- New Perspectives on Safavid Iran: Empire and Society
Undoubtedly, this Festschrift edited by Colin Mitchell and dedicated to Roger M. Savory makes a valuable and welcome contribution to the study of Safavid Iran. Having an interest in both architecture and gender studies I was drawn to the index in order to ascertain the content on these topics. On the latter count, the book fares favourably, particularly in Rudi Mathee’s chapter on women’s seclusion; yet on the subject of architecture – an entry absent from the index – only the final chapter mentions the notion explicitly; Ali A. Bakhtiar’s chapter on the Naqsh-i Jahan Square (also know as ‘Imam Square’ and formerly known as ‘Shah Square’) deals obliquely with the ‘urban morphology’ of Isfahan and the individual buildings that surround the square. These omissions from the index do not in any way belittle the content of these otherwise rounded studies: the very fact that the second part of the book deals with Safavid aesthetics is in itself eloquent proof that inter-disciplinarity is no longer a freaky business but an integral part of academia.
Savory’s pioneering work on Safavid Iran is celebrated by the contributors to this book whose authors, in the words of Mitchell, reflect the new methodologies and interpretations that have emerged since Savory’s ‘heyday in the 1960s and 1970s’ (2). The authors’ contributions reflect the inter-cultural relations that existed between Safavid Iran and Central Asia, Anatolia, and Europe. Nevertheless, the way the first part is structured does not guide the non-specialist reader in an orderly fashion: Mitchell’s chapter ‘Am I my brother’s keeper? Negotiating Corporate Sovereignty and Divine Absolutism in Sixteenth-Century Turco-Iranian politics’ would have been better placed as the introductory chapter for it charts the broader context of Safavid/Shi‘a-Ottoman/Sunni relations, or what the author refers to as the Sunni-Shi‘a binary (33). On the other hand, the chapter by Maria E. [End Page 86] Subtelny, ‘The Binding Pledge (mochalga): A Chinggisid Practice and its Survival in Safavid Iran’ – an interesting study of the ‘hegemonic Persian historiographical tradition’ and its domination over Mongol customary law – needed to be anchored in a broader historical context. The following entry by Iraj Afshar ‘The Form, Appearance, and Decoration in the Letters of the Safavid Kings’ suffers from its diminutive length and lack of supporting illustrative material which may have collocated it to the part on aesthetics or alternatively could have succeeded Mitchell’s chapter in which epistolary records are mentioned in the context of Safavid-Ottoman diplomatic exchanges and developed further in the section ‘Safavid Epistolary Perspectives’.
There are other threads woven into the book’s rich content that could have been explored further and from alternative perspectives: Carl Max Kortepeter’s chapter ‘Complex Goals of the Ottomans, Persians and Muscovites in the Caucasus, 1578–1640’ mentions Shah Abbas’ seizure of Ottoman concessions in the Caucasus which aided the protection of the ‘important silk production in Shirvan, Gilan and Mazandaran’ (59) – an interesting track that might have been explored further in the section on aesthetics. John R. Perry’s chapter ‘Cultural Currents in the Turco-Persian World of Safavid and Post-Safavid Times’ treats the intriguing issue of the ‘brain-drain’ of Sunni Persian bureaucrats and artists as well as ‘ulama from Iran to Central Asia and India and the concomitant rise of the Safavid Shi‘a ‘cult’ (85). And finally, Rudi Mathee’s chapter ‘From the Battlefield to the Harem: Did Women’s Seclusion Increase from Early to late Safavid Times?’ highlights the ‘visible’ role played by Safavid women in the higher echelons of society and rightly chooses to turn her attention to the less documented lives of rural and lower class women. Women only shopping days in Isfahan’s bazaar was one tactic that gave women free-reign over a circumscribed space but outside of courtly circles, women’s rank and respectability was clear by the type of...