An Introduction to Medieval Safavid Art and Architecture

Detail, Sultan Muhammad, “The Court of Gayumars,” Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp I, c. 1524–25, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 45 x 30 cm, folio 20v (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Safavid art and architecture reflected the adoption of a Shi’a identity.

By Alexandria Brown-Hedjazi
PhD Candidate in Art History
Stanford University

Introduction to the Safavid Dynasty: Rise and Empire

Brilliantly painted manuscripts. Exquisitely detailed miniatures. Fine silks. Complex, ornate palaces. The art of the Safavids is simply magnificent.

The Safavids were a dynastic family that ruled over modern-day Iran. They sustained one of the longest running empires of Iranian history, lasting from 1501 to 1736. At the height of their reign, the Safavids controlled not only Iran, but also the countries we now know as Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Armenia, eastern Georgia, parts of the North Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The maximum extent of the Safavid Empire under Shah Abbas I (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Soon after the Safavids rose to power, they established Twelver Shiism (the largest branch of Shi’a Islam), as the official religion of their dynasty. This distinguished the Safavids from their neighboring and rival empires—the Ottomans (to their west in Turkey), and the Mughals (to their east in India). The Ottomans and Mughals adhered to Sunni Islam. While Shi’a and Sunni share many core Islamic beliefs, the main difference has to do with who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad upon his death in 632. The Sunnis believed the leader should be elected amongst the people, while the Shi’a believed the leader should follow the lineage of Prophet Muhammad’s family. 

Safavid art and architecture reflected this adoption of a Shi’a identity. They invested a great deal of their capital into the building and decoration of shrines of Shi’a saints. This encouraged pilgrimages across the great stretch of the Safavid empire, in places such as Karbala and Najaf, two cities in central Iraq. Shi’a Islam is still the official state religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Safavids are therefore widely known for bringing this historic change to the region. However, the original ancestral line of the Safavids was a religious order of Sufi mystics that lived in Ardabil, a city now in Azerbaijan (Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam that originated during the Umayyad caliphate). 

Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, rejoined the western and eastern halves of the Iranian plateau through military achievement. Prior to the rise of the Safavids, the region was broken up into a mosaic of autonomous states, all governed by local rulers. The emergence of the Safavids marked the first time the region was ruled by Persian kings since the Sasanian dynasty (an empire dating back to the seventh century). Because the Safavids forged an empire of vastly different regions, each with unique artistic tastes and styles, early Safavid artists worked diligently to create a cohesive visual identity that nevertheless reflected the diversity the new Safavid dynasty controlled. This aesthetic was developed even further by Shah Abbas I (who reigned from 1588–1629), the dynasty’s most prolific builder and patron of the arts. Collectively, the Safavids produced one of the richest eras of art production in Islamic history, spanning arts of the book, exquisite textiles, and monumental architecture.

Arts of the Book: The Royal Manuscripts, Single-Sheet Miniatures, and ‘Muraqqa’ Albums

Royal manuscripts provide a glimpse into the fusion of regional styles used in early Safavid art. The best artists from across the empire traveled to work at the royal workshop in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran that was the first capital of the Safavid dynasty. Bihzad, the famed miniaturist from Herat, was commissioned by Shah Ismail to direct this royal workshop. Here, Bihzad helped establish the birth of a new Safavid aesthetic—a hybrid of the colorful expressionism and naturalistic rendering of the dynasties that preceded the Safavids.

Sultan Muhammad, “The Court of Gayumars,” Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp I, c. 1524–25, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 45 x 30 cm, folio 20v (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This fusion of artistic styles is best glimpsed in the story of The Court of the Gayumars, a tale which recounts the mythic origins of Persian kings in the opening of the Shahnameh (the Book of Kings). The Shahnameh is an eleventh-century epic composed by the poet Firdausi. It is one of the most important pieces of Persian literature and records the sweeping history of Persia, from its mythical origins up until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century.

Detail, Sultan Muhammad, “The Court of Gayumars,” Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp I, c. 1524–25, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 45 x 30 cm, folio 20v (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 1522, the Safavid royal library of Shah Tahmasp produced the most exquisitely illustrated Shahnameh of all time, now known as the “Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp.” Royal manuscripts such as this were highly collaborative enterprises that brought together miniaturists, illuminators, calligraphers, poets, scribes, and gold sprinklers. The Court of the Gayumars is renowned for its precision of line and attention to the finest of detail, whether in the rendering of a flowering tree or the sable fur lining the robe of the enthroned king.

