Further projecting power and authority, a unique double-dome structure was utilised in the mosque with the outer dome rising some 52 metres so as to be visible from four different places on the road from Kashan. The 1616 mosque inscription, completed by Ali Riza Abbasi, stated that the command to build the mosque had been issued by Abbas, ‘the Husaynid, the Musavid’, and recalled the memory of Tahmasp, Abbas’ grandfather. Other inscriptions, such as the Prophet’s statement ‘I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate’, attested to the distinctly Alid nature of the project and, hence, the very Alid commitments of its patron.
Outside the capital from early on in his reign Abbas was an especial patron of Mashhad, site of the shrine of the eighth Imam. Abbas visited the shrine some twelve times, often in the course of military campaigns. He also ordered much restoration work undertaken, and made numerous endowments, to the shrine and commanded that the bodies of Ismail II and his own Mazandarani mother Khayr al-Nisa Marashi be moved to Mashhad. The former capital Qazvin and, especially, its shrine, also merited the centre’s attention and patronage over Abbas’ reign. In the environs of Kashan and Natanz also, much attention was lavished on religious buildings. Too, the shah immediately visited the Iraqi shrine cities when these were retaken, along with Baghdad, in 1624, and also two years later, after an Ottoman effort to retake Baghdad was repulsed. He also reached out to the Shi‘a of the Hijaz dedicating, c. 1605, a substantial portion of the income of the new maydan’s royal sarai, the city’s chief sarai built in 1603, to the male and female sayyids in Najaf and Madina.
The centre also openly associated itself with key Arab and Iranian Twelver clerics of the period. In addition to the buildings for Lutfallah Maysi and Abdallah Shushtari who had emigrated from Arab centres of the faith, Mir Damad, the Tajik sayyid descendant of Ali Karaki who came to court from Mashhad during the reign of Khudabanda, was another close associate of Abbas’ court. Mir Damad’s own marriage to Shushtari’s daughter further solidified the alliance between Tajik sayyids and immigrant Arab clerics which dated to the Karaki-Astarabadi marriage of which Mir Damad himself was a product. The marriage of Sayyid Husayn Karaki’s son Habiballah to a daughter of Maysi certainly solidified the latter’s position among the realm’s clerical elite.
Mir Damad himself was a student of Shaykh Husayn Amili. As in other instances, neither Mir Damad’s prospects nor those of the Shaykh Husayn’s son Shaykh Bahai were diminished by Shaykh Husayn’s demotion by Tahmasp in favour of Sayyid Husayn Karaki and Shaykh Husayn’s subsequent departure from Iran. Indeed, Bahai succeeded his father as Herat’s Shaykh al-Islam, was appointed to same post in Isfahan, took an active role in the capital’s building programme and undertook domestic political missions for Abbas. He also managed the constitution as vaqf of the Qaysariyya bazaar and all the bazaars of the new square, including a sarai and bath, and the vaqf transactions relating to the Shah Mosque. Like Ali Karaki, Bahai also accompanied the shah on military campaigns. He was also said to have cited a hadith from his father foretelling the rise of Ismail in Ardabil.
The centre was simultaneously mindful of various, more ‘popular’ challenges to the shah’s spiritual authority and took care to associate itself with such spiritual expression as a means of mitigating, if not also directing, the discourse and influence thereof. In 1596–7 Abbas removed Tahmasp’s body from Mashhad, when his grandfather’s tomb had been defiled by the Uzbeks at their seizure of the city, and buried it in Isfahan’s Imamzada Darb-i Imam, itself the final resting place of two descendants of the Imams. Abbas also endowed a vaqf of three hundred tumans to the shrine. He also commenced work on a tomb for a grandson of the second Imam, Hasan, itself part of a complex of a mosque and school and on a tomb for the mystic Baba Rukn al-Din (d. 1367–8), on the South bank of the Zayanda Rud. In Kashan, where Abbas had also commenced a palace and ordered repairs to various religious buildings, the thirteenth-century imamzada of a descendant of the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), received special attention in this period. Indeed, obviously taken with the city and the shrine, Abbas himself would be buried inside the imamzada, metres from the tomb of the Imam’s descendant Habib b. Musa.
Abbas also encouraged Muharram ceremonies and the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ali and sponsored display-clashes between the Nimati and Haydari factions – the traditional factional groups into which Iran’s urban population were divided. The shah also revived the practice of illuminations on major and minor occasions, as sponsored either by the court or by sympathetic merchants, although, when such occasions fell during Muharram, they occurred even the disapproval of such court-associated clerics as Shaykh Bahai. Abbas also promoted both the celebration of the traditional Iranian New Year based on the solar calendar, where the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, and the celebration of ayd-i qurban, at least part of which, the procession of a camel chosen for ritual slaughter, was the subject of great popular celebration.
