Is There An Ultimate Use For Historians? Reflections On Safavid History and Historiography

Roger M. Savory

The Annual Noruz Lecture by a Distinguished Scholar of Iranian Studies

March 16, 1995


I suppose that, if I were giving this lecture in Persian, I might have entitled it Tarikh chist (`What is history?’)1, or, slightly less ambitiously, Tarikh-nigari chist (`What is historiography?’). The time allotted to me tonight, however, does not permit me to indulge in this sort of philosophizing. Although we have it on the authority of Henry Ford that “History is bunk”, I am going to assume that we are agreed that the study of history is a worth while pursuit. The original meaning of the Greek word is “the quest for things worth knowing”2. The phrase commonly used in Persian, tazeh che dari? (`What’s new?’), reflects this quest. Knowledge, or information, when written down in the form of a narrative, becomes history. What I shall try to do tonight is to ponder the reasons for the rather glaring neglect, until comparatively recent times, of the history of the Safavid period, a neglect of which both Iranian and Western historians have been guilty. This will involve some reflections on the development of historical writing in general, both in Iran and the West, so far as this is relevant to Safavid history.


Why is Safavid history important?

The establishment of the Safavid state in 1501, like the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century, and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, marks a turning-point in the history of Iran. First, the whole of the area historically considered as constituting the heartlands of Iran (iranshahr; iran-zamin), was reunited under the rule of a Persian king for the first time since the Arab conquest and islamicization of Iran. For most of the eight and half centuries that followed that conquest, Iran was ruled by a succession of Arab caliphs, and Turkish and Mongol sultans and khans. The only exception was what Minorsky called the “Iranian intermezzo”, the period from 945-1055 A.D., when a dynasty of Persian origin, the Buyids, exercised authority over a large part of Iran. The restoration of Persian sovereignty by the Safavids revived Persian feelings of a distinctive national identity – Iranismus, or “Iranianism”, as Hafez Farman-Farmaian calls it, although of course this did not constitute a nationalist ideology in the modern sense of the term. Incidentally, a recent number of Iran-Nameh was devoted to a discussion of Iranian identity3, and throughout the word huviyyat is used to convey “identity”.

Since most of the contributors to this volume are agreed that the Persian language is the basic element in preserving Iranian identity, it is perhaps ironical that a word of Arabic origin should have been chosen to designate the word “identity”. Second, Shah Isma’il I declared the Ithna ‘Ashari rite of Shi’i Islam to be the official religion of the Safavid state. This was the first time since the advent of Islam that a major Islamic state had taken this step4. The motives of Isma’il seem to have been in part religious conviction and in part political expediency, that is, the desire to differentiate the Safavid state from its powerful Sunni neighbours, the Ottomans to the north-west and the Özbegs to the north-east, and to give it a dynamic ideology which would unify Iran against these enemies. Whatever his motives, his decision had profound consequences for the future of Iran. Toynbee, in his magisterial A Study of History, says that “the unexpected and revolutionary resuscitation of Shi’ism as a militant political force” by Isma’il “abruptly and surprisingly deflected the course of Islamic history”5. “It would”, he says “be difficult to find any other public character in history who has been so highly `explosive’ as this, with the possible exception of Lenin”6.

Third, it should not be forgotten that Iran, under the greatest of the Safavid shahs, Shah ‘Abbas I, reached a level of power and prosperity never before achieved in Iran’s post-Islamic history. After restoring Iran’s territorial integrity by driving out the Ottoman and Özbeg forces which had encroached on Safavid territory during the reign of the weak Sultan Muhammad Shah, ‘Abbas enhanced the prosperity of the country by adding a money economy and international trade to the traditional bases of the economy: agriculture and pastoralism. He achieved this by creating a multi-cultural state, and a climate of religious tolerance which enabled him to harness the skills and talents of non-Muslim merchants – Jews and Indians domestically, and Armenians in international trade. The development of the silk trade, which ‘Abbas made a royal monopoly, has been regarded as one of his “great organizational achievements”7. The opening up of the sea route from western Europe to India round the Cape of Good Hope encouraged European powers, principally the Portuguese, the English and the Dutch, to vie with one another for control of the lucrative trade in the Persian Gulf, India, and the Far East, and ‘Abbas was able to use this rivalry to the benefit of Iran. In 1598, Shah ‘Abbas transferred the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, where he built a whole new city, cheek by jowl with the ancient one; his intent was to build a new capital worthy of the Safavid state at the height of its power. Two of the masterpieces of Safavid architecture were completed in Shah ‘Abbas’s lifetime: the Masjed-i Shah and the Masjed-i Shaykh Lutfullah. Other applied arts, too, flourished, for example, the production of carpets, textiles (some 25,000 weavers are said to have been employed in the production of the finest quality brocades and velvets); ceramics; and metalwork. Royal patronage also produced a flowering of the fine arts, namely, painting and the whole art of the book, a field in which the Safavids were the heirs of the Timurids. ‘Abbas fostered diplomatic contacts, on the basis of parity of esteem, with neighbouring rulers such as the Mughal Emperors, the Princes of Muscovy, and the Tatar Khans of the Crimea, and also with powerful Western rulers such as the monarchs of England, Spain and Portugal. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Huguenot traveller Chardin saw the reign of Shah ‘Abbas as a golden age. “When this great prince ceased to live”, he said, “Persia ceased to prosper”8, and it is a fact that the Safavid state never again achieved the degree of political and military power, economic prosperity, internal stability and security, and artistic distinction, that it reached under his rule.

