Abbas I (1571-1629), called "the Great," was a shah of Persia, the fifth king of the Safavid dynasty. He brought Persia once again to the zenith of power and influence politically, economically, and culturally.
The greatest shah of the Safavids, Abbas I had a precarious beginning. His mild-mannered and ascetic father, Shah Mohammad Khodabandeh, could not cope with the leaders of the seven Turkish Shii tribes known as Qizilbash (Redheads), who helped the Safavids come to power. But they were so greedy for land and power that though they controlled the king they quarreled among themselves. They preferred an oligarchy to a central government with an autocratic shah. To weaken the dynasty and ensure their success, the Qizilbash killed most of the Safavid princes, including the heir apparent and his mother.
Abbas was born on Jan. 27, 1571. When his older brother, the crown prince, was killed, Abbas was rescued and taken to Khorasan, a northeastern province of Persia. A few years later, in 1588, he ascended the throne with the reluctant consent of his father and the help of loyal friends. In addition to internal difficulties, Shah Abbas was faced with impending attack by the colossal Ottoman Empire to the west and the constant menace of the Uzbeks to the northeast.
Early Military Conquests
Shah Abbas made peace with the Ottomans and concentrated on fighting the Uzbeks and on pacifying the country. In nearly 14 years of constant warfare he drove the Uzbeks beyond the Oxus. He took advantage of the weakness of the Russians after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 and secured for Persia the provinces on three sides of the Caspian Sea whose rulers had been depending for protection upon the power of Russia. Abbas also sent his armies south and subdued the provinces on the northern shores of the Persian Gulf.
All of these advances would have come to naught had Abbas not been able to establish a strong central government with himself at the top. The main obstacles in his way were the power-hungry Qizilbash chieftains, with whose military and administrative help the Safavids had been ruling the Persians. Abbas decided to take away their power and influence.
Shah Abbas therefore had to establish direct contact with the Persian population and depend upon their loyalty. This he accomplished with great success. He moved the capital from Qazvin to Esfahan, which was not only more centrally located but was more Persian. He became an enthusiastic patron of Persian civilization and appointed Persians to posts of leadership and authority. Furthermore, he robbed the Qizilbash of their military power by creating two new regiments: a cavalry regiment made up of Christians from the Caucasus and an infantry regiment recruited from the Persian peasantry. Their use of muskets and artillery not only overshadowed the sword and lance of the Qizilbash but prepared Persia in the struggle against the Ottomans.
War with the Ottoman Empire
Shah Abbas was fortunate in that the height of his power coincided with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. He was the contemporary of no less than five Ottoman sultans. Shah Abbas opened his campaigns against the Ottomans in 1602 and the hostilities lasted some 12 years, mostly with the Persian armies in control. In the peace treaty of 1614 the Ottomans agreed to retreat to the boundaries that existed before the victorious campaign of Sultan Selim I in 1500. With these victories Shah Abbas expanded the territory of Persia to its pre-Islamic limits. Partly for security and partly for commercial and political reasons, he transferred thousands of Armenian families from their homes in Armenia and settled them in the interior of Persia. The bulk of them were settled in New Jolfa, just across the Zayandeh Rud (river) from Esfahan. The thriving community still exists.
The struggle between the Persians and the Ottomans was not only religious, territorial, and military; it was diplomatic and commercial as well. The rising nations of Europe wanted to revenge themselves after centuries of Ottoman domination and at the same time clear the way for commerce between Europe and Asia. Realizing the animosity between the Ottomans and the rulers of Persia, they sent delegates to try to arrange coordinated assaults on Turkey from both east and west.
