History of Iran

Is there an ultimate use for historians? Reflections on Safavid history and historiography
By: Roger M. Savory, Professor Emeritus University of Toronto, 16 March 1995
The Annual Noruz Lecture Series: 16 March 1995, Foundation for Iranian Studies Washington, D.C.

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I suppose that, if I were giving this lecture in Persian, I might have entitled it Tarikh chist (`What is history?')[1], or, slightly less ambitiously, Tarikh-nigari chist (`What is historiography?'). The time allotted to me tonight, however, does not permit me to indulge in this sort of philosophizing. Although we have it on the authority of Henry Ford that "History is bunk", I am going to assume that we are agreed that the study of history is a worth while pursuit. The original meaning of the Greek word is "the quest for things worth knowing"[2]. The phrase commonly used in Persian, tazeh che dari? (`What's new?'), reflects this quest. Knowledge, or information, when written down in the form of a narrative, becomes history. What I shall try to do tonight is to ponder the reasons for the rather glaring neglect, until comparatively recent times, of the history of the Safavid period, a neglect of which both Iranian and Western historians have been guilty. This will involve some reflections on the development of historical writing in general, both in Iran and the West, so far as this is relevant to Safavid history.

Why is Safavid history important?

The establishment of the Safavid state in 1501, like the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century, and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, marks a turning point in the history of Iran. First, the whole of the area historically considered as constituting the heartlands of Iran (iranshahr; iran-zamin), was reunited under the rule of a Persian king for the first time since the Arab conquest and islamicization of Iran. For most of the eight and half centuries that followed that conquest, Iran was ruled by a succession of Arab caliphs, and Turkish and Mongol sultans and khans. The only exception was what Minorsky called the "Iranian intermezzo", the period from 945-1055 A.D., when a dynasty of Persian origin, the Buyids, exercised authority over a large part of Iran. The restoration of Persian sovereignty by the Safavids revived Persian feelings of a distinctive national identity - Iranismus, or "Iranianism", as Hafez Farman-Farmaian calls it, although of course this did not constitute a nationalist ideology in the modern sense of the term. Incidentally, a recent number of Iran-Nameh was devoted to a discussion of Iranian identity[3], and throughout the word huviyyat is used to convey "identity". Since most of the contributors to this volume are agreed that the Persian language is the basic element in preserving Iranian identity, it is perhaps ironical that a word of Arabic origin should have been chosen to designate the word "identity".

Second, Shah Isma'il I declared the Ithna 'Ashari rite of Shi'i Islam to be the official religion of the Safavid state. This was the first time since the advent of Islam that a major Islamic state had taken this step[4]. The motives of Isma'il seem to have been in part religious conviction and in part political expediency, that is, the desire to differentiate the Safavid state from its powerful Sunni neighbours, the Ottomans to the north-west and the Özbegs to the north-east, and to give it a dynamic ideology which would unify Iran against these enemies. Whatever his motives, his decision had profound consequences for the future of Iran. Toynbee, in his magisterial A Study of History, says that "the unexpected and revolutionary resuscitation of Shi'ism as a militant political force" by Isma'il "abruptly and surprisingly deflected the course of Islamic history"[5]. "It would", he says "be difficult to find any other public character in history who has been so highly `explosive' as this, with the possible exception of Lenin"[6].

Third, it should not be forgotten that Iran, under the greatest of the Safavid shahs, Shah 'Abbas I, reached a level of power and prosperity never before achieved in Iran's post-Islamic history. After restoring Iran's territorial integrity by driving out the Ottoman and Özbeg forces which had encroached on Safavid territory during the reign of the weak Sultan Muhammad Shah, 'Abbas enhanced the prosperity of the country by adding a money economy and international trade to the traditional bases of the economy: agriculture and pastoralism. He achieved this by creating a multi-cultural state, and a climate of religious tolerance which enabled him to harness the skills and talents of non-Muslim merchants - Jews and Indians domestically, and Armenians in international trade. The development of the silk trade, which 'Abbas made a royal monopoly, has been regarded as one of his "great organizational achievements"[7]. The opening up of the sea route from western Europe to India round the Cape of Good Hope encouraged European powers, principally the Portuguese, the English and the Dutch, to vie with one another for control of the lucrative trade in the Persian Gulf, India, and the Far East, and 'Abbas was able to use this rivalry to the benefit of Iran. In 1598, Shah 'Abbas transferred the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, where he built a whole new city, cheek by jowl with the ancient one; his intent was to build a new capital worthy of the Safavid state at the height of its power. Two of the masterpieces of Safavid architecture were completed in Shah 'Abbas's lifetime: the Masjed-i Shah and the Masjed-i Shaykh Lutfullah. Other applied arts, too, flourished, for example, the production of carpets, textiles (some 25,000 weavers are said to have been employed in the production of the finest quality brocades and velvets); ceramics; and metalwork. Royal patronage also produced a flowering of the fine arts, namely, painting and the whole art of the book, a field in which the Safavids were the heirs of the Timurids. 'Abbas fostered diplomatic contacts, on the basis of parity of esteem, with neighbouring rulers such as the Mughal Emperors, the Princes of Muscovy, and the Tatar Khans of the Crimea, and also with powerful Western rulers such as the monarchs of England, Spain and Portugal. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Huguenot traveller Chardin saw the reign of Shah 'Abbas as a golden age. "When this great prince ceased to live", he said, "Persia ceased to prosper"[8], and it is a fact that the Safavid state never again achieved the degree of political and military power, economic prosperity, internal stability and security, and artistic distinction, that it reached under his rule.

