History of Tehran: What Lies Beneath

14 December, 2020
Reading Time :20 minutes

transit tehran cover from malu halasa.jpg<

The Markaz Review is privileged to publish for the first time online this tremendous essay on Iran’s capital city—population nine million, 15M if you count the surrounding areas—excerpted from Transit Tehran, Young Iran and Its Inspirations, edited by Malu Halasa and Maziar Bahari. Published by the Prince Claus Fund Library and Garnet, this beautiful anthology is a collector’s item, and Masoud Behnoud’s essay on Tehran is an emerald everyone should behold.

History of Tehran
What Lies Beneath

By Masoud Behnoud

Most large cities in the East have long histories filled with wars, bloodshed and massacres. And this is how they left their mark on world history and gained lasting renown. Tehran, which was chosen as Iran’s capital only 220 years ago, is one of the exceptions. The city has been the seat of two revolutions, two coups, two changes of dynasty, the coronation of eight kings and the swearing-in of six presidents, but it has no history of massacres and big wars. Once, the world’s super powers, Britain and Russia, bombed it for a few hours, without killing anyone. It was also twice the target of missiles and bombardments on the orders of Saddam Hussein.  

But despite the fact that Tehran’s history contains no record of wars and massacres, one period illustrates that, during the thousand years of continuous habitation, people have not enjoyed tranquil lives.

Buried History

In central Tehran, there is a street named Manuchehri after a great Iranian poet. For many years now, it has been the main venue for the city’s antiquarians. Among the most sought after antiques on this street are old documents known as treasure-deeds, each of which contains a series of crooked, mysterious lines and markings—often with a tree and a mountain drawn somewhere in the middle—ostensibly pointing the way to buried treasure. These treasure-deeds can, on occasion, fetch up to $500,000, even though, after paying this sum, the purchaser has to seek out specialists who can decipher the markings. Next, they need to buy a metal detector. This is complicated by the fact that there is a ban on the import of metal detectors in Iran, but it is possible to obtain them on the black market. With the treasure-deed, a deciphering specialist, a metal detector and a bunch of people ready to dig in the dark of night, the purchaser’s chance is about 20 percent. They would need to search about 1,000 hectares of land around Tehran in order to uncover an antique artifact, hidden underground centuries earlier.

By using this system and smuggling out the buried artifacts—word has it—the international antiquities market has been filled with Persian artifacts over the past thirty years; artifacts that have been sold either by smugglers or by Iranian collectors who managed to move their possessions abroad after the Revolution. The government has recently been able to repatriate a number of important archaeological finds.

Some of these have shed light on the history of Tehran, a city, which, as late as thirty years ago, was thought to be only 400 years old. An examination of these accidental discoveries has revealed that the city, which now stretches from the foothills of the Alborz mountains to the salty desert of Qom, dates back hundreds of years and that it was, for example, a hub of life, trade, agriculture and animal husbandry six centuries ago at the time of the Mongol invasion of Iran.  

In most parts of Tehran and its environs, to the south, north and west, laborers who lay the foundations for apartment blocks are accustomed to finding vases and, at times, coins and other traces of the city’s past inhabitants. All of these belonged to the wealthy of those times, who, without the convenience of banks and safety deposit boxes, had no option but to hide their assets underground. 

Twenty-six years ago, when a bulldozer was flattening the ground for a new public park in the Qeytarieh District in north Tehran—past the summer gardens of the British and Russian embassies—it hit a rock and subsequently uncovered a treasure trove, which extended the history of Tehran by 400 more years. Up to then, it had been assumed that Tehran was founded during the reign of Shah Tahmasb I, of the Safavid dynasty, in the sixteenth century.

