A country provoking fear and fascination in Europe for centuries, Iran has become increasingly isolated from much of the world since the 1979 revolution, leading to significant misunderstandings of its customs. Such an attitude means Iran’s long history, beautiful architecture and intriguing cultural legacies have often been disregarded. Through understanding the inheritance of Shah Abbas I’s reign, one of the greatest periods in Iranian history, we can begin to understand the political, military, economic and religious importance of Iran across the landscape of world history.
In 1571, Shah Abbas was born into a Persia torn apart by fighting between rival military leaders and incursions by the Ottoman Empire. Although a man of military genius who saved his country from the brink of collapse, built prosperous cities, showed tolerance and diplomacy in initiating trade with Europe and welcoming Christians into his cities, the Shah was also paranoid and distrustful of any threat to his rule, putting one son to death and blinding the others.
Although not the first-born son, Abbas ascended the throne in 1588 on the assassination of his elder brother, and over the next 41 years became an active promoter and supporter of Persian culture and civilization, establishing an empire not only militarily and economically strong, but ideologically and artistically.
Abbas moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1598, a decision which was to become the crowning glory of his imperial achievement. Arguably the most beautiful city in Iran, Isfahan is a buzzing metropolis of gardens and squares, palaces and bazaars, a breathtaking museum of historical and archaeological treasures that will dazzle even the most well-travelled of explorers. Isfahan was described by Robert Byron in his 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana as ‘among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshing of humanity.’ On entering the city’s historic centre it is hard not to agree with the famous sixteenth-century Persian maxim, ‘Esfahan nesfe-e jahan’ (Isfahan is half the world).
Standing majestically in the centre of Isfahan lies the famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square, translated as the ‘image of the world:’ the symbolic centre of the Safavid empire. A powerful statement of the Shah’s unique strength and newly-centralised government, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the second largest square on earth, behind only Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In Shah Abbas’ time, this Royal Square rang with the shouts of tradesmen selling their wares, the hum of entertainment, gossip, business, executions, even polo games, the goal posts of which can still be seen today. The square embodied Iran’s chief new role in a rapidly expanding world economy, which transformed the city into a cosmopolitan centre of cultural influence. Mosques, palaces and the bazaar surround this colossal space, all standing stoically, gazing on, much as they did four hundred years ago.
The Masjed-e Shah or Imam Mosque, covered in thousands of glimmering turquoise tiles, is located on the south side of the Royal Square and still stands as an imposing and remarkable example of Safavid-era architecture. This highly coloured, intricately ornamented UNESCO site, a wonder of the Middle East as much now as it was back when it was built, is the largest of the Shah’s projects, only finally completed a year before his death in 1629, and considered by him as his masterpiece. The inscription running around the superb entrance portal or pishtâq is the work of master Safavid calligrapher Reza Abbasi, a member of Abbas’ Royal Court whose work provided fertile ground for imitation by later Iranian artists. The structure’s four-iwan format is inspired by palaces from earlier Persian history which developed as an architectural statement of a unique Persian identity and Safavid supremacy.
Across the enormous Square the Bazaar-e Bozorg is to be found. One of Iran’s oldest bazaars, dating back more than a thousand years, this extensive market complex was developed drastically under the vigorous architectural enterprise of Shah Abbas I and still appears much as it did during his reign. Its main entrance is the stunning Qeysarieh portal on the north-east side of the central square, a masterwork of Safavid artistry covered with elaborate mosaics. Frescoes by the famous Reza Abbasi adorn the gateway, depicting scenes of sport, entertainment and vivid representations of Abbas’ war with the Uzbecks.
The tangle of lanes, stalls and caravanserais all offer a veritable feast for the senses. Gleaming antiques and exquisite lamps twinkle from the shadows while the scent of Persian spices, nougat, pistachios and hand-crafted candles swirl through the passageways. Timchehs, domed or arcaded halls, still house their traditional trades. Centres of all time-honoured Iranian craft can still be found here, including the Persian carpets that took the world by storm under Abbas I. The Shah’s influence can still be felt in the rich colors and elaborate patterning of carpets produced today.
No visit to Isfahan would be complete without a tour of Jolfa or Julfa, the vibrant Armenian quarter, dating back to urban planner extraordinaire Shah Abbas I, when thousands of Armenians were resettled in specially built Persian towns. The Shah’s policy of religious tolerance meant Armenians, many of whom were skilled artists, merchants and silk traders, enjoyed substantial religious freedoms, being permitted to practise Christianity in their cathedrals. Contemporary Julfa is now a welcoming and relatively liberal area of the city, dotted with churches and an old cemetery for Christian community living there now.
Finally, near the border with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan we come to Mashad, location of the Shrine of Imam Reza, and an important site of Shia pilgrimage. Its prestige was enhanced by Shah Abbas who allegedly walked there barefoot from Isfahan, and the area still persists today as one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. The city, fed by huge networks of infrastructure that struggle to maintain the millions of visitors who flock to the shrine every year, has been rapidly growing since the 1979 revolution to house its developing businesses and factories, overwriting the architectural legacy of Abbas’ reign. Mashad is just one example of the many modernizing cities of Iran that are embracing the opportunities of the modern world and struggling to simultaneously cling to their ancient roots. The splendour and tolerance embodied in Shah Abbas I’s legacy tell the story of one of the most important Middle Eastern empires of the last millennia, a legacy which Iran is trying to maintain even as the country modernizes.