Only four years after the Coronation, Iran was ready for a new and most remarkable celebration, one that no Empire could have in the second half of the 20th century: the celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the Empire, by Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the first Persian emperor and he is recalled in history books and encyclopaedias as one the first great conqueror of a whole empire. He caused the fall of various empires and, with his great intelligence and good will, he was the founder of a prosperous and peaceful realm, based on clemency and respect for the cultures and traditions of the fallen. With his politics, not always followed by those who succeeded him (including his son), he attracted the sympathy of the various peoples of the Empire.
In 1971, the celebrations of 2500th anniversary of the Empire were held in a time that was still of progress but were surrounded by critics of undue expenditure of funds which should be used in other needs of the country. The Shah was, nevertheless, determined to show the world what was Iran and to let everyone have a flavour of Persia’s long and glorious history, of its traditions and of the legendary majesty of the Persian emperors. The legend went back to Emperor Darius I, the founder of Persepolis, the astonishingly impressive capital of Persia, with a remarkably impressive palace that captured the imagination of many. Cyrus the Great had had his capital just 45 miles away, in Pasargadae, where he was buried. The magnificent tomb of Cyrus was actually only found back in 1951, thus 20 years before the celebrations of the foundation of the Empire.
The magnificence of the Persepolis celebrations is almost beyond description and almost beyond imagination, just as the magnificent of Persepolis itself. The preparations actually began ten years before the actual celebrations and the result were some unforgettable days of splendour and glitter, which any Persian Emperor of the past, from Cyrus the Great to Reza Shah the Great, would not only have been proud of but also keen on attending! Its goal was clear, from a political point of view: definitely launch Iran as an active member of the international community.
The original idea of a celebration to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Empire was presented to the Shah in the early 1960’s. Apparently His Imperial Majesty liked the idea and he approved the setting of the celebrations as the ruins of the old cities of the Empire, near Shiraz. A lot of work was carried out before the actual date of the ceremonies was fixed. The Shiraz airport was enlarged so that the guests could easily have their arrivals and departures and a highway from Shiraz to the ruins was built. These large improvements would have a double use: they’d be extremely helpful for the celebrations and they could make the tourism boost in the ancient Persepolis as well as in oldest Pasargadae.
Although these projects went ahead, the definite move towards the organization of the expected ceremonies only came in the middle of 1970. Until then the process of development of he country had not allowed time for the planning of the ceremonies. It was felt that it was, nevertheless, time to make Iran a popular nation and attract investment and tourism, and what is better promotion to a country than the most glittering party of all times, held in one of the most historical venues of the country, held in front of all the great leaders of the world?
If the original plan was a grand party with around 30 heads of state, when the news of the organization of the event spread, dozens of embassies required for invitation for their countries, enlarging the number of guests in a dramatic way. The feeling was, in Iran, that nothing could go wrong in these celebrations; it was the country’s prestige at risk. Famous for their hospitality, the Iranians realized that only something never seen could impress those who would be invited and those who would watch on television and from the reports. The Shah’s will to make Iran rise from the ashes and make it a leading nation of the world was always behind the idea of the celebration.
It was determined that no place other than the ruins of the ancient capital Persepolis could be the setting for the main celebrations. There the foreign guests could have a flavour of the old Persia and of the new Iran. The opening of the celebrations would take place in Pasargadae, 45 miles away from Persepolis, while Shiraz would be the base for many of the guests and for the foreign journalists. But how would it be possible to hold the greatest party of all times in the middle of the desert? Persepolis was nothing but a magnificent display of unique ruins, where once lay a splendorous palace. Now there were some impressive ruins and sand, a lot of it.
There was only one year to make a new city in Persepolis, a city to host a unique celebration, a unique city. A High Council was formed by several separate cabinets, which took care of the infinite details of the celebrations, and was headed by the Minister of the Court, Assadollah Alam. Empress Farah would regularly be informed of the details of the celebrations. After the decision of going ahead with the festivities in Persepolis, everything had to happen quickly. After some suggestions, it was decided that the French interior design firm Jansen would be in charge of planning the new city of Persepolis: inspired in King François I’s sumptuous camp erected in the west coast of France in 1520 to entertain Henry VIII of England, a fabulously matchless Tent City would be built in Persepolis, a true oasis in the middle of the desert.
The same men who would take part in the festivities, marching in the great parade, were those who had the task of building the Tent City or the Golden City, as it was also called. Fifty yellow and blue tents (actually prefabricated luxury apartments covered with cloths) were built, 5 in each side of 5 streets forming a star (representing the five continents), in the middle of which was a spectacular fountain, flood-lit at night. One of these streets led to the helicopter basis and from there to the Tent of Honour, with 34 meters in diameter. This was where the official receptions took place and from there it was possible to reach the long Banqueting Hall, 68 meters in length and 24 meters in width.
The area around the Golden City was full of trees brought directly from France and amazing gardens created with the most beautiful flowers. Each of the 50 tents for the guests was air-conditioned and had a different decoration. Each tent had 13 metres in diameter and was 3 meters high and was composed by a sitting room, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a service room for the entourage.
As the usual household that took care of state banquets was in no way capable of producing a banquet of the requested magnitude, it was decided that the specialist French would have the honour and charge of the catering service of the festivities. The organizers contacted the famous Chez Maxim’s in Paris (where the Shah and the Empress were frequent clients) and it was agreed that they would create the menu for the most unforgettable of all evenings, having to close the Parisian restaurant during 15 days and hiring several dozens of highly qualified waiters and chefs for all the catering. In all, around 160 chefs, waiters and bakers were in attendance in Persepolis.
Among the most extravagant details of the Persepolis celebrations was the order of 250 red Mercedes-Benz for the transport of guests from and to the Shiraz airport. French designer Lanvin was put in charge of creating new gala uniforms for the members of the Imperial Household, one of the most criticized expenses but, as most of the others, broadly exaggerated. 30 uniforms were asked from the usual manufacturer of the court uniforms, who replied that he did not have the time or the tools to create those uniforms in time for the great event. The organizers then ordered those from Lanvin, who could provide those in time.
As commonly happens, these (and others, such as the diamond necklace of Emperor Hailé Selassié’s dog) picturesque and absolutely delightful details were the ones that captured international attention and dramatic criticism. No one dared to mention the project that led to the opening of 3200 schools on the day of the beginning of the festivities in Pasargadae. This was part of a campaign that had the goal of opening 2500 schools to mark the celebrations: anyone who wanted to have a school with their name would be asked to give $4.000. The success was tremendous. Few mentioned the huge cultural efforts of the Iranian Government in divulgating the Persian history and culture all over the World, with exhibitions and seminaries taking place in the five continents.
There were many extravagant details that managed to make of Persepolis the grandest celebration ever staged. The Italian drapes and curtains, the magnificent chandeliers of Bohemian crystal to decorate the Banqueting Hall, the Limoges china created for the state banquet with the arms of the Pahlavis painted in the centre, the Baccarat glass service, the two hairdressers from Paris with all their staff and tools… the thousands of bottles of wine, champagne and water, tons of meat, vegetables arrived to Shiraz from Paris and were then taken to Persepolis. Meanwhile, the preparations for the great parade that would be a review of 2500 years of history was being prepared. Iranian officials suggested recreating ancient uniforms, arms and trumpets, which created sounds that had been forgotten for several centuries.