Military of the Safavid dynasty

The Military of the Safavid dynasty covers the military history of the Safavid dynasty from 1501 to 1736.

Military of the Safavid dynasty
سپاه ایران
Sepāh-e Īrān
Service branchesQizilbash
Commander-in-chiefHossein Beg Laleh Shamlu (First)
Hosaynqoli Khan (Last)



Abdal Beg Talish (First)
Qasem Beg Qajar (Last)
Yulqoli Beg (First)
Mohammad-Ali (Last)
Hamza Beg (First)
Mehdi Khan (Last)
Mirza Shah Hossein (First)
Shahverdi Khan Cheshmkazik (Last)
Related articles
HistoryMilitary history

Foundation of the Safavid militaryEdit

It was the first Safavid king (shah), Ismail I (1501–1524), who laid foundation to the Safavid military. Its origins date back to 1500, when Ismail decided to come out of hiding from Lahijan, a city in Gilan, northern Iran. On his way to Azerbaijan, he recruited followers, and had already recruited 450 at Rasht and 1,500 at Tarom. By summer, Ismail had already gathered 7,000 followers, mostly Turkmens from Asia Minor, whom he had rallied together in Erzincan, while the rest were Iranians, mainly from northern Iran, such as the Talysh people. Ismail fought the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yassar during the same year, where his army is said to have ranged from 7,000 to 40,000.[1]

Another founding element of the Safavid armies, alongside the Turkomans and the Iranians, were ethnic Georgians.[2] Numerous contemporary independent Venetian sources report that, as early as 1499, Ismail had Christian cavalry at his disposal.[2] According to a contemporary Venetian merchant, a certain Morati Augurioto, who returned to Venice from Tabriz in 1503, the majority of the Safavid troops in the city were of Georgian origin.[3] When Ismail founded the Safavid state in about 1500, the Qizilbash numbered some 7,000, whereas the number of the Georgians, part of the larger (i.e. the entire) Safavid army, numbered about 9,000.[3] After the decisive Battle of Chaldiran (1514), Georgian light cavalry of the Safavid army intensively harassed the retreating Ottoman troops, deep into the Ottoman realm.[3]

Highest military commandersEdit

Of the posts that were considered to be "pillars of the state" (rokn ol-dowleh, or arkan ol-dowleh), at least three were from the military administration; the qollar-aghasi, the qurchi-bashi, and the tofangchi-aghasi.[4][a]

At least three of the leading commanding posts had a reserved seat in the small inner council (or privy), known as the janqi. The janqi was a part of the royal council, and was basically responsible for governing the country. Membership of the janqi was limited to the officials of utmost importance. All three aforementioned high-ranking military officials, considered to be "pillars of the state", were also recorded as being part of the janqi by the end of the Safavid period.[5] The commander-in-chief (sepahsalar) also joined the inner council when military matters were discussed.[6]


The office of commander-in-chief (sepahsalar(-e Iran), amir ol-omara), was one of the highest-ranking functions. In the early days of the Safavid Empire, the holders of the office were usually Qizilbash lords of Turkoman stock. However, from the early 17th century onwards, the post became pretty much dominated by non-Qizilbash, especially gholams of Georgian origin. Another feature that became almost characteristic for the office was that, from the seventeenth century onwards, it was combined with that of the governorship of the Azerbaijan Province.[7]

Until 1533, the post of commander-in-chief was combined with that of viceregent (vakil).[8] Sensing the considerable amount of influence that was yielded by these individuals, who thus held both posts, in 1533 Tahmasp decided to reduce the significance of the commander-in-chief, and implemented that no one could be reappointed to the post of vakil as well.[8] By the late 1530s, the commander-in-chief was no longer the most important military commander in the empire amongst the Qizilbash lords, as Tahmasp I created the function of beglarbeg (governor, governor-general), who was also the commander-in-chief in his own province.[8] These important governors had full authority over the provincial amirs.[8] In other words, there was no longer one supreme amir ol-omara anymore, but more than ten.[8] This considerably diminished the power of the Qizilbash lords, and strengthened the central authority.[8]

Until the early seventeenth century, the sepahsalar(-e Iran) / amir ol-omara was equal in rank to the qurchi-bashi. From the early seventeenth century onwards, he was subordinate in rank to the qollar-aghasi and qurchi-bashi.[7] Nevertheless, because of its importance and the fact that the holder was also often a provincial governor, he also had a deputy (na'eb) and a vizier.[7] There were even commanders-in-chief that held more positions at the same time.[7] For example, Rostam Beg (later "khan") simultaneously held the positions of sepahsalar / amir ol-omara, tofangchi-aghasi, and divanbegi (chancellor, chief justice).[7]

