Shah Abbas (1571 – 1629) the Great became the 5th Safavid king, Empire in1588. The King 41 years reign marked one of the golden age of Persian culture. In order to reinforce his army, Shah Abbas sought out advance European weapons and technology. To fulfill his dream, he invited Western visitors to his capital Isfahan, even allowing Christian missionaries to come and preach.
Shah Abbas empowerment and his competence in producing refocus, which led to the development of Iranian in many aspects, made him the ultimate authority in all affairs. He was the third son of Shah Muhammad Khodabanda generally considered the strongest ruler of the Iranian dynasty.
In the following selection, Father Simon, a Carmelite missionary, reports on the customs of the Safavids and on the rule of Shah ‘Abbas. The country which I saw is sporadically inhabited, for the most part of all flat, with very little water and abundance of uncultivated land. However, the cultivated area has a great abundance of all sorts of produce, such as we have in Italy, and cheap.
For less than a real seven pounds of white bread could be had in Isfahan, and at the time there was a scarcity. There is plenty of wine, rice, melons, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables all-year-round fresh can be seen of meat and oxen sufficiently so. The Persians do not eat the flesh of cows and calves, but mutton to a vast extent and horseflesh, which is the most respected and by the nobles.
The climate is very temperate – and last winter there was little cold. In Isfahan, where I was, with no snow fell, but a little at the end of February. The heat of the summer is not great – and on account of the clemency of the climate all sleep in the open on the roofs, and those who are sick likewise. Although, the Persians have very little doctors, yet there are many old men among them. Their garb is a long garment, different from that of the Turks – they tie shawls around their waists, and almost all of them go clothed in cotton stuff of various colors in imitation of the king.
Their main food is rice with meat, and they do not use such variety, nor dainties as in these countries of Europe: and they are frugal and pleased with little food. At their banquets, they display great sumptuousness, both in the great number of viands, as in the preparation and serving of them. Allah Virdi Khan, a captain-general of the king of Persia, in a banquet he gave to certain Kurdish ambassadors, put on the table lavishly 3,000 dishes all of gold with lids of the same. As I was informed by some Turks who were present. Almost all of them drink wine: they sit and eat on the ground.
On the rich red carpets, the houses are of stone, amazing inside for the great amount of stucco work ornamenting the ceilings and the walls. So, they do not employ tapestries. On the street side, they have no windows. So that their women should not be seen – and thus, the streets are not attractive, nor is the city fine. The Persians are white (skinned), of fair stature, courteous, friendly towards foreigners and tractable. Therefore, they set store on the nobility of birth, which the Turks normally do not do.
They are very ceremonious and use many forms of graciousness after their own fashion. There are some of them, who profess to be philosophers and mathematicians, almost all of them to be poets. And they frequently have books in their hands. They have numerous large mosques, where they go to offer their prayers, and they allow any nation whatsoever to enter them.
Five times daily, morning, noon, evening & night, they offer prayers. First, they wash, then they spread a carpet or their outer garment on the ground, placing on it a stone and they make many prostrations. They make a profession of cleanliness with respect to their bodies, clothes and in everything. Almost all the women who are to be seen in the squares, both in the clothes they wear and in other matters, comport themselves with much diffidence.
In addition, the long dresses wear a kerchief of white linen which covers them completely and they never let their faces or their hands be seen. Hence, the rest go to about and ride through the city. The Persians were previously very irrational and abhorred Christians as if these latter were a foul race. Thus, they would not eat with them, nor from the vessels from which a Christian had eaten, nor did they allow them to tread on their carpets, north touch them. If a Christian were to touch the garment of one, the man would take it off and have it washed.
These days, because the Abbas Shah shows great regard for Christians, passes his time with them and sets them at his table. They have abandoned all this and act towards them as they do towards their own people: only in some distant districts and among the common folk is it kept up.
The king, Shah ’Abbas is 34 years old of medium height, rather thin than fat, his face round and small, tanned by the sun, with hardly any beard. He was very vivacious and alert so that he is always doing something or other. He is sturdy and healthy, accustomed to much exercise and toil. Many times, he goes about on foot, and recently he had been forty days on pilgrimage, which he made on foot the whole time.
