By: Mir M.Hosseini
Like all great rulers, Shah Abbas was born during troubled times. When in 1578, his father Sultan Mohammad Khodabandeh became Shah of Iran, Queen Mahdolia soon came to dominate the government, but she had little time for Abbas, preferring to promote the interests of his elder brother Hamzeh. The queen antagonized leaders of the powerful Kizilbash army, who plotted against her and strangled her in July, 1579. Mohammad was a weak ruler who was incapable of preventing Iran's rivals, the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbeks, invading the country or stopping factional feuding among the Kizilbash. The young crown prince Hamzeh was more promising and led a campaign against the Ottomans, but he was murdered in mysterious circumstances in 1586. Attention now turned to Abbas.
At the age of 14, Abbas had come under the power of Morshed Gholi Khan, one of Kizilbash leaders in Khorasan. When a large Uzbek army invaded Khorasan in 1587, Morshed decided the time was right to overthrow the ineffectual Shah Mohammad. He rode to the Safavid capital Qazvin with the young prince and proclaimed him king. Mohammad made no protest against his deposition and handed the royal insignia over to his son on October, 1 1587. Shah Abbas was 16 years old.
The Safavi realm Abbas inherited was in a desperate state. The Ottomans had seized vast territories in the west and the north-west including Tabriz and the Uzbek tribes had overrun half of Khorasan in the north-east. Iran itself was being raven between the Kizilbash, who had mocked royal authority by killing Queen Mahdolia in 1579 and the Grand Vezir in 1583.
First, Abbas settled his score with his mother's killers, executing four of the ringleaders of the plot and exiling three others. His next task was to free himself from the power of the kingmaker, Morshed Gholi Khan. Morshed made Abbas marry Hamzeh's widow and a Safavid cousin, and began distributing important government posts among his own friends, gradually confining Abbas to the palace. Meanwhile the Uzbeks continued their conquest of Khorasan. When Abbas heard they were besieging his old friend Ali Gholi Khan Shamloo in Herat he pleaded with Morshed to take action. Fearing a rival, Morshed 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. But Abbas planned to avenge the death of Ali Gholi Khan and he suborned four Kizilbash leaders to kill Morshed after a banquet on July, 23 1589. With Morshed gone, Abbas could now rule Iran in his own right.
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 with the Ottomans in 1589/90, ceding them the provinces of Azerbaijan, Karabagh, Ganjeh as well as parts of Georgia, Lorestan and Kurdistan.
The Kizilbash had provided the backbone of the Iranian army from the very beginning of Safavid rule and they also occupied many posts in the government. To counter-balance their power, Abbas turned to the Gholams; Caucasians who had converted to Islam and taken up service in the army or the administration. Abbas promoted capable Gholams to the highest offices of the state. They included the Georgian Allahverdi Khan, who became leader of the Gholam regiments in the army as well as governor of the rich province of Fars.
Abbas removed provincial governorships from some Kizilbash leaders and transferred Kizilbash groups to the lands of other Kizilbash tribes, thus weakening Kizilbash tribal unity. Budgetary problems were resolved by restoring the shah's control of the provinces formerly governed by the Kizilbash chiefs, the revenues of which supplemented the royal treasury.
Abbas needed to reform the army before he could hope to confront the Ottoman and Uzbek invaders. He also used military reorganization as another way of sidelining the Kizilbash. Instead, he created a standing army of 40,000 Gholams and Iranians to fight alongside the traditional, feudal force provided by the Kizilbash. The new army regiments had no loyalty but to the shah. They consisted of 10,000-15,000 cavalry armed with muskets and other weapons, a corps of musketeers (12,000 strong) and one of artillery (also 12,000 strong). In addition Abbas had elite bodyguards of 3,000 Gholams.
Abbas also greatly increased the amount of cannons at his disposal, permitting him to field 500 in a single battle. 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, and his brother Robert Shirley, who arrived in 1598 as envoys from the Earl of Essex on an unofficial mission to induce Persia into anti-Ottoman alliance.
