V. SAFAVID PERSIA: 1576–1722

Let us look at the Safavid period from the death of Tamasp I (1576) to its end in 1722, for this is a cultural development that cannot be cut to fit European chronology. Several Occidental travelers have left us illuminating accounts of Persia in this age: Pedro Teixeira, who was there in 1600; the Jesuit Father Kiusinski, who lived in Isfahan from 1702 to 1722 and wrote a History of the Revolution of Persia, covering the whole Safavid dynasty; Jean Tavernier, who described at length his travels (1631–68) in Turkey, Persia, India, and the East Indies; and Jean Chardin, who reported in ten volumes his stay in Persia from 1664 to 1677. Though he encountered the simoon near the gulf, Chardin fell in love with Iran; he preferred Isfahan to Paris in summertime, and found such “an exquisite beauty in the air of Persia” that, he wrote, “I can neither forget it myself, nor forbear mentioning it to everybody”; he thought that the clear Persian sky had influenced Persian art to brilliance of luster and color and had happily affected the Persians in body and mind.IV30 He believed that the Persians had profited from their mixture with the people of Georgia and the Caucasus, whom he rated the handsomest and bravest in the world—but not quite as handsome as a Persian horse.31

This once fertile Eden, home of jeweled caliphs and melodious poets, had been ruined by Mongol incursions, disruptions of government, the neglect and silting of lifeblood canals, the shifting of trade routes; and the discovery of an all-water passage from Western Europe to India and China had left Persia commercially becalmed. Some trade, however, moved down the rivers to the Persian Gulf. In 1515 the Portuguese captured Hormuz, the leading gulf port, and they held it for a century; but in 1622 the army of Shah Abbas, aided by the ships of the English East India Company, expelled the Portuguese from Hormuz; the Shah built another commercial depot nearby at Bandar Abbas (the Port of Abbas), and the trade that developed there helped to finance the art and luxury of his reign. Caravans still passed from the West to the East through Persia, and left some wealth in the towns on their way. Teixeira described Aleppo as a city of 26,000 homes—many of them built of well-wrought stone, and some fit for princes—with a population of Moslems, Christians, and Jews; it had clean and handsome public baths, and several streets were paved with marble slabs.32

Most industry was still in the handicraft stage—medieval, painstaking, artistic, slow; but Aleppo had a silk factory, and tobacco was grown throughout the land. According to Chardin the Persians had a filter system for smoking: they passed the smoke through water, and thereby it was “purged of all the oily and gross qualities of the tobacco.”33 Smoking became a necessity to the Persians; “they had rather go without their dinners than their pipes.”34 Shah Abbas was an exception; he despised the habit and tried to cure his courtiers of it with a trick. He had horse manure dried and substituted for tobacco in the vessels from which they filled their pipes; he explained that this was a costly product presented to him by the vizier of Hamadan. They smoked it and praised it to the skies; “it smells like a thousand flowers,” vowed one guest. “Cursed be that drug,” cried Shah Abbas, “that cannot be distinguished from the dung of horses.”35

Any man gifted with ability and courtesy could rise to a place in the Shah’s court; there was no aristocracy of birth.36 In all classes and sexes dress was essentially the same: a robe reaching to the knees, tight sleeves, a broad girdle (sometimes of flowered silk) around the waist, a silk or cotton shirt under the robe, breeches gathered at the ankles, and a turban topping all. The women were “very richly habited,” wrote Tavernier, and “little otherwise than the men…. They wear breeches like the men.”37 The women lived in the privacy of the zenana, seldom stirring from their homes, and then rarely on foot. There were three sexes. Much of the love poetry was addressed by men to boys, and Thomas Herbert, an Englishman at Abbas’ court, saw “Ganymede boys in vests of gold, rich bespangled turbans, and choice sandals, their curled hair dangling about their shoulders, with rolling eyes and vermilion cheeks.”38

Chardin noted a decrease in population in his time and ascribed it to

First, the unhappy inclination which the Persians have, to commit that abominable sin against nature, with both sexes.

