As the 16th century began, the various cities and regions of Persia were largely disorganized due to the collapse of the Timurid Empire. By 1502, however, Shah Ismail I had united the country and founded the Safavid Dynasty. The establishment of this Dynasty is considered to be one of the most significant events in Persian history. Many modern Iranians consider this to be the beginning of their national history.  Based in Iran, the Safavids ruled from 1501 to 1722 and established control over all of what is now Persia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Armenia, eastern Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Safavids developed a powerful military, ran a strong and well-organized central state, and fostered a climate in which artistic and intellectual culture flourished. The Safavids also introduced Shi‘ism as the state religion at a time when Iran’s population was mostly Sunni, and in doing so they fostered the deep divisions between Shi‘ism and Sunnism that continue to characterize relations between Iran and other Islamic nations today.

The most capable ruler of the Safavid dynasty was Shah Abbas I the Great (1571-1629) who moved the capital to Isfahan where he built many palaces, mosques, gardens, and bridges to the delight of its many people. The mosques were rich decorated with elaborately decorated blue tiles. To adorn both the mosques and palaces, artists created imaginative metalwork, tile decorations, and glass vessels. During his reign, the Safavid state reached the height of its military, political, and economic power. Abbas I reformed the military and civil service and built a showpiece capital city, Isfahan, which remains one of the masterworks of Persian Islamic art and architecture.

In 1598, Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in the central Iranian plateau, far from the constantly shifting borders with the Ottomans and Uzbeks and closer to the Persian Gulf and the newly arrived traders of the British and Dutch East India Companies. The city was built as a showpiece, with administrative buildings and public markets opening on the enormous Naqsh-e Jahan (“Exemplar of the world”) Square.  The city center was unique. All levels of society could mix there, from members of the royal court whose pavilion overlooked the square, to the Shi‘ite clergy whose mosque was at the square’s southern end, to foreign dignitaries, members of the military, merchants, and commoners. A soup kitchen distributed free food to the needy, and occasionally the square was cleared for polo games, public ceremonies, and festivals. To populate his new capital, Abbas ordered several different populations to settle in it, including Armenians, Jewish people, Circassians, and other Caucasian peoples, many of whom had been displaced during his war against the Ottomans in their homelands. The cathedral Abbas ordered built for the Armenian Christians still serves that community in Isfahan today.

Under the patronage of Shah Abbas, Persian arts flourished. Carpet weaving became a major industry, and fine Persian rugs began to appear in the homes of wealthy European nobles. Textiles were another profitable export, as textiles workers produced brocades and damasks of the highest quality. Persian artists also excelled in the illumination of manuscripts and in ceramics. Shah Abbas was also known as a compassionate and just ruler. He spent time with ordinary people to discover if they were being mistreated by his officials. He was swift to punish those who were guilty of extortion and oppression. He was also tolerant of non-Muslims who resided in Persia, allowing them to practice their faith and to worship freely.


A 16th Persian painting entitled “Woman with a Spray of Flowers” (Source: Wikimedia)

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Learn more about the Shi’a expression of Islam and its differences from the majority Sunna version by reading this short article.


The Ottoman Empire was the foremost and longest-lived of the Islamic empires of the early modern world. It was formed by a small group of Turkic-speaking warriors assisted by Anatolian and Balkan Christian warlords and their followers at the end of the thirteenth century. For nearly seven hundred years, the Ottoman state lay at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, ruling over a population diverse in ethnicity, language, and religion. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. A century later, the city, then called Istanbul, was one of the largest in the world, occupying a prize position on the Bosporus, the sea passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and facilitating trade between the Silk Roads and Europe. At its height in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman military was the most technologically advanced in the Mediterranean world, threatening the gates of Vienna to the west, reaching the Persian Gulf to the east, and conquering Yemen and the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina to the south.

Under the reign of Sultan Suleiman I (1494-1566), who is also known as Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire reached its economic and political apex. With 25 million people, it had twice the population of any European nation except France. Ottoman rulers followed the religion of Islam and ruled over a predominantly Muslim population. However, there was also a significant number of Christians and Jews in the Empire who were allowed to practice their religion in peace and to govern themselves as long as they paid an annual tax to the Sultan. Suleiman was an efficient ruler who significant enlarged both the size and significance of the Ottoman Empire. He worked together with leading Islamic scholars to create an effective law code. He was also a significant supporter of the arts and oversaw the “Golden Age” of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary, and architectural development.


