It was a boon to the Christian West that from 1577 to 1638, while first France and then Germany were crippled by the wars of religion, the Turks, who might have pushed their western frontier to Vienna, directed their energies against Persia. Here too religion offered a pretext to disguise the lust for power. The Turks, following the Sunna, or traditional forms of Mohammedanism, denounced as heretics the Persians, who accepted the heterodox Shi’a, and condemned as usurpers all caliphs since Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. The real casus belli, of course, was more abdominal than theological—the desire of ruling minorities for additional land, resources, and taxable population. By a series of persistent wars the Ottoman Turks advanced to the Euphrates, the Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea, absorbing the new Persian capital, Tabriz, and the old Arab capital, Baghdad. Pedro Teixeira described Baghdad, about 1615, as a substantial city of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Jews, living in twenty thousand brick houses, amid a crowded movement of pack bullocks, camels, horses, asses, and mules; the men cleanly dressed, “many of the women handsome, and nearly all have fine eyes, peering over or through their veils.”22 One public official was entirely devoted to protecting strangers.

East of Baghdad and the Euphrates lay the disunited states of Iran, reaching to the Caucasus and the Caspian on the northwest, to Turkistan on the northeast, Afghanistan on the east, the Indian Ocean on the south, the Persian Gulf on the southeast. These scattered members waited for a unifying soul.

Abbas the Great was the fifth Shah, or king, of that Safavid dynasty which Ismail I had founded at Tabriz in 1502. During the long reign (1524–76) of the second Shah, Tamasp I, the new state suffered many incursions by the Turks. After his death they invaded and annexed the Persian provinces of Iraq, Luristan, and Khuzistan. Meanwhile the Uzbeks came down from Transoxiana, captured Herat, Mashhad, and Nishapur, and overran Persia’s eastern provinces. When Abbas, aged thirty, succeeded to the throne without a capital (1587), he made peace with the Turks and marched eastward to meet the lesser foe. After years of war he recaptured Herat and drove the Uzbeks from Persia. He was now eager to face the Turks, but his army was depleted by losses, disordered by tribal jealousies, and lacking in the latest means of inflicting death.

About this time (1598) two adventurous Englishmen, Sir Anthony Sherley and his younger brother Robert, arrived in Persia on a trade mission from England. They brought valuable presents, military experience, and an expert founder of cannon. With their help Shah Abbas reorganized his army, equipped it with muskets as well as swords, and soon had five hundred pieces of artillery. He led this new force against the Turks, drove them from Tabriz (1603), and recovered Erivan, Shirvan, and Kars. The Turks sent against him an avalanche of 100,000 men; Abbas, with 60,000, defeated them (1605); Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Mosul, and Baghdad were recovered, and Abbas ruled from the Euphrates to the Indus.

Even before these arduous campaigns he had begun (1598) to build a new capital farther removed than Tabriz from invaders, and less desecrated with alien memories and Sunni feet. Isfahan was already two thousand years old (though not under that name), and had 80,000 population. About a mile from this ancient city the Shah had his engineers lay out a rectangular space as the Maidan-i-Shah, or Royal Square, 1,674 feet long, 540 wide, and bordered with trees. On two sides ran promenades covered against rain and sun. On the south side rose the Masjid-i-Shah, the Royal Mosque; on the east, the Mosque of Lutf Allah and a royal palace; the remainder of the periphery was occupied by shops, inns, and schools. West of the maidan ran an avenue two hundred feet wide, the Chahar Bagh (“Four Gardens”), flanked by trees and gardens, and adorned with pools and fountains. On either side of this parkway were the palaces of the ministers of state. Through the city flowed the River Zayand, spanned by three masonry bridges; one of these, the Allah Verdi Khan, was a picturesque structure 1,164 feet long, with a broad paved roadway and on each side arcades for pedestrians. The new town was watered and cooled with streams, reservoirs, fountains, and cascades. The whole design was as excellent a piece of town planning as that age anywhere knew.23

When Chardin visited Isfahan in 1673 he was astonished to find a great metropolis of administration, commerce, crafts, and arts, with 1,500 villages surrounding it and an urban population of 300,000 souls. The city and its suburbs had 162 mosques, 48 colleges, 273 public baths, and 1,800 caravanserais, or inns. Tavernier, seeing Isfahan in 1664, described it as equaling Paris in extent, but only a tenth as populous, for every family had its own house and garden, and there were so many trees that it seemed “rather a forest than a city.”24 It is a pleasant picture, but Tavernier adds, “There are before every door certain troughs to receive the filth and ordure of each family, which the peasants come daily to carry away to dung their grounds…. You shall also meet with little holes against the walls of the houses in the open street, where the Persians are not ashamed to squat and urinate in sight of all the world.”25

