The Reign of Abbas I (1587–1629) III

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The Reign of Abbas I 1587–1629 III

Outside the capital both familiar elements and members of the more recently incorporated constituencies used similar means to demonstrate allegiance to the faith and, thereby, the multi-constitutional nature of the Safavid project as a whole. In Kirman Ganj Ali Khan, the Kurdish military commander and governor of the province from 1596, commenced a mosque, school and sarai complex. In 1590, a prominent Mawsillu figure was buried in the Qazvin shrine. In c. 1612 Allahvirdi Khan, the Armenian convert, general and governor of Fars, sponsored work at Imam Riza’s shrine in Mashhad. At his death in 1613 Allahvirdi Khan, a ghulam, was himself buried in Mashhad, near the shrine of Imam Riza. In Shiraz, Allahvirdi Khan’s son Imam Quli Khan, who succeeded his father as governor of Fars at the latter’s death in 1613 and was himself an accomplished military commander, oversaw the building of the Khan school for the city’s own Mulla Sadra, on whom see further below, in 1615. The school exhibited a style which was reminiscent both of earlier schools and of those in Isfahan and demonstrated the continuing vitality of provincial architectural styles. The projects of Ganj Ali Khan and Allahvirdi Khan in particular point to the successful integration of the ghulam into the political-spiritual discourse of the larger Safavid project, and to the wealth being accumulated at the provincial level.

‘Secular’ buildings also attested to growing wealth and confidence. Thus, the commander of the musketeers and the court jester built large mansions in the capital. Provincial elements also asserted their presence, and allegiance, on the national scene in the same manner. Ganj Ali Khan had a grand mansion on the South bank of the Zayanda River and Imam Quli Khan also built a grand mansion next to the mosque of Lutfallah Maysi in Isfahan. Rustam Khan Qaramanlu, a local governor in the Shirvan region, also built one of Isfahan’s largest mansions, complete with a bathhouse and mosque.

Court elements also actively participated in the realm’s economic projects, thereby both declaring their loyalty to the larger project itself and, doubtless also, enhancing their own economic position in the prevailing healthy economic climate. Beginning in 1597–8 Allahvirdi Khan oversaw construction of a bridge in Isfahan commenced by Abbas I. When completed in 1607 later the still-visible forty-vaulted bridge linked the garden retreat of the Naqsh-i Jahan area and the Abbasabad garden retreat known as Hizar (one thousand) Jarib. Upstream from the latter, the Marnan Bridge connecting the New Julfa area with the Western sectors of the Abbasabad suburb was built by an Armenian merchant at Abbas’ request. When Malik Ali, chief head of the imperial heralds, built his mosque in 1610, he probably also built the nearby sarai which bears his name and housed the city’s Jewish merchants. The ghulam Muhibb Ali Bek, who organised and contributed to, the vaqf for the Shah Mosque in 1614, also built a sarai for the Indian cloth merchants who traded in brocaded cloth, robes and turban cloth with silver and gold thread.

Local merchants also undertook such projects. In Isfahan, for example, Abbas also approached a rich perfume-seller, one Maqsud, and convinced him to build a sarai. The latter obliged, of course, and made over the structure to Abbas himself. The shah, in turn, gave it to his sister. A coffee merchant built an inn for merchants from Natanz who sold raisins, linen and fruit.

Outside the capital, familiar and recently incorporated elements contributed also to the development of both the polity’s economic infrastructure and general security. Zaynab Bekum (d. 1641–2), Abbas’ aunt by a Georgian woman, used her own income from the polltax (jizya) of Yazd’s Zoroastrian community to complete one of the sarais on the road to Mashhad, together with a water tank and pond. The same Muhibb Ali Bek completed this work using income from both crown estates and those of Zaynab Bekum. In Natanz a court minister who was a Husayni sayyid built a fortified rest house (ribat) c. 1619. In Kirman the Kurdish general Ganj Ali Khan built a sarai as part of a mosque and school complex. The wife of the khan of Lar is said to have built a sarai on the road to Gombroon (Bandar Abbas).

