Despite all the warnings, our entry into Iran was quick, easy and welcoming. It’s a thirty minute drive into Tehran, the freeway passing a massive mosque cum mausoleum in honour that hideous tyrant, Ayotollah Khomeini, who returned from exile to seize power on the back of the ’78 revolution that was actually organised by ordinary middle-class citizens, unionists and communists. Khomeini (or as my friend Colin always called him ‘I-a-told-ya' ) took Iran out of the twentieth century backwards, including lowering the marriageable age for girls to 9. So much for the ancient matriarchal societal traditions of Persia!
I doubt Tehran has changed much since Vita Sackville-West’s impressions from 1926, when she described it as “a squalid city of bad roads, rubbish heaps and pariah dogs…”. I’d just add that it’s a city built in the style of the Brutal School of Architecture. We checked in to our hotel, originally built by the Intercontinental chain, probably to house some of the foreign glitterati who turned up for Shah Reza’s contrived 1971 extravagance for 5,000 guests, the 2,500 anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire (and his so-called Peacock Throne).
Next morning we strolled down to the Carpet Museum – one on Farah Diba’s initiatives and one of the few buildings with any obvious design intent. The exterior is intended to resemble threads on a loom. Inside there are carpets from the 17th century to present day, covering the full range of styles, regional motifs and materials. The finest are so tightly woven it’s almost impossible to see the intricacy of the design from more than a few inches away, let alone the threadwork! I took photos on full zoom of areas perhaps 1:1000th of the whole carpet in several cases. Loom-work on a grand scale.
Next, we headed off to visit Golestan Palace – the ‘Palace of Flowers’, home to the Qajar dynasty (1796-1925). The palace was built during the C19th by Nasser al-Din Shah, after he’s checked out several palaces during a European trip. It was modernised by the original Pahlavi Shah in the ‘thirties. Architects from France, Russia and Germany all helped out with the design, although the axial garden landscaping is strictly Persian. Pity Iran’s suffering a bad drought so that all the water landscaping features are shut off.
I doubt the European architects and marble sculptors would have fashioned the Karim Khan Nook with Nasser al-Din’s show-daybed, accommodating himself and six concubines (two on his left, two on his right, two at his feet), while he spent his afternoons smoking his water pipe and maybe contemplating which asset he could flog off next to support his extravagances at the country’s expense. What a tosser. Karim Khan’s marble mausoleum is today co-located with the daybed on the raised terrace.
Then there’s the throne verandah – an immodest affair boasting a gigantic alcove covered in a million mirrors. The story is that a large mirror (it would have had to have been 100 sq metres), being transported from Europe, was broken but they decided to use all thousands of pieces regardless. At centre stage is an enormous intricately sculptured throne, carved from 65 pieces of yellow alabaster, mined at Yazd in central Iran. It was made in 1800 for Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834). The first of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, used it for his Napoleon-style self-coronation in 1925.
Inside the palace, the entrance hall repeats the mirrored-walls/ceilings/arches theme, then the main rooms, including the Coronation Hall are plastered in blue and white Wedgwood-esque relief. Very pretty on a grand scale, offset with tulip-bowled chandeliers and “French-royal” furniture. There’s a copy of the ‘Peacock’ throne plus a hideous peacock clock donated by Queen Victoria, and wonderful carpets, of course. There’s also a gallery chockers with dinner and tea services gifted from foreign Heads of State, plus a full suite of malachite desk ‘accessories’. The huge malachite urn on the staircase is not quite in the league of those in the Hermitage, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
The name “palace of flowers” derives not from the gardens, but from the exquisite hand-painted tiles, in blues, yellow, rose and emerald, that adorn most of the brick exterior surfaces of the palace and its adjacent mosque with its pretty minarets.
Onwards, we passed the Russian Embassy and the US Den of Espionage – i.e. the former embassy, from whence 52 diplomats were taken hostage by students in 1979 and held for 444 days. It’s so named because it was from a bunker underneath the embassy that the CIA planned the coup that brought down the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953.
We headed to northern Tehran after lunch, through the better suburbs where luxury apartments cost $10,000/sq m, and there are elevators that transport vehicles to the owner’s floor for garaging!
