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Abbas I of Persia

Shah Abbās I
شاه عَباس بُزُرگ
Shahanshah of Iran
Shahanshah of Iran
Reign 1 October 1588 – 19 January 1629
Coronation 1588
Predecessor Mohammad I
Successor Safi
Born 27 January 1571
Herat (At that time in Iran and now in Afghanistan)
Died 19 January 1629 (aged 57)
Mazandaran, Iran
Burial 1629
Queen Tinatin (Leili sultan)
Dynasty Safavid
Father Mohammed Khodabanda
Mother Khayr al-Nisa Begum
Religion Shia Islam

Shāh Abbās the Great (or Shāh Abbās I; Persian: شاه عَباس بُزُرگ‎‎; 27 January 1571 – 19 January 1629) was the 5th Safavid king (Shah) of Iran, and is generally considered the greatest ruler of the Safavid dynasty. He was the third son of Shah Mohammad Khodabanda.[1]

Although Abbas would preside over the apex of the Iranian Safavid Empire's military, political and economic power, he came to the throne during a troubled time for Iran. Under his weak-willed father, the country was riven with discord between the different factions of the Qizilbash army, who killed Abbas' mother and elder brother. Meanwhile, Iran's enemies, the Ottoman Empire (its arch rival) and the Uzbeks, exploited this political chaos to seize territory for themselves. In 1588, one of the Qizilbash leaders, Murshid Qoli Khan, overthrew Shah Mohammed in a coup and placed the 16-year-old Abbas on the throne. But Abbas was no puppet and soon seized power for himself.

With his leadership and the help of the newly created layers in his Iranian society, initiated by his predecessors but significantly expanded and completed under Abbas and composed of hundreds of thousands of Armenians he managed to completely crush and diminish the power of the Qizilbash in the civil administration, royal house, the military, amongst all other positions. By this and his reforming of the army, it enabled him to fight the Ottomans and Uzbeks and reconquer Iran's lost provinces. By the 1603-1618 Ottoman War, he regained possession over Transcaucasia and Dagestan, as well as swaths of Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia; the latter two were territories which had been lost since the 1555 Peace of Amasya. He also took back land from the Portuguese and the Mughals, and expanded Iranian rule and influence in the North Caucasus, beyond the traditional territories of Dagestan. Abbas was a great builder and moved his kingdom's capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, making the city the pinnacle of Safavid architecture. In his later years, following a court intrigue involving several leading Circassians, the shah became suspicious of his own sons and had them killed or blinded.


  • Early years 1
  • Absolute monarch 2
    • Abbas takes control 2.1
    • Reducing the power of the Qizilbash and the completion of the Caucasian layer 2.2
    • Reforming the army 2.3
    • Consolidation of the Empire 2.4
  • Reconquest 3
    • War against the Uzbeks 3.1
    • War against the Ottomans 3.2
      • Quelling the Georgian uprising 3.2.1
    • Kandahar and the Mughals 3.3
    • War against the Portuguese 3.4
  • The shah and his subjects 4
    • Isfahan: a new capital 4.1
    • Arts 4.2
    • Religious attitude and religious minorities 4.3
  • Contacts with Europe 5
  • Family tragedies and death 6
  • Character and legacy 7
  • Offspring 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • Footnotes 11
  • References 12
  • Additional reading 13
  • External links 14

Early years

Shah Abbas I and his court.

Abbas was born in Herat (now in Afghanistan, then one of the two chief cities of Khorasan) as the third son of the royal prince Mohammad Khodabanda and his wife Khayr al-Nisa Begum (known as "Mahd-i Ulya"), the daughter of the Marashi ruler of the Mazandaran province, who claimed descent from the fourth Shi'a Imam Zayn al-Abidin.[2][3] At the time of his birth, Abbas' grandfather Shah Tahmasp I was the Shah of Iran. Abbas' parents gave him to be nursed by Khani Khan Khanum, the mother of the governor of Herat, Ali Qoli Khan Shamlu.[4][nb 1] When Abbas was four, Tahmasp sent his father to stay in Shiraz where the climate was better for his fragile health. Tradition dictated that at least one prince of the royal blood had to reside in Khorasan, so Tahmasp appointed Abbas as the nominal governor of the province, despite his young age, and Abbas was left behind in Herat.[6]

In 1578, Abbas' father became Shah of Iran. Abbas' mother soon came to dominate the government, but she had little time for Abbas, preferring to promote the interests of his elder brother Hamza.[7] The queen consort antagonised leaders of the powerful Qizilbash army, who plotted against her and murdered her on 26 July 1579, reportedly for having an affair with Adil Giray, brother of the Crimean Tatar khan who was held captive in Qazvin.[8][9][10] Mohammad was a weak sovereign, incapable of preventing Iran's rivals, the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbeks, from invading the country or stopping factional feuding among the Qizilbash.[8][11] The young prince, Hamza, was more promising and led a campaign against the Ottomans, but he was murdered suspiciously in 1586.[12] Attention now turned to Abbas.[13]

At the age of 14, Abbas had come under the guardianship of Murshid Qoli Khan, one of the Qizilbash leaders in Khorasan. When a large Uzbek army invaded Khorasan in 1587, Murshid decided the time was right to overthrow Shah Mohammad.[14][15] He rode to the Safavid capital Qazvin with the young prince and pronounced him king, on 16 October 1587.[16][17] Mohammad made no objection against his deposition and handed the royal insignia over to his son, the following year, on 1 October 1588.[nb 2] Abbas was 17 years old.[18][19]

Absolute monarch

Abbas takes control

Shah ‘Abbās King of the Persians.
Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, from his Atrium heroicum Caesarum pub. 1600–1602.