The growing production of single-page illustrations over this period further attests to the growing wealth of middle-ranking associates of the central and provincial courts, commercial and merchant elements, and certainly the newly incorporated constituencies, clearly eager to patronise the same artists who enjoyed the favour of the courts’ elites. Where illustrations of young courtly figures had been popular in the previous century, in this period single-page paintings of older men, as darvishes and labourers, for example, were popularised by Riza Abbasi, Sadiqi Bek Afshar, Muhammadi and Siyavush. Indeed, during his period away from the court, between 1603 and 1610, when he frequented the company of wrestlers and engaged in other ‘popular’ pursuits, Riza devoted himself entirely to the such illustrations. After his return to court Riza made direct use of the paintings and drawings of Bihzad and later still his work exhibited aspects both of earlier styles – especially in use of slender, elongated torsos – and new styles – a ‘new’ face with thick eyebrows, round cheeks and full lips. His legacy set the stage for a whole school of later Safavid artists.

Such innovative combinations of the traditional and the new are also found in other areas of material culture. Early in Abbas’ reign the metalworking schools of Khurasan and Western Iran exhibited development of traditional styles within familiar forms of expression, as attested by candlesticks dated 1588–9 and 1598–9; the latter, an early example of enamelling in metalwork, features an image of Layla and Majnun and youths pouring wine. The appearance of a new form of ewer as early as 1602–3, perhaps deriving from an earlier Indian example, attests to a vitality of style and, in this case, a taste for the exotic – not unusual in the increasingly cosmopolitan, and increasingly wealthy setting of both the new capital and the realm itself.

Similarly, domestic demand for ceramics, produced throughout the realm and both beholden to Chinese styles and exhibiting awareness of such other forms of expression as painting, grew so fast in this period that Abbas settled some 300 Chinese potters in Iran to boost domestic production. The growth in demand for such pottery products as hookah bases and ceramic water pipes was certainly boosted by the introduction of tobacco in the 1610s, as attested by the appearance of both items in a 1630 painting of Riza Abbasi. Iranian potters’ output was of such quality that the VOC mixed the best Kirmani ceramics with Chinese items for export to Europe. Similarly, early in the period carpet production in Kashan, Kirman and Herat continued apace but utilised designs similar to those of the previous century. The growth of Isfahan and the need for carpets to cover the floors of the capital’s growing number of mosques and schools encouraged production of carpets using more silk and gold than had been seen before, another sign of growing wealth which also increased domestic demand for specie. The finest examples of these ‘Polonaise’ carpets, of silk warps and wefts, were produced both for domestic elites and also for export.

Like court chronicles composed during the previous century, so the chronicles of Abbas’s reign also demonstrated the loyalty of their authors and, implicitly in turn, the constituencies of which they were members, to the Safavid project. Where, however, the sixteenth century’s chronicles recalled Turko-Mongol claims to universal rule and rooted that present in the events of prehistory, the historians of Abbas’ reign, reflecting a growing sense of self-assurance, generally reached back only to the distinctly Safavid past and such earlier Safavid chronicles as Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar, whose roots lay in Rawzat al-Safa of his grandfather Mir Khvand, to project, to highlight and thereby to legitimate Abbas’ position as the latest head of the family.

Within this common framework the historians of the period nevertheless pursued distinctly individual agendas. Qadi Ahmad Qummi (d. after 1606), the Tajik Husayni sayyid who completed his Khulasat al-Tavarikh in 1590–1, began his history with the life and times of Shaykh Safi al-Din whose line he traced back to the seventh of the twelve imams, Imam Musa, thus demonstrating Tajik sayyids’ continuing acceptance of the Safavids as one of their own. In his Tarikh-i Abbasi, completed c. 1611–12, the court astrologer Jalal al-Din Yazdi offered an accounting of astrological bases underpinning the reign of Abbas before offering a detailed genealogy of Abbas’ forebears which also included Imam Musa. The court scribe Iskandar Bek Munshi (d. 1633) began his Tarikh-i Alam Ara-yi Abbasi, volume one of which dates to 1616 and which was completed in 1629, with an account of the life of the Prophet and the Imams.

