PRE-20TH CENTURY HISTORY: Safavid Iran: Rebirth of an Empire

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PRE-20TH CENTURY HISTORY: Safavid Iran: Rebirth of an Empire , by Andrew J. Newman. London, UK: IB Taurus, 2006. xii + 128 pages. Appends. to p. 144. Notes to p. 281. Index. 35 BP.

Reviewed by Willem Floor

In eight chapters and an epilogue, Andrew J. Nathan aims to offer a new history of Safavid Iran (1501-1722), because the only other general overview study on Safavid Iran, by Roger Savory, is out of print and dated. In his introduction the author laments that despite a surge in Safavid studies, the promise of a new approach and understanding of Safavid Iran remains a chimera and conventional wisdom still reigns. He therefore wants to offer an alternative multi-disciplinary approach rather than just updating Savory's book. The author therefore also discards the use of the term "state" (on rather flimsy grounds; pp. 8, 123) and instead uses the undefined term "project" to refer to the Safavid state. He then briefly discusses the career of the founder of the Safavid state, Shah Isma'il I (r. 1501-24). The author argues that his spiritual heterodox message, the use of marriage, and economic ties sustained the Safavid project.

The second chapter is about Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-76) who reconfigured and consolidated his father's gains and power relationships through targeted spiritual discourse and patronage, while he and the power elite also promoted art. The third chapter is about Isma'il II (r. 1576-77) and Khodabandeh (r. 1577-87), whose reign was characterized by civil war among the Turkish nomadic elite and invasion by Ottomans and con Uzbegs - despite all that the Safavid project persisted, for all competing parties wanted it to continue. Chapter four deals with 'Abbas I (r. 1587-1629). This chapter succinctly discusses the various political, economic, military, and artistic developments during his reign. In addition to the existing power elite, royal slaves and Twelver Shi'ites also became part of the governing body. As before, the "carrot" (marriage, patronage) and the "stick" continued to be used to promote loyalty to the cause. In chapter five, the political, economic, and cultural events evolving under Safi I (r. 1629-42) are discussed resulting in long-lasting peace with the Ottomans, while chapter six does the same for 'Abbas II (r. 1642-66). The latter aided by a number of able grand-viziers was able to shore up the regime's support and deal decisively with Mughals and Uzbegs. The author emphasizes that Iran during this period was as, if not more, prosperous than under 'Abbas I. In chapter seven, the author assesses Soleyman's reign (r. …