This gorgeous map of Tehran is almost like a dream. On one hand, it represents an age of economic growth and modernization in Iran, but on the other, it was made during a time of great political and social upheaval. Even as great forces were positioning themselves for confrontation, in the late 1950s the bold still dared to hope for a brighter tomorrow: for a nation anchored in democratic principles and with its gaze on the future rather than the past. This inherent dualism or contradiction was palpably and deliberately embedded into this map by its maker, and it is as such a rare form of social commentary.
The map was produced during the heyday of Iran’s first oil boom by Abbas Sahab, the so-called ‘father of Iranian cartography.’ It is the second edition of Abbas’ famous map of the capital city and was published in 1961 (a third and final edition would hit the streets three years later). It was, in other words, issued before Reza Shah Pahlavi’s White Revolution (initiated in January 1963), which not only saw extensive social reforms and the redistribution of enormous swathes of land, but also entailed a thorough and rather aggressive modernization of the infrastructure of many Iranian cities – in particular Tehran. We are consequently offered a comprehensive view of what the city looked like just before it underwent massive and ubiquitous changes. The map was issued in English, but also contains a number of annotations in Farsi, when most relevant. The use of English as the map’s main language reflects just how cosmopolitan the outlook from Tehran was during the late 1950s.
Being an ancient city, Tehran, like so many great metropolises of the Middle East, has a densely inhabited core within which large-scale modern urban planning has proven to be a challenging endeavor. This is evident from the map, which essentially depicts the ‘old city’ within a framework of a quadratic ring-road of sorts, consisting of Kh. Shahreza, Kh. Simetri, Kh. Shabaz and Kh. Shoosh. These four major roads surround an area intersected by major thoroughfares where many of the labeled locations are concentrated. A range of services are indicated by a plethora of red numbers which refer back to a large key flanking the map on both sides. Here we find a list of 218 places of possible interest to a visitor. These include ministries and governmental offices, embassies and legations, travel agencies, hotels, museums and other points of interest, banks, commercial counsellors, trading houses, housing agents, book shops, libraries, and even a cosmetics dealer. Plotted directly on the map and labelled are institutions like Tehran University, the Jalalieh race track, the chahar bagh gardens of the Royal Guard, the central E-Shahr Park, and the Doshan-Tappeh Airport.
The map has deliberately been rendered in a highly graphic style, but the mapmaker did not omit ornamentation altogether. A beautiful little vignette of the Sepahsalar Mosque complex in the upper left corner of the map. The choice of this particular building as the only vignette on the map is interesting, especially in light of the fact that Tehran boasts several much older, more monumental and more famous mosques than the Sepahsalar. The reason for Abbas’s selection of this mosque should probably be found in its symbolic bridging of Iran’s two modern dynasties. While the Sapahsalar Mosque may have been built by the Qajars in the late 19th century, it was used by both the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties for all of their formal ceremony and ritual. As a final touch, the entire composition is framed by an elegant border of sumptuous vines, the organic composition of which harkens back to earlier cartographic traditions. It is one of those small details that shows that this is a well-informed and well-conceived chart.
While the map is crowned by its titular label, in all four corners we find explicit references to the publishing house behind the map: The Sahab Geographic and Drafting Institute. The branding of the map as a ‘Sahab publication’ was not unwarranted, as this was the primary and best cartographic house in Iran at the time. It was founded in 1935 by Abolghasem Sahab, a renowned Iranian scholar and the author of countless books on history, geography, religion, and culture. When it was founded, the Sahab Institute was the only privately owned cartographic institute in the entire Middle East, and Sahab Sr. was behind a number of important early modern charts of Iran. It was, however, not until Abolghasem Sahab was succeeded by his son Abbas Sahab (1921-2000), that the institute achieved the broad recognition and success it was due.
