The Reign of Abbas I (1587–1629) I

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The Reign of Abbas I 1587–1629 I

Abbas the Great

Abbas’ 1587 enthronement in Qazvin was supported by, and represented the reassertion of the military and political pre-eminence of, elements among the Ustajlu. Other Qizilbash elements arrayed themselves around the Ustajlu-dominated centre: soon after the formal accession, various provincial amirs – including Afshar from Kirman, Dhul-Qadr from Fars and Qum, Talish from Astara and Turkman from Ardabil – arrived to pay homage to the new ruler. Under Murshid Quli Khan Ustajlu’s supervision, these received letters confirming their provincial holdings and listing the number of troops to be provided for an expedition to break the Uzbek siege of Herat. The expedition was commanded by the same Shamlu amir whom Ismail II had ordered to kill Abbas.

In this same time frame, two royal marriages were arranged, one between Abbas and the daughter of one of Tahmasp’s sons killed by Ismail II and another with the widow of Khudabanda’s son Hamza, herself the granddaughter of Tahmasp’s full brother, Bahram. Thus was Abbas’ position within, and as the head of, the house further bolstered.

The situation was not stable, however. Murshid Quli Khan was soon challenged by rival Ustajlu and Shamlu elements and their Tajik associates. Murshid Quli Khan’s subsequent, and likely calculated, failure to relieve his Shamlu rival in Herat which permitted the city’s capture by the Uzbeks, can only have hastened his own murder, sanctioned by an alliance of Qizilbash, including rival Ustajlu, and Tajik administrative elements. The victorious Ustajlu faction soon dispatched those who had served Khudabanda and his son Hamza and some non-Ustajlu amirs, including some Shamlu and Turkman. Abbas freed his father from jail in Rayy, where he had been consigned by Murshid Quli Khan.

The writ of this new configuration of forces and, by extension, that of Abbas himself, did not extend very far, however. In Khurasan other amirs and troops, including Qajars and other Ustajlu, deserted to other Safavid princes, including the grandsons of Ismail I through his son Bahram. In Isfahan still other amirs supported Abbas’ full brothers, Abu Talib, at thirteen three years younger than Abbas, and the younger Tahmasp (b. 1576). The feuding spilled over into Fars, Kirman and Yazd during the third year after Abbas’ accession. The Tajik associates of the various Qizilbash factions played roles in these machinations.

The ongoing disarray after Abbas’ accession allowed the Ottomans, who had commenced a series of invasions of Iran in 1578 and captured Tabriz in 1585, to continue their incursions. In the East, the Uzbeks, having seized Herat, moved against Mashhad.

The internal politico-military challenges to Abbas authority coincided with, and no doubt encouraged and were encouraged by, spiritual challenges. Between 1587 and 1589–90, certain Sufi elements openly questioned Abbas I about the identity of their pir, implying that the still-living Khudabanda remained the order’s head. The reaction of the young Abbas, and his tribal backers, to such overt disloyalty to the person of the shah was absolute: the Sufis were executed. So, too, in 1592–3, was the leader of a group of Sufis in Lahijan which had supported Ismail I when he was in hiding in Gilan but who, in this period, also questioned the identity of Abbas as the present pir.

Spiritual challenges were also offered by Nuqtavi elements. These, whose discourse focused on the cyclical renewal of prophecy, bespeaking associations with Hurufi and Ismaili doctrine as well as other millenarian discourses, had risen in villages around Kashan when Tahmasp fell ill two years before his death in 1576. In 1590, several years after Abbas’ enthronement, a rising by a Shiraz-based Nuqtavi poet whom Tahmasp had blinded in 1565, was foiled by local clerics. Two years later, however, the Nuqtavi Darvish Khusraw rose up in Qazvin. The darvish, from a family of refuse collectors and well-diggers, had been active and popular in the city, as well as in Sava, Kashan, Isfahan, Nain and Shiraz, late in Tahmasp’s reign. Tahmasp himself had examined the darvish’s polemic and had banned him from public speaking. After his accession both Abbas and other officials visited the darvish’s lodge, in a clear effort, in the midst of the disorder recounted above, to derive credibility from associating themselves with such an evidently popular preacher. On the basis of numerology, Nuqtavi elements forecast 1593 as the year in which a Nuqtavi who had achieved true unity with Allah would assume power. In the context of the ongoing disorder this preaching is said to have attracted significant support among both ‘Turk [i.e. Qizilbash] and Tajik’. The movement was also put down, with the shah’s personal intervention, but boiled up in Kashan, Mashhad and Fars. An Ustajlu amir and other Qizilbash elements associated with it were executed.

