Updated: Mar 23, 2022
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A band of naqqareh-khaneh; albumen print; Stephen Arpee Collection of
Sevruguin Photographs, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Archives, Smithsonian Institution, FSA A2011.03 B.07
Two hours to dawn, in a dark night with a new moon, millions of stars are shining in the silent sky of Tehran. Suddenly, from the top of the highest gate at the main square of the town, kettle drums and wind instruments break the silence with a looping roar, and the players keep beating the drums and blowing the horns for half an hour until the whole town is up. This sound was common during the month of Ramezan when Muslims fast. The drum band was called naqqareh-khaneh, meaning ‘house of drums’. In the time when there were no clocks in private houses, people needed to know the exact moment of dawn when they would retreat from partaking food. As such, the sound of the naqqareh-khaneh regulated daily activities. During Ramezan, Muslims refrain from consuming any food or beverages from dawn to sunset; if they failed one day, they would have to fast for 60 days, or feed 60 meals to the poor, or free a slave, to compensate for their one-day failure. It was their responsibility to recognize the dawn, unless a trustworthy government announced it. The naqqareh-khaneh made those official announcements and regulations.
Naqqareh was a general name for all kettle drums, small and large, single and double-sided. The function of the naqqareh-khaneh required a loud and piercing sound. Wind instruments of the band included the sorna, a small double-reed wind instrument, and karna, a long brass trumpet. The photo above, taken by Antoin Sevruguin (d. 1933) in Tehran in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, shows a small band of naqqareh-khaneh including one single large naqqareh, one double small naqqareh, two sorna, and three karna, of which one is hidden behind the sorna player on the left.
Band of naqqareh-khaneh in a manuscript illustration. Detail, folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami (d. 1209). Iran, Shiraz, 1548; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.269
Naqqareh-khaneh had a distinct function in the pre-Qajar period: its sound symbolized power and in every town, or at any camp, the most powerful man maintained the naqqareh-khaneh which performed at his residence every sunrise and every sunset. It was the Shah who granted permission to local rulers and commanders to keep a naqqareh-khaneh. The act of performing at the residence of the grandees was called nowbat-zadan. Hence, naqqareh-khaneh could also be called nowbat-khaneh (Deh-khoda 1998, 15:22800-22803).
The primary role of the naqqareh-khaneh was to awaken and alert. It was not melodious, but rather it was ear-piercing. Moreover, melodious music was only tolerated during the festivities, while naqqareh-khaneh played every day, even during the mourning months of Muharram and Safar. Unaware that the naqqareh-khaneh was not intended to sound melodious, European visitors unanimously reported its sound to be discordant and barbaric. Samuel Benjamin (1837–1914), the American Minister to Persia from 1883 to 1885, wrote the following about the naqqareh-khaneh in Tehran:
At sunrise and at sunset a band of musicians collects on the lofty gallery over the gate with horns, cymbals, and kettledrums, and salutes the hour with a nondescript music such as Beethoven and Mozart never dreamed of. It is curious that notwithstanding the highly cultivated artistic sense of the Persians, they have no better notion of harmony in music. This does not appear to be for lack of a true taste for music, for their stringed instruments are capable of fine expression, and are touched with much feeling by their performers. (Wheeler 1887, 64-5)
The lofty gallery over the gate was also called naqqareh-khaneh, or the ‘house of naqqareh’. It was situated on the upper level of the gate that opened to the Arg square in the centre of Tehran close to the Shah’s palace. The palace was called Golestan (Rose Garden) and was the main residence of the Shahs during the Qajar Dynasty (1789-1925).
The gate of naqqareh-khaneh. Musicians can be seen playing on the upper level of the gate.
Photo from Golestan Palace Museum, Album 678, photo 24. Courtesy of Mohammad-Reza Tahmasbpour.
The Arg square on a festive day, with some musicians in the front-center of the crowd and the band of naqqareh-khaneh playing on the upper level of the gate. Photo from Golestan Palace Museum, Album 1310, photo 13.Courtesy of Mohammad-Reza Tahmasbpour.
