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Tahmasp I

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Tahmasp I
Tahmasp I.png
Tahmasp I in the mountains (detail), by Farrukh Beg
Shah of Iran
Reign23 May 1524 – 25 May 1576
Coronation2 June 1524
PredecessorIsmail I
SuccessorIsmail II
See list
Born(1514-02-22)22 February 1514
Shahabad, Isfahan, Safavid Iran
Died25 May 1576(1576-05-25) (aged 62)
Qazvin, Safavid Iran
SpouseMany, among them:
Sultanum Begum
Sultan-Agha Khanum
IssueSee below
Abu'l-Fath Tahmasp (Persian: ابوالفتح تهماسب)
FatherIsmail I
MotherTajlu Khanum
ReligionTwelver Shia Islam
SealTahmasp I's signature

Tahmasp I (Persian: طهماسب, romanizedṬahmāsb or تهماسب Tahmâsb; 22 February 1514 – 14 May 1576) was the second Shah of Safavid Iran from 1524 to 1576. He was the eldest son of Ismail I and his principal consort, Tajlu Khanum. Ascending the throne after the death of his father on 23 May 1524, the first years of Tahmasp's reign were marked by civil wars between the Qizilbash leaders until 1532, when he asserted his authority and began an absolute monarchy. He soon faced a longstanding war with the Ottoman Empire, which was divided into three phases. The Ottomans, under Suleiman the Magnificent, tried to put their favoured candidates on the Safavid throne. The war ended with the Peace of Amasya in 1555, with the Ottomans gaining sovereignty over Baghdad, much of Kurdistan and western Georgia. Tahmasp also had conflicts with the Uzbeks of Bukhara over Khorasan, with them repeatedly raiding Herat. He led an army in 1528 (when he was fourteen), and defeated the Uzbeks in the Battle of Jam; he used artillery, unknown to the other side.

Tahmasp was a patron of the arts, building a royal house of arts for painters, calligraphers and poets, and was an accomplished painter himself. Later in his reign he came to despise poets, shunning many and exiling them to India and the Mughal court. Tahmasp is known for his religious piety and fervent zealotry for the Sh'ia branch of Islam. He bestowed many privileges on the clergy and allowed them to participate in legal and administrative matters. In 1544 he demanded that the fugitive Mughal emperor Humayun convert to Shi'ism in return for military assistance to reclaim his throne in India. Nevertheless, Tahmasp still negotiated alliances with the Christian powers of the Republic of Venice and the Habsburg monarchy.

His succession was disputed before his death. When Tahmasp died on 14 May 1576, a civil war followed, leading to the death of most of the royal family. Tahmasp's reign of nearly fifty-two years was the longest of any member of the Safavid dynasty. Although contemporary Western accounts were critical, modern historians describe him as a courageous and able commander who maintained and expanded his father's empire. His reign saw a shift in the Safavid ideological policy; he ended the worshipping of his father as the Messiah by the Turkoman Qizilbash tribes and instead established a public image of a pious and orthodox Sh'ia king. He started a long process followed by his successors to end the Qizilbash influence on Safavid politics, replacing them with the newly-introduced 'third force' containing Islamised Georgians and Armenians.


"Tahmasp" (Persian: طهماسب, romanizedṬahmāsb) is a New Persian name, ultimately derived from Old Iranian *ta(x)ma-aspa, meaning "having valiant horses."[1] The name is one of the few instances of a name from the Shahnameh being used by an Islamic-era dynasty based in Iran.[2] In the Shahnameh, Tahmasp is the father of Zaav, the penultimate shah of the Pishdadian dynasty.[3]


Tahmasp was the second shah of the Safavid dynasty, a family of Kurdish origin,[4] who were sheikhs of a Sufi tariqa known as the Safavid order and centered in Ardabil.[5] The first sheikh of the order and eponym of the dynasty, Safi-ad-din Ardabili, married the daughter of Zahed Gilani and became master of his father-in-law's order, the Zahediyeh.[6] Two of Safi-ad-Din's descendants, Shaykh Junayd and Shaykh Haydar, made the order more militant in nature and unsuccessfully tried to expand their domain.[5]

Tahmasp's father, Ismail I, became shah of Iran in 1502, a state war-ridden after the collapse of the Timurid Empire. He conquered the territories of the Aq Qoyunlu tribal confederation, the Shaybanid lands in eastern Iran, and many city-states by 1512.[7] Ismail's realm contained the modern Iranian borders, in addition to sovereignty over Georgia, Armenia, Daghestan, and Shirvan in the west, and Herat in the east.[8] Unlike his Sufist ancestors, Ismail believed in Twelver Shia Islam and made it the official religion of the realm.[9] He forced conversion on the Sunni population by abolishing Sunni Sufi orders, seizing their property, and giving the Sunni ulama a choice of conversion, death, or exile.[10] From this, a power vacuum emerged which gave the Shia ulama the opportunity to create a clerical aristocracy filled with seyyid and mujtahid landowners.[11]

