In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Safavid Army

  • Introduction
  • General Accounts
  • Political and Governmental Institutions
  • Military History and Institutions
  • The Qizilbash

Military History Safavid Army
Douglas E. Streusand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0185


Ruling from 1501 through 1722, the Safavid dynasty unified the eastern and western halves of the Iranian plateau and imposed Twelver Shiʿism on the population. The interpretation of the Safavid Empire as a revival of an Iranian imperial tradition dating back to the Achaemenids is not credible, but the dynasty did create the framework in which modern Iran developed. By creating a large Shiʿi polity and politicizing the Sunni-Shiʿi split, the Safavids established an essential part of the framework of the modern Middle East. Safavid military history had three phases. From the beginning of the polity in 1501 until the Ottoman Sultan Selim (r. 1512–1520) defeated the founder of the Safavid polity, Shah Ismaʿil I (r. 1501–1524) at Chaldiran in 1514, the Safavid army was a tribal army. The Turkmen tribes (uymaq) that followed the Safavid rulers were known as the Qizilbash (red heads) after their distinctive red head gear. The Safavid Empire differed little from the earlier tribal Turkic and Mongol tribal confederations that had dominated much of the Middle East since the 11th century. In the second phase, from 1514 through the reign of Shah ʿAbbas I (r. 1588–1629) the Safavid military system evolved from an army of tribal cavalry to a composite force with cavalry recruited through several different mechanisms, and artillery and infantry components. The transformation gave the Safavids an army capable of defeating the Uzbeks and Mughals and, under conditions of advantage, the Ottomans. From the death of ʿAbbas I until the collapse of the empire in 1722, the third phase, the military organization did not change, but lost vitality and capacity. In 1648, the Safavids could project enough power to take Qandahar from the Mughals; in 1722, they could not defend their own capital from an Afghan army without siege equipment. The military transformation during the second phase paralleled and depended upon a transformation from a decentralized polity in which the Qizilbash dominated the provinces to a more centralized regime that depended primarily on silk exports. The Ghilzai Afghans, who ruled what had been the Safavid Empire from 1722 through 1729, and Nadir Shah Afshar, who ruled from 1729 to 1747, took over the Safavid governmental institutions. Some historians regard Nadir Shah as one of the great commanders of history. This bibliography includes generally accessible works in English, French, and German, on the assumption that its users will be mostly Western military historians, not scholars of Iranian history. It does not, therefore, include primary sources, either in Persian or in other languages. Most of the works listed, especially the Encyclopaedia Iranica articles, contain excellent bibliographic information. The citations themselves reproduce the transliteration in the works cited. Otherwise, this bibliography employs a simplified version of the transliteration system employed in the International Journal of Middle East Studies without diacritical marks except the reverse apostrophe for the letter ع (ayn, pronounced as a glottal stop in Persian). Because there is no standard method of transliterating languages written in the Arabic script into the Latin script, readers must expect some variations.

General Accounts

The field of Safavid historiography has boomed in the last four decades. In 1975, only one general study of the Safavids, Savory 1970, existed. There are now eight. Of those, Quinn 2010 is the best brief introduction to the topic. Matthee 2008 is convenient and comprehensive. Streusand 2010 is an accessible summary that devotes attention to military matters. Roemer 1986 and Roemer 1989 provide the most rigorous chronology. Newman 2006 is now the standard work on the Safavids but ignores military history. Browne 2002 is included because of its importance in the development of Western views of the Safavids. Studies of the brief periods of Afghan rule and the Afshar dynasty are listed under those headings below.

  • Browne, Edward Granville. A Literary History of Persia. New Delhi: Goodword Books, 2002.

    Originally published in four volumes between 1902 and 1924 and reprinted repeatedly by Cambridge University Press, then by Iran Books and most recently by Goodword Books, Browne’s work has so influenced Western perceptions of the Safavids and their successors that it demands inclusion even though it is not a work of political or military history. Volume 4, pp. 3–138, covers the Safavid and Afshar periods.

  • Matthee, Rudi. “Safavid Dynasty.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. New York: Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation, 2008.

    A comprehensive overview of Safavid history by one of the masters of the field. The best beginning to the study of the Safavids.

  • Newman, Andrew J. Safavid Empire: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. London: I. B.Tauris, 2006.

    A fine study of the Safavid phenomenon as a whole but of limited use for military historians.

  • Quinn, Sholeh A. “Iran under Safavid Rule.” In The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 3. Edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, 239–266. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    An elegant, cogent introduction to Safavid history, useful for undergraduates in particular.

  • Roemer, Hans Robert. “The Safavid Period.” In The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 6. Edited by Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, 189–350. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    A rigorous and detailed, if dry, political chronology with significant attention to military events.

  • Roemer, Hans Robert. Persien auf dem Weg in die Neuzeit: Iranische Geschichte von 1350–1750. Beirut, Lebanon, and Stuttgart: Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft/In Kommission bei F. Steiner, 1989.

    The expanded German version of Roemer 1986, which Roemer preferred.

  • Savory, Roger. “Safavid Persia.” In The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 1. Edited by P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton and Bernard Lewis, 394–429. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

    The first comprehensive account of the Safavids in English, now superseded by later works.

  • Savory, Roger. Iran under the Safavids. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    The first book-length study of the Safavids by the one of the founders of modern Safavid studies, still useful though dated.

  • Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010.

    The Safavids in comparative context with particular attention to military issues. See pp. 135–200.

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