Monday, December 17, 2012

Azadi Tower—Gateway to Tehran

Azadi Tower
Photo by Ondřej Žváček

By Heidi Noroozy

Every great city needs a symbol. Or so Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi might have been thinking when he commissioned the construction of Borj-e Shahyad Aryamehr (King’s Memorial Tower) in 1971. Built to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great, the tower was also a tribute to the shah himself. The second half of its name, Aryamehr, or “Light of the Aryans,” was one of Shah Mohammed Reza’s titles. (He was also called “Shahanshah, or “King of Kings.”) After the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed him, the tower was renamed Borj-e Azadi (Freedom Tower).

Shaped like an upside-down Y, the tower stands 164 feet above the peaceful oasis of a green park vast enough to shield it from the maelstrom of the city’s relentless traffic. The structure is covered by 8,000 blocks of white marble from Isfahan Province in central Iran. The complex today houses a Koran museum and audiovisual exhibition center. A fountain bubbles forth at the base of the tower, and a viewing platform at its top affords magnificent views of the city (at least when smog doesn’t get in the way). From certain angles, the building even looks a bit like a headless sphinx.

Under the arches
Azadi Tower was designed by Hossein Amanat, a 24-year-old architect who won the commission in a competition. He incorporated ancient Persian styles with Islamic and modern architecture. The chahar taq (four arches) design dates back to the pre-Islamic Sassanid period (205–261 AD), and the pointed vault in the center is an Islamic element that represents the mihrab, or prayer niche in the wall of a mosque. And the park that fills the vast square with trees, flower beds, and fountains is fine example of a Persian garden.

Amanat, a Baha’i, may have even incorporated symbols of his religious faith in the form of the auspicious number nine: The sides of the structure each bear nine grooves, and there are nine windows in the tower’s high walls. Whether or not he added this symbolism intentionally is the subject of much speculation.

During the Islamic Revolution, Azadi Tower became a focus of anti-government demonstrations, when crowds of dissatisfied citizens gathered under its arches to call for an end to the monarchy. That tradition was taken up again in 2009, when supporters of Iran’s defeated presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, congregated in the square to protest what they saw as a stolen election.

Azadi Tower at night
Photo by Alireza Javaheri
But Iran’s theocracy also claims the tower as its own, an enduring symbol of their victory over the monarchy. Pro-government demonstrations are held there, as are important national celebrations such as anniversaries of the Islamic Revolution.

On my first few trips to Iran, before a new international airport was built south of Tehran, Azadi Tower was always my first glimpse of Tehran on the road from Mehrabad Airport to my in-laws’ house. With its unusual architecture bathed in ethereal light, it stood like a beacon against the night sky, welcoming me to a city filled with exotic sights, sounds, and tastes, waiting to be explored.