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  • Shelley Dark

#5 of palaces and jewels

Darya-ye Nur (Sea of Light) diamond, part of the Crown Jewels

Michael Coyne gave an interesting photography talk this morning before we left to walk to the Golestan Palace which I've been looking forward to visiting.

This shoe shine man was working cheerily, sitting flat on the footpath.

The Palace is in the centre of old Tehran across the street from the grand bazaar. The compound is a series of buildings set around large central gardens, with several cross axes. It was built in a mixture of styles from Islamic to Neo-classical European and showcases the achievements of the Qajar dynasty, descendants of a northern tribe of Turks from Armenia which ruled Iran from 1785 to 1925. Ali our guide explained that it was a time of excesses and brutality.

In 1779 following the death of the last leader of the Zand dynasty, Mohammad Khan Qajar set out to reunify Iran. He destroyed cities, massacred entire populations, and had the eyeballs of 20,000 men removed because they defended their town against his attack. He set the tone for the Qajar dynasty. But they created a very beautiful palace.

This rule continued for two centuries until after World War I when Iran was occupied by British, Russian and Turkish troops. The Qajars were then toppled in a coup by Reza Shah Pahlavi, a military man supported by the British. He was the father of the man we know as the last Shah of Iran. The Qajar family on the other hand, still calls itself the royal family in exile and members of this family now live all over the world.

Reza Shah was crowned here and lived here for a while. Then he moved to the bigger S'adabad compound in the north of Iran. He continued to use the Golestan Palace for royal receptions and it’s easy to see why. No visitor to the royal court could ever possibly have been unimpressed by such a venue. It’s simply jaw-dropping.

The design and workmanship of the mirror work on walls and ceilings is just superb. Whole rooms are covered with patterned mosaics of bevelled and plain mirrors, cut into tiny mosaics.

The effect is total opulence. This is one of the lesser buildings. The impressive coronation room (photographs not allowed) has more restrained white walls decorated with delicate plaster patterns. Lots of wonderful furniture. From the centre of the domed ceiling there is a radiating pattern picked out in sparkling mirror mosaics against a white background, looking for all the world like diamond stars. The Venetian chandeliers are more beautiful I think than any I have seen elsewhere.

There are four minarets which act as wind catchers, common to Iranian architecture. They're tall buildings with vertical slits at the top to catch the wind in the ghastly summer heat. It's pulled down through the tower to the basement where it flows over pools of water fed by the qanat before being drawn through the underground summer living areas to give relief to the residents sheltering there. It exits the building through screens at ground level.

This is Ali our guide, sitting in the shade while we wandered the palaces.

The breeze flows out through the carved marble fretwork (above) at ground level facing the gardens.

The tilework is quite exquisite.

When I saw this, I wondered if Dr Seuss took Iranian tiles as his inspiration? See the resemblance?

This is part of the Kalvat or 'Cozy Corner' of Karim Khan, the last Zand leader before the Qajars took over. The tiled wall is being reflected in the glass-encased tombstone of Nasser-ol-Din Shah which was lost for many years before being brought here.

We also went into the mirrored palace with extensive stained glass and mirror work, and then underneath to what was once an underground living room, now the photography section.

The last Qajar ruler was keen on photography. These are some of the clowns of the royal court.

These girls on a school excursion gigglingly asked to have their photograph taken with me.

She's a French tourist. Rather gorgeous isn't she?

John and I had lunch at the palace's basement café - a much cooler choice than outside in the garden. Lemonade turned out to be a fresh lemon juice drink and the mojito fresh lime juice and mint. We shared a caesar salad, chicken kebab and rice. Served on a long plate, the meat (usually chicken or lamb) is down one long side, with saffron rice, a slice of lime, some cucumber pickles, red cabbage pickles, sliced lettuce and onion, and a black seared tomato. Delicious though, and fresh.

The others had gone over to the bazaar while we continued to wander the Golestan Palace. We were to meet them back at the hotel at 2pm. Today’s 36 degrees celsius even with a hijab, was quite bearable, surprising considering we had to make a very fast 15 minute walk in the hottest part of day. Maybe we're getting used to it! But we did have a quick cold shower afterwards! The clothes I packed are working well, and as you'd expect the loose cotton smock tops are cooler than the more closely-fitting long sleeved t-shirts.

This afternoon, we visited the crown jewels held in the Central Bank. It's difficult to find words to describe the splendour, the riches, the sheer magnificence. For the rest of my life I will remember this day. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the most exquisite pieces behind glass cases, some free-standing - not just jewellery but dish covers, air fresheners, hookahs, thrones, beds, chairs, mirrors, swords, pens, bejewelled costumes, even a globe.

And of course, jewellery - crowns, necklaces, bracelets, aigrettes, rings. Everything is made of solid gold, silver or for the more modern pieces platinum, and is literally covered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls. Faceted and sparkling, or cabochon and gleaming, or the promise of the uncut gem. A chest full of pearls. The British crown jewels do not even begin to compete with this. The biggest pink diamond in the world, the royal mace encrusted with diamonds and spinels, the Qajar sword, the largest uncut diamond.

