Some major shows leave you feeling that the past was another country. We peer into it, from an almost unfathomable distance. It feels beguiling, but it is still, above all things else, strange, and quite set apart from us. That is not the case with this exhibition at the British Museum which examines the achievements and the legacy of Shah Abbas, a Safavid ruler of Iran who lived 400 years ago. In spite of that considerable temporal distance, we come away from it feeling that we understand not only the past of that country much better, but also its present. By the careful, clear and intelligent way in which the examination is conducted, there seems to be no discontinuity between what was then, and what is now.
The exemplary staging of the show helps enormously. It is displayed in the old Reading Room, a domed, gothic structure whose soaring ribbed vaulting seems, though Christian in inspiration, to be peculiarly in tune with Shah Abbas and the architecture of his reign. The glories of Isfahan on the cusp of the 17th century feel very much at home here. The details of the exhibition help: the decorative, pierced screens; the height of the cabinets in which the objects are displayed. Everything seems to unfold at a leisurely pace. There is never too much information – or too little. You do not feel that there is some pedagogue at your back hustling you along. The exhibition is a mixture of hard information and objects of great beauty – exquisite carpets, mosque lamps, porcelain, painted miniatures, metalwork, pages from the Koran, and entire Korans...
The dominant theme is of how Shah Abbas unified a country which had been full of warring and tribal dissension, of how he pushed to the east and to the west, defeating the Ottoman Turks and the Uzbeks until he had an empire which extended from the Tigris to the Oxus. He built great mosques, renovated and beautified ancient shrines. One of the most affecting parts of the show is the giant images of his buildings as we can see them in Isfahan and elsewhere today, projected on to soaring screens.
Shah Abbas came to power in Iran at the time that Elizabeth I was on the throne of England. His subjects, like Elizabeth's, could be restive. The national religion, a brand of Islam called Shia, was a relatively recent imposition. The same was the case with the national religion in England. He was surrounded by enemies. Ditto England. He encouraged trade with the West – there was a great and ever-increasing demand for the kinds of exquisite fabrics and carpets that you can see in this exhibition. This exhibition includes a personal letter which, it is believed, was sent by Shah Abbas to Charles I. It asks the king not to be suspicious of Iranian merchants. And his name became known in England. A couple of English merchant adventurers, Sir Robert and Sir Anthony Shirley, served at his court. A huge portrait of one of them hangs in this show. Shakespeare knew of him – he is mentioned in Twelfth Night.
There was much to admire about Shah Abbas, and much to fear and loathe. Even now, opinions are divided about him. He was a cruel man who either murdered or blinded three of his sons so that they should not succeed him before he was ready to go. There was no cult of personality at work here. No public sculptures exist of him. There are only two images of the man in this show, and both are surprisingly small and self-effacing. One of them was made decades after his death, in Mughal India, as a distant tribute to his greatness. It shows him with his extravagant turban and outrageously long moustaches, somewhat colourfully dandified in his dress. Yes, although he codified Shia Islam, he himself was not especially devout. His iron fist guaranteed devotion to Allah in others, and that was what he sought.
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