Nov 7, 2006

Azadi Tower: The Symbol of Tehran

Tehran (also spelled Teheran) is the latest and the largest capital city in the 5000-year history of Persia, as Iran was called by many people in the West before 1935. A huge bustling city of 8 million , Tehran is situated on the southern slopes of the Elburz Mountains 100 km from the Caspian Sea. It lies at an elevation of about 1,200 metres above sea level. To the south extends the central plateau of Iran. The name Tehran is derived from the Old Persian teh, “warm,” and ran, “place.”
Tehran is the successor to the ancient Persian capital of Rayy, which was destroyed by the Mongols in AD 1220; the village of Tehran is believed to have been a suburb of Rayy in the 4th century, and after the fall of Rayy many of the inhabitants moved to Tehran. When Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, the founder of the Ghajar Dynasty, named Tehran his capital about 200 years ago, it had an estimated population of 15000.
Now, barely two centuries later, Tehran has grown into a huge maze of tall and short buildings, narrow and wide streets, spread over an area of 600 square kilometres, in which the 8 million inhabitants of the city live, work and move around. It's a melting pot of the poor and the rich, the religious and the not-so-religious, and the many races that make up what has come to be known as the Iranian nation, the Fars, the Kurds, the Turks, the Lors, the Arabs, the Afghans and many more...

In the western part of this huge jungle of bricks, concrete and steel, at what used to be the western entrance to the city, stands Azadi Tower, a 35-year-old structure which has come to be the symbol of Tehran.
Built in a combination of Islamic and Sassanid architectural styles with an arch which is said to mirror the Elburz (Alborz) mountain range, the 45-metre tower is faced with 8000 white stone slabs from the city of Esfahan (itself an old capital of Iran), so well-known for the craftsmanship of its inhabitants. The tower is near Mehrabad Airport and was opened in 1971.
It was built at the order of Iran's last king of the Pahlavi Dynasty, Mohammad Reza, known by most westerners as the "Shah" of Iran, the word Shah meaning King in Persian. He named the tower and the square surrounding it "Shahyad", which can be roughly translated into "In the Memory of the King".
Ironically the square turned into a focal point for anti-regime demonstrations during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with most of the major anti-Shah rallies terminating right in Shahyad Square where resolutions were read out calling for an end to the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

Finally the tower and square were officially renamed Azadi, meaning "liberty" in Persian, after the toppling of the monarchy.
It may be a good mental exercise to try and find out why and how Mohammad Reza Shah's ambitions for a modern and secular Iran that was supposed to revive the long lost glory of the ancient Persian Empire, turned out to be the futile dreams of a monarch severely out of touch with reality when the very bricks of the so-called modern Iran poured into streets in their millions demanding an Islamic Republic.
In the quest for a better understanding of the recent history of Iran, "Azadi" Tower, where modernity, Islam and national heritage were supposed to shake hands, may well hold the clue.
But like it or not, the not-so-majestic Azadi Tower, a modern structure boasting to marry national heritage and Islamic culture, has become an integral part of the image of Tehran.
The aesthetic worth of the tower? Well, it's a matter of taste, I suppose. Personally, I have never liked it. I find it an anemic pretentious structure, aiming at being everything and predictably ending up being nothing...

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