February 18, 2009 / 3:44 PM / 10 years ago

UK show highlights Iran's "Golden Age"

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Shah Abbas was at times brutal and tolerant, ruthless and generous, and a new show at the British Museum in London seeks to explain the contradictions of one of Iran’s most influential rulers.

“Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran” is the first major exhibition to explore his rule of the Safavid Dynasty from 1587 to 1629 which coincided with what is referred to as the “Golden Age” of Persian art.

It explores how the shah ruthlessly cemented his position as ruler, forged trade ties with Europe and India, commissioned grand architecture and repelled neighboring enemies like the Ottomans and the Uzbeks.

He consolidated Shi’ism as the state religion through the rule of law and sometimes violent suppression of radical dervish orders, turned Isfahan into an impressive capital and donated huge collections of art to important shrines.

“He’s the man who reshapes Iran,” said British Museum director Neil MacGregor at a press preview of the new exhibition which draws on artifacts seen outside Iran for the first time as well as on loans from Europe and the United States.

“He gives the Iranians security territorially, he gives the country legal systems and a firm footing in the Shia identity.”

Iran, and more specifically Isfahan, placed itself at the “crossroads of the world” by exploiting its location along increasingly important trade routes linking Europe and Asia.

The shah forcibly relocated the population of the Armenian city of Julfa to Isfahan in order to expand the trade of silk, and allowed the settlers to continue to practice their Christian faith.


But when he felt that the predominant Shi’ite Muslim denomination and his own authority was under threat, he was less understanding.

The exhibition says that when a group of Sufi dervishes called the Nuqqtavi predicted the end of his reign in 1593, he ordered the execution of their leader.

He displayed the same ruthlessness with relatives, forcing his father out of power in a bloodless coup when aged 16 and going on to kill or blind members of his own family to avoid suffering the same fate.

He was succeeded by his grandson, Shah Safi, in 1629.

Shah Abbas displayed great piety, making fabulous donations of art and treasure to important shrines and walking nearly 1,000 km on a pilgrimage to Mashhad, the burial site of Imam Reza and Iran’s holiest Shi’ite Muslim shrine.

But economic interests may have been a motivating factor, the exhibition suggests — the shah saw an opportunity to promote Mashhad and encourage people to stay in Iran and spend money there rather than go on pilgrimages abroad.

And an intimate and suggestive portrait of Shah Abbas in a near-embrace with a page boy points to a man who observed religious rules only when it suited him.

The exhibition runs from February 19 to June 14.

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