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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 08:42 GMT
Modernity threatens Iran's 'museum city'
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Isfahan

Imam Mosque, Isfahan
Isfahan's mosques are suffering from neglect
In the 17th Century the central Iranian city of Isfahan was the capital of Safavid Persia - a place of dazzling wealth, with pleasure palaces, ornate gardens and mosques with the most exquisite tile work.

The city was a centre to which poets, philosophers and artists flocked from all over the world.

Today only a few intrepid tourists make it to Isfahan if they can get a visa.

And the Naqshe Jahan Square, where the King of Persia once watched polo games, now has traffic running though one end, even though it is a Unesco World Heritage site.

"It's been destroyed, really, really destroyed; what remains are tiny, tiny pieces of a puzzle. That just gives us a glimpse of the whole," explains journalist Hassan Zuhoori of the Cultural Heritage News Agency in Tehran.

The "museum city" of Isfahan is rapidly disappearing in the name of modernity and progress.


"You can't say Isfahan is in danger because we've already passed that point; I don't think there's much left to destroy," says Mr Zuhoori.

Construction boom

Today Isfahan is Iran's second biggest city.

Migration into Isfahan is high and land prices are sky rocketing. Fast profits can be made in construction.

Everywhere 400-year-old buildings are being destroyed to make way for new roads or ugly shopping centres.

The local council, which refused to talk to us for this story, has no budget from the central government; it has to make its money from selling construction licences.

On the banks of the Zayandehrud River buildings are not supposed to exceed the tree level but if the construction companies pay a hefty penalty to the local council they can build higher.

The most well-known example of the city authorities spoiling the skyline of Isfahan is Jahan Nama, a shopping and cultural centre.

So seriously did the construction damage the view from the city's main Naqshe Jahan square that Unesco insisted the top floors be removed.

Not all have been destroyed. The back part of the building is still too high.

But what many cannot understand is why there was no attempt to build in a more traditional style here.

Isfahan tile work
Modern craftsmen cannot match the quality of ancient tiles, experts say

"The municipality doesn't think at all about the problems that worry us," says Dr Parvis Najavand who was culture minister just after the revolution.

He believes Iran's National Heritage Organisation has been so weakened that the municipality no longer listens to what it has to say and it has no power to implement its conservation rules.

Nuclear development

Dr Najavand is also upset that Iran decided to build one of its most important nuclear sites just seven kilometres (four miles) outside Isfahan.

"No expert will let you construct a nuclear city so close to a city that is internationally known for its heritage," he says, worrying what will happen to the city's monuments if one day the US launches air strikes on the uranium conversion plant.

Then there is Isfahan's controversial metro construction.

"Speed, security and efficiency" is its motto, but the line runs under one of the most historic streets of Isfahan - Chahar Bagh.

Today everyone wants to build... They want to be able to drive their car right up to their house, they want parking spaces
Hassan Zuhoori
Cultural Heritage News Agency

Heritage experts in Isfahan, who were too fearful to speak on camera, told us six train stops are being built under these gardens that date back more than 100 years.

Already many of the trees have been ripped up.

Once the train tracks run underground, conservationists fear the vibrations from the trains running in both directions will cause irrevocable damage to buildings along the street.

Buildings like the Chaharbagh madrassah - according to some, the most beautiful religious school in Iran.

The fear is the tile work will literally fall off the walls when it is shaken on a daily basis.

And conservation experts say today's craftsmen simply cannot reproduce the same quality and colour of tiles.

And when the government is doing it - why should individuals be different?

"Today everyone wants to build... They want to be able to drive their car right up to their house, they want parking spaces, they want to use today's modern facilities," explains Mr Zuhoori.

"They think they need to update their houses to have progress."

'Weak officials'

Everywhere old houses are being knocked down and modern apartment blocks are going up in their place.

Ali Qapu palace, Isfahan
The Ali Qapu palace requires scaffolding support

"The main culprit is the government and the national heritage organisation," says Fazlollah Faiz, a local shopkeeper inside the Naqshe Jahan Square.

"If an ordinary man has a historic house and wants to knock it down and build a 10-storey building, it's only because he's forced to do that to survive economically," he explains, arguing that the authorities should buy the old houses from their owners so they can build for their children elsewhere.

"Unfortunately our officials are weak," Mr Faiz concludes.

Soon there will be very few of the old Safavid houses left in Isfahan.

All that will remain are the main monuments - the palaces and mosques.

But even they are not being well cared for.

Chehel Soton is the pleasure palace of Shah Abbas - its name means 40 columns but in fact there are only 20 - the rest are reflected in the water pool.

Although there is some restoration of the paintings inside going on, the roof of the veranda shows obvious signs of damp and decay.

One Isfahani said he had seen with his own eyes water dripping through the exquisite 400-year-old roof.

There is scaffolding clearly holding up parts of the pavilion in the Ali Qapu palace in the Naqshe Jahan square as well as assisting the work of local contractors who have been brought in for conservation work.

'Rotting wood'

Local shopkeepers ask why it has taken so long to get round to preserving the Ali Qapu palace.

Two Iranian women in Isfahan
Iranians say Isfahan's glory used to be equal to half the world

"Actually I have seen for myself that its columns have termites and the wood is rotting," says a man selling souvenirs in the square

"These are monuments that date back hundreds of years; they are an asset for our city."

And it is not as if the Islamic buildings are any better cared for than the king's palaces.

The Friday Mosque has damp that experts from the National Heritage Organisation told reporters came from a leak in the sewerage system underground.

While the Imam's Mosque in the Naqshe Jahan Square also has damp, according to local people.

"If they want to destroy it, fine. They should just bring in a bulldozer. But if they want to keep these buildings they should do something immediately," says the souvenir seller.

The 21st Century has not been kind to this city whose glory Iranians say was once equal to half the world.

And the worry is it is not just Isfahan.

"As a person who has spent most of my life trying to preserve Iran's national heritage, training students, writing books and articles, I can say not only in Isfahan but in Iran generally I believe destruction is underway," says Dr Najavand.

"When facing the Iranian people no generation can be as shameful as ours," he concludes.

In pictures: The palaces of Iran
23 Mar 06 |  In Pictures

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