We are awake
2,500-year celebrations revisited
By Cyrus Kadivar
January 25, 2002
The sky was dark on that Christmas Day in Paris. As I walked down the
quiet Avenue du President Wilson the leaves lay sodden in the streets and
the howling wind drove the rain against my face. Turning into the deserted
Trocadero I rushed inside a smart café where I had agreed earlier
to rendezvous with a former high-ranking official of the late Shah's ancien
Bustling through the door, my pockets stuffed with books and papers,
I threaded my way through to a corner table, settled down, and ordered a
glass of Beaujolais. The café was still a favourite haunt of exiles,
journalists and ambassadors.
From my window I watched the lighting of the Eiffel tower. The waiter
brought me my drink and I took out a notebook from the pocket of my drenched
coat and started to review the list of questions I had prepared. I looked
at my watch.
It was almost five in the afternoon and naturally I was becoming impatient
for this meeting to take place as it had taken weeks to arrange. Soon I
told myself I was going to meet a man who had played a key role in organising
the lavish ceremonies staged at Persepolis in 1971 to commemorate 2,500
years of monarchy in Iran.
I had never met the gentleman before. We had spoken
a few times over the phone and he had impressed me with his forthcoming
views. He had sounded cordial and eager to talk and when he walked into
the Café du Trocadero on that Tuesday afternoon, he greeted me warmly.
But his gaze was overcast by melancholy as he removed his winter coat.
Had we crossed each other in the streets, Mr Abdolreza Ansari would have
been, in the words of Garcia Marquez, one more incognito in the city of
Even so, at the age of seventy-six, his elegance, like his dapper tailored
blue suit and silk tie, was still notable. He had snow-white hair combed
neatly, a pianist's hands and expressive brown eyes. Only the weariness
of his pale skin betrayed the signs of advanced age. The years of glory
and power were long gone.
Abdolreza Ansari had been part of the Pahlavi elite. Born in 1925 he
had been educated in the USA. He had degrees in economics and agriculture.
He had started his career working as a Special Assistant to Bill Warne,
the Country Director of Iran under Truman's Point 4 technical assistance
program. Under the Shah he had served in various posts: Governor of Khuzestan,
Deputy Finance Minister, Treasurer, Minister of Labour. In 1968, after a
disagreement with Prime Minister Hoveyda he had resigned as Minister of
Interior to join Princess Ashraf's inner circle where he assisted her in
the numerous activities including the 68 charities and welfare organisations
under her royal patronage. He was regarded as a capable and energetic technocrat
with suave manners.
Before our meeting I had vowed not to gloat over the misfortune of those
who had fallen into oblivion in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew
a dynasty and replaced the monarchy with a fundamentalist regime and theocratic
republic. I wanted to be impartial and open to every witness and in this
manner I hoped to set off along the path of history in search of truth,
a path that had no beginning and no end. It has to be said that there were,
and still are many people, including those who had served Mohammed Reza
Shah, who blamed the organisers of these "jashnhaa", or festivities,
for the crash of 1979.
In these same Parisian cafes Iranian exiles still
argued about unusual events, the terrible defeat of their dreams, sipping
bitterness over what had gone wrong.
Admittedly, I was tired of the fervent debates about the whirlwind that
had overturned the Shah's world and laid waste to the achievements of millions
of hard-working Iranians.
Thirty years after the spectacular events at Persepolis, I was not interested
in passing judgment. I wanted the truth, or at least a glimpse of what had
really happened behind the scenes.
We sat down near the window facing each other at the table. After exchanging
polite preliminaries, Mr Ansari glanced at me with alert eyes and said,
"What is it that you want to know?"
"Tell me about the party at Persepolis," I said. "Who's
idea was it and what was your role in it all?"
Surrendering to a current of memories, Mr Ansari remained silent for
a while as he contemplated my question. I knew that he had thought about
the questions and the answers he wished to provide. But I also sensed a
"It's a long story," he sighed. "My memory is a bit rusty
but I will try to give you a picture, as accurately and detailed as possible,
even though it was so many years ago."
And so Mr Ansari told me the story in a serene voice
without letting his face reveal any emotion.
But as he spoke my mind floated to a time when the royal palaces were
restored, gardens blossomed, and every ancient stone had regained its grandeur.
Visions of my Persian boyhood kept getting in the way.
Ah Persepolis! As a child it had dazzled me with its brilliance and overwhelming
symbolism. How could I forget the thrill of sitting on a double-headed griffon
or placing my hand on the warm limestone surface, tracing the face of an
Countless images assailed me: lizards scurrying down the mass of fallen
stones, the majestic columns towering above me, winged bulls with human
heads, the sun baked royal stairway and diverse reliefs that spoke of reverence
and absolute obedience to the sovereign ruler of the day.
I was remembering, I suppose, what I wanted to remember, going back in
a sort of mental journey, starting again at the beginning of it all not
bounded by time or space.
In trying to recover something of my childhood experience I realised
that what had remained was a headful of brilliant moments, already distorted
by the wisdoms of maturity.
It was time to bridge the gap by turning back the
"The idea of holding a ceremony which would highlight Iran's glorious
past in the world was nothing new," Mr Ansari said calmly waking me
from my reverie.
In 1960, Shojaeddin Shafa, an Iranian scholar had sent a proposal to
the Shah of Iran suggesting that he hold a colourful pageant thirty miles
outside Shiraz in the ruins of Takht-e Jamshid, or Persepolis, the "City
of Persians", built by King Darius and burned to the ground by Alexander
the Great in 331 B.C.
The Shah had given his tacit approval and a small committee headed by
Amir Homayoun, a venerable senator, had been formed to consider a festival
to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the original Persian empire founded by
Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C.
"A small budget was allocated to the project," Mr Ansari continued.
"But for ten years nothing happened partly because the country was
in the full throes of development and the government could not afford to
allocate time or funds to such a celebration."
