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resounding the historical city

Updated: Mar 27


Panoramic view of Tehran. Old steel engraved antique print

Published in L’Univers La Perse, 1841, M. Louis Dubeux (https://www.alamy.com/)



The shape of a city

Mounted on a wall of the Tehran map museum is a series of eleven aerial photographs with superimposed areas in different colours showing the growth of the city from 1891 to the present day.


1891 2018


Introducing these images on a video that was made in the run up to the Iranian new year in March 2020 - allowing for a lockdown virtual visit to the museum - one of the staff explains how Tehran’s initial expansion happened on a north-south axis, following the availability of water in the joob channels that flow from the foothills of the Alborz mountains, through the north of the city and down to the southern areas that form Tehran’s historical heartlands. Without a major river running through, the city’s development from the start depended on the flow of snowmelt water that enters the city through seven main streams. Only later did expansion gradually extend along an east-west axis, mirroring the historical trade routes that crossed the ancient city of Ray, now subsumed within the modern metropolis.


I’ve often wondered about how the particular shape of a city impacts on its sounds. Thinking about the growth of Tehran, I imagine the crackling sound of mountain snow melting and the flow of water through the old joob channels as the life-blood and arteries that allowed this city to live and to thrive. Water continued to shape the emerging city as more affluent areas started to develop in the north, closer to the mountains with their cleaner air and water. And then there are the mountains themselves, an ever-present magisterial backdrop, that I always think of as a protective guardian representing something timeless and that were there long before and will long outlast the human-made structures of the city. Dry, rocky and resonant in summer, snow-mantled and muffled in winter, the mountains form a descending slope, effectively creating a natural sound barrier to the north and echo chamber to the south. One of my most memorable early sonic experiences of Tehran was standing on a flat rooftop in the north of the city in the descending evening dusk, overlooking the many millions of twinkling lights in the city below, mountain birds circling overhead, and hearing the evening azan – the call to prayer – coming from numerous scattered local mosques, the sounds bouncing off the mountains and the high-rise building and echoing across the darkening city to create an exquisite sonic tapestry. Of course, the call to prayer and religious sounds more generally have much social and cultural valence and in Iran are deeply implicated in the exercise of power, and this co-embedding of aesthetic beauty and political power troubles me as I will discuss in in a later post. But at that moment, standing on that rooftop, I was immersed and spellbound by the interweaving sounds and fascinated by the role of the mountains as a participant in the sonic event.


The mountains also form a sound world of their own and I will also return to them in a later post, but for now it’s worth noting that as well as protecting and resounding the city, the mountains also provide a hidden space, for sounds and activities that may be censored or otherwise dangerous: certain kinds of music, political gatherings, lovers holding hands, women shedding their head covering … much that could not happen openly in the city itself finds a place here: it is strange feeling, looking down on the city below from the mountains, knowing that you can’t be seen or heard, a space of transgression against the traditionally strong public-private divide in Iran.


Exploring historical maps and other images gives a clear sense of the visual and spatial expansion of Tehran. But what of the sonic? How has Tehran’s metamorphosis from village to walled town to megacity manifested sonically? And, in the absence of sound evidence before the late 19th century, what clues and implicit sounds might such images offer? How might maps and pictures become audio-visual ‘texts’ through which to imagine and enter into the now lost sound worlds of the historical city? More broadly, I’m interested in how attending to the sonic might destabilise the normative focus on the visual, notwithstanding that its ephemeral nature makes any attempt to study sound from before the time of recording something of a challenge.


From village to walled city

Tehran started life as a small village close to the ancient city of Ray. In his book Tehran: The Making of a Metropolis, Ali Madanipour writes about the history of Ray, known in ancient times as Raga, a settlement going back over 6,000 years. As he relates, ‘According to the Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians, Ray was the twelfth city in the world to be created by Ahura Mazda, the good spirit’ (1998:3). Part of the network of east-west trade routes – the co-called Silk Routes – Ray was favoured by a number of kings and it was from here that Yazdgerd III, the last king of the Sassanian dynasty ‘made his final attempt to rally the populace against the advancement of Islam’ in the 7th century CE (1998:4). Later becoming the capital of the Seljuk empire (before the capital was moved to Esfahan), Ray finally lost its power as a major urban centre with its almost complete destruction during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century.


