Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Shah ‘Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan

In 1597–98, Isfahan became the new capital of Iran when Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) moved the Safavid government there as part of his larger plan to lift the country from the slump into which it had fallen. In order to revive the national economy, ‘Abbas courted foreign traders and made commercial agreements with several European nations. He increased carpet and textile production in state workshops and settled 300 Chinese potters and their families in Iran to capitalize on the vogue for Chinese ceramics. He then relocated the Armenians from the city of Julfa, who controlled much of the Persian end of a bustling international silk trade, to a neighborhood in Isfahan called New Julfa and gave them the monopoly on silk exports. ‘Abbas also created a new standing army that halted the encroachments of the Mughals and the Ottomans and restabilized the country’s territories.

‘Abbas reinforced the image of the Safavid polity with the architecture of his new capital. From the old Seljuq city center he built a two-kilometer-long bazaar to a new town square called the Maidan-i Shah, located to the south near the Zaianda River. Four commanding structures were ranged on the sides of this square: an entrance to the bazaar painted with murals depicting ‘Abbas’ victories over the Uzbeks on the north, the Shah Mosque (1611–66) on the south, the Mosque of Shaikh Lutfallah (1603–19) on the east, and the ‘Ali Qapu, a two-story audience hall, on the west. The four bases of the Safavid state—religion, trade, military, and the royal family itself—were thus united in one monumental visual statement.

Jean Chardin, a French jeweler who traveled throughout Iran in 1664–70 and again in 1671–77, exclaimed that Isfahan was “the greatest and most beautiful town in the whole Orient.” He described the city’s population as a mix of Christians, Jews, fire-worshippers, Muslims, and merchants from all over the world. He counted 162 mosques, 48 colleges, 1,802 caravanserais, 273 baths, and 12 cemeteries, testifying to ‘Abbas’ extensive architectural work in the city. Among the most scenic quarters was the area behind the ‘Ali Qapu, where a series of gardens extended to the Chahar Bagh, a long boulevard lined with parks, the residences of nobles, and the palaces of the royal family. Tile panels and frescoes from the pavilions of the Chahar Bagh in the Museum’s collection are examples of the lavish decoration of these structures.

Shah ‘Abbas was also an active patron of painting and book production. His commission of a Shahnama reestablished the royal painting atelier that had shrunk during the reigns of his two predecessors. He also had the fifteenth-century Timurid manuscript Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) refurbished; four paintings were added and the manuscript presented to the shrine at Ardabil in 1609. His reign witnessed the careers of such artists as Aqa Riza, Sadiqi Beg, Riza-yi ‘Abbasi, and Mir ‘Imad.

After ‘Abbas’ death in 1629, both the Safavid state and its capital suffered. His successors were ill-prepared to rule, and cities such as Shiraz rose to prominence as regional rulers became more powerful. The glory days of Isfahan came to an end in 1722 when the city was besieged by one of the Afghan tribes then in rebellion against the Safavids, and the dynasty, for all intents and purposes, ceased to rule.