If, then, the Safavid period is so important in the history of Iran, and if “it was the Safavids who led Iran back on to the stage of world history”9, why was Safavid history neglected, both by Iranian and Western scholars, until some fifty years ago? Let us consider Western historians first. Until fairly recent times, European works on the Islamic world were written by scholars who were primarily Arabists or Ottomanists. They did not know the Persian language and, as M.G.S. Hodgson has pointed out, if one takes Arabic as one’s point of departure, one inevitably regards Iranians as outsiders10. Carl Brockelmann, in his History of the Islamic Peoples and States, devoted a mere ten pages to the Safavid state, which he viewed largely within the context of Ottoman history11. In his article on Islamic historiography in the Supplement to the First Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1938)12, the distinguished Arabist Sir Hamilton Gibb completely ignored the existence of a Safavid historiography. Even the great Iranologist E.G. Browne had a distaste for Safavid history: “The enormous preponderance of the military element in such contemporary chronicles as the Ta’rikh-i Alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi”, he wrote, “makes them very dull and arduous reading to anyone not specially interested in military matters”13.Of course, Browne’s interests lay elsewhere, in Persian literature, and in religious and social conditions in Iran14, and obviously he did not agree with Thomas Hardy that “war makes rattling good history”15.

In the 1930s and 1940s, things began to improve. In 1932 there appeared Louis-Lucien Bellan’s Chah ‘Abbas I: sa vie, son histoire, which remains the only biography of any of the Safavid shahs in any Western language. Unfortunately, its value for scholars is vitiated by the absence of references to the Persian chronicles on which it is undoubtedly based. In 1934, Toynbee published his A Study of History, to which reference has already been made. The study of Safavid history by Western scholars took a quantum leap forward with the publication in 1936 of Walther Hinz’s Irans Aufstieg zum Nationalstaat im fünfzehnten Jahrhundert, and of Vladimir Minorsky’s translation of the Tadhkirat al-Muluk, with commentary and notes in 1943. Although Hinz was wide of the mark in speculating about the possible Arab descent of the Safavid family, he for the first time established a reliable chronology for the early Safavid period. Until the publication by Muhammad Taqi Danish-pazhuh in 1967-8 of the Dastur al-Muluk, the Tadhkirat al-Muluk was the only manual of Safavid administration known to exist. It not only corroborated to a large extent the testimony of Chardin, but expanded our knowledge of Safavid political and administrative institutions. Russian scholars, such as Petrushevskiy, concentrated on social and economic aspects of the Safavid period. In 1958 Laurence Lockhart’s useful work The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty and the Afghan Conquest of Persia was published16, and by the 1960s the historical framework of the Safavid period had been reasonably well established, and the lines of future research suggested.

If one looks at the record of Iranian historians during the same period, the scene is similar: a rather barren landscape relieved by a few lofty peaks. In 1927-8 Ahmad Kasravi led the way with the publication of three seminal articles entitled Nizhad va Tabar-i Safaviyya (`The genealogy of the Safavids’); Safaviyya sayyid nabuda and (`The Safavids were not sayyids’); and Baz ham Safaviyya (`The Safavids again’)17. Kasravi disputed the validity of the `official’ Safavid genealogy contained in the Safvat al-Safa and followed by most later Safavid chronicles18, and argued convincingly that the ancestors of Shaykh Safi al-Din, who founded the Safavid Order (tariqa), were indigenous inhabitants of Iran (az bumiyan-i bastan-i iran buda) and were of pure Aryan stock (juz nizhad-i aryani nadashta and). Today, the consensus among Safavid historians is that the Safavid family hailed from Persian Kurdistan. Kasravi’s important articles were published in the journal Ayandeh, which was not readily available in the West, and, despite the fact that they were republished as a pamphlet in 1944, in an expanded and revised form, they unfortunately continued to be overlooked by many historians. These included the Turkish scholar Zeki Velidi Togan who, working on the oldest available MSS. of the Safvat al-Safa, independently reached many of the same conclusions reached by Kasravi thirty years earlier19. At the same time, Togan tried to lay to rest the persistent claim by Turkish historians that Shah Isma’il I was a Turk, but this claim resurfaced from time to time in the writings of Turcophiles, such as David Ayalon20, and was usually based on the fact that Isma’il spoke the Azari dialect of Turkish, which Toynbee calls one of “the vulgar tongues of camp and court”21, and had written poems in Azari under the pen-name of Khata’i.

After the publication of Kasravi’s articles, a whole generation elapsed before another significant work on Safavid history appeared. This was Nasrullah Falsafi’s Life of Shah ‘Abbas I (Zindigani-yi Shah ‘Abbas-i Avval), published in Tehran in 4 vols. between 1955 and 1961. This major work had been preceded by Falsafi’s definitive article on the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between the Safavids and the Ottomans22. A few years later, Lutfullah Hunarfar published his comprehensive work on the historical monuments and inscriptions of Isfahan23.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Iranian scholars made an enormous contribution to the furtherance of Safavid studies by editing and publishing historical texts, both general and local, and collections of farmans and other historical documents. By making all this material available in published form, Iranian scholars played a major part in enabling Western scholars to pursue their own researches into Safavid history. Iranian scholars were also writing articles on history in learned journals. Among the latter, the journal Barrasiha-yi tarikhi (“Historical researches”), published by the Iranian Army General Staff from 1966 onwards, was of outstanding quality. Articles on Persian historiography were also published in the journal Sukhan. The journal Yadigar, a “powerful stimulus to the scholarly study of history”, was in print for only five years24. In the field of Iranian bibliography, the work of Iraj Afshar was and continues to be unequalled.

