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15 March 2024

The Safavid Dynasty – Azerbaijani heritage

The Safavids are often associated in Western minds with the 17th-century architectural wonders of Isfahan, Iran. But their roots were Azerbaijani and throughout their long rule, the language used by their bureaucracy was a form of Azerbaijani Turkish.

Shah Ismayil Khatai

This now-renowned image of Shah Ismayil was amongst the portraits of key world figures copied from rare 1520s manuscripts by painter Cristofano Dell’Altissimo at the request of Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 1550/60s. Image: public domain

Of all the various imperial dynasties which have left their mark on today’s Iran and Azerbaijan, few are as significant as that of the Safavids. Most significantly, this era (approximately 1501 to 1736) saw the establishment of Shi’ite Islam[1] and the modernization of warfare techniques. Yet if you describe their realm as a ‘Persian Empire,’ you can expect a roar of disapproval from Azerbaijanis and other Turkic groups who are swift to point out that the Safavids originated in Ardebil, a city in one of the Azerbaijani regions of today’s Iran. More importantly, the most prominent Safavid ruler, Shah Ismayil, wrote poetry in the form of Azerbaijani Turkish and is said to have favoured Turkic speakers over Persians at his court in Tabriz. 

Ismaiyl’s move to Shi’ism and his break with the Sunni caliphate put the Safavid Empire on a collision course with the Ottoman Empire, leading to the pivotal battle of Chaldiran (near Maku in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province). Ismayil’s army lost, he was personally injured (but escaped), and the Ottoman army briefly occupied Tabriz. However, Ismayil’s army later pushed them back to recapture its capital.