In Iran’s history, Tehran is yesterday’s affair. At least the Tehran that we roamed around in the squeaking and groaning Peugeot Sedan, which Sayad had received as a gift from his dad. We followed the list of must-visits which Tahmineh had drawn-up on her dressing table mirror!
That Tehran really came into being during the Qajar and Pahlavi reigns. Before that this city, I don’t know why it reminded me of the vivacious aunts in Somerset Maugham’s stories, was for a very long period of time “a large village of gardens, orchards and vegetable gardens” (1). The great 13th century polymath Zakariya Qazvini confirmed this as late as 1275, in a nation that has survived since the reign of Darius I beginning 522 BCE.
The great leap forward for Tehran really happened in the mid-1790s. By that time the dry and dusty town had become home to an estimated fifteen thousand people, curiously often living underground! But then isn’t that true of all cities?
Indeed cities underneath cities, the lives of the Lower Depths, could be a whole separate book. Medieval Tehran had its own Lower Depths. Even in the early 19th century Scottish traveller Ker Porter in his fascinating account of Persia has these cryptic comments about subcity Tehran: “On entering Teheran from the Casvin gate, and after proceeding two or three hundred yards into the town, a large open space presents itself, full of wide and deep excavations, or rather pits, sunk in the earth. Within the shaft of these well-like places, and round its steep sides, are numerous apertures, leading to subterraneous apartments ; some, the sojourn of poor houseless human beings, who, otherwise would have no shelter ; others, a temporary stabling for beasts of burthen, under the same circumstances. In these gloomy recesses, we doubtless find the village of Teheran…” (2)
Nonetheless Porter also commended the Qajar’s for the rise of modern Tehran: “In the midst of regions so memorable in tradition, Teheran continued long an obscure spot; but the wheel of fortune turned, and it started at once into the first consequence, under the auspices of Aga Mahomed Khan, uncle to the present Shah, and who was the first Persian sovereign that made Teheran a royal residence.” (3)
That turning of the wheel may be said to have begun when in 1779 the leader of the Qajar tribe Aga Muhammad Khan in a daring prison break escaped from the heavily fortified Shriaz jail. After relentless battles fought in the quest for the throne Aga Khan did finally ascend it in 1796. He soon titled himself the Shah and began the Qajar dynasty. Tehran became the 32nd capital of Iran. This dynasty ruled Iran for the next 131 years. And it was over this period that Tehran became Iran’s largest city from an obscure village.
Yet during my conversations with Iranians, not only of Tehran but also in other cities and villages, I realize that people here rarely talk about the Qajars beyond academic discussions. They talk about the brief reign of just two Shahs who followed the Qajars. They talk a lot about the Pahlavi dynasty, and often they talk about the Pahlavis with a deep sense of loss.
Of the two kings of the Pahlavi dynasty, the last one, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was booted out of Iran in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution, which established Iran’s first ever republic. It also established the stranglehold of the Shi’ite clergy over Iran under the leadership of the Rahbar, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who on his death in 1989 was succeeded by Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Yet I realized that even after nearly four decades the imprint of the Pahlavis has remained in the minds of many Iranians.
How deeply has it remained I realize in Varzaneh, a village some 120 Km from Isfahan. The beautiful young lady at a small travel agency in Tehran greets us. I, Sayad and Tahminah trouble her such that not only she has to stay for at least an hour after her office closes at 2:00 pm, the day being a Thursday, but she also has to skip her lunch. In return she gives us endless laughter and expresses great
satisfaction that at last she has been able to arrange things to the satisfaction of the Musafir from Hind! Arranging things include a dead-at-night taxi pick-up from Isfahan bus station, cheap hotels in Isfahan and Mashhad, a taxi ride from Mashahd to Neyshabur, a seat in a Mashahd-Tehran flight, and a taxi from Isfahan to Varzaneh. She arranges the hotels, calls each one to personally to ensure that someone there speaks English (considering that my first demand is that of a cheap place, it isn’t easy), ensures pre-payment of the taxi fares so that I am not harassed, and gives me duly signed receipts in separate neat folders. Yet, even she throws up her hands when it comes to Varzaneh. She knows that there is a nondescript place named Varzaneh, at the edge of the desert, but just can’t fathom why should someone from far away Hind go there? No, it is not in her mental map.
It is at the insistence of my friend from Isfahan, Muhammad Javed Ebrahimi, that I finally land up in Varzaneh. Muhammad is doing his doctoral research in Mathematics in Isfahan University. I meet him at the gate of the university. His friend, who has a car and is also from Varzaneh, offers both of us a ride. We cover 122 Km. in exactly one and a half hour. Walking a little distance from the highway, Muhammad leads me to a narrow but very clean lane, which further down leads to an even narrower blind alley, with very high mud-coloured walls on both sides, at the end of which is a huge wooden door : Yasana Guest House. It’s an arrangement of three rooms around an open courtyard. The one I am given is more like a suite with a small kitchen at one side, and a strong odour of fresh paint. The outer room has no furniture, besides a carpet. And the inner one, my bedroom, has an iron cot, exactly like the ones generally used in Indian hospitals, and on it a straight-from-the-store mattress, with its polythene cover intact. Indeed I am given that particular room because only that one has a cot and a mattress. This apart, as a niche in one of the walls, is an old large mirror,
bound in a wooden frame with green, red, blue and yellow borders. Right at the top of this strange mirror is a small profile painting of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in his usual military attire! The mirror at some point of its life must have been a part of a dressing table, and clearly ladies and gentlemen who had used the mirror, for god knows how many years, to deck-up their own profiles had preferred to keep the face of the Shahenshah right in front. Perhaps as an idol? What surprises me more is that the present regime of Iran has very strong views of anyone who might idolize the disgraced Shah, yet the owner of this guest house has chosen not to erase out the Shah’s memory. Memories of very turbulent times in Iran.
- Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia: Michael Dumper, Bruce E. Stanley. Page: 348; ABC-CLIO, 2007
- TRAVELS IN GEORGIA, PERSIA, ARMENIA, ANCIENT BABYLONIA, &c. &c. DURING THE YEARS 1817, 1818, 1819, AND 1820. By Sir ROBERT KER PORTER. Vol 1. LONDON: PRINTED FOR LONGMAN, HURST, REES, ORME, AND BROWN, PATERNOSTER-ROW.1821. Page 312.
- Ibid Page 307
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra