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Shah Ismail I
Shah of Iran
Shah Ismail.JPG
Shah Ismail I, the founder of Safavid Empire.
Reign 1502-1524
Born July 17, 1487
Birthplace Ardabil, (Iran)
Died May 23, 1524
Place of death Tabriz, (Iran)
Successor Tahmasp I
Royal House Safavid Empire
Father Sheikh Haydar

Shāh Ismā'il Abu'l-Mozaffar bin Sheikh Haydar bin Sheikh Junayd Safawī (Persian: شاه اسماعیل) (July 17, 1487 - May 23, 1524), was a Shah of Iran and the founder of the Safavid Empire, which survived until 1736. Shah Ismail started his campaign in Azerbaijan in 1502, and had re-unified all of Iran by 1509. [1] He was a Shia Muslim from Ardabil in Northwestern Iran and reigned as Shāh Ismā'il I of Irān from 1502 to 1524. He is revered as a spiritual guide in Alevism, as well as playing a key role in the rise of the Twelver branch of Shia Islam over the formerly dominant Ismaili. Ismail also, is the man who converted Iran from the Sunnī to the Shīʿī sect of Islām.[2]

Shah Ismail was also a prolific poet who, under the pen name Khatā'ī, contributed greatly to the literary development of the Azerbaijani Turkic language.[3]


Life and Political History

Shah Ismail I, the founder of Safavid Dynasty of Iran. Medieval European rendering

The language used by Shah Ismail is not identical with that of his "race" or "nationality" and he was bilingual at birth.[4] He was a descendant of the Sufi saint Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252-1334). As such, Ismā'il was the last in line of hereditary Grand Masters of the Safaviyeh Sufi order, prior to his ascent to a ruling dynasty. As a boy only a year old, he had lost his father Haydar Safavi Sultan, Sufi Grand Master and leader of a swelling Qizilbash Shi'i community in the Azerbaijan region of Iran who was killed in battle. Ismā'il's mother was an Aq Qoyunlu noble, Martha, the daughter of Uzun Hasan by his Pontic Greek wife Theodora, better known as Despina Hatun. [5] Theodora was the daughter of Emperor John IV of Trebizond whom Uzun Hassan married in a deal to protect Trebizond from Ottomans. [6]

As legend has it, infant Ismā'il went into hiding for several years. With his followers, he finally returned to Tabriz, vowing to make Shi'i Islam the official religion of Iran. Ismā'il found significant support among the people of Azerbaijan as well as some parts of the Ottoman Empire, mainly in eastern Anatolia. Ismail's advent to power was due to Turkoman tribes of Anatolia and Azerbaijan, who formed the most important part of the Qizilbash movement. [7] Centuries of Sunni rule followed by non-Muslim Mongol hegemony lent fertile ground for new teachings. In 1501, Ismā'il I proclaimed himself Shah, choosing Tabriz, in Iran's northernmost province of Azerbaijan, as his capital. In that year he also defeated the Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep Turks).

When the Safavids came to power in 1501, Shah Ismail was 14 or 15 years old, and by 1510 Ismail had conquered the whole of Iran. [8]

Fresco "Battle at Merv between Shah Ismail I and the Uzbek Khan Muhammad Shaybani in 1510" in a Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan
Shah Ismail I, the founder of Safavid Dynasty of Iran pictured at battle against Abu al-Khayr Khan in a scene from the Tarikh-i Alam-Aray-i

In 1510 Ismā'il I moved against the Sunni Uzbeg tribe. In battle near the city of Merv, some 17,000 Qizilbash warriors ambushed and defeated a superior Uzbek force numbering 28,000. The Uzbek ruler, Muhammad Shaybani, was caught and killed trying to escape the battle and the shah had his skull made into a jeweled drinking goblet.

In 1514, Selim I, the Sunni Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, attacked Ismā'il's kingdom to stop the spread of Shiism into Ottoman dominions. Selim and Ismā'il had been exchanging a series of belligerent letters prior to the attack.

Selim I defeated Ismā'il at the battle of Chaldiran in 1514.[9] Ismā'il's army was more mobile and their soldiers were better prepared but the Ottomans prevailed due in large part to their efficient modern army, and possession of artillery, black powder and muskets. Ismā'il was wounded and almost captured in battle. Selim I entered the Iranian capital in triumph on September 7, but did not linger, a mutiny among his troops forcing him to withdraw. This saved Ismā'il, and allowed him to recover. Sultan Selim I also took Ismā'il's favorite wife hostage, demanding huge concessions for her release. Ismā'il refused to cede to the Ottoman demands, and is said to have died of a broken heart in 23 May 1524 at the early age of thirty-six, never having seen his beloved spouse again.

Ismail was a broken man after the battle of Chaldiran as he resorted to drinking alcohol.[10] Ismail retired to his palace and withdrew from active participation in the affairs of the state, leaving this to his minister, Mirza Shah-Hussayn. [11]

Ismā'il's reign was marked by enormous conquests, shaping the map of Iran up to the present day. Baghdad and the holy Shi'a shrines of Najaf and Karbala were seized from the Ottoman Turks, lost and reconquered again.

