Militarily, the Safavid state probably reached its apogee under Shah Abbas the Great and Abbas II. But despite its classification with Ottoman Turkey and Moghul India as one of the Gunpowder Empires (by Marshall G. S. Hodgson), there is good reason to judge that the practices and structures of the Safavid Empire were transformed less by the introduction of gunpowder weapons than those other empires were. Cannon and muskets were present in Persian armies, but as add-ons to previous patterns of warfare rather than elements transforming the conduct of war, as they were elsewhere. The mounted tradition of Persian lance-and-bow warfare, harking back culturally to Ferdowsi, was resistant to the introduction of awkward and noisy firearms. Their cavalry usually outclassed that of their enemies, but Persians did not take to heavy cannon and the greater technical demands of siege warfare as the Ottomans and Moghuls did. The great distances, lack of navigable rivers, rugged terrain, and poor roads of the Iranian plateau did not favor the transport of heavy cannon. Most Iranian cities were either unwalled or were protected by crumbling walls that were centuries old—this at a time when huge, sophisticated, and highly expensive fortifications were being constructed in Europe and elsewhere to deal with the challenge of heavy cannon. Persia’s military revolution was left incomplete.
19 February 2018
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2728-37:
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2645-58:
Succession was a common difficulty for many monarchs. In Europe, the problem was that every so often a ruler could not produce a son. This could create all sorts of difficulties—attempts at divorce (Henry VIII, for example), attempts to secure recognition for the succession of a daughter or more distant relative, disputes over succession resulting in war. In the Islamic world, the problem was different. Polygamy meant that kings did not normally have a problem producing a son, but they might, on the contrary, have too many sons. This could mean fierce fighting among potential heirs and their supporters when the father died. In the Ottoman Empire such battles were institutionalized—rival sons who had served their father as provincial governors would, on hearing of his death, race for the capital to claim the throne. The winner would get the support of the janissaries, and would then have the other sons put to death. Later, the Ottomans adopted a more dignified arrangement, keeping the possible heirs in the Sultan’s harem palace until their father died. But this meant they would have little understanding of or aptitude for government, and the new practice helped to increase the power of the chief minister, the vizier, so that the vizier ruled effectively as viceroy. It was a conundrum.
Many fathers have disagreements and clashes with their sons, and history is full of feuds between kings and their crown princes. Abbas was no exception; he had come to power himself by deposing his father. Following the Ottoman precedent again, he imprisoned his sons in the harem for fear that they would attempt to dethrone him. But he still feared that they might plot against him, so he had them blinded, and he had one of them killed. Eventually, he was succeeded by one of his grandsons. The unhappy practice of keeping royal heirs in the harem was kept up thereafter by the Safavid monarchs.
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2431-40, 2477-88:
The great schisms of the Christian church, between East and West, and later between Catholic and Protestant, came centuries after the time of Christ. But the great schism in Islam that still divides Muslims today, between Sunni and Shi‘a, originated in the earliest days of the faith—even before Karbala, in the time of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Comparisons with the Christian schisms do not really work. A more apposite analogy, as noted by the historian Richard N. Frye and others, can be drawn between, on the one hand, the emphasis on law and tradition in Sunni Islam and Judaism and, on the other hand, the emphasis on humility, sacrifice, and the religious hierarchy in Christianity and Shi‘ism. The public grief of Ashura is similar in spirit to that which one can still see on Good Friday in some Catholic countries. The purpose in making comparisons between Shi‘ism and various aspects of Christianity is not to suggest that they are somehow the same (they are not), nor to encourage some kind of happy joining-hands ecumenism (naïve), but rather to try to illuminate something that initially looks unfamiliar, and to suggest by analogy that it may not be so strange or unfamiliar after all. Or at least, that it is no more strange than Christian Catholicism.
Despite the schism, in the early centuries there was a fairly free interchange of ideas, a considerable pluralism of belief, and considerable diversity of opinion among the Alids or Shi‘a themselves. Overall, Shi‘a theology and law tended to be looser than in Sunni Islam, more open to the application of reason in theology, more inclined to a free will position than a determinist one, and more open to some of the more heterodox ideas circulating in the Islamic world. This was partly the result of a broader hadith tradition, which included the sayings and doings of the Shi‘a Emams. Shi‘a theology also differed because it addressed problems that were specific to the Shi‘a, such as conduct under persecution.
The sixth Shi‘a Emam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, developed a strategy for the evasion of persecution that was to prove controversial. The doctrine of taqiyeh, or dissimulation, permitted Shi‘a Muslims to deny their faith if necessary to avoid persecution—a special dispensation that has striking similarities with the doctrine of “mental reservation” granted for similar reasons by the Catholic church in the period of the Counter-Reformation, and associated with the Jesuits (though it originated before their time). Just as the Jesuits acquired a reputation for deviousness and terminological trickery among Protestants (whence in English we have the adjective “Jesuitical”), so the doctrine of taqiyeh earned the Shi‘a a similar reputation among some Sunni Muslims.
17 February 2018
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:
Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.
On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:
Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.
The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.
Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.
09 February 2018
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 662-70:
Who were the Macedonians? Some have speculated that they were not really Greeks, but more closely related to the Thracians. Or perhaps they descended from some other Balkan people influenced by the arrival of Indo-European Greeks. They had come under heavy Greek influence by the time of Philip and Alexander—but even at that late stage the Macedonians made a strong distinction between themselves and the Greek hangers-on who accompanied Alexander’s eastern adventure. In the fifth century BC, Macedonians were normally, like other non-Greeks, excluded from the Olympic games. But the Persians seem to have referred to them as “Greeks with hats” (they were known for their wide-brimmed hats), and Herodotus too seems to have accepted them as of Greek origin. Like the Medes and Persians in the time of Cyrus, as well as many other militant peoples from mountainous or marginal areas, the Macedonians had a strong sense of their collective superiority—but they also sustained many private feuds among themselves. They were notoriously difficult to manage.
From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 574-94:
Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain, or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds in the same locations. Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.
It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.
That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.