Contrasting Iran

By | Category: Travel destinations
The grandeur of Niavaran

The grandeur of the Shah’s palace at Niavaran

It was a cold and misty winter morning in Tehran when I arrived there due to the demise of my father. It was a sudden and unexpected trip in 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 him, 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. It was a striking contrast to see the luxurious living arrangements of a ruler who claimed to be the ‘King of kings’ in comparison to the humble residence of a leader who built his palace in the hearts of 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 Sahebqaraniveh 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 where wealthy people, amongst them influential politicians and artists, live. The palace has a peaceful and calm atmosphere. One can sense the poetic and artistic inspiration from pre and post-Islamic culture weaved into the architecture.

a room at Niavaran

a room at the palace in Niavaran

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 and said, “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, Versailles, The Hermitage, Venaria and Buckingham Palace are much vaster in their architectural expression of luxury and the high life. However, one can feel the scale of the vision of power, wealth and greed.

Niavaran Palace, just like Sa’dabad and Golestan Palaces in Tehran, has been turned into a museum and now serves as a profound history lesson. One can judge the virtues and vices of the life of a King or Queen 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 paintings, furniture, jewellery, sculpture, carpets and architecture. One can argue that, had it not been for the ambition 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 the finest art throughout history.

an exterior view of Niavaran

an exterior view of Niavaran

Many artists would not have afforded to create 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 too. 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 in great pride, distanced from the people and untouchable.



I was too young to understand the politics of the time, but I always wondered about the authenticity of his power and how far it would extend. I also learned about a utopian civilization and an ideal society claimed by Islam and Socialism through the new revolutionary waves permeating throughout 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 his monotheistic and Islamic society during his caliphate, it was like a dream come true in a flash. 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 for me.

I also remember being in the city of Qom once, 4 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.

jamaran - the contrast couldn't be greater

Jamaran – the contrast couldn’t be greater

We left Niavaran and arrived in Jamaran Street, which led to 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 distinct village smell could be detected around the adobe houses which reminded one of the 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 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 was around 12 square meters, was for resting and study. This is where he received government officials and foreign dignitaries. In his room, there were only a Quran, a prayer mat and a set of prayer beads. 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 an instinctive moment to explore the contrast of the life of a man of God and a King who assumed 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 conquering the hearts of the people.

Images  © Mohammed Reza Amirinia. For more of Reza’s images of Iran. go to



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