Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shah 'Abbas: The remaking of Iran

I approached the British Museum on a day off with the intention of seeing the Babylon exhibition, which had only a few days left to run. But the main entrance hall was decorated with new flags, depicting an Iranian ruler in a golden outfit, crosslegged and, to me, seemingly outside time: I had not previously heard of Mr Abbas, and I had no idea when in the last 3,000 years he reigned. More fool me.

Tickets to Babylon were unavailable at that time so, flashing my press pass and switch card before the weary ticket seller, and pleasingly only being required to use the former, I entered the world of Shah 'Abbas.

The opening display quickly located him historically: ashamed, I realised he ruled at the same time as Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, two monarchs whom I have perhaps studied more extensively than any others, yet I had not even heard of Shah Abbas (who, scholars believe, appears in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as Sophy. Knowledgeable man, that William). Also with bottoms firmly plonked on the world's thrones at that time were Emperor Akbar of India and Wanli, emperor of China.

The exhibition is one of oxymorons, at least to the modern eye: of Iranian dandies and Christian slaves forcibly converted to Islam, known as ghulams - we are more accustomed to hearing of Christians as the enslavers and Amnesty campaigns against intolerance of homosexuality in the Muslim world (although these dandies were not necessarily gay in a sexual sense, just in the sense of oversized ugly hats).

In Shah Abbas's time, Isfahan was the Iranian capital. The leader, of the Safavid dynasty, was ruling at a time when many of the roads between east and west began to cross - in warfare, with Shah Abbas embracing the European development of firearms, in diplomacy, with a letter in Na sat 'liq, or hanging, script, from the Shah to Charles I on display. There's no mention of a reply - perhaps the king had other things on his mind; in trade - one section of the exhibition reveals a variety of porcelain objects received by Shah Abbas from his predecessors and from visiting ambassadors, and bequeathed to a shrine - a 14th century porcelain serving dish with a phoenix decoration being one particularly striking example. The dish symbolised the economic relationship between Iran and China - Iran sold cobalt to China but lacked the clay to make the
dishes themselves, so cobalt became prized in Chin and the finished article became an object of desire in Iran.

A portrait of Teresa Shirley, dated 1628 and by an unknown artist, dominates one display. She stands alongside her partner and fellow traveller to the lands of Shah Abbas. At first glance, it is reminiscent of so many stately Elizabethan pictures of noble ladies, the bejewelled outfit, the serene white skin, but in her hand she clasps a gun - this is no ordinary Elizabethan lady, and her image contains a portent of how we engage with Iran in the modern era.

There are many glimpses of into the life of rich Iranians in the late 16th century - luxurious carpets, a lamp stand - likely a wedding present, as the inscription reads: 'The instant when you throw the veil from your moon-like face will be the sunrise of our happiness'. Religion was, of course, paramount. Shah 'Abbas's devotion is apparent from the 965km pilgrimage he made on foot to the shrine of Imam Riza, where he performed menial tasks - I can't recall a European monarch, despite many examples of piety, making such a humble gesture. The exhibition ends with a video display of the architectural legacy of Shah Abbas, the mindboggling circles of geometric shapes, interspersed with the occasional bird, in the ceilings of mosques, the Romanesque exactitude of shrines, perfectly ordered in both design and decoration, utterly cool
repelling the heat of a Persian sun.


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