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    Iranian Identity in a Blaze of Colours

    Youth reading, Isfahan 1625 Following on the heels of a Chinese and a Roman emperor, ‘Abbas I is now featured in London’s ‘Great Ruler Exhibition’ series. ‘Abbas’s rule from 1587 to 1629 is intended as a key for viewers of the show to understanding modern-day Iran.

    ‘Abbas I hailed from the Persian Safavid Dynasty and came to power after overthrowing his father in a palace coup. A major test of his mettle awaited the sixteen-year-old: the Ottomans had infiltrated the west of the empire, and the Uzbeks the east – while European powers in Portugal had their eye on the Persian Gulf. But ‘Abbas I, also known as ‘Abbas the Great, managed to re-establish the territorial holdings through successful campaigns. It is not without reason that the British Museum showcases this ruler as an early architect of modern Iran. With the building of streets, bridges, and roadside inns (caravanserais), he laid the foundations for a strong central administration, and once he had relocated the capital from Qazvin to Isfahan he understood how to awaken the public’s sense of national identity through grand architectural projects and the patronage of artists such as the calligrapher Ali Riza ‘Abbasi. Mind you, ‘Abbas made Shia Islam, already the ‘state religion’ of the Safavids since 1501, the key component of this identity.

    Half the world

    The British Museum tells the story of this country’s transformation under its ruler by way of textiles, metalwork, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts. Some of these objects are on loan, others come from the museum’s own collection – and they’re often similar to those Shah ‘Abbas bestowed on religious sites. In comparison with the recent Hadrian exhibit, with its busts of the emperor, there’s only one thing missing: ‘Abbas the Great himself. Admittedly, ‘Abbas’s religion prohibited public effigies, even on coins. He appears in only a few private and small depictions. Thus his memory lives on in that which he accomplished. This was quite a lot – as exemplified by Isfahan alone. Thanks to all the buildings ‘Abbas commissioned, the old Persian adage, Isfahan nesf-é jahan, came true: to the populace, and surely to the Shah’s many foreign guests atop the roof-deck of the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan seemed ‘half the world’. If the earlier Safavid style betrays a certain artistic stagnation, the decorative motifs on the murals and wall-tiles under ‘Abbas attest to a new vitality.

    Over half the catalogue of the London exhibition is devoted to the holy shrines of Ardabil, Mashhad, and Qum. ‘Abbas would have wanted it this way. Not only did he present Ardabil with his Chinese porcelain collection (more than one thousand pieces), thereby demonstrating both his wealth and his piety, but having wrested Mashhad from the Uzbeks in 1598 he undertook a pilgrimage there on foot – about a thousand kilometres – three years later. Several of the most beautiful manuscripts in the Mashhad collection were gifts from ‘Abbas. In choosing Imam Reza – who was laid to rest in Mashhad and was deemed a martyr – as a kind of patron saint, ‘Abbas understood how to gather the Shiite clerics to his side. As for the shrine of Qum, the Safavids and Shah ‘Abbas helped to secure its reputation as a centre of scholarship. Situated between Isfahan and Tehran, Qum became a bridge from the old capital of the Safavids to that of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, as well as the Islamic Republic.

    A prominent place

    Admittedly, ‘Abbas I was a paranoid autocrat – out of fear that he’d suffer the same fate as his father, he had two of his sons blinded and the eldest one killed. But the Iranians, with their long history of both conflict and trade with other empires, whether with the Ottomans in the west, the Moghuls and the British in India, or the Russians in the north, have this ruler to thank for the deeply-rooted conviction that they’ve earned a prominent place in the world. As with the ‘Forgotten Empires’ exhibition four years ago, the British Museum has once again taken Iran’s historical and cultural heritage out of the diplomatic cold storage to which it seemed, since Khomeini’s revolution, to be relegated. At a time that has seen other forms of communication repeatedly fail, such an effort of understanding can only be welcomed. To be sure, the exhibition will also puzzle a public more familiar with figurative art than with ornaments. But the eye rejoices at the sight – just as it does at the labyrinthine blaze of colour on a Persian carpet.
    Georges Waser
    is the England correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. © March 10th 2009, Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

    Translated by Lilan Patri
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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