The Last Safavids

  June 07, 2022   Read time 3 min
The Last Safavids
Ghalzai supremacy was to represent only a brief interlude in the his Mahmud's cousin and successor. Apart from the liquidation of the already tottering Safavid dynasty, it was scarcely of any significance.

The Afghans were able neither to counteract Russian and Turkish incursions into Iranian territory nor to eradicate hotbeds of unrest in various parts of the country, whether these emerged before or after the fall of the Safavid empire. Least of all did they manage to restore the unity of Persia. They even proved incapable of reviving life in the sorely tried capital in which they now resided.

The seventy-five years leading up to the end of the 12th/18th century have been not inaccurately described by Perry as a morass of anarchy2 in which three periods, those of the Afshars, the Zands and the early Qajars, stand out like islands. During each a strong and relatively sensible government was headed by a figure of significance: Nadir Shah, Karlm Khan Zand and Agha Muhammad respectively. The extent to which the traditions of the Safavids were taken over, preserved, adapted, diminished or enlarged by these rulers before they passed to the Qajars and were finally handed down, via the 19th century, to the modern age, is a problem for the cultural historian. Within the narrower framework of Safavid history, our task is to investigate attempts to continue or resurrect the Safavid empire that were made either by members of the dynasty or with their assistance.

When the central government in Isfahan came to an end the Safavids were by no means totally eliminated. On the contrary, individual representatives of the dynasty were still to play a certain part in the political life of the country. Strictly speaking, there were Safavid puppet rulers and periods of partial Safavid rule until as late as 1187/1773, the year in which Isma'Il III, last of the Safavid rois faineants, died; and the efforts of genuine Safavid princes or impostors to gain power in various parts of Persia were of considerable significance.

No share in subsequent historical developments was granted to Sultan Husain, nor is it likely that he sought any. During his lifetime, Mahmud ensured that he was well treated although, like all Safavid princes resident in Isfahan, he was imprisoned. He remained in prison until 1139/1726, when he was beheaded on the orders of Ashraf as a result of an insulting letter the latter had received from the Ottoman general Ahmed Pasha, then operating in Persia. He called Ashraf a usurper and informed him that he considered it his duty to reinstate the legitimate ruler of Iran whom the Afghans had deposed. Only a year before, probably in a fit of persecution mania, Mahmud Shah had killed the majority of the princes imprisoned with Sultan Husain, some of them with his own hands.

For wide sections of the population in Iran the collapse of the Safavid empire that occurred when Sultan Husain relinquished the throne and power was assumed by Mahmud was a catastrophe greater than anything they could possibly have imagined. The result was an almost universal willingness to accept without question any sign of the continued existence of the dynasty or its possible revival — an ideal situation for pretenders! One source2 lists eighteen of them in the Afghan period alone, and no less than twelve more are mentioned by chroniclers of the reigns of Nadir Shah and his immediate successors. A number of these claimants found support in widely differing areas of the country and managed to occupy or conquer cities and strongholds. Not infrequently they were able to defeat strong regular troops, including even Ottoman invasion forces. Sooner or later, however, they failed because their supporters proved inadequate in numbers or lacked perseverance when really put to the test.