The 1600s in Iran are ushered in with strengthened borders and a revived economy under the aegis of Shah ‘Abbas. The country’s role in international trade attracts many Europeans, whose art provides fresh inspiration for the Persians. This golden age comes to an end with the death of ‘Abbas. His successors, raised in the harem and not sent out to govern the provinces, do not develop the necessary administrative skills to maintain the empire, and the Safavid polity is once again weakened. In the 1700s, a number of Turkman tribes rebel against the shahs, and Afghan groups on Iran’s borders launch a series of invasions, culminating in the 1722 occupation of Isfahan. The dynasty is thus effectively put to an end, although further descendants of the Safavid line are placed on the throne as puppets by the Zand and Afsharid dynasties. These dynasties are short-lived, however, and it is not until the Qajars prevail at the turn of the nineteenth century that a long-lasting peace is restored in Iran.
During the reign of Shah ‘Abbas, the encroaching armies of the Ottomans, Uzbeks, and Mughals are pushed back and the newly reorganized Safavid troops regain Tabriz, Herat, and Baghdad. ‘Abbas’ decision to place textile and carpet production and the silk trade under state control, as well as to refurbish trade routes, solidifies the Iranian economy and attracts foreign traders. Their numerous travel accounts enliven our knowledge of daily life in seventeenth-century Iran. These Europeans also bring prints and oil paintings to Iran that have a profound effect on the local art scene, as on the arts of India and Turkey during this period.
Don García de Silva y Figueroa, ambassador of Philip III of Spain, arrives in Isfahan.
Using the ships of the British East India Company, ‘Abbas ousts the Portuguese from Hormuz to regain control of trade through the Persian Gulf. The English send a diplomatic embassy to Shah ‘Abbas, headed by Sir Dodmore Cotton.
Shah Safi (r. 1629–42) loses Baghdad and Qandahar. A product of an upbringing in the harem, Safi is a weak ruler, but his chief minister capably governs for him, keeping the country stable for the next few years.
Shah ‘Abbas II is a better administrator than his father Safi, but is highly susceptible to the influence of religious leaders. Under him and his successors Sulayman (r. 1666–94) and Sultan Husayn (r. 1694–1722), Jews, Christians, and nonconformist Muslims all face persecution. Mismanagement, corruption, and injustice lead to the steady decline of the Safavid empire.
Louis XIV of France sends envoys to Iran with portraits of himself and prints by the artist François Mazot.
The Ghalzai Afghans revolt and occupy Qandahar. They proceed to march on Kirman and Isfahan in 1719.
The fall of Isfahan. Strife in the country encourages Peter the Great of Russia to occupy Darband and Baku in 1723, and the Ottomans to invade Azerbaijan in 1726. Iran is forced to cede lands in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Nadir Quli of the Afshar tribe places Tahmasp II back on the throne. After ridding Persia of its Afghan invaders, Nadir is rewarded with the governorship of Khorasan, Kirman, Sistan, and Mazandaran. During the years 1730–35, he regains all the territory lost to the Ottomans and expels the Russians as well. In 1732, ‘Abbas III succeeds as the Safavid shah after Tahmasp is killed.
Deciding not to rule any longer behind the veil of the Safavid state, Nadir Quli crowns himself. This marks the beginning of the Afsharid dynasty.
Nadir Shah’s ambitions of creating a vast empire and his military successes thus far take him to India, where he eyes Delhi as the prize. The weak Mughal state, under Muhammad Shah, is unable to withstand his forces and Delhi is looted. Two hundred years’ worth of Mughal riches are carted back to Iran and India cedes its lands north and west of the Indus River. Upon Nadir Shah’s return, his behavior becomes increasingly cruel and erratic; he is finally murdered in 1747. Two sons succeed him but the dynasty is severely threatened. They are slowly pushed out of central Iran into Khorasan, where Shah Rukh, grandson of Nadir Shah, remains in power until 1796. The Bakhtiyars and Zands occupy Isfahan in 1750 when the Afsharids can no longer hold it.
Karim Khan, member of the Zand tribe in southern Iran, reigns as vakil, or regent, of another puppet Safavid shah, thus reviving the dynasty once again. A modicum of political tranquility is restored during his almost thirty years in power in Shiraz and the region’s economy recovers. Karim Khan builds extensively in Shiraz and his patronage of art and literature allows Safavid traditions to continue into the Qajar era.
Aqa Muhammad Khan (r. 1785–97), member of the rival Qajar tribe and hostage at the Zand court, escapes and takes control of the northern provinces of Iran. In 1785, he is crowned shah and the following year makes Tehran his capital. He then installs various brothers and cousins in Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kirman, and kills the last Zand, Fath ‘Ali Khan, in revenge for his years in captivity. By the mid-1790s, all tribal rivals have been eliminated and Iran is united under one stable rule.
Aqa Muhammad Khan is assassinated, but the foundations he has laid are strong enough for the dynasty to continue. He is succeeded by his nephew Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834).
“Iran, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=wai (October 2003)