The Great Game in the Persian Gulf I

In the nineteenth century, the relative decline of the Persian Safavid Empire compared with the ascendancy of the West, the eclipse of Central Asian trade by maritime commerce, and the existence of small neighboring powers presented British strategists with a dilemma: how to protect Britain’s largest and most valuable possession, India, against landward threats when its primary arm for defense was the Royal Navy. It was relatively easy to secure maritime trade at sea and to deter attacks on its colonies with a large fleet, but there were greater challenges to Britain’s efforts to eradicate slavery and piracy in the Persian Gulf, to act in support of amphibious expeditionary warfare against Persia, or to deter the great powers from applying pressure on the British Empire, because there was always the risk that Britain could be drawn into costly occupations or unnecessary conflicts, or forced to fight in the interior of Asia where its naval power could not be brought to bear.

Britain’s preference was to project influence by other means—through diplomacy, consulates, financial services, infrastructural communications (railways, roads, and telegraph), and commercial concessions. However, specific crises sometimes forced Britain to demonstrate its power to Persia and Arab states, and to rival great powers like France, Russia, and Germany. There were amphibious operations against Persia in 1856–57, and there was a show of force in the Persian Gulf in 1903. In short, the methods of maintaining British interests were furthered by four approaches. First was diplomacy, using a system of residencies and consulates with allies amongst the local elites, supported by an intelligence network. This was augmented by agreements or the settlement of differences with other European powers and, in the case of Persia, with a specific Anglo-Russian convention. Second, there were spheres of influence, often through building relationships with local elites, financial services, building infrastructure, and military training teams. The contest for local support and the intrigue of the chief rival, Russia, was subsequently referred to as “The Great Game.” Third, buffer states were also required and Persia became the outwork in the landward defenses of India. The Ottoman Empire also served this function throughout the nineteenth century, acting as a bulwark to Russian annexations. Local rulers, including the shah of Persia and the amir of Afghanistan, were granted direct financial reward or military aid. Fourth, periodic military and naval interventions were used, such as the operations against piracy in the Gulf and against Persia in the mid-nineteenth century, and these became, in the twentieth century, periods of military occupation (as in post-1914 Iraq, and the Gulf states).

All these were cemented by the notion of prestige, which was important in diplomacy but also acted as a means of deterrence. It was an idea that had to be reinforced constantly: Britain had to assert its power and demonstrate that it was both capable and willing to exercise force. In the second half of the nineteenth century, British policy toward Persia had sometimes lacked consistency as strategic considerations in Europe and India came first. However, despite growing pressure from Russian intrigue and commercial rivalry, by the beginning of the twentieth century Britain had reasserted its exclusive control of the Persian Gulf, ringed the region with compliant or allied states, and rationalized its relationship with Persia.

“The Great Game”: Persia and the Russian Threat in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The Russian threat to British India was the driving force behind the competitive intrigues known as the “Great Game” or the “Tournament of Shadows,” but even though an actual invasion of India was favored by only a handful of Russian officers and political figures in the Asiatic section of the Russian foreign ministry, both sides played the game earnestly enough. As far as many British statesmen and soldiers were concerned, each of the states on the periphery of India had to be considered part of the defense scheme—and that included Persia and Afghanistan. Today, it is generally thought that Russia was carrying out maskirovka: applying pressure in one strategic location to effect change elsewhere. The Russian newspaper Golos summed it up at the time: “The Indian Question is a simple one: Russia does not think of conquering India, but reserves to herself the power of restraining outbreaks of Russophobism among British statesmen, by possible diversions on the side of India.” In particular Russian sensitivities about the Black Sea and the Straits of Constantinople, worsened by their experiences in the Crimean War (1854–56), meant they needed to challenge the British somewhere, and the absence of a comparable fleet meant that they had to take advantage of a continental front: Persia, Afghanistan, and the Indian border provided that opportunity.

For the British, two locations stood out as particularly important—Persia’s northern Khorasan province and Herat, the westernmost city of Afghanistan. Herat had once been part of the Persian Empire, and in 1836 the shah tried to reassert his control of the city by force. To British alarm, Russian troops accompanied his army. When a Persian attempt was made to storm the city in June 1837, the British broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran. George Eden, the Earl of Auckland and the British governor general in India (1836–42), then ordered two steamers with troops to land at Karrack (Kharg) Island in the headwaters of the Gulf, which the Persians interpreted as a full-scale invasion. Consequently, an ultimatum delivered by Britain was accepted and the siege of Herat was abandoned. Nevertheless, the British were so concerned by this Russian-inspired intrigue, they moved to invade Afghanistan, precipitating the First Afghan War (1838–42).

The historian Garry Alder believed that the British obsession with Herat as the “Key to India” was wholly misguided. British officers at Tehran had argued that if Herat fell to a hostile Persia, Russia, its “ally,” would have secured for itself a base within Afghanistan from which to harass the Indian border. Dost Mohammed, the Afghan ruler in Kabul, remarked: “If the Persians once take Herat, all is open to them as far as Balkh, and neither Kandahar nor Kabul is secure.” The city was variously styled the “Gate of India” and the “Garden and Granary of Central Asia,” and even those who did not think it was likely to open up Afghanistan to occupation believed it would provide a means for Russia to dominate Persia. The debate about the city’s value continued throughout the nineteenth century, but one viceroy of India, Lord Charles Canning, reflecting on the fact that any Russian attack would have to cross five hundred miles of barren terrain inhabited by hostile Afghans, mused: “If Herat be the key to India, that is, if a power once in possession of it can command an entrance into India, our tenure of this great empire is indeed a feeble one.” He summed up the solution to the problem succinctly: “The country of Afghanistan rather than the fort of Herat is our first defense.”

Nevertheless, those who saw Herat as the vulnerable bastion on India’s glacis regarded every Russian advance across Central Asia and every annexation that followed as evidence of the growing magnitude of the czarist threat. The contemporary British liberal press took a more charitable view, and suggested that the destruction of the uncivilized khanates and the steady advance of Christian Russia would, eventually, ensure greater stability. However, the historian Edward Ingram has argued that Edward Law, the first Earl of Ellenborough and the governor general of India (1842–44) who advocated a proactive policy in Persia and Afghanistan, showed “the truer perception of the needs of a continental state,” which Britain now was through its possession of India. Ellenborough was especially worried about the complacency of the government in London as it was far removed from the concerns of Central Asia and the Indian frontier. The British government believed that naval power was sufficient to protect its imperial possessions, since, apart from India and Canada, the British Empire was still no more than an assemblage of littorals and had at its disposal a vast fleet. However, there was growing concern in many quarters about Russia’s grasping policy and her broader ambitions with regard to Asia. Ellenborough felt that, although Russia was still too distant to be an immediate threat, it was vital to seize advantages while there was still time.

The problem of the instability in buffer states was highlighted by a new period of unrest in Persia that flared up after the death of the shah in 1848. The new shah, Nasr-ud-din, took two years to crush the revolt in Mashhad and had to contend with three revolts by the movement known as the Babis. In 1852, the Babis came close to success in their attempt to assassinate the shah, and the regime reacted with savage reprisals. As predicted, the instability offered an opportunity for Russia to extend its influence in Tehran still further. It was against this background that the Herati ruler, Sa’id Mohammad, permitted Persian troops to enter Herat to crush discontent there. Fearing Russia was behind the move, the British protested to the shah. As a result a convention was negotiated in January 1853 where Persia agreed not to send troops into Herat unless it was invaded by a foreign enemy, clearly intending this to mean Russia. No permanent occupation was to be tolerated, and Persia was not to intrigue within the city. For its part, Britain pledged to keep foreign interests out. The convention was never ratified by the British government, largely because the British had clearly set out their wishes by the diplomatic exercise and the Persians were under no illusion about these intentions.

Yet within two years, Britain and Russia were at war in the Baltic and Crimea, and Herat would once again take on a new significance. At the outbreak of the conflict, Britain had insisted the shah remain neutral. However, soon after, the British Foreign Office representative took offence at an alleged slight at the Persian court and withdrew his negotiating party. This actually deprived Britain of a presence at a crucial moment in the diplomatic contest. In the absence of firsthand information, rumors grew that the shah would conclude a treaty with the Russians in order to regain lost possessions in the Caucasus, or perhaps elsewhere. As a precaution, Britain dispatched a warship to the Persian Gulf to send a clear warning. However, it was not the Caucasus that was the target of the shah’s ambitions, it was Herat, and plans to take the city were already well advanced. In Herat itself in September 1855 events played into the shah’s hands. Mohammad Yousaf, a member of the former Afghan royal family, led a revolt, killed the governor, and seized power. Meanwhile, Dost Mohammad of Kabul had launched an attack of his own on Kandahar as a first step in consolidating his rule in Afghanistan, and was thus in no position to resist any Persian attack.

The shah intended to exploit this unrest in Afghanistan, and immediately advanced on Herat. The city fell to the Persians on 25 October 1856. In London there was considerable anxiety that the Russians would open a consulate in Herat prior to the development of espionage aimed at the subversion of Afghanistan, Persia, and perhaps India. The idea of sending a British-Indian column across Afghanistan was rejected because of the recent memory of the difficulties of the First Afghan War and the possibility that this would simply offer an opportunity for the Russians to fight on Persia’s behalf. Instead, the British would make use of their naval strength and make an amphibious expedition to Bushire in the Persian Gulf. When their ultimatum to Tehran was rejected, the British declared war on 1 November 1856.

The Anglo-Persian War of 1856–1857

This short war was an amphibious operation with limited objectives. The Royal Navy first took Karrack Island as a forward operating base and a landing was made in Hallila Bay, twelve miles south of Bushire, on 7 December 1856. It took two days to assemble all the troops, horses, guns, and stores, but from then on rapid progress was made and the land force, led by Major General Foster Stalker, reached the old Dutch fort at Reshire soon after. There, the Persians were entrenched but this provided scant protection from British naval guns. Stalker’s force stormed the fort and local Dashti and Tungastani tribal irregulars were quickly overwhelmed.

