PRE-20TH CENTURY HISTORY: Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran
Rota, Giorgio, The Middle East Journal
Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran, by Sussan Babaie, Kathryn Babayan, Ina Baghdiantz-McCabe, and Massumeh Farhad. London, UK and New York: LB. Tauris, 2004. xiii +138 pages. Illustrations. Appendix to p. 147. Notes to p. 191. Bibl. top. 211. Index to p. 218. $65.
Slaves of the Shah deals with a central feature of the Safavid period, that is, the presence at the helm of the state in the 17th and 18th centuries of political and commercial elites of foreign origin. The book is organized into five chapters. While the first chapter presents an overview of the phenomenon, the following four deal with the role played by these elites in politics, economy, and the patronage of architecture and the arts respectively. Given the importance of the period as a whole and the wide range of activities in which these elites were engaged, the "multicentric approach" (p. 2) chosen by the authors is certainly useful, welcome and innovative. Although one may certainly agree with the authors' general view that the efforts of Shah 'Abbas I at centralization regarded not only politics but also trade and city planning, it is impossible to agree on many single aspects of this view.
The book suffers from two important conceptual flaws. First, the Safavid empire is almost exclusively conceived and analyzed in terms of a household ruled by a "patriarch" (the Shah) through a "triumvirate" (the word is ill-chosen) formed by concubines, eunuchs, and military gholams (pp. 8,42) and extending its control on the provinces, and not as a state with other institutions, necessities, and forces external to the dynamics of the household itself. secondly, the definition of "slave of the Shah" (gholarn) provided by the authors (pp. 6-7: "The designation ghulam [.,.] signifies loyalty to the patriarch") is extremely broad and vague, allowing them to subsume under the same label a wide array of individuals and groups, at times with not much in common among them (and apparently inclusive of the tofangchis as well: p. 23 and n. 11 pp. 172-173). In so doing the authors overlook the fact that the military gholams formed a corps of the Safavid army, with internal hierarchies and dynamics that today may escape us, but that undoubtedly existed. Rather, the authors offer a sort of gendered interpretation of Safavid history, according to which the gholams became the adopted sons, brothers and, paradoxically, fathers of the Shah-patriarch, the members of an "extended household" and "surrogate family" (passim) - a contention that appears supported not by evidence but only by the authors' firm belief in their own opinions. Such an interpretation allows them to assimilate the Grand Vizier Mirza Taqi, one of the main "protagonists" of the book, to the imported white and black eunuchs of the Royal harem: in his case, in the view of the Authors, castration obliterated not only a part of his anatomy but also the fact that he belonged to a bureaucratic family of Iranian stock and that he had begun a promising career as administrator before being castrated. The stress placed on the household leads the authors completely to disregard, for instance, the role played in the disgrace and execution of Zeynal Khan Shamlu by the disastrous defeat he suffered at the hands of the Ottomans at Marivan in 1630 (pp. 34-35).
These two main features of the book are compounded by a number of ad hoc generalizations and even outright mistakes, which in some cases are clearly venial, while in others undermine the assumptions of the Authors to a different extent. In general, chapters 1-2 often tend to show the gholam system as complete and smoothly working from its inception, failing to show its diachronic development. Above all, they suggest an image of the gholams as somewhat monolithically pitted against equally monolithic non-gholam factions. …