Program—All Tomorrow’s Party
Sediments — 1971 | November 2016

All Tomorrow’s Party
By Mohammad Salemy

Parade during celebrations of 2500 year anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire in Persepolis, Iran, in 1971. Copyright: Nik Wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo.

For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown

For whom none will go mourning

—Lou Reed


Shahanshah Aryamehr [king of kings], Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, formally “the light of the Aryans,” never received a proper state funeral in Iran. Deposed and exiled to the United States and later to Egypt, he died of cancer in Cairo on 27 July 1980. Almost none of the heads of state that had enjoyed Pahlavi’s generosity during his reign were present to carry the casket or to put a flower on his fresh grave. Apart from the former United States president Richard Nixon, and President Anvar Sadat of Egypt, the only other foreign dignitary who attended the shah’s funeral was Constantine II, the deposed king of Greece. There were hardly any television cameras around for the event, let alone a live broadcast on Iranian state television. For a monarch who had increasingly relied on both the broadcast media and public spectacle to rapidly transform his nation and maintain his legitimacy, dying powerless and in isolation was especially devastating. It was as if the world had forgotten that Pahlavi had placed Iran and its monarchical history at the center of a global media spectacle roughly ten years before. Set within the architectural remains of the Persian Empire’s ancient capital Persepolis, an archeological site, near the modern-day city of Shiraz, jashnyahe dohezar-o-pansad-sale shahanshahi, or “The 2,500-year celebration of the Iranian Empire,” was the ultimate elite party hosted in a large tent city built for the event. Although the hollow metal tent structures still stand today, the expensive textiles they once supported were all looted or burnt—gone with the winds that blew in the storm known as the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran. Could the celebration with its lavish emphasis on monarchy as an inseparable part of Iranian identity have been the spur to set this very revolution in motion?

The international celebration Pahlavi hosted in the fall of 1971 was one of the most significant cultural and political events of the decade. The “party,” as it was referred to by the organizers, gathered sixty-nine heads of state or their representatives from around the world: one emperor, eight kings, five queens, five emirs, seven sheikhs, fifteen presidents, four ruling princes and dukes, three royal princess, two governor generals, two heirs apparent, four junior princes, three vice presidents, four prime ministers, and one wife of a president. Among the guests were: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, King Frederick IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark, King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of the Belgians, King Olav V of Norway, emirs of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Juan Carlos and Princess Sofia of Spain, the governor generals of Canada and Australia, presidents of Yoguslavia, and Nicolae Ceauşescu the infamous dictator of Romania, and his wife Deputy Prime Minister Elena. Vice President Spiro Agnew represented the Untied States, while Prince Phillip and Princess Anne attended the ceremonies on behalf of the United Kingdom.

The political purpose of the event slotted into a larger plan that was initiated by Pahlavi’s father, Reza Shah, decades earlier. After seizing power in a coup in 1929, he quickly moved to secularize Persian society. He inaugurated the construction of a revisionist link between the country’s “glorious” ancient history and his own modernization plans so as to circumvent Iran’s Islamic cultural heritage and its economic base, the bazaar. He also changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran, and used state funds to send the brightest students abroad to both study and become familiar with Western culture. In so doing, he constructed a new Western-educated ruling class with its own history and ideology, separate from both the mosque and the bazaar. Sartorially, Reza Shah banned both the Islamic dress code for women and traditional attire for men. The very first narratives about the significance of Iranian ancient history, and its contemporary implications were developed as part of this anti-traditionalist drive—not unlike European neoclassicism, which leaned on appropriated ancient Greek and Roman styles to publicize secular and democratic institutions aimed at replacing Church hegemony. In the case of Iran, modern broadcast media, particularly the newly established Iranian National Radio, played a significant role in shaping Reza Shah’s historical and ideological reorientation of the country.

