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  • Shelley Dark

#4 a modern day capital Tehran

Iran or Persia has had over 20 capitals throughout history, not all of them situated in present day Iran. We'll visit Shiraz, Persepolis, Pasargarde, Esfahan. Tehran has been the capital since 1796 under the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties.

Let me give you the quickest over-simplified snapshot of a Persian/Iranian timeline with its many invasions and changes of religion, just to contextualise some of the places and events I'll mention. If your eyes have glazed over, skip it.

*The Achaemenid dynasty (famous rulers Cyrus, Xerxes, Darius) was the first Persian empire and one of the biggest in history, covering huge areas of southern Europe and Asia as well as the Middle East from 550BC until Alexander the Great's invasion in 334BC.

*Various dynasties replaced the successors of Alexander the Great, the most notable the Sassanid dynasty, whose religion was Zoroastrian.

*Arab invasion and Islam The Islamic religion started in the 7th century and was introduced to Iran with the invasion of the Arab tribes.

*Iranian and Turkish dynasties, Mongol invasion 1220 under Genghis Khan

*Safavid dynasty from about 1500 - Iran's religion became Shia Muslim and remains so to this day. The main difference between Shias and Sunnis is that Shias believe that Mohammed appointed a successor and Sunnis do not. Shias represent only 10-15% of Muslims worldwide.

*1796 onwards Qajar dynasty

*after WWI Pahlavis a military coup supported by the British replaced the Qajar royal family

*after WW II The shah was made to abidicate by the British who favoured his son instead - Mohammed Reza Shah then became the last shah of Iran.

*1951 Iranian government nationalises oil - the British-supported Shah is now in conflict with the Prime Minister and has to flee

*1953 Prime Minister overthrown by a British supported coup and Shah returns and embarks upon westernisation

*1979 Revolution Shah is exiled for the last time, new Islamic government first under Ayatolleh Khomeini. This government remains to this day.

If you skipped the above, here's an even briefer summary which you can also skip -:) Persia was ruled by many dynasties and was a huge empire stretching from Africa to Greece to Russia to India. The Arabs invaded and brought Islam, the Mongols invaded, the Turks invaded, a British-supported military coup happened early in the 20th century to instal a military man as shah, there was an Islamic revolution, and that undemocratic government is still in power.

I've heard it's difficult if not impossible to do your own bookings for Iran so this trip was booked by an Australian travel company in conjunction with an Iranian one. Because Iran has been under sanctions for so long, the tourism industry is only just reawakening. This morning we met Andrew, the Melbourne travel agent accompanying the tour. The other passengers don't arrive until later this morning.

In Iran, Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the government, and since my website is hosted by an American company, I can't access it here either. Andrew has managed to circumvent the blocks by creating a virtual private network or VPN. Interesting to know you can do that if you're desperate to get on and he said it was fairly simple.

We're to meet up with everyone at 1pm at the hotel, so we thought we'd visit the Grand Bazaar this morning on our own.

The Grand Bazaar in Persian is written بازار بزرگ. Don't you love the script? It's a version of Arabic but Persian has more letters in its alphabet. It's very pretty.

For shopping and eating purposes it would have been handy to learn Persian numbers before we came - both Arabic andn Persian are the same except for 4,5,6. By the way you probably know that Arabic writing goes backward across the page, and newspapers and books begin at what we call the back.

It was another hot day. This canal along this footpath is channelling water from the qanat to visually cool the glaring heat. Qanats are the lifeblood of Iran. Most of the country is desert, so cities are built close to the mountains, their water source from deep springs in the foothills fed by melting snow. Historically, underground channels or qanats (pronounced kanats) were built to gravity feed the water to the towns, emerging only when they reached the farms and suburbs. All the qanats in Iran put together are long enough to reach from the earth to the moon (I know, only a statistician could come up with that), and technical specifications have been found dating back to 18BC.

We have a technique for crossing the road: we use other pedestrians, preferably Tehranis who know what they're doing, as human shields. We pick someone who looks local and follow their lead. Even so, it's still quite scary. Several times, locals have kindly volunteered to shepherd us across.

While we were deciding which way to turn to find the bazaar, a man stopped and asked if he could help us. This is Mohammed with husband John, who told us he comes from Isfahan and has just opened a shop in the main street bordering the bazaar, selling the handicrafts that his city is so famous for. He is nervous about the huge rents he will be paying, and hopes we'll bring our tour group to see him.

The main street outside the bazaar is planted in the centre with a double row of trees which cast shade to the footpath on either side. There's a constant clip clop of horses pulling carriages full of tourists.

These two shopkeepers were too nervous to smile for the camera but they'd smile at each other.

Their shop was as neat as a pin.

I loved the dried rose buds and petals for sale, displayed in wicker dishes.

The bazaar isn't far from the hotel, and covers a huge city block. It's split into several corridors and if you walked up and down every one of them they say you'd cover ten kilometres. There are several entrances. It's a crush in the busy parts.

This intricate tile work is inside the main entrance. I don't think it's so in this photo, but some grouting is painted to achieve the colourful patterning.

I was eager to see the ceiling, a series of bricked domes, each with a hole for light at the top, and interlocking arches in many different patterns. These were herringbone.

This was in one of the more modern parts of the bazaar with some water damage to the ceiling.

Men's suiting display - how could you bear to wreck that?

On our way back to the hotel, we saw this woman trying out a new bike. She was very wobbly and very brave!

We passed some lovely old architecture featuring carved stone and old tiles.

Then a quick salad again for lunch at the air-conditioned fast food shop - they recognised us, got out my beer for me before I asked, and helped us with the currency again.

