Giosofat Barbaro’s Reference to the Identity of Shah Ismail and the Safavids

Shah Ismail I (r. 1502-1524) led the armies of Iran against the numerically superior and firearms equipped invading horses of Sultan “Yavuz” (the Grim) Selim at the Battle of Chaldiran on August 23, 1514.  The Italian nobleman and ambassador to Persia, Giosofat Barbaro, has provided a description of Shah Ismail’s troops in an 1873 publication based on his travels:

“…the flower of the Persian people, as the kings of Persia are not accustomed to give pay on the occasion of war, but to a standing force…Thus it is the Persian gentlemen, to be well brought up, pay great attention to horsemanship, and when necessity calls, go willingly to war…” (Josafa Barbaro (1873). Travels to Tana and Persia. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, p.58).

In the disastrous aftermath of the ensuing Ottoman-Safavid wars, much of Iran’s Azarbaijan province (including its provincial capital Tabriz), Armenia (known as the Iravan Khanate in Medieval Iranian sources) and the Caucasus fell under the occupation of the Ottoman Turks. What is clear is that, despite the prevalence Turkic speech among Shah Ismail’s Safavid court and the Turkmen Qizilbash warriors of his army, the Europeans (1) recognized the Safavids and their troops as belonging to the Iranian realm and (2) that the Ottomans were the mortal enemies of the Safavids.

ShahIsmail-RexPersarum[Click to Enlarge] Shah Ismail as depicted by a European painter – the painting is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Italy. Note the Latin terms “Rex Persareum” [Monarch of Persia] which makes clear that Shah Ismail was the king of Safavid Persia or Iran. Despite being hopelessly outmatched by the Ottoman armies in manpower and firerams, Ismail stood his ground in Chaldiran on August 23, 1514. Despite their victory, the Ottoman Turks, who had also suffered heavy losses,  failed to conquer Iran.

Despite the defeat at Chaldiran, the Ottomans failed to conquer Iran. The Iranian army, though battered, lived to fight another day. Important military reforms which had begun at the time of Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-1576) reached their apogee at the time of Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629), especially in the latter’s success in finally implementing the full integration of firearms into the Safavid battle order. The latter task was assisted by the English brothers, Anthony and Robert Shereley.

Vincenzo D’Alessandri a European visitor to Iran arriving in 1571, reported that:

Persians are tall and strong… commonly use swords, lances and guns on the battlefield…Persian Musketeers use their muskets so adeptly…they will draw the sword at times of necessity…muskets are slung to the back as to not interfere with the usage of bows and swords…their horses are very well trained and they [the Iranians] have no need to import horses…” [As cited in Amiri, M. (1970). Safarnameye Venezian dar Iran [The Travelogues of the Venetians in Persia]. Tehran: Entesharat-e Kharazmi, pp.448-449].

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 8.40.09 PM[Click to Enlarge] Son and successor of Shah Ismail, Shah Tahmasp (r.1524-1576). Note from the partially visible lettering that Tahmasp is also clearly identified as king of Persia. Ismail Commissioned a copy of the Iranian epic Shahname for his son (Savory, R. M. (1994). Land of the Lion and the Sun, in Lewis, B. (ed.), The World of Islam: Faith, People and Culture, Thames & Hudson, pp.245-271, as cited from pp.252) which was completed after Ismail’s death.

Despite fielding smaller numbers of troops, the reformed Safavid armies of Shah Abbas I defeated the Ottoman Turks and liberated Tabriz from Turkish occupation on October 21, 1603 (after 20 days of fighting).

Tabriz-Cut_off_Ottoman_HeadsRare drawing by a European traveler who witnessed the aftermath of the liberation of Tabriz by Shah Abbas I on October 21, 1603. Local Azari citizens welcomed the Iranian Safavid army as liberators and took harsh reprisals against the defeated Ottoman Turks who had been occupying their city. Many unfortunate Turks fell into the hands of Tabriz’s citizens and were decapitated (Picture Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilizaiton to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p.63).

Note that the sources cited in this article thus far are clear that the Safavids are Iranians; they are consistently refered to as “Persians” in reference to their historical and cultural links to the wider Iranian mileau. Therefore, the fact that many of the Iranian Azarbaijanis had become Turcophone was simply another facet of their Iranian identity – Iranians are not limited to Persian-speakers only, as Iranian culture is multifaceted and characterized by diversity and synthesis within an Iranian cultural framework.

Note the observations of a European traveler to Iran named Antonio Tenreiro in 1525 and his descriptions of the inhabitants of the city of Tabriz:

This city [Tabriz] is inhabited by Persians and some Turkomans, white people, and beautiful of face and person” [Ronald Bishop Smith (1970), The first age of the Portuguese embassies, navigations and peregrinations in Persia (1507-1524), Decatur Press, pp. 85-86.].