In my search for answers to the question: “Why has Safavid history been neglected until recent times?”, I turned for help to what has been said about historiography by two modern Persian historians, Hafez Farman-Farmaian and Faridun Adamiyat, in their articles Nukati chand dar bara-yi mushkilat-i tarikh-nivisi dar Iran (“some considerations regarding the difficulties of writing history in Iran”) and Inhitat-i tarikh-nigari dar Iran (“The decline of historiography in Iran”)25. Farman-Farmaian identifies four categories of historical writing on Iran: chronicles; histories written by Western diplomats and other officials; studies on the nature of history; and works by scholars steeped in Iranian culture (danishmandan-i mutabahhir dar hunar-i irani). Farman-Farmaian decries the principal 19th-century Persian chroniclers who, he says, to some extent followed the style of their predecessors; their writing, he says, is full of turbidity (ta’qid), affectations (takalluf), and verbosity (itnab), characteristics which for the most part are an obstacle to the presentation of the realities of historical events26. In this opinion, he is in agreement with E.G. Browne, who compares Persian historiography adversely to Arab historiography, and has a low opinion of all Persian historical work “composed during the last six or seven centuries”27. This takes us back to Mongol times, and to the Tarikh-i Wassaf, a work which, says Browne, “exercised an enduring evil influence on subsequent historians in Persia”28.

In his category “histories written by Western diplomats”, Farman-Farmaian mentions three modern British authors who wrote histories of Iran: Sir John Malcolm, R.G. Watson, and Sir Percy Sykes29. Watson is only of peripheral interest to the Safavid historian, since his work deals primarily with the Qajar period down to 1858, but his comment that the Safavid family was still considered by many Persians in the middle of the 19th century “to be the Agas, or masters, of the country”30, is of more than passing interest. Farman-Farmaian dismisses the works of all three writers as being of no value whatever today (az hich lihaz kamtarin arzishi nadarand)31, but Adamiyat is more charitable towards Malcolm and another 19th-century British author of a history of Iran, Sir Clements Markham32. Their histories, he says, “at least had the merit of making Persians aware that a style of historiography different from what they were used to was possible. Although neither of these authors was an expert historian, their works were more significant (ba ma’nitar) than the usual Persian histories”33.

Of Malcolm’s history, John Emerson says that, “given that it was written at the beginning of the 19th century, it is in some respects surprisingly good”, and he points out that Malcolm uses Persian sources as well as European ones34. Hodgson distinguishes three main streams in 19th-century Western scholarship: (1) studies on the Ottoman empire from the point of view of European diplomatic history; (2) the British Indian Civil Service tradition; and (3) the works of Semitic scholars, many of whom came to the study of Arabic via Hebrew, and who were mainly philologists. He also mentions two sub-streams: writings by the French who were interested in Spain and North Africa, and the Russians, who were interested in the history of Central Asia. But all these streams, he says, neglected the central areas of the Fertile Crescent and Iran35. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Lord Curzon awards the prize for the “best and most accurate account of Persia, within the limit of 100 pages, that I have seen” to the Frenchman Elisée Reclus, author of the monumental Géographie Universelle, published in 19 vols. in Paris in 1876.

Farman-Farmaian’s criticism of Persian historians is mild compared to the diatribes of Faridun Adamiyat, who divides Iranian history into two periods: the history of ancient Iran; and the history of Islamic Iran. Adamiyat’s opening broadside will illustrate what I mean: “Despite the fact that we have had a long history … and have a long-standing tradition of historical writing, and despite the fact that we have been acquainted (more or less) with Western knowledge and civilization for 150 years, the science of history has not made any orderly progress, and the average record of our historians is insignificant (mu’addil-i mu’arrikhan-i ma bi-miqdar ast). Not only do their works have serious flaws as regards the method of scientific research, but they have no accurate knowledge of the problems of modern historiography, or the various views of historical thought”.

This sweeping generalization seems to be qualified somewhat by his singling out for approval some eminent historians (mu’arrikhan-i namdar) of the period of Islamic Iran: Tabari; Biruni; Ibn Khaldun; Ibn al-Athir; Bayhaqi and Rashid al-Din (four of whom were Persians); but this is only a momentary weakness, for he then goes on to say that, from the 14th to the 19th centuries, the science of history, along with other branches of knowledge and culture, declined” (fann-i tarikh chun rishtaha-yi digar-i danish va hunar bi-pasti gira’id). This whole period, he says, “may be called the period of the decline and weakness of historical writing” (anra dawra-yi inhitat va fitrat-i tarikh-nivisi mitavan nam nihad). Why? Because “On the whole, during that period, there was no weighing of history, no criticism or evaluation of sources, no drawing of historical conclusions. Events are presented without cause and effect. [Historians] close their eyes to many facts, either from expediency, or from fear and social insecurity, or from failure to perceive the inner meaning of events”.

The two and a quarter centuries of Safavid rule are of course included in this general condemnation, but Adamiyat then trains his guns on Safavid historians in particular: “Especially during the Safavid period, the wars between Shi’i and Sunni, and the predominance of superstition (khurafat-parasti), were major factors in the decline of historical writing in that period, and the policies of those two states (i.e., the Ottoman empire and the Safavid state) were responsible for that. The declension of the intellectual horizon (tanazzul-i ufuq-i fikri) during that period [i.e., the Safavid period] and after that, reached such a point that, despite the expansion of relations between Iran and Europe, not a trace of the Western scientific and cultural movement (the Renaissance) was evident in Iran. No one tackled the immensity of the scientific and social currents which were in the process of evolving. All of the chronicles which were written in that period, and until the Qajar period, reflect the intellectual feeble-mindedness (sakhavat-i fikri) of our literati and historians. These voluminous compositions are like bags full of rotten straw (in ta’lifat-i qatur bi-mathaba-yi anbanaha-yi pur az kah-i pusida’i) in which a few grains of wheat are scattered. The least of the faults of this type of historiography are exaggeration (ighraq-gu’i), obscurity (mughlaq-nivisi), verbosity (pur-harfi), and the unintelligent parading of the author’s learning”36.

