Safavid Tales

Today I discovered via the TwistedSifter that the Met uploaded 408.500 high resolution images to their already amazing web site. Seriously! With 408.500 images to choose from, where should I start?

The site’s main page directs the visitors to wonderful highlights from the collection, but funny enough I didn’t click on any of the available images. I went straight up to the search and typed in: Safavid art. Even I was surprised by my immediate curiosity to find out what the Met has to offer in this field.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Safavid art, and with Safavid tiles, take a look at these:

May have been made by Iranian craftsmen working in the Mughal empire in the mid-17th century
Probably Isfahan, 17th century
Probably in a palace in Isfahan, 17th century
Ali Muhammad Isfahani, Later imitate the art of the Safavid period, 19th century

Every time I get the chance to visit the V&A I stop by this lovely tile. There is something romantic and mesmerising about the colour, composition, the beautiful details and the calm faces that draws me back every time I visit.

Some time ago, the Met released their online bulletins and in one of them I discovered a B&W image of the same tile! For ages I wanted to write about it but was never able to find the time. Well, no time like the present!

The Safavid period in Iranian history is a remarkable one indeed. The Asian faces, flat-looking surfaces and the calligraphy — all seem a bit out of place in this part of the world. However, a couple of years ago I was fortunate to attend a fascinating course about Timurid Illuminated Manuscripts, and it was love at first sight.

Let’s go back in time to a magical place of Mongolia and their extremely ambitious leader Genghis Khan. The Mongols conquer progressed throughout the 13th century and took over most of the world. Genghis Khan legacy, as well as his sons and grandsons, contributed greatly to cultural development, artistic achievement, a courtly way of life, and an entire continent united under the so-called Pax Mongolica (“Mongolian Peace”).

The Mongols were a tribal force, so the places they’ve settled in became their new home — both in the cultural and religious sense. In China Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty — Buddhist dynasty (1279–1368), in Russia the Golden Horde (ca. 1227–1502), and in Iran the IlKhanid (1256–1353) — a Muslim dynasty — and this dynasty fascinates me the most.

Besides terror and all the horrible things we know about the Mongols, Pax Mongolica created a fantastic bridge between China, Iran and Europe. Through the Silk Road cultural and artistic developments found their way from China straight to Iran. This cultural exchange created one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the world with Chinese characters and Arabic calligraphy. You can also see 15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online right here.

After the Ilkhanid the Timurids (ca. 1370–1507) were the final great dynasty to emerge from the Central Asian steppe. In the early 16th century, Iran was united under the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), the greatest dynasty to emerge from Iran in the Islamic period. Under the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76), one of the most remarkable manuscripts was created. Some years ago I wrote an article about it, and unlike with other subjects I get bored with after I write about it, this one will always have a soft spot in my heart.

And finally we reach the Safavid tiles. Suddenly the Asian influence becomes clear and we can just enjoy these masterpieces — now available in high definition. I immediately changed my desktop image and I wonder how long would it take for me to change it to something different.

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