Twice in the years after 1590, when Abbas was occupied with Uzbek challenges in Khurasan, the Mushasha Arabs of lower Iraq, known for their Twelver associations, moved to assert their independence; on the second occasion, they occupied Dizful. Safavid forces checked both moves.

Although all these challenges came to nought, they reflected clear, ongoing disquiet among both Turk – even some Qizilbash – and Tajik, rural and urban elements, with the new shah’s spiritual credentials, especially in the context of ongoing political strife.

Once again, political pragmatism prevailed. A 1590 peace treaty with the Porte recognised Safavid losses of territory to the Ottomans, including parts of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Qarabagh, Khuzistan and Shirvan and parts of Luristan and Kurdistan and Tabriz itself, and included a clause requiring the Safavids cease cursing the first three caliphs. With peace secured in the West, albeit in as humiliating a fashion as the Amasya treaty decades before, in the same year Abbas moved against and defeated the ghulam governor of Isfahan, and blinded and jailed his own two brothers. In 1590 also Abbas defeated Yaqub Khan Dhul-Qadr, governor of Shiraz, effectively marking the end of the realm’s second civil war.

Organisation for and the retaking of territories seized by the Uzbeks and Ottomans over the two decades since Tahmasp’s death soon commenced and, in 1598–9, Eastern Khurasan, including Herat, Mashhad, Balkh, Marv and Astarabad, were retaken although Balkh, and much artillery, was lost to a Uzbek reinvasion in 1602–3. Turning West, Safavid forces took Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan and Irivan. An Ottoman counterattack on Tabriz was crushed, and Shirvan was retaken in 1607–8. Although a 1612 peace treaty recognised the 1555 Amasya boundaries, a further Ottoman effort to recover their lost territories, focusing on the Caucasus, followed. Despite a 1619–20 treaty, in 1623–4 the Safavids retook parts of Kurdistan, Baghdad and the shrine cities and occupied Diyar Bakr. A series of campaigns over the period brought parts of rebellious Georgia into Safavid territory. Qandahar, lost to the Mughals in 1594, was retaken in 1622.

Abbas’ own court chronicler Munshi credits these military successes to Abbas’ divinely inspired creation of the ghulam or qullar corps – small forces composed mainly of non-Qizilbash Arab and Persian tribal volunteers and captured Georgian, Circassian and Armenian youth, converted to Islam and trained in the military arts.

In fact, the formation of such a force pre-dated Abbas, and the ghulams served both as military levies and commanders, joining with tribal elements at the military-political centre and, alongside Tajiks, as administrators; there were even ghulam artisans in the royal workshops. In this period, moreover, the military ghulams in particular were neither an independent, or especially large, body of troops or group of commanders, let alone the most prominent military force, or political power.

By Munshi’s own accounts, the Safavid forces involved in the minor and major campaigns against the centre’s internal and external opponents over Abbas’ reign comprised combinations of military forces – Qizilbash tribal contingents, qurchis, ghulams, non-qurchi Qizilbash, and even corps of musketeers. These forces were led, individually or sometimes jointly, by commanders drawn from various backgrounds. These included, for example, the Qaramanlu commander Farhad Khan (d. c. 1598–9), who was amir al-umara of Azerbaijan and governor, variously, of Astarabad, Fars, Gilan, Herat and Shiraz, and warden of the Ardabil shrine; the Armenian ghulam Allahvirdi Khan (d. c. 1613), chief of the qullar corps (qullaraqasi) and governor of Fars; and the Kurdish commander Ganj Ali Khan (d. 1624–5), later governor of Kirman.