These chroniclers’ embellishment of certain aspects of the Safavid past furthered its legitimacy in the present. Both Qadi Ahmad and Munshi emphasised associations between the Safavid house and Timur, the former with Shaykh Safi al-Din’s son Sadr al-Din Musa (d. 1391), and the latter with Musa’s son Khvaja Ali (d. 1427). Qadi Ahmad retained the version of the distinctly Twelver Shi‘i preparations for the funeral of Shaykh Zahid, Safi al-Din’s mentor and spiritual guide, found in Amir Mahmud’s 1550 Zayl-i Habib al-siyar, bespeaking Tajik sayyid acceptance of the longevity of Safavid claims to association with the faith. In his Afzal al-Tavarikh, a three-volume history of the Safavids to the death of Abbas I begun in 1616–17, and the second volume of which was being revised in India in 1639, a decade after Abbas’ death Fazli Khuzani, whose forbears had served the Safavid court, embellished accounts of Ismail I’s early years to emphasise the Sufi and Qizilbash dimensions to his career.

Varying accounts of Abbas’ victory over Yaqub Khan Dhul-Qadr and his 1590 execution, arguably marking the end of the second civil war, further highlight the preoccupations of the centre and its historians in this period. With his Timurid sympathies Qadi Ahmad notes Yaqub Khan built a fort with the stones from a Timurid-period religious school and orphanage which he ordered destroyed. In his 1598 Nuqavat al-Asar fi zikr al-akhyar, Mahmud Afushta Natanzi (b. 1531–2), of whom little is known, portrayed Yaqub Khan as an oppressor of tribes and commoners who failed to acknowledge Abbas’ authority. Yazdi highlighted Yaqub Khan’s destruction of the Timurid school but also the plundering of other schools, domes, arches and other buildings to build a castle and garden for himself, his killing of a cleric and plundering of Yazd. Munshi, the court secretary, focused on Yaqub’s refusal of various summons to court and his claim to the province of Fars as his own. Yaqub Khan emerges as the antithesis of key traditions of leadership – Sufi, Shi‘i, Qizilbash/tribal and Tajik/administrative – with which the polity’s various components were identified, and he thus comes to personify all the realm’s enemies and all the challenges which Abbas, and the larger project which he embodied, faced over his reign.

The physical expansion of Isfahan, if not of other cities as well, and especially the growth of urban ‘popular’ classes over the period, encouraged the expansion of links between urban artisans and craftsmen and urban-based messianic Sufi discourse already visible early in Abbas’ reign with the urban appeal of the Nuqtavi and Darvish Khusraw. The growing presence of these elements, and these connections, are well attested. The painter Riza Abbasi, during his 1603–10 self-imposed removal from court, consorted with the urban ‘lower orders’; many of his works from this period are replete with images of older men as the darvishes and labourers he saw in the city. Mir Damad’s student Mir Findiriski (d. 1640), a philosopher, poet and teacher of both mathematics and medicine, also spent much time among these elements. In his 1617–18 Kasr Asnam, Sadr al-Din Muhammad Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra (d. 1640), a Shirazi aristocrat and student of both Mir Damad and Shaykh Bahai, lamented the fact that artisans and craftsmen were abandoning their professions to associate themselves with popular Sufi movements. An anonymous essay written between 1626 and 1629 attacking the messianic veneration of Abu Muslim points to the reappearance on the urban scene of this tradition, of which the centre had been wary since early in the previous century.

Such sightings, as in the previous century, occurred especially at times when messianic fervour was abroad elsewhere in the realm. Indeed, c. 1614–16, coinciding with the apparent involvement of the shah’s eldest son Muhammad Baqir in a plot which resulted in the prince’s murder by a ghulam who was later freed for his act of loyalty, another group of Lahijani Sufis were executed, condemned as ‘not being Sufis’, i.e. for disloyalty to the person of the ruling shah/pir. In 1619–20, coincident with the appearance of a ‘pestilence’ which struck down large numbers of courtiers and commoners and which was attributed to the appearance of a comet the year before and which rendered Abbas himself extremely ill, a rising incited by Gilani sayyids, one of whom proclaimed himself the deputy of the Hidden Imam, attracted a wide following.

