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Silver 'Abbasi coin of the Safavid Dynasty, minted in Baghdad, 1624–5, © The Trustees of the British MuseumSilver 'Abbasi coin, c. 1624–5, Safavid Dynasty, minted in Baghdad
© The Trustees of the British Museum

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 splendor 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 throne. (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.

Shah 'Abbas dramatically increased the silk trade with Europe to rebuild the Iranian economy after it had nearly collapsed under the disastrous rule of his father. Gold and silver coins received from Europe were melted down and re-struck as Iranian coins, which were then used to buy goods from India.

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 skillful 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.

Painting of an old pilgrim by an anonymous artist, Isfahan, Iran, late 1500s to early 1600s, 9.9 x 4.9 cm, © The Trustees of the British MuseumPainting of an old pilgrim by an anonymous artist, late 1500s to early 1600s, Isfahan, 9.9 x 4.9 cm, Iran © Trustees of the British MuseumCharity 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 contains the tomb of 'Ali ibn Musa al-Riza—the eighth Shi'i Imam, and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad— who died suddenly in 818 in a village near the present-day city of Mashhad (in northeast Iran). Imam Riza was thought to have been poisoned and thus martyred. ‘Mashhad’ means place of witness or place of martyrdom. He is the only Shi'i Imam buried in Iran and therefore his tomb is hugely important to Shi'i Iranians. Shah 'Abbas first visited the shrine as shah in 1598.

During most of Shah 'Abbas’s reign, the Ottoman Turks controlled the popular pilgrimage sites in Iraq and Mecca and Medina. Shah 'Abbas 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). A number of drawings of aged figures from this period exist and suggest a new awareness of and participation in pilgrimage during the rule of Shah 'Abbas I. 

The hunched figure in this drawing, depicted alone in a wasteland, evokes the solitude and hardship experienced by those who travelled long distances on foot to pray at the shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad, Iran during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Despite his age, as illustrated by his posture, long beard and wrinkled brow, his eyes are focused on a point beyond the edge of the picture.

During the 1590s a style of drawing developed that emphasized the calligraphic treatment of line, and in this small image the anonymous artist has varied the thickness of contour lines to suggest volume and the movement of drapery. Despite the small size of the picture, the artist has incorporated a range of tints, from the red rocks in the background to the two tones of tan for the robe and shawl and subtle white highlights on the turban.

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