Azadi Tower, Tehran, Iran; photo by Ehsan

Issue No. 68 Preview


Shahyad (Azadi), A Monument of Many Faces

Morteza Baharloo


This article is a preview of Art Lies No. 68, Architecture Is Not Art, featuring Mary Ellen Carroll as Guest Editorial Contributor. The print issue will be available in April 2011. Pre-order a copy by emailing info@artlies.org.


The Shahyad, currently called Azadi, is a 50,000 square-meter complex in Tehran that includes the 50-meter-tall eponymous tower and a subterranean section with a museum and audiovisual exhibition hall. The tower is styled after the Iranian chahar taq, or “four arches,” architecture; the encompassing grounds, a verdure space with fountains and trees, are modeled after the classic “paradise lost” motif of Persian gardens.

Shahyad stands tall, proud and clad in white, as if she were the Bride of Iran. When conceptualized, she was to represent the grandeur of Iranian civilization and also provide a gateway welcoming visitors into the capital. Iranians, known for their obsessive hospitality, created an “arch of triumph,” or taq-e nosrat, located adjacent to the airport to greet every visitor. Like many historic Iranian monuments, the expansive grounds surrounding the tower were intended as a venue for celebrations, parades and other cultural events and activities.

Built in 1971 for the Celebration of the 2,500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great, Shahyad combined three phases of Iran’s history and their related architectural features: the very ancient elements of the Sassanid Empire (205–651 AD) arch, the Islamic era pointed vault and the ultra modern period of the second Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941–79). The last era combined traditional Iranian culture with contemporary developments, such as highly scientific and empirical knowledge of the industrialized world. Therefore, Shahyad became a quintessential specimen of this epoch with her de novo use of methods, such as an unprecedented use of exposed concrete and travertine and the utilization of a computer program to calculate the exact dimensions of her 25,000 building blocks. Cut into 15,000 different sizes, the blocks ranged from 40 centimeters to 6 meters in length and frequently featured unique curves.

Ghanbar Rahimi, the best masonry master of the milieu, supervised the arduous task of quarrying the stones from the mountains of Isfahan Province. Assembling these blocks together, according to the project manager, was similar to putting together a gargantuan puzzle. Shahyad’s creator was Hossein Amanat, a twenty-four-year-old architect and a pupil of Houshang Seyhoun, one of the pioneers of modern Iranian architecture. Shahyad was to be the jewel in Tehran’s crown in representing Iran’s bustling capital for the Celebration. She was to welcome kings, presidents, heads of state and others who came to visit Iran for the Celebration. A famous Iranologist named her for shah, meaning “king,” and yad, translated as “memorial.” Financed by a group of 500 Iranian industrialists with little outside help, the project was nearly entirely Iranian in genesis and execution.


Shahyad’s First Face:

Parts of the Celebration were held at the ancient ruins of Persepolis, Iran’s capital under the Achaemenid Empire (550–320 BC), which meant that the white-marble-clad tower of the modern capital was to compete with monuments of antiquity for attention. Shahyad performed well despite her youth even to the eyes of history-obsessed Iranians who become nostalgic for anything old. She commingled gracefully with monuments of twenty-five centuries ago, for instance, appearing in a Celebration pamphlet in juxtaposition with a tower of the Tachara Palace of Persepolis, built by Darius I. Shahyad, therefore, provided a parallelism between the grandeur of 1970s Iran to the ancient Persian monarchies that had once mastered the world. Part of the Celebration was held outside Cyrus the Great’s tomb where the Shah, clad in imperial garb amongst pompous decorations, orated, “Cyrus, rest in peace as We [the glorious king of Iran] are watchful and will eternally be attentive…[to preserve and guard the monarchy].” The Shah, in other words, equated himself with Cyrus. Is it safe to assume that the grandeur and verticality of Shahyad gave him the confidence, or really the audacity, to compare himself with Cyrus?


Shahyad’s Second Face:

Soon after the Celebration was over, Shahyad expanded her role and became Tehran’s identity marker, similar to Paris’ 50-meter-tall Arc de Triomphe or the nearly 49-meter-tall Charminar of Hyderabad, India. (The latter was also designed and built by Iranians, who were commissioned by Irano-Indian Qutb Shahi kings.) So Shahyad became Iran’s cause célèbre because the country was entering a new era of progress through her “gateway.” The magical “progress” had penetrated through her arches into a new time and space of Iran that was, following the late Shah’s motto, be-suy-e tamaddon-e bozorg, on its way “toward the path of great civilizations.” Shahyad took on the role eventually played by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain, an international landmark and destination proclaiming the progress and prosperity of a people in an otherwise obscure place. Were the “brown-eyed” Iranians’ grandeur, success and pride surpassing that of the Westerners’ “blue-eyed” nations? (At least, the Shah claimed so in an interview.)

