Sunday, March 8, 2009
Iranian Treasures on Display
From the Daily Star of Lebanon: Treasures of imperial Iran: UK exhibition highlights 'Golden Age' of Persian art Tuesday, March 03, 2009 LONDON: While the fate of the British Council's operation in Tehran remains in limbo, a new show at the British Museum signals a strengthening of cultural diplomacy between Iran and the United Kingdom. It features work from the time of the reign of Shah Abbas, a ruler full of contradictions: brutal and tolerant, ruthless and generous as it suited him. "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. "This king transformed Iran from an inward-looking realm, riven by tribal strife and threatened by powerful enemies on its eastern and western flanks, to a secure, prosperous center of international trade and cultural exchange," curator Sheila Canby wrote in the exhibition catalog. Abbas also had a reputation both for an explosive temper and an ascetic, informal style of living. The exhibition includes carpets, illustrated manuscripts, watercolor paintings and metal work and pieces of Chinese pottery illustrating a type of gift Abbas made to religious shrines in Iran. While largely devoted to the art and architecture of Abbas' reign, the exhibition includes two large paintings that highlight connections between Iran and England. The paintings are of Robert Sherley, an Englishman who became a European ambassador for Shah Abbas, and Sherley's pistol-packing wife Teresia. Sherley's exploits were well known in Elizabethan England, and are thought to account for the references to "the Sophy" - the shah - in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." The exhibition builds on the success of a collaboration in 2005 between the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran to stage "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia" in London. The shah consolidated Shiism 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 Shiite 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 also displayed great piety, making fabulous donations of art and treasure to important shrines and walking nearly 1,000 kilometers on a pilgrimage to Mashhad, the burial site of Imam Reza and Iran's holiest Shiite Muslim shrine. But economic interests may have been a motivating factor, the exhibition suggests - the shah saw it as an opportunity to promote Mashhad, and to 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. - Agencies, with The Daily Star "Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran" runs from February 19 to June 14.