Those of us who have spent a considerable portion of our lives reading Safavid chronicles may feel that Adamiyat’s metaphor comparing nuggets of usable historical material to grains of wheat buried in chaff has some validity. On the whole, however, I suggest that he is guilty of the same exaggeration (ighraq-gu’i) of which he accuses Safavid historians.Adamiyat is equally scathing about the work of Western historians: “Nothing has been achieved by the majority of foreign authors, who are acquainted only with the preliminary stages of the history and literature of Iran” (az akthar-i mu’allifan-i khariji ham kih faqat ba muqaddimat-i tarikh va adabiyyat-i iran ashna’i darand kari sakhta nist)”37.In the English version of his Sukhan article38, the following sentence has been added: “The writings of the (sic) modern Iranologists, in our opinion39, have little historiographical value, as very few of these individuals have specialized in history”.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the Persian world-view expressed so succinctly by the 19th-century French scholar Elisée Reclus: “Conscients et fiers de leur antiquité comme race policée, les Persans regardent avec mépris les populations des alentours, moins cultivées ou plus jeunes dans l’histoire de la civilisation. Quels que soient les progrès des Occidentaux dans la science, les arts et l’industrie, ils se considèrent néanmoins comme étant fort supérieurs en noblesse héréditaire à ces tard-venus dans la monde”. “Conscious and proud of their long history as a civilized race, Persians regard with contempt the populations of neighbouring regions, [as being] less cultured or more recent in the history of civilizations. Whatever the progress made by Westerners in sciences, the arts and in industrial development, they nevertheless consider themselves greatly superior in hereditary nobility to these latecomers to the world”.40

I turn now to an analysis of these criticisms of Safavid historical writing. Let me summarize them. First, Safavid chronicles are said to be “vitiated by overwhelming masses of trivial details and the absence of any breadth of view or clearness of outline”. Second, “many matters on which we should most desire information are completely ignored, and it is only here and there incidentally that we find passages throwing light on the religious and social conditions of the time”41. Third, the style of the chronicles is characterized by turbidity, affectation and verbosity42; also by exaggeration, abstruseness, and loquacity43. Fourth, historiography is still primarily regarded as a branch of literature. Fifth, it lacks Western methodology. Sixth, Safavid historiography was harmed by the Shi’i-Sunni conflict.

First, the charge that Safavid chronicles are “vitiated by overwhelming masses of trivial details and the absence of any breadth of view or clearness of outline”. It is ironical that Browne, in choosing the Tarikh-e ‘Alam-ara-ye ‘Abbasi as being typical of what he calls the “dull” genre of Safavid historiography, could not have been wider of the mark. Not only is it not dull, but Eskandar Beg sets forth a clear outline of his work and adheres to it meticulously. Many Western scholars have regarded the Tarikh-e ‘Alam-ara-ye ‘Abbasi not only as the greatest work of Safavid historiography, but one which is in a number of respects unique. J.R. Walsh says: “The production of these two centuries (i.e., the 16th and 17th centuries) is so dominated by the ‘Alam-ara of Iskandar Beg that comparisons among them seem grotesquely disproportionate, the one being one of the greatest of all Islamic works, indeed, perfect within the limitations of its traditions”44.Hodgson comments on the “judicious accuracy” of the Tarikh-i ‘Alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi, “its psychological perceptiveness, and the broad interest it manifests in the ramifications of the events it traces”45. N.D. Mikhluho-Maklai regards the work as “a basic source for the history of Iran during the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first third of the seventeenth, and also an invaluable source for the same period for some of the countries and provinces adjacent to Iran”46.

Finally, A.K.S. Lambton has drawn attention to some of the unique features of the Tarikh-i ‘Alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi, particularly its biographical material which, she says, “is of a somewhat different order and perhaps shows that the author is concerned with the state as it existed in fact (a most unusual phenomenon) and not with the Islamic community. In the biographical material included there is no overwhelming bias towards the religious classes; on the contrary, a balance is preserved between the military classes, the religious classes, and the bureaucracy, which would seem to correspond, in some measure, to the actual distribution of power in the state. The principles of selection underlying the work of Iskandar Beg, whether conscious or unconscious, are clearly different from those followed by earlier writers; in general only those whose work was important in the light of the state appear to have been included and the information given concerns rather appointments and dismissals than births and deaths”47.

A careful reading of this biographical material will tell the historian much about the Safavid administrative system, the relative importance of the various offices of state, and the shifting balance of power between Turk and Tajik, and, from the reign of Shah Tahmasp onwards, between them and the “third force” consisting of office-holders, both civil and military, who were neither Turks nor Tajiks but ghulams of Circassian, Armenian or Georgian extraction.

These tributes to the paramount position of the Tarikh-i ‘Alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi in Safavid historiography, well-deserved though I believe them to be, have always made me slightly uneasy precisely because they have all been paid by Western scholars. Is there no Iranian historian, I wondered, who has an equally high opinion of it? Just recently I discovered one, and it is an enormous relief to me to have my opinion supported by no less an authority than the late Ahmad Kasravi, whom I regard as one of the greatest Iranian historians of recent times. In an article entitled Tarikh va tarikh-nigar (“History and the Historian”48, Kasravi praises the lst century A.D. historian and biographer Plutarch because he makes no distinction between Persian, Greek and Roman (for example, Plutarch speaks well of the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II (Ardashir), though the latter was the enemy of Greece49); because he does not ignore the crimes and base acts of his fellow-countrymen; and because he treats high and low equally. In the whole of Iranian historiography, says Kasravi, only two historians have displayed similar qualities: Bayhaqi, the historian of the Ghaznavids, and Eskandar Beg. Though Eskandar Beg’s purpose, says Kasravi, was to praise the achievements of the Safavids, and although he probably had hopes of obtaining financial reward from Shah ‘Abbas, nevertheless he “never relinquishes his hold on the truth; he does not exaggerate; he does not conceal matters; and he does not indulge in unseemly remarks about the enemies of the Safavid family. Whenever he considers an action deserving of blame, but cannot openly criticize it, he indicates his displeasure.” “By contrast,” says Kasravi, “there are other historians who have no object but hypocrisy and eulogizing, and have no concern for truth and falsehood” (here he names two well-known historians of the Timurid period, and one 19th-century historian). “Such works,” he says, “cannot be called history. Historians should either emulate Bayhaqi and Eskandar Beg, or they should keep quiet (bi-khamushi girayand)50 .