At the same time the centre was also attentive to its distinctly Sufi associations, all the more important in the face of the already-noted challenges to the exclusivity of this link. Abbas’ thirteen visits to the family shrine at Ardabil, as with his Mashhad visits, often at pivotal times, reminded the faithful – especially tribal elements whose politico-military support was so badly needed but whose spiritual allegiance was in question – of his status as the head of the Safavid Sufi order. The continued importance of Sufi discourse to the Safavid project was further attested by the prominence accorded the traditional Sufi tawhidkhana at the Ali Qapu palace and other rituals and practices associated with the Safavid Sufi order itself – including the granting of the taj – which also projected Abbas’ exclusive leadership thereof. Sufi elements were conspicuously present both at Abbas’ accession and his funeral.
Indicative of continuing regard for Tajik interests, traditional Persian cultural discourse was also encouraged. In the aftermath of Abbas’ accession, the reign’s chief manuscript-illustrators, including the Afshar Sadiqi Bek, appointed director of the royal artists’ workshops, Zayn al-Abidin, Ali Asghar and his son Riza Abbasi, Shaykh Muhammad and Siyavush – all of whom had served earlier shahs and had spent time in Herat – commenced work on an illustrated Shahnama. What was completed of the project attests to a greater attention to detail and expression as well as such motifs as jutting rock formations and various Qazvini-style elements which had featured in Sadiqi Bek’s contributions to Ismail II’s Shahnama and highlight the involvement of Shaykh Muhammad, Riza Abbasi and Sadiqi Bek in developing a new style of painting within the familiar tradition of the illustrated Shahnama.
Other manuscripts from the period reveal these artists’ simultaneously increasing familiarity with and receptivity to European styles of expression, thanks to Shaykh Muhammad’s introduction of such styles of painting into Iran. A greater naturalism became visible and European figures appeared in paintings otherwise dominated by distinctly Iranian images and literary allusions.
The rapid development of Isfahan, in line with the centre’s effort to project its military, political and spiritual authority, had concrete economic dimensions. By 1599, just a decade into Abbas’ reign, the suburban sectors of Isfahan were said to have 600 sarais, many serving as centres for specific professions or for merchants from a particular region, and the owners of many of which, like other urban sarais, constituted the revenues therefrom as vaqf to schools, mosques and hospices.
At the North end of the new maydan the Qaysariyya (Imperial) gate, completed c. 1617–8, opened into the Qaysariyya Bazaar, built in 1603 at the same time as the royal sarai itself. The new bazaar’s shops gradually spread northwards to link the new maydan with the old city centre. Over the century the latter gradually became the socio-economic centre for the common people and a place for religious festivals while the new square to the South was increasingly dominated by, and the centre of, the economic and politico-cultural activities of the court; the latter included, for example, polo and horse-racing as well as ambassadorial receptions, celebrations of the New Year in March and coronations.
As part of its projection of military and political authority, but also with profound economic implications, the centre paid great attention to restoring the road security which had deteriorated during the second civil war period. A network of caravansarais came to dot the major trade routes which criss-crossed the realm, with the effect of boosting both local/internal and long-distance trade. Abbas himself was associated with a system of sarais connecting Kashan, an obvious favourite of the shah, with Isfahan and many other sarais, most no longer extant.
The realm was thus in perfect position to take advantage of other economic developments of the time.
Just as the ghulam were added to the realm’s constituencies to bolster the projection of Safavid military-political fortunes, the addition of Armenians, wealthy Armenian long-distance merchants in particular, enhanced the economy. In c. 1604, and at least partly because of the Safavid scorched-earth policy adopted in the Ottoman wars, between 5,000 and 10,000 Armenians were forcibly moved from Julfa, in Eastern Anatolia, into Iran’s own heartland, to New Julfa in Isfahan. If a decidedly violent process, on the road to Isfahan the wealthier Armenian merchants were treated better than others of their coreligionist deportees, attesting to awareness of the position of these as the key middle men in the international system of trade passing West through Iran to the Eastern Mediterranean ports and Southern Europe, North to the Black Sea and Russia, and East to Afghanistan, India, China and the Philippines.
By the mid-fifteenth century Iranian silk, known in the West from the thirteenth century, was one of the most profitable items in this Armenian-dominated long-distance trade. Since 1543 the Portuguese had been using Hormuz, which they had seized in 1515 in the aftermath of Chaldiran, to tranship that silk to their possessions in India. The great Western European merchant trading companies, particularly the English and Dutch companies, were established in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries precisely to seek out trading routes and monopolies in such items in the East independent of the Italian, Ottoman and Iberian trading systems.
