The Islamic World to 1600
Abbas I, 1587-1629
Like the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman I, the Safavids under Abbas, sometimes known as Abbas the Great, reached their height during his reign. His task at the beginning of his reign was to rejuvenate the ailing Safavid Empire, which had fallen nearly to the point of collapse since the death of Tahmasp in 1576. Qizilbash revolts were paralysing the military, and the Ottomans and Uzbeks had taken advantage of that fact to occupy Tabriz and Herat, respectively, as well as much territory surrounding those cities. Respect for and loyalty to the shah had also dropped under the inept rule of Ismail II and Muhammad, and Abbas thus had the formidable task ahead of him of turning the empire around and reasserting its power in the Islamic world.
He turned his attention to military matters first, in an effort to reconquer the lands the Safavids had recently lost. In order to focus his resources on a war with the Uzbeks, Abbas concluded a humiliating peace treaty with the Ottomans in 1590. After a long war in the east, the Uzbek khan died in 1598, and in the ensuing chaos the Safavids were able to reconquer Herat and stabilise the eastern frontier. Abbas then turned against the Ottomans and retook Tabriz in 1605. In 1623, he reclaimed Baghdad after a century of Ottoman rule, and by his death in 1629, the Safavid Empire had returned to the borders first established for it by Ismail I.
Abbas also concluded new agreements with foreign powers concerning trade. By the time of his ascension to the throne, the Portuguese had established bases on the islands of Hurmuz and Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, which diverted trade from the traditional overland routes across Persia to Portuguese-
controlled sea routes through the Indian Ocean network. Although the English occasionally traded through Persia and Russia to avoid passing through the Ottoman Empire, the Persian economy was weakened by the general loss of trade. With the establishment of the English East India Company in 1600, however, the Safavids saw a renewal of their lands as a trade route. The East India Company broke the Portuguese trading monopoly, and by 1616 they had reached an agreement with the Safavids to trade English cloth for Persian silk. In 1622, the English helped Abbas take Hurmuz from the Portuguese, since without a navy, he had been unable to quell the threat they posed to his southern coast any earlier than that. Trading relationships thus drew the Safavids into European affairs, either as a middleman for goods from India, or as an ally against the Ottoman Empire.
Domestically, Abbas also initiated several significant policies. Foremost on his agenda was to find a way to quell the constant Qizilbash fighting and revolts. He did this by establishing a permanent, paid army of his own, made up mainly of prisoners from the Caucasus, to avoid having to rely on Qizilbash military support in every Safavid campaign. The new army could put down Qizilbash revolts when necessary, and it was loyal only to the shah. In order to pay his new troops, Abbas increased crown land holdings by seizing land from Qizilbash landholders. This action not only added revenue to the royal treasury to pay the new army, but it also took further power from the Qizilbash, which was the original aim of creating a non-Qizilbash army in the first place. This internal restructuring of the empire caused a major power shift, resulting in the increased centralisation of power in the hands of the shah. In doing so, Abbas essentially ensured the survival of the empire for a century after his death, because despite the series of weak rulers who followed him, the central administration he established was able to continue operating.
In 1598, Abbas moved the Safavid capital to Isfahan from Qazwin, which had itself taken over from Tabriz, on the Ottoman border, 50 years earlier. Isfahan was located in the centre of Persia, and thus it was not as vulnerable to attack as Tabriz or Qazwin. Abbas adorned Isfahan, which had also been the Seljuk capital centuries earlier, with the latest Persian architecture, including the Ali Qapu, or Royal Palace, and the Masjid-i Shah, or Royal Mosque. Under Abbas, Isfahan became one of the world's greatest cities.
The reign of Shah Abbas the Great represented the height of the Safavid Empire. He was a strong ruler who transformed the empire from near-collapse in 1587 to one of the three Great Islamic Empires by 1600. He involved the Safavids in European trade and diplomacy, and he restructured the army to decrease the number of Qizilbash revolts. At the same time, however, Abbas set the empire up for its decline and eventual collapse at the hands of Afghan invaders a century later. He was an insecure ruler who feared that his ascension to the throne - by deposing his father - would be re-enacted by one of his sons upon him. For that reason, he killed his eldest son in 1615. He also ceased the practice of giving provincial governorships to Safavid princes, which was customarily done to expose the empire's heirs to government, in order for them to be prepared when called to govern it themselves. Abbas feared that this practice gave the princes too much power, however, so he ended it, and instead forced the princes to stay in the harem, to be raised by women and eunuchs. This resulted in ill-educated shahs with no governing experience, and the subsequent low quality of rulers contributed to the empire's decline.
The Safavid Empire was thus a short-lived one, particularly when compared to the long-lived Ottoman Empire. But during its relatively short existence, and particularly during the first century of it, the Safavid Empire established itself as one of Islam's greatest dynasties. Perhaps most significant among its achievements was the widespread conversion of the Persian people to Shi'ism, and thus for the development of the Persian nationalism that remains strong today in Iran.
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