Ismail established the Qizilbash tribes as inseparable members of the Safavid administration, since they were the "men of the sword" who brought him to power.[7][12] These "men of the sword" clashed with the "men of the pen", who controlled the bureaucracy and were mainly Persian. Ismail created the title of vakil-e nafs-e nafs-e homayoun (deputy to the king) to resolve the dispute.[7] Clashes between the Qizilbash leaders and Persian bureaucrats climaxed in the Battle of Ghazdewan between Ismail's vakil Najm-e Sani and the Uzbeks. The Uzbek victory, during which Najm was captured and executed afterwards, was a result of many of the Qizilbash forces leaving the vakil to fight on his own.[13]

The Uzbeks of Bukhara were a recurring problem on the Iranian eastern borders. The Safavids and the Chingissid[14] Shaybanid dynasty rose to power almost simultaneously at the turn of the sixteenth century.[15] By 1503, when Ismail I had taken possession of large parts of the Iranian plateau, Muhammad Shaybani, Khan of Bukhara, had conquered Khwarazm and Khorasan. Ismail defeated and killed Muhammad Shaybani in the Battle of Marv in 1510, returning Khorasan to Iranian possession, though Khwarazm and the Persianate cities in Transoxiana remained in Uzbek hands.[15] Thereafter the possession of Khorasan became the main bone of contention between Safavids and Shaybanids.[15]

In 1514, Ismail's prestige and authority was damaged by his loss in the Battle of Chaldiran against the Ottoman Empire. Before the war with the Ottomans, Ismail promoted himself as a reincarnation of Ali or Husayn.[16] This belief weakened after Chaldiran, and Ismail lost his theological-religious relationship with the disappointed Qizilbash tribes who had previously seen him as invincible.[17] This affected Ismail, who began drinking heavily and never again led an army; this permitted the seizure of power by the Qizilbash tribes which overshadowed Tahmasp's early reign.[18]

Early life[edit]

Abu'l-Fath Tahmasp Mirza,[19] for short, Tahmasp Mirza, was born on 22 February 1514 in Shahabad, a village near Isfahan as the eldest son of Ismail I and his principal consort Tajlu Khanum.[20] In 1516, when he was three years old, the province of Khorasan became a fief of the young Tahmasp Mirza by the royal decree of Ismail.[19] This appointment was specially done to move the Safavid's imperial ideology towards that of Timurid dynasty, who followed the Turco-Mongol tradition of appointing the eldest son of a sovereign to govern a prominent province like Khorasan. The centre of this major province, the city of Herat, would go on to be the city where Safavid crown princes were raised, trained, and educated throughout the sixteenth century.[21] In 1517, Ismail appointed the Diyarbakr governor Amir Soltan Mawsillu as Tahmasp's lala (tutor) and governor of Balkh, a city located in Khorasan.[22] His appointment was done to replace the Shamlu and Mawsillu governors of Khorasan, who did not join his army during the Battle of Chaldiran for fear of famine.[23] Placing Tahmasp in Herat was an attempt to reduce the growing influence of the Shamlu tribe, which dominated Safavid court politics and held a number of powerful governorships.[20] Ismail also appointed Amir Ghiyath al-Din Mohammad, a prominent Herat figure, as Tahmasp's religious tutor.[20]

A struggle for Herat emerged between the two tutors. Amir Soltan arrested Ghiyath al-Din and executed him the following day, but was ousted from his position in 1521 by a sudden raid by the Uzbeks who crossed the Amu Darya and seized portions of the city.[24] Ismail appointed Div Sultan Rumlu as Tahmasp's lala, and the governorship was given to his younger son Sam Mirza Safavi.[20] During his years in Herat, Tahmasp developed a love for writing and painting. He became an accomplished painter, and dedicated a work to his brother, Bahram Mirza. The painting was a humorous composition of a gathering of Safavid courtiers, featuring music, singing and wine-drinking.[25]

In the spring of 1524, Ismail became ill on a hunting trip to Georgia and recovered in Ardabil on his way back to the capital.[26] But he soon developed a high fever which led to his death on 23 May 1524 in Tabriz.[27]


A seated Tahmasp under a modest tent, with other people
Persian miniature attributable to Mo'en Mosavver of a young Tahmasp holding court, attended by courtiers and olama. Album leaf from a copy of Bijan's Tarikh-i Jahangusha-yi Khaqan Sahibqiran (A History of Shah Ismail I), Isfahan, c. 1670

