SOAS University of London


15 October - 12 December 2003
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 10.30 – 1700

Steel and Religious Practices

The establishment of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century gives pre-eminence to the production of steel, often employed in a religious context. The Safavid Kings or Shahs were devout Muslims, followers of the Shi'ite sect of Islam, believing 'Ali and his descendants to be the only legitimate successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The cult of martyrs and saints, peculiar to Shi'ism, attributes great significance to pilgrimage. The mosque and sanctuary entrances are faced with plaques of steel inscribed with verses of the Koran and the names of the twelve Imams. A custom dictates that pilgrims attach padlocks to the grilles surrounding the tombs of the venerated saints as a symbol of the tie that bonds them to the saints. The steel plaques adorned with religious phrases immortalize the prayers of the pilgrims. Accessories, 'alams among others, which are used during religious celebrations and processions and particularly during the ta'ziyeh—a theatrical portrayal of the martyrdom of Hussain, the son of 'Ali—have made it possible for the steel craft industry to survive up until today. Religious devotion drives the production of amulets, armlets or bazubands and miniature Koran boxes in steel with a variety of decoration techniques. Thus, the metal itself is a medium of virtue.