The first of the images of Shah Abbas the Great shown here is an undated and unpublished portrait in a private collection. If its provenance can be confirmed, it is a unique and important representation: especially since it was apparently painted from life, and by an Italian artist. Abbas does indeed look very like John Cartwright’s 1600 description: the Shah was “of an indifferent stature, neither too high, neither too low. His countenance very stern, his eyes fierce and piercing, his colour fwaiffy [whatever that means!], his muftachees on his upper lip long, with his beard cut close to his chin, expressing his martial disposition, and inexorable nature, [so] that at the first a man would think to have nothing in him, but mischief and cruelty. And yet he is of nature courteous and affable, easy to be seen and spoken withal; his manner is to dine openly in the company of his greatest courtiers”.
Shah Abbas The Great
Abbas I of Persia in his court
Shah ‘Abbās King of the Persians. Copper engraving by Dominicus Custos, from his Atrium heroicum Caesarum pub. 1600-1602
Shah Abbas in later life with a page (wine boy). By Muhammad Qasim (1627)
Shāh ‘Abbās the Great (or Shāh ‘Abbās I) (Persian: شاه عباس بزرگ) (January 27, 1571 – January 19, 1629) was Shah (king) of Iran, and generally considered the greatest ruler of the Safavid dynasty. He was the third son of Shah Mohammad.
Abbas came to the throne during a troubled time for Iran. Under his weak-willed father, the country was riven with discord between the different factions of the Qizilbash army, who killed Abbas' mother and elder brother. Meanwhile, Iran's enemies, the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbeks, exploited this political chaos to seize territory for themselves. In 1587, one of the Qizilbash leaders, Murshid Qoli Khan, overthrew Shah Mohammed in a coup and placed the 16-year-old Abbas on the throne. But Abbas was no puppet and soon seized power for himself. He reduced the influence of the Qizilbash in the government and the military and reformed the army, enabling him to fight the Ottomans and Uzbeks and reconquer Iran's lost provinces. He also took back land from the Portuguese and the Mughals. Abbas was a great builder and moved his kingdom's capital from Qazvin to Isfahan. In his later years, the shah became suspicious of his own sons and had them killed or blinded.
Abbas the Great, known for his military exploits in the Persian Gulf and in what is now modern-day Iraq, was the grandson of Shah Tahmasp and the son of Shah Mohammed Mirza Khudabanda (d. 1595). Abbas may have been named after Abbas (d. 653), the uncle of Mohammed and of Caliph Ali. Abbas I was named as ruler of Khurasan (now modern Khorasan, Iran) in 1581, and six years later, he succeeded his father as shah when Mohammed abdicated.
As he took the throne of Persia (now Iran), Abbas’s reign was challenged by a revolt in Persia and the threat of an invasion by forces of the Ottoman Empire (centered in what is now modern Turkey). Abbas paid tribute to the Ottomans to forge a peace and end the threat of incursion; he was then given a free hand to turn on the rebellious forces within his country and defeat them. A military campaign against rebelling Uzbeks (now part of Uzbekistan) in Khurasan was also successful. In 1598, after a lengthy and protracted war, he ended the threat from the Uzbeks when his forces took control of the city of Moshad (now one of Iran’s major cities). As the first of the Safavid leaders, Abbas helped establish modern Persia—later renamed Iran—as a single state, and his advocacy of a single language—in this case, Farsi—unified that nation.
With internal dissent and rebellion crushed, Abbas turned back to the potential external enemy: the Ottoman Empire. He opened his attack in 1601, with his forces taking the city of Tabriz (now the capital of East Azerbaijan province, Iran) in 1604. The mountainous area in what is now known as the Caucasus also fell to Abbas’s forces, most notably Georgia and Shirvan. Although Abbas’s military exploits in this area were largely successful, Ottoman resistance caused the conflict to last until the end of his reign.