Secondly, the immoderate luxury [sexual freedom] of the country. The women begin there to have children betimes, and continue fruitful but a little while; and as soon as they get on the wrong side of thirty they are looked upon as old and superannuated. The men likewise begin to visit women too young, and to such an excess, that though they enjoy several, they have never the more children for it. There are also a great many women who make themselves abortive, and take remedies against growing pregnant, because [when] they have been three or four months gone with child, their husbands take to other women, holding it … indecency to lie with a woman so far in her time.39

Despite polygamy there were many prostitutes. Drunkenness was widespread, though Mohammedan law forbade wine. Coffee shops abounded; the plant received its European from its Arabic name, qahwah.40 Cleanliness was more common in person than in speech; bathhouses were numerous and were sometimes artistically adorned, but there was much profanity and obscenity.41 “Great dissemblers and flatterers,” Tavernier called them, and they were much given to cheating, reports Chardin, but he adds, “They are the most kind people in the world,” tolerant and hospitable, with “the most engaging ways, the most complying temper, the smoothest… tongues … altogether the most civilized people of the East.”42 They were fond of music, and usually their poets sang the poems they had composed.

We may judge the excellence of the Persian poets from their popularity at the court of the Moguls in Delhi, but none of them in this period found a Fitzgerald to phrase them for Western ears. We learn that Urfi of Shiraz was at the top of Persian poetry in the sixteenth century; he thought himself at least superior to Sa’di; but which of us provincials has ever heard of him? His verses were better liked than himself, as we gather from the “friends” who came to enjoy his mortal illness:

My body hath fallen into this state, and my eloquent friends

stand like pulpits round my bed and pillow.

One draws his hand through his beard and cocks his neck,

saying, “O life of thy father! To whom is fortune constant?

One should not set one’s heart on ignoble rank and wealth;

where is the Empire of Jamshid and the name of Alexander?”

Another, with soft voice and sad speech, begins, drawing his

sleeve across his moist eyes:

“O my life! All have this road by which they must depart;

we are all travelers on the road, and time bears forward the riders.”

Another, adorning his speech with smoother words, says … “

“Collect thyself … let not thy heart be troubled, for I

will with single purpose collect thy verse and prose.

After copying and correcting it, I will compose an introduction

like a casket of pearls in support of thy claims.” …

May God … give me health again, and thou shalt see what

wrath I will pour on the heads of these miserable hypocrites!43

Urfi’s rival in rhyme was Sa’ib of Isfahan. He followed the fashion of migrating to Delhi, as French and Flemish artists of that age went to Rome. But after two years he returned to Isfahan, and became poet laureate to Shah Abbas II (1642–66). He was something of a philosopher, fertile in fragments of measured wisdom:

All this talk of infidelity and religion finally leads to one place;

The dream is the same dream, only the interpretations differ …

The cure for the unpleasant constitution of the world is to ignore it;

Here he is awake who is plunged in heavy sleep …

The wave is ignorant of the true nature of the sea;

How can the temporal comprehend the eternal? …

The only thing that troubles me about the Resurrection Day is this,

That one will have to look again upon the faces of mankind.44

If the music of Persian poetry eludes us, the enjoyment of Safavid art is not beyond our reach, for here is a speech that all can understand. The skill, finesse, and taste that had been formed in Iran through two thousand years now flowered in architecture, pottery, illumination, calligraphy, woodcarving, metalwork, textiles, tapestries, and rugs, that are among the prizes of the world’s museums today. The best architecture of the age, as we have noted, was under Abbas I at Isfahan. There the second of his name built the Talar Ashraf (1642); and there, in the twilight of the Safavids, Shah Husein raised the Madrasa Madar-i-Shah—the College of the Mother of the Shah—which Lord Curzon rated “one of the stateliest ruins in Persia.”45 But other cities boasted new architectural achievements: the Madrasa-i-Khan at Shiraz, the great mausoleum of Kwaja Rabi at Mashhad, the now ruined but still lovely shrine of Qadam-Gah at Nishapur, and the Blue Mosque of Erivan.

