When the names of the Middle Eastern metropolises of Cairo or Istanbul are mentioned, one imagines their magnificent, venerable mosques. Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Iran has been ruled by clergymen for three decades, and yet Tehran looks like a Western city, which doesn’t match the image most people have of Iran. In Istanbul, where East and West meet, there are 4,000 mosques. In Tehran, there are less than 2,000.
Throughout its history, Iran has had many capitals. Tehran is the 32nd capital of Iran and has been so for 200 years, and it has been heavily developed over the last century—a century that coincided with the rise of the pro-Western Pahlavi government and the booming of Iran’s oil revenues.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the size of the city has increased in both population and land area. Today, Tehran is home to more than 8 million people who have been drawn to the pleasant climate in the foothills of Mount Damavand. In the period following the revolution Tehran has seen considerable growth, but it has developed according to plans laid down before the revolution.
It may surprise you to learn that the most recently developed areas of Tehran—those built since 1979—have fewer mosques in them than the parts of the city built under the secular government of the shah. The largest and most beautiful mosques in Tehran are still the same ones from before the Islamic revolution. The Ayatollah Khomeini Mosque, one of Tehran’s most beautiful, is actually 180 years old. The beautiful Lorzadeh Mosque is eighty years old, and the Shahid Motahardi mosque is a hundred years old.
With the rise of the clergymen, extensive efforts to build mosques throughout the country began. In Tehran, an ambitious plan to build the largest mosque in the world was put forward. This was 25 years before construction on a new 65-hectare musalla (religious complex) began in one of the most expensive parts of north Tehran. The mosque will be a monument to the Islamic government, but despite vast expenditure it has not been completed, and work is not expected to be finished soon. Two 450-foot minarets have been built for the musalla. They are so tall they can be seen from most parts of the city, but the call to prayer is never heard from them.
After many years and five presidents, the musalla is still only half-finished. But this is not the reason for the mayor’s new plan for Tehran. The mayor, Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a known conservative, has during his eight-year term completed many projects including cinemas, modern parks, highways and a metro expansion. For his next project, he has decided to make Tehran look more Islamic.
There is a rumor in Tehran that a few years ago, a group of Turks spent a few days in the city in order to meet its mayor. During the meeting, they asked him how Tehran could be a Muslim city when looking around it you could not see domes or minarets or hear the call to prayer in many districts.
It is said that this is how Qalibaf came up with his plan to build 400 mosques and 800 minarets, though it seems that his attempts to portray himself as a modern, pragmatic individual in his recent presidential campaign led him to downplay his plans.
Recently, the mayor defended his plans for the capital, saying, “I am proud to be a mosque child, and from the third grade I was a mukabber [“announcer”] in the mosque.” He also faced down critics of the plans and advised his supporters, “We must be loyal children of the revolution and the system, and we should not let anyone with evil intentions succeed in their plans.”
One reformist journalist in Tehran says that the story of the hijab becoming mandatory after the revolution is being repeated. Just like the clergymen forced women to wear the chador when they took power, now the mayor of Tehran wants to use public funds to cover Tehran in a chador and make it look more Islamic.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.