During World War II, and following an Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. Within this vacuum, the young Pahlavi returned from his studies in Switzerland and assumed the throne. The following period saw the young king attempt to reconcile his father’s legacy with the more traditionalist segments of Iranian society. The ban on following Islamic dress code was lifted, and clergy were allowed to run for parliament. This openness would be reproached a few decades later as Pahlavi reactivated the ideologies of his father by inaugurating reforms—with the encouragement and support of the Kennedy administration—called the “White Revolution.” Pahlavi’s reforms were an ongoing process that put the country once again through significant socio-political transformations. The Persepolis celebrations were supposed to function as the visible tip of an iceberg of developments, which, in addition to replacing prophet Mohammad and Shia Imams with Cyrus the Great and other Persian kings as the nation’s historical horizon, included the building of roads, bridges, hospitals, airports, schools, and universities. In addition, the celebrations highlighted an increase in the scale of public spectacle compared to the modest coronation ceremonies of 1967 in Tehran. They also extended to the outside world the grandeur and legitimacy of Pahlavi’s rule, which was locally strengthened by the government’s reforms. Thus Pahlavi’s choice of Persepolis for his party sent a strong message to the traditionalist segments of Iranian society as well as to the international community, namely that the emergence of Iran in the global arena would coincide with its implicit divorce from the country’s regional ties to Islamic culture. The road to “The Gates of the Great Civilization,” as Pahlavi used to call Iran’s destiny, was not passing through the country’s more recent Islamic past but via a technological shortcut made between Iran and the so-called civilized world of Europe and the United States, using the country’s pre-Islamic past both as its point of origin and construction material.

Pahlavi’s transformations of Iranian society, which preceded the Persepolis party, included the nationalization of forests and pasturelands, the formation of a health and literacy corps, and, most importantly, woman’s suffrage and the expropriation of agriculture land from feudal landlords and its redistribution among the peasants. Nevertheless, these changes came with a high price for the opposition. Instead of political reform, they witnessed the tightening grip of a CIA-trained security state, which was originally created after the 1953 coup to deal with the forces loyal to the deposed prime minster Mohammad Mossadegh and the Communists. The crackdown expanded later to include Ayatollah Khomeini and his religious followers, who opposed the White Revolution. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state’s oppressive machinery began to also confront militant Marxists. The resulting suppressions were increasingly scrutinized globally, causing embarrassments for the shah while abroad—a clear example of which was the student protest in Berlin on 2 June 1967. Organized against the German government’s red-carpet treatment of the Iranian monarch, it resulted in the clandestine murder of the student leader Benno Ohnesorg, and accelerated the radicalization of the Left in West Germany.1For more on Ohnesorg’s murder, see: Catherine Liu, American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press, 2011), 133–34.

In particular, the Persepolis extravaganza came only months after a small, but considerably well-publicized and influential militant uprising known as Siahkal’s Black Friday and led by leftist students. Inspired by the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, a group of soon to be legendary Marxist intellectuals took up arms in the forests along the Caspian Sea, and later occupied a gendarmerie outpost in the village of Siahkal while trying to spring one of their comrades. Their revolt was short-lived as the army quickly suppressed the armed rebellion and sent the fighters who were not killed in the battle to be summarily executed in prison. This is why the Persepolis event and related activities—the opening of the Shahyad monument in Tehran, and the massive light installations in public squares of Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz—were aimed at compensating the state’s shortage of political capital and legitimacy in light of the urban middle class’s identification with the Marxist rebels.

Pahlavi’s steady use of public space and the state-owned and operated broadcast media was resented and resisted by leftist Iranians. The pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, which was historically supported by a majority of Iranian leftist intellectuals, published underground newsletters from its headquarters in East Germany and Russia on a regular basis—Pahlavi was constantly criticized and attacked therein.2The Tudeh Party denounced the Persepolis celebrations through its official newsletter and demanded a full disclosure of its costs. See: “Nameh Mardom” [People’s Letter, Official Organ of the Tudeh Party 6, no. 73 (July–August 1971): 1, 4.] Those inside the country who were active on the cultural scene despised the government and criticized it indirectly. These intellectuals frequently used the very same state-owned or supported mass media (cinema, radio, and television) to transmit brief but powerful metaphoric content. Their messages were often drawn from literally works created in support of leftist guerrillas in the form of poems, novels, and theater pieces. Among the shining examples of cultural resistance were: Jan Nesar Sacrificed (1971), a comedy play by Bahman Mofid, Gheysar [Kaiser] (1969), a movie directed by Masoud Kimiai, and the pop song “Friday” (1971), performed by both Farhad and Googoosh, the pop icons of the time. The lyrics of the song included a direct reference to the Siahkal uprising: “On the Friday black clouds cry blood, on Fridays blood pours down instead of rain.” These small but popular acts penetrated the social psyche of the nation’s growing urban middle class more effectively than the powerful propaganda of the monarchy. The public intellectuals’ cultural involvement in this mediagenic political struggle with the state would often impede or neutralize the government’s intended ideological objectives. This is why the reception of Pahlavi’s Persepolis party must be seen both in the context of the struggle for legitimacy following the 1953 CIA-backed coup, and the growth period after the White Revolution.

