The difficult second century

The longest-lasting Islamic dynasty since the Abbasids did not exactly decline during its second century of rule - but it did, for the most part, remain somewhat stagnant. After the innovations of Ismail I, Tahmasp and Abbas I there's definitely a sense of running out of steam - although perhaps it could be more sympathetically described as a century of consolidation.


The successors to Abbas I were of lesser calibre, due in no small part to his policy of segregating the ruling family - and secreting its male members in the harem. The abilities of the ruler are paramount in an autocracy - but although most of the successors to Abbas were conspicuously talentless, the regime continued: Abbas' administrative reforms were partly responsible, as was good fortune. None of the traditional enemies that ring Iran made any major challenges during this period. In fact "very little that is really striking" actually happened in Iran the 17th century - for which it's inhabitants may well have been duly grateful!

Safi I (1629 - 1642)

Abbas I, having no sons left, was succeeded by a grandson, son of the Safi Mirza he'd had murdered. As a graduate of the harem, his main interest was drink and drugs - which killed him at 31. His political activity was confined to executing anyone he mistrusted - or simply disliked. This included many members of his family, and several officials. The most important was Imam Quli Khan - a ghulam whose wealth and power came from controlling Fars province. Safi conveniently now inherited his revenues - following Abbas' policy of taking private lands into royal ownership. But thanks to the excellent efficiency of his Grand Vizier Saru Taqi, the state finances prospered during Safi's reign. There was a final confrontation with the Ottomans (under Murad IV, 1623 - 1640), which ended in an enduring peace (Treaty of Zuhab 1639). Iran had to give up Iraq, and Baghdad - and the Turkish/Iranian frontier which exists today was permanently established.

In the east, the Uzbeks made eleven attempts to conquer Khorasan - which they failed to do. It was nothing to do with Shah Safi - a weak and incompetent ruler - that at his death, the Safavid empire was secure from external threats, and was about to reach its height of prosperity. Credit for that is with Saru Taqi - who continued to run the state during the next reign.

Abbas II (1642 - 1666)

Safi's son was only 10 when he succeeded his father: he was thus fortunate in securing an education outside the harem. He soon mastered his religious and other academic studies, and took part in sports - polo, archery, riding. Saru Taqi continued to be the effective de facto ruler - but his incorruptibility made enemies - especially among those who wished to avoid their taxes, and he was murdered by a group of conspirators in 1645. But as the young Shah grew older and more confident he began to rule more directly for himself - and the power of the Grand Vizier diminished.

There was one foreign adventure during his reign - the Indian Mughals, under their emperor Shah Jahan (he of the Taj Mahal) still wanted influence in their old Timurid lands of Central Asia. His attempt to galvanise the Uzbeks of Transoxiana led to his loss of Qandahar - and permanent exclusion from Afghanistan (1648). Abbas II continued the policy of taking tribal lands into royal ownership - by now the influence of Qizilbash amirs had almost disappeared. The countryside was peaceful and prosperous and travel was safe - as remarked on by several European visitors. He took an interest in the fair administration of justice and was popular with his subjects - his cruelty was reserved as usual for members of his family and the court, who suffered the traditional blindings and murders.

Like his father, Abbas died young after long indulgence in drink, drugs and sex (he may have died of syphilis). Partly this reflected popular belief that the head of the Safaviyya could not do wrong - and was thus not subject to normal Islamic rules. The ulama (clergy) did not necessarily agree - there were mutterings about divine kingship. The Shah had to be worldly - and thus unjust and probably tyrannical: there needed to be a saintly supreme religious leader (mujtahid) to guide him and keep him under control. It took over three centuries for this idea to become reality! He was criticised for tolerance of Christianity - which he made up for with relentless persecution of Jewish communities.

He left two major additions to the beauty of Isfahan - the Khaju Bridge, and Chihil Sutun palace - the "Forty Columns".

Chitil Sutun Palace


Khaju Bridge, Isfahan

Safi II / Suleyman (1666 - 1694)

Abbas II's eldest son was another alumnus of the harem - who'd for 19 years only known life among eunuchs and women. He was chosen ahead of his seven-year old brother. He had all the vices of his father, plus a love of pomp and extravagance, and none of his virtues. The first years of his reign were disastrous - soaring prices, famine, disease, and Cossack (Kazakh) invasions of the Caucasus, and he was ill himself. An astrologer was found to state he'd become Shah on the wrong day - the solution: a new start on a new day with a new name. So he became Suleyman as from March 1668.

