Friday, November 2, 2012

'Abbas I

ʿAbbas I, also known as ʿAbbas the Great (b. January 27, 1571 in Herat - d. January 19, 1629 in Mazandaran), was the shah of Persia from 1588 to 1629.  'Abbas I strengthened the Ṣafavid dynasty by expelling Ottoman and Uzbek troops from Persian soil and by creating a standing army. He also made Esfahan the capital of Persia and fostered commerce and the arts, so that Persian artistic achievement reached a zenith during his reign.

The third son of Soltan Mohammad Shah, ʿAbbas came to the throne in October 1588, at a critical moment in the fortunes of the Safavid dynasty. The weak rule of his semi-blind father had allowed usurpation by the amirs, or chiefs, of the Turkmen tribes, who had brought the Safavid to power and still constituted the backbone of Safavid military strength. Moreover, the inter-tribal factionalism of these Turkmen (known as Kizilbash [Red Heads] because of the distinctive red headgear that they had adopted to mark their adherence to the Safavids) had so weakened the state that its traditional enemies, the Ottoman Turks to the west and the Uzbeks to the east, had been able to make large inroads into Persian territory.

Shah ʿAbbas thus had two immediate tasks: (1) to reassert the authority of the monarchy and (2) to expel Ottoman and Uzbek troops from Persian soil. Because he was unable to fight a war on two fronts simultaneously, in 1589–90, 'Abbas signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans, thus freeing himself for an offensive against the Uzbeks. By the treaty, large areas in west and northwest Persia were ceded to the Ottomans. Despite the breathing space thus gained, ʿAbbas for 10 years was unable to launch a major offensive against the Uzbeks, and Iran suffered further loss of territory both to the Uzbeks and to the Mughals of India.

The delay was caused by ʿAbbas’ decision to create a standing army -- a concept novel to Safavid kings, who traditionally levied armies in time of need from the tribal cavalry. The creation of a standing army immediately caused a budgetary problem, because the old tribal cavalry had been paid from the revenues of the provinces governed by Kizilbash chiefs. ʿAbbas solved the problem in the short term by bringing a number of these provinces directly under the control of the Shah.  The taxes in these new “crown” provinces were remitted to the royal treasury. In the long run, the inevitable result of this policy, the reduction in the numbers of Kizilbash troops, seriously weakened the country’s military strength.

The new standing army was composed mainly of Georgians, Armenians, and Circassians (who had been brought to Persia as prisoners during the reign of ʿAbbas’ grandfather) and their descendants. After their conversion to Islam, they were trained for service either in the army or in the administration of the state or the royal household. Shah ʿAbbas felt that he could rely on the loyalty of these ghulams (“slaves”) of the shah, as they were known, and he used them to counterbalance the influence of the Kizilbash, whom he distrusted. Ghulams soon rose to high office and were appointed governors of crown provinces.

Eventually, ʿAbbas was able to take the offensive against his external foes. In 1598 he inflicted a major defeat on the Uzbeks and regained control of Khorasan. From 1602 onward, he conducted a series of successful campaigns against the Ottomans and recovered the territory lost to them.
After his great victory over the Uzbeks, ʿAbbas transferred the capital from Kazvin to Esfahan. Under his guidance, Esfahan rapidly became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. He adorned the city with many mosques and theological colleges and constructed numerous caravansaries and public baths. He laid out the city with spacious boulevards and a splendid square.  'Abbas' building energies were not confined to Esfahan.  The extension and restoration of the famous shrine at Meshed and the construction, along the swampy littoral of the Caspian Sea, of the celebrated stone causeway, designed to give access to 'Abbas' favorite winter retreats, were among his most notable achievements.

To Esfahan came ambassadors from European countries, merchants seeking to establish trade relations, representatives of foreign monastic orders seeking permission to found convents at Esfahan and elsewhere, and gentlemen of fortune, such as the brothers Anthony and Robert Sherley -- the former an adventurer, the latter a loyal servant of the Shah who distinguished himself in the wars against the Ottomans. The reign of Shah ʿAbbas was a period of intense commercial and diplomatic activity, and, in the Persian Gulf, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English strove to make themselves masters of trade there and in the Indian Ocean.

ʿAbbas’ reign also marked a peak of Persian artistic achievement. Under his patronage, carpet weaving became a major industry, and fine Persian rugs began to appear in the homes of wealthy European burghers. Another profitable export was textiles, which included brocades and damasks of unparalleled richness. The production and sale of silk was made a monopoly of the crown. In the illumination of manuscripts, bookbinding, and ceramics, the work of the period of ʿAbbas is without equal. In painting, the work during the 'Abbas period is among the most notable in Persian history.

Alternative names include:

'Abbas I
'Abbas I of Persia
'Abbas the Great
Shah 'Abbas
Shah 'Abbas I
Shah 'Abbas I of Persia
Shah 'Abbas the Great

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