The kingdom Abbas inherited was in a desperate state. The Ottomans had seized vast territories in the west and the north-west (including the major city of Tabriz) and the Uzbeks had overrun half of Khorasan in the north-east. Iran itself was riven by fighting between the various factions of the Qizilbash, who had mocked royal authority by killing the queen in 1579 and the grand vizier Mirza Salman Jabiri in 1583.

First, Abbas settled his score with his mother's killers, executing three of the ringleaders of the plot and exiling four others.[20] His next task was to free himself from the power of Murshid Qoli Khan. Murshid made Abbas marry Hamza's widow and a Safavid cousin, and began distributing important government posts among his own friends, gradually confining Abbas to the palace.[21] Meanwhile, the Uzbeks continued their conquest of Khorasan. When Abbas heard they were besieging his old friend Ali Qoli Khan Shamlu in Herat he pleaded with Murshid to take action. Fearing a rival, Murshid did nothing until the news came that Herat had fallen and the Uzbeks had slaughtered the entire population. Only then did he set out on campaign to Khorasan.[22] But Abbas planned to avenge the death of Ali Qoli Khan and he suborned four Qizilbash leaders to kill Murshid after a banquet on 23 July 1589. With Murshid gone, Abbas could now rule Iran in his own right.[23][24]

Abbas decided he must re-establish order within Iran before he took on the foreign invaders. To this end he made a humiliating peace treaty – known as the Luristan and Kurdistan. This demeaning treaty even ceded the previous capital of Tabriz to the Ottomans.[25][26][27]

Reducing the power of the Qizilbash and the completion of the Caucasian layer

Anthony Shirley and Robert Shirley (pictured in 1622) helped modernize the Persian Army.

The Circassians and Armenians) would follow the path of eventually becoming an integral part of Iranian society, in all possible and available positions.

Tahmasp I, the second Safavid shah, had realised during his reign while both looking to his own empire and that of the neighboring Ottomans, that there were dangerous rivalling factions and internal family rivalries that were a threat to the heads of state. Not taken care of accordingly, these were a serious threat to the ruler, or worse, could bring the fall of the former or could lead to unnecessary court intrigues. According to Harem and in the civil and military administration,[34][35]

Learning from his ancestor, Abbas' (who suffered from the vying Qizilbash factions himself during his youth)[29] decided to fully implement the creation of this new (Caucasian) layer in Iranian society, as he realized that he must impose his authority on the Qezelbāš or remain their tool. Under Abbas, this new layer, also called the third force, may be mentioned as fully "finalized", as he was single handedly responsible for completing it. It is estimated that during Abbas' reign alone some 130,000-200,000 Georgians,[36][37] tens of thousands of Circassians, and around 300,000 Armenians[38] had been deported from the Caucasus to Persia's heartland, all obtaining functions and roles as part of the newly created layer in society, such as within the highest positions of the state, the ghulam corps, or as farmers, soldiers, handcraftsmen, as part of the Royal harem, and peasantry. The rest of the masses of deportees and importees that did not enroll into the ghulam corpses, the harems, or any of the governmental administration-related functions (a significant portion numbering many hundreds of thousands), were settled in various regions of mainland Iran, and were given all kinds of roles as part of society, such as craftsmen, farmers, cattle breeders, traders, soldiers, generals, governors, peasants etc., all also part of the newly established layer in Iranian society.[39]

Statue of Allahverdi Khan (surnamed Undiladze) in Isfahan. Being one if not the most notable ghulam of the Safavid era, he functioned as statesman and the commander of the armed forces from 1598 until his death in 1613.

As part of the ghulam slave system, he as well greatly expanded the ghulam military corps (also known as ḡolāmān-e ḵāṣṣa-ye-e šarifa, tr. as "crown servants") from just a few hundred during Tahmasp's era, to 15,000 highly trained cavalrymen,[40] as part of a whole army division of 40,000

Abbas I of Persia
Preceded by
Mohammed Khodabanda
Shahanshah of Persia
1 October 1588 – 19 January 1629
Succeeded by
  • Shah Abbās: The Remaking of Iran, The British Museum, in association with Iran Heritage Foundation, 19 February – 14 June 2009,
  • John Wilson, Iranian treasures bound for Britain, BBC Radio 4, 19 January 2009, BBC Radio 4's live magazine, Front Row (audio report).
  • "Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran"

