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.
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.