If, then, the Safavid period is so important in the history of Iran, and if "it was the Safavids who led Iran back on to the stage of world history"[9], why was Safavid history neglected, both by Iranian and Western scholars, until some fifty years ago? Let us consider Western historians first. Until fairly recent times, European works on the Islamic world were written by scholars who were primarily Arabists or Ottomanists. They did not know the Persian language and, as M.G.S. Hodgson has pointed out, if one takes Arabic as one's point of departure, one inevitably regards Iranians as outsiders[10]. Carl Brockelmann, in his History of the Islamic Peoples and States, devoted a mere ten pages to the Safavid state, which he viewed largely within the context of Ottoman history[11]. In his article on Islamic historiography in the Supplement to the First Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1938)[12], the distinguished Arabist Sir Hamilton Gibb completely ignored the existence of a Safavid historiography. Even the great Iranologist E.G. Browne had a distaste for Safavid history: "The enormous preponderance of the military element in such contemporary chronicles as the Ta'rikh-i Alam-ara-yi 'Abbasi", he wrote, "makes them very dull and arduous reading to anyone not specially interested in military matters"[13].Of course, Browne's interests lay elsewhere, in Persian literature, and in religious and social conditions in Iran[14], and obviously he did not agree with Thomas Hardy that "war makes rattling good history"[15].

In the 1930s and 1940s, things began to improve. In 1932 there appeared Louis-Lucien Bellan's Chah 'Abbas I: sa vie, son histoire, which remains the only biography of any of the Safavid shahs in any Western language. Unfortunately, its value for scholars is vitiated by the absence of references to the Persian chronicles on which it is undoubtedly based. In 1934, Toynbee published his A Study of History, to which reference has already been made. The study of Safavid history by Western scholars took a quantum leap forward with the publication in 1936 of Walther Hinz's Irans Aufstieg zum Nationalstaat im fünfzehnten Jahrhundert, and of Vladimir Minorsky's translation of the Tadhkirat al-Muluk, with commentary and notes in 1943. Although Hinz was wide of the mark in speculating about the possible Arab descent of the Safavid family, he for the first time established a reliable chronology for the early Safavid period. Until the publication by Muhammad Taqi Danish-pazhuh in 1967-8 of the Dastur al-Muluk, the Tadhkirat al-Muluk was the only manual of Safavid administration known to exist. It not only corroborated to a large extent the testimony of Chardin, but expanded our knowledge of Safavid political and administrative institutions. Russian scholars, such as Petrushevskiy, concentrated on social and economic aspects of the Safavid period. In 1958 Laurence Lockhart's useful work The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty and the Afghan Conquest of Persia was published[16], and by the 1960s the historical framework of the Safavid period had been reasonably well established, and the lines of future research suggested.

If one looks at the record of Iranian historians during the same period, the scene is similar: a rather barren landscape relieved by a few lofty peaks. In 1927-8 Ahmad Kasravi led the way with the publication of three seminal articles entitled Nizhad va Tabar-i Safaviyya (`The genealogy of the Safavids'); Safaviyya sayyid nabuda and (`The Safavids were not sayyids'); and Baz ham Safaviyya (`The Safavids again')[17]. Kasravi disputed the validity of the `official' Safavid genealogy contained in the Safvat al-Safa and followed by most later Safavid chronicles[18], and argued convincingly that the ancestors of Shaykh Safi al-Din, who founded the Safavid Order (tariqa), were indigenous inhabitants of Iran (az bumiyan-i bastan-i iran budan) and were of pure Aryan stock (juz nizhad-i aryani nadashta and). Today, the consensus among Safavid historians is that the Safavid family hailed from Persian Kurdistan. Kasravi's important articles were published in the journal Ayandeh, which was not readily available in the West, and, despite the fact that they were republished as a pamphlet in 1944, in an expanded and revised form, they unfortunately continued to be overlooked by many historians. These included the Turkish scholar Zeki Velidi Togan who, working on the oldest available MSS. of the Safvat al-Safa, independently reached many of the same conclusions reached by Kasravi thirty years earlier[19]. At the same time, Togan tried to lay to rest the persistent claim by Turkish historians that Shah Isma'il I was a Turk, but this claim resurfaced from time to time in the writings of Turcophiles, such as David Ayalon[20], and was usually based on the fact that Isma'il spoke the Azari dialect of Turkish, which Toynbee calls one of "the vulgar tongues of camp and court"[21], and had written poems in Azari under the pen-name of Khata'i.

