Family feuding contributed to a rapid decline of Seljuk power in the twelfth century. Iran had been suffering for a century from economic difficulties partly brought on by political disorder an nomadic incursions. Urban populations had been falling because of famine, epidemics, and migration to more prosperous areas. These trends accelerated when nomadic depredations reached a peak in the second halfof the century and the dynasty of Khwarazmshahs, established by alieutenant of one of the Seljuk sultans, proved overly rapacious.
In 1219 Genghis Khan led his Mongol army out of Central Asia and overwhelmed the army of the Khwarazm shah. He conquered eastern Iran and left armies in the west to expand Mongol territory after he withdrew in 1221. The devastations of the Mongols are proverbial, but Iran was already in a deep state of economic and demographic decline before they arrived. The conqueror’s grandson Helegu resumed Mongol expansion westward in a seond invasion in the 1250s. He established a separate Mongol state, subordinate to that of the Great Khan in Mongolia, to be ruled by his descendants. This was called the Ilkhan empire, from the title of the rule.
Several of the Ilkhans took steps to rebuild the Iranian economy. Ghazan Khan converted the dynasty to Islam. Their center of rule was in Azerbaijan, the northwestern province, which had seldom played an important role in earlier Iranian history. Eastern Iran, which had flourished in the earlier Islamic centuries, never fully recovered economically or regained political importance. The population of Azerbaijan adopted the Turkic language of the tribes that settled in the region both before and after the Mongol invasion. The Mongol language left little imprint on Iran because few Mongols settled permanently in Ilkhan territory.
The last Ilkahan, Abu Sa’id, died in 1335. Politically, Iran dissolved into regional dynasties of varying origins. Some claimed power in the name of the descendant of Genghis Khan. Others, such as the Sarbadarids in the northeast, based their rule on religion. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, began to develop into organized brotherhoods, some of which had political ambitions Some Sufi brotherhoods were Sunni, other Shi’ite. The distinction was often unclear, since their emphasis was on emotional religious experience rather than legal structures and definitions.
Timur, known in English as Tamerlane, swept away these petty dynastiesin his merciless conquest of Iran in the 1390s. He was a Turkic ruler from Central Asia with an ambition to outdo the incredible conquests of Genghis Khan, one of his ancestors. When he died in 1405 he had subdued every adversary from the Aegean Sea to Delhi and was on his way to attempt the conquest of China.
Timur’s descendants could not hold his empire together. Iran again fell apart among rival petty dynasties. The Akkoyunlu state centered in Azerbaijan was one of the most hereditary leaders of a Sufi order known as the Safaviyya, but they later grew fearful of their popularity with the Turkic tribes. In 1501 Isma’il, the leader of the order, declared himself shah and established the Safavid empire. He relied militarily on Turkic-speaking tribes who wore the red head dress of the order and were therefore called the Kizilbash (“red head”) tribes. Isma’ildeclared Shi’ite Islam the religion of his new state, even though the Safaviyya had at one time been Sunni like most of the Iranian population.
The Safavid empire fought the Ottomans frequently with mixed success. Their wars fixed the Zagros Mountains as the western border of Iran down to the modern times. Safavid power and culture flourished in the early seventeenth century under Shah Abbas I. Isfahan, the capital, became a magnificent showplace. Shah Abbas established a large Armenian community there. Surviving mosques, silks, carpets, and miniature paintings show this to be one of the most creative and flourishing periods in Iranian history.
Iran converted almost entirely to Shi’ism during the Safavid period. Flanked by hostile Sunni states, Iran assumed a national political identity that embodied Shi’ism virtually as part of its definition. Outstanding Shi’ite philosophers and theologians made the period an important one in Islamic intellectual history.
However, administrative and economic problems, combined with rivalries between Turks and Iranians, undermined the empire. By 1722 it was so weak that an army of marauders from Afghanistan was able to take and plunder Isfahan. An able general, who dispensed with the fiction of Safavid rule and himself took the throne as Nadir Shah, rebuilt an ephemeral empire and conquered as far east as Delhi. But Iran rapidly fell apart again after his death in 1747.
The Zand family based in Shiraz was for a while the most powerful political force in Iran, but in the 1780s a family of leaders of the Qajar tribe eclipsed the Zands and established a new unified Iranian state. The Qajar dynasty, which never approached the Safavids in power, wealth or culture, ruled throughout the nineteenth century. The Babiand Baha’i religious movements were the most important social developments of that era. Occasional efforts at reform and westernization, prompted partly by the model of changes taking place in the Ottoman empire and partly by fear of Russian and British encroachment, produced no significant increase in power. By the end ofthe century the country was weak and in debt to foreign creditors. The shahs were perceived as squanderers of the national wealth.
Author: Richard Bulliet.