There is yet to be a comprehensive scholarly report on Pahlavi’s Persepolis party and its aftermath. Aside from official statements about the event from the previous and current governments of Iran, most of what we know about it comes from a single source: Abdolreza Ansari, a close confidant of both the king and his twin sister Ashraf. Ansari has given two interviews about the celebrations, one with Cyrus Kadivar and published online at in 2002, and the second with Hassan Amini for Decadence and Downfall: The Shah of Iran’s Ultimate Party, which was produced for the BBC’s “Storyville” television series in 2016. Almost all of the video footage from the event, which has been available online in fragments, and also used in Amini’s film, are taken from Farrokh Golestan’s 1971 state-sponsored documentary about the event called Flames of Persia, which was narrated by, of all people, Orson Welles—Welles agreed to participate in the project in exchange for funding for his unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind.3Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1985), 562. In one of the rather superfluous moments in Flames of Persia, the camera scans over a banquet table, while Welles joyously proclaims: “This was no party of the year, it was the celebration of twenty-five centuries!”

A decade prior to the actual celebrations, a senate committee was set up by the king to consider ways in which the monarchy could be strengthened through its 2,500-year celebration. However, the working committee, which undertook the planning and organization of the festivities, only began working less than a year prior to the event. Headed by the minister of the King’s Court, Assadollah Alam, the committee reported directly to Queen Farah—who personally supervised all aspects of the event in detail. Alam and the queen were the right match for this job. The minster was known for his perfectionism and reliance on the most capable professionals in all matters related to Pahlavi’s court. In turn, Queen Farah was an avid supporter and collector of Iranian and Western modern and contemporary art and well versed in all things aesthetic. Aside from her duties at the palace and several non-profit charities, she was the founder and president of the Shiraz Festival of Arts. Likewise, she was personally involved in organizing large-scale performance events in both the city of Shiraz and the Persepolis site since the festival’s inception in 1967. To this date, the festival is considered as the most significant international art, theater, and music event held in Iran. Writing for the catalog of the Iran Modern exhibition at New York’s Asia Society in 2013, Vali Mahlouji asserts that the festival, “represents possibly the most controversial trajectory of cultural attitude, policy, and intercultural contact in modern Iranian history […]. [T]he Festival is recognized as one of the most uniquely transformative inter-cultural experiences.”4Vali Mahlouji, “Perspectives on the Shiraz Arts Festival: A Radical Third World Rewriting,” in Iran Modern (New York: Asia Society, 2013), 87. One could even claim that the theatrical spirit, which the Shiraz Festival brought to the Persepolis site, had an impact on the scale and the quality of the events planned for the 1971 celebration.

Within weeks of commencing their planning, the committee was able to secure the services of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris for all culinary-related matters. Max Blouet, the general manager of Paris’ Hotel George V was contracted to manage the staff who would provide room service to the tent city guests. Carita and Alexandre, two of Paris’ top hairdressers, were invited to provide their services to the foreign guests. The Lanvin fashion house was hired to manufacture the uniforms, which were modeled on the official uniforms an old tailor in the south of Tehran used to create for the personnel at the king’s palace. The Paris-based interior design company Jensen was chosen to construct the tent city and the two large halls designated for official gatherings and banquets. George Truffaut, the Versailles florist, was hired to quickly put together a garden out of imported rose bushes and tall cypresses. The committee also decided to import 50,000 sparrows from Spain to fly around the trees, but they all died within three days due to the dry, hot climate.

Some of the statistics regarding the event’s scale evoke a range of adjectives from unbelievable to ridiculous:

4,000 kilograms of food imported from Paris together with 18,000 kilograms of local supplies

180 waiters (mostly French nationals)

12,000 bottles of whiskey

25,000 bottles of wine

60,000 troops for security

6,000 costumed soldiers for the parade

250 bullet-poof limousines

100 military cargo planes

40 trucks for shipping food and construction materials from France

The festivities began with the royal family’s homage to Cyrus the Great at his mausoleum on Tuesday 13 October 1971, a day before the queen’s own birthday. The event, which was broadcast on national television, was edited to eliminate some of the key military people present and give prominence to the queen.

