Persian Ambassadors gather at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich
400 years ago, Shah ʻAbbas of Persia (r.1587-1629) began sending ambassadors to Europe to negotiate the trade in Persian silk with the West. To symbolise the purpose of these journeys, they came to Europe dressed in the finest silk garments of their time.
Modern style ambassadors' travel! Naqd ʻAli Beg is unloaded at the Rietberg Museum
The ornate costume of one particular envoy was carefully documented in a full length portrait by Richard Greenbury. The portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg was commissioned by the English East India Company in 1626, and is today part of the British Library’s historic India Office Collections. Naqd ʻAli Beg’s silk garments reflected his aim to secure the Persian silk trade with the East India Company in London. The portrait shows him wearing a magnificent iridescent gown, which contrasts with his turban and cummerbund. Over top of the gown he wears a golden robe, intricately woven with human figures.
The portrait is a spectacular record of how these Persian trade envoys dressed, but it also shows a doomed man. Naqd ʻAli Beg’s trade embassy ended in disaster at the Stuart Court of King James I. He was confronted by a rival ambassador, and a fight broke out between the two men. Both men were told to leave London, and during the journey back to Persia in 1627, Naqd ʻAli Beg committed suicide (see my recent post 'Stitched up with silk').
The Shah of Persia continued to send exotically dressed envoys to Europe, often with chaotic results. According to Axel Langer, the curator of ‘The Fascination of Persia’ at the Rietberg Museum, ‘quarrelling and misunderstandings within the delegations, their strange habits and customs, to say nothing of the Persian ambassadors’ various amorous entanglements, provided a steady stream of gossip. But the foreigners were also an inspiration for artists.’
For the first time ever, the British Library’s portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg has left London, to be exhibited alongside other pictures of Persian trade envoys who journeyed to the West in the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘The Fascination of Persia’ is being held at the Rietberg Museum, until 12 January 2014. The exhibition looks at the relationship between Persia and the West right up to the current day. Funding for the conservation of the portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg was donated by the Friends of the British Library. The exhibition also includes a painting (Bahram Gur kills the dragon) by the Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman dated 1675/76 from the Library's copy of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsa (see our recent post 'Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman').
Canby, Sheila. Shah ‘Abbas. The Remaking of Iran. London: British Museum Press, 2009.
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.
Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley, “The Nizāmī manuscript of Shāh Tahmāsp: a reconstructed history.” In J.-C. Bürgel and C. van Ruymbeke (eds.), A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: artistic and humanistic aspects of Nizāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsa (Leiden 2011), pp. 195-210.
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