In 1969 Michael Stewart, the British Foreign Secretary visited Iran and
after meeting the Shah he was taken on a private tour of the famous ruins
by Court Minister Alam, Prime Minister Hoveyda and Deputy Foreign Minister
Abbas Ali Khalatbari.
Later, during an evening reception thrown by Amir Khosrow Afshar, in
his honour, the British Foreign Secretary, had described how much he had
been deeply impressed by the fabulous Persepolis.
"Your Empire was founded by Cyrus. Xerxes extended it and Darius
preserved it," Michael Stewart told his hosts. "Your present ruler
seems to me to possess something of the qualities of all three of these
When Assadollah Alam had reported this to HIM, the
Shah revived his interest in holding some sort of celebration and the Court
Minister was asked to look into the details.
By the 1970's there was a sense of self-confidence about both the Shah
and his government.
Domestically, the White Revolution, was bearing fruit. Land reform, increased
literacy, the enfranchisement of women, higher living standards and industrialisation
was radically transforming the country. Internationally, the Shah had emerged
as an essential Western ally with a major security role in the Middle East
with one of the fastest growing armed forces in the Persian Gulf.
It is possible that given Mohammed Reza Shah's mystical view of history,
Persepolis had become a metaphor for his ambitions for his country: a phoenix
rising from the flames, heralding a Great Civilization. It tied perfectly
to his imperial dream: to make Iran within a generation the world's fifth
most powerful nation.
In early September 1970, thirteen months before the festivities, Mr Ansari,
then aged 46, received a phone call. It was Princess Ashraf. She wanted
to see him at once.
"Arriving at Saadabad Palace," Mr Ansari continued, "I
was taken to see HRH, Princess Ashraf. She greeted me in her reception room
and informed me that HIM, her twin-brother, had finally decided to push
ahead with organising an international gathering at Persepolis. Court Minister
Alam had set up a High Council and I was to report to him without further
The High Council responsible for the celebrations which reported directly
to Empress Farah comprised of nine people: Court Minister Assadollah Alam;
Hormoz Qarib (Chief of Protocol); Mehrdad Pahlbod (Minister of Culture);
General Nematollah Nassiri (Head of Security and SAVAK); Amir Motaqi (Deputy
Court Minister); Dr Mehdi Bushehri (Princess Ashraf's husband and the Director
of the Maison d'Iran in Paris); Reza Qotbi (Head of the National Iranian
Radio and Television), Shojaeddin Shafa (Assistant Court Minister for Cultural
Affairs), and Abdolreza Ansari.
"We would meet once a week at the Ministry of
Court under Mr Alam's chairmanship," Mr Ansari recalled. "HM,
Shahbanou Farah, took a direct interest in the details and the High Council
would meet with her every two weeks at Niavaran Palace. I set up my headquarters
in a rented office on Elizabeth Boulevard with a staff of twenty. The conference
room was used to hold meetings and we often set up organisational and progress
charts to keep track of what had to be done."
That autumn, Court Minister Alam went to Paris where by chance he met
Monsieur Pierre Delbee, the Honorary President of Jansen, an interior decoration
firm in Paris's fashionable Rue Saint-Sabin a few blocks from La Bastille.
Alam spoke about the planned festivities and Delbee suggested that perhaps
Jansen could help.
"When Mr Alam returned from his European trip he mentioned his meeting
with Monsieur Delbee," Mr Ansari recalled. "A few weeks later
Monsieur Deshaies, the Managing Director of Jansen flew to Tehran to meet
with the Shah."
Monsieur Deshaies discussed the project with the Ministry of Court and
suggested that a tent city inspired somewhat by Francois 1st's sumptuous
royal camp in Picardie erected in 1520 to entertain Henry VIII of England
be modified and installed in the Iranian desert. A few months later Jansen
presented a model of the proposed site which delighted the Shah and Shahbanou.
A contract was signed and Jansen began preparations for the royal tents.
"At first we thought we would only invite 30 heads of state,"
Mr Ansari said after swallowing a glass of mineral water. "But as our
intentions leaked out to the foreign embassies we were flooded with requests
and soon our list had grown by another 34 bringing the total number of world
leaders expected to attend to 64. We also made provisions for the entourage
of the leaders whom we expected would bring a maximum of five people with
them. All these people would be housed in blue and yellow tents which were
actually prefabricated apartments with a plastic cover thrown over them
to protect them from the elements. Our team worked very hard as our country's
prestige was at stake."
Invitations were sent to a galaxy of monarchs, queens, crown princes,
presidents, sheikhs, sultans, vice presidents, a pride of prime ministers,
ambassadors, legates, business figures and stars of the jet-stream too numerous
"From the start we realised that we were facing
a colossal challenge," Mr Ansari confessed. "There was so much
to be done and so little time. So we divided the tasks between ourselves.
For instance, Mr Shafa spent a month in Europe and America meeting with
famous scholars who were invited to present papers at Pahlavi University
in Shiraz. I was responsible for coordinating the activities between various
organs dealing with the celebrations and providing necessary support and
removing bottlenecks. I spent a lot of time on the phone, calling this person
or that. I reported directly to Court Minister Alam. Mr Pahlbod busied himself
with cultural programmes to be held in Iran while Mr Hormoz Qarib, a former
ambassador travelled to England, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and France
to discuss protocol details."
In an interview with Habib Ladjevardi, the head of the Iranian Oral History
Project at Harvard University, Sir Peter Ramsbotham (Britain's ambassador
to Iran) described a conversation he had at the time with Hormoz Qarib,
a close and personal friend of his. In some ways it reveals the pressures
that the organisers faced. "You know, the English, we acknowledge,
are better than anybody in the world at protocol and arranging these things,"
Hormoz Qarib told the British ambassador. "We are new to this, Western
style; we could do it, of course, our own way, but we are having everybody
here. We would like you to advise on this."
During the weeks that followed every Iranian embassy in the world was
instructed to hold cultural seminars and publish literature extolling Iran's
great past and contribution to human civilization. Moscow's Hermitage, Paris's
Louvre and the British Museum in London were invited to promote the planned
celebrations by sending a team of archaeologists and Iranologists to Shiraz.