Overall, if the ghulams did supply both commanders and levies the balance of military and, hence, political, power over Abbas’ reign remained with tribal forces, organised in their traditional tribal contingents or as unified cross-tribal, qurchi forces.

Two other important developments further strengthened tribal military-political pre-eminence. First, certain members of the Qizilbash confederation including, especially, a number of Takkalu and Dhul-Qadr elements whose loyalty and reliability was suspect, were eliminated.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the period witnessed the gradual incorporation into the Qizilbash confederation of a number of previously non-Qizilbash tribal elements. Thus, in his list of Qizilbash amirs holding the realm’s key posts at the end of Abbas’ reign,20 Munshi identified as Qizilbash subclans or as ‘tribes subordinate to them’ many formerly non-Qizilbash tribal elements which had existed on the fringes of the Safavid project. The latter included, especially, substantial Kurdish, Luri and Chagatai elements. Attesting to their important, but clearly secondary, position within the realm, only after listing all the Qizilbash amirs did Munshi then name those ghulams who had been raised to ‘amir’ status. The latter designation, he explained, occurred ‘when a Qizilbash amir or governor died and there was no one in his tribe suitable for promotion to the rank’. By this gradual, somewhat casual process, by 1629 – the year of Abbas’ death – ghulams came to comprise only one-fifth of the realm’s amirs.

Similarly, although by Abbas’ death ghulams held eight of the fourteen key provincial governorships, over the course of Abbas’ reign, both the key posts at the centre and key provincial governorships remained in tribal hands; over the course of Abbas’ reign the Shamlu and Dhul-Qadr emerge as especially prominent in these posts as they did in the number of amir-ships. Over this period, as before, for example, tribal leaders mainly held the posts of qurchibashi and divanbeki; the latter, although ostensibly a judicial post, was first and foremost a military position.

Marriages contracted over the period further attest to the continued primary importance of non-ghulam elements. Immediately following his accession, as already noted, Abbas himself contracted two marriages within the household, further securing his position of prominence therein. One of Abbas’ daughters married Isa Khan Safavi, grandson of Masum Bek, the qurchibashi from 1612–13 into Shah Safi’s reign. Such was the importance of this particular family line that the first tribe in Munshi’s 1629 list of the Qizilbash tribes was the ‘Shaykhavand’ – not a real ‘tribe’ at all but simply members of the Masum Bek line of the Safavid house – who were thereby accorded Qizilbash status.

The prominence of the Ustajlu early in Abbas’ reign was attested by the marriage, soon after Abbas’ accession, of the daughter of Haydar, the son of Khudabanda’s son Hamza, to the Ustajlu governor in Hamadan, Hasan Khan Ustajlu (d. 1624–5), who led the 1603 campaign against the Ottomans.

Abbas, in the manner of his predecessors, also used marriages to cement further ties with local notables, especially those of potentially troublesome regions. In 1591, Abbas’ eldest son Muhammad Baqir, known as Safi, was betrothed to the Gilani Yakhan Bekum (d. c. 1602), the daughter of the 1577–8 marriage of Khan Ahmad Khan Gilani (d. 1577–8) to Tahmasp’s daughter Maryam Bekum (d. 1608–9). In fact the marriage did not take place and in 1602, in the midst of an Uzbek reinvasion of Khurasan, Abbas himself married Yakhan Bekum. In c. 1590–1, in the midst of the Sufi and Nuqtavi unrest, Tahmasp’s daughter Maryam Bekum, after the death of her husband in 1577–8, married Shah Nimatallah III, son of Mir Miran Yazdi, of the Nimatallahi Sufi order, with whom the Safavid house had been allied by marriage since early in Tahmasp’s reign. An Afshar married a daughter of Mir Miran, further signalling the degree of interaction between Turk and Tajik not common in the region prior to the rise of the Safavids.

