Day 57: Comparing pre- and post revolution architecture
Tehran Travel Blog› entry 82 of 260 › view all entries
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Araz, Bahar, Bahadur (Iran)
Araz joined me for some sightseeing today. One of the places I wanted to see was Azadi square. This is basically the one image of Tehran that we see on TV in the west. Whenever there is a rally, or some public announcement, this square is where Iranians gather and Ahmadinejad talks to the people. This was also the place where the protests of 2009 were held.
The Azadi tower is one of the few striking modern buildings in Iran. It was built in 1971 (so before the revolution) to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire.
Underneath the tower is an extensive museum with a strange collection of exhibitions.
For some reason the second exhibition was about gemstones. No idea what the relationship was between gemstones and the Azadi tower, but it was there. Only after visiting the gemstone exhibition were we allowed to go up to the viewing platform.
The view over busy Azadi square and the surrounding area was quite impressive.
A guard warned us not to take in the south-western direction. No, actually, he warned Araz to warn me not to take any pictures. Tehran's airport extends directly to the south-west of Azadi square. Wwhile it is OK for locals to take pictures of it, God forbid a tourist is able to see and photograph the airport, because, well, you know, I might be a spy. (Apparently the Iranian government is not too worried about spies having access to American satellites, google maps or Iran Air in-flight magazines for images of the airport).
I liked the Azadi tower. It is a pity that no interesting modern architecture has been built in the city since the revolution. Well, there is one other tower.
It seems a bit silly to build such a large tower in a closed country. The official explanation is that the upper decks will be used as a congress centre. What kind of congresses will be held in Tehran in the near future remains to be seen. However, locals claim the tower has a completely different purpose. Satellite TV is illegal in Iran, but almost everybody has a dish on their roof. Rather than spending all this police force to raid people's houses and take all the equipment, all major cities in Iran now have a large broadcast tower which jams the signals of satellite TV reception.
The second place we visited was the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini. When Khomeini died in 1989 this is where he was buried and subsequently a ridiculously large shrine emerged. From a distance it looks like a giant mosque, designed to at least outdo the mosque in Mecca. Four 91 metre minarets (symbolising Khomeini's age when he died) stand in an awkwardly a-symmetrical position around a giant concrete dome, underneath which Khomeini rests.
Islam forbids worship of living beings and I have always found it remarkable how this doesn't seem to apply for politicians. Whether you go to Turkey, Syria or Iran, political leaders of past or present are exalted to near-divine beings - either by their own doing (Syria) or by that of the present government (Turkey and Iran).
While it is very normal to erect large monuments for anyone who has played an important role in the history of a country or its religion (as well as their entire extended family, but more on that later) all these mausoleums are more or less anonymous buildings. Anyone could be in the grave.
In Khomeini's case it is different. He is revered as if divine, but his face is plastered on virtually every bare wall in the country.
As we entered the mausoleum we had to leave our shoes and cameras behind, but I got a special treatment. Because the guards were impressed with a foreigner visiting, we were allowed to take one camera inside.
Inside the mausoleum is an awful place. I guess they were in a hurry when they erected the mausoleum, and inside it looks more like some sort of concrete aircraft hanger rather than a holy place.
Visiting these two sites has taken most of the day. Tehran is a big city. From Azadi square to the mausoleum took almost two and a half hours. So by the time we got back in centreal Tehran it was already dark and time for dinner.
We had been invited for dinner by a friend of Araz', Bahadur, and his sister Bahar. They had cooked an interesting Iranian variety of macaroni as well as some local stew.
Seeing Bahar walking around the house in normal clothes and without a hejab. This was the first time I saw a woman without hejab in Iran and once again confirmed my suspicion: many women in Iran wear hejab because they have to, but their religious beliefs have waned so much that they can't be bothered if a strange man sees them uncovered.
Back home Araz and I mended his broken qalyan (with a garden hose no less) in order to smoke some nice Iranian tobacco while we discussed life, the universe and everything at great length. An excellent ending for a good day. All that was missing was a nice ice-cold beer...