"We were very happy when the British Museum agreed
to lend us the original cylinder of Cyrus the Great," Mr Ansari told
me. "We later created a logo with a picture of this famous piece acting
as a centre-piece and small copies were made in clay as special gifts for
the guests. Mr Pahlbod, the Minister of Arts and Culture, invited several
of Iran's best artisans to workshops in Isfahan, famous for its wool. These
people worked day and night to produce small, immaculate, silk carpets bearing
the portraits of the important leaders who were to descend on Persepolis.
It was a wonderful idea for it revived a practically extinct art."
This was the easy part. The organisers were now faced with making a dream
into reality. Given the remoteness of Persepolis which is located in the
desert, there were many things to consider. Where would the guests stay?
How would the security of so many heads of state be guaranteed? What kind
of food should be given?
"You must understand that we Persians are hospitable people,"
Mr Ansari said thoughtfully. "Our Ministry of Court was very capable
of hosting small state dinners. But to do this in the middle of the desert
with all those distinguished heads of state required an expertise that we
did not have. We contacted the head of the Pahlavi Foundation's hotel services
and were told that they lacked the proper staff. Besides we had little experience
in catering. So we turned to the French who are experts."
Court Minister Alam and his deputy Mr Amir Motaqi
contacted Maxim's of Paris who agreed to help while Dr Mehdi Bushehri's
office at La Maison d'Iran on the Champs Elysees dealt with other essentials.
As it turned out it was this aspect of the celebrations, among other
things, that was to gain press attention overshadowing the main reason for
The French press gloated over the details. It was said at the time that
Master Hotelier Max Blouet had come out of retirement to supervise a staff
of 159 chefs, bakers, and waiters, all of whom were to be flown in from
Paris ten days in advance of the banquet which was to be attended by five
When the menu, a closely guarded secret, was leaked to the press it almost
caused a scandal. Headlines spoke of roast peacock stuffed with foie gras,
crayfish mousse, roast lamb with truffles, quail eggs stuffed with Iranian
caviar. For dessert the master chef suggested a glazed fig and raspberry
For almost six months the Imperial Iranian Air Force made repeated sorties
between Shiraz and Paris flying goods which were then trucked carefully
in army lorries to Persepolis. Each month supplies were driven down the
desert highway to deliver building materials for the Jansen designed air-conditioned
tents, Italian drapes and curtains, Baccarat crystal, Limoges china with
the Pahlavi coat of arms, Porthault linens, an exclusive Robert Havilland
cup-and-saucer service and 5,000 bottles of wine (including a 1945 Chateau
"Persian designers, not French ones as often claimed, came up with
the idea of producing ancient uniforms of our illustrious ancestors,"
Mr Ansari explained. "Military workshops in Tehran came up with various
costumes and replicas of ancient trumpets were reconstructed to produce
sounds not heard for 2500 years."
The responsibility for the great parade at
Persepolis was given to General Minbashian, the Commander of the Imperial
Army, whilst his brother, Mr Pahlbod, the Minister of Arts and Culture,
oversaw the details. Hundreds of Iran's finest horses, camels and 1,724
soldiers were mobilised for the great parade day. Costumes, fake beards
and wigs, flamboyant uniforms, chariots, weapons, and regalia were made
after detailed research by teams of military historians. There was even
a replica of three ancient ships dating back to the glorious days of Xerxes
for the occasion.
Meanwhile, Carita and Alexandre, two of Paris's top hairdressers were
invited to provide a service to the foreign guests and their ladies.
At one point the Ministry of Court realised that the Shah's adjudants
needed smart new uniforms. "There was an old court tailor by the name
of Zardooz," Mr Ansari recalled nostalgically. "He had an atelier
in Sepah Avenue near the Army HQ building in Tehran. I had my ceremonial
uniform usually worn during the royal audiences sewn by him. When we asked
him to prepare thirty new uniforms for the celebrations, Mr Zardooz complained
that he did not have the people or necessary tools so Mr Alam turned to
Lanvin and asked them to duplicate the extra uniforms."
An Iranian publisher arranged to take stills of a 700 year old Shahnameh
under the supervision of Mrs Attabai and 2000 copies were superbly reproduced
and later became a collectors item. William MacQuitty, a famous photographer
came to Iran and snapped photos for a marvellous book called: Persia:
The Immortal Kingdom. It was produced by Ramesh Sanghvi, the Bombay
born author of a biography on HIM. This rare book was translated into a
dozen languages and many experts like Ghirshman and Minorsky wrote the text.
"MacQuitty and I became good friends," Mr Ansari recalled fondly.
"He was an extraordinary man who had been the producer of A Night
To Remember, the 1958 film about the sinking of the Titanic. He was
a rather tall man and had salt and pepper hair and was in his sixties when
we met. He was absolutely fascinated by Iran."
Shahrokh Gholestan, a prominent filmaker, was commissioned to gather
a crew to make a film of the events. Hollywood director actor, Orson Welles
came to Iran to discuss the project. It was called, "Sholehayeh Pars",
or, "Flames of Persia".
Mr Ansari stressed to me that many people outside
the High Council for the festivities provided crucial services. For instance,
Amir Aslan Afshar, Iran's ambassador in Washington D.C., hosted interesting
seminars on Persian history and modern Iran. Mr Parviz Khonsari, Assistant
Foreign Minister, dealt directly with the various diplomatic missions hosting
numerous receptions at Tehran's brand new Hilton Hotel. General Khademi,
the Director of Iran Air, took control of the skies, and Mr Mansour Rouhani,
the Minister of Water & Power, took charge of the electrification of
the vast area in and around Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rostam and Pasargad.
We stopped talking and ordered a coffee. Once again I found myself remembering
a trip with my parents and my brother Darius sometime before the ceremonies.
Mr Ansari listened to me politely as I described how General Boghrat
Jaffarian, a marvellous officer later killed during the revolution, had
given us a tour of the encampment.