There have been two incidents of this kind over the past twenty-six years. Once, when municipality workers were busy preparing the ground for another park on Abbas-Abad Hill, which previously belonged to the military for about eighty years. Another was when a construction worker, laying the foundations for a new building, dug up the floor of a house, which belonged to a military commander in one of the streets off Pasdaran Avenue in north Tehran. On the basis of these discoveries, when the Mongols reached the center of the country in the thirteenth century and destroyed the important city of Rey, Tehran already existed as a cool summering place and mountain hideout. When the fleeing inhabitants of Rey stumbled upon it, it was about 106 hectares in size.

The presence of the Alborz mountain range to the north and the steep descent to the flat fields to the south and west appealed to a Safavid king during the course of a royal journey in the sixteenth century. He commanded that a moat be dug around the city and that a number of fortifications be constructed. Subsequent kings each added something to it and, by and by, notables and royal cohorts became increasingly interested in reigning from there. But the main development occurred in 1782, when Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, who founded a new dynasty, chose Tehran as his capital.

Previously, a number of Iranian cities had served as capitals of various dynasties, including Hamadan (Ekbatan), Shush, Esfahan (Isfahan), Shiraz and Tabriz. But Tehran became the capital just as the world was about to enter the nineteenth century, with its revolutionary developments, and as Europeans were increasingly making their way to the East.  

Earliest Traces

The first time Tehran appears in a document relates to a Shi’i cleric whose name included “Tehrani-Razi” over a 1,100-odd years ago. There is also a book, written a thousand years ago, which praised Tehran’s orchards and fruits, especially its pomegranates. Another attribute of the area mentioned in books were underground burrows and warrens, which, it is said, served as natural impediments to enemy attacks. This is why some sources refer to Tehran as a den of thieves and other have described it as a place where people stashed stolen goods.

There is no mention of Tehran for another 500 years. During this period, Tehran was an adjunct of Rey and anyone who became the governor of Rey was the master of Tehran. Although it is not very clear why—maybe because of its pleasant climate—some famous clerics, scholars and experts in Islamic jurisprudence, faqihs, took up residence in Tehran. Some of their burial places, which survive to this day, served as an attraction, drawing those who wished to pay their respects, for example, at the shrine of Shah Abdol-Azim. Hamzeh, the forebearer of the Safavid dynasty, too, was laid to rest in this region and when his descendants became kings and used to visit his shrine, Shah Tahmasb finally issued an order in the 1500s, for new structures and towers to be built in Tehran which should number exactly 114, the number of chapters in the Quran. After Tabriz, where Shah Esma’il, the Safavid king, laid the foundations of a national administration, in the modern sense of the word, and declared Shi’ism to be the official religion of Iran, Tehran has been Iran’s most Shi’i city. Even during the time when most Iranians were Sunnis, Tehran was home to many Shi’i faqihs. So, it is no surprise that today’s Shi’i clerics, who have taken the helm of power, have chosen Tehran as their capital city. Although there is talk, from time to time, that the administration intends to make Esfahan the capital of the Islamic Republic; a city which served as capital during the reign of the Safavids—who were Shi’is—that has many beautiful mosques, making it, as some claim, the Islamic world’s biggest and most beautiful city after Damascus.


Many foreign travelers and ambassadors have mentioned a mountain settlement with big orchards and succulent fruits in their travelogues. For example Clavijo, sent by Henri III, king of Spain, to serve as ambassador in the court of Tamerlane, passed through Rey and wrote in his diary, on Sunday, July 6, 1404: “Tehran is a vast area, not bound by any walls, which is green and lush, with all that is required for comfort. But it is said that it has an unwholesome climate and is very hot in the summers …”  

Two hundred years later, Pietro della Valle, the renowned Italian traveler of the period during the reign of the Safavid dynasty’s Shah Abbas, passed through Tehran and described it as larger “than Kashan, but with fewer inhabitants. It has many trees, and plane trees have been planted on all its streets with trunks so big that if four people clasp their hands together they will scarcely be able to form a ring around it. Just as Istanbul is known for its cypresses, Tehran is remarkable for its plane trees.”

