For those who asked to see my review, but couldn’t get hold of the magazine, here it is in full
Anyone lucky enough to have travelled across the desert through Iran to Isfahan will know that it is not just one of the most beautiful cities of Islam, but also one of the wonders of the world. The Royal Square, or the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, is the jewel in Isfahan’s crown, greedily boasting not one, but two glorious mosques – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. Not much has changed since the square was first built four centuries ago: shops sell carpets, silverware and antiques, while clouds of pigeons circulate above what was once the heart of the capital of Shah ‘Abass’s Persia. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while dark alleys lead off into the depths of the legendary bazaar. Side roads punctuated by old caravanserais that have been converted into teahouses drift down to the river where Isfahan’s famous bridges cross Iran’s only permanent natural waterway.
Isfahan in all its glory is the work of one of the formative figures in the creation of modern Iran. Shah ‘Abbas, the country’s most influential king and a great military leader, ruled Persia at a time of great political renewal, when it emerged as a world power with a national identity. For those of us who find Middle Eastern history something of a closed book it may be useful to think of Shah ‘Abbas (who reigned from 1587–1629) as being contemporary with William Shakespeare, whose dramatic output straddled the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of King James I of England’s. In fact the Bard, aware of the colossal wealth of Shah ‘Abbas, even name-checks the ‘Sophy’ in Twelfth Night. In a scene where Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are plotting to bring down Malvolio, fellow conspirator Fabian says: ‘I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.’
Heartbeat of Persia and home to the Shah’s government, Isfahan played host to the Dutch traveller and artist Cornelius de Bruyn, who passed through the region in the early 18th century. His illustration of the Maidan from Voyages de Corneille le Brun par la Moscovie, En Perse, et aux Indes Orientales (1718) is one of the highlights of the British Museum’s fantastic new exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (also the title of the accompanying catalogue). De Bruyn’s depiction of the plaza ‘full of tents, where all kinds of things are sold’ is shown both as a gigantic wall-mounted reproduction, as well as in its original binding. His account of the square conjures up an atmosphere that remains to this day: ‘One continually sees a prodigious crowd of people of quality who come and go to the court. One also finds there troupes of clowns and charlatans … There are people there who have monkeys whom they make do a thousand tricks that attract the people because there is no nation on earth that loves a bagatelle more than the Persians. Also, the cafés and bazaars are full of these clowns.’
In other galleries, there is a fabulous array of ceramics, tapestries, carpets, manuscripts, paintings, coins and religious artefacts. Another breathtaking highlight is a slightly surprising collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Perhaps not that surprising, as China was an ancient trading partner of Persia. In fact, the history of blue and white porcelain begins with the export of cobalt from Persia to China. These ceramics were so highly prized that at the shrine at Ardabil a special building to house the collection was commissioned, its walls lined with niches contoured to fit each ceramic exactly. The overall effect of the exhibition is quite stunning and its curator Sheila R Canby must be congratulated for creating a magical experience for anyone with the slightest interest in the arts and treasures of the Middle East. It will be interesting to see if her efforts will help to overturn the widespread and baffling prejudice the British media holds against this beautiful and wonderful country.
The exhibition is logically and thematically divided into four geographical aspects of Shah ‘Abbas’s life: Isfahan, the Ardabil shrine, the shrine of Imam Riza at Mashad and the shrine of Fatimeh Ma‘sumeh at Qum. The catalogue follows the same format, although after the splendours of the exhibition is an anticlimax. On the page, Bishn Das’s iconic portrait of Shah ‘Abbas seems muted, the full-length portraits of Robert and Teresia Sherley lack scale, and the sub-collection of Armenian Christian crucifixes and censers lack the historic grandeur they exude in three dimensions. The ostentation of the silk and gold carpets, prayer rugs and the 17th century leather filigree bookbinding loses its fizz in print. The reason for this is that no catalogue could ever hope to do justice to such a truly exceptional exhibition, although there are quite frankly times when, as we shall see, the editors could have at least tried. But this is only to be expected: a catalogue can only really serve as a reminder, like a faded postcard from your favourite holiday.
Closer inspection reveals that the catalogue of Shah ‘Abbas: the Remaking of Iran suffers sorely from poor editing. In the index we are promised 128 catalogue entries, but the book comes to an abrupt end after 127. Of the entries themselves, 63 begin with the words ‘the’, ‘this’ or ‘these’, which to be charitable doesn’t matter that much – except that it does, because it makes you want to stop reading about the artefacts. This could have been put right in a matter of hours by a competent sub-editor. I could forgive this had the picture editing been any better, but there are pages of images in Shah ‘Abass: the Remaking of Iran that are not good enough to be published in a book from the British Museum Press.
By far the most disappointing is on page 104 – ‘Interior of the fifth floor of the Ali Qapu gatehouse, Isfahan, 1598-1638’ – where a snapshot grabbed on a cheap compact camera (or mobile phone) has been post-processed to the point where there is hardly any of the original digital data left. Almost as bad is the image on page 110, where the ‘Golden Ivan, Shrine of Fatimeh, Ma’sumeh, Qum, 1519’ has such pronounced barrel-distortion that it looks as if it were taken with a camera from a Christmas cracker. On pages 10–11 there is a (captionless) photograph of some ceramic tile-work that is over-extrapolated to the point where it is hard to tell if the original ever had a single point of focus.
The objection to these comments from the publisher will no doubt be that it is hard for photographers to get access to some of these holy sites and that decent photography of parts of Iran is scarce. This may be the case, but I speak from personal experience when I say that during my travels through Shiraz, Esfahan, Tehran and many other Iranian cities, the only time I was prevented from using my professional photographic equipment was when I was in a government treasury building. (As for holy sites where photography is not allowed for cultural reasons, the procedure is obtain special permission or leave your camera behind – not to grab shots by stealth using a mobile phone, or a similar tactic, as appears to be the case here). I accept that these criticisms may seem insubstantial in the grand scheme of things, but they are justified considering the expense of the catalogue – a Sophy’s ransom at £40 – compared with the twelve quid you’ll need to get into the show.
Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran is running at the British Museum until 14 June 2009
A selection of Nick Smith’s photographs of Iran was exhibited last month at the Royal Geographical Society, where he is a fellow. He is also a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York