Over the millennia, kingdoms and empires have come and gone in the area roughly corresponding to present-day Iran. The scale/scope of what was once called "Persia" changed dramatically over the centuries--remember that we have noted the great Achaemenid Empire (559 - 330 bce) which was a rival of Athens and the ancient Greeks. At its greatest extent, the Safavid Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries covered all of Iran, Iraq and parts of Turkey and Georgia. The main rivals of the Safavids were the Ottomans to the west and the Mughals to the east, but for about two centuries Safavid armies held both foes at bay.
The period of the Safavids, named for the dynasty that took control of Persia at the start of the sixteenth century, marks the start of modern Persia. But because of the religious nature of the state, it would not be correct to identify it as a modern nation-state. Still, the Safavids, in bringing a largely nomadic society under the control of a centralized administrative machine that was used to finance a powerful army, created the basics of an impressive, modernized state machine that was controlled by a hereditary kingship and that used religious authority and cultural terms, such as the Persian language, to support a political infrastructure that eventually would last into the twentieth century.
The actual origins of what became the Safavid Empire are complicated from both religious and ethnic perspectives and also because of a lack of reliable source material. By tradition, the Safavids traced their origins back to a Sufi order (a mystical sect within Islam) associated with Sheikh Safi al-Din (1252-1334). Sometime around 1400, they adopted an affiliation with Shi'ism and undertook to spread their Shi'ite faith by force of arms. Thus, Shi'ite Islam became the state religion of what evolved into the Safavid Empire, making the empire technically a theocracy. (Note on Shi'ism. It differs from Sunni Islam in a number of ways: (1) in Shi'ism, rulers must be direct descendents of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. That gives a ruler spiritual authority to complement his political legitimacy. (2) Another difference is with respect to the the idea of the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” whose role will bring into being a global caliphate. (3) There are also some differences centering on specific practices and religious texts.)
Shah Ismāīl I (1487-1524) is usually considered as the starting point for the Safavid dynasty. With devoted support from his followers, in 1499--Isma'il was twelve--he led his army in a war of conquest. In 1501, after the capture of Tabriz, he assumed the title of shah of Azerbaijan and declared his independence from the Ottoman Empire. With his military conquests continuing, he expanded Safavid control of territory south of the Caucasus (most of present-day Iran fell under his control by 1510) and assumed the title of shah of Persia. Shi'i Islam became the official religion of his empire with Tabriz as the capital.
Shah Abbas I the Great (r. 1587-1629) is considered the greatest of the Safavid rulers with the reputation of a just monarch, leaving aside the fact that he killed one of his sons and blinded two others. Like both Louis XIV and Peter the Great later, Shah Abbas undertook a reform program intended to strengthen his personal power and expand the central power of the state administration at the expense of regional and local nobles and officials. New administrative officials were created, and the Shah rebuilt the Safavid army with the advice of Sir Robert Shirley, an Englishmen (1581?-1628). The military reforms enabled the Safavids to recover territory that had been lost in the east (Kandahar), north (Tabriz) and in the west (Mesopotamia). Finally, Shah Abbas transformed the empire into a commercial powerhouse by opening Persia to the wider world and using his base on the Persian Gulf to negotiate lucrative trade treaties with England and Holland.
The reign of Shah Abbas I also marked a cultural high point for the empire. The arts, literature, poetry and architecture all flourished. In 1598 Abbas moved his capital from Tabriz to Isfahan, a location more securely in the center of his empire and better situated on major trade routes. He then undertook a major building program to turn the city into a glorious focal point of his empire: the Masjid-i-Jami, Ali Qapu (the royal palace), the Masjid-i-Shah (royal mosque) and the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah (the private mosque of Shah Abbas).
There is a good list online of all the Safavid rulers. I just wanted to highlight some interesting commentary that I found in my research. The immediate two rulers after Abbas were Shah Safi I (r. 1629-42) and Shah Abbās II (r. 1642-66).
"When Shah Abbās I died of natural causes in early 1629, there were no sons to succeed him. He was therefore succeeded by his grandson Safi, the son of Safi Mirzā, who had been murdered by Shah Abbās on suspicion of sedition....Shah Safi died in 1642, aged thirty-one, and exhausted from excessive drinking." (http://www.iranica.com/articles/safavids)
By the start of the eighteenth century, it had become clear that the empire had weakened considerably. Problems were everywhere; epidemics, famine, insurrections, invasions, corruption. The army itself ceased to be reliable and began to loot and plunder the empire's inhabitants. With the overthrow of Shah Soltan Hosein (r. 1694 - 1722) by Mir Mahmud Hotaki, an Afghan warrior, in 1722 the Safavid Empire had come to a close.
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