The northern reaches of Tehran (population 13m) hug the lower slopes of the Alborz mountains, the highest of which is the conical Mt Damavand (5671m), and it’s noticibly cooler than the city below. The lovely avenues of plane trees and sycamores add to the north’s charms.
We weren’t all that excited about visiting another palace, but the Niyavaran turned out to be a gem. Designed by a local architect, but on Western ’60’s modern lines, it’s a family mansion rather than a palace. The Shah and his young family by Farah Diba lived here almost exclusively from 1968 until they fled the revolutionary uprising in 1979. The building is square, of three storeys, with the central court being the full height with a retractable roof. Surprisingly, there’s no elevator. The ground floor comprises reception, dining room and theatre, with the private apartments on the first floor, which included an exhibition of samples from Farah Diba’s wardrobe and a selection of the Shah’s uniforms (he did love dressing up). The family bedrooms are on the top floor (the childrens’ have en suite kitchens), plus the Shah’s study. The kids’ bedrooms had giant kangaroo and koala stuffed toys on the floor. The Empress’s taste in modern art was in evidence, including a fabulous small Chagall.
If Iranians aren’t the worst drivers in the world, they come close. There are no apparent road rules. If you want to cross the road, you step out into traffic, hold up your hand and hope. Praying wouldn’t help as you’d have to lower your hand a take your eye off the possibility of imminent airborne-ness. Under no circumstances should you use a pedestrian crossing – ‘they’re really dangeous’! Apart from fixing up victims of road trauma, Tehran has an excellent heart surgery hospital that attracts patients from throughout the Middle East.
Museum Day. But unfortunately, the male guide and archeologist who were in charge of our itinerary left the Crown Jewels Museum off the program. Really, chaps – this is just too bad. So we had to make do with the incomparable collection at the Reza Abassi Museum, which showcases Iranian art from ancient times. The collection from the Elamites, Medes and the Achaemenid Empire (the first united Persia) are from the second and first millenia BC! To gaze upon ceramics that are 3000-4000 years old, in perfect condition, of design as contemporary as tomorrow or simply beautiful beyond compare is a rare privilege. The ibex was worshipped and impossible to catch, so the ancients stylised these graceful creatures on their pottery with such obvious joy in their art.
There are baby feeders in the shape of animals, pretty bowls with goat-head handles. Tiny lion heads carved from onyx and alabaster. Then there’s the Achaemenid gold bowls, drinking vessels (rhyton), armlets and vases, fabulously carved, shaped with rams, lions, bulls heads. Move on to the Loreston bronzes. The Lors were polytheistic, horse-breeding warriors in the northwest, and around 1800 BC they pushed through the barriers of metallugical technology to create magnificent bronzes. They applied their skills to mundane items – many designed for their horses. There are horse bits cast in artistic deer- and ibex-shaped curlicues, exquisite ibex-leaping fire bowls, and a perfect bronze urn, plus a hundred other stunners.
Downstairs there’s a huge collection of Reza Abassi’s fabulous Islamic miniatures, illustrating the stories from the old testament and eastern fables. A joy, even for this ignoramus on first acquaintance. Plus the calligraphy – from the first Arabic script to modern fine art. There was one piece of calligraphy that had been embellished to form a beautiful bird.
And we had the entire museum to ourselves – a ‘wow’ of a morning. Worth the journey.
Our afternoon treat was the National Museum of Iran, stuffed with treasures mainly from Persepolis and Shush (modern Susa), including the bull-headed capital (these held up beams), an enormous sitting dog and a lion’s foot that’s a metre across. Then there’s the statues of Darius and Penelope, the stone capital of a winged lion and delightful pitchers in animal shapes. And the perfect, tiny lapis lazuli ‘head of a Prince’.
We were to visit the Glass and Ceramics Museum, but our archaeologist John, strolling around the buildings in the complex, came across a temporary exhibition in the next building. This turned out to house a lovely collection in the style of all the gorgeous stuff in the Reza Abassi museum, so we were very happy pixies. Another battery flattened – I must have taken 500 photos this day, and there are several other museums and galleries of note in this city!
Tehran ratings: museums 10; people 9; hotel 5; food 3; shopping 1; wine zero (as in none – alcohol is a banned substance in Iran).