Centers of artistic production in Safavid Era
Shah Ismael (1487-1524 CE), the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, established the capital of his newly formed empire in Tabriz, an unusual move given how past victors had chosen to build a new capital upon founding their dynastic rule. In his case, the choice may have been considered as royal inheritance from his Aqqoyunlu ancestry. Moreover, Tabriz was close to the city of Ardebil, the seat of the Safavid order and hence a dynastic holy city. Ismael may have been too busy carrying out conquests and establishing the contours of his new empire to also patronise the arts, but some of his Qizilbash governors engaged in building projects which particularly emphasised the Shi’a significance of holy sites. Ardebil and the shrine of Sheikh Safieddin became a site of building activities during Ismael’s time and thereafter throughout the reign of Shah Abbas I in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, the foundation at the mausoleum of Harun Vilayat in Isfahan attracted patronage by the Qizilbash governor Durmish Khan, who commissioned a highly sophisticated tiled programme on the entrance portal to the shrine complex, while his successor built an important neighbourhood mosque nearby.
Shah Tahmasp, whose reign was the longest among the Safavid rulers, was an avid patron of the arts and indeed of architecture for which he is rarely credited.
He inherited his father’s capital and a production centre for luxury books and portable arts. Tabriz had become a hub of artistic creativity when Ismael brought artists, calligraphers, and craftsmen from conquered lands, especially those of Timurid Herat. At the Safavid Kitabkhaneh (Library) in Tabriz, a repository for books and other precious artistic products as well as deluxe manuscripts, patronage of the arts of the book was consolidated during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. Here, the greatest artists of the age produced such spectacular manuscripts as the Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp. The court and elite wrapped themselves and furnished their elegant garden pavilions with textiles that were so delicately woven with silk, gold, and silver threads that they resembled paintings.
Tahmasp was also responsible for developing the city of Qazvin in northcentral Iran into a new capital, a choice that seems to have arisen from the need for safe distance from Ottoman frontiers.
The building works in Qazvin were extensive and included a vast, enclosed royal precinct with gardens, formal reception pavilions and residential and administrative zones. Only two features of the scheme have survived: Its entrance portal and one of the ceremonial pavilions, a two-storey octagon decorated with wall paintings of literary themes on the interior niches with the later addition of the pillared loggia outside. Tahmasp, it is said, was a good calligrapher, who also practised painting and presumably was involved in the wall paintings that graced some of the Qazvin pavilions. The Qazvin projects must have been completed by the middle of the century and the move coincided with the Peace Treaty of Amasya in 1555, which brought decades-long Ottoman-Safavid territorial conflict to an end.
There must have been an urban plan in mind, because the entrance portal, known as Ali Qapu, formed the northernmost edge of a public square which was also part of the development. This was the old city’s open space used for equestrian exercises and military gatherings. Known as the Maydan-e Asb (literally ‘the Horse Square’), it was converted with additional buildings along its peripheries into an urban public square, dedicated to processionals and other ceremonies.
Already in the sixteenth century, a degree of theatricality emerges in the arts of the Safavid Era. The public square is not new, but the calculated position of the viewing seat for the ruler and his entourage cast the processional into a new perspective, a feature of Safavid architecture that reaches its fuller articulation in Isfahan.
In the arts too, the high degree of technical perfection and high quality of crafting and materials are experienced through multiple visual and mental acrobatics.
The famous Ardebil carpets, of which the one at the Victoria and Albert Museum has been made complete by cannibalising its twin, were designed for a site-specific experience. They were made to cover the floor of a domed octagonal building within the shrine of Sheikh Safieddin and were to reflect in their extraordinarily finely knotted patterns something of an imaginary heavenly realm: The sunburst at the centre, flanked by two hanging mosque lamps, against a dense garden scene of intertwined leaves, tendrils and flowers.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘The Safavid Era - A Sense of Place’ from a book entitled, ‘IRAN: Five Millennia of Art and Culture’, edited by Ute Franke, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Stefan Weber, published by Berlin Museum of Islamic Art. The photo was taken from the book.