Alas, it made no difference. He continued to be a sickly and hopeless ruler - and soon went back to the harem. Government became something for the eunuchs and the 800 ladies to intrigue and argue about. The state soon began to fall apart - rampant corruption affected even the army, who took their pay but did nothing in return. Suleyman showed no interest in exploiting the weakness of the Ottomans (who had problems with Austria, Poland and Venice and were comprehensively routed at the Battle of Vienna in 1683). Other instances of a lack of interest in foreign affairs: the Dutch reestablished their foothold in the Gulf; Cossacks (Kazakhs) and Uzbeks raided with impunity - as did the Kalmucks, Mongols from the north east. Europeans interested in the silk trade, though, were received with much pomp and circumstance.

Suleyman died in 1694 aged 46 - after a lifetime of drink and debauchery. He's associated with numerous atrocities - though he was a connoisseur of miniature painting.

Sultan Husain (1694 - 1722 - abdication)

Suleyman's 26-year-old son continued the tradition of incompetence and misrule - though he in fact lasted for 28 years, "as the country ran steadily yet peacefully into decline". Weirdly it was not the long-standing internal problems, nor the usual external threats which finished off the Safavids - once again an Iranian dynasty was ended from a surprising quarter. He was preferred over his brother Abbas because of his placid and pious temperament: Abbas had a reputation for energy, intelligence and machismo which could have upset the quiet life of the court eunuchs.

He differed from his recent predecessors somewhat: he was just as incompetent, but (under the influence of a powerful Shi'i theologian, Muhammad Baqir Majlisi) he added a severe religious bigotry to the mix, leading to persecution and forcible conversion not only of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, but also of Sufis (turning his back on the Safavids' own Sufi order) and Sunni minorities, and even philosophers. Alcohol was banned - though the eunuchs, and great aunt Maryam, worried by the theological influences on the Shah - persuaded him the ban did not apply to him personally. The religious intolerance had started under Abbas II, who agreed with the ulama, a newly-emerging group of strict Shi'a theologians, that Shi'ism could unify the country. But by the time of Husain it was having the opposite effect - particularly as Baqir Majlisi had political ambitions of his own. The imposition of his extreme form of Shi'ism was unpopular with all minorities, of course, but caused severe problems with some Sunni communities. Those near the borders began looking outside for support. The situation was especially acute in the Afghan areas.

Afghan revolt

A fiercely Sunni Afghan tribe, one of the major tribes in the Pashtun ethnic group, the Ghilzai, from the Qandahar area (long quarrelled over with Mughal India) began a revolt against the Shah and his religious policies. The Georgian Shi'i general sent to pacify them made things much worse by his brutal treatment of them. Their wealthy and popular leader, Mir Vais, was captured and sent as a prisoner to Isfahan. There however he charmed the Shah, and was allowed to return to Qandahar - but he'd learned a lot about the corruption and impotence of the Safavid regime. Once home he staged a coup, killed the Georgian general, and fought off attempts to unseat him. He remained in control of an independent Qandahar until his death in 1715. The failure to do anything inspired a revolt of the Abdali of Herat, the largest tribe in he Pashtun ethnic group- hereditary enemies of the Ghilzai. Conflict between the two tribes soon broke out - ending in defeat for the Abdali, and a surprise acceptance by the shah of Mir Vais' son18-year-old Mahmud as official governor of Qandahar.

Meanwhile enemies were encroaching - in the Caucasus, in Khuzestan, Kurds, Uzbeks - and the Gulf was threatened by the Imam of Oman. Encouraged by Mughal weakness since the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, Mahmud had made several half-hearted forays into Iranian territory with some success in 1719 - but had another go in 1722 with a rag-bag force of Afghans, Baluchis, Hazaras and others. The shah's grand vizier, a Caucasian Sunni, who was advocating strong measures against Mahmud was falsely accused by rivals at court of treason against the shah - who sacked him and had him blinded. The planned attack on Qandahar was aborted, tribes in the vizier's Caucasian homeland went on the rampage, and put themselves themselves under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman sultan. Mahmud and the Ghilzai were by now threatening Isfahan itself. Even now the various rival groups failed to present a united front against him. Sultan Husain offered him a large bribe to go home. Mahmud saw this a a sign of weakness, and an invitation to attack. What should have been an easy victory for the shah's superior army (it was twice the size and with much better equipment - including artillery) turned into a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Gulnabad (a few miles east of Isfahan) on 8th March 1722.

The remains of the demoralised Persian army fled back to Isfahan. Mahmud's force was too small to attack the city - he besieged it therefore. The two fortified bridges kept him at bay, but he captured the third, when drunken guards fell asleep at their posts. This was the turning-point - from now on the plight of the besieged deteriorated rapidly. They held out for seven months - enduring terrible suffering - until on 23 October, the Shah, who by now was having to go short himself, donated his last camels to the populace and rode out, on a horse borrowed from Mahmud, and surrendered the city, and his crown.