At Bushire two hours of naval bombardment compelled the Persians to capitulate. The captured town was placed under martial law. The British declared that the traffic in slaves was to cease immediately, and all black captive men, women, and children were released. Coal stocks were brought in, while grain and cattle were procured from the region. However, while possession of the port was relatively easy, penetration of the interior would be more difficult. Moreover, the shah felt that the loss of Bushire, on the very periphery of his empire, was a manageable problem. Diverting forces from the south and central regions, he began to concentrate an army that could eject the British expeditionary force.

British reinforcements arrived at Bushire on 27 January 1857 under General Sir James Outram. He quickly organized his force into two divisions, one led by General Stalker, the other by Sir Henry Havelock, a veteran of the Afghan and Sikh Wars. He also sent a reconnaissance to Mohammerah where reports had been received that the Persians were fortifying themselves. However, his scouts discovered a large Persian army assembling at Burazjoon, forty-six miles inland from Bushire. To seize the initiative, Outram decided to take the war to the enemy, and make a bold offensive thrust against the Burazjoon force. Taking the Persians by surprise, the British destroyed stores and ammunition that had been concentrated there, and when the Persian general, Shujah ul-Mulk, tried to harass the British withdrawal at the village of Khoos-ab, the Persians were overmatched by the firepower and determination of the British force. The Persian formation collapsed leaving seven hundred dead, while the British had lost sixteen men. Outram’s army slogged back through deteriorating weather to Bushire, completing the battle and a march of forty-four miles in just fifty hours.

The Persians were not yet ready to seek terms. At Mohammerah, they had constructed strong field fortifications. Earth had been packed into walls some twenty feet high and eighteen feet deep, upon which were mounted artillery. The arcs of these guns were designed to cover not just the landward approaches but also the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab. The garrison, 13,000 strong with thirty guns, was commanded by Prince Khauler Mirza, and he was confident of being able to check the British. Outram decided on an amphibious attack. He packed 4,886 men into steamers and transports with fighting sloops in a fire-support role, and after a three-hour bombardment, the Persian bastions had been silenced. Landings were made and the infantry began systematically working through date groves, but the Persians retreated in disorder, leaving seventeen guns and most of their camp equipment behind. Outram kept up the pressure, sending a flotilla of three steamers, each with one hundred infantrymen on board, upriver in pursuit. Near Ahwaz, they encountered about seven thousand Persian troops, but Captain James Rennie, the British naval commander, decided to put his three hundred men ashore, deploying them to give the impression they were far more numerous. His ships’ guns were ranged against the Persian position and, as his small land force advanced toward Ahwaz, the Persian formation broke up, bringing all resistance to an end.

Peace was restored by the Treaty of Paris on 4 March 1857 and Persia agreed to withdraw all its forces and its territorial claims from Afghanistan. Britain got effective control of Persian foreign policy and agreed to withdraw its occupying troops. From the British perspective, the short campaign had been a great success. For a small cost, the British had used their naval guns to project their power against a littoral state, made amphibious landings, and destroyed the resistance of far greater numbers of entrenched forces. Perhaps more importantly, it persuaded the Persians that Britain’s wishes had to be taken seriously. Russia, it seemed, had been defeated by Britain in the Crimea, and Persia too had suffered reverses. With its prestige enhanced, Britain had no difficulty in persuading the Persians to accept a telegraph line across the country in 1862, linking India and London. In 1873, the British invited the shah to visit England, and there can be little doubt that this too was an attempt to remind him of British power. However, the shah maintained links with Russia to counterbalance British influence, while being careful not to make an alignment obvious either way. For their part, the British established a listening post at their consulate in Mashhad in 1874 to collect intelligence on Russian movements in Central Asia.

Persia in British Policy, 1877–1907

In the 1870s, Russia appeared to be advancing everywhere. It had taken territory from China in East Asia, seized khanates in Central Asia, captured the great Uzbek city of Khiva in 1873, and on 19 May 1877 a Russian force seized the village of Kizil Arvat on the Persian border, in modern day Turkmenistan. British concerns were highlighted when Ronald Thomson, the British chargé d’affaires in Tehran, obtained a report that detailed Russian plans for Persia and Afghanistan. The document was drawn up by Dmitri Miliutin, the Russian war minister, and it began with a condemnation of Britain, the “Despot of the Seas,” and called for an “advance towards the enemy” that would show “the patience of Russia is exhausted,” and “that she is ready to retaliate and to stretch her hand towards India.”

In July 1877, as the Russians fought the Ottomans in the Balkans, the British cabinet decided that any Russian attack on Constantinople would constitute a casus belli. When the Russians broke through and reached the outskirts of the city, the Royal Navy moved to within striking distance. As anticipated, the Russians prepared for war in the Southwest Asian theater. Miliutin aimed to keep Persia neutral, in case the British retaliated and contemplated an attack through Persia into the Caucasus, but he ordered that the Russian army should prepare a force of 20,000 men to move to the Afghan border. British intelligence sources suggested that the Russians were about to seize the Akhal Oasis on the Persian border, perhaps prior to a move on Herat. Eager to augment their salaries, Persian officials were actually preparing to support with supplies a Russian advance through Trans-Caspia, the region to the east of the Caspian Sea that approximately coincides with present-day Turkmenistan. Thomson urged the Persian government to stop the Russians, and, despite some protests, they agreed to lodge a complaint. Britain’s willingness to fight and Russia’s diplomatic isolation in Europe persuaded St. Petersburg not to make further advances in either the Balkans or Central Asia. However, the viceroy of India, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, was anxious about the vulnerability of Afghanistan and launched the Second Afghan War (1878–81) to control the buffer zone more firmly.

This British military action was noted in Tehran. In early 1879, the shah requested an alliance in return for British military support against Russia, but, eager to avoid long-term commitments, Britain refused, instead demanding that as a “friendly power” Persia should not offer any assistance to the czar’s forces or help them to annex territory en route to the Afghan border. The Persians, disappointed that the British would not commit themselves to defend Tehran as they had Constantinople, took the view that cooperation with Russia was still the only guarantee of survival. The British cabinet considered that, in the interests of India’s security, Herat might, in fact, be given to Persia. When this proposal was made to the shah, he was also informed that Britain would insist on closer military and commercial ties after all, but they would also demand that the Persians assert their historic claims to the Central Asian city of Merv against the Russians, who seemed poised to annex it. However, just at the moment when the shah approved, a Liberal government came to power in Britain and withdrew the alliance proposal.

This hasty change of British policy had been the result of a lack of useful intelligence on Russia and its true intentions toward India, Afghanistan, and Persia. The need for a screen of agents or consuls across Persia and Afghanistan to assess actual Russian capabilities was obvious. General Sir Archibald Alison, the quartermaster general of the Intelligence Division in London, noted: “Early and reliable information with regard to Russian or other military movements near the Northern Border of Persia therefore appears to be the most important, and this information can only be satisfactorily obtained on the spot.” He argued that the monitoring of Russian troop movements was the surest way to gauge Russian plans in Central Asia. The Intelligence Division recommended a permanent consulate at Astarabad, near the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, as well as the one at Mashhad: “If we were kept accurately informed about the state of affairs in those regions the government would be at once able to dispel the discreditable state of alarm into which this country is periodically thrown. . . . If knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness, and this weakness we constantly show by the undignified fear displayed at every report or threat of Russian movements.” The Liberal government at home was unmoved and informed the government of India that, in their view, the movements of Russia in Central Asia simply did not merit anxiety about an invasion of India.

The Great Game in the Persian Gulf II

The fear of czarist advances toward India and Persia was soon revived. In January 1881 the last stronghold of the Central Asian Turcomen was annexed by Russia. By 1885 agents working for the British, operating out of Mashhad, were able to report that the Russians had augmented their strength in Turkestan (today’s Central Asia) to a total of 50,000 men and 145 guns. An intelligence assessment showed that a Russian attack on Herat with this strength would successfully tie up the entire Indian army, leaving only the Royal Navy and about 36,000 troops in the United Kingdom as a counteroffensive force. As a solution to the dilemma, Captain James Wolfe Murray, an intelligence officer, examined the possibilities of a British attack through the Caucasus via Persia or Turkey to save India. An offensive here, providing Turkish or Persian cooperation could be secured, would sever the Russian lines of communication to Trans-Caspia and force the czar’s troops to make the far more difficult journey from Orenburg to Turkestan. However, he concluded that secrecy was almost impossible to maintain in the region. This would mean “it would be almost useless to undertake the operations without having a force most fully equipped for an immediate advance upon landing [in the Persian Gulf].” To achieve surprise, he considered the transmission of false telegraph messages that might tie up Russian forces for some time. Others felt there ought to be a permanent British presence in Persia with a more extensive espionage screen of local agents.

The British consulate at Mashhad was clearly designed to resist Russian covert operations and diplomatic intrigue in the Persian province of Khorasan. Although the first efforts exposed the inexperience of the personnel, the aim was to deny the growth of Russian influence, to counter Russian propaganda, and, if necessary, to spread disinformation in northern Persia. The consulate had a responsibility for a long frontier some five hundred miles in length, but Mashhad was selected because it lay close to the Russian lines of communication between Krasnovodsk and the rest of Trans-Caspia.

