Persia is arguably the world’s oldest, most continuous state. Since the days of the Medes in the 1st Millenium BC, a procession of nations has existed in this neighborhood that roughly conform to Iran’s modern-day borders. Despite conquests by the Greeks, Arabs and Mongols, Persia’s geography has remained more or less intact. In the ensuing twenty five centuries a host of emperors, kings, khans and shahs left behind an incredible heritage of royal palaces, from the ancient buildings of Darius to the modern masterpiece of the Golestan Palace in Teheran. From the 16th to the 20th century, the Golestan Palace was Persia’s answer to the Ottoman’s Topkapi Palace. It was used by the royal families of Persia right through the 1979 revolution. It is now maintained by the state as a heritage site and museum.
Persia was ancient and prosperous long before the Mongols arrived in 1220. From the 13th century through the end of the 15th century, Persia collapsed into a dark age largely due to the ravages of the Mongols and their successors as well as to a series of less than stellar rulers. By 1500, the power and threat of the Mongols had waned in the east, only to be replaced by a new danger to the west: the Ottomans. However, after three hundred years of disunity, political and economic decline, a new dynasty, the Safavids, came to power that restored Persia as a great nation.
Under the Safavids, Persia eventually built up enough military strength to successfully challenge the Ottomans. Intermittent warfare continued for many decades, but ultimately the Persians maintained a rough border with the Ottomans inside what is modern-day Iraq. By the late 17th century, Persia was once again one of Asia’s great powers, and one of the few nations to successfully resist being colonized by the Europeans.
During the Safavid reign, Persia also underwent a cultural renaissance that is well reflected in its literature, art and architecture. Desirous of a new city that would be more secure from European navies and a residence that would rival that of the sultan in Istanbul, the Safavids built the Golestan Palace in Teheran, which would eventually become the national capital. By the time of its completion, the Golestan Palace was hailed as the second greatest palace in the Islamic world after the Topkapi Palace. Except for a few brief periods, it remained the official royal residence until 1925.
The Golestan Palace enjoyed its golden age during the years of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Persia throughout most of the European colonial period. However, the 20th century was a period of decline for the Persian monarchy and ultimately for the Golestan Palace. After 1925, the official royal residence was moved to the more modern but considerably less impressive Niavaran Palace, and while the Golestan was partially preserved for state uses, much of it was demolished to make room for new urban development. However, the remaining structure is still quite magnificent and manages to maintain a sense of the life of the Shahs during their four hundred year tenancy.
The magnificent Golestan Palace is truly a unique structure. In general it is atypical of Middle Eastern architecture of any period, Persian, Turkish, Arabic or otherwise. However, much of the artistry is similar to that which can be found throughout Iran, especially in the major mosques built around the same time. Most of what survives of the palace consists of long buildings enclosing a large courtyard dominated by a reflecting pool. The main structure consists of a single building that looks like an immense gatehouse crowned with two square towers. Virtually every inch of the exterior of the palace is covered in either delicate scrollwork or intricate mosaics.
Considering the damage done in the 20th century, the interior of the palace is amazingly intact, and many of its furnishings and treasures recovered, preserved and displayed. Among the highlights are the royal residences; the Hall of Mirrors; the Reception Hall, where the Peacock Throne once stood; and the Hall of Brilliance, a dazzling crystal-and-mirror dining hall used for state occasions. The Palace is also home to an excellent museum, with exhibits including a large collection of silver, porcelain, arms, armor, and some of the crown jewels; galleries of European and Middle Eastern paintings from the 19th century; and an extensive collection of cultural artifacts and traditional Persian clothing and costumes. There is also a temporary gallery which currently houses the Royal Manuscript Library.
The Golestan Palace is located next to Arq Square close to the southern end of Teheran’s Old City. The palace museums are open daily (except Sundays and Thiusdays) from 8:30am-3:30pm. Admission is RI4000.00. Web: www.golestanpalace.ir (official website of the Golestan Palace)
Teheran is home to several other palaces, not to mention a surprisingly large number of mosques. Among the modern palaces of Teheran are the Niavaran Palace, the last official residence of the Shahs, and the Sadabad Palace. Most of the city’s great mosques date from the Qajar period. A sampling of these includes the Madrassa Sepahsalar, and the Mosques of Fath Ali Shah. Many of Iran’s prominent religious leaders from recent decades are buried in the Behesht-E Zahra Cemetery, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Teheran also has one of the largest collections of museums in the Middle East outside of Cairo and Istanbul. Besides those in the Golestan Palace that are of particular Muslim interest are the National Museum of Iran, the Museum of the Islamic Period.