Shah Abbas I founded at Isfahan an academy of painting, where students were required, as part of their discipline, to copy famous miniatures, in which beauty of design and delicacy of drawing predominated over the subjects and the figures. Now—apparently under European influence—the secular painters allowed themselves to deviate from orthodox Mohammedan custom by making miniatures in which a human figure stood out as the major theme. Here the sequence inverted the Italian; in the painting of the Renaissance the landscape was at first neglected, then it became incidental background, then (perhaps as individualism declined under the Counter Reformation) it predominated over the figures; but in Islamic painting the human figure was at first excluded, then it was permitted as incidental, and only in the later stages (perhaps as individualism grew with wealth) did it predominate in the design. So in The Falconer46 a green-robed noble sports a bird on his wrist, against a minor background of golden flowers; and inThe Poet Seated in a Garden47 every detail reveals the characteristic Persian elegance. Another innovation developed mural painting, of which we have seen an example in the Chihil Sutun. But the great masters still devoted themselves chiefly to the adornment of the Koran, or the illustration of literary classics like Firdausi’s Shahnama or Sa’di’s Gulistan—which Mawlana Hasan of Baghdad illuminated in liquid gold.

Supreme in the painting of this second Safavid period was Riza-i-Abbasi, who added the Shah’s name to his own in gratitude for royal patronage. For a generation his renown was brighter than Bihzad’s. After him the art declined; the sensitivity of the artist and the refinement or subtlety of his design passed into effeminate excess. Meanwhile the Persian style, having itself felt a Chinese influence, affected in turn the miniature painting at the court of the Moguls, and even their architecture. Grousset thought that the Taj Mahal was “but a new chapter in the art of Isfahan.”48

Calligraphy was still a major art in Persia; Mir Imad was almost as loved by Shah Abbas for his meticulous copies of older manuscripts as Riza-i-Abbasi for his miniatures. Books were cherished for their form as well as their content; a beautiful binding delighted eyes and touch quite as much as a delicate vase. Artists signed covers as proudly as paintings; so a gold-stamped leather binding of the early seventeenth century is inscribed “the work of Muhammud Salih Tabrizi”;49 and a cover of papier-mâché, painted in lacquer, is signed “Ali Riza” and is dated 1713.50 Both are temptingly beautiful.

In the Persian cities it is the painted tiles that, next to the domes, or on them, strike the eye; and their age arouses wonder at the ceramic art that could give such permanence to such brilliance. This immortalizing of color by glazing it with fire was an old skill in Persia; the glazed tiles of Achaemenid Susa (400 B.C.) were already perfect in their kind. Alloys of gold, silver, copper, and other metals were fused to make more lustrous colors, especially in ruby red and turquoise blue; and a double firing hardened the clay and the glaze against the bite of centuries. The Armenians probably employed Persian potters to make the tiles in their Christian church at Julfa—as delicate in design as a miniature. Even more beautiful are the painted tiles in the Kevorkian Collection, ascribed to Isfahan and the second half of the seventeenth century.51

The potters continued, at Isfahan, Kashan, and elsewhere, to make luster-ware—bottles, bowls, vases, plates, flagons, cups—painted under glaze in varied colors on divers grounds. Mosaic faïence became a favorite material to cover the walls of mosques and palaces. Shah Abbas imported Chinese porcelain and his potters tried to duplicate it, but they lacked the precise soils and skills. Again under the prodding of the ruler, attempts were made at Isfahan and Shiraz to rival Venetian glass. The metalworkers excelled in carving and inlaying brass; a good example, dated 1579, is a Persian candlestick in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Hermitage at Leningrad is a saber sheath of gold encrusted with large and finely cut emeralds.

