"...look into all things with a searching eye” - Baha'u'llah (Prophet Founder of the Baha'i Faith)


Oct 19, 2018

circa 1920s: Tehran, Persia - a description by a foreign diplomat

Tehran 1930s
Tehran is the town best known by Europeans, for it is the-capital of the country, a position it attained when the present royal family came to the throne, the first Shah of the line transferring the seat of the government there from Isfahan. It lies on the southern slope of the Elburz Mountains, and from the town the great white cone of Damavand can be clearly seen towering high above the rest of the range. There is little of real interest in the town. One of the Shahs surrounded it with a dry moat and a wide earthen rampart twelve miles in circumference. This is pierced by nine gateways — flimsy buildings of brick veneered with glazed tiles and ornamented by little turrets. From the outside the town shows a crowded mass of mud-walls and tree-tops with an occasional red-painted iron roof. The older part of the city is like other Oriental towns — a maze of narrow lanes hemmed in by high mud-walls. Every now and then the road is arched over, for a short distance to form a bazaar. The shops are merely recesses, in the side-walls, and the goods are stored on shelves and in pigeon-holes or heaped on the ground.

The big bazaar is a really fine building; whole streets are arched over till they look like the aisles of a great cathedral. The roadway here is a little wider and the shops rather larger, but most of them are built on the same primitive plan. The different trades keep more or less to their own quarters, the silk shops being in one quarter, the jewelers in another, and so forth. The Tehran bazaar is the best stocked in the country, for the population is larger and wealthier than that of the other towns; the carpets and antiques and jewels are certainly far better than those to be found elsewhere. Some of the streets are fairly quiet, but in others one forces one’s way with difficulty through the crowd. Women wrapped in their hideous black veils, and further encumbered with bundles and babies, wander along in small groups chattering shrilly to one another, beggars and small boys whine and jostle, and porters force their way through the crowd with loud cries of “Khabardar!” Carriages are not allowed in these bazaars.

There is another great shopping centre — the Lalezar, the Bond Street of Tehran. This is a comparatively wide street in a more modern part of the city. Down one side of it jolts a dirty horse-tram, and there are real side-walks — pavements they cannot be called—and shops with large glass windows. There are a few large shops which sell European goods, but the majority seem to be second-hand dealers where one sees the discarded household goods of one’s friends for sale—old saddles and harness, dilapidated furniture, clothes, carpets, curios, and a thousand and one strange odds and ends from their stock-in-trade. Nearly anything can be produced if one looks long enough, for the Persian dealer is a hopeful soul, and is ready to buy anything at a price in the hope of one day making a small profit on it. Even roller-skates have been seen here, although there is not a single rink in the country, and once in an out-of-the-way town an optimistic merchant was seen displaying an aeroplane propeller outside his shop.

Practically all the Europeans and many of the rich Persians live in this newer quarter. The streets are wide and planted with trees, but even here they are still bounded by the high mud-walls which shut out all view of the gardens which generally surround the houses. There is an air of dilapidation about the whole town; the streets are worn into holes and ruts, and are a sea of mud in winter and deep in dust in the summer. The houses are built either of sun-dried or kiln-baked bricks, and the better ones are plastered over and whitewashed; but as one coat of whitewash is often expected to last for years, they often look more shabby than their mud-coloured neighbours.

Most of the foreign legations are situated in the Ala-ud-Dowleh, one of the largest of these avenues: at the end lies the British Legation in a large garden of its own. Seen through the archway of the gatehouse, the green garden, thickly planted with plane-trees, is a refreshing sight after the dust and glare of the streets. It is quite a little town in itself; the Minister and his staff all live within the walls, and with the chancery, vice-consulate, escort and servants’ quarters, stables, and dispensary, there is not much room to spare.

The palace of the Shah lies in the older part of the town, and is an unimposing conglomeration of mud- buildings. He seldom lives here, preferring his palace of Farrahabad — an erection like a large pale blue wedding-cake, some miles out of the town. Permission is easily obtained to see over the Gulistan, the town palace, but it is a disappointing sight. There are various tree-planted courtyards, on to which the principal rooms look out. One of these is well worth seeing: the walls and ceiling are entirely covered with small fragments of mirrors set in patterns; by night this form of decoration is extremely effective, for the whole room glitters like a mass of crystal in the lamplight, but by day it looks tawdry. 
(H.F. Haig, ‘Persia’)