Throughout the 1880s there were frequent border incidents that kept the intelligence agents on the frontiers busy and the politicians in the capitals anxious for news. The British Foreign Office believed that building railways might offer the chance for Persia to develop and be less susceptible to the commercial temptations or political pressure offered by Russia. A railway link down to the Persian Gulf would, it was reasoned, tie Persia more closely to the maritime trade of Britain and India. The head of the Intelligence Branch at Simla, the summer capital of British India, Colonel Mark Sever Bell, concurred enthusiastically with this assessment. He went to visit Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the minister at Tehran, and suggested that a line might link Quetta, the forward base of the Indian army, with Seistan in Persia. Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, was nevertheless lukewarm, and after further inquiries the Foreign Office realized that the volume of Russian trade and the development of Russian roads and railways in Persia had been exaggerated, and that the costs for the British would not merit the project. The Intelligence Division in London believed that any British-backed railway in Persia would provoke the Russians into actually building a rival line toward northern Afghanistan. But Drummond Wolff continued to take the view that the Russian railway project was inevitable. Moreover, when built, he argued, it would raise the prestige of Russia in the eyes of the Persians. Only the construction of a British railway, partly funded by Baron Reuters, offered the opportunity of a strategic balance of power.

The December 1888 edition of the Indian Intelligence Branch report noted that Russian agents were “active in Persia.” Major General Sir Henry Brackenbury, the director of Military Intelligence in London, thought this alarmist, but the Russians were indeed pressing the shah for an answer on their railway schemes and Wolff was anxious that Britain was losing its influence over northern Persia, perhaps even the whole country. The Intelligence Division, in fact, believed Persia was already a lost cause. Brackenbury didn’t think “the advance of a single line of railway to a remote corner of Persia would make our influence in that country equal to that of Russia,” which virtually “controlled” Persia anyway. Britain fell back on the idea of developing Baluchistan as a base of operations while winning over the local tribesmen there. Salisbury urged Wolff to block the Russian railway schemes and ensure that any concessions to the Russians in the north were balanced by concessions to the British south of Tehran. In the end, Evgenii Karlovich Butzow, a new Russian minister to Persia, concluded an agreement with the Persians and the British to ban all railway development for ten years, much to everyone’s relief. Sir Edward Morier, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, revealed that the Russians had been just as fearful of a British railway into the heart of Persia, and concluded, with some feeling: “We are quit of the question.”

The continued decay of Persian central authority fuelled the rivalry between British and Russian officials. When, in 1898, Tehran decided to sell off customs revenue to raise capital for the near-bankrupt Persian government, it provided an opening for foreign interference. Joseph Rabino, the manager of the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia, pointed out that a proposed road from the Persian Gulf to Tehran had been abandoned as the £80,000 allocated from British sources had been insufficient. By contrast, Russia had spent £250,000 on a road from the Caspian Sea town of Resht to Tehran. General Vladimir Kosogovsky, commander of the Russian-officered Persian Cossack Brigade, claimed that the British were “predatory” when it came to obtaining concessions from the shah, while his own side was “inactive.” However, the Commercial Bank of St. Petersburg was eager to loan money to Persia in return for control of all Persia’s customs revenues to manage debt repayments. This would mean, in effect, the whole country, including southern Persia, would fall under Russian influence. Henry Mortimer Durand, the British foreign minister of the government of India, tried to block it, and suggested a joint Anglo-Russian loan. The Russians rejected the idea and continued to penetrate Persia commercially: mine concessions were obtained, and port taxes at Enzeli on the Caspian were payable to the Russian government.

There was considerable resentment in Persia of British commercial power and the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf In 1888, the Karun River, a tributary to the Shatt al-Arab, was opened to international navigation, largely to Britain’s advantage, and in 1891 a tobacco concession was granted to a British company. However, the latter events proved to be the trigger for nationalistic anti-British rioting. In this environment, and promoting their loan offers aggressively, the Russians put forward monopolistic terms that included the total exclusion of the British in any national fiscal arrangements. The Iranian historian Firuz Kazemzadeh noted that the British saw loans in a commercial sense (asking themselves whether the Persians could repay any amount), but the Russians subordinated economic interests to political ones: they simply intended to gain a monopoly of influence over Persia. As far as commerce was concerned, that could be developed after they had secured control.

In January 1900, when a large part of the British army was committed to the war in South Africa, Count Mikhail Nicholayevich Muraviev, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, urged the czar to authorize a more determined effort to penetrate Persia economically and to block British influence there. Above all, he wanted to push Russian influence farther south in the future. Consequently, he did everything he could to encourage Russian commerce in the region, including the development of trans-Caspian shipping, and postal and telegraphic links. Others at the Russian court advised caution and stressed the far greater importance of reaching the Bosphorus rather than the Persian Gulf. The final decision rested with the czar, who, according to General Aleksei Nicholayevich Kuropatkin, “had grandiose plans in his head: to take Manchuria for Russia, to move toward the annexation of Korea to Russia. He dreams of taking under his orb Tibet too. He wants to take Persia, to seize not only the Bosphorus but the Dardanelles as well.” Yet pragmatism prevailed in St. Petersburg and there was, in the end, no dash for the Persian Gulf.

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, the viceroy of India (1899–1905), was deeply alarmed by Russian intrigues and demands to open diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, which suggested a desire to interfere in India. He believed that Persia was in such a state of decay that it could not be revived, and that it was particularly vulnerable to Russian imperialism. As a solution, he proposed the country should be considered as a set of zones with consulates in every quarter, high-profile visits to the Gulf by the Royal Navy, and urgent improvements to the telegraph system so as to provide early warning of a Russian coup de main. Ever critical of the snail’s pace of British officialdom, he was soon frustrated by the British government’s focus on the South African War. His memorandum on Persia and the Gulf got little reaction from London and his reminders in 1901 were ignored. Curzon privately warned: “One day the crash will come, and then my despatches will be published and in my grave I shall be justified. Not that I care for that. But I long to see prescience, some width of view, some ability to forecast the evil of tomorrow, instead of bungling over the evil of today.”

Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, wrote to Curzon that any schemes for Persia could not be put into effect because of their cost. He stated: “We must cut our coat according to our cloth. It is obvious that our fighting power in the Persian Gulf must be confined to the sea coast. In the rest of Persia we could only fight at the cost of efforts which would swallow up twice or thrice as much income tax as the Transvaal.” Reminders were sent to the Persians that customs in southern ports must not be handed over to any foreign power, but Curzon grew more belligerent. He advocated reciprocal moves to any aggression, including the landing of troops along the southern coast if the Russians seized the northern provinces. By the early 1900s, the Russians also began to believe that the disintegration of Persia into satellite zones was the best policy, avoiding any firm boundary that might give the British reason to block future development or expansion in the region. It appeared to Curzon that Persia could no longer serve as an effective buffer state, and it seemed to be on the brink of a colonial partition.

Curzon had therefore looked to increase British connections with the rulers of the Gulf principalities and authorized the British Resident in Bushire to conclude a secret alliance with the sheikh of Kuwait in 1899. This move seemed all the more important when the Russian cruiser Askold made a high-profile visit to the Persian Gulf in 1902, a move that had greatly impressed the local populations. With a deliberate exaggeration designed to shame the British government into action, Curzon asked:

Are we prepared to surrender control of the Persian Gulf and divide that of the Indian Ocean? Are we prepared to make the construction of the Euphrates Valley Railroad or some kindred scheme an impossibility for England and an ultimate certainty for Russia? Is Baghdad to become a new Russian capital in the south? Lastly, are we content to see a naval squadron battering Bombay?

Curzon had argued that Russia intended to take all of Persia and therefore any agreement with the czarist regime to limit their expansion would, ultimately, fail. Curzon was confident, however, that if a consistent line was taken by the British government, any Russian schemes could be thwarted. If the Russians ever managed to reach the Gulf they could not actually threaten India and the trade routes unless they established a naval base in the Persian Gulf, and this could only happen, he posited, if the British government showed inadequate resolve. He urged that the British should grant a loan to the Persian shah similar to that of Russia, but felt that Persia might have to be coerced into greater compliance. The conclusion of the South African War in 1902 and Curzon’s promptings eventually paid off. The Askold visit finally persuaded the Foreign Office that Russia may indeed have intended to establish a naval base in the Gulf. In a House of Lords speech in the summer of 1903, Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, warned Russia that any attempt to establish such a base would be “resisted with all means at [Britain’s] disposal.” The same year, the British loan to Persia was made available, and the British government acquiesced to Curzon’s demand for a high-profile tour of the Persian Gulf, but, anxious about Curzon’s intentions, they warned that no commitments were to be made.

Curzon’s Persian Gulf tour was a success. His party on board the SS Hardinge was accompanied by four British warships and was clearly designed to demonstrate Britain’s naval supremacy in the region. Curzon also hoped to get a clearer picture of the strategic possibilities the Persian Gulf might offer. At Muscat the British Resident had prepared the ground, and Curzon got an enthusiastic reception, complete with an artillery salute. Although an 1891 treaty had established Muscat as an independent partner with Britain, the sultan of Muscat made references to Britain’s new paramountcy in the region, and his own intention to uphold it. The second stop was to convene a durbar, a ceremonial gathering under the British Raj, at Sharjah for the Trucial Coast sheikhs. After awarding them swords, rifles, and gold watches, Curzon reminded his guests that Britain had brought the local violence to an end, ensured their independence, and expected that British supremacy would be maintained. The tour then continued to Bushire, Bahrain, and finally to Kuwait. The Kuwaitis had no port facilities or wheeled transport, so Curzon’s party had to land on a beach and bring its own carriage, but the reception was probably the most exuberant of all the states, with a guard of honor firing joyously into the air. The sheikh himself presented Curzon with a sword of honor, professed his admiration for Britain, and stated that he considered himself part of the military system of the British Empire. The British government was somewhat embarrassed by the exuberance of the Arabs at Curzon’s receptions, but the visit had been an undeniable success: local rulers felt that British power was manifest, not least in the form of welcome prosperity and the protection of the ships of the British fleet. Moreover, Russia believed that Lansdowne’s declaration in the House of Lords was not empty rhetoric, and the Royal Navy had gained valuable information about the hydrography of the Persian Gulf waters in preparation for future operations there.