However in 1806, Ernest Joubert, Napoleon Bonaparte’s envoy, arrived in Tehran twenty-four years into its life as the country’s capital and bemoaned the fact there was “no sign here of Esfahan’s good buildings, towers and fortifications.” He also mentioned that which remains a dream for Tehranis until today: “Fath-Ali Shah, the second king of the Qajar dynasty, intends to make a river flow through Tehran.”

View of Iran from the Azadi Tower (Photo: Getty Images)<

View of Iran from the Azadi Tower (Photo: Getty Images)

Iranian statesmen who had chosen the city as their capital because it was easy to defend recognized its greatest drawback—the lack of its own waterway. When Fath-Ali Shah first thought to rectify the situation, Tehran had a population of 30,000. Today it has a population of 15 million and swallows up all the water from the rivers in the surrounding areas as well as the bulk of the country’s oil revenues. But Tehran does boast a natural feature that its inhabitants are proud of and one that tourists never forget: the cone-shaped Mount Damavand, which stands majestically to the northeast of Tehran and, air pollution permitting, is visible from the city. The great twentieth-century Iranian poet Malek-ol-Sho’ara Bahar likened the dormant volcano to a white belted, silver helmeted monster. In the same poem, he continued: “You’re the clenched fist of the times / raised to the skies at injustice.”

Fifty years after Malek-ol-Sho’ara Bahar wrote his ode to Damavand, hundreds of thousands of Tehranis raised their clenched fists to reject a monarchy’s injustice and seek refuge in religion. This is how it came about that the twentieth century’s last classical revolution occurred in Tehran, leading to the formation of an Islamic state which styled itself the vice-regent of God and was thought to have been established to bring the protestors justice. Thirty years later, journalists, lawyers, university students and women gather together whenever they can, clench their fists and raise their plaints to the skies. This has happened twice in the twentieth century: once in 1906, when the Iranian people demanded laws and law courts and won a constitution and, the second time, in 1979, when they demanded freedom and independence. Today the people demand democracy. All three instances, the details of what these clenched fists want are scribbled on walls in the back streets and alleyways, away from the eyes of state’s agents; even today, when nearly sixty million Iranians have access to the Internet in Tehran.

The People

Like all big cities, Tehran is not what it is by virtue of palaces, buildings and high rises, but because of the people living there. Over the past fifty years, a number of important events have occurred, which completely changed the capital’s demography, turning it from a city inhabited by courtiers and the well-heeled into one of laborers and the poor.

The city’s first official census took place in 1866, during the reign of Nassereddin Shah Qajar. It was decided, with the assistance of a Frenchman, that key information would be recorded, including a map delineating its borders. The census showed that Tehran had a population of 150,000, including merchants from Esfahan and Azerbaijan who were making a living in the capital. Also according to the 1866 census, the city’s inhabitants included 2,000 Qajar princes and princesses (linked to the reigning dynasty), 40,000 Tehranis, 10,000 Esfahanis and 8,000 Azeris.

The next significant census took place in 1932, using more scientific methods. Tehran then had a population of 250,000, about 70 percent of whom had been born locally. This was in the early years of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign, known as a period of modernism. In addition to German-constructed buildings and the infrastructure established during this period—including a railway around southern Tehran that, for the first time, linked the capital to all the country’s different regions—the appearance of Tehran’s inhabitants also changed. They started wearing European-style clothes, sometimes by force of law.

Thirty years later, in 1964, another period of reform was launched, this time by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Reza Shah’s son wanted to implement a plan that, experts suggest, had been dictated to him by John F. Kennedy with the aim of forestalling a rural revolution and preventing Iran from becoming communist like its northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. The most important aspect of the reforms was the destruction of feudal land ownership. As a result, a city with a population of 2.7 million in 1964, registered a population of 4.5 million ten years later.

The Revolution and the 1980–88 war with Iraq—and the three million displaced Iranians and foreign refugees—affected all social phenomena from the renaming of city streets in honor of fallen soldiers (instead of poets, flowers and traditional plants) to paralyzing urban services.