Girl from ArdabilA girl from modern-day Ardabil (known as Abadan Piruz or Shahram Peruz in Sassanian times). There are numeorus historical references to a Pahlavi-based language in Iranian Azarbaijan, notably the Fahlaviyat, Tabrizi and and Azariyeh before the linguistic Turkification of the province.  Examples include: (1) The Ottoman Turkish traveler Evliya Chelebi reports as late as 17th century that the majority of the women in [the city of] Maragheh conversed in Pahlavi or Middle Persian (2) Sadeqi has noted that “Pahlavi, Dari, Farsi and Dehqani” among the Iranian languages prevalent in Nakhchevan khanate in the Caucasus (Sadeqi, A.A. (2003). The conflict between Persian and Turkish in Arran and Shirvan. Iranian Journal of Linguistics, 18 (1), pp 1-12) (3) Ganjakets’i stating that Maragheh (Ganjakets’i, Kirakos (1986, Tr. with preface by R. Bedrosian), Kirakos Ganjakets’i’s History of the Armenians. New York: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, pp.197): “…was densely populated with Persians and a small number of Christians.”

It should be noted that the Turkoman tribes cited above were religious followers of the Safavid dynasty (themselves originally of the Iranian pedigree but progressively Turkicized linguistically, hence of the Persianate civilizational realm). These had migrated from the Anatolian regions and became the military backbone of the early Safavid dynasty. It was these same Turcomens who had stood up with Shah Ismail against the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

pic61-shahabbas[Click to enlarge] Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629) as depicted in a European copper engraving made by Dominicus Custos citing him as“Schach Abas Persarum Rex” or “Shah Abbas the Great monarch of Persia”. Note how Custos makes a particular emphasis on linking Shah Abbas to the “Mnemona Cyrus” (the Memory of Cyrus the Great of Persia). His victories over the Ottomans weakened them against the Europeans to the West, and especially in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

It is clear that the Ottoman Turks had intended to hold Tabriz and all of Azarbaijan under permanent occupation. In a letter written by Shah Abbas to Jalal e Din Mohammad Akbar (the powerful emperor of India and contemporary of Shah Abbas, whom the Iranian king always addressed as father) after the liberation of Tabriz, he had noted that the Ottomans in Tabriz had:

“…200 cannon, 5000 musketeers…supplies lasting for ten years and much equipment for the holding of fortresses…” [Falsafi, N. (1965). Zendeganiye Shah Abbas Avval [The Life and Times of Shah Abbas the First] (6 Volumes). Tehran University, Volume IV, pp.22-23.].

Persian Heritage Journal article on Babak Khorramdin

The Persian Heritage Journal has published an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the historical background of factors that led to the revolt of Babak Khorramdin:

Farrokh, K. (2014). An Overview of the Historical Circumstances that led to the Revolts of Babak Khorramdin. Volume XIX, No. 74, Summer, pp.21-23.

Babak_Castle-2An ingress into Babak Khorramdin’s Castle of Bazz in Iran’s Azerbaijan province in the northwest (Picture source: Pouya Yazdchi). Built during the Partho-Sassanian eras, Bazz proved to be a formidable fortress. Bazz finally fell to the Caliphate’s Turkish troops in August 15, 837 CE. Babak was executed five months later by the Caliphate in Samara (in modern Iraq) in January 838 CE.

As noted in the the article: “…though conquered [By the Arabo-Muslims in 637-651 CE], Persian language and cultural traditions such as the Nowruz (Iranian New Year) continued to endure (Axworthy, 2006, p.107). Ettinghausen corroborates this by noting that Iran had “…lost its independence, though not its cultural identity” (Ettinghausen, 1972, p.1). “

Babak Korramdin (795-838 CE) was to lead the last and perhaps greatest of all anti-Caliphate movements in Iran; as averred to in the article, Ibn Hazm has stated that: “the Persians…were greater than all of the people… after their defeat by the Arabs, they [the Persians] rose up to fight against Islam…among their leaders were Sunbadh [Sindbad], Muqanna, Usta- sis, Babak [Khorramdin] and others…”.

Babak in BattleA portrayal of Babak Khorramdin (Picture source: Babak Khoramdin) who led a three-decade (816-837 CE) rebellion to eject the Caliphate from Iran.

As cited in the article: “Primary historical sources are clear that Babak was a Persian. One of these is medieval Armenian historian Vardan Areweltsi, approx. 1198-1271 CE (Muyldermans, 1927, p.119).

Plaque-BazzSignpost at Bazz which reads “Let us become familiar/get to know the Castle of Babak”  (Picture source: Historical Iran Blog).

Fezana Journal article on Ancient Iranian Women

The Fezana Journal has published an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the ancient women of Iran:

Farrokh, K. (2014). Gender Equality in Ancient Iran (Persia). Fezana Journal (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), Vol. 28, No.1, March/Spring, pp. 105-107.

female-scythian-warriorA reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran. 