Relations with Europe
The early Safavids had been fanatic Shii Moslems and did not want to have any dealings with the infidel Christians. Shah Abbas, however, was tolerant. The coordinated assault never materialized, but he saw the diplomatic and commercial advantages of contact with Europe. Consequently, during his reign a long string of ambassadors, merchants, adventurers, and Roman Catholic missionaries made their way to Esfahan. Shah Abbas welcomed them all and used them for the advancement of his own policies. Two adventurers from England, the famous Sherley brothers, Anthony and Robert, were very close to the Shah. They helped him train the new army and took part in the campaign against the Ottomans. Later the Shah sent them in turn as ambassadors to the monarchs of Europe. He was lavish in his entertainment of accredited ambassadors, and sometimes he himself went a few miles out of the city to welcome them.
His religious tolerance was almost exemplary. On official occasions, especially when a foreign ambassador was being entertained, he would invite the religious leaders of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. He was especially tolerant of the Christians, partly because they were the largest minority in Persia and also because he wanted to impress the Christian leaders of Europe. He built churches for the Armenian community in New Jolfa and allowed them to own their houses, ride horses, and wear any kind of clothes they pleased—privileges which non-Moslems did not have before or for long after Shah Abbas until modern times. Furthermore, he permitted the Christian monks from Europe, who had come to Persia for missionary purposes, to build their centers in the Moslem section of Esfahan. He was so friendly to the monks that they thought he was about ready to become a Christian. Shah Abbas did not discourage this illusion.
Opening of the Persian Gulf
Perhaps the main purpose of Shah Abbas in building friendly relations with Europe was commerce. Persian products, especially silk, were in demand in Europe. Knowing that trade with Europe through the vast Ottoman Empire was not practical, he turned his attention to the Persian Gulf. The Portuguese had come to the region about a century earlier and had virtual monopoly of the trade. To Shah Abbas, who wanted to do business with all the countries of Europe, the Portuguese monopoly was too limiting. In a series of maneuvers in which he used the British fleet somewhat against the latter's plans, Shah Abbas defeated the Portuguese in 1622. Having become master of the Persian Gulf, he opened it to Portuguese, Spanish, British, Dutch, and French merchants. He gave Europeans special financial, legal, and social privileges. He gave orders to all provincial governors to facilitate travel and lodging for them. These same privileges, which were granted by a strong government for the purpose of enhancing trade, were later used by the strong European governments as means of imperialism in all of the Middle East. Usually Armenians acted as agents of the Shah for trade with the European merchants.
Shah Abbas was as cruel and suspicious in his relations with the Qizilbash leaders as he was kind and open in his dealings with the common people. Having been brought up in an atmosphere of intrigue, he, like many monarchs of the time, had his complement of executioners who were kept quite busy. One of the victims was his own son and heir apparent. 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.
On the other hand, the love of the common people for him was genuine, and the cry of "long live the Shah" whenever he passed among them was spontaneous. From the records it appears that he spent most of his time among the people. He was a frequent visitor of the bazaars and the teahouses of Esfahan. Often he mixed with the people in disguise to see how the common people were faring. These practices produced a wealth of stories about Shah Abbas that Persian mothers still tell their children.
He was an enthusiastic patron of Persian architects and with their help built Esfahan into one of the most beautiful cities of his time. In order to make Shiism, which is more a manifestation of Persian nationalistic mystique than of its Arab Islamic origin, somewhat self-sufficient with a center of its own, Shah Abbas built a beautiful mausoleum over the tomb of the eighth imam in Mashhad. He inaugurated pilgrimages to the shrine of Imam Reza by walking from Esfahan to Mashhad. He built roads, caravansaries, and public works of all sorts. Undoubtedly, the Safavid period was the renaissance of Persian civilization since conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century. That this was done by a dynasty of Turkish origin signifies the assimilating power of Persian culture. Shah Abbas died in the forty-second year of his reign in Mazanderan on Jan. 21, 1629.
Further Reading on Abbas I
The best short account in English of the life of Abbas I is in Percy Sykes, A History of Persia, vol. 2 (1915; 3d ed. 1930). Other background studies which discuss Abbas include Donald N. Wilber, Iran: Past and Present (1948; 4th ed. 1958); A. J. Arberry, ed., The Legacy of Persia (1953); and Richard N. Frye, Persia (1953; 3d ed. 1969).