The first official event at the tent city was a grand gala dinner on 14 October to celebrate the queen’s birthday. After suffering a sudden sand storm during a lengthy introduction at the gates, the royal families and heads of state gathered at the single large table in the banqueting hall. The official toast was raised with a 1959 Dom Perignon Rosé, which, adjusted for inflation, cost around 300 USD per bottle in 1971.5Today, the same bottle is sold online for 20,000 USD.

The banquet menu consisted of: quails’ eggs stuffed with golden, Imperial Caspian caviar, mousse of crayfish tails with Nantua sauce, roast saddle of lamb with truffles, fifty roast peacocks—Iran’s ancient national symbol—with restored tail feathers and stuffed with foie gras, decorating the main dish of roast quails, glazed rings of fresh Oporto figs with cream, raspberry champagne sherbet, and port.

In total more than 500 guests dinned over a five-hour period. After dinner, the guests were accompanied to Persepolis to watch a sound and light installation (son et lumière) titled Polytope of Persepolis and designed and composed by Iannis Xenakis.6The piece was expanded and played again in the same location a week later as part of the Shiraz Festival of Arts.

The next day, guests returned to Persepolis to participate in the “Great Parade of History.” Nearly 2,000 men from the Iranian armed forces passed by the row of carefully seated guests dressed as armies of different Iranian empires, covering two and half millennia. This event was not only broadcast live on the public television network in Iran, but was sent via satellite to stations around the world. In the evening, a less formal buffet-style Persian dinner was served at the banqueting hall as the concluding event at Persepolis. This time the guests were served the Iranian dishes of saffron rice and the pomegranate stew Fesenjoon, as well as chicken and lamb kebab.

Back in Tehran, accompanied by international guests of honor, Pahlavi inaugurated the Shahyad Tower on the final day of the festivities. Designed by the Iranian architect Hossein Amanat, the tower was framed by the media as Tehran’s very own iconic architectural symbol similar to Paris’ Eiffel Tower. The basement of the tower housed the Museum of Persian History, where, for the occasion of the celebrations, the original Cyrus Cylinder, borrowed from the British Museum, went on display for the first time in Iran.7According to Wikipedia: “The Cyrus Cylinder or Cyrus Charter is an ancient clay cylinder, which contains a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BCE and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia in 1879. It is currently in the possession of the British Museum. The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a king from a line of kings,” (accessed 4 June 2016). The festivities were concluded with Pahlavi’s visit to his father mausoleum in southern Tehran.

The Hangover

To better understand the monarch, the organizers, and the state’s semiotics, we ought to look at the double function of titles used in the event in general, and their poetic function in Farsi. Pahlavi gave the title Shahanshah [king of kings] to himself upon coronation in 1967. As modern Iran did not have any regional kings over which he could lord as emperor, the title was meant instead to place him above all other kings in the history of Iran and Persia. The gathering of the world’s monarchs and heads of state would give Pahlavi an opportunity to activate a second meaning of the term at least temporary: presiding over the ceremonies in the presence of other world leaders would literally make him the king of kings, if only for one day. The poetic ambivalence specific to Farsi and its history would allow the king to do this without really being held responsible for its literal implications; in no way could he even fathom that by attending his lavish party the world’s leaders were accepting him as their emperor. Nevertheless, Pahlavi’s pomp was supposed to elevate his international standing, and in turn strengthen him locally in his double fight with both the leftists and the Islamists.

Pahlavi’s extravagant celebrations of 2,500 years of monarchy was as much about showcasing Iran’s past and present to the guests as it was about utilizing the latest media and broadcast technologies to double the event’s impact—ostensibly transforming it into a local and global spectacle. The Iranian television industry, which was developed with considerable help from the United States, was already operating as a counteroffer to the Communists’ monopoly over other forms of modern culture in the country. Several high-profile Western journalists including Barbara Walters were sent to cover the event live for American and European television channels. As the first ever color broadcast on the state-owned Iranian television network, the event was a televisual cold war with the predominantly pro-Soviet leftists in Iran. It was meant to showcase the state’s organizational skills in producing spectacular popular culture and disseminating it among the masses.

