Safavid Iran and Georgia: How the Dominated Came to Dominate 12 March 2013

BGS is delighted to welcome Professor Rudi Matthee from the University of Delaware for our first annual BGS Rustaveli Lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society, 14 St Stephenson Way, NW1 2HD, at 7pm.

Free admission for members of BGS or RAS. Non members will be charged £5 (including Georgian wine and canapes).

One of the most established Georgian restaurants in London, Mimino off High St Kensington, will sponsor food.

In the course of the sixteenth century the rulers of Safavid Iran incorporated much of the southern Caucasus, including the lowlands of Georgia, into their realm. This conquest had momentous repercussions for Georgia as well as for Iran.

It gave the Georgians one more outside party to deal with and play off against other foreign power with an interest in the Caucasus, the Ottomans and the Russians. Iran, in turn, was flooded with Georgians. Iran’s rulers sought to strengthen their hold over Georgia by intermarrying with its elite. This practice filled the harems of the Safavid elite, including that of the shah himself, with Georgian spouses and concubines.  Eager to offset the domineering and frequently destructive influence of the tribal Qezelbash, they also used the Caucasus as a recruiting ground for the formation of an alternative administrative and military slave elite. Many of these so-called gholams were Georgian as well. In the course of the seventeenth century their numbers would grow to the point where, by century’s end, the most prominent administrative and military positions in the Safavid realm were held by Georgians.

This talk offers an overview and analysis of this process of reverse “colonisation.” It will address the ways in which Georgian women, holding on to their Christian beliefs, came to influence religious practices at the royal court.  It will chart the entry of the gholams into the ranks of the Safavid bureaucracy and military. And it will show how, ultimately, the introduction of the Georgians created as many problem as it solved: it helped Iran’s rulers sideline the unruly Qezelbash, strengthening the country’s military, but it also complicated the system’s already complex ethno-religious makeup, with repercussion that would play out most dramatically on the early eighteenth-century Afghan frontier.

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