lesley blanch iran 1965 roloff beny bookblast diary

Lesley Blanch Archive | The Magic of Iran 1 (1965)

Iran — the land of the Aryans — the Persia of legend, stands at the crossroads of the world, where the winds blowing across the wastes still carry echoes of Darius the Great and Tamerlane. Here all is extreme, fiery, icy, brilliant, obscure, sumptuous, dilapidated . . .

From greatness to decay, by lassitude and violence, the pendulum of Persian history has swung through three thousand years. But now, led by one man, it swings forward — the Emperor, Mohammed Reza, Shahanshah of Iran, is that man. Beside him stands the young Empress, the Shabanou, Farah, a fitting queen for this land which has always spelled beauty to the rest of the world and now sounds another more urgent note.

Women’s enfranchisement, agrarian reforms, dam-building, find new hospitals — that of Shiraz is held to outstanding in the Middle East — the pioneer work of the Shah’s own Illiteracy Corps, child welfare centres and veterinary clinics, too, are all, like supermarkets, drive-in cinemas, Coca-Cola signs, or double-decker London buses, a part of the new spirit of Iran. Yet, its legendary past, its abiding loveliness, are still its strongest lure; and we marvel more at a minaret than at a television tower.


Newcomers to Iran should, ideally, first visit Isfahan, then Shiraz and other cities of the provinces, wandering golden roads. Only Teheran, the capital and pivot point for tourism, strikes, at first, an unlovely note. But then, only forty years ago it was an Oriental huddle, the city gates shut at nightfall, there were few public services, the women thickly veiled, and the main shopping streets divided, women’s shops one side men’s the other, to ensure segregation of the sexes. Now all is changed, stepped up into an imposed, breathless modernity. Nevertheless, it is far from the flavourless, even with such acceleration. It is violently itself, and you must like it or leave it. I came to love it. In spite of its thrusting urban sprawl, its neon-lit, traffic-jammed streets where once the camels plodded the ancient silk routes between Europe and Chine, Teheran has a way of getting under your skin. Its attraction is difficult to define. Climate? Sparkling frost or simmering heat; no miasmic damp. Assuaging comforts: caviar? (Sturgeon is now favouring the Iranian rather than the Russian shores of the Caspian, I was told.) The richness and variety of the museums? Highly-flavoured small restaurants and odd night dives like the Shokufeh-Now, a rumbustious family-style music hall, with belly dancers and food? All these make for diversion.

map of iran

So does the exotic merchandise and the almost sacred ritual of bargaining. Anything can be bought in Teheran is the boast. But I was equally enthralled by the unobtainable. Both the Crown Jewels and the Peacock Throne are a raree-show beyond description. Another astonishing spectacle is in the Zurkaneh, or House of Strength, where, in a circular pit brilliant with eyneh-khari’s thousand sparkling eyes, athletes in embroidered leather breeches perform stupendous feats, chanting age-old prayers in a mystic-muscular exaltation of patriotism.

Yet another, equally remarkable spectacle, typically Iranian: fine carpets and rugs flung down in a main thoroughfare to be flattened — ‘softened’ — by traffic grinding over them. When I shuddered, experts reminded me that nothing, nothing is worse for Oriental rugs than vacuum cleaners and chemical restoratives. Rugs play a large part in Iranian life, being used in houses and gardens, as wall decorations and upholstery; for warmth, and shade too, as tenting.

As much as anything, perhaps, Teheran charms by its setting, ringed with mountains, and the lovely nearness of wild country. The mountains beckon beyond each brick vista. Crouched on the horizon like tawny lions, they shelter in winter, cool in summer. Lions are the national emblems. Brandishing curved swords, rising suns tucked into their manes, they adorn governmental buildings or teapots alike, and are to be seen, frivolously wreathed, on the chintzy-tiled facade of the last city gate left standing.


Throughout the ages, beauty has been the birthright and treasured inheritance of this country. Loveliest of all cities, Isfahan, “the Versailles of Persia” which I remember André Malraux describing to me as “a boudoir set down in the steppes.”