At 1pm we met up with the group and were introduced to everyone, including our Iranian guide Ali, who distributed gift bags from his tour company. People from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and points between, all with the same passion for photography.Then off we set on foot for the National Museum.

It's a fairly stark severe building externally, designed by French architect André Godard and completed in 1928. It blends pre-Islamic Sassanid architecture in its soaring portico entrance with art deco–style brickwork. The green band features gold arabic script.

We sat waiting on the steps while our guide Ali bought tickets. These are our tutors, National Geographic photographer and lecturer in photography Michael Coyne, and Hoda Asfar, an award-winning photographer and documentary maker whose focus is on migration - she migrated to Australia from Iran herself and her focus is on recording the voluntary and involuntary displacement of people all over the world.

Covering the paleolithic period up to the present, the museum is absolutely fascinating. I could have spent many more hours there. I don't know why I'm often not really enthusiastic about visiting a museum when usually I find I don't want to leave.

This relief map inside shows the topography of Iran - The biggest mountain range, the Zagros Mountains go from the north-west to the south-east forming a high desert plateau. This is where most Iranian cities are situated. The summer temperatures are hot, and it's cold in winter. Tehran is situated at the base of the Albroz Mountains which go east-west up in the north near the Caspian Sea.


Tehran 3000-6000 feet (it covers a large area)

Shiraz 5200 feet

Yazd 3990 feet

Esfahan 5200 feet

Kashan 3200 feet

One of the more famous exhibits is this finger-shaped seven-feet-high stone with carved cuneiform writing, originally found in Iran. It's a copy of the original stone which spelled out the laws of Hammurabi, king of Babylonia about 3700 years ago.

It contains 282 laws, with scaled punishments according to whether the offender was a slave (severe) or a free man (more focussed on fines). Matters addressed include contracts and wages, property, liability, divorce, paternity and sexual behaviour. Punishments included fines, being drowned, exiled or burned, having your hands cut off or put to death.

Here are some examples:

*If you didn't look after your dam and it broke and ruined the neighbours crops, you were liable to pay your neighbour for the damage, even if it meant selling your farm.

A slave suffered physical punishment while a free man paid a fine for the same crime:

*If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price.

Even divorce - who wants a husband who isn't congenial?

*If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.

The design of this bowl looks so contemporary - yet it's almost 6000 years old.

A translucent marble bowl with Egyptian hieroglyphs which was found at Persepolis.

The exquisite glazed lion head tile from Azarbijian is 2800 years old.

This peg from Kurdistan is the same age.

This is part of a glazed bas-relief brick frieze, designed and made in the 5th century BC (so 2400 years old) for Darius, the greatest of the Achaemenid rulers of Persia when it stretched from Libya to the Indus. This frieze was in his small palace Tachara (meaning winter palace), part of the bigger Persepolis complex. It was finished by his son Xerxes I and it escaped the fire when Alexander the Great set fire to the palaces. Darius loved clever workmanship and the entire palace was made of highly polished grey stone which gave it a black appearance. This surface probably helped save it from the fire. Windows and doorways were carved out of solid pieces of stone, and are all inscribed 'Frames of stone, made for the palace of King Darius'. I'm looking forward to seeing Persepolis.

I learned a very long poem off by heart at school, recited to a jazz rhythm. This was the first verse:

Darius the Mede was a king and a wonder.

His eye was proud, and his voice was thunder.

He kept bad lions in a monstrous den.

He fed up the lions on Christian men.

Now I know that the whole poem is rather confused nonsense because the Medes were way off the chart by the time Christianity arrived.

An inlaid vase 5000 years old. I was in heaven.

This is a map of the Persian Empire at its height, stretching from Libya into India, north to Kazukstan and west to Greece. Very impressive.

I ran out of time to see everything at the museum, and wished I could stay. We were herded out and into our bus, to visit Azadi Tower in an outer suburb of Tehran. We parked on the outside of the ring road around it, and had to negotiate crossing four very fast lanes of traffic. I believe there is a tunnel somewhere but perhaps it's blocked.

A very young Baha'i architect Hossein Amanat in his twenties won a competition to design this gargantuan inverted Y-shaped modern arch which opened in 1972 to form the western gateway to Tehran and to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the first Persian Empire. Amanat was expelled in the revolution of 1979 and went to live in Canada. Built with white marble stone from the Isfahan Province, it includes eight thousand blocks of stone. After being closed for years, the tower reopened in 2006 but seems to be undergoing more restoration work now.

The tower is surrounded by a huge open area of lawns and gardens.

photo in the public domain Wikimedia

When something important happens, it's often the scene of huge crowd gatherings, as it was during the revolution to depose the shah. Today it was quiet, with few visitors.

In the distance we could see Milad Tower which we visit tomorrow.

Late in the afternoon we drove to the Tehran Artists Forum through very heavy traffic for a vegetarian pizza dinner (I know, pizza again - it's either kebab or pizza!). It's an attractive park-like space including galleries where young people meet in the grounds to socialise. They were sitting on the edges of the fountain or on the grass, much the same as young people all over the world. I chose a basil pizza, but the Iranian basil turned out to taste like a cross between our basil and mint, and very strong. I didn't eat much.

We're very glad to be back at the hotel again tonight. The heat hasn't been too oppressive, but still, it's enervating. It would be better I think to visit a little later in the year. Although that would mean hordes of other tourists. They tell us that it's still fairly quiet at this time of year.

I've been practising my thank you's (mam non or tashak koon) on the hotel staff. It makes them laugh.

I've also put a very amateurish video on youtube to show how I'm tying my hijab. I know, don't give up my day job. TO SEE IT CLICK HERE

Now to sleep - I'm going to dream of the lovely things at the museum!

Until tomorrow, I wait you.....

shelley dark, writer 

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