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Under layers of taarof
Tehran's museums where you find the substance of yourself

May 10, 2000
The Iranian

Transcendence is the moment when you step inside a space surrounded by those eternal high walls of Iran and suddenly you find a small version of paradise. Let's say that you -- having assumed something of Western characteristics -- require moments of solitude to gather yourself, but you don't dare say so to your kind and solicitous relatives. Or let's say that you have wandered around the streets of central Tehran, and have had enough of black marketeers whispering "Have you got dollars? German marks?" And you have had enough of the noise, and you have had enough of the maniacal drivers (particularly the recalcitrant motorcyclists), and you have had enough of the persistent street peddlers, and of the eternal pollution and crowds and the uniformity of this vast forest of cement, brick, and asphalt. You just need a moment of stillness and silence, a space in which you can be alone even if for an hour, to think and to digest it all, to find the substance of yourself underneath the layers of taarof. You need a space that invites you and then leaves you be.

The museums of Tehran are the solution.

Discovering them accidentally is bliss. You have wandered around the Tehran bazaar all day, your calves are bruised where the hand-trolleys have collided with you, the back of your throat itches from the pollution, and your arms and shoulders ache from all the times the crowd has jostled you. You suddenly turn to the right, and right there at the end of the square, you see the glimpse of a garden, with a reflecting pool, and you pay the fee just to escape from outside and you discover the delightful Golestan Palace which has been turned into a collection of museums and galleries. You are awed by the sight of parrots squawking in the massive trees and swans floating in the reflecting pools and by the tenderness with which these 18th-19th century buildings have been constructed and decorated. The wooden doors, the tile-work, the private and quiet and majestic shape of the building itself amazes you, as does the Marmar Throne (sculpted from yellow marble) on display on a reception verandah under the unworldly mosaic -- work of a thousand harmonious colors interrupted only by beautiful glass-paintings of bare-breasted Qajar women (the IRI doesn't seem to be terribly offended by these paintings, as they are not covered or disfigured).

But the greatest discovery in the complex is not the gorgeous buildings, or the abstract beauty of the mosaics or the painted narratives on tiles surrounding the garden, nor the natural serenity in the deserted gardens. The highlight of the complex is the Negarkhaneh gallery where you suddenly find yourself amidst the most exquisitely appointed and meticulously catalogued collection of 18th and 19th century oil paintings by Iranian painters, many of them by the very famous, fantastically talented Kamal-ol-Molk. Having seen the recent exhibit of Qajar paintings in New York, you are awed to find far more superior versions in this small quiet beautiful gallery (though there are no tableaus of bare-breasted women or scenes of decadence here as there were in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit). Like all other parts of the complex, the gallery is utterly deserted, except for the ticket-taker who sits near his electric heater and silently moves his lips to prayer or a private conversation.

But there are other places than the Golestan Palace where you can find the hushed silence of museums which you love because it invites you to relent, to slacken the tightened muscles of your neck and of your back, to imagine in silence, to wander in peace, to be awed by the smallness of us all in the grand ziggurat of history. The Iran-e-Bastan Museum is one of these. The building, which was among the many constructed during the state-building era of Reza Shah, is modeled after the two-thousand-year old Ctesiphon -- or Taq-e-Kasra -- and is beautiful in rare red-brick on the outside and airy and light and grand on the inside. Though the Tehran grime seems to have vanquished the walls and corners and windows here also, it is not the interior that seduces you, but the superb collection which dates your ancestry and your land to some 10 millennia ago. You wander around these objects of stone and ceramic and bronze completely alone as there are, incredibly, no other visitors and you sense your own insignificance, and you find this immateriality reassuring, and this feeling of peace, this sense of "all shall pass," is a rare gift in a city beset by anxiety and fear and insecurity about the future.

On the day you seek a sensation of extravagance, you find it in the Treasury of the Central Bank, where the royal jewels of two dynasties are on display. This museum is interesting and unusual in another way too: it is extremely well-organized, punctually opened, beautifully arranged, and masterfully guided by very well-informed and polite (and funny) guides who seem to know everything about jewels from the history of a certain type of cut to the ancestry of a particular jewel. And there are so many of those glittering in the dimness. This small but astounding museum is more crowded than all the other museums you have visited, and the visitors are all Iranian. Perhaps after days of toil and hardship, you wonder, they seek a semblance of prosperity and awe. And awesome is the collection of what can even border on obscene in its extravagance: the throne set with 27,000 rubies and emeralds and diamonds; the globe of gold (45 kilos of it) where the oceans are set with emeralds, the continents with rubies (Africa with the rare blue ones), and Iran with diamonds, in all 57,000 pieces; the crowns, most weighing more than 2 kilos (one particular crown that weighs 4 kilos used to be suspended from the ceiling and the Shah sat underneath it); the enormous Darya-ye-Noor pink diamond (sister to the famous Koh-i-Noor which now belongs to the British royal family); and the immeasurable, endless display of exquisite bejeweled swords and scepters, rings and necklaces, and every imaginable household item in gold (including a couple of aaftaabehs). In the low-ceilinged darkness of the Treasury which is illumined with the colored light reflecting off the endless jewels, you can wonder in silence and you can wonder at the beauty of stones and what man does with them.

But the most magnificent of all museums is the not-terribly-well-known Abgineh va Sofalineh (Glass and Ceramics) Museum. This one is world-class, though small. You have read about it in the Lonely Planet guide, and no one among your relatives seems to have heard of it. Walking down a crowded narrow nondescript one-way street echoing with the roar of car engines speeding northward, you suddenly step inside the garden of the museum and the city, the air, even the core of you, transforms itself. The museum which 60-70 years ago was the private residence of the famous courtier Qavam-ol-Saltaneh, is a magnificent yellow-brick building set inside a beautiful peaceful garden where birds sing and the air seems to lighten and though it is winter, colors seem to abound. The house itself surrounds you and embraces you with its cool gray and white walls, with its stucco decorations on one floor and the dazzling mirror-work (where intricate mirror tiles reflect you and the space and infinity and god a thousand times) on another floor. And the beautifully set wooden floors creak under your feet, and the curved double-headed staircase draws you up and into the semi-lit rooms with their elegant wooden shutters and high stucco ceilings to place in front of you goblets and dishes and statues and vessels of all shapes in iridescent blue and green and turquoise and aquamarine and yellow, some dating back millenniums, others lovingly hand-blown 100 years ago.

Some millennia old pieces contain incantations in forgotten languages against evil and blessings upon the house, and the garden, and the bed of their owner, and others depict fantastical griffins and pairs of lovers, birds and sphinxes. There are even a few curved and sinuous askhdaans (tear-jars) in indigo and pale yellow. You have heard that these containers with their strangely shaped lips were used to gauge the fidelity of a woman for her man: when the men went to war, the women cried their tears into these vessels and the volume of tears shed in the absence of a beloved measured the weight of the woman's love. It is in this hallowed space that you find the stillness, the silence, the solitude you had sought, and you return again and again in your mind to the quiet space illuminated by a dazzling shaft of light underneath a curved staircase where an enormous three-thousand year old ceramic crucible shows the mythical figure of Gilgamesh searching the silence beyond the waters of death for a sense of redemption.

* Laleh Khalili's articles index

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