He has extraordinary strength, and with his scimitar can cut a man in two and a sheep with its wool on at a single blow and the Persian sheep are of large size. He has done numerous other feats and has found no one to come up to him in them. In his food, he is frugal, as also in his dress. He set an example to his subjects and so, in public he eats very little else than rice, and that cooked in water only.
His the normal dress is of linen, and very plain, likewise, the nobles and others in his realm, the following suit. While, formerly they used to go out dressed in brocade with jewels and other fripperies. If he sees anyone who is overdressed, he takes him to the task, particularly if it be a soldier. But in private time, he eats whatever he likes.
A curved Asian sword sagacious in mind likes fame and to be esteemed, he is courteous in dealing with everyone and at the same time very serious. For he go through the public streets and he likes eat from whatever they are selling at that time. The other things speak at ease freely with the lower classes, reason his subjects to continue sitting while he himself is standing or will sit down beside this man and that.
Shah Abbas says that is how to be a king, and that the king of Spain and other Christians do not get any pleasure out of the ruling. Because they are obliged to comport themselves with so much pomp and majesty as they do. He causes foreigners to sit down beside him and to eat at his table. With that and accompanying all such condescension he requires that people shall not want in respect towards him and, should anyone fail in this regard, he will punish the individual severely.
So, the more he demonstrates kindness to his subjects and the more familiarly he talks with them, they tremble before him. Even the greatest among them, for, while joking, he will have their heads cut off. He is very strict in executing justice and pays no regard to his own favorites in this respect. While we were at his Court, he caused the bellies of two of his favorites to be ripped open, because they had behaved improperly to an ordinary woman.
From this it comes about that in his country there are very few murderers and robbers. In all the time I was at Isfahan, i.e. 4 months, there was never a case of homicide. He is very speedy in dispatching business: when he gives audience, which he does at the gate of his palace, in the Maidan, he finishes off all the cases that are brought to him.
The parties stand present before him, the officers of justice and his own counsel, with whom he consults when it pleases him. The sentence which he gives is final and is immediately executed. If the guilty party deserves death, they kill him at once: to this end, when he gives the audience, twelve dogs and twelve men, who devour men alive, are kept ready: he keeps them in order to use the greater severity.
Apart from the officials, once the sentence is given, it is not permitted to anyone to make any reply: for the person is at once driven off with blows of the sticks of some 30 to 40 royal farrashes, who stand ready to do this. When he wants to stop giving audience, he causes it to be proclaimed that no one, on pain of death, may bring him petitions, and, when he wants to go out of doors unaccompanied, that no one should follow him.
The like speed in dispatching business is practiced by his officials. His Wazir, or chancellor, who has charge of all the royal revenues, the dispatch of ambassadors, and all other affairs, Who is the first person after the Shah Abbas, used to dispatch 200 petitions in a morning and after having sat and given a hearing for 6 to 7 hours would go out as serene? If he was coming from taking his horse for a walk
He must be obeyed absolutely: anyone failing in the slightest will pay for it with his head. And so he has had most of the old nobles of Persia killed off and put in their stead low-bred persons whom he has aggrandized. Because of the great obedience they pay him, when he wills to have one of the nobles killed, he dispatches one of his men to fetch the noble’s head: the mangoes from servants in charge of the living quarters off to the grandee and says to him: “The Shah wants your head.”
The noble replies: “Very well,” and lets himself be decapitated otherwise he would lose it and, with it, all his race would become extinct. But, when they i.e. the grandees allow themselves to be decapitated, he aggrandizes the children. He is very valiant and has a great liking for warfare and weapons of war, which he has constantly in his hands. We have been eye-witnesses of this because, when-ever we were with him.
He was adjusting scimitars, testing arquebuses and to make him a present that will give him pleasure is to give him some good pieces of arms. Indeed, this was very great experience which he has got of warfare over so many years. That he makes it in person and from the first it has made him a fine soldier and very skilled.
His men so dexterous that they are little behind our men in Europe. He has introduced into his militia the use of and esteem for arquebuses and muskets, in which they are very practiced. Therefore, it is that his realm has been so much extended on all sides.
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