The ten-year-old Tahmasp ascended the throne after his father's death under the guardianship of Div Sultan Rumlu, his lala, the de facto ruler of the realm.[20] Rule by a member of the Rumlu tribe was unacceptable to the other Turkoman tribes of the Qizilbash, especially the Ostajlu and Takkalu.[28] Kopek Sultan, governor of Tabriz and leader of Ostajlu with Chuha Sultan (leader of the Takkalu tribe) were Rumlu's firmest opponents.[28] The Takkalu were powerful in Isfahan and Hamadan, and the Ostajlu held Khorasan and the Safavid capital, Tabriz.[20] Rumlu proposed a triumvirate to the two leaders which was accepted, the terms were for sharing the office of amir al-umara (commander-in-chief).[20] The triarchy was unsustainable, since all sides were dissatisfied with their share of power. In the spring of 1526, a series of battles in northwest Iran expanded into Khorasan and became a civil war.[29] The Ostajlu faction were quickly excluded and their leader, Kopek Sultan, was killed by order of Chuha Sultan.[30] During the civil war, the Uzbeks raiders temporarily seized Tus and Astarabad. Rumlu was blamed for the raids, and was executed[20] by Tahmasp.[28]

At the behest of the young king, Chuha Sultan (the sole remaining member of the triarchy) became de facto ruler of the realm from 1527 to 1530.[30] Chuha tried to remove Herat from Shamlu dominance, which led to a conflict between the two tribes. In early 1530, the Herat governor, Hossein Khan Shamlu and his men, killed Chuha and executed every Takkalu in the retinue of the shah in the royal camp. Thereafter Hossein Khan replaced Chuha.[28] In the contemporary chronicles, this event is dubbed as "the Takkalu pestilence".[20] While the civil war was ongoing among the Qizilbash, the Uzbeks under Ubayd Allah Khan conquered the border lands.[31] In 1528, Ubayd reconquered Astarabad and Tus and besieged Herat. Fourteen-year-old Tahmasp commanded the army and defeated the Uzbeks, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Jam.[20] Safavid superiority in the battle was due to their use of artillery, which they had learned from the Ottomans.[32] The then governor of Herat and Tahmasp's regent, Hossein Khan Shamlu, distinguished himself admirably during the battle and earned the respect of the shah.[21] The victory, however, reduced neither the Uzbek threat nor the realm's internal chaos, since Tahmasp had to return to the west to suppress a rebellion in Baghdad.[33] That year, the Uzbeks captured Herat; however, they allowed Sam Mirza to return to Tabriz. Their occupation did not last long, and Tahmasp drove them out in the summer of 1530. He appointed his brother, Bahram Mirza, governor of Khorasan and Ghazi Khan Takkalu as Bahram's tutor.[34]

By this point, Tahmasp had turned seventeen, and thus no longer needed a regent. Hossein Khan Shamlu circumvented this challenge by having himself named as the steward to Tahmasp's newborn son, Mohammad Mirza. Aggressive court behaviours combined with the rumours that Hossein Khan intended to depose Tahmasp and place his brother, Sam Mirza, on the throne, finally led Tahmasp to rid himself from the powerful Shamlu amir.[35] Thus Hossein Khan was overthrown and executed in 1533.[28] His fall was a turning point for Tahmasp, who now knew that each Turkoman leader would favour his own tribe. He reduced the influence of the Qizilbash and gave the "men of the pen" bureaucracy greater power, ending the regency.[31][36]


Ottoman war[edit]

Qajar painted and printed cotton pictorial kalamkar panel depicting Tahmasp I in battle, surrounded by various other warriors, signed Sheikh Ali, Iran, second half 19th century.

Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, may have considered a strong Safavid empire a threat. During the first decade of Tahmasp's reign, however, he was preoccupied with fighting the Habsburgs and unsuccessfully attempted to Seize Vienna.[37] In 1532, while the Ottomans were fighting in Hungary, Suleiman sent Olama Beg Takkalu with 50,000 troops under Fil Pasha to Iran.[20] Olama Beg was one of many Takkalu members who, after Chuha's death, took refuge in the Ottoman Empire.[38] The Ottomans seized Tabriz and Kurdistan, and tried to obtain support from Gilan province.[39] Tahmasp drove the Ottomans out, but news of another Uzbek invasion prevented him from defeating them.[20] Suleiman sent his grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, to occupy Tabriz in July 1534 and joined him two months later.[37] Suleiman peacefully conquered Baghdad and Shia cities such as Najaf.[39] Whilst the Ottomans were on the march, Tahmasp was in Balkh campaigning against the Uzbeks.[20]

The first Ottoman invasion may have been the greatest crisis of Tahmasp's reign,[40] since the Shamlu tribe unsuccessfully tried to poison him; they revolted against Tahmasp, who had recently asserted his authority by removing Hossein Khan.[41] The rebels contacted Suleiman and asked him for support in enthroning Sam Mirza, who promised to follow a pro-Ottoman policy.[20] Suleiman recognized him as ruler of Iran, which panicked Tahmasp's court.[40] Tahmasp reconquered the seized territory when Suleiman went to Mesopotamia, and Suleiman led another campaign against him. Tahmasp attacked his rearguard, and Suleiman was forced to retreat to Istanbul at the end of 1535 after losing all his gains except Baghdad.[41]

A seated Suleiman the Magnificent, surrounded by other people
Alqas Mirza and Suleiman the Magnificent. Illustration from the Süleymanname.