In the face of rising European demand for Iranian silk, as part of a general, renewed Western European economic expansion eastwards, Iran’s silk output and trade and the overland route generally had suffered through Ottoman interference with trade and repeated wars over the century and, especially, Ottoman domination of the silk-producing areas in Gilan from 1585 to 1603.
The Safavid centre, struggling to consolidate Abbas’ authority against enemies foreign and domestic, was as much in need of allies as Ismail after Chaldiran and of specie with which to raise armies and fund other initiatives. Thus, a redirection of trade away from the Ottoman-dominated Levant ports through the newly arrived Gulf-based English East India Company (EIC) and Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) portended a cut in Ottoman Customs revenues and a corresponding rise in Safavid economic, if not also politico-military, fortunes. Abbas therefore left few stones unturned in an effort to establish a variety of links – economic, political and cultural – by which to strengthen ties to the West, welcoming merchant delegations, political envoys, travellers and even missionaries. He sent the Englishman Anthony Sherley, who had arrived in Qazvin in 1598 with a request from England for an anti-Ottoman alliance, back to Europe with an Iranian envoy. From 1607 Abbas attempted to divert the silk trade to Portuguese-controlled Goa in India from which silk might be shipped direct to Europe. In an atmosphere of renewed tensions with the Ottomans c. 1615, Abbas sent Sherley back to Europe to explore further possibilities for alliances. Abbas also linked up with English forces to retake Hormuz from the Portuguese in 1622, accepted gifts from the EIC and VOC, and signed treaties with each in 1617 and 1627 respectively.
While the joint military operation to take Hormuz succeeded, the companies’ interest in and trade with Iran, in silk especially, fluctuated in accord with and depended on broader, world-wide trading patterns in goods. The companies, in fact, increasingly hoped to sell enough of their goods locally to finance purchases of Iranian silk, and so company representatives sought full rights to organise their trade inside Iran commensurate with their own requirements. By contrast, the court wanted immediate payment for goods purchased, silk especially, in specie.
The Armenian merchants, newly arrived in Isfahan, gradually reestablished their pre-eminent position in the region’s overland trade to the direct financial benefit of the Safavid court: in 1619 Armenian merchants outbid the EIC to take delivery of the shah’s recently monopolised silk. The Ottomans, despite, and in the midst of, Ottoman-Safavid hostilities, were mindful of the revenues to be made from the transit trade and were consequently increasingly reluctant to hinder movement of goods, including silk, through their territory. The companies gradually realised that the Gulf trade promised little consistent profit and much expense, and directed their interests elsewhere, mainly further East, while for Iran the overland route to the West, organised by the New Julfan Armenians, was consistently more profitable than the Gulf.
The Safavid centre was in fact especially pro-active in its efforts to assist the recently arrived Armenian newcomers to establish themselves in Isfahan, just as it had been for the refugees from Tabriz. Abbas allocated the Armenian community land and seed and a 1604 decree exempted its clerics from a series of taxes. Just as Christian ghulams were permitted to continue their religious practices, so the Safavid court encouraged the Armenians to do the same. Trade clearly being good, the first churches soon appeared; the famous Church of Mary was built by a prominent silk merchant in 1613. A 1614 firman encouraged the building of large churches and by 1618–19 the community boasted ten. A later firman allowed the building of a cathedral and later still royal land was granted the Armenians along the Zayanda Rud.
The centre was not lax, however, in simultaneously seeking out other economic opportunities. The court greatly expanded the range and depth of court-based workshops beyond the production of luxury items to include workshops for other, more mundane, ‘domestic’ activities and ‘state-owned manufactories’, both to maintain an independent source of labour and to make money by selling workshop-produced items locally and abroad at advantageous prices. The centre also moved to tax both imports and exports, to institute royal trading monopolies – including, from 1619, a monopoly on domestic silk – to sell concessions, to force local sales of royally imported and requisitioned, domestically produced goods at prices advantageous to the centre, and to employ royal merchants to handle all such commercial operations undertaken by the court. Such measures had been practised during the reigns of Ismail and Tahmasp but not on the scale now adopted. Concomitant with Safavid pragmatism, in all these operations the centre benefitted from the services of Jews, the newly arrived Armenians of New Julfa, resident Indian merchants, called Banyans, and Muslims.
The centre also moved to address its need for gold and silver. Both were used for brocading and gilding but specie was, as the basis of Iran’s coinage, used also to finance military expeditions and to purchase such key imports as steel, textiles, indigo and sugar. The latter all came from the Indian subcontinent which was, in fact, Iran’s most important trading partner over the period. With no gold and silver mines of its own, Iran depended on the bullion which flowed into the realm, mainly via the overland routes from Russia and especially the Ottoman empire, to finance the purchase of such items as silk. To curb the outflow of specie, in 1593 Abbas initiated currency reform and in 1618, the year before the promulgation of the silk monopoly, he banned the export of specie by both foreign companies and local merchants. The need for specie was at the root of the court’s insistence that the foreign trading companies pay for silk in specie.
