Tehran – Stolen Heritage (March 31 – April 3 2016)

Me in front of the Azadi Tower
Me in front of the Azadi Tower

On March 31th we left Isfahan for Tehran. After sleeping in until the early afternoon we caught the 2 PM bus, where we slept some more. The jet lag had really hit hard. As an evening person I already have trouble waking up early and in Iran it was two-and-a-half hours later than in the Netherlands. In addition, daylight saving time had just started the weekend before my departure. Long story short, we arrived in Tehran late in the evening where we booked a room for three nights at the prestigious Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel. This hotel, named after the famous Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020), was decorated in Neo-Achaemenid style. Fun fact: Ferdowsi hardly mentions the Achaemenids in his epic, the Shahnameh. It was good to stay in such a luxurious hotel for a while. As someone who lives in a social housing appartment and has little money to spend on anything other than the bare necessities, it was a great experience.

Snow at Tochal
After sleeping in once more, we went to the popular Tochal mountain resort late in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we had lost some time because Ali had left one of his bags in the bus. In the early afternoon he went to the bus station to retrieve it, but without success. You will hear more about how Ali eventually retrieved the bag in a later post. We first went to Tajrish by metro and then took a taxi to Tochal. Tochal is a snow capped mountain at the northern edge of Tehran. The city of Tehran was built upon its slopes and the mountain can be seen from almost any part of the city and from the mountain the entire city can be seen. At the Tochal mountain resort large crowds of affluent north Tehrani youngsters made their way along the road, towards the Cable Car that led to a higher part of the mountain. Among the youngsters were many women who knew very creative ways to cover as little hair as possible. The men wore western clothing and didn’t look much different from European youths. At the mountain resort were many restaurants, cafetaria and attractions, like a roller coaster that went all the way up to the cold and windy parts of the mountain and of course the Cable Car. Unfortunately, the Cable Car service had already closed when we arrived there. On our way back it started snowing. For both Ali and me it was the first snow that we had seen that year. As for Ali, he lives in Basra and suffered seriously from the cold, although he obviously liked to see the snow. As for me, I have never seen a White Christmas in my life and the last few winters were almost entirely snow free. To see snow in April in what many consider to be a ‘warm’ country sure was exciting for both of us.

A view of the Tochal mountain resort
A view of the Tochal mountain resort

National Museum of Iran
Next day we decided to visit the National Museum of Iran early in the morning. We had already had enough rest and we were afraid that it would be too crowded later in the afternoon. After spending at least half an hour looking for the museum, we found it in an eerily quiet neighborhood with many government buildings. There were almost no visitors in the entire museum, although one group from Luxembourg came in later. The National Museum of Iran is an archaeological museum that covers most of Iran’s pre-islamic past, so as a historian specialized in Persian history it now was my time to shine. I guided Ali through the museum and with every significant object that we encountered I tried to give as much background information as possible. In addition to material from the ‘glorious’ Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian periods, there were also quite a few pre-Achaemenid and Hellenistic artifacts. In fact, the entire upper floor was dedicated to Elamite civilization and prehistoric cultures. The Luxembourgish group that had entered some time after us was led by a French-speaking guide who told a long story about the geography of Iran. This interested Ali a lot, since he had read a lot about geography throughout his studies. Ali tried to pick up as much familiar sounding French words as he could from the guide’s speech.

A copy of the Code of Hammurabi
A copy of the Code of Hammurabi

Stolen heritage
When we encountered a copy of the Code of Hammurabi, I reminisced upon my visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where the original was located. “But isn’t the original in Iraq?” Ali asked. I told him that the original Code of Hammurabi had been stolen, first by Elamites of southwestern Iran around 1000 BC, and later by French archaeologists during the nineteenth century. I also told him that many British, German and French archaeologists did that because they thought that the Arabs, Turks and Iranians couldn’t take care of their own artifacts. This made Ali very sad, but I felt that I had to tell him the truth. Ali talked about how a return of these artifacts would increase tourism to Iraq, how it would profit Iraq and how it would make the Iraqi people more aware of their past. I told him the famous story of the Elgin Marbles and said that if the British Museum isn’t willing to give these pieces back to a EU member state, Iraq and Iran have little reason to hope for a restoration of their artifacts. Ali then became afraid that the Americans would also take away the Iranian artifacts stored at Iranian museums if they would decide to invade the country. I tried to comfort him by saying that the mentality that had led archaeologists to steal artifacts from the Middle East in the nineteenth century was now frowned upon in the West and that they would not steal artifacts that were already stored at museums. I didn’t tell him about the lawsuits surrounding the Persepolis Fortification Archive, as this would probably have upset him even more.

Islamic Museum
After visiting the National Museum, we went to the Islamic Museum located next door. The collection of the Islamic Museum consisted mostly of beautifully decorated Quran manuscripts from different periods. There were also paintings and wall carpets, including one depicting the Battle of Karbala. At the Battle of Karbala (680) the Ummayad caliph Yazid killed Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who wanted to claim the caliphate for the family of the prophet. Hussein and his men were trapped at Karbala while on their way to Kufah, where they were all executed. The execution of a grandson of the prophet made Yazid and the Ummayad dynasty very unpopular and led to an insurmountable split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The depiction of the Battle of Karbala reminded me of Catholic depictions of the Passion of Christ. In both traditions the suffering of a righteous servant of God (Jesus and Hussein, respectively) is depicted in a graphic way and also in the form of different ‘stages’ that depict different episodes from the event. The last image of the dead Imam Hussein being carried away reminded me strongly of renaissance depictions of Jesus’s Descent from the Cross. I told this to Ali, upon which he told me that there were many more similarities between Catholic Christianity and Shia Islam. In both traditions Jesus and Mary play crucial roles, both traditions venerate saints and both traditions know the concept of Intercession, which has led to accusations of idolatry and innovation by Protestant Christians and Sunni Muslims, respectively.

The Taq Kasra at Ctesiphon, Iraq
The Taq Kasra at Ctesiphon, Iraq

The Azadi Tower
Upon leaving the Islamic Museum we tried to find the Old Bazaar, but we couldn’t. At least the shopping mall that the taxi driver called ‘Old Bazaar’ looked nothing like an old bazaar. Instead we decided to visit the famous Azadi Tower, a landmark of Tehran. This tower was built in 1971 by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who named it the Shahyad (King’s Memorial) Tower. The monument remained popular after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when it was renamed Azadi (Freedom) Tower. On our way to the landmark I told Ali that the monument was modeled after the Taq Kasra gateway at the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon. At least that’s what I thought. The arches looked similar to me. I soon started to doubt it. When Ali heard that the Azadi Tower was based on a Persian palace in Iraq, he again became sad and said that he did not want to take a picture of “a monument created to celebrate the Persian occupation of Iraq”. I tried to tell him that it really wasn’t a monument meant to celebrate occupation, that Iraq was one of the Sasanian Empire’s core provinces and that the Sasanians treated their non-Iranian subjects well, but the subject was too sensitive to him. Later on I checked the internet to see if my suspicion, that the Azadi Tower was modeled after the Taq Kasra, was true, but I could not find any evidence. Looks like I gave Ali some wrong information…

To be continued…
Tomorrow I will tell you about our journey through the land of the Medes, where we visited the ancient Median capital of Ecbatana, the well-preserved Median hill fort of Nush-i Jan and the famous Bisotun Inscription. Stay tuned…