Monday, January 16, 2012

Shah Abbas and The Remaking of an Empire

Shah Abbas I
The first time I visited Esfahan, I was captivated by a slogan flashing on a neon sign outside my hotel window every night. Esfahan, nesf-e jahan, it proclaimed to the dark neighborhood: Esfahan – half the world. The words had me imagining a cosmopolitan metropolis whose streets were filled with traders from around the world, intellectuals arguing the finer points of philosophy in a cacophony of languages, tourists thronging museums, mosques, and palaces. In reality, I didn’t see a single foreigner (besides myself) in all the days my husband and I spent exploring the city.

But there was a time when Esfahan’s bold claim did ring true. Five hundred years ago, it was the heart of a vibrant empire, an economic, cultural, and political powerhouse built by an ambitious and visionary king.

Shah Abbas I, who ruled Iran from 1587 to 1629 during the Safavid Dynasty, was sixteen when he seized power in a coup against his father, Mohamed Mirza, a weak-willed monarch who had allowed the country to descend into political chaos. Shah Mohamed had sat by as the Ottomans seized vast territories in the west, and he ceded much of the northeastern Khorasan province to the Uzbeks. Infighting between the powerful Qizilbash tribesmen, who governed the provinces and controlled the military, undermined the government’s central authority.

The new king set about rectifying his father’s mistakes, ruling Iran with a keen sense of military strategy, political savvy, and a combination of compassion and ruthlessness. He beat back the Ottomans and Uzbeks, strengthened central authority, reformed the military and government institutions, opened up trade with the West, and launched what is now recognized as the Golden Age of Iranian art and culture.

Naghsh-e Jahan Square, Esfahan
In 1597, Shah Abbas relocated his capital from the northern city of Qazvin to the more centrally situated Esfahan, which was better suited for overseeing his empire (encompassing present day Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey) and afforded more convenient access to the southern trading ports. He built a new city, partly with the help of Armenian artisans he’d forcibly resettled from his northeastern border to areas in the nation’s interior to establish a buffer between Iran and the Ottoman Empire. By depopulating the region, Abbas prevented the Ottomans from using the Armenian villages to launch attacks against Iran. Yes, he could be ruthless.

Shah Abbas’s military, economic, and political strategies were all intertwined and aimed at creating a strong nation. Peace in the border regions brought prosperity that allowed art and culture to flourish. The end to internal strife strengthened the king’s authority and helped fill the royal coffers, which gave Abbas the financial means to establish trade with the West and gain the support of his people. He saw Europe as a natural ally in his ongoing struggle against the Ottomans, and the flourishing silk trade he established with the Dutch and the British melded European economic interests with his own desire for stability.

Contemporary accounts describe Abbas as a highly intelligent and intensely curious man, a compassionate ruler who honored and valued human rights, freedom of religion, and education. He used Christian Armenian merchants to conduct the silk trade with the West on the principle that Europeans would be able to relate better to followers of their own faith. He built universities and hospitals and welcomed foreigners and their ideas to his court, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of his predecessors.

Vank Cathedral, New Julfa, Esfahan
Photo by Raeabileah

Although you could argue that the forcible relocation of Armenians was anything but compassionate (thousands died on the march south), once in Esfahan, these new residents enjoyed a certain amount of freedom and autonomy. Abbas built them their own town named New Julfa and allowed them to largely govern themselves, own property, and practice their religion (he even built them a beautiful cathedral that still stands today) – all notions that were rare among Muslim leaders of the time.

Unfortunately, Abbas’s compassion didn’t extend to his own family. Obsessed with fears that his progeny would overthrow him in a violent coup, he had his eldest son assassinated and two others blinded. According to the beliefs of the time, a blind man could not become king.

Subsequent Iranian rulers undermined many of Shah Abbas’s accomplishments, and the country again lost vast territories in the 18th and 19th centuries, this time to Afghanistan and Russia. But the ghost of this charismatic Safavid leader lives on in Esfahan, where the blue-tiled mosques and richly decorated palaces he built still sparkle in the desert sun, and his ornate bridges link two halves of the city across the Zayandeh Rud, a river (aptly named the Giver of Life) that snakes through the arid landscape. The city may not be host to half the world anymore, but it does mark a milestone in Iranian history – when a charismatic monarch unified his fragmented nation under the banner of religious tolerance and prosperity.

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