It may be of interest that, more than twenty years ago, I made comments on Abo’-Fazl-e Beyhaqi as an historiographer51 which were very similar to those I am now making about Eskandar Beg. I pointed out that Bayhaqi, although one of the great historians of Iran, and in some ways unique as an historiographer, had, until the Bayhaqi Conference at Mashhad in 1971, been curiously neglected. Bayhaqi himself emphasized the importance of writing truthful and accurate history, so that it “should be believed by the person who hears it, and scholars should not only listen to it but make use of it”. Unfortunately, he says, the number of such people is extremely small; most people prefer stories about demons and fairies, and evil spirits which inhabit the deserts, mountains and oceans. This does not mean that Bayhaqi eschews that traditional Persian practice of including anecdotes (hekayat) in his narrative. Indeed, as Barthold has pointed out, he “quite consciously contrasts his book with those chronicles, where all that may be read is that a certain sultan sent such and such a general to some war or other; on a certain day they fought or made peace; this one beat that one or that one this; they proceeded there'”52. Opinions have differed on Bayhaqi’s style: Sa’id Nafisi called his style “archaic and complicated”, but I agree with Mojtaba Minovi, who called it “a model for composition in an accurate and sparing language”, and characterized his style as “lively”53.

Browne’s second complaint, that “it is only here and there incidentally that we find passages throwing light on the religious and social conditions of the time”, has more validity, and is echoed by Farman-Farmaian: “After a careful study of all these wearisome documents about plunderings and bloodshed, the modern writer can sometimes, with great difficulty, cull a few facts from their pages which may possibly yield a vague and conjectural account of the social and political conditions of the country while these invasions and bloodshed were going on”54.The fact is that, for information on social conditions in Iran during the Safavid period, one has to turn to the works of Western travellers to Iran. Lord Curzon, in his work Persian and the Persian Question (1892), lists about seventy travellers who visited Iran between about 1500 and 1722. In the opinion of Adamiyat, “these travel accounts constitute one of the best sources for social history. and very few aspects of social conditions in Iran are not reflected in them”55.

Among these travellers, the French Huguenot Jean Chardin is pre-eminent, and his work Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, published in 10 vols. in Amsterdam in 1711, is a sine qua non for the study of Safavid history. As Minorsky has said: “His sure political judgement, his insight into the intricacies of Persian practices, and, above all, his broadminded and sympathetic attitude towards his subjects” – an attitude very different from the “national and confessional prejudices” of other travellers, make his work unique in its time”56.The most valuable parts of his work are his “Description du Gouvernement politique, militaire et civil des Persans”, and the section “De la religion des Persans”. This latter section was the most comprehensive and accurate account available to the West up to that time of the Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’i rite of Islam, and Chardin was the first to draw attention to the problem of governance in a state in which this form is Islam is the official religion – a problem which has not been solved to this day.

It is pointless to blame historians who were contemporaries of the Safavids, whether they be Iranians or Europeans, because they did not belong to the currently fashionable social science school of history. “The history of princes and politics, of war and diplomacy”, says G.R. Elton, “is often called dull and insufficient”; the question is asked, “why do we not hear more about `ordinary people’, the lives of the poor, the whole of society?”. This criticism, says Elton, would have validity only if the evidence for the study of such problems existed: “scientific investigations of family, class, occupations, mobility and all the rest happen to excite present-day interest and began systematically little more than a century ago; since before that time interest in them was rare and unscientific, it is useless to expect to find really exhaustive materials from which to satisfy it.

Every historian encounters immense difficulties as soon as he tries to collect worth while statistics for any problem before the year 1800 or so” … “However desirable it may be that we should have knowledge of past vital statistics and demographic movements, it is simply the case that for the greater part of history we shall always know very little or nothing concerning such things”57.In other words, to criticize Safavid chroniclers for failing to describe the lives of the peasants is an exercise in prolepsis, the representation of something future as already existing.

The third and fourth charges laid against Safavid historians are really inter-related. These charges have to do with the style of writing, and the fact that historians of the Safavid period still regarded historiography as primarily a branch of literature, as an exercise in ensha’, or literary composition. However, the style of the most celebrated English historian of the 17th century, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, author of History of the Rebellion, a history of the English civil war, belonged to the same genre of historical writing. His history “is composed in the grand style”, and contains long digressions, lengthy sentences and numerous parentheses “which do not accord with modern taste and usage”. Despite this, Clarendon “as a writer and historian, occupies a high place in English literature”58. For Gibbon, the celebrated 18th-century author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, style was everything. It was essentially oratorical, and it is interesting that one of his biographers has used the adjective “Asiatic” to describe it59. Even Macaulay, whose famous History of England was written in the middle of the 19th century, wrote in a style characterized as not only “exuberant but excessive”, and he had a “constant tendency to glaring colours, to strong effects”60.The fifth criticism of Safavid chroniclers, made not only of Safavid chroniclers, but of all Iranian historians writing between the 14th and 19th centuries, is that during that period “there was no weighing of history, no criticism or evaluation of sources, no drawing of historical conclusions. Events are presented without cause and effect”61.

