Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran

Monday, November 8, 2010

Author: Sheila R. Canby

Active ImagePaperback: 280 pages
Publisher: British Museum Press (2 March 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0714124524
ISBN-13: 978-0714124520

Shah `Abbas I was one of Iran’s most influential leaders. Combining his ruthless ambition with a desire for stability, he left a far-reaching mark on the society and artistic heritage of Iran, renovating the country’s spectacular shrines and transforming its trading relations with the rest of the world.

This richly illustrated book brings together an amazing array of treasures that were given to Iran’s shrines during Shah `Abbas’s reign. It traces the story of the Safavid dynasty (15011722), a period of dynamic religious and political development in Iran. Art and architecture flourished and achieved new heights of beauty and brilliance with the creation of the magnificent shrines at Ardabil, Mashhad and Qum. During this so-called Golden Age of Persian art, Shah `Abbas renovated these shrines and donated to them priceless works of art including sumptuous carpets, silks, porcelain and albums, many of which are illustrated here in glorious detail. He also created the new capital at Isfahan his Active Imagecrowning artistic achievement where he rebuilt his empire surrounded by an inner circle of great artists and thinkers. From here he encouraged foreigners to come to Iran and welcomed the opportunity to open up trading links with Europe. This fascinating book looks in detail at this turning-point in Iran’s history. It investigates the context of Shah Abbas’s gifts and renovations; it also explores how these shrines functioned in the early seventeenth century and the ways in which practices and beliefs initiated under the Safavids are reflected in the world-famous shrines at Mashhad and Qum of today.


The book focuses on the reign (1587-1629) of the fifth Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I - the dynasty ruled Iran between 1501 and 1722 and his gratifyingly transformational impact on Iran.

Active ImageHe was able to repulse the external enemies of the kingdom, Uzbeks and Ottomans and in this way he secured its outer borders. Internally he secured stability by subduing the Qizilbash (literally 'red head' in reference to their red turbans) -supporters of Safavid dynasty but fractious- while he promoted internal cohesion through enhancing Shiism as the state religion of Iran. He promoted trade relations with Europe, through export of luxurious textiles and carpets in exchange of silver and gold while he also expanded trade with India his principal trading partner. He transferred the capital to Isfahan and rendered it to a cosmopolitan, artistic and intellectual centre.

But the main focus, chapters and glorious photographs of the book concern the ensuing three shrines which he magnificently renovated and of the sumptuous gifts he bequeathed to them.

The Shrines of Shaykh Safi at Ardabil and Imam-Riza at Masshad were potent symbols of Safavid authority: the first marking the Safavid's spiritual past, the second the long history of Shiism in Iran. The Shrine of Fatimeh Ma'sumeh in Qum was a popular site of patronage by Safavid women.

There are spectacular photographs of all three Shrines with their golden domes and minarets and tiled walls with intricate decorative arabic design and calligraphy.

Photographs of the gifts accompanied by enlightening scholarly text which include inferences on attribution and dating comprise luxurious carpets with silk, silver and gold threads, opulent textiles including grave covers, porcelain, Qu'rans, illuminated manuscripts, albums, miniature painting, Arabic calligraphy, coins and metal-work.

Active ImageShah 'Abbas - the Remaking of Iran at the British Museum
In association with The Iran Heritage Foundation
19 February - 14 June 2009

In February 2009, the British Museum opened the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah Abbas, one of the formative figures in the creation of modern Iran.

Shah of Iran from 1587 -1629 AD, he is remembered as one of the country's most influential kings and a great military leader, ruling Iran at a time of political renewal, when it succeeded in positioning itself as a world power with a sharply defined national identity.

Shah Abbas came to the throne in 1587, the fifth ruler of the Safavid Dynasty. Through trade, patronage and diplomacy Shah Abbas fostered good relations with Europe and ushered in a golden period in the arts, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. He was a great builder and restorer of major monuments across the country and this architectural legacy will provide the context in which to explore the themes of his reign. The exhibition will feature luxurious gold-ground carpets, exquisite Chinese porcelains, illustrated manuscripts, watercolour paintings, metalwork and beautiful silks, objects similar to those Shah Abbas gave to important religious sites across Iran. The famous calligrapher Ali Riza Abbasi was a key figure throughout Shah Abbas's reign and examples of his work will feature prominently in the exhibition.

Shah Abbas was a man with a strong sense of personal piety; though Shiism was declared the state religion of Iran in 1501, it was Shah Abbas who consolidated its preeminence through the rule of law and the suppression of heterodox Shi'i sects and extremist dervish orders. The clerics in the circle of Shah Abbas established the parameters of Shi'i orthodoxy and in so doing strengthened the role of the religious elite throughout Iran.

Active ImageIn association with The Iran Heritage Foundation, the exhibition featured extraordinary loans, never before seen outside of Iran, alongside loans from Europe and the US. The exhibition was the third in a series examining empire and power in different parts of the globe and followed exhibitions on the First Emperor of China and the Roman emperor Hadrian.

"Shah Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition provided a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today." Sheila Canby, curator of the exhibition

He was a man of some piety, making a barefoot pilgrimage from Isfahan to Mashhad – a distance of nearly 1,000 kilometers – after he reclaimed Mashhad in 1598 when the Safavids defeated the Uzbeks. The great religious significance of Mashhad lies in its being the burial site of Imam Reza, the only Shi'i imam to be buried within Iran.

But the Shah had a cruel side. He had two of his five sons blinded, and in 1615 he arranged the assassination of his eldest son and heir-apparent Muhammad Baqir Mirza whom he mistakenly suspected of plotting against him.

The British Museum's director Neil MacGregor, in his foreword to the 274-page exhibition catalogue, compares Shah 'Abbas with his contemporary, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Like Elizabeth I, Shah 'Abbas inherited in difficult circumstances an unstable country that had recently redefined its religion and was surrounded and threatened by powerful enemies.

Both monarchs were able to create a compelling sense of a distinctive national identity, but unlike Elizabeth's England, Shah Abbas's Iran accommodated other faiths, notably the Christian Armenians.

Active ImageShah 'Abbas, like Elizabeth, fought off foreign invasion and presided over a series of critical military victories and a huge expansion of international trade. But while Elizabeth's England was "on the edge of the world she had to address, Iran was at its centre. Shah 'Abbas made his capital at Isfahan a crossroad, a crucible of international culture and commerce. Paintings on his palace wall show Turks and Chinese, Indians and Europeans: it is hard to imagine any other city of the time where they could have met and mingled with such ease."

MacGregor notes that it was during the reign of Shah 'Abbas that Persia fully entered European consciousness, as trade, diplomacy and military expansion multiplied the contacts between Isfahan and European capitals. "Ever since, it has been of the greatest importance to Europeans to study and understand the history and culture of Iran.”

The exhibition paid attention to the Armenian Christian community, which was particularly important in the silk business that was such an important component of Persia's trade with the outside world. In 1604 Shah 'Abbas forcibly relocated the population of the Armenian city of Julfa to an area of Isfahan which became known as New Julfa. Several Armenian religious objects were on display in the exhibition, including a silver and silver gilt crucifix of 1575.

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