From Opulence to Simplicity

Taking a few shots in the North of Tehran Mohammad Reza Amirinia compares the worlds of two opposite personalities; a king and a leader

It was a cold and misty winter morning  in Tehran when I arrived there one February  morning due to the demise of my  father. It was a sudden and unexpected  trip at a very sad and difficult time. After the  burial and funeral ceremonies, a friend suggested  taking my son around the city to visit  some of the historic places. It was a good  opportunity for someone who was born and  raised in London to learn more about the  history of the city.  I also joined them. We visited the Shah’s  Palace in Niavaran and the house of Imam  Khomeini in Jamaran, both located in north  Tehran. The contrast couldn’t have been  starker:

the luxurious living arrangements  of a ruler who claimed to be the ‘king of  kings’ set against the humble residence of  a leader who built his palace in the hearts  of the people. 


imam's house Niavaran is an area in north Tehran next to  the high mountains of Alborz, near the leafy  streets of Darband. The Niavaran Palace  complex contains the primary residence  of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It also  consists of a number of buildings, two of  which are the Ahmad Shahi Pavilion and  Sahebqaraniyeh Palace, which goes back  to the time of the Qajar Dynasty. The complex  is set in eleven hectares of beautiful  gardens. It is surrounded by Niavaran  Park and residential neighbourhoods  inhabited by wealthy people. The palace  has a peaceful and calm atmosphere. Its  architecture is inspired by both post and  pre-Islamic culture.  Our guide, Mohsen, told us stories about  the days of the revolution and when  the revolutionaries entered the palace.  He said, “Despite the anger and hatred  towards the Shah’s regime, amazingly, the  fixtures and fittings remained intact”. We  followed him to a smaller building behind  the palace. He continued: “Another treasure  is the library, which contains the  collections of Farah, the Shah’s wife. It  contains a large collection of valuable books which were preserved after the  revolution”.  It is interesting to note that though  the level of opulence is outstanding,  in comparison to some European palaces,  it is a much simpler affair. For  example, the palaces of Versailles, The  Hermitage, Venaria and Buckingham  are much vaster in their architectural  expression of luxury and the high  life. However, one can still get a good  sense of the scale of power, wealth and  greed that inspired it.  Niavaran Palace, just like the Sa’dabad  and Golestan Palaces in Tehran, was  turned into a museum and now serves  as a profound history lesson. One can  judge the virtues and vices of the life  of different monarch in all palaces  around the world. They had a material  vision, looking into building their  dreams by sponsoring the artists who  created magnificent works of art in  the form of paintings, furniture, jewellery,  sculpture, carpets and architecture.  One can argue that had it not  been for the ambitions of men and  women in power to promote and support  the creation of works of art (however  egoistic they may have been in  such an endeavour) we would not have  witnessed some of the finest works of  art in human history.  Many artists could not have managed  to work without the extensive support  of wealthy aristocrats and capitalists.  Our cultural and artistic heritage, from  ancient times to today, partly owes itself  to that power and wealth.  The question is, to what extent did human  generations have to suffer in the  hands of kings and sultans throughout  the ages in order to advance in art,  and science and technology. There is  no straightforward answer to this paradox.  The fact is that whatever they did  that remained for future generations  they ultimately distanced themselves  from their own people and stayed in  power through oppression. What was  the cost of keeping people suffering  and starving? How could it be justified?  I recall the glory days of the Shah in  my youth. I was 13 when we were staying  in Mashhad for a few months and  the Shah visited the city. I watched his  car and entourage pass through the  streets with great pride, far removed  from the people and untouchable.  I was too young to understand the politics  of the time, but when I became  older I always wondered about the  authenticity of his power and how far  it would extend. I also learned about a  utopian civilisation and an ideal society  claimed by Islam and socialism  through the new revolutionary waves  sweeping Iran. 

The revolution in Iran, led by  Ayatollah Khomeini, resulted in the  fall of the Shah in 1979. It shook the  structure and legitimacy of aristocracy  and ended 2500 years of imperial rule.  When I was studying about the life  of Imam Ali and the monotheistic  and Islamic society during his caliphate,  it was like a dream come true.  Khomeini’s charisma and spiritual character resembled Imam Ali’s and  it moved many people, especially the  youth.

When I was a student, I had an  opportunity in the early years of the  revolution to listen to his speech at  close proximity in a large gathering in  Jamaran. It was a powerful experience.  I also remember being in the city of  Qom once, four months after the victory  of the revolution to visit the shrine  of Fatima Masuma. I suddenly saw the  Imam in a car, next to a driver who  was passing through the streets, without  any official entourage.  My son and I left Niavaran and made  for Jamaran village in the foothills of  the Alborz mountains. We passed a  small, busy shopping square before  entering the village. We followed  Mohsen through the narrow alleys  of Jamaran passing by a few adobe  houses, sandwiched between modern  houses and grocery shops. A distinctive  rustic smell could be detected around  the houses characteristic of traditional  countryside villages. Despite  the biting cold of winter, the sunlight  brought the welcome feeling of spring into the narrow alleys. We eventually  found ourselves in front of Jamaran  Hosseinieh (a prayer hall) with a wide  corridor leading to the main door and  Khomeini’s house.  Khomeini’s rented house was located  behind the Hosseiniyeh. It was a very  small and plain house, devoid of the  luxurious décor and formality of monarchs.  The front room, which measures  around 12 square metres, was for resting  and study. This is where Imam received  government officials and foreign dignitaries.  In his room, there were only a  couple of books and personal effects.  A small platform connected the room  to the Hosseiniyeh where hundreds  of people used to assemble for public  gatherings to hear Khomeini’s words.  Our visit to Jamaran following the tour  of Niavaran was a convenient opportunity  to explore

the contrast between  the lives of a man of God and a king  who claimed to be the shadow of God.  Khomeini had a different vision to  kings and sultans. The material world  was worthless in his eyes; therefore he  did not seek it. His life and path were  in alignment with that of the prophets  and saints who were interested in conquering  the hearts of the people.  Khomeini’s grandeur was in his simplicity,  which stands out in the history  of Iran.

The Shah was forced to leave  Iran at the height of the revolution out  of fear of prosecution. It was followed  by a mass celebration in Tehran and  across the country. When Khomeini’s  contented soul departed from this  world, the whole country mourned and  millions gathered in the streets to say  farewell to their leader.  Khomeini truly believed in the afterlife,  that life on earth is only a temporary  passage and that his mission and duty  was only to serve people and spread  God’s message. His life, manner and  words were a real reflection of his  beliefs unlike most kings, who covet  the material world and act as though  this life will last forever.

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