The Persian Pageant
Haile Selassie descends to the tarmac in a gabardine suit. The hot thin air of Shiraz greets the 79-year-old emperor before the line of salutes and the smiling Shah striding to meet him. The Shah of Iran and Emperor of Ethiopia embrace. The Shah thanks him, in English—such a pleasure to see you again, my friend. As the evening shadows sink over the Zagros Mountains beyond the runway, they set off down the fresh highway in a fleet of black Mercedes limousines. The forty desert miles to Persepolis are richly lit, as if by magic, with long rows of hissing gas-lamps, a reminder of the liquid wealth underlying the affair. At Persepolis, ancient seat of the Achaemenids, they arrive at the glittering tent-city erected for this occasion. All is in place, lavishly conceived and immaculately achieved.
The Shah and his guests have assembled here amid the ruins of Persia’s ancient capital to celebrate two and a half millennia of Iranian civilization. They will feast for five hours on golden caviar and roast peacock flown in from Paris. Spiro Agnew will whisper to Prince Philip—did the old Shah really spend two hundred million on this whole shebang? The Greek president, glutted, will doze off during the sound-and-light show. Orson Welles will opine that this was no party of the year; it was the celebration of 25 centuries.
Haile Selassie—lone emperor in a crowd that includes eight kings, three ruling princes, twelve presidents, ten sheiks, three prime ministers, two sultans, two vice presidents, and a cardinal—will stick close to the Shah. As the night’s gala nears its end, the Emperor will move in close and tell the Shah, with a conspiratorial note, that he feels the sorcery of history in the air tonight. The Emperor reminds his host that they, as the divine heirs to the world’s two oldest surviving kingdoms, have the full thrust and approbation of the past propelling them to greatness. At the moment, anything seems possible. The Shah, ebullient with success and fine wine, will smile and say—yes, and good thing, for there is so much still to achieve. The party will disband, and the Shah and the Emperor will return to the air-conditioned comfort of their tents. In just a few years both will be overthrown. By the end of the decade, they will both be dead.
Back in April 1970, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ordered his advisers to prepare an anniversary celebration to be held in eighteen months. His directive commanded that the pageant demonstrate how “Iran’s continued existence and its national sovereignty is possible through the continuation of the monarchy.” It was to be held in Persepolis, for no other site could better conjure the imperial grandeur of Iran’s past.
The problems soon became apparent. The nearest city, Shiraz, was ill prepared to host such an event: the airport could only service small planes and the road to the ruins was dilapidated and unlit at night. The Shah told them money was no object. $15 million was spent retrofitting the airport. Specialists from the state oil company were brought in to rig rows of temporary gas-lamps along the highway, and 250 bulletproof Mercedes-Benz limousines were ordered.
Architects drew up plans for a new luxury hotel beside the ruins, but it was decided that eighteen months was not enough time. Someone had the idea to build a tent city instead. Empress Farah blanched at the suggestion, declaring that all her guests should feel that they are staying in a palace. And so the maker of the world’s most expensive tents, Jansen AG of Switzerland, was employed to design 54 royal blue, silk-lined tents for the guests. Each air-conditioned, fireproof tent could withstand hundred-kilometer winds, and came complete with wall-to-wall carpeting and his-and-her marble bathrooms.
When construction began they discovered that the desert around Persepolis was a notorious haven for poisonous snakes. The area was sprayed with poison. Loads of snake, lizard, and tarantula carcasses were gathered and trucked away to the local dump. Versailles’s horticulturalist was engaged to landscape the parched environs; 1500 cypress trees and 50,000 carnations were shuttled by Iranian Air Force jets to the new airport at Shiraz, then to the ruins by army truck.
Maxim’s of Paris—then the most famous restaurant in the world—closed down for two weeks and flew 159 of its chefs, bakers, and waiters to Iran to prepare the feast. Attendants and sommeliers were brought in from the Shah’s favorite hotel in St. Moritz. The foreign ministry, tasked with ensuring foreign leaders’ attendance, played hardball, linking the attendance of British, French, and German rulers to drilling and mining contracts in Iran. The ministry of culture recruited Orson Welles to narrate a documentary movie, Flames of Persia, about the pageant. In exchange, the Shah’s brother-in-law put up the financing for Welles’s next movie.
The festivities began with the feast. Six hundred guests stuffed themselves for five hours on the six-course meal, featuring quail’s eggs stuffed with golden caviar, saddles of lamb with truffles, crayfish mousse, and 92 imperial peacocks (with intact tail feathers) surrounded by a court of roast quail. They consumed 2,500 bottles of fine French wine and champagne: 1945 Chateau Lafite, 1911 Moët Chandon, 1959 Dom Perignon Rosé.
It was said that the only thing Iranian about the night was the caviar. Those with an eye for irony noted that the Shah, who was allergic, had artichoke instead.