The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907

The defeat of the czar’s armies and fleets in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and the subsequent revolution in Russia in 1905 marked a turning point in Anglo-Russian relations. The external defeat of its land and naval forces combined with widespread internal unrest graphically demonstrated Russia’s weaknesses. Financially too, it was evident that Russia lagged far behind the Western powers, and, despite its size, it lacked the industrial capacity of Britain and Germany. The logic of Britain’s Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 was now, as Lansdowne had predicted, to settle their differences with France’s ally Russia. Just two years later, on 31 August 1907, the British government concluded the Anglo-Russian Convention.

The terms of the convention provided for two spheres of influence in Persia, the north to Russia and the south to Britain with a neutral strip between. The Persian regime, now seen as decrepit and on the verge of collapse, was not consulted about the arrangement. Farther east, both countries guaranteed the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and Tibet, and Russia also obtained Britain’s approval for the eventual Russian occupation of the Bosphorus, provided other leading powers agreed.

Russia’s sincerity in the convention of 1907 may not have been questioned in London, but in India the old suspicions remained, and with good reason. Russian intrigues in Persia did not abate. The Russians seemed just as active in trying to extend their influence throughout the country, with the effect that the Persian state was destabilized further as rival factions sought foreign backing. However, it was the arrival of German consuls in the region and their blatant attempts to win over the Muslim world to further their own territorial ambitions that tended to draw the British and Russians into some semblance of cooperation.

What alarmed the British the most was Germany’s rapid naval building program, which seemed deliberately designed to threaten the British Empire. In Persia and the Ottoman Empire, German agents were sent on thinly disguised “archaeological expeditions” to gather intelligence and visit the oil fields, and a number of German banks and businesses appeared offering low rates of interest to undercut the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia. The much-vaunted idea of a railway from Berlin to Baghdad also raised the possibility that commerce would be drawn away from the coasts, on which Britain depended, to the interior, where the continental powers like Germany and Russia would be favored. Such a railway might also provide a strategic route for the deployment of German troops deep within the Middle East, or even the establishment of a Gulf port.

The government in London now seemed reluctant to do anything similar lest it jeopardize the Anglo-Russian Convention. The government of India therefore sent Major Percy Cox, an officer in the Indian army and in the political service and former Resident of Muscat, to southern Persia to monitor German intrigue and to befriend the local Persian elites by extending the informal networks that already existed. It was to prove a prescient decision, as Cox, schooled in the art of the Great Game, would go on to thwart German espionage in the Gulf during World War I and assist in the establishment of the modern state of Iraq.

For the British, prestige and informal controls or influences could reduce the need for physical and costly occupations, although the policy came with risks. Given the impossibility of occupying every littoral of the British Empire, or extending security zones for its possessions deep into the interior of Asia, the British “soft power” policy was the pragmatic and cost-effective solution. British interests in the region were essentially the promotion and protection of trade, the security of India, and the exclusion of rivals from the Persian Gulf. Britain had the advantage of “force multipliers,” namely local agents, the personnel of the Indian army (who provided all the local security for Britain’s residencies, consulates, and commerce), and the ships of the Indian navy. Britain also had the strategic advantage in the nineteenth century that its enemies had no comparable fleets, which gave it considerable power and reach.

However, Britain nonetheless faced a number of challenges. There were asymmetrical problems that were difficult to resolve, particularly intrigue by Russia, unstable buffer states, and unreliable allies. There were also broader strategic weaknesses to confront. The British government had to take a global strategic view, and regarded the Persian Gulf as relatively unimportant compared with the Mediterranean or the Channel, but the government of India saw things differently, and regarded the Persian Gulf and Persia itself as important elements in the security of the subcontinent, and this conflict meant that policies with regard to Persia appeared to be inconsistent. The fact was that the British Empire was not as strong in land forces and simply could not afford to occupy Persia or the Arab littoral sheikhdoms. The consistent aspect of British policy was that it needed Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan as bulwarks for its security, but the challenge was that they were weak and Britain found itself trying to shore up failing states. A settlement of differences with Russia alleviated the pressure in 1907, but this fundamental dilemma was never quite resolved.

The British in the Gulf

This 1704 picture show Dutch and English ships at anchor outside of the port of Bandar Abbas. You can also clearly see the Dutch and English factories (which are trading forts and warehouses to all intents and purposes) side by side ashore. The English East India Company had been granted trading rights since 1619. The English actually referred to the port as Gombroon.

The Portuguese experience in the sixteenth century demonstrates the importance of maritime power in securing paramountcy in the Gulf. Apart from Portugal the only other modern state that succeeded in imposing “hegemony upon the waters” was another maritime nation, Great Britain. Whereas Portuguese domination in the Gulf was part of a grand plan to capture the trade of the Indies by seizing its traditional outlets, British control of the Gulf was achieved “in a more haphazard fashion.” As J. B. Kelly pointed out over forty years ago now, in his study Britain and the Persian Gulf:

Whereas the Portuguese came to the Gulf as soldiers and conquerors, to impose their will upon the Gulf states, the English came initially as merchant adventurers, seeking trade and fortune. Two centuries were to elapse before the attainment of territorial dominion in India compelled them to obtain and hold command of the Gulf. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century their position there was unassailable, and from that time forward the guardianship of the Gulf rested in British hands.

First, how did the British establish their guardianship of the Gulf, what did it comprise, and how did it work? Second, what were the challenges to it? And third, how did it end? But there is a fourth question that must be addressed as well: Why is the British experience, like the Portuguese before it, still relevant to our task of understanding the dynamics of security in the Gulf? It is the main contention of this article that by studying the example of Britain in the Gulf, we begin to understand how a hegemonic power has operated there in the past, and how the demise of its power, like the Portuguese, creates an anarchy that the major littoral states avail themselves of in their contest for primacy over the Gulf. It is no accident of history, that Britain’s departure from the Gulf in 1971, in particular the manner of her going, resulted in a power vacuum that the larger littoral states tried and failed to fill. Since 1971 we have seen three major wars and the downfall of two regimes, the tottering of others, and the reassertion of authority by outside powers, and especially by the United States. The genie of insecurity is out of the bottle in the Gulf. Can it be put back or is that an impossible task? What does the British experience tell us?

There is a symmetry between the British exit from and entrance to the Gulf, and this lies in the mercenary spirit. The English East India Company (EIC) established trading factories at Shiraz, Isfahan, and Jask in the second decade of the seventeenth century in order to foster trade with Persia. It was ships of the EIC that took Shah Abbas I’s army from the mainland to the Portuguese citadel on Hormuz Island in 1622. It was those same ships that engaged and defeated the Portuguese fleet and then blockaded the island. The eventual fall of Hormuz gave the English what they sought: a factory at Bandar Abbas and lucrative commercial links with Persia. It was the same mercenary spirit that presided over Britain’s retreat from the Gulf in 1971, as we shall see.

For the British, as for the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French, Hormuz, along with Muscat and later Aden, represented the keys to command of the Arabian Sea and control of the maritime trade of Arabia, Persia, and India. It was the British authorities in India that secured all these keys by the nineteenth century. The paramountcy, or Pax Britannica, that Britain eventually established in the Gulf and around the shores of Arabia had its start in the agreement concluded with the Al Bu Said Sultan of Oman in 1798 in response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt. It continued in the nineteenth century with the trucial system and the special treaty relationship with Bahrain and the seven sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast. The trucial system rested on a duty by Britain not only to maintain the maritime peace of the Gulf against outbreaks of piracy and maritime warfare, but also to protect the independence and territorial integrity of the sheikhdoms that had signed the truce. It fitted in with the eastern Arabian tradition of protection-seeking. It was only upon this reciprocal basis that the British managed to conclude the restrictive agreements with the sheikhdoms over the slave trade, the arms trade, foreign relations, and oil concessions. Britain’s duty was made explicit in the case of Bahrain (1861) because the latter’s frontiers were defined by the sea and could be defended by naval power. A similar commitment was made to Qatar over its maritime frontiers in 1916, but not its land frontiers, which were then undetermined. For a similar reason no such commitment was made to the Trucial sheikhdoms. There was the added consideration that it would have transgressed the abiding principle of British Gulf policy not to become involved in the internal affairs of the Arabian Peninsula. There was no doubt, however, that Britain was obliged, by the trucial system and the subsequent agreements, to defend the sheikhdoms against external aggression.

Kuwait was the only sheikhdom whose internationally agreed land frontiers Britain was obliged, under the November 1914 agreement, to defend. Although, as a result of the oil boom, Kuwait achieved independence in 1961, there remained a stipulation in the instrument abrogating the 1899 and 1914 protectorate agreements for Britain to extend a friendly helping hand if necessary. This soon came to pass when the Iraqi dictator, Brigadier Abdul Karim Qassim, made aggressive noises toward Kuwait in 1961 and was only silenced after Britain deployed a joint force to the territory in Operation Vantage, the success of which should have been borne in mind by policy makers in Arabia and the West in 1990.

Challenges to British Guardianship of the Gulf

The ending of the British protectorate over Kuwait in 1961 marked the start of the unravelling of the treaty relationship binding Britain to the minor Gulf states, which culminated in Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. Moreover the states “system,” which regulated relations between states and had guaranteed law and order in the Gulf for over one hundred years, was swept away and not really replaced by the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. The precarious peace of the Gulf, and the security of shipping transiting its waters, relied on the self-interest of the larger littoral powers, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and their various great-power backers, the Soviet Union and the United States, to keep a tight rein on their rivalry. That they patently failed to do so soon became apparent after 1971.