Historically, Iran excelled in artistic and cultural pursuits whenever its leadership offered political, social and financial support to these fields. For example, Darius I commissioned the construction of Persepolis when ancient Iran was at its apex of wealth and power. Empress Gawhar Shad was a fervent supporter of the arts, and she cajoled her husband King Shahrukh Timurid (1377–1447) to commission the erection of a magnificent compound that houses the mosque bearing her name in Mashahd. Lastly, Shah Abbas I Safavid (r. 1571–1729) used Iran’s prosperity to transform his capital, Isfahan, into a world-class city that Western visitors coined “half of the world,” for its magnificence.

In the early 1970s, Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shahbanu, continued this tradition of imperial patronage. The Empress had studied architecture at Paris’ Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture and was a pupil of Albert Besson. Capitalizing on Iran’s economic boom of the era, she sought the support of her monarch husband to fulfill the nation’s artistic ambition by creating numerous entities and venues that supported Iranian arts and culture. She presided over twelve artistic institutions and twenty-six related organizations created exclusively for this purpose. Empress Farah Pahlavi is credited with establishing the Tehran Contemporary Art Museum (TCAM), the Carpet Museum, and the Negarestan and the Abgineh Museums, among others. The latter two institutions focus on the arts of the Qajar Dynasty (1794–1925) and Iranian glassware and ceramics, respectively. The collection at TCAM is currently worth over $3 billion. Empress Farah also founded the famous Shiraz Arts Festival (1967–77) dedicated to avant-garde arts of all genres.

Iran was equally ambitious and energetic in its industrialization, as evidenced by its nuclear energy development that began in the early 1970s. The Iranian government, however, was not as forward thinking politically; democracy was too tedious a process for the monarch-patriarch who considered political freedom a low priority. Iranians had everything they wished for except a “minor” detail—freedom of political expression. While Iran was enjoying the party of glamour and Westernized secularity, the fledgling society was blinded to the unwitting fostering of a traditional religious movement, led by radical Islamic clerical opposition. Many in Iran thought that history was linear, unaware that Chanel-wearing Iranian women executives would soon be forced to revert to the austere black chador.

Chahar taq at Tang-e Chak Chak, 50 kilometers east of Darab, Iran, 2006; photo by Morteza Baharloo

Jahan-Nama Garden, Shiraz, Iran, 2006; photo by Morteza Baharloo

3rd Day, The Green Protest Rally; June 15, 2009; photo by Hamed Saber

Shahyad Practices “Architectomancy” and is Renamed:

In an interview nearly forty years Shahyad after was built, her architect compared her to a child whose destiny is not known at birth. In the late 1970s, she had reached adolescence and then, almost overnight, Shahyad switched roles. She ceased a secular existence and became a sanctuary for an anti-Royal crowd thirsty for freedom, but via religious means. The monument reverted to a role, following medieval Iranian tradition, of providing sanctuary for the oppressed. In the practice of the bast, Iranians use significant venues, such as holy shrines, mausoleums and even foreign embassies to seek sanctuary. The asylum provided a “pulpit” for the expression of suffering and justice-seeking as well as protection from punishment by authorities. The secular and Westernized Iranian judiciary had banned the bast in 1925. Could one now question Shahyad that she was regressing from her avant-garde pose into the medievalism of the bast?

Shahyad was predicting her people’s future like a soothsayer. Was this a case of “architecto-mancy”? Geomancy, through which practitioners of wizardry prognosticated the future via geometric shapes or other magical phenomena, was practiced in Iran long ago. Also, according to the late archeologist and historian Arthur Upham Pope, Iranian architecture has always been “magical and invocational in character.” He called it “guiding, [with a] formative motif of cosmic symbolism by which man was brought into communication and participation with the powers of Heaven.” Often Westerners write about “Oriental exoticism” to engender mystic enthusiasm in their readers, but rarely do they believe in its scientific validity. This time Shahyad did perform magic as the unexpected really took place.

