Shah Abbas I was the first of the Safavid Shahs to establish Persia as a homogeneous state, enforcing, often brutally, adherence to Shi'ism, and imposing Farsi as a unifying language throughout the land.
He was a grandson of Shah Tahmasp and together with his father narrowly escaped death at the hands of Ismail, the fourth son of Shah Tahmasp, who had taken the throne and ordered his brothers and their descendants to be killed. The untimely death of Ismail, following a debauch, prevented the order being put into effect. Abbas' father, Mahomed Mirza, had left the affairs of state to his vizier, Mirza Soleiman. The restless nobles wanted to see the young Abbas take over the kingdon and declared themselves ehind him in Khorassan. His father first sacrificed his vizier and then relied on the support of his oldest son, Humza Mirza, however after the assassination of Humza, general confuson ensued during which, one of the nobles, Murshud Kooli Khan marched on Qazvin with the young Abbas and installed him there as Shah in 1586, thinking to rule through him.
Abbas' first acts were to restore internal order and put down rebellions and invasions associated with the Turkomen. He is said to have ordered a general massacre of the inhabitants of the Black Sea province of Gilan in 1592, to prevent their continual flirtation with Turkish interests. By 1597 he and his generals had recovered most of the land lost to the Turks and had subdued Luristan.
It was at this time that the two English knight, Sir Anthony Sherley and his brother Sir Robert arrived. They offered their services as mercenaries and Abbas employed Anthony as a diplomat to secure European support for his campaign against the Turks while Robert remained behind in Persia to train his army and to teach them how to build and use cannons.
The war against the Turks started in 1605 and an early success was the recapture of Tabriz, held by the Turks for 18 years. On August 24th 1605 the Persian armies defeated a substantially larger Turkish army in an engagement in which over 20,000 Turks were killed, and any threat from this quarter was eliminated. He also captured the important trading base of Hormuz from the Portuguese with the co-operation of the English East India Company. However his refusal to allow any fortification of the island meant that its important position could not be sustained.
His domestic policy was marked by a real interest in building up the infrastructure for a successful ecomony. New roads and bridges were built and he imported skilled merchants from Armenia to help build up the silk trade with India. As part of the stabilisation process he enforced adherence to Shi'ism and acceptance of Farsi as the national language. He put to death many of the Qizilbash tribesmen who had traditionally been associated with Safavid rule up to this point, and instead surrounded himself with an elite household guard.
His personal life was less fortunate. He seems to have laboured under real fears of plots and assassination. He had his eldest son killed because he thought he was planning to assassinate him and the two remaining sons were then blinded to render them unfit to rule the country. We are told Abbas suffered terrible remorse for these deeds. He ordered his son's executioner to kill his own son, so that he would share Abbas' feelings. Subsequently he developed an unnatural affection for his grand-daughter, Fatima. Her father killed her and then poisoned himself to frustrate Abbas' desires.
Shah Abbas died in 1628 at the age of 70 in Mazanderan. His tomb is in Kashan, in the Shrine of Habib ibn-Musa. He had always had a great fondness for this city which lay on the route from Isfahan to the former capital of Qazvin, and had caused a beautiful garden to be laid out there, the Bagh-e-Fin, which subsists to this day.
His impact upon Isfahan is even more pronounced. He completely rebuilt the centre of the city and gave it its present shape. The Meidan-e-Shah is his creation, as are the buildings which flank it, the Bazaar, the Palace of Ali Qapu, the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque and the Royal Mosque. The main street of Chahar Bagh was also his creation. The famous Bridge of 33 Arches was built at his command and an aqueduct, the Jubi Bridge, was built to bring water to the gardens with which he filled the city centre.
Maybe the last word on this far-sighted and cruel despot should be left with Chardin, who wrote:
When this great prince ceased to live, Persia ceased to prosper.

Last updated: November 01, 1998