Muḥammad Mu˒min, A Young Lady Reclining After a Bath, leaf from the Read Persian Album Herat (Afghanistan), 1590s, 37.8 x 24.1 cm, MS M.386.5r (The Morgan Library and Museum)

Around the middle of the sixteenth century, a trend developed for stand-alone illustrations of popular stories, including the Shahnameh, but encompassing other folkloric literature. This had to do with a decline in the patronage of large scale manuscripts as well as the rise of a market outside of the royal workshop. Safavid artists sold single-sheets and painted miniatures at markets and coffee houses. Whereas manuscripts (hand-made books) included detailed landscapes, margin illustration, background figures, and calligraphic text, single folio paintings featured only the most important and iconic scene from the story (such as A Young Lady Reclining After a Bath). 

The Ardabil Carpet, Maqsud of Kashan, Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per sq. inch), 1539–40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (now at the Victoria & Albert Museum; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Rather than confined within the binding of books, individual miniatures were mobile. Royal elites collaged them into muraqqa—albums in which miniatures from different sources were collected together (muraqqa translates to “that which has been patched together”). Every muraqqa album was entirely different from the next and they brought together excerpts from Persian poetry, calligraphic scripts, miniature paintings, and design motifs.

Safavid Textiles: Shah Abbas and the Rise of Safavid Silk

Scenes from popular stories and floral motifs were applied just as easily to the pages of books as they were to walls of palaces and, most commonly, to designs woven into silk and velvet textiles. The silk industry of early modern Iran was one of the cornerstones of the Safavid economy. While silk had always been a highly sought after Persian commodity, dating back to ancient times, the Safavid era produced one of the most lucrative silk industries of the early modern world.

When Shah Abbas I came to power in 1588, he immediately began making plans to move the Safavid capital to Isfahan, a city in central Iran. This was a strategic move that accomplished two things. First, by bringing the capital closer to the center of the empire and away from the Ottoman border, it safeguarded the court from the Turks. Second, it brought the royal workshops closer to the silk route, making it easier for the Safavids to control the sale of Persian silk.

Silk was akin to gold in this era, and Safavid silk was renowned for both the high quality of its raw silk, as well as the exquisite designs of their embroidered textiles. Europeans imported some of the highest volumes of Safavid textiles. For this reason, many silks used floral and vegetal motifs that appealed to both Persian and foreign markets. The most popular of these themes was the Persian gol o bol-bol (the rose and the nightingale). The rose and nightingale motif was both a literary and decorative theme in Persian culture, symbolizing earthly and spiritual love. In its beauty and perfection, the rose represented the beloved (though its thorns also warned of love’s cruelty), while the doting nightingale, lost in song of longing and devotion, represented the lover. In mystical Islamic poetry, the thirst of the nightingale for the rose was also a metaphor for the soul’s yearning for its union with God. Textiles often included scenes from gardens of paradise. When placed on the floor of palaces and mosques, depictions of verdant florals suggested one was in fact within a garden. 

The Ardabil Carpet, Maqsud of Kashan, Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per sq. inch), 1539–40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran, (now at the Victoria & Albert Museum; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Ardabil carpet, produced during the early period of the Safavid era, is a powerful example of Safavid carpets that resembled heavenly gardens. It also demonstrates the unmatched quality of Safavid weaving and textile design. In the composition of the carpet’s layout, the borders and margins demonstrate how manuscript illumination and the arts of the book carried over into textile design as well. The Ardabil carpet was commissioned for the shrine of Safi al-Din, the founder of the original Safavid order who was also a Sufi sheikh. Textiles were an important architectural and decorative component of the many religious shrines commissioned by Safavid shahs.

Architecture: Palaces, Mosques, Shrines

The Safavids commissioned and built hundreds of monuments during their reign, making them some of the most productive builders in all of Iranian history. The main types of buildings constructed during this time were mosques, palaces, markets, shrines and caravansaries (structures used to shelter travelers during long journeys). While the decoration of each of these buildings varied, the structural composition remained much the same, consisting of domes surrounded by four iwans (or ivans)—rooms that open on one side to a courtyard often framed by pointed arches. This modular layout could be expanded or contracted, creating both monumental and intimate spaces.