Textiles were a major industry and art. Designers, weavers, and dyers occupied a large section of Isfahan and were numbered in the thousands. Their products formed the staple of the export trade, giving Persia a world-wide reputation for satins, velvets, taffetas, embroideries, and silks. When Abbas wished to confer a special gift he usually chose some masterpiece of the Persian looms; “The numbers of garments he thus bestows is infinite,” reported Chardin.52 The Shah and his court were dressed, on ceremonial occasions, in silks and brocades whose beauty seemed to Chardin unequaled by any court costumes in Europe. “The art of dyeing,” he wrote, “seems to have been more improved in Persia than in Europe, their colors being much more solid and bright, and not fading so soon.”53 The velvets of Kashan were unrivaled anywhere; some fragments are among the trophies in the museums of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Washington. One of the prizes captured by the Christian armies in the repulse of the Turks from Vienna (1683) was a carpet of brocaded silk velvet, apparently made in Isfahan under Shah Abbas.54

Persian textiles reached their apogee in the design and weaving of rugs, and the age of Shah Abbas saw the final glory of this art in Iran. A carpet was almost as necessary to a Persian as his clothing. Thomas Herbert reported, in the seventeenth century: “In their houses they have little furniture or household stuff, except it be their carpets and some copper works…. They eat on the ground, sitting on carpets cross-legged, as do tailors. There is no man so simple but he sitteth on a carpet better or worse; and the whole house or room … is wholly covered with carpets.”55 Colors ran now to deep scarlet or wine red; but to balance this exuberance the design was restful, if only because it carried out with satisfying logic some basic theme. This might be geometrical, and endless were the variations that here made Euclid beautiful. More often the design was floral, bringing to the eye, in rich but orderly array, the favorite products of a Persian garden—flowers in vases or loosely strewn, or flowers imagined rather than seen, with leisurely, gracefully trailing arabesques. Sometimes the garden itself provided the design: trees, shrubs, flower beds, and flowing water were disciplined into geometry. Or the design was centered around a large medallion dangling pendants to each end; or it might display animals in frolic or the chase.

Then came infinite labor and patience: stretching the threads in a vertical warp on the loom, interweaving them with the horizontal threads of the weft, and sewing little knots of colored wool or silk into the warp to form the “pile” and the design; there might be 1,200 knots in a square inch, or 90,000,000 in a rug twenty-three feet square.56 Slavery seems woven into this art, but the worker prided himself on the accuracy and finesse of his work, transforming the chaos of his materials into an order and harmony and hierarchy of parts in a whole. Such rugs were made at a dozen centers in Persia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus, to grace palaces, mosques, and homes, and to serve as precious gifts to potentates or friends.

Persian carpets and Persian illumination went through similar developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: they received a Chinese influence in “cloud” and other designs, they in their turn influenced the arts in Turkey and India, and they reached their final peak of excellence under the Safavids. By 1790 the production of Persian rugs was on a quantity basis, hurriedly designed and woven for a larger and less exacting market, chiefly European. Even then, however, there were some exceptional pieces unequaled in texture, color, and design anywhere in the world.

Such was Persia, such was Islam, in this last flowering of their power and art—a civilization profoundly unlike ours of the West, and at times contemptuously hostile, denouncing us as polytheists and materialists, laughing at our matriarchal monogamy, and sometimes coming in avalanches to batter down our gates; we could not be expected to understand it, or admire its art, when the great debate was between Moslem and Christian, not yet between Darwin and Christ. The competition of the cultures is not over, but for the most part it has ceased to shed blood, and they are now free to mingle in the osmosis of mutual influence. The East takes on our industries and armaments and becomes Western, the West wearies of wealth and war and seeks inner peace. Perhaps we shall help the East to mitigate poverty and superstition, and the East will help us to humility in philosophy and refinement in art. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.


I. Hardly a hundred miles to the northwest, near Actium on the present Gulf of Arta, Octavian with 400 warships had snatched the mastery of the ancient Mediterranean world from Antony and Cleopatra and their 500 men-of-war (September 2, 31 B.C.).

II. In 1536 France had obtained the first Turkish “capitulations,” and these had been renewed in 1569. They were not surrenders but a treaty—named from its chapters or headings (capitula)—chiefly agreeing that French subjects in Turkish lands should be governed and tried by French law (“extraterritorial jurisdiction”). Turkey signed similar capitulations with England in 1580 and with the United Provinces in 1613.

III. The marble goalposts still stand in the square. The game of polo came to Europe from Persia.

IV. Cf. Cicero (De falo, 7) on “Athens’ clear air,” which “is said to have contributed to the keenness of the Attic mind.”

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