By 1980, with the victory of the Islamists, Tehran’s population had risen to more than five million. In 1996, it was almost seven million and, now, it is said to be more than 14 million. This is the circumstance in which Tehran has gobbled up Rey, its ancient forbearer, and, having also digested Shemiran to the north, is starting to climb up the mountainsides.

Contemporary Milestones

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Tehran witnessed an event, which people had been taught to fear for centuries: the death of the king; not a natural one, but an assassination resulting from a bullet fired by someone who could no longer bear tyranny’s injustice. Although the people paid their respects to Nassereddin Shah, their monarch for fifty years who was the first Iranian king to travel to Europe, speak French and create post and telegraph services, official maps, ministries and government offices, some of his subjects secretly held mourning services for his killer. During this time, the circulation of clandestine pamphlets increased and they revealed that the people of Tehran, no longer submissive and uninformed, were starting to harbor some demands.

Ten years later, during a movement calling for laws and law courts, in order to win the right to have a parliament, people staged a sit-in at the British legation in Tehran until their demands were met. This was the first time in Iran’s history that change was brought about through peaceful action, demonstrations and strikes. And, so, in 1906, the people witnessed the signing of the newly drafted constitution by the king.  

But, the following year, the son of the king who had given people laws, ordered cannonballs fired at the country’s first parliament and several proponents of freedom, including the first director of a free and independent newspaper, were hanged. But this same tyrannical Shah was defeated by people from the north and the south of the country who began marching to Tehran and, on the day when the proponents of freedom arrived in the city, he sought refuge in the Russian embassy in Tehran and was deposed.  

About ten years later, when foreign forces were about to enter Tehran, Iran’s first and last democratic king, who had ascended to the throne when he was still young, made up his mind to move the capital to Esfahan. And although a provisional government was formed in the west of the country, under the protection of Ottoman forces and Germany (allies in World War I), the capital never changed. In 1921, there was a military coup, backed by the British embassy, which marked the start  of the curtailment of people’s freedoms. Ultimately, five years later, the democratic Qajar king was removed from the throne and was succeeded by Reza Shah Pahlavi, who did not believe in democracy.  

Over the course of Reza Shah’s sixteen-year reign, which ended when Russian and British forces entered Tehran in World War II, the country took big strides towards modernism to the point where policemen forced women to remove their chadors, so they became like European women, and clerics were banned from walking in the streets. Men, for their part, were obliged to wear European-style hats. Universities, railways, roads, the establishment of security in parts of the country that had been lawless, and the creation of a single military force and the disbanding of feudal forces were among the most important things that were achieved during Reza Shah’s military dictatorship. And, when several groups of students were sent to study in Europe, a new generation was formed for administering the

The people of Tehran had just about become accustomed to having one or two aircraft fly over their heads and land every week in an area west of Tehran, which served as an airport. In the autumn of 1941, Russian and British aircraft flew over the capital and terrified everyone by dropping a bomb on the edge of the city in the desert. Reza Shah’s army, which he thought was the most powerful in the world, collapsed in a few hours. As the Allies’ troops began to march into Tehran, in order to avoid being placed under guard, the dictator abdicated in favor of his son and was sent, by the British, into exile to South Africa. Afterwards, lost freedoms returned: newspapers were allowed to publish unimpeded, political parties vied for the people’s favor, and governments were chosen via free elections. Tehran’s main streets and the country’s then only university, which had been built in the center of the city, were the focal point of change. This period, which was Tehran’s most lively in political terms, reached its peak with the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. When the movement’s leader, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, became prime minister, Iran’s oil—it was declared—belonged to Iranians and the world’s eyes—and especially those of the Middle East—turned towards Tehran. In Tehran itself, Mossadegh, an elderly man who was often unwell and bed-ridden, became the symbol of the East’s awakening. He deprived the British of Iranian oil and even the approach of a British warship did not frighten him.  