In 1606, Abbas fought off a major offensive by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Ahmed II, including a significant clash at Sis, where 20,000 Turks were killed in a single battle. Although Turkey sued for peace, they continued to fight Abbas and his empire in various clashes. However, for many years there was relative peace in his kingdom. It was not until 1616 that Abbas again moved against the Turks, fighting a two-year war that culminated in a major victory in 1618. In 1622, Abbas’s army marched on the island of Hormuz, in the Strait of Hormuz, and, with the assistance of the English East India Company, threw out the Portuguese merchants who controlled that island’s trade. Abbas then moved the center of trading activity to the city of Gombroon (now in Iran), renamed it Bandar Abbas, and established a foothold in the major markets of the Persian Gulf. In 1623, Abbas’s forces took Baghdad, now in modern Iraq, but when they tried to extend their hold on Mosul (in modern northern Iraq) and Basra (in modern southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf ), his troops were thrown back and could not hold either city. In another clash, he took the city of Kandahar (also Qandahar, in modern Afghanistan), but it was lost to the Uzbeks in 1630, a year after Abbas’s death.
During his reign, Abbas was also known for his numerous public works projects, most notably at the Persian capital of Esfahan. He died in 1629 at the age of either 58 or 59. His tomb at Kashan, located in the Shrine of Habib ibn-Musa, is considered one of the marvels of that age.
Of Abbas' five sons, three had survived past childhood, so the Safavid succession seemed secure. He was on good terms with the crown prince, Mohammed Baqir Mirza (born 1587; better known in the West as Safi Mirza). In 1614, however, during a campaign in Georgia, the shah heard rumours that the prince was conspiring against his life with a leading Circassian, Fahrad Beg. Shortly after, Mohammed Baqir broke protocol during a hunt by killing a boar before the shah had chance to put his spear in. This seemed to confirm Abbas’ suspicions and he sunk into melancholy; he no longer trusted any of his three sons. In 1615, he decided he had no choice but to have Mohammed killed. A Circassian named Behbud Beg executed the Shah’s orders and the prince was murdered in a hammam in the city of Resht. The shah almost immediately regretted his action and was plunged into grief.
In 1621, Abbas fell seriously ill. His heir, Mohammed Khodabanda, thought he was on his deathbed and began to celebrate his accession to the throne with his Qizilbash supporters. But the shah recovered and punished his son with blinding, which would disqualify him from ever taking the throne. The blinding was only partially successful and the prince’s followers planned to smuggle him out of the country to safety with the Great Mughal whose aid they would use to overthrow Abbas and install Mohammed on the throne. But the plot was betrayed, the prince’s followers were executed and the prince himself imprisoned in the fortress of Alamut where he would later be murdered by Abbas’ successor, Shah Safi.
Imam Qoli Mirza, the third and last son, now became the crown prince. Abbas groomed him carefully for the throne but, for whatever reason, in 1627, he had him partially blinded and imprisoned in Alamut.
Unexpectedly, Abbas now chose as heir the son of Mohammed Baqir Mirza, Sam Mirza, a cruel and introverted character who was said to loathe his grandfather because of his father’s murder. It was he who in fact did succeed Shah Abbas at the age of seventeen in 1629, taking the name Shah Safi. Abbas’s health was troubled from 1621 onwards. He died at his palace in Mazandaran in 1629 and was buried in Kashan.
Modern historians remember Abbas not only for his unification of Persia but for his skillful use of the military to crush internal rebellion and meet external threats. His drafting of two English brothers, the mercenaries Sir Robert and Sir Anthony Sherley, to train the Persian army in modern fighting methods unknown to most of the Middle Eastern world, rank him as one of the lesser-known but more important military leaders in world history. Historian Tom Magnusson writes: “A remarkable monarch, Abbas was intelligent and farsighted but sometimes cruel and harsh; he was a skillful and energetic administrator and general, and his reform of
the Persian army made it very nearly the equal of the Ottoman army.”
Book "World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary" by Mark Grossman