A portrait of Suleiman attributed to Titian, 1530 (Source: Wikimedia)

Suleiman treated the non-Muslim communities of the empire well. He lowered the amount of taxes paid by Christians and gave them a firm legal status to stop the abuse that had been occurring at the hands of wealthy landowners. He also played a role in protecting the Jewish subjects of his empire by denouncing blood libels against Jews. Furthermore, he enacted new criminal and judicial policies that established set fines for offenses and significantly reduced the number of crimes for which capital punishment was prescribed. Suleiman was also a great supporter of education. He funded schools so that all Muslim boys could receive a free education.

To most Ottomans, however, Suleiman was known as “the lawgiver.” Most Ottoman subjects were unaware of their legal rights until Suleiman’s rule. Over the course of two and a half centuries, different parts of the empire were subject to decrees issued by many sultans, often substantially different from one another and sometimes contradictory. Suleiman reviewed the laws, ensured their compliance with Islamic principles, and issued a single unified law code for the empire that remained in force for three centuries. He also ordered the new law code to be publicized widely, so every Ottoman subject knew they had the right to have disputes heard in a court of law and judged fairly. These reforms won Suleiman wide acclaim and popularity as a ruler who cared about his people. Suleiman died in 1566 while commanding an expedition into Hungary. His death was kept secret for two months so as not to demoralize the troops; it was not until they returned to Istanbul that his death was made public in time for the coronation of his son as Selim II.

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Watch and learn more about the significance of Suleiman the Magnificent in the PBS special Empire of Faith.

At the height of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, the Muslim-controlled state exerted dominance over a vast expanse of territory that included not only Muslims but also many dhimmis: Christians, Jewish people, and others. For example, the Ottoman-controlled areas of the Balkans in southeastern Europe were not only much more densely populated than Anatolia but were also overwhelmingly Christian. The Christian populations in southeastern Europe were some of the oldest in the Christian world and unlikely to convert to Islam in any large numbers. This reality led the Ottomans to implement a system under which dhimmis were able to govern their own affairs according to their own religious laws. This became known as the millet system, a term that comes from the Arabic word millah, meaning nation.

Millets were organized around religious identity: Orthodox Christians comprised one millet under the Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul, Armenian Christians were a second, and Jewish people a third. Other groups, such as the Syriac-speaking Christians and the Coptic Christians of Egypt, were later given their own millets. Millets had their own courts to settle their affairs; a dhimmi would appear in a sharia court only if dealing with a Muslim in a legal or business matter, or with the state itself. The millet system was intended to give non-Muslims a degree of autonomy and the ability to conduct their affairs according to their own customs and norms.

Among the most striking measures imposed on Christian communities in the Balkans and Caucasus was the devshirme (“gathering”), the enslavement of youth for state and military service. Conceived as a form of taxation on the Christian territories of Ottoman-controlled Europe, this system gathered boys between eight and ten years of age from specified villages, converted them to Islam, and gave them an education designed to create an elite military force in the service of the sultan. They were selected for both their physical attributes and their intelligence. The training was harsh and emphasized discipline, endurance, and loyalty to the sultan. Most became part of an elite corps of soldiers known as the Janissaries (from the Turkish words yeni cheri, meaning “new soldier”). Janissaries were expected to serve as bodyguards to the sultan, to whom they were fiercely loyal and who paid them directly.

A small number of young men who demonstrated exceptional intellect were sent to the palace school to receive language and other training in preparation for becoming the empire’s trusted administrative elite. The idea was to create a self-perpetuating system of administrators and military leaders who had been raised by the Ottoman state, and whose loyalty was not to their families, whom (in theory) they never saw again, but to the sultan and the system of which they were a part. In this way, political infighting within the government could be avoided because personal identity, ethnicity, and religion were suppressed and nepotism eliminated. The devshirme system lasted until the late 1600s.

Most people in the Ottoman Empire could not read or write. As in most of the early modern world, primary education was considered the domain of religious institutions, not the state, although schools were often endowed by members of the sultan’s family. Basic schools called mekteps taught young Muslims to recite the Quran, and each millet was allowed to coordinate education for its own children. Schools tended to provide education in the preferred local language, since Turkish was required only of those who interacted directly with the state. This is one of the main reasons that Turkish did not eventually replace local languages like Arabic, Bulgarian, Greek, and Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian, although in some places people who were not ethnically Turkish did speak only Turkish. Local languages like Bosnian also incorporated many loan words from Ottoman Turkish. Multilingualism was valued for trade and commerce and let European traders communicate easily with local agents and business partners. It also allowed new immigrant groups to retain their languages. For example, after Jewish people were expelled from Spain in 1492, many resettled in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in Izmir, Salonica, and Istanbul, where they continued to speak Judeo-Spanish (often called Ladino).