Driving us around in an army jeep, Jaffarian seemed proud of his men.
He pointed at the soldiers, most of them naked to the waist and sporting
long beards under the boiling sun.
These were the men, he said, who would later march in the greatest parade
of history representing the armies of the successive dynasties that had
ruled Iran. Later General Jaffarian dressed in olive green fatigues had
given us a preview of the royal blue tents and the private chambers of the
king and queen.
Each tent was decorated differently in classical and modern style. The
walls of the banqueting rooms were made of velvet sewn in France covered
by a gigantic blue-pink canopy made I later found out of synthetic plastic
of reliable and durable quality.
"How many tents were there?" I asked.
"There were two enormous tents, one being a reception area and the
other a banqueting hall," Mr Ansari explained." He pulled out
a fine looking pen and began to draw a number of circles on a white napkin.
"The largest of these tents was the Tent of Honour about thirty-four
meters in diameter," he said. "The Banqueting Hall was 68 by 24
meters in length and width. There were 50 smaller tents painted in yellow
and blue which branched out in five avenues in a star-shaped pattern. There
was also an enormous fountain which was flood-lit at night."
While the workers sweated to complete the camp
at Persepolis, the Hessarak Institute had to launch a campaign against thousands
of poisonous snakes that populated the desert and whose sting could have
killed the distinguished guests. An area of 30 kilometers was cleared and
"I will never forget the sight of all those jars of exotic creatures,
snakes, scorpions, and lizards," Mr Ansari recalled creepily. "On
one of my inspection trips there a team of zoologists had collected hundreds
of unknown species in special jars kept in a big van. In some ways we had
unwittingly helped research."
In addition to collecting crawling creatures the Agricultural department
planted acres of small pine trees along the newly asphalted road leading
to the stone ruins. In order to light up the dark, 30 miles road from Shiraz
to Persepolis, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) set up torches fuelled
by oil barrels set 100 meters apart from each other. Hundreds of thousands
of commemorative posters, stamps and coins were made to mark the auspicious
Teams of bulldozers demolished a few old village houses in the area known
as Pasargad where the opening ceremony would later be held in the shadow
of Cyrus's empty tomb. And the town of Shiraz famous for her poets and beautiful
gardens was cleaned and the façades of shops and houses repainted.
The Ministry of Tourism ordered the construction in Shiraz and Persepolis
of two brand new hotels, named Koroush and Daryoush, each with a 150-room
The dormitories at Pahlavi University were repainted and the cafeteria
refurbished to accommodate the various scholars and journalists. In April
1971 a delegation headed by the Court Minister arrived in Shiraz to inspect
the project work at Persepolis.
"When we arrived in Shiraz," Mr Ansari recounted, "we
were met with great pomp and circumstance by Mr Sadri, the Governor of Fars,
and General Zargham. We travelled in a government car with a heavy escort
to see the works so far."
The delegation met with workers who expressed
great pride in their achievements, as they were keen to demonstrate to the
visiting foreigners the best face of Iran. In his slightly old-fashioned,
feudal way, Alam who had a feel for the common man had thanked them all
warmly for their patriotic efforts before moving swiftly to inspect the
building works at the nearby Daryoush Hotel.
"When we got there," Mr Ansari said laughing, "Mr Alam's
face went completely white. Instead of a modern hotel the only thing visible
was a metal structure stuck in the ground."
The Court Minister could not believe his eyes. Six months left to the
big event and no hotel.
"Mr Alam was fuming all the way to the Governor's Palace in Shiraz,"
Mr Ansari remembered. "Once the delegation members had settled down
in their seats, Mr Alam exploded. He shouted that the Persepolis events
was of national importance. Pointing his finger like a pistol at the faces
around the table he warned them that if they failed in their duties he would
personally shoot everyone present in the room before killing himself. I
believe he meant every word of it."
Throughout the hot summer months the feverish pace of work continued
unabated. Every day in Tehran, millions of residents in the capital drove
past the monumental white Shahyad tower as the finishing touches were completed
under the supervision of Mohsen Foroughi, one of Iran's most revered architect.
Almost every other city, town and village in Iran underwent a face lift
and newspapers reported how four hectares of earth was being delivered to
the Tent City in Persepolis so that George Truffaut, the Versailles florist,
could create a perfumed garden with a variety of roses and tall cypresses.
By early October a dark cloud had descended over the celebrations. The
liberal press was very critical. anti-Shah activists began to spread rumours
that the "dictator" Shah was planning to hold a fabulous party
at the expense of the "starving Iranian people". In Pahlavi University
several students were caught by the secret police for writing slogans in
the campus toilets denouncing the planned festivities. The most scathing
attack came from the exiled Khomeini who from his Iraqi base in Najaf condemned
the "evil celebrations".
"I say these things because an even darker future, God forbid, lies
ahead of you," the Ayatollah warned the Shah.
There were a number of security problems, just beforehand, because Iraq,had
been training assassins in Iraqi territory to start a wave of terror disrupting
things, so that they could demonstrate that the Shah could not keep security
in his own realm. And therefore a lot of people would cancel their trip
or would spoil the whole atmosphere.
"SAVAK was particularly active during that time," Mr Ansari
conceded. "There were many serious acts of terrorism during this time.
The US ambassador was almost kidnapped one night in Tehran. Then there was
the Siahkal incident in Ghilan. Terrorists attacked a number of banks, assassinated
police officials and blew up cinemas. Security became tough especially after
the Mujaheddin and Fedayeen guerrillas threatened to drown the Persepolis
events in a bath of blood."
"How many were arrested?" I asked.
"I once asked General Nassiri the same
question,"Mr Ansari said. "This was after the ceremonies were
over. He smiled and said that in addition to the extraordinary security
measures he had instructed SAVAK to detain 1,500 suspects."