“O Isfahan, thou are half the world,” goes the proud Persian saying. “And all of beauty,” adds the traveller, as the plane, skimming a ring of mountains, circles the turquoise domes to land in a whole new dimension — that of colour, of blueness. Here the bricks and stones of architecture are transposed into terms of turquoise, lapis lazuli, sapphire, and cerulean. Here form and proportion, each perfectly achieve in itself are overcome by colour. Even at night colour does not desert Isfahan, and its great mosques gleam like veiled peacocks.

Everywhere in Iran the quality of light is devouring, so that nature is bleached out. It is, I believe, this dust-coloured earth, and harsh rock landscape which have led man to those orgies of colour and intricate design found in the carpets, flower-strewn miniatures, and tiles of Persian tradition. So, too, the fabulous diamond-like mirror mosaic decorations known as eynch-khari, so dazzling, so typically Persian, may be said to derive from the craving of an arid land for water. Eynch-khari is found everywhere, in palaces, popular restaurants, or shrines, shimmering crystallization of myriad dewdrops  — apotheosis of water, the precious giver of life and prosperity. True, there is a more prosaic explanation, for eynch-khari is said to derive from a European mirror, ordered for some palace long ago, which arrived shattered. The Persians, believing the fragments to be its correct form, plastered them into the wall and have kept it that way ever since. But I prefer my own theory.

Isfahan is one of the few cities with water in abundance, and the enamelled domes and minarets gleam among bouquets of foliage, chenars, the giant planes of Asia, poplars and cypresses . . .  Here the river is spanned by curious arcaded bridges, devised as much for pleasure as practical use: niches and upper-storeyed alcoves, pavilions of love, once framed Shah Abbas and his Safavid court while they feasted and fondled their gazelle-eyed houris. And down in the dark depths of the bazaar, barometer of the city’s mood, then, as now, carpets being woven and sold, pyramids of spices, saffron, attar of roses, pomegranate juice, and the appalling din of the coppersmiths . . . now as then.

Everywhere, pools, or houz, reflecting beauty. The Chechel Sotoon, or Palace of the Forty Pillars, (which is in fact has less, but then the reflections are counted: besides, forty is a magical number in Persian belief), the Turquoise Palace, the Palace of the Eight Paradises . . . all legends of loveliness, all their pillared, painted and mirror-work talars, verandahs, or halls of audience giving on to enclosed gardens, secret worlds of greenness unsuspected from the narrow lanes beyond. In city and countryside alike, high mud walls enclose beauty jealously, as once the heavy chadors veiled and concealed the women’s beauty. The houz, or pool, is everywhere, from the smallest basin in an unkempt back yard to a fountained perspective. And over a wide expanse of water, such as that of the Maidan, the Imperial Square of Isfahan, where once the young bloods played polo, (with the heads of their enemies it was whispered), these vast expanses of dark green water give depth, seeming to anchor the serial soaring buildings all around.

isfahan tiled ceilingWhich is loveliest? Impossible to say. The rare cream-tiled dome of the Ladies’ Mosque is opalescent; the sublime Masjid-i-Shah seems to blind the beholder to all else; the lofty elegance of the Ali-Qapou, or Royal Pavilion, with its alcove, fretted music rooms, pink and white beside so much blueness, and its labyrinth of newly discovered secret cells, designed for love or crime — each in turn overpowers us with its beauty and each in turn is given back from pools, swaying against cloudless skies, impossibly lovely . . . And then, looking up, they are there, before us in reality, and the marvelling begins again.


