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Burak in British Museum’s Shah Abbas



Anyone interested in the cultures and history of Middle East, especially those having a particular interest in Iran must not miss the Shah Abbas exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition continues to host its visitors till 14 June, so there is no need to panic, but it would be wise anyway to arrange a convenient time at the hectic schedule of metropolitan life.


Shah Abbas, from the Safavid dynasty, the ruler of Iran from 1587 to 1629, has a noteworthy place in the Middle-East history for his role in making Iran an undisputed regional power and flourish in art and architecture. Abbas is also the “architect” of the establishment of Shia belief as the basis of juridical and governmental order in Iran. The legacy he left is key to understand contemporary Iran. The land of legendary Persians would be ruled by shahs till 1979, Shiism being state’s religion, and the institutional Shiism would further prevail to the monarchy’s power from then on.

One can easily contend that if Abbas had not existed, Iran would have been somewhat of an easy “snack” ready to be swallowed by Western imperialism in 19th or 20th century. Referring to a similitude with its western neighbour and foe, the Ottoman Empire, Abbas is the equivalent of three different Ottoman sultans. He is equivalent to Mehmet the Conqueror who made particular effort to make Istanbul a cosmopolitan city of world by bringing Armenians to his new capital city. Abbas did the same. He brought Armenians to his capital city, Isfahan, with the purpose of breaking the English’s monopoly over silk trade (Armenian merchants were the local agents of the trade on Silk Road). He is equivalent to Ottoman Sultan Selim who established the Sunni rule as the official law with the purpose of responding to the need of institutionalisation of a growing empire. Abbas did the same. He institutionalised the Shia Islam as the official “law and order” of Iran. And finally, he is equivalent to the Suleyman the Magnificent, known as “lawgiver” in Ottoman history, whose reign corresponded to the “peak” of empire in every aspect (military, architecture, etc.). Abbas was the same for Iran. He is the lawgiver of his country. Iran reached its highest strength as a political and military power under Abbas’ reign. And the most impressive examples of Iranian architecture came into existence in his era.

Shah Abbas achieved all these in a period of 42 years. The exhibition at the British Museum informs its visitors well about the history, with the help of a clear narration, maps, illustrations, and so forth. An unavoidable disadvantage is the impossibility to bring impressive mosques and shrines from Iran! (Not to forget mentioning; Shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad deserves particular interest) But their visual presentation is pretty good so as to make spectators feel their grandeur although they are in London.

It should however be said that the exhibition is not very rich in terms of the items being displayed. The Shah Abbas exhibition falls short of some other exhibitions of “its kind” such as RA’s Turks (2005) and Byzantium (2008-9) in this respect. Otherwise, it’s definitely worth going there, and letting yourself into a glamorous journey in 17th century.