"What happened to them later," I asked, having read that they
"Nassiri, who was later executed after the revolution told me that
they were released after a few days," Mr Ansari said. "Let's face
it. We were not as sophisticated as the West. Sometimes the methods were
crude and some innocent people may have been arrested. But imagine if a
terrorist had succeeded in getting through."
The Shah's enemies did not succeed in boycotting the celebrations but
a few important guests had a change of heart, among them the Queen of England,
President Pompidou of France (he sent his suave prime minister Jean Chaban
Delmas) and Richard Nixon (represented by US Vice-President Spiro Agnew).
According to recently emerged documents released in October 2001 to the
Public Records Office in London, Queen Elizabeth was urged by the Foreign
Office not to go as they feared the celebrations were likely to be "undignified
Prince Charles turned down the opportunity to stand in for his mother
because the trip would clash with his naval training commitments. This threatened
to cause a diplomatic rift between Iran and Britain as diplomats warned
the Shah would take this as a personal rebuff, "with possible unfortunate
consequences" they warned. At the end, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess
Anne eventually volunteered to attend and by all accounts they had a very
Mohammed Reza Shah was a proud man and although he may have felt snubbed
by some of the key defections he did not show it. As he told the French
prime minister later, "The great desert wind and the blue sky of Persepolis
have banished the alleged dark clouds between our country and that of France."
At last, by the time the last roses of Truffault had been laid and the
fountains switched on, the Shah had a list of important VIP's who had accepted
to come to Iran which included: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, King
Hussein of Jordan, Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, the King and Queen of Belgium,
the Kings and Queens of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland, President
Tito of Yugoslavia, President Padgorny of the Soviet Union, Prince Rainier
and Princess Grace of Monaco, President von Hassel, president of the German
Bundestag, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Abdul Rahman of Malaysia, Cardinal
de Furstenberg, the Pope's special envoy, ex-King Constantine of Greece,
President Ceaucescu of Romania and his wife, President Svoboda of Czechoslovakia,
the President of Lebanon, and President Marcos and his wife Imelda.
The show that everyone had waited for could
Over 69 heads of state or their direct representatives converged on the
fairy tale city of Shiraz. In a patchwork of colour, in a whirl of salutes,
bows and curtsies, familiar faces in the global arena stepped out of their
shiny aircrafts over red carpets fringed with immaculate guards of honour
into the welcoming Persian sunlight. The flags of the guest nations flew
in salute as the VIP's flew in.
"We had established a Control Room in the Darius Hotel," Mr
Ansari said, filling my head with more details. "Here the team had
everything worked out, closely monitoring events, ticking off names and
checking organisational charts. The phones never stopped ringing. Too much
was happening. For all the arrivals protocol had to be kept and observed.
The late Mr Hormoz Qarib, a small and intense man, who passed away last
year in Lausanne, almost had a nervous breakdown."
Mr Hormoz Qarib, the Chief of Protocol had been driven almost insane
by the changes demanded by the guests who often wanted to ensure that they
could sit where they wanted and not always going by the rules. It was a
delicate task which Qarib and his staff were able to overcome by delicate
diplomacy and good-humour.
"What really broke Mr Qarib," Mr Ansari remembered, "was
the total number of guests expected for the state banquet during the three-day
festivities in Persepolis. Many of the guests had brought extra people in
their entourage and he feared that we would run out of places. The poor
man came into the Control Room dressed in his beautiful court uniform with
his medals and slumped into a chair, exhausted. Then he began to weep, tears
rolling down his cheek."
After the Chief of Protocol had been comforted by his understanding colleagues
it was decided that if worse came to worst, the Iranian guests (primarily
those involved in organising the celebrations) would give up their seats.
"At the end our fears were unfounded and we managed to fit everyone,"
Mr Ansari remembered.
In the words of Orson Welles, "This was
no party of the year, it was the celebration of 25 centuries!"
Throughout the days and nights, escorted cars and coaches drove through
Shiraz into the desert towards the great ruins of the kings of antiquity;
the historic birthplace of the Persian empire. The guests arrived to find
a camp shaped like a star branching out the Royal Pavillion representing
the five continents. Each head of state had an apartment with a sitting
room, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms, and a service room with an electric
stove and ironing board for their entourage. The new buildings were a major
piece of construction. One day, the Iranian organisers hoped it would become
a super hotel. In each room the distinguished guests found carpet portraits
of themselves woven by Iranian artisans from the finest silk which hung
in their sitting room.
"Persia was in gala mood," said Orson Welles, the narrator
of "Flames of Persia", the movie made of the Persepolis celebrations.
"In Shiraz," he said lyrically, "where there is a garden
known as the Bagh-e Eram (Garden of Paradise) the lights twinkled like diamonds
and bubbles in a glass of champagne."
The Shah and Empress Farah were in constant attendance on the newly arriving
guests, their hands stretching a hundred times in welcome. The various leaders
who came to Persepolis had a unique opportunity for relaxed conversation,
visiting each other in their respective tents. Prince Philip piloted his
own plane down. And he raced Prince Bernhard down, because they were great
friends. And then, when they were there, they hobnobbed, visiting different
tents. His great friend was the King of Jordan. They were all about the
same age. King Constantine of Greece and Baudouin of Belgium. And they had
fun. They would go to each others' tents and have drinks in the evening.
They loved it. It was all a great success. And Princess Anne enjoyed herself
At Pahlavi University an international congress of 250 scholars were
already in session in Shiraz hosted by the Chancellor Farhang Mehr, a prominent
"The papers they read on Persia," Mr Ansari noted, "were
to be read and circulated to academic institutions throughout the world.
This was a great achievement."
The Celebrations began with a simple and moving ceremony at the tomb
of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad shortly before noon on October 12th, 1971,
2,510 years after the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. Accompanied
by the Empress Farah and Crown Prince Reza, the Shah, dressed in his emperor's
uniform, delivered an emotion-packed eulogy to his illustrious predecessor
and vowed that Iranians today would continue to prove worthy heirs of their
glorious past. In his prayers to the founder of the Persian empire, the
Shah said these unforgettable words which were beamed live on television
"O Cyrus [Koroush], great King, King of Kings, Achaemenian King,
King of the land of Iran. I, the Shahanshah of Iran, offer thee salutations
from myself and from my nation. Rest in peace, for we are awake, and we
will always stay awake."
