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The Safavid Empire for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

9 min read

Oct 24, 2023




Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque from the Safavid Empire
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque 1110217739/Shutterstock

The Safavid Empire was a main rival of the Ottoman Empire. Read all about the Safavid Empire in the Google Slides.

Brief History of the Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire, one of the great Islamic empires of the early modern period, emerged in the early 16th century and had a profound impact on the history and culture of Persia (modern-day Iran). The empire was founded by Shah Ismail I, who established the Safavid dynasty and declared Twelver Shi’a Islam as the state religion. This marked a pivotal moment in the history of Persia, as the Safavids aimed to establish a strong centralized state with a unique religious identity.

Under the rule of Shah Abbas I, the Safavid Empire reached its zenith in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Abbas implemented a series of administrative and military reforms, including the creation of a standing army, and promoted trade and commerce, which led to economic prosperity. The capital city, Isfahan, became a center of art, culture, and architecture during this period, exemplified by the magnificent Imam Square.

However, the Safavid Empire faced numerous external challenges, particularly from the Ottoman Empire, with which it engaged in a series of conflicts. These wars, combined with internal strife, contributed to the decline of the Safavid Empire in the 18th century.

The Safavid Empire’s legacy is significant, not only for its political and military achievements but also for its role in promoting Twelver Shi’a Islam in the region. The Safavids left a lasting impact on Persian culture and identity, particularly in the realms of art, literature, and religious practice.

Saf al-Din

Saf al-Din was a revered Iranian Sufi mystic and the founder of the Safaviyya order, which played a crucial role in the establishment of the Safavid Empire. Born in 1252 in Iran, Saf al-Din was a prominent figure in the early development of Sufism, a mystical and ascetic form of Islam. He dedicated his life to spreading Sufi teachings, emphasizing the importance of inner spiritual experiences and the quest for a closer connection with the Divine.

Saf al-Din’s most enduring legacy is the establishment of the Safaviyya order, which would later evolve into the Safavid dynasty. The order’s followers, known as Safavids, played a significant role in the political and religious transformation of Persia. Saf al-Din’s teachings emphasized spirituality, ethical conduct, and devotion to God, which resonated with many people in the region.

While he did not live to see the full extent of the Safavid Empire, Saf al-Din’s spiritual and institutional contributions laid the groundwork for the dynasty’s rise to power and the enduring influence of Twelver Shi’a Islam in Iran. His mausoleum in Ardabil remains a revered pilgrimage site to this day, attracting visitors seeking spiritual inspiration and connection to Iran’s rich Sufi heritage.

Twelver Shia Islam

Twelver Shia Muslims believe in a line of twelve Imams (spiritual leaders), starting with Imam Ali, who they regard as the rightful successors to Prophet Muhammad. These twelve Imams are believed to be divinely appointed and infallible guides for the Muslim community, providing spiritual and moral leadership. The twelfth Imam, known as the Mahdi, is believed to be in occultation and will reappear to bring justice and peace to the world.

In contrast, other Shia denominations, such as the Ismaili branch, follow different lines of Imams and do not necessarily adhere to the belief in twelve Imams. Twelver Shia Islam places a strong emphasis on the concept of Imamate and the role of these Imams as authoritative interpreters of religious law and guides for the community.

The Safavid Empire was the first major state in history to declare Twelver Shia Islam as its official state religion. This marked a significant departure from the previous Sunni-dominated rule in Persia.

The Safavid dynasty, led by Shah Ismail I, actively promoted Twelver Shia Islam, not only as a matter of faith but also as a unifying force. By embracing Shia Islam, the Safavids sought to create a distinct Persian identity separate from the Sunni Ottoman Empire and other Sunni-majority regions in the Islamic world. This religious division led to a series of conflicts and wars between the two empires.

The Safavid Army

The Safavid army was instrumental in safeguarding the empire’s borders, expanding its territories, and maintaining internal stability. This military was characterized by a combination of traditional Persian and Turkic elements.