Throughout these processes, the centre remained especially attentive also to the economic concerns of key local interests and the populace in general. In Isfahan’s Shah Mosque are inscribed a 1625 firman reducing taxes for rope-makers and a 1628 firman lowering taxes for various named guilds. Firmans dated to 1590 and 1613 in Kashan’s Imadi Mosque attest to several tax reductions in the city. Repeated popular protests led to the repeal of a 1606 tax levied on Yazd’s weavers guild, the weavers being immensely powerful in the country, to maintain the local military garrison. Likewise the centre was also responsive to complaints about the conduct of its officials, even if these were prominent Qizilbash figures, in financial and other matters.
The centre was mindful of the need for good centre-provincial relations, especially in times of crisis, and was aware that local officials along the routes to and at the Gulf ports derived their own incomes based on the autonomy they enjoyed in the trading process, including the right to impose their own tax schemes on the foreign traders. Hence it continued to allow local administrators considerable autonomy and undertook only limited reorganisation of provincial administration. As a result, in addition to those already so classified prior to Abbas’ accession only a few additional provinces, especially silk-producing provinces, were made crown land in this period.
In the previous century key figures from among the realm’s two chief constituencies, Turk and Tajik, had utilised a variety of means – from the acceptance of key administrative posts to the writing of chronicles – to signify their acceptance of the politico-military and spiritual dimensions of the Safavid project. During Abbas’ reign, similar undertakings bespoke similar intentions although, commensurate both with the expansion in the number of core constituencies and growing wealth, the scope and scale of such projects dwarfed those undertaken during the reigns of Abbas’ predecessors.
Isfahan, as this centre’s first and main, if not sole, ‘capital’ was perhaps naturally was the chief focus of this attention, as such declarations there spoke especially loudly. Among court associates, for example, in 1605–6, the Sufrachi, the head of the royal table, built a mosque at the Northwest corner of the imperial palace area; the language employed to describe Abbas in the building’s inscriptions echoed that in the earlier, court-sponsored Lutfallah Maysi and Shah Mosques. In 1609–10, the chief of the imperial heralds (jarchibashi) Malik Ali Sultan, an Isfahani with a nisba suggesting affiliation with the Taji-buyuk tribe, built a mosque in the Southern portion of the Imperial Bazaar which bears a similar inscription. The ghulam Muhibb Ali Bek, who organised the vaqf for the Shah Mosque in 1614, also contributed to that vaqf.
Tajik elements made similar declarations. In 1601–2, a member of Isfahan’s Shahristani sayyid family, itself affiliated with the Safavid house by marriage and members of which had served Ismail and Tahmasp and now Abbas himself, tiled the dome of Isfahan’s Imamzada Darb-i Imam; an accompanying inscription acknowledged the Safavids’ lineage, describing Abbas as ‘the Husaynid, the Musavid’. In 1610, near the older Congregational Mosque on the Maydan-i Harun-i Vilayat, Nur al-Din Muhammad Jabiri Ansari, of the prominent Tajik Isfahani family whose members had served the political establishment since the time of the Aqquyunlu, and who himself had effected repairs to that older Congregational Mosque in 1587–8, built a school with some twenty-two rooms, and constituted the revenues of various villages and shops as vaqf to support the school. As Abbas I himself had done with revenues of the Imperial Bazaar, so Jabiri directed revenues to be spent on the Hijazi and Iraqi shrines. In c. 1623, a member of the Farahani family of sayyids, one of whom had served as vizier of Shirvan during Tahmasp’s reign, built a small mosque. Maqsud Bek, a local artisan who rose to become superintendent of the royal workshops in this period, built a mosque just Northeast of the new maydan in 1601–2; the mihrab inscription was completed by the same Ali Riza Abbasi who would later embellish the Lutfallah Maysi and Shah Mosques. A takiyya stood nearby.
Similar contributions by non-court elements similarly acknowledged authority and, also, suggest growing wealth. In 1609–10 one Mulla Aqa Hawaijdar – the name perhaps suggesting connections with the cloth trade – built a mosque in the Imperial Bazaar to replace a Buyid mosque of the same name and adorned it with familiar inscriptions of loyalty to the Safavid project. One Nur al-Din Muhammad Isfahani commenced construction of the main mosque in the Dardasht area of the city, Northwest of the old maydan, completing it in 1629–30, the first year of the reign of Shah Safi, Abbas’ successor; inscriptions therein attested to fealty to both.