Mr Ansari who witnessed the event had, like his monarch, been visibly
moved by the solemn occasion but he could not recall the moment, shortly
after the Shah had finished his speech, when a desert wind had swept over
Later that night, the Shah and the Empress
Farah received their guests in the red damask reception room of the state
banqueting tent which dominated the canvas tent city. The roll call of majestic
sounding titles, the aides de camp hovering in attendance, the chandeliers
hanging high above the tables, the music played from a minstrel's gallery,
the gold plated cutlery used by the heads of state all seemed to hark back
to a European court of a century or more ago.
The Shah with the Queen of Denmark beside him, then led the procession
into the banqueting hall which was draped in pink and blue. He was followed
by the Empress and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The principal guests
were ranged on one side of a long zig-zag table designed to accommodate
the maximum number of people as well as blur questions of protocol. The
other guests, who included ambassadors and members of the suites of heads
of state, sat in groups of 12 at smaller tables. All in all over 600 guests
feasted on a menu never to be repeated nor forgotten. The peacocks were
mainly for decoration, as the peacock was an emblem associated with the
Persian crown. Journalists were quick to pick up the fact that the Shah
did not like caviar and ordered artichoke hearts instead. It was indeed
a night to remember.
The next day, on October 13th, a magnificent parade was staged at Persepolis.
"The setting sun gilded the columns of the palace of Persepolis,"
wrote Fereydoun Hoveyda, the Shah's UN ambassador and brother of the ill-fated
prime minister, Amir Abbas. "Guards dressed as Achaemenid warriors
with their curled hair and beards were lining the great double stairway,
their lances flashing."
A company of horsemen who had set out from Tehran the previous day, rode
up to the dais where the royal family and their guests were seated. A captain
dressed like an Achaemenid dismounted to present the Shah a handwritten
Looking splendid in his ornate Commander-in-Chief uniform the Shah read
another message extolling the great kings and noble Iranian people, his
flat voice projected over the waiting crowd of kings, presidents and prime
ministers by an elaborate loudspeaker system. "On this historic day
when the whole country renews its allegiance to its glorious past, I, Shahanshah
of Iran, call history to witness..."
The trumpets were sounded. "Persia was on Parade," said Orson
Welles in a grave voice.
Like millions of Iranians I watched all this
on our black and white television, fascinated but sad not to have been there
in person. Golden chariots, warships, fierce warriors marched in the setting
sun. Every dynasty was represented: Achaemenids, Parthians, Sassanians,
Safavids, Afsharids, Qajars, Pahlavis. After watching this parade my brother
and I donned paper crowns and fake beards made of cotton. Then to the delight
of our parents and little sister Sylvie we marched up and down the garden
pretending to be the very kings whose names we bore.
Mr Ansari recalled that several days before the parade a shipment of
umbrellas had been ordered to shade the guests. "To my horror they
were not black but in dozens of colours. At the end this mistake turned
out to be a great photo opportunity when the distinguished guests opened
them creating a rainbow effect."
"After sundown," Mr Ansari continued, "the guests followed
their hosts into the starlit Persian night for a marvellous Son et Lumiere
performance among the great stones where it all happened. Given the chill
in the air I had taken the precaution to supply the guests with electric
blankets. I still remember watching the Emperor of Ethiopia who was sitting
next to Her Majesty, the Shahbanou. He was a very old man and grateful to
be wrapped tightly in a blanket."
From the tomb in the mountainside overlooking the ruined palaces where
he ruled 500 years before Christ, the voice of Darius the Great spoke in
the dark, but in French. Andre Castelot, France's eminent historian, recounted
the glories of Xerxes and the last days of the Persian empire. The columns
of Persepolis were bathed in white light then gradually they turned red
and the sound of fire mixed with the drunken orgy of Greek soldiers. It
was the sacking of Persepolis by Alexander all over again. The guests were
thrilled and applauded.
Until now everything had gone well. The Son et Lumiere lasted for about
thirty minutes. It had been planned that after this the lights would come
on and a few minutes later the night sky would have been lit up by a stunning
"But even the best of plans can go wrong," Mr Ansari said.
"When the Son et Lumiere show ended the lights went out and we were
plunged into darkness for about 3-4 minutes. Then suddenly, an explosion.
A fantastic display of fireworks lit the sky sending shivers down a few
people who thought it was a terrorist attack. Well, this went on for a few
minutes and still the lights did not come on."
"At this point everybody became worried," Mr Ansari recalled,
"I ran quickly to the control room while the fireworks exploded above
me. The man responsible for the lights was an ordinary worker. He was standing
outside his room so overwhelmed by the show that he had forgotten to switch
back on the lights. Well, I got that fixed."
The lights came back and everyone gave a sigh of relief. The Shahbanou
turned to Alam and whispered angrily, "Who's silly idea was it to have
The Court Minister bowed politely and in a calm voice addressed Empress
Farah. "Your Majesty," he said in his candid style, "it was
my idea and I think it was a rather nice display'."
The Shah, on the other hand was amused. He
had enjoyed himself. He stood up, proud as a peacock, and walked back to
the tents. "It was an emotional moment to see the high and mighty following
behind HIM," Mr Ansari said. "During the Conference of Tehran,
in 1943, the representatives of Russia, Britain and America had paid scant
attention to HIM who had to swallow many insults to his pride. Now in 1971
it was the other way around. The world was paying respect to his achievements
and position as a world class leader. I recall how some of the other international
delegates had fought with our chief of protocol to get a room in a tent
instead of lodging at a hotel."
That night, after the parade, the fountains that inspired the poets of
Persia whispered their watery music.
