by Dr. Denise R. Ames
I was traveling with a delegation organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Iran. Only groups were allowed into Iran, and I was one of only 500 American permitted into the country. Initially, we were to meet with Iranian citizens and nonprofits that were working on various issues but at the last minute the Iranian government intervened and our status was changed to strictly tourism. Disappointingly, all our meetings with nonprofits were abruptly cancelled.
After a fun evening at an Iranian wedding the night before, our group was ready for a day of sightseeing. The day’s itinerary included an excursion to the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi house in Tehran. He was the last Shah (King) of the Imperial State of Iran from September 16, 1941 until his overthrow in the Iranian Revolution on February 11, 1979. He was usually known as the Shah.
The Shah introduced the White Revolution, a series of economic, social, and political reforms aimed at transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing key industries and land redistribution. The regime implemented many Iranian nationalist policies leading to the establishment of Cyrus the Great, Cyrus Cylinder, and Tomb of Cyrus the Great as popular symbols of Iran.
These reforms culminated in decades of sustained economic growth that would make Iran one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. During his 37-year rule, Iran spent billions on industry, education, health, and armed forces and enjoyed economic growth rates exceeding the United States, Britain, and France. By 1977, Iran’s armed services spending, which the Shah saw as a means to end foreign intervention in Iran, had made the nation the world’s fifth strongest military.
But, despite his reforms, by the 1970s, the Shah had become a strongman. The notorious SAVAK national police force was ruthless. Many Iranians resented the heavy-handed tactics of the Shah, his close ties with the US and UK, while also imposing draconian modernization on the country. Women were forbidden to wear the hijab, even headscarves. By 1978, growing political unrest snowballed into a popular revolution leading to the monarchy’s overthrow.
The overthrow of the Shah led to the replacement of the Imperial State of Iran by the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran, as the monarchical government of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was superseded by the theocratic government of Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious cleric who had headed one of the rebel factions. The Islamic Republic continues today.
I remember many of the events leading up to and the culmination of the Iranian Revolution, also the subsequent capturing by Iranians of American diplomats and holding them as hostages. Iran captured the American imagination for many years in the 1970s and early 1980s. I wondered at the time if the overthrow of the Shah and his replacement with a religious fundamentalist would just replace one problem with another. I was right!
Now I was going to visit the palace of the Shah, preserved as it was when he reigned. It seemed odd to me that they would enshrine the palace of such a hated political figure. Was there something I was missing?
We stepped off our bus and were immediately surrounded by Iranians wanting to talk with foreigners. When word spread that we were Americans, we became even more popular. I had several invitations to dinner without walking 50 feet from the bus. It was fun chatting with various people who loved the fact I was an American.
We made our way to the palace, and I was immediately struck by the fact that it wasn’t all that ostentatious. Compared to European palaces or the mansions of the Gilded Age in America, it seemed downright modest. The 70s style was perfectly preserved in the ornate, gold-trimmed furniture and sweeping drapes. It didn’t take me long to tour the house and then I ambled my way outside to the estate grounds.
Everything was carefully manicured and lovely flowers gave an air of tranquility to the surroundings. I could imagine the Shah, and his wife, Farah, strolling through the gardens deep in contemplation.
Crowds of people were enjoying the day, respectfully admiring the environs. I didn’t see any signs of protest targeting the Shah or his family. Perhaps the fervent hatred of the past had eased, especially in light of their present-day economic downturn and arbitrary, religious laws.
I enjoyed my visit to the Shah’s palace. It gave me a chance to step back in time to relive the tumultuous events of the late 1970s in Iran. As I strolled through one canopy of trees lining a sidewalk, I thought about the wrenching changes the Iranian people have experienced over the last 100 years.
Their traditional way of life was declared “backward” by the Shah, and they were forced to modernize at the point of a gun. Then, just as abruptly, in 1979 they were forced to abandon modernization and return to their traditional ways, again, at the point of the gun. No wonder, Iranians are unsure about the future, it can change on a whim.
About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames
Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, extensive travels, scholarly research, personal experiences, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her global perspectives, balanced views, and cultural insights about the world. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit. She has written nine books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, and teaching units for CGA.
The Center for Global Awareness offers three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university; GATHER, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners; and their newest program GATE, Global Awareness for Travelers. GATE is Dr. Ames’ travel advisory service that supports travelers to see the world with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and reflect upon one’s own personal journey and place in the world. She incorporates eight pathways into her unique approach to glean all the wonders travel has to offer us.
Dr. Ames lives in sunny Albuquerque, New Mexico with her partner, Jim. Her family includes two adult children and their spouses, and three adorable grandchildren.