Shah 'Abbas – Life and legacy

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Silver abbassi coin of Shah Abbas IIShah 'Abbas I died in January 1629. His reign had left Iran stable, strong and powerful and secured the survival of the Safavid dynasty for nearly 100 years after his death. He was succeeded by his grandson, Shah Safi.

When Shah Safi died in 1642, his eight-year-old son, Shah 'Abbas II succeeded him. The last two Safavid Shahs, Sulayman and Sultan Husayn, were weak and ineffective rulers, and by 1722 the dynasty fell and Iran was under the rule of Afghans.

After the fall of his dynasty, Shah 'Abbas’s reputation declined in Iran. Portrait of Shah 'Abbas hawkingHowever, thanks to his economic reforms and artistic renaissance, his country had entered the collective imaginations of Europe and Mughal India. Indians placed images of him in albums alongside the great Mughal emperors, from Babur to Shah Jahan. European travellers’ accounts of journeys to Iran include illustrations of Shah 'Abbas, recognisable by the extreme length of his moustache and his extravagant turban. In English literature the Safavid shahs appear in the works of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers.

Chinese style ceramic dish from IranIsfahan remained the capital of the Safavids until their fall in the eighteenth century and continued to impress foreign visitors with its remarkable architecture, cosmopolitan population, and public entertainment. Yet Shah 'Abbas’s legacy is found in more than just the built environment. He left an equally far-reaching mark on the society, religion and political geography of Iran.

The Ottomans would later reoccupy Baghdad and the Shi'i shrines of Iraq but Iran’s borders, established by Shah 'Abbas, remained otherwise more or less intact. The silk trade continued to play a crucial role in the economy, and his support of religious leaders led to a more just society and ultimately gave political power to the ʿulama (religious scholars).Bust portrait of Shah ‘Abbas I

Today, Shah 'Abbas is remembered as the builder of Iran’s most beautiful city, known in Persian since the seventeenth century as Isfahan nesf-e jahan, which translates as ‘Isfahan is half the world’.

But by combining ruthless ambition and a desire for stability, Shah 'Abbas ensured the survival of his dynasty after his death, and by creating such a city he made sure that the rest of the world would remember him and his empire.

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A history of Chinese silk, £29.95

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