The Museum is in the residential area of Fereshteh in the North of the City, where even in the searing heat of July and August a cool breeze ruffles the leaves of the tall Sycamore trees that line the twisting streets and alleyways. Once a village, this beautiful neighbourhood is now part of the sprawling metropolis that Tehran has become, especially since the Revolution,1979, which saw people flock from the countryside to the cities desperately looking for jobs and a better way of life; Tehran has become overcrowded and unmanageable, traffic now clogs the streets, the exhaust fumes choke the air.
But Fereshteh has managed to preserve its slightly rural feel and as a result it is highly sort after and prohibitively expensive. Not difficult to see why as you wander along the narrow back streets, every so often getting a glimpse into the gardens of the rich and famous; the well manicured lawns look surprisingly green for a city that might not have had rain since the Spring. But here money is no object and water appears to be in plentiful supply. Sprinklers whizz round lifting the heavy air, creating a welcome coolness. It is amongst these windy roads and alleys that I came upon the Iranian Art and Photography Garden Museum.
My brother in Law, Sohrub, invited me to go on a tour of the northern slopes of the City on the back of his motorbike and as much as the prospect of riding pillion in Tehran traffic frightened me I couldn’t resist this opportunity. Tehran’s traffic is fast and dangerous with many, if not most people, flouting the traffic regulations.
We pulled away into the late morning traffic onto one of the main arteries going North; being a Thursday, the beginning of the weekend, the roads were perhaps not as busy as usual. The great Alborz mountains, not yet snow covered on their peeks, glowered down at us, the sky above them bright blue, not a cloud in sight and surprisingly, smog free due to a few days of wind which had cleared everything away.
I clung on tightly, not only to Sohrub but to my head scarf which the wind threatened to whip off at any minute leaving me bareheaded, not advisable in the Islamic Republic. Sohrub wove us in and out of traffic and as the road climbed higher the temperature dropped so by the time we arrived in Fereshteh and took the winding roads at a slower pace the heat of the late morning was slightly more bearable.
Just when I thought the twists and turns would never stop we drew up outside the imposing wrought iron gates that guard the entrance to the Garden Museum and there behind the railings, I could see the beautifully laid out gardens of a traditional Iranian house from a bygone era. So many of the traditional houses, built around a garden, where several generations would live together, have long gone, knocked down and replaced with characterless concrete blocks.
On entering the gardens the distant traffic sounds faded away completely giving way to the sound of running water in the miniature channels around the garden, the rustling leaves and the singing birds. A paradise on earth as Persian gardens have been referred to by writers and poets for hundreds of years or more. We walked along the straight tree lined pathways (the formality, a feature of traditional Persian gardens) beside the water (another feature) making our way towards the house, built in 1931 during the Pahlavi Dynasty, opening as a museum in 2008.
After the hot dusty ride we were in need of some refreshment, so we found ourselves a table under a tall Plane tree, right next to the cool blue water of the small pool, on the terrace of the open air cafe. I could tell by the amount of highlighted hair that the women had allowed to escape from their headscarves or in some cases allowed the scarf to slip of completely that these were the well heeled of Tehran whiling away the time in these beautiful surroundings. Anyone under forty has never known anything except the constraints of this harsh government and the regulations regarding behaviour in public and are rebelling in any small way they can.
We ordered tea, which I knew by Iran standards would be an exorbitant price, but my pounds go a long way in Iran and it was worth it to be able to sit here and drink in the magical atmosphere. We sat looking towards the mountains, their peeks visible between the trees.
After the tea we went into the museum itself, a long low-rise building designed sympathetically to blend in with its surroundings. Inside is a treasure trove of Iranian handicrafts, antiques and carpets; traditional furnishings, earthenware and paraphernalia depicting a more traditional way of life. On the far side, paintings and framed photographs line the railings. Last but not least the gardens are dotted with models of famous Iranian historical monuments such as 33 Bridges in Esphahan, Gonbad-e-Qabus, in the town of the same name, and Shahyat Tower now Azadi Tower in Tehran. The models were commissioned in Italy for the huge celebration of 2500 years of Persian Empire which took place in October 1971, in the desert near to the ancient site of Persopolis outside the city of Shiraz. A tiny example of the money and detail lavished on this event. The models which are made from concrete resin and polyester and painted with oils were sadly never used and now stand forlornly if a little incongruously on the lawns of the garden museum.
For me the beauty of this place is the garden in all its detail and the tea terrace the perfect place to drink an Iranian glass of tea.
Address of the Garden Museum. Tehran, Fereshteh, Professor Hesabi Street (Opposite Professor Hesabi Museum)
*Fereshteh means fairy in Persian. (Note of the Editor)