Iraq. Iraq’s very narrow coastline (a few dozen kilometers) and lack of maritime power has, historically, deprived her of the ability to establish a political supremacy in the Gulf. Even when the Turks, following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, projected naval power into the Gulf and established control over Hasa and a loose suzerainty over Kuwait and Qatar, they did not pose any real threat to the British position in the Gulf. With the British seizure of Iraq from the Turks during World War I, the establishment of the mandate, and the drawing of the new country’s frontiers by the British, the Iraqis had little opportunity to intervene in the Gulf. It was Britain again who thwarted the attempts in the late 1930s and in 1961 by a now independent Iraq to press its claim to Kuwait. That successive Iraqi regimes should do so was due to the dictates of geography. Kuwait had the best harbor in the upper Gulf and Iraq’s only real outlet was the Shatt al-Arab. Even here Iraq’s control, under the 1937 treaty with Iran, was increasingly challenged by Iran until it was renounced in 1969. Alarmed by this, and by the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971, Iraq’s response was to revive her claim on Kuwait and to seek Soviet support. The Soviet Union showed a growing interest in the Gulf after Britain’s announcement in 1968 of her intention to withdraw.

Iran. In contrast to Iraq, Iran has a long coastline stretching from Khuzestan in the west to Mekran and Baluchistan in the east. But from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century successive shahs had no sustained control over it. This was due in part to the administrative weaknesses of Persian government, but also to the fact that Persia’s rulers did not have the sea power to patrol Gulf waters. This did not prevent them from advancing dubious territorial claims to the delta of the Shatt al-Arab, Kuwait, Bahrain and other islands, the Trucial sheikhdoms, Oman, Mekran, Baluchistan, and Seistan—wherever, in fact, a Persian foot had trod. Frustrated by the gap between their insistence on their inalienable rights to these territories and their inability to secure them, successive Iranian governments did their best to thwart Britain in her suppression of piracy, the slave and arms trades, the survey of Gulf waters, the laying of telegraph cables, the installation of aids to navigation, and the setting up of a quarantine system. The pinprick policy followed by the Qajar and then the Pahlevi dynasties was, after the aggressive expansion of the Saudi emirate of Nejd, the largest source of disruption and disorder in the Gulf. And it is to the Saudis that we must now turn.

Saudi Arabia. Even that great Western propagandist for the Saudis, Harry St. John Philby, father of the more infamous Kim, admitted that Wahhabism, as harnessed by the Al-Saud clan of Nejd, was driven by “constant aggression at the expense of those who did not share the great idea.” After conquering most of central and eastern Arabia by 1800, the Wahhabis took the al-Buraimi oasis, the key to inner Oman and the adjacent Gulf sheikhdoms. Winning over the Qawasim, the strongest pirate tribe on the Arabian shore, they launched a seaborne jihad against Indian and European shipping that took two British punitive expeditions (in 1809–10 and 1819–20) to put down before the Qawasim and other seafaring tribes were forced to sign a treaty agreeing to end piracy. It became a governing principle of British policy to watch and prevent the growth of Wahhabi influence over the Gulf sheikhdoms in case it undermined the maritime truce. By guaranteeing the sheikhdoms’ independence, Britain set herself in opposition to the expansion of Wahhabi dominion in eastern Arabia beyond Nejd and Hasa. For some eighty-three years after the expulsion of the Wahhabis from al-Buraimi in 1869, they made no attempt to venture there again, nor were they in a position to do so. It was not until after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud felt able to direct Saudi eyes again toward the Gulf sheikhdoms. His award of an oil concession to Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) in 1933 raised the question of the eastern boundaries of the new Saudi kingdom and he was quick to lay claim to large tracts of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. The British Foreign Office, in line with the prevailing spirit of appeasement in British foreign policy at the time, was prepared to give away part of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi in the hope of winning over Ibn Saud as an ally in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine. The Foreign Office was only prevented from doing so by the British Government of India, and its representative department in Whitehall, the India Office, on the grounds of principle and policy.

However, the spirit of appeasement lingered on in the Foreign Office and, after inheriting responsibility for the Gulf from the India Office after the demise of British power in India in 1947, it manifested itself in the mistaken British response to a renewed frontier claim made by the Saudis in 1949. The latter now demanded four-fifths of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi, where Petroleum Concessions Limited (a subsidiary of British-run Iraq Petroleum Company, IPC) had the concession to prospect for oil. In order to placate the Saudis, and particularly the foreign minister, Emir Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz, the Foreign Office in August 1951 accepted the Saudi proposal for a ban on all oil-prospecting activities while a commission determined the frontiers. This was tantamount to admitting that California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC) and Saudi Arabia had concessionary and territorial rights in the area, which in the minds of British officials they did not, and that IPC’s rights were invalid. The Foreign Office compounded this error by also agreeing to Faisal’s demand that the British-officered Trucial Oman Levies (later Scouts) should not operate in the disputed areas. In turn the Saudis agreed not to engage in activities that might prejudice the work of the frontier commission. Whereas the British honored their side of the standstill agreements, the Saudis engaged in wholesale bribery of tribal leaders in and around the al-Buraimi oasis in order to have them declare their allegiance to Saudi Arabia. It culminated in the illegal, in the minds of the British, Saudi occupation of the al-Buraimi oasis in August 1952. The Foreign Office then acceded to a Saudi and American request that the sultan of Oman, who governed three villages in the oasis, should not eject the interlopers by force and disband his tribal levies. This allowed the Saudi force to remain in al-Buraimi for nearly two years and to continue its subversive activities. By staying in the oasis the Saudis hoped to bolster their claim to the western areas of Abu Dhabi and to penetrate inner Oman. The final mistake by the Foreign Office, in July 1954, was to agree to the continuance of the limitations on British activities under the 1951 agreement, while the dispute went to arbitration by an international tribunal, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Saudi occupying force from al-Buraimi. This simply allowed another smaller Saudi force, intended along with a comparable British unit to police the oasis, to continue Saudi subversive activities at al-Buraimi. It was only when the Saudis tried to ensure a sympathetic finding by the international tribunal sitting in Geneva through bribery that even the Foreign Office decided it had had enough. It not only ended the arbitration but led to the ejection of the Saudi force from al-Buraimi by the Trucial Oman Scouts in October 1955, much to the disquiet of the Saudis, ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company), and the U.S. government. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, and the severing of diplomatic relations by the Saudis, the Foreign Office returned to its former defensive and apologetic approach to such an extent that by 1970 it was prepared, as will be seen, to facilitate Saudi claims on Abu Dhabi territory in order to ease Britain’s passage out of the Gulf.

End of British Guardianship in the Gulf

The Pax Britannica in the Gulf had been maintained for one hundred and fifty years, and it was swept away in ten, from Kuwaiti independence in 1961 to the final British withdrawal in 1971. The latter had been announced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968 and carried out by Edward Heath’s Conservative government three years later. An end to the formal British presence in the Gulf had to come in the postcolonial age, and the treaty system needed revision. But it was in the manner of Britain’s going from the Gulf that it managed to betray all that it had stood for and achieved during its long guardianship of the Gulf. Britain simply abandoned the small Gulf sheikhdoms to their fate. There was no attempt to reformulate the treaty system in order to retain its implicit defense obligations, thus providing for a continued British military presence that would have maintained stability in an area that had become increasingly vital to not just British but Western interests. It was argued at the time by politicians, diplomats, and their apologists in the media, and has been repeated since by some historians, that the British government could no longer afford the £12–14 million cost of continuing a military presence in the Gulf because of the parlous state of Britain’s finances and her military commitments elsewhere, especially in Northern Ireland. Twelve to 14 million pounds sterling seems cheap given that it was the cost of protecting hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of Gulf oil for Britain and the West. Moreover, the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai offered to pay it in full, since they, like the sheikh of Bahrain and the sultan of Oman, did not want to see Britain leave the Gulf. The boorish reply of the British defense secretary, Denis Healey, spoke volumes about his lack of strategic vision, his engrained political prejudices, and the rank hypocrisy of the British government. He proclaimed that he was not “a sort of white slaver for Arab sheikhs,” and that “it would be a very great mistake if we allowed ourselves to become mercenaries for people who like to have British troops around.”18 Strangely enough he did not object to the West German government contributing to the cost of maintaining the British army on the Rhine, nor did it prevent him, and his successors, from selling large quantities of sophisticated military equipment to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two local powers, whose conduct and ambitions had for one hundred and fifty years posed the main threat to Gulf security. It was no excuse that other powers, principally the United States, were engaged in such a lucrative trade, for no other power had carried the responsibility for maintaining the peace of the Gulf, nor had they, like Britain, suppressed maritime warfare, piracy, and the slave and arms trades. Any chance that the mistakes of the Labour government would be rectified by their Conservative successors was dashed when the Heath government tried to pressurize the sheikh of Abu Dhabi into surrendering a large chunk of his oil-rich territory to Saudi Arabia, and then connived at the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs. In its unseemly scramble to get out of the Gulf by 1971, Britain had reverted to the same mercenary spirit that had marked its entry three hundred and fifty years before.

What lessons can be drawn from the British experience in the Gulf?

First, if a great maritime power is drawn into the Gulf, for mercenary or other motives, and it is to stay there to guarantee its interests, it eventually has to deal with the threats to the stability of the area posed by warfare or piracy. The use of force to coerce reluctant actors will be necessary, and diplomatic tools will have to be employed to build alliances that will work in keeping the peace in the Gulf. Such a system, and its infrastructure, must be guaranteed in the last resort by the paramount maritime power.

Second, the British position in the Gulf had always been based on the lower Gulf, on the trucial system and the long relationship with Oman, and not on Britain’s relations with Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, or even Kuwait. The major Gulf states had always resented Britain’s role in the Gulf, had attempted to negate it, and had welcomed Britain’s exit.

