The system of administration and control over the procurement and provision
of food in the court of Safavid kings

safavid-main

The book

“The present is an epitome called ‘A Memorial for Kings,’ and containing the regulations of the service of each one of the officials of the Exalted Court as practised in the time of the Safavi monarchs.”

“Tadhkirat Al-Muluk”[1] rendered as ‘Memoir of kings’, is described as ‘A Manual of Safavid Administration’ by Professor Minorsky, the eminent Iran specialist who translated the text and provided valuable explanations to enable the reader to make better sense of its complexities. A facsimile of the original is also included in his book. It is a detailed and fascinating account of the workings of the Safavid administration.  Despite the vast empire and compared with contemporary systems in place to govern countries regardless of their size, Tadhkirat Al-Muluk is a deceptively small volume.  The author’s dexterity in understanding and simplifying complicated financial processes up and down the hierarchy especially in the case of the court operation is impressive.

Although it was written towards the end of Safavid rule, circa 1725, the book draws on manuscripts and court records dating to the early years of the dynasty. It details the hierarchy, positions, scope of responsibilities, salaries and remunerations. The language is surprisingly uncluttered and simple. The emphasis is on communicating the facts and little attention is paid to the flowery language which was more the norm at the time.  The book is written in five chapters and a conclusion in 259 small hand written pages. Chapter one deals with the highest religious echelons of the country followed by civil ranks covered in the succeeding chapters. The Conclusion details the salaries of civil servants of all ranks and ends with a section on the country’s budget including revenues and expenditure.

For our purposes, we will concentrate on the protocol covering various aspects of procuring and purchasing food and drink for the court and the departments and officials responsible for various stages of the process. The process is laborious, complex and detailed. In order to ensure that the best of the produce from across the country was sent to the court at its prime, each province promised a certain quantity of the special local produce to be delivered to the court each year. How the remaining requirements of each department responsible for providing food and drink was planned, budgeted and acquired followed a strict budgetary process very similar to todays.

It is helpful to adopt a two pronged approach to fully appreciate the mechanisms involved. The hierarchy and ranking order which decided who did what at each stage of the process was essential. However, though not directly relevant, the budgetary process serves to explain the methodology for procurement of ingredients in the course of the year.

We have tried to extract the order of ranks from the book but there are areas of uncertainty as to the chain of command and seniority. A particular difficulty, at least for me, has been to stop myself from applying contemporary thinking and interpretation to Safavid structures. For instance present day rules dictate that each layer appoint the layer below and hold seniority of rank over them whereas there is no such indication in Tadhkirat Al-Muluk. In this respect, the travelogues of foreigners coming to the court of Safavid kings provide a more detailed explanation although theirs is a personal view liable to reflect mistakes in translation and misunderstandings.

Guided by Professor Minorsky, I resorted to Chardin’s travelogue[2] for help. In volume five he details his view of how the administration operates to govern the country and how layers of responsibility work. Although there are inconsistencies and at times contradictions between the two versions, keeping in mind the fact that Chardin’s version refers to the structure he found in place a few decades earlier, his explanations based on his conversations with officials at the time throw a brighter light on the issue than Tadhkirat Al-Muluk. His has a refreshing hue of gossip and unofficial detail that is lacking from the official handbook.

Understandably, the officials dealing with food come under what would now be considered as the Minister for the affairs of the royal household. It is in Chapter two that we encounter him entitled Nazir-i Buyutat (Superintendent of the Royal Workshops) within the Safavid hierarchy. He is said to be in charge of 33 workshops/departments some of which deal with the provision of food and drinks to the court.

Hierarchy and Positions >


[1] Tadhkirat Al-Muluk, A Manual of Safavid Administration (circa 1137/1725)
Persian Text in Facsimile (B. M. Or.9496)
Translated and Explained by V. Minorsky, Former Professor of Persian in the University of London
Published and Distributed by the Trustees of the “E.J.W. Gibb Memorial”,
c/o Spicer and Pegler, Leda House.
Station Road, Cambridge, England, 1943 Reprinted 1980

[2] Voyages Du Chevalier Chardin, En Perse et Autres Lieux de l’Orient,
Nouvelle Edition, Soigneusement conferee sur les trios editions originals, augmentes d’une Notice de la Perse, depuis les temps les plus recules jusqu’a ce jour, de Notes, etc.
Par L. Langles,
Paris, Le Normant, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1811