Education past the basic primary level was generally accessible mainly to the wealthy. Some boys from average and poor families managed to attend local schools, but most people needed their children to help with agricultural work or assist in their father’s business. Boys from elite families went to private schools, and girls from similar families were educated at home by a private tutor. The further education of exceptionally bright children from the lower classes was sometimes sponsored by a wealthy local patron or landowner, often with the condition that the children go to work for the patron’s business after finishing school.

The people living in the Ottoman Empire were divided both by occupation and place of residence. The ruling class occupied superior status at the top of society. Underneath them, there were four main occupational groups: peasants, artisans, merchants, and nomadic sheep and cattle farmers. The first three lived primarily in cities. Peasants farmed the land that was leased to them by the state. Artisans were organized according to their specialty in guilds. Merchants, the most privileged group in society after the ruling class, were largely exempt from government regulations and taxes. As a result, they amassed great fortunes. Nomadic farmers who followed their herds were great autonomy in self-governance but were required to pay special taxes to the government.

The wife or mother of the reigning sultan had unequaled power over the imperial family and frequently gained popularity by funding public monuments and buildings for use by the public, including soup kitchens, bath houses, fountains, and schools. Outsiders who sought favor with the sultan often wrote letters to or sent female relatives to plead their case with the sultan’s wife or mother.  She in turn might transform her popular influence into political power by conspiring with palace administrators like the palace’s chief eunuch, becoming one of the most powerful people in the empire.

However, other than the sultan’s mother or wife, women in the Ottoman Empire played no role in politics. They were active in other areas of life, however. Unlike European women before the nineteenth century, married and unmarried Ottoman women could buy, inherit, and own property and bequeath their wealth to others upon their death. They could borrow and lend money and sue to protect their rights in court. Marriages were usually arranged by parents, but at least in theory, women had to consent to the match and could later obtain a divorce. Elite and middle-class women’s time was occupied in raising their children and supervising their households. If they lived in towns or cities, they socialized with other women, often meeting them at bathhouses. On their rare ventures out in public, they wore veils as a sign of their status.

Women from the working class might manufacture goods in their homes and peddle them in the streets. Although they could invest in businesses, they were largely excluded from the official guild system, which admitted only male artisans. There were a number of female-dominated trades, however, such as nursing and dancing, and women often made a living doing laundry. They also belonged to the various Sufi orders. Of course, the lives of both Muslim and non-Muslim women differed depending on where in the Ottoman Empire they lived. The lives of peasant women were different from those of city dwellers, and besides caring for the home and children, they might assist their male relatives with chores on the farm.

The synthesis of the Ottoman Empire’s diverse cultural base is perhaps most evident in its cuisine, which incorporated cooking styles and ingredients from places all over the world including Greece, Iran, the Balkans, the Arabian Peninsula, and central Asia. Following the discovery of the Americas, Ottoman cooks were among the first to incorporate ingredients from there, such as maize, peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkins, into their dishes. The Ottomans also likely introduced foods from elsewhere in Asia, like sesame, into the kitchens of the Middle East. Many dishes, such as rice pilafs from Egypt, Iran, and central Asia and Indian tandoori casseroles, were elegantly re-created for the imperial court in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace and then adopted in less extravagant versions by people throughout the empire.

Coffee drinking occupied a position in Ottoman life that was on par with—indeed, perhaps more important than—feasting, and the Ottomans first introduced it to Europe. The practice began in Arabia and spread to other places in the Islamic world. The first coffeehouses were established in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, where they provided spaces for men to socialize, do business, and exchange news. Men of all social classes frequented coffeehouses, and men of little education could listen to literate men reading aloud from books, hear poets recite their newest works, and watch scholars engage in debates. Political discussions were common, and the Ottoman government often sent spies to listen for signs of dissent or potential rebellion.

The major artistic contribution of the Ottoman Empire to world art was its architecture as many magnificent mosques were built in the second half of the 16th century. The architect, Mimar Sinan, began to build the first of his eighty-one mosques in 1543. His masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in the city of Edirne (northwest Turkey). He headed an extensive governmental department and trained many assistants who, in turn, distinguished themselves as architects.


A statute of Mimar Sinan with the Selimiye Mosque in the background (Source: Wikimedia)


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