'Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran' exhibition in the UK

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The bazaar at Isfahan has not changed much since it was built in the early 17th century. Nor, one would guess, have the wares on sale – a rich mixture of textiles, metalwork, ceramics, spices and Iranian sweets. One warm afternoon last October I was strolling through it with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, a group of museum staff, and journalists. After a day packed with visits to mosques, museums and monuments, MacGregor was on a mission to buy a carpet – and there are few better places in the world to do that than the Isfahan bazaar.

MacGregor and his museum are also embarked on a far bigger operation: to present the history and culture of Iran to the British public. In 2005, the BM presented Forgotten Empire, a highly successful show devoted to the ancient Persia of Cyrus and Xerxes. This spring it is following that with another, focusing on the late 16th and early 17th century: Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.

In a way it will present a version – enormously more precious and rare – of the goods on sale in the bazaar. There will be superb carpets, textiles, elaborately worked metal, paintings, elegantly written and profusely decorated Korans: a cornucopia, in fact, of the arts of the nation that we used to call Persia.

During his long reign Shah Abbas presided over a flowering of Iranian arts in a style as characteristic as that of the France of Louis XIV. This was carried from huge projects to the most delicate and refined of decorative work. Abbas I, sometimes known as Abbas the Great, reigned from 1587 to 1629. He was one of the great rulers of his age – the equal of the Ottoman Sultan, the Mogul Emperor or the King of Spain. In his epoch, Iranian power was at its highest point since classical times. He ruled territories stretching from the Tigris in present day Iraq to the Indus in Pakistan, and northwards into modern Georgia and Azerbaijan. In other words, a fair proportion of the headlines in today’s newspapers are generated by places once governed by Shah Abbas.

Historically, Iran has always been a point of interchange between east and west – halfway down the Silk Road from China to Venice. Abbas’s capital, Isfahan, was – and remains – a multicultural and multi-faith city.

In New Julfa, a suburb south of Isfahan across the Zayandeh river, there is a community of Armenian Christians. Abbas transported thousands of them forcibly from their homes in the original town of Julfa – then perilously close to the Ottoman frontier, now in modern Azerbaijan. It was worth moving the Armenians to Isfahan – and treating them with respect – because of their skills in silk weaving and trading. The silk trade was crucial to the prosperity of Iran.

We had visited the Armenian cathedral before moving on to the bazaar. It is a quite extraordinary transcultural composite in which biblical scenes in a European baroque style are, it seems, just stuck as if in a collage on top of the richly decorated tile work characteristic of 17th-century Isfahan. MacGregor was fascinated by this example of art-history interfusion, delivering an eloquent and impromptu mini-lecture on the spot.

Those mosques and palaces, many built by Shah Abbas, make Isfahan by general acclamation one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Of the superb Sheik Lutfallah mosque, a few minutes’ walk from the bazaar, the travel writer Robert Byron observed, 'I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.’ Not even the Doge’s Palace or Versailles, he thought, were so rich.

'Abbas was a real builder,’ Sheila Voss, the curator, explains. 'In terms of architecture he was far greater than anyone who preceded him. The decoration of the great buildings and monuments, with marvellous vine scroll designs, carries over into the other arts. You see it on the domes of the mosques, but also on book bindings and in illuminations in manuscripts.’

Under Abbas a new style of carpet – called Polonaise – appeared, luxuriantly floral in decoration, featuring lotus blossoms and arabesques, and a palette of gold, peach and paler colours. The most sumptuous examples were woven in silk and gold (two will be on show in the exhibition)...

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