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'Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran' is the British Museum's latest 'blockbuster' exhibition and the third in their series of exhibitions on great leaders. Shah Abbas is in good company and follows in the footsteps of the first Chinese Emperor (he of the Terracotta Army) and the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Apparently the fourth in the great leader series will be Montezuma later this year.
The exhibition opened on February 19th to a fanfare of publicity. I knew it was coming a long time ago because I subscribe to the British Museum's e-mailing list and I've been looking forward to the exhibition for months. I thought that was probably just me being a bit weird and a bit obsessed with Iran – I didn't seriously expect that many other people would be as excited as me. I also didn't expect it to be so well publicised. There are posters EVERYWHERE in London advertising the exhibition – there are even posters all over Northampton train station and that's a bit too cultured for us folks in the East Midlands. You may not know even who Shah Abbas was, but I'm sure the painting they've used to publicise the exhibition will soon make him the second most recognisable moustachioed historic figure (I'm thinking Hitler will still keep the top spot for now!)
For many years I've been recommending the BM to any foreign visitors who want to know what to see or do in London. I tell them to go, I wax lyrical about what a great place it is and how they'll be able to see all the loot that OUR ancestors plundered from THEIR ancestors, and then I tell them it's free. That seems to clinch it. However I was a total hypocrite because all my recommendations were based on hearsay because I'd never actually been to the BM until the Terracotta Army exhibition in 2007.
Whilst the BM is free and has been for over 100 years, the special exhibitions always come with a fee. In this case, the tickets for 'normal' adults (i.e. no special discounts of any kind) were £12 a head. That's not cheap and the price surely acts as an effective way to weed out the mildly interested from the utterly obsessive. I fell into the latter camp so the fee made me gasp but didn't put me off. I think we'd paid a similar amount for the Terracotta Army so it wasn't too much of a shock. What really horrified me was being charged £1 per ticket 'booking fee'. Why does it cost me £2 to book two tickets when I have to do ALL the work of filling out the form and they don't even mail the tickets out to me? It's a con and one of which the BM should be thoroughly ashamed. The special exhibitions at the BM bring in very valuable revenue to the museum. With tickets at £12 a head, a booking fee of another pound, an audio tour that you always just feel you have to go for (for fear that your investment of £13 will be squandered if the signage inside isn't up to par) and the official exhibition guide at £40 hard-back or £25 soft-back, you could be forgiven for thinking your attendance should be keeping a few Egyptian mummies in the style to which they've become accustomed. But that's culture I guess – it doesn't come cheap.
Who was Shah Abbas?
For £13 a head that's a pretty important thing to get straight before you get there. Shah Abbas was the fifth Safavid Shah who ruled Persia between 1587 and 1629. I knew of him as the man responsible for the creation of Isfahan, one of
the world's most beautiful cities and as the man behind the world's most beautiful public square, the Imam Square in Isfahan. On one hand he was a man who brought Persia to the forefront of world attention for its excellence in silk weaving, carpet making and exquisite ceramics. On the other he was a guy so paranoid about keeping his power that he killed or blinded all his sons and had to go looking amongst his grandsons to find an heir. Mind you, there was a lot of that going on in his family history so he wasn't alone in being a bit of a despot.
On one hand he was a man so holy that he walked hundreds of miles barefoot to make a pilgrimage to a holy shrine in Masshad, and he established Shi'a Islam as the state religion. On the other hand he is also pictured in one of his rare portraits with his arms round a pretty young boy, flirting and sipping wine from a cup. What's that old line about a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma…. or something like that?
Shah Abbas was a man in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude to take full advantage of his country's strategic position on the international trade routes between Asia and Europe. He forged excellent links with the Moghal Indian leaders and was a contemporary of Emperor Akbar. He needed all the friends he could get to keep the threat at bay from the Ottoman Empire to his west. Back in Europe, the leaders of Abbas's time were Queen Elizabeth the First and King Philip of Spain and Portugal. This was truly a period in which history was really being made. Think of all those beautiful portraits we've seen of Elizabeth and wonder how many of those opulent silks were sourced from Persia.Shah Abbas inherited a mess of a country that had been run down by the indifferent leadership of two of his predecessors before he got his hands on it. He built his country in size, wealth and influence. The exhibition gives a glimpse into some of that wealth and how he chose to use it as well as offering rare insights into the man himself.
'Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran' is housed in the British Museum's 'Reading Room', the splendid round building in the heart of Norman Foster's spectacular Great Court. This is the same room that was used for the Terracotta Army and it was hard not to compare the two exhibitions. You enter from a doorway off the Great Court, present your tickets, get sold a handset for the audio tour and then walk along a very dark corridor to the beginning of the exhibition. The Reading Room is set up so that wheelchair users can get up to the exhibition using small lifts. However, these popular exhibitions can get really full and I would imagine that navigating your way through the labyrinthine layout would not be easy in a wheelchair.
We walked up the steps and switched on the audio tour. It started with an introduction about the background to arranging the exhibition and then handed over to the main narrator, Omid Djalili. I love Djalili and think he's a phenomenally funny comic but his humour had got no opportunity to come through in the very serious and worthy commentary. What a waste of a good man and one of the few famous Iranians in the British media. At times the commentary was just too slow and turgid and the spiel at each spot around the tour went on for far too long, clogging up the progress through the exhibition.
We started with a map of the world that highlighted the great leaders who were contemporaries of Abbas and with a general introduction to the structure of the tour. This explained that it was laid out in a roughly geographic way with sections concentrating on the key cities of Shah Abbas. These started with Isfahan, the city he designed and created, then moving on to his family city of Ardibal, ending with the two holy cities of Masshad and Qom.
