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Memoirs of the legendary Alborz High School principal

January 8, 2001
The Iranian

From Memoirs of M. A. Modjtahedi: Principal of Alborz High School and Founder of Aryamehr University (2000, Iranian Oral History Project, Harvard University), edited by Habib Ladjevardi. Also see excerpts of Mojtahedi discussing his last days at Alborz and his views about Mohammad Reza Shah and Reza Shah.

For most of the Twentieth Century, Alborz High School was the premier secondary school for boys in Iran. Its place in the shaping of Iran's intellectual elite compares with that of Eton in England and Phillips Academy Andover in the United States. For almost thirty-five years, the Alborz name was synonymous with the name of Mohammad-Ali Modjtahedi, the legendary principal who headed the school from 1944 until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

During his tenure, Modjtahedi supervised the education of more than ten thousand boys, many of whom went on to some of the world's best colleges and universities. His graduates made up the core of Iran's post-War young elite, filling almost every position of power and influence in universities, corporations, and the government. And for every one of those men, he had been a towering figure in their youth, at once revered and feared. Though in his lifetime he held other, seemingly more prestigious positions, as founder of Aryamehr University and president of several others, in none was he as proud and content as he was as the principal of Alborz High School.

At the time of his death in 1997, his former students were spread far and wide, in Iran and across the globe. With their world turned upside-down with the revolution, what bound these men of different classes, religions, achievements, and political views was their love of Alborz High School and this man.

Modjtahedi was born on September 22, 1908, in Lahijan, a small town in the Iranian province of Gilan near the Caspian Sea. In those years, few towns in Iran had high schools, so when Modjtahedi finished elementary school, his education seemed at an end. It took him many years to persuade his father to allow him, at the age of seventeen, to move to Tehran, where he finished high school in May 1931, at the age of twenty-two.

For the future educator, Iran of the early 1930s offered few options for higher education, so the sons of the elite and the lucky few from the middle class able to pass the highly competitive national examination for government scholarships had to pursue their education abroad. Modjtahedi was one of the one hundred young men who in 1931 took the examination and qualified. In the summer of that year, he traveled to France to continue his education. His seven years there proved formative, shaping both his personal life and his later calling as an educator. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Lille in 1935 and his doctorate in mathematics at the Sorbonne University in 1938.

While at the university, he met and married Suzanne Van Den Ostende, who was French. They arrived in Iran in September 1938. Years later, his parting advice to his young graduates heading abroad to study was, "First, don't marry a foreign woman because you will make her and yourself miserable." These few words give a glimpse of the difficulty Modjtahedi, and indeed many young Iranians who married non-Iranians abroad, faced upon returning to Iran. Ordinary stresses of married life were suddenly magnified by the barriers of language and culture. While many of these marriages ended in divorce, Modjtahedi's marriage survived, but his life as an educator was his consuming love.

After completing his compulsory military service, he joined the Technical Faculty of Tehran University, where he taught mathematics. In 1944 he was appointed principal of Alborz High School. Immediately after his appointment, he began rebuilding the school, creating step by step a prestigious institution that was on par with the best of its kind.

First he revamped the admissions procedure to ensure entrance to the best and most talented, regardless of the applicant's family connections and income. He then hand picked the brightest teachers, many university instructors with graduate degrees, creating one of the best teaching faculties in the country. Before his tenure, teachers and students had no access to laboratories, and instruction in the sciences was limited to theory taught from text. One of his significant achievement was the equipping the school with laboratories, and including laboratory requirements as part of the science curriculum. Finally, he rebuilt the campus itself, adding a new library and a new dormitory for students from the provinces.

With the spread of Alborz's reputation, so grew Modjtahedi's name as an educator. In 1961, he was appointed to the presidency of the University of Shiraz (also known as Pahlavi University). While in this post, and indeed in his subsequent posts as university president, he remained the principal of Alborz.

Not one to toe the line, his tenure at Shiraz University was brief. After one year, he resigned when his decision to fire a British physician at the university hospital over misconduct was overturned by the then Prime Minister Ali Amini. Despite his growing reputation as a stubbornly independent-minded man, he was appointed shortly afterward to become the president of the troubled Tehran Polytechnic College. Although he was highly effective in improving the curriculum, his tenure was again brief. He resigned after three years when, over his objections, the trustees decided to turn the Polytechnic from a college of engineering into a school for technicians. The plan never materialized, however, due to Modjtahedi's efforts before leaving the college.

Modjtahedi soon was called to serve again, this time by the Shah to become chancellor of the new Aryamehr University, an institution he was to build and staff from ground up. His mandate was to begin operation in less than one year. Although the campus was built on time and he succeeded in recruiting a large faculty, many of whom were former Alborz students who had achieved distinction in their fields in the United States and Europe, he was shortly afterward replaced by someone he considered far less qualified than himself, with no explanation. He left Aryamehr, bitterly disappointed and mystified by the reasons for his dismissal. In his memoirs he recounts his work at Aryamehr as his greatest achievement and his biggest disappointment.

Alborz proved his refuge again and again, as he sparred with authorities over points he considered to be of principle. In 1968, for example, he was appointed chancellor of the National (Melli) University, where he encountered two cases of serious misconduct by two deans, one of sexual abuse, the other financial. His decision was immediate dismissal of the offending deans. But to his surprise, the board of trustees refused to accept his decision. Again, rather than compromise, he resigned his post, this time to focus exclusively on Alborz, where he continued as principal until the Islamic Revolution.

His students remember him for his unshakable devotion to excellence, which he demanded of himself and of them, and to their welfare, which he guarded even at risk to himself. In his memoirs, one of his recollections is particularly telling. He recounts an encounter with a security officer who had come to the school to question one of his students. The incident took place during the politically charged atmosphere of the months following the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh, and Tehran was tense and political activity dangerous. The security officer demanded to see the boy, and when Modjtahedi refused, said, "You didn't pay attention. I am the prosecutor of the Security Organization." Modjtahedi replied, "I heard you, Colonel. I heard that you are the prosecutor. You can arrest me right now. I'm at your service, but you cannot take any of the students at Alborz High School." In any gathering of Alborz alumni, anecdotes of his actions abound, with the warmth and feeling of soldiers remembering their commander's heroism in wartime.

After the February 1979 Islamic Revolution, Dr. Modjtahedi found his new circumstances untenable and asked his friend and former colleague, Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, to allow him to relinquish his post at Alborz.

Also see excerpts of Mojtahedi discussing his last days at Alborz and his views about Mohammad Reza Shah and Reza Shah.

Purchase Memoirs of M. A. Modjtahedi from Ibix Publishers

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