As far as the criticism and evaluation of sources is concerned, the above statement is no more true of Eskandar Beg than it was true, as we saw earlier, of Bayhaqi. Eskandar Beg “repeatedly assures the reader that if he has not been an eye-witness himself of the events he describes, he has endeavoured to obtain reports from reliable sources … When Eskandar Beg himself is dubious about the authenticity of a report, he tells us by using the formula “God knoweth best (the truth)”, and no one can fail to be impressed by his important statement of principle that he will not embroider the facts to impress someone in authority or to further his career”62.When Adamiyat complains that Persian historians present events without cause and effect, he is correct in the sense that 16th and 17th-century Persian chroniclers did not write analytical history in the modern sense of the term, but once again he is guilty of prolepsis. As Elton reminds us, mediaeval chroniclers sometimes “rose above their annals to reflect and explicate” – Ibn Khaldun is an obvious example – but there was “no serious historical study” in the West until the 17th century. From then on, historians began to look for causes, but the “scientific, ordered, systematic study of history really began only in the 19th century”. For this reason, he places such celebrated British historians as Clarendon, Gibbon, and even Macaulay (who wrote in the 19th century)63 in what he calls the “prehistoric age”64 Macaulay’s mind lacked “that equitable balancing of evidence which is the primary function of the historian”65. In other words, the leading British historians of the 17th, 18th, and, in the case of Macaulay, the 19th, centuries, exhibit the same faults of which 20th-century historians, both Persian and Western, accuse Safavid historians. Historiography was still regarded, both in Iran and the West, as a branch of literature, and style, in general, took precedence over content.

According to Firuz Kazemzadeh66, until about 1930 Persian histories were still written in the traditional style, that is to say, they were essentially chronicles. Historiography was still regarded primarily as a branch of literature. Since 1930, he says, Persian historical writing has been influenced by various ideologies imported from the West, such as nationalism, Marxism, and by forms of reasoning such as scientism and attitudes such as scepticism, also imported from the West. At the same time, he says, some Iranian historians have adopted Western methodology, including the acknowledgement of sources used, and the use of footnotes to refer to them, the inclusion in the text of documents, and so on, all of which have contributed to greater accuracy and reliability. Above all, Iranian historiography has become more analytical, as historians have sought the underlying causes of events.

The sixth, and final, criticism levelled at Safavid historians is that their writing was vitiated by the Shi’i-Sunni conflict between the Safavids and the Ottomans. At least one Western historian agrees. “Persian historiography”, he says, “also suffered from the sectarian isolation of Persia itself”67. It is true that the geographical isolation of Persia from the West was made worse by Shah Isma’il’s policy of making Persia a Shi’i state, because this policy made the Safavids the immediate enemies of the Ottoman empire, which lay astride the natural lines of communication between Persia and Europe. It is also true that the innate xenophobia of Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’ism militated against the establishment of trade relations with the West until Shah ‘Abbas I developed his policy of making Safavid Iran a multicultural state. We have, for example, the well-known story of the reception by Shah Tahmasp of the English merchant-adventurer Anthony Jenkinson, who reached Iran in 1562 bearing a letter from Queen Elizabeth I which proposed what we would call these days a “free trade agreement” between England and Persia. The Shah initially received Jenkinson in a friendly manner, but, when he was told that Jenkinson was not a Shi’i, exclaimed: “Oh thou unbeleever, we have no neede to have friendship with the unbeleevers”68. But I see no evidence that the Shi’i-Sunni conflict per se adversely affected Safavid historiography. Eskandar Beg, for example, shows no real animosity towards the Ottomans; on the contrary, it is the Ottoman chroniclers who express far greater religious antipathy towards the “scoundrelly qizilbash” (awbash-i-qizilbash). “The sovereignty exercised by Shah ‘Abbas was essentially secular and Iranian”69, and Eskandar Beg’s History reflects that. It was only under the last two Safavid shahs, Shah Sulayman and Shah Sultan Husayn, when the mujtahids appeared as a powerful political force, that the writing of history was overshadowed by sectarian concerns, and there was an outpouring of works on Shi’i theology, jurisprudence and hadith. M.B. Dickson noted that “there are surprisingly few full contemporary Persian sources for the period of Shah Sultan-Husayn”, “for reasons as yet unclear”70. I suggest that the reason is quite clear. The reign of Shah Sultan Husayn, who was derisively dubbed “Mulla Husayn”71, was marked by the dominance of the religious classes and was, as a consequence, a period of military and political weakness. Deprived of royal patronage, historians ceased to embark on major historical works which might take them the best part of a lifetime to write, and the ‘ulama were simply not interested in sponsoring such works.

What conclusions emerge from these reflections? The major conclusion to be drawn, it seems to me, is that mutual recriminations between Persian and Western historians are unproductive. Furthermore, as I have tried to indicate, I believe that many of the criticisms of past generations and indeed centuries of Safavid historians are either pointless or unjustified. Adamiyat is apparently so disgusted with the historiography of the past the he has washed his hands of it: “Do not expect that you will find the points we have discussed in the obsolete pages of Persian histories. It is for this reason that we have turned away from the tradition of historical writing” (intizar nadashta bashid an nukatra kih guftim dar awraq-i kuhna-yi tarikhha-yi farsi biyabid. Pas ma ham az sunnat-i tarikh-nivisi ruy bar tafta-im)72.

“Historians”, it is said, “are naturally given to sharpness of tongue”73. However this may be, it seems to me that things have improved during the last fifty years or so. In recent years, for example, symposia have been organized in Paris and Cambridge specifically for specialists in Safavid history, and both Iranian and Western scholars have participated in these. Even Adamiyat concedes that, “amazing though it is” (ta’ajjub in ast), there have been some Persian historians during this period who have advanced the science of history: he mentions Mirza Hasan Khan Mushir al-Dawleh, Ahmad Kasravi, ‘Abbas Iqbal, and Mahmud Mahmud74.

