of Bengal products. The corruption was also a major problem. The historian points out that after

the major Vizier Mohammad Taqi, who was fighting corruption through spies and was

assassinated because of this, no other Vizier has tried to defeat corruption by the same system

and on the contrary, they were promoting corruption. As a result, the country received heavy

taxation policy and financial problems could not be resolved7.

Prioritizing the Harem life, growing its importance, expansion of factionalism and

moral collapse of the royal court are considered as real reasons behind the Safavid decay. This

period shows addiction of Shahs to alcoholism and Harem life. The evident proof to this is the

influence of Maryam Begum, the sister of the grandmother of Shah Sultan, in the Safavid


By 1722, John Perry noted, the 220- year Safavid Empire, knees at the verge of

dissolution. Perry, like all other western oriental researchers, appraises the ruling of Great Shah

Abas, as the best period of the Safavid power, while he characterizes the ruling of Shah

Sulayman and Shah Husayan as a dead period in Iran. These authors stresses that the Shah’s

close circle had sunk into corruption, severity. He also exposes Shah Sulayman’s disequilibrium

and Shah Husayn’s harmful policy. Both Monarchs were indifferent to state affairs. Perry writes

that the fragile structure of the Safavid was empowered by great achievements of its founders

until Mir Mahmud of Afghan did not stifle it finally as a political body in just eight months.The
John Fornan “The Long Fall Of The Safavid Dynasty:Moving beyond the standard views”(Cambridge University Press,1992)

ruling period of Shah Sultan Husayan was signaling that he would be the last Shah in of the

Safavid Dynasty, Andre Newman s


Eventually, the original sources expose the main reasons of the Safavid Dynasty decay quite

accurately. Consequently, modern western research works show certain consensus over the issue.

However, despite coinciding positions, various researchers, as we see it, emphasize this or that

specific reasons and elements of breakdown and further decay of the Dynasty (social tension,

external factors, weakness of the Safavid Monarchs and so on) and they make accent on specific

issues when exploring the issue. Comparison of their research works gives a quite

comprehensive and real picture of gradual destruction of the Safavid State.



1. Stephen Fredric Dale “The Muslim Empire of the Ottomans,,Safavids and Mughals

.“(Cambridge University Press ,2010 )

2. Rudi Matthee “Persia In Crisis-Safavid Decline And Fall of Ishafan”(London:I .B



1. Andrew J.Newman,”Great Men <,.Decline, and Empire:Safavid Studies and a Way

Forward ? “ ( Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University Of Edinburg,2015


2. Rohan D Souza “Crisis Before The Fall :Some Speculations on the decline of ottomans,

safavids and mughals” (Social Scientist,Vol.30 ,NO.9/10,SEPT-OCT;2002)

3. John Fornan “The Long Fall of the Safavid Dynasty: Moving beyond the standard views”

(Cambridge University Press, 1992).