According to Mirza Naqi Nasiri, a high-ranking court official, the sepahsalar had supreme command of the army in time of war.[7] Towards the end of the Safavid era the holder of the function was one of the council amirs, and, together with the qollar-aghasi, the two most important military officials after the qurchi-bashi.[9] When Hosaynqoli Khan (Vakhtang VI) was appointed sepahsalar, he was also given a marshal's baton.[10] According to the Iranologist Willem Floor, this was the first time mentioned in historical records, that a sepahsalar was given such an item, distinct for a field marshal.[10]


The qurchi-bashi (also spelled qorchi-bashi) was the commander of the royal bodyguard (the (qurchis) of the Safavid king. It was the oldest state rank of the Safavid Empire, and a "very important" official of the central government.[11] He was always selected from the qurchi corps itself.[11] Nevertheless, this did not create a mandatory prequisite for qurchis to be commanded by a qurchi commander. For example, during the sixteenth century, qurchis were often commanded in the field by other officials than from the qurchi ranks, including by high-ranking gholams, such as Mokhles Beg Gorji (a Georgian).[11]

The qurchi-bashi functioned in the same way to the qurchis, as the local lords to the Qizilbash tayefeh or il (i.e. tribal unit, clan).[11] Reportedly, none of the qurchi-bashis possessed the rank of "khan", though some did have the rank of "beg".[11] According to Masashi Haneda, this apparently indicated that even though it was a function of utmost importance, it was not considered to be a function of "the first-order".[11] Haneda states that this is apparent through the Persian sources, which do not "pay attention to the nomination of the qurchi-bashi".[11] The sources did pay attention to the appointment of the amir ol-omara, vakil or sadr. The conclusion according to Willem Floor is therefore, that the qurchis and the qurchi-bashi "played second-fiddle" to that of the leading Qizilbash lords.[11]

During periods of weak central authority, the post was immediately taken by individuals from the leading Turkoman Qizilbash tribes, i.e. the Shamlu or Tekkelu.[12] The qurchi-bashi, alike all other important offices, had a deputy as well.[12]

There were also qurchi-bashis who were stationed in some of the provinces and cities.[13] For example, the vali (governor, viceroy) of Georgia had a qurchi corps to serve him, including a qurchi-bashi, and a legion of specialized qurchis for his "accoutrements" (i.e. qurchi-e zereh, qurchi-e kafsh, qurchi-e tarkesh, etc.).[14] These "provincial qurchi-bashis" however, were all subordinate to the supreme qurchi-bashi.[14]


The qollar-aghasi (also spelled qullar-aqasi) was the commander of the empire's élite gholam (military slave) corps. Soon after its creation, it had already become one of the most important officials in the empire.[15] This fact is reflected in the choice of numerous qollar-aghasis. For example, the most famous general of Abbas I (r. 1588-1629), the celebrated Allahverdi Khan, was the second qollar-aghasi.[15] The first qollar-aghasi of Safi's reign was Khosrow Mirza of the Bagrationi dynasty, who later served as vali (viceroy) of Kartli, and was given the name of Rostam Khan.[15] His successor was a Georgian from Imereti, Siyavosh Beg. Though some of the later qollar-aghasis were of non-gholam origin, the function was dominated by gholams, many of whom were of Georgian origin.[15]

By the end of the Safavid era, the qollar-aghasi and the sepahsalar / amir ol-omara were the most important military officials in the empire, after the qurchi-bashi.[16] The qollar-aghasi was one of the six "pillars of the state" (rokn ol-dowleh), and an amir of the council.[17] He had supreme command over the min-bashis, yuz-bashis, qurs armed with muskets, and naturally all gholams.[17] He also gave the verdict over cases in which his subordinates were involved.[17] However, cases which involved religious law were given to the shar'i judges, whereas cases involving fiscal matters, were given to the Grand Vizier.[17]

Young gholams came under the command of the qollar-aghasi when they started to have beard growth, and they were subsequently organized into units of 100 and 10.[17] The "rank-and-file" came under the jurisdiction of the yuz-bashi who themselves were assisted by the dah-bashis or on-bashis.[17]


The Tupchi-bashi was the commander of the empire's artillery corps. Organized just like the other army units, he was assisted by an administrative staff as well as officers of lower rank.[18] The tupchi-bashi was responsible for the artillery battery (tup-khaneh) and needed materials in relation to the artillery pieces as well.[19] He had supreme command over all min-bashis, yuz-bashis, tupchis, and jarchis of the artillery department.[19] The tupchi-bashi also appointed all these aforementioned officers of lower rank, and he had to approve of their pay as well.[19] In 1660, reportedly, his salary amounted 2,000 tomans per year, and formally, he was equal to the commander of the musketeer corps (tofangchi-aghasi).[19] In terms of administration, the mostoufi of the gholam corps also took care of the tup-khaneh of the tupchi-bashi.[19]