A second conclusion to be drawn, perhaps, is that both Persian and Western historians ignored the Safavid period because for both groups 19th-century Iran was of greater interest than the period that preceded it. The traumatic defeats suffered by Iran at the hands of the Russians at the beginning of the 19th century, and the influx of Western political, social and economic theories, aroused Persian intellectuals to the fact that Iran had fallen behind the West in a number of significant ways. But this awareness, instead of stimulating them to do research on Persian history, concentrated their research rather on seeking the `secret’ of Western superiority in technology and other areas. They therefore studied European history, particularly the lives of great European leaders such as Napoleon and Peter the Great, in their search for the key to this `secret’75. Many years ago, Ehsan Naraghi pointed out the futility of this search by quoting a couplet of Hafez: “For years my heart sought from me the chalice of Jamshid, and what it itself possessed, it demanded from a stranger”76. According to Persian legend, the whole universe was reflected in the chalice of Jam or Jamshid.The English satirist Samuel Butler thought he perceived a divine purpose for historians. As he cynically said: “God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence”77.

Perhaps the greatest reward for the historian who immerses himself in the historical writings of a particular culture is the empathy he develops with the historical characters of the period he is studying. As the Chinese philosopher of the 5th century B.C., Mo-tzu, put it so beautifully in regard to the historical archives of his own culture: “It is not that I lived in their age or their times or heard their voices with my own ears or saw their faces; it is rather that by what they have written on bamboo and silk or engraved on metal and stone or carved in vessels to pass on to their descendants of later generations that I know them”78.

To the extent that I have been permitted, through the study of history, to gain insights into a period of Persian history long past and until recently neglected, I am grateful.



1. Persian scholars are not the only ones given to these grandiose titles. The British historian E.H. Carr, for example, wrote a book entitled What is History? (Penguin Books, 1964).

2. Franz Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography, Leiden 1952, p. 8.

3. Iran-Nameh, Vol. XII, Summer 1994: A Special Issue on Iranian Identity.

4. On the claims of the Qutbshahi ruler in the Deccan, see Roger M. Savory, The Shi`i Enclaves in the Deccan (15th-17th Centuries: An Historical Anomaly, in Corolla Torontonensis: Studies in Honor of Ronald Morton Smith (eds. Emmet Robbins and Stella Sandahl), Toronto 1994, pp. 180 ff.

5. A Study of History, Oxford University Press 1934, I, p. 349.

6. A Study of History, I, p. 398. It is, of course, fashionable these days to decry Toynbee’s Study of History, to dub him a “system-maker”, and even to deny Toynbee the title of `historian’ (see G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, Fontana Books 1969, p. 58 and note 27; p. 83 and note 4, in which Elton suggests that the title `prophet’ would be more appropriate than `historian’. This work is hereinafter quoted as `Elton’.

7. N. Steensgard, The Asian trade revolution of the seventeenth century, Chicago 1973, p. 381.

8. Lt.-Col. P.M. Sykes, A History of Persia, 2 vols., London 1915, Vol. II, p. 268.

9. H.R. Roemer, The Safavid Period, in Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. VI, Cambridge University Press 1986, p. 190.

10. Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1974, I, p. 32.

11. Published in Germany in 1939 under the title Geschichte der Islamischen Völker und Staate. These ten pages, incidentally, contain several major errors of fact.

12. Leiden 1938: Ta’rikh, pp. 233-45.

13. E.G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, Cambridge University Press, 1930, IV, p. 107. For a very different view, see Roger M. Savory, “Very dull and arduous reading: a reappraisal of The History of Shah ‘Abbas the Great by Iskandar Beg Munshi,” in Studies on the History of Safawid Iran, Variorum Reprints, London 1987, XII, pp. 19-37 (hereinafter cited as Variorum).

14. See John Emerson’s excellent survey in Some General Accounts of the Safavid and Afsharid Period, primarily in English, Pembroke Papers I (1990), p. 29.

15. The Dynasts, 236. 2.

16. M.B. Dickson’s lengthy review article on Lockhart’s work is unfortunately an early example of political correctness (see Journal of the American Oriental Society, 82/1962, pp. 503-17. Dickson’s pious hope that “the intent of this review not been misconstrued” (p. 516) was not realised. Emerson, for example, refers to the “attitudes excoriated by Dickson” (Some General Accounts …”, p. 30).

17. In Ayandeh, ii, 1927-8, pp. 357-65; 489-97; 801-12.

18. For example, the Habib al-Siyar, Lubb al-Tavarikh, Tarikh-i ‘Alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi, and Silsilat al-Nasab-i Safaviyya.

19. See Zeki Velidi Togan, Sur l’origine des Safavides, in Mélanges Louis Massignon, Damascus 1957, pp. 345-57.

20. David Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom, London, 1956, p. 109: “Isma’il as-Safawi was himself not a Persian but a Turcoman”.

21. A Study of History, I, p. 353.

22. Jang-i Chaldiran, in Majalla-yi Danishkada-yi Adabiyyat va `Ulum-i Insani-yi Danishgah-i Tihran, 1/2, 1937 A.H.S./1953, reprinted in Chand Maqala-yi Tarikhi va Adabi, 1343 A.H.S./1964.

23. Lutfullah Hunarfar, Ganjina-yi Athar-i Tarikhi-yi Isfahan, Tehran 1344 A.H.S./1965.

24. Hafiz Farman-Farmaian, Nukati chand dar bara-yi mushkilat-i tarikh-nivisi dar iran (`Some considerations regarding the difficulties of writing history in Iran’), in Bar-rasiha-yi tarikhi, Year I, No. 5/6, 1345 A.H.S./1345 1966-7, p. 167 (hereinafter cited as Nukati chand).

