In the early sixteenth century, Iran was united under the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), the greatest dynasty to emerge from Iran in the Islamic period. The Safavids descended from a long line of Sufi shaikhs who maintained their headquarters at Ardabil, in northwestern Iran. In their rise to power, they were supported by Turkmen tribesmen known as the Qizilbash, or red heads, on account of their distinctive red caps. By 1501, Isma‘il Safavi and his Qizilbash warriors wrested control of Azerbaijan from the Aq Quyunlu, and in the same year Isma‘il was crowned in Tabriz as the first Safavid shah (r. 1501–24). Upon his accession, Shi‘a Islam became the official religion of the new Safavid state, which as yet consisted only of Azerbaijan. But within ten years, all of Iran was brought under Safavid dominion. However, throughout the sixteenth century, two powerful neighbors, the Shaibanids to the east and the Ottomans to the west (both orthodox Sunni states), threatened the Safavid empire.
In the arts, manuscript illustration was prominent in royal patronage. Isma‘il’s son, Tahmasp (r. 1524–76), who had been trained in painting at an early age, was an active patron of the arts of the book. Artists from the Qara Quyunlu, Aq Quyunlu, and Timurid court studios were brought together and their work helped form a new Safavid style of painting. One of the most renowned manuscripts from the period is a now-dispersed copy of the Shahnama epic (1970.301.2). Drawing inspiration from designs generated in the royal painting workshop, textiles and carpets were manufactured of luxury materials as furnishings for the court. In architecture, the Safavids commissioned mosques, mausolea, and palace complexes, restored major shrines, and contributed to sites of veneration and pilgrimage. Though Shah Isma‘il is known to have built throughout the empire, only modest buildings survive from his reign. Text references and scattered remains indicate that Shah Tahmasp also sponsored numerous building projects, particularly at Qazvin, his capital after 1555, but little survives.
The most distinguished of Safavid rulers and the greatest patron of the arts was Shah ‘Abbas (r. 1587–1629). His reign was recognized as a period of military and political reform as well as of cultural florescence. It was in large measure due to his reforms that Safavid forces were able finally to defeat the Ottoman army in the early seventeenth century. The reorganization of the state and the ultimate elimination of the powerful Qizilbash, a group that continued to threaten the authority of the throne, brought stability to the empire. In 1597–98, Shah ‘Abbas transferred his capital to Isfahan, in southern Iran, where he built a new city alongside the old one. The centerpiece of his capital was the new Maidan-i Shah (Royal Square), which was conceived and constructed initially for state ceremonies and sports. Over the next several decades, major monuments would be erected on three sides of the Royal Square by ‘Abbas and his successors. Shah ‘Abbas encouraged trade with Europe, silk being Iran’s main export. Carpets and textiles were also important export items, and these were produced in workshops set up under state patronage in Isfahan and other cities. The art of painting continued to flourish, with single-page paintings and drawings becoming more popular than manuscript illustration. Artistic and architectural developments under Shah ‘Abbas continued into the early seventeenth century.