Shah Abbas exhibition at the British Museum





Reclining on a terrace overlooking the world's second biggest public square, watching the sun set over the domes of blue-tiled mosques and columned palaces as merchants and their customers bustle in and out of the bazaar below, a scene that has changed little in 300 years, seems like the perfect place to start searching for an understanding of the enigma that is modern Iran, where they are preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

On February 1, 1979, two weeks after the last shah fled the country, Ayatollah Khomeini returned in triumph from exile, sparking a revolution that established the Islamic republic. But those wishing to gain a proper perspective on a country that we now hear of mostly in connection with its nuclear programme or the anti-Semitic rantings of President Ahmadinejad should look farther back, to a time when Iran was at the centre of the world.

That is what the British Museum is inviting us to do. Next month it opens the third of four blockbuster exhibitions on giants of world history about whom most of us know too little. The series started with the record-breaking First Emperor exhibition that brought the terracotta warriors to London, continued with Hadrian last year and will conclude with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in the autumn. Next month it will be the turn of Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, which tells the story of the man who created modern Iran in the late 16th and early 17th century and became known as Shah Abbas the Great.

Neil MacGregor, the museum's director, wants these exhibitions to “raise the big questions of the moment”. In this case he hopes to show us “what Iranians think about themselves. It's really hard to imagine what the world looks like from somewhere else; what the world looks like if that is your history.”

It is easy to depict Iran as an unpredictable entity on the fringe of the modern world, but Iranians grow up learning that at one time in Isfahan they were at the heart of what MacGregor calls “a new world order. In this place the English ambassador met the Chinese ambassador, the Indians met the people from Italy. The world met in Isfahan.”..



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