lesley blanch iran 2 bookblast diary

Lesley Blanch Archive | The Magic of Iran 2 (1965)

The extreme good looks and elegance of the Royal Family bestow a festive air on the good works which they promote. Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s twin sister, is passionately involved in the question of women’s emancipation which is still a very revolutionary measure. Princess Shams, as passionately, leans more toward promoting the arts, and is herself a fine musician. Her husband, Dr. Pahleboud, as Director of Fine Arts, exercise a galvanic influence on every aspect of cultural development, while the entire Royal Family is passionate in its love of animals and determination to obtain better conditions for them everywhere, in happy contrast to so much of the East, where the animals lot is usually terrible.

When Roloff Beny photographed the Imperial couple and their children, I asked his majesty that the sitting, which was to be entirely informal, should not be in the Summer Palace, nor in the fabled frame of the Golestan, nor even in their private palace in Teheran, but in the Diamond Room of the Marble Palace, generally used for more stately occasions. Here eyneh-khari decoration reaches its apogee, and it was like placing them in the very heart of the diamond kingdom. But not formally. The little Crown Prince Reza, feting his fourth birthday, and his sister, the baby Princess Farahnaz, saw to that.

iranian royal familyIf their setting was diamonds, they were quicksilver. They spun around the room like tops, laughing at their myriad reflections. Yet, half an hour later, I watched those babies sitting like effigies, beside their parents, on a dais at the official ceremony. Already, it was plain the Crown Prince sensed his obligations. He sat on a very large chair, his white-socked legs stuck straight out, his enormous dark eyes intent, the weight of his destiny already upon him.

Perhaps no royal child today has quite such a heritage. Two thousand five hundred years of monarchy lie behind the Peacock Throne which he will one day ascend to rule a country first made glorious by Darius the Great from the splendours of his palace at Persepolis.

The Iranian Crown Jewels

In the East, precious stones are loved sensuously, with an emotion which has little connection with their value, either as gems or adornment. I recall a Turkish merchant of the Great Bazaar in Istanbul who kept an enormous sapphire loose in his pocket, fondling it, bringing it out for an airing at mealtimes, and generally treating it as a pet.

Darya-i-noor Sea of LightThe Persian monarch, Nasr-el-Din Shah kept the fabulous diamond known as the Darya-i-noor, or Sea of Light, in his pocket as a talisman, and was often seen to clutch at it whisper to it, even, when ailing, for he believed in its revitalizing powers. This particular stone is held to have been in the crown of Cyrus the Great who died in 529 B.C.

Today, it is to be seen among the crown jewels in Teheran: it is the size and the shape of a large decanter stopper, and weighs 182 carats; its only possible rival:  the Koh-i-noor, or Mountain of Light. For stones such as these, with their long history of adoration, drama and splendour, it must be a lonely anti climax now, imprisoned in showcases.

But in Teheran an altogether different approach is evident, for here all Iranians, even the simplest peasants or wildest tribesmen up for a day in the city, stand before the jewels as if holding mystic communion. These Crown Jewels are only one third of the total Imperial reassure which is now treated as a national gold reserve, security for Government obligations and backing for the currency.

There are 3,000 classified pieces. One section is set aside for the use of the Shabanou, Farah, and the other ladies of the Royal Family; even so, they remain state property and permission to wear them must be granted by the State, upon application.

Only forty years ago the whole crown collection was jumbled in dusty confusion, crammed into cardboard boxes, dumped in Palace cellars, or left lying about among the cushioned disorder of the royal harem. Diadems, gifts from other sovereigns, a gigantic, fist-sized snuff box chunked from a solid emerald, diamond-dripping epaulets unpicked from some discarded uniform, a parasol with diamond studded spokes wrenched, perhaps, from the hand of some disgraced favourite . . . every shape and variation of priceless fantasy was flung together in lumber-room disorder.

But in 1925 all was changed by the present Shah’s father, Reza the Great. This extraordinary figure, who transformed the old Persia into new Iran, began as a private in a Persian Cossack regiment, became the country’s iron man, and was at last crowned Shahanshah, ascending the Nadir throne which is now centrepiece of the Crown Jewel display, its gold and enamelled surface blistered with jewels.