As noted in the beginning of the article: “One topic that has received little attention in academia is ancient Iranian warrior women. There are in fact numerous references to ancient Iranian female warriors, from classical sources to post-Islamic Iranian literature.”

Amazon-3-AchaemenidsA reconstruction of a female Achaemenid cavalry unit by Shapur Suren-Pahlav.

It is further averred in the article that: “The rights of women in Achaemenid Persia were remarkably “modern” by today’s standards: women worked in many “male” professions (e.g. carpentry, masonry, treasury clerks, artisans, winery working), enjoyed payment equity with men, attained high-level management positions supervising male and female teams, owned and controlled property, were eligible for “maternity leave,” and received equitable treatment relative to men in inheritance“.

Gun-totting Iranian women-MalayerIranian women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest) engaged in target practice in the Malayer city limits in the late 1950s.  The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 AD).

The legacy of the status of the women of Iran is emphasized in the article as thus: “To this day, women in Iran’s tribal regions continue to be seen wielding their weapons“.

Amazon-7-FereydanshahrIranian tribal woman in shooting competition on horseback at the 2011 Fereydanshahr Olympiad in Iran.

The Viking Ulfberht Sword and Persian Steel

Western scholarship has been uncovering a number of links between the Vikings and Persia, as noted in a previous posting on Viking traders and Persian silk.

Readers are also invited to partake in the following upcoming event at the British Museum regarding the Vikings and their legacy:

The Vikings are coming… British Museum launches The BP Exhibition Vikings: life and legend (6 March – 22 June 2014
 Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery)

Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist of the University of Stockholm has provided a very intriguing interview with the 2012 documentary television Nova program entitled “Secrets of the Viking Sword.


The Viking Ulfbehrt Sword: (Top) Contemporary reconstruction of the Ulfbehrt (Picture Source: (Bottom) an original sample of the weapon from the 9th century – note the “Ulfbehrt” inlay within the blade (Picture Source: Public Domain). A new generation of Western scholars have traced the metallurgical engineering of this venerable Scandinavian weapon to the east, outside of Europe.

fredrik charpentier-SUThe section of interest in the Nova program is where Professor Ljungqvist (photo at left – Source: Stockholm University) states of the Volga trade route between Lake Malaren to Northern Iran where:

“…it is very likely that the steel that you find in the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran…I would guess that they bought it [Persian steel] from friendly trading connections in Iran paid with furs and other Nordic commodities and took it back on the small ships that they used on the rivers



Video clip of the PBS Nova program section outlining the Viking-Iranian connection.

In summary, as noted by Professor Ljungqvist, the Vikings sailed from Lake Malaren in Sweden to the Volga River and from there into the Caspian Sea southwards towards the ports of northern Persia.

Volga Trade Route-1Map of the Viking Volga Trade Route (Picture Source: PBS-Nova Program). The Ulfberht sword is dated to the time when the Volga Trade Route was operational, between the early 800s to mid-1000s. In practice, the Vikings had several trade routes in addition to the Volga.

Despite the fall of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) to the Arabo-Muslim invasion in 637-651 CE, many facets of the ancient Sassanian Spah (military) continued to endure in northern Persia. The Caliphate had great difficulties subduing Iran’s mountainous and forested north, where local military commanders were often designated with Sassanian military titles. Northern Iran’s metallurgical and weapons building technology continued unabated after the fall of the Sassanians, a factor which benefited Viking traders sailing along the Volga trade route.

osebergThe Oseberg longship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo (Picture source: Heritage Trust). Viking ships like these sailed to northern Persia in search of trade.

However, the Vikings were already aware of Sassanian military technology, long before the advent of the Ulfbehrt sword. As noted by Peter Wilcox:

The resemblance between this [Sassanian] helmet…from the fully armored king carved into the rock at Taq-i-Bostan [Taghe Bostan] near Kermanshah and those recovered from the Scandinavian graves at Vendel and Valsgarde in Sweden is remarkable ” [Wilcox, P. (1999). Rome’s Enemies: Parthians and Sasanid Persians. Osprey Publishing, p.47, Plate H1].

This raises questions as to whether this technology was transmitted by other Turkic or Iranian peoples in ancient Eastern Europe sharing the same military tradition as the Sassanians, or through trade. The transfer of Iranian and Hun-Turkic weapons technology to the European realms is a fascinating domain, one currently under investigation by numbers of Western scholars.

 2-Sassanian and viking Helmets

Viking Helmet (Right; Picture Source: English Monarchs) and reconstruction of earlier Sassanian helmet at Taghe Bostan, Kermanshah, Iran (Left; Picture Source: Close up of Angus Mcbride painting of Sassanian knight at Taghe Bostan, Wilcox, P. (1999). Rome’s Enemies: Parthians and Sasanid Persians. Osprey Publishing, p.47, Plate H1).

