Most big cities have one or more iconic buildings that serve as an instantly recognisable symbol of that city. These are the buildings that the foreign correspondents stand in front of when making their reports on the television news. If it's Sydney they'll have the Opera House over their shoulders, if it's Moscow they'll be standing by the cathedral on Red Square and if it's Tehran, you can pretty much bet the Azadi Monument will be in the frame. It's big, it's white, it's a very distinctive funky shape like a giant piece of marble origami - what more could you ask for in a symbolic building?
The Azadi Monument was built in 1971 as part of the old Shah's commemorations of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. I'm not quite sure which version of the Empire he was thinking of as the first Persian Empire of Darius, Xerxes and co was surely a lot earlier than that. The Shah named it the Shahyad tower (or the Remembrance of the Shahs tower) but then he was never a man given to modesty. We had already heard that in the days of his rule he had several blocks of apartments built near the airport and laid out so that the spelled 'Long Live the Shah' when viewed from planes coming into land. How the mighty are brought down to earth!
After the Revolution of 1979, the tower was renamed the Azadi Tower or Azadi Monument. Azadi is a Farsi word meaning freedom or liberty and with this renaming, a classic symbol of the old-style Persia was reborn as the representation of the newly 'liberated' Iran.
The tower stands 45 or 50 m high depending on which websites you read and who you trust. I personally can't tell just by looking which is correct – but I can say it's big, imposing and really rather funky. My guidebook to Iran says it a couple of different historical architectural styles but they are totally different from the styles that Wikipedia claims – in their case it's apparently a combination of Sassanid and Islamic styles. I don't know who's right and I don't really care. I just think it's rather attractive. It looks a bit like someone took a power station cooling tower, sliced up the sides and folded the bottom section sort of inside out and then covered it in white marble. It's not the Taj Mahal and it doesn't claim to be, but if you want one of the rare examples of rather gorgeous 1970s architecture (not a period known for beauty), the Azadi Monument is a classic.
The tower was designed by Hossein Amanat, an architect who won a design competition. The irony of this is that Amanat is a member of the Bahai Faith which is the most persecuted religion in current day Iran. The religious elite will turn a blind eye to Christians and even the tiny number of local Jewish communities, but they reserve their worst ire for the alleged heresy of the Bahais. This makes the continued presence of the monument even more remarkable as Amanat blended Bahai symbolism into his design.
We'd seen the tower a few times because it's on the main route into town from Tehran airport. Our visit was another of the 'things to do when there's nothing to do' events of our last day in the city. We'd just failed to get into the Azadi Stadium and I think our driver and guide were looking for something that we couldn't fail to get a good look at. Accordingly the bus pulled up and we poured out onto the side of the road with just one challenge ahead of us; how to get across six lanes of speeding traffic between us and the tower.
I'm pretty brave; I've crossed roads all over the world almost always without fear (though maybe not in Ho Chi Minh City). As road-crossing challenges go, this was a big one. Normally crossings are tricky because they involve 27 different types of vehicle all moving at different speeds, all different sizes and mostly driven by people who are looking the other way. Dodging camels, donkey carts, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds and car on a busy street is tricky but the chances are that nothing's moving very fast and you won't get hit very hard. Getting the monument was very different because it stands on manicured lawns in the middle of a very large roundabout. It's not a roundabout where people slow down though – six lanes of traffic are thundering towards you and there's no alternative other than to put your head down and run for it. There are no underpasses or traffic controls – it's really a case of putting your trust in whatever god you believe in and going for it.
We watched a few of our party – the more sprightly ones and those in running shoes – go first and worked out that the best technique was to go halfway and then stop, check again and make a second burst. So that's what we did – almost collapsing with relief on the lawns once we got there. You can see in my photo that I look immensely relieved to still be in one piece.
The lawns around the monument would make a lovely picnic spot - if you like picnicking on roundabouts. There are a row of fountains on the main route to the centre of the tower although during our visit they were empty. In retrospect I really can't believe I came away from the Azadi with only a few photographs – I should have fired off scores of shots of this amazing building. Standing directly under the tower you can look up at the intricate ribbed design that reminded me of one of fashion designer Issey Mikake's folded and pleated dresses.
In theory there's a museum in the basement of the tower but in practice on a day when everything was closed, we couldn't figure out how to get in. And to be fair, this really is a building to look at from the outside rather than the inside.
We strolled around, chatted with the locals, took some photos and generally did everything we could to put off the inevitability of having to get back to the bus. But eventually we had no choice – we couldn't stay there forever and so we headed off to run the gauntlet of the Tehran traffic once again.