Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



Persia under the Safavids and Qajars



The rule of the Shiite Safavids introduced a period of independent religious and cultural development in 1 Persia after 1500. In particular Shah Abbas the Great, through his military and economic policies, made the country a major power in the Near East. For this reason, it was constantly in competition with the Ottoman Empire. Following the Safavids, Nadir Shah erected a short-lived empire that fell apart again under his successor. The Qajars, who came to power in 1796, were the first dynasty able to restore Persia's unity. At the same time, the Central Asian Uzbek empire was flowering under the Shaybanids.

1 Map of Persia, 1681

The Beginnings of the Safavids and the First Safavid Shahs

Shah Ismail established Safavid rule in Persia in 1501. He laid the groundwork for the Shi'ite identity of the country, which was used as a foundation by his successors.


In the power vacuum left by the local dynasties, the heirs of the Timurid Empire established the Sufi Order of the Safavids, which converted to Twelver Shiism in the 15th century. The hereditary sheikhs of the order also fostered a military basis among their followers and were able to extend their power. The founder of the dynasty, and the first shah was Ismail I (ruled 1499-1524), ruler of the town of Ardevil, who descended from the Sassanid dynasty. A Shi'ite, he conquered all of Iran and Iraq and drove the Uzbeks east by 1507. In 1514, at Chaldiran, he suffered defeat against the Ottomans under Sultan Selim I .

Shah Ismail focused on domestic development. He concentrated religious and secular authority and made Twelver Shiism the state religion, dramatically influencing Iran's development as a nation-state. Ismail's rule, based on his own charisma, showed itself to be unsturdy under his son Tahmasp I, who succeeded him in 1524. The new shah, who was himself artistically talented, promoted painting and calligraphy.

During his reign, magnificent editions of the Persian national epic, 2, 3 Shah Namah, and the "Khamsa" by Nizami were created. During the course of his entire reign, Tahmasp was forced to wage war against the Uzbeks over Khorasan in the east and with the Ottoman Turks over Azerbaijan in the west.

In 1548 he moved his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin. In 1554 he occupied Georgia, where he increased military recruitment of Caucasians, and in 1555 exchanged Iraq for Azerbaijan in a peace settlement with the Ottomans. The reigns of Tahmasp's sons, Ismail II (ruled 1576-77) and Mohammad Khudabanda (ruled 1578-1587), almost led to the collapse of the state structure. Mohammed's son Abbas, who was declared shah in Herat in 1581, entered Qazvin in 1587 and forced his father to abdicate. In 1592 he moved the capital again from Qazvin to Isfahan.

2 From the Shah Namah or "Book of Kings"
 by Firdausi, 1567

3 From the Shah Namah or "Book of Kings" by Firdausi: Ardashir's fight
against Arduwan, book illustration, 16th century



The Safavids

The Safavids came out of a Sufi order of Shi'a Islam. It was founded about 1300 by Sheikh Safi od-Din (1252-1334) in Ardabil in present-day Azerbaijan. Because of his socially revolutionary orientation and active proselytizing in neighboring countries, he soon became very popular.

 He supported himself militarily with his own troops, who were named Kizilbash ("redheaded ones") after their red turbans. The order founded the Safavid Dynasty in 1501.

Dance of the Dervishs,
book miniature from the "Khamsa" by Dschami,
early 16th century




The Safavid Empire under Abbas the Great

Shah Abbas the Great led the Safavid Empire to its political, and economic zenith. The first of his successors were able to govern using the structures he had created. Encouragement of immigration and trade enriched his country. He rebuilt the capital, Ispahan.


Shah Abbas I (the Great; 1571-1629) was the most eminent of the Safavid rulers. He energetically oversaw the reorganization of the state. In 1590, he made peace with the Ottomans, at first conceding Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan to them territories which he would later recover. He created a standing army of Christian Caucasians, Armenians, and Circassians under British officers that he organized after the model of the Turkish Janissaries. In 1598 Abbas retook Khorasan from the Uzbeks, and he then annexed Bahrain in 1601, captured Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia between 1603 and 1608, and in 1623-24 retook Kurdistan as well as Iraq from the Ottomans, making Persia the supreme power of the Near East.