The Isfahan 'zone' contained a very rare and very small painting of Abbas. Apparently he left no statues of himself and only a couple of paintings, each of them rather small and indistinct. The first of these which was in the exhibition had been painted by the Indian artist Bishn Das as a gift for the Indian emperor Jahangir. It's only a few inches high and shows a man with a distinctive long droopy moustache in a red coat. This section also contains examples of calligraphy, artefacts from the Armenian Christian community which Shah Abbas relocated to Isfahan to support the silk trade and two impressively large paintings of Robert Shirley and his wife. Shirley and his brother were Abbas's 'tame' Englishmen whom he sent around the world on diplomatic and trading missions. The photo that Ciao chose to illustrate this topic is of the Shirleys - they probably thought it was Shah Abbas. There's also a silk and gold carpet in this section and some exotic lamp stands.
Shah Abbas's grandfather (or maybe his great grandfather, I get confused) was a sufi holy man by the name of Sheikh Safi-al din who lived from 1252 to 1334. The Safavid dynasty takes its name from him. His death in the family city of Ardabil set up a 220 year long dynasty in which Shi'a Islam became the state religion under the first Shah, Shah Ismail. They were a mixed bag, the Safavids and included the despotic third Shah, Ismail II who killed all but one of his brothers and would have killed the last one (who became the fourth Shah) if he hadn't died before he could carry out his plans. The fourth Shah was blind and indifferent to his tasks and had a wife who took over and was so hated that she got strangled. Abbas inherited a mess of a country, weakened by the previous two leaders. All of this information is in the section about Ardabil, the family home and the place where Sheikh Safi's tomb became a centre of pilgrimage. Shah Abbas gave a massive collection of old Chinese porcelain to the Ardabil shrine and much of this is in the exhibition including a very beautiful deep blue plate with a white dragon on it. This was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition. There's a mock-up on one wall of how the porcelain would have been exhibited within the shrine.
Half way through the exhibition there's a chance to sit down for a few minutes and watch a display of large photographs projected onto two tall white walls. These photos are from the four cities featured in the exhibition and give an opportunity to get a sense of the scale of four of Abbas's most important buildings. These are the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque and the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, the Shrine of Sheikh Safi in Ardabil and the Shrine of Imam Riza in Masshad.
Abbas was a religious man but also a
Pictures of Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (British Museum)
The 'private' royal mosque on Imam Square, Isfahan
canny businessman. He set a fashion amongst Persians which led many to make pilgrimages to Masshad to the tomb of Imam Riza instead of going to Mecca. Since pilgrims tended to take lots of valuable gifts and make big donations to the shrines which they visited, this was a really good way to keep the country's wealth inside the land. Abbas made many generous gifts to the shrine in Masshad including beautiful carpets and tomb-covers which are in the exhibition.
In more modern times Qom has taken on a rather dark image in the western world as the main seat of academic learning and the home of the hard-line Shi'a clerics The fatwa on Salman Rushdie came from Qom for example. Qom has another famous shrine, this time one dedicated to Fatima, the sister of one of the Imams. Qom only became important to Abbas a few years before his death. Perhaps reflecting on some of the less attractive and commendable behaviours of his reign, he started to make many generous and valuable gifts to the shrine. As is so often the case, buying favours in heaven has always been popular with wealthy men in their twilight years. The Qom section is also the one with the fascinating 'private' portrait of Abbas embracing an attractive young man and drinking
Is it worth a visit?
I loved the exhibition but I'd be the first to admit that it pales into insignificance when compared with the Terracotta Army show of 2007. I'm very interested in Iran and it meant a lot to me because I'd been to Isfahan and it helped to put a lot of what I saw into perspective. If you are not especially interested, I can't guarantee that you'll get massively excited. I had imagined that there would be some absolute gems of amazingly beautiful exhibits but the items on show lacked a real range of show-stopping 'wow' pieces. Often with a big exhibition you'll come away with one piece seared onto your memory – think of Tutankamum's sarcophagus for example. But this show hasn't really got anything that really sticks in the mind in that way. A lot of the items have come on loan from the National Museum in Iran (which I've visited – though only for the really old stuff) and I couldn't help thinking that they hadn't really loaned the best pieces. I adore rugs but thought many of those on show weren't as spectacular as I'd have expected and even the silks for which the country was so well known weren't especially memorable. I also wondered if the way in which the country was referred to as Iran throughout the exhibition (instead of Persia) was also a political sop to the current administration. What I really did like was the way in which the exhibition shows Abbas the man and gives plenty of insights into the character, personality, motivations and his contradictions of this very private figure.
Getting around the show was less troublesome than the Terracotta Army 'shuffle' that we'd been forced to adopt for the First Chinese Emperor exhibition. That show was so full of people that you had to sharpen your elbows just to get close enough to look at things and the press of people all around us was really oppressive. This was a more relaxed affair although some of the exhibits were quite difficult to get close to. We noticed that a lot of visitors to the exhibition seemed to have connections to Iran. Small groups of young men who have either moved to the UK from Iran or perhaps their parents left when the Shah was deposed in 1979 were poring over the exhibits with a dedication that was surprising for their youth.
The exhibition probably won't have the broad appeal of the two previous great leader exhibitions but it's a nice day out, it's not TOO crowded and I found it very interesting. The exhibition runs until the 14th of June 2009.
Note - the photos are from my holiday in Isfahan a couple of years ago.