Shah Abbas I and the Golden Age of Esfahans History

The history of Esfahan cannot be separated from the name of Shah Abbas the Great, the ruler who chose it as a capital in 1598 and spent forty-two years of his life toward its beautifica-tion and eminence. Brought up in Herat, the great cultural and intellectual center of Iran in the 16th century, since childhood Shah Abbas had been influenced by its magnificent architecture, painting, and calligraphy. The young prince showed astounding precocity as a connoisseur of the arts. When he was seven years old, an emissary from the royal court arrived in Herat accompanied by his favorite painter, Habibollah of Saveh. Abbas appreciated the artist's work and unceremoniously appropriated him from his master. In 1587, Shah Abbas was crowned king at the age of 17. He started his career by eliminating all those who had made (and could unmake) him shah. In 1591, he appointed as his grand vizier a gifted aristocrat, Hatim Beik Ordubadi, a determined man who accomplished a series of reforms which helped to increase the Shah's control over the entire country. In his late twenties, Shah Abbas was near the height of his power. His "revolution from above" preceded that of Louis XIV, but was at least as far-reaching. Shah Abbas was famed as a very energetic person. He loved hunting and often busied himself in the royal stables. He was a skilled craftsman, making scimitars, bridles and saddles for his horses, weaving fabrics and distilling flower water with his own

Sheikh Bahai

Baha od-Din Ameli, known as Sheikh Bahai, was born into a Shiite family in Lebanon. He came to Iran at the age of 13. He studied first in Qazvin and then in Herat, and finally settled in Esfahan. Sheikh Bahai was a true homo universalize with an encyclopedic knowledge of sciences as diverse as horticulture and alchemy. He was also one of the few Sufis that were allowed to play a public role under Shah Abbas the Great. In addition to numerous scientific achievements, Sheikh Bahai also wrote legal textbooks and mystical epic poetry. He is particularly famed for playing a major role in the design of the Royal Mosque (pp98-103) which houses his sundial; for the layout of the Safavid royal gardens; for composing verses of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (pp104-106); and for building the bathhouse that was allegedly heated by a single candle (this bathhouse still survives in Esfahan but its heating system does not work). He is also responsible for planning the system of water distribution in Esfahan and Ardestan.

This Safavid-period astrolabe is an extraordinarily precise device, which helped Iranian navigators to chart their sea voyages.

hands. Sometimes he gutted the fish or skinned the game he had killed and cooked it himself. Though almost illiterate, he was an able conversationalist with a thirst for useful knowledge. In a discussion, he was quick to get the point and was always ready to skewer an opponent's remark with a sharp and well-aimed thrust. He was eager to learn about foreign lands and never missed an opportunity to cross-examine visitors from Europe about conditions in their home countries. Like his contemporary Akbar in India, Shah Abbas enjoyed discussing religion with Christians, with whom he was very tolerant and protective, and found it amusing to see his own clerics struggle with the missioneers' arguments. Like many oriental mon-archs, he enjoyed going about among his subjects, and often he strolled the streets incognito.

Another very notable feature of Shah Abbas was his extreme super-

Frescos of Chehel Sotun are stitiousness. He never i,,d:^r,o!rtrerslo,:e^r,u took up any project with-

during the Safavid period. OUt taking the advice of

Shah AbbasLotfollah Mosque

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INTRODUCING ESFAHAN

HISTORY

his astrologers. This blind faith in the stars was responsible for the curious episode of his temporary abdication in 1591. Having been told by the court astrologer that the configuration of the planets threatened the occupant of the throne, he appointed a certain Yusuf to be the shah until the danger was over. Yusuf was crowned and enjoyed four days of glory; on the fifth day he was executed.

In 1598, Shah Abbas transferred the Safavid capital from Qazvin to Esfahan, where he built a whole new city, cheek by jowl with the ancient one. His intent was to build a new capital worthy of the Safavid state at the height of its power.

Under Shah Abbas's guidance, Esfahan rapidly became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city's change of status from a provincial to an imperial capital brought a great increase in population. Many of the newcomers were highly-skilled artisans who pursued the necessary patronage. Others came for commercial reasons, and among them were thousands of Armenian Christians, forcibly moved by the Shah from northwestern Iran to Julfa (pp 130-131). The new seat of authority was a vital embodiment of Iran's new system and new strength, as well as a strategic move to the Persian-speaking center of the Iranian plateau.

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