Persia in Crisis

Interview with Professor Rudi Matthee


Persia in Crisis
by Fariba Amini

Rudi Matthee finished his BA in 1975 in the Netherlands in Arabic and Persian language and literature, and subsequently spent a year in Iran as an exchange student, studying and traveling to various places in the country, from Siahkal in Gilan, to Zahedan, Bandar Abbas and Tabriz, as well as to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back in Holland, he completed an MA before going off to Cairo, Egypt, where he spent two years in the early 1980's. In 1984, he landed in Los Angeles, where he completed his PhD in Islamic Studies at UCLA. Since 1993 he has been teaching Middle Eastern history at the University of Delaware. He has authored three books and co-edited as many; all on the subject of Iranian history. His latest book, Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan, was just published. Rudi speaks fluent Persian and Arabic and reads in both languages. The following is a one-to-one interview with Rudi Matthee:

How did you end up studying Iran?

Initially, I was interested in pre-Islamic Iran. I learned Latin and Greek in high school in Holland, and read about the “Persians” in Greek texts such as Herodotus and Xenophon. Told that studying ancient Iran might not lead to a job, I turned to Islamic Iran and the modern Arab world, and ended up learning Persian and Arabic. My specific interest in Iran came during a year of residence and study in Tehran in 1976-77. I became fascinated by the Iranian penchant for idealizing life, for creating beauty out of the ordinary, as exemplified in the idea of paradise, firdaws, and represented by the bagh as a refuge from the barrenness of the surrounding desert, as well as intrigued by the never-ending search for meaning, essence and truth in the country’s culture, as reflected in various Iranian religions and, above all, in Persian poetry.

Why did you choose to work on the Safavids? Why not another dynasty?

My interest in the Safavids was awakened when I came to the United States in 1984, after studying for two years in Egypt. I went to Los Angles to do my Ph.D. on the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, but my mentor at UCLA, Nikki Keddie, suggested that I take a look at the Safavids using the voluminous Dutch documentation in the form of the East India Company records available for that period. I am very happy that I followed her advice, for not only are the Safavids an exciting, formative period in Iranian history but by studying this period, I have also learned a great deal about Dutch history.

Your two other books won important prizes, among them the Albert Hourani and the Saidi Sirjani awards. What made you write about these two subjects?

My first book, which deals with the silk Safavid trade, was an outgrowth of my dissertation research—which focused on the reign of Shah Soleyman (1666-94). My second book, on drugs and stimulants, in a way goes back to my brief experience with opium smoking in Gilan in the 1970s, but more immediately and seriously grew out of some work that I had done on drugs and stimulants working for Nikki Keddie as a research assistant. Invited to a seminar organized on drugs in world history by the legendary Roy Porter in London, she asked me to do some preliminary work on the topic. On the basis of the paper that I prepared, she suggested that I go to London to present the findings.  Out of it came the idea of using wine, opium, tobacco, coffee and tea as an entry into the social history of Iran from the Safavid period onward, resulting in my second book, The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History.

What is the theme of your new book, "Persia in Crisis, Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan," and how is it different from what others have written about the fall of the Safavids?

I suppose the main difference is threefold. First, I look at the consequences for life and society of Iran’s physical geography, the high plateau surrounded by formidable mountain ranges and fearsome deserts. Iran was a land of long distances and poor communications, of low population density and limited surplus, having no exploitable precious metal mines and relatively little arable land. As a result, the Safavids were always short on cash, making it difficult to run a viable state and to finance an army. This might surprise Iranians who tend to think of (Safavid) Iran as a land of abundance. Secondly, I argue that war was the natural state of the tribally organized society that Safavid Iran was. While deliberately giving up on war by concluding a peace agreement with the Ottomans in 1639 made sense in light of the relative weakness of the Safavids, it did set in motion a fateful neglect of the military. The peace that followed also lulled Iran’s urban population into a false sense of security, of feeling protected against outside attack by vast deserts and high mountains. Thirdly, there is the traditional explanation for Safavid decline after Shah `Abbas I, the idea that his successors, reared in the harem, ceased being roving warriors and increasingly retreated into the inner palace, giving free rein to women and eunuchs in statecraft. The negative effects of this process are undeniable. But rather than seeing this development in moral terms—as a sign of decadence and debauchery—I argue that it was a cause for alarm in practical terms. The shah remained the sole source of legitimacy and thus was irreplaceable. Yet a weak shah invited factionalism and dissent, and thus meant anarchy, a lack of direction, allowing clerics to run grain hoarding schemes and rapacious provincial governors to fleece the population with impunity. Most importantly, a combination of financial hardship and weak leadership led to the neglect and cancellation of the subsidy arrangements that bought loyalty from the tribal fringe. This, in addition to a growing influence of an intolerant form of Shi`i Islam, naturally bred resentment and ultimately revolt among the people inhabiting this fringe, who were mostly Sunni.

