Safavid Splendour and the Fruits of Empire

Despite its internal fluctuations, the Safavid dynasty, through shrewd ingenuity and military prowess, crafted an empire that was by far the most impressive in all of Western Asia and the Orient as a whole, rivalling only the Ottomans. Expanding Persian influence to the north, east, south and west, like the aromatic Thymus Serpyllum, the Safavid dynasty spread its power into the farthest corners, to the extent that, to this day, cultural elements of artistic styles, language and administration, can be seen in the Caucasus, Arabia and India. The arts, especially, underwent a period of immense efflorescence.

Although there were many facets to the Safavid’s success, one could say it was their building on the successes of previous dynasties, as Rudi Mathee articulates: “It would be anachronistic to call Safavid Persia a modern nation-state, and it is important to realize that, in many ways, Safavid society continued Mongol and Timurid patterns and practices—ranging from its coinage to its administrative institutions.” However, the Safavid’s, most notably under the rule of the sagacious Shah Abbas I, introduced some of the greatest reforms and he, along with his carefully chosen generals and administrators, transformed the nation into an eminent jewel of commerce, trade, military might and artistic integrity.

Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629)

The seductive influence of the arts were seen in those auspicious men of the Safavid dynasty from the very beginning. Shah Ismail I, who nurtured the dynasty’s success, uplifting it to the level of unchallenged ruler of the kingdom, was a fine poet in the Azeri and Kizilbas tongues. Focusing on the richly evocative spirit of Sufism, Alevism and the profound sweetness of love and human interaction.

Shah Ismail’s defeat at the battle of Caldiran (1514) against the Ottoman Turks marked both the end of Safavid expansion into Anatolia and saw a major turning point in his personal and public life. He would retreat from the affairs of state and devote himself entirely to a life of hunting, drinking, composing poetry and fathering children.

Shrine of Sheikh Safi in Ardabil, an eminent leader of an Islamic Sufi order established by the Safavids.

With the coming to power of Shah Abbas I, a man hungry for expansion and with a mind as shrewd as Shylock, the art of Persia witnessed a seismic shift, as new artistic forms and methods began to proliferate. With the blossoming of empire, Isfahan (the dynasty’s capital from 1598 to 1736) attracted a vast and heterogeneous cavalcade of artisans, from Georgians and Armenian’s to Arabs and Azeri’s.

Although Tabriz (the centuries old home to Persian manuscripts) and Shiraz (the city of wine and poets) were still the prevailing destinations for artisans, imperial cultural production increased in the city of Isfahan, and by the mid 17th century it was a place so utterly transformed. Upon travelling the country, eminent French jeweller Jean Chardin described Isfahan as “the greatest and most beautiful town in the whole of the Orient.” By this time, it had become a true Silk Road city, side-by-side in significance with its European counterpart Venice, with merchants, artists, nobility and an assemblage of religious followers such as Muslims, Christians and Fire Worshippers.

Murals from the Chehel Sotoun, a grand pavilion constructed under the command of Shah Abbas II.

The Broadening of the Persian Family

Although we can often look at the Persia Shah Abbas created through rose tinted glasses, indeed he was a cunning man, one that understood the subtle nuances of empire as well as constructing those grand plans of regal conquest. For it was he that made the roads of the Persian kingdom safe for travellers and merchants, he built many a caravanserai, brought law and order to the streets, all with the plan of making Persia a bastion for trade and commerce.

One noticeable aspect of his plans for nationwide transformation, was his population relocations, for example the Armenian’s, who long had monopoly over the precious silk trade, were concentrated in the city of Julfa, yet with Isfahan becoming Abbas’ prevailing pet project, he relocated them to an Isfahan suburb named New Julfa.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque at Naqhsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran. Constructed under the reign of Shah Abbas I.

It was under his reign that the Persian family broadened, as violence and resistance to incursions into the Caucasus nations ceased, many Georgians and Circassians gradually came into the fold, this would later also include Uzbeks. With a wave of new citizens, some aristans began to shine through, rising out of their state as slaves and blessed with royal patronage.

Artist Aliquli Jabbadar was one such, commissioned as the painter of the famous ‘Shah Suleiman I and his Courtiers’ (1670), now on display at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Shah Suleiman himself was the son of a Circassian slave woman and his court included many Circassians, Georgians and other Caucasians who had risen up in the ranks. Jabbadar’s stylistics were a unique amalgamation of Persian and European techniques, his paintings would become some of the most beautiful Persia had ever produced. In his vast painting of Shah Suleiman, we see that subjugation under the Safavid’s had not expunged his pride in being Georgian, as Georgian script has been featured, in fine calligraphy, in several prominent places.

Ceiling of the Chehel Sotoun.

The true force of nature that were the arts under the Safavid’s can be seen across contemporary Persia. With the augmentation of empire and the increasing availability of materials from an ever growing amount of trade deals, artists were, under the patronage of a dynasty that realised the potential of arts and crafts as a tool, not just for Persian culture but on a much deeper level, able to transgress tradition and build in precedence. Inevitably, Persian influence grew to such Herculean strength that aspects could be seen within Ottoman and Mughal arts.

It can be said confidently, that Persian culture would not have moulded into such a Goliath if had not been for its new found subjects, who found themselves under the rule of the Safavid’s. For they captured the spirit of Persia, a culture that had long convulsed through itself being invaded and subjugated, never losing its irascible spirit and the fire of ambition that had burned for a millennia.