Soon, massive uprisings shook the nation, the movement dismantled the centuries-old monarchy and imperial Iran became the Islamic Republic. The Shah left Iran and so did the "Shah" segment of the monument’s appellation. The Islamic Republic was established in 1979, and one of its first tasks, similar to many revolutions, was renaming Shahyad as Azadi, or “freedom.” Shahyad was among thousands of other geographic names that the mullahs bowdlerized into a nonmonarchical name with Islamic or Islamic Revolution ersatz. There was no tolerance for any minute insinuation of Royalty-embedded names in the titles of streets, squares, roads, highways, etc. Typical Iranian political humor abounded: Taj (Crown) Avenue became Ammameh (turban); Farah Street, named after the chic and pompous Empress became Batul (a plebian and démodé name allegedly after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife) and so on. Azadi became the new name for the white-clad monument, and Iranians supplicated to her and expected freedom from her. Could she carry this enormous weight on her domes and pillars?


Azadi Between 1980 and 2009–10:

Azadi appeared denatured after being renamed. Shortly after the formation of the Islamic Republic, her new name proved antithetical to the new regime’s oppression of Iranians, which has continued for three decades. This diametrically opposing phenomenon is represented in an old Iranian joke that tells of a dwarf that was named Sarve-Ali for “the tall cypress-like Ali, the First Imam” or a bald-headed person called Zolf-Ali, “Hair of Ali.” Needless to say, millions of Iranians felt betrayed for not gaining the political freedom they were seeking in 1979, but also because the new system deprived them of the artistic, cultural, economic and other freedoms they enjoyed under the ancien régime.


Azadi in 2009–10: Housing a New Cry for Freedom:

Thirty years passed during which time oppressed Iranians struggled for freedom. The nation suffered a long and deadly war with Iraq (1980–88) and economic sanctions and isolation from the rest of the world had exacerbated life for Iran’s people. The government dealt with student protestors in 1999 with an iron fist, arresting and torturing many. In 2009, the presidential elections turned into what was later named the “Iranian Green Movement.” Initially, the movement was symbolic of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s presidential campaign. He ran against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but after the election results deemed the latter president, the Green Movement became the symbol of Iranian unity in demanding a recount and annulment of what they considered a fraudulent election. Numerous demonstrations took place and protests escalated in frequency and size to become the largest unrest since the 1979 revolution in Iran. This time, again, the Azadi Tower aimed at becoming a venue for the expression of azadi, “freedom.” The protests in Tehran focused around the Azadi Tower, and the crowds of people who gathered there stretched for more than nine kilometers. The government’s crackdown on the demonstrations was severe, as thousands were arrested, hundreds killed and many incarcerated and tortured. The movement went into dormancy. Azadi kept waiting for her people to return to her.


Azadi and the Government’s Fear of Her, February 2011:

Early in 2011, it was evident that Azadi had made new friends across the world: Tahrir (Liberation) in Cairo, Egypt, and the Lulu (Pearl) in Manama, Bahrain, to name but two. These public sites also became symbols of freedom. Iranians poured out again in the country’s major cities, including Tehran, demanding an end to dictatorship. As these words are going to the press, the government has completely blockaded the streets and routes that lead to Azadi, fearing that this time people who congregate there might actually achieve the azadi for which they have been longing. Is Azadi at work doing her wizardry? What is her prognostication this time?



Morteza Baharloo was born in Iran in 1961 and moved to the United States in 1978. He co-founded Healix, Inc (Healix.net) in 1989 where he serves as the Chairman of the Board. He is also a writer of fiction and non-fiction, including the historical fiction novel The Quince Seed Potion (Bridge Works, 2004). He is a board member at the Asian American Writers Workshop and various Iranian-American organizations.

1. See “Shah of IRAN in Pasargad (Cyrus),” YouTube video, 2:39, posted by “kami495,” August 20, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaXW78R5fyY&feature=related.

2. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, interview by Mike Wallace. Clip from 20th Century with Mike Wallace: Crisis in Iran – Death of the Shah and the Hostage Crisis, CBS News and the History Channel, 2002. See “Shah’s Message to the ‘Blue Eyed People’,” YouTube video, 0:54, posted by “Goodfellow62,” September 18, 2006, http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=DKYlvyZwHHU.

3. Hossein Amanat, interview by Hamid Reza Hosseini, BBCPersian.com, October 2007, http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/story/2007/10/071023_ka-tehran-azadiamanat. shtml.

4. Arthur U. Pope, Persian Architecture (New York: George Braziller, 1965), 9–10.

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