prepared by
Iraj Bashiri
copyright 1999

One of the larger cities of the world, greater Tehran has a population of about 12,000,000. Tehran proper, resting in the northern part of the country, on a high, sandy plateau, has a population of about 7,000,000. Unlike Isfahan, Tehran is not an ancient city. According to the 13th century chronicler, Yaqut Hamavi, Tehran was a village near the metropolis of Ray. From Hamavi's account we can gather that the people of the village lived in underground dwellings and were rebellious and contentious. Apparently the village would have remained undeveloped were it not for the devastation brought to the city of Ray (almost four miles south of Tehran) by the Mongols.

The sack of Ray in AD 1220, and annihilation of its total population, allowed Tehran to come to the fore. Don Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, the ambassador of the King of Castile, who also visited Tehran on his way to the court of Timur in Samarqand in 1404 writes, "The city of Tehran, located on a vast plane, is a pleasant town; it does not have any walls and is equipped with all means of creature comfort. Rumor has it that the climate of Tehran is not good and that it gets very hot during the summer months." But it is not until AD 1553, when the Safavid king Tahmasp I (1524-76) elevated it to the level of a capital away from his own real capital of Qazvin that we get a more clear picture of the town. Tahmasp used Tehran as a resort where he could rest and hunt. In addition to the Tehran bazaar, which he built for his own pleasure, he also built four gates (Shah Abdul Azim, Dulab, Shamiran, and Qazvin), a three-mile-long wall, and 114 (cf., the number of suras in the Qur'an) towers for security.

The decline of the Safavid dynasty bode quite badly for Tehran. Occupying Afghan forces, having subjugated Isfahan, entered Tehran, captured Shah Sultan Hussein's palace and made it their main seat of government. And when defeated by Nadir Shah, they looted the city and killed many of its prominent residents.


        Nadir Shah did not have the patience to build cities and erect palaces. He was a warrior constantly in search of new domains to conquer. Karim Khan Zand (1750-79), on the other hand, was looking for a city in which to build bazaars, hammams, and palaces. He even built a number of offices and a harem for himself in Tehran. At the end, however, he moved his seat of government to the city of Shiraz. There he built the Karim Khani Arg, the beautiful Vakil bazaar, and a number of Vakil mosques. Moved to second place, Tehran served as Karim Khan's military headquarters.

In 1785, after his defeat of the Zands, Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, occupied Tehran. And in 1788, he moved into the offices and the harem that had been built (in 1758) for the Zand ruler. Although apparently chosen on a whim, Agha Muhammad Khan's choice was based on sound political, strategic, and economic grounds. Long a center of caravan trade, both during the heyday of Ray and thereafter, Tehran was well known to the world of the time. Furthermore, it was located in the north, which was close to the tribal holdings of the Qajars and virtually on the frontier of the Qajar's perennial foe, the Turkmens.




Having been proclaimed the capital of an emerging modern Iran, subsequent Qajar kings made a point of beautifying the city and making it fit for royal residence. Among the Qajar kings who contributed most to the prosperity of Tehran, Mohammad Shah and Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-96) must be ranked first. In fact, it was the latter who ushered in the telegraph, enlarged the surrounding wall, introduced the first planned development project for the capital and, above all, built the Sepahsalar mosque and the Dar al-Fonun School.

In a way, modern Tehran that can be easily divided into the three following sectors was born at this time. The north, close to the resort of Shemiran, became royal residence. It also attracted the rich and the famous of the city. In fact, today this area continues to be the rapidly growing part of town. The factories and the slums of Tehran are located in the south. During the reign of the late (Muhammad Reza) Shah, when petrodollars were pouring into Iran, this district created the most striking contrast that Iranians and foreiners alike could point to in relation to the Shah's creation of his "Great Civilization." The center, consisting of the Sepah and Ferdowsi squares houses the most important government buildings of Iran. It is now the home of several mosques, palaces, schools, and entertainment centers.

Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41), the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was a builder with a vision. He refused to follow tradition and add a building here and a mosque there. Tehran had to be awakened to the realities of the 20th century and had to compete with Ankara, Paris, and London. Reza Shah thus allowed his engineers and architects to cut through the heart of the sprawling city and create a netwoek of traffic arteries, parks, and administrative structures. A modern mode of government required a set of modern buildings. Today, many of the buildings commissioned by Reza Shah continue to serve the purpose for which they were originally built.

Among the universities located in Tehran, Tehran Univesirty is the largest and the longest in existence. Founded by the direct order of Reza Shah in 1934, Tehran University houses a number of colleges among them College of Letters, Philosophy, and Educational Sciences, a College of Law, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, College of Theology, and College of Engineering.

During the 1970s, Tehran University served as the meeting place of the intellectuals and the future leaders of the Islamic Revolution that swept the Pahlavis out of power. In 1960, a second university, National University, with a capacity of 3,000 students was added. NU offers courses in architecture, political and economic sciences, literature and humanities, and dentistry.

At the world level, Tehran is known for one event, the 1943 meeting of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The trio assured Iran's new Shah of his country's independence and promised that they would compensate Iran for its war efforts at the end of the war. That promise was not kept, but Tehran continued to prosper, incorporating its own suburbs.

Reza Shah's son, Muhammad Reza (1941-80), was an advocate of the "Great Civilization." He built a network of highways, a number of palaces, several massive dams, and a few model cities. The visible reminder of his rule, however, is the Shahyad, the construction on which began in 1971, the same year that the celebration for the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus III the Great was held. Completed in 1972, the monument serves as the gateway to bustling Tehran. Symbolizing Iran's glorious past and promising future, the Shahyad combines both modes of present-day Iranian architecture: the traditional Islamic and the modern.

The Tehran climate is warm during the summer 84 F (or 29 C, in July) and relatively cool 39 F (or 4 C, in January) during the winter months. Tehran's rainy season is between November and May; snow falls between December and February. The amount of annual rainfall is eight inches.







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