Abbas I of Persia

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Shah ‘Abbās I at a banquet. Detail from a celing fresco; Chehel Sotoun palace; Isfahan
Shah ‘Abbās I at a banquet.
Detail from a celing fresco; Chehel Sotoun palace; Isfahan
Shah ‘Abbās King of the Persians.Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, from his Atrium heroicum Caesarum pub. 1600-1602.
Shah ‘Abbās King of the Persians.
Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, from his Atrium heroicum Caesarum pub. 1600-1602.
Shah ‘Abbās I and a page.The dedication reads: "May life grant all that you desire from three lips, those of your lover, the river, and the cup". Tempera and gilt; Muhammad Qasim, 1627; Louvre, Paris.
Shah ‘Abbās I and a page.
The dedication reads: "May life grant all that you desire from three lips, those of your lover, the river, and the cup". Tempera and gilt; Muhammad Qasim, 1627; Louvre, Paris.

Shāh ‘Abbās I or Shāh ‘Abbās, The Great ( Persian: شاه عباس بزرگ) born on ( January 27, 1571 - January 19, 1629) was Shah of Iran, and the most eminent ruler of the Safavid Dynasty. He was the third son of Shah Mohammad.


Accession to throne and war against the Uzbeks

‘Abbās was born in Herat (now in Afghanistan). The Savafid empire had substantially weakened during the reign of his semiblind father, allowing usurpations and the inner feuds of the Kizilbash amīrs, leaders of the Turcoman tribes constituting the backbone of the Safavid army. Furthermore, Ottoman and Uzbek inroads were harassing the West and Eastern provinces, respectively. In the midst of such a general anarchy, he was proclaimed ruler of Khorāsān in 1581.

In October 1588 he obtained possession of the Persian throne, by revolting against his father, Mohammad, and imprisoning him. He accomplished it with the help of Morshed Gholi Ostajlou, whom he later killed in July, 1589. Determined to raise the fallen fortunes of his country, he signed a separate peace with Ottomans (1589-90, including the cession of large areas of west and northwest Persia) and then directed his efforts against the predatory Uzbeks, who occupied and harassed Khorāsān. However, 'Abbās needed some ten years before launch of a decisive offensive: this was caused by his decision to form a standing army. Cavalry was formed mainly by Christian Georgians, Armenians and the descendant of Circassian prisoners (ghulāms, "slaves"), instead of the mistrustful Kizilbash tribal cavalry levies of former times; Persian peasantry formed the infantry. Budgetary problems were solved by bringing back under Shah's control the provinces which had been governed by the Kilibash chiefs, sending the revenues directly to the royal treasure. As governors of the new provinces were appointed mainly the new Ghulāms.

After a long and severe struggle, 'Abbās regained Mashhad, and defeated the Uzbeks in a great battle near Herat in 1597, driving them beyond the Oxus River. In the meantime, taking advantage of tsar Ivan the Terrible's death (1584), he had gained the homage of the provinces on the southern Caspian Sea, which had depended on Russia till then.

He moved his capital from Qazvin to the more central and more Persian Isfahan in 1592. Embellished by a magnificent series of new mosques, baths, colleges, caravansaries, Isfahan became one of the most beaufitul cities in the world.

War against the Ottomans and conquest of the Persian Gulf

A few years later, in 1599, the English gentleman of fortune Robert Shirley and the shah's favorite ghulam Allahverdi Khan directed a major army reform. The massive introduction of muskets and artillery marked a great improvement from former times. With his new army, 'Abbās launched a campaign against the Ottomans in 1602. In the following year he obtained a first pitch victory, which forced them to give back the territory they had seized, including Baghdad. In 1605, following a victory at Basra, he extended his empire beyond the Euphrates; Sultan Ahmed I was compelled to cede Shirvan and Kurdistan in 1611. Hostilities ceased momentarily in 1614 with the Persian Army at its acme.

In 1615 he killed more than 60,000 Georgians and deported a further 100,000 in Tblisi after a rebellion, the united armies of the Turks and Tatars were completely defeated near Sultanieh in 1618, and Abbas made peace on very favourable terms; and on the Turks renewing the war, Baghdad fell into his hands after a year's siege in 1623. With the support of the British fleet, in 1622 'Abbās took the island of Hormuz from the Portuguese: much of the trade was diverted to the town of Bandar 'Abbās which he had taken from the Portuguese in 1615 and had named after himself. The Persian Gulf was therefore opened to a flourishing commerce with Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish and British merchants, which were granted particular privileges. Agents treating with the Westerners were mostly of Armenian nationality. Trades and travel were boosted in all the Empire.

Reforms and assessment

'Abbās reign, with its military successes and efficient administrative system, raised Iran to the status of a great power. Abbas was a skilled diplomat, tolerant of his Christian subjects in Armenia. He sent Shirley to Italy, Spain and England in order to create a pact against the Ottomans. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography,

His power was more absolute than that of the sultan of Turkey. While the sultan was limited by the dictates of the Moslem religious laws as interpreted by the chief religious leader of the realm, the Shii Safavids were not so limited. Theirs was a theocracy in which the shah, as representative of the hidden imam, had absolute temporal and spiritual powers. He was called the Morshed-e Kamel ("most perfect leader") and as such could not do wrong. He was the arbiter of religious law. Later, when Persian kings became weak, the interpreters of religious law, Mujtaheds, dominated the religious as well as the temporal scene.

Mistrusting the once ruling class of the Kizilibash, 'Abbās gained a strong support from common people. Sources report him spending much of his time among them, personally visiting bazaars and other public places in Isfahan.

Isfahan became the centre of Safavid architectural achievement, with the mosques Masjed-e Shah and the Masjed-e Sheykh Lotfollah and other monuments like the Ali Qapu, the Chehel Sotoun palace, and the Naghsh-i Jahan Square. His painting ateliers (of the Isfahan school established under his patronage) created some of the finest art in modern Persian history, by such illustrious painters as Reza Abbasi, Mohammed Qasim and others. Despite the ascetic roots of the Ṣafavid dynasty and the religious injunctions restricting the pleasures lawful to the faithful, the art of Abbas' time denotes a certain relaxation of the strictures. Historian James Saslow interprets the portrait by Muhammad Qasim as showing that the Muslim taboo against wine, as well as that against male intimacy, "were more honored in the breach than in the observance". Contemporary European observers at the Shah's court reflected similarly on prevalent customs. Among them was Thomas Herbert, the nineteen-year-old secretary to the British amabassador, who later related that he saw " Ganymede boys in vests of gold, rich bespangled turbans, and choice sandals, their curled hair dangling about their shoulders, with rolling eyes and vermilion cheeks."

'Abbās died in Mazandaran in 1629. His dominions extended from the Tigris to the Indus, even overcoming the Persian borders of pre-Islam times. He is still today a popular figure in Iran, featuring in numerous traditional tales. His fame is tarnished, however, by numerous deeds of tyranny and cruelty, particularly against his own family. Afraid of a coup by his family (as he had done to his father), he locked them up in palaces in order to keep them without knowledge of the outside world. This resulted in weak successors. He killed his eldest son, Safi Mirza, leaving his throne to his grandson Safi. It is believed that Safi Mirza was killed because the Shah had learned the story of king Absalom who rebelled against his own father as depicted in the illustrations of the Morgan Crusader's Bible which was sent to him as a gift by Cardinal Maciejowski in 1604.

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