Mir Miran’s was a sayyid family and in this period, in fact, five of Abbas’ six daughters were married into prominent Tajik sayyid families. One daughter was married to Mirza Razi, of Isfahan’s Shahristani sayyids, who was Abbas’ sadr c. 1607, succeeding his own uncle in the post. Mirza Razi’s nephew Mirza Rafi al-Din, who married the same daughter of Abbas at Mirza Razi’s death in 1617, succeeded Mirza Razi as sadr. The Shahristanis had served Ismail and Tahmasp and a member of the family was Isfahan’s vizier during Abbas’ reign. The Shahristani sayyids intermarried with Isfahan’s Khalifa sayyids, originally from Mazandaran, one of whom was sadr in this period. Mirza Rafi al-Din himself contracted a marriage with the family of the Khalifa sadr; the son of the latter, Khalifa Sultan (d. 1654), also known as Sultan al-Ulama, was vizier between from 1624 to 1632, into Safi’s reign, and again in the reign of Abbas II. Through his mother Khalifa Sultan was also related to Abbas’ own Marashi sayyid mother, Khayr al-Nisa, and he himself married one of Abbas’ daughters.

If, although Christian blood flowed in Safavid veins, members of the house never formally contracted marriages with originally Christian ghulams, the ghulams’ ‘special’ status was nevertheless recognised. Thus, the presence of particularly prominent Caucasian ghulam at Abbas I’s court bespoke an effort to associate with local elites and ghulams who were Christian by birth. Too, despite their conversions, Christian ghulams were permitted to continue to observe their pre-conversion, non-Islamic practices. As will be noted below, that Abbas II and Sulayman were the product of marriages with Circassians was never an issue.

Tajik elements, including many sayyids, also continued to be prominent in the central and provincial ‘civilian’ administration. All the period’s viziers were Tajiks, for example: together the Tajik Hatim Bek Urdubadi and his son, descendants of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), served as viziers to Abbas for three decades as earlier members of the family had served the early Safavids. Abbas’ last two viziers, including the abovementioned Khalifa Sultan, were members, by marriage, of the household itself. All those who held the post of sadr were Tajik sayyids; most, as we have seen, also related by marriage to the house itself. Tajiks were comptrollers of the realm’s finances.

Outside the capital Abbas confirmed the Qazvini branch of the Marashi sayyid family as guardians of the city’s shrine, various suyurghal grants as hereditary in nature and the management of the shrine’s affairs as independent of the centre.

The centre not only oversaw the incorporation of new tribal and ghulam elements as ‘members’ of the project’s key constituencies and the consolidation of the house’s connections with Tajik sayyids and other notables, as described above, but also the reinforcement of the legitimacy of Abbas’ political and spiritual authority in the realm. This process included reinvigorating the projection of the shah as simultaneous representative of the agendas and discourses of each of the realm’s component constituencies, and thus sole arbiter among and between them and universal, transcendent ruler of, and over, their sum total.

The vast scale of this reinvigoration process itself attests to the perceived vast scale of both the internal and external challenges to Abbas’ rule.

The greatest of the manifestations of this effort and its complex nature are to be found in Isfahan following its designation as the realm’s capital – its central location making it relatively safer than Qazvin from Ottoman and Uzbek incursions – perhaps as early as c. 1590, concomitant with the effective end of the second civil war.

In c. 1595, in the aftermath of that designation, Abbas repaired and renovated the area of Maydan-i Harun-i Vilayat, the city’s traditional centre, and soon thereafter commenced work on the Chahar Bagh (Four Garden) avenue and plans for the construction of great buildings for the Naqsh-i Jahan garden. A 1592–3 flood had destroyed many bridges across Isfahan’s Zayanda Rud and in 1597–8 Abbas commenced a new bridge which was completed three years later. In 1602–3, following the 1598 recapture of Mashhad and Herat from the Uzbeks and with work on the Chahar Bagh avenue completed, and bowing to local residents’ opposition to any further expansion of the city’s traditional centre, the Harun-i Vilayat square, work commenced on a new square based at the Naqsh-i Jahan garden retreat. This was the Maydan-i Naqsh-i Jahan. The Qaysariyya Bazaar (the Imperial Market) was also laid out so as to connect the newer with the older maydan. On the new square construction also began on the Ali Qapu palace, whose gateway, perhaps functioning as an entryway into the Chahar Bagh Avenue gardens, so pushed its way into the new square as to break the symmetry of the facade itself, all the more projecting power and authority. Although between 1602 and 1611 the court hardly visited the city, construction on these projects and planning for others continued apace. Abbas also established the Abbasabad suburb, on the banks of the Zayanda Rud, for refugees from Tabriz. Although, thereafter preoccupied with a retreat in Mazandaran, Abbas made only five more visits to the capital before his 1629 death, these ‘secular’ building projects insured that the new square, itself based on a traditional Iranian courtyard, advanced the claim of Abbas and his retinue to authority in the politico-military sphere on a scale which dwarfed all other Safavid building projects to date.

