The Safavid dynasty had its origins in a long established Sufi order which had flourished in Azerbaijan since the early 14th century. Its founder was Sheikh Safi al-Din (d.1334) after whom it is named. He came from Ardebil, where his shrine exists to this day. Originally they were of the Sunni persuasion although the records were doctored when they came to power to show that they were Shi'ite. In 1501 the young head of the order, Shah Ismail I (1501-1524), who was a grandson on his mother's side of Ouzun Hassan, defeated the Turkoman Aq-Quiunlu ruler of Iran, Alvand, at Sharur and occupied Tabriz. The victory was managed with the help of the Shi'ite Qizilbash Turkoman tribesmen who wore a hat with twelve tassels in honour of the twelve Imams. He died at Ardebil on a pilgrimage to the tomb of his father, and his son and successor, Shah Tahmasp I (1524-76) moved the capital southward to Qazvin.
Tahmasp had bequeathed the throne to his fifth son, Hyder Mirza, but a faction supporting the fourth son Ismail II (1576-1578) prevailed and the unfortunate Hyder Mirza was murdered along with all but one of the princes of the blood, Mahommad Mirza (1578- 1587) who assumed the throne on the death of Ismail following a debauch. His reign ended in confusion and he was supplanted by Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) who made his capital at Isfahan.
Before the accession of Shah Ismail I the population of Persia had been chiefly of the Sunni persuasion, but he enforced adherence to the Shi'ite sect, often brutally. Between 1501 and 1587 much of Shah Ismail I's empire had been lost to the Ottomans, he himself suffered a serious defeat at Chaldiran in 1514. With the aid of the British mercenaries, Robert Sherley and his brother, Shah Abbas I developed the use of artillery and succesfuly regained much of the lost land.
Although Abbas I was just and benevolent towards his subjects he was so afraid of his own family that he blinded his sons or incarcerated them in the harem. This meant that his successors were ill-equipped for government. He was succeeded by his grandson, Shah Safi I (1629-1641) who was notorious for the systematic way in which he eliminated every other possible claimant to the throne, including, as the story goes, his own mother. In a fit of intoxication he even stabbed his favourite wife to death.
He was succeeded by his ten-year old son, Shah Abbas II (1642-1666), who was initially brought up very strictly by his austere and religious ministers. Later he adopted a more liberal outlook and threw drunken parties, as recounted by Jean Chardin, and ridiculed his teachers by obliging them to drink wine. However this was all within the Court circle, outwardly he seems to have been a kind a liberal monarch, tolerant in religious matters and lenient with his subjects. Some of the finest monuments in Isfahan date from his reign, the Khajou Bridge, The Palaces of Chehel Sotoon, and Talar Ashraf, and the Mosque of Hakim.
He was succeeded by his son Shah Safi (1666-1694), the curious events surrounding whose coronation, were witnessed by Sir John Chardin. Safi was at first thought to be unfit to govern as he was thought to have been blinded, however when he was found to be fully sighted he was immediately crowned. He seems to have suffered like his forbears from alcohol addiction and was constantly ill. So his physician pronounced that he had been crowned at an inauspicious hour and a second coronation was arranged at an astrologically more appropriate time and Shah Safi took the title Suleiman III. He was succeeded in turn by his son Sultan Hussein (1694-1722). This weak and ineffectual monarch lacked the religious tolerance of his father and grandfather, and persecuted the Sufis, He was extremely superstitious and is reported to have discouraged all attempts to save the palace of Chehel Sotoon and its effects from fire, saying it was the will of God which mortals had no right to contest. The Palace of Hasht Behesht, the Madrasa-ye-Nimaward, and the Royal Theological College, the Madrasa-ye-Mader-e-Shah date from his reign, as does the verandah of Chehel Sotoon which he was eventually persuaded to restore. He was eventually overthrown by a small marauding army of 20,000 Afghanis who laid siege to Isfahan during the summer of 1722, reducing the inhabitants, it is said, to cannibalism. Sultan Hussein eventually abdicated on October 22nd, handing over what was left of his empire to the victorious Mahmoud (1722-1725).
The Safavid period is most notable for the money spent under Abbas I and his successors on the beautification of Isfahan. Many of the most important buildings in the city date from this time, the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, The Royal Mosque, and the Palaces of Chehel Sotoon and Ali-Qapu.