Concerned with the oppositional discourse on offer in some of the capital’s coffee houses, patronised as they were by artists, poets, musicians, storytellers and Sufis, Abbas delegated clerical associates of the court to monitor the activities of these venues and to preach sermons or lead prayers along more acceptable lines. The appearance of many Persian-language religious primers on various, basic aspects of Twelver doctrine and practice written by clerical associates of the court, including Shaykh Bahai, Mir Damad and such of their students and associates as Muhammad Taqi Majlisi (d. 1659), represented efforts by the centre and its clerical associates to influence ‘popular’ spiritual discourse in the period, if not to insure its ‘orthodoxy’.

Although Mir Damad and Bahai served the court, in their scholarly writings both were active in their pursuit of philosophical inquiry and, particularly, its reconciliation with Twelver Shi‘ism. The former built on the illuminationist interpretations of Suhravardi (d. 1191) and Davani to transform the metaphysics of Ibn Sina (d. 1037) from a purely rational, abstract system of thought into a spiritual reality within a distinctly Twelver Shi‘i framework. Mulla Sadra was active in the reconciliation of philosophy with gnosis (irfan), based on many of the basic principles of gnosis as formulated by Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240) and other prominent Muslim thinkers from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, but firmly grounded his reconciliation of these two traditions in the revelation of Twelver Shi‘ism.

These same clerics also actively supported expanding the role of the senior clerics trained in the rationalist religious sciences, the mujtahid or faqih, in both the formulation of doctrine and practice and the clerics’ assumption of many of the Imam’s practical responsibilities of daily import to the life of the community during the Imam’s absence, thus building on the principle of ‘general deputyship’ enunciated by Mir Damad’s forbear Ali Karaki. Bahai argued for greater clerical control over the collection and distribution of both zakat and khums during the occultation. Mir Damad argued the faqih was permitted to lead the Friday congregational prayer service while the Imam was absent.

To be sure, the audience for these clerics’ Arabic-language philosophical, theological and jurisprudential writings, and their disputations, was likely restricted to the clergy itself. However, the combination of recourse to rationalist philosophical thought and these clerics’ consequent and exclusive claim to exercise many of the Imam’s rights and prerogatives aroused lower-ranking, less well-connected clerics. The latter objected, in particular, first, to the claim to exercise authority over issues of doctrine and, especially, over affairs of daily, very public, import to the life of the community during the Imam’s continued absence and second, to the court backing which these clerics, and their claims, enjoyed. The former’s overt and wide-ranging interest in seemingly obscurantist philosophical inquiry, together with the tendencies of some to frequent the popular quarters, allowed their critics to challenge their authority by equating this sort of inquiry with the doctrines and practices of ‘popular’ Sufism itself. The strident denunciations of Shaykh Bahai’s alleged Sufi tendencies, apparently visible in the supposed mystical dimensions of his poetry and the darvish dress he is said to have worn, as well as his preferences for an expanded role for the clergy, eventually forced him to resign as Isfahan’s Shaykh al-Islam. Mulla Sadra was also denounced for his ‘popular’ Sufi tendencies and, despite repeated efforts to distance himself therefrom, finally abandoned the capital for a prolonged residence in Kahak, near Qum. Taqi Majlisi who, like Mir Damad and his own teacher Shaykh Bahai, was descended from Arab émigrés and was interested in philosophical discourse, was himself publicly linked to the Abu Muslim revival.

Debates over the extent of clerical authority during the Imam’s absence continued as they had during the reigns of Ismail and Tahmasp and, indeed, since early in the faith’s history. Muhammad Amin Astara-badi (d. 1640) criticised earlier Shi‘i scholarship, and such Safavid-period clerics as Ali Karaki, Shaykh Zayn al-Din and Bahai – Bahai’s father having been a student of the Shaykh – for failing to ground their theological and jurisprudential analyses in the revealed texts of the faith, particularly the hadiths, or akhbar, of the Imams; hence the name Akhbari, for the ‘school’ of thought with which Astarabadi came to be identified. Related arguments surfaced questioning the textual basis for the mujtahid’s assumption of the Imam’s responsibilities for issuing legal rulings, collecting and distributing believers’ alms and leading of Friday prayer as the Imam’s deputy (naib) during his absence. The court’s clerical associates, including moderates of opposing persuasions, favoured the prayer. However, in that the prayer would have mentioned the shah’s name and thereby legitimised his rule, its permissibility during the Imam’s absence was as much a touchstone in the continuing debate over clerical authority and the clergy’s association with, and its legitimisation of, the centre in this period as it had been in the previous century.