External links


Additional reading

  • Asat'iani, Nodar; Bendianachvili, Alexandre (1997). Histoire de la Géorgie [History of Georgia] (in French). Paris, France: L'Harmattan.  
  • Babaie, Sussan; et al. (2004). Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. Library of Middle East History. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Blow, David (2009). Shah Abbas: The Ruthless King Who Became an Iranian Legend. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Bomati, Yves; Nahavandi, Houchang (1998). Shah Abbas, Empereur de Perse: 1587–1629 [Shah Abbas, Emperor of Persia: 1587-1629] (in French). Paris, France: Perrin.  
  • Bosworth, C. E. (1989). "Barda and Barda-Dāri v. Military Slavery in Islamic Iran". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. III: Ātaš - Beyhaqi. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 774–776.  
  • Cole, Juan R. I. (May 1987). "Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shi‘ism in Eastern Arabia, 1300–1800". International Journal of Middle East Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press) 19 (2): 177–203.  
  • Dale, Stephen Frederic (2010). The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Eraly, Abraham (2003) [2000]. The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors. original title Emperors of the Peacock Throne. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.  
  • Haneda, Masahi (1990). "Čarkas: ii. Under the Safavids". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. IV: Bāyjū - Carpets. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 818–819. Archived from the original on 13 September 2014. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  • Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abbas I (Persia)". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-Ak - Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.  
  • IBP (2013). Armenia Country Study Guide. 1: Strategic Information and Developments. International Business Publications.  
  • Jackson, Peter; Lockhart, Lawrence, eds. (1986). The Cambridge History of Iran. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Kacharava, Eka (2011). "Alaverdy Eparchy" (PDF). Friends of Academic Research in Georgia. Archived from the original on 24 May 2015. Retrieved 24 May 2015. 
  • Khanbaghi, Aptin (2006). The Fire, the Star and the Cross: Minority Religions in Medieval and Early Modern Iran. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Kouymjian, Dickran (2004). "1: Armenia From the Fall of the Cilician Kingdom (1375) to the Forced Emigration under Shah Abbas (1604)". In Hovannisian, Richard G. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times. II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.  
  • Kremer, William (25 January 2013). "Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?". BBC News Magazine. Archived from the original on 13 September 2014. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  • Lapidus, Ira Marvin (2012). A Global History of Pre-modern Islamic Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Lockhart, Lawrence (1953). Arberry, Arthur John, ed. The Legacy of Persia. The Legacy Series. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.  
  • Madelung, W. (1988). "Baduspanids". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. III: Ātaš - Bayhaqī. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 385–391.  
  • Manz, Beatrice; Haneda, Masashi (1990). "Čarkas". Encyclopædia Iranica. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 816–819. Archived from the original on 24 May 2015. Retrieved 24 May 2015. 
  • Matthee, Rudi (2011). Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan. International Library of Iranian Studies. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Matthee, Rudi (1999). "Farhād Khan Qaramānlū, Rokn-al-Saltana". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. IX: Ethé - Fish. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.  
  • Matthee, Rudolph P. (1999a). The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Mitchell, Colin P., ed. (2011). New Perspectives on Safavid Iran: Empire and Society. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.  
  • Mitchell, Colin P. (2009). The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran: Power, Religion and Rhetoric. Persian Studies. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Mitchell, Colin P. (2009a). "Ṭahmāsp I". Encyclopædia Iranica.  
  • Monshi, Eskandar Beg (1978). Tārīk̲-e ʻālamārā-ye ʻAbbāsī [The History of Shah 'Abbas the Great]. Persian Heritage (in العربية and English). Translated by Savory, Roger M. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.  
  • Newman, Andrew J. (2006). Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. Library of Middle East History. London, UK: I. B. Tauris.  
  • Parizi, Mohammad-Ebrahim Bastani (2000). "Ganj-ʿAlī Khan". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. X: Fisheries - Gindaros. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 284–285.  
  • Roemer, H. R. (1986). "5: The Safavid Period". In Jackson, Peter; Lockhart, Lawrence. The Cambridge History of Iran. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Saslow, James M. (1999). "Asia and Islam: Ancient Cultures, Modern Conflicts". Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York, NY: Viking.  
  • Savory, Roger M. (1983). Abbās (I)"'". In Yarshater, Ehsan. Encyclopædia Iranica. I: Āb - Anāhid. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 71–75.  
  • Savory, Roger M. (1980). Iran under the Safavids. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Shakespeare, William (1863). Clark, William George; Wright, William Aldis, eds. The Works of William Shakespeare III. Cambridge, UK: Macmillan and Company.  
  • Starkey, Paul (2010). "Tawfīq Yūsuf Awwād (1911-1989)". In Allen, Roger. Essays in Arabic Literary Biography. 3: 1850-1950. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz.  
  • Streusand, Douglas E. (2011). Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.  
  • Sykes, Ella Constance (1910). Persia and its People. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.  
  • Thorne, John O., ed. (1984). "Abbas I". Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Edinburgh, UK: Chambers Harrap.  
  • Wallbank, Thomas Walter (1992) [1942]. Civilization Past & Present (7th ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.  
  • Wilson, Richard (March 2010). : Twelfth Night and Shakespeare's Eastern Promise""When Golden Time Convents 6 (2). Routledge. pp. 209–226.  