After the publication of Kasravi's articles, a whole generation elapsed before another significant work on Safavid history appeared. This was Nasrullah Falsafi's Life of Shah 'Abbas I (Zindigani-yi Shah 'Abbas-i Avval), published in Tehran in 4 vols. between 1955 and 1961. This major work had been preceded by Falsafi's definitive article on the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between the Safavids and the Ottomans[22]. A few years later, Lutfullah Hunarfar published his comprehensive work on the historical monuments and inscriptions of Isfahan[23].

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Iranian scholars made an enormous contribution to the furtherance of Safavid studies by editing and publishing historical texts, both general and local, and collections of farmans and other historical documents. By making all this material available in published form, Iranian scholars played a major part in enabling Western scholars to pursue their own researches into Safavid history. Iranian scholars were also writing articles on history in learned journals. Among the latter, the journal Barrasiha-yi tarikhi ("Historical researches"), published by the Iranian Army General Staff from 1966 onwards, was of outstanding quality. Articles on Persian historiography were also published in the journal Sukhan. The journal Yadigar, a "powerful stimulus to the scholarly study of history", was in print for only five years[24]. In the field of Iranian bibliography, the work of Iraj Afshar was and continues to be unequalled.

In my search for answers to the question: "Why has Safavid history been neglected until recent times?", I turned for help to what has been said about historiography by two modern Persian historians, Hafez Farman-Farmaian and Faridun Adamiyat, in their articles Nukati chand dar bara-yi mushkilat-i tarikh-nivisi dar Iran ("some considerations regarding the difficulties of writing history in Iran") and Inhitat-i tarikh-nigari dar Iran ("The decline of historiography in Iran")[25]. Farman-Farmaian identifies four categories of historical writing on Iran: chronicles; histories written by Western diplomats and other officials; studies on the nature of history; and works by scholars steeped in Iranian culture (danishmandan-i mutabahhir dar hunar-i irani). Farman-Farmaian decries the principal 19th-century Persian chroniclers who, he says, to some extent followed the style of their predecessors; their writing, he says, is full of turbidity (ta'qid), affectations (takalluf), and verbosity (itnab), characteristics which for the most part are an obstacle to the presentation of the realities of historical events[26]. In this opinion, he is in agreement with E.G. Browne, who compares Persian historiography adversely to Arab historiography, and has a low opinion of all Persian historical work "composed during the last six or seven centuries"[27]. This takes us back to Mongol times, and to the Tarikh-i Wassaf, a work which, says Browne, "exercised an enduring evil influence on subsequent historians in Persia"[28].

In his category "histories written by Western diplomats", Farman-Farmaian mentions three modern British authors who wrote histories of Iran: Sir John Malcolm, R.G. Watson, and Sir Percy Sykes[29]. Watson is only of peripheral interest to the Safavid historian, since his work deals primarily with the Qajar period down to 1858, but his comment that the Safavid family was still considered by many Persians in the middle of the 19th century "to be the Agas, or masters, of the country"[30], is of more than passing interest. Farman-Farmaian dismisses the works of all three writers as being of no value whatever today (az hich lihaz kamtarin arzishi nadarand)[31], but Adamiyat is more charitable towards Malcolm and another 19th-century British author of a history of Iran, Sir Clements Markham[32]. Their histories, he says, "at least had the merit of making Persians aware that a style of historiography different from what they were used to was possible. Although neither of these authors was an expert historian, their works were more significant (ba ma'nitar) than the usual Persian histories"[33].

