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Shah 'Abbas – the image of a ruler
Shah 'Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. Within two years of usurping the throne from his father, he ordered the assassination of the guardian who had helped him. He would also kill, or blind, three of his five sons so that they would not overthrow him, as he had overthrown his father. Yet despite his ruthlessness, he mixed with his subjects and enjoyed feasting and elaborate entertainments.
‘The character of the Shah contains some
contradictions; for instance, his fiery temper, his imperiousness,
his majesty and regal splendour are matched by his mildness,
leniency, his ascetic way of life, and his informality. He is
equally at home on the dervish’s mat and the royal
Iskandar Munshi Beg, Safavid biographer, 1629
Unlike Europe, where the image of a monarch would appear on coins and in sculpture in public places, the only portraits of Shah 'Abbas were either produced by non-Iranian artists or for privately-owned albums. Calligraphy (which means beautiful writing) on coins and buildings was the main method by which he could display his name and titles to his subjects.
He was also keen to create a lasting visual style for his empire that would be associated with him rather than the rulers who came before him. As well as new buildings in Isfahan, Shah 'Abbas also used architecture to promote Shi'ism as the state religion of Iran, and in the process undertook skilful acts of public relations to promote an image of piety to his subjects. He renovated Shi'i shrines and presented them with collections of precious items.
Charity is one of the five Pillars of Islam and public donations to shrines are particularly pious. These waqf (charitable donations) were an important aspect of Shah 'Abbas’s reign and in 1608 he announced a major donation to the Ardabil Shrine. The donation consisted of Chinese porcelains, Persian poetic and historical manuscripts, jades, and other precious objects. He made similar gifts to shrines at Qum and Mashhad.
The Shrine of Imam Riza at Mashhad in northeast Iran contains the tomb of 'Ali ibn Musa al-Riza, the eighth Shi`i Imam – a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad – who died in AD 818 near the city. Imam Riza is the only Shi'i Imam buried in Iran and therefore his tomb is hugely important to Shi’i Iranians. During most of Shah 'Abbas’s reign, the Ottoman Turks controlled the popular pilgrimage sites in Iraq and Mecca and Medina. Shah 'Abbas first visited the shrine as shah in 1598 and promoted Mashhad as an alternative pilgrimage site, advancing the idea that visiting Mashhad provided the same spiritual benefits as going on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
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