Fresco, c. 1597 C.E., Ali Qapu Palace (photo: reibai, CC BY 2.0)

The palaces of the Safavid era, such as the Ali Qapu (Royal Gate) and Chehel Sotoun (Forty Columns) palaces in Isfahan, are remarkable for their decorative figural frescoes. Murals of women decorate the lower level of the Ali Qapu, hinting at the uppermost level of the palace, the harem, a space reserved for the shah and his female attendants. The murals of the Chehel Sotoun, on the other hand, were painted with group scenes of diplomatic receptions and notable battles. These figural murals are one of the defining and unique features of Safavid architectural decor, and are not found as often in Ottoman or Mughal palaces.

Shah Mosque (Royal Mosque), Isfahan, Iran, begun 1611 (photo: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Another singular characteristic of Safavid architecture are the colorful tiles that covered exterior faced and interior domes of mosques. Known as haft-rangi, or “seven-colors,” the Safavids developed a new glazing technology that allowed them to produce polychromatic tiles. A beautiful example of these can be found on the exterior façade of the Shah Mosque (or Royal Mosque) in the main square of Isfahan. Turquoise, lapis, white, and hints of green are all harmoniously blended into the tiled façade. This replaced the old method of cutting single-color tiles and rearranging them into the desired geometric pattern. Haft-rangi tiles produced the effect of façades that glittered in the sunlight of the Iranian plateau, a light noted by visitors far and wide for its clear and iridescent brightness. In addition to multi-colored tiles, Safavids also decorated the surfaces of their walls with “aineh-kari,” or “mirror work,” which consisted of small fragments of mirrors configured into mosaic and geometric patterns. The reflective light of the sun refracted rays of light from the mirrored walls, a brilliant effect heightened by the placement of reflecting pools of water at the courtyard entrances to palaces.

Muqarnas and mirror mosaics, outdoor portal, Chehel Sotoun (photo: Amir Pahaei, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mirror mosaics were used in religious spaces as well, especially in Shi’a mosques and shrines to important Shi’a saints. The reflective light symbolized the presence and light of God, who was conceived as a mirror of the divine realm. Started in the Safavid period, mirror mosaics became an enduring Persian decorative motif that was used by the subsequent dynasties. While used primarily in mosques and shrines, fragments of these mirror mosaics can still be seen in the outdoor portals of the Chehel Sotoun palace, as well as on the columns of the Ali Qapu palace.

Conclusion: Decline and Legacy

As the Safavid dynasty approached the middle of the eighteenth century, the last shahs took less and less interest in foreign and local affairs, and retreated to the interior life of the palace. This left room for invasion by outside enemies, which is exactly what happened in 1722 when the Afghan army besieged the capital of Isfahan. Even after their decline, the Safavids left an influential legacy with far reaching implications for Iranian art, religion, and culture.

The dedication of the Persian Building at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition, October 6, 1926. 20th and Pattison, Philadelphia (source)

The Safavids established an artistic identity that resonated with the dynasties that came after. For instance, the Qajar dynasty (1789–1925), the first major dynasty to succeed the Safavids, continued the tradition of Safavid book arts, painting, and architecture. Outside of Iran, Safavid art was the portal to the wider world of Persian art and architecture when art historians first began studying Islamic art in the early nineteenth century. While the study of Safavid art flourished in modern European cities like Paris, London, and Rome, courses in Persian art were not offered in American universities until the 1940s. This came after a wave of New York exhibitions dedicated to Persian art and culture in 1934, during the millenary celebration of the birth of Firdausi (the author of the previously discussed Shahnameh epic). 

Arthur Upham Pope, a former Professor of aesthetics at Berkeley, and his wife Phyllis Ackerman, a specialist in Islamic textiles, were part of this movement that opened doors to the arts of Iran. Museums around the world commissioned Pope and Ackerman to organize symposia and exhibitions on the topic of Persian art, where works from the Safavid Empire were especially of interest. In one grand example, Pope facilitated a full-scale reproduction of a Safavid mosque at the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition. When the outside world finally began learning about the arts of Iran, it was through the lens and example of the Safavids.

Additional Resources

Originally published by Smarthistory, 10.20.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



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