The great political-military, economic and cultural achievements with which Abbas’ reign has been so often, and so often solely, identified – from the rise of the ghulam to the architectural embellishment of Isfahan, the flowering of philosophical inquiry, the legacy of the arts and even the rise of the Armenian community in Isfahan – as well as those achievements, such as the expansion of the Qizilbash, which have received less attention to date – were part and parcel of, and followed directly from, the questioning of the authority and legitimacy of Abbas and the Safavid project as a whole on all these levels.

The vast scale and multi-layered nature of these achievements over Abbas’ reign followed from, and attests to, the range and perceived scale of these challenges.

The composition of Abbas’ ‘cabinet’ at his death in particular reflects the success of the incorporation into the Safavid project, over the more than four decades since his 1587 accession, of new constituencies into the larger project without dislodging established ones and the importance of close family ties particular. In 1629, of the top thirteen members of the cabinet by office, five were Tajiks (including the vizier and the sadr, both of whom were sayyids), five were ghulams and three had tribal connections (including a Shamlu vakil and the Shaykhavand qurchibashi). The ghulam, as soldiers and administrators, straddled the roles of both the traditional constituencies; eight of the fourteen key provincial governorships and about a quarter of the realm’s amirs were ghulams at Abbas’ death.

Nevertheless, tribal elements still dominated the polity’s political and military spheres, as represented by the gradually expanded Qizilbash confederation, with the Shamlu, especially, and Dhul-Qadr apparently replacing the Ustajlu as the pre-eminent tribes therein by Abbas’ death: the balance of the realm’s governorships were held by tribal elements who also constituted three-quarters of the total number of the realm’s amirs. Tajiks continued to play a key role outside the administrative sphere as well, and alliances with Northern notables were more firmly established in this period.

In addition to the ghulam as a new constituency, Twelver clerics, from home and abroad, now also appeared at the centre in numbers sufficient to constitute a distinct, loyal, interest group, their loyalty and integration into Iranian society further encouraged by key marriages and appointments. Armenians, and especially the great long-distance trading elements, also now figured as a constituency important to the life of the realm, that importance further attested by the centre’s efforts to smooth their settlement in Isfahan and the freedom of religious expression accorded them there. In response, the Armenians, and Jews, returned loyalty (and financial support) to the shah and the project itself. Even the foreign trading companies, official and unofficial political delegations, missionaries and other foreign travellers may be said to have constituted further constituencies of potential political and economic allies clustered about, if further away from, the court.

One by one these elements openly professed their loyalty to the larger Safavid project as headed by the shah, and together they participated in the demarcation of a politically stable, physically larger and economically more vibrant polity whose makeup was significantly more complex than it had been when Ismail I entered Tabriz over a century before.

That the vizier, sadr and qurchibashi were related to the house via connections to Abbas himself, demonstrates the perceived importance in this turbulent period of the loyalty of those related by blood ties. Their loyalty was seen as increasingly indispensable to the good fortunes of the polity and to the manner in which the family, as a constituent of and like the centre itself, continued to expand in Abbas’ reign. This expansion, as before, was to secure the project’s fortunes by linking the realm’s constituencies both to itself and, thereby, to each other. In the midst of turmoil personal loyalty was the key to promotion to and longevity in these offices. Although both the latter might also turn on competence and popularity, loyalty to the person of the shah bespoke loyalty to the larger polity itself and, it followed, to the multi-constitutional project which underlay it.

Could the configuration of both familiar and newer constituencies, all of whose traditions and discourses were recognised and encouraged over the period and which underpinned Abbas’ rule, outlast the single figure around whom it had coalesced where, earlier in the dynasty’s history, less complex configurations had failed to do so?

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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