Were external factors more involved than internal ones? How could the Afghan invaders bring such a powerful dynasty to its knees?

Talking about the Afghans, the idea of a “foreign” invasion is to be rejected. The Afghans lived on the periphery of Safavid jurisdiction, to be sure, but to consider them foreigners, non-Iranians, is to express a modern, nationalist perspective. Anyway, by the time they moved in, the Safavid state had become hollowed out from the inside. So yes, on balance, domestic forces are what brought the Safavids down, structural ones, such as a lack of money, in first place. Contingent causes, such as short-sighted measures to enhance revenue and military neglect, partly flowed from this. And then there was weak leadership, leading to excessive corruption and unbridled factionalism.

How do the Safavids compare to the surrounding empires, the Ottomans and the Mughals?

It is interesting to observe that, throughout the seventeenth century, Iran was much more stable than the Ottoman Empire, where lawlessness and banditry were rife and several sultans were killed and deposed. Iran’s road system as devised by Shah Abbas remained largely intact. It was also more peaceful than the Mughal state, with its destructive internecine warfare among the ruling class, pitting father against son and brother against brother. At the same time, the Safavids were far weaker than either state. Shah `Abbas’s reputation and the splendor of Isfahan, the capital that he remodeled and embellished, notwithstanding, the power of the Safavids was more symbolic than real, carried by the aura and appeal of Persian civilization rather than by the surplus generated by the land, which was quite small, certainly compared to that of the Ottomans, and especially that of the Mughals in India, who could tap into the immensely fertile Punjab. It is not for nothing that since time immemorial, Iranian had been migrating to India, in search of employment and prestige at various Indian courts.

Was Shah Abbas really great?

Abbas was great in the sense that he was a forceful and even visionary ruler who went as far in centralizing Iran as anyone until the 20th century. But he was also a despot, resolute and, at times, ruthless, mercurial, alternating between magnanimity and cruelty, tolerance and vindictiveness. Like all despots in history, he needed these qualities and characteristics to stay on top of the fray in an unforgiving, extremely competitive environment.

Historically speaking, Safavid Iran was the first Shi'a state. Can we compare today's Iran to the Safavid period?

In the most fundamental way, we can’t. Until the introduction of modern technology, improved communications and the spread of mass literacy, all states were minimal in their ability to project power across space by way of mobilizing soldiers, garnering taxes and imposing their ideology. There are some similarities between Safavid Iran and contemporary Iran, though. One involves the role religion began to play at the turn of the 18th century. The rather doctrinaire form of Shi’ism that became the outward marker of the state and its identity ended up alienating non-Shi`is, and in particular the tribal, mostly Sunni fringe, whose loyalty was vital for the survival of the state. Another is the endemic factionalism. If the Safavid state ever showed any unity of purpose, this came unraveled towards the end, when policy makers turned mutual slander and the active undermining of each other’s initiatives into their main activity. All this contributed mightily to the military defeat the Safavids suffered against the relatively small cohort of tribesmen that the Afghans were.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on two projects. One involves the role Iran played in early modern Eurasian diplomacy, especially with regard to attempts to isolate and neutralize the Ottomans. We have many studies that deal with the efforts of European rulers to create an anti-Ottoman alliance, but the active role the Safavids played in this coalition building it is generally overlooked. My other project is about the way Iranians have imagined the outside world from the Safavid period until modern times. I have published a number of articles on the evolution of this image, with a focus on the British and the Russians, the most visible foreigners in the 19th century, and would like to expand this into a book, incorporating the Germans and, ultimately, the Americans.


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I am almost done reading one of his books,

by AMIR1973 on

"The Pursuit of Pleasure", which is a history of drugs and stimulants in Iran from 1500-1900. It is a very interesting book. Keep up the good work.


How sweet!

by anglophile on

it must be to interview your own hubbie!


Well done Mrs Matthee!