He was succeeded by his son Tahmasp I.

Ismāil's poetry


Part of a series on Twelvers


Four Doors · Insan-i Kamil
The Qur'an · The Buyruks
Zahir · Batin


Fasting · Sema · Music
Zakat · Ziyarat · Taqiyya
Dushkunluk Meydani
Nowruz · Ashura

The Twelve Imams

Ali · Hasan · Husayn
al-Abidin · al-Baqir · al-Sadiq
al-Kadhim · al-Rida · al-Taqi
al-Naqi · al-Askari · al-Mahdi


Muhammad-Ali · Ismail I
ibn Arabi · Yunus Emre
Pir Sultan · Hajji Bektash


Dedes · Murshid · Pir
Rehber · Dergah · Jem
Cem Evi · Babas


Bektashi · Qizilbash · Ishikism


Ismāil is also known for his poetry using the pen-name Khatā'ī (Arabic: خطائی‎ "Sinner")[12]. According to Encyclopædia Iranica, "Ismail was a skillful poet who used prevalent themes and images in lyric and didactic-religious poetry with ease and some degree of originality". He was also deeply influenced by the Persian literary tradition of Iran, particularly by the "Shāhnāma" of Ferdowsi, which probably explains the fact that he named all of his sons after Shāhnāma-characters. Dickson and Welch suggest that Ismāil's "Shāhnāmaye Shāhī" was intended as a present to the young Tahmāsp[13]. After defeating Muhammad Shaybāni's Uzbeks, Ismāil asked Hātefī, a famous poet from Jam (Khorasan), to write a Shāhnāma-like epic about his victories and his newly established dynasty. Although the epic was left unfinished, it was an example of mathnawis in the heroic style of the Shāhnāma written later on for the Safavid kings[14].

He wrote in the Azerbaijani language, as most of his followers at the time spoke Turkmen Turkish [4], and in the Persian language. He is considered an important figure in the literary history of Azerbaijani language and has left approximately 1400 verses in this language, which he chose to use for political reasons, as most of his followers at the time spoke Turkmen Turkish[4]. Approximately 50 verses of his Persian poetry have also survived.

Most of the poems are concerned with love — particularly of the mystical Sufi kind — though there are also poems propagating Shi'i doctrine and Safavi politics. His other serious works include the Nasihatnāme, a book of advice, and the unfinished Dahnāme, a book which extols the virtues of love.

As Ismā'il believed in his own divinity and in his descent from ‘Alī, in his poems he tended to strongly emphasize these claims:

Yedi iqlimə oldi hökmũ fərman
Əzəldən yoluna can-başî fədadir
Ki, hər kim on iki imami bildi
ona qīrmīzī tac geymək rəvadur
Şah-i mərdan "Əliyyi" ibn-i talib
Xətaini yuridən pişvedur

On all seven climes has His judgment become a decree
Since forever all lives are forfeit for His sake
For whoever knows twelve Imams
It is only fitting that he shall wear the Red Crown
For, the King of Men, Ali ibn Abu Talib
Is the leader of Khatā'ī in his walk.

Along with the poet Nesîmî, Khatā'ī is considered to be among the first proponents of using a simpler Azeri language in verse that would thereby appeal to a broader audience. His work is most popular in Azerbaijan, as well as among the Bektashis of Turkey. There is a large body of Alevi and Bektashi poetry that has been attributed to him. The major impact of his religious propaganda, in the long run, was the conversion of many in Iran and Azerbaijan to Shiism. [1]

The following anecdote demonstrates the status of vernacular Turkish and Persian in the Ottoman Empire and in the incipient Safavid state. Khatā'ī sent a poem in Turkish to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I before going to war in 1514. In a reply the Ottoman Sultan answered in Persian to indicate his contempt. Here is the excerpt from poet's letter to Sultan Selim I:

Mən pirimi hak bilirəm,
Yoluna qurban oluram,
Dün doğdum bugün ölürəm,
Ölən gəlsin iştə meydan.

I know the Truth as my supreme guide,
I would sacrifice myself in his way,
I was born yesterday, I will die today,
Come, whoever would die, here is the arena.