The same image of the shah’s authority was also promoted in similar fashion outside Isfahan. Thus, possibly prior to the relocation of the capital to Isfahan, Abbas made additions to the palace complex at Qazvin. In 1611, in the aftermath of victories against the Ottomans and as work on Isfahan’s Shah Mosque began, work commenced also on the Farahabad (Place of Happiness) Palace on the banks of a local river in Mazandaran. Recalling Isfahan, the site included an arcaded square with a mosque at the South and palace buildings to the North; a separate palace was built for official receptions and administration. In 1612–13, another palace was established in Astarabad, complete with workshops and bathhouses, gardens and parks, the latter with intricate water-features. Abbas also commenced a further palace-garden complex in Kashan.

The number and scale of religious edifices which appeared in the same time frame alongside, and all around, the above ‘political’ structures point to an especial effort to reassert Safavid spiritual legitimacy commensurate with political authority in response to the domestic politicalspiritual challenges thereto discussed above. Reassertion of the centre’s spiritual legitimacy was all the more important given the various internal challenges to Abbas’ spiritual authority recounted above. Promotion of the association with Twelver Shi‘ism in particular was all the more important in light of the Safavids’ continued loss of control over the Shi‘i shrine cities to the West.

The best-known of the capital’s religious buildings, in fact, date from early in Abbas’ reign. These included, most famously, the Mulla Abdallah Shushtari school, dated to 1599, and the Lutfallah Maysi (1602 to 1618–19) and the Royal Mosques (1611 to 1630–1), the latter two both on the new maydan, as well as other mosques located elsewhere in the city.

That there was a distinctive ‘authority’ dimension to these ‘spiritual’ projects is clear. The Lutfallah Mosque, still standing on Abbas’ new square, for example, contained a inscription, executed in 1603–4 – even as Balkh had just been retaken by the Uzbeks – by Ali Riza Abbasi, in which the shah is pointedly referred to as ‘the greatest and most dignified sultan . . . the reviver of the customs of his forefathers, the propagator of the faith of the infallible Imams . . . Abbas, the Husaynid, the Musavid’.

On the new maydan’s Southern side work on the Shah, or Royal, Mosque was commenced in 1611, in the aftermath of victories against the Ottoman campaigns, Tabriz’ recapture and as work commenced on the Qaysariyya Gateway on the opposite side of the new square. Completed two decades later, and nearly a decade after the recapture of Iraq, the new mosque eclipsed the older Congregational Mosque located in the city’s traditional spiritual-commercial Harun-i Vilayat square, portions of which structure dated to the Saljuk period. The new mosque’s traditional four-ayvan plan, like the new maydan itself, recalled the classical tradition of Iran’s Islamic architecture. With its huge footprint and multiple functions, the new structure also recalled the huge mosques of the early Islamic period: the East and West ayvans lead into domed chambers, the sanctuary features long eight-domed winter prayer halls, and the four minarets are located two each at the gateway and the qibla ayvan, with the gateway ayvan enlarged by wings projecting from each side.

As important for the shah’s position as propagator of the faith, the new mosque also contained two schools, at the Eastern and Western corners of the courtyard, with underground rooms so that teaching could be continued in the hot summer and cold winter months.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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