Reign of ‘Abbās the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under ՙAbbās the Great, Ṣafavid Persia reached its height of political unity, economic prosperity, and cultural advancement. The Ṣafavid golden age was made possible by military, administrative, and economic transformations made by ՙAbbās before 1600.

Summary of Event

At the age of sixteen, ՙAbbās the Great took advantage of animosity between his nearly blind father and support from several leading nobles to seize the throne and become shah. The main force intended to use the young ՙAbbās as a puppet ruler. Family intrigues were an integral part of the Ṣafavid Dynasty and Persian palace life long before and long after ՙAbbās’s reign, the problem being that there was no clear system of inheritance. Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] ՙAbbās the Great Sherley, Sir Anthony Sherley, Sir Robert Ismāՙīl I Ismāՙīl II Sherley, Sir Anthony Sherley, Sir Robert Ismāՙīl I ՙAbbās the Great

Brothers of the shah plotted against brothers, and son against son, as nobles allied to various factions. ՙAbbās’s own life nearly ended at the age of five when his uncle, Shah Ismā ՙīl II (r. 1576-1577), ordered the execution of his brothers and their male children. Ismā ՙīl’s own untimely death prevented the murders.

During his first few years in power, ՙAbbās solved the problem of intrigues by the nobles by manipulating factions that threatened the independent decision making of the throne. In attempting to govern his kingdom, however, ՙAbbās faced difficulties far exceeding the efforts by leading nobles to control him. ՙAbbās’s father and uncle had been inept rulers. The Ottoman Turks to the west and Uzbek tribesmen to the northeast had occupied considerable portions of territories once ruled by Persia. His own Turkmen supporters, which formed the bulk of the Persian cavalry, were engaging in intertribal quarrels, leading to a state of near anarchy.

To unify the disintegrating Ṣafavid Empire, ՙAbbās had to move one step at a time. In 1590, he concluded a humiliating treaty with the Ottoman Turks to buy time, first to subdue Turkmen rebellions in 1592 by ravaging the Black Sea province of Gilan and then to concentrate his forces on the Uzbeks Uzbeks . He regained Mashhad, and in 1597, he decimated Uzbek forces in a major battle near Herāt Herāt, Battle of (1597)[Herat, Battle of (1597)] . By 1598, the Uzbek khan had died and Persia’s eastern borders were secured. It was now time to confront the Ottoman Turks. However, ՙAbbās’s armies were made up largely of Kizilbash (“red heads”), men from the seven Turkish tribes that helped the Ṣafavids first come to power. They were given to the army by provincial landholders as a form of local taxation and were unpaid, ill trained, poorly equipped, and highly unreliable. The Kizilbash tended to act as a power of their own.

To prepare to fight the Turks, ՙAbbās created the ghulām system. Ghulāms were personal slaves of the shah trained for becoming either administrators, if they were bright, or professional soldiers of a new standing army. Most of the ghulāms were non-Persians and came from Armenian, Circassian, and Georgian populations under Ṣafavid rule. They were converted to Shīՙite Islam and were immune from Persian tribal politics. Other foreigners were encouraged to help forge an army capable of battling the Turks and to help construct a more efficient administration. Two English brothers, Sir Anthony Sherley and Sir Robert Sherley, would have a significant role in modernizing the standing Persian army, bureaucracy, and diplomatic corps. Military;Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]

The Sherleys came to Persia in 1598 with the intention of serving as mercenaries. Robert was accomplished in military strategy and the use of artillery. Accompanying him was a group of cannon founders capable of constructing a native Persian cannon industry. Anthony was well connected and talented in diplomacy. He would be sent to Italy, Spain, and England to forge cooperation against the Turks. Ghulāms were trained in the use of muskets and artillery. Infantry were recruited from the Persian peasantry. Though the new army was far smaller than the old, it was far more modern and cohesive, and was also considerably more expensive to maintain. The new army was to be paid from funds of the royal treasury. Increased royal revenues, however, were obtained by confiscating the lands of the Kizilbash tribal chiefs. Several tribes were moved to other locales to weaken their power.