When in 1655 the tupchi-bashi Hoseinqoli Khan died, king Abbas II (r. 1642-1666) did not appoint a new one.[20] The jabbehdar-bashi ("head of the royal arsenal") took over its role temporarily until 1660-1661.[20] Floor mentions that the post may then have become vacant afterwards, for a few years.[20]

The term tupchi-bashi was also used to designate the commanders of local artillery batteries in the various cities and provinces of the empire.[21] A proper example of this would be the year 1701, when one of the artillerymen (tupchis) in Tiflis was appointed vakil ("regent") of the tupchi-bashi of Tiflis fortress.[21]

The office of tupchi-bashi ranked evidently lower than the sepahsalar, qollar-aghasi and qurchi-bashi, and his salary was thus lower as well.[22] According to Engelbert Kaempfer, the tupchi-bashi also served as an admiral, though there was basically no effective Safavid fleet until 1734.[23]


The Tofangchi-aghasi (also spelled tufangchi-aqasi and otherwise known as tofangchi-bashi) was the commander of the Safavid Empire's musketeer corps. The tofangchi-aghasi was assisted by numerous officers, i.e. minbashis, yuzbashis, dahbashis, as well as an administrative staff (i.e. vizier, mostoufi), who dealt with the muster rolls.[24] Apart from the tofangchis, he also held supreme command over the jarchibashis, rikas (staff bearers armed with pole axes), and tabardars of the musketeer corps.[25] He was one of the six rokn ol-dowleh ("pillar of the state").

Though the tofangchi-aghasi was considered to be a high-ranking office on paper, de facto, it was one of the lowest on the "military totem-pole", in other words, military hierarchy.[26] For example, the tofangchi-aghasi, despite being a rokn ol-dowleh, was not a member of the inner royal council.[26] Nevertheless, the post was generally held by scions of noble families.[26]



Mannequin of a Safavid Qizilbash soldier, exhibited in Sa'dabad, Iran

The Qizilbash was a Shia militant group which mostly consisted of Turkmen tribes, but also Iranian ones, such as the Talysh and certain Kurdish tribes. The largest tribes of the Qizilbash were the Ustajlu, the Rumlu, the Shamlu, the Zul Qadr, the Tekkelu, the Afshar and the Qajar—all Turkmens.[27] The Qizilbash were the main factor of the foundation of the Safavid dynasty and the conquest of Iran. Unlike the gholam corps, the Qizilbash did not rely on payment from royal treasury, but were instead granted land. In return, they supplied the Safavid shah with troops and provisions.[28]

During the reign of Ismail, the Qizilbash almost saw him as a divine person, and regarded him as the representative of the hidden Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. A group drawn from the Qizilbash, known as the "ahl-i ikhtisas", was a small group of officers, who had kept the Safaviyya order alive during Ismail's refuge in Gilan. These officers included a lala ("tutor", "guardian"), and many others.[29] Ismail later adopted a policy by trying to avoid appointing the Qizilbash to the powerful vakil (vicegerent) office, and instead appointed his Iranian kinsmen to high offices, the first one being Mir Najm Zargar Gilani. This was because Ismail had lost some trust to the Qizilbash, who possessed too much power and were no longer very trustworthy.[30][31]

The fifth Safavid shah Abbas I (r. 1588–1629), made the gholam corps much stronger in order to counterbalance the power and influence of the Qizilbash.[32] Furthermore, he appointed non-Qizilbash officers as the governors of provinces which the Qizilbash used to govern.[1]


Painting of Isa Khan Safavi, a notable Safavid prince who served as the qurchi-bashi.

The royal bodyguard of the shah was known as the qurchi (a word derived from Mongolian, which means "archer"). The qurchis were theoretically enlisted from the Qizilbash tribes and were paid by money taken from the royal treasury. Though recruited mainly from among the Qizilbash, it was an independent and distinct corps from the Qizilbash army units.[33] During the early Safavid period, the qurchis were all from the same tribe, but that later changed. The head of the qurchis was known as the qurchi-bashi. They numbered 3,000 under the Ismail I and 5,000 under Tahmasp I (r. 1524–1576).[1][34]

Under Abbas I, the qurchis had become much more important and numbered 10,000-15,000. Abbas I gave several of qurchis governorship of large provinces, which decreased the power of the Qizilbash commanders, who were used to govern large provinces. During the late reign of Abbas' reign, the qurchi-bashi was the most powerful office of the empire.[1]

Local rulers also had qurchis at their disposal, though they were limited in number.[14] The vali (governor, viceroy) of Georgia had a qurchi corps to serve him, including a qurchi-bashi, and a legion of specialized qurchis for his "accoutrements" (i.e. qurchi-e zereh, qurchi-e kafsh, qurchi-e tarkesh, etc.).[14]


Daud Khan Undiladze, gholam and the governor of Karabakh-Ganja from 1627 to 1633.