Aesthetically, the Persepolis festivities, despite being opulent, were different from the usual gaudy style to which most monarchies around the world usually adhered. From the elegant modern design of the residential tents, to the royal red minimalism of the reception hall—almost a spatialized version of Matisse’s Persian-inspired Harmony in Red (1908)—a distinction could be made between the kind of luxurious modernity advocated by Queen Farrah, and the decadence with which the event was identified by the foreign press, but more particularly by the Iranian leftist opposition. The Western journalists, caught up in their stereotypical obsession with Iran as a poor third-world country, totally disregarded the fact that under the rule of Pahlavi, Iran was already transformed into an emerging regional modern state with enough wealth to afford a lavish party. The leftists were totally oblivious to this aesthetics of progress as it was not centered exclusively on the masses. They could not recognize the spirit of Iranian modernity, which, regardless of its monarchical surface, contradicted the overall message of the event and invisibly haunted it. These contradictions reared their heads in the organizers’ inclusion of Xenakis, a significant avant-garde artist exiled from Greece, in the official program, and the provoking seating arrangement for the ceremonies which placed beside the Iranian Royals, not the European royals and American officials, but Haile Selassie, the king of Ethiopia, and the president of the Soviet Union. The leftist opposition in Iran was unable to see these subtle contradictions with one eye blinded by cultural Stalinism and the other by its political position against Pahlavi (as an American ally) in the Cold War. They could not fathom a way to productively reconcile the contradictory nature of a pro-American despotic regime bent on eliminating its opposition while embarking on some of the most progressive political and social reforms experienced in the Middle East. So rather than seeing the Persepolis party as the beginning of the end of monarchy in Iran, one ought to see it as the start of an unholy marriage between the leftists and the Islamists who both opposed the festivities and for the first time began attacking the state from the same populist angle. In line with the anti-monarchic message of the Tudeh Party, Khomeini, in his statement about the event, declared: “Let the world know that these festivities have nothing to do with the noble people of Iran, and that those who organized and participated in them have committed treason against Islam and the people of Iran.”8Ayatollah Khomeini, Sahifeh Nur: Majmu`eh rahnemudhay-e emam [Book of Light: Collection of the Imam’s Directives (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, 1980), 1: 158.]

The historical costumes, the synthetic beards and wigs, and the chariots, which were based on research conducted on existing archeological artifacts, were the largest mobilization of customs and special effects in the history of Iranian film and television production. The producers even created replicas of three ancient ships from the days of King Xerxes. Not only did the event open a floodgate for the production of costume dramas in Iran, but also awakened a new curiosity about Iranian history at the level of popular culture. By the mid-1970s, the desire for history had nowhere to turn but toward Iran’s Islamic and specifically Shia heritage. The interest in the Achaemenid aesthetics soon gave way to the glorification of Ferdowsi, the Persian poet and the author of the epic of Shahnameh [Book of Kings], followed by a surge of interest in Taazieh, one of the only formalized genres of stage drama in Shia culture in which the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad and one of the founders of Shia Islam, is eulogized with prose and poetry. Taazieh started a new modern life under the direct support of cultural institutions close to the queen, particularly the Shiraz Festival. Ironically, the massive participation of Iranians in Tasua and Ahsura, the two-day annual mourning for Imam Hossein, which includes Taazieh as its stage component, provided the opportunity for Khomeini’s followers to seize the highest levels of revolutionary leadership in the decisive last months of monarchy in the winter of 1978. Ironically, the million-strong Tasua and Ashura demonstrations of that year were held at the Shahyad Tower built for the 2,500-year celebration. Subsequent to the demonstrations, the tower was renamed the Freedom Tower.

Even though the political transformations caused by the Islamic revolution radically altered the surface of Iranian society, it should not have been hard to understand the ascent of Khomeini and the institutionalization of his concept of velayate faghih [guardianship of the Islamic jurist] as the continuation of Iranian monarchical rule, albeit in a radically different form. A few weeks after the revolution, Khomeini’s cronies destroyed Reza Shah’s Mausoleum, the site of the closing ceremony of the 2,500-year festivities. Nearly ten years later and upon Khomeini’s death, the Islamic republic built him an even larger shrine in the same area where Reza Shah was once buried.

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