Relations with the Ottomans remained hostile until the revolt of Alqas Mirza, Tahmasp's younger brother, who led the Safavid army during the 1534-35 Ottoman invasion and was governor of Shirvan.[42] He led an unsuccessful revolt against Tahmasp, who conquered Derbant in the spring of 1547 and appointed his son Ismail as governor.[43] Alqas fled to the Crimea with his remaining forces and took refuge with Suleiman, promised to restore Sunni Islam in Iran and encouraged him to lead another campaign against Tahmasp.[44][45] The new invasion sought the quick capture of Tabriz in July 1548; it soon became clear, however, that Alqas Mirza's claims of support from all the Qizilbash leaders were untrue. The long campaign focused on looting as they plundered Hamadan, Qom and Kashan before they were stopped at Isfahan.[20] Tahmasp did not fight the exhausted Ottoman army, but laid waste the entire region from Tabriz to the frontier; the Ottomans could not permanently occupy the captured lands, since they soon ran out of supplies.[31]

Eventually, Alqas Mirza was captured on the battlefield and imprisoned in a fortress, where he died. Suleiman ended his campaign, and by the fall of 1549 the remaining Ottoman forces retreated.[46] He launched his last campaign against the Safavids in May 1554, when Ismail (Tahmasp's son) invaded eastern Anatolia and defeated Erzerum governor Iskandar Pasha. Suleiman marched from Diyarbakr towards Armenian Karabakh and reconquered the lost lands.[a][47] Tahmasp divided his army into four corps and sent each in a different direction, indicating a significantly-larger Safavid army. With Tahmasp's Safavids holding the advantage, Suleiman had to retreat.[48] The Ottomans negotiated the Peace of Amasya, in which Tahmasp recognized Ottoman sovereignty in Mesopotamia and much of Kurdistan; deferring to Sunni Islam, he banned the holding of Omar Koshan (a festival commemorating the assassination of the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab) and expressing hatred towards the Rashidun caliphs who are held dear by the Sunni Muslims. The Ottomans guaranteed Iranian pilgrims free passage to Mecca, Medina, Karbala, and Najaf.[39][49] Moreover, this treaty enabled Iran to consolidate its forces and resources, while its western provinces were able to recover from war.[49] This peace also demarcated the Ottoman-Safavid frontier in the north-west without the cession of large areas of territory on the Safavid side.[31] These terms, in circumstances favourable to the Safavids, were evidence of the frustration felt by the Suleiman the Magnificent at his inability to inflict a greater defeat on the Safavids.[31]

Georgian campaigns[edit]

Tahmasp was interested in the Caucasus, especially Georgia, for two reasons: to reduce the influence of the Ostajlu tribe (who kept their lands in southern Georgia and Armenia after the 1526 civil war) and a desire for booty, similar to that of his father. Since the Georgians were mainly Christian, he used the pretext of jihad to justify the invasion.[50] Between 1540 and 1553, Tahmasp led four campaigns against the divided state's many kings.[51] The Safavid army looted Tbilisi, including its churches and the wives and children of the nobility, in the first campaign.[52] He also had the governor of Tbilisi, Golbad, converted to Islam. The King of Kartli, Luarsab I, managed to escape and went to hiding during Tahmasp's raiding.[53] During his second invasion, ostensibly to ensure the stability of Georgian territory, he looted the farms and subjugated Levan of Kakheti.[54] One year prior to the Peace of Amasya in 1554, Tahmasp led his last military campaign to into the Caucasus. Throughout his campaigns, he took many prisoners and this time he brought 30,000 Georgians to Iran. One of those prisoners was Luarsab’s mother Nestan Darejan, who committed suicide as she was captured.[55] The descendants of these prisoners formed a "third force" in the Safavid administration and bureaucracy with the Turkomans and Persians and became a main rival to the other two during the later years of the Safavid Empire.[52] Although this "third force" came to power during the reign of Abbas the Great, it began infiltrating Tahmasp's army during the second quarter of his reign as gholams and qurchis and became more influential at the apex of the Safavid empire.[56]

In 1555, in accordance with the Peace of Amasya, eastern Georgia remained in Iranian hands and western Georgia was ruled by the Turks.[57] Never again did Tahmasp appeared on the Caucasus frontier after the treaty. Instead, the Governor of Georgia, Shahverdi Sultan, represented Safavid power north of the Aras River.[55] Tahmasp sought to establish his dominance by imposing a number of Iranian political and social institutions and placing converts to Islam on the thrones of Kartli and Kakheti; one was Davud Khan, brother of Simon I of Kartli.[52] Son of Levan of Kakheti, Prince Jesse also appeared in Qazvin during 1560s and converted to Islam. In return, Tahmasp granted him favours and gifts. The prince was given the old royal palace for his residence in Qazvin, and became the governor of Shaki and adjacent territories.[55] The conversation of these Georgian Princes did not dissuade the Georgian forces who tried to reconquer Tbilisi under Simon I and his father, Luarsab I of Kartli, in the Battle of Garisi; the battle ended in a stalemate, with Luarsab and the Safavid commander Shahverdi Sultan both slain in battle.[58]

