The Isfahan of Shah Abbas

The British Museum is showing a suberb exhibition on the reign of Shah Abbas and the city of Isfahan, the greatest manifestation of his long reign in the late 16th and early seventeenth century. He has been described as ruthless, but unlike Persian rulers of earlier times, he did not attempt to increase his empire beyond its boundaries in the time of his grandfather. He only recaptured areas lost to the Ottomans and invaders from the East. In this respect he differed from his Ottoman contemporaries with their constant campaigns of conquest. He was also unlike those today who seek world domination.

Rather he opened up trade and diplomacy with China, India and Europe. He took advantage of an English nobleman as a roving diplomat, in his attempt to court European nations as allies against the Ottomans.

Shah Abbas commissioned architects, calligraphers and artists to show his piety and power, but, above all, it seems to make Isfahan the most beautiful city in the world. When I was there thirty eight years ago, I was convinced that he came close to achieving his aims. If only today’s empire builders would concentrate on art architecture and trade.

Henry Matthews
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