Often recognized as the ‘father of Iranian cartography,’ Abbas Sahab was a pioneering cartographer to whom more than 1500 individual works, including both maps and atlases have been attributed, as well as scientific and medical illustrations, and globes. Abbas began compiling his own maps from a young age and many of the maps he later came to publish were initially drafted by himself first. This was also the case for this iconic map of the capital; an aspect that makes it all the more interesting. Despite Abbas Sahab’s death in 2000, the printing house remains in the hands of the Abbas family, with the third generation now in charge.
In light of Abbas Sahab’s pioneering role in Iranian cartography, it is particularly interesting to note some of the aesthetic changes that were implemented in the second edition of the map. Gone is the frieze of important buildings drawn in along the top the map; gone are all of the little cheerful vignettes on the map itself. Instead, Abbas Sahab gave the second edition of this iconic map a much more clean, crisp, and modern appearance. Below we explore why.
Context is everything
Iran’s history in the latter half of the 20th century is extremely complex and it is difficult to set the stage for this remarkable map without covering a few important points of historical background. Moving from a budding democracy awash by international geo-political interest, to a booming autocracy, to an isolated and rigid theocracy in a matter of decades was tumultuous to say the least. Having been largely subdivided into British and Russian spheres of influence during the ‘Great Game’ of the early 20th century, the First World War changed everything. In 1925, the Qajar Dynasty was deposed by a military officer, Reza Khan, who had taken control of Tehran some years earlier, and now assumed the role of Shah and established his own dynasty, known as the Pahlavi. When Reza Khan died in exile in 1944, his young son, Reza Shah Pahlavi was crowned the Shah of Iran. While his father had been obsessed with modernizing Iranian infrastructure and implementing social reform, his son was more engaged in establishing Iran’s position in the early Cold War stand-off following World War II. Taking a clear pro-American stance soon meant increased financial support, which in turn assisted in forcing the Russians out of Iran. This made Reza Shah Pahlavi an important ally for the west. At the same time, British control of Southern Iran and the Gulf meant that Iran’s oil reserves essentially belonged to the West (via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company).
In 1949 Mohammed Mossadeq formed the National Front Party, which won traction on the demands that the 1906 constitution be upheld and that the oil resources of Iran be nationalized. He was deemed a threat to both geo-political and British economic interests. When the Shah appointed Mossadeq as prime minister in 1951, he followed through on his promise to nationalize Iranian oil. In an age where the great colonial powers of the world were collapsing and frontlines in a new cold war were being drawn up, Mossadeq’s nationalist inclination was deemed too dangerous. In August 1953, he was removed from power in a coup d’etat that was planned, financed, and executed by the CIA and MI6.
Following Mossadeq’s deposition and house arrest, Reza Shah Pahlavi assumed full control of the government. This led to years of social unrest in Iran, which only abated towards the end of the decade. In the early 1960s, Pahlavi implemented his White Revolution in which massive infrastructure projects were undertaken. An equally important part of the White Revolution was social reforms, including the allocation of freedoms and individual civil rights for women. It was these reforms in particular that set in motion a confrontation between the oppressive but modernizing power of the Shah and the reactionary regression of the mullahs; a confrontation which would ultimately see Iran converted to the theocracy we know today.
What makes our map so important is that it was produced and then revised during those tumultuous years following the overthrow of Mossadeq and before reforms of the White Revolution. It bears witness not only to the hopes and aspirations of an Iranian people caught in a tug of war on which they had little to no influence, but also of the vision and skill present in Iran at this time. The first edition of Abbas Sahab’s great map of Tehran had a distinctly touristic aesthetic: it built on a concept of easy usability while at the same time reaching out to people’s imagination through its evocative imagery. In the second edition, however, this has all changed; primarily because the times had changed. Enthralled by national self-confidence and acutely aware of the great forces that were facing off in Iran during the late 1950s, Sahab decided that the new edition had to have a more stringent aesthetic: one in which his sense of cartographic beauty was distilled to its most graphic and modern expression.