With heavy bellies and swaying gaits the guests made their way to a sound-and-light show over the ruins of Persepolis, complete with fireworks and a new electronic composition by the French avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. The next day, guests were treated to a cavalcade of soldiers outfitted in the full regalia of Persian armies through the ages, with garish costumes, false beards, and chariots. A parade of horses pulled a model castle and three reproduced ancient oared warships past the viewing stands. One anchor remarked that the Shah had out-DeMilled Cecil B. DeMille.
No one was quite sure what to make of the whole affair. Pakistan’s president returned home to declare a national holiday in Iran’s honor. Many historians point to this as the Shah’s crossing of the Rubicon, the moment when he proved just how staggeringly out of touch he was with this people. The ostentation of the pageant eclipsed the 2,500 schools, 2,500 clinics, and 2,500 books commissioned for the anniversary. From exile, Ayatollah Khomeini declared, “these festivities have nothing to do with the noble people of Iran.” The liberal press openly criticized the Shah, attacking the spending and the tastelessness. “Lavish at the Expense of Starving People,” “An Insult to our Culture to serve French food,” read the headlines. A now-declassified memo from the British embassy in Tehran described the event as a daring enterprise, but marred by the element of excess, overwhelmed by the Shah’s megalomania. Their analysis put the cost of the event at several hundred million dollars. In all the pageantry, it was easy to miss the small symbol at the center of it all.
This is a story about the use and misuse of history.
Two thousand five hundred and ten years earlier, Cyrus the Great marched his victorious army through the gates of Babylon. Cyrus, a skilled politician as well as a consummate conqueror, immediately began the second front of his conquest. He issued an edict, announcing himself to his new subjects.
“I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world … The needs of Babylon and of all its cities I gladly attended to.” He portrayed himself as a liberator, who overthrew the unpopular king Nabonidus with the blessing of the Babylonian god Marduk. Then he made a bold and original declaration of tolerance, promising to promulgate religious freedom and equality in Babylon. He pledged to restore the shrines of gods that had been damaged under the old king, and to allow the Jews—kept as slaves in Babylon for generations—to return to their homeland.
These words have come down to us in a document known as the Cyrus Cylinder, a barrel-shaped clay seal, nine inches long, incised with lines of cuneiform text. It was discovered by British archaeologists amid the foundations of a wall in Babylon. Fragments of the same inscription have been found across the area.
The Shah chose Cyrus and the Cylinder to be the focal points for the anniversary celebrations. The Cylinder was represented as a symbol for all the achievements of Iranian civilization. Its image appeared at the center of the logo for the anniversary. Small copies were fashioned in clay and distributed to guests. The Shah convinced the British Museum to lend the original for the year of the anniversary.
The tomb of Cyrus is a simple and elegant structure, a gabled chamber atop a six-stepped pedestal, with a small opening on its western side. Built from white limestone, it blends in with the camel-colored earth and hills that surround it. It sits at the heart of Cyrus’s capital, Pasargadae, “the camp of Persia.”
It was here that the celebration actually began, before the foreign guests arrived. Just before noon on October 12th, 1971, the Shah, dressed in his full military regalia, walked a vivid aquamarine carpet to a low stage opposite the tomb. Taking to the lectern, he looked right past the sea of dignitaries and dark-clad soldiers assembled before him. Instead, he directly addressed the spirit of the long-dead king in his mausoleum, “O Cyrus, great King, King of Kings, Achaemenian King, King of the land of Iran. I, the Shahanshah of Iran, offer thee salutations from myself, and from my nation.” The Shah’s voice echoed across the plain. “Rest in peace,” he told Cyrus, “for we are awake, and we will always stay awake.” It was a stark and somber ceremony, especially in contrast with what was to come.
At the close of the pageant in Persepolis, after the banquet and light show and procession, after his guests had gone home, the Shah returned to Tehran for the final event of the anniversary celebrations: the ceremonial opening of the massive white-marble Shahyad (Kings’ Memorial) Tower built across the capital’s Eisenhower Avenue. Underneath the tower’s vault there is a small museum with several dozen objects selected to represent the arc of Iranian history. In its place of honor, at the museum’s center, was the Cyrus Cylinder itself.
The cracked clay artifact is perhaps a strange choice to represent 2,500 years of history. Compared to the objects surrounding it in the museum, it is not particularly beautiful or impressive. If not for its placement, most would walk right by it. Why, out of two and a half millennia of culture and artistic achievement, did he choose this?