The Safavid army was known for its elite cavalry, known as the Qizilbash, who were fiercely loyal to the Safavid rulers. These warriors wore distinctive red headgear, which gave them their name. They were highly skilled in archery and warfare, making them a powerful and respected force on the battlefield.

The Safavid military also incorporated firearms and artillery into its arsenal, marking a transition from traditional warfare to more modern tactics. This adaptation was particularly significant during the empire’s conflicts with the neighboring Ottoman Empire, known for its formidable Janissary infantry and advanced weaponry.

Overall, the Safavid army played a crucial role in the empire’s ability to maintain control over its vast and diverse territories. Their military might was a key factor in the Safavid Empire’s success and longevity, and it contributed to the empire’s standing as a significant regional power during its time.

Ismail I

Ismail I founded the Safavid Empire in 1501 and became the first shah of the empire. Born in 1487, Ismail is best known for his strong devotion to Twelver Shia Islam. He declared Shia Islam as the state religion of the Safavid Empire, marking a significant departure from the Sunni Islam practiced by his Ottoman rivals. Ismail’s promotion of Twelver Shia Islam helped unify the diverse population of Persia under a common religious identity.

One of the most iconic moments in Ismail’s life was his victory at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, where the Safavids clashed with the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Although the Safavids were defeated, this battle reinforced the religious division between the two empires, with the Ottomans representing Sunni Islam and the Safavids championing Twelver Shia Islam.

Ismail’s legacy extends beyond religion. He is remembered for establishing the Safavid state and providing a strong foundation for the dynasty’s future rulers. His reign set the stage for the Safavid Empire to become a prominent regional power and a center of Persian culture and Twelver Shia scholarship.

Ismail Baghdad Campaign

One of the most controversial and destructive actions associated with Ismail’s reign was his campaign against the Sunni population of Baghdad, which was a major center of Sunni Islam. Ismail’s forces captured Baghdad in 1508, and the city witnessed a series of violent and religiously charged events. This included the destruction of Sunni religious institutions and the forced conversion of many Sunnis to Twelver Shia Islam.

Ismail’s actions in Baghdad have been widely criticized as ruthless and intolerant. They are often seen as part of a broader effort to consolidate Twelver Shia Islam as the state religion and to suppress rival Sunni communities. While these actions have been heavily debated, they are a significant part of the Safavid Empire’s history and its complex relationship with religious and sectarian tensions in the region.

The Golden Age of the Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire experienced a “Golden Age” marked by cultural, artistic, and intellectual achievements under the rule of Shah Abbas I.

During this Golden Age, the Safavid Empire witnessed remarkable advancements in the arts and sciences. Persian literature flourished, producing some of the most celebrated poets and literary works in history. Persian carpets, renowned for their intricate designs and craftsmanship, gained worldwide acclaim. Additionally, the empire’s capital, Isfahan, was transformed into a city of stunning architecture, boasting elegant mosques, grand palaces, and beautiful gardens that still stand as a testament to this era.

Shah Abbas I’s efforts to centralize and modernize the empire’s administration, as well as his promotion of international trade and diplomacy, contributed to economic growth and increased the empire’s global presence. The Safavid Empire’s cultural and artistic contributions, religious tolerance, and achievements during this Golden Age have left a lasting legacy that continues to be celebrated and admired to this day.

Shah Abbas

Shah Abbas I, also known as Abbas the Great, was a pivotal figure in Safavid history and one of its most renowned rulers. He reigned during the late 16th and early 17th centuries and is widely recognized for his significant contributions to the Safavid Empire’s cultural, political, and military achievements.

Shah Abbas I initiated several reforms that strengthened and modernized the empire. He centralized the administration, reducing the influence of the Qizilbash military leaders and replacing them with a more professional and loyal army. This not only enhanced the empire’s stability but also allowed for greater economic prosperity and security.

