The enormous wealth of Iran’s former rulers is on show in its capital
A trip to tehran, we’re told, is not complete without a visit to Sa’ad Abad Palace Complex in Shemiran on the outskirts of the Iranian capital. Looking round at the vast 300-hectare site, I ask our guide Mahdi Ghasemian what on earth the Iranian Shahs did to amass such a fortune. Mahdi replies with an expression that’s half smile and half grimace. Like many kings of the early days, he explains, the Shah didn’t work for a living. “He was a king, he lived on our taxes,” he says.
But fortune – and fortunes – don’t last forever and the wealth of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran came to an abrupt halt in 1979 where the Islamic Revolution put an end to the 2,500-year-old absolute monarchy. The new leader, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, turned the Imperial State of Iran into the Islamic Republic of Iran. The last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was forced to leave quickly, without too many of his spoils, and ended up in Panama.
His legacy – as well as that of his ancestors – remains on the slopes of Alborz Mountain – the richest district in Northern Tehran – and includes a pair of ivory tusks from Thailand as well as the world’s largest pink diamond, the Darya-ye Nur.
“The palaces were turned into a museum after the revolution in 1979,” says Mahdi, as we head deeper into Sa’ad Abad Palace Complex. “You would need a good week to explore the shah’s treasures in Tehran.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a week, only a little more than 24 hours. We’re leaving Tehran in haste too,” I tell Mahdi.
Set in spectacular mountainside parkland, the Sa’ad Abad Palace Complex was once a royal summer home. The site holds 18 heritage buildings dedicated to subjects as diverse as the royal dishware, royal automobiles and miniature paintings.
The Shahvand Palace – or the Green Palace – was built at the end of the Qajar era and extensively remodelled by the Pahlavis in a classic European style for Reza Shah. He lived here for a year before complaining that the bed was too soft. The shah, the story goes, had to sleep on the floor. Today visitors come and poke their heads around mirror stalactites. Our next stop is the White Palace where we find the pair of elephant tusks presiding over the grand dining hall.
A day in Tehran is way too short, but it’s long enough to slip back and forth between legendary Persia and modern Iran.
On the way from Sa’ad Abad Palace to Golestan Palace, we observe that Tehran has something in common with Bangkok. Tehranis, for example, appear to spend much of the day in their beloved vehicles and the traffic congestion is extreme. They love motorbikes too, contributing choking smog and manic moves to the city’s streets. A soulless mass of concrete and traffic, Tehran comes very close to Bangkok as the most hectic yet dynamic place to live.
Like Bangkokians, the Tehranis are friendly (and good-looking). Here and there, as we brave the fast-moving motorbikes and cross to the other side of the road, they beckon us to take their photos.
From the chaotic business centre, we take a long walk to Golestan Palace, home to 17 structures, including palaces, museums, and halls. Almost all of the complex was built during the 200-year rule of the Qajar kings.
The Marble Throne is interesting with a mirrored, open-fronted audience hall dominated by a magnificent throne. The throne is supported by both human and non-human figures – many of them female – and constructed from 65 pieces of yellow alabaster mined in Yazd.
“Isn’t it unkind to the women to make them carry the throne for a man?” asks Jum, my travel mate.
“Oh. Well, those are angels – not just common women,” says the guide.
A short walk from the Marble Hall is Talar-e Ayaheh, the Hall of Mirrors, an amazing edifice topped by a huge dome and covered with shiny pieces of glass in a mosaic pattern. To me it seems kind of weird to be constantly living with your own reflection but there again, the ruler probably had his reasons.
“The Shah wanted to see a reflection in every turn, so he could ensure he was in secure accommodation,” says Mahdi. “The reflective glass meant he could see the assassin behind him.”
“That’s pretty smart,” I concede. “And why does it have to be done in mosaic fashion?”
“Well, the mirrors broke into pieces while being shipped from Europe to Iran,” Mahdi replies. “The Iranian designer had to make the most out of the broken glass.”
From the palace, we walk to the marketplace. Just a two-minute walk from Golestan Palace, the air in the Toton Forosh’ha Bazaar is redolent with herbs and spices. All along the bustling walking street, vendors offer dried berries, dried rose petals, roasted pistachios and a range of other kinds of nut and leaves impossible to identify.
A mother and her chldren are amused by the bag of raw pistachio knotted roughly around my wrist. I try to ask them for the name of the dried magenta flower. The ageing mother points to her head and smiles, leaving me none the wiser. “Gol gav zaban,” says her daughter. “It’s good for your brain. It’s a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
Minutes later I found myself in a back alley at a small tea stand.
Iranian tea culture is unique. The vendor keeps his tea kettle simmering on the stove in order to keep the tea warm.
When you order a cup of tea, he will pour the tea in your cup then hand you a small jar of cubed sugar. Since the tea is extremely hot, you have to pour a small amount of tea into the small porcelain plate to cool it.
“No. No,” one Iranian man exclaims, watching me about to drop sugar into my tea. He shows me how to do it the Iranian way. It turns out you take a few slurps from the porcelain plate than a bite of the sugar cube to cut the tannin.
Our trip ends with a visit to the Treasury of the National Jewels. Better known as the jewels museum, the Treasury houses the gems confiscated from the royal families after the 1979 revolution.
There was so much talk about the treasures of the shahs – the collection dates back to the Safavid dynasty in Isfahan – that ordinary Iranians were afraid that they would fall into the wrong hands. The National Bank of Iran finally opened its cavernous vault that houses the treasure, making it Tehran’s biggest tourist destination.
The incomparable treasury is a collection of the most expensive jewels in the world, collected over centuries, among them the Peacock Throne, an elaborate diamond and emerald Aigrette set in silver and the Pahlavi Crown. The must see is the Darya-ye Nur (Sea of Light), a pink diamond weighing 182 carats.
“This is Globe of Jewel,” says Mahdi, as he drags me to a globe bigger than a basketball. “It’s made of 51,366 precious stones. Isn’t it crazy?”
I have to agree. Even the rich have bad taste it seems.
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