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  4. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 27
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  7. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 29
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  12. ^ Savory 1980, p. 74
  13. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 32–33
  14. ^ Blow 2009, p. 29
  15. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 35
  16. ^ Dale 2010, p. 92
  17. ^ Roemer 1986, p. 261
  18. ^ Savory 1980, p. 75
  19. ^ Blow 2009, p. 30
  20. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 36
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  22. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 38
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  24. ^ Newman 2006, p. 50
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  26. ^ Newman 2006, p. 52
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  28. ^ a b c d Roemer 1986, p. 265
  29. ^ a b c Savory 1983
  30. ^ Wallbank 1992, p. 369
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  33. ^ Bosworth 1989
  34. ^ Manz & Haneda 1990
  35. ^ Lapidus 2012
  36. ^ a b c Monshi 1978, p. 1116
  37. ^ Hosayn, Malekšāh, p. 509
  38. ^ IBP 2013
  39. ^ Matthee 1999a
  40. ^ Blow 2009, p. 37
  41. ^ Savory 1980, p. 81
  42. ^ Savory 1980, p. 82
  43. ^ a b c d e Mitchell 2011, p. 69
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  45. ^ Savory 1980, pp. 183–184
  46. ^ Blow 2009, p. 9
  47. ^ a b Haneda 1990, p. 818
  48. ^ a b c Hoiberg 2010, p. 9
  49. ^ Axworthy 2007, pp. 134–135
  50. ^ a b Kremer 2013
  51. ^ Savory 1980, p. 79
  52. ^ a b Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 141–142
  53. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 143
  54. ^ Starkey 2010, p. 38
  55. ^ Madelung 1988, p. 390
  56. ^ a b Matthee 1999
  57. ^ Roemer 1986, p. 267
  58. ^ Savory 1980, p. 84
  59. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 147–148
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  72. ^ a b Khanbaghi 2006, p. 131
  73. ^ a b Suny p. 50
  74. ^ a b Asat'iani & Bendianachvili 1997, p. 188
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  84. ^ Babaie 2004, p. 94.
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  91. ^ Saslow 1999, p. 147
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  93. ^ Sykes 1910, p. 318
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  96. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 111
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  100. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 104
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  102. ^ Kouymjian 2004, p. 20
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  105. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, p. 128
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  107. ^ Shakespeare 1863, pp. 258,262,282
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  125. ^ Bomati & Nahavandi 1998, pp. 57–58


  1. ^ Ali Qoli Khan Shamlu, the governor of Herat, had originally been tasked with murder of Abbas by Shah Ishmail. Before he could act, the Shah had died, thus leaving him as governor, but without fulfilling his prerequisite task.[5]
  2. ^ There is some confusion concerning the date which Abbas assumed power. The confusion sprouts from the fact that two distinctly different, but similar, occurrences both happened in the month of October, but in different years. First, Abbas seized power in the capital of Qazvin, whilst his father was leading the troops. This occurred on 16 October 1587. Then, after his father had returned, on 1 October 1588, Shah Mohammad abdicated and gave control of the empire over to Abbas in a ceremony.


See also

  • Princess Shahzadeh 'Alamiyan Shazdeh Beygom (d. before 1629), married Mirza Mohsen Razavi. She had issue, two sons.
  • Princess Shahzadeh 'Alamiyan Zobeydeh Beygom (b. 4 December 1586 -k. 20 February 1632). She had issue, three sons and one daughter, including: Jahan-Banoo Begum, married in 1623, Simon II of Kartli son of Bagrat VII of Kartli by his wife, Queen Anna, daughter of Alexander II of Kakheti. She had issue, a daughter: Princess 'Izz-e-Sharif.
  • Princess Shahzadeh 'Alamiyan Khan Agha Beygom, married Khalifa Sultan, son of Mirza Rafi al-Din Muhammad. She had issue, four sons and four daughters.
  • Princess Shahzadeh 'Alamiyan Havva Beygom (d. 1617, Zanjan)
  • Princess Shahzadeh 'Alamiyan Shahbanoo Beygom.
  • Princess Shahzadeh ‘Alamiyan Malek-Nesa Beygom (d. 1629)


  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Mohammad Baqer Feyzi Mirza (b. 15 September 1587, Mashhad, Khorasan-k. 25 January 1615, Rasht, Gilan), was Governor of Mashhad 1587–1588, and of Hamadan 1591–1592. Married (1st) at Esfahan, 1601, Princess Fakhri-Jahan, daughter of Ismail II. Married (2nd) Del Aram, a Georgian. Married (3rd) Marta daughter of Eskandar Mirza. He had issue, two sons:
    • (By Del Aram) Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Abul-Naser Sam Mirza, succeeded as Safi.
    • (By Fakhri-Jahan) Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Soleyman Mirza (k. August 1632 at Alamut, Qazvin). He had issue.
  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Hasan Mirza (b. September 1588, Mazandarand. 18 August 1591, Qazvin)
  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Hosein Mirza (b. 26 February 1591, Qazvind. before 1605)
  • Prince Shahzadeh Tahmasph Mirza
  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Mohammad Mirza (b. 18 March 1591, Qazvink. August 1632, Alamut, Qazvin) Blinded on the orders of his father, 1621.
  • Prince Shahzadeh Soltan Ismail Mirza (b. 6 September 1601, Esfahank. 16 August 1613)
  • Prince Shahzadeh Imam Qoli Amano'llah Mirza (b. 12 November 1602, Esfahank. August 1632, Alamut, Qazvin) Blinded on the orders of his father, 1627. He had issue, one son:
    • Prince Shahzadeh Najaf Qoli Mirza (b. 1625-k. August 1632, Alamut, Qazvin)



