Emeralds, rubies, pearls, sapphires, and diamonds in hues from black to pink. Precious gems set into everything from snuff boxes and swords to tiaras and water pipes. These treasures belong to one of the world’s largest and most valuable gemstone collections, more formally known as the Iranian Treasury of National Jewels, or simply the Jewels Museum.
Housed in secure vault in the basement of the Central Bank on Ferdowsi Street in Tehran, the museum is guarded by two soldiers wielding Kalashnikovs, for this precious collection is not just one of Tehran’s most popular tourist attractions, it is also Iran’s Fort Knox: it backs the country’s currency. Only the most interesting and historical pieces are on display, the rest are stored in great chests below the vault’s solid floor. I picture the storage chamber as something out of an Indiana Jones movie, with gold and glittery jewels spilling out of wooden boxes, though the reality is certainly a lot less dramatic.
The Jewels Museum is open three days a week for only two hours each afternoon. According to a law dating back to the shah’s time, a government representative must be present whenever the collection is open for public viewing.
Persian royalty have been collecting precious gems for two millennia, but the Safavid monarchs (1501 – 1722) were the first to catalog their treasures. They mined precious stones in Iran’s Khoresan province and Turkmenistan and obtained others through booty during military conquests from Turkey to India. The last shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, was the first to put the jewels on public display, and when the Islamic Revolution forced his abdication, there were fears that the entire treasury would be looted. Some pieces did disappear, but the bulk of the collection remains intact.
The most astonishing piece in the Treasury collection is the Bejeweled Globe, a round map of the world made of gold and studded with over 50,000 precious gems. The oceans are emeralds, rubies fashion the continents, and white diamonds mark the countries of Iran, England, France, and parts of Asia. This piece would more aptly be called the Bedazzling Globe because it takes some time for the eye to make sense of the sparkling gems and identify the land masses and seas that they form. According to legend, the 19th-century Qajar king, Nasseredin Shah, had it built as a way to keep track of the gems in the royal treasury. Although if that story is true, he should have made at least ten more.
The Darya-i-Noor (Sea of Light) diamond, in a case by the door, is one of the largest diamonds in the world (around 182 carets), and of a rare pink color. It came from the Golkandeh mines of India, along with its more famous sister, the Kooh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light), which is now part of the British Crown Jewels. Both diamonds belonged to the 17th-century Moghul emperor, Shah Jahan, who lost them when Iran’s Nader Shah invaded the Moghul Empire and exacted both jewels as part of the price for restoring Jahan to his throne.
Shah Jahan’s original Darya-i-Noor was even larger than its present size, but some enterprising owner subsequently had it cut into two pieces. The smaller stone, known as the Noor ol Ein Diamond, is set in a tiara that was made for Shahbanu Farah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi’s queen.
|Peacock (Sun) Throne|
The most enigmatic object in the collection is the famous Peacock Throne, which was part of the Moghul loot that Nader Shah brought back from his Indian campaign. The problem is that no one can quite agree which of the gold-plated, jewel-studded thrones in the Treasury is the real Peacock Throne: the platform-style Sun Throne housed in its own alcove outside the vault door or the chair-like Naderi Throne at the back of the main collection? (My vote goes to the Sun Throne, which resembles the one in paintings of Shah Jahan.)
What is known is that the original Peacock throne disappeared shortly after Nader Shah’s death and was either dismantled or sold to the Ottomans. How it made its way back to Iran is a mystery, but one story goes that Mohamed Shah of the Qajar dynasty had a new one built in 1836 using parts of the original throne. I find this mystery far more interesting than the dazzling beauty of either object.
The lovely objects in the Central Bank’s vault have a fascination that goes beyond their intrinsic value, for they are part of the history of Iran. If you visit the museum, be sure to grab a good guide to hear the tales of intrigue, jealousy, power struggles, and dynasties won and lost that formed the lives of Persia’s royalty.
To learn more about this amazing museum and the treasures it contains, check out the Iran Chamber website.