Royal refugees[edit]

Tahmasp and Humayun at a spring New Year festival, surrounded by other people
Tahamsp and Humayun at a Nowruz festival (Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan)

One of the most celebrated events of Tahmasp's reign was the visit of Humayun, the eldest son of Babur and emperor of the Mughal empire who faced rebellions by his brothers.[59] Humayun fled to Herat, travelled through Mashhad, Nishapur, Sabzevar and Qazvin, and met Tahmasp at Soltaniyeh in 1544.[60] Tahmasp honoured Homayun as a guest and gave him an illustrated version of Saadi's Gulistan dating back to the reign of Abu Sa'id Mirza, Humayun's great-grandfather;[61][62] however, he refused to give him political assistance unless he converted to Shia Islam. Humayun reluctantly agreed, but reverted to Sunni Islam when he returned to India and did not force the Iranian Shias, who came with him to India, to convert.[59] Tahmasp also demanded a quid pro quo in which the city of Kandahar would be given to his infant son, Morad Mirza.[60][63] Humayun spent Nowruz in the Shah's court, and left in 1545 with an army provided by Tahmasp to regain his lost lands; his first conquest was Kandahar, which he ceded to the young Safavid prince.[64] Morad Mirza soon died, however, and the city became a bone of contention between the two empires; the Safavids said that it had been given to them in perpetuity, and the Mughals said that the apanage expired with the death of the prince.[60] Tahmasp began the first Safavid expedition to Kandahar in 1558, after the death of Humayun, and reconquered the city.[40]

Another notable visitor to Tahmasp's court was Şehzade Bayezid, the fugitive Ottoman prince who rebelled against his father Suleiman the Magnificent and went to the shah with an army of 10,000 to persuade him to begin a war against the Ottomans.[65] Although he honoured Bayezid, Tahmasp did not want to disturb the newly-signed Peace of Amasya.[66][67] Suspecting that Bayezid was planning a coup, he had him arrested and returned to the Ottomans; Bayezid and his children were immediately executed.[65]

Later life and death[edit]

Painting of an aged Tahmasp sitting outdoors under a tree
An aged Tahmasp, painted c. 1575, Qazvin

Although Tahmasp rarely left Qazvin from the Peace of Amasya in 1555 to his death in 1576, he was still active during this period. A 1564 rebellion in Herat was suppressed by Masum Bek and the Khorasan governors, but the region remained troubled and was raided by the Uzbeks two years later.[68] Tahmasp became seriously ill in 1574, and neared death twice in a two-month period.[65] Since he had not chosen a crown prince, the question of succession was raised by members of the royal family and Qizilbash leaders. His favourite son, Haydar Mirza, was supported by the Ustajlu tribe and the powerful court Georgians; the imprisoned prince Ismail Mirza was supported by Pari Khan Khanum, Tahmasp's influential daughter.[69] The pro-Haydar faction tried to eliminate Ismail by winning the favour of the castellan of Qahqaheh Castle (where Ismail was imprisoned), but Pari Khan learned about the plot and informed Tahmasp; the shah, who was still fond of his son, ordered him to be guarded by Afshar musketeers.[70]

Tahmasp, recovered from his illness, returned his attention to affairs of state. Remaining court tensions, however, triggered another civil war when the shah died on 14 May 1576 from poisoning.[71] The poisoning was blamed on Abu Naser Gilani, a physician who attended Tahmasp when he was ill. According to Tarikh-e Alam-ara-ye Abbasi, "He unwisely sought recognition of his superior status vis-à-vis the other physicians; as a result, when Tahmasp died, Abu Nasr was accused of treachery in the treatment he had prescribed, and he was put to death within the palace by members of the qurchi".[31] Tahmasp I had the longest reign of any member of the Safavid dynasty: nine days short of fifty-two years.[31] He died without a designated heir and the two factions in his court clashed for the throne. Heydar Mirza was quickly eliminated, and Ismail Mirza became king and was crowned as Ismail II. Less than two month after his enthronement, Ismail ordered a mass purge of all male members of the royal family. Only Mohammad Khodabanda, already nearly blind, and his three toddler sons survived this purge.[43]



Yellow sun and sheep against a green background
Flag of Tahmasp I
Ornate two-story building, with a person in front for scale
The Chehel Sotoun pavilion in Qazvin