Abbas gained strong support from the common people. Sources report him spending much of his time among them, personally visiting bazaars and other public places in Isfahan.[123] Short in stature but physically strong until his health declined in his final years, Abbas could go for long periods without needing to sleep or eat and could ride great distances. At the age of 19 Abbas shaved off his beard, keeping only his moustache, thus setting a fashion in Iran.[124][125]

The Cambridge History of Iran rejects the view that the death of Abbas marked the beginning of the decline of the Safavid dynasty as Iran continued to prosper throughout the 17th century, but blames him for the poor statesmanship of the later Safavid shahs: "The elimination of royal princes, whether by blinding or immuring them in the harem, their exclusion from the affairs of state and from contact with the leading aristocracy of the empire and the generals, all the abuses of the princes' education, which were nothing new but which became the normal practice with Abbas at the court of Isfahan, effectively put a stop to the training of competent successors, that is to say, efficient princes prepared to meet the demands of ruling as kings."[122]

According to Roger Savory: "Shah Abbas I possessed in abundance qualities which entitle him to be styled 'the Great'. He was a brilliant strategist and tactician whose chief characteristic was prudence. He preferred to obtain his ends by diplomacy rather than war, and showed immense patience in pursuing his objectives."[120] In Michael Axworthy's view, Abbas "was a talented administrator and military leader, and a ruthless autocrat. His reign was the outstanding creative period of the Safavid era. But the civil wars and troubles of his childhood (when many of his relatives were murdered) left him with a dark twist of suspicion and brutality at the centre of his personality."[121]

Character and legacy

Unexpectedly, Abbas now chose as heir the son of Mohammed Baqir Mirza, Sam Mirza, a cruel and introverted character who was said to loathe his grandfather because of his father's murder. It was he who in fact did succeed Shah Abbas at the age of seventeen in 1629, taking the name Shah Safi. Abbas's health was troubled from 1621 onwards. He died at his palace in Farahabad on the Caspian coast in 1629 and was buried in Kashan.[119]

Imam Qoli Mirza, the third and last son, now became the crown prince. Abbas groomed him carefully for the throne but, for some reason, in 1627, he had him partially blinded and imprisoned in Alamut.[118]

In 1621, Abbas fell seriously ill. His heir, Mohammed Khodabanda, thought he was on his deathbed and began to celebrate his accession to the throne with his Qizilbash supporters. But the shah recovered and punished his son with blinding, which would disqualify him from ever taking the throne.[116] The blinding was only partially successful and the prince's followers planned to smuggle him out of the country to safety to the Mughals whose aid they would use to overthrow Abbas and install Mohammed on the throne. But the plot was betrayed, the prince's followers were executed and the prince himself imprisoned in the fortress of Alamut where he would later be murdered by Abbas' successor, Shah Safi.[117]

Of Abbas' five sons, three had survived past childhood, so the Safavid succession seemed secure. He was on good terms with the crown prince, Circassian, Farhad Beg Cherkes. Shortly after, Mohammed Baqir broke protocol during a hunt by killing a boar before the shah had chance to put his spear in. This seemed to confirm Abbas' suspicions and he sunk into melancholy; he no longer trusted any of his three sons.[114] In 1615, he decided he had no choice but to have Mohammed killed. A Circassian named Behbud Beg executed the Shah's orders and the prince was murdered in a hammam in the city of Resht. The shah almost immediately regretted his action and was plunged into grief.[115]

Shah Abbas in later life with a page. By Muhammad Qasim (1627).[88]

Family tragedies and death

More came of Abbas' contacts with the English, although England had little interest in fighting against the Ottomans. The Sherley brothers arrived in 1598 and helped reorganise the Iranian army, which proved to be pivotal regarding the victory in the Ottoman-Safavid War (1603-1618) and the first Safavid pitched victory over their neighbouring Ottoman arch rivals. One of the Shirley brothers, Robert Shirley, led Abbas' second diplomatic mission to Europe between 1609-1615. The English East India Company also began to take an interest in Iran and in 1622 four of its ships helped Abbas retake Hormuz from the Portuguese in the capture of Hormuz. It was the beginning of the East India Company's long-running interest in Iran.[112]

The shah had set great store on an alliance with Spain, the chief opponent of the Ottomans in Europe. Abbas offered trading rights and the chance to preach Christianity in Iran in return for help against the Ottomans. But the stumbling block of Hormuz remained, a port that had fallen into Spanish hands when the King of Spain inherited the throne of Portugal in 1580. The Spanish demanded Abbas break off relations with the English East India Company before they would consider relinquishing the town. Abbas was unable to comply.[109] Eventually Abbas became frustrated with Spain, as he did with the Holy Roman Empire, which wanted him to make his 400,000+ Armenian subjects swear allegiance to the Pope but did not trouble to inform the shah when the Emperor Rudolf signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans.[110] Contacts with the Pope, Poland and Muscovy were no more fruitful.[111]

