Zaynab Begum was born from a Georgian princess called Ḥuri. Her guardian (lala), Šāh-qoli Beg, came from the Šāmlu and had the rank of qurči-e šamšir or commander of the cavalry under Shah Ṭahmāsp (Astrābādi, p. 56). Zaynab Begum’s date of birth is unknown. Under Shah Esmāʿil II (r. 1576-78), she was married off to ʿAli-qoli Khan Šāmlu, a grandson of Durmiš Khan. This union appears to have been brokered shortly before 26 Ramażān 985/7 December 1577, the day ʿAli-qoli Khan Šāmlu arrived in Herat as the new governor-general of Khorasan (Monajjem Yazdi, p. 37; Szuppe, p. 221, n. 46). Yet their marriage was never consummated, and Zaynab Begum continued to live in the royal harem in Qazvin (Eskandar Beg Torkamān, pp. 135, 212; Astrābādi, p. 56; Szuppe, p. 216). Accoring to a 17th-century chronicler, by the end of the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsp, Zaynab Begum had been designated a fiancée of the Hidden Imam and lived the life of a spinster in Qazvin (Ḵuzāni, fol. 274r). She played a towering role during the tenure of her nephew, Prince Ḥamza Mirzā’s as heir-apparent. It is reported that Zaynab Begum was in charge of the royal harem in Qazvin during the civil war that engulfed Safavid Iran late in the 1580s (Eskandar Beg Torkamān, p. 336). Zaynab Begum was among the key supporters of Prince ʿAbbās Mirzā (later Shah ʿAbbās) in Qazvin during the wars of succession that broke out during the closing years of the reign of Moḥammad Ḵodābanda (1578-88; Eskandar Beg Torkamān, pp. 372, 405).
Mirzā Loṭf-Allāh Širāzi, the first bureaucrat who served as grand vizier under Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629), was a close ally of Zaynab Begum and, since the assassination of Prince Ḥamza Mirzā on 22 Ḏu’l-Ḥejja 994/4 December 1586, had attended her service as vizier (Ḥosayni Qomi, pp. 889, 1074; Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 745). It is reported that, during the early years of the reign of Shah ʿAbbās, Zaynab Begum acted as his foster mother (Della Valle, II, p. 10). She remained close to Shah ʿAbbās for much of the first two decades of his reign, acting as one of key counselors of the Safavid monarch. In 1617, the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle had seen her in Isfahan leading the harem during one of Shah ʿAbbās’s excursions (Della Valle, II, p. 11; Szuppe, p. 246). Zaynab Begum oversaw the upbringing of Shah ʿAbbās’ sons in the royal harem, and there is evidence to suggest that she wielded such an influence with the Safavid monarch that local governors and military chiefs asked her to intervene on their behalf with Shah ʿAbbās (Ḵuzāni, 2015, pp. 209, 278).
Under Shah ʿAbbās, Zaynab Begum was closely involved in the administrative affairs of the ḵāṣṣa (crown) sector of the Safavid bureaucracy. In 1001/1592-93, she was made the ḵāṣṣa governor of Kashan. At that time, two bureaucrats acted as her deputies in Kashan (Ḵuzāni, 2015, pp. 120, 294, 465-66). Zaynab Begum held this post up until 1022/1613-14, the year in which she was disgraced, stripped of all her posts, and banished to Qazvin (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 623; Waḥid Eṣfahāni, p. 241). She is reported to have owned one of the affluent villages of Taft in the southern outskirts of Yazd (Mofid Bāfqi, p. 701). For much of the reign of Shah ʿAbbās, Zaynab Begum had been allowed to collect the poll tax imposed on the Zoroastrian community of Yazd for herself. It was this cash source that in 1010/1601-02 enabled her to build at least one public caravanserai along the route from Isfahan to Kashan (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 300). A year later in 1011/1602-03, Zaynab Begum was promoted to keeper of the seal used for all royal decrees (mohrdār-e šaraf nafāḏ; Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 326). In 1020/1611-12, Zaynab Begum was in charge of a royal banquet thrown on the occasion of the arrival of the Uzbek ruler of Urganj, Wali-Moḥammad Khan, who had fled to Iran after the outbreak of civil war in Chorazmia (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 580).
In 1022/1613-14, Shah ʿAbbās expelled Zaynab Begum from the harem and ordered her to take up residence in Qazvin, where she was to live under house arrest (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 623; Waḥid Eṣfahāni, p. 241). This happened amid the violent elimination of several high-ranking bureaucrats and military chiefs attending the Safavid court in Isfahan. Fażli Beg Ḵuzāni claims that it was as a result of machinations by the acting religious leader (mojtahed) at the court of Shah ʿAbbās, Mir Moḥammad-Bāqer Dāmād, that the Safavid monarch decided to banish Zaynab Begum to Qazvin (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 624). Zaynab Begum’s banishment from the royal court seems to have been lifted about four years later. As mentioned above, Pietro della Valle had seen her in Isfahan in 1617 in the company of the royal harem. In the spring of 1036/1627, Shah ʿAbbās pardoned Zaynab Begum and reinstated her as head of the royal harem in Faraḥābād and Isfahan (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 954). Zaynab Begum is reported to have been in daily contact with court physicians during Shah ʿAbbās’ terminal illness, supervising the Safavid monarch’s treatment in Faraḥābād on the coast of the Caspian Sea in Mazandaran (Ḵuzāni, 2015, p. 967). Upon Shah ʿAbbās’s death on the morning of 24 Jomādā I 1038/19 January 1629, Zaynab Begum oversaw the transfer of his remains from Mazandaran to Kashan as well as the safe passage of the royal harem from Faraḥābād to Isfahan via Firuzkuh and Kashan (Ḵuzāni, 2015, pp. 972, 975).