But on August 18, 1953, a military coup, planned by the CIA and British intelligence, once again brought a dictator to power and Dr. Mossadegh was detained and put on trial. Martial law was declared in Tehran, marking the start of twenty-five years of dictatorship by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Over this period, the country became very dependent on its oil revenues. At the same time, as oil revenues increased, Tehran shed its skin, grew bigger, became permanently afflicted with inflation and high prices, and a very rich class began to emerge before the eyes of migrant laborers and villagers. Finally, in 1979, these same laborers and villagers rose up and there was a revolution that did away with monarchical rule. The leader of the Revolution was a cleric who declared the country an Islamic Republic.

Three Events

Among all the events that occurred in Iran in the twentieth century, three completely transformed the destiny of Tehran and its people. First, the economic and social reforms carried out by the last Shah in the 1960s, the result of which half a million people who lived in rural areas ended up in shanty towns and slums on the peripheries of Tehran. Although they worked in the big city, they had no access to its facilities and resources and were unable to cope with the rampant inflation. Some analysts believe that, in the 1970s, this population turned into the engine of the Islamic Revolution—which was the second momentous event—and, on the orders of inexperienced revolutionary leaders, millions of people streamed into the city from rural areas and suddenly Tehran’s demography and size changed. The third momentous event was the eight-year war with Iraq that displaced the population of war-stricken areas and made them head for Tehran.  

The Revolution and the war that followed led to a flooding in of rural people and, in less than fifteen years, Tehran grew in a cancerous, disproportional way. The city’s population increased from about four million to more than 14 million. This sudden rise and the arrival of the migrants (which included about half a million Afghans and 300,000 Iraqis) brought new cultural influences to the city. So, Tehran became the standard-bearer of a revolution, with its millions-strong rallies and marches in which those same slum-dwellers and people from the poor, southern areas of the city participated in large numbers. And if any cries were heard from the residents in the better-off north of the city, they, too, were in defense of those same poor masses and in protest of the problems and injustices that were taking place in Tehran.  

Tehran’s reward for playing a key role in the victory of the Revolution was that a handful of people could do whatever they wanted and a generation of young people came to power. Billions of petrol dollars and the support of the state and the people allowed them to dismantle the previous administration on the pretext that it was attached to the Shah and the West, despite the fact there was nothing to replace it.  

All the country’s poor were invited to Tehran to become house owners. Tin shanties sprang up everywhere, and they were officially declared into townships. Fifteen years after the Revolution, Tehran had ten townships by the name of Taleghani, a popular, revolutionary cleric; six townships named after the Hidden Imam; six townships named after another popular ayatollah, Mottahari; six townships named Revolution; and four townships named Quds (Jerusalem). The slums even spread into the city’s prosperous districts and, sitting cheek-by-jowl with high rises built by French and American architects and the luxurious villas of north Tehran, they became ugly displays of discrimination and poverty.  

After the eight-year war, a Tehran, which, before the Revolution, used to be likened to Cairo and Paris for its nightlife, turned inward, lacked identity and began expanding on all sides without any control or supervision.  

The only thing that prevented the collapse of an overextended, characterless Tehran was the ever-rising oil revenue, which, once it entered the state’s coffers, was mostly poured into the capital. Of course, this redoubled the motivation of the inhabitants of Iran’s villages and small towns to head for an overpriced Tehran, which was already short of housing, streets and leisure facilities.  

The rationing of basic goods and the lack of supervisory systems during the war led to the emergence of middle men and wheeler-dealers, and provided a source of income for Tehran’s rural migrants. At the same time, as the war and the culture of combat spread, the pre-Revolution social and urban systems were increasingly rejected and many manifestations of urban life were discarded on the pretext that they were Western. Tehran turned into a city that rejected its old identity without having developed social structures to create a new one. So, it became characterless. This was exactly at a time when Istanbul and Dubai and many other big cities in the region were rapidly modernizing. Meanwhile a weary and subdued Tehran opened its arms wide to hundreds of thousands of displaced village-dwellers, and became home to masses of people, most of whom were only acquainted with life in dry and difficult climes and with farming and livestock breeding. Not only did these people find it hard and strange to accept urban rules and regulations, Tehran itself was in no fit state to encourage them to adjust their ways to life in a metropolis.  