In 1599, Abbas sent his first diplomatic mission to Europe.[105] The group crossed the Caspian Sea and spent the winter in Moscow, before proceeding through Norway, Germany (where it was received by Emperor Rudolf II) to Rome where Pope Clement VIII gave the travellers a long audience. They finally arrived at the court of Philip III of Spain in 1602.[106] Although the expedition never managed to return to Iran, being shipwrecked on the journey around Africa, it marked an important new step in contacts between Iran and Europe and Europeans began to be fascinated by the Iranians and their culture – Shakespeare's 1601–02 Twelfth Night, for example, makes two references (at II.5 and III.4) to 'the Sophy', then the English term for the Shahs of Iran.[107][108] Persian fashions—such as shoes with heels, for men—were enthusiastically adopted by European aristocrats.[50] Henceforward, the number of diplomatic missions to and fro greatly increased.[109]

Abbas I as a new Caesar being honoured by the Trumpets of Fame, together with the 1609-1615 Persian embassy, in Allégorie de l'Occasion, by Frans II Francken, 1628.
Fresco in the Doge's Palace in Venice depicting Doge Marino Grimani receiving the Persian Ambassadors, 1599

Abbas' tolerance towards Christians was part of his policy of establishing diplomatic links with European powers to try to enlist their help in the fight against their common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The idea of such an anti-Ottoman alliance was not a new one – over a century before, Uzun Hassan, then ruler of part of Iran, had asked the Venetians for military aid – but none of the Safavids had made diplomatic overtures to Europe and Abbas' attitude was in marked contrast to that of his grandfather, Tahmasp I, who had expelled the English traveller Anthony Jenkinson from his court on hearing he was a Christian.[103] For his part, Abbas declared that he "preferred the dust from the shoe soles of the lowest Christian to the highest Ottoman personage".[104]

Persian ambassador during his entry into Kraków for the wedding ceremonies of King Sigismund III of Poland in 1605.

Contacts with Europe

In 1614–16 during the Ketevan tortured to death when she refused to renounce Christianity.[73][74]

Abbas was generally tolerant of Christianity. The Italian traveller Pietro della Valle was astonished at the Shah's knowledge of Christian history and theology and establishing diplomatic links with European Christian states was a vital part of the shah's foreign policy.[97] Christian Armenia was a key province on the border between Abbas' realm and the Ottoman Empire. From 1604 Abbas implemented a "scorched earth" policy in the region to protect his north-western frontier against any invading Ottoman forces, a policy that involved the forced resettlement of around 300,000 Armenians from their homelands. Many were transferred to New Julfa, a town the shah had built for the Armenians near his capital Isfahan. Thousands of Armenians died on the journey. According to Bomati and Nahavandi, of 56,000 who left Armenia, only 30,000 reached the new town.[98] Those who survived enjoyed considerable religious freedom in New Julfa, where the shah built them a new cathedral. Abbas' aim was to boost the Iranian economy by encouraging the Armenian merchants who had moved to New Julfa. As well as religious liberties, he also offered them interest-free loans and allowed the town to elect its own mayor (kalantar).[99] Other Armenians were transferred to the provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran. These were less lucky. Abbas wanted to establish a second capital in Mazandaran, Farahabad, but the climate was unhealthy and malarial. Many settlers died and others gradually abandoned the city.[100][101][102]

Kelisa-e Vank (the Armenian Vank Cathedral) in New Julfa

Like all other Safavid monarchs, Abbas was a Shi'ite Muslim. He had a particular veneration for Imam Hussein.[94] In 1601, he made a pilgrimage on foot from Isfahan to Mashhad, site of the shrine of Imam Reza, which he restored (it had been despoiled by the Uzbeks).[95] Since Sunni Islam was the religion of Iran's main rival, the Ottoman Empire, Abbas often treated Sunnis living in western border provinces harshly.[96]

Religious attitude and religious minorities

Under Abbas' reign, carpet weaving became an important part of the Persian culture, as wealthy Europeans started importing rugs. Silk production became a monopoly of the crown, and manuscripts, bookbinding, and ceramics were important exports also.[48]

Early in the seventeenth century, Shah Abbas imported Chinese workmen into his country to teach his subjects the art of making porcelain, and the Chinese influence is very strong in the designs on this ware. Chinese marks are also copied, so that to scratch an article is sometimes the only means of proving it to be of Persian manufacture, for the Chinese glaze, hard as iron, will take no mark.[93]

Abbas' painting ateliers (of the Isfahan school established under his patronage) created some of the finest art in modern Iranian history, by such illustrious painters as Reza Abbasi, Muhammad Qasim and others. Despite the ascetic roots of the Ṣafavid dynasty and the religious injunctions restricting the pleasures lawful to the faithful, the art of Abbas' time denotes a certain relaxation of the strictures. Historian James Saslow interprets the portrait by Muhammad Qasim as showing that the Muslim taboo against wine, as well as that against male intimacy, "were more honored in the breach than in the observance".[91] Abbas brought 300 Chinese potters to Iran to enhance local production of Chinese-style ceramics.[92] Ella Sykes's remarks,

The Statue of Shah Abbas, which was on display in Isfahan before the Iranian Revolution


