The extent (both chronological and geographical) and the systematic way in which slaves were used in the Muslim world to fulfil military duties makes military slavery a distinctive feature of Islamic states and statecraft. Owing to the lack of a clear-cut distinction between administrative and military careers, slaves were employed in the administration as well and, as a consequence of the vast amount of power they could concentrate in their hands, several cases occurred of slaves playing the role of strongmen or even founding new and independent dynasties. Traditionally, military slavery is considered as having appeared in the Muslim world under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tasim (833-842), who formed a bodyguard made up of Turkish slaves. Since then on, most of the dynasties ruling the central Islamic lands availed themselves of slave soldiers. Among these military corps, the best known are probably the Ottoman Janissaries and the Egyptian Mamluks, the latter being virtually the sole to have been systematically studied in modern times.
Safavid slave soldiers (usually indicated as golams) are fully part of this political and military tradition. Mainly recruited among Georgian, Armenian and North Caucasian renegades, they were employed in increasingly great number starting with the end of the 16th century in both the army and the administration (although they were present and active in Persia, to a lesser extent, in earlier years as well). Eventually, they became the backbone of both until 1722, when the Safavids were overthrown by the Afghan invasion.
Their prominent role was remarked by contemporary observers and is regularly stressed today by modern students of Persian history. In spite of their importance, however, they have never been properly studied: rather, scholarly research on the Safavid golams dates back only to the early 1990’s. The “Military slavery in Safavid Persia” project aims at filling this gap.
Sub-project: Bio-Bibliographical Index on Safavid Golams
In the frame of the project 'Military slavery in Safavid Persia', Giorgio Rota is currently working at a bio-bibliographical index including names of Safavid golams, of eunuchs (who were very often, if not mostly, of Caucasian origin), of their relatives and of Caucasians in the Safavid service (irrespective of whether they are explicitly described as golams in the primary Persian sources or not). Two sections at the end of the main text include names from the 18th century and from the Qajar period. The main text of the index is based on Persian narrative and documentary sources. Data from non-Persian primary sources and scholarly literature on individual golams (not on the golam institution as a whole or on Muslim military slavery in general) are entered in the footnotes, together with the remarks of the editor. The index contains now more than 300 names and it will represent an important tool for research of social, economic and of course prosopographical nature.
Dr. Giorgio Rota