According to Madanipour, the first written reference to a village called Tehran can be found in the 11th century and over the centuries that followed, became known for its beautiful gardens, pleasant climate and particularly for its pomegranates. This is where my sonic imagining starts, in these gardens, with their fountains and water channels, the sounds of birds and wind in the trees, but also the people – the distant sound of voices, of children playing. And, beyond these somewhat romanticised sonics, those of everyday domestic and working life - gardeners, peasants, tradespeople, craftsmen. The vestiges of the original Tehran gardens can still be found in some areas of the city, but these have been disappearing at a growing rate, particularly over the past 30 years as increasing development has encroached on these spaces. In the early 15th century, the Spanish Ambassador to the court of the Tamerlane wrote about Tehran, by now a sizeable town which had been captured by the Mongols, as being ‘very large with no walls, well supplied with everything, and delightful’. Its strategic position attracted the attention of local rulers and it was the later Safavid King Shah Tahmasb who ordered the building of the bazaar and the town walls in 1553, conferring on Tehran the status of a city. As the city expanded, it gradually became a regional trading and military centre, and eventually a temporary court. Karim Khan, leader of the Zand dynasty that followed the Safavids, considered making Tehran his capital in 1760, but it was 26 years later under Agha Muhammad Khan that Tehran was made capital and has remained the seat of government and the cultural and political centre of Iran ever since. As leader of the new Qajar dynasty, Agha Muhammad was wary of establishing a capital further south and closer to the former centres of power such as Esfahan and Shiraz; he also wanted a base that was accessible to the traditional Qajar tribal lands to the north. At this time, Tehran consisted of three main areas: Udlajan, Chaleh Maydan and Sangelaj.


Through the 19th Century, Tehran increasingly became an administrative and military centre and the early years of Qajar rule saw rapid expansion - including large numbers of courtiers and soldiers, as well as tradespeople and eventually industry; but this growth was impacted by periodic famine and epidemics as well as declining land trade following the expansion of sea routes between Europe and the far east, particularly from the early 19th century. It’s intriguing to consider what this would have meant for the sounds of the city. As a passing point between Europe and other parts of Asia, one can imagine travellers bringing different languages and other sounds, including music and musical instruments even, as well as contributing to other sensorial dimensions to the city. There are various estimates of the population, from 15,000 in 1796 to over 50,000 in 1808. The first official record is the 1867 census which gave the population of Tehran as 155,736, around a 10-fold increase since becoming capital. By the late 19th century, the growth in ‘international trade, change in social and economic structure of the country and the centralization of state power all meant a great importance for Tehran’ (Madanipour).


The maps below, dating from 1828, 1848 and 1858, show the royal palace compound in a rectangle to the north of the city and indicate what a significant proportion of Tehran the city comprised. As the capital of Qajar rule, Tehran became the focus of court music activity and later, with the establishment of modern institutions of education, administration, broadcasting, performance, and so on, particularly from the 1920s onwards, the most important centre for music-making in the country.

Map of Tehran, 1826
Map of Tehran, 1848

Map of Tehran, 1858 (https://www.kavehfarrokh.com)

The first major planned expansion of Tehran took place between 1868 and 1880, with a team led by one General Bohler, a French teacher at the Dar al-Fonoun College that was established in 1851. The city was extended to more than 4 times the size of the old city and as with later expansions, was mostly northward in direction (Madanipour 1998:32). There were new city walls in the shape of an octagon and 12 gates, with a large square - Toopkhaneh square, discussed below - as a focal point of the new city space.


Map of Tehran, 1890 (https://www.kavehfarrokh.com)

Imagining the sonic City

Looking at the old maps, pictures and accounts of 19th century Tehran, and in the absence of sound recordings, I try to imagine the public sounds that created a sense of urban sociality. What would the city have sounded like? Many old photographs, such as those below, are coursing with implicit sound. I imagine the bustling city, its (generally male) public spaces, the bazaars and tea houses, places of worship - mosques, churches, synagogues – its bath houses and tea houses. I imagine the sounds of semi-public spaces such as the zourkhaneh (traditional exercise clubs) and guest houses; the voices of people in the street – mingled accents acting as a sonic marker of people from different parts of this vast multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi linguistic nation. In my imagination, I hear the street cries of traders, the sounds of craftspeople, water flowing in the joob, the hooves of horses and donkeys carrying people and wares across the city; footsteps in the narrow mud-walled alleyways of the old city. There are naturally limits to such imaginings, and I am also intensely aware of the absences from what were largely male spaces.


The images below convey some sense of such public spaces and their sounds.