Third, withdrawal from the Gulf was yet another step in Europe’s withdrawal from Asia and Africa after World War II. It has been represented, usually by way of excuse, as the inevitable response to the rise of Afro-Asian nationalism, though increasingly historical research reveals it to have been due to the collapse of the Europeans’ will to defend their interests in the wider world. This failure of will led Britain and Europe increasingly to consign the defense of these interests in the Middle East and elsewhere to the United States, which had always been as much a rival as an ally in these areas. Eschewing Britain’s former gamekeeper role, the U.S. government pursued a pointless “twin-pillars” policy in the 1970s of handing over the security of the Gulf to two of the main poachers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Iranian pillar, with the fall of the shah in 1979, raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining Saudi one and, indeed, the continued viability of U.S. policy. It took the third poacher, or the thief of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, to reveal, in three large-scale and bloody wars, the consequences of the collapse of the states system in the Gulf following Britain’s withdrawal, and the dangers of appeasing local aggressors.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 there has been a renewal of the religious division in the Gulf, between Sunni Arabia and Shia Iran, and this has reached fever pitch since 2003 and the events in Iraq. It is symbolized by the February 2006 Sunni Arab bombing of the Askariya shrine at Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites (where lie the tombs of the Tenth and the Eleventh Imams and where lies a shrine to the Twelfth or Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi). In the long history of Sunni-Shia antagonism it bears comparison with the Wahhabi devastation of Karbala in 1801 and desecration of the shrine of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet. It is a factor that outside powers in the Gulf will increasingly have to bear in mind, especially as it intersects with, and is complicated by, a general rise in tension between the Islamic world and the rest of the world.

And finally, since 1987 the United States has played the reluctant policeman in the Gulf. With the bitter experience of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, there may well be a waning appetite for continuing such a role. But in reappraising the role of the United States, U.S. opinion formers and policy makers need to keep in mind what happened when, in a similar mood in the early 1970s, at the end of the Vietnam War and in consequence of Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf, they handed over the security of this most vital waterway to the two main poachers in the area. To continue this metaphor, the Gulf needs gamekeepers, headed by the United States, as much today as in the past, assisted by those powers who have a vital economic and financial stake in the area, whether European, South Asian, or East Asian. We cannot afford, in this globalized world, to allow the destabilization of one of the key areas on the planet. Let the gamekeeper rather than the mercenary spirit inform our attitudes and policies toward the challenges in this area.

The Germans

All illustrations Samson Goetze

While Julius Caesar and his legions humbled the Celts during his Gallic campaign, a warlike people who migrated into the region from the east during the first century B. C. E. proved more difficult for the Romans to bring to heel. Across the Roman frontier that ran along the Rhine and the Danube, these peoples, known as the Germanic tribes, built a society marked by its egalitarian nature and martial power. Fearing the military threat posed by these belligerent tribes, the Romans invaded their homeland in 12 B. C. E., in an attempt to conquer and pacify the region. Despite committing thousands of troops to the campaign, the Roman armies spent decades battling the Germanic tribes without gaining the upper hand. Finally, in 9 C. E., a decisive battle took place deep in the Teutoburg Forest.

Unfortunately for the Romans, the battle proved to be the worst defeat they ever suffered in centuries of imperial expansion. The fierce Germanic warriors they encountered were drawn from a number of tribes and commanded by a Cheruscan chieftain known to the Romans as Arminius (ca. 18 B. C. E.-19 C. E.), who had fought as a mercenary for the Romans and understood their tactics. Ambushed and attacked from all sides in a woodland glade, three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus (d. 9 C. E.), the cream of the Roman military, were butchered. The attack was the culmination of a revolt against Roman occupation by the Germanic tribes, and the heavy losses that the Romans suffered in the Teutoburg Forest convinced Emperor Augustus (63 B. C. E.-14 C. E.) to abandon the costly conquest of Germany. In the 19th century, Arminius, known to modern Germans as Hermann, became a potent symbol of nationalistic pride and German military might, celebrated in scores of patriotic songs and nationalistic books.

The Germanic Tribes

In the first century B. C. E., life in central Europe was transformed when the Germanic peoples, newcomers to the region, migrated into the area of modern-day Germany. Defined by their shared language, a cluster of Indo-European tongues classified as Germanic by linguists, this ethnolinguistic group seems to have originated in northern Europe. These various tribes did not form a cohesive group, waging constant warfare among themselves and living alongside and intermingling with other peoples during their extensive migrations. The most important of these interactions was with the Celts, who had dominated the region before the appearance of the Germanic tribes.

While sources are hazy for the ancient period, and archaeology has not been able to provide conclusive information, it appears that the migrating Germanic tribes moved from the area that is today southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. In the course of their migrations, they moved to the south, east, and west, coming into contact with Celtic tribes in Gaul and Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic peoples in eastern Europe. During this period, Germanic languages became dominant along the Roman frontier in the area of modern Germany, as well as Austria, the Netherlands, and England. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire, namely, in the Roman province of Gaul, situated in modern-day France and Belgium, the Germanic immigrants were influenced deeply by Roman culture and adopted Latin dialects. The descendants of the Germanic-speaking peoples became the ethnic groups of northwestern Europe, not only including the Germans, but also the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Dutch.

Roman sources are often confused and contradictory in their attempts to identify the menacing Germanic “barbarians” they encountered along their borders. Thus, Roman authors such as Julius Caesar used vague terms such as Germani to describe the various Germanic tribes that settled in the area. While scholars are unsure about the extent to which these diverse peoples represent distinct ethnic groups or cohesive cultures, Roman sources mention a range of Germanic tribes including the Alemanni, Cimbri, Franks, Frisians, Saxons, and Suebi.

Caesar marched against the latter of these tribes, the fearsome Suebi, in his conquest of Gaul. In his account of this campaign, he describes these Germanic warriors, whom he compares explicitly with the Celts. According to Caesar, the Germanic tribes he encountered gave primacy to war, rather than to religion or domestic life. Their religion apparently lacked an organized priesthood and centered upon the veneration of nature, and Caesar suggested that the Germanic tribesmen devoted all of their energies to gaining renown in battle.

Caesar also describes the pastoral economy of the seminomadic Germanic tribes that he encountered across the Danubian frontier. Again, he highlighted the Germanic tribes’ single-minded focus on warfare, recording that-unlike the Romans-they eschewed both wealth and luxury, living off conquest and raiding. For Caesar, this warrior ethos made the Germanic tribes into formidable enemies, and he contrasted the military vigor of the Germanic tribes with that of the more civilized Celts. Accentuating the bellicosity of the Germanic peoples, he found the once formidable Celts, seduced by Roman luxury, lacking by comparison:

There was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine . . . but their proximity to the Province [the Roman province of Gaul] and knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization. Accustomed by degrees to be overmatched and worsted in many engagements, they do not even compare themselves to the Germans in prowess. (Caesar in M’Devitta 1853: 153)

The Germanic armies that the Romans encountered in their efforts to subdue the territory between the Rhine and Elbe were products of a social order far less developed than that of the Gauls. The social order of the Germanic tribe was essentially premodern in that it was not strongly articulated and lacked a varied specification of social roles. The bonded male warrior group became the dominant form of military organization. Every German male was first and foremost a warrior, and the entire society was formed around the conduct of war. Prowess in war was the road to social advancement, and behavior on the battlefield was the primary determinant of social rank and status.

By around 100 C. E., the time of Tacitus’s Germania, numerous Germanic tribes had settled along the Rhine and the Danube, along the Roman frontier, occupying most of the area of modern Germany. The Roman-Germanic frontier, known as the Limes Germanicus, thus became a site of vibrant cultural exchange, as the Germanic tribes encamped along it bartered for Roman goods and absorbed elements of Roman culture. Roman garrison towns such as Moguntiacum (Mainz), Augusta Treverorum (Trier), and Augusta Vindelicorum (Augsburg) sprang up in pacified areas, fostering further assimilation and providing the foundations for Germany’s rich urban life of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, as the might of Rome began to falter in the late 300s C. E., and Roman troops were pulled from the border defenses, Germanic peoples began raiding the Roman provinces along the frontier. Some Germanic tribes even migrated across the frontier and settled in Roman territory, providing military service in exchange for land grants.

Tacitus’s description of the Germans as “fierce looking with blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames” recalls earlier Roman descriptions of the Gauls, and it is likely that, like the Gauls, the average German was much taller than the average Roman. The Germans had not yet reached a level of political development where state institutions had come into existence. The German peoples were divided into tribes (volkerschaften); twenty-three different tribes lived between the Rhine and the Elbe. An average tribe numbered about 25,000 people living on a land area of approximately 2,000 square miles. Some of the larger tribes comprised 35,000-40,000 people and occupied a comparatively larger land area. The tribes were divided into extended family clans called “Hundreds” (Hundertschaften) comprised of 400-1,000 people living in a single village and controlling an area of twenty square miles. Agriculture was not extensively practiced by the Germans, and what cultivation was undertaken was done by women, the men contributing to the food supply by hunting and fishing. Land was held in common, as were some cattle herds, and their utilization was determined by the head of the community, the altermann or hunno.

The Germanic Armies

Within each tribe were a small number of richer noble families who met in assembly with the clan hunni to address major issues, including war and peace. In wartime, however, it was common for the council to select a war chief, usually from the most powerful warrior noble families, to command the tribal army. An average German tribe could put 5,000-7,000 warriors in the field under the command of the war chief. The actual fighting units, however, were centered around the clans, and a Germanic army of 5,000 warriors would have at least twenty and as many as fifty subordinate unit leaders, the clan chiefs.

