Andrew J. Newman – Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire
The Safavid dynasty was one of the most liberal periods in Iranian history. Iran, of course, was not a nation-state in today’s sense of the term until the 20th century. Safavid territory also included Baghdad and ranged up north into Afghanistan, several of the steppe countries and parts of Georgia, including Tiflis (now Tblisi), and ranged east almost as far east as Bukhara. It lasted from about 1510 to 1722, with a few dying embers lasting until 1736, a little bit like post-Louis XVI Bourbons.
For context, the Safavid dynasty ranged roughly from just before Europe’s Reformation and post-Columbian exploration age through the Scientific Revolution and the early Enlightenment. It began roughly a century after Tamerlane conquered most western and northern Asia. China’s Ming dynasty reached its peak and was overthrown during the Safavid era. The most famous Safavid monarch was Abbas I (reigned 1588-1629, roughly contemporaneous with Shakespeare, the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign, and her successor James I). But the generations before and after Abbas I were also comparatively liberal. One of the few opinions Newman ventures is that the Safavids were not a one-hit wonder with Abbas I as the dynasty’s only notable head.
The regime’s official religion was Twelver Shi’ism, which was an important development in Islamic history. But by the standards of their time, the Safavids were highly tolerant of both other kinds of Islam and non-Islamic religions. They compared favorably to both the Europeans of their time and the Iranian government in ours.
Art, architecture, poetry, and literature thrived, both in court and among regular people. Despite ongoing tensions with the Ottomans to the East and limited direct ties to Europe, an openness to trade also made Safavid territories prosperous enough where high art and exotic goods were affordable even to the middle class; even in Europe such things as single-page prints were still mostly the province of the wealthy. At the same time, the Safavid Dynasty was founded on military power, survived by the sword, and ultimately died by it. Its liberalism was in comparative, not economic terms. It is a complex, multifacted period, and was interconnected with what was going on in Europe, Turkey, Russia, India, and China.
Newman’s book is drily written, focusing heavily on kings and battles, and names and dates. If the reader enters with some knowledge of world history from 1500-1700, and a willingness to Google new names, places, and terms, they can tease more insights out of Newman’s narrow and literal focus. His grayscale portrait could have used some color. Unfortunately, English-language histories of the period are hard to come by, so Newman it is. Readers are mostly on their own for discerning the Safavid dynasty’s larger significance and context, and are rarely given interpretations to agree or disagree with. This was still a profitable read, but requires a more active approach on the reader’s part than most books.