Reign of Ismā‘īl I

The young and charismatic Ismāՙīl founded the Ṣafavid Dynasty in Iran and established, through subjugation and annexation, Shīՙite Islam as the state’s religion, in effect unifying the country’s diverse peoples.

Summary of Event

Ismāՙīl I was born in Azerbaijan on July 17, 1487, son of Shayleh Ḥaydar, an Iranian, and ՙAlamshāh Begum, a Turkoman, whose marriage was sanctioned by ՙAlamshāh’s father, Uzun Ḥasan. This mixed marriage posed no significant problem until after Uzun Ḥasan’s death in 1478, when Ḥasan’s sons, first Khalil and then Yaՙqūb, acceded to the throne. Ḥaydar, charismatic and a born leader, had attracted enthusiastic followings among Turkomans from Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia. Yaՙqūb found this sufficiently disquieting, so he had Ḥaydar killed. Ismāՙīl I
Selim I
Ṭahmāsp I
Bayezid II
Uzun Ḥasan
Muḥammad Shaybānī
Bayezid II
Selim I
Ṭahmāsp I
Ismāՙīl I

After Ḥaydar’s murder, Yaՙqūb imprisoned Ḥaydar’s three sons, including Ismāՙīl, not quite two years old. The boys were confined almost 1,000 miles south in Istakhr. Yaՙqūb died in 1493, which led to the release of Ḥaydar’s sons. Yaՙqūb’s successor, Rustam, had one of the sons, ՙAlī, executed, so that the seven-year-old Ismāՙīl then became spiritual leader of the Sufis of Ardabīl.

Ismāՙīl possessed a great deal of his father’s charisma. Unusually intelligent, he matured into a handsome youth. The year after Ismāՙīl’s release from prison, the Ak Koyunlu Ak Koyunlu Dynasty Turkomans made a concerted effort to find him in Ardabīl, but his supporters hid him before spiriting him away to Karkiya Mīrzā ՙAlī, a devoted Shīՙite and governor of Lahijan on the Caspian Sea, where Ismāՙīl and his Sufi followers were granted sanctuary.

The boy, realizing that his life was in great peril, remained in Lahijan until 1499. During his five years there, Ismāՙīl received an excellent education, studying the Qur՚ān and gaining proficiency in the Arabic and Persian languages. He also spoke and wrote in Azeri Turkish and, under the pseudonym Khatai, produced poetry to inspire his followers.

By 1499, twelve-year-old Ismāՙīl left Lehijan for Ardabīl, after which he proceeded north to the province of Talish on the Caspian Sea, spending the winter in small villages. Rumors were rife among the Sufis Sufism;Iran that Ismāՙīl, their proclaimed spiritual leader, would soon be ready to meet with them in Erzincan, far to the west of Talish. The meeting took place in Erzincan in August, 1500, before an assembly of seven thousand followers known as the Kizilbash, or “red heads,” because of the distinctive twelvefold red hats they wore to show support for the founders of the Ṣafavid Dynasty. Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] The Kizilbash were eager to participate in transforming the Ṣafavids from a religious into a political group bent on avenging the deaths of Ismāՙīl’s father and brother.

There ensued a series of military campaigns that Ismāՙīl led between ages thirteen and twenty-five without experiencing a single defeat. He had the ability to invoke people’s loyalty and to lead them. So remarkable was his string of victories, often against substantial odds, that his followers considered him almost a deity.

Ismāՙīl first led his army east to Shamakha near the Caspian Sea, taking, later, Baku; his army then moved toward Tabrīz, where it met the Ak Koyunlu army 20 miles north of that city. Ismāՙīl’s army won decisively, also killing the sultan of Ak Koyunlu.

By the end of 1501, at age fourteen, Ismāՙīl was crowned in Tabrīz after having gained control of Azerbaijan. He proclaimed himself shah, a title that had not been used in Iran for nine centuries. In their Friday prayers, the twelve imams, Iran’s most revered religious leaders, declared him the rightful monarch. In 1508, he charged into Baghdad, driving out the governor and helping the city become a cultural center.

The Ṣafavids, having conquered Iran, began to establish Shia Islam as its state religion. Ḥaydar, Ismāՙīl’s father, was a Shīՙite. During Ismāՙīl’s internment in Lahijan with the Shīՙite governor, Karkiya Mīrzā ՙAlī, as his protector, he became wholly committed to Shia Islam Islam;Shīՙites[Shiites] .

