"He is equally at home on the dervish's mat and the royal throne." These two preoccupations of Shah 'Abbas, a leading figure in the creation of modern Iran, described by biographer Iskandar Munsti Bey in 1629, are the focus of a major exhibition at the British Museum, staged as Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
The exhibition is a remarkable achievement for Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and Sheila Canby, its curator, as eight separate Iranian institutions have contributed and loaned artefacts, never before seen outside Iran.
MacGregor sees similarities between 'Abbas and his contemporary, England's Elizabeth I, who consolidated the state religion, saw off foreign threats and presided over a golden age: "He inherited in difficult circumstances an unstable country that had recently redefined its religion and was surrounded by powerful enemies. Like Queen Elizabeth I, he was able to create a compelling sense of a distinct national identity of which Shi'ism was a key component." By the time of his death in 1629, he had created an imperial power stretching from the Tigris to the Indus.
Religion and spiritual practices were important to Shah 'Abbas who donated 1,000 pieces of porcelain and 250 Persian poetic and historic manuscripts to the Ardabil shrine of his ancestor, Sheikh Sail, a 14th century Sufi mystic. Some of these gifts--among them Chinese porcelain and mosque lamps--are on display in London.
Shah 'Abbas, who came to the throne in 1587 as the fifth ruler of the Safavid dynasty, transformed four key sites: Isfahan, as the new capital, the Ardabil ancestral shrine, the Mashhad burial site of Imam Riza, the only Shia imam (infallible spiritual guide) who is buried in Iran, and Qum, the shrine city of Fatimeh Ma'sumeh, Imam Riza's sister.
Every shrine received priceless objects: Korans, Arabic and scientific manuscripts and calligraphy. The exhibition displays many of these gifts and provides background information about each shrine, its …