Abbas's greatest accomplishments were in the area of domestic politics. He settled Caucasian craftsmen in Iran and invited Christian and Jewish traders and merchants into the country, which brought the people prosperity and the state coffers enormous wealth.

Isfahan, his new capital, was 5 magnificently rebuilt.

4 Isfahan, copper engraving, 1681

5 Wall hanging from the Lutfallah-Mosque,
Isfahan, early 17th century

Under Abbas, the leasing and tax systems were simplified, and he maintained close 6, 7 trade relations with the Moguls in India.

Abbas seized the trading center of Hormuz from the Portuguese in 1622, from which he controlled the trade of the Persian Gulf.

At this point, Europeans also discovered Safavid Persia; trade delegations, artists, and adventurers came into the country in swarms, some of them personally received by the 8 shah.

When Abbas the Great died in 1629, Persia stood at its political and economic peak, a modern empire with diplomatic contacts throughout the world.
It was during the reign of Abbas's grandson Safi I, who killed his family during a fit of paranoia, that Iraq was lost to the Ottoman Turks in 1638. It was thanks to Grand Vizier Mirza Taqi that Armenia wasn't lost as well. Safi's son Abbas II was the last of the strong Safavid leaders, securing the streets and trade routes, and maintaining intensive economic exchange with European colonies. In his fight against corruption and the arbitrary use of power, he reformed the legal system.

6 The Caravan of the Persian Shah,
painting by Alberto Pasini, 1867

7 Caravan on the Shahrestan
Bridge in Isfahan

8 Reception by a Persian Prince,
miniature, end of the 16th century



Persian Carpets

The renown of Persian carpets, which persists to this day, was established during the reign of Abbas the Great. Carpets were already being manufactured in Persia, but only then did the export to Europe begin. Here they served, not as floor coverings as in the East where people prayed sitting, but as luxury coverings for tables and beds.

The designs changed in this period from representations of figures to arabesques, blossoms, and leaves. The material—silk— was provided by the Armenians settled in nearby Isfahan, who monopolized the silk trade.

Carpet with trees, birds and a deer;
in the center a pond with ducks,
16th century




From the Last of the Safavids to the Qajars

During the reigns of the last Safavid rulers, the empire experienced its decline and fall. Only the conqueror Nadir Shah was able, in 1736, to once again create a great empire. After a short reign by the Zand, the Qajars came to power.


Following the reign of Abbas II (ruled 1642-1667), signs of a Safavid decline could be seen. He sought French aid against Constantinople, in return for commercial preferences. His son Safi II left the running of the government largely to palace eunuchs. In 1668 he assumed the throne for a second time under the name of Shah Suleiman, while his hostile neighbors pushed into Iranian territory unimpeded. Safi's son Sultan Husein (ruled 1694-1722) submitted himself completely to the rule of Shiite clerics. When he began forced conversions of the Afghan Sunnis, who had been subjugated in 1648, he provoked a revolt of the Afghans. In 1709 they murdered the Persian officials and soldiers and declared Afghanistan independent. In 1719 the Afghans marched into Persia under their leader Mir Mahmud and conquered the country. Sultan Husein was executed in 1726. Although Mahmud declared himself shah in 1722, two shadow rulers of the House of Safavid continued to claim control until 1736. During the reign of the last Safavid, Abbas III, General Nadir of the Afshar, a Turkmen tribe, rose to power.

Nadir drove the 1 Afghans out of Isfahan in 1726 and by 1730 out of all of Persia, seized Azerbaijan and the Caucasus from the Ottomans, and then ascended the throne in 1736 as Nadir Shah.

He moved his capital from Ispahan to Mashhad, on the route to India reoccupied Afghanistan in 1738, pushed into India taking Peshawar and, reaching Delhi in 1739. Afterward, he turned to Central Asia and conquered Chiva and Bukhara. In June 1747, Nadir Shah was murdered by his own emirs.