Persepolis! The awesome ruins rise form a tawny plain, ringed by baked, tawny rocks, and seem to gather silence around them. Impossible to chatter here. Even the most unarchaeologically-minded are silenced by the Archaemenian glories. At dusk a firefly line of headlights tells of departing tourists, and the ruins are deserted. Nearby, a nomad encampment stirs to life. Women fetch water from the stream; camels stand sneezing and groaning beside the black tents, while the children dart under their mangy bellies.persepolis

In the firelight the young men prance and slash at each other in the curious ritual of the stick dance. The muezzin sounds tinnily from a transistor radio in the tchai-khana were they serve little glasses of tea — those glasses which go to make up the ten million served daily in Iran. And so Persepolis quiets to its silent night.


But thirty miles across the plain lies Shiraz, a morning city, all birdsong, and the poetic aura of Hafiz and Saadi, who are buried here in gardens which do not belie their legend. Hafiz has remained, throughout the centuries, not only the immortal poet, known to every Persian whether literate or illiterate, but also a mystical force to be consulted for divination. It is claimed that by opening the pages at random, in the manner some people consult the Bible, an answer to any particular problem will be found within. This is known as the fa’l and held to be infallible.

In Shiraz, the atmosphere is essentially that of a small, prosperous market or cathedral town, but it is the old houses and their gardens for which the city is justly famed. Such houses are the quintessence of elegant, civilized living: set behind high walls, they achieve peace, privacy, and selective luxury. So, too, do the booths in the bazaar, curtained, carpeted, and cushioned; with holy prints, mirrors and samovars to embellish them, they are at once shops, homes, and grandstands from which to watch life going by  — or, curtains drawn, a retreat.

I have lived all over the world, among many races; and although I remain faithful to my first love  — the Balkans  — I now being to think with longing of settling in some small garden-enclosed house where there are roses, nightingales, and politesse. These are still to be found in Iran.

Iranian Culture

This civilization, or culture, that of an ancient race, is traced variously. First, in the faces, mobile, witty faces everywhere; humour and intelligence light the humblest countenance. Impossible to be bored among such people. Then, bone structure, the fine-boned hands or the grace with which a woman of the people manoeuvres the enveloping dark muslin of her chador, at once coquettish and aloof.

persian girl playing sitar 19thC persia V&ATheir age-old culture sounds in the cadence of a song; is found in the typical menu of any popular restaurant, where chelow kebab, broiled lamb and ethereal rice, tells of finesse. Or in the delicate little glasses of tea served at any wayside cafe, or tchai-khana, perhaps with a rose alongside, certainly with a flowery phrase. Above all, in toleration. Oddly in a country where religious fanaticism persists and the gloomy revels of Muharram are revived yearly, many minorities, Jewish, Orthodox, Christian, and Zoroastrian flourish.

The social climate is yet another revealing aspect of Iranian civilization: it is refined, nicely balanced between East and West; conversation is widely ranged, up-to-the-minute and attuned to the West, but curiosity of the liveliest kind remains Eastern and makes everybody and everything of vital interest. The Iranian is never boring, never blasé. High endeavour is now fashionable amongst the ardent younger people. Eastern traditions of contemplation and fatalism still absorb many of the older. In the capital a kind of tinkling frivolity echoes a more dissipate past.

And in the provinces and the static milieu of the bazaar folk, the institution of mut’a remains, dispelling possible ennui, without the responsibilities of marriage, or the added complications of the four wives allowed by the Koran. Mut’a is the temporary but legal marriage, which can be contracted for any stipulated time, and which automatically ceases when the time is up, thus avoiding the expense of divorce.

But children born of such a union are safeguarded, being accorded the same rights as those born in more permanent circumstances. This practical, if cynical, arrangement speaks of a highly sophisticated race.

Great style and pace is imported by a young vigorous Court and Government, which I had some chance to observe in the concentration of Foreign Office receptions and the Ceremony of the Salaam at the Golestan, or Rose Garden Palace, on the occasion of the Shah’s birthday. The rare privilege of being present, as a woman and a foreigner, I owe to the comprehension of the Shah, who accorded me several audiences.

The Salaam is a traditional, all-male ceremony in which representatives of different branches of Government, public institutions and the Diplomatic Corps are received by the Shah with much pomp and circumstance. Orders and decorations, gold lace, the clanking of swords and spurs, rifle butts crashing in salute, the pale-blue pennons and silver helmets of the Imperial Guard lining the glittering stairway.