In making Isfahan the center of Safavid Empire, Abbas utilized the Armenian people, who he forcibly relocated to Isfahan. Once they were settled, he allowed them considerable freedom and encouraged them to continue in their silk trade. Silk was an integral part of the economy and considered to be the best form of hard currency available. The Armenians had already established trade networks that allowed Abbas to strengthen the economy of not just the empire but Isfahan also.[90]

Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to the more central and more Persian Isfahan in 1598. Embellished by a magnificent series of new mosques, baths, colleges, and caravansarais, Isfahan became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As Roger Savory writes, "Not since the development of Baghdad in the eighth century A.D. by the Caliph al-Mansur had there been such a comprehensive example of town-planning in the Islamic world, and the scope and layout of the city centre clear reflect its status as the capital of an empire."[89] Isfahan became the centre of Safavid architectural achievement, with the mosques Masjed-e Shah and the Masjed-e Sheykh Lotfollah and other monuments like the Ali Qapu, the Chehel Sotoun palace, and the Naghsh-i Jahan Square.

Isfahan: a new capital

The shah and his subjects

During the 16th century the Portuguese had established bases in the Persian Gulf.[85] In 1602, the Iranian army under the command of Imam-Quli Khan Undiladze managed to expel the Portuguese from Bahrain.[86] In 1622, with the help of four English ships, Abbas retook Hormuz from the Portuguese in the Capture of Ormuz (1622).[87] He replaced it as a trading centre with a new port, Bandar Abbas, nearby on the mainland, but it never became as successful.[88]

The island of Hormuz was captured by an Anglo-Persian force in the 1622 Capture of Ormuz.

War against the Portuguese

After the conquest, he was very conciliatory to Jahangir, claiming he had only taken back what was rightly his and disavowing any further territorial ambitions.[81][82] Jahangir was not appeased but he was unable to recapture the province. A childhood friend of Abbas named Ganj Ali Khan was then appointed as the governor of city, which he would govern until his death in 1624/5.[83][84]

The Safavids were traditionally allied with the Mughals in India against the Uzbeks, who coveted the province of Khorasan. The Mughal emperor Humayun had given Abbas' grandfather, Shah Tahmasp, the province of Kandahar as a reward for helping him back to his throne.[77][78] In 1590, profiting from the confusion in Iran, Humayun's successor Akbar seized Kandahar. Abbas continued to maintain cordial relations with the Mughals, while always asking for the return of Kandahar.[79] Finally, in 1620, a diplomatic incident in which the Iranian ambassador refused to bow down in front of the Emperor Jahangir led to war.[80] India was embroiled in civil turmoil and Abbas found he only needed a lightning raid to take back the far easternmost town of Kandahar in 1622.

Kandahar and the Mughals

After the events which ended in 1616, Iranian rule had been fully restored over eastern Georgia, but the Georgian territories would continue to produce resistance to Safavid enroachments from 1624 until Abbas' death.[76]

In 1614–16 during the Simon II (or Semayun Khan) on the symbolic throne of Kakheti, while placing a series of his own governors to rule of districts where rebellious inhabitants were mostly located.[43] Moreover, he planned to deport all nobles of Kartli.

Teimuraz I of Kakheti (also known as Tahmuras Khan).
Rostom (also known as Rustam Khan), viceroy of Kartli, eastern Georgia, from 1633-1658.

Quelling the Georgian uprising

In 1638, however, after Abbas' death, the Ottomans retook Baghdad and the Iranian–Ottoman border was finalised, which would roughly make up eventually the current Iran - Turkey and the Iran - Iraq borders as well, despite slight adjustment over the centuries. [71] In 1623, Abbas decided to take back Mesopotamia, which had been lost by his grandfather Tahmasp through the

Several years of peace followed as the Ottomans carefully planned their response. But their secret training manoeuvres were observed by Iranian spies. Abbas learnt the Ottoman plan was to invade via Azerbaijan, take Tabriz then move on to Ardabil and Qazvin, which they could use as bargaining chips to exchange for other territories. The shah decided to lay a trap. He would allow the Ottomans to enter the country, then destroy them. He had Tabriz evacuated of its inhabitants while he waited at Ardabil with his army. In 1618, an Ottoman army of 100,000 led by the grand vizier, invaded and easily seized Tabriz.[65] The vizier sent an ambassador to the shah demanding he make peace and return the lands taken since 1602.[66] Abbas refused and pretended he was ready to set fire to Ardabil and retreat further inland rather than face the Ottoman army.[67] When the vizier heard the news, he decided to march on Ardabil right away. This was just what Abbas wanted. His army of 40,000 was hiding at a crossroads on the way and they ambushed the Ottoman army in a battle, which ended in complete victory for the Iranians.[68]

For the first time, the Iranians made great use of their artillery and the town – which had been ruined by Ottoman occupation – soon fell.[62] Abbas set off to besiege Ahmed I, would respond and withdrew from the region using scorched earth tactics.[63] For a year, neither side made a move, but in 1605, Abbas sent his general Allahverdi Khan to meet Ottoman forces on the shores of Lake Van. On 6 November 1605 the Iranians led by Abbas scored a decisive victory over the Ottomans at Sufiyan, near Tabriz.[64] In the Caucasus, during the war Abbas also managed to capture what is now Kabardino-Balkaria. The Persian victory was recognised in the Treaty of Nasuh Pasha in 1612, decisively granting them back suzerainty over most of the Caucasus.