The Afshar dynasty didn't outlive Nadir Shah for long. His grandson lost the empire in 1749, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and a large part of Persia proclaimed themselves independent. The Kurdish military leader Karim Khan Zand (ruled 175O-i1779) established the Zand dynasty in central and southern Iran, with its capital at Shiraz.
 After his death in 1779, his sons fought each other until being replaced in 1794 by the 2 Qajars.

The Qajars were Turkmen nomads from the northwest of Iran and followers of the Safavids. Their leader, Agha Muhammad Khan, made Tehran his capital in 1786, deposed the last Zand ruler in 1794, and then took the title of shah of Persia in 1796. The Qajar dynasty that he founded ruled until 1925. When he was murdered in (une 1797, the dynasty was so well established that his nephew Fath Ali Shah (ruled 1797-1834) was able to assume power without opposition.

Under his rule, Iran began a close 3 association with the great powers of Europe, primarily the British who were concerned about the expansionism of Russia.

1 Afghan

2 Qajar

3 Asker-Khan, the Persian legate in France,
painting by Joseph Franque



The "Peacock Throne"

When Nadir Shah defeated the Indian grand mogul, he took the Moguls' treasures for himself, bringing them back to Persia.

In addition to the Peacock Throne and the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which is today part of the British Crownjewels in the Tower of London, they became a symbol of the shahs.

The Grand Moghul Shajahan on the Peacock Throne,
Persian miniature




Central Asia

Under the Uzbek successor dynasties following the Timurids, Central Asia—especially the capitals Bukhara and Samarkand—remained a cultural center of eastern Islam. During the 18th century, however, they fell under Persian and later Russian suzerainty.


The cultural blossoming under the Timurids continued under their successors, the Uzbek tribal confederation.

Beginning in 1500, the 6 Uzbek leader Muhammad Shaybani Khan seized the territories of the Timurids, occupying Herat in 1507 and establishing the rule of the Shaybanids, a dynasty with Mongolian roots.

6 Uzbek commander Muhammad
Shaybani Khan, painting, 1873

He fell in 1510 at Merv against the Safavids attempting to conquer Khorasan, but his rule over Bukhara and the capital Samarkand was established.

Ubaydallahand his successors further built up both cities with numerous mosques, 8 madrassas, and inns for 4 pilgrims.

8 The madrassa Mir-i Arab in Buchara, built 1535-1536

4 Chanaka Nadir Diwan-Begi, an inn for pilgrims in Buchara,
build in 1620

The former tribal warriors soon assumed the courtly culture of the cities and supported the 7 Naqshbandi order, so that the region became a center for Islamic mysticism.

7 Members of an Islamic Order in Tashkent

Since 1540 one line had ruled in Bukhara, and Abdallah II, the last of the Shaybanids, was able to reunify the empire out of Bukhara in 1583 and successfully expanded his domination to the west, east, and north.

In 1599. Baqi Muhammad, leader of another Uzbek tribal confederation, the Djanids (or Astrakhanids), took control over Central Asia. They made Bukhara their capital and once more developed it splendidly, reigning there until 1785. In the 18th century, various conquerors cast an eye on Bukhara. Nadir Shah of Persia occupied large parts of the empire after 1737, including Balkh, Chiva, and Bukhara. Chiva remained under Persian and Turkmen domination until 1770. Czarist Russia, which was expanding eastward, sought to influence the politics of the khanate, until finally bringing the area under its control in the 19th century.

After Kokand and other regions had detached themselves from the central regime beginning in 1732, a rapid loss of power and a civil war among the Djanids occurred in 1747. The rulers fell under the regency of the related Mangits from around 1753 until Amir-i-Masum Shah, who acted as regent in Bukhara beginning in 1770, assumed the title of "prince of the believers" and established the khanate of the Mangits in 1785.

He was able to assert himself in the Bukhara region in the early 19th century, but following 9 internal unrest, the area fell under Russian rule between 1868 and 1873.

9 The conquest of Samarkand by the Emir of Buchara, 1868, painting

The last 5, 10 Mangit khan was deposed in 1921.

5 Alim Khan, the last Emir of Buchara

10 Setareje Mahe Chase, the summer
residence of the last reigning Emir of
Buchara, Said Alim Khan



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