The Shah was not of royal blood. He was born to Reza Khan, a soldier who came from a small village northeast of the capital and rose to the command of an elite Cossack brigade. When he was two years old, his father led a British-sponsored coup against the foundering Qajar monarchy. Five years later, his father seized the Peacock Throne, declaring a new imperial dynasty with his son as heir. The new Shah initiated a broad program of institutional reform. He revered the secular vision of Kemal Atatürk, founding father of modern Turkey, emulating his project of modernization and uprooting Islam from the state. He chose the name Pahlavi for his new dynasty as a none-too-subtle reference to the name of the language spoken in Iran before the arrival of Islam.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi carried on this enterprise when he succeeded his father in 1941. They both saw modernization as the best path toward restoring Persia’s former greatness. As they struggled against the religious establishment for influence, they found themselves pitted against the traditional purveyors of political legitimacy. So, from the beginning, the Pahlavis drew instead on Iran’s pre-Islamic past to vindicate their rule. When the son sought to aggrandize his rule in the eyes of his people and the world, he went all the way back to link himself with the great king Cyrus.
The anniversary celebrations would be a reflection of the Shah’s understanding and vision of Iranian history. He saw the soul of the nation divided between its Zoroastrian first millennium and its Islamic second millennium. The goal, according to one of the event’s main organizers, was to accentuate the imperial grandeur of this first era at the detriment of the Islamic second. This emphasis would, he hope, strengthen his own hand against his most vociferous critics—the mullahs in the holy city of Qom, particularly the Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled after denouncing the Shah to his congregation as a tyrant and a “wretched, miserable man.” It would also present the Shah’s vision for a third millennium of Persian grandeur, a merging of Cyrus the Great’s imperial ambitions with modern economic development, supported by the nation’s newfound oil wealth. Iran, the Shah believed, would take its rightful place as a prosperous, industrialized welfare state at the top of an interconnected, secular world. He liked to call this Iran of his dreams, Tamaddon-e Bazorg—or, “The Great Civilization.”
In the year leading up to the anniversary, the Shah led an international publicity campaign seeking to enhance Iran’s status into that of a world power. At the forefront of this campaign was the Cyrus Cylinder, which the Shah put forward as the world’s first declaration of human rights, proof that some of the grand tenets of Western civilization originated in ancient Persia. The campaign was successful. A reproduction of the cylinder is, to this day, displayed prominently beside the United Nations Security Council chamber in New York. The Cylinder represented a past Persia that was powerful, progressive, and magnanimous—synonymous with the Shah’s vision for the new Iran he hoped to build.
But the Shah’s vision of the Cylinder was flawed and specious, countered historians. The declarations of religious freedom in the Cyrus Cylinder were neither bold nor original, but rather consistent with comparable proclamations that had been made by Babylonian rulers assuming the throne going back two centuries before Cyrus. As for his promised manumission of the Jews, no such pledge is found on the Cylinder; the mention comes only from references to the Persian king in the Old Testament. The Cylinder is not even Iranian: it is a Babylonian document, written by a Babylonian scribe for a Babylonian audience, found in present-day Iraq, and now the property of a British museum. That this artifact was propagated as it was as an artifact and emblem of Persian civilization speaks to the Shah’s faith in the power that he who controls the present, controls the past.
It is the same story with the staging of history in the pageant itself. The Shah transmuted two and a half millennia of dynamic, effervescent history into a static event, simplified into a series of visual cues, bent to his will. By skipping back to the nation’s inception he could present simple grandeur, a glorious pre-Islamic past, free from the power of the mullahs. Unencumbered by narrative, he could avoid acknowledging the presence of those narratives and people that did not agree with him.
A few years later he codified this narrative by shifting Iran’s calendar from the Islamic system to a new “imperial calendar,” beginning with the accession of Cyrus rather than the Prophet’s flight from Mecca. Overnight, the year changed from 1355 to 2535. It was another example of the hubris of a man who believed he had the power to rewrite history. And like the pageant at Persepolis, it united the Shah’s two blocks of opponents, on the left and in the mosques, against him.
After the Revolution swept away the Shah and his fantasies, the new regime sought to play the same game, and banished allusions to the country’s pre-Islamic past. Ayatollah Khalkhali, new Chief Justice of the Revolutionary Courts, published a book countering the Shah’s cult of Cyrus, depicting the king as “a tyrant, a liar, and a homosexual,” and calling for the immediate destruction of Cyrus’s tomb and Persepolis. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
In the shadow of Kuh-i-Rahmat, the Mountain of Mercy, the ruins of Persepolis endure. They are largely empty of visitors now, with fewer and fewer tourists willing to brave the mercurial regime to behold the ancient capital.
Alongside the Palace of Darius and Gate of all Nations, the tent city built by the Shah endures. In front of the Shah’s grand tent are two signs, hand-painted in blue in elegant Persian cursive. On the left is a Qur’anic verse, a pointed warning, “Examine what your predecessors did and learn a lesson.” On the right, another warning—“Don’t throw garbage.”