In assessing the fighting quality of German tribal armies it must be kept in mind that Germanic tribes were warrior societies in which all other social roles were defined by or influenced by the warrior ethos. Thus Germanic men did not farm because it was beneath them (women’s work), but they did hunt because hunting improved their combat skills. The relationship between man and wife and family was also conditioned by the warrior ethos. It was the woman who brought weapons to her husband as a gift of her dowry. Germanic women acted as the tribe’s “military medical corps,” and it was to these wilde weiber (literally, “wild women”) that the wounded turned for medical aid. Women accompanied their men into battle, urging them on to greater efforts by reminding them of the cost of enslavement to themselves and children. The German soldier was a professional warrior whose very social existence was defined by war.

In times of war, each clan provided its own coterie of warriors under the leadership of the village hunno. The cohesion of the family and clan was extended to the warrior group with the result that German combat units were highly cohesive, strongly disciplined, self-motivated, well led, and well trained in the skills of individual close combat. They could be relied on to make murderous charges on command and to fight well in dispersed small groups. While blood ties usually assured that clan units remained loyal to the larger tribal military command, in fact, there was probably only the most rudimentary command and control exercised by the war chief over the behavior of the clan units. Once the tribal levy had been assembled and a general battle plan decided on, implementation was left to local units with little in the way of any ability to direct the battle.

German weaponry was the result of many years of intertribal wars, the lack of contact with any other culture from which new weapons could be acquired, and, as Tacitus and others tell us, the German difficulty in working with iron. Tacitus does not tell us why the Germans were poor iron smiths, but it is clear that they were far behind the Celts and Gauls, who were making chain mail armor superior to the Romans’ in the second century B. C. E. Roman sources note as well that only a few of the German warriors, probably their nobles or the best warriors, wore body armor or metal helmets.

The basic protection from wounds was afforded by a large shield of wood or braided reeds covered with leather. Some troops wore a covering of leather or hide on their heads as well. The basic weapon of the German was the framea, the seven- to ten-foot spear of the type used by the Greek hoplite tipped with a short, sharp blade. The spear was used in close combat or could be thrown. It seems likely as well that German units carried somewhat longer spears, which might have been used by the front rank of a charging infantry formation to break through the enemy. Once inside the enemy formation, the framea was used as the primary killing weapon. The sword was not commonly used by German combat units. The German warrior also carried an assortment of short, wooden javelins with fi re-hardened tips that, as Tacitus tells us, they could hurl long distances. Other missiles, most probably stones and sharpened sticks, were also salvoed at the enemy. Although some German tribes developed into excellent cavalrymen, for the most part German cavalry was limited in numbers and used rather poorly. Battle accounts note that German cavalry moved at such a slow pace in the attack that the infantry had little difficulty in keeping up. The primary strength of the German tribal levy was infantry.

The Germanic infantry fought in a formation that the Romans called cuneus, or “wedge.” Vegetius described the cuneus as “a mass of men on foot, in close formation, narrower in front, wider in the rear that moves forward and breaks the ranks of the enemy.” This formation, also called the Boar’s Head formation by the Romans, was not a wedge with a pointed front, but more resembled a trapezoid, with a shorter line in front, followed by a thick formation of closely packed troops with a rear rank somewhat longer than the front rank. The formation was designed to deliver shock and to carry it through to a penetration of the enemy ranks.

The use of the wedge against the Roman open phalanx explains other Germanic battlefield habits. If the object of the wedge was penetration, then there was no need to armor the men in the center of the wedge. Those German warriors who had body armor and helmets probably fought in the front rank and in the outside fi les of the wedge. Fourteen centuries later, it became the Swiss practice to armor only the front and outside ranks, while the men in the center of the Swiss pike phalanx had only leather armor or none at all. If the wedge did its job and broke the enemy formation, the fight was reduced to either a pursuit or a scramble of individual combats. Under these conditions, the troops least encumbered by armor and other weighty equipment had the advantage.

The German strength lay in the highly disciplined and cohesive nature of its clan combat groups (kampgruppen). These groups could move quickly through the forest and swamps and could fall with terrible ferocity on an enemy not yet deployed for battle. They could break contact and withdraw just as rapidly for group discipline was central to the clan fighting unit. The Germans were particularly competent in scattered combat, surprise attacks, ambushes, feigned withdrawals, rapid reassembly, and most other aspects of guerrilla war.

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.

The Reign of Abbas I (1587–1629) II

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.

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?

Louis and Burgundy

Portrait of Philip the Good (1396-1467), third Duke of Burgundy from the House of Valois. Half length, facing right. He is dressed in black, wearing a jewelled collar of firesteels in the shape of the letter B, for Burgundy, and flints, holding the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he instituted.

If a ruler’s success or failure depends as much on the ineptitude of his opponents as on his own skill, then Louis XI of France, wonderfully nicknamed ‘the Universal Spider’, was one of the luckiest monarchs in history. His principal antagonists were the last independent Duke of Burgundy Charles, nicknamed ‘le Téméraire’ (which translates as ‘the Rash’ as well as ‘the Bold’), Duke Frañsez II of Brittany, described by a contemporary Breton chronicler as ‘weak in body and even weaker in mind’, and the insecure usurper Edward IV.

On the minus side, the curse of genealogy lay heavily on the Valois dynasty. The legalistic justification for the devastating Hundred Years War was the English kings’ claim to the throne of France, based on a superior right of succession through the marriages of the first two Edwards to the eldest daughters of the House of Capet. The powerful Dukes of Bourbon and Counts of Bourbon-Vendôme also had a separate but junior line of descent from the Capetian King Louis IX. The greater problem was that the extended Valois clan, ‘the princes of the blood’, made the English Plantagenets seem like happy families.

The Dukes of Valois-Alençon were a cadet line descended from Count Charles of Valois, whose eldest son became the first Valois king. The Dukes of Valois-Anjou and of Valois-Burgundy were descendants of the second Valois king, and the Dukes of Valois-Orléans and of Valois-Orléans-Angoulême from the third. Their bitter rivalries had permitted relatively small English armies to conquer northern France. Even after Jeanne d’Arc shamed some of them into turning the tide, many years of ego massaging were required before they could be united to expel the invaders.

They were soon back to squabbling amongst themselves; but now, instead of hindering Charles VII (Louis’s father), their divisions helped him to reduce their importance by building on the foundations of absolutism. The king’s new measures included the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction, by which he ‘nationalized’ the Papacy’s right to appoint French clergy and the revenues deriving from it, and a standing army paid for by a land tax (taille) on non-nobles. The taille was awarded to the monarchy in perpetuity by the Estates General in 1439, thereby rendering themselves irrelevant: Louis XI summoned them only once in twenty-two years.

Charles VII’s reduced need to accommodate his nobles did not pass unnoticed, and the steps he took to rationalize the administration of justice and tax collection were seen for what they were – the thin end of a wedge of encroachment on traditional aristocratic prerogatives. His reforms provoked the short-lived 1440 Praguerie rebellion nominally led by Louis, his 17-year-old heir apparent, involving the Dukes of Bourbon, Alençon and Brittany, and the Count of Vendôme. There was a formal reconciliation, but Charles never forgave his son.

In 1441–3 Louis distinguished himself in operations against the English and the Count of Armagnac, and in 1444 Charles sent him to fight the fearsome Swiss at the head of an army of écorcheurs, savage and fiercely meritocratic French irregulars. Louis emerged with credit from the campaign, but received no reward. At court, relations between him and Agnès Sorel, Charles’s influential mistress, became so bad that in 1446 he was sent to govern the Dauphiné, the traditional principality of the heirs to the throne, and a nest of interlocking feudal and ecclesiastical jurisdictions calculated to break the spirit of any ruler.

Once again Louis rose to the challenge. He humbled the local lords, favoured the gentry and the bourgeoisie, and introduced reforms such as the first regular postal service in Europe. He also ignored frequent attempts to recall him and in 1451, in defiance of his father’s orders, he made a dynastic marriage with the House of Savoy. Charles intended to enforce Louis’s obedience by invading the Dauphine the following year, but had to turn aside to deal with the English reconquest of Guyenne. When the delayed invasion went ahead in 1456, Louis fled to the court of his uncle Duke Philippe of Burgundy.

Despite Charles’s threats, Philippe set Louis up with his own establishment at the castle of Genappe in his sub-duchy of Brabant, a prudent arm’s length south of the provincial capital at Brussels. By Valois standards Philippe’s heir Charles, Count of Charolais, was a loyal son: but he questioned Philippe’s benevolence towards Louis. He argued that it would be better to surrender the dangerously capable Louis to his father. If he lived he would promote sedition, and if killed his twenty-three-year younger brother would become Dauphin. Philippe thought otherwise, and fondly believed he was creating a bond of gratitude.

Louis’s policy over the next five years was straightforward: he opposed anything his father did, thus he backed the Yorkists against the Lancastrians in England’s civil war. Philippe took the same view, but Charolais was fascinated by the struggle between Warwick and Somerset over Calais. He became enamoured of handsome Henry Beaufort, and when he had to abandon the struggle for Calais gave him 1,400 livres [£135,000] to get himself and his men back to England and continue the fight.

I use the word ‘enamoured’ advisedly. Charolais’s intense admiration for Somerset led him to support Lancastrian resistance after Towton, seemingly in defiance of his father’s pro-Yorkist policy.† He felt Somerset’s execution deeply, and once he became duke he sheltered Somerset’s brothers and was reluctant to ally with the Yorkist regime. While he was also influenced by his adored mother Isabella of Portugal, a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, father of the Lancastrian dynasty, his motives appear to have been more personal.

The link may be that he was repelled by his father’s monumental promiscuity – at least twenty-four mistresses and eighteen recognized bastards. Although Charolais managed to overcome his revulsion and engender a daughter in 1457, in general he shunned female and sought out exclusively male company. In 1470 his illegitimate half-brother Baudouin fled to France and accused him of ‘unnatural vices’; but while he was almost certainly homosexual, it is more likely he sublimated his urges in violent sports and warfare.

