Shah Abbas II: More Than a King

  November 27, 2021   Read time 3 min
Shah Abbas II: More Than a King
A clearer image of the ruler's personality emerges when one considers his attitude towards things spiritual, intellectual and artistic, something which has already been alluded to in passing.

He valued the company of intellectuals and scholars as well as that of dervishes, on whom, incidentally, he lavished considerable sums. At court he would organise discussions and debates with them on topics chosen from their sphere of interest. On occasions, moreover, committed leaders of the faith such as his Grand Vizier Khalifa Sultan succeeded in inciting him in his religious zeal to attempt to convert the non-Islamic minorities of the realm. Whereas the Christians emerged relatively unscathed because they were not pursued with any great rigour or stringency, the fate of the Jews, above all the sizeable Jewish community in Isfahan, was much worse. All kinds of coercive measures and underhand practices were employed to convert them to Islam.

Measures of this nature, however, seem only marginally to have affected the general climate of religious affairs under 'Abbas II, reliable accounts indicating as they do that, in contrast to other Islamic countries, religious discussions between Christians and Muslims were not merely permitted in Persia during this period, but actually took place frequently. Although the Islamic faith undoubtedly formed the undisputed basis of national and public life, there is ample evidence for the existence of liberal attitudes and, apart from the exceptions such as those just mentioned, the tolerance extolled by European observers of the time of'Abbas I seems to have reigned during this period also. This can be seen, for example, from cases in which the shah intervened against Islamic judges who in legal disputes between Christians and Muslims had unfairly favoured the latter.

The ruler's attitude towards the fine arts shows him in a particularly sympathetic light. There was admittedly a long tradition of artistic inclination and aesthetic sensibility among the Safavids, but in 'Abbas II, who was himself a practising artist, these qualities found quite outstanding expression. The painting of the time owes its charm not least to the traces of European and Indian influence detectable in it. These are the result not only of the increasing number of pictures which found their way to Persia from Europe and India but also of personal contacts between Persian artists and European and Indian masters. 'Abbas II is himself the best example of this trend. After gaining experience of skilled craft-work in his early youth, he later received lessons in painting too, from European as well as Persian teachers.

The artistic interests of the ruler also extended to architecture and lengthy accounts of the buildings he erected in Isfahan are to be found in the sources. Apart from preservation and reconstruction work, however, no mention is made of the building of mosques, to which his great-grandfather owed his immortal renown as an architect. All the more significant and numerous, on the other hand, are his achievements in the field of secular architecture, such as caravansarais, bridges and palaces. Much that owed its inspiration to him has subsequently been destroyed, but to this day monuments have been preserved in the architecture of Isfahan which testify to his exquisite taste, such as, for instance, the most charming bridge Pul-i Khaju over the Zayandariid and above all the garden palace Chihil Sutun, which in its combination of architecture and painting gives some impression of the radiance that adorned the royal household and the festivities of the shah.