The Lords of Ardabil

  November 26, 2023   Read time 4 min
The Lords of Ardabil
The purpose of the “ official” Safavid genealogy was to establish the descent of the Safavid house from the 7th Shia Imam, Müsä al-Käzim, and through him to 'AIT himself, the ist Shï'ï Imam; but even in the “ official” Safavid genealogy, there are inconsistencies and variations in the number of links in the genealogical chain.

The town of Ardabïl, situated in eastern Äzarbäyjän in northwestern Iran, lies at an altitude of some 1,524 metres on a plateau surrounded by mountains; the highest of these, Mt Savalän (4,810 metres), an extinct volcano from which snow rarely departs completely, even in summer, rears its massive bulk 20 miles west of the town. For a short time during the tenth century, Ardabïl had been the chief city of the province of Äzarbäyjän, but it had soon been superseded by the city of Tabriz, 130 miles to the west. Tabriz rapidly established itself as an important station on one of the world’s great trade routes from the Far East and Central Asia, and as the hub of a network of highroads leading to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean ports, to Anatolia and Constantinople, and north through the Caucasus to the Ukraine, the Crimea and eastern Europe. The supremacy of Tabriz was assured when ArdabU was sacked and left in ruins by the Mongols in 1220, while Tabriz escaped a similar fate the following year by payment of a large indemnity to its conquerors. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Ardabïl was no more than a small provincial town, lying slightly off the beaten track, as it still does today.


At first sight, therefore, Ardabïl seemed an unlikely choice as the nerve-centre of a revolutionary movement. Yet its relative remoteness and unimportance constituted advantages for the leaders of this movement, who wanted as little as possible to attract the curiosity and almost certain hostility of the authorities at Tabriz. At the back of ArdabU, too, lay the impenetrable mountains, forests and swamps of Gïlân, and the proximity of this refuge was to save the movement from extinction at the end of the fifteenth century.

Such considerations, however, were presumably far from the mind of the first member of the Safavid family of whom we have historical knowledge, a certain Fïrüzshâh “ of the golden hat” (zarrïnkulâh), whom we find established as a wealthy landowner in the Ardabll region sometime during the eleventh century. The origins of the Safavid family are still enveloped in obscurity. Hinz has talked about an alleged migration of Fïrüzshâh to Äzarbäyjän from the Yemen, and has taken this to be an indication of the Arab origin of the family. Ayalon has claimed that the Safavids were Turks. Kasravï, after a careful examination of the evidence, came to the conclusion that the Safavids were indigenous inhabitants of Iran, and of pure Aryan (i.e., Iranian) stock; yet they spoke Âzarï, the form of Turkish which was the native language of Äzarbäyjän. The only point at issue for Kasravï was whether the Safavid family had been for long resident in Äzarbäyjän, or had migrated from Kurdistän. More recently, Togan re-examined the evidence, and suggested that the ancestors of the Safavids may have accompanied the Kurdish Ravadid prince Mamlän b. Vahsüdän when the latter conquered the regions of Ardabïl, Arrän, Muqän and Där-Büm in 1025.

Why is there such confusion about the origins of this important dynasty, which reasserted Iranian identity and established an independent Iranian state after eight and a half centuries of rule by foreign dynasties? The reason is that the Safavids, having been brought to power by the dynamic force of a certain ideology, deliberately set out to obliterate any evidence of their own origins which would weaken the thrust of this ideology and call in question the premises on which it was based. In order to understand how and why the Safavids falsified the evidence of their origins, one must first be clear about the nature of the Safavid dctva (propaganda, or ideological appeal), and about the bases on which the power of the Safavid shahs rested. The power of the Safavid shahs had three distinct bases: first, the theory of the divine right of the Persian kings, based on the possession by the king of the “ kingly glory ” (hvarnah; khvarenah ; farr). This ancient, pre-Islamic theory was reinvested with all its former splendour and reappeared in the Islamic garb of the concept of the ruler as the “ Shadow of God upon earth ” (.zill alläh fi'l-arzi)\ second, the claim of the Safavid shahs to be the representatives on earth of the Mahdï, the 12th and last Imäm of the Ithnä ‘Ashari ShTïs, who went into occultation in a.d. 873/4 and whose return to earth will herald the Day of Judgement; third, the position of the Safavid shahs as the murshid-i kämil or perfect spiritual director, of the Süfî Order known as the Safaviyya.

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