As the flags drifted in the evening breeze after the formalities of the
state reception, the Shah donned his dinner jacket, and the Empress a white
gown, inviting their guests to a Persian party. The dinner that night was
really a Persian buffet with mountains of saffron rice, Fesenjan (pommegranate
stew) chicken and lamb kebabs.
In the film made by Shahrokh Gholestan one cannot help notice how relaxed
and intimate everyone looked that night. Given the horrors that descended
on Iran eight years later, the film captures a night that in retrospect
seems straight out of the 1001 Nights. Before meeting Mr Ansari I had studied
"Flames of Persia" and memorised several scenes among them the
Shirazi dancing girls, swaying like trees in the wind, their turquoise costumes
shimmering under the crystal chandeliers. One telling scene showed HRH Princess
Grace in a flowing dress, smiling at a fellow guest. Another one caught
Prime Minister Hoveyda leading the wife of the French Prime Minister by
the arm just as the Shah of Iran sits down at his elegantly laid out table
joined by the Soviet and Turkish presidents in a cacophony of traditional
The following morning, many of the VIP's left Persepolis and those who
stayed were crowded in coaches and driven to the airport in Shiraz and flown
The Celebrations ended with a few more programmes in the Iranian capital
including a visit to the Mausoleum of Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi
dynasty, by the Shah and the Emperor of Ethiopia (overthrown and murdered
a few years later by army rebels) who laid a wreath. Then there was a spectacular
inauguration of Shahyad tower in honour of the King. The Mayor of Tehran,
Gholam Reza Nickpay handed the Shah a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder.
"Persepolis put Iran on the map,"
Mr Ansari told me. "The American charge d'affaires kept telling me
that it was the best exercise in public relations he had ever seen. Had
we done it any other way it would have cost us many more millions."
The Shah was very pleased by the whole thing. His country's honour had
been well served. He ordered his Court Minister to reward all those who
had made the impossible possible. Medals were awarded and key individuals
promoted. Others, like Mr Ansari, received an autographed photo of HIM and
returned to their old jobs. Mr Ansari's office was handed over to Dr Mohammed
Baheri, a former Justice Minister and the assistant court minister for Social
"How did you feel when it was all over?" I asked.
Mr Ansari finished his espresso. "Frankly," he said, "I
was so tired and exhausted that I crept into my bed and slept for two whole
days. It had been quite nerve-wracking. Like my colleagues I had worked
sixteen hours a day for thirteen straight months. Throughout this period
I had lived and breathed nothing but Persepolis. I dreamt about it and had
my shares of nightmares worrying that it would all go wrong. Fortunately,
the whole event was something that made us all proud."
But the Iranian people's reaction was mixed. Some loved it while others,
wondered privately if the money could have been spent in a better way. Cynics
called it a "ridiculous farce" and pointed to the absence of the
Iranian public at the actual ceremonies as a sign of imperial arrogance.
The Shah's enemies, especially the Confederation of Iranian Students, made
great capital out of the event. The Iranian consulate was bombed in San
Francisco. A few foreign journalists who had been wined and dined in Shiraz
slipped out of their hotels to film the poor villages in the outskirts and
used it in their documentaries to show a contrast between the dazzling elegance
of Persepolis and the misery of the poor. Khomeini called it the "Devil's
Shortly after the ceremonies had ended almost every major newspaper in
Europe and America began to criticise the lavish display which only a few
days before had been praised as the "greatest gathering of the century".
Speculating on the cost, Time, a magazine usually sympathetic to
the Shah, put the figure at a shocking $100million while the French press
doubled the numbers. Under heavy criticism for the expenditures, Minister
of Court Alam called a press conference on October 24th and announced the
celebration expenses at $16.8million.
The Shah finding himself somewhat on the defensive
described critics who alleged the celebration had cost $2billion as "not
sound of mind". In any case, he told one journalist, Iran "couldn't
care less". As far as he was concerned the whole thing had been a success.
Besides what were people complaining about? Did they expect the Imperial
Court of Iran to offer their guests "bread and radishes"?
Strangely enough, thirty years after the event, the British press resurrected
a story about how the Foreign Office had advised the Queen who wanted to
go not to attend the Shah's party and referred to the Persepolis event as
"one of the worst excesses of the Pahlavi regime". Once again
they alleged that the ceremonies had cost $50-$500million. Where did these
figures come from, I wondered?
"So how much did it cost, Mr Ansari?" I asked, praying that
he would not feel insulted.
Once again the fine looking pen came out as Mr Ansari totted up the numbers
"One hundred and sixty million tomans," he said. "That's
about $22 million dollars in those days.
"Is that all? I gasped. "So what about all these astronomic
figures we read in the press?
"Not true," he said. "One third of the money was raised
by Iranian industrialists to pay for all the festivities. Another third
was from the budget of the Ministry of Court and went to pay for the Tent
City. The rest of the money came from the original budget under Senator
Amir Homayoun which he had invested in 1960 and was spent on the building
of the Shahyad tower. The remaining funds amounting to $1.6 million was,
by order of HIM, allocated towards the ongoing construction of a mosque
in Qom which on completion was to be named after the late Ayatollah Boroujerdi,
the most prominent Shi'a leader in the world."
When I asked Mr Ansari what had been his proudest
moment in the celebrations his answer was unexpected. "Before the Persepolis
event," he said, "I had suggested to the High Council that we
should build 2,500 schools in the poorest rural areas. People were invited
to sponsor a school for $4,000 which would bear their name. HIM liked and
approved the idea and I later submitted a lengthy proposal to the Education
Minister, Mrs Farrokhro Parsa, who agreed to supply the teachers drawn from
the Literacy Corps. On the first day of the events 3,200 schools had been
opened and when the bells were rung 110,000 children went to their classrooms.
That I believe was my biggest joy."
"Sadly," I said, "the foreign media seemed to have been
more interested in Haile Selassie's little dog Chu Chu and her diamond collar
than what you just mentioned."
"True," Mr Ansari replied. Then he added, "Did you know
the French government spent $200 million dollars on the 200th anniversary
of the fall of the Bastille? And what about the hundreds of millions of
dollars spent on the late Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb?"