Alert to the fact that Western Europe was grateful to him for keeping the Turks busy in the East, Shah Abbas sent Sir Anthony Sherley and others on missions to establish relations with Christian governments, and to open up exports of Persian silk free from Turkish intermediaries. When European envoys came to Isfahan he housed them palatially and gave them full religious freedom. Having captured five thousand Armenians in his Turkish campaigns, he did not enslave them, but allowed them to develop their own center at Julfa, near Isfahan; and he profited from their commercial activity and finesse. There they built their own church and decorated it with a mixture of Christian iconography and Moslem decoration. Sometimes Abbas played with the idea of fusing all religions into one and “imposing peace in heaven and on earth.”26 In a more realistic mood he used the Shi’a fervor of the Persians as a means of national morale. He encouraged his people to make pilgrimages to Mashhad as the Mecca of Persian Islam, and he himself walked the eight hundred miles from Isfahan to Mashhad to offer his devotions and gifts.

Therefore the architecture with which he made Isfahan gleam was chiefly religious; like the medieval Church in the West, he would transmute the pennies of the poor into temples whose grandeur, beauty, and peace would be a pride and a possession for all. The most impressive structure in the new capital was the Masjid-i-Shah, which Abbas built in 1611–29. The maidan is its majestic plaza and approach; the whole square seems to lead to that embracing portal. The eye is caught first by the flanking minarets and their lacery of overhanging turrets, from which the muezzin proclaims the unity of God; then by the resplendent faïence that covers the portal frame, and by the inscription frieze offering this shrine as a gift from Abbas to Allah; in Persia even the alphabet is art. Within the arch the walls are clustered with stalactites spangled with white flowers. Then the inner court, open to the sun; then through further arches into the sanctuary under the great dome. One must go outside again to study the dome, its majestic Kufic lettering, its swelling and yet graceful form, faced with enameled tiles of blue and green flowing in arabesques over an azure ground. Despite the enmity of time this is “even now one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.”27

Less imposing, more delicate, is the mosque that Shah Abbas raised (1603–18) in honor of his saintly father-in-law, the Masjid-i-Sheikh-Lutf-Allah: an elegant portal, a sanctuary and mihrab of exquisite faïence, but, above all, an interior of incredible beauty—arabesques, geometrical figures, flowers, and scrolls in perfect, unified design. Here is abstract art, but with a logic and structure and consequence that offer the mind no bewildering chaos, but intelligible order and mental peace.

On the east side of the maidan the Shah built an open throne under a great arch, the Ala Kapi, or Sublime Portal; there he gave audience, or watched the horse races or polo matches in the maidan.III Behind this gate were the royal gardens, containing several palaces used by the Shah for special purposes. One of these survives, much chastised by time: the Chihil Sutun (Forty Columns), an audience chamber and throne room supported by twenty plane-tree columns faced with mirror glass, and a long gallery adorned with oil paintings depicting events in the life of the Shah. The doors of the palace were of lacquered wood decorated with garden scenes and floral scrolls; two of these doors are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still in place is the brilliant stucco decoration, in gilt and colors, of the audience chamber ceiling; here again abstract art is brought to perfection in logic and design.

From his many palaces, and from his camp, Shah Abbas directed the life of his expanding realm. Like most great rulers, he interested himself in every phase of his people’s life. He built roads and bridges and had miles of road paved with stone. He encouraged manufactures, foreign trade, and the extraction of minerals from the soil. He built dams, spread irrigation, brought clean water to the towns. He restored injured cities—Mashhad, Qasvin, Tabriz, Hamadan. “He often disguised himself,” said Tavernier, “and went about Isfahan like an ordinary inhabitant, under pretense of buying and selling, making it his business to discover whether merchants used false weights or measures…. Finding two culprits, he had them buried alive.”28 This was the Oriental way of establishing law: in the imperfection of surveillance and police, severity of punishment aimed to check the natural lawlessness of men. Probably a long career in war accentuated in Shah Abbas this use of cruelty as deterrent or revenge; he killed one of his sons and blinded another.29Yet this same man composed poetry, financed many charities, and supported many arts.

His death (1629) ended the zenith of Safavid art and rule, but the order that his co-ordinated energy had built endured for almost another century. Despite a succession of weak shahs, the Safavid dynasty maintained itself till its cataclysmic collapse under the Afghan conquest of Persia (1722–30). And even in that period of political decline Safavid art continued to rank among the most refined products of human taste and skill.

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