Tahmasp's reign after the civil wars between the Qizilbash leaders became a "personal rule" which sought to control the Turkoman influence by empowering the Persian bureaucracy. The key change was the 1535 appointment of Qazi Jahan Qazvini, who extended diplomacy beyond Iran by establishing contact with the Portuguese, the Venetians, the Mughals and the Shiite Deccan sultanates.[72] English explorer Anthony Jenkinson, who was received at the Safavid court in 1562, also sought to promote trade.[31] The Habsburgs were eager to form an alliance with the Safavids against the Ottomans. In 1529, Ferdinand I sent an envoy to Iran with the objective of a two-front attack on the Ottoman Empire the following year. The mission was unsuccessful, however, since the envoy took over a year to return.[73] The first extant Safavid letters to a European power were sent in 1540 to Doge of Venice Pietro Lando. As a response, the Doge and the Great Council of Venice commissioned Michel Membré to visit the Safavid court. In 1540, he visited Tahmasp's encampment at Marand, near Tabriz. Membré's mission lasted for three years, during which, he wrote the Relazione di Persia, one of the few European sources which describe Tahmasp's court.[74] In his letter to Lando, Tahmasp promised to "cleanse the earth of [Ottoman] wickedness" with the help of the Holy League. The alliance, however, never bore fruit.[75]

One of the most important events of Tahmasp's reign was his relocation of the Safavid capital, which began what is known as the Qazvin period.[76] Although the exact date is uncertain, Tahmasp began preparations to have the royal capital moved from Tabriz to Qazvin during a 1540s period of ethnic re-settlement.[20] The move from Tabriz to Qazvin discontinued the Turco-Mongol tradition of shifting between summer and winter pastures with the herds, ending Ismail I's nomedic lifestyle.[77] The idea of a Turkoman state with a center in Tabriz was abandoned for an empire centered on the Iranian plateau.[78] Moving into a city which with an ancient route through Khorasan linked the realm, allowed a greater degree of centralization as distant provinces such as Shirvan, Georgia and Gilan were brought into the Safavid fold.[79] Qazvin's non-Qizilbash population allowed Tahmasp to bring new staff to his court who were unrelated to the Turkoman tribes.[b][20] The city, associated with orthodoxy and stable governance, developed under Tahmasp's patronage; the era's foremost building is Chehel Sotoun.[80]


The Safavid military evolved during Tahmasp's reign, particularly gunners (tupchiyan) and musketeers (tufangchiyan).[81] Gollar-aghasis, military slaves developed by Tahmasp from Caucasus prisoners, commanded the tupchiyan and tufangchiyan.[82] To lessen Qizilbash power, he discontinued the titles of amir al-umara and vakil.[31] The qurchi-bashi, formerly subordinate to the amir al-umara, became the chief Safavid military officer.[83]

After the Peace of Amasya in 1555, Tahmasp became an avaricious person who did not care how and where his troops obtained their pay, even if it was through criminal means. By 1575, Iran’s troops had not been paid for four years. They are said to have accepted this because, as one chronicler put it, ‘they loved shah so much’.[84]


Blue-and-gold Quran
A Quran probably belonging to Tahmasp I, dated July–August 1552, created in Shiraz or Qazvin

Tahmasp described himself as a "pious Shia mystic king".[85] His religious views and the extent to which they influenced Safavid religious policy is the most interesting aspect of his reign among historians both contemporary and modern. As the Italian historian Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti has noted, “the modern originality of Persian Shi'ism has its roots [with Shah Tahmasp].”[20] Until 1533, the Qizilbash leaders (worshiping Ismail I as the promised Mahdi) urged the young Tahmasp to continue in his father's footsteps; that year, he had a spiritual rebirth, performed an act of repentance and outlawed irreligious behavior.[86] Tahmasp rejected his father's claim of being a mahdi, becoming a mystical lover of Ali and a king bound to sharia,[87] but still enjoyed villagers travelling to his palace in Qazvin to touch his clothing.[20] Tahmasp held firmly to the extremist Shi’i belief in the imminent coming of the Mahdi. He refused to allow his favourite sister, Shahzada Sultanim, to marry, on the grounds that he was keeping her as a bride for the Mahdi.[88] He claimed connections with Ali and Sufi saints, such as his ancestor Safi al-Din, through dreams in which he foresaw the future.[89] Tahmasp wanted the poets of his court to write about Ali, rather than him.[90] He sent copies of Quran as gifts to the Ottoman Empire; overall, during his reign, eighteen copies of Quran were sent to Istanbul and all were encrusted with jewels and gold.[91]

