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Travelers

After 25 years
Part 4

July 25, 2004
iranian.com

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 These were reliable indicators of how much water could be withdrawn for use with impunity in any given year, but the qanats were tedious to maintain and provided inadequate water for the ever growing needs of the demographic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 selves.

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 grandiose schemes.

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 fairly lights.

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 teapots.

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 Iran >>> Part 5 >>> index

Author
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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