The sword building technology was certainly not confined to northern Iran only: Central Asia, with its deep-rooted Turco-Iranian or Persianate civilization was also home to advanced metallurgy and sword building as seen in another portion of the   2012 documentary television Nova program entitled “Secrets of the Viking Sword.

Gilan_Talesh_Sheep_Iranian_Music_Flute [Click to Enlarge] Images of North Iran: [Left] an elderly Talysh man plays his flute in the forests of Gilan; [Right] Massouleh region in Gilan (Picture Source: Evidently the Scandinavians and Northern Iranians have had cordial cultural relations since at least Sassanian times, but this topic has received scant academic attention. 

Studies have yet to be conducted on the relations between the northern Iranians and the Vikings, but it is clear that the interactions were constructive and cordial at the very least. In a sense, the geography of northern Iran would not have appeared all that different from Europe, as Iran is a highly diverse country with respect to geography, linguistic diversity, etc.

Kaveh Farrokh Presentation at University of Yerevan November 2013

Kaveh Farrokh provided a presentation at (بخش ایران شناسی دانشگاه دولتی ایروان) the University of Yerevan Iranian Studies Department at the “Shirvan, Arran, and Azerbaijan: A Historical-Cultural Retrospective” conference (kindly click here for more information on all conference participants and their topics).

YSUFrontal view of the State University of Yerevan, host to theShirvan, Arran, and Azerbaijan: A Historical-Cultural Retrospective” conference  on Nov. 1-2, 2013. The university is host to an excellent Iranian Studies program, staffed by exemplary researchers such as Professor Garnik S. Asatrian (Chair, Iranian Studies Dept., Yerevan State University; Editor, “Iran and the Caucasus”, BRILL, Leiden-Boston) and Professor Victoria Arakelova (Associate Professor, Department of Iranian Studies, Yerevan State University; Associate Editor, “Iran and the Caucasus”, BRILL, Leiden). The conference has been made possible through the works of Professors Asatrian and Arakelova.

YSU-Committee-2013-1Cover page, dedication and list of organizers of the conference. Kindly note that Kaveh Farrokh was one of the members of the organizing committee for the conference at Yerevan State University (Click to enlarge to see list of organizers). For more information on the conference kindly click here for more information on all conference participants and their topics.

Kaveh Farrokh’s presentation and abstract for the conference was as follows:

Cultural Links between Iran and Arran (Modern Republic of Azerbaijan) from Antiquity to the 1900s” (November 2, 2013)

This paper will provide an overview of the cultural and historical links between ancient Albania/Arran and Iran from antiquity to the early twentieth century. A comprehensive series of Classical and pre- Islamic Iranian sources as well as archaeological studies are referenced for the pre-Islamic (Medo-Achaemenid and Partho-Sassanian) era. Examples cited include discoveries of Achaemenid palaces in the region as well as the role of the Albanian knights in the Sassanian army (Spah). The post-Islamic era is discussed with respect to Islamic and European primary sources and cartography with references to languages, the Safavid and post-Safavid eras to the early 1900s.

Zoroastrians-BakuModern-day Zoroastrians from Iran at the Baku Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) being led in religious ceremonies by Mobed Kourosh Niknam (Source: Image by Farroukh Aliev with this first appearing in

تالار فردوسی - ایران شناسی- دانشگاه دولتی ایروانThe Hall of Firdowsi at (تالار فردوسی در بخش ایران شناسی دانشگاه دولتی ایروان)  the Iranian Studies department of Yerevan State University.

After the conference, Farrokh delivered an additional lecture on November 4, 2013 at the University of Yerevan entitled:

Cultural Links between Iran, Armenia and Georgia from Antiquity to the early 1800s 

This lecture will provide an overview of the cultural and historical links between ancient Iran, Armenia and Georgia,notably with respect to the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian eras. The role of Northern Iranian peoples in the Caucasus and their impact upon the Caucasus is also examined. Topics addressed the role of the Naxarar Armenian knights in the Sassanian Spah (Army) and the role of Armenia and Georgia in cultural contacts between the Iranian Plateau and Eastern Europe. The discussion will conclude with the promotion of Persian language and literature in the Caucasus during the post-Islamic era up to the early 1800s.

Surva-Zorvan-BulgariaThe Surva festival in Bulgaria. Local traditions ascribe this festival to the ancient Iranian cult of Zurvan (Master of Time); the Caucasus has long acted as a conduit between Eastern Europe and the Iranian plateau.

The “Shirvan, Arran, and Azerbaijan: A Historical-Cultural Retrospective” conference has been dedicated to the memory of the late Professor Enayatollah Reza.

Prof Enayatollah RezaThe late Professor Enayatollah Reza (1920-2010).