In April, 1599 he went on his third campaign to liberate Greater Khorasan. The Iranian army reached Mashhad facing insignificant resistance. Time was on the side of Shah Abbas and Mashhad, was easily liberated on July, 19, 1599 after the Uzbek chief Abdolmomen Khan was dead.
After spending three days in Mashhad, Shah Abbas took off towards Herat. Din Mohammad Khan was killed and Herat was liberated on August, 9 1599.
Greater Khorasan was now safe for the time being and he could turn his attention to the Ottomans in the west.
Since the treaty of 1589-90 Abbas had been regarded as almost an Ottoman vassal. The Safavid had never beaten their western neighbors in a straight fight after the Battle of Chaldoran. In 1602, Abbas decided he would no longer put up with Ottoman insults. 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. 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. 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. He changed course for Qazvin where he assembled a large army and set off to retake Tabriz, which had been in Ottoman hands for decades.
For the first time, the Iranians made great use of their artillery and the town - which had been ruined by Ottoman occupation - soon fell. Abbas set off to besiege Erivan, the capital of Armenia, and one of the main Turkish strongholds in the Caucasus. It finally fell in June 1604 and with it the Ottomans lost the loyalty of most Armenians, Georgians and other Caucasians. But Abbas was unsure how the new sultan, Ahmad I, would respond and withdrew from the region using scorched earth tactics. 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.
Several years of peace followed as the Ottomans carefully planned their response. But their secret training maneuvers were observed by Iranian spies. Abbas learnt the Ottoman plan was to invade via Azerbaijan, take Tabriz then move on to Ardebil 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, and then destroy them. He had Tabriz evacuated of its inhabitants while he waited at Ardebil with his army. In 1618, an Ottoman army of 50,000 led by the Grand Vezir, invaded and easily seized Tabriz. The Vezir sent an ambassador to the shah demanding he make peace and return the lands taken since 1602. Abbas refused and pretended he was ready to set fire to Ardebil and retreat further inland rather than face the Ottoman army. When the Vezir heard the news, he decided to march on Ardebil 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.
In 1623, Abbas decided to take back Mesopotamia which had been lost by his grandfather Tahmasp. Profiting from the confusion surrounding the accession of the new Sultan Murat IV, he pretended to be making a pilgrimage to the Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf, but used his army to seize Baghdad. He was distracted by the rebellion in Georgia in 1624 which allowed an Ottoman force to besiege Baghdad, but the shah came to its relief the next year and crushed the Turkish army decisively.
Iran was traditionally allied with Mughal India against the Uzbeks, who coveted the province of Khorasan. The Mughal emperor Homayoon Shah had given Shah Tahmasp, the province of Kandahar as a reward for helping him back to his throne. In 1590, profiting from the confusion in Iran, Homayoon’s successor Akbar seized Kandahar. Abbas continued to maintain cordial relations with the Mughals, while always asking for the return of Kandahar. Finally, in 1620, a diplomatic incident in which the Iranian ambassador refused to bow down in front of the Emperor Jahangir led to war. India was embroiled in civil turmoil and Abbas found he only needed a lightning raid to take back Kandahar in 1622. 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. Jahangir was not appeased but he was unable to recapture the province.
During the 16th century the Portuguese had established bases in the Persian Gulf. In 1602, the Iranian army under the command of Imam Gholi Khan managed to expel the Portuguese from Bahrain. In 1622, with the help of four English ships, Abbas retook Hormoz from the Portuguese. He replaced it as a trading center with a new port, Bandar Abbas.
Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1598. Embellished by a magnificent series of new mosques, baths, colleges, and caravansarays, Isfahan became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Isfahan became the center of Safavid architectural achievement Naghshejahan Square and Alighapoo Palace have been sources of national pride ever since.
Shah Abbas the Great was in poor health from 1621 onwards. He died at his palace in Mazandaran in 1629 and was buried in Kashan. His grandson Shah Safi succeeded him.