Drawing of the capture of Tabriz and the parading before Shah Abbas I of the severed heads of Ottoman soldiers. Drawn by a European traveller, 1603.

The Safavids had not yet beaten their archrival, the Ottomans, in a straight fight. After a particularly arrogant series of demands from the Turkish ambassador, the shah had him seized, had his beard shaved and sent it to his master, the sultan, in Constantinople. This was a declaration of war.[59] Abbas first recaptured Nahavand and destroyed the fortress in the city, which the Ottomans had planned to use as an advance base for attacks on Iran.[60] The next year, Abbas pretended he was setting off on a hunting expedition to Mazandaran with his men. This was merely a ruse to deceive the Ottoman spies in his court – his real target was Azerbaijan.[61] He changed course for Qazvin where he assembled a large army and set off to retake Tabriz, which had been in Ottoman hands for a while.

"Abbas King of Persia", as seen by Thomas Herbert in 1627.

War against the Ottomans

Abbas' north-east frontier was now safe for the time being and he could turn his attention to the Ottomans in the west.[58] After defeating the Uzbeks, he moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan.[48]

By 1599, Abbas had conquered not only Herat and Mashhad, but had moved as far east as Balkh. This would be a short-lived victory and he would eventually have to settle on controlling only some of this conquest, as when the new rule of the Khanate of Khiva, Baqi Muhammad Khan attempted to retake Balkh, Abbas found his troops were still no match for the Uzbeks. By 1603, the lines had stabilized, albeit with the loss of the majority of the Persian artillery, and Abbas was able to hold onto most of Khorassan, including Herat, Sabzavar, Farah, and Nisa.[57]

[56] Abbas then converted Gilan and Mazandaran into the crown domain (khassa), and appointed Allahverdi Khan as the new commander-in-chief of the Safavid army.[56] Abbas' first campaign with his reformed army was against the Uzbeks who had seized Khorasan and were ravaging the province. In April 1598 he went on the attack. One of the two main cities of the province,

War against the Uzbeks


Abbas then began deposing the vassal rulers of Persia, he first started with [55]

Consolidation of the Empire

Abbas also greatly increased the number of cannons at his disposal, permitting him to field 500 in a single battle.[52] Ruthless discipline was enforced and looting was severely punished. Abbas was also able to draw on military advice from a number of European envoys, particularly from the English adventurers Sir Anthony Shirley and his brother Robert Shirley, who arrived in 1598 as envoys from the Earl of Essex on an unofficial mission to induce Persia into an anti-Ottoman alliance.[53]

Abbas needed ten years to get his army in order to be able to confront his enemies. During this period, the Uzbeks and the Circassians) and Iranians to fight alongside the traditional, feudal force provided by the Qizilbash. The new army regiments had no loyalty but to the shah. They consisted of 10,000–15,000 cavalry or squires (ghulam) armed with muskets and other weapons (then the largest cavalry in the world[50]), a corps of musketeers, or tufangchiyan,[28] (12,000 strong) and one of artillery, called tupchiyan[28] (also 12,000 strong). In addition Abbas had a personal bodyguard of 3,000 also cavalry (ghulams). This force amounted to a total of near 40,000 soldiers paid for and beholden to the Shah.[28][51][52]

Reforming the army

Though the ghulam system, in the way of forming a vying faction and making up a part of a meritocratic society, did not survive well after the Safavids, the Caucasians, originally from this established third force, would continue to play a crucial role during the rest of the Safavid era and in Iran itself for many more centuries to come, until the fall of the Qajar dynasty.[47]

Amongst the negative aspects of the creation of this new layer was, that since the time of Tahmasp' death, these increasing numbers of Georgians and Circassians were already heavily vying with the Qizilbash for power all positions, and were therefore often naturally involved in court intrigues as well. Most of the Safavid Queen-Mothers and dignitaries from the mid 16th century were already either Circassian or Georgian. They would compete against the other mothers and possible successors in the Safavid court and harem in order to get their own sons on the throne. This would only increase under Abbas and his successors after the creation of this new layer in society,[46] creating many intrigues that would weaken the dynasty considerably, which was especially notable under Abbas I and his successors.[47] His own son and crown prince, Mohammad Baqer Mirza, was caught in a court intrigue related to several leading Circassians, which would eventually cost him his life. From the time of Abbas and on, the Safavids and most of the nobles were already thoroughly intermarried and mixed with Circassian and Georgian dignitaries.

Thus, due to Shah Abbas, this new group, solely composed of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Caucasians eventually came to constitute a powerful "third force" within the state, as a new layer in Iranian society, being present in every aspect of the latter, alongside the Persians and the Qizilbash Turks, and it only goes to prove the meritocratic society of the Safavids.[45]

Another important task that Abbas needed to perform while replacing the Qizilbash with the Caucasians, was while utilizing his allies in the Qizilbash, he had to eradicate those tribes that he considered his enemies. First and foremost of these were the Qajars. The Ustajlus were a needed ally in this period, when he stripped the power from all those Qizilbash tribes that supported other princes.[44]


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