It was only in 1960 that all the imperials treasures were amassed and catalogued and displayed as we see them today. The French firm of Boucheron was employed to reorganize and present the jewels, a work which occupied six experts well over a year. But although they are catalogued, no one can truly appraise their value which is said to be beyond calculation.

The manner in which they are displayed is pre-eminently dramatic. The long, low, dim hall glows softly with its red-velvet-lined showcases, each spotlit, sparking fire, darting prisms of colour. Viewers are not hindered by bars of distance, they can hang over the showcases in lover-like abandon, breathe on the glass, one with  — almost one with  — the object of their desire.

At two-thirty precisely a hush falls on the foyer, as an abstracted-looking, black-coated official arrives and starts fiddling with the combination lock of a gigantic steel-barred electrically controlled outer door to the vault. Only three men know the combination. A lot of ritualistic twiddling follows and the hush deepens. Two high officials of the Bank and the Government must always be in attendance when the doors are opened.

The cumulative tension is that of the theatre, and when at last the massive door swings back, the curtain rises and we peer in to the scene. However banal the illusion, we think of Aladdin and Ali Baba’s cave. I have seen the great Russian jewels in the Kremlin, which suffered by being shown in the cold light of day, as did the Sultanate treasures of the Seraglio. I have seen the Court of St James’s and Moghul magnificence shimmering under an Indian sun, but nothing can compare to this Iranian splendour.

Although some of the jewels are attributed to Sassanian rulers of fifteen centuries ago when jewelled carpets were much used, the only reliable documentation dates from the sixteenth century, when Shah Abbas held court at Isfahan.

But with the decay of the Safavid dynasty, Afghan invaders seized power and looted the jewels, which were presently to be found adorning the Moghul court at Delhi. In 1739, Nadir Shah the Persian, the last great Asiatic conqueror, marched on India, some say expressly to retrieve the long-lost jewels. This he did, and adding to the vast quantities of Moghul treasures, including the Peacock Throne of legend and nine others, returned in triumph to Iran.

Nearly a hundred years later, with a century more of acquisition, the jewel collection reached its apogee with Fath Ali Shah of the Qajar dynasty, celebrated not only for his awe-inspiring appearance, his dense black beard, the longest in the kingdom, his sixty-eight sons and countless favourites, (for one of whom, Tavous Khanum, or Lady Peacock, he commanded yet another Peacock Throne).

In a frenzy of possession, he caused his name to be engraved on the Darya-i-noor, thus reducing its value considerably. This same ruler also designed the high tiara-like crown known as the Kiyani, one of the three imperial crowns to be seen in the vaults.

The Pahlavi crown, the latest imperial crown, was made for Reza the Great by Iranian goldsmiths under the guidance of Seraj-ed-din, the celebrated Caucasian goldsmith who emigrated to Iran during the Russian Revolution.

Then there is the historic Regalia — massive gold belts, bracelets of state, the bazubands, worn traditionally on the upper arms; the jeqeh, or jewelled turban plume, which once belonged to Nadir Shah, hung with five splendid emerald drops, which is always worn by the reigning monarch; sceptre, orb, sword of state  — all flaming with jewels. Nadir Shah’s sword — ‘the all-conquering sword’ — has a scabbard literally paved with gems. Here, jewels are by the bushel.

jewel studded globe iranian crown jewels
The jewel-studded globe: is this what President Trump has his eye on?

But all of this fades into insignificance beside the almost monstrous splendour of the Terrestrial Globe. This conceit — folly, if you prefer — exceeds all imagination. A large solid gold frame, such as used to be seen in old-fashioned libraries, standing about three feet high, encircles a globe on which the world is entirely mapped in precious stones  — 51,000 of them.

Nasr-ed-Din Shah conceived this piece of flamboyance in 1868, some say, to preserve the best of lose stones which lay about in great disorder. But I prefer my own theory that nothing less than emerald seas and ruby continents, turquoise capitals, and a diamond equator was needed to get the little princes through their geography lessons.

Copyright © Lesley Blanch Estate, 1965. All rights reserved. Photographs & graphical images copyright of Fath Ali Shah Qajar and others © 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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