He saw Twelverism as a new doctrine of kingship, giving the ulama authority in religious and legal matters, and appointing Shaykh Ali al-Karaki as the deputy of the Hidden Imam.[85] This brought new political and court power to the mullahs, sayyeds and their networks, intersecting Tabriz, Qazvin, Isfahan, and the recently-incorporated centers of Rasht, Astarabad, and Amol.[92] As observed by Iskandar Beg Munshi, the contemporary historian, the sayyids as a class of landed elite enjoyed considerable power. Throughout the 1530s and 1540s, they dominated the Safavid household in Tabriz and according to Iskandar Beg, “any wish of theirs was translated into reality almost before it was uttered… although they were guilty of unlawful practices.”[93] During Tahmasp's reign, Persian scholars accepted the Safavid sayyid heritage and called him "the Husaynid".[94] Tahmasp embarked on a wide-scale urban program designed to reinvent the city of Qazvin as a centre of Shiite piety and orthodoxy, expanding the Shrine of Husayn (son of Ali al-Ridha, the eighth Imam).[95] He was also attentive to his ancestral Sufi order in Ardabil, building the Janat Sarai mosque to encourage visitors and hold Sama ceremonies.[96] Tahmasp ordered the practice of Sufi rituals, and had Sufis and mullahs come to his palace and perform public acts of piety and zikr for Eid al-Fitr (and renew their allegiance to him). This encouraged Tahmasp's followers to see themselves as belonging to a community too large to be bound by tribal or other local social orders.[97] Although Tahmasp's reign saw the Shia conversion, unlike his father he did not coerce other religious groups; he had a long-established acknowledgment and patronage of Christian Armenians.[98]


A panel of calligraphic manuscript on a gold-outlined floral illumination
A calligraphic panel dedicated to Tahmasp I, signed Muhammad Mu'min, Iran, 16th century.

Tahmasp has been called the greatest Safavid patron.[99] He was the namesake of one of the most celebrated illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh, which was commissioned by his father around 1522 and completed during the mid-1530s.[100] In his youth, Tahmasp was inclined towards calligraphy and art and patronised masters in both.[20] Tahmasp's most celebrated contribution to the Safavid arts was his patronage of Persian miniature manuscripts that took place during the first half of his reign.[101] He encouraged painters such as Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād,[102] bestowing a royal painting workshop for masters, journeymen and apprentices with exotic materials such as ground gold and lapis lazuli. Tahmasp's artists illustrated the Khamsa of Nizami,[103] and he worked on Chehel Sotoun's balcony paintings.[104] The Tarikh-e Alam-ara-ye Abbasi calls Tahmasp's reign the zenith of Safavid calligraphic and pictorial art.[20] Tahmasp lost interest in the miniature arts around 1555 and, accordingly, disbanded the royal workshop and allowed his artists to practice elsewhere.[105]

The reigns of Tahmasp and his father, Ismail I, are considered the most brilliant period in the history of the Azeri Turkish language and literature at this stage of its development. The great poet, Fuzuli, who wrote in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, flourished during this era.[106] During the later years of his life, however, Tahmasp came to despise poets and poetry; as his devotion to the Quran increased, he no longer counted poets as pious men, for many of them were addicted to wine, an irreligious behaviour. Tahmasp refused to allow poets in his court, and ceased to regard them with favour.[107] According to Tazkera-ye Tohfe-ye Sāmi by his brother, Sam Mirza, there were 700 poets during the reigns of the first two Safavid kings. After Tahmasp's religious conversion, many joined Humayun; those who remained and wrote erotic ghazals, such as Vahshi Bafqi and Mohtasham Kashani, were shunned.[20][108] The departure of poets such as Naziri Nishapuri and 'Orfi Shirazi marked the rise of Indian-style poetry, introducing Persian to Indian literature.[109][110]


Tahmasp, unlike his ancestors who married Turkomans, took Georgians and Circassians as wives; most of his children were of Caucasian origin.[114] His only Turkoman consort was his chief wife, Sultanum Begum of the Mawsillu tribe (a marriage of state), who gave birth to two sons: Mohammad Khodabanda and Ismail II.[115] Tahmasp had a poor relationship with Ismail, whom he imprisoned on suspicion that his son might attempt a coup against him.[114] However, he was attentive to his other children; On his orders, his daughters were instructed in administration, art and scholarship,[116] and Haydar Mirza (his favourite son, born of a Georgian slave) participated in state affairs.[117]

Tahmasp had seven known consorts:

He had thirteen sons:

  • Mohammad Khodabanda (1532 – 1595 or 1596), Shah of Iran (r. 1578–1587)[123]
  • Ismail II (31 May 1537 – 24 November 1577), Shah of Iran (r. 1576–77)[43]
  • Murad Mirza (d. 1545), governor of Kandahar; died in infancy[60]
  • Suleiman Mirza (d. 9 November 1576), Governor of Shiraz, killed during Ismail II's purge[43]
  • Haydar Mirza (28 September 1556 – 9 November 1576), self-proclaimed Shah of Iran for a day after Tahmasp's death; killed by his guards in Qazvin[124]
  • Mustafa Mirza, (d. 9 November 1576), killed during Ismail II's purge;[43] his daughter married Abbas the Great[125]
  • Junayd Mirza (d. 1577), killed during Ismail II's purge[31]
  • Mahmud Mirza (d. 7 March 1577), governor of Shirvan and Lahijan, killed during Ismail II's purge[43]
  • Imam Qoli Mirza (died 7 March 1577), killed during Ismail II's purge[43]
  • Ali Mirza (d. 31 January 1642), blinded and imprisoned by Abbas the Great[31]
  • Ahmad Mirza (died 7 March 1577), killed during Ismail II's purge[43]
  • Murad Mirza (d. 1577), killed during Ismail II's purge[31]
  • Zayn al-Abedin Mirza, died in childhood[31]
  • Musa Mirza, died in childhood[31]

Tahmasp probably had thirteen daughters, eight of whom are known:[31]


Gold coin of Tahmasp I, minted in Shiraz, dated 1523/4.