With Iran under control by 1510, Ismāՙīl turned his attention to the Uzbeks in the east and the Ottomans in the west. Fighting on two fronts presented a difficult military challenge. Traditionally, an army was considered part of its leader’s household. It was expected to move with him as he moved. The larger the territory to be defended, the more difficult it was to retain any sense of unity among one’s troops.

Ismāՙīl’s tactics in fighting the Uzbeks at Merv were inspired. The Uzbek leader Muḥammad Shaybānī and his followers sequestered themselves in Merv’s citadel, impervious to the continued assaults of the Ṣafavids. Ismāՙīl broke the deadlock by pretending to retreat. Muḥammad Shaybānī and his troops finally emerged from the fortress and headed west. Then, Ismāՙīl’s forces engaged them in a deadly battle 12 miles west of Merv, Merv, Battle of (1510) a battle that killed Muḥammad Shaybānī.

After engaging the Uzbeks, Ismāՙīl deployed his forces to the west, but not before losing a battle to the Uzbeks in Ghujduvan, far to the east, in November, 1512. Earlier this same year, the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II, left his sultancy voluntarily, relinquishing the post to his son, Selim I. Ismāՙīl refused to acknowledge Selim as the legitimate sultan, recognizing instead Bayezid’s rightful successor, Ahmad Bayezid. Selim came under considerable pressure as hordes of Turkomans fled from Ottoman territory to align themselves with the Ṣafavids. Greatly threatened by such desertions, Selim I, with an army of 100,000, attacked Iran on March 20, 1514.

By this time, Ismāՙīl had racked up so many military victories that he considered himself unconquerable. He made at minimum two errors in judgment before the battle. First, he refused to use gunpowder in the fight, even though his force of forty thousand was less than half the size of Selim’s army and his opponents used considerable artillery against his army. Second, he chose to fight the battle on the vulnerable Chāldirān Chāldirān, Battle of (1514)[Chaldiran, Battle of (1514)] plain rather than in the mountains, which would have offered his troops greater protection.

A massacre ensued, in which the Ṣafavids lost most of their military leadership and thousands of foot soldiers and cavalry. Ismāՙīl escaped with a handful of his supporters. His opponents returned to Constantinople with five hundred loads of treasure confiscated from the Ṣafavids. They gained control of Diyarbakīr to the southwest in Mesopotamia, which disturbed the tenuous balance of power and pushed Ismāՙīl and his supporters to the east, away from Asia Minor and central Iran.

After his loss at Chāldirān, Ismāՙīl suffered through deep depression and reportedly never again led his forces into battle. His government was now centered in Tabrīz, and his eldest son, Ṭahmāsp, succeeded him in 1524.


Ismāՙīl’s early life was so extraordinary that it was inevitable that it could not be sustained indefinitely. Becoming an active leader of military forces before the age of fourteen, and being installed as shah of Iran soon thereafter, was remarkable by any standards. His uninterrupted, fourteen-year string of military victories was rare from a military standpoint. That many of these victories were achieved when he was a teenager makes Ismāՙīl comparable to Alexander the Great.

Further Reading

  • Canby, Sheila R. The Golden Age of Persian Art: 1501-172. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. Canby presents one of the best overviews in print of the life and work of Ismāՙīl.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650. New York: Macmillan, 2002. Although Imber touches only briefly on the career of Ismāՙīl, he still offers useful insights.
  • Jackson, Peter, ed. The Timurid and Ṣafavid Periods. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Presents the broad picture of the Timurid civilization and discusses its fall, especially from the perspective of the Ṣafavids.
  • Roemer, H. R. “The Ṣafavid Period.” Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 6. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A brief but useful look at the period in which Ismāՙīl flourished.
  • Somel, Selcuk Aksin. Historical Dictionary of the Ottoman Empire. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. Although Ismāՙīl is not discussed per se, ancillary discussions of Selim II are pertinent.

1481-1512: Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

Early 16th cent.: Fuzuli Writes Poetry in Three Languages

Dec. 2, 1510: Battle of Merv Establishes the Shaybānīd Dynasty

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz