In the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional empires of the medieval and early modern Middle East, religion was a defining characteristic of community identity, exemplified in the millet system of the Ottoman Empire. In Safavid Iran too, Christians enjoyed protected status and communal autonomy as zimmis (people of the book) in return for the payment of supplementary taxes. That, at least, was how it worked in theory.
This lecture will explore this question through the experiences of Safavid Armenians and Georgians, focusing on the several ways in which their case deviates from the norm. Prof. Herzig will argue that the novelty of Shiʿism as a state religion combined with the Safavid system of highly personalised royal power created new challenges and opportunities for the rulers, Muslim clerics, Armenians and Georgians alike. On the one hand Christians’ security and freedom of religion were frequently threatened, while on the other some Georgians and Armenians became members of the Safavid elite – trusted servants of the Shahs as officers, administrators, diplomats and merchants. Many converted to Islam, either voluntarily or involuntarily, but they retained, nevertheless, elements of their Georgian or Armenian identity and even, in some cases, reverted eventually to their Christian faith.
Edmund Herzig is Masoumeh and Fereydoon Soudavar Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Oxford. After a BA at Cambridge and a year’s graduate study at Princeton he studied for his doctorate at Oxford, with a year at Yerevan State University. He wrote his thesis on the New Julfa Armenian merchants of Safavid Isfahan, and has continued since to work on Safavid history, with a special interest in the Julfa Armenians and the relationship between history and identity in Iran, Armenia and the Caucasus.