Tahmasp I's coins were characterised by the region they were minted in, the akçe was used in Shirvan, in Mazandaran, tanka was minted and Khuzestan used the larin currency. By 1570s, most of these autonomous monetaries were unified.[129] The weight of the shahi coins decreased significantly from 7.88g at the beginning of his reign to 2.33g in the Western parts of the realm and 2.92g in the East at the end.[129]

In his coins, the Arabic is no longer the only language used, in his follis (folus-i shahi) coins, the phrase "May be eternally [condemned] to the damnation of God / He, who alters [the rate of] the royal folus" is minted in Persian. Old copper coins were also kept in circulation based on their validation.[129]


Tahmasp I's reign started through an era of civil wars between the Qizilbash leaders after the death of Ismail I that forewarned the realm of a deep crisis; a sign that Ismail I's charismatic characterisation as Messiah which had urged the Qizilbash to follow him had come to an end with Tahmasp's succession.[130] In contrast to his father, Tahmasp did not possess charisma in any political or spiritual sense, nor was he old enough to prove himself a fierce warrior on the battlefield, a quality valued by the Qizilbash. Eventually, Tahmasp did overcome that challenge; he proved himself a worthy military commander in the Battle of Jam against the Uzbeks and instead of facing the Ottomans directly in the battlefield, he preferred to loot their rearguards.[131] Tahmasp knew that he could not replace his father as a charismatic spiritual leader, and while he struggled to restore his family's legitimacy amongst the Qizilbash, he also had to craft a public figure of himself to convince the wider population of his right to rule as the new Safavid shah.[132] Thus, he became a devout follower of Shi'ism and maintained this image with exaggerated piety until the end of his reign.[133] A remarkable and successful act to break from the influence of the Qizilbash, taking the reins of power within ten years, after the realm had been through the civil war between the plotting tribal chieftains, and also establishing a public image which was not maintained by his successors as zealously as him.[134] Even after consolidating his power, Tahmasp had little political leverage compared to the Ottoman Empire. However, he successfully laid the foundation for Abbas the Great's transformation of the Safavid polity with bringing the Caucasian slaves into Iranian mainlands. He thus created the core of the force that changed the political balance of the empire in his grandson’s time.[40]

Tahmasp I made little impression on Western historians, who often compared him with his father, and has been described as a lustful miser and a religious bigot.[81] Such traits indeed would throw a murky light on Tahmasp as a person and as a ruler, however, his personality would appear in a more favourable light when, in spite of his greed, piety led him to forgo of taxes of about 30,000 tomans on the grounds that collecting them would offend the religious law. Tahmasp was a political mastermind, even though this part of his life is often underestimated.[135] It is also an achievement in itself how he was able to not only maintain his father's empire from dissolution, but also expanded it and adjusted the Safavid ideology with the main population of the realm who did not follow the Qizilbash's worship of Ismail I.[136] By the end of his reign, Tahmasp's willingness to keep the empire together allowed the Persian elite of the bureaucracy to assume bureaucratic and ideological custodianship of the Safavid empire. This incorporation in turn, allowed Tahmasp and his successors to adopt a dynastic legitimacy and imperial cult of personality that no longer allowed for another civil war to take place even when the empire was at its most fragile position.[137]


  1. ^ "In Jumada II 961/May 1554 he left his winter camp in Aleppo for Amid and advanced as far as the Armenian territory of Qarabagh in the southern bend of the Araxes."[47]
  2. ^ As further explained by the modern historian, Colin P. Mitchell: "A more appealing explanation for basing the central, royal administration in Qazvin lies with the aforementioned agenda of minimizing undue Turkic influence in the Safavid court. As Hans Roemer (2008, p. 249) observed, there was no need to see a policy of 'Persianization' in this move, but undoubtedly 'the idea of a Turkmen state with its center at Tabriz and its fulcrum in eastern Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and northwestern Persia was abandoned.' The decision to replace Tabriz as the imperial center, a city that had historically been the hub of a number of Mongol and Turkmen dynasties such as the Il-khanids, the Qara Qoyunlus, and the Āq Qoyunlus, was concurrent with a decision by the shah to populate and staff his court and army with members of a new, non-Qezelbāš constituency."[20]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Tahmasp I
Born: 22 February 1514 Died: 25 May 1576
Iranian royalty
Preceded by Shah of Iran
Succeeded by