Remember, it ends in 'se'
- Jul 28, 2004
THE SAFAVID DYNASTY IN THE TIME OF THE PROVOSTS
What Has Come Before
I: My Kingdom From A Horse
The Safavid Shahs of Persia to 1788
Ismail I 1501–1524
Tahmasp I 1524–1576
Ismail II 1576–1578
Mohammed Khodabanda 1578–1587
Abbas I 1587–1629
Abbas II 1642–1666
Suleiman I 1665-1694
Husayn I 1694-1722
Suleiman II 1722-1751
Abbas III 1751-1769
Suleiman III 1769-1788
Sometimes history is changed by great and powerful events. The rise of Persia to prominence in world affairs and its tragic sundering in the 19th century will be attributed to a great many factors - most often the wholesale importation of Continental philosophy - and philosophers! - during the reigns of Suleiman II and Abbas III, and their increasing intellectual and political ties to powerful but ultimately-doomed France. Other histories emphasize the stunning victory in the Caucasus War, which simultaneously cowed and infuriated the Russian and Ottoman empires.
But the true cause is much more mundane. If one were to turn back the clock to November 5, 1659, around two P.M., and observe a specific woodland near Isfahan - one would see the young man who would someday become Suleiman I of Persia dismount his horse during a hunt.
In a different time, perhaps Suleiman would have dismounted the horse properly and nothing would have come of the day, or perhaps the kick of the horse would have come at a different angle and a different young man would ascend to the Peacock Throne on the death of Abbas II six years later.
But the horse kicked him squarely in the forehead, fracturing the youth's skull and throwing him into unconsciousness for some hours.
Suleiman was rushed to Isfahan and treated with great care. The recovery was miraculous - by many accounts, including that of the royal physician, young Suleiman seemed to have died - and the lad quickly recovered his physical strength and seemed to retain his mental faculties.
However, the blow seriously altered the future Shah's behavior and personality. He took a lingering distaste to the ostentation of the Persian monarchy, opting for simple dress and favoring the more withdrawn comfort of scholarship over the usual Shah's life of food, wine, and women. As Shah, he made reluctant and rare additions to the royal canon of poetry - preferring instead philosophy. His greatest enthusiasm in life seemed to be poring over the works of recent and contemporary philosophers: his translation of Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy is widely considered the finest in any language besides the original.
While his own output would not ultimately be noteworthy in the annals of philosophy - and was generally hindered by lingering bouts of melancholy resulting from his head injury - his devotion to the liberal arts would quickly attract scholarship from across the Islamic world, which the Peacock Throne lavishly subsidized.
More controversial was his policy towards the Jews of Persia: under his reign, they went from a widely marginalized and reviled group, often without any human rights at all, to a people guaranteed the protection of government and freedom to worship (albeit under the ubiquitous regime of the jizyah). While the freedoms granted to Persian Jewry were widely considered the results of the whim of a capricious monarch, Husayn I retained most of them out of respect for his predecessor. The ultimate result of the protection and growing tolerance of Jews in Persia was dramatic immigration to the country by wealthy and scholarly Jews from Europe and the Middle East. Almost every time a Christian prince or Sunni emir abused and disinherited his Jewish subjects, the population and influence of Persia grew.
The moody, scholarly Suleiman I passed away in 1694. He would pass a stronger Persian state to his progeny; perhaps more importantly, in the cofeehouses and libraries of Isfahan, Mashhad, and Tehran the beginnings of the Academy that would dominate Asia were swiftly and surely forming.
The 18th century saw the trends the late 17th had established continue: in philosophy and economics the Persians maintained a singular excellence, and they steadily industrialized and maintained a strong, modern military thanks to a strong friendship with France. A cordial relationship with Europe ensured that Persian influence could spread by the sea without serious interference; Persian traders joined Omanis in the Horn and Europeans in West Africa; Chinese goods (and, to a degree, their language) were introduced to European markets by Persian merchant companies; Spanish missionaries in Northern California in the beginning of the 19th century encountered Amerind tribes converted to Shi'a, including the numerous and widespread Miwok.
But the undoing of the golden age of the Safavid shahs would be the enemies that very dynamism would draw to the land of the Lion and Sun. While no one event was to bear sole responsibility, there is no doubt that the clashing of Persian and British interests in India lead directly to the the fateful strength of the alliance between Revolutionary France and Suleiman IV of Persia.
Next time: Suleiman IV