Alex Shams – Some say that Tehran is not an old city. Because it was founded only in the early 1800’s, many argue that the Iranian capital shares little in the way of wonder and beauty with the ancient cities dotting the country’s central provinces. In contrast to names like Esfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd, “Tehran” does not conjure up memories of Persian dreamscapes or Orientalist paintings for most people. Some go even further, saying that the Tehran they know is an ugly city of concrete and metal, a city of highways and taxis and endless suburbs.
Of course, that Tehran is always there. Framed by the high peaks of the Alborz mountains, Tehran is a city of lights and frenzy and motion and modernity. But those who only see the Tehran of concrete and modernity would be mistaken to think that this Tehran is the only Tehran.
Finding Tehran’s old city takes a great deal of exploration and patience. From the 1870’s onwards, Iran’s leaders engaged in a process of reshaping Tehran’s urban fabric that totally remade the city’s aesthetic character. Large chunks of the historic core were razed to make way for wide boulevards, and these were lined with look-a-like storefronts that gave the impression of a movie set. The wide streets of downtown Tehran today are thus perfectly perpendicular to each other and give the impression of order and modernity.
The Shah’s Tehran was a city of appearances, however. While he put great effort into demolishing large chunks of the city to build boulevards suited to automobile traffic, he did not touch the old neighborhoods that sit between these boulevards. If you speed through the oldest neighborhoods of Tehran in a car, you see only modern shopfronts. However, if you walk down an alleyway in any direction from these boulevards, you immediately enter a world of winding passageways, old mud walls, and 19th century mansions.
Old Tehran’s urban fabric is a metaphor for the Shah’s modernization project as a whole: while the exterior of Iranian society changed dramatically, behind the curtains for most people things remained much the same as they had been.
Exploring old Tehran gives you a chance to explore the world that existed behind the curtains of Pahlavi secular modernity. The Mervi Bazaar, named after the ancient trading center of the same name in contemporary Turkmenistan, is still a major commercial avenue in the area. Just a few streets up from the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, Mervi Bazaar serves as a portal to the oldest quarters of the old city. The Westernmost entrance to the street is located on Naser Khosro Avenue, directly behind Golestan Palace.
Wandering south east through the bazaar leads you gradually out of the commercial corridors and into the old alleyways of the neighborhood of Oudlajan. Historically an area with a large Jewish population, today the neighborhood is one of the city’s oldest and is dotted with architectural treasures most Iranians from outside the neighborhood have no idea exist!
The neighborhood around Imamzadeh Yahya is home to the densest concentration of historical sites. The Imamzadeh itself is a 13th marvel topped by a deep turquoise cone, and visiting the shrine offers insight into the role of religious spaces in contemporary Iranian life. An “Imamzadeh” is the tomb of any person descended from the Prophet Muhammad, and both Iraq and Iran are dotted with these small shrines that are often a kind of community center for urban neighborhoods, villages, and rural settlements alike. They are sometimes compared to saints’ tombs in Western Catholicism. Although the primary purpose of these shrines is worship and contemplation, they are often used as spaces of daily gathering, especially for women.
The day I went, for example, the men’s section was occupied by a few men praying and reading (and even sleeping!). The women’s section, however, was crowded with dozens of women and children hanging out and chatting and distributing sweets (children would periodically run from the women’s section to give out candy in the men’s section as well). Because shrines are religious spaces, anyone can go and stay there as much as they want, and because they are gender-segregated, they offer a convenient way for women to gather and hang out with friends and relatives if they get tired of being around nosy male relatives.
Because the author of this piece is gendered male, he was only able to snap photographs in the men’s section. The above pictures shows the central pillar of the shrine from the relatively empty men’s side. The tomb of Yahya is in the center of the pillar, while the small partition on the right of the picture divides the men and women’s sections into neat halves. The picture below is of the mirror work and decoration around the tomb itself.
A few meters down the street is a 19th century mansion dating from the Ghajar period called Khaneye Kazemi. Its simple but handsome brick structure is graced by colorful tiles and a beautiful garden that offer a glimpse of wealthy Tehrani life in the period of the nations’ first modernizing regime. The mansion’s style thus appropriately mixes traditional Tehrani brick architecture with a number of Western features, reflecting the European aspirations of much of the Iranian merchant class in the late 1800’s. The mansion todays hosts a museum.
The streets of Oudlajan are full of similar such architectural and historical treasures, but the greatest pleasure of wandering the area are the streets themselves. The tight alleyways and small shops offer a glimpse of a kind of urban fabric increasingly rare in Iranian cities. In some places badgir poke out from above the roofs of old houses. These wind towers trap cool air in the summer and offer an ancient and environmentally conscious form of air conditioning in the summer, while providing an outlet for temperature regulation in the winter as well.
So far, neither Iranian nor foreign tourists have really woken up to the beauty of Tehran’s historic core, and Oudlajan is not the kind of place you’ll find in a tour guide. Historical preservation has become a priority in Tehran in the last few years, but luckily the restoration of historical sites in the area has been managed in such a way so as not to disrupt the neighborhood’s way of life.
Although Tehran is a famously modern city, those who pass through and see only the cafes and trendy shops of the Iranian capital’s north miss out on a great piece of the story of modern Iran. The drive to build a secular society under the Shahs and the grassroots resistance to this top-down project were concentrated in the oldest quarters of the Iranian capital. With the transition from secular modernity to Islamic modernity these neighborhoods lost their status as bastions of cultural resistance, and today their quiet streets offer a reminder of the complexity and diversity of Iranian society and history. The alleyways of Oudlajan play host to spaces of religiosity and mercantilism, and their relevance or lack thereof to daily neighborhood life offer a fascinating glimpse of modern Tehrani life in one of the capital’s oldest neighborhoods.