Finally, in preparation for war, ՙAbbās moved the capital from Qazvīn in 1598 to the more defensible central Persian city of Eşfahān. From Eşfahān, ՙAbbās could communicate with the whole country and with trading outlets on the Persian Gulf. A relatively smooth-running central administration was constructed, too. New provinces were created and put under the administration of royal governors, many of whom were ghulāms.

ՙAbbās also made Eşfahān one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The magnificence of the capital and the court, and the lavish patronage given to philosophers, scientists, and artists, were intended to symbolize the dawning of a new glorious age for the Ṣafavids. He united the nation by forcing the people to convert to Shiism Islam;Shīՙites[Shiites] , a process started nearly one century earlier by the first Ṣafavid shah, Ismāՙīl I, and by establishing Farsi as the national language. All these changes were designed to concentrate power in the hands of ՙAbbās.

It was expensive, however, to build a new capital city and prepare for a war against the Ottomans. To obtain new revenues from taxes, ՙAbbās hoped to launch a commercial transformation. European merchants were invited to Persia by the granting of special privileges and immunities. Whole communities of Armenian merchants were moved to Eşfahān to help with the growth of the silk trade with India. The silk trade itself was made a royal monopoly. Additional revenues were reinvested and turned into construction projects, including highways, bridges, and even merchant lodges. Infrastructure investment, designed to create increased future revenues, indicates both far-sightedness and considerable optimism about the outcome of the planned war with the Ottomans. Economy;Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]

ՙAbbās also was a skilled politician, well liked by his subjects. He maintained the loyalty of his people, projected the image of a benevolent ruler, attended Christmas Mass with his Christian subjects, and acted humbly in public while often wearing simple clothes. He demanded honesty from public officials and dealt harshly with officials who were corrupt. He showed an active love of painting, music, and poetry.


The war against Turkey started in 1603, and an initial success was the retaking of Tabrīz, given to the Ottomans by ՙAbbās at the beginning of his reign. By 1623, victory over the Ottomans was complete, and ՙAbbās would rule a unified state that included modern-day Iran and most of Iraq.

Not resting on his accomplishments, ՙAbbās was able to use Robert Sherley to help get naval aid from the British East India Company to remove, in 1622, Portuguese control of the strategically located island of Hormuz. The new center of trade on Hormuz was named after the shah. By defeating the Portuguese, ՙAbbās became master of the Persian Gulf. The Persian economy would be heavily integrated into world trade with England and the Netherlands.

Even though the empire forged by ՙAbbās the Great was magnificent, it was also short-lived because of inept successors. Paranoid about his own family, ՙAbbās had his oldest son executed and two other sons blinded, rendering them unfit to rule and leaving a poorly trained grandson to become shah.

The empire was fragmented after a renewed push by the Ottomans from the west and the Mughals from the east following ՙAbbās’s death. In 1722, the Ghilzai Afghans seized Eşfahān, marking the end of Ṣafavid rule.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canby, Sheila. The Golden Age of Persian Art: 1501-1722. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. A scholarly and beautifully illustrated study of the arts and crafts of Ṣafavid Persia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melville, Charles, ed. Ṣafavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Scholarly articles on the Ṣafavids, including a forty-page chapter on ՙAbbās the Great. Index and footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monshi, Eskandar. History of Shah ՙAbbās the Great. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1978. The only major study of ՙAbbās, this work is valuable as a reference but difficult to read. Index, glossary, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savory, Roger. Iran Under the Ṣafavids. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Provides an excellent general context and account of the reign of ՙAbbās and other Ṣafavids. Includes bibliography, references, and index.

1469-1508: Ak Koyunlu Dynasty Controls Iraq and Northern Iran

1501-1524: Reign of Ismāՙīl I

Dec. 2, 1510: Battle of Merv Establishes the Shaybānīd Dynasty

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz

1598: Astrakhanid Dynasty Is Established

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