Between palaces, gardens and mansions, Iran’s capital is as glamorous as it gets, but if you ask me, the most fascinating bits are right in the back alleys, the old Tehran, the narrow streets that so much reveal of the city’s daily life.
Often overshadowed by the more touristy Shiraz, Isfahan, and Yazd, the Iranian capital offers a lively cultural landscape instead. Fortunately, last time I was in Iran I had the chance to take part in some tours organized by the city’s Municipality that allowed me to start exploring and discovering old Tehran, a maze of back streets steeped in history with the inevitable power to enrich anyone’s experience.
READ MORE: Check out our guide to the best things to do in Tehran for more places to visit.
Seemingly foreshadowing the tourism boom, the city council, in a concerted effort with the national government, has aptly launched a full revamping of the old buildings by restoring and enhancing their architectural features as well as capitalizing on their size and comfort to promote social events. Such community-based activities range from evening classes to cultural initiatives, to practical help for Afghan refugee families to keep off the streets children belonging to low-income classes.
The evocative combination of Qajar-era estates and working-class dwellings makes old Tehran districts a treasure trove of the nation’s traditions and social mores. This is what gives the impression that time has frozen and makes you whirl back in the different periods of its modern history.
With the original settlement being in what is today the city of Rey, the whole area of Tehran and surroundings has been inhabited for some 12,000 years. With time, Rey has been incorporated into the Greater Tehran metropolitan area and today is generally recognized as the region’s oldest city.
One of the fascinating neighborhoods in Tehran is Oudlajan, part of District 12 and one of the city’s oldest areas. In danger for the fast development of the capital, now Oudlajan is undergoing a protection process aimed at saving the spots that much contribute in preserving its original charm, from little historical shops to Qajar-era mansions such as Saraye Kazemi, Kazemi House, bought by the Kazemi family from Ali Asghar Khan, both noble clans of the controversial Qajar period.
In line with the saving of the ancient buildings, the Municipality is looking into restoring many manors, such as Masoudiyeh House in the same district, along with further enhancing the elegance of residences of the likes of House of Moghadam in beautiful District 11 by organizing temporary and permanent exhibitions, like the one displaying the art and handicraft from Iran’s different regions.
The old Tehran as royal palaces and back street markets
Part of District 11, however, are not only to-be-restored houses but also the wonderful tree-lined Vali Asr Street that played a crucial role during the 1979 Revolution, and, similarly, District 12 is not only home to abandoned and haunted-like buildings: dream-like Golestan Palace, in fact, also from the Qajar era, lies right in this part of old Tehran. Former royal residence, Golestan Palace has been included in the UNESCO Heritage Sites list in 2013 and boasts a beguiling collaboration of Persian and Western art, particularly French for which the Qajar dynasty never hid their soft spot. Rich in decorations, paintings, and with a stunning mirror hall and a lush garden, Golestan Palace evokes bygone luxury around every corner.
As it happens, in every country and every moment of history, along with aristocracy we find the ordinary people, those bricklayers, traders, spice sellers, farmers, plumbers and workers of all types and professions that go down in history nameless even though it’s on their shoulders that a nation gets by. It’s usually their simple houses and the alleys busy with their chores that make it for a charming neighborhood, and today nowhere like in old Tehran’s back streets, untethered to time and space and still redolent of the hustle and bustle that populated the area for the last couple of centuries, you can breathe the country’s most intimate soul and experience the city’s daily life.
Wandering the narrow streets of what has been Iran’s capital for little more than 200 years is utterly enlightening on how locals always strive to cling on to their traditions.
In the span of a couple of hours of my walking across the district around Tehran’s Grand Bazaar I managed to see a significant sample of the different ethnic groups interwoven with each other in forming Iranian complicated society, workers of the bazaar darting back and forth with the carts full of goods ready for sale, women buying, bargaining, chattering and walking away carrying bags filled with spices, veggies and underwear, bakeries releasing the most appetizing smell of fresh flat bread, tottering motorbikes and shop keepers quietly dozing off on their unsteady stools.
It all seems set, restoration, renovation and reconstruction, and I don’t know for how long those alleys and little cul-de-sac will retain their original look, for how long the ancient wisdom of Persian folklore will survive as a routine in the always more modern and state-of-the-art capital, but I sure hope for long enough for me to keep going and enjoying moments of authentic Iran.
Next time I’m in Iran I count on seeing more of the old Tehran I started to explore last April, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy my real-life shots!