Location of the Naqqareh-khaneh and the Arg Square in 1859 on the map of Tehran by August Karl Krziž (1814−1866).
As well as its function during the month of Ramezan, the naqqareh-khaneh had a more general important social function. It was a sonic signifier that regulated everyday activities. Every sunrise was announced by the naqqareh-khaneh and people knew it was time to get up and get ready to go out or start daily activities in the household. The naqqareh-khaneh would also announce the time for sunset prayers every day.
In the late eighteenth century, Tehran became the capital of Iran, and the city grew rapidly. Obviously, there was more accumulated wealth in a big town, and that attracted thieves who roamed around and hid in the allies of the neighborhoods. An hour after sunset, the naqqareh-khaneh played tabl-e khabardar (the ‘beat of beware’), that would alert people to be aware that they must return home soon. The closing beat, which was performed two hours after sunset, was called tabl-e barchin (the ‘beat of collect’), which marked the time when everyone should gather their goods, close their stores, and go back to their homes. Thus, the bazaar in Tehran would close with the sound of the naqqareh-khaneh. The final performance was tabl-e begir-o-beband (‘the beat of detain and tie’), which was performed three hours after sunset. At this time, everyone had an hour or two to leave public places if they had not done so already. Five hours after the sunset performance (i.e. two hours after tabl-e begir-o-beband), anyone found on a street or alley without special permission would be detained until the next morning when the naqqareh-khaneh played the sunrise performance (Moayyer-ol-Mamalek 1972, 25). In addition, all festivities, including the nowruz new year celebrations at the vernal equinox, were announced by the sound of the naqqareh-khaneh.
Once clocks and watches became common instruments to regulate daily activities, the naqqareh-khaneh lost its important sonic function. There is no information on the last time that the naqqareh-khaneh was heard in Tehran. At first, all daily signifiers were abandoned, and the naqqareh-khaneh would perform for sunset only (Deh-khoda 1998, 15:22801). Perhaps they performed on special occasions too. By the late 1930s, the naqqareh-khaneh had disappeared entirely. The last picture of the gate of the Naqqareh-khaneh was taken on July 4th, 1927, by the French photographer Frédéric Gadmer (1878-1954) for the Archives de la Planète. The gate to the Arg square with its naqqareh-khaneh was demolished during the intense modernizations in the 1930s.
Naqqareh-khaneh in 1927 by Frédéric Gadmer. Archives de la Planète, Albert Kahn Collection, A 52 669 S. Caption reads: The terrace gate where musicians played in the evenings at sunset.
Although Sharia, or Islamic law, prohibited performing musical instruments in religious spaces, the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza became the only location in Iran where the naqqareh-khaneh survives. There are many miracles attributed to the eight Imam of the Twelver Shia Muslims, and millions of people visit his shrine in Mashhad in the northeast of Iran every year. One of those miracles must be saving the naqqareh-khaneh from a modernization that changed Iranian lifestyle dramatically. Stripped of its sonic time-keeping function, the remaining naqqareh-khaneh of Imam Reza retained its power symbol: the only Imam buried in Iran is the man who maintains the naqqareh-khaneh or nowbat-khaneh.
You can watch a video of the naqqareh-khaneh of Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad, c.1960s
Thank you for reading! If you have any comments or thoughts on anything discussed in this blog, we would love to hear from you via the comments box below or the contact form on the website.
Deh-khoda, Ali-Akbar. 1998. Loghat-nameh-ye Deh-khoda. Tehran: University of Tehran.
Moayyer-ol-Mamalek, Dust-Ali. 1972. Yad-dasht-ha-i az Zendegani-ye Khosusi-ye Nasereddin Shah. Tehran: Elmi.
Wheeler, Benjamin S. G. 1887. Persia and the Persians. London: John Murray.
Mohsen Mohammadi is a musicologist affiliated with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. His training and publications span historical research, ethnography and performance, and his area of expertise is musical traditions of the Middle East and Central Asia. His diverse interests include colonialism, religion, and power, as well as music and minorities. He has published several books and articles in English and Persian, of which some are available online: https://ucla.academia.edu/Mohammadi