Glitter everywhere, flashing from myriad prisms, chandeliers, fountains and a shining brass band firmly planted in a bed of begonias beneath the palace windows, rendering Luigini’s Ballet Egyptien with considerable brio. Above all, light, irradiating symbolically form the gold, jewel-studded Peacock Throne. (It is from this throne, and in this hall, that the Shah will be crowned, probably in 1966.)

Among such brilliance, a sombre note: the dark robes of the mullahs, Moslem priests, gather here to felicitate the Shahanshah. Once all-powerful, they still wield temporal as well as spiritual power, and some remote areas — how remote no one knows who has not travelled across Iran — are still in the stranglehold of the more reactionary priests. Significant of their traditional power, they are the first to be received by the Shah and they may remain seated in his presence.

Another sombre, or sober note is struck by the Shah himself. Again and again throughout the five-hour Salaam, he seems to sweep aside the conventional phrases, to sound a grave yet urgent note, a call to battle, for progress. Mohammed Reza Shah learned his métier in a hard school and it is evident he cares passionately for his work. I watched him stalk through the lines of bowing ministers: aloof, alert; his bearing is proud.

He is Shahanshah, King of Kings, ruler and leader. He replies to each group thoughtfully, pausing to weigh his words, which are all off the cuff — but it is the gold-laced cuff of Majesty. And always, he hammers home the same message: we must go further. His intent face only softens when he receives those few women, parliamentary deputies, judges or professors, who represent their newly-won enfranchisement, something of a particular pride to the Shah.

One-third of all University students are now women, and the revolutionary measures of this enfranchisement and the agrarian reforms, (whereby the big estates were broken up and distributed among the people), were led by the Shah who made over many of his own vast holdings.

iranian family 1960s lesley blanch archive
“I am bucketting about this lovely turquoise blue land in a jeep with Roloff Beny the photographer…” [LB in a postcard to Eden Box]
‘See!’ said a peasant near Veramin, offering me a fluffy bouquet from his cotton fields, ‘All this crop is mine now. The Shah gave it to me. I was poor, but now I am rich.’ Iranians are an intensely democratic people. He saw this acquisition as a personal gift from the Shah, man to man. Parliamentary reforms are nothing to him.

The Shabanou, Farah, has given a correspondingly personal lead to her countrywomen by going against all Palace protocol and tradition to give birth to her first child, the Crown Prince Reza, in a free maternity hospital for the poorest of Tehran. Today, four years later, a marble plaque marks the simple room she occupied, and the hospital, which only posses two hundred beds, delivers one hundred and fifty women daily and is stormed by crowds of others clamouring for treatment. Thus the battle against prejudice is waged.

Both the Shabanou and her sister-in-law, the Princess Ashraf, described to me the struggle to introduce elementary hygiene in the villages. Even Care packages are mistrusted, or refused. Better to let the needy children go without powdered milk than risk pollution at the hands of the foreign infidels, say the reactionary forces, and the villagers acquiesce.

[Read PART TWO of this article]

Copyright © Lesley Blanch Estate, 1965. All rights reserved. Header photo of Lesley Blanch in Narenjestan Palace, Shiraz by Roloff Beny  © Roloff Beny  Estate. Photographs & graphical images copyright © their respective copyright holders. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use. www.lesleyblanch.com

On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)
Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017).
Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch (Eland Publishing  9780907871545 pb £9.60 1 Jun 2001).
The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, 9780993092725 pb illus £11.95 19 Jan 2015).
The Wilder Shores of Love: The Stories of four nineteenth-century women who followed the beckoning Eastern star by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, Kindle edition £4.31 illus 8 Nov 2014).
Round the World in 80 Dishes
: The World Through the Kitchen Window
by Lesley Blanch (Grub Street Publishing, illus. line drawings by the author £14 200pp 19 October 2011).

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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