ASA North transforms a 1920 beer distillery into a contemporary museum in Tehran
by Zohra KhanOct 26, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Afra SafaPublished on : Mar 28, 2023
Last month, shock and anger ignited in Iran when independent heritage watch NGOs sounded an alarm about the beginning of an urban development project in Shiraz (located in southern Iran). This plan is concentrated on what is considered the old town of the city, which includes historic buildings as old as 700 years. These structures are outlined to be destroyed to extend the limits of a Shi’a Shrine and the Mosque, connecting the two main religious centres in the city. The controversial scheme had been laying dormant for years but was abruptly green-lighted in February 2023 by the Parliament, set to be carried out immediately. The decision by the Parliament—the majority of which consists of hardliner Islamists—was so rapid that a number of significant historical houses were already brought down before the Ministry of Cultural Heritage could even be notified. To understand the impact of this, it is important to explore the city's historical and cultural significance, a bit more.
Most people have heard of Shiraz before, though they might not know it. Most popularly for Shiraz wine, which was produced in the region until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Shiraz is also the birthplace of renowned Persian poets, Saʿdī and Ḥāfeẓ, and is known as the city of literature, poetry, wine, birds, outstanding architecture, and remarkable gardens. According to ancient Elamite inscriptions, Shiraz is one of Iran’s oldest cities, dating back to 2000 BC and is the city closest to the ancient site of Persepolis, making it one of the top three tourist destinations of the country.
Shiraz was officially named Iran’s cultural capital in 2007, because of its contribution to Iranian culture, throughout history. It is rich with historical sites from both before and after the establishment of Islam in Iran. In recent history, the city had hosted Shiraz Art Festival from 1967 to 1977, dedicated to performative arts and music and was considered one of the grandest events of its kind at the time, bringing about cultures from both the East and the West in a controversially progressive setting. A study done by the Faculty of Sociology at Tehran University even postulated that Shiraz was potentially one of Iran’s most secular city.
Much like the urban planning in most old cities of the Middle East, the old town of Shiraz, now somewhat eight centuries old, was planned around one central mosque, in this case, a Shi’a shrine. The Shah Cheragh tomb in the centre of Shiraz is the third most important shrine in Shi’a Islam and is the most significant pilgrimage site in Shiraz. Literally translating to The King of Lights, this 12th-century tomb boasts magnificent architecture and interior mirror work—mesmerising Iranian interior decoration created by the assemblage of small finely cut mirrors in geometric orders.
With the rise of a hardliner government, religious entities gained more power in Iran. The true scandal began when a semi-independent religious entity based in Mashhad took the plan to the Parliament, to connect the two shrines in Shiraz to create a grand, glamorous religious site, similar to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashad. However, to do so they would need to demolish the old town of Shiraz, traditionally built around the city’s mosque.
The historical fabric of Shiraz consists of 35 hectares and 12,000 units from different historical periods with various functions, among which 410 are already registered as national heritage and are supposed to be protected by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and 2500 are considered valuable enough to be registered as such; among these are former residences of significant figures such as Saʿdī, Ḥāfeẓ, and individuals who are historically and culturally important, whose residences can potentially be attractive tourist destinations.
Traditional Iranian architectural elements such as unique thresholds, central courtyards, plan of spaces and unique ornaments are characteristics of this historical fabric, dating back (mostly) to the Qajar period but also including houses from before that. Urban elements from the Zandiyeh (1751-1794) period, during which Shiraz was the capital of Iran, are also significant characteristics of this old town and its organic dense fabric that is unique and different from rest of the cities that have warm and dry climates.
In 2016, after extensive research on Shiraz’s historicity by an international team of heritage experts and archaeologists, 6700 buildings from a total of 12000 were registered and given identification certificates, that was before the efforts of the team were abruptly stopped by the state in 2020, around the same time as the introduction of the project to expand the Shah Cheragh Shrine, to the Parliament. It seems that the process of registering these buildings as national heritage, which was bound to happen after the end of the research, and would have subsequently led to the preservation of this heritage, but it was stopped to ease the way for the urban plan, favouring the religious sites.
In this context, the constant repetition of ‘historical fabric’ and ‘protected areas’ can be potentially problematic terms. It leads to hidden connotations that the machinery of construction is free to do anything in an ‘unprotected’ area. This view that seeks to protect certain areas agrees with the construction machinery that believes all land is field to be built in. To this view, we need to constantly bring in reasons as to why we must ‘preserve,’ instead of asking why we must ‘build.’ While ‘preservation of the past’ is not the point, ‘decelerating pointless construction’ is. This construction is meaningless because it does not improve the lives of the people it must serve. The shrines and religious sites in Shiraz and other cities were far more humane and accessible to the people before they were turned into places of religious glamour. Ordinary individuals going about their daily business in the bazaar could find themselves inside the mosque for prayer. Religious spaces were not separated from the city and society; they were not intimidating and unapproachable.
However, the most significant matter is an ideological one, in which urban planning, architecture, and design become tools of a grander scheme of inclusion and exclusion. In 1979, merely months after the establishment of an Islamic state in Iran, a systematic omission of historical, national, and ethnic symbols and sites began. Even the Lion and the Sun—historical emblems of Iran—that had been on the flag of the country for centuries were not spared. Most notably, an extreme cleric in charge aimed to demolish Persepolis—calling the historical site a symbol of a degenerate monarchy—an act that was stopped when people from nearby towns put their lives at risk, laying before excavators that were set to destroy the 2500-year-old site. The destruction of the historical houses of Shiraz is an act of the same ilk. It is a war waged by a theocracy on a past that belongs to humanity—to omit whatever history came before and whatever is reminiscent of times, civilizations, or practices other than one single unified interpretation of religion, desired by a certain system.
In response to the complaints and protests of the people against the expansion of the shrine and the destruction of the old town, MP Ensiyeh Khazali noted—“Some want Shiraz the same way the city was during the degenerate Shiraz Art Festival, but Shiraz has great religious potentials and needs to be recognised as such. We aim to make it the third pilgrimage destination of the country.” At a time when demand for personal freedoms and secularism is at its peak in Iran, the destruction of 700 years of history, in favour of the expansion of religious sites, aims to eradicate all forms of historical and cultural diversity, in favour of a strictly unified version of religious identity. A battle in which design, restoration, architecture, and urban planning need to take sides.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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