It was during the initial years of the reign of Shah Ṣafi I (1629-42) that Zaynab Begum reached the apogee of her power. According to a 17th-century court chronicler, she played a crucial role in convincing Shah ʿAbbās in his deathbed to make his grandson, Sām Mirzā’s (later Shah Ṣafi), heir-apparent in the early days of Jomādā I 1038/January 1629. Prior to leaving Faraḥābād, Zaynab Begum is reported to have managed to convene and supervise an assembly of military chiefs and high-ranking bureaucrats, thus obtaining their official agreement for Sām Mirzā’s impending ascent to the throne in Isfahan, which occurred on the night of Monday, 4 Jomādā II 1038/29 January 1629 (Moḥammad-Maʿṣum Eṣfahāni, pp. 33-37). During the early months of the reign of Shah Ṣafi, Zaynab Begum took care of the administrative affairs of the country on a daily basis. Later in the same year, she accompanied Shah Ṣafi during his military campaign against the Ottomans, and on 15 Šawwāl 1039/28 May 1630 led the royal harem to Golpāygān ahead of the battle of Marivān (Moḥammad-Maʿṣum Eṣfahāni, pp. 43, 83-84).
On 23 Rajab 1041/12 February 1632, in the heat of the killing of more than fifteen Safavid princes and their parents in Isfahan, Shah Ṣafi expelled Zaynab Begum from the royal harem, ordering her to move to Qazvin (Moḥammad-Maʿum Eṣfahāni, p. 126; Waḥid Eṣfahāni, p. 241). She died on 9 Ṣafar 1050/31 May 1640 (Astrābādi, p. 259; Moḥammad-Maʿum Eṣfahāni, p. 291; Wāla Eṣfahāni, p. 310). According to a chronogram composed on the occasion of Zaynab Begum’s death, she spent the last days of her life in Isfahan. Her remains were buried in the Imam ʿAli al-Reżā’s shrine in Mashhad. She is praised in a number of contemporary narrative sources as a mainstay of political moderation and wisdom in Safavid court politics (Moḥammad-Maʿum Eṣfahāni, p. 291; Anonymous, pp. 58-59).
Anonymous, “Nemuna-i az tāriḵ-e sāliāna-ye Irān,” Tāriḵ: Našriya-ye taḥqiqi-e goruh-e āmuzeši-e tāriḵ, Dānešgāh-e Tehrān 1/1, 1976, pp. 1-73.
Pietro della Valle, Viaggi di Pietro della Valle, il Pellegrino …, 2 vols., Brighton, Canada, 1843.
Eskandar Beg Torkamān, Tāriḵ-e ʿālamārā-ye ʿabbāsi, ed. Iraj Afšār, 2 vols., Tehran, 1956; tr. Roger M. Savory, as History of Shah ʿAbbas the Great, 2 vols., Boulder, Colo., 1978.
Ḥasan b. Mortażā Ḥosayni Astrābādi, Tāriḵ-e solṭāni: Az Šayḵ Ṣafi tā Šāh Ṣafi, ed. Eḥsān Ešrāqi, Tehran, 1987.
Aḥmad Ḥosayni Qomi, Ḵolāṣat al-tawāriḵ, ed. Eḥsān Ešrāqi, Tehran, 2004.
Fażli Beg Ḵuzāni Eṣfahāni, Afżal al-tawāriḵ [volume II], MS Or. 4678, British Library, London.
Idem, A Chronicle of the Reign of Shah ʿAbbas: Volume 3 of the Afżal al-tavārīkh, ed. Kioumars Ghereghlou, Cambridge, 2015.
Moḥammad Mofid Mostawfi Bāfqi, Jāmeʿ-e mofidi I, ed. Iraj Afšār, Tehran, 1961.
Moḥammad-Maʿṣum Eṣfahāni, Ḵolāṣat al-siar, ed. Iraj Afšār, Tehran, 1989.
Jalāl-al-Din Moḥammad Monajjem Yazdi, Tāriḵ-e ʿabbāsi yā ruz-nāma-ye Jalāl, ed. Sayf-Allāh Waḥidniā, Tehran, 1987.
Maria Szuppe, “La participation des femmes de la famille royale à l’exercice du pouvoir en Iran safavide au XVIe siècle (première partie),” Studia Iranica 23/2, 1994, pp. 211-58.
Moḥammad-Ṭāher Waḥid Eṣfahāni, Tāriḵ-e jahānārā-ye ʿabbāsi, ed. Saʿid Mir Moḥammad-Ṣādeq, Tehran, 2005.
Originally Published: December 7, 2016
Last Updated: December 7, 2016Cite this entry:
Kioumars Ghereghlou, “ZAYNAB BEGUM,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/zaynab-begum (accessed on 07 December 2016).