We entered the Central Bank of Iran from the street through X-ray security into the shop area and our bags were put in lockers. Nothing can be taken past this point. We crossed a small courtyard to the entry to another building, then downstairs to the cavernous underground vault where we waited for our guide who would give a commentary in English and set the pace for the group. There is a constant stream of tour groups being led through the exhibit which is in one large room inside the vault and another outside the vault behind glass. All underground. The door to the vault is about 2 feet thick, new steel, slick and beautiful. Just seeing it made me think of James Bond and spies and thieves and jewel heists. It's a wonder there hasn't been a movie made about it.

Most of the loot dates back to Safavid times, when the shahs scoured Europe, India and the lands of the Ottoman Empire for booty to decorate their capital, Esfahan. When Mahmud Afghan invaded Iran in 1722, he plundered the treasury and sent its contents back to India. On ascending the Iranian throne in 1736, Nader Shah Afshar despatched courtiers to ask for the return of the jewels, then sent an army and sacked Delhi.

Is it any wonder that these jewels still form part of the country's reserve to back Iran's currency?

Mohammed Shah of India was forced to hand over the Darya-ye Nur and Kuh-e Nur (above) diamonds which are still here, a Peacock Throne (though not the one you’ll see here) and assorted other treasures.

We saw the Darya-ye Nur (Sea of Light) a pink diamond weighing 182 carats.

Massive emerald necklaces. Many of the emeralds are carved like this.

The Peacock or Naderi Throne (look at the emeralds! aren't they mindblowing?) used by the last shah at his coronation, holding the royal mace. You can see the jewelled handle of the shahi sword at his waist.

This is the tall Kiani Crown made for Fath Ali Shah in 1797 of red velvet, 1800 small pearls, rubies, diamonds and emeralds.

The Pahlavi crown Reza Shah had made, with 3380 diamonds totalling 1144 carats. The largest of 60 carats is the central yellow diamond, in the middle of the sunburst. Using jewels already in the treasury, it takes its inspiration from paintings and historical references to Sassanid crowns.

The crown worn by Farah Diba, his son's wife. She was crowned Empress of Iran in 1967. As she was the first wife of a Persian Monarch to be crowned, this imperial crown was commissioned for her coronation at Tehran. The gems came from the Iranian Treasury, Van Cleef and Arpels designed and made it. The gems include a 91 carat emerald, pearls, rubies, spinels and almost 1500 diamonds, all set in a white gold frame.

It must have been very heavy to wear. There were so many many beautiful tiaras - how nice to be able to lend your family some bling for special occasions.

Not a bad jewellery box.

There's the incredible, simply stupendous 34kg Globe of Jewels. It's a globe of the world over a metre high which spins on a stand. It was made in 1869 using 51,366 precious stones – the seas are coloured in with emeralds and all the land is made from rubies except for Iran, Britain and France, which are set in diamonds. Says something of the allegiances of the day.

A decanter of gold, green enamel, pearls, rubies and diamonds.

A photo of the Naderi Throne without Mohammed Reza Shah sitting in it - it was made in 1798 and is set with 26,733 precious stones.

The sun or peacock throne is made of wood, gold, and enamelled plates set with gems, made in about 1800.

I haven't even begun to show you this collection. Again I didn't want to leave. I was just dying to go around again on exactly the same tour. If you accompany the guide and listen, the focus is on special pieces and there's not enough time to really look at so many other treasures in the display cases. And if you wander by yourself, you miss the commentary. It's impossible to take it all in, see it all in the short time allowed for a group to circuit the room. I think if I had to do it again, I'd come back into the museum a second time to just wander.

Tabiat Bridge By Hamidreza Darjani - Nasimonline via wikipedia

Our next stop was the Tabiat bridge designed by Iranian architect Leila Araghian when she was 26. I'd read that this is a desirable place to visit, yet I doubted I'd enjoy a bridge. However it turned out to be extraordinary. It spans a huge space between two public park ridges. When you think what a water shortage there is in Iran, it makes you appreciate all the more the green space below. In the paper this morning was an article where a government minister was suggesting importing water from outside the country, to concerted opposition.

Below it is a motorway which by the time we left was clogged with traffic moving at a snail's pace.

The bridge is ingeniously designed and constructed on three pillars with interweaving levels. It's easy to forget which level you are on. Gardens border the wide walkways with viewing platforms overlooking the beautiful mountains. It's a place where people gather in cafés and ice-creameries, restaurants and fast food outlets.

We stopped at an ice-creamery for double scoops, me for a pistachio vanilla and coffee, John for a chocolate and berry. Ice-cream on a hot day? Perfect. Small irrigation pipes on the ceiling were squirting cooling puffs of mist into the air.

Tonight a few of the group have gone out to a restaurant with music, booked for 8pm, which means they won't be back until late. We ate at the hotel instead. The girl at the counter had anticipated our arrival - she'd hidden my beer behind the fruit beer and took it out as soon as we walked in. John’s diet coke was ready too. It's easy to eat these fresh salads after such hot days.

Tonight after we came home and I’d been at the desk writing for a while, John said 'You must be feeling comfortable, you’re still wearing your hijab'.

Before I leave you, here's a quote from one of Persia's most famous poets and mystics, Hafez. It's said that every Iranian household has a copy of his book of poetry which features love, wine and hedonism. It gives an insight into the Persia of yesterday, with its values so different from the rigid mores imposed by the government today. There's an absolute dichotomy between the two.

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, 'You owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.

Hafez also targeted religious hypocrisy and I'll give you an example of a quote about that in another post. Until tomorrow, as the young Turk said to me, I wait you....

shelley dark, writer 

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