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Towards the end of last year, I went to Iran with Neil MacGregor, irrepressible director of the British Museum, and the curators of this stunning exhibition. It felt like a quest of sorts, the aim of which was to discover the authentic spirit of Shah Abbas I, the great unifier of Iran in the late 16th and early 17th century, the man who made Shia a national creed. Visits to Iran are still such a rarity, for British journalists at least, that there were other preoccupations: not least to get some sense of the state of the nation in the months before the 30th anniversary of Khomeini’s revolution.
Our brief tour took us from Tehran to Mashhad in the north east, Iran’s holiest city, destination of 20 million pilgrims each year, on to Isfahan, Abbas’s glorious capital and spiritual home, and back through Qom, the city of mullahs and fatwas. MacGregor travels in the spirit of the great cultural ambassadors; he is a latter-day Robert Sherley, without the turban and the 5,000 Persian stallions. His aim, he says, is to “catch the idea of the way the world might look from over here”. When we hear the word “Shia” on our news, we wait for “militant” or “terrorist”; one of the triumphs of this show is to offer subtler associations.
Shah Abbas is the third great nation builder that the British Museum has focused on, in a series that has taken in the first emperor of China and Roman emperor Hadrian, and which will end later this year with Montezuma. Like the others, Abbas inherited a nation in chaos. There were Ottomans to the left of him, Uzbeks to the right, and there he was, stuck in the middle, 16 years old. He had other problems, not the least of which was the fact that his adopted Shia faith was the doctrine not of settled power but of permanent argument; at its heart was a distrust of all secular government; Abbas needed loyalty.
Using alliances where he could, bartering with European and Mughal interests, the young leader began by driving out invaders and re-establishing his notional borders. He was enlightened (sponsoring religious tolerance, where it suited him) and brutal (murdering one son, blinding two others). Above all, he set about selling a seductive idea of what might hold an Iranian nation together in the absence of secure boundaries. The three cities we visited – which are also the focus points of the exhibition – represent the separate strands of that ambition, which still resonates.
Mashhad, home to the shrine of Imam Reza – the eighth of Shia’s original 12 imams, and the only one buried in Iran – was all about patriotic duty. To bring the Shia clerics fully behind him, Abbas had it elaborately rebuilt and made Reza a kind of patron saint, emblematic as much of nationalism as Shia. Abbas even walked the 1,000 kilometres to Mashhad from Isfahan, the first pilgrim, to prove his devotion. In doing so, he established the pilgrimage in something like the spirit it seemed to exist in today – for the few an act of religious fervour, for the many a weekend break.
If Mashhad became the emotional home of the Iranian Shia doctrine, however, its most glorious expression was conceived in Isfahan. Religion prohibited Shah Abbas from a cult of personality – there are only two contemporary images of him – so he sought a means of expressing his vision through the art and architecture of his capital. For the exhibition, the museum has ingeniously converted the centre of the domed Reading Room to give a flavor of the great square, the Maidan, in Isfahan. Squint a little and you can put yourself beneath the tiled domes of the Shah Mosque and the Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah, Abbas’s personal shrine. The harmonies of the blues and gold in the decoration, the towering arches and cool courtyards, expressed a serenity at the heart of Abbas’s power struggles. He gathered artists and poets to create a Persian renaissance; the style – exquisite calligraphy and silks and extraordinary illuminated texts – was exported to the nation’s corners and beyond: the unifying Abbas brand.
Abbas conceived Isfahan’s square as a meeting place for all the world: he entertained visitors from China and India, Europe and Africa, all memorialized in this show in the glorious technicolor and gold leaf of contemporary pictures. At dusk, with the light softening the minarets and the domes and the mountains beyond, families having picnics still quietly fill the square’s every corner; even in Iran’s current isolation, you could forgive yourself for imagining, as Abbas did, that this was the indelible center of global civilization.