Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran

In association with The Iran Heritage Foundation

19 February – 14 June 2009
Reading Room    
Admission charge

In February 2009, the British Museum will open the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah 'Abbas, one of the formative figures in the creation of modern Iran. Shah of Iran from 1587 – 1629 AD, he is remembered as one of the country’s most influential kings and a great military leader, ruling Iran at a time of political renewal, when it succeeded in positioning itself as a world power with a sharply defined national identity.

Shah 'Abbas came to the throne in 1587, the fifth ruler of the Safavid Dynasty. Through trade, patronage and diplomacy Shah 'Abbas fostered good relations with Europe and ushered in a golden period in the arts, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. He was a great builder and restorer of major monuments across the country and this architectural legacy will provide the context in which to explore the themes of his reign. The exhibition will feature luxurious gold-ground carpets, exquisite Chinese porcelains, illustrated manuscripts, watercolour paintings, metalwork and beautiful silks, objects similar to those Shah 'Abbas gave to important religious sites across Iran. The famous calligrapher Ali Riza 'Abbasi was a key figure throughout Shah 'Abbas’s reign and examples of his work will feature prominently in the exhibition.

Shah 'Abbas was a man with a strong sense of personal piety; though Shiism was declared the state religion of Iran in 1501, it was Shah 'Abbas who consolidated its preeminence through the rule of law and the suppression of heterodox Shi'i sects and extremist dervish orders. The clerics in the circle of Shah 'Abbas established the parameters of Shi'i orthodoxy and in so doing strengthened the role of the religious elite throughout Iran.

In association with The Iran Heritage Foundation, the exhibition will feature extraordinary loans, never before seen outside of Iran, alongside loans from Europe and the US. The exhibition is the third in a series examining empire and power in different parts of the globe and follows exhibitions on the First Emperor of China and the Roman emperor Hadrian.

"Shah 'Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah 'Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today." Sheila Canby, curator of the exhibition

To book tickets phone +44 (0)20 7323 8181.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522/  

The exhibition will focus on four key sites which Shah 'Abbas transformed or embellished as public statements of royal power.

Isfahan: the new capital
Shah 'Abbas made Isfahan his new capital in 1598 and it became his main administrative city and the seat of his power. He completed an ambitious building programme, including the construction of a royal palace and his personal mosque (named after his father-in-law and spiritual advisor Shaykh Lutf Allah) as well as new quarters for the Safavid elite and the Armenian merchant class which drove Iran’s international silk trade. It was also the site of the royal artists’ workshop, led by the famous calligrapher Ali Riza 'Abbasi.

Ardabil: the ancestral shrine
Ardabil contains the tomb of Shaykh Safi, a fourteenth-century sufi mystic and ancestor of Shah 'Abbas. The site contained a lodge for dervishes who followed the Shaykh’s teaching and was the dynastic shrine of the Shah’s family. Under Shah 'Abbas the role of this complex as a symbol of the Safavid Dynasty grew.  He renovated the shrine, gifting magnificent decorative objects, including precious Chinese porcelains, mosque lamps and important manuscripts, examples of which can be seen in the exhibition.

Mashhad: the tomb of the martyred Imam
Mashhad is a holy shrine city of huge significance. It is the burial site of Imam Riza, the only Shi'i imam, or infallible spiritual guide, who is buried in Iran. The Shah himself walked in pilgrimage to the shrine from Isfahan, a distance of 600 miles. It houses the Shah’s collection of Qur’ans and Arabic scientific manuscripts and other elegant furnishings for the many chambers of the shrine. Objects similar to those given by the Shah to Mashhad will be on display.

Qum: studying the faith
Qum is the shrine city of Fatimeh Ma'sumeh, the sister of Imam Riza and a focus of Safavid female piety and spirituality. By the seventeenth century many religious colleges were associated with the shrine, a situation that continues to this day. At the very end of his reign Shah 'Abbas took a particular interest in this shrine and after his death his successors donated exquisite silk brocades, calligraphy and manuscripts. 

Research, undertaken by the British Museum’s Dr Sheila Canby and Professor Robert Gleave from Exeter University, investigating the importance of Shah 'Abbas in renovating these key religious spaces has contributed to a better/greater understanding of their importance.  Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) this research has been key in the preparation of the exhibition.

Notes to editors

  • The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated book by Sheila R.Canby ‘Shah 'Abbas: The remaking of Iran', published by BM Press priced £25.
  • A full public programme of lectures, workshops, family events, film screenings and gallery talks will accompany the exhibition. For more information
  • Takhti – Hero and Iranian Icon (19 February – 19 April 2009) will take place in Room 3: the Asahi Shimbun displays.  The show will display a recent acquisition of contemporary Iranian art made by the Iranian artist Khusrow Hassanzade. The piece is a large shrine-like object inspired by the image of Takhti (d.1968) a national hero from Iran renowned for his physical prowess as a wrestler and also his good social deeds.
  • Also coinciding with the exhibition will be a coins and medals display entitled The splendour of Isfahan: coins from Iran (5 March – July 2009) in Room 69a. The exhibition will show the history of this splendid city through its coinage, focusing particularly on the Safavid period from the sixteenth – eighteenth centuries.
  • Iran Heritage Foundation is in partnership with the British Museum for the forthcoming Shah 'Abbas exhibition, opening in February 2009.  IHF has supported the British Museum over a number of years, collaborating on exhibitions such as Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia in 2005, and academic conferences such as Wondrous Words: The Poetic Mastery of Jalal al-Din Rumi in 2007 and The World of Achaemenid Persia in 2005. Founded in 1995, Iran Heritage Foundation is a UK registered non-political charity dedicated to enhancing awareness and contributing to the expansion of knowledge about Iran’s culture and history and to help celebrate, preserve and promote the huge diversity of languages, traditions, art and literature of Iran.
  • Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.