Symbolic Architecture Today

Tehran is a city without a beginning or an end. Apart from the north, where it is bound by mountains, travelers would be hard pressed to say where the city’s boundaries lie and at what point they’ve passed into or out of it. But, once upon a time, Tehran, too, like most cities in the past, had towers and fortifications. In the first map drawn of the capital city, Tehran appeared as an eight-sided figure, with sides of unequal length. Around it was a moat, separating it from adjacent land. The only way to leave or enter the city was via the thirteen gates situated around it. There were three gates in each of the four directions of the compass, and most of the gate names were related to city geography and a district’s social structure. When Reza Shah began modernizing the country, he destroyed all the manifestations of the Qajar period because of his hatred of the dynasty that preceded him. Among the structures destroyed were twelve of
these gates, which resembled the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Even a seat of government—if it had been based on European models, like a town hall or an opera house—was destroyed and only one of the gates, leading to land belonging to the military, was in use for years. In their place, foreign contractors built numerous buildings, and the city became dotted with squares containing statues of the new king and his children. Tehran also acquired a boulevard, which was built on the same principles as the Champs Elysées but was one-third its size.

Finally, in 1970, the capital acquired an emblem. In the middle of a big roundabout, which is said to be the biggest in the Middle East, located in west Tehran en route to the international airport, a monument was built, over an area of 15,000 square meters, which was named in honor of the Shah. The winning competition design was by a twenty-four-year-old University of Tehran architect graduate.

On the day the monument was inaugurated, the country’s last king and queen were present. With great pride, they unveiled a copy of the charter of Cyrus the Great, the world’s first ever charter of human rights. This historic artifact was inscribed on stone about 2,550 years ago and currently resides in the British Museum.

Nine years later, the Tehran monument, a constant presence in the world’s media during Iran’s Revolution against the monarchy, was renamed “Freedom Tower.” It was not damaged during the aerial bombardment of the city during the war with Iraq and annual revolutionary celebrations are held around it. However nearly thirty years after the Revolution, it has become clear that the monument has been badly affected by mildew and that, if not repaired soon, will collapse.

So, has the symbol of Tehran become symbolic of the developments in the city itself ? For some time now, experts have been predicting that Tehran will experience a terrible earthquake. In view of the poor building standards, the absence of sewerage and the existence of narrow streets, which make relief operations almost impossible, countless warnings have been issued. These problems are compounded by tentacle-like gas pipelines beneath the city and the tunnels of Tehran’s first metro; exactly the location where the hunters of the mysterious codes in the treasure-deeds dig today. Fourteen million people live on top of treasure; despite predictions that Tehran’s earthquake will prove to be history’s most devastating natural disaster—more destructive than Pompeii and the great flood.


Translated from the Farsi by Nilou Mobasser  


Masoud Behnoud first wrote about the history of Tehran for Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations, edited by Malu Halasa and Maziar Bahari.

Masoud Behnoud has founded more than 20 newspapers and magazines since he began as a prominent writer, journalist and editor in 1964. He was editor-in-chief from 1971 of Iran’s most influential and popular daily, Ayandegan, when on orders of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 it was shut down and its editor and senior staff imprisoned. The same year, he became chief editor of the weekly Tehren-e Mosavar, which was also shut down after 30 issues by the Islamic authorities. In 1985 Behnoud was one of the founders of the social and literary monthly Adineh, which championed freedom of expression for 13 years. In 1995 he joined the Tehran daily Jame’eh. When this was closed down, he went to work for other dailies: Tous, Neshat, Asr-e Azadegan and Bonyan, all of which were closed down. In 1999, he was imprisoned “for provoking public opinion” and “insulting the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic”—a sentence protested by Reporters Sans Frontières, PEN International and Amnesty International. The author of innumerable books, Behnoud lives in London.

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