Thursday, April 23, 2009

Twitter. St George's Day and the Safavids: Shah Abbas I

Inscribing lamps with calligraphic poems during the Safavid dynasty, 1502-1736, was a form of 'twittering'. Compelled as I am to mingle in the real world, it is fusing with some long gone from a different era that is most enjoyable. Shah Abbas, Safavid ruler of Persia (1587-1629), is one of them.

Calligraphic ghazals (poems) adorn artefacts, such as lamps in the British Museum exhibition, Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran. Translations capture the mystique of the period:

On that night when the moon on your countenance became the lamp of solitude
The candle melted for it could not bear the fire of our converse
The instant when you throw the veil from your face
Will be the sunrise of our happiness

(Katibi Torshizi, 15th C poet)

The following lines, from Ali Riza Abbasi “express regret of one who has experienced life more intensely while asleep than awake – a Sufi sentiment that the Unseen World is more real than the material one”*

Of the life that has passed, only guilt remains
As long as I was alive I was asleep
All that is left are regret and sigh
I am now awake and this [life] is no longer left

Mulayim Beg Siyahgush:
Come cup-bearer, with that purple wine
Which is wisdom for the elder and delight for the youth
I do not know how reasoned is the world
When it makes me elder in (my) youth
Give me help too
Rejuvenate me in the days of old age

Visiting British Museum’s Shah Abbas exhibition on Wednesday April 1st, far enough not to be caught up in the G20 protestations that saw the tragic death of an innocent bystander, Ian Tomlinson, I learnt the king ruled Shi’a Persia in an age of Murad III sultan-ing the Ottomans, Akbar empire-ing over Mughal India, Wanli across Ming China, Elizabeth I in England, and Phillip II, whose kingdom extended to Spain and Portugal with colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Persia lay on the route between Asia and Europe, and was the centre of international trade and cultural exchange. Shah Abbas, sporting a prominent long, drooping moustache possessed “fiery temper, imperious majesty, regal splendour” or so the Safavid biographer, Iskander Munshi Beg described, contrasting a, “mildness, leniency, ascetic way of life, and informality … equally at home on the dervish’s mat and the royal throne”.*

He left no public images of himself, no sculptures exist, paintings were kept for private viewing only. Mughal India was Iran’s largest trading partner supplying textiles, spices and other merchandise. Art in India’s Muslim Courts preserved the encounter between Shah Abbas and the Mughal ambassador, Khan ‘Alam, while the Persian ruler himself encouraged calligraphers, painters, bookbinders, illuminators, poets and people weaving beautiful carpets of silk and gold, a craft in Persia dating back as far as 500 BC.

Though he forcibly removed Armenians from their city of Julfa to Isfahan he tolerated their worship and allowed the building of churches “to exercise control over their own community”*. When storming to power after a bloodless coup over his blind father in 1587, the Ottoman Turks occupied western Iran, the Caucus and Iraq, while the Uzbeks controlled the northeast province of Khurasan including Masshad, alternate destination to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims. Shah Abbas deployed an army of 'ghulams', Christian slave converts from Armenia and Georgia, to regain lost territory including Hormuz from the Portuguese, Baghdad from the Ottomans thereby controlling the trade through the Persian Gulf. He also defeated the Uzbeks clawing back control of a holy shrine in Masshad. While he reigned, Shah Abbas built Iran’s most beautiful monuments in Isfahan and Masshad. The Safavid dynasty declined and in 1722, Persia fell to the Afghans.

Pictures from the web: 1) Isfahan winter; 2) Musjide-Imam in Isfahan

For more pictures see:

*(Quotes and text from British Museum info-boards, Shah Abbas exhibition, April 2009)

No Twitter account so I'll tweet 'Happy St. George's Day' here!

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