One of Shah Abbas’s most notable accomplishments was the relocation of the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, a city that he embellished with magnificent architectural marvels, turning it into a center of art, culture, and commerce. His patronage of the arts led to the flourishing of Persian literature, poetry, and the creation of stunning works of art, such as the world-famous Persian carpets.

Shah Abbas’s reign was marked by his religious tolerance, especially toward Christian and Jewish communities. He fostered trade and diplomacy with European powers and initiated the construction of a Christian quarter in Isfahan, which still stands today.


Isfahan, located in present-day Iran, is a city that carries a rich and diverse history, characterized by its stunning architectural and cultural significance. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Isfahan served as the capital of the Safavid Empire under the rule of Shah Abbas I, during which time it was meticulously developed and embellished.

Isfahan is often described as a “jewel of Persia” due to its breathtaking architecture and urban design. The city boasts an array of remarkable structures, including the Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the iconic Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Its bridges, like the Si-o-Se-Pol and Khaju Bridge, are renowned for their elegant designs and the role they played in connecting the city.

The city is also known for its Persian gardens, lush oases of greenery and tranquility within the urban landscape. These gardens, such as the Chehel Sotoun Garden, are admired for their meticulously planned layout and design.

Christian and Persian Soldiers

During the Safavid Empire’s reign in the 16th and 17th centuries, Persian and Christian armies played significant roles in shaping the empire’s military and political landscape. Under the rule of Shah Abbas I, the Safavid Empire maintained a multi-ethnic army, which included not only Persians but also Christian soldiers from the Caucasus region.

The use of Christian troops, predominantly Armenians and Georgians, provided the Safavids with a loyal and formidable military force. These Christian soldiers were known as ghulams, or slaves, who were trained from a young age in the art of warfare and held important positions within the empire’s military hierarchy. Their service allowed the Safavids to rely on a diverse and effective military force.

This practice not only underlined the empire’s religious tolerance but also contributed to its military strength. The Safavid Empire’s ability to integrate both Persian and Christian soldiers into its army was a reflection of its inclusive approach to governance and the political pragmatism of Shah Abbas I, who aimed to create a unified and powerful state. The cooperation between Persian and Christian forces was an essential aspect of the Safavid Empire’s military strategy during this era.

Rooting Out Corruption

Shah Abbas I, one of the most notable rulers of the Safavid Empire, was known for his commitment to justice and strict measures against corruption. During his reign in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Shah Abbas implemented a series of reforms to strengthen his empire and root out corruption within the government. He took a firm stance against officials who abused their power for personal gain, ensuring that those responsible for corrupt practices were swiftly and severely punished.

Shah Abbas I recognized that corruption eroded the foundations of his empire, hindered economic growth, and undermined the well-being of his subjects. He established a comprehensive system of oversight and accountability, which included the use of secret agents and audits to monitor the behavior of government officials. Those found guilty of corruption were subject to harsh penalties, such as imprisonment, fines, or even execution. By enforcing these measures, Shah Abbas sent a clear message that corruption would not be tolerated in his administration. His efforts to combat corruption contributed to a more stable and prosperous Safavid Empire during his rule.

The End of the Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire, which once stood as a powerful and influential force in the 16th and 17th centuries, ultimately faced a decline that led to its end. Several factors contributed to this decline. First, the empire experienced a series of weak and ineffective rulers who were unable to maintain the stability and military prowess that had characterized the empire at its peak. The Safavids also faced significant external pressures, including invasions by the neighboring Ottoman Empire.

Additionally, economic and administrative challenges plagued the Safavid state, leading to financial difficulties and internal strife. In 1722, the Afghans captured Isfahan, the Safavid capital, and Sultan Husayn. After the Afghans took Isfahan, various regional rulers and foreign powers gradually took control of other Safavid territories. Although some Safavid rulers attempted to reestablish the empire in the years following, the empire was never fully restored to its former glory.

Despite its fall, the Safavid Empire left a significant mark on the history and culture of Persia (modern-day Iran) and the broader region, influencing art, architecture, and religious development for years to come.

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Cate O'Donnell

9 min read

Oct 24, 2023




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