After 25 years
July 25, 2004
I had spent the summers of my childhood summers in a garden on
the heights of Darband, and even though the terraced location on
a slope was a dream, it had further been improved by the addition
of water channels lined with blue- or turquoise-glazed tiles. The
channels, in turn, fed into a succession of fountained basins (some
of which were already falling into ruin). Nevertheless the greatest
attraction of the garden was the twice centenary plane tree under
which we breakfasted during the hot summer months, before going
on to tackle the fruits of the walnut and shahtout trees, thereby
uncurring the wrath of the chief gardener who pursued us with a
spade. That same spade would serve him to divert the water of the
qanat that nourished the trees and flowers and vegetables he grew.
The qanat eventually collapsed when water from Darband was diverted
to Khomeini’s residence at Niavaran and as a result, the
qanat got clogged up and the garden was submerged by a massive
mudslide. The bounty of water was not restricted to the garden
itself, but extended beyond into Golab Darreh, the sound of whose
rushing crystal-clear torrent under my window sent me to sleep.
When I last went to revisit Rosewater Valley in the late 1970s,
it had already been soiled by pesticide cans. Now it’s fully
built up, and nothing has remained of the bucolic charm I loved
as a child.
The qanat system was the very life-blood of a practically riverless
plateau whose survival depends on snowmelt and the many aquifers
it feeds. These were reliable indicators of how much water could
be withdrawn for use with impunity in any given year, but the qanats
were tedious to maintain and provided inadequate water for the
ever growing needs of the demographic boom. The drilling of deep
wells to pump out much more than the underground water table could
afford had begun already decades ago.
Just how fragile these water resources can be as a source of supply
was brought home to the igorant people at the top during several
years of serious drought. The last two years have brought plenty
of rain and snow, and the loss has been luckily largely reversed.
But can one really count on good precipitaion year in and year
out and allow incessant abuse of water resources? For this year
at least there is little worry. Snowfall was heavy well into spring
and the mountains that form the backdrop of Tehran were their majestic
With such a backdrop, Tehran could have been one of the most
beautiful cities in the world. Not that there had not been discordant
construction before the mollas, but not quite so many, and trees
and gardens gave a welcome break then. It is true that most towns
are now blessed with parks, but even the latter are drowned under
concrete and metallic structures and if fountains there be, they
are blighted by the ubiquitous stucco sculptures. The parks have
been copied from Western suburbia at its cheapest and worst.
The creators of today do not have the memory or knowledge of the
art of Persian gardens, an art that was taken east to India by
the Mughal emperors and west to Andalucia by the caliphs of Islam
(and thence all the way to Mexico as well), and even to Versailles
in a modified form after Louis XV sent landscape gardeners to study
the design of Persian gardens as a potential model for his own
In Paris or London, a lecture or exhibtion on Persian gardens
invariably draws crowds. Why is there not a whiff of the chahar
bagh that dates back to the time of Cyrus the Great? No, it’s
not nostalgia, nor a proposal to copy blindly, but to look for
inspiration at the originals of the best we have passed on to others
to instead of taking from them the worst they can give. Ancheh
khod dasht az biganeh talab mikard.
Ignorance and greed are the dual answers to abominable taste.
Yet the neglect of Persian architecture and landscaping is not
really new. I doubt that many of those who are living abroad today
are much better versed in traditional styles. Many with whom I
speak haven’t even heard of howzkhanehs, those delightful
pavilions with a cooling fountain in the middle of an often cruciform
pavilion, open on four sides to let cooling breezes in (not to
mention the ingenious method of natural air-conditioning, the badgir
which looks like a campanile).
The expatriates had lived in Iran at the height of the ‘California
style’ with plenty of glass to let the sun in at the height
of summer, but even the most bastardized gardens were better than
none in a city so thirsty for the green spaces that give oxygen
and shade. The penchant for stucco fantasies (especially swans
at the time of mayor Moham) had already begun.
The cobble-stone streets of central Tehran and the arched buildings
that framed Tupkhaneh on four sides had vanished earlier, the price
paid for being at the core of a culture converting rapidly to the
automobile. But the planes that bordered the main avenues from
Tehran to Shemiran had survived and thousands of starlings would
flock to their branches every evening to sing the sun down. Not
a bird can be heard in Tehran any more. Silent spring has come.
What is different now is the pace and the scale of random development
which have suddenly increased to an alarming degree.The bad taste
has spread to the population at large, even in places with monuments
to inspire. The hotel in Maragheh has its walls covered with misshapen
copies of what the owner or his supplier must perceive as classical
European paintings, but done here in relief and overpainted with
shiny synthetic colours and of course interspersed with twinkling
Lo and behold, to one side intrudes the Gonbad-e Sorkh, the landmark
monument of Maragheh which a busload of German tourists had come
to visit that day. Can one blame the owner of the restaurant, when
the real Gonbad-e Sorkh, a tomb tower in bricks painted in a discrete
red ochre tint and ornamented with abstract turqoise-glazed motifs
is overwhelmed by enormous black-and-white dolphins interlaced
in frolic in the middle of a fountain basin in the square which,
itself, is surrounded by orange-and-yellow railings pretending
to be artistic with haphazard geometric designs.
This is nothing, said a friend, you should see the square in Ahwaz
which sports a giant teapot, in stucco of course, painted all over
with Swiss chalets complete with falling snowflakes. Disneyland-inspired?
Oddly enough, the dolphin appears in the famous murals of the 6th-century
houses of Panjikant (the birthplace of the father of Persian poetry,
Rudaki) in Tajikistan, and one reads of banners in Bukhara in the
18th and 19th centuries, emblazoned for some reason with china
Maybe these symbols were expressing the same frustrations as today,
though I fail to understand their deeper meaning. But at least
the murals of Panjikant are great art (which is why the best ones,
including some of the famous images of Rostam, were removed to
the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg). Great art is certainly
not within the reach of builders gone berserk in today’s
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Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and
studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe
of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art
and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the
Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools
and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been
focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The
Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000)
called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".
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