LONDON — The glories of the reign of Shah Abbas, a confident Iranian ruler who sought allies and trading partners in renaissance Europe, are on display at a British Museum exhibition opening Thursday.
His reign is being saluted in a high-profile instance of cultural diplomacy between Britain and Iran.
Abbas, the fifth king of the Safavid Dynasty, ruled from 1587 to 1629. He built up his army along European lines, defeated the Uzbeks and Ottomans to regain lost territory, founded a new capital of Isfahan in 1598 and patronized architecture and art. He stamped his authority on religious practice by making Shiite Islam the official faith and even reclaimed Baghdad in 1623.
Under Abbas, Isfahan became a cross roads of European trade and diplomacy.
"This king transformed Iran from an inward-looking realm, riven by tribal strife and threatened by powerful enemies on its eastern and western flanks, to a secure, prosperous center of international trade and cultural exchange," curator Sheila Canby wrote in the exhibition catalog.
Abbas also had a reputation both for an explosive temper and an ascetic, informal style of living.
The exhibition includes carpets, illustrated manuscripts, watercolor paintings and metal work and pieces of Chinese pottery illustrating a type of gift Abbas made to religious shrines in Iran.
While largely devoted to the art and architecture of Abbas' reign, the exhibition includes two large paintings that highlight connections between Iran and England.
The paintings are of Robert Sherley, an Englishman who became a European ambassador for Shah Abbas, and Sherley's pistol-packing wife Teresia.
Sherley's exploits were well known in Elizabethan England, and are thought to account for the references to "the Sophy" — the shah — in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
The exhibition builds on the success of a collaboration in 2005 between the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran to stage "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia" in London.
The exhibition continues through June 14.