  • Tahmasp I
  • Prince Shahzadeh ‘Abul Ghazi Sultan Alqas Mirza (b. in Tabriz, 15 March 1515 - k. in Qahqahan, 9 April 1550) Governor of Shirvan 1538-1547. He rebelled against his brother Tahmasp, captured and imprisoned at the Fortress of Qahqahan. m. Khadija Sultan Khanum, having had issue, two sons, Sultan Ahmad Mirza (k. 1568) and Sultan Farrukh Mirza (k. 1568)
  • Prince Shahzadeh Sultan Rustam Mirza (b. at Maragheh, 13 September 1517 –d.?)
  • Prince Shahzadeh ‘Abul Naser Sultan Sam Mirza (b. at Surluq, 28 August 1518- d. in prison at Qahqahan, December 1567) Governor-General of Khorasan 1521-1529 and 1532-1534, and of Ardabil 1549-1571. He rebelled against his brother Tahmasp, captured and imprisoned at the Fortress of Qahqahan. He had issue, two sons and one daughter. His daughter, married Prince Jésé (d. 1583) Governor of Sakki the third son of Levan King of Kakheti in Georgia.
  • Prince Shahzadeh ‘Abu'l Fat'h Sultan Moez od-din Bahram Mirza (b. at Surluq, 7 September 1518 - d. 16 September 1550) Governor of Khorasan 1529-1532, Gilan 1536-1537 and Hamadan 1546-1549. m. Zainab Sultan Khanum. He had issue, four sons and one daughter: Sultan Hassan Mirza died in his youth, Sultan Husain Mirza (d. 1567) ‘Abu'l Fat'h Sultan Ibrahim Mirza (b. 1541- k.1577), Sultan Badi uz-Zaman Mirza (k.1577)
  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Hossein Mirza (b. 11 December 1520 – d.?)


  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Fulaneh Begum, m. as his second wife, before 14th May 1513, Prince Shahzada Murad Effendi, elder son of Prince Shahzada Sultan Ahmed, Crown Prince of Ottoman Empire, son of Bayezid II.
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Janish Khanum (b. 26 February 1507 – d. 2 March 1533) m. (first) at Hamadan, 24th August 1518, Sultan Mozaffar Amir-i-Dibaj (k. at Tabriz, 23 September 1536), Governor of Rasht and Fooman 1516-1535, son of Amir Hisam od-din Amir-i-Dibaj.
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Pari-Khan Khanum m. in 4th October 1521, Sultan Khalil Governor of Shirvan 1523-1536, son of Sheikh Shah Sultan Ibrahim bin Farrokh Yasar.
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Khair un-nisa Khanish Khanum (b.? - d. 12 March 1564) m. 1537, Seyyed Nur od-din Nimatu’llah Baqi Yazdi (d. 21 July 1564), son of Mir Nezam od-din ‘Abdu'l Baqi Yazdi.
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Shah Zainab Khanum (b. 1519 – d.?)
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Farangis Khanum (b. 1519- d.?)
  • Princess Shahzadi ‘Alamiyan Mahin Banu Khanum (b. 1519- d. 20 January 1562)[15]


Ismāil's greatest legacy was establishing an enduring empire which lasted over 200 years. Even after the fall of Safavids in 1722, their cultural and political influence endured through the era of Afsharid, Zand, Qajar, and Pahlavi dynasties into the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, where Shi’a Islam is still the official religion as it was during the Safavids.


In Alevism, Shah Ismail is seen as a religious figure, and a moral spiritual leader. His teachings are in the Buyruk.


  • R.M. Savory, "Esmā'il Safawī", Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, (LINK)
  • Mirză Răsul İsmailzadä, Şah İsmail Säfävi (Xätai) küllüyyatı : qäzällär, qäsidälär, näsihätnamä, dähnamä, qoşmalar / Xätai ; mätnin elmi-tänqidi täktibatçısı; Alhoda Publishers, Iran, 2004 (in Azeri), ISBN 964-8121-09-5, OCLC 62561234
  • M. Momen, "An Introduction to Shi'i Islam", Yale Univ. Press, 1985, pp. 397, ISBN 0-300-03499-7

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopedia Iranica. R.M. Savory. Esmail Safawi
  2. ^ Ismāʿīl I at Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ G. Doerfer, "Azeri Turkish", Encyclopaedia Iranica, viii, p. 246, Online Edition, (LINK)
  4. ^ a b c V. Minorsky, The Poetry of Shah Ismail, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 10, No. 4. (1942), pp. 1053)
  5. ^ Peter Charanis. "Review of Emile Janssens' Trébizonde en Colchide", Speculum, Vol. 45, No. 3,, (Jul., 1970), p. 476
  6. ^ Anthony Bryer, open citation, p. 136
  7. ^ Encyclopaedia Iranica. R. N. Frye. Peoples of Iran.
  8. ^ BBC, ([ LINK])
  9. ^ Michael Axworthy Iran: Empire of the Mind (Penguin, 2008) p.133
  10. ^ The Cambridge history of Islam, Part 1, By Peter Malcolm Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, Bernard Lewis, pg. 401
  11. ^ Momen (1985), p.107
  12. ^ Encyclopedia Iranica. ٍIsmail Safavi
  13. ^ M.B. Dickson and S.C. Welch, The Houghton Shahnameh 2 vols (Cambridge Mmssachusetts and London. 1981. See: pg 34 of Volume I)
  14. ^ R.M. Savory, Safavids, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition
  15. ^ The Royal Ark


  • Momen, Moojan (1985). TAn Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelve. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300035314.  
Ismail I
Preceded by
Shah of Persia
Succeeded by
Tahmasp I
Preceded by
Muhammad Shaybani
as Ruler of Persia
Start of Safavid Dynasty

External Links



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