25. Adamiyat’s article appeared in Sukhan, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1346 A.H.S./1967, pp. 17-30 (hereinafter cited as Inhitat.

26. Nukati chand, p. 175.

27. Browne, IV, p. 443; 446. 28. Browne, IV, p. 443; see also p. 413.

29. Authors respectively of: History of Persia, London 1815; A History of Persia from the beginning of the 19th century to the year 1858, with a review of the principal events that led to the establishment of the Kajar Dynasty, London, 1866,; and A History of Persia, 2 vols., London 1915. Dickson disparages the whole of what he calls the “Curzon-Sykes school of history” (see Martin B. Dickson, The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, 1962, p. 510).

30. Watson, p. 38.

31. Nukati chand, p. 170. One should note in passing that the contemporary British historian, M.E. Yapp, is equally scathing in his condemnation of the histories of Malcolm and Sykes. In his article “Two British Historians of Persia”, in Bernard Lewis and P.M. Holt (eds.), in Historians of the Middle East, Oxford University Press 1962 (hereinafter quoted as HME), pp. 343-56, he tentatively suggests that the deficiencies of these two authors as historians may be attributed to their upbringing in Victorian public schools (p. 356).

32. A General Sketch of the History of Persia, London 1874. 33. Inhitat, p. 20.

34. Emerson, p. 28.

35. Hodgson, I, pp. 39-40.

36. Inhitat, pp. 17-19. 37. Inhitat, p. 29.

38. There is an abridged translation by Thomas Ricks of Adamiyat’s article in Sukhan: see “Problems in Iranian Historiography”, in Iranian Studies, Autumn 1971, Vol. IV, No. 4, pp. 132-156. According to Ricks, in this English version “several sections have been amended or revised in collaboration with the author for presentation to the Western reader” (pp. 132-3).

39. Does this mean, “in the opinion of Adamiyat and Ricks”? Or is this a case of the royal “we”?

40. Elisée Reclus, Nouvelle Géographie universelle: la terre et les hommes, 19 vols, Paris 1876, Vol. 9, L’Asie anterieure, Chapter IV: La Perse, p. 139.

41. Browne, IV, p. 107.

42. Nukati chand, p. 167. 43. Inhitat, p. 19

44. “The Historiography of Ottoman-Safavid Relations in the 16th and 17th Centuries:, in HME, p. 200, note 8. 45. Hodgson, III, p. 42.

46. Opisanie persidskikh i tadzhikskikh rukopsei instituta vostokovedeniia, vypusk 3, Moscow 1975, quoted by R.D. McChesney, “A Note on Iskandar Beg’s Chronology,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 39, 1980, p. 1.

47. “Persian Biographical Literature”, in HME, pp. 147-8.

48. In Chahar Maqala-yi Kasravi (ed. Yahya Zoka), Tehran, Ordibehesht 1335 A.H.S./April 1956, pp. 314-24.

49. Plutarch, Lives, XI, p. 135.

50. The Timurid historians in question are Sharaf al-Din Yazdi and `Abd al-Razzaq Samarqandi; the 19th-century work is the Nasikh al-Tavarikh of Mirza Muhammad Taqi Sepehr (Lisan al-Mulk); Kasravi, pp. 321-3.

51. “Abo’l-Fazl Beyhaqi as an Historiographer”, in Yadname-ye Abu’l-Fadl-e Beyhaqui, Meshed 1971, pp. 84-128.

52. W. Barthold, Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion, London 1928, p. 22. The text quoted is on p. 438 of the Tarikh-i Baihaki (ed. W.H. Morley), in Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta 1862.

53. “The Persian Historian Bayhaqi”, in HME, p. 140.

54. Nukati chand, pp. 167-8.

55. Inhitat, p. 26.

56. Tadhkirat al-Muluk: A Manual of Safavid Administration (circa 1137/1725), translated and explained by V. Minorsky, London 1943 (E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Series, New Series XVI, p. 7 and footnote No. 5.

57. Elton, pp. 43-50.

58. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Cambridge 1911, VI, p. 433.

59. G.M. Young, Gibbon, Short Biographies No. 22, Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1939, p. 85. 60. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, XVII, p. 196.

61. Inhitat, p. 19.

62. Variorum, XII, p. 36.

63. Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-74), author of History of the Rebellion, a history of the English Civil War; Edward Gibbon, (1734-94), author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800-59), author of History of England.

64. Elton, p. 14.

65. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, XVII, p. 196.

66. “Iranian Historiography”, in HME, pp. 430-4.

67. H.A.R. Gibb, Ta’rikh, in Studies on the Civilization of Islam, (eds. Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk), Boston 1962, p. 134.

68. Early Voyages and Travels to Russia, Hakluyt Society, 1st Series, Nos. LXXII and LXXIIII, 2 vols., London 1886, Vol. I, p. 147.

69. Hafez F. Farmayan, The Beginnings of Modernization in Iran: Reforms of Shah ‘Abbas I (1587-1687), Research Monograph No. 1, Middle East Center, University of Utah, 1969, p. 17.

70. Martin B. Dickson, review of The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, 1962, p. 503.

71. Père Tadeusz Juda Krusinski, History of the Revolutions of Persia, London 1728, p. 71.

72. Inhitat, p. 30.

73. Elton, p. 17.

74. Inhitat, p. 29.

75. Inhitat, p. 20.

76. Quoted in Ehsan Naraghi, Iran’s Cultural Identity and the Present Day World, in Iran: Past, Present and Future (ed. Jane W. Jacqz), Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, New York 1976, pp. 421-32. 77. Erewhon Revisited, Everyman’s Library, 1965, p. 293.

78. I am indebted to my friend and colleague Professor Wayne Schlepp for this quotation.