The Reign of Shah Abbas I, 1588–1629


When he placed his young ward on the throne, Murshid Quli Khan Ustajlu expected to govern the empire as vakil. Abbas I, at sixteen, hardly seemed likely to succeed in taking control of the empire from the Qizilbash chieftains. Murshid Quli Khan rearranged the offices of the court and provincial governorships, without making major changes. The strength of his position inevitably provoked a challenge from the other Qizilbash chiefs. Abbas sought to rally support for himself as shah, not as the tool of the Ustajlu or any other tribe. He employed the concept of shahisivani (lit- erally, “love for the shah”). Intended to recall the loyalties of individual Qizilbash to the shah rather than to their individual uymaqs, shahisivani became one of Abbas’s mechanisms for strengthening his position.

Abbas had Murshid Quli Khan executed on July 23, 1589, less than nine months after taking the throne. This action marked the beginning of Abbas’s actual authority. In order to undertake a fundamental transformation of the empire, he had to secure his frontiers and could do so only by making concessions. He opened negotiations with the Ottomans, and on March 21, 1590, the Safavid representatives signed a peace treaty surrendering all of Azerbaijan and Iraq, as well as parts of Shirvan, Daghis- tan, and Kurdistan. There was no treaty with the Uzbeks, but after an abortive expedition in 1591, Abbas made no effort to retake Mashhad and Herat until 1598. In 1594, the Safavid governor of Qandahar transferred both his loyalty and the city to the Mughals. Abbas did not respond. He thus obtained the breathing space necessary to transform the Safavid polity.

Abbas’s program had three elements: two fiscal and administrative and one military. In order to obtain the income necessary, he established direct Safavid rule over the silk-producing regions of Gilan and Mazandaran, south of the Caspian and Qarabagh and Shirvan, further west. These operations lasted from 1593 to 1607. Abbas thus ensured that most of the profits from the empire’s most valuable export went into the central treasury. He also began a significant change in provincial administration, the transfer of provinces from mamalik (provincial) to khass (central government) administration. Qizilbash chiefs governed mamalik provinces and distributed their revenues to their uymaqs, with little or none going to the central government. Khass provinces paid their taxes into the central treasury. The mamalik structure reflected the practice in tribal confederations. The transfer of provinces from mamalik to khass shifted the balance of power from the Qizilbash to the ruler. In some cases, the transfer amounted to the conquest of provinces from the Qizilbash.

With this new revenue, Abbas paid for the construction of a new imperial capital at Isfahan, which began in 1597–1598, and for his military reforms. He expanded the infantry, cavalry, and artillery units that his grandfather had created, with soldiers primarily of slave origin, which could defeat any tribal force just as the Safavid army had defeated the Uzbeks at Jam. Abbas also transferred the capital to Isfahan, far from the Ottoman frontier. His military reforms coincided with periods of weakness in the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbek principalities. The Jalali uprisings and the Long War distracted the Ottomans. The death of Abdullah Khan in 1598 ended Uzbek unity, opening the way for the Safavids. Abbas led his army from Isfahan in the spring, took Mashhad on July 29, and defeated the Uzbeks outside Herat on August 5.

In 1603, the Ottoman garrison abandoned the fortress of Nihavand in Iraq, and a Kurdish chieftain revolted against the Ottomans. These events and the Jalali disorders further west left the eastern Ottoman Empire in a shambles. Exploiting this weakness, Abbas occupied Tabriz in 1603 and Erivan, in eastern Anatolia, in 1604. In 1605, the Safavid army crushed an Ottoman army sent to Sufiyan near Tabriz. This victory marked the transformation of the Safavid Empire into a bureaucratic polity with a gun- powder army. In 1622, Abbas conquered Qandahar from the Mughals and, with the help of the British East India Company, took Hormuz from the Portuguese. He later established a new port, Bandar Abbas, on the mainland opposite Hormuz. It became the major outlet for exports, especially silk. After a pause, Abbas initiated hostilities against the Ottomans again in 1623, retaking Iraq and a considerable part of Kurdistan. The Safavids repulsed an Ottoman siege of Baghdad the next year. Abbas’s military achievements matched the magnificence that his new imperial capital at Isfahan symbolized and articulated.

Abbas took drastic measures against his own family to secure his position. His eldest son, Muhammad Baqir Mirza, known as Safi, may or may not have been guilty of the plot for which his father executed him in 1615. Two other sons were blinded in 1621 and 1626 because he interpreted their efforts to secure succession as disloyalty to him. These steps brought stability to the dynasty. Abbas imitated the Ottoman practice of confining princes to the palace, making all future succession disputes a matter of court politics. Before his death on January 19, 1629, Abbas had nominated his grandson Sam Mirza, the eldest surviving Safavid prince who had not been blinded, to succeed him. The young man took the throne on February 17, using the name of his father, Safi.

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