What Was the Safavid Empire?

This Safavid tile portrait of a woman shows typical Persian unconcern with depicting humans.
A Safavid Empire tile from Persia depicts a beautiful woman. dynamosquito on Flickr.com

Definition:

The Safavid Empire, based in Persia (Iran), ruled over much of southwestern Asia from 1501 to 1736. Members of the Safavid Dynasty likely were of Kurdish Persian descent, and belonged to a unique order of Sufi-infused Shi'a Islam called Safaviyya. In fact, it was the founder of the Safavid Empire, Shah Ismail I, who forcibly converted Iran from Sunni to Shi'a Islam and established Shi'ism as the state religion.

At its height, the Safavid Dynasty controlled not only the entirety of what is now Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, but also most of Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, and the Caucasus, and parts of Turkey, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. As one of the powerful "gunpowder empires" of the age, the Safavids re-established Persia's place as a key player in economics and geopolitics at the intersection of the eastern and western worlds. It ruled over the western reaches of the late Silk Road, although the overland trade routes were quickly being supplanted by ocean-going trading vessels.

The greatest Safavid ruler was Shah Abbas I (r. 1587 - 1629), who modernized the Persian military, adding musketeers and artillery-men; moved the capital city deeper into the Persian heartland; and established a policy of tolerance towards Christians in the empire. However, Shah Abbas was fearful to the point of paranoia about assassination, and executed or blinded all of his sons to prevent them from replacing him. As a result, the empire began a long, slow slide into obscurity after his death in 1629.