Following the conquest of Persia by the Arabs, the region lost its significance as the center of an empire, it was now a mere province in the larger Islamic Empire. The decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, however, resulted in the rise of various Persian dynasties. But none of these could really be regarded on the same level of power as Persian empires such as the Achaemenid empire or Sassanian empire.

The subsequent conquest of Persia by the Seljuk Empire, as well as the Mongol and Timurid invasions, brought local rule to an end once again. But the Safavid Dynasty was established at the beginning of the 16th century, thus bringing the area under Persian rule once more.

The Safavid Dynasty – Persian Rule Once Again

The Safavid Dynasty originated as a mystical Sufi order, and their rulers trace their ancestry back to Sheikh Safi al-Din of Ardabil, a 13th / 14th century head of the Sufi order of Safawiyyah. Although the order was initially affiliated with the Sunni branch of Islam, it switched to Shi’ism around the end of the 14th century. About a century later, the Sufis of Ardabil were led by Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Dynasty.

Shah Ismail I. Medieval European rendering by an unknown Venetian artist. The original rendering is kept in the Uffizi Gallery museum in Florence, Italy. ( Public Domain )

Under Ismail, the Sufis took on a more militaristic approach in the propagation of Shi’ism. Ismail gained the support of the local Turkmens, as well as other tribes who were unhappy with the orthodox status quo. With their support, Ismail succeeded in capturing the city of Tabriz from the Aq Qoyunlu (meaning ‘White Sheep’), an Oghuz Turkic tribal confederation, in 1502, thus marking the beginning of the new Persian dynasty. Ismail went on to conquer the rest of Aderbajan, and in the following decade, succeeded in conquering the majority of Iran, as well as Baghdad and Mosul in Iraq.

The rise of the Safavids was a watershed in the history of Islam, as Shi’ism was declared as the state religion of their empire. This contributed to the emergence of a unified national consciousness amongst the subjects of the Safavid Dynasty, which consisted of various ethnic and linguistic groups. As a Shi’ite state, the Safavids greatest enemy was the Sunni Ottoman Empire to their west, and conflict often broke out between these two neighbors.

The Battle between Shah Ismail and Shaybani Khan. ( Public Domain )

The Fall of one Persian Dynasty and the Rise of Another

The Safavid Dynasty began to decline during the 17th century, and collapsed about a century later, when its last ruler, Abbas III, was deposed by Nader Qoli Beg, who established the Afsharid Dynasty. Nader entered the service of the Safavids under Tahmasp II, the penultimate Safavid ruler.
During that time, Persia was being overrun by the Afghans, and Nader had a large role in the re-conquest of the area. Once Persia was regained, Tahmasp was crowned as Shah, though real power in fact rested in the hands of Nader. In 1732, Tahmasp was deposed by Nader, as the former had gone to war with the Ottomans, and in the process, lost Georgia and Armenia. Tahmasp was replaced by his infant son, Abbas III, and Nader declared himself regent.

Afsharid forces negotiate with a Mughal Nawab. ( Public Domain )

Removing a Puppet King

Four years later, however, Nader felt that his position was stable enough that he no longer needed a puppet on the throne. Therefore, he deposed the child Abbas and established the Afsharid Dynasty. Nader was a formidable general, and conducted military campaigns as far as India. Nevertheless, he was also a blood-thirsty man, and his rule became increasingly harsh as he aged. He began to alienate those around him, and was eventually murdered by his own commanders.

A Western view of Nader in his later years from a book by Jonas Hanway (1753). The background shows a tower of skulls. ( Public Domain )

Although the Afsharid Dynasty ruled Persia for only 60 years, it was during this time, specifically during the reign of Nader, that a Persian empire reached its greatest territorial extent since the days of the Sassanians.

Foreign Influence in Persian Empire History

The Afsharid Dynasty came to an end after its last ruler, Shahrokh Afshar, submitted to Agha Mohammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar Dynasty, in 1796. This new dynasty ruled Persia until the first quarter of the 20th century.
It was under the rule of this dynasty that Iran saw an increase in its contact with the Western world. The reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, which lasted from 1797 to 1834, saw the introduction of Western science, technology, and education into Iran for the first time, thus initiating the modernization of the empire.

Naser al-Din Shah Qajar in a uniform studded with diamonds from the treasury of the Persian emperors. He often wore the famous square Darya-ye Noor. ( Public Domain )

Naser’s ability as a ruler is also evident in his exploitation of the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia to preserve his nation’s independence. Naser’s successors, however, were incompetent rulers, leading to the overthrow of the Qajar Dynasty in 1925.

Top image: New Persian dynasty ruler, Ismail declares himself “Shah” by entering Tabriz; his troops in front of Arg of Tabriz, painter Chingiz Mehbaliyev. Source: CC BY SA 3.0

By: Wu Mingren