Tehran bazaar, Qajar era (https://www.alamy.com/)











Tehran tea and coffee house, late Qajar (kavehfarrokh.com)








Tehran Bazaar in the late Qajar era (www.kavehfarrokh.com)
















Sellers peddling their wares, Qajar era (https://www.kavehfarrokh.com)
Bread bakery (sangak bread), late Qajar (kavehfarrokh.com)















Photo of Mirdamad, 1871, claimed to be the oldest photograph of Tehran  (https://www.kavehfarrokh.com)
Mirdamad 1871, claimed to be oldest photograph of Tehran
















One of Tehran’s gates, Qajar era (www.kavehfarrokh.com)


Nasser al-Din Shah walking in the streets of Tehran (hwww.alamy.com/)


























The establishment of Tehran as capital also coincided with the increasing influence of outside powers, particularly Russia and Britain, each seeking to extend their spheres of influence and in the case of Britain, to protect the borders of the jewel in the crown of its Empire in India; and with the gradual loss of large areas of Iran’s territory as the result of unfavourable treaties such as the Treaty of Gulistan. What were the sonic dimensions of this presence, Russian, British and other? Were they confined to the court or more widely heard in the streets and other public spaces? Certainly, we know something of the increasing military sonic presence in Tehran, particularly with the arrival of European musicians such as Marco Brambilla, who appears to have been the first European musician hired by the royal court (and who was in Iran from c1839 until his death dated c1866-1868) and others including Boschetti (Bosquet, Bousquet), Rouyon (Royon, Rouillon), Julius Heise (the Shah’s personal pianist, d.1870) and Julius Gebauer (1846-1895), as well as the late 19th century formation of the Persian Cossack Brigade (Mohammadi 2016). The role of these musicians in establishing European-style military music in Iran – and particularly Brambilla – has been largely overshadowed and even forgotten, through a widely circulating popular narrative that erroneously credits this achievement to Alfred Lemaire (1842-1907), a Frenchman who arrived in Tehran in 1968, who taught at the Dar al-Fonoun and was also an active composer, including composing Iran’s first national anthem at the request of the Shah. As Mohammadi reveals, such claims disregarded the work of Lemaire’s predecessors and were a result of self-promotion (and denigration of other musicians) by Lemaire himself and by his biographer Victor Advielle. Mohammadi provides a wealth of detail concerning the history of European military music in Tehran from around 1836 (and earlier in more northerly cities such as Tabriz and Yerevan, the latter at that time only recent ceded to Russia after 3 centuries of Iranian rule). Today, we can see images of 19th century European-style military band musicians in tilework on the walls of the magnificent Golestan Palace, the former Qajar royal residence.





19th century military musicians, tilework, ‘Shams ol Emareh’ (‘Edifice of the Sun’) Golestan Palace, Tehran (photographs by the author)


Soldiers of the Qajar era

















I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which Tehran place names – streets, squares, parks – as well as statues and other public monuments and imagery invoke sound. The ever-presence of poets and poetry is one example. Another striking case is that of Toopkhaneh Square, built in 1868 and named for the canon that were housed in the military barracks – and also on display in the square - including canon captured by Safavid king Shah Abbas from the Portuguese in the early 17th century during the Persian-Portuguese war. The square was an early site of public gatherings, both celebratory and political. Listen hard and you can hear the sounds of military parade music, of marching soldiers, of ceremonial canon and gunshots, horse hooves, trades people and crowds gathered on special occasions such as coronations - Ahmad Shah Qajar’s coronation procession passed through Toopkhaneh square in 1909 (as did those of both the later Pahlavi monarchs) - and Belgian traveller Ernest Orsolle in his book Le Caucase et la Perse (1885) reported on a festival called Sharbat-Khori which marked the birthday of Nasser al-Din Shah (Mehan 2017). The significance of the square and its history are discussed by Mehan, according to whom it was,


The first great modern square of Tehran, named Toopkhaneh meaning “the cannon house,” was physical evidence of the use of urban design by the ruling power to control the citizenry since it became an urban element of defense against public uprisings and social demonstrations (Milani 2004). The idea of placing cannons before the palace began in the Safavid period, first to indicate supremacy and victory and later to prevent attacks on the citadel. Later, some buildings surrounded this open space to accommodate guards … Adjacent to the royal citadel, this space functioned as a military, public, and governmental urban space.(2017:81).


Toopkhaneh square became a site of modernity, with wide streets and the newly founded Imperial Bank of Persia. As Madanipour relates: ‘To the north of Toopkhaneh square were located the new quarters which were the houses of the aristocracy and the embassies, delegations, and residence of Europeans. In and around the square, especially to the north, new institutions were built. Apart from the bank, there were hotels, European shops, an institute of technology, a hospital, and a telegraph house’ (1998:33) – the latter is of particular interest here for the sonic significance of electronic communications. Toopkhaneh Square continues to be one of the most important open public spaces in Tehran and as a site of political gatherings, I will return to the sonic dimensions of this square in a later post.


Toopkhaneh Square, early 1900s. Parade of armed forces on their horses. From Mehan 2017

(Source: http://www.iran-forum.ir/thread-36909.html 2016)


Western view of Toopkhaneh Square, 1880–1920. From Mehan 2017