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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Article Collections
  • Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Translations
  • Secondary Sources
  • Commerce and Trade
  • Gender Studies
  • Literature
  • Science and Medicine
  • The Safavids as “Empire”
  • Legacy

Islamic Studies Safavids
Andrew J. Newman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0135


The Safavid period is conventionally dated from the capture of Tabriz in 1501 by Ismail I (d. 1524) to the fall of the capital Esfahan to the Afghans in 1722. As such, the Safavid dynasty was the longest-ruling dynasty in Iran’s history, since its conquest by Arab Muslim armies in the 640s, and stands between Iran’s medieval and modern history. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the numbers both of Western scholars focusing on the Safavid period and of those for whom the period is one of many areas of interest have grown rapidly. Too, notwithstanding the turmoil of the period, in Iran the publication of key Persian- and Arabic-language primary materials relative to the period has also expanded. In the early 21st century, there is a vast array of primary and secondary sources, composed in many different languages, that was not available prior to 1979. The growth in scholarly interest in the period, in both the West and Iran, together with the growth of available source materials has encouraged the appearance of subdisciplines within the field. Despite this growth, however, the field of Safavid studies remains split between studies of the socioeconomic and political realms and the “cultural,” as broadly construed. Most in both groups also remain beholden to the conventional “decline” understanding of the period, whose origins date, at least, to the works of E. G. Browne (d. 1926). The 17th century especially continues to be depicted as having begun with a burst of cultural and intellectual accomplishment, thanks to the military, political, and economic stability achieved by Abbas I (d. 1629)—a “strong” ruler—but ending in an atmosphere of intolerant religious orthodoxy amid military, political, and economic chaos and “weak” leadership at the center. Scholars still accept the inevitable decline and fall of the Safavid “state,” as represented by the 1722 Afghan capture of Esfahan. This preoccupation with Safavid “decline” is reinforced by recourse to critiques of the Safavid system on offer in both Persian-language historical chronicles and the accounts of contemporary Western travelers to and residents in Iran, although many of the former were composed after the period and the latter are often contradictory, offering as “fact” information gathered after the events in question or in such detail as to beggar credibility, and are the product of a variety of agendas that can render their contributions problematic. Ottoman studies has jettisoned “decline theory,” but “decline” still remains the dominant paradigm in Safavid studies.

General Overviews

The “decline” model for Safavid history first made its appearance in the early 20th century in the work of the famed Persianist Edward G. Browne, in Browne 1953. Lockhart 1958 expanded on the theme and stands as the proponent par excellence of “Safavid decline.” Savory 2007 reproduced this model and, although the chapters in Jackson and Lockhart 1986 offered a much greater amount of information on a wide variety of topics, their authors remained faithful to both Browne’s original paradigm and explanations as further developed by Lockhart and Savory. Blow 2009 expands on this model as it applies to Abbas I. Canby 2002 offers a good overview of trends in Safavid art and architecture over the period. Floor 2001 is a useful, well-sourced survey of the political organization of Safavid society. Noting that the Safavids were Islamic Iran’s longest-lasting dynasty, Newman 2008 challenged Safavid “decline” and, in its place, offered analyses to account for the Safavids’ longevity. He suggests that this longevity might be most usefully explained in terms of the success with which the realms’ key constituencies were expanded over the period to recognize, include, and transcend the diverse elements and discourses—domestic and “foreign”—extant in the region at the time.

  • Blow, David. Shah Abbas: The Ruthless King Who Became an Iranian Legend. New York and London: I. B. Tauris, 2009.

    A conventional account that reproduces many of the field’s long-extant understandings of Abbas I and the period in general.

  • Browne, Edward Granville. A Literary History of Persia. Vol. 4. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1953.

    Originally published in 1924. Browne (d. 1926) was the first to offer an overview of the Safavid period in the last century.

  • Canby, Sheila. The Golden Age of Persian Art: 1501–1722. London: British Museum, 2002.

    Originally published in 1999; still a useful overview of developments in the many fields of artistic expression over the Safavid period. Good discussion of the dynamic interaction between Safavid art and the rising influence of European and Eastern styles of expression over the 17th century.

  • Floor, Willem. Safavid Government Institutions. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2001.

    A detailed, well-sourced examination of the organization of the central and provincial governmental structures over the period. Useful lists of post-holders at the central level (see also Floor 1998 and Floor 2000, cited under Commerce and Trade).

  • Jackson, Peter, and Lawrence Lockhart, eds. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 6, The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200943

    The many detailed chapters in this dated volume—on politics and the economic, religious, and cultural (literature, art, and architecture) life of the period—reflect much of the conventional wisdom that has dominated the field of Safavid studies since Browne 1953.

  • Lockhart, Lawrence. The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

    Lockhart (d. 1975) greatly embellished Browne’s “decline” offering and, especially, Browne’s treatment of the Baqir Majlisi (d. 1699), whom both—and many subsequent authors—blame for the 1722 fall of the dynasty to the Afghans (see also Minorsky 1943, cited under Translations, and Baqir Majlisi).

  • Newman, Andrew J. Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

    Originally published in 2006, this overview of the period challenges the “decline” paradigm and much of its many associated conventional wisdoms to suggest why the Safavid dynasty was the longest-lasting dynasty in Iran since the coming of Islam in the 7th century.

  • Savory, Roger. Iran under the Safavids. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Originally published in 1980, and representative of the conventional “rise and decline” paradigm for Safavid history dating at least from the works of Browne 1953 and Lockhart 1958.

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