When you visit Iran there’s one thing you can’t fail to spot – it is a country with a fixation on death and martyrdom; a country where no matter where you go, you are never very far from reminders of the Iran-Iraq war – or as the Iranians call it, ‘the Imposed War’. The war ran for just short of eight years from September 1980 to August 1988 and is recognised as the longest ‘conventional’ war of the 20th Century. Nearly twenty years after it ended, the memories are still very fresh in Iran.
I’ll admit I was a little taken aback after an overnight flight to Tehran that the ‘highlights’ of day one were to be a tad fixated on death and destruction – a trip firstly to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini before we popped round the corner to the Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery to see the memorials to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war as well as those killed during the 1979 revolution.
I started to think about how different my life in England had been from the life I might have had if I’d been born in Iran and to look at what mattered to me in 1980 – the year that the war started. Was I even aware of the Iran-Iraq war? Could I have found the countries on a map or known who stood for what? When I asked myself what I could confidently recall of the events of 1980 I didn’t get much further than the Moscow Olympics and the widespread international boycott over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan – an invasion of Afghanistan? That sounds all too familiar doesn’t it?
I checked out Wikipedia for the highlights of 1980 and I found that lots of other things I remembered had happened that year; Robin Cousins skated to gold in Lake Placid; the Iranian Embassy siege ended with spectacular SAS activity; IRA prisoners went on hunger strikes in the Maze prison; strikes in the Gdansk shipyards led to the formation of Solidarity; Ronald Reagan became President and John Lennon was shot. Those are the things I remembered – not the Iraqi invasion of Iran. I would have been hard pushed to tell you who invaded whom.
The more I read up about the Iran-Iraq War the more I realised I couldn’t write a review of the Martyrs Cemetery without giving some background to the conflict that killed so many in the 1980s. To discuss the cemetery without putting the conflict into context would be a mistake.
~Background to Conflict~
One of the biggest sparks for Iraq’s invasion was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This led to the downfall of the Shah - who fled into exile - and the return from exile of the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini returned in triumph and set up the Islamic Republic of Iran, much to the dismay of some of the more secularist groups who had supported the revolution. The Shah had been quite a popular figure with Western governments and the revolution had shaken western confidence in Iran. The country’s reputation with the USA went downhill rapidly when a large group of Iranian radicals invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and laid siege to it for 444 days, demanding the USA send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial.
Over the border in Iraq, Saddam Hussein must have thought he was in a great position to exploit Western concerns and get the international community on his side. Iran was the pariah country that nobody wanted to invite to their party. The armed forces were weakened in the aftermath of the revolution, officers loyal to the Shah had been kicked out, military equipment previously sourced from the USA was almost unusable due to lack of spare parts.
Hussein expected a walkover. On September 18th 1980 he declared the Shatt al-Arab waterway to be Iraqi property and launched an invasion of Iran four days later boldly declaring he’d be in Tehran within 3 days. Almost eight years later, Iran had spent more than a trillion dollars defending their country. When the UN Security Council finally brokered a ceasefire neither side had made any significant land gains. It must surely go down in history as one of the most pointless wars of all time.
~ How many died? ~
The figures vary widely depending on who you ask but Iran probably lost around a million people – about 2% of the total population. 100,000 Iranians were killed by chemical weapons alone and Iran still bitterly resents the involvement of western companies and countries in helping Hussein to develop his chemical weapons capabilities. Iran has a finely developed and very large chip on its national shoulder.
~ The Martyrs Cemetery ~
The Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery lies about half an hour south-west of the centre of Tehran and just off the Tehran to Qom highway. As is often the case with large cemeteries, it’s both a peaceful and very moving place. The Martyr's Cemetery is just one section of the Behesht-e-Zahra but it's the part most tourists are likely to see.
Leaving our bus in the main car park we walked for about 5 minutes along tidy tree-lined boulevards until we came to two large monuments – one to the army and the other to the navy. The army memorial consists of four high walls – two pairs of slabs meeting at right angles and covered in names of the dead. These are also set in the same shape as a monument at Mecca, apparently a well-used format for Islamic monuments. On the ground surrounding the slabs are hundreds of tidy little tombs set in the floor.
The naval monument by contrast is – if it’s not too disrespectful to say it – a bit funny. It’s a large ship set on top of carved waves. It looks for all the world as if you could put a coin in a slot and watch the ship move up and down like a child’s attraction in the lobby of a supermarket.
Walking through the army monument we came to the main area of the martyrs' graves. Many people may have seen these on TV reports but I hadn’t and I didn’t know what to expect. There are thousands of gravestones – some of them very plain and bearing nothing more than a carved impression of a dove and the word ‘unknown’ in Farsi. More typically though, the graves have metal and glass display cases mounted above them, looking not unlike miniature telephone booths. These cases have been filled by the family and friends of the dead men – usually with a few photographs, perhaps some artificial flowers, a lace doily or two and maybe a copy of the Koran. Sometimes a personal letter from the parents or other loved ones are there – other times there may be some item that was important to the dead man, a favourite book or a photo of his motorbike.
The photographs are very moving and very dated, often taken at the big events in the young lives of the dead – graduation ceremonies, family weddings, birthday parties. Some are wearing dreadful sweaters knitted by loving mothers and grandmothers the type that went back in the drawer as soon as grandma went home and the photos had been taken.
The cemetery is an active site of pilgrimage for the families, some of whom visit the graves every day or every weekend. You may see some local children offering to wash the graves for the families for a few pennies and even elderly men who can be hired to say the right prayers for your relatives. For these people a few strange looking tourists are of no interest.
~ The Rosewater Tomb ~
We were led to one special tomb. Of course they are all special to someone but this has become a rather bizarre place of pilgrimage. It looks no different from the others but is always surrounded by visitors because it's believed that this tomb weeps rosewater. If you touch it it’s always wet and it smells of roses. It’s really very strange and our local tour guide – normally very cynical and reluctant to get involved in any sort of superstition - totally believed in the authenticity of the tomb. Whilst we stood watching (and sniffing) local mourners passed round sweets and cakes, shyly offering them to us and including us in their visit.
Very moved, we headed back to the bus – watching out for young men on motorbikes practicing their technique on the slopes and gravel pathways like skateboarders. We stopped for tea and to buy more date cakes to share with the locals who were sitting around the tea urn before we headed back to the city – moved and somewhat subdued and very conscious that for Iran, there will always be space for more martyrs and sadly, plenty willing to take those spaces and gain their route to paradise.