The gholam unit (meaning "military slave") was a unit which consisted of former Christians from Caucasus, mainly Georgians, Circassians, and Armenians.[35]

According to Babaev, the gholam unit was created by Abbas I after the assassination of powerful Qizilbash figure Murshid-Quli Khan in 1588/9.[1] This is proven by the appointment of a certain Yulqoli as the chief of the gholams (qollar-aghasi) in 1589/90. However, the qollar-aghasi office is also mentioned in 1583/4, during the reign of Abbas' father and predecessor Mohammad Khodabanda (r. 1578–1587). Since it is unlikely that the gholam unit was created during his troublesome reign, it was most likely created under Tahmasp I, who is known to have invaded Caucasus several times.[1] It was, to a large degree, similar to the janissary system of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, in its implementation and formation.[36][37] Unlike Ottoman slaves, Safavid slaves were allowed to inherit "their father's assignments", which explains "the Safavid particularity of factions centred on slave families".[38]

As mentioned by the Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1600 onwards, the Safavid statesman Allahverdi Khan, in conjunction with Sir Robert Sherley, undertook the reorganization of the army, which meant among other things dramatically increasing the number of gholams from 4,000 to 25,000.[39]

It was during the vizierate of Saru Taqi (1633-1645) under Abbas I that the gholams reached their zenith of power, occupying all the important offices of the Safavid state.[40]


The Tupchi (a Persian word meaning "artillery-men") unit was created under Ismail I, and later reformed by Abbas I.[41] The commander of the artillery corps was the tupchi-bashi. Although the Tupchian proved very usable for the Safavids, not much known is about it, and they are mostly mentioned in European sources.[1]


The Tofangchi (a Persian word meaning "musketeers") unit was created under Ismail I, and later reformed by Abbas I.[42] The commander of the musketeer corps was the tofangchi-aghasi. The tofangchis were enlisted from different regions and coordinated under the name of the place they came from. For example, if one Tofangchi unit was from Isfahan, it became known as "tofangchian-e Isfahan". The head of each Tofangchi group was known as min-bashi ("chief of a thousand").[43][1] The unit numbered 12,000, and it mainly included Persian peasants, Arabs and Turkmens.[44][43]

Titles of honorEdit

There was three titles of honor in the Safavid military, the highest one being "khan", the second being "sultan", and the third being "beg". Although not many held the title of "khan" during the early Safavid period, it later increased.[1]


  1. ^ The tofangchi-aghasi was not always recorded as being a "pillar of the state", such as during the reign of king Abbas II (1642-1666).[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Haneda 1986, pp. 503-506.
  2. ^ a b Floor 2001, p. 130.
  3. ^ a b c Floor 2001, p. 131.
  4. ^ a b Floor 2001, pp. 33, 163.
  5. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 29, 32, 33.
  6. ^ Floor 2001, p. 33.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Floor 2001, p. 18.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Floor 2001, p. 17.
  9. ^ Floor 2001, p. 19.
  10. ^ a b Floor 2001, p. 20.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Floor 2001, p. 139.
  12. ^ a b Floor 2001, p. 140.
  13. ^ Floor 2001, p. 148-149.
  14. ^ a b c d Floor 2001, p. 149.
  15. ^ a b c d Floor 2001, p. 172.
  16. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 19, 172, 174.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Floor 2001, p. 174.
  18. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 195-196.
  19. ^ a b c d e Floor 2001, p. 196.
  20. ^ a b c Floor 2001, pp. 197-198.
  21. ^ a b Floor 2001, p. 198.
  22. ^ Floor 2001, p. 199.
  23. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 199-200.
  24. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 184-187.
  25. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 184, 187.
  26. ^ a b c Floor 2001, p. 184.
  27. ^ Blow 2009, p. 5.
  28. ^ Babaie et al. 2004, p. 9.
  29. ^ Roemer 1986, p. 357.
  30. ^ Savory 2007, p. 50.
  31. ^ Mazzaoui 2002.
  32. ^ Roemer 1986, pp. 264-265.
  33. ^ Floor 2001, p. 152.
  34. ^ Blow 2009, pp. 6, 37.
  35. ^ Blow 2009, pp. 9-10.
  36. ^ "BARDA and BARDA-DĀRI v. Military slavery in Islamic Iran". Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  37. ^ Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Gelina Harlaftis. Diaspora entrepreneurial networks: four centuries of history Berg, 2005 ISBN 1859738753
  38. ^ Babaie et al. 2004, p. 37.
  39. ^ R.M., Savory. "ALLĀHVERDĪ KHAN (1)". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  40. ^ Babaie et al. 2004, p. 11.
  41. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 188-196.
  42. ^ Floor 2001, pp. 176-184.
  43. ^ a b Roemer 1986, p. 265.
  44. ^ Blow 2009, p. 37.