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Soltan Hosein

Soltan Hosein (also known as Soltan Hosayn) (1668?–1726) was a Safavid king of Persia (Iran). He ruled from 1694 until he was overthrown by Afghan rebels in 1722. His reign saw the downfall of the Safavid dynasty, which had ruled Persia since the beginning of the 16th century.

Early rule

When his father Shah Suleiman was on his deathbed he asked his court eunuchs to choose between his two sons, saying that if they wanted peace and quiet they should pick the elder, Soltan Hosein, but if they wanted to make the empire more powerful then they should opt for the younger, Abbas. They decided to make Soltan Hosein shah. He had a reputation for being easy-going and had little interest in political affairs, his nickname being Yakhshidir ("Very well!"), the response he was said to give when asked to decide on matters of state. The young king was a devout Muslim and one of his first acts was to give power to the leading cleric Mohammed Baqer Majlesi. A series of measures against the Sufi order were introduced as well as legislation prohibiting the consumption of alcohol and opium and restrictions on the behaviour of women in public. Provincial governors were ordered to enforce Sharia law.

However, power soon shifted away from Mohammed Baqer Majlesi to Soltan Hosein's great aunt, Maryam Begum (the daughter of Shah Safi). Under her influence, Hosein became an alcoholic and paid less and less attention to political affairs, devoting his time to his harem and his pleasure gardens.

Revolts against Soltan Hosein

Soltan Hosein's rule was relatively tranquil until he faced a major revolt in Afghanistan, in the eastern part of his realm. The Afghans were divided into two main tribes: the Ghilzais and the Abdalis. In 1709, the Ghilzai Afghans of Kandahar, under their leader Mir Veis, rebelled and successfully broke away from Safavid rule. In 1716, the Abdalis of Herat followed their example and Safavid expeditions to bring them back under control ended in failure. The Abdalis then turned on the Ghilzais but were defeated by the new Ghilzai leader Mahmud, the son of Mir Veis.

In the meantime, Soltan Hosein was confronted by other rebellions resulting from his religious policy. The revival of Shia Islam promoted by Mohammed Baqer Majlesi and his successor and grandson, the chief mullah Mohammed Hosein, had led to increased intolerance towards Sunni Muslims, Jews and Christians (particularly Armenians). The shah had also passed a decree ordering the forced conversion of Zoroastrians. In 1717-20, the Sunnis of Kurdistan and Shirvan revolted. In Shirvan, the rebels called on their fellow Sunnis, the Ottoman Turks and Lezgin tribesmen to aid them. When the Lezgins took Shamakhi, the main town of Shirvan, in 1721 they massacred the Shia population including the governor. Soltan Hossein was faced with problems elsewhere in his realm - Arab pirates seized islands in the Persian Gulf and there were plagues in the north-western provinces - but he and his court failed to take decisive action.

The siege of Isfahan

However, the main threat came from the Ghilzai Afghans. In 1722, Mahmud and his army swept westward aiming at the shah's capital Isfahan itself. Rather than biding his time within the city and resisting a siege in which the small Afghan army was unlikely to succeed, Soltan Hosein marched out to meet Mahmud's force at Golnabad. Here, on March 8, the royal army was thoroughly routed and fled back to Isfahan in disarray. The shah was urged to escape to the provinces to raise more troops but he decided to remain in the capital which was now encircled by the Afghans. Mahmud's siege of Isfahan lasted from March to October, 1722. Lacking artillery, he was forced to resort to a long blockade in the hope of starving the Persians into submission. Soltan Hosein's command during the siege displayed his customary lack of decisiveness and the loyalty of his provincial governors wavered in the face of such incompetence. Protests against his rule also broke out within Isfahan and the shah's son, Tahmasp, was eventually elevated to the role of co-ruler. In June, Tahmasp managed to escape from the city in a bid to raise a relief force in the provinces, but little came of this plan. Starvation and disease finally forced Isfahan into submission (it is estimated that 80,000 of its inhabitants died during the siege). On October 23, Soltan Hossein abdicated and acknowledged Mahmud as the new shah of Persia.

Captivity and death

To begin with, Mahmud treated Soltan Hosein considerately, but as he gradually became mentally unbalanced he began to view the former shah with suspicion. In February 1725, believing a rumour that one of Soltan Hosein's sons, Safi Mirza, had escaped, Mahmud ordered the execution of all the other Safavid princes who were in his hands, with the exception of Soltan Hosein himself. When Soltan Hosein tried to stop the massacre, he was wounded, but his action saved the lives of two of his young children. Mahmud succumbed to insanity and died on April 25 of the same year.

Mahmud's successor Ashraf at first treated the deposed shah with sympathy. In return, Soltan Hosein gave him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage, a move which would have increased Ashraf's legitimacy in the eyes of his Persian subjects. However, Ashraf was involved in a war with the Ottoman Empire, which contested his claim to the Persian throne. In the autumn of 1726, the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Ahmad Pasha, advanced with his army on Isfahan, sending a message to Ashraf saying that he was coming to reinstate the rightful shah of Persia. In response, Ashraf had Soltan Hosein's head cut off and sent it to the Ottoman with the message that "he expected to give Ahmad Pasha a fuller reply with the points of his sword and his lance". As Michael Axworthy comments, "In this way Shah Soltan Hossein gave in death a sharper answer than he ever gave in life".



  • Michael Axworthy, The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant Hardcover 348 pages (26 July 2006) Publisher: I.B. Tauris Language: English ISBN 1-85043-706-8

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