A dynasty of Shiïte Muslim shahs of Iran between 1502 and 1736; it took its name from Shaykh Ṣafī-al-Dīn Isḥāq (1252–1334), from whom the founder of the dynasty, Ismā’īl Shah, was descended. The family appears to have originated in Ardebīl as the hereditary leaders of a powerful Sūfī fraternity of a type that had come to replace ordinary political authority on the Turkoman frontier (see sufism). As the dynasty expanded its military organization in Gīlān, it developed strong Iranian nationalist feelings and championed the cause of the shiÏtes. Ismā’īl Ṣafāvī assumed the title of shah when he captured Tabriz in 1502. He went on to secure his power in northwestern Iran and then defeated the Uzbek forces at Merv in Khorasan. His successes aroused the Ottoman Sultan Selim to action, and in 1514 the ottoman turks occupied Kurdistan and Diyarbekr, withdrawing later from Tabriz and Georgia. Ismā’īl Shāh made Shiïsm a state religion, recognizing in it a means for uniting the Persians against the Ottomans and Uzbeks, who were sunnites. He also enlisted the staunch and much-needed military support of seven Shiïte Turkish tribes known as the Kizilbash ("redheads"). He died in 1524 and was succeeded by his ten-year-old son Ṭahmāsp, who ruled until 1576. Isḥahmāsp's reign the twin frontiers of Safavid warfare were clearly distinguished: the Uzbeks in the During T north, whom Ṭahmāsp successfully expelled from Khorasan, and the Ottomans in the west, who managed to keep the upper hand but concluded a peace treaty in 1555. At this point Safavid Iran began to attract the attention of the European powers as a possible permanent second front against the Ottoman Turks. Ṭahmāsp's fourth son Ismā’īl II proved to be an ineffectual ruler, who allowed the Safavid empire to suffer from factionalism and invasion.
Shāh ‘Abbās I, known as "the Great," succeeded his father in 1587 and ruled the Safavid empire until 1628. When he inherited the title, the Uzbeks and the Ottomans had invaded his provinces and his tribal chieftains were in revolt. ‘Abbās immediately sued for peace with the invaders at disadvantageous terms in order to consolidate his position. In 1598 the Sherley brothers, Anthony and Robert, arrived from England and began a reorganization of the Safavid army at ‘Abbās' request. They equipped it with better artillery and instituted the tufangchis (riflemen) to match the Ottoman Janissaries and the Shah Savan (friends of the Shah) to offset the power of the Kizilbash. ‘Abbās also renovated communications within Iran and stamped out brigandage. He sent Sir Anthony Sherley to Europe as his ambassador and began a long series of victorious campaigns on the Ottoman frontier. One important outcome of Sherley's journey was the arrival of a papal mission in Persia entrusted to the Discalced Carmelite friars. Although forbidden to proselytize among Moslems, the friars worked with success among the dissident Armenians at New Julfa outside the Safavid capital of Isfahan and represented the Holy See with distinction, though with varying fortunes, for a century and a half. They also filled the bishoprics of Baghdad and Isfahan. Shāh ‘Abbās proved less friendly toward the end of his reign, however, when the European powers were not aiding him sufficiently and had turned on one another, as, for example, in the British attack on the Portuguese at Hormuz in 1622.
‘Abbās' grandson Ṣafī I reigned tyrannically for 14 years (1628–42) and lost territory to the mughals. The Ottomans recovered Baghdad and even, for a time, Tabriz. During the reign of ‘Abbās II (1642–66), the eastern frontiers were secured and relations with the Ottomans improved. This state of affairs continued during the 29-year reign of his son Sulaymān Shāh. In 1694 Sulaymān's son Ḥusayn became shah, but he permitted the Shiïte clerics to dictate policy; at this, the Sunnite Afghans, who held the eastern frontier, declared their independence under Mīr Wais in 1709. In 1722 Mīr Wais' son Maḥmūd invaded Persia and captured Isfahan. Shāh H: usayn was deposed and Ṭahmāsp II was placed on the throne by the emergent Afghan leader Nādir Qūli, who, however, soon deposed the shah in favor of his infant son ‘Abbās III. The child died soon afterwards and Nādir himself assumed the title of shah in 1736, putting an end to the Safavid dynasty.
See Also: persia.
Bibliography: p. sykes, A History of Persia (3d ed. London 1951) 2:158–255. A Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia, 2 v. (London 1939). Tadhkirat al-Mulûk, tr. v. minorsky (London 1943). l. lockhart, The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia (Cambridge, Eng. 1958).