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The Memoirs of Shah Tahmasp I: Safavid Ruler of Iran

April 29, 2024 at 1:35 pm

The Memoirs of Shah Tahmasp I: Safavid Ruler of Iran
  • Book Author(s): Shah Tahmasp I, A.C.S. Peacock (Editor & Translator)
  • Published Date: 27 June 2024
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780755653553

“It occurred to my defected mind to write a memoir of my life and deeds … so that whenever our supporters read it they will remember us with a prayer … they should realize it is free of the appearance of dissimulation, lies and hypocrisy.” It is almost a truism that every ruler wishes to be remembered, but it is rare for a ruler in the early modern period to write a first person account to ensure both their memory and version of history survives. Shah Tahmasp I’s memoir is a treat for historians of Safavid Iran. Despite its importance, it has never been translated into English before and A.C.S. Peacock’s new translation aims to give a non-Persian speaking audience a sense of the Iranian ruler. The memoir was originally composed in 1562 and was designed to be a public document. It covers a range of topics, from wars with the Ottomans, personal piety and moral justification for his rule and actions. Shah Tahmasp was the second Safavid king to rule Iran, a  devout Shia Muslim, consolidating Iran under Shia Islam continued [from his father] during his reign. The secondary reason for wanting to write the book was to give a guide to future Safavid kings.

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The Memoir provides a fascinating insight into Shah Tahmasp ideology, worldview and psychology. Reflecting upon his wars with the Ottomans, he writes, “I have said time and again in the presence of the amirs that the Ottoman army is like syphilis, if you try to cure it at the onset of attack, it will kill the patient. If you do not monitor it, it will be bad; one must monitor the disease and let it do as it wishes; then it can easily be cured.” The focus on the Ottomans in the memoir reflects two points. Firstly, the Ottomans represent the main existential threat and, secondly, the events that took place in those wars were considered exemplary for dealing with all kinds of situations for future rulers. But the book does not only deal with external enemies; internal revolts are treated too. Probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the Memoir is when the Shah’s brother, Alqas Mirza, betrays him and stages a revolt with Ottoman help. Perhaps amplifying his own blamelessness, Shah Tahmasp writes, “I loved him more than any of my brothers and sons, to the extent that I ordered that the 250 tomans that had been loaned to the sayyids and the virtuous and pious dependents of the holy shrines of the Imam Al-Riza – peace be upon him – should not be repaid as long as Alqas Mirza was alive, so that in that holy shrine they would constantly pray for his life to be lengthened. The stupid man rebelled for no reason.”  The rebellion would prove unsuccessful and, eventually, Alqas Mirza would be executed.

Shah Tahmasp also exploited family division within the Ottoman Empire. In 1559, Sehzade Bayezid, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent, sought exile in the Safavid Empire. As his father was ill, Bayezid triggered a succession crisis by taking on his brother, Selim. When Bayezid arrived in Qazvin, Shah Tahmasp lavished him with gifts and held a magnificent party in his honour. In the Memoir, Bayezid says to Tahmasp, that the Sultan was prepared to aid Alqas Mirza with armies to invade the Safavid realm, why won’t he do the same and give Bayezid troops to invade the Ottoman Empire? The Shah takes the high ground, in his retelling, by saying the Sultan was deceived and tricked, why should he take the word of someone else and do the same thing? The Shah questioned his attitude towards his father [Sultan Suleiman], who had been lenient towards Bayezid after the rebellion, only for Bayezid to turn around, leave and seek his overthrow. This is a violation of the Islamic faith, Tahmasp writes; he also cannot believe Bayezid would address him in letters as ‘Shah Tahmasp’, even though Bayezid was now his vassal. The Shah remarks, “I realized then that he was a stupid idiot … He is so stupid and ignorant that how could it be appropriate for me to ally myself with someone like that?” It has to be remembered that this was a public document, his Memoir, and so Shah Tahmasp is providing moral justification for eventually imprisoning Bayezid and, once the Ottomans agreed to certain terms and payments, handed him over to be executed.

The Memoirs of Shah Tahmasp I: Safavid Ruler of Iran offers fascinating insight into one of the Middle East’s most important historical rulers. The existence of the Memoir is part of a growing effort to disprove the old claims made by western historians that the Islamic world lacks biographies and biographical writings. The translation was simple and the text easy to follow, which can be enjoyed by both layman and expert alike. It enriches our understanding of Safavid times, offers access to a leader engaged in warfare with the Ottomans and gives us a sense of how propaganda was used. You can easily see how he was trying to craft an image of himself to be easily consumed by a wider audience, yet it is still enjoyable and enthralling to read.

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