  1. Persian scholars are not the only ones given to these grandiose titles. The British historian E.H. Carr, for example, wrote a book entitled What is History? (Penguin Books, 1964).
  2. Franz Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography, Leiden 1952, p. 8.
  3. Iran-Nameh, Vol. XII, Summer 1994: A Special Issue on Iranian Identity.
  4. On the claims of the Qutbshahi ruler in the Deccan, see Roger M. Savory, The Shi`i Enclaves in the Deccan (15th-17th Centuries: An Historical Anomaly, in Corolla Torontonensis: Studies in Honor of Ronald Morton Smith (eds. Emmet Robbins and Stella Sandahl), Toronto 1994, pp. 180 ff.
  5. A Study of History, Oxford University Press 1934, I, p. 349.
  6. A Study of History, I, p. 398. It is, of course, fashionable these days to decry Toynbee's Study of History, to dub him a "system-maker", and even to deny Toynbee the title of `historian' (see G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, Fontana Books 1969, p. 58 and note 27; p. 83 and note 4, in which Elton suggests that the title `prophet' would be more appropriate than `historian'. This work is hereinafter quoted as `Elton'.
  7. N. Steensgard, The Asian trade revolution of the seventeenth century, Chicago 1973, p. 381.
  8. Lt.-Col. P.M. Sykes, A History of Persia, 2 vols., London 1915, Vol. II, p. 268.
  9. H.R. Roemer, The Safavid Period, in Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. VI, Cambridge University Press 1986, p. 190.
  10. Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1974, I, p. 32.
  11. Published in Germany in 1939 under the title Geschichte der Islamischen Völker und Staate. These ten pages, incidentally, contain several major errors of fact.
  12. Leiden 1938: Ta'rikh, pp. 233-45.
  13. E.G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, Cambridge University Press, 1930, IV, p. 107. For a very different view, see Roger M. Savory, "Very dull and arduous reading: a reappraisal of The History of Shah 'Abbas the Great by Iskandar Beg Munshi," in Studies on the History of Safawid Iran, Variorum Reprints, London 1987, XII, pp. 19-37 (hereinafter cited as Variorum).
  14. See John Emerson's excellent survey in Some General Accounts of the Safavid and Afsharid Period, primarily in English, Pembroke Papers I (1990), p. 29.
  15. The Dynasts, 236. 2.
  16. M.B. Dickson's lengthy review article on Lockhart's work is unfortunately an early example of political correctness (see Journal of the American Oriental Society, 82/1962, pp. 503-17. Dickson's pious hope that "the intent of this review not been misconstrued" (p. 516) was not realised. Emerson, for example, refers to the "attitudes excoriated by Dickson" (Some General Accounts ...", p. 30).
  17. In Ayandeh, ii, 1927-8, pp. 357-65; 489-97; 801-12.
  18. For example, the Habib al-Siyar, Lubb al-Tavarikh, Tarikh-i 'Alam-ara-yi 'Abbasi, and Silsilat al-Nasab-i Safaviyya.
  19. See Zeki Velidi Togan, Sur l'origine des Safavides, in Mélanges Louis Massignon, Damascus 1957, pp. 345-57.
  20. David Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom, London, 1956, p. 109: "Isma'il as-Safawi was himself not a Persian but a Turcoman".
  21. A Study of History, I, p. 353.
  22. Jang-i Chaldiran, in Majalla-yi Danishkada-yi Adabiyyat va `Ulum-i Insani-yi Danishgah-i Tihran, 1/2, 1937 A.H.S./1953, reprinted in Chand Maqala-yi Tarikhi va Adabi, 1343 A.H.S./1964.
  23. Lutfullah Hunarfar, Ganjina-yi Athar-i Tarikhi-yi Isfahan, Tehran 1344 A.H.S./1965.
  24. Hafiz Farman-Farmaian, Nukati chand dar bara-yi mushkilat-i tarikh-nivisi dar iran (`Some considerations regarding the difficulties of writing history in Iran'), in Bar-rasiha-yi tarikhi, Year I, No. 5/6, 1345 A.H.S./1345 1966-7, p. 167 (hereinafter cited as Nukati chand).
  25. Adamiyat's article appeared in Sukhan, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1346 A.H.S./1967, pp. 17-30 (hereinafter cited as Inhitat.
  26. Nukati chand, p. 175.
  27. Browne, IV, p. 443; 446.
  28. Browne, IV, p. 443; see also p. 413.
  29. Authors respectively of: History of Persia, London 1815; A History of Persia from the beginning of the 19th century to the year 1858, with a review of the principal events that led to the establishment of the Kajar Dynasty, London, 1866,; and A History of Persia, 2 vols., London 1915. Dickson disparages the whole of what he calls the "Curzon-Sykes school of history" (see Martin B. Dickson, The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, 1962, p. 510).
  30. Watson, p. 38.
  31. Nukati chand, p. 170. One should note in passing that the contemporary British historian, M.E. Yapp, is equally scathing in his condemnation of the histories of Malcolm and Sykes. In his article "Two British Historians of Persia", in Bernard Lewis and P.M. Holt (eds.), in Historians of the Middle East, Oxford University Press 1962 (hereinafter quoted as HME), pp. 343-56, he tentatively suggests that the deficiencies of these two authors as historians may be attributed to their upbringing in Victorian public schools (p. 356).
  32. A General Sketch of the History of Persia, London 1874.
  33. Inhitat, p. 20.
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