During his time at Genappe Louis was at all times respectful of his uncle Philippe and also won over his sceptical son through their mutual passion for the chase. He even managed to remain friendly with Jacquetta’s brother Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol, who had been his comrade-in-arms in 1441, even though they backed different sides in the English civil war. During his time in exile Louis obtained an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of men who would later oppose him, without permitting any of them to catch more than occasional glimpses of the workings of his own mind.

On the other side of France, Duke Frañsez of Brittany seems to have calculated (if, indeed, any coherent mental process was involved) that his interests were best served by stirring the English pot. After the Lancastrian defeat at Northampton he welcomed Marguerite’s emissary the Earl of Wiltshire, gave him the money to recruit Breton and Irish mercenaries, and the ships to transport them to join Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, in Wales. Few survived the rout that followed their defeat by Edward at Mortimer’s Cross. Frañsez continued to support Jasper, as well as the last Lancastrian holdout of Harlech Castle in Wales, for many years.

When Marguerite’s army marched on London after defeating and killing Richard of York and Warwick’s father at Wakefield, Philippe gave generous sanctuary to Richard’s two youngest boys. He also sent a contingent of hand-gunners, who shared Warwick’s defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans. Arguably more significant was the choice of one of Louis’s retinue, Lord de la Barde, to represent Burgundy to the Yorkists, and that he led a contingent of Burgundians to fight for Edward at Towton under the Dauphin’s banner.

Philippe’s greater contribution was to keep Charles VII in check. Charles was in poor health – he died four months after Towton – and desperate to be reconciled with his heir. Louis refused to go to him even when he was dying, and after he died shocked Philippe by making only a perfunctory gesture of mourning during the elaborate ceremonies the duke organized. Louis went along with the charade, making it clear he did so only to please his uncle, but eventually could bear it no longer and slipped away to get on with the business of ruling.

He immediately adopted many of the policies he had opposed while his father lived, among them support of the Lancastrians. Having been at the heart of the informal alliance between Burgundy and the Yorkists, Louis fully appreciated the threat it could pose to France. Also, France’s allies the Scots had obtained Berwick by helping Marguerite after Northampton – could he not obtain title to Calais now that she was truly desperate? Yet, having obtained her undertaking to cede the enclave if she recovered the throne, he did the bare minimum to keep the Lancastrian resistance alive.

This was because he did not wish the issue of who governed England to become a major bone of contention between France and Burgundy. He was coldly pragmatic and the sole purpose of his limited support for the Lancastrians was to keep England divided and weak for as long as possible, in order to diminish the value of an English alliance in Burgundian eyes. In this he was successful, leaving both Philippe and himself free to deal with more important bilateral matters and their own internal problems.

The Burgundian lands were separated by the duchies of Bar and Lorraine and by the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Bar was ruled by Duke René d’Anjou, Marguerite’s father, and Lorraine – in succession to his mother – by René’s eldest son Jean. About half of Bar and all of Lorraine lay within the boundaries of the historic Holy Roman Empire, such that René and Jean owed nominal homage to the Emperor for them.

Considerably more significant was the homage René owed to the King of France for part of Bar, and all of Anjou and Provence. He was also titular King of Naples, having been expelled by the King of Aragon in 1441, a can of worms best left unopened here. More germane to our story is the war fought between René and Philippe over Lorraine in 1431, in which René was captured. He was eventually released in 1436 after agreeing a ransom that ruined him, even though he was never able to pay the whole amount.

Power abhors a vacuum, but the Angevins and their descendants clung on to Bar and Lorraine until 1766 because they were recognized as the legitimate rulers by both the Empire and France. The price of powerlessness was that their territory was regarded as a thoroughfare, and Nancy as an occasional alternative location for the courts of the French kings.

The existential threat to the Dukes of Burgundy was not so much that every duchy, sub-duchy and county recognized his overlordship according to its own laws and customs, a feudal overhang common to all the proto-nations of Europe. Their particular problem came from the example set by the autonomous Rhine valley cities outside their borders. Burgundy depended heavily on revenues from the commercial and industrial cities in Flanders, where a desire for comparable autonomy was never far below the surface.

Louis XI added two substantial territories to his kingdom in 1462–3, both by purchase. The first opportunity came about in early 1462 when the province of Catalonia overthrew the authority of King Juan II of Aragon, who had exhausted his credit in a war over Navarre. In May Juan signed treaties with Louis XI for the loan of 4,200 knights plus their retainers and led by the Count of Foix for an agreed price of 200,000 gold crowns [£25.4 million]. As surety Louis was to hold Roussillon and Cerdagne, Catalan counties north of the Pyrenees.

The Catalans, hard pressed by King Juan’s French army, invited King Enrique IV of Castille to become their ruler. He denounced the cession of Rousillon and Cerdagne and threatened to conquer the kingdom of Aragon in its entirety. In an adroit move, Louis persuaded Enrique to accept his arbitration, then prevailed on Juan to cede disputed territory in Navarre to keep Castille out of the war. The war dragged on for another decade though permutations including the Catalans’ election of René d’Anjou, who ruined himself again by trying to make good his claim; but by 1474 Rousillon and Cerdagne were permanently incorporated into France.

Louis’s other purchase seemed at first to be more straightforward. In 1435 his father had ceded the rich towns of the Somme valley in Picardy to Duke Philippe as part of the price he paid to break up the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The terms were that the towns would revert to the French crown in return for 400,000 gold crowns [£51 million].

Louis completed the supposedly prohibitive payment and, with the help of high-placed agents at Philippe’s court, recovered the towns by the end of 1463. The complications here were that the taxes vigorously collected across France to raise the money were deeply unpopular, and that Philippe’s son Charolais violently opposed the deal and swore to reverse it.

Not only Burgundian feathers were ruffled. As before in the Dauphiné, Louis had been a whirlwind since becoming king, constantly touring and making no effort to cultivate his nobles. Indeed, he seemed at times to go out of his way to offend them, and spoke rather too freely about their personal shortcomings. He also enforced royal prerogatives at their expense, notably by revoking the patronage previously enjoyed by secular and ecclesiastical lords under the terms of the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction.

Louis certainly knew he was playing with fire. He had, after all, helped to derail his father’s more modest attempts to assert royal authority in the 1440 Praguerie rebellion. Since then Charles VII had committed the taille to setting up the salaried compagnies d’ordonnance, drawn from the lesser nobility and gentry. This was the standing army with which Charles threw the English out of France in 1449–51 and Louis, confident of his own military skill, believed it would deter his nobles from resorting to arms.

It did not deter the Duke of Brittany, who inspired little enthusiasm among his subjects but could depend on their unqualified support in resisting any attempt by the French king to infringe on Breton autonomy. So, when Frañsez defied him in 1463 and Louis found he needed the support of the French nobility, he did not get it. The step too far was to make an enemy of Charolais at the same time, when Philippe was showing signs of senility and could no longer be depended on to keep his intemperate son under control.

The paradoxical result was that England moved to the front and centre of Louis’s diplomacy. He had created a critical mass of enemies and the last thing he needed was for an English army with its dreaded longbowmen to descend on Normandy. Thus the embassy sent by Edward IV, led by Chancellor George Neville, was manna from heaven. Louis agreed a one-year truce with Neville in October 1463, deluged the embassy with expensive gifts, and showed himself warmly disposed to the idea of a matrimonial alliance.

Not least, he expressed extravagant admiration for Warwick and requested he should lead a subsequent delegation to a peace conference to end the state of war that still existed between the two kingdoms. In what he thought was a masterstroke, Louis asked Duke Philippe to host the conference. Philippe, who, unlike his son, was rather pleased with the immense addition to his treasury from the redemption of the Somme towns, was flattered and moved almost permanently to his palace at Hesdin, the designated venue.

Warwick could not come because the Lancastrians and Scots continued to cause trouble well into 1464, and everybody – except Marguerite and Bishop Kennedy in Scotland, who begged in vain for further support – believed Louis was responsible. This was no longer the case: the Lancastrian gambit had outlived its usefulness. His aim was to prevent an Anglo–Burgundian alliance, and what better way than by winning over the man said to be the power behind the English throne?

In March 1464 Louis sent Lord de la Barde, who had fought for Edward at Towton, with an offer of marriage to Bona of Savoy, Louis’s 14-year-old sister-in-law. Edward coolly replied that he would give it serious consideration. Warwick, on the other hand, leapt for the fly and promised to go to Hesdin to agree the final terms of the treaty. As spring gave way to summer, letters arrived from Warwick excusing himself because negotiations with the Scots required his presence in York, and Louis became increasingly nervous.

Meanwhile Philippe was becoming restless, and Louis rode to Hesdin to soothe his uncle’s increasingly clouded mind. Finally an embassy arrived, but it was led by Warwick’s retainer Lord Wenlock and had only come to negotiate a one-year extension of the truce due to expire in October. Warwick would certainly come, Wenlock said, before then. By now Louis was genuinely desperate. His diplomacy was unravelling, reports from his spies indicated serious trouble brewing among his nobles, and now he had involved Duke Philippe in a fiasco. Louis left Hesdin on 9 July, never to see his uncle again.

‘I never saw a lord so ardently desire anything as this King desires this peace with the English’, reported Louis’s confidante Alberico Maletta, the Milanese ambassador. ‘I believe that if the earl of Warwick came he would obtain anything from the King to obtain this peace’. ‘Anything’ almost certainly included a French title and lands to go with it.

Then rumour swelled to certainty – Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful English widow, and had announced it at a meeting of his Great Council after first permitting the oblivious Warwick to extol the virtues of Bona of Savoy. It was a brutal rejection of the French alliance, and Duke Philippe exploded with rage when he learned of it. Then Charolais announced he had arrested a spy sent by Louis – a nephew of the Croy brothers, Louis’s agents at the Burgundian court and the blackest of Charolais’s bêtes noires. The Universal Spider’s web had been torn apart.