Shah Abbas I: Challenges and Solutions

  July 25, 2021   Read time 5 min
Shah Abbas I: Challenges and Solutions
The new shah tackled the Turkmen amirs from the outset in a relentless and uncompromising fashion. He began by executing a group of tribal amirs whom he held responsible for the murder of his brother Hamza.

Murshid Qull Khan Ustajlu, whom Shah 'Abbas appointed his viceroy, may well have counted on the sixteen-year-old ruler now giving him a free hand. This hope was rapidly dispelled. Before long the measures taken by the new government bore the hallmark of the young monarch himself. The most urgent problems confronting him were the same as those which had constantly recurred in previous years. In the first place there was the internal problem of the Turkmen tribalism which had been fostered by the protracted weakness of the central government. From the beginning of the reign of the Safavids, all-powerful tribal princes had filled the military offices at court, while others held sway with their clans in the provinces as feudal lords, either as governors or as the guardians of princes who had not yet attained the age of majority.

In some provinces it appears that certain tribes regarded it as their prescriptive right to hold the governorship and other administrative offices — for instance, the Dulghadir in Fars and the Shamlu in Kirman. At about this time another problem arose with the renewed rise to power of certain previously subjugated local dynasties, mostly in the frontier regions of the empire. However, the external difficulties of the realm were almost more acute than the domestic situation. The enemies of the Safavids, especially the Ottomans in the west and the Uzbeks in the east, had overrun large areas, totalling well-nigh half the territory bequeathed by Shah Tahmasp to his successors; and now they were making preparations for fresh attacks on Persia. Under such conditions trade and industry suffered and the living standards of the people were correspondingly wretched.

Through determined and consistently applied policies Shah 'Abbas I overcame the crisis in which the country had found itself at the beginning of his reign. It took him many years and he repeatedly suffered grave setbacks. Yet his eventual success, like his personality, left a deep impression on his people. The memory of this particular shah survived in Iran for generations and even to this day it has not completely disappeared. What interests us, however, is the question of how he found for these problems the solutions which had eluded his predecessors for so long. The most urgent problem at the time of the shah's accession was the feuding of the Turkmen amirs, which had grown to the proportions of a civil war. As will be recalled, their power rested ultimately on the services rendered by their forefathers as soldiers of the Ardabll order at the time of the foundation and expansion of the Safavid empire.

Of course, there could no longer be any question of the old relationship between the shah as grand master of the order and the Qizilbash as his disciples, nor is there any doubt that the theocratic ideas of Isma'Il I had lost their validity for Shah 'Abbas. If, however, the strength of the former religious ties had declined, this is not to say that they had been completely forgotten or had dwindled into insignificance. The erosion of these old ties has been amply demonstrated by the above-mentioned activities of the amirs. But their decay is also demonstrated by 'Abbas's readiness to cast aside the old customs of the order whenever it was in his interest to do so. On the other hand he willingly obeyed or enforced them if it suited him. Naturally the conflict with the Qizilbash was in the first instance a political problem, but an element of the original religious relationship remained.

Apart from this religious aspect the history of the Safavid empire up to 'Abbas I is synonymous with the history of the rivalry between the two leading ethnic groups within the state, the Turkmen and the Iranian elements. One can also view it as a conflict between town and country, between nomads and settlers. There were plenty of attempts to achieve a solution. It is an open question whether we should lay greater emphasis on the endeavour to break the dominant power of the Turkmen amirs or on the effort to unite and reconcile Persian and Turk such as was represented in the person of individual members of the Safavid dynasty. Whichever view we take, the failure is obvious: nobody succeeding in working out a compromise between these opposing elements.
The new shah tackled the Turkmen amirs from the outset in a relentless and uncompromising fashion. He began by executing a group of tribal amirs whom he held responsible for the murder of his brother Hamza. He continued by crushing savagely a conspiracy of tribal leaders who were plotting to depose him, and then eliminated his erstwhile guardian Murshid Qull Khan Ustajlu, who had boycotted an expedition to relieve the siege of Herat by the Uzbeks because of his long-standing dispute with the city governor, 'AH Qull Khan Shamlu. There were several other examples over the years, but we need not go into detail at this-point. The experiences of the shah's youth, such as the assassination of his mother and his brother Hamza, undoubtedly helped to inspire his life-long suspicion of the Qizilbash. So ineradicable was this suspicion that he even removed an outstanding general for the sole reason that he considered him to have acquired too much power. In the end Shah 'Abbas succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of the Turkmen amirs and in suppressing the constant squabbles among the tribes.