5:30 PM—7:30 PM
at the Faculty House





The sixth meeting of the 26th consecutive year of Columbia University Seminar on

Iranian Studies for the academic year 2013-2014 will take place on:


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

at 5:30 pm in the

Faculty House of Columbia University

Our speaker will be


Prof. Rudi Matthee of the University of Delaware


who will lead the discussion on the topic of:


"The Decline and Fall of the Safavid Dynasty: Comparisons and Lessons "


We will gather in the lounge of Faculty House from 5:00-5:30.

Seminar will start at 5:30.


Please notify our rapporteur, Justin McNamee at <> if you

will attend the lecture. (Please also specify if you will stay for dinner.)

We are looking forward to the pleasure of seeing you at the seminar.


To reach the Faculty House:

Enter the Wien Hall Gate on 116th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and

Morningside Drive. Walk past Wien Hall, then turn right to the Faculty House.



Rudi Matthee studied Persian and Arabic language and literature at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. In 1976-77 he lived in Iran as an exchange student, and in 1981-83 he spent two years studying in Egypt. In 1991 he received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of California, Los Angles. Since 1993 he has been teaching at the University of Delaware, where he is Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern History.

He is the former president (2002-05 and 2008-11) of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (Anjoman-e Javame`-ye Farsi-Zaban). He served as book review editor for the journal Iranian Studies, 1996-2006, is coeditor of the journal Der Islam, and the consulting editor for Safavid history for the Encyclopaedia Iranica.  In 2002-03 he was a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton. In 2011 he served as the Roshan Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.

Matthee has published some fifty articles on Safavid and Qajar Iran as well as Egypt. He authored The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), recipient of prize for best non-Persian language book on Iranian history, 1999, awarded by the Iranian Ministry of Culture; honorable mention for British-Kuwaiti Friendship prize for best book on the Middle East published in Great Britain, 1999; as well as The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900 (Princeton University Press, 2005), recipient of the MESA (Middle East Studies Association) Albert Hourani Book Prize, and of the International Society of Iranian Studies Saidi Sirjani Prize; Iqtisad va siyasat-i khariji-yi `asr-i Safavi, trans. and ed. Hasan Zandiyeh (Tehran, 2008); Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), recipient of the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Prize and the Jayezeh-ye jahani-ye ketab, prize for best book on Iranian history awarded by the Iranian Ministry of Culture (to be published in Iran in 2014 as Iran dar zavval: Inhitat-e Safaviyan va soqut-e Isfahan; Tehran: Namak); and, with Willem Floor and Patrick Clawson, The Monetary History of Iran, 1500-1925 (London, I.B. Tauris, 2013). He coedited Iran and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie (with Beth Baron, Mazda, 2000); Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics (with Nikki Keddie, University of Washington Press, 2002); and Portugal, the Persian Gulf and Safavid Persia (with Jorge Flores, Leuven: Peeters, 2011).



In the last quarter century or so, decline has become a contested, even controversial notion with regard to Middle Eastern states. We still legitimately talk about Venetian decline, Dutch decline, British decline and, now, American decline, yet decline applied to the Islamic Middle East has become a loaded, even a taboo term. Mughal scholars have long argued that the dissolution of the center in the 18th century coincided with the rise of the periphery. And in the Ottoman case scholars tend to address it by way of denial, to the point where the very task of refuting ‘decline’ has become a preoccupation in itself.

My talk takes its cue from this current intellectual climate to argue that, in the case of the Safavids, the notion of decline preceding their abrupt fall in 1722 is impossible to deny, circumvent or ignore; we have to confront it head-on, laying out characteristics and causes. I further argue that we might gain a better perspective on those by comparing conditions in the Safavid realm with those in two adjacent states of similar cultural and sociopolitical disposition—the Ottomans and the Mughals. In an effort to bring some organization and clarity to the issue, I propose to look at the evolution of four distinct, yet interrelated aspects of these states and societies—environmental-economic conditions, the state of the military, political structures and processes, and ideological-religious features. 

I finally consider the historiographical “lessons” to be drawn from the fall of the Safavids. This includes reflections on the mechanisms Iran’s rulers of the past employed to manage and preserve their multiethnic empire, how the Safavids gave up on those mechanisms, and what today’s rulers might learn from this example. I will end with some thoughts on the effects of the century of turmoil and relative isolation that followed the demise of the Safavid dynasty on Iran’s history and the evolving self-image of Iranians.


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