Since the revolution an estimated forty percent of the Iranian population
live under the poverty line and yet the hardliners in the ruling Islamic
regime continue to spend millions on sponsoring terrorism and anti-American
Even in the West many projects have cost more than Persepolis ever did.
In the summer of 2002 the Queen's Golden Jubilee will be held across Britain
to promote monarchy and thank Her Majesty's subjects for half-a-century
of loyalty and service. That night, while talking to Mr Ansari, I wondered
about the millions that will be spent. I cited the costly Millennium Dome
project and the £53m fund raising campaign for renovating the fifty-year
old Royal Festival Hall in London. And this was being done in a city with
hundreds of unemployed and homeless persons sleeping rough on the bridges
and street corners.
Was the West guilty of hypocrisy?
It is a forgotten fact that the celebrations
at Persepolis was only a component of a greater programme of development
in Iran. It was the cherry on top of the cake.
In the 1950s Iran was considered an underdeveloped country. In the 1960s
it was promoted to a developing nation and by the 1970s it was seen by many
who came to Persepolis as a country with a rich history and on the road
of becoming a developed nation.
For the Shah the events in Persepolis allowed him to show the world his
country's new importance.
Mr Abdol Majid Majidi who was responsible for the 4th Plan told me that
many things were done during this period of festivities such as the building
of roads, telecommunication networks, schools, airports, television stations,
hotels and tourist facilities.
But the public fed by the misleading reports in the foreign press and
rumours overlooked these facts preferring to dwell on the lavish aspects
of the celebrations. Years later some critical historians claimed that the
ceremonies in 1971 was the beginning of the Shah's departure from reality
and the start of an era of aggrandizement.
"Did the events in Persepolis cause the revolution in Iran?"
"I don't think so," came the reply. "On the whole the
celebrations were a success," Mr Ansari said.
As I pondered his remarks I remembered how those leaders who had not
attended the celebrations had quickly made up for their misgivings. The
Queen and President Pompidou invited the Shah and the Empress to London
and Paris where they were treated royally. In 1972, President Nixon paid
a highly publicised visit to Tehran and agreed to give him carte blanche
on any military or technological material he required. Ironically, it was
not the expenses that proved the Shah's undoing but rather the sudden influx
of petrodollars after 1974 when the monarch pushed OPEC to quadruple the
price of oil.
Overnight Iran's oil revenue jumped from $2.5 billion to $18 billion
in the years up to the revolution. Despite impressive achievements in the
country, the Shah's dreams soon turned sour and the masses led by an exiled
cleric revolted. The ship of state, bereft of its captain struck a rock
and began to sink.
When in 1979 Khomeini forced the Shah into exile a group of revolutionaries
tried to wreck the ancient monuments at Persepolis as a symbol of the "evil
Fortunately, it was the poor villagers and the nomadic Qashqai tribesmen
of Fars province who live near there who saved Persepolis from being razed
to the ground.
Today both Persepolis and the Royal Tents are still standing generating
much needed revenue to Iran's battered tourism industry.
Ironically, three decades after the Shah's visit to Persepolis, President
Khatami, a reformist cleric and a former revolutionary, came to the site
on January 15th 2001 and called for its restoration reminding reporters
that the "Persians were once a powerful and ingenious people."
It seemed that he too, like the deposed emperor had fallen under its spell.
Persepolis was never meant to be an ordinary place.
We had spoken for three hours. Mr Ansari rang his daughter and asked
her to come and fetch him. In the intervening minutes he spoke of his personal
feelings about the Shah.
"HIM was a true patriot," he said
confidently. "I have no doubt about it. The day HIM left Iran I was
in France with a friend having coffee in a small place beside the Chateaux
of Versailles. There was a radio news flash and we heard that HIM had left
Tehran after an emotional farewell at Mehrabad airport. It was a terrible
day for us. Several weeks later I flew out to Morocco to meet HIM in exile.
During an audience I asked HIM what had happened for us to end up like this
away from our beloved country. HIM looked at me bitterly and said that he
had been betrayed. Later in June 1979, I visited HIM in Mexico. HIM was
staying at The Villa des Roses in Cuernavaca with the Shahbanou and the
royal children. Once again I asked HIM what had gone wrong. HIM told me
that he was busy writing his memoirs and all would be revealed in due time."
But when the hastily written book eventually came out there was no mention
of the Persepolis event.
Tragically, Mohammed Reza Shah, the last of a long line of Persian monarchs,
ended his days like a modern version of the Flying Dutchman. When the Shah
left Iran on January 16th, 1979, he could find refuge in no port and seemed
cursed to wander forever. He went to Egypt, to Morocco, to the Bahamas,
to Mexico, America and Panama. But no one wanted him to stay; he was a reject,
a pariah, a figure to whom very little world sympathy attached, and virtually
no government wanted to risk the angering of the fanatical ayatollahs.
All the courting of a few years earlier, all the flattery, the ingratiation,
the respectful premiers and supplicating cabinet ministers from the industrial
nations, the bowing and scraping around the world it was as if none of that
had ever happened.
While Iran burned in the flames of revolution, the Shah closed his eyes
forever in Cairo on July 27th, 1980 in an Egyptian military hospital facing
the Nile. He died surrounded by his family and a few loyal members of his
entourage and entered history as probably the most misunderstood leader
in the 20th century.
There was a knock on the window and Mr Ansari stood up and shook hands
as we thanked each other.
Before he left I asked him why he hadn't told anyone his version of the
events at Persepolis.
Mr Ansari stared at me for a long while. "Nobody wanted to hear,"
he said shrugging his shoulders. "But maybe now with the passage of
years it is time to break our silence."
I lingered on for a while in the café and wrote down my story
fully aware of the controversy it would generate.
And as I